The Lives We Lost: Joe Schilling

The 67 year-old Lahaina resident was "selfless" and "without convention."

Joe Schilling was twice divorced and in his early 40s, when he decided that it was time to take a risk and build a different life.

The California native had worked in the grocery store business since high school, his brother, Dan Schilling, said, and was ready for something new.

It’s unclear why Schilling chose Maui as the place for his fresh start — other than a desire to get away from the “rat race” of life on the mainland. But over the course of more than two decades on the island, he built an incredible life there.

“He lived one of the most brilliant lives I’ve known,” his brother said. “It wasn’t about labels or accomplishments or money or status. He just enjoyed people and he really, really enjoyed life.”

The two best terms to describe Schilling were “selfless” and “without convention,” his brother said.

Joe Schilling was an honorary uncle to the Bluh family in Lahaina. (Courtesy Corie Bluh/2023) Courtesy Corie Bluh/2023

After landing on Maui, he worked for a number of years for the Bluh family, owners of Activities Outlets. He was an invaluable employee, Corie Bluh said, but he also quickly became a hanai member of their family. Schilling was not just an honorary uncle to her five children, Bluh said, but stepped in on occasion to “take on that dad role” when needed.

“It made him so happy to have that responsibility, almost,” Bluh said. “He craved it, you know, because he never did have kids of his own.”

Among his many friends on West Maui, Schilling was known as a person to go to with any problems. Flat tire? Call Joe. Light bulb busted? Call Joe. Need a babysitter? A pet sitter? Joe can help you out.

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“He never minded helping anybody,” Bluh said. “It didn’t really matter what it was.”

Family was incredibly important to Schilling, his brother said. And ultimately, Schilling came to feel that the people of West Maui were his family.

“When you find a place like that’s as small and intimate as Lahaina is — and you know, even up north up Kaanapali and Honokowai, you don’t want to leave,” Dan Schilling said.

Schilling was never going to leave Maui, which is why he was thrilled to be offered a spot at a subsidized senior housing complex in Lahaina, after years of being on an affordable housing waitlist. He moved into Hale Mahaolu Eono just a few months before the Aug. 8 fire.

When the fire started getting closer to the complex, a neighbor saw him getting ready to evacuate. But Bluh said Schilling had to pass a number of apartments on the way to his truck and many of his neighbors had mobility issues.

In the last text messages he sent to Bluh that day, Schilling said he was sheltering in a unit with five other residents from the building and they were struggling to breathe.

“If one person said, ‘I need help,’ or he heard a call for help, there’s no way he was walking by,” Bluh said. “There’s just no way he was leaving somebody in distress.”

It’s unclear how Schilling died. Authorities told his brother that his body was recovered from somewhere other than the Hale Mahaolu building and it’s unknown to Dan Schilling who — or if — anyone was with him at the end.

But Bluh believes he died a hero.

“I think the way that he passed away,” Bluh said, “shows the world the most important thing about him. And that is that he cared more about even a stranger than saving his own life.”

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