Advice to New Readers

Welcome to The Last Train!  If you’re a new reader, my advice would be to begin by reading the “Introduction” and then work your way up the topics from oldest to newest (see the recent posts on the right).  That way you will start from the beginning of this journey rather than joining on a later stop.  Welcome aboard…and I hope you become a regular “rider” on The Last Train!

Jeff Schmahl


A week ago at the end of a 30-minute phone conversation, a good friend of mine said, “you should start writing, it would be good for you, and you’re a good writer.”  Terry Pettit has written several books and has a mind that looks at life from just a slightly different perspective.  But in turning that crystal ever so slightly like Terry does, an array of light exposes an entirely different vantage point and I have always loved to discuss, argue, laugh, and be enriched in my time with him. Continue reading

Make this your best year yet!

Tis the season…for New Years resolutions. Actually, I’ve never been a fan, mainly because the darn things are so hard to keep. If you’re like me, you get motivated for a month or two but then seem to slip back into old habits and are left with the frustration of not following through on your resolutions.

Twelve years ago, however, I adopted a New Years “philosophy” that has worked quite well, so I’d like to share it with you today.

As an Athletic Director at Oregon, Nebraska, and Texas A&M, Bill Byrne liked to hold a Head Coaches and Senior Staff retreat each late spring/early summer. These were always a day-long event and sometimes involved going to an out of town location for a two-day retreat.

At the retreats, we discussed department accomplishments, goals, and visions/plans for the future. The camaraderie and encouragement among fellow staff members were often times the best part of the retreats. Bill also liked to bring in speakers from outside the department for motivation and new ideas.

In May of 2002 at our University of Nebraska retreat, our outside presentation was a “Your Best Year Yet” seminar. I was excited for the presentation because I was at a point in my career where I was ready to move up or move on if necessary to continue to grow professionally.

It turned out the seminar was not that good. The material was just okay and the two presenters weren’t much better. In all fairness, doing a motivational seminar for a group of head coaches and administrators at a major university is a tough task. This is a group of highly motivated individuals who teach motivation to their athletes and staff every single day.

But while I was uninspired by the seminar I still wanted to make the best of it and even made a list of four things…determined to see if I could make the next year my best year yet. Here’s what I wrote down:

• Be named an Assistant Athletic Director.
• Increase my annual salary by least $10,000.
• Become more involved in the overall Administration of the department.
• Be open to opportunities outside the University of Nebraska.

In a private meeting with Bill Byrne, I told him of my goals for the next year and he assured me that the top three goals would indeed happen in 2003.

But in December of 2002, Bill left Nebraska for Texas A&M. The new Athletic Director at Nebraska, Steve Pederson, was someone I knew well, had worked with in the past, and I was confident and hopeful for a bright future. In just a few months, however, I became uncomfortable with the philosophy and direction of the department…and I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. Steve was an Athletic Director who acted like he had all the answers and wasn’t interested in any one else’s ideas or opinions…he just wanted to surround himself with people to carry out his ideas. He wanted “yes men.”

I didn’t want to leave Nebraska…it was home…and I loved working for the Huskers. But I knew I wouldn’t be happy in the new regime so looking for opportunities at another University or with a Professional team was something I started to consider.

Then in May of 2003, I got a call from Bill Byrne. He wanted me to come down and work at Texas A&M. Accepting his offer was a no-brainer…I knew Bill was a great guy to work for…and his offer achieved my goals and then some.

• I was named a Senior Associate AD…three administrative levels up from my previous position at Nebraska.
• My salary increased by $50,000.
• I became the 3rd highest ranking administrator in the department.

In my ten years at A&M, I continued my “make this your best year yet” philosophy. I also kept my personal philosophies of “always strive to get better” and “do something BIG for Texas A&M Athletics.” I encouraged my staff to set those same goals…even our many student workers. We all had the opportunity to do BIG things that could make a BIG difference in the success and future of Aggie Athletics.

In my annual performance evaluations with those under my direct supervision, I would always be sure to ask them one question: “What was your biggest accomplishment for Texas A&M Athletics this past year?” Sometimes I was disappointed in their answer and I let them know it. But that was the exception, and as a result the departments under my supervision were doing BIG things and were constantly striving to get better.

Texas A&M is a tradition rich University, and my proudest accomplishment there is that I did a number of BIG things. Many of my ideas and plans are now part of the tradition at Texas A&M and continue to have a BIG impact on the success of Aggie Athletics.

When I was diagnosed with the big c last April, I asked myself “could I still make this my best year yet even though I’ve only been given one year to live?” It’s why I set goals to do things, go places, and see people despite my illness…to “get busy living” instead of waiting to die.

Thanks to The Last Train, I can honestly say that I have made the best of my situation and have had a positive impact on those around me and hopefully on my “riders.”

In 2015, my philosophy will be the same. I want to make this “my best year yet!”

Medical/Personal Update:
Tomorrow, December 19th, is a big day…and not just because it will be our 33rd wedding anniversary. I will have a CAT scan tomorrow where we will get a clear picture of my tumors. Since my blood tumor marker numbers have remained in the “normal” range for the past four months, I am optimistic that I will get good news from my scan. Hopefully, my tumors have continued to shrink and the best news of all would be for me to be cancer free. What a great Christmas gift that would be!

I also have an appointment with one of the world’s leading oncologist’s at Sloan Kettering (the top cancer research hospital in NYC) to see if I qualify for a new treatment program that she has developed. Hopefully, I can get in her program which has shown success in pancreatic patients who have had positive results on chemotherapy.

Say a little prayer for me, please. And if you feel so inclined…you can make it a BIG prayer!

Next Stop: Results of my 4th CAT scan.

A Lesson from Starman

Every once in a while you hear something, see something, read something…and learn a lesson or truth that you will never forget.

I had one such occurrence back in 1984 when I watched the movie “Starman”.


It’s not a classic or must see movie…just a goofy love story of an alien from outer space (Jeff Bridges) who takes on the form of the deceased husband of Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen).  The Starman thought he was visiting a friendly planet but his space ship was shot down and now he has just three days to rendezvous with the mother ship or he will die.  Meanwhile, the U.S. Army is in hot pursuit to capture and learn more about this alien visiting earth.

In the climatic moment near the end of the movie the Starman says to an Army scientist–

“You are a strange species, not like any other.  Shall I tell you what I find beautiful about you [humans]? You are at your best when things are worst.”

In my battle with the big c, I have witnessed this truth over and over.  The concern, prayers, and above all love that I have experienced from literally hundreds of people has been incredible and uplifting.

When tragedy strikes, it is our human nature to reach out and help, especially when that tragedy occurs to someone close to us.

The clearest example of this on a nation-wide scale was the response to the 9/11 attack on our country.  It didn’t matter if you were Republican or Democrat…rich or poor…Christian or Atheist.  The United States of America stood as one unified nation and became a beacon of light to the world on how to respond to a tragedy that affected every American.

One of the things that bothers me about politics and religion is we focus on what divides us rather than recognize our common ground and try to appreciate, learn, and grow from each other.  For all of us, our ultimate goal is to create as good of a life as possible for ourselves, our family, as especially for our future generations.

We live in the greatest country in the history of the world and I believe that the United States will stand strong for many, many more years.

Sadly, I also believe it will continue to take tragedy for us to appreciate what we  have and before we stand united to protect the freedom we enjoy.

Humans are at their best when things are worst.

Medical/Personal Update

I learned a lot more about my disease after attending a Pancreatic Cancer Strategic Awareness Meeting held recently in New York City.  The goal of this group is to increase awareness of the breakthrough’s that are occurring in the fight against the deadliest of all cancers.

About 46,000 people in the United States will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year.  Nearly 40,000 people die from the disease each year, roughly the same number as will die from breast cancer.

The five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is just 6%.  For patients like me, where the disease has already spread to the liver, the five-year survival rate is less than 2%.

The problem is two-fold.  First, by the time most people are diagnosed with the disease it’s too late for effective treatment.  And secondly, until recently the chemotherapy to combat the disease didn’t prolong life it merely alleviated the suffering.

But there is hope!  Scientific breakthroughs are occurring…new chemotherapy regimen’s are working…potentially life-saving drugs are being tested.  And most importantly, scientists are learning more about the genes that lead to pancreatic cancer and are developing ways for early detection of the disease.

Pancreatic cancer is the number four killer among cancers and is projected to move up to the number two spot in just five years.  Yet, pancreatic cancer receives just 2% of federal cancer research dollars.

Our group is hoping to dramatically increase the amount of funding for pancreatic research…because we are on the verge of some dramatic breakthroughs.

Hopefully, I will be an example of the new hope that now exists for pancreatic patients.  I will have my next scan in two weeks.  My doctor and I are cautiously optimistic that my tumors have continued to shrink with the possibility of even going into remission.

Next Stop: Make this your best year yet!