The Life and Lures of Michael Schoen

BY Gretchen Nash

It’s interesting why we remember famous people. They build billion-dollar developments drive expensive cars buy low sell high. They are members of the club they know how to network. They own the network. But maybe they aren’t the people who inspire us to be better people. Wilmington artist Michael Schoen died in December 2007 at age 30. His friends and family said he inspired them to make the world a better place. He made them want to serve others to show kindness and to find beauty in life. Maybe it’s Michael we should remember.

Schoen was well-respected among local fishermen and artists as the creator of the original Wiggle Woodie — beautiful handmade saltwater lures made from recycled and reclaimed wood that he crafted at his Lionheart Woodwork company shop. He made Oak Croakers with ebony-stained tops for catching flounder; Mahogany Mud minnows; Maple Stick Jigs with hand-tied feathers and buck tails; Heart Pine Poppers and Cigar Minnows; Rattlin’ Red Cedar Menhaden; and Red Cedar Banana Boat topwater lures. He wrote to a client that his preferred style the Maple Mullet was one of his “favorite and most productive lures for flounder and speckled trout. I create them using the wood for the base color them pickle the tops of them Caribbean blue pink chartreuse orange or an all-white maple.”

Despite Schoen’s insistence that his wooden lures were top-rate lures many of his clients simply could not cast these works of art into the Atlantic. At Wrightsville Beach Schoen was a regular at one of the piers or along the southern jetty where he stood out among the old salts with his big wide grin and Rastafarian dreadlocks. Eventually his enthusiasm and peaceful countenance would get them to inquire about his appealing Wiggle Woodie lures as he reeled in the fish. The jetty was such a part of his life that his family and friends held a memorial there last year to share stories mourn their friend and spread his ashes over the ocean. He is survived by his mother father and two brothers.

Schoen searched for old wood among the gray and forgotten timbers of dilapidated churches and buildings downtown or walked along the beach in search of driftwood. “He only used reclaimed wood ” says his older brother John who lives in Wilmington. “That was something he was very proud of — the fact that this was wood that would have been thrown away tossed in the trash and that he turned it into a work of art.”

Although fishing lures appealed to fishermen and lure collectors Schoen also made picture frames cutting boards shadow boxes and unique bamboo boxes with nifty lids to store his lures. His company Lionheart Woodwork was really a one-man show. He lived and worked simply continually spreading his positive philosophy and belief that love and kindness can override anything. Schoen and John lived together in Wilmington for several years and he worked from a small woodworking shop behind the house. In addition to handcrafting wooden lures Schoen was fascinated by bamboo and created bamboo purses frames and coffee tables which he sold at local tackle shops and at the Riverfront and Poplar Grove Farmers’ Markets.

Schoen had a loyal following at Poplar Grove and he quickly became a friend and positive influence on the other 40 vendors at the market. In fact he seemed to define the spirit of the outdoor market — down to earth honest creative and gregarious.

“We are a close-knit group ” says Schoen’s fellow vendor Colleen Bannerman. “He loved it right there underneath that tree. He was probably the first one there every Wednesday. You have to be set up by 8 a.m. and he was there by 6:30. And he was always the last one to break down.”

His booth set up under the shade of a big oak tree was a favorite of regular shoppers and their children who clambered atop a big stump he sanded and polished so they could get a better look at his fishing lures. His friends say he was a grateful person and took joy in the smallest things.

“Fishing was his love ” says his mother Roselle Schoen from her home in St. Louis where Schoen was born. “From the time he was a child he always had a fishing pole in his hand. Growing up in a Coast Guard family we moved a lot and wherever we’d live he’d find out what was biting and what people were using to catch fish. He couldn’t get enough of learning. The knowledge of fishing was a passion for him.”

As the military family moved from town to town Schoen fished at every stop from St. Louis Missouri to Kodiak Alaska to New Orleans Louisiana and finally settled in Elizabeth City. John says he remembers how a high school woodworking shop teacher helped his brother to understand the beauty of wood and to realize that he had a gift for working with it. In 1996 Schoen moved to Wilmington perhaps to be closer to John who was working to get through college after an accident left him disabled and for a time wheelchair bound. “Mike attended Cape Fear (Community College) for a while but school really wasn’t his cup of tea ” says John. “He wanted to get into music. That was a big passion. Reggae music.”

When Schoen’s friends and family recount his extraordinary capacity to see the glass as half full they begin to talk about his spirituality. His interest in religion seemed to be a learning process that manifested itself in his woodwork poetry and music. “His interest in reggae was a spiritual thing from what I understand ” says John. “He took a religion class at Cape Fear and that’s where he really got into religion. The spirituality of the music really spoke to him.”

His mother believes that he wanted to preach God’s message of love and peace through song. “He had four Bibles: an antique one he kept in his bedroom one he kept in his workshop one he kept in the living room and a pocket-sized one. He told me he would read the Bible every day. He had a list of Bible verses and the one he had marked as his favorite was Psalm 17:15:  ‘As for me I will behold thy face in righteousness: I shall be satisfied when I awake with thy likeness.’” 

Schoen was an insulin-dependent diabetic which often clashed with his vegan diet and wholesome lifestyle. When he died unexpectedly last year his fishing lures were selling for up to $60 each. But according to his friends success and prominence did not entice Schoen. The slogan printed on his business cards and flyers exemplified his uncommon approach to business: Where quality meets kindness.

He told his family that all he needed was enough money to keep a roof over his head and food in his stomach. There are countless stories from friends who confided in him who received positive reassurances and a smile. They recount his generous spirit his gift for listening and his natural ability to find something good in everyone and everything.

When the Farmers’ Market reopened this year in April Schoen’s beaming face and dreadlocks were just a memory under the large oak tree. His friends and family have only a smattering of his lures and artwork left and they don’t expect to ever let them go. In honor of Schoen his friend Wayne Batten built a wooden bench from reclaimed wood that Schoen had previously saved from the trash. In the place of Schoen’s booth the bench under the shade tree beckons visitors and friends to take a seat and find beauty in the world around them.