Harvey and Irma Schluter have been married for 75 years. He turned 104 in July; she will be 93 in November.
They vividly remember many of the major events of the 20th century, from her first time spotting an airplane, during the Great Depression, to his wonder at watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. In a recent phone interview, Irma Schluter even recalled the weather near her home in Spokane, Washington, on the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. (Cool and cloudy.)
But never before have they seen two major hurricanes bearing their names threaten the United States.
“I don’t know how they’ve done that, to have a Harvey and Irma,” Irma Schluter said Wednesday. “I don’t know how that worked out.”
There’s a simple explanation. Since 1979, the World Meteorological Organization has alternated men’s and women’s names for tropical storms born over the Atlantic.
Six master lists of names are kept and used in rotation, so the more minor hurricane names of 2017 will make another appearance in 2023. Only hurricanes that are costly or deadly enough to be memorable have their names retired.
Harvey was first used as a storm name in 1981, and six other storms have had that name. The gale that followed Harvey every six years used to be called Irene. But in 2011, Hurricane Irene pummeled the Caribbean and many cities on the East Coast, so that name was retired, to be replaced by Irma.
Given the ferocity of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in 2017, this will probably be the first and last time the names appear in tandem.
The Schluters, by contrast, have been appearing in tandem since the 1940s, when Harvey was visiting his brother at a duplex in Spokane and ran into Irma, staying with her sister in the apartment below while she attended high school.
Harvey Schluter was smitten. The future Mrs. Schluter, Irma Schumacher, was more hesitant.
“I wasn’t quite through school yet,” she said. “I wanted to wait until I was done. But he talked me into getting married before that.”
The two were wed in 1942 and, after a brief stint living in Fort Meade, Maryland, while Harvey Schluter was still in the Army, they returned to Washington.
While he went to work as a barber, she found life at home lonely. Both had grown up in big families and it seemed only natural to begin to take in groups of foster children, many of them physically or mentally disabled. In a story to mark their anniversary in March, The Spokesman-Review of Spokane reported that they had taken in 120 children over the decades, a number that Irma Schluter confirmed.
Harvey Schluter opened his own business in the Hillyard suburb of Spokane, Harvey’s Shop, and worked as a barber for 45 years. But he told The Spokesman-Review in 2013 that his most rewarding life achievement was being a foster parent (along with playing the banjo).
Spokane, in eastern Washington, never sees hurricanes, of course. And in their long lives and travels in a motor home to visit their grown foster children, the Schluters managed to avoid the major hurricanes that struck hard enough to have their names retired over the decades. That list is long but includes Hazel in the 1950s; Carla, Hilda and Inez in the 1960s; Agnes and David in the 1970s; Allen, Gilbert and Hugo in the 1980s; Andrew and Mitch in the 1990s; and Isabel, Ivan, Katrina and Felix in the 2000s.
Irma Schluter did not recall ever being seriously affected by other weather events, including snowstorms and earthquakes, which are more common in Washington. She did say that she and Harvey Schluter had stayed inside over the last several days because of the smoke from the wildfires plaguing the Pacific Northwest.
When Harvey and Irma were born, in the early 20th century, radio was a new invention and cable television was decades away. In a new century, after 75 years of marriage, they can only watch as their names flicker across the screen with reports of death, destruction and evacuation. “Really sad,” Irma Schluter said of the news reports.
“I have no idea what I’d do; I’ve never been in that kind of a situation,” she said. “I’d try and help some people, I don’t know how.”
That’s the philosophy you might expect from someone who spent decades taking children into her home. “You just do whatever you think would be best to do,” she added. “If you can help someone, then help them.”