CLEARWATER, Fla. — Michael Schiavo was taught early on not to back down.
His father, William, often reminded his boys that when he was diagnosed with polio at age 12, doctors said he would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Six years later, he signed a minor-league contract with the old Philadelphia Athletics of the American League.
“We were raised to never give up,” says Schiavo’s older brother, Scott. “To stick to your guns, and if you believe in something, you just do it.”
That, he says, is just what Michael is doing as he fights his in-laws, the state legislature, the governor, Congress and even the president to keep them from prolonging his wife’s life with a feeding tube.
Doctors have testified that 41-year-old Terri Schiavo is in a persistent vegetative state, the result of a collapse that deprived her brain of oxygen 15 years ago. Michael Schiavo insists that his wife told him she would never want to be kept alive artificially; for seven years he has fought her parents to carry out what he says would be her wish.
Regular guy or culprit?
Through much of that time, he has been vilified — on talk shows and the Internet, and in protests in front of his own home — as an abuser, an adulterer, a murderer. But to friends and family, Michael Schiavo is just a well-meaning guy caught in an extraordinary situation.
Schiavo, also 41, was the youngest of five brothers brought up in the mass-produced suburb of Levittown, Pa. They grew up in the Jubilee model — two stories, four bedrooms, two baths and an attached garage.
The brothers were confirmed in the Lutheran church, though Sunday services weren’t always a priority, says Scott Schiavo, who still lives in Levittown.
Once the “runt of the litter,” Michael grew to 6-foot-7. But unlike his brothers, he had little interest in athletics; at Woodrow Wilson High School, Michael Schiavo joined the Italian Club, not the football squad.
“Mike was more of a debater,” his brother says. “He was not a go-out-and-start-knocking-heads and stuff like that. ... He would rather try to discuss or argue a point.”
The early days
After high school, Michael enrolled in nearby Bucks County Community College. It was there, in a sociology class, that he met Theresa Marie Schindler.
They were engaged just five months later and married in November 1984. After a year and a half, the couple moved to Florida for Terri’s work at an insurance company, and her parents followed them three months later. Michael Schiavo got work managing a restaurant.
Friends of Terri’s have said that Schiavo became possessive of his wife, tracking her movements and begrudging time she spent with her family. Terri had been overweight as a girl, and he reportedly rode her about her weight — and threatened to leave her if she got fat again.
Terri’s brother, Bobby, has said Terri was even contemplating leaving Schiavo. Scott Schiavo says he saw a happy couple.
Then everything changed
Then, in the early morning of Feb. 25, 1990, Terri Schiavo collapsed, changing everything.
Initially, Michael Schiavo felt that his wife might benefit from therapy. He staged fund-raisers to pay for a flight to California for rehabilitation.
During a medical malpractice case in 1992, Schiavo testified that he was studying nursing at St. Petersburg College to better learn how to care for Terri.
“I want to bring my wife home,” he told the court.
When asked how he felt about being married to Terri in her current state, he said: “I feel wonderful. She’s my life, and I wouldn’t trade her for the world. ... I believe in the vows that I took with my wife. Through sickness, in health, for richer or poorer.
“I married my wife because I love her and I want to spend the rest of my life with her. I’m going to do that.”
'An evil, evil man'
But by 1993, Schiavo was fighting with his in-laws, Bob and Mary Schindler, over his wife’s care and guardianship. In a deposition, the ruggedly handsome Schiavo was forced to admit that he had already been involved in lengthy relationships with two women since his wife’s collapse. One of those women, a nursing assistant at the home where Terri was being cared for, told the Schindlers’ attorneys that Schiavo would “whine all the time” about how Terri’s illness had ruined his life, and that he couldn’t wait to collect the malpractice settlement. She described Schiavo as obsessive and claimed he stalked her for more than a year after their breakup.
Trudy Capone, who worked as a nurse at a home where Terri was treated in the early 1990s, says Michael Schiavo is “an evil, evil, evil man” who repeatedly told her that he and his wife had never discussed what to do if she was incapacitated. She says he was always asking, “What should I do?”
“This man is a liar,” Capone says.
That is not the Michael Schiavo who Jill Schad knows. A fellow nurse, Schad has known Schiavo for six years and has seen him on the job and with Terri. He strokes her hair and holds her hand and kisses her, Schad says.
“He acts like a caring person should, like a loving husband should,” says Schad. “You can just see the sorrow in his eyes ... There’s no way he could be faking it.”
Russ Hyden feels the same way. Hyden was introduced to Schiavo in 1991, when Hyden’s pregnant wife, Karen, was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Despite his own travails, Hyden says Schiavo was there for him, shooting hoops with Hyden’s 7-year-old son and stopping by to make sure things were OK. When Hyden’s wife died in 1994, Schiavo arranged for the family to go to Disney World.
“He is a loyal friend, a wonderful father and a wonderful person,” Hyden says.
About a decade ago, Schiavo met Jodi Centonze. They now have two toddlers, a daughter and a son, and live in a comfortable house in Clearwater surrounded by palms, live oaks and, most recently, no-trespassing signs.
Schiavo has declined requests by The Associated Press for an interview. But in a recent appearance on ABC’s “Nightline,” Schiavo insisted that his relationship with Centonze notwithstanding, he is Terri’s husband, and he’s still bound to abide by her wishes.
“If I moved on with my life, and I moved on with a portion of it, but I still have a big commitment to Terri,” he said. “I made her a promise.”
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