Mike Schellman plans to join his family for a quiet Easter dinner on Sunday. He hopes that little “Wolfie” will be out of the hospital by then.

Born seven weeks premature on March 6, weighing 4 pounds, 9 ounces, Wolfhart “Wolfie” Schellman is a tiny package who is providing abundant joy to his otherwise grief-stricken father.

“He was beautiful,” Schellman said, reflecting back on meeting his son in the neonatal intensive care unit three weeks ago. “I could see her features in his face.”

Now her face smiles at her son from a photograph placed in Wolfie’s hospital bassinet. Tammy Jeannette “T.J.” Schellman, a devoted caregiver to the disabled and minister at the Salvage Yard Church in Minneapolis, died during childbirth. She was 41.

“I don’t think any one person could speak to how amazing T.J. was,” said Schellman, 42, who returned to work on Monday. He finds great comfort in knowing how many people adored his wife of more than 14 years. Letters and e-mails have arrived from as far away as Eastern Europe, where T.J. did mission work.

Friends and co-workers of the couple have established the Baby Schellman Fund, to help father and son as they move forward. “If I knew all the challenges ahead, I’d probably be more frightened,” Schellman said laughing, enjoying a rare moment of levity as he cradled his swaddled son.

He and T.J. met in 1997 through an AOL discussion board on counterculture church missions. They had different ideas about what that meant, said Schellman, who was living in Dearborn, Mich. “We started talking.”

They had a lot in common. Each had one sibling four years younger. Both were working in group homes on the overnight shift.

They sent photos and wrote letters for about four months. Then he came out to meet T.J. in 1998. Two days later, they were married by a justice of the peace. They agreed that the church would be central to their lives.

They were part of the ministry that founded Salvage Yard, an evangelical church in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis that reaches out to young people feeling disenchanted with or disenfranchised from mainstream religion. “I wouldn’t say they are outsiders, because they have their insider connections,” said Schellman, who does Bible research for the church. “But they’re definitely artistic and eccentric, people who don’t fit into mainstream culture.”

T.J. loved them and related to them. One member of the church called her “a fighter, who wrestled with God.” A year ago, she joined the preaching team and found her voice. “She was really getting into the groove, a lot more personal in her messages,” said fellow elder Jon Benson.

Her personal approach also was cherished at ACR Homes, where she was a full-time caregiver for 20 years, working from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m. four days a week. “That’s a tough shift, “ said ACR spokeswoman Kristin Pitchford, “and she made the most of it. She gave us insights into residents who had a lot of unique needs. She had a tremendous impact.”

When one client complained that her skin felt like it was crawling, for example, T.J. suspected diet was playing a role. The client’s diet was changed and the woman who couldn’t bear to be touched began reaching out with hugs.

The couple wanted children, but they postponed starting a family while Schellman returned to school for his master’s degree in divinity. “Then we started trying and had problems,” he said.

T.J. had diabetes and an ovary condition that often affects fertility. She had two miscarriages. Schellman was looking for work and had his own health issues. “It was a tough patch,” he said. Then the wonderful news arrived. T.J. told her husband that they were really going to have to pull things together, he said, “and everything started coming together for us.”

They announced their pregnancy around Christmastime with a gender reveal party. Their ultrasound technician sealed the gender in an envelope that they gave to a baker. They cut into a white cake with chocolate frosting: Blue.

On Feb. 28, T.J. was admitted to the hospital with pre-eclampsia. On March 4, Schellman began a new job at the accounting firm Ernst & Young and was planning to travel to a two-day training session. But T.J. texted him that afternoon: “Don’t make any plans.” She was going to be induced.

On March 6, she began having trouble breathing and was whisked off for an emergency Caesarean section. “They told me Wolfie was safely delivered and I could see him,” Schellman said. T.J.’s mother joined him. As they welcomed Wolfie, T.J.’s heart stopped, was restarted, then stopped again. “She never got to see him,” he said.

Schellman arrives at the hospital early every morning to rock and feed his son, then goes to work and then back to the hospital again. He’s already introducing his son to some of his favorite books: “Green Eggs and Ham.” “Where the Sidewalk Ends.” The New Testament in Greek. “He is very calm,” Mike said. “He only cries a little bit when you first open up his diaper.”

Ernst & Young, he said, has been tremendously supportive, telling him to take whatever time he needs.

Schellman is taking in renters to his north Minneapolis home and de-cluttering to make room in his bedroom for Wolfie and his crib. Wolfie’s care will be shared by his grandmother, aunt and a family friend. He is growing well on breast milk donated by church members.

“I’m very grateful for my friends and family who have really taken care of us,” Schellman said. “They really loved T.J. and they love Wolfie too.”

A fund has been set up to help the family. Checks, payable to Baby Schellman Fund, can be mailed to Western Bank, 663 University Av., St. Paul, MN 55104, or donate online through PayPal; information is available at www.facebook.com/BabySchellmanFund.


gail.rosenblum@startribune.com 612-673-7350