Last weekend, my daughter and I drove out to see the Medora Musical for the first time this summer. It’s always pure joy to sit in Row G with the incomparable Sheila Schafer, now 90 years old (but going on 60).
When we were there, she already had seen the musical eight times this summer, but you would have thought she had just dropped in from Mars and was experiencing the show, at the Burning Hills Amphitheater, and the Badlands for the very first time.
She laughed at every joke or gag as if she had not heard them repeatedly over the past three weeks. She jumped and clutched her throat when Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders shot their way up San Juan Hill. She cried over a sad country western song and when the patriotism climbed up toward tilt. If anyone could ever genuinely enjoy the Medora Musical more than Sheila Schafer does — and 30 to 40 times per summer — I have not met that person.
Meanwhile, she performed her usual a whoopin’ and a hollarin’ routine from the stands, beginning with her ear-splitting salute, “Hi band!” when the Coal Diggers first appear on stage. People in our vicinity turn their heads to see who is making all the ruckus, but when they recognize that this is the famous Sheila Schafer, widow of the man who transformed the sleepy village of Medora into North Dakota’s premier tourist attraction, they relax and smile knowingly. Sheila is almost as good a show as the musical.
Throughout the evening, people meander up the stairs nervously and kneel before her to tell her how she and Harold changed their lives some time long, long ago. “You won’t remember me,” says a woman in her 60s, "but Harold put me through NDSU back in 1972, when my parents got a divorce.” “You won’t remember me, but you sent a gift to me in the hospital when I had that emergency surgery. And yet we had never even met.”
She does remember.
Sheila is a living embodiment of the concept of grace. If grace is the love and benefit that come unearned, unexpected and undeserved in life, when we least expect it, Sheila appears to exist to perform that role in the world. I have seen her write a note of appreciation to someone she has never met or heard of, but who was mentioned in the newspaper for having represented the Hettinger speech team at the national finals. “Congratulations! You’ve made all of North Dakota proud.” Think of the effect of such an unlooked-for act of generosity — particularly in the heart of a young person just starting out in life.
The Harold and Sheila philosophy of life seems to inspire everyone who visits or works in Medora. Perhaps Harold put something in the water supply. He did, after all, build Medora’s basic infrastructure in the 1960s. The Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation (the heir to the Gold Seal Company) hosts an astonishing volunteer program, which this year will bring more than 600 people from all over the United States to spend five to 14 days in Medora —at their own expense. More than 1,000 people from 23 states vied for the chance to come to Medora this summer to plant flowers, bus tables, sweep sidewalks, greet foursomes at the Bully Pulpit Golf Course, work at one of the food stations at the Pitchfork Fondue or hand out programs and point people to their seats at the musical.
Why do they do volunteer? Because they love Medora and the Badlands. Because they love what I call “the House that Harold built.” Because they like the mix of innocence, family friendly entertainment, faith, patriotism and optimism that Medora represents. Because they want to spend time in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Because they are the kind of Americans who live to volunteer. Because they love Harold and Sheila Schafer, and all they stand for.
Someone close to me had a close encounter with the American medical system recently and was treated like a leper: rudeness, arrogance, dismissiveness, unnecessary pain, how do you intend to pay? But in Harold Schafer’s Medora, you never hear a rude remark and, if you do, that person will not be working there long. There is something at times a bit retro and corny about the Medora Musical, but that turns out to be one of its greatest charms.
In an era of breathtaking change, including here in North Dakota, there is something very comforting in driving off the northern Great Plains into the Badlands, into a kind of magic western frontier village where the old values and verities still have traction. When I see the TRMF’s extraordinarily successful CEO Randy Hatzehbuhler running up and down the amphitheater steps selling popcorn, I just feel better about myself, my state and my country, however silly that may sound.
The performers on that stage — the Burning Hills Singers, the Coal Diggers (band), Sheriff Bear, cowboy Lyle Glass, the Medora Trail Riders and hosts Emily Walter and Bill Sorensen — dance and sing and play their hearts out night after night all summer long, in good weather and bad. And whatever the harshest critic may say of this dance or that joke, the performers are clearly having the time of their life, and the audience quickly leaves all their troubles aside and surrenders to the spirit of the place. Innocence still matters.
When the North Dakotans in the cast are introduced, they get a roar of pride and affection. When Emily Walter (an Air Force veteran) asks all the veterans in the audience to stand, I choke up every time. Nor can I hear the North Dakota songs without covering my face and feeling a wave of joy, pride, nostalgia and loss wash through me. Several of the key players on that stage have significant health issues, but you would never know it from the unrestrained exuberance and joyfulness of their performances.
Meanwhile, back at the Rough Riders Hotel, my young Argentine friends Fecundo and Lucia (and all of their mates from 28 foreign countries and 28 states), work cheerfully through long shifts as if it were a privilege to spend their summers in Medora rather than a job. We have all experienced the sullenness of service employees in some of our national parks and in commercial stores and restaurants around the United States and indeed, here in North Dakota. But you never see that in Medora.
Why? The best answer I have is that the spirit of the founder, Harold Schafer, lives on. Randy Hatzenbuhler has done a marvelous job of keeping Harold’s spirit at the center of every aspect of the Medora Foundation’s mission. Another CEO might not have been able to do that or even wished to. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that the indomitable Sheila Schafer is now spending her 50th consecutive summer in Medora, on this, the 50th anniversary of the Medora Musical. If you ask her, she will tell you all about “my five terminal diseases,” with joyful detachment, while she bakes 200 rolls for a family gathering or rolls out a pair of rhubarb pies, plays a couple of rounds of miniature golf, greets a parade of strangers on her front porch or gets ready to whoop her way through another musical performance under the moon and stars.
Happy Golden Anniversary, Medora Musical. What would a North Dakota summer be without you?
(Clay Jenkinson, the author of nine books, is a North Dakota native who lives in Bismarck. Contact him at Jeffysage@aol.com.)
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