Godspeed Sheila Schafer

Sheila Schafer was always the youngest person in every room.
— Clay Jenkinson

Sheila (shy-leh) Schafer died quietly in her sleep on Tuesday March 15, 2016, in Bismarck, North Dakota. She was 90 years old.

She was the most life-affirming person I ever met in the whole course of my life. I met her ten years ago when I moved back to North Dakota. We became friends, then good friends, then extremely close friends. But I was merely one of hundreds of Sheila's friends. 

She was the wife of North Dakota's first great millionaire, Harold Schafer, the founder of the Gold Seal Company (Mr. Bubble, Snowy Bleach, Glass Wax), and the philanthropist and visionary who turned the sleepy little town of Medora into North Dakota's premier tourist destination. She was the mother of eight children, five of Harold's, three of her own. One of those children, Ed Schafer, was the governor of North Dakota between 1992-2000 and later George W. Bush's Secretary of Agriculture.

She was the center of attention no matter where she went or what she did, and she delighted virtually everyone she ever met. She was a master raconteur, a natural comic, and her heart was as large as the American West. She was on a first name basis with Presidents, governors, ambassadors, rock stars, and thousands of people whose names she always remembered but you and I have never met. 

The famous Medora Musical, which was largely her creation, entertains more than 100,000 people per summer in a town of about 108 permanent citizens. To see the Musical with Sheila was to watch two shows: the Musical, and Sheila watching the Musical. Sheila's Musical was almost a contact sport: she whooped, hollered, cheered, teared up, clutched her heart during fireworks, shouted "Hi, Band!" when the musicians first took the stage, and then stayed afterwards to give words of encouragement to the cast and crew. Countless times sitting next to her in the fifth or sixth row, I have watched people come up to kneel before her--to say, "You probably don't remember me, but when my father was ill, you and Harold helped us out. . . . You may not remember me, but when I was working in Medora one summer, you brought me a ice cream bar on the hottest day of July, and said, good work, keep it up, and enjoy Medora!"

She pleased multitudes without ever seeming insincere. She laughed easily, often, and hard, and was able to laugh at herself without the slightest pride or reluctance.

The longer I knew her the more amazed I was: to be counted among her hundreds of friends; to witness her amazing anonymous acts of kindness and thoughtfulness; to observe her high intelligence and savvy analysis of situations near and far away; and to see what willful optimism can do to turn virtually any situation into joy and possibility.

Three times since I met her I have been told that she would die in the next 48 hours, and each time when Death came for her she sent him packing: not yet, not now. The last of these moments came more than five years ago! I had come to think of her as immortal, for her mighty and youthful spirit kept her alive long after her body had broken down. Finally, not even Sheila Schafer could prevail against the fragility of old age. She died with dignity. 

I will miss her more than I could ever say. She made the difference in my life these last ten years. My live would have been so much less without her. And though her legacy--adventures, stories, style, laughter, generosity of spirit--will live on in all who knew her, the simple fact is that my life will be so much less without her.


Recording Complete of the Audio Version of Becoming Jefferson’s People

A number of years ago I wrote a short book called Becoming Jefferson’s People: Re-Inventing the American Republic in the Twenty-First Century. It is my attempt to describe what it is to be a Jeffersonian, and how a more Jeffersonian America would re-invigorate our national politics and culture.

A few weeks ago I recorded an audio edition of the book at Makoché Recording Studios in Bismarck, North Dakota. We are doing the last of the post-production of the book now. It will soon be available on audible.com.

By “Jeffersonian,” I mean something like the following combination. A citizenry that reads books for pleasure and enlightenment; a more emphatic and committed public education system; a belief that “reason is our only oracle,” and that science should be permitted to shape (even dictate) public policy; a deep commitment to civility, generosity of spirit, epistolary correspondence, and harmony; growing some of one’s own food, if only a tomato and a patch of peas; a preference for temperance (wine) over intoxication; a deep and abiding curiosity; a commitment to international peace and non-violence; and an insistence that government should only do such things as it alone can do.

Read more here


The Signature Books of My Life

The most frequently asked question by people who come into my house is, “Have you read all these books?” And even though it is a natural and inevitable question, it is a question that so fundamentally misunderstands the life of the mind, the life of the reader, that I have a hard time not responding in sarcasm.

Review my list of primary texts here


Thomas Jefferson in Norfolk, VA, Next Week!

March 22 & 24

I cannot wait to return to Norfolk, Virginia, where I have performed Jefferson and other historical characters for the past decade or more. I love our east-coast flagship station WHRV/WHRO, and the people there who do so much for public radio and the humanities. I have close friends in the lower Chesapeake. The Roper Theater has been the venue of some of my favorite public performances. I hope you can attend one of two performances coming up in March 22 & 24.

For details, visit WHRO.