Godspeed Sheila Schafer

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.

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

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

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.

When a Flying Drop Kick Still Won the Day for Truth and Virtue

Some days I feel like the luckiest man alive. Here, for example, is the kind of mother I have. We exchange notes a couple of times per week. Yesterday morning, after a week-long silence, I got the following text: "Verne Gagne has died." Nothing more. Almost Biblical in its simplicity. The minute I read those telegraphic words my mind drifted off into an adolescent reverie.

Four plus decades ago, every Saturday night for several years my friend Robert ("Brother") and I used to make a homemade pizza (All Star Pizza) at his house, and watch grown men in tights, in grainy and flickering black and white images, lumber and bellow around the Minneapolis Auditorium. The giants of the "squared circle" were Verne Gagne and Mad Dog Vachon (and his brother the Butcher), the flying Frenchman Rene Goulet, Pampero Firpo the Wild Bull of the Pampas, the very capable Kenny Jay, and Iron Man George Gadaski. And of course the evil genius of professional wrestling, Dr. X, who had deposited a $1000 certified check in a Minneapolis bank for anyone who could break the Figure Four Leg Lock (once properly applied).

That's a great mother.

Rest in peace, Verne Gagne. If there is an All Star Heaven, I feel certain you will break the Figure Four Leg Lock no matter how it is applied, and quite possibly unmask Dr. X for the first time. May the marvelous old announcer Roger Kent be on hand to say, "Oooh, I hate to see that hold," and "Ladies and Gentlemen, that hold is banned in many states." Or his signature line: "That's an arm bar with a twist—sounds like a drink to me!"

My grandmother was pretty certain professional wrestling was real, not fake. She was curious about Gagne's elixir Gera Speed, which she reckoned had made him a superman, but we never ordered it. Saturday nights on the farm in Minnesota, she and I would watch All Star Wrestling with the sound turned low, so as not to wake Grandpa who had to be up at four to milk the cows. But she would get so worked up by some ring infraction—the absolute worst thing you could ever do was gouge Gagne's eyes with a foreign object—that she would cry out in protest and slap her knee, and pretty soon Grandpa would appear in the doorway in his homemade pajamas either to rebuke us severely or to call us "damned fools" and make some grimacing gesture in imitation of Mad Dog Vachon.

Verne Gagne, dead at 89.

"Well, after all," said my mother on the phone later, "he was a very old man." Let's see: Gagne 89, Mother 83, admittedly a youthful 83. I resisted the impulse for a smart aleck response. She read me the account of his life and death from the Minneapolis Tribune, mispronouncing some of the names of his celebrated opponents. She was never a true initiate. She couldn't tell a half nelson from a side headlock if her life depended on it. But I do not judge her (Matthew 7:1).

Nostalgia is a strange thing. I suppose the author Doug Larson is right, "Nostalgia is a file that removes the rough edges from the good old days." The years of All Star Wrestling were years of pain for me, which perhaps explains why I escaped every Saturday night to eat soggy, doughy peperoni pizza while watching grainy men in speedos bellow and gesticulate. It also explains why there were no dates.

My mother is one who is more likely to stride forward than look back, but she seems to be experiencing a wave of nostalgia these days. She reminded me on the phone last night that my father died 20 years ago this week, in the New Room of our house in Dickinson (still New in the family lexicon). I miss him every single day. Current events intrigued him. He could talk about whatever was passing in the world with insight and wit, and he always had his facts straight. You could not get him to watch All Star Wrestling with a cattle prod—apparently he had what are known as "human standards"—and since we had only one television, indeed one that required you to get up to change the channel, the voice of Roger Kent Ringside (as we called him) was never heard in our house.

When I was a child there was pro boxing on television on Saturday nights. My father would watch for a few minutes while reading the New Yorker in his favorite reading chair. For a few years there was also a Saturday night show called Have Gun Will Travel, starring Richard Boone as a gunslinger called Paladin. We had a special little funky family meal we invariably ate on Saturday nights. I'm sworn to secrecy about its contents, but I am permitted to divulge that it involved homemade hors-d'oeuvres, including, I'm sorry to say, Vienna Sausages.

After my call with my mother, I got out my first photo album to see how many All Star wrestlers I could identify. My parents gave me a 35mm camera for my 13th birthday—maybe the greatest gift of my life. They let me build a darkroom in a storage room just off the kitchen, and for the next four years I spent most of my free time knuckles deep in chemical (Dektol) and using what little cash I had to buy bulk 35mm film (Tri-X) and stiff yellow Kodak boxes of printing paper. My eccentric uncle Joe of Seattle gave me his darkroom equipment.

There was mystery in photography then, and craft, and ritual. Between the moment you snapped the photo (no auto focus, no auto aperture and shutter speed) and the time when you placed a dried print in front of another human being, there were several dozen discrete steps, involving total darkness, wire spools, a red darkroom light, chemical baths, paper cutters, framing wands, negative and print dryers. The process could break down at any point, and if your sister burst into the room to brush her teeth, the whole enterprise could be lost.

My little 5x7 homemade album contains some of the first hundred photos I took and printed. Talk about nostalgia. Pictures of our Schnauzer "Scamp" as a tiny puppy. Pictures of an unhappy family vacation in Winnipeg. My father reading in his chair. My mother in the 70s: big glasses and big hair. My confirmation: me, impossibly young and innocent, wearing pants I had grown out of, my sponsor Robert Burda looking sponsory. Photos of Robert (Brother) with his Dalmatians. A photo of the Ole Reb yodeling reveille at KFYR. My first ham radio kit.

A photo (one of hundreds taken) of our round television screen, with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin bouncing around the moon: July 20, 1969, affixed with yellowing Scotch tape to the page, with my youthful handwriting, all patriotism and techno-pride: "Man Walks on the Moon!!!"

And there he is, Verne Gagne, undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World standing near the turnbuckle in the Trinity High School gym in Dickinson, legs spread in triumph, looking handsome and virile and, well, pretty angry (through his smile), while on his knees before him is Mad Dog Vachon, arms stretched out in supplication, begging for his sorry life.

Godspeed Verne Gagne.

May your cape be newly dry-cleaned, and your entrance fees be paid.

The Death of Ivan Doig Leaves a Vacuum in Plains Writing

I was so sorry to learn that Ivan Doig has died—another great blow to Great Plains literature. First, back in November, Colorado's great Kent Haruf died, the author of Plainsong (1999), and now Doig, who was 75 and living in Seattle. Doug is the author of 16 books, mostly set in central or eastern Montana. People who love all of his work get into arguments about whether his best book is the novel Dancing at the Rascal Fair (1987) or This House of Sky, his 1979 memoir.

In each case we will have the consolation of a posthumous book. Haruf's Our Souls at Night is due to be released in May. Doig's Last Bus to Wisdom is due out on August 18. I've pre-ordered them both. Doig and Haruf were two of the giants of Great Plains literature. My plan now is to read all of Doig's books that I have so far overlooked.

Doig had a beautiful, quiet, brooding prose style, understated, but more powerful because he was not straining to capture the Great Plains and Intermountain West in one magnificent paragraph of purple prose. He understood that the kind of people who pioneered the farm country of Montana were strong, rough, sexist, pragmatic; basic in their outlook but with a lot more going on in their souls than they had access to on most days. Drink was the way they coped, or coped when prayer and hard work weren't sufficient, and drink was the magic key that opened the door to all that was dark and unresolved in their lives. In reading Doig you get a sense of what it took to make Montana (or any Great Plains state), and you cannot help wonder if we, the great, great grandchildren of those "giants in the earth" have enough of the right stuff to take things to the next level.

A number of years ago, Doig described his muted but poetic prose style: "My eight or nine published poems," he wrote, "showed me that I lacked a poet's final skill; the one Yeats called closing a poem with the click of a well-made box. But still wanting to work at stretching the craft of writing toward the areas where it mysteriously starts to be art, I began working on what Norman Maclean has called the poetry under the prose—a lyrical language, with what I call a poetry of the vernacular in how my characters speak on the page."

The poetry under the prose. You can hear it in this short passage from Doig: "It came to me more as a whisper of suggestion than the fundamental adage that it is - if this is not biblical, I shall always believe it should be - that all of us need someone who loves us enough to forgive us despite the history." You can feel the melancholy in that, and some resignation. Doig understood that if we concentrated too much on "the history," we'd have to walk away from almost everyone we know, and vice versa.

I remember reading This House of Sky twenty years ago with the shock of recognition that comes when you discover that a major artist is writing about your world. I was living on a farm in Kansas at the time, in a village so tiny that the vast plains just ate you up. When you drove the section line roads or even the asphalt farm to market roads through that country, you almost had an out of body experience, almost could see your pickup from high above, as from a blimp, as it threaded its way on the long straight roads trailing dust through the endless undifferentiated countryside. There was so much sky in every direction, with thunderheads beginning to gather up out on the western horizon, so much flat or gently rolling land, dotted here and there with abandoned farmsteads, and every few miles a broad new ranch style farm house with fifteen cars. That was a perfect setting for reading This House of Sky. Doig's prose is the kind that makes you ache—for all that you have lost, for all that is inevitably lost, for the ways in which humans, no matter how intimate, work at cross purposes and damage each other's lives. You ache too to be in the presence of someone who gets what you get about the strange improbable landscapes of the Great Plains. Someone who loves this place enough to grace it with the incredible discipline (and gift) of a book.

Landscape is always effectively one of the characters in a Doig novel. Montana has that effect. For Colorado's Haruf the sweep of the high plains of eastern Colorado is just the backdrop of special futility in which the dark lives of his characters blunder their way through struggles and bewilderment. Once he has given you Holt, Colorado, (based largely on Yuma, out on the eastern plains), and you have absorbed how little it promises to anyone who grows or turns or washes up there, Haruf concentrates on the sad and bewildered story he needs to tell.

You cannot think about those great writers without feeling sad about the state of North Dakota literature. We have no Doig or Haruf. Our greatest living writer, in my opinion, is Larry Woiwode, but he hasn't written a book for a very long time that attempted to wrestle Dakota life to the ground. His magnum opus, Beyond the Bedroom Wall, was devoured when it first appeared in 1975, not only because we all realized that it was a serious book written about us, but that it was also a true work of literature and something more than a just a good regional novel. That has both helped and hurt Beyond the Bedroom Wall. My sense is that it is not read nearly as much as it deserves these days. I like all of Woiwode's more recent work, particularly Acts: A Writer's Reflection on the Church, Writing, and His Own Life (1993), but what I naturally want from so enormous a talent is another run at the Great North Dakota Novel.

Louise Erdrich is our other greatest writer, in my view. I love her work and envy her amazing talent. I think her work carries with it a great moral imperative, that we (she) give voice to the lives and loves and struggles and stories of Native Americans, that what for most North Dakotans remains essentially an "invisible culture" receive the artistic and public attention it deserves. My slight quarrel with Louise Erdrich is that she chooses not to live among us; we need her, to inspire young writers, to testify before the legislature, to speak out on public questions, to block—thanks to her grace and dignity and modesty—cultural setbacks in white-Indian affairs that happen when homogenous cultures forget to look around to see all the other people in the room.

But where are our Ivan Doigs, our Kent Harufs, our Willa Cathers, our Mari Sandozes, our William Kittredges, our James Welches, our Linda Hasselstroms, our Dan O'Briens, our Larry Watsons? I know a number of North Dakota writers and poets, and admire them, but what we need now is our first next major work of North Dakota literature.

Someone who will have the creative horsepower and Great Plains life experience to write a sentence like this, Doig's, "The nature of love is that it catches you off guard, subjects you to rules you have never faced, some of them contradictory."

Farewell to One of the Plains Great Writers, Kent Haruf

While I was out of the country one of the great writers of the Great Plains died. His name was Kent Haruf, born February 24, 1943, in Pueblo, Colorado, the author of the celebrated novel Plainsong (2004). It won several awards, but not all that it deserved. Haruf died in his home in Salida, Colorado, at the age of 71.

I was in Rome when I heard the news—from a journalist friend in Telluride, Colorado, a woman from the Great Plains now "imprisoned" in the mountains of western Colorado, if anyone who lives in Telluride could ever have cause to complain. Our friendship is based on the Great Plains, and we discovered right away that we both love Haruf's work. We had actually been making tentative plans to visit him together, to interview him, converging on Salida from Dakota and from Pueblo, Colorado, her true home. I felt helpless to learn of his death in Rome, a place so profoundly opposite to his fictional plains town Holt, Colorado, that they really don't belong in the same sentence. Holt is all dust and Dairy King, a declining backwater where high school sports are the principal town passion, aside from drinking, adultery, and prunish church ladies.

If I had been in North Dakota when I heard the news, I would have thrown a few things in my car and driven in no hurry the back roads to Belle Fourche or Broadus or Lusk, with his books in the back seat, and I would have checked into a shag carpet motel where they still issue you a diamond-shaped green key with your room number on it. I would have ordered a chicken basket at the drive in (oops, "See U in the Sumr") and had a shot in the "Rustler's Bar." That's how Haruf would have wanted to be honored, by a loopy auto pilgrimage through the empty quarter where his characters struggled to pay their bills, pull calves, find mates, make peace with small town bigotries, and wrestle with a God who dwelt partly out of the Old Testament and partly out among the bluffs and coulees and lone cottonwood trees. I'm still going to do this before we settle into spring.

The plot of Plainsong is less interesting than the feel of its portrait of Great Plains life in those towns that continue to exist now only because they once did, towns that somehow hang on beyond the laws of probability even though the quality of life has long since been dimmed and the mating pool is no bigger than a large punchbowl. Plainsong is about a young woman (a girl) named Victoria, whose single mother throws her out when she gets pregnant. Victoria winds up living with two old bachelor farmers, so unbearably single and set in their basic rhythms that they regard Victoria like a fawn they have rescued from the hay rake or a porcelain doll that might break if you look at it cross-eyed. In the end everyone is damaged precisely as they (and we) knew all along they would be, and life goes on in Holt because it's never going to be otherwise on the high plains "where the rain don't come." 

I met Kent Haruf four or five years ago when I was giving a lecture in Salida. There was a reception after my talk, a picnic, and I was being introduced to one eccentric after the next. Then my host, a glorious redhead in a top hat, said, "This is Kent Haruf. He's a writer." When she said Haruf, I nearly sagged to my knees. I had recently read Plainsong and loved it. In fact, when I finally put it down I wondered if it would be possible to locate the author and strike up a correspondence. Haruf's novels are set in a fictional town in eastern Colorado, but they may as well be the actual towns of Limon, La Junta, Trinidad, or Lamar. I lived just on the other side of the Kansas border from all that wild open dry high plains country when I was first married. Haruf absolutely nailed its windswept dilapidation, the sense that every time folks aspire to climb out of the lowest rung of Maslow's hierarchy of human needs, trouble and bleary confusion are sure to follow. Haruf is my kind Great Plains writer. We had an hour of conversation together in Salida, and he offered to read my work and help me in any way he could.

Last June I gave the keynote talk at the annual Willa Cather festival at Red Cloud, Nebraska. Turns out I was a sub. The keynote was supposed to be Kent Haruf, but he was not feeling well enough to make the journey. At the conference I met the photographer Peter Brown, who collaborated with Haruf on a magnificent Great Plains coffee table book called West of Last Chance. It contains some of the best Great Plains photographs I have ever seen. They are not all landscapes and they are not all pretty. Brown has an eye for the townscapes that Haruf writes about—real plains Americans standing in front of barber shops and gas stations, junked vehicles next to deteriorating farm to market asphalt roads, home brew restaurant signs, hail bales painted as the American flag, farmers standing gothically next to grain elevators, a man crouching below a giant mural that imperfectly depicts John Wayne. If you are still looking for a great Christmas book for those who love the Great Plains, you can find discounted copies at West of Last Chance is the Great Plains not as state tourism divisions like to depict us, but the Great Plains as they actually are.

The photos are superb, but it is Kent Haruf's short prose commentaries that I really prize. Here's a bit of one: "We were in Shattuck's Café middle of the morning… it's one of those places where they bring you biscuits and gravy with every breakfast order unless you tell them you don't want any…. I was paying more attention to what the three men at the next table were saying. They had on orange vests, worked for the highway department … and at one point—I can't recall now what had prompted it—one of them said to the other two: 'We may not be the smartest sons of bitches in the world, but we sure can kill weeds.' And I thought to myself: Bud, say no more."

Haruf's long passage on church suppers is one of the greatest short pieces I have ever read. If you email me I will send it to you. I've read it a dozen times now, always out loud, and I burst into tears at a different place every time. I've been in that church basement in five or six locations on the plains, because they are all the same out there everywhere. "And there were a good many church women in the kitchen getting things ready, making coffee and stirring up pitchers of iced tea, and uncovering dishes that people had brought in, and heating things up, and cooling things down, and sticking in serving spoons, and hustling back and forth carrying loaded dishes and platters out to the serving tables… and don't you know when she made something it always tasted as good as it looked."

Haruf's last book Our Souls at Night will be posthumously published in 2015. Meanwhile, I'm re-reading the five previous novels.