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Legacy of giving in Medora

Medora Musical Burning HIlls Singers
Medora Musical Burning Hills Singers (photo by Liza Kessel)

The late Sheila Schafer often said she was “married to Santa Claus.” Her husband, Harold Schafer, the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation’s founder, had a generous spirit. Whether it was getting the dinner tab for some newlyweds, paying for struggling college students’ tuition or even giving land to Bismarck State College, Schafer was eager to open his hand. That character trait rubbed off on the people he met throughout his life, and it’s why the 350 seasonal employees who gathered this spring in Medora were welcomed with a special gift of their own.

The newly built Bill and Jane Marcil Life Skills Center, a $7 million student union-type cafeteria, exercise and training space, represents the first major investment made to the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation (TRMF) staff and volunteers, says spokesman Justin Fisk.

“It’s a place where we’ll be doing not only our big opening season training, but life skills training throughout the summer,” Fisk says.

Before thousands of visitors fill the quaint, historical town in western North Dakota, the staff receives training in much more than basic customer service. TRMF President Randy Hatzenbuhler says the 26,000-square-foot facility, which includes a full-size replica of the Burning Hills Amphitheatre, allows the organization to communicate the message, morals and mission of the Foundation more effectively.

“The building provides an opportunity to take care of our staff and volunteers and really develop them into the future leaders of our region,” he says.

The center also honors Sheila’s legacy and her dedication to education.

“When we did spring orientation, she always brought down the roof at those things,” Fisk says. “She would always say, ‘You guys need to get out and experience Medora. Always keep learning.’ So part of the Life Skills Center will be to do that same thing, even though Sheila’s not here to do it herself.”

He continues, “It’s our duty to carry on Harold and Sheila’s vision and what they dreamed Medora could be like.” Medora is served by Roughrider Electric Cooperative.

Valuable lessons

The types of classes and training offered at the center will evolve over time, Hatzenbuhler says, based on want and need, but currently the roughly 100 international staff can take an English class and numerous employees are attending a money management course taught by local residents to guide the students with budgeting and finance skills. Also, Hatzenbuhler says some of the most valuable ideas for the construction of the center came directly from a brainstorming meeting with the staff and volunteers.

“Many of the students who work in Medora come with an interest in theater and music, so they requested rooms where they could practice and avoid falling behind on those skills during the summer,” Hatzenbuhler says. “The sound-proof rooms are always being used to practice their instrument, whether it is a clarinet or their voice.”

Fisk says Harold and Sheila felt their success was due to the many skills they gained from others, and were thrilled that students could do that in Medora. When Bill and Jane Marcil donated $1 million to the project, they also saw it as an important tool to attract and retain talented young people.

“Something like this takes Medora from one of those places where people can spend a summer and recall one of the best of their lives, but they spend a summer now and realize they are laying the foundation for the rest of a successful life,” Fisk says. “The Marcils realized that and totally jumped in with the idea that we could help prepare the future leaders of the state and region.”

Though Sheila can no longer address the hundreds of young people working in Medora, her message lingers through a facility designed with them in mind.

“She was a lot like Santa Claus, too, because everybody that got to know her got a gift – whether it was something simple, like a little toy for kids or a piece of advice, she always offered the most welcoming hello and hug along with her coined phrase ‘Hello, you wonderful people,’ ” Fisk remembers. “It wouldn’t matter what kind of day you’re having, if you heard that you automatically turned and saw her smiling face and your life was better that day.”

Maxine Herr is a freelance writer from Bismarck.