Sheila Schafer’s funeral took place this morning, Saturday 19 March 2016, in Bismarck, North Dakota. She was just short of 91 years old. Her friend Bill Sorenson has said that Sheila (shy-la) knew only two speeds: 100 mph or collapse. Her spirit was young, vibrant, ever-present, and full of love. But her body finally could not longer keep up with her mighty soul. She was remarkably active and full of beans almost to the end. She was often hilarious.
I had the great good fortune to share one ninth of her life with her, one sixth of mine. In the last decade I was one of her several dozen close friends. I cannot judge how much our friendship mattered to her, but it has given me the best ten years of my life. Sheila filled every space she was ever in–from a tour bus to the huge amphitheater of the Medora Musical.
Here’s the paradox. She leaves a hole in Medora, in North Dakota, and in the life of everyone who knew her; and yet she filled each of us with her endless love, and gave every one of us the confidence and the assurance that we mattered. I don’t say this lightly: Sheila Schafer was touched by the divine. She was the perfect embodiment of grace–a spiritual fulness that is unearned, undeserved, unexpected, and uncanny.
She could be exasperating because she loved to talk, talk, talk; and at all public events, no matter how solemn, she kept up a running commentary–often funny, sometimes slightly catty–on what was unfolding before her. She was not a good person to take to a movie! At one point when I was making a documentary film about Sheila and her husband Harold, I became so familiar with the key stories that I began to correct her in the endless–and I mean endless–living room retellings of tales I had heard at least a hundred times before. If I became too pedantic she would give me the eye, and bludgeon her mythologies over the head of her friend and fact-checker. But Sheila was so purely delightful and innocent and life-affirming that it was impossible to be irritated for more than a few minutes. Nor did it matter to her. When she saw an audience, she knew how to work it, and nobody ever left her presence without being lifted by her joyousness.
In a famous sentence in his Autobiography, Theodore Roosevelt rhapsodized about “the glory of work and the joy of living.” As I sat in the Lutheran church this morning, I realized that TR’s phrase is a perfect encapsulation of the life philosophy of Harold and Sheila Schafer. Both terms apply to both of them, but on balance Harold is slightly more prone to the glory and dignity of work and Sheila to sheer joy.
Sheila’s son Marc provided some whimsical memories of what he called his “whacky” mother. The pastor Donna Dohrmann gave a sermon that captured the soul of Sheila perfectly. So often the preacher seems not really to know the deceased, but Ms. Dohrmann spoke in a relaxed way about someone whose personality she understood in its full enchantment and purposefulnes.
But as usual Sister Thomas Welder found the precise insights. I have heard Sister Thomas speak fifty times in the last decade, and I have never once seen her miss the mark. Her words were lovely and profound. She spoke of Sheila’s commitment to hospitality–in the word’s largest sense–and she said that Sheila was able to love all of us so well because she was certain that God loved her and cherished her spirit. She summed up Sheila’s spirit by speaking of “love on the loose.” When Sister Thomas uttered these words, everyone in the church nodded and laughed at the same moment.
I wondered what Sheila would have thought of her funeral. She would have been so pleased that her beloved friend Job Christianson sang for her, including her (and Harold’s) favorite song, “What a Wonderful World.” She would have loved that Joel and Jan Gilbertson played the piano.
But I think she would have appreciated a whoop or two, perhaps a “group whoop,” and I know she would be lamenting that she will not be able to watch the Masters golf tournament this year; or cheer her way through the first performance of the Medora Musical on a cold, possibly snowy, night in June.
But let’s face it. Probably the thing that would have delighted her most is that North Dakota’s new musical phenomenon Kat Perkins took the time to come pay homage to someone who helped lift her into national prominence.
Godspeed my friend Sheila Schafer. Hail and farewell.