Editor’s Note: This story is the second place winner in our ‘Who Inspires You’ contest.

Beverly Everett seated at top, Sheila Schafer, below

by Beverly Everett

“Inspiration” is a word often used in close association with music. People refer to music as being inspiring, or a particular performance’s being inspiring. Artists are known for “inspiring” the audience and conductors for “inspiring” the musicians they conduct. But for a conductor herself, who inspires me? This past weekend, November 19-20, the Bismarck-Mandan Symphony presented its annual holiday concerts. As I stood backstage awaiting my entrance for the second of the two concerts, I didn’t feel especially inspired. Fatigued from a busy fall season and a full concert the night before, I felt a little lacking in my usual energy.
As I walked past the first violins, into view of the audience, I heard above the applause a familiar “whoop!” and suddenly that changed everything. Because I knew that whoop came from one of the most inspirational people I have ever met. It was as though that whoop-and all of the love and energy and charisma from that person suddenly flew from the balcony of the Belle Mehus straight to my heart and not only was I inspired, I was walking on air. And I conducted the rest of the entire concert with a renewed passion in my heart that even the musicians and other audience members later told me they noticed. I knew that whoop came from my friend; that whoop came from someone we nearly lost recently; and for a special holiday concert, that whoop came from someone who admittedly was married to Santa Claus. That whoop came from Sheila Schafer.

I met Sheila in August of 2009. I know many have known her much longer than I have. But Sheila has that special ability of making you think you’ve always known her. Sheila first inspired me with her strength of character that I only know to describe as a “life force.” She has an uncanny sense of spirit, self and other people and uses this sense to inspire others. When I first met Sheila I had the opportunity to sit next to her for the last performance of the Medora Musical that summer. That was when I first became aware of her concert “whooping” and I knew that my dream would be for her to some day whoop in our orchestra concerts.

Watching her watch the musical was magical in itself. Her connection to all of the performers, the music, and the place of Medora, has a powerful effect on those around her. It is, I think, love in its purest and most generous form, and it is inspirational because few possess the freedom to love people and place like that. Watching her hold her heart, cry, and cheer in victory for those Medora Musical performers inspires me to always remember that we never know how what we do might touch a person.

Sheila inspires me with her personal, spiritual strength and her will to live. Struggling with some serious medical concerns, Sheila never lets life get her down. Earlier this fall I spent part of an afternoon visiting her in the hospital. She was only recently released from ICU. Yet what struck me about that afternoon was how much laughter there was. I was there with two members of her family and I have never experienced that much laughter, usually instigated by Sheila, in a hospital. She did not pity herself. She focused on the future. And her recovery was what some might deem a true miracle.

Sheila inspires me with her generosity of spirit. I have met few people as spiritually, personally, and materially generous as Sheila. One word that I think is true to her essence is “giving.” Sheila inspires me with her friendship. She is a true friend with a kind of friendship that transcends age, any differences, and is not affected by how long or short of time that you’ve known her. Somehow Sheila is able to “be there” for all of her family and friends, making each person feel special, loved, and valued. She gives so much to people just through her presence. She is a great listener, she is funny, and she had the gift of understanding. She understands people without their having to explain themselves. She remembers everything and in this makes people feel so special and important because she knows the details of their stories.

I began this essay with a narrative about my walking onstage with Sheila in the audience. I will end with the opposite. Last May 14, 2010, I sat with a heart full of joy and pride as I watched Sheila Schafer walk the stage at the Bismarck Civic Center to receive her college degree. This was just three days from Sheila’s 85th birthday. With the strong statement that told us all in no uncertain terms that one is never too old to learn and never too old to achieve ones dreams, Sheila addressed the audience, representing her class as one of the outstanding graduates. Throughout the year I had prayed for Sheila that she would pass her chemistry test. I had listened to her stories about all of the different things she was learning-one about the hermit crab sticks in my mind! I had heard the word “no” at invitations to go out because she had to study. Sheila was focused, dedicated, and very serious about her studies. She insisted on earning a degree from an institution with which she had la long relationship. It is inspirational when anyone achieves his or her academic goals. But Sheila’s goal was especially inspirational because she personified a student with a pure passion for learning and growth.

I know that one of Sheila’s favorite songs is “You Raise me Up.” For all of us who know Sheila, and call her friend, we know that it is she who raises us up with her cheering, generosity, friendship, vision and strength. Long after the last strains of music have been heard, the Belle’s lights turned out, and many other concerts passed, Sheila’s “whoop” will remain in my heart and feed my soul. For me, that is inspiration.

Beverly Everett is Music Director of the Bismarck-Mandan Symphony and the Bemidji Symphony Orchestras