A Tribute to Terry Shafer
March 4, 2017
Flags across Wisconsin are flying at half mast today in honor of Terry Shafer. A farm boy from Spring Valley, WI whose life ended this week after only 62 years. To me what makes Terry Shafer so special was his role as a pillar of the community with a big heart, a deep sense of empathy and compassion for those who were fortunate enough to be his friend; and there are hundreds of people who knew and have loved Terry Shafer.
I was about 8 years older than Terry and we grew up within 1.5 miles of each other’s farms. We grew up in a period where many smaller farms dotted the landscape and were an integral part of the local economy. Given the type of farming technology at the time many farmers collaborated and helped each other during key harvesting times in late summer and fall. These experiences connected them to each other almost like they were family. In some cases they were. Farmers like our parents had far more frequent interactions with neighbors and local towns people than those living on the land and in our smaller rural towns and villages today. If one thinks back to the 1920’s until today and envisions what life was like for families and communities from then until now, I believe we would be aghast if not afraid of the changes that have occurred to and within our human family and perhaps some implications for us going forward.
The love and respect Terry Shafer earned from family, friends, community and his fire fighting brothers, was because of his very special character. The character of Terry Shafer was rooted all the way back to the 1920’s and beyond. Terry was empathetic! Terry was humble! Terry was compassionate! He loved his life and brought joy to most of us who knew him. His character and sensitivity had been shaped and molded over many generations of close knit farm families and small communities. He had 8 brothers and sisters and his parents both came from rather sizable families. Until about the 1970’s millions and millions of America’s population had direct connections back to people who had lived on the land or were employed in cities where extended families still lived in the same cities or nearby. People’s lives revolved around work and family. One’s interactions with relatives frequently exceeded interactions with close friends. In many cases they were one in the same.
In the 1920’s farmers comprised 30% of the workforce, up from 64% in 1850. If one extrapolates this data across time we begin to understand that there is a difference in the social, moral, ethical and compassionate fabric of our society over the past 100 years or so. Much of this “human connectedness” was rooted in frequent and deep human interactions that took place during this period. However, as prosperity, affluence and a more sophisticated economy grew a complex web of industries, world-wide corporations, our families scattered across the country and the globe. With each generation our familial web connections grew weaker as demonstrated by our frequent lack of familiarity with even cousins or other relatives as we seldom come together as an extended family.
This same phenomonem is occurring across our cities and communities as mobility has also weakened the web of close extended families and friends that have been around for generations. Now, it would not be uncommon to never meet some cousin for example.
The one constant amidst all this generational change and weakening social bonds is the fact that a rare person on rare occasions rises in the community and stands as the pillar of compassion, positive character, wisdom, leadership and humility. A model citizen who people lean on in good times and when times are challenging. Terry Shafer has been that pillar in Spring Valley, Wisconsin for some 40 years or more.
Terry’s funeral was unlike any I had ever experienced over the years. As the Fire Chief in Spring Valley for nearly 30 years, his circle of friends expanded across the entire State of Wisconsin and beyond. I estimated there were perhaps 800-1000 attendees at his funeral while some 200-300 were firefighters from across the State and region. There to honor a fallen brother-- something he had done for comrades many times before. There was a parade of fire trucks and cars that spread out over a few miles as his body was transported (by fire truck) from Spring Valley to the El Paso cemetery.
As the funeral ended, I drove to my family farm which was enroute to the cemetery. I had the unique experience of witnessing the fire truck carrying Terry’s body go by the farm with some 40-50 fire trucks and loved ones following behind. What an amazing tribute to one of the pillars of Spring Valley who will be remembered for being the glue that helped hold the community together.
As we all move onto the next days and phases of our lives, let us be aware of and sensitive to the historical waning of deep connections of extended family, communities and culture that have brought us individuals like Terry Shafer. But perhaps the waning of our past culture and values has led us to this historical period of distrust and polarization in our society. We need a lot more Terry Shafer’s going forward.
Travel in peace Terry!!
Stop by Highway G...we’ll leave the light on for ya!
First Cousin-down the road 2 miles