“It's the people of the land, the regular people, who matter the most to me. ”
Photos by Andi Stempniak
Scott Schultz | Osseo, WI
“I grew up in a place called Veefkind. It used to be a little bitty rural community with a store, post office, a couple of sawmills, tavern, church, and, of course, the cemetery. It was named after my great-great grandfather, Henry Born Veefkind, who actually built our farm. The home farm went through six generations before it got sold out of the family.
We were the classic Wisconsin dairy farmers. Growing up, my favorite chore was going to the pasture to get the cows. I got more inspiration for writing later in life from those experiences of having soaking wet jeans up to my thighs on a June morning, chasing the cows someplace. But I admit that I never really cared to milk cows.
When I was a teenager, my oldest brother owned another dairy farm about six miles from us. I would go over there to help. There was one time where we got in probably at 10:30 at night from the field, dusty and filthy. I was in the bathroom, washing the dust off of myself, and something struck me. I looked out at my sister-in-law, who was making supper for us, and I said, ‘You know what? This isn't going to be for me.’ So, I didn't farm.
In high school, I went out for four sports: football, wrestling, cross-country, and track and field. I probably worked harder in the weight room than I ever would have milking cows. When I was a senior, I scheduled all my classes so I had the whole afternoon in study halls. I would sign out of study hall and go work out, lift, whatever, and then the last hour I would take a nap or get ready for practice or a game.
One day, I was sitting in the study hall and the journalism teacher, Marvelene Butterbrodt, came stomping across the floor. I was half asleep somewhere in the back of the room, and she came down the aisle and literally grabbed me by my cauliflower ear, pulled me out of my desk, and said, ‘You're not wasting your whole day here. You're going to come down to my journalism class and write.’ So I did. I started writing a sports column for the local weekly paper.
It was still the Vietnam era, but we were coming out of combat in Vietnam right at the time. At school they announced that the Navy recruiter was there and that anybody wanting to see him should go down to the guidance office. So one of my friends and I said, ‘We're going down to see the Navy recruiter.’
Another friend looked at me right in the face and said, ‘Scott, that was really stupid. You have no intention of joining the Navy or any other service.’ I said, ‘Oh, yeah? Well, maybe I do.’
Two days later the Marine Corps recruiter came, and because of that give-and-take with my friend in that classroom, I felt obligated to go down and see him, too.
The Marine recruiter was there in his dress blues, and everything was shiny brass, and you could comb your hair by looking in the leather on his shoes because they were so well-polished. It was almost breathtaking. And the fellow had the greatest line ever: ‘I don't know if you could make it. I don't know if you could be one of us.’
I said, ‘I have to take this on,’ even though by then I was committed to journalism.
The conversation came around to my working with the community newspaper through our high school journalism program and he said, ‘You know, we have journalists in the Marine Corps.’ I said, ‘Really? Well, that's the career I had looked at down the road, so what can you do?’
Once I enlisted, my job was going to be as a combat correspondent. My training in the government service, through government schools, was in journalism.”
“Right after high school, I went to boot camp. After that I went to the Defense Information School. It was a good, solid, hands-on, vocationally designed kind of journalism program. It was intense. The time is really shortened—it’s only six months—so you're learning in a real fast, hardcore manner.
In early ‘76, I got orders to go to the Far East—to Okinawa, Japan. It was about a year after the Vietnam War ended. The Marines, along with some Naval, Air Force and Army forces, had remained aboard Okinawa since World War II.
Reminders of the World War II battle for Okinawa were all around when I was there. I sat on a seawall one day and noticed something shining in the water below. It was part of a wing from an airplane. I remember getting goosebumps, realizing that someone's young life had ended right there.
I spent a year in Okinawa, doing a lot of different things as a combat journalist: reporting for base newspapers, writing press releases, dealing with reporters coming in from the media. Because of my job, I got to experience almost everybody's job in the Marine Corps, to some extent. One day I might be chasing around humping with the grunts on a hillside someplace, the next day I'm with the air wing, and the next day I'm doing some ceremony.
One of the Marines in my barracks—he was very hardcore, did a couple combat tours in Vietnam—had come into my world of combat journalism. He was a Marine Corps Staff Sergeant who had the option of moving into his own room versus being in the open barracks with the other non-commissioned officers. He chose the barracks.
He sat and talked a lot, and cried a lot through the nights, and made me aware of things that I didn't really understand about what had gone on in Vietnam, and some of the realities and consequences of fighting a war.
Looking back, the writer and the journalist in me says, ‘Damn fool! You should have been taking notes, because those would have made some interesting stories.’ But that's not what he needed from me. I was just there to listen. And for a shoulder, a literal shoulder.
I didn't visit the combat world, myself. One part of me said, ‘I wish I could have been there for you,’ then another part of me said, ‘I'm goddamn glad I wasn't there with you.’ And another part of me, even then, had some sense of, ‘I hope this doesn't hang with you your entire life.’ And I know to this day, it did.
I went from Okinawa to the craziest duty station of all—I was stationed at a Marine Air Reserve training unit in Minneapolis. I think it was an inducement for me to re-enlist. I mean, it was two and a half hours from my home. That was a pretty good inducement. I was the public affairs non-commissioned officer there. A lot of it had to do with throwing on my dress blues and going onto television stations and promoting things. I did a lot of ceremonial funeral stuff. Folded a lot of flags.
After I was discharged from active duty, I moved back home. In fact, I found a house in Veefkind. I pulled out all the stops and called a lot of people in the newspaper business in the region.
The fella who accepted my sports column when I was in high school said, ‘Hey, there's a guy up in Abbotsford who's always interested in something new. Call him.’ So I called him, and that fella said, ‘Come on up Saturday and we'll talk.’
Now, there was a day—and I was on the outer edges of that day—when you could walk into a place and say, ‘I'm a farm kid, an old jock, and a veteran,’ and people would stand on their head and say, ‘You're hired.’ But I think I had some skills, too.
The one skill I didn't have yet was anything computerized. He said, ‘Do you know how to use a computer?’ ‘No, I know how to use a Royal manual typewriter.’ ‘Yeah, but do you know how to use a computer? Because we just got a new computer system in a while ago.’ And I said, ‘I can be taught.’ He said, ‘Well, show up Monday.’”
“I was doing two weekly newspapers, and I covered everything from school board meetings to sports. I think there were probably a half dozen communities under the purview of those two weeklies.
I chased hard for several months before the editor of the Marshfield News Herald called to say another guy they’d hired hadn’t worked out, and he offered me a job. It was a daily, and I grew up reading that newspaper, so I said, ‘I'm there.’
At the Marshfield paper, I built myself an ag journalism niche. I was the regional/state-desk/farm reporter. That's what probably put me on top of the pile to even get that job, because I was a farm kid from down the road.
That job gave me a good knowledge of hardcore news, and features, and investigative reporting. There are a couple stories I'll always hang my hat on. One is, there was a landfill in Marathon County, and there were complaints from neighboring farmers that animals were getting sick from the water leaching out of the landfill. A paper-making corporation I'll leave unnamed was dumping industrial sludge into that landfill and mixing it with the solid waste. I did a series of investigative stories about that. That landfill ultimately became one of the very first EPA Superfund cleanup sites.
I was really fortunate, later in the ‘80s, to get linked in with The Country Today newspaper, out of Eau Claire. At the time it was the state’s largest circulation weekly newspaper. Some people called it a farm newspaper. I like to call it a rural life publication that focused on farming.
One story that stands out from that time was the train derailment at Weyauwega on March 4th, 1996. There was a fire, because it had propane tanks on it. It derailed right in the city next to a feed mill. The mill burned, the buildings around there burned, you had all this fire going on with overturned propane tankers, and they evacuated the city of Weyauwega for several weeks while they cleaned up this derailment.
There was a group of young guys from Texas who were going in daily, working on these propane tankers. Someone said that if one tanker would blow up, everything within a mile radius would be pretty much dead and a huge area wiped out. These fellas, after going out to work on those all day long, which had to be just exhausting, would go to the farms and feed the animals, since everyone who lived in the area had been evacuated.
When I talk to school groups and they ask, ‘What are the interesting things about journalism? Who have you gotten to interview?’ Well, gosh, in the Marine Corps, you rub shoulders with governors, and vice presidents, and presidents. But it's the people of the land, the regular people, who matter the most to me. It's who I am. It's my roots. It’s the land, it's the soil, and it's the people of the soil.”
“One day when I was working at the paper in Eau Claire, I got a random call from a professor of English Education from the University of Central Florida. They were looking for professional writers to mentor high school kids over long distances using email. I said, ‘Yeah, that sounds kind of fun. I'll do that.’ So I started with kids in three high schools in the Orlando area. We got along pretty good, the kids and me.
One day I was sitting in my home office, and I started remembering how I was dragged out of a high school classroom by somebody who saw something in me that I didn't know I had. I am a nontraditional poet, a nontraditional writer of any sort. You look at me and you say, ‘Why aren't you coaching football? Why aren't you milking cows?’ That teacher flipped that switch in me. As I was sitting there, gawking out my window, I said, ‘Wait. I kind of owe payback.’
So I picked up the phone and I called that professor at the University of Central Florida, and I said, ‘You know, I've been sitting here thinking. What would happen if somebody tried to put together a non-profit organization to do what I'm doing, and especially to flip the switches in high school kids, to turn them on to writing?’ She said, ‘That's some idea. I'm glad you came up with it because we'd been thinking about something like that.’
So I put the wheels in motion. That person, that professor in Florida, came up here to help me understand the education side. She picked up everything, left Florida with her daughter and wound up in Osseo teaching high school English. She continued working with me on the project, and eventually we got married.
As the project was developing, the notion of initially focusing on young adults was important. The other important part was having them learn about themselves and writing and the arts by tying them to the land.
It got kind of a long and wordy name, the Heartbeat Center for Writing, Literacy, and the Arts, Inc. But it's the Heartbeat Center to locals.
We’ve done a lot in the community, too. We’ve promoted music, and we had an art gallery called the Artery. We've done several projects where we bring together a writer and a photographer and say, ‘Hey, have fun out here in the coulees and ridges and tell a story through photography and writing.’
We’re trying to introduce this community to meatloaf. I draw that analogy because folks so readily eat hamburger, and so it would be like every night you call home and you say, ‘What are we having for supper?’ ‘We’re having hamburger.’ And then all of a sudden one night, you call home and you say, ‘What are we having for supper?’ ‘We’re having meatloaf.’ Just a step above hamburgers. It’s got a little something in it. Maybe some onions, and maybe a mushroom or two, and maybe ketchup is involved.
So in the world of the humanities, and in writing, and the world of creativity, I’m hoping we’re starting to open people up to having meatloaf instead of hamburger every night. Let’s have some music on some farm porches, and let’s have some theater presentations on some farms, and on hillsides. That’s kind of what we’re trying to do.”
“Something I did years ago was tell a lie that turned into a cool project. The lie was that I had land available for the Wisconsin Vietnam Veterans' Memorial Project.
I got a call from one of the people involved, another old Marine. The guy said he's on the state Vietnam Veterans' Memorial Project Board, and they were looking at finding the site for the project. And I said, ‘Well, maybe I have a site.’
That was on a Wednesday, and two days later, I got a call from the site selection committee chairman who said, ‘I understand you have a site.’ And I said, ‘…yeah.’ And he said, ‘Well, remember, the proposals have to be in next Friday. One week.’
I said to myself, ‘You fool.’ You know, these people had been working on sites for a long time. What could be done in a week? But I still made some calls, just for fun. Two days later we're having an emergency meeting of the Greenwood Area Economic Development Corporation. We stood in a bank in Greenwood with a map of Clark County and started going down highways, saying, ‘What might be a viable site for something like this?’ We ended up with three sites.
Then the site selection committee did their tour of the sites around Wisconsin via helicopter, and they didn't go to ours. So I called the guy, and I said, ‘What's the deal?’ He said, ‘Tell you what. The site selection meeting is in a few days. I'll meet you and go to your sites.’ And he did. He kept his word. When he got to the site by Neillsville, on a ridge, he said, ‘This is it. This is the high ground. I feel it in the air. This is a place of safety.’ And the site was selected. It's now The Highground Veterans Memorial Park, which is a nationally renowned place.
I knew a writer named Howard, a combat medic in Vietnam. Howard was involved with what became The Highground, so we got together and did several different writing programs together. Then Howard developed a brain tumor. So in part to honor him, through the Heartbeat Center we put together the Midwest Veterans Expressing Themselves project. A witty acronym: VETs. We've done that for several years, with exhibitions right down the road at the high school, and we’ve taken the show on the road a little bit. I do regular veterans' retreat programs through The Highground, through county veterans' programs, district veterans' programs.
I had one of those moments of great awakening at one of the sessions a couple of years ago. Whatever kind of veteran you are, the very first thing they do at 17, 18, 19 years old is take away your identity. I get it, that you have to be molded mentally into a different kind of being. But it's at such an age where you're searching to know who you are and what you're about, and then it's snatched away from you and you're given a new identity.
I think some veterans are always searching for their other identity. What am I? Who am I?
Some say, ‘The military is who I am. Every moment of my life, that's who I am, forever.’ And then some—and I put myself in this category—say, ‘Yes, that's a huge part of my identity, but I'm going to continue expanding and growing in who I am.’ So when it comes to writing and the arts, I think the important part of that expression is searching for, or finding, your identity.
The last thing I want any of this to do is to set off triggers. I mean, there are things that you can’t unload, and that's not what we're asking anybody to do. Some of the things we do with the VETs program aren’t about military things. It can be about the grass being green. We want you, through words and vision and creativity, to express yourself and know that it’s okay to express yourself, and we'll help you figure out ways to do that. That's why VETs is important. That's why creating and expressing yourself as veterans is important.
The way I express myself best is through my written words. These days I write a lot about the land. I’ve always hungered for a connection to the land. I know it’s helped me understand more about myself, and I strive to help other people find their connection with the soil and the land. We are the soil. We came from it and we’re going back to it, and I think it’s good to understand that along the way. And to treat that soil with great respect.”
-Scott Schultz | Osseo, WI