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Editor's column: Letting the light shine in

September 15, 2012
By Per Peterson , Marshall Independent

Craig Schafer didn't go looking for the spotlight. It found him.

And at times, it's been blinding - staring-into-the-sun, my-eyes-are-watering blinding.

Schafer is the man mostly responsible for bringing a piece of what was left of the World Trade Center after the 2001 attacks to Marshall. He drove it here himself from Staten Island in 2002 to put some meaningful closure to an emotional trip.

After resting at the fire hall in Marshall for a number of years, the rusted beam now serves as the centerpiece of Marshall's Downtown Memorial Park, far and away the most important park in southern Minnesota.

It was Schafer, a former firefighter and First Responder in McCleod County, along with Marshall Fire Chief Marc Klaith, who formulated and followed through with the plan to bring the steel beam here, some 2,000 miles away from Ground Zero.

And it's Schafer, a humble, hard-working employee of the state, who turns into a media darling at this time of the year.

This past week, Schafer, along with Marshall Mayor Bob "Don't call me Birens" Byrnes did an interview on a WCCO-Radio morning show ('CCO totally butchered the mayor's last name), and on Tuesday he was photographed from the front and the back on the front and back covers of the StarTribune.

Honey Boo Boo got less attention than Schafer did last week.

The attention, he said, is nice, but not because he likes the exposure.

He says it humbles him and makes him proud, but "a little embarrassed, too, because the story isn't and shouldn't be about me," he said. "To me, the story is about the people on Flight 93 who didn't get on that plane to do anything but personal things, but because of unforeseen circumstances went above and beyond when they were forced to do things I guess we would all pray to have the stomach to do if posed with the same set of circumstances. I think about those people at this time of the year, I think about those firefighters, the rescue personnel"

Schafer, like any current or former firefighter, sees 9/11 and its anniversaries through a different lens than most of us do. Regular civilians see a sad tragedy, a horrible day in American history. Firefighters and those in the life saving business see the same thing, but for them, it goes deeper than that.

"It's hard for me to watch replays of the events of 9/11," Schafer said. "The photos those people took while going down those stairs of firefighters going up - the cameras virtually looked into their souls."

Schafer and the park were under the media spotlight in a big way last year when the park opened on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. It didn't necessarily take him by surprise, but it got to be so much that he admits to have started to resent the attention.

"It was kind of hard to handle," he said. "I was kind of getting depressed about it to be honest."

Schafer, who works in emergency training with the Pollution Control Agency, put up with it though, because he was well aware he would be looked at as a spokesman of sorts for the park and the beam. But he has always maintained that this isn't about him or his actions, a position he takes each time he tells his story. Still, he doesn't mind doing it. Just Tuesday night, he found himself telling it again when he stopped by the park.

"Seems like a thousand" times I've told it, he said. "But I didn't do anything. I didn't do anything. I look at the work those rescue people did, the volunteer firefighters and rescue people who rushed to the field in Shanksville and the hopeless despair they had to feel when they saw what was left of a commercial airline that was full of people. I can't imagine what that felt like. I get a lot out of telling the story and the whole experience. We go through life hoping somewhere we leave a positive mark before we leave, and we really hit a home run with this one. I get a lot out of it, probably more than I deserve."

Schafer is proud of the park, and he loves going there to watch when the lights come on at night. He said the city of Marshall should also be proud to be the home of a piece of history and that he respects and appreciates all those who donated their time and money toward the park project.

"I know some people think maybe it's a little eccentric, and there are some who are still resentful of the dollar investment the community made, but I can't think of a better place to pay tribute," he said. "A lot of people stepped up to make that park happen."

Present company included.

And if you want to hear the story about how the beam found its way to Marshall, just look for the glare of a spotlight - not the one that shines on the beam every night, the one that always seems to find Schafer in September. He'll be glad to share it with you.



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