Before Jeanne Schieffer had even reached college, she knew what it was like to win a Grammy, Emmy, Oscar (and so many other awards). At least she imagined what it would be like.
Growing up in South Dakota, a young and imaginative Schieffer often transformed her family’s bathroom into a fancy celebrity venue. During her play in there, she would wrap a beach towel around herself, grab the old bottle of Suave shampoo that was handy and make it whatever award she was accepting that night from singer/songwriter/actor Kenny Rogers.
“For some reason, I had it in my head that Kenny Rogers would hand me the award,” Schieffer recalled, laughing. “But I would sit on the bathroom stool until he announced the winner, stand up, turn around and look at the vanity to give my acceptance speech … I was a dork.”
Schieffer has always prided herself on being “the creative one” in her family, as she dreamed as a child of becoming a famous singer, actress or playwright who would fly back to her hometown wearing silk scarves around her neck and being greeted by adoring fans.
Of course, life didn’t play out that way. Fast forward years later, Schieffer isn’t a celebrity living in New York City – she’s actually much more than that. Schieffer is a strong and independent woman, a wife, mom of two and an accomplished businesswoman now serving as the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce’s president. But she still gets to flex her creative muscle by helping Columbus, a place she’s called home for nearly 30 years, grow and prosper.
“Jeanne puts her heart into everything she does,” said longtime friend and mentor Valerie Eickholt, of Columbus. “What I admire most about her is her heart - her gift is her time and her heart. Nothing that she does is really about her; it’s really about how she can help better somebody else.”
Schieffer grew up the youngest of four (she has two sisters and a brother) alongside their mother and their father. Their father was a state patrol officer, so as a result of his career, they moved around quite a bit when they were growing up in South Dakota. She was born in Sioux Falls before they moved to Rapid City then to Belle Fourche and then to Clark, followed by Pierre and eventually Vermillion.
“We moved about every four years,” Schieffer said. “That’s all I knew. I never had a ‘best friend,’ but I met a lot of people and learned to adjust.”
Schieffer’s imagination was a big help.
While living in Clark, she and one of her sisters took piano lessons from a neighbor. Schieffer admittedly didn’t exactly learn in the traditional sense, but rather figured out how to play certain songs by listening to her sister and watching her hands. She soon began writing her own songs.
She participated in choir and band growing up, writing poems, songs and stories whenever she was inspired. The imaginary trophies piled up over the years.
Still, her parents recognized how hard it was for her older siblings to move when they were in high school. Not wanting Schieffer to experience that, she and her mother stayed behind and lived together her junior year of high school when her dad was transferred to Vermillion. However, her mother soon got sick and was forced to be with her husband, resulting in her leaving and Schieffer living alone her senior year of high school. It was more difficult than she could have imagined.
“I had always been this independent person, but I was pretty lonely and sad. I hit a real low spot,” she said, admitting she even contemplated taking her own life at one point.
She had written a song about dying and bought a huge bottle of aspirin in preparation. She recorded the song as she wrote it, playing it back time and again, envisioning what it would sound like to others when they heard it. At one point, though, she heard a voice whisper in her ear.
“That voice told me it didn’t sound good on cassette. I needed to sing the song in person. And I needed to stay alive to do that,” she said.
“I ended up talking myself out of it. I put the bottle of aspirin away, went to bed and started fresh the next day. It was all good.”
After that, she moved forward with her life and decided to pursue her creative passions by attending the University of South Dakota in Vermillion.
CHANGE OF PLANS
During her last year of college and after years of dreaming about writing off-Broadway plays and living in the Big Apple, Schieffer started to have doubts about becoming a professional playwright.
“I chickened out,” said Schieffer, who was going to double major in English and theater/playwriting. “'What am I going to do in New York City by myself? I don’t know anybody.’”
So she went to her father for advice and was told she should get her teaching certificate as a back-up plan. Things worked out well, as on her graduation day (before she went back to get her teaching certificate), she met a classmate. That man, Tim, who was a fine arts major, became her boyfriend and eventually her husband.
FINDING HER WAY
After getting her certificate, Schieffer landed a teaching job in Norfolk in 1987 while Tim had a sign business in Columbus. She and Tim got got married on June 2, 1990, so she relocated to town and got a job teaching English at Scotus Central Catholic High School.
She enjoyed teaching at Scotus from 1990-1993, but took a year off to raise her two young children. Jeanne and Tim welcomed two daughters during her short teaching hiatus, Emily and Abbey.
“That was a great time,” she said of having two little ones around the same age.
Emily is now 26, a nurse in North Platte and married to Tyler Maxwell. Abbey, 25, lives in Washington D.C., and works for Congressman Don Bacon in government communications.
After a year away, Schieffer got back into teaching in Genoa. She did that for a year before an opportunity presented itself at Columbus-based Nebraska Public Power District, the largest electric utility in the state of Nebraska, serving all or parts of 93 counties. It proved to be a wise decision, as Schieffer had a fruitful 23-year career there. She served in many roles at NPPD throughout the years, moving her way up the ladder to corporate communications and public relations manager.
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The decades she spent at NPPD were extremely rewarding, she noted.
“At NPPD, we kind of laughed because electricity isn’t the most exciting topic – but it’s so essential,” Schieffer said. “It’s taken for granted. The people there (at NPPD) truly care about this state.”
While at NPPD, Schieffer worked for and became friends with Eickholt’s husband, Ike. They soon all became pals.
“Whether it was working at NPPD or it’s a volunteer group she’s helping with, or a church … she goes all in on anything that she does,” Eickholt said. “That’s her DNA – it’s who she is.”
About a year ago, Schieffer found herself at a crossroads. She loved what she was doing professionally, but didn’t feel completely fulfilled.
“I have over the years wondered, ‘what’s the last job I want on my resume?’ Or, ‘what’s the next thing on my resume?’ I had a great career at NPPD – they’re great people," she said. "It’s a wonderful company to work for, but in my heart, I wanted to still grow personally. I just wanted to do something more.”
Taking over as the local chamber’s president earlier this year was an honor, but in many ways, a chance to come full circle. In it, she gets to use her skills in communications and marketing, as well as her lifelong desire to learn and be creative.
“I think you’re always an adult learner. I love the idea of helping businesses grow and market themselves,” she said.
In her new role, Schieffer constantly wants to help promote local business and the community as a whole, while educating herself on the chamber’s 20-plus committees and events and understanding the importance of agriculture and business to the area.
“There’s so much to learn and represent, and that’s exciting, but it’s also a privilege,” she said. “It’s definitely rewarding in the sense I’m learning something every day, and there has been such an amazing welcome from everybody.”
Eickholt said serving as chamber president suits Schieffer well.
“She’s very focused on other people – she works hard to make the community the best it can be,” she said. “She’s just a great person.”
Fellow longtime friend/ Central Community College-Columbus Campus President Kathy Fuchser called Schieffer a special person.
"Jeanne is a listener, offering encouragement and thoughtful perspective while seeking to understand,” she said. “And she has a great sense of humor! Jeanne is a very giving person, committed to her family and friends, church and the work of the Columbus Chamber and its future. She is a futuristic thinker, exploring partnerships and opportunities for Columbus.”
When Schieffer gets a little time to take a breather, she hardly stays put. She and her husband enjoy golfing together when they can.
She also remains an avid writer. Schieffer will write an occasional poem on her phone when she is hit with inspiration and once went to a screenwriters’ camp in Superior for two weeks, and completed a screenplay in just a couple of months. She has aspirations to write a movie script based on the life of late musician Stevie Ray Vaughan, considered one of the greatest guitar players of all time. Additionally, she has a novel she wrote while teaching at Scotus back in the 1990s that she would like to adapt into a screenplay.
“There are projects I would always like to get to,” she said, with a big smile.
Her priorities, though, are to local businesses and the community as a whole. Columbus is home and a place she hopes to make proud.
Her faith is a driving force– she attends St. Bonaventure. That faith has been an instrumental factor in her life, having helped guide her through the best and worst times.
Many years after she thought about ending her life, Schieffer said she spoke with her mother about that “low time” during her senior year. Her mother told her she knew her daughter was struggling at that time and that she prayed for her daily.
“That voice that told me it didn’t sound good on cassette – I think that she (her mother) sent an angel and that was that angel in my ear,” Schieffer said.
Schieffer kept at her craft, writing more songs, and ended up singing at her high school graduation. She’s happy and thankful for what she has experienced.
“All is good. I think that time in high school was an experience I needed to go through,” she said, noting that rough times in her life have helped her connect with folks battling similar situations. “I think everybody goes through really tough times - that made me a stronger person.
“What I’ve learned is that everybody has a purpose. God has plans for you. I do think I am here for a reason, and I’m hoping I can do good for the community, for the staff and the business members.”
Matt Lindberg is the managing editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.