Bully! for Medora

Randy Hatzenbuhler, ’85, has spent more than three decades guiding the direction of North Dakota’s biggest tourist attraction

Photo of Randy Hatzenbuhler courtesy of UND Alumni Association & Foundation.

“You’re going to die in Medora.”

That was Randy Hatzenbuhler’s wife’s blunt assessment after he gave a third three-year commitment to continue working for the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation (TRMF). The nonprofit organization runs the Medora Musical and dozens of other business enterprises in the gateway to Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota.

Now, after nearly 34 years with the organization, Randy, ’85, admits with a chuckle that she may have been right.

“I knew at that point (after six years with the organization) that I loved it,” said Randy. “It’s more work than people might understand, but it never felt like work. Hours didn’t matter. You are in a place where people are having fun. They love being here and you’re getting to help take care of them.”

Randy started with the foundation in 1988, two years after Gold Seal Company founder Harold Schafer created the organization. Schafer had been part of Medora since he revitalized the Rough Riders Hotel in the early 1960s. He would eventually purchase the Burning Hills Amphitheatre and debut the Medora Musical, which continues to draw more than 100,000 spectators each summer.

The foundation was established as a nonprofit to run the entertainment, retail and hospitality enterprises that had previously been a division of the Gold Seal Company. Under Randy’s leadership, there are about 60 full-time, year-round employees, 375 seasonal employees and 650 volunteers.

The foundation also seeks gifts to fund various philanthropic endeavors in Medora. Randy has helped secure nearly $60 million in giving to the Medora Foundation.

The sheer variety of responsibilities can lead to some interesting days. Randy says his son had a ready answer when he was growing up when anyone would ask what his dad did.

“He would kind of jokingly say, ‘On any given day, he may sell a $4 box of popcorn, or he may be visiting with someone about making a gift to the foundation.’ It’s not a bad answer because it is fun to connect with people who enjoy Medora, but I also have a primary responsibility of raising the gifts that have sustained and allow us to do more things in Medora.”

Photo of Randy Hatzenbuhler courtesy of UND Alumni Association & Foundation.

Go West, young man!

Randy says his arrival in Medora could not have been predicted. He had been working for an accounting firm in the four years since graduating from UND but had decided to pursue a new venture. Because he wanted to work with children, he had renovated his basement and was ready to open a daycare in his home. That’s when his boss asked him to take a meeting with someone from the newly formed Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation.

In that meeting, he hit it off with another legendary figure in the history of Medora, Rod Tjaden, who ran the Medora division at Gold Seal and was the first executive director of the Foundation. Rod made an offer on the back of a napkin and Randy was swayed.

“I went home and told my wife, ‘I think I’m going to go to work in Medora.’ And she looked at me like, ‘We live in Bismarck.’ But it was Rod Tjaden and there was something about him that was just immediately comfortable.”

Randy would eventually take over for Rod as the head of the TRMF and three decades later, he’s still in Medora.

Best Years

Randy says he and his wife, Laurie, have great memories of their time in Grand Forks. Randy worked for the railroad while Laurie earned a degree in Nursing. Then Randy joined the Accounting program.

“We like to say those were the best years of our life going to the University of North Dakota. Every single thing I can think about my college experience was great, even though it wasn’t traditional — I was already married and within that first year we had our daughter.”

Rendering of future Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library. Courtesy of JLG Architects.

Presidential Library

In addition to his duties with the TRMF, in 2019 Hatzenbuhler accepted a new challenge: helping to raise $100 million in private donations for the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation. That goal was recently met, which triggered a $50 million contribution from the state of North Dakota. Construction will begin soon on a site just outside the park that bears the 26th president’s name.

“This sounds corny, but you know, it can make your hair stand up. It’s so amazing that not just this little town of Medora, but the whole state of North Dakota, is going to be home to a presidential library. And not just any president, but Theodore Roosevelt!

“That doesn’t happen without six decades of the Schafer family, the Gold Seal company, the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation and all the wonderful private businesses creating a belief that there’s a way to make something as magnificent as a presidential library exist and thrive.”

Bully!

Theodore Roosevelt did not grow up in North Dakota, but he considered the time he spent in the state starting in 1883 as a 24-year-old as one of the foundational experiences of his life. Following the death of his wife and mother on the same day in 1884, he spent long stretches of time in the state pursuing a “strenuous life” to help him grieve and heal.

In the North Dakota Badlands, Roosevelt developed his conservationist ideals. As president, he created the United States Forest Service. About 230 million acres of public land were protected by his actions.

Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park was established in 1947 (In 1978, the 70,448 acres were designated as a national park). Medora, which had started as a cattle shipping settlement in 1883, became the front door to the park. But it wasn’t until Harold Schafer took an interest in the town that it found its true calling as one of the top tourism attractions in the state.

A great influence

Randy speaks in a reverent tone when talking about Harold Schafer. He says there isn’t a day that goes by that he doesn’t think or talk about the legendary businessman.

“He had that kind of impact on me. You hear cliche phrases like you’d run through a brick wall, or you walk over broken glass. What’s interesting about Harold Schafer is if I felt that way, that’s not unique. So many people who were close to him had the same feeling. I think that’s what’s really special about what Harold did for the state. I only knew him for 13 years, but I feel like he’s one of the central people I’ve known in my life.”

Randy wants to write a book about his life experiences. He has 29 chapter titles, but over the past 11 years has written only five chapters. Finishing the book probably won’t happen “until retirement.” When that will be is not yet determined. Randy is having too much fun.

“I came here to work because I love young people. That’s the reason I came to work in Medora. And I still do feel young, I don’t feel like I’ve been here 34 years. So, you know, I still try to figure out how do I stay relevant in that conversation of the young people who work here.”