FARGO - When the Christian Brothers religious order came to teach at Shanley High School in 1964, Sandy Thiel found not only a new wardrobe - school uniforms marked by pleated skirts and "knee highs" - but also a calling.

"That first year, we did 'The Unsinkable Molly Brown,'" she says of the school's inaugural musical in 1967, her junior year.

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At Brother Andrew's encouragement, Thiel says, she helped with props, and something stuck.

Later, while at Jamestown College studying German, Thiel returned seasonally to help with Shanley's spring musical, eventually relocating permanently here to work as an accountant.

But theater had captured her, and for almost all 51 years of Shanley musicals, Thiel has been there, costuming the students, designing sets and helping complete a vision.

"How I remember when people graduated is by recalling what musical they were in," Thiel says.

Sandy Thiel, Patrick Kasper and student stage manager Skylar Allex watch dress rehearsal. Heidi Huus
Sandy Thiel, Patrick Kasper and student stage manager Skylar Allex watch dress rehearsal. Heidi Huus

Eventually, volunteer work became paid, and evolved into assisting with costuming for public school productions as well.

Patrick Kasper, a Shanley graduate, knew Thiel first as a family friend, then a high school theater mentor, and now, a colleague.

"Sandy's been a mother to like 5,000 kids in the past 40 years," Kasper says, noting that only her hair length has changed.

"I've always respected Sandy. She's very committed to what she does," he says, adding that she's also brutally honest; a trait he appreciates. "I like the interactions with her, intellectually and personally as well."

But it's her relationship with the students and school, he says, that make her "a constant," the heart of the theater department.

Gwen Stark came to know Thiel through working together on productions at South High School.

"She remembers everything (from the shows), including who wore the blue dress in 1985," Stark says. "Everybody who came her way all these years has meant something to her. It's a mission for her, I think."

When the budget ran thin, Stark says, Thiel helped fill gaps with costume pieces from her own collection.

Sandy Thiel, production manager, in the Shanley gym after opening night with Patrick Kasper, choreographer/director. Heidi Huus
Sandy Thiel, production manager, in the Shanley gym after opening night with Patrick Kasper, choreographer/director. Heidi Huus

She admires how Thiel "embodies her faith" in all she does, from helping answer school phones, to selling tickets at athletic events. "She is always completely involved, helping wherever she can."

Thiel attributes her dedication and work ethic to the Presentation sisters from her earliest years.

"Even in first and second grade the nuns were so impactful to me about the life they were living," she says. "They worked so hard, and for little to no pay...all to impart the faith to others."

Thiel brings that now into her day job at the Dakota Boys Ranch Thrift Store, where she works as a manager.

"The Boys Ranch has a mission to help children and their families in the name of Christ. I kind of fell into it," she says, noting that she enjoys mingling with customers and employees there from all walks of life.

"You hear so many stories from immigrants, and other customers; it's a good feeling to be able to help them out," she says. "You can't do everything you want to do but I feel like I'm doing something."

In 2012, Thiel was bestowed the prestigious Shanley Deacon Award for her tireless commitment in various areas; an honor her father, Adam, also earned years earlier.

Explaining her motivation, she produces a folded paper bearing a quote from Mother Teresa: "We can do no great things, only small things with great love."

"She's that totally honest person with a squishy, soft heart and sentiment," Stark says. "'Oh, good and faithful servant;' that's what I think of when I think of Sandy.'"

Roxane B. Salonen is a freelance writer who lives in Fargo with her husband and five children. If you have a story of faith to share with her, email roxanebsalonen@gmail.com.