As a youngster growing up in the small northern Wisconsin town of Medford, Jim Schaff never took a class trip to the state Capitol as so many students now do as part of their elementary school experience. In fact, the retired business executive hardly remembers his first time inside the building he now knows so well.

"Maybe it was sometime in my twenties?" he guesses.

A lot has changed in the decades since then. These days, Schaff arguably knows more about the Capitol than most of the other 900 to 1,000 people who work there with him.

As the Capitol tour guide with the most seniority -- both in age and in terms of years on the job -- the 67-year-old Schaff seldom is stumped by a question. Roughly 90,000 people tour the state Capitol annually, and Schaff does his part to captivate each group. While legislators haggle over bills and the Supreme Court justices debate the law, Schaff and the other tour guides keep a whole separate enterprise running as they entertain and educate hundreds of school-age children and visitors from around the world on the finer points of democracy, Wisconsin style.

That means there's lots of talk of badgers (as the robust critters pop up in many spots around the building), a little chatter about cheese and the repeated emphasis that the Capitol is a place for the people. That's why each tour starts with the words, "Welcome to your state Capitol."

"People always are amazed at how open we are here," Schaff says. "They can't believe anyone can just walk right in and look around ... no security (checks) or anything."

Schaff's open, friendly nature and genuine love of history struck a chord with Gerilyn Schneider, head of the 12-member tour guide staff, when Schaff first walked into the Capitol 10 years ago inquiring about a job. He often toured state capitols when he took business trips over the years while working for Wick Building Systems and then Marshall Erdman & Associates before retiring in 1999. Since talking in front of people was never a problem, he figured a Capitol tour guide job would be a perfect fit. Schneider agreed. When she hired Schaff, he was her first "senior" hire, she says. Before him, most of the tour guides were college students.

"It's a neat place to go to work," Schaff says. "There's always something happening here."

December is no exception. It is one of the busiest times of year, second only in the number of tours to springtime. Fourth-graders are perhaps the most frequent visitors, as that's the year when they learn about state government under Wisconsin curriculum standards. Teachers often need to call a year in advance to book a tour if they want classroom lessons to coincide with a trip to Madison.

In December, the Capitol tree and holiday-oriented activities in the city are powerful draws. On a recent December morning, 18 tours had been pre-scheduled for the day. By 9 a.m., Schaff knew he would be giving at least three of them.

His first was slated for 10 a.m.

Keeping with the theme that the Capitol is a building for all people, Schaff -- dressed in a crisp white shirt, a green vest and a plaid tie -- steps in front of the class of first-graders from the School District of Juda and welcomes them to Madison. He then says: "Feel free to ask whatever questions you'd like. We have no secrets in the Capitol." While some older members of the tour may suspect otherwise, the first-graders voice approval as if some sort of secret code has just been cracked.

Long past the days of needing notes to remember his lines, Schaff begins the tour with nothing more than a scrap of paper outlining the sequence of his tour stops to avoid running into other tours and government meetings under way.

Each tour is unique, he is fond of saying. This group is no different. To keep the students' attention, he brings the stories down to their level.

Standing in the rotunda with the 35-foot tall balsam fir as a backdrop, he instructs the children to look up. By volume, the dome above them is the fourth largest in the world, he says.

"You can put more ice cream in our dome than you can in the dome in Washington, D.C.," Schaff says.

The first graders jump and clap. His analogy is a hit.

"I'm a storyteller," Schaff says. "They can understand stories much better than they can remember a lot of facts."

Then, as if suddenly remembering Schaff's "no secrets" statement, the children start to pepper him with questions.

How many doors in the Capitol? What's that animal? How many rooms are there? How many stairs?

His answers come just as quickly. There are 700 doors. That animal is a badger. There are 700 rooms and about 1,540 steps, he says. One boy asks how many pop machines there are. After 10 years on the job and having given more than 5,000 tours, it is one answer Schaff doesn't know.

He quickly brings the first-graders back around to more serious topics by telling them the next stop is the oldest fossil in the building. Since fossils and government aren't topics that typically go hand in hand, curiosity keeps the children rather quiet, given their age, as Schaff leads them to the fourth step of the left-side staircase heading up to the second-floor hearing room.

When he gets to the step, he stops and points down. As instructed, each child walks by slowly to look at the starfish fossilized in the marble step.

"Cool," they say as they take turns looking at the palm-sided relic.

"He's a great storyteller," says Holly Miller, the first-grade teacher from Juda, which is just east of Monroe. "They are a little young to understand all the history, but they'll remember the stories he told them."

Outside the governor's office, Schaff stops to talk about a rather large bronze badger, its nose a golden color compared to the rest of its body. The Capitol has badgers, of course, because Wisconsin is the Badger State. The title comes from the nickname given to the miners who dug for lead in what is now the southwestern part of the state in the 19th century. Schaff tells the group that this badger, however, sailed the world on the first USS Wisconsin battleship in the early 1900s. Now, it sits in the Capitol. Its nose is golden from people rubbing it over the years for good luck.

In the Supreme Court chambers, the students giggle at the fact that the seven justices use poker-like chips to decide who has to write their majority opinions. A big difference, though, is these chips have a smiley face on one side, and a number, one through seven, on the other. From the judiciary branch, the students head to the legislative side of things. In the Assembly chamber, they scamper into the cushy leather chairs on Schaff's request, pushing buttons as if casting votes.

They quiet down as Schaff tells the story of how the Capitol they are visiting is actually the state's third. He talks about the cold winter night in 1904 when the second Capitol burned to the ground. Firefighters were unable to stop the blaze because Lake Monona was too frozen to chip through to get to the water below. He tells the group how college students were roused from sleep to help carry important paperwork from the burning building. Seventeen hours after the blaze began, the Capitol was gone.

In 1906, Schaff continues, construction began on today's Capitol. It was completed 11 years and $7.2 million later. In 1915, two years before it was done, the first guided tours began. They have always been free. So far this year, Schaff and his co-workers have given 3,186 of them.

Between tours, Schaff and the other guides function like human GPS devices. On a recent day, Schaff effortlessly points two guys in bulky winter coats and flannel shirts to a meeting on the recent deer hunt, while a woman is given directions to West Washington Avenue. Schaff even takes time to point a seasoned local television reporter in search of the Assembly chief clerk's office in the right direction.

Taking care of the public is as much a part of the job as taking care of those on the tours, Schaff says. It's a part-time job he can't imagine not doing. While some might think it would get old after a while, it doesn't, he says.

"I have no desire to leave," he says. "I am as happy as a cucumber to be doing this and living in Wisconsin."

 

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