For Margie Fiedler, working at Lutheran camps has been a lifelong calling.
The 56-year-old South Dakota native first started working at Lutheran church camps when she was 14, doing volunteer maintenance and running the camp canteen.
Fiedler loved camping, and when her high school guidance counselor told her and her classmates they should figure out what they love and then figure out how to make money at it, she took the advice to heart. After graduating, she attended South Dakota State University, where she majored in public recreation with a minor in sociology.
While a senior, she attended a Lutheran camp directors' conference.
"At the time they said it would be impossible to have a woman in camping. They told me to go into Girl Scouts or Campfire," Fiedler said. "I was devastated. I went back to my campus minister at South Dakota State and told him the story, and he said ‘Prove them wrong.'"
Fiedler asked what he meant and he told her to become the first woman to be a Lutheran camp director.
That's exactly what she did. In fact, Fiedler initially became the first female Lutheran camp director with a job at Lutheran Memorial Camp near Columbus, Ohio, in 1977. Then she became the first woman to ever be a Lutheran camp executive director at Camp Lutherhaven in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.
After moving to an executive director position overseeing five Lutheran camps in Ohio, she spent 14 years in fundraising for the Lutheran church and as an associate to the bishop in Spokane. Last September, Fiedler moved to Kalispell, taking over for Gary Cockrell as director of the Flathead Lutheran Bible Camp.
"I love it," Fiedler said. "It's wonderful to follow someone who did such a good job and has built this camp up, and now it's a year-round program for people of all ages."
TO UNDERSTAND WHAT Fiedler is most known for, however, you have to go back to Feb. 7, 1976, to a men's basketball game at South Dakota State University's Frost Arena as the school's Jackrabbits took on their archrivals, the University of South Dakota Coyotes.
There was a habit at the time of the Coyotes fans bringing dead jackrabbits to throw onto the court, and of Jackrabbits fans doing the same with coyotes.
"They would sort of smuggle these in under their big coats because it was 20 below there all the time," Fiedler said.
During the game in question, Fiedler was on the cheerleading squad, supporting the Jackrabbits and hoping for a victory. It had been a very back-and-forth game, and during an especially intense part, she saw the first jackrabbits being thrown out on the other side of the court. Then she saw the first coyote fly past her to one side.
"Then, from way up in the stands, a 55-pound frozen coyote came flying down and hit me in the back of the head," Fiedler said. "I think I hit the floor before it did!"
She was carried out of the arena and taken to a hospital, where her very distraught mother tried to explain to nurses and doctors in the emergency room what happened.
"She told them ‘She was hit in the head with a frozen, dead, flying coyote!'" Fiedler said. "They thought she was crazy."
It turned out she had suffered a severe concussion. Doctors later told her it basically pushed her brain against the front of her head.
"My dad jokes that I've never been the same," Fiedler said.
Her plight made national news, and while she was in the hospital she received cards and flowers from different people, even NBA teams.
At the time, though, Fiedler wasn't lucid enough to appreciate the attention.
"I don't even remember what teams they were," Fiedler said. "I was so out of it, nurses would come in with flowers and say ‘Oh, you just got flowers from such-and-such team from out east!' and I would say ‘Uhhhhhhhh.'"
Fiedler is sad now that she didn't keep the cards she received, but she explained that while it makes a great story now, she was upset at the time. The injury meant that, at the age of 20, she couldn't go skiing while leading a ski trip to Bozeman and she couldn't participate in cheerleading for the rest of the year.
"Then, it was just a pain," she said.
THESE DAYS, Fiedler looks back on the incident with a humorous fondness, remembering things like the yearbook photo of her being carried out of the arena with her comment at the time that "Thank god we weren't playing the bisons!" It was even included in "The College on the Hill," an anecdotal history of South Dakota State University written by Amy Dunkle and V.J. Smith, in a chapter titled "Tossing Critters."
She still comes across people she has never met who bring it up without realizing that it was her. Some, including one man on a chairlift in northern Idaho who said South Dakota was "where cheerleaders get hit in the head with coyotes," don't believe her when she tells them she's the one they're talking about.
In addition to the random references to the incident, Fiedler has friends who don't let her live it down either. On her 50th birthday, the woman who was head cheerleader in 1976 sent her a stuffed coyote wearing a T-shirt with a circle and slash on it as well as a stuffed jackrabbit in a cheerleader outfit that said a South Dakota State University cheer if you pushed its paw.
For her part, Fiedler takes it all in stride.
"Once a Jackrabbit, always a Jackrabbit!" she said.
Reporter Jesse Davis may be reached at 758-4441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.