Mennonite dynamo tackles final mission

September 20, 1992|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Staff Writer

GRANTSVILLE -- If Alta Schrock were standing in a field and a voice said, "Build it and they will come," you could count on two things.

She wouldn't dither about, wondering what "it" was, or which "they" would come. She would instantly know the specifics of the mission at hand. Then she'd do it.

Since 1957, when she returned to her beloved Alleghenies after an academic career in the Midwest, this 81-year-old Mennonite has set up 15 non-profit organizations to celebrate the area's folkways and help its needy.

And she's still going, working on her 16th: Friedensheim, a retreat for those in need of spiritual, emotional and physical renewal. She envisions a renovated farmhouse, open to everyone from the simply stressed-out to terminally ill people interested in alternative therapies.

"We call her the entrepreneur extraordinaire in Mennonite circles," said Jack Dueck, a consulting administrator at one of Dr. Schrock's best-known projects, Penn Alps, outside this Garrett County town. "She's immensely entrepreneurial, and her projects are successful, yet she has never taken any money for herself."

Dr. Schrock gives all the credit to God, who she says provided the inspiration for each project. When God tells her to do something, she says, he provides detailed instructions, down to the kind of linens to buy.

"You have to understand, she believes everything is part of God's plan," said Mark Lancaster, an organizer for the Maryland Food Committee who first met Dr. Schrock in her biology class at Frostburg State University.

Then there's the story of the Amish minister who told his congregation: "Dr. Schrock is coming to visit us today. Let us pray that she's for real."

She definitely is for real, a dynamo with an upswept hairstyle, cat's-eye glasses and posture unchanged by time or fashion. A few people may have found her bossy, but Dr. Schrock prefers to think of herself as a "fire builder."

"My mind never stops working," she said.

Over the years, she has developed a sure-fire method for starting each non-profit organization. She assembles a board, then raises money through donations. If she can't get money out of someone, she asks for in-kind donations or hard labor.

She also knows when to let go. Casselwood Corp., a furniture company she started to provide jobs and training for people in the Grantsville area, was sold to a private owner last year when it could no longer support itself.

But most of her projects have been successful. Penn Alps, a restaurant and collection of restored log cabins that serve as a showcase for area craftsmen, earns $1 million annually.

Her other projects -- Dr. Schrock often calls them ministries -- include the annual Spring Folk Festival; the Council of the Alleghenies, a tri-state organization for the preservation of the region's traditions; and the Highland Association, an outreach program that offered the area's first Head Start program.

Her two-page resume also notes two historical journals, one about the Casselman Valley and the other on the tri-state area of Maryland, West Virginia and Pennsylvania; the Spruce Forest Artisan Village; and the Anabaptist Peace Center, a small library of "peace literature" inspired by her Mennonite beliefs.

Friedensheim ("House of Peace") first occurred to her in the 1940s, when she was dean of women at Bluffton College in Ohio. But she needed to try other things before she was ready to tackle this project.

But why must it be her last vision?

"Because I'm 81," Dr. Schrock replied in a tone that suggests the question is simple-minded. Then she softened. "And because it's the culmination of my life's work. In the past, I was trying to preserve history and folklore. This touches everything. It's definitely grown over the years."

Dr. Schrock is old, according to the calendar. Yet she works out on a trampoline -- "I do the gentle bounce" -- every day. She needs just six hours of sleep each night. And she is the only person she knows of 80-plus years not on a medication regimen.

So it is difficult to imagine that Dr. Schrock, who says she never married because she didn't have time, would take advantage of the retreat she wants to build for others. She finds time for her spiritual needs in her daily routine, sometimes praying while on the trampoline.

"She would rather waste a dollar than a minute," one journalist wrote almost 30 years ago. Dr. Schrock isn't too crazy about wasting dollars, either. She believes in sales and shopping at the local dime store.

Perhaps it is her thrift that has given rise to the rumor that she is a wealthy eccentric who could bankroll any project she envisions. Certainly, she knows that many people harbor the misconception that she owns Penn Alps and makes a huge profit from her enterprises.

Mr. Dueck, who began setting up archives for Penn Alps seven years ago, remembers hearing the constant whispers about her wealth. Finally, in the name of history, he felt he had to ask her exactly how much money she had.

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