Shawnee Mission Faces: Mary L. Schmidt, costumed dog runner and historical interpreter

Mary L. Schmidt may be retired from a lifelong career in education, but she’s still quite busy. From historical interpretations and education at local sites — Mahaffie historic site in Olathe, Deanna Rose Children’s Farmstead in Overland Park, and Arts & AGEing KC —  to creation of a new project to exhibit the history of Naomi Crouch, who donated land for an area library, to costuming for a theatrical production at Washburn University in Topeka, Schmidt keeps on her toes. Plus, she just started a new job this month as a job coach at Olathe Advanced Technical Center.

Schmidt has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in communication studies and education from South Dakota State University in Brookings. She taught for 30 years at several colleges and universities, most recently at St. Cloud State Technical and Community College. She met her husband of 19 years, Charlie Pautler, at a historic site in her home state of Minnesota. They married and eventually moved a few years ago to the Kansas City area, back to Pautler’s hometown roots. Pautler serves as director of the Shawnee Town 1929 museum. The couple lives in Overland Park with their cat, Tribble.

Schmidt also works for Prairie Pet Care in Roeland Park — serving mostly dogs but also cats, birds, etc. (but she will never do snakes). These days, she runs and walks dogs while wearing vintage outfits and costumes from her personal collection. On this particularly hot Thursday morning, she ran in a special yellow dress that has some local history behind it.

I didn’t always do this while I ran dogs. Once in a while, for the holidays, I might put on a funny hat.

Right around COVID, right around St. Patty’s Day, I did happen to don a jaunty little green top hat and such. And then, as I watched all my other jobs, gigs, get canceled or postponed, I thought the one constant I had was working for Prairie Pet Care. So I decided I might as well start wearing some of my vintage clothing and costumes for that. ‘Cause, why not?

I’m on week 21 or 22. I had a woman in the Leawood area ask me, boy you must have a big closet, how long are you going to do this? And I jokingly said I could probably do it for a year. But in seriousness, I probably could do it for a year, and now I’m trying to decide if I’ll try to. We’ll see.

Then, I started getting themes. They helped me figure out what I was going to wear for the day, looking at my closet, looking at partial costumes I have. I also volunteer at Scraps, so sometimes something at Scraps KC would inspire me.

This week (now last week) is my Salute to Summer dresses. The summer is not over, people. It isn’t. I started looking at my closet and I have just some adorable summer dresses that need to be seen.

Each of them had kind of a theme to them: I was the 1960s housewife in her new house in Overland Park. I was the farmers market lady wearing a feedsack dress. Today is my Kansas City theme. This is a Nelly Don.

Oh my goodness, an incredible woman, Nelly Don. People don’t realize, and I’ve just started realizing, the historic significance of the Garment District in the Kansas City area and a woman who created and built a business of clothing women.

She would create dresses that could be easily altered if you needed more or less space. You ask any woman of a certain age, especially around here, about Nelly Don.

I first heard about her when I was in Minnesota because our local PBS ran a little documentary on her. And I didn’t even realize I had a Nelly Don till I came down here and learned more about her and I thought, well, I need to look through my clothing that I get from rummage sales, garage sales, thrift stores… and I had a Nelly Don.

Fashion is cyclical. I’ve been alive enough — decades — to see things come and go. And there’s just something about a basic dress, a basic outfit. I remember once I had someone remark something about well, I just don’t have enough courage to wear vintage. I know it was meant as a compliment, but what’s the courage?

And I love telling that story because many times, we lose some of these stories of women, or we don’t think they’re significant, and we’re finally hearing some of these stories of women that were doing incredible things.

The work that women did decades ago needs to be honored because sometimes we think it was just frivolous or some of those unnecessary things like sewing and decorating and home care. 

The stories are in these women: And that’s Nelly Don. That’s Mary Brooks Picken. That’s Clementine Paddleford, Corinthian Nutter. Women that were doing things that, again, were seen as women’s work, but it is truly the art and science to so much of life.