How Classic Montana Literature Supports Benefis Foundation

"The harvest is done and the wheat stored away and you're through worrying about hail or drought or grasshoppers. The fields have a tired, peaceful look, the way I imagine a mother feels when she's had her baby and is just lying there thinking about it and feeling pleased."

–Mildred Walker, “Winter Wheat”


Every year as harvest comes in across northcentral Montana, we’re reminded of a unique gift to Benefis Foundation.

The royalties from the novel “Winter Wheat” (1944) and other works by noted author Mildred Walker Schemm go toward the Dr. George and Janet Schemm Endowment. The fund supports continuing education for care providers (nurses and technicians) who work in the Benefis Health System Surgery Department.

Dr. George Schemm, who was a celebrated neurosurgeon in Great Falls for nearly 20 years before retiring in Oregon, and his wife, Janet, established the endowment shortly before he died in 2014.

Along with giving gifts of stock, they directed to the foundation the royalties of the 13 novels written by Dr. Schemm’s mother. Mildred Walker Schemm’s best-known work is “Winter Wheat,” a novel about a woman coming of age on a northcentral Montana farm.

“George had talked about leaving money to Benefis – he was always a Montana boy,” Janet Schemm told the Foundation. “He always wanted to direct it to the surgical staff there, whom he said were top-notch; Sue Warren was one of his favorites. And he enjoyed working with neurosurgeon Dr. Dale Schaefer throughout Dr. Schaefer's training.”

Sue Warren, Senior Services Director of Nursing at Benefis, fondly recalls the “privilege, if not honor” of working with Dr. Schemm, whom she describes as a highly respected neurosurgeon who changed and saved lives.

“I was a young nurse in the ICU,” she said. “He not only was a physician but enjoyed teaching the nurses in the ICU, where most of his patients came after 10-12 hours of surgery. He was humble and passionate about his patient care and held nurses in high regard.”

winter wheat book

When he went to medical school, Dr. Schemm followed in the footsteps of his father, who was a cardiologist and surgeon. He met Janet, his wife of 47 years, while working as associate professor of Neurosurgery at the University of Oregon medical school. They moved to Philadelphia, where Dr. Schemm taught at the Medical College of Pennsylvania, and then settled in Great Falls, where they raised four daughters while he worked in private practice until 1990. After Dr. Schemm retired, they returned to Oregon and Janet said they went on to enjoy 22 years of memorable adventures.

“But we always had a foot there in Montana,” she said.

About a year before Dr. Schemm passed away, Janet said he became ill and they started talking about making the gift to Benefis and Great Falls. After talking with his other family members, they decided to direct the royalties of more than a dozen books written by their mother to Benefis Foundation. Mildred Walker’s books were first published by Harcourt, Brace & Co., but by the mid-1970s many were out of print. The University of Nebraska Press began reissuing the works in 1992, and a decade later “Winter Wheat” was chosen by the Montana Center for the Book as the “One Book Montana” subject for reading discussions throughout the state.

Because Benefis Foundation owns the royalties from Mildred Walker’s books, anyone who buys “Winter Wheat” or any of her other famed titles is indirectly supporting continuing education for the Benefis surgical staff.

“Dr. Schemm’s long hours with the surgical team at the former Montana Deaconess Medical Center has led to this incredible support of continuing education for surgical nurses and techs,” Warren said. “This is a tremendous gift which will last well into the future as a tribute to his transformation of neurosurgical care.”

“It’s just winter wheat to the people who raise it, only to me it means more than that. It means all the winter and all the cold and the tight feeling of the house in winter, but the rich secret feeling I have, too, of treasure in the ground, growing there for us, waiting for the cold to be over to push up strong and green.”

–Mildred Walker, “Winter Wheat”

Read for a cause...

When you buy any of Mildred Walker’s books, you are helping to provide continuing education for the surgical staff at Benefis Health System. Here is a list of titles to look for: “Fireweed” (1934), “Light from Arcturus” (1935), “Dr. Norton’s Wife” (1938), “The Brewers’ Big Horses” (1940), “Unless the Wind Turns” (1941), “Winter Wheat” (1944), “The Quarry” (1947), “Medical Meeting” (1949), “The Southwest Corner” (1951), “The Curlew’s Cry” (1955), “The Body of a Young Man” (1960), “If a Lion Could Talk” (1970), “The Orange Tree” (2006).