In the days leading up to Christmas, I want to share with readers some instances of selfless giving. Sherry Herschend and her husband, Jack, co-owners with Jack’s brother Peter and his wife, JoDee, of Herschend Entertainment, Inc., are examples of giving back—not only in the spirit of Christmas, but throughout the years.
Sherry grew up poor in the Missouri Ozarks; at least, poor in material wealth. Born Sharon Nickel to Fannabelle Ford Nickel, who started working for the owners of Marvel Cave when she was a teenager, Sherry remembers her mother as a guide in the show cave. The cave on Roark Mountain was an integral part of her childhood. Before Sherry reached teenage years, she was dancing like a dare devil on the handrail high above Marvel Cave’s gaping entrance. She never dreamed she would catch the eye of Jack Herschend, whose family from Chicago had leased the property from her mother’s first employers. Nor could she have imagined that she and Jack, along with Peter and their mother Mary, would one day launch Silver Dollar City, an 1890’s themed park on the wooded hillside above Marvel Cave.
Over five decades later, Sherry views her life in the Ozarks as a patchwork quilt. “The old, old patches are the times when my family barely scraped by,” she says. “Then days came when I could put on brighter patches. And now, I’m at a time in life when I can afford new fabric.”
The Herschends started with nothing beyond a hole in the ground, a dream, and a modest business loan from a bank in Branson, Missouri. “Married only a year at that time, we had no experience in the business world. Jack was home fresh from military service to help his mother run a tour cave,” Sherry says. “Dad Hugo Herschend had died before he could put into action any of his plans for operating Marvel Cave. Mom Herschend—a former librarian—knew nothing about running a tourist attraction. Peter, finishing college at the time, planned to start a career elsewhere.”
Trained as a nurse with experience in obstetrics, Sherry wholeheartedly jumped into the family’s do-it-yourself plan to rebuild the 19th century mining town of Marmaros into a family attraction. She worked in employee relations, sales, and the business office, making time in between to dress in pioneer costume and play mountain dulcimer to entertain the guests.
“Enthusiasm is God’s greatest gift to me, and I never take it for granted,” Sherry continues. “I come from high energy parents. My daddy would stay up all night working on his Christian publications business. If his plants didn’t get watered during the day, he’d be out at 2:00 a.m. dragging around his fertilizer bag and watering can. Energy is in my genes. Jack says he married a tornado!”
The brighter patches in Sherry’s quilt began as a student at School of the Ozarks, now known as College of the Ozarks, at Point Lookout, Missouri. “The Godly influence and examples of selfless giving modeled by presidents, Dr. and Mrs. Good and Dr. and Mrs. Clark, other teachers, and many anonymous donors to the school, put within my heart a desire and a burden to give back in time and dollars what I had received in my schooling,” she says.
Sherry says that her mother’s sharing of meager resources with others also shaped her passion for meeting the needs of other people. She recalls one early winter day, someone knocked at the door of their Ozarks cabin, soliciting food for a basket to give to the poor at Christmas. Although her family’s meals often consisted of game Fannabelle Nickels shot from atop her horse as she returned home from a day’s work at Marvel Cave, Sherry remembers her mother producing four cans of foodstuff.
At Christmas, another knock at their door announced a basket of the collected food left on their doorstep. Sherry says, “People often ask, ‘Wasn’t that humiliating?’ I always answer that it shows God providing for us. Like the widow’s mite in the Bible, my mother’s gift was returned tenfold.”
Sherry’s faith, energy, and enthusiasm has never wavered. While she continuously invests time and vitality into the youth of Branson, her own family is her greatest joy. With her three sons and eleven grandchildren, she shares exciting adventures such as river floating, spelunking, rappelling, horseback riding, house boating, and almost any water sport the youngsters can name. Whenever Silver Dollar City builds a new roller coaster, she is the City’s “test” rider.
“My mother always told me to live each day as though it might be my last on earth,” she says. “My mother lived that way. She never let work interfere with her hunting and fishing or planning something fun to do with family and friends!”
However, being the wife of a CEO of a large corporation—and juggling my various interests and commitments—kept me extremely involved in the details of daily life. Yet, I’ve never forgotten my mother’s words, or the generosity she had in sharing her measly means with others.
“God has prospered the Herschend family in building a successful family entertainment business,” she continues. “We strive to be good stewards with our resources. Jack and I believe we are blessed to be a blessing. My mother would agree!”
Traveling in their motorhome several months each year, Arline and her photographer husband, Lee Smith, make their permanent home in Heber Springs, Arkansas. She currently is a presenter for Workamper Rendezvous, sponsored by Workamper News. Arline has dozens of magazine articles published, as well as five books: “Road Work: The Ultimate RVing Adventure” (now available on Kindle); “Road Work II: The RVer’s Ultimate Income Resource Guide”; “Truly Zula; When Heads & Hearts Collide”; and “The Heart of Branson”, a history of the families who started the entertainment town and those who sustain it today. Visit Arline’s personal blog at ArlineChandler.Blogspot.com