Jefferson City News-Tribune – December 26, 1999
By Jon Detrixhe
Maudie “Mae” Wiseman Bartel Schaffer was a professional wrestler in the 1920s and ’30s.
She billed herself as “Mae Stein, the Jewess from Cleveland,” but to Geraldean Mae McMillin, Jefferson City, she will always be “Gram.”
McMillin’s new book, “Wrestling with Life: The Wisdom and Wit of a Woman Wrestler … A Granddaughter Remembers” is a family history that includes many of Schaffer’s adventures.
“I was an adult when I first heard Gram tell stories about her years as a professional wrestler,” McMillin writes. “When I asked her how she came to get the title of ‘Women’s Middleweight Champion of the World,’ she laughed heartily and explained that it was really very easy.”
Of course, it wasn’t easy, and McMillin’s book examines just how tough it must have been for a woman to establish herself as a wrestler 80 years ago — especially when she was only 5-foot-3 and 150 pounds.
“She was courageous,” McMillin said. “But I don’t know if she would have described herself that way. I see her independence as courage. It took courage to leave her abusive relationship with my grandfather. Then when she remarried, she not only married a wrestler, he was Jewish.”
In 1922, Mae Wiseman married a professional wrestler named Lou Bartel, whom McMillin fondly remembers as “Papa Lou.”
“Despite his size and bulk, he was gentle and sweet,” McMillin said. “I can remember how he just adored me, as I did him. When we were together, we were inseparable.”
The Bartels took their wrestling act on the road with a carnival. It was not an easy life, but through it all, they never lost their ability to laugh at life’s travails.
“I remember their sense of humor,” McMillin said. “Whenever they told stories, it was hilarious. I never heard them talk about the difficult times, the times when they were injured or tired of traveling. To them, it was a great adventure. They never gave me any indication that they were concerned about what society thought of them. And it never occurred to me. It was only as I grew up that I came to understand exactly how courageous my grandmother was.”
Though her book covers more than 100 years of family history, McMillin is modest about her research efforts.
“I didn’t do much research in the true sense of the word,” she said. “It’s more like family stories. The only real outside source that I have is a scrapbook that I found in a trunk in the basement.”
McMillin, 68, has lived in Missouri since age 1. She graduated from high school in Eugene and married her high school sweetheart, Bob McMillin. When he died in 1956, she raised her three children, then got her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from Lincoln University. She taught at Jefferson City High School from 1971 to 1991.
Happy as a teacher, McMillin never felt the call of the wrestling ring.
“No!” she said. “In fact, when I was in high school, I did everything I could to get out of physical education. I’d rather sit down and write or read. I work out three days a week at the gym, but only because I enjoy adventure travel. I can’t do that if I don’t stay in physical condition.”
Like her grandmother, McMillin has a wild side. She has traveled to every continent and more countries than she can name. She’s been on safari in Africa, taken a trans-Siberian railroad trip and counted freshwater dolphins on the Amazon.
“I’ve been to Antarctica and stood in the midst of tens of thousands of penguins which is kind of like standing at the bottom of a huge bird cage. This year, I used my travel budget to publish the book, but in November of last year, I went to Timbuktu in Mali, West Africa. I spent a week there and loved it.”
On a trip to Luxor, Egypt, she arrived only three hours after terrorists killed a group of Swiss tourists.
“My kids were a little bit concerned,” she said.