Southern California native Michael Shaffer tours the country to educate and entertain children, but friends would not be able to recognize him on the job.
At the Mississippi Valley Fair, Shaffer tours the fairgrounds on a pair of stilts disguised as a 9.5-foot-tall tree, an environmentally friendly character he refers to as the “Tree of Life.”
“When the kids have to ask if you’re real, you know you’ve made it,” Shaffer said. “This is what I do for a living.”
He aims to educate children and adults about the importance of protecting trees in the environment.
“We teach children about photosynthesis, but there’s still a gap in education about the importance of trees,” he said. “Some of us in society have lost track of that.”
Shaffer emphasizes that trees produce oxygen, food, medicine, housing and fuel.
Minutes after he stepped onto his stilts Thursday, families rushed to the giant tree-man.
“That tree talks,” said Masyn Schillig, 4, after posing for a picture with Shaffer. “That’s funny.”
As 12-year-old S.J. Madden of Eldridge approached the walking tree, Shaffer asked him: “Do you know why trees are important?”
S.J. responded: “They give us oxygen.”
Shaffer called the pre-teen his favorite.
Fair director Bob Fox said his dog thought Shaffer was an actual tree last year and tried to urinate on him.
“You think he’s just an old tree that needs to be chopped down,” he added.
Before Shaffer walked the grounds, Todd Lagessie — another man on stilts — disguised as “Skinny Jimmy,” a 9-foot-tall magician, measured himself next to the big tree.
“We share the same perspective,” Lagessie said.
“There’s a camaraderie among us stilt walkers because we’re so far above everyone else,” Shaffer said.
Kay Sindt of Buffalo said she looks forward to seeing the men on stilts every year at the fair.
“I love them,” she said. “I hope they keep them coming.”
Fox confirmed that that they would remain a fair staple.
“Guys like that are just irreplaceable,” he said. “They’ll be here as long as I’m here.”