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Mitchell’s prom pair: Teachers mark 25 years of putting on the big dance

Mitchell High School's Lori Schmidt and Tom Berg have been organizing the school's prom for the past 25 years. This year's prom, with the theme of "Gold Gone Wild," begins at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Corn Palace. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Mitchell’s prom is a well-oiled machine, but not without 25 years of hard work by two key players.

High school teachers Lori Schmidt and Tom Berg teach across the hall from each other, which has made collaboration easy. But what really jump-started their partnership was Schmidt wanting to quit coaching.

“I found out we were having twins,” Schmidt said. “So, I needed to get out of coaching basketball. They asked, ‘Can you do the prom?’ I would have agreed to dang near anything.”

When she agreed, Schmidt needed a helper, so she yelled across the hall and told Berg he was going to be her partner in crime.

In the spring of 1993, the duo’s biggest decision was to move the big dance, due not only to the number of couples attending, but also the size of the audience.

“We had completely outgrown the high school gym,” she said. “I went in and told my principal we were no longer going to have prom at the high school, and we moved it to the Corn Palace.”

The historic landmark has been the site of Mitchell’s prom ever since, and it has worked out perfectly.

“The first year we had it there, it was so awesome. The kids had so much more space and there was comfortable space for the audience to sit for the grand march,” Schmidt said.

This Saturday, 156 couples will parade around the Corn Palace auditorium, which is an increase from previous averages of about 125. The grand march will take place at 7 p.m. today.

But that’s not the biggest change Schmidt and Berg have seen in the last quarter of a century.

“People don’t just take their date out to dinner anymore,” Schmidt said. “They go in groups and hire their own photographer and take pictures the whole day. It’s almost like a wedding. It’s really become a production.”

Both Schmidt and Berg have known parents to rent limousines and event venues for gatherings, as early as 11 a.m. the day of prom. Berg commented the event has really ramped up over the last few years nationwide.

“It seems everyone tries to outdo the next one,” he said.

This year’s prom will likely be no different and, despite the simplicity of the decorations, it will likely be more elegant than ever. The theme is “Gold Gone Wild.”

“Everything is gold,” Berg said. “Everything.”

From the runners, to the arch, to everything else imaginable.

Thankfully, Schmidt and Berg are not alone when it comes to decorating. They have a core group of 12 junior class advisers and the junior girls work hard to get as many of their 200 classmates to help as possible. They gather the Friday night before prom between 4 and 9 p.m. to decorate. The materials ordered are manageable enough to be easily dismantled the next day as well.

“There’s always something going on at the Corn Palace and everyone is always busy; we don’t have time for elaborate decorations,” Schmidt said.

The students aren’t the only ones who get gussied up. Schmidt and Berg put on their best for the evening, considering they and the junior class advisers are chaperones. Berg emcees the event, announcing each couple as they walk through the auditorium.

“I wrangle the whole crew in the back,” Schmidt said. “I’m the enforcer.”

“She has the gum cup,” Berg said.

“And I straighten flowers and ties, and make sure the boys and girls are on the right sides,” Schmidt said.

Although it sounds like a lot of work wrangling about 300 kids on such an exciting evening, Schmidt and Berg said not once have they had an issue.

“The kids clean up nicely,” Schmidt said.

“They always meet our expectations,” Berg added.

Over the years, the team has experienced tiny hiccups during prom.

One year, they had to herd the students into the Corn Palace locker rooms and bathrooms when a tornado warning went into effect.

“The kids thought we were joking,” Berg said.

Everyone huddled in the locker rooms and bathrooms for a half-hour and then were able to finish out the evening without further issues.

“We knew it was the real deal, and we had to get the kids to where it was safe,” Schmidt said.

Another year, the school cafeteria staff had prepared hors d’oeuvres, set out the trays in a certain area at the Corn Palace, and while spectators took pictures, they also helped themselves to the food.

“It was half-eaten when they all left. That really made me mad,” Schmidt said.

Despite small issues like that, Schmidt and Berg thoroughly enjoy organizing the event each year. They had fun watching their own children attend prom and how students, year after year, really take pleasure in the event, which makes their decision to continue planning an easy one.

“I’ll keep doing this until I retire,” Schmidt said and looked at Berg. “As long as I’m here, he’s staying.”

“Yes dear,” he answered and nodded.