LAST SUMMER Donald Shaffer helped dismantle The Berlin Wall.
In other summers, he's bicycled through Denmark, climbed the Great Wall of China, explored the Soviet Union and stood beside the Sea of Galilee.
This summer, Shaffer is doing Iowa: Keosauqua, Oskaloosa, Keokuk, Ottumwa.
It may not be heaven, but it is Iowa. And Shaffer, who has guided dozens of international tours, is eagerly awaiting his first-ever "Off the Beaten Path" tour of his homeland, southeastern Iowa. ++ About 30 other Marylanders, some of whom have never set foot in America's midsection, will go with Shaffer to Eldon, Agency, Amana and to West Branch, the birthplace of Herbert Hoover.
They'll see a town that has stood still and some that have gone backward; they'll take a steamboat down the Mississippi River; get a look at the farmhouse that Grant Wood immortalized in his "American Gothic," and dine at a hotel where Abraham Lincoln really did sleep -- at least twice.
SG They'll venture into neighboring Illinois, to see the Mormon settle
ments of Carthage and Nauvoo, and south into Missouri, to Hannibal where they'll get a chance to whitewash the fence that Mark Twain made famous.
"Don's been promising us this trip for a long time," says Rosalind Spalter, a regular student in Shaffer's continuing education classes at Baltimore's Jewish Community Center. "Don's been telling us for years and years and years about the Heartland."
Shaffer, a professor of history and political science at Dundalk Community College, came to Fort Holabird in the 1950s; he retired from the Army in 1973 and began teaching full-time at the community college as well as in continuing education programs around the area.
"I just can't say no," says the affable Shaffer about his schedule that keeps him teaching four nights a week.
He finally did say yes to the Midwestern tour, too. Some of his students had been asking him to lead it ever since he took some young athletes on a bike tour of the Mississippi River several years ago.
Soon, Shaffer will be showing them Iowa -- including the site of the one-room schoolhouse he attended, the Ottumwa home of Richard and Pat Nixon, who were stationed there during World War II, and the oldest courthouse in the state.
"The travel agents think I'm crazy," says Shaffer.
So Shaffer has become his own travel agent, as well as tour guide and teacher. "As I started to put it together, it struck me how much there is out there," says Shaffer, who left Iowa in 1948 when he joined the Army. "I could take them out there and spend a month."
Instead, the tour will take 12 days in late July and early August, including the train trip to and from Ottumwa, Shaffer's birthplace and the hub from which the tour will radiate. (The tour, including transportation, accommodations and admissions to attractions, will cost $950.) Ottumwa, the county seat of Wapello County with a population of about 25,000, is a stop for Amtrak's California Zepher, which goes west from Chicago.
It is also the boyhood home of the fictitious Radar O'Reilly of "M*A*S*H*" fame, to whom some of Shaffer's students think he bears a resemblance.
The group will stay at the Ottumwa Days Inn and tour the town on its first full day in Iowa. After that, the group will take off each morning for points north, south, east and even a little west, to Oskaloosa, site of a prairie homestead.
Shaffer's group may be the first official tour from the East Coast to headquarter in Ottumwa. "We have people from the East, but I'm not aware of any Eastern group," says Charles Barnett, executive director of the Ottumwa Chamber of Commerce. "We're really looking forward to the Dundalk group."
Many of the people who visit Ottumwa "are anxious to get off the interstates and see rural America," he says.
"I'm going for an overall view of an area they don't know anything about," Shaffer says of the itinerary. "Most of these people have been some place in the world with me," says Shaffer, but "most of them have never been to the Midwest."
In addition to seeing Iowa today, the group will get plenty of glimpses into Midwestern art, prairie life, religious sects and "small-town America at the turn of the century." They will also learn railroad history, Indian lore and some of Shaffer's philosophy on what the disappearance of small towns means for this country.
"Don makes history come alive," says Jennie Marconi, who, with her husband, Mario, will be going west with Shaffer.
"He's a great historian," adds Minnie Fox, who has been a student of Shaffer's for so long she calls herself a "groupie." "This is going to be so exciting and so enriching."
On the second day, the group will go to Eldon, where Shaffer went to high school, where his wife was reared and where Grant Wood first sketched that farm house on the back of an envelope.
Bentonsport will be another stop that day. On the Des Moines River, Bentonsport started life as a model community in the 1840s, but died quickly, Shaffer says. Because the houses and church were built of brick, however, "the town . . . just lay there. It's just like time stood still.
Shaffer, who calls himself a storyteller, says, "I will spend some time showing them why these little towns are dying." Eldon, which used to have 3,000 residents who supported two newspapers, is now just a third of its former self.
Shaffer says there is "a sense of sadness and loss" in many small towns, where the populations are largely older women, whose husbands have died and whose children have moved. These women, Shaffer says, have seen their banks close, their doctors go elsewhere, their stores dwindle and their trains and buses pass them by.
The towns, where once flags flew and everybody worked, used to exude "confidence in the future of America," he says. "Today, you sense that that confidence is gone. It's not a very pleasant kind of America that we end up with."
Despite this touch of pessimism, Shaffer's fellow travelers * "Off The Beaten Path in Mid-American History" leaves Baltimore July 29, via Amtrak, and returns Aug. 9. There are still a few openings on the 40-person tour. For more information, phone Don Shaffer at Dundalk Community College, 285-9958.