Thursday, June 11, 2015

Impossible Things

I only want impossible things.
The others don't matter.
--Willa Cather

Willa Cather
Mildred R. Bennett was not born in Red Cloud, Nebraska, and perhaps it took the awareness of an outsider to recognize what long-time residents had come to take for granted.  Whatever the explanation, it was Mildred who became the driving force behind the foundation established to keep the heritage of being the home town of Willa Cather alive, a legacy enhanced by Cather's practice of using citizens and locations from her hometown in her writing.  Cather died in 1947, and in 1955 Mildred Bennett had collected enough other residents to establish the Cather foundation.

Sometimes it is amazing what small towns can do, and the growth of the foundation's mission over the 60 years of its existence is an amazing success story.

My husband and I visited Red Cloud not long after the Opera House had been restored.  Built in 1885 and restored in 2003 after having been closed in 1920, the Opera House is the heart of the collection of buildings in Red Cloud that were important to Cather's life and her writing.

Christine Lesiak, Andrew Jewell & Janis Stout
It is no secret that Cather is one of my favorite authors and that O! Pioneers is my favorite of her novels.  (See "What If Isaac Had Met Alexandra Bergston?" in the blog archives at 5-2-2013.)  I have shared the importance of opera houses in many early communities on the prairie.  (See "St. John (KS) Convention Hall & Opera House," 6-26-2014; "Stafford (KS) Opera House," 8-7-2014; and "Saving the Old Opera Houses of the Prairie," 12-11-2014)  However, saving Red Cloud's magnificent opera house and returning it to life with ongoing performances and exhibitions must have seemed one of those "impossible things" that most people would never have attempted.

The current exhibit in the Opera House is Regional Works of Grant Reynard, a Nebraska artist who met Willa Cather at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire.  He was a familiar illustrator to those who read The Saturday Evening Post, Redbook, Ladies' Home Journal, Harper's Bazaar, McCall's, and Scribner's Magazine.

This blogger somewhere among the crowd
The annual gathering in Red Cloud has been something my husband and I have come to enjoy, but this year we were only able to attend one day.  Because it was the 60th anniversary and especially because it was the dedication of yet another "impossible thing" that the foundation has achieved, we felt we had to attend!  It was a day filled with the usual excellent sessions and great conversations with other attendees.

We arrived in time to hear high school senior scholarship recipients reading their winning essays.  That was followed by a wonderful panel discussion, "Awakening Young Artists:  Arts Education Then and Now."  The Cather Conference always attracts outstanding scholars, but this panel was exceptional.  The informal conversations among attendees are also an interesting part of every conference and seminar.  After lunch we enjoyed an excellent lecture by Kenneth Be, art conservator, on the subject of restoring damaged art, with an example of a restored oil painting mentioned in one of Cather's novels on display.

Co-Chair Jay Yost & new Cather Center
Next was the informal presentation at the Miner House (known as the Harling House in My Antonia) by filmmaker Christine Lesiak and editors of Selected Letters of Willa Cather, Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout.  That was followed by the premiere of NET Television documentary at the Opera House of Lesiak's Yours, Willa Cather based on Cather's letters.  The opportunity to hear the filmmaker and the two editors discussing their extensive research and their personal feelings after working with the letters, and then to see the documentary was worth the trip!  The documentary was followed by the address of keynote speaker, Richard Norton Smith, an author and historian widely known by viewers of PBS NewsHour and C-Span.

Next came another one of those "impossible things"...worth doing!--the dedication of the nearly complete Cather Center.  We had the privilege of walking through the building with Jay Yost and his sister at a previous conference when the construction project was just beginning.  It certainly seemed like a monumental, if not impossible, undertaking.  Yet, with the support of 463 individuals, businesses, foundations, and public grantors the Willa Cather Foundation raised $6,390,060 to establish the National Willa Cather Center in the restored Moon Block Building.  Jay's co-chair is Ruth H. Keene, and the Honorary National Chair is Ken Burns, whose television programs have done so much to bring history to life.

Toasting the Cather Center!
A celebratory dinner followed the dedication, and we had the great fortune of sharing our table with Steven B. Shively, a member of the Cather Center Campaign Steering Committee; Andrew Jewel, co-editor of Selected Letters; Christine Lesiak, filmmaker; fellow Cather fans Deanna and Michael; and my special friend with whom I share book titles, Becky.

As wonderful as the programs and exhibits at the Cather Conference and Seminars we have attended are, the thing that draws us back year after year is meeting such wonderful people.  If you love Cather and you attend once, you will want to attend every year.  You will be welcomed into a large circle of interesting and accomplished people, and as my husband said as we drove home, "The Cather gatherings have become like an annual family reunion!"

You may learn more by visiting and you may keep up with current happenings at The Willa Cather Foundation on face book.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your commentary, Lyn. It was great to see you and Larry in Red Cloud, even for a short time. Also good we had an opportunity to chat. You two always enrich Cather get-togethers, and I'm glad to see you encourage others to attend. Others like the two of you--well-read, curious, knowledgeable about Cather but with broader experiences than some of us more notorious Catherites--are welcome. The more the merrier--but also more fulfilling. Red Cloud and Cather are both remarkable. Best wishes, Steve Shively

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

Great to see you, too. We were sorry we only felt able to spend one day, but that day was exceptional.