Thursday, June 15, 2017

Preserving the Old with Something New

Dedication speakers and honorees with Rev. Charles Peek
Laura Bush delivering keynote
In 1932 a young teacher arrived in Webster County and was introduced to the writing of a former resident,  Willa Cather.  Cather could not have inspired a more devoted fan!  That young teacher was Mildred Bennett, and she is considered the founder of the Willa Cather Foundation, although it should be recognized that every leader must have those who share her vision and follow her.  When Mildred Bennett died, her vision was well established, but equally important, others have carried on the dreams she imagined, which include championing the arts and humanities.

Bennett's gift for dreaming big must have inspired the Foundation Board when they undertook the restoration of the Moon Block, a 2-story collection of commercial buildings stretching north from the beautiful Opera House all the way to the end of the block.  In 2015 my husband and I attended the ground breaking ceremony for the project and toured the interior.  Oh, my!  It took real vision to imagine that the neglected building could ever become the structure that was planned.

Ribbon Cutting at Cather Foundation Dedication
Yet, it has.  Because Mildred Bennett was a teacher who came to love the writings of Willa Cather and who asked, "What better way would there be for us to understand each other than through the fields of humanities and the arts?" who better to deliver the keynote address at the dedication of the National Willa Cather Center than a former teacher and librarian who as our nation's first lady stressed the importance of reading, and who just happens to be a great Willa Cather fan herself.  Fortunately, just such a person exists and agreed to speak at the Dedication!   On June 3, 2017, former First Lady Laura Bush presented the Dedication Address and joined other key individuals in cutting the ribbon opening the Willa Cather Foundation expansion into the Moon Block.

The Foundation carries on the mission envisioned by Mildred Bennett, not only preserving structures identifiable as the models for Cather's novels and short stories so fans from around the world can literally step back in time to experience sites described in her work, but also welcoming researchers to the ever-growing archives, hosting plays and lectures and other performances in the Opera House, providing writing seminars, hosting working retreats for visiting artists, and awarding scholarships to young scholars.  The back-stage facilities had been inadequate for performances in the Opera House, and some of the Moon Block space has remedied that.  The archives available to researchers, both in person and to fulfill requests sent from distant places, make preservation and access possible.  The hosting of events, the office space, the display of objects and information are now adequate to the Foundation's mission.

At street level, the renovations have created beautiful commercial spaces, which will be leased to business tenants.  In that way, the Moon Block renovation not only serves the Cather mission but also serves the entire community commercially.

I hope my blog posts over the years have made some of you curious to visit Red Cloud, and to hike the 612-acre native prairie just south of town.  To learn more details, visit the Foundation website at   Remember, you may click on the images to enlarge them. 

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