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Willa Cather Foundation - Red Cloud Nebraska (NE)

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Meet Intern William Kelly

Meet Intern William Kelly

William Kelly
Wednesday, June 26, 2019

It is both refreshing and encouraging to have young and emergent scholars and future professionals show an interest in history, the arts, or a career in the nonprofit realm. This summer of 2019, William Kelly has joined us to delve into aspects of development and membership while mentoring with our executive director, Ashley Olson. While in Red Cloud, he is living in the apartment at the Burlington Depot, beginning to read through Willa Cather’s work, and exploring the prairie and rural environs.

Where are you from, what are your interests, and what brought you to the Willa Cather Foundation?

My upbringing split time between Omaha, Nebraska, and LaGrange, Indiana. I’m a proud alum of Wabash College where my passion for history first took root and flourished. Currently, I’m heading into my second year of a master’s program in history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. My developing interest in nonprofit historical administration drove me to reach out to the Willa Cather Foundation and inquire about an internship. I’m fortunate enough to immerse myself in fundraising and development aspects of nonprofit management, which are experiences that are not offered in my graduate program.

How were you introduced to Willa Cather’s works and why were you interested in interning at the WCF this summer?

I came to Willa Cather’s works very late—as in the beginning of this summer. Despite not reading any of her works in grade school or undergrad, I don’t think I could have asked for a better environment to be introduced to Cather’s works than Red Cloud. It adds another dimension to her stories when you can walk around the setting of that story, whether it’s Hanover, Moonstone, or Black Hawk. I became interested in interning at the Willa Cather Foundation because of its community-minded mission. When I visited the National Willa Cather Center for the first time, I remember being in awe of all the Foundation had to offer. Organizations like this recognize the broad influence they have on community development—not just economically, but also culturally. I am impressed by how the Foundation utilizes its resources to continually make a lasting and positive impact on Red Cloud.

What is your favorite, and least favorite (if any), Cather work?

I’m still working through all of Cather’s readings (I have a lot of catching up to do), but I would say my favorite book is tied between O Pioneers! and The Song of the Lark. The former because Cather gives words to feelings I have about the prairie when I drive through it, but didn’t know how to express. The latter because I really appreciate Thea Kronborg’s character, particularly her independent and driven mindset. It has been really interesting to see the development of Cather as a writer, especially how her own life experiences—such as travel—come through in her own writing.

What are you doing this summer at the National Willa Cather Center?

This summer I’ll be working on mostly administrative and development tasks. Primarily stewardship projects, streamlining our membership database and its communication with our website, and learning more about the day-to-day operations of a nonprofit organization.

What about the organization, and/or Red Cloud, surprised you the most? How might you describe it to others?

What surprised me the most was the amount of attractions the Willa Cather Foundation has to offer. A museum exhibit, bookstore, archive, art gallery, Opera House; not to mention the events held at the Opera House, or our conferences. It was surprising because one wouldn’t expect a small rural town in Nebraska to have such a variety of offerings.

What has surprised you, or educated you, about Willa Cather since you’ve been here?

Probably looking at her writing through her own biographical past. For example, the degree to which theater influenced her writing is astounding. This past spring conference that was on Cather and the theater really helped me realize this. I’m not particularly well-versed in the theater, but I can see how her writing style and character development have theatrical tinges. One can really see how all of this is rooted in her performances in the Red Cloud Opera House and her early professional days as a theater critic. So, overall, I’ve just learned that in order to really understand Cather’s writing, you have to understand her life.

What are you studying now, and where, and what graduate degree are you pursuing?

I am pursuing a master’s degree in history from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln right now, while specializing in Nineteenth Century Studies. Within this program, which is unique to UNL, we study the traditional, musical, artistic, and literary history of the long nineteenth century (~1790-1918). Nineteenth Century Studies seemed like a natural fit for me, especially coming from the small liberal arts institution of Wabash College. To be honest, I got lucky falling into this program and I couldn’t be more grateful that I did.

Are you working on a thesis? Topic?

Within that specialization, I am focusing on freedom suits in antebellum Washington, D.C.; in other terms, examining the history of enslaved persons suing their masters for their freedom in the court of law in the nation’s capitol. I really enjoy this research because I absolutely love Washington, D.C. as a modern and historic city, freedom suits are recently gaining attention in scholarly circles, and my advisor at UNL has been a major influence in showing me the importance of this history. I plan on presenting my research on a particular freedom suit in Washington, D.C. at a few conferences around the country and at my alma mater.

What are your immediate career plans after you get your Master’s degree?

I think I’ll really face a fork-in-the-road. While I really enjoy my research and the institution I am at right now, I face the decision of spending 5-7 more years of reading, research, and writing in order to obtain my PhD. I’m also considering institutions that offer PhDs with focuses in public history - which is more in-line with my professional goals of running a historical society/organization. Of course, you don’t need a PhD right away to run small- to medium-sized institutions so that’s my other option: I could begin climbing the ladder of historical institutions on my way to becoming an executive director one day. Needless to say, this next year will be transformative and telling. But I am excited!

Are you enjoying your summer off-hours and what do you like to do in your free time?

Well, if I am honest, I don’t have a ton of free time because I am the chair of the Nebraska’s James A. Rawley Graduate Conference in the Humanities. It’s a large task, but one that is going to be very rewarding because it allows graduate students from around the country an opportunity to enhance their conference presentation and professional development skills. When I am not doing that, I am trying to chronologically catch up on all of Cather’s books. I’m just about done with The Song of the Lark. So after that, I’ll move on to the famed My Ántonia. I try to take my reading out to the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie as often as I can, because why not? If you have the opportunity to read O Pioneers!, for example, in a rolling prairie near her hometown of Red Cloud, I think it’d be a crime if you didn’t take advantage of that. I also try to hit as many historic spots around Webster County and the south-central Nebraska/north-central Kansas region as possible. I’m all for visiting side-of-the-road sites that are historic, informative, and free!

Is the Burlington Depot haunted? (No, just kidding!)

I’ve heard stories from locals that it is, but in my month in it so far, I haven’t heard anything. Crossing my fingers that it isn’t, but it wouldn’t hurt to have a friend up there, I guess!