Dr. Mary Ruth Ryder Joins Cather Legacy Society

Reflecting back on her first Spring Conference many years ago, it was the kindness shown to her as a young scholar that compelled Dr. Mary Ruth Ryder to become a member of the Willa Cather Foundation – and ultimately to join the Cather Legacy Society by naming the Foundation in her estate plans.  “The scholars were kind to each other, non-competitive, supportive of young scholars, and receptive. This is what scholars should do with knowledge. Part of my response was also due to Red Cloud itself and the interchange with people who were proud, pleasant, and eager to share. There was a familial atmosphere.”

Long before that experience, however, Ryder was assigned the reading of My Antonia in 8th grade. Something in the text spoke to her. Being part of a farming heritage, she felt tied to the rhythm of the land, as Cather’s characters were. As a high school sophomore, she chose The Song of the Lark for a class project, foreshadowing her future career as an educator by inspiring four of her classmates to read the novel, as well.

Ryder earned her Master’s degree in 18th Century British Literature and taught high school English and Latin (as Cather did). It wasn’t until pursuing her Doctorate that she delved into Cather professionally. Transitioning her studies from 18th Century British Masters to Willa Cather isn’t as bifurcated a choice as it might first seem: Ryder speaks convincingly about the classical foundation found in Cather’s work, especially in her sentence structure.

The Willa Cather Foundation holds many interests for Ryder. She joined WCF after having a paper accepted and well-received at the Willa Cather Merrimack Symposium held in the 1980s, directed by noted Cather scholar John Murphy. To this day it’s the fellowship and sparked interest that bring Ryder to events like the Spring Conference.  “It’s an impetus for research and scholarship, especially for budding scholars,” Ryder states. “Even for non-scholars. Make the trip to Red Cloud. Cather’s works become more real. You feel the dynamic force in the land. Through the Foundation’s work, you come to better understand Cather and her writing.”

Ryder decided to include the WCF in her estate planning because she wanted her legacy to include an organization that supported her as a young, budding scholar, and through its scholarship programs continues to support high school students with dreams of going to college.

“Willa Cather for the ages” is how Ryder thinks of the Foundation. “I know that the Foundation is never going to fold.” Her goals of continued Cather studies, excitement in learning, and the perpetuation of Cather match WCF’s goals. “Through the study and elevation of Cather’s texts we become more conscious of fragile ecological systems and more sensitive and responsive to the lessons embedded in her novels.”

In O Pioneers!, Ryder’s favorite Cather novel, Cather wrote, “There are always dreamers on the frontier.” When asked what her dreams are for the Cather community, Ryder thoughtfully responded, “That Cather will come to be recognized universally as the leading woman writer of the first half of the 20th Century. Her stories are the American story. Embedded in her work is a portrait of who we are and what we became as a nation.”

If you, too, want your legacy to include a lasting gift to the Willa Cather Foundation please contact Ashley Olson, Executive Director, at or 402-746-2653.