MaKenna Karr Introduces Her School to Antonette Willa Turner

“You have a little Willa Cather right here in Bladen,” Antonette Turner told a crowd of Silver Lake Elementary students in Bladen, Nebraska. Turner was referring to MaKenna Karr, a local sixth grader who made good on her promise to introduce Turner to the school on October 15. Joining them on the stage were Turner’s daughter and son-in-law, Alana and Ron Hoyt, Karr’s grandparents Henry and Jane Tonjes, as well as the National Willa Cather Center’s Executive Director Ashley Olson, Education Director Tracy Tucker, and Education Specialist Rachel Olsen. This event came about from Karr’s summer 4-H project, the idea to share a love of Willa Cather and local Webster County history, and a new and growing friendship between the sixth grader and the ninety-nine year old Turner.

During the presentation for a large assembly of students in kindergarten through sixth grades, Karr asked Turner to describe her childhood in Webster County, and the pair covered everything from favorite school subjects to natural disasters. While Turner captivated her young audience with recollections about the Dust Bowl—“I thought it was the end of the world!” she said—she also told a lovely story about learning to appreciate her name. As she ran her fingers over her treasured coral necklace, she explained how that piece of jewelry, a gift from Willa Cather according to family lore, connected to not only her first name but her middle name: Willa. It was clear to those listening how important her family’s connection to the famous novelist is to Turner.

Like any budding writer or historian, Karr connected the past to the present by making sure her fellow students understood that Turner’s youth had many similarities to the lives of children in the audience. She asked Turner to describe games she played as a child and wondered if Turner had ever been bullied. “Oh yes,” Turner confirmed. She endured name-calling as a little girl, too. Most of Turner’s childhood memories, however, were very fond, particularly her recollections of her grandmother Anna Pavelka’s delicious koláče and beautiful quilts. The event closed as Silver Lake’s principal, Duane Arntt, presented Turner with a certificate recognizing her as a special presenter and member of the community. Additionally, to commemorate Turner and Karr’s interview, representatives from the National Willa Cather Center donated copies of My Ántonia and Willa: The Story of Willa Cather, an American Writer, to Silver Lake’s library. At the interview’s close, Karr revealed that she was writing her very own book about Turner, who was visibly moved by the reception she had received. “I feel so humbled,” she said.

As part of its mission, the Willa Cather Foundation helps support K-12 educational initiatives by providing books, curriculum guides, scholarships to high school students and teachers, and school tours in Red Cloud, Nebraska. Our historic sites allow students, teachers, and others an immersive experience in the world and legacy of Willa Cather, while our Collections & Archives at the National Willa Cather Center provide researchers with a rich and growing collection of Willa Cather-related documents and artifacts.

Click for more about our Educational Resources or contact our education staff for information on curriculum, scholarships, research, and educational tours:

Tracy Tucker, Education Director:

Rachel Olsen, Education Specialist: