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Willa Cather Goes Back to School—Well, Almost

Willa Cather Goes Back to School—Well, Almost

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

"In the long summer evenings Mr. Case and his wife used to sit on the front porch behind the vines and the little maple trees and plan out useful and honorable futures for the Red Cloud boys and girls. There is nothing for us to do now but to try to realize those generous dreams of theirs."

Willa Cather graduated from the Red Cloud High School in June 1890. Three students gave orations from the Red Cloud Opera House stage, including two boys and Cather, and, as L. Brent Bolke noted in Willa Cather in Person, “Her speech is eloquent—and electrifying—when it is remembered that it came from the mouth of a sixteen-year-old girl with little formal education.” A June 13, 1890, account of the ceremonies in The Red Cloud Chief remarked: "Miss Willa Cather treated the audience to a fine oration on 'Superstition vs. Investigation,' which was a masterpiece of oratory."

Throughout her life Cather maintained her correspondence with Mrs. Goudy, high school principal while Cather attended. Cather planned to visit Red Cloud in 1909 for the May commencement, but her employer, S.S. McClure, sent her to Europe. In her place, she wrote a letter to Edwin James Overing, Jr., the president of the Board of Education, which was read aloud by Mrs. Dora Kaley. The letter has returned, along with approximately 8,000 other items, to the National Willa Cather Center as part of the original Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial Collection, in a property and archives transfer with History Nebraska in 2019.

It appeared as follows in the May 27, 1909, edition of the The Red Cloud Chief.

April 30, 1909

My Dear Mr. Overing:

As I wrote you sometime ago, I had very much hoped to be present at the Red Cloud commencement exercises this year. I had made all my plans to go west about the first of May, and until a few days ago confidently expected to be at home by the time the school year closed.

Within the last two or three days, however, I have seen that instead of turning westward I must face in the opposite direction, and that very soon. I am sailing immediately for London to attend to some business matters there.

Since you asked me to go on the commencement program, I had expected to get something ready for you on my way west, but my hurried departure will not leave me time to prepare any sort of paper to send you. I would be glad to write something on the way over and send it back to you, but the time would be so short that in all probability anything mailed from England would not reach you before the 19th. Let me thank you for the invitation and ask you to express to the Board of Education my regret at being unable to accept it.

Since I cannot be present, therefore, I will ask you to let this letter represent me, if you see fit.

I have been interested in the Red Cloud schools for many years, and have kept in touch with them through so many brothers and sisters, that to think about them and wish them well has become a mental habit. I could not forget the schools if I tried; they play a part in many of my happiest memories, and some of my truest friends have been closely connected with them. If I had no other reason to love the schools of my own town—and I have many others—I should always love them because of Mr. and Mrs. A. K. Goudy and Mr. and Mrs. O. C. Case. When my father first moved into Red Cloud from his ranch, and I was taken to the old high school building to be entered as a pupil in the Red Cloud schools, Mrs. Case—then Miss King—was principal, and she was the first person who interviewed the new county pupil. She had a talk with me up in the old bell room. I remember her well as a stalwart young woman with a great deal of mirth in her eyes and a very sympathetic, kind voice.

I was placed in a class in Miss Gertrude Sherer's room. I do not remember much about what went on during my first day in school, but that afternoon I brought away three distinct impressions: that Trix Mizer was the prettiest little girl I had ever seen, that Margie Miner was so jolly I wanted awfully to know her, and that Eddie Emigh never looked at his book because he was always looking at Trix.

The next year Miss King was made principal of the South Ward School, and I was a pupil in her A grade. I am very sure that Miss King was the first person whom I ever cared a great deal for outside of my own family. I had been in her class only a few weeks when I wanted more than anything else in the world to please her. During the rest of that year, when I succeeded in pleasing her I was quite happy; when I failed to please her there was only one thing I cared about, and that was to try again and make her forget my mistakes. I have always looked back on that year as one of the happiest I ever spent.

After I left Miss King's room she became County Superintendent. As I went on through the high school she always helped and advised me; she even tried very hard to teach me algebra at night, but not even Miss King—who could do almost anything—could do that.

After I went away to the State University there came a year or two when I was so taken up with new things and people, and so much excited about my work in Lincoln, that I saw comparatively little of my old friends. Just before I went away to school Miss King had married Mr. Case, and when I began to see a good deal of my old friends again, I learned to care for Mr. Case almost as much as for his wife.

I believe I am not the only graduate of the Red Cloud schools whose courage Mr. and Mrs. Case revived time and again. I believe that all the boys and girls whom they helped will agree with me that one of the things best worthwhile in life is to keep faith with those two friends of ours who gave us their confidence. In the long summer evenings Mr. Case and his wife used to sit on the front porch behind the vines and the little maple trees and plan out useful and honorable futures for the Red Cloud boys and girls. There is nothing for us to do now but to try to realize those generous dreams of theirs.

I can scarcely realize that it has been nineteen years since I stood on the stage in the Red Cloud opera house with two little boys—if I remember rightly we all three looked like little boys—and made my Commencement speech. Let me warn the graduates of 1909 that the next nineteen years will go so quickly that they won't have time to turn around in them.

The thing I best remember about my own graduation is the class tree. It was a little crook-backed honey locust that Alec Bentley and John Tulleys dug out of a row of locusts on my Grandmother Cather's land. I don't know why I was more interested in the tree than in any thing else about graduating, but I was. My brothers and I carried water from the High School pump and watered it ever so many times that summer. The tree wilted and peaked and pined and languished all summer. But look out for what it would do next summer, we thought. But next summer it was no better, nor yet the next. The thing simply would not grow. For years it seemed to stand still. For the matter of that we all stood still; John didn't grow, and Alec didn't grow, and I didn't grow. But the tree, at least, was getting ready to grow. I went home one summer to find that after having been a crooked bush for years and years it had really shot up to a considerable height. The tree stands in the south-east corner of the High School yard, and I hope the Red Cloud boys and girls will be good to it.

I hope none of your graduates tonight are as much frightened as I was when I got up to deliver my important oration. When Mr. Goudy read my name and I rose and went to the front of the platform, the room looked as if it were full of smoke, and the people seemed to have run together. I looked at this blur and made out three faces looking intently at me: Mr. Henry Cook in the front part of the house, and further back, Mr. William Ducker and Mrs. Case. These three friendly faces gave me courage, and I am sure they always will.

With a world of good wishes for your graduates, Mr. Overing, and greetings to my old schoolmates, I am,

Faithfully,

Willa Cather

Diploma and text from the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial Collection. Willa Cather Foundation Special Collections & Archives at the National Willa Cather Center in Red Cloud.