UNK history professor uncovers Willa Cather’s connections to campus, Kearney community
KEARNEY, Neb. (KSNB) - In her final story – “The Best Years” – author Willa Cather writes about the relationship between a school superintendent, Evangeline Knightly, and a young teacher named Lesley Ferguesson.
Published posthumously, the story details the kindness and wisdom Knightly shares with the teacher before shifting to the future, when the superintendent returns to town to leave flowers on Ferguesson’s grave.
Cather wrote “The Best Years” in 1945 – just two years before her death – drawing heavily on her own life and childhood experiences.
“At the end of her life, she’s reflecting on all of these things, and the person who she thinks about is that teacher who inspired her and made her who she was,” said Nathan Tye, an assistant history professor at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
That person is Evangeline “Eva” King, represented in “The Best Years” by the character Evangeline Knightly. She’s better known on the UNK campus by her married name, Eva Case.
Cather referred to Case as “the first person whom I ever cared a great deal for outside of my own family.” She was a role model and close friend who encouraged Cather to find her way in the world of imaginative thought.
A lifelong educator who served as an elementary teacher, principal and superintendent, Case was the first person to interview Cather when she enrolled in school in Red Cloud after her family moved there from rural Webster County in 1884.
“Already I think Eva could see this is a young, precocious girl who is going to really do something with herself,” Tye said.
Case became Cather’s teacher a year later and continued to mentor her during high school and college. When Cather graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1895 and moved back to Red Cloud, it was Case and her husband who provided the “timely counsel” that gave her the courage to go on with her plans for self-improvement, according to Tye.
“Eva Case is the one who told Willa you’re too big for Red Cloud. Your future doesn’t lie here,” Tye explained.
Living first in Pittsburgh and later New York City, Cather went on to become one of the greatest American novelists of the 20th century. Her works include “My Ántonia,” “O Pioneers!” “Alexander’s Bridge,” “One of Ours,” “My Mortal Enemy,” “Death Comes for the Archbishop” and numerous other novels, short stories and poems.
Following her husband’s death, Case resigned as the superintendent in Red Cloud in June 1905 to take a position at the newly opened Nebraska State Normal School at Kearney, now known as UNK. She was the first preceptress at Green Terrace Hall, a former hotel that served as the school’s lone dormitory at that time.
“She was hired right at the founding of the Normal School and was the second-highest-paid employee here, right under President A.O. Thomas,” Tye said.
Case earned $1,350 a year to teach and oversee Green Terrace as the housemother. Although she worked at the Normal School for less than two years, her time there was certainly impactful.
When she became severely ill in 1907, Thomas moved her to the president’s house to receive care before she was transferred to the Presbyterian Hospital in Omaha, where doctors discovered she had advanced liver cancer. She passed away in November of that year.
During a chapel service on campus, school librarian Anna Jennings eulogized her friend and colleague, highlighting her unselfishness, thoughtfulness and compassion. Classes were canceled that day so students could attend.
“This really was an incredible person who deeply impacted the community in her short time here,” Tye said. “Eva Case has such an impact that the students of Green Terrace release a statement mourning her. The student body passes a resolution memorializing her, as well, as do the Board of Trustees of the State Normal Schools.”
Thomas and other school officials attend the funeral in Red Cloud, where local schoolchildren honor Case with a floral tribute, and the first Normal School “Blue and Gold” yearbook published in 1908 includes an in memoriam praising her as a “true friend and wise counsellor.”
Cather also honored her beloved mentor in a letter read to the Red Cloud High School graduating class in 1909 before delivering her final tribute in “The Best Years.”
In 1930, when the first purpose-built residence hall opened on the Kearney campus, it was named Eva J. Case Hall. That building served the school until 2006, when it was replaced by suite-style housing (Antelope/Nester).
“She’s only here a very short amount of time, but has such a lasting legacy,” Tye said of Case.
SHARING THE STORY
Tye writes about Cather’s connections to Case and the community of Kearney in the fall 2022 edition of Willa Cather Review, a journal published by the Willa Cather Foundation.
The article, “Willa Cather’s Ties to Kearney, Nebraska,” demonstrates how people and places beyond Red Cloud shaped her life and literature.
“Kearney is an easily overlooked locale within the wider geography of Willa Cather’s life,” he states. “The town itself made no more identifiable impact on her life or work than a score of other Nebraska towns, but a small number of people associated with it did.”
In addition to Case, Cather’s longtime partner Edith Lewis also briefly lived in Kearney, as a high schooler from 1895-96.
So did Cather’s brother James, sister-in-law Ethel and their children Charles and Helen. Their home along East 27th Street, where the family lived in the 1920s and early 1930s, still stands today. James was a salesman at a local clothing store and Ethel served as president of the local Delphian Society, a women’s literary and educational organization, making her an “authority” on Cather’s work. After Lewis passed away in 1972, Charles and Helen became Cather’s literary executors.
Kearney is also the hometown and burial place of Bishop George Allen Beecher, a spiritual mentor who confirmed Cather and her parents into the Episcopal Church and presided over her memorial service on All Saints’ Day in 1947. Beecher maintained a decades-long relationship with the Pulitzer Prize-winning author.
“Cather’s connections to Beecher likely seeped into her portrayal of pioneer Bishop Jean Latour in ‘Death Comes for the Archbishop,’” Tye notes.
Cather likely visited Kearney at least twice, in 1927 and 1931, according to Tye, but only the latter trip is fully documented.
“I would like to think that she came to campus just to see Eva Case Hall,” said Tye, who utilized sources from the UNK Archives, UNL Archives, History Nebraska and Buffalo County Historical Society while conducting his research.
He plans to include some of the information in his Nebraska history classes, and he’ll discuss Cather’s local connections May 10 at Kearney Public Library as part of the UNK History Department’s Brown Bag lecture series.
“This research was a lot of fun because one of the things I love doing is telling these stories about Kearney that may be overlooked,” Tye said. “We have a very vibrant history in this community, and this is just one example.”
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