Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
Edit
How a 101-year-old linked to Willa Cather helped alter a small town’s future
0 Comments
editor's pick

How a 101-year-old linked to Willa Cather helped alter a small town’s future

  • 0
{{featured_button_text}}
My Antonia/COPYRIGHT RESTRICTED

Antonette Turner, posing for a photo in one of her many “My Ántonia” shirts. Turner spent her life speaking publicly about her grandmother, her grandmother’s friend Willa Cather, and the real-life world that Cather mined for her most famous novels. 

Join GROW Nebraska for a tour of the Willa Cather Foundation in Red Cloud, Nebraska!

Music credits:

"Cheery Monday" Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)

Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License

http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/

RED CLOUD — It’s not unusual to catch sight of a celebrity in Red Cloud, pop. 962, especially during the annual Willa Cather conference.

First Lady Laura Bush has appeared here. So has writer Maya Angelou, Golden Globe-winning actor Paul Giamatti and a drumbeat of talk show hosts, TV stars, novelists and artists.

And yet a tiny, energetic, elderly woman often stole the celebrity spotlight, holding court about the life and times of Nebraska’s famed novelist.

Antonette Willa Skupa Turner — Toni, to her friends — lived most of her long life in Bladen, an even smaller town down the road. She died in August at age 101.

For decades, a hush would fall when Toni Turner began to speak about visiting her grandmother’s orchard, meeting Willa Cather Foundation founder Mildred Bennett, or growing up speaking Czech at home and being chided for speaking the language of her babicka at school.

Turner was Nebraska literary royalty, the granddaughter of Anna Pavelka, the real-life inspiration for Cather’s most famous character in her most famous novel, “My Ántonia.”

When Turner died this year, Nebraska lost one of its last connections to Cather herself.

“I couldn't tell you how many students and people of all ages she connected with over the years. She made the connections to Cather real for those people,” said Tracy Tucker, the education director and archivist at the National Willa Cather Center. “Antonette could make you feel what those old days had felt like.”

Turner was born in rural Franklin County in 1920 to mother Julia Pavelka Skupa. Skupa recalled racing out of the cellar on the Pavelka family farmstead to greet her mother’s friend, Willa Cather.

A strikingly similar scene was depicted near the end of “My Ántonia.”

Turner grew up about 10 miles west of that very farm. She ate Pavelka family Sunday dinners there and gathered supplies for the family meal from the famous cellar. She spoke Czech growing up and got teased for it, just like her grandmother.

Toni married Carrol Turner in 1943 and moved to Bladen. There, she collected the mail for her grandmother, who had also recently moved to town.

The two talked nearly every day for the last dozen years of Pavelka’s life.

Turner’s transformation into a Cather advocate and public speaker — the beginning of her presence in the scholarly world of Willa Cather — began with an invitation to speak to a PEO group from Kearney.

Turner declared it would be “a one-time thing.”

Instead, she spent the next half-century spreading awareness about Cather and Czech culture.

My Antonia/COPYRIGHT RESTRICTED

A Pavelka family photo taken in 1926. Anna Pavelka, the real-life inspiration for Willa Cather’s “My Ántonia,” stands third from left in the back row. Antonette Turner, one of Pavelka’s 19 grandchildren, is the child on the right in the front row. 

She was invited to speak when Chicago selected “My Ántonia” for its reading program in 2002. She gave Humanities Nebraska presentations across the state, telling stories about her family and its Cather connections. In 2016, she was awarded a statewide honor for helping preserve Nebraska’s Czech heritage.

After Pavelka’s death, Turner grew close to Mildred Bennett, who founded the Willa Cather Foundation in 1955.

Turner and Bennett made an odd pair: The Cather Foundation founder was reserved, bookish and urbane; The granddaughter of the real “My Ántonia” was gregarious, talkative and country to her core.

“Oh, we were real close,” Turner said of Bennett in a 2017 interview. “She was real kind. A lot of people talked about her and her husband, how she spent more time with her books and things than with her family. But I liked her a lot.”

Turner and Bennett’s relationship mirrored that of Cather and Pavelka, Tucker said. Both sets of women developed lifelong friendships despite being at least superficially opposite.

One thing Bennett and Turner did share: A deep value for historic preservation.

My Antonia/COPYRIGHT RESTRICTED

Antonette Turner (middle) poses with her granddaughter Anna Marie Hoyt (left) and Mildred Bennett while holding a sign that celebrates the family of the real-life “My Ántonia.” Turner and Bennett, the founder of the Willa Cather Foundation, worked closely together and became friends during the foundation’s early years. 

Turner’s support helped enable the restoration of her grandparents’ farmstead, the creation of the South Central Czech Festival (now in its 45th year), and the endowment of two scholarships for first-year college students who write original work about Cather novels.

Bennett, Turner and other women laid the groundwork that made rural Red Cloud a literary and arts destination.

Today, Red Cloud has more historic sites dedicated to a single author than any other place in the United States. More than 10,000 tourists visit the town annually.

The Cather Foundation is still run by women. Many say that Turner changed their lives and careers.

Ashley Olson has worked at the Cather Foundation for 13 years, and run it since 2014. She credits Turner with inspiring her to “develop some of the characteristics that made her such a special person: her confidence, resiliency, and conviction. She managed to spur action in a way that seemed effortless.”

Turner’s example continues to spur action.

The Cather Foundation restored the Red Cloud Opera House in 2003. It restored the Moon Block — a city block of the historic Main Street — turning it into a National Willa Cather headquarters with a museum, archive, bookstore and three refurbished storefronts.

My Antonia/COPYRIGHT RESTRICTED

Antonette Willa Skupa Turner — Toni, to her friends — poses with young Willa Cather enthusiast MaKenna Karr. Turner was the granddaughter of Anna Pavelka, the real-life inspiration for Willa Cather’s most famous character in “My Ántonia.” She died at age 101 in August after spending the second half of her life speaking about her grandmother, her grandma’s lifelong friend Cather, and the real-life world that Cather mined for her most famous novels. 

Turner’s influence extends to even younger generations of women.

MaKenna Karr, an eighth grader from Turner’s hometown of Bladen, invited Turner to Silver Lake Elementary School for a 2019 panel discussion. The event developed from Karr’s summer 4-H project about her love of Willa Cather.

Karr, 11 at the time, and Turner, then 99, became another set of unlikely friends. Turner even declared that Karr was, “a little Willa Cather right here in Bladen.”

Karr hasn’t forgotten. “She was one of those people that was just joyful. She didn't have a mean bone in her body. I loved talking to her. She was full of information and was always ready to share it. She made everyone feel special. ... A sweet, beautiful, kind and pure human.”

Since Turner died in August, Ann Romines has often thought back to a conversation she had with one of Nebraska’s last real-life connections to Cather.

My Antonia/COPYRIGHT RESTRICTED

Antonette Willa Skupa Turner with Ashley Olson, the director of the Willa Cather Foundation, and Tracy Tucker (back row) the foundation’s archivist and education director. The Cather Foundation was founded by women and is still run largely by women today. 

Years ago, Cather enthusiasts were debating which were more authentic: round or square versions of kolache, the Czech dessert. Romines, a George Washington University English professor, sought out Turner’s expertise.

Turner told her that while her mother made them square, she herself made the round ones.

“I even make them out of that new frozen bread dough,” Turner admitted. “The important thing is not to be stingy with the filling.”

That was advice that Toni Turner followed herself in ways far beyond kolache recipes.

Said Romines: “Toni taught us that the important thing is not to be stingy with energy, with stories, with attention, love, and her bright, wide smiles.”

The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.

The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter. Learn more at flatwaterfreepress.org

0 Comments

Locations

Stay up-to-date on what's happening

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

A father of daughters wrestles with what to do about abuses he discovers at a Magdalen laundry in 1950s Ireland. "Small Things Like These" by Claire Keegan; Grove Press (128 pages, $23) ——— Claire Keegan, award-winning author of two collections of short stories and a novella, now gives us her best work yet. "Small Things Like These" is a short, wrenching, thoroughly brilliant novel mapping the ...

Alone and out of touch on the Galapagos during the COVID-19 lockdown, a young woman reconsiders her life. "Wish You Were Here" by Jodi Picoult; Ballantine Books (338 pages, $28.99) ——— March 13, 2020. The first words of Jodi Picoult's novel strike dread, or at least trepidation. Do we really want to relive those disorienting, soul-crushing first days of the shutdown felt around the world? ...

Here are the bestsellers for the week that ended Saturday, Nov. 27, compiled from data from independent and chain bookstores, book wholesalers and independent distributors nationwide, powered by NPD BookScan © 2021 NPD Group. (Reprinted from Publishers Weekly, published by PWxyz LLC. © 2021, PWxyz LLC.) HARDCOVER FICTION 1. Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone. Diana Gabaldon. Delacorte 2. The ...

You’ve probably heard that the supply-chain crisis has been particularly hard on bookstores. These next few weeks, the most sought-after titles could be frustratingly sought after, even after you’ve stopped soughting on Christmas Eve. Santa is facing ships stuck outside ports, nonexistent warehouse space and manufacturing stoppages. Laying a finger aside of his nose, while laying another ...

If you're reading this: Congratulations! You've made it to the first semi-post-pandemic holidays and almost to the end of a tough year. What better way to escape from — or face up to — troubles past and future than with books? The following six should carry you into 2022. Our most anticipated December releases include a professor's memoir about his tumultuous relationship with his late father, ...

Here are the bestsellers for the week that ended Saturday, Nov. 20, compiled from data from independent and chain bookstores, book wholesalers and independent distributors nationwide, powered by NPD BookScan © 2021 NPD Group. (Reprinted from Publishers Weekly, published by PWxyz LLC. © 2021, PWxyz LLC.) HARDCOVER FICTION 1. "The Judge’s List: A Novel" by John Grisham (Doubleday) Last week: 2 ...

A collection of essays from a wide-ranging group of Minnesota writers exploring life during COVID-19 and the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. "We Are Meant to Rise," edited by Carolyn Holbrook and David Mura; University of Minnesota Press (224 pages, $18.95) ——— Who is allowed to tell their story? Who is silenced? And what is lost when stories go untold? As the anthology "We Are Meant ...

Here are the bestsellers for the week that ended Saturday, Nov. 20, compiled from data from independent and chain bookstores, book wholesalers and independent distributors nationwide, powered by NPD BookScan © 2021 NPD Group. (Reprinted from Publishers Weekly, published by PWxyz LLC. © 2021, PWxyz LLC.) HARDCOVER FICTION 1. The Judge’s List. John Grisham. Doubleday 2. Mercy. David Baldacci. ...

NONFICTION: An adventure of a lifetime in a trade nearly killed by the internet — bookselling. "The Last Bookseller: A Life in the Rare Book Trade" by Gary Goodman; University of Minnesota Press (200 pages, $19.95) ——— "A ghost story" is how Gary Goodman characterizes his memoir "The Last Bookseller: A Life in the Rare Book Trade," and there is a whiff of sepia among its pages. It is, after ...

When I look over this list of the best books of 2021, I see what’s not there, what didn’t make the final cut and deserved the hosannas. Rebecca Solnit’s discursive biography “Orwell’s Roses.” Clint Smith’s sobering travelogue “How the Word is Passed.” Matt Bell’s climate-change epic “Appleseed.” Even Seth Rogan’s “Yearbook,” a consistently thoughtful collection of essays on the strangeness of ...

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.

Topics

Breaking News