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

RED CLOUD – It’s not unusual to catch sight of a celebrity in Red Cloud, population 962, especially during the annual Willa Cather conference that brings a mishmash of scholars, writers and lovers of the famed Nebraska novelist to town.

First Lady Laura Bush has appeared here. So has legendary writer Maya Angelou, Golden Globe-winning actor Paul Giamatti and a drumbeat of talk show hosts, TV stars, novelists and artists. But, at many conferences, a tiny, energetic, elderly woman would rise to her feet during a question-and-answer session and, for a few minutes, steal the celebrity spotlight while holding court about Nebraska’s most famous author.

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, still largely unknown outside her community and the small circle of Cather scholars.

But, in Webster County, 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 continuing to speak the language of her babička at school.

The tiny, energetic woman was Nebraska literary royalty. She’s 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, book-loving Nebraskans lost one of its last threads of connection to Cather herself. One of the last people who lived inside the world depicted in Cather’s famed novels.

“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 in Red Cloud. “Antonette could make you feel what those old days had felt like.”

Turner brought together the prairie’s past and present. She also bridged a gap between bi-coastal Cather academics and residents of south-central Nebraska.

Well into her 90s, she held her own discussing Cather and Pavelka family history with scholars. She was just as much at ease holding court at church events, or chatting with farmers while watching Husker sports at the Bladen town bar.

Tucker, who spent dozens of hours with Turner digging through boxes of Cather-related archival material, said Turner knew the backstories of Husker volleyball players as well as she did her own family’s history.

A 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. (Courtesy Cather Foundation)

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. Cather would famously depict a strikingly similar scene near the end of “My Ántonia.”

Turner grew up about 10 miles west of that farm. She ate Pavelka Family Sunday dinners there and gathered supplies for the family meal from the famous cellar. Though Turner grew up in the French-settled area around Campbell, 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, until her death in 1955. 

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 recalled being nervous and shaking. She declared that it would be “a one-time thing.”

Instead, she spent the next half-century spreading awareness about Cather and Czech culture. She also focused on teaching students lessons about overcoming adversity and respecting difference.

When Chicago selected “My Ántonia” for its reading program in 2002, she was invited to speak. 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 also grew close to Mildred Bennett, who founded the Willa Cather Foundation in 1955. Bennett had authored the 1951 book, “The World of Willa Cather,” which included interviews with Cather’s Red Cloud-area friends and several of Turner’s relatives. That book is still in print today.

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.

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. (Photo credit: Hastings Tribune)

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

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. Turner’s scholarships are awarded to students who write original work about Cather novels — awards ensuring that new generations will continue to read “My Ántonia” and learn about Cather, Turner’s family and this piece of Nebraska history.

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

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 to see the National Willa Cather Center, the Red Cloud Opera House and Willa Cather’s childhood home, a National Historic Landmark. The Cather Foundation is working to restore seven Cather-related historic buildings, expand programming and bring even more tourists to town.

The Cather Foundation is still run by women, just as it was at its founding. Many of these women say that Turner changed their lives and careers.

Ashley Olson has worked at the Cather Foundation for 13 years, and served as its director 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 in Red Cloud.

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 that includes a museum, an archive, a bookstore and three refurbished storefronts.

The group is now nearing a fundraising goal to restore the historic buildings. It’s working with the Red Cloud Community Fund and others to restore a dilapidated downtown building into the 26-room Hotel Garber, which will more than double the town’s lodging.

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

MaKenna Karr, an 8th 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.

Years ago, Cather enthusiasts were debating whether round or square versions of the Czech dessert kolache were more authentic. Romines, a George Washington University English professor and Cather scholar, 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. She then addede: “The important thing is not to be stingy with the filling.”

That was advice that Toni Turner followed herself 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.”

By Jarrod McCartney

Born and raised in Red Cloud, Jarrod McCartney has family roots in Webster County that stretch back to 1871. A 2003 graduate of Hastings College, McCartney completed his PhD coursework at the University of Oklahoma, then taught at OU, Kansas State University, Oklahoma City Community College, and Central Community College. McCartney has been Red Cloud's heritage tourism development director since 2015. He has also served as president of the Nebraska Travel Association, and is currently president of the Red Cloud Community Fund.

1 Comment

I will always remember Toni and also Antonio. I was impressed as a 1st grader in Bladen i believe it was when a news station came to interview Antonio. . Also Toni never forgot any of the Bladen graduates i dont believe and i knew her two children very well. She was always one of the first to greet me when i returned to town.
I also brought her to our country school to speak in Lancaster co. and then to Malcolm too. She was so hapoy to do it since she knew me. Also my Doane Lincoln class took a trip to Red Cloud and i afded a soecial part to Bladen to their house where Toni met us and showed us her special quilt possesions etc and talked to us about her memories. I hope you add more of these places to the tour too. I love Willa Cather’s books and always have.