'Big Read' project featuring Willa Cather's 'My Antonia' begins Monday in Hays

Monday is the start of a month-long celebration in Hays of Nebraska author Willa Cather.

October 2010 is officially "My Ántonia" month both at Fort Hays State University and in the Hays community thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and matching funds from the community.

Activities open with an official launch ceremony at 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 4, in the Hays City Hall. The featured speakers are Dr. Tisa Mason, vice president for student affairs at FHSU; State Sen. Janis Lee, Kensington; Hays businessman Henry Schwaller IV, who is also an instructor of management and marketing at FHSU; and Dr. Paul Faber, dean of the university's College of Arts and Sciences.

"Hays was shaped by the same historical and climactic forces documented in Cather's Nebraska fiction," said Dr. Steven Trout, chair of the FHSU Department of English. "Hays is the quintessential Great Plains community. The world that Cather describes is our world."

"Students don't get a literary perspective on the High Plains from any of the other literature they read in school," he said. "It's a great opportunity for them to read classic literature that is set in their own backyard."

The NEA grant is part of The Big Read program, which, according to the NEA website, is designed to restore reading to the center of American culture and bring together partners across the country to encourage reading for pleasure and enjoyment.

FHSU's grant will go toward activities and materials throughout the month to celebrate Willa Cather's "My Ántonia," which tells the story of a Czech, or Bohemian, immigrant family that starts a new life in rural Nebraska.

Several Cather experts will visit Hays in October to give presentations and workshops.

Dr. Steven Shively, associate professor of English at Utah State University and editor of the journal Teaching Cather, will lead book discussions in eight different classes at Hays High and deliver two presentations on the FHSU campus.

Filmmaker Joel Geyer, who directed the acclaimed PBS documentary "Willa Cather: The Road is All," will show and discuss his film at the Fox Pavilion in downtown Hays.

Dr. Charles Peek, rector of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Grand Island, Neb., will read selected passages from "My Ántonia" interspersed with pieces of music performed by FHSU faculty members Ben Morris-Cline, Matt Means and Irena Ravitskaya.

"My Ántonia" will also serve as the focus of a multidisciplinary panel presentation offered by four FHSU faculty members in four different departments -- Dr. Norman Caulfield, history; Dr. Bryan Bennett, political science; Dr. Pelgy Vaz, sociology; and Sharon Wilson, English. These presenters will relate Cather’s treatment of immigration in her 1918 novel to immigration issues in the early 21st century.

Two field trips to Red Cloud, Neb., will give readers of "My Ántonia" a chance to see the actual places that Cather describes in her fiction. One-hundred and fifty students from Hays High will visit Red Cloud on Wednesday, Oct. 20.

Later in the month, the Hays Recreation Commission will host an excursion for adults, led by three FHSU faculty members.

In addition to the planned activities, the Big Read grant will also purchase 2,500 copies of Cather's novel for distribution to all middle and high school students in Hays. The remaining books will go to the public, with a focus on local book clubs and senior citizens.

Big Read presentations, panel discussions and performances will be recorded, when possible, and made available through cable television, streaming online video and podcast. The schedule of events will be posted on the Hays Public Library website, www.hayspublib.org, the FHSU website, www.fhsu.edu (under “Campus Spotlight”).
Information about upcoming events will also be available on local cable and radio stations.

For more information about the Big Read program at FHSU, contact Trout at 785-628-4285.

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Office of University Relations   |  600 Park Street   |  Hays, KS  67601-4099
(785) 628-4206   |   Fax (785) 628-4152
Kent Steward, Director   |  ksteward@fhsu.edu  |  Kurt Beyers, Assistant Director   |  kbeyers@fhsu.edu