RED CLOUD — A three-dimensional image of Willa Cather, the Red Cloud High School graduate whose writings have immortalized her around the world, one day will grace the U.S. Capitol in Washington.
A special committee is preparing to commission an appropriate sculpture and make arrangements for it to be taken to Capitol Hill for placement in Statuary Hall.
History Nebraska, formerly known as the Nebraska State Historical Society, provided details of what the committee is working on in a news release Tuesday.
The Willa Cather National Statuary Hall Selection Committee is charged with selecting the sculptor, reviewing and approving the proposed design, raising enough private money for the project, seeing to the design and creation of a suitable pedestal, and transporting the statue and pedestal to Washington. No state funds are to be used.
The committee also is to arrange for temporary placement of the new statue in the Capitol Rotunda for an unveiling ceremony, which it must organize itself.
Additionally, the group must see to the removal of the “Nebraska statue” to be replaced — a representation of J. Sterling Morton of Nebraska City, an early Nebraska territorial leader who is best known as the founder of Arbor Day.
The Morton statue is to be returned to the state for installation in a suitable location yet to be determined.
The Willa Cather National Statuary Hall Selection Committee is made up of members of the Nebraska Hall of Fame Commission. The committee’s choice of a sculptor is to be announced in March following a recent competition for the honor.
The story of Cather’s statue going to Washington begins in 1864, 10 years before the author’s birth in Virginia, when the U.S. Congress established the statuary collection in the Old Hall of the U.S. House of Representatives. Each state was invited to supply statues of two important historical figures.
The two Nebraska statues now on display — those of J. Sterling Morton and William Jennings Bryan — were presented for display in 1937.
In 2000, Congress authorized the 50 states to request that the Joint Committee on the Library of Congress approve suggestions for replacement statues.
In 2018, the Nebraska Legislature passed LB807, which called for the replacement of the Morton and Bryan statues. The bill also allowed creation of two separate committees to arrange for the replacements.
The Bryan statue is to be replaced by an image of the famous Ponca Chief Standing Bear, a consequential Native American civil rights leader in the late 1800s.
Cather was born Dec., 7, 1873, and moved with her family to rural Webster County as a young girl. The family later moved into Red Cloud where she graduated from Red Cloud High School in 1890, delivering her valedictory commencement address from the stage of the 1885 opera house that today serves as headquarters for the foundation set up 65 years later, following her death, to perpetuate her literary legacy.
Cather matriculated in the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, where she graduated in 1895. She then went on to Pittsburgh and eventually New York City for a career in journalism and literature. Several of her short stories and novels are patterned on the people and places of Red Cloud and the surrounding area, which today is referred to regionally as “Catherland.”
She received a 1923 Pulitzer Prize for her World War I novel “One of Ours,” a story patterned on the life of her cousin, G.P. Cather, who grew up in the Bladen area and was killed in France while serving in the war.
Cather returned to Red Cloud periodically throughout much of her life to visit relatives and friends. She died in 1947 at age 73.
Rod Bates, who serves on the Willa Cather statue committee, said Cather’s selection for Statuary Hall says something important about the state and changing approaches to history.
“The inclusion of Willa Cather in Statuary Hall not only emphasizes the rich and diverse history of Nebraska but the constant evolution of historical interpretation,” Bates said. “We feel that Cather, in many ways, is Nebraska in her portrayals of the pioneer spirit, resiliency and determination.”
Ashley Olson, executive director of The Willa Cather Foundation, said Cather is recognized as one of America’s greatest writers because of her entire body of work.
“After publishing her early novels — many of which had their genesis in Cather’s own childhood experiences in Nebraska — she won national and international awards for later works ‘Shadows on the Rock’ and ‘Death Comes for the Archbishop,’ ” Olson said. “Every year some 10,000 tourists and scholars from across the country visit Red Cloud because of Willa Cather, and we are honored that she has been selected to represent Nebraska in Statuary Hall.”
History Nebraska is administering a cash fund set up to receive private donations for the Cather statue project. Meanwhile, the Willa Cather National Statuary Hall Selection Committee plans to update the public throughout the year on its progress and plans.
Organizations and private citizens will be asked to consider possible locations in Nebraska for the returned Morton statue, as well as ways the public or corporations might become part of the project.
Morton, whose image will be replaced by Cather’s in the Capitol, was a farmer and publisher with varied business interests. His roles in government included service as acting governor of Nebraska Territory from 1858-61 and as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture under President Grover Cleveland from 1893-97. He died in 1902.
Bryan, a populist politician from Lincoln, ran unsuccessfully as the Democratic nominee for president three times — in 1896, 1900 and 1908. He served as Secretary of State in the administration of President Woodrow Wilson from 1913-15. He also served as a U.S. congressman from Nebraska from 1891-95.
Bryan, a lawyer by profession, was known as a spellbinding orator who held forth on topics in politics and religion, including his opposition to the free coinage of silver, support for pro-labor policies, women’s suffrage and Prohibition, and his belief in biblical Creationism. He is remembered for his part in the famous Scopes Trial, a Tennessee court case dealing with the teaching of evolution in public schools (he opposed it), shortly before his death in 1925.