BLADEN — Students at Silver Lake Elementary School were whisked away on a black and dusty Dust Bowl cloud to experience what early pioneers in Webster County endured during an assembly featuring speaker Antonette Willa Skupa “Toni” Turner Tuesday in the school gym.
Turner is the granddaughter of Anna Pavelka, the woman whose life inspired the lead character in the Willa Cather novel, “My Antonia.” She was invited by MaKenna Karr, a sixth-grader at Silver Lake, to share some of her recollections of growing up around her famous grandmother.
Karr, 11, befriended the 99-year-old woman while doing research for a 4-H project focused on local history.
The assembly primarily centered around a Q & A session between Karr and Turner, with Turner fielding questions ranging from her favorite playground games (“Anti-I-Over,” and “Drop the Handkerchief”), school subjects (penmanship, spelling), and what she wore to school (overalls, shirt, high-top shoes).
As a Czech immigrant transplanted in a largely French community, Turner said she was often bullied by classmates during what proved to be a sometimes difficult transitional period in her life.
As she was still learning English, she disliked having to write out her lengthy name each day on school papers. Gradually, however, she learned to appreciate its importance and significance, she said.
“Don’t ever change your name,” she told students. “Our names are very important. The Lord has it in his Bible upstairs.”
Joining Karr and Turner on-stage were Turner’s daughter and representatives from the National Willa Cather Foundation and local media. A video trailer for a movie on the Dust Bowl and short clip featuring Turner sharing recollections of Pavelka provided additional background for the program.
Turner said she was just 10 years old when the Dust Bowl enveloped the city in rolling black clouds of dirt and dust. Her memory of the event was much clearer than the blackened air that forced residents to breathe through scarves to prevent choking.
“The dust looked like snow drifts,” Turner said. “It was absolutely dirty horrible. It was so hot that day we had the doors and windows opened and we could hear it We hid … and the dust just kept roaring. When it hit, Dad said, ‘It looks like the world has ended.’”
One girl in the neighborhood died from dirt inhalation, emphasizing the severity of the situation.
Turner shared recollections of her time spent visiting her grandmother on her farm.
Pavelka was a close friend of Cather’s and was immortalized in her famous novel as a strong-willed woman with an upbeat disposition. Turner believes those genes have – in no small part — helped her reach the ripe old age of 99 while remaining vibrant and alert to the point of maintaining her driver’s license as she approaches the century mark.
“It wouldn’t be possible if I wouldn’t have had the energy and the genes that she had,” she said afterward. “That’s what I think about my grandmother. I knew her personally. She was real special.”
Included among her treasured keepsakes are a yellow quilt made by Pavelka, a plow used by her to work the fields, and a set of coral beads she wears from Saks Fifth Avenue gifted to Pavelka by Cather.
Presented with a plaque and blue T-shirt by the school for sharing her heritage story, she seemed almost embarrassed to accept the tokens of appreciation.
“It’s unbelievable!” she said. “They told me they were going to give me something and I said, ‘I don’t need anything for just talking to you.’”
Following the assembly, school officials and others with cameras flocked to the stage to capture photos of Karr and Turner together and visit with the two presenters.
Silver Lake Public Schools Superintendent Josh Cumpston said he was glad to see Karr’s 4-H project evolve into something that benefited the entire school. He said he hoped her zest for knowledge will inspire other students to take an active interest in area history.
“it’s neat that it (the project) developed into something that was a great assembly for the rest of her classmates,” he said. “It’s neat when it’s student-driven like that.”
Karr said she was humbled by Turner’s comparing her to Cather, calling their unexpected friendship a real blessing in her life.
An aspiring author herself, she is already working diligently on a Turner biography and is hoping to wrap up interviews before Turner’s pending move to an assisted living facility in McCook.
She has already completed two chapters in the book, which she said she hopes to release sometime in 2020.
“It’s been a lot of fun to get to know Toni, to learn all the history, and then to make a difference in my school,” she said. “To get them to learn all of Toni’s history from her 99 years of life was just a lot of fun.
“I just thought it was going to be a fun 4-H project, but it’s turned into so much more. And I’m so thankful for that.”