The University of Nebraska honored Cather scholar Mellanee Kvasnicka during Masters Week, November 7-9, 2001. Kvasnicka was among seven alumni invited to return to the Lincoln campus for the annual event, which connects distinguished graduates with current UNL students.
In addition to a Wednesday evening reception at the Wick Alumni Center welcoming the seven returning masters, Kvasnicka was honored for her accomplishments by members of the Cather Colloquium at a Thursday evening dinner. Kvasnicka also interacted with UNL undergraduates while visiting two classes—Susan Rosowski's and Jacque Sorensen's University Honors Seminars.
Currently, Kvasnicka is chair of the English Department at Omaha South High School, where she teaches several courses, including Advanced Placement English and an honors class in Women's Studies, which she team-teaches with Dr. Antoinette Turnquist. An officer of the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial, Kvasnicka is also a director of the Cather Teachers' Institute and is a Humanities Resource Center Speaker for the Nebraska Humanities Council. In 1997 she received her PhD in English from UNL, having completed a dissertation that explores the ways in which education affected Willa Cather's life and fiction.
First implemented in the 1960s, Masters Week recognizes alumni who have shown great success and leadership in their chosen life's work. Candidates for a Masters Week award must have provided outstanding service for a number of years, must have information and experience that are valuable to the entire academic community, and must be currently active in their professions. The goals for the event, which is sponsored by the Innocents and Mortar Board societies, the Chancellor's Office, and the Alumni Association, are threefold: to help students to realize there are many ways to apply formal education to successful careers, to help students to learn of current developments in their intended professions, and to update faculty on significant trends and developments in their fields. This year's masters included four women and three men from diverse occupations including, for example, Glenna Luschei, poet and founder of Solo Press in San Luis Obispo, California; Shawn Buchanan, president and CEO of All American Meats, Inc. in Omaha; and John Rosenow, founder and president of the National Arbor Day Foundation. At a Wednesday evening reception held in the Wick Alumni Center, this year's masters were each introduced by a personal student host who listed each master's accomplishments.
Kvasnicka was recognized in a more personal way at the home of Margie Rine and David Ochsner, where on Thursday evening over a dozen Cather enthusiasts enjoyed delicious food and fine conversation. Several reminisced about Mellanee's work at the university while others recalled visiting her classroom at Omaha's South High School, where they witnessed the high quality of interaction that occurs between Mellanee and her students. Stories flowed back and forth across the candlelit table. When Mellanee returned to her classroom after earning her doctorate, her students, looking somewhat dejected, asked her when she would be leaving South High for another position. She told them that no, she wasn't leaving; she was planning to continue to be their teacher. "Then why did you get a PhD?" they wanted to know. "To become a better teacher for you," she replied.
Jerry Bartee, Kvasnicka's principal at South High, speaks highly of her "far reaching impact" on her students. Bartee praises her not only for her professionalism but also for her care and concern for her students. He especially singles out Kvasnicka's ability to inspire "glee and delight" in her students. While on the UNL campus during Masters Week Kvasnicka encountered several of her former South High students. "Seeing my own students doing so well at UNL strengthened my connections to the University," she remarked.
For someone so deeply ensconced in the teaching profession, Kvasnicka chose a fitting dissertation topic. "Education in the Parish/Preparation for the World: The Educational Tradition in the Life and Works of Willa Cather" examines the teaching profession as it intersects with Cather's career. This work describes the environment in which Cather received her elementary, high school, and college education; traces Cather's career as student as well as her career as a high school teacher; and demonstrates how Cather's educational experiences were transformed into art in the pages of her fiction. Kvasnicka writes, "Education to Cather was a matter of bone-deep conviction in the issues that drove her artistic as well as personal life: her compassion for human beings, her concern for integrity in the face of twentieth century materialism, her obsession with time and youth."
Kvasnicka shared her own passion for educating students with Susan Rosowski's undergraduate honors seminar on Thursday morning of Masters Week. The focus of this course, appropriately enough, is "Our Lives in Schools." Rosowski called the session a "totally fabulous" experience in which Kvasnicka shared her personal aims in working with students. Kvasnicka explained that in the teacher/student relationship she strives to be, not a friend, but a teacher, one who sees her students' needs and responds to those needs. "Education is here for you," she told the group, challenging them to use the resources of the university to prepare for life, rather than just training for a job.
"During Masters Week I felt, as I always do when I'm on campus, the old thrill of being in classrooms as a student, and that is different from being in those same classrooms as a teacher," Kvasnicka reflected after returning to her South High teaching routine. "Mostly, I felt fortunate to be in such wonderful company and to know once again how vital and vibrant the University is. Strolling across the campus, I kept thinking, "This is what a university should look like.'"