Weekly Column

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I’ve been fortunate to have many strong women in my life that I look up to as role models. When I was growing up, I had my mother, my grandmothers, and special teachers. I was inspired by Margaret Thatcher, and authors Jane Austen and Willa Cather, and I have had remarkable mentors like Governor Kay Orr. But this week, I’d like to share with you my admiration for one of Nebraska’s greatest storytellers: Mari Sandoz.

Mari Sandoz brought Nebraska’s history to life. She was a biographer, historian, teacher, and author. She dedicated her life to writing stories about farmers, ranchers, Native Americans, and pioneers of the west. She knew the hardships of settling in the Nebraska Sandhills in the 20thcentury, yet she also understood its promise for the future. Today, we enjoy her distinctive style and inspiring works that allow us to put ourselves in the shoes of those who came before us. 

Sandoz was born just south of Hay Springs, Nebraska. As a young child, she had an overwhelming passion to write. When she wasn’t taking care of her brothers and sisters or tending to her family’s garden, she would read or create short stories. She even noted in an interview that “she would rather read than eat.”

Early in her literary career, nearly every major publishing company rejected what later became one of her most popular books, Old Jules, and other writings. In frustration, she burned about 70 of her short stories. But she was determined and pushed forward, and Old Jules later won a $5,000 prize from a literary magazine. With her compelling style and vivid descriptions, she wrote over 20 books in her career and penned several short stories about life on the Great Plains. These works play an essential part in sharing and understanding the history of Nebraska.

Mari Sandoz also invested in the next generation of writers. She taught creative writing through programming by Nebraska Public Television. She conducted writing workshops and would review works sent to her from authors across the country.

I grew up in Lincoln, and I remember in elementary school my mother took me to Pershing Auditorium for a book fair. To this day, I have memories of sitting on the floor in a circle that day with my schoolmates, huddled around Mari Sandoz as she read to us. She sparked a passion for reading and writing that I have carried with me all my life. 

Her legacy lives on in Nebraska and around the world. This summer, a state historical marker in downtown Lincoln was placed to recognize the site where Sandoz penned Old Jules. The marker reveals that she could be seen sitting on the curb with a pen in hand, while she overlooked the construction of the State Capitol nearby before its completion in 1932. When I served in the Nebraska Legislature, I always smiled when I walked by her bust displayed in the Nebraska Hall of Fame in the Capitol.

During a recent stop at Chadron State College, I snapped a picture next to her statue at the Mari Sandoz High Plains Heritage Center. This September 20-22, the 2018 Mari Sandoz Heritage Society Symposium will be held on campus. The event will bring readers together to discuss her works and to honor the land and people she brought to life in her writing. 

In 1969, the Nebraska Library Association established the Mari Sandoz Award to be given to a person who has made “significant, enduring contributions to the Nebraska book world through writing, film production, or other related activity” each year. 

We’re blessed to enjoy the beautiful land and resources that drive The Good Life. I believe it is important for us to understand our history through the personal experiences of those who came before us. Not only was Mari Sandoz a pioneer in her journey west, she was a trailblazer for aspiring female authors and historians. I am proud to share her story.

Thank you for participating in the democratic process. I look forward to visiting again with you next week.