History of the Mari Sandoz Heritage Society
Like many of America's cultural organizations, the idea of the Mari Sandoz Heritage Society began in the hearts of three friends: Ranch woman Sybil Berndt, Mari Sandoz' sister Caroline Pifer and Gordon, Nebraska business woman Lloy Chamberlin. These three women early on recognized the significance and the historical value of the books written by Mari Sandoz.
The Chamberlin's were owners of the furniture store in Gordon and after renegade bullets riddled the Highway Museum, the three friends rejoiced when free space was offered on the second floor of the furniture store--an answer to their dream come true--a main street, uptown, accessible Mari Sandoz Room. Scholars, visitors, and students soon followed.
In 1971, thanks in large part to the efforts of the President of Chadron State College, Vance Nelson, and the college librarian, Judy McDonald, were successful in establishing a non-profit organization, “The Mari Sandoz Heritage Society”. Its mission was “to perpetuate Mari Sandoz’ memory and to preserve and interpret the cultural, historical, and scientific heritage of the High Plains and the Nebraska Sandhills.”
The Society, led by Ms. McDonald during the 1970’s met regularly, conducted an annual “Sandoz Country Tour”, usually led by Caroline Sandoz Pifer, successfully promoted memberships and published the Sandoz Heritage Society Newsletter. Judy McDonald with her colleagues Mary Martha Miles, Dr. Mike Cartwright and Dr. Richard Loosbrock maintained and nurtured the Society through the 1970’s but with the departure of Judy McDonald from the faculty the Society literally went dormant until 1988.
It was late 1988 that Dr. Ron Hull, Sandoz Society Board Member since 1971, returned to Nebraska after working in Washington DC. Dr. Mike Cartwright, Sandoz Biographer Helen Stauffer, and Sandoz board member, Kira Gale met with Ron Hull determined to bring the Society back to life and asked him to be the President. They immediately began revitalizing the Sandoz Society.
Mari Sandoz had long held the dream that a Sandoz Center would be established in western Nebraska to house the history of her writing career and be a place for study of the Great Plains and its people. This dream was a goal endorsed by the Mari Sandoz Heritage Society Board from the beginning in 1971.
Fortune smiled broadly on these efforts in the early 1990’s when Dr. Don Green was appointed Dean of Humanities at Chadron State College. An historian of note he greatly admired the work of Mari Sandoz and immediately became a Sandoz enthusiast and an active proponent for the Sandoz Heritage Society. His first step was to create “the Mari Sandoz room” in the administration building of the college to house the artifacts which had been at the Chamberlin’s furniture store in Gordon, Nebraska.
Dr. Thomas Krepel, President of Chadron State College agreed that the Sandoz legacy was important and gave his essential support to the dream of building, on the campus, the Mari Sandoz High Plains Heritage Center. He was instrumental in securing the unused early library building on campus for this purpose. Dr. Krepel hired Jeanne Bishop to raise the necessary renovation funds, over 1.6 million dollars, and the Mari Sandoz High Plains Heritage Center was dedicated in September 2002. Two years later in 2004 another milestone was achieved when the College was able to create the important full-time position of Director of the Center and Ms. Sarah Polock assumed those duties and has directed the Center ever since.
With thanks to the continuing efforts of Ms. Bishop an endowment to support programs offered by the Mari Sandoz Heritage Society was established in 2006. Esther Pilster, of Omaha, an elementary teacher and widely respected and honored principal in the Omaha area for 44 years, had attended the 2002 dedication of the Sandoz Center and was impressed by its purposes and goals to promote the heritage of the High Plains. In honor of her husband Raleigh she donated 3,731 acres of ranchland located northwest of Whitney, Nebraska and the Society sold this bequest for $932,000.
The Mari Sandoz Heritage Center of the High Plains and the Mari Sandoz Heritage Society are of ever growing importance to the life of Chadron State College and the people of the vast High Plains country of Nebraska, portions of Wyoming and South Dakota and the scholars and devotees of the work of Mari Sandoz world-wide.
--Ron Hull, May 2016