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Ashley Olson Executive Director of The National Willa Cather Center

The National Willa Cather Center is an arts and cultural center that serves as a living memorial to renowned writer, Willa Cather. The Center occupies Red Cloud’s historic “Moon Block,” an 1887 structure that was fully restored in 2017 through a $7 million project that created revitalized space for a new archive, museum, and bookstore, as well as street-level retail spaces and loft apartments.

Ashley Olson has been a member of the Willa Cather Foundation staff since 2008 and has served as the Executive Director since 2014. She holds a degree in Business Administration from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a certificate in Fundraising Management from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Ashley and husband Tyler both grew up in Red Cloud, where they reside with their daughter, Nora.

What is your favorite thing about Red Cloud?

Growing up here was an experience that I value a great deal and look back upon very fondly. There are many efforts underway to ensure today’s young people feel the same way about their hometown, which I appreciate.

You’re the Chair of the Red Cloud Community Foundation Fund. Why do you value that organization and why do you think it’s important to build a culture of philanthropy in Red Cloud?

I value that the Red Cloud Community Foundation Fund is part of a broader network of rural communities affiliated with the Nebraska Community Foundation, all of which are working to make their hometowns great places to live, work, and raise a family. No one knows what challenges or opportunities will emerge in Red Cloud in the next decade, so building a culture of philanthropy is important in order to invest in current and future projects that will make Red Cloud vibrant and attract and retain residents—both today and over the long-term.

I’m excited about the can-do attitude and new leadership emerging in Red Cloud. I look forward to seeing what we will collectively achieve as a community in the next decade.

What are some of your favorite businesses to shop at in Red Cloud? Why?

After moving back to Red Cloud, I served several years as Treasurer of Red Cloud’s Chamber of Commerce, so shopping local has always been a norm in our house. We shop most often at Hometown Market, Kenny’s Lumber, Village Pharmacy, and On the Brix, as well as our local restaurants. And the bookstore and gift shop at the National Willa Cather Center.

Is there anything you wish people knew about National Willa Cather Center?

The National Willa Cather Center and our other historic properties are really incredible places to visit, so I would encourage everyone to take the guided tour. When I was growing up in Red Cloud, I’ll confess that I didn’t fully grasp or appreciate the national and international appeal of Cather’s literature. Because the town and Webster County are settings in so much of Cather’s work, people from all over come here to see firsthand the places that she immortalized in her writing. This is exciting, of course, but we also provide a variety of programs and experiences for area residents. Our art exhibits rotate on a regular basis and we’ve made an effort since opening the National Willa Cather Center to offer more free humanities events: author signings, book talks, films, etc. In summary, I want people to know that the National Willa Cather Center is here to enhance the quality of life for the people in the community just as much as it’s here to serve visitors.

Under Olson's leadership, the National Willa Cather Center employs 18 people, most of whom live in Red Cloud.
I want people to know that the National Willa Cather Center is here to enhance the quality of life for the people in the community just as much as it’s here to serve visitors.

The 64th Annual Spring Willa Cather Conference will occur from Thursday, May 30th through Saturday, June 1st. Is there anything you’d like to tell our readers about the Conference?

There are a number of conference events that are free and open to the public, including panel discussions and our guest speakers. I’d encourage everyone to join us for our Homecoming & Horizons event on Thursday, May 30, which will end with a social event at the Burlington Depot featuring local food and drink vendors. Our conference-goers enjoy meeting community residents, as they are genuinely curious about life in the town and care a lot about Red Cloud’s vitality. I would love to connect more people in the community with the visitors that come here year after year for the Cather conference.

If you could have a superpower what would it be and why?

I’d love to be able to read peoples’ minds.

Do you have any hobbies or interests you’d like to share?

I like being outdoors, especially for hiking or fishing. I’ve made a little progress with creating a pollinator garden in our yard and enjoy reading and quilting when I have to be inside.

Do you have any pets?

We have a German Shorthaired Pointer named Maddie.

Olson with members of the Red Cloud community during the 2018 Governor's Showcase Community Award presentation at the State Capitol in Lincoln

The Willa Cather Foundation recently changed its name to The National Willa Cather Center. Why did you make this change?

The National Willa Cather Center is now the registered tradename of the Willa Cather Foundation, so that’s the name you’ll see more frequently going forward. We felt that the National Willa Cather Center was more encompassing, not only of our organization’s physical location, but it also reinforces our focus on national outreach through publications and through programming outside of Nebraska. Also, the Willa Cather Foundation could easily be mistaken for an organization that is solely devoted to fundraising, which isn’t entirely accurate. We’re a museum and attraction as much as a fundraising organization.

What would your high school teachers or guidance counselor say about you if we asked?

I hope they would say that I was a good student, kind, and respectful.

What are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of my daughter, who keeps me grounded and motivated. Second to that is my work life. The motivating factor in my accepting a position at Cather after college was hearing about plans for the Moon Block restoration and a desire to play a role in doing something positive for the community. I’m proud to have been involved in completing that project and excited for what comes next.

Do you have a mantra or mission statement you live by?

I wrote a personal mission statement as part of a program I participated in last year: “To live a fulfilling life by inspiring others to be their best selves while leading authentically and facilitating positive change.”

What historical figure or celebrity would you most like to have dinner with? Why?

Well Willa Cather, of course. I’d love to talk about transformational leadership with Nelson Mandela. And I’m a big fan of classic movies, so James Dean, Judy Garland, and Clark Gable are right up there too.

Do you have any advice for someone looking to relocate to rural Nebraska?

Choose Red Cloud!

Our conference-goers enjoy meeting community residents, as they are genuinely curious about life in the town and care a lot about Red Cloud’s vitality. I would love to connect more people in the community with the visitors that come here year after year for the Cather conference.

What is your favorite song and/or recording artist?

Adele’s 25 album is playing as I write this, so we’ll go with that.

Who is your favorite writer or thinker?

Right now, I’m loving Cy Wakeman’s book Reality Based Leadership.

What is your dream vacation?

I love to travel. There are several places that I hope to visit one day: Greece, South Africa, Egypt, and Spain are right up there.

What’s your favorite place to visit in Nebraska?

Omaha is great, of course. I also enjoy western Nebraska, especially Scottsbluff and Chimney Rock National Monuments.

Who has been the biggest influence in your life? Explain why.

My parents were both huge influences. My dad for always reminding me not to stress about the small stuff and my mom for fostering my analytical and problem solving skills.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I’m excited about the can-do attitude and new leadership emerging in Red Cloud. I look forward to seeing what we will collectively achieve as a community in the next decade.

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