Alumnus Bob Harding's journey to Nebraska via Nebraskaland

Photo Credit: Nebraskaland magazine cover
Thu, 04/18/2019 - 12:03

While I grew up in Iowa, I spent most of my adult life working in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I  moved back to Iowa in 2012, but still wanted to keep up with longtime friends out East, so for several summers I rented a vacation cottage for week or two in a little resort town near Lancaster called Mt. Gretna. Mt. Gretna is a very special place. In the late 1800s an arts and education movement began on the shores of Lake Chautauqua in western New York and spread throughout the United States.

Some chautauquas were temporary tent settlements. Others, like the original in New York, became established communities, including Mt. Gretna in 1892. Permanent homes and seasonal cottages sit side-by-side in the heavily wooded village, and the Pennsylvania Chautauqua foundation still flourishes today, supporting numerous activities and events.

I enjoyed gathering with Lancaster-area friends while vacationing in Mt. Gretna. But my summer trips seemed rushed, so after three years of renting I bought a small cottage. It allowed for more frequent and longer trips to Pennsylvania, which had the added benefit of meeting more people in the area and establishing new friendships.

Recently one of my Mt. Gretna neighbors, Tracy, and I went to the local pub for dinner. We were commenting how fortuitous it was that we met through Den, a mutual friend and  neighbor. Tracy and his wife, Kristine, had invited Den to a dinner party, and Den asked if he could bring me along as a guest. Had it not been for Den, Tracy and I wouldn't have been sitting at the bar that night, toasting our friendship after a few beers.

But later I started thinking how Den wasn't the sole factor in meeting Tracy and Kristine.  There were obviously more decisions, coincidences, and experiences that led to that point: why did I buy that particular cottage across the street from Den? And for that matter, how did a native Iowan even end up in Mt. Gretna? I wanted to create a timeline back to the most seemingly insignificant moment that changed the course of my personal history. The tipping point, as my friend Julie called it. I had worked in Lancaster, but what else kept me there for 25 years? What factors led to getting a job there to begin with? And what people and experiences contributed to those factors? I wanted to find my tipping point.

So I mentally reconstructed the chain of events, people, and circumstances that eventually led to my personal holy grail: a copy of Nebraskaland Magazine that I received in 1982 from the geography department at the University of Nebraska. Specifically, the glossy, photo-filled Nebraska Rivers issue.

In the early 1980s I worked for the US Census Bureau near Louisville, Kentucky. But my ultimate goal was to get a PhD in geography and teach, so I started applying to graduate schools. I wanted to stay close to family in the Midwest; my top choices were the universities of Iowa, Minnesota, and Nebraska. Because I needed a teaching assistantship to cover tuition and provide a small salary, I also applied to two backup schools: the universities of Kansas (where I received my bachelor's degree, in case they favored alums) and Kentucky (thinking they may give preference to residents).

All but the University of Minnesota offered teaching assistantships, so I narrowed my choices to Iowa and Nebraska. Both sent me a packet of information. I don't recall the materials either envelope contained except for one item: Nebraskaland Magazine. It was a beautiful magazine, and enclosing it was a nice personal touch that influenced my decision to attend the University of Nebraska. I admittedly didn't delve into the quality of either school's programs or give much thought to their specialties or reputations. I recall a phone conversation with the University of Iowa geography department chair; when I told him my decision to attend Nebraska instead of Iowa he seemed rather incredulous. I didn't tell him he should have sent me a glossy picture magazine. 

So Nebraskaland Magazine enticed me to the University of Nebraska, which resulted in friendships and connections that led to an internship in Washington DC, which in turn helped secure a job offer in Lancaster. The colleagues, friends, and experiences I had in Lancaster kept me there for 25 years. And Mt. Gretna's proximity to Lancaster resulted in discovering that community where I eventually purchased a cottage that I truly enjoy. As my next-door neighbor says whenever I return, "welcome home."

But what began as an mental exercise to create a linear path from a recently formed friendship back to its roots led me to think more broadly about all the people I've met, places I've been, and experiences I've had that would not have been were it not for attending the University of Nebraska. I wouldn't have had a career in cartography, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I wouldn't know anyone in Pennsylvania. I wouldn't have a godson in Ohio. I wouldn't have good friends in Oregon, or New York, or New Mexico, or Colorado. I wouldn't have traveled to New Zealand or Iceland, Newfoundland or China...or Roots Market in East Petersburg PA for that matter. No year in Japan trying to learn the language. No enjoyable daytrips exploring small towns and historic sites in the Northeast. No canoeing in the Adirondacks. No dog that waited by the front door when I called Pizza Hut for delivery.
And I wouldn't have the friends that I've made in Iowa since moving back to my native state.

So instead of linear paths it feels more like a tree. Family and early friends are the roots that
form the values and experiences feeding the trunk. And the University of Nebraska is the
place where branches begin to divide, forming a crown of nearly forty years of friendships,
exploits, and adventures. 

Had I attended the University of Iowa or any of the others, there would still be a tree. And who knows what kind it would have been. Perhaps a magnificent redwood or maybe a scraggly Charlie Brown Christmas tree. But no matter, as I truly enjoy my tree.

So I must posthumously thank Dr. Lonsdale, former chair of the geography department at
the University of Nebraska, for sending Nebraskaland Magazine. Specifically the glossy,
photo-filled rivers issue with the inviting blue cover. The seemingly insignificant tipping  point. My holy grail.

Bob Harding ('86), Masters in Geography