Farewell to a friend of the world
When she crossed the border in the early ’60s, she came in something of a huff. Years later Catherine Cater hinted that the Moorhead State College administration had issued a requirement that she either couldn’t or wouldn’t comply with so she and her friend and housemate Delsie Holmquist packed their bags and found employment in the English Department across the Red River at North Dakota State University.
And there she remained, bringing intellectual stimulation to decades of students until and well beyond her retirement. Although she was forced to take mandatory retirement when she was 65, Dr. Cater took her emeritus status seriously and continued to shepherd the Scholars Program she had started years earlier and to mentor and advise dozens of students through the next 30 or so years.
Jerry and I came to Fargo in 1963, Jerry to run the news bureau in the NDSU Communications Office and I to enter the English Department’s graduate program. Within two weeks of arrival, I was enrolled in Dr. Cater’s Southern Literature course.
Note the date. Catherine was born and educated in Alabama in a mixed-race family. She earned her bachelor’s at Talladega College in Alabama where her father was a dean at the college. She continued her education at the University of Michigan where she received a Ph.D.
Catherine was a child of the South. We studied Faulkner, Welty, Caldwell and Carson McCullers in her literature class. But we also discussed the Civil Rights movement that was sweeping through the South. Catherine rarely added personal anecdotes to her lectures, but in subtle ways she was shaping the attitudes of her North Dakota students.
Later I joined the NDSU faculty in the Communication Department and Catherine, Jerry and I became colleagues and friends. Our children became her students and they studied in the Scholars Program she had initiated.
Those who knew Catherine will agree, I believe, that her focus was always on the intellectual and philosophical and rarely on outward appearances. Her office, her house and later her garage on 10th Street North were filled with an accumulation of thousands of books.
Because she never learned to drive and didn’t own a car, she usually walked to her office in Minard Hall even during bitter cold winter days. She wore a long, very warm trench coat and sturdy shoes. Not all that stylish, but very practical.
A Spectrum reporter during the ’80s interviewed a number of fashionable coeds about their definition of style. And included, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Catherine among the commenters. Of course, her remarks were sensible, defining style as that which is most appropriate to the occasion.
She, Catherine, would continue to wear clothing that was comfortable, decent and clean. When she attended a gathering of her friends and colleagues (including President Dean Bresciani) on the occasion of her 94th birthday in 2011, she wore a pretty outfit and bedroom slippers. Perhaps her feet hurt.
Catherine loved to travel and took every opportunity to explore the corners of the world. Occasionally she took tours but most often she and Delsie would plan their own itinerary. She claimed not to have been at all intimidated when she left a tour group in Hong Kong to slip alone over the border into Communist China, but the tour guide was a bit upset.
During her 90s, Catherine had a serious heart attack that demanded medical care for the rest of her life. Eventually she moved into Bethany Homes on University Drive where she continued to receive former students, faculty colleagues and friends.
Dr. Cater moved through intellectual circles for most of her life, conversing with some of the country’s great minds, chairing seminars, and inspiring students. Toward the end of her life she took up the study of The Brain, accessing information from her computer and accumulation of books.
But downstairs in the Bethany dining room, she met new friends and delightedly accounted how she was learning a new vocabulary from a table mate with the tongue of a sailor.
How we miss her, this delightful, inspiring woman who with great compassion claimed the world her friend.
– Lou Richardson