Jitka and Ron Stiles: A Youthful Czech-Canadian Couple Promoting Czech Culture in Nebraska
In 1996, a very energetic young Czech lady named Jitka Tomanova came overseas to study and work with Dr. Michael Stiles in his food microbiological laboratory in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. As she would have been left alone over Christmas, far from her family in Mnichovo Hradiste (60 km north of Prague), Dr. Stiles invited Jitka to spend the Christmas holiday with his family in Whitefish, Montana, U.S.A. There she met Ron Stiles who was eager to learn all about her including her Czech language, traditions and culture. This explains in part why a Canadian without Czech origins is so involved in Czech heritage and culture to this day in Lincoln, Nebraska, U.S.A.
At the end of June 1997, Ron moved to Prague in the Czech Republic and married Jitka a year later. By November 1999, Jitka was finishing her Ph.D., and had been hired by four different universities to do her post-doctorate research. Lincoln was the city where they both could work, Jitka at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UN-L) as a research associate, and Ron teaching English Language Learners in Lincoln Public Schools, which explains how they came to live in Nebraska.
The state of Nebraska has a large Czech population, and it was not long before Jitka and Ron made enough contacts to become members of the Nebraska Czechs of Lincoln and join their monthly meetings. They became actively involved by presenting a traditional Czech wedding ceremony and customs for this group, Jitka giving a lecture on Czech culture, and they later contributed to the group's 2000 Christmas party by providing hand-painted, mouth-blown Czech ornaments to the members.
Further, since UN-L offers a Czech language program, Ron enrolled for the spring semester starting January 2000, along with taking a graduate level Special Education course as required by Nebraska Teacher's Certification. This effectively began his Masters Degree and secured his status for the next two years as a student at UN-L. As such, Ron was able to accept the nomination by Katya Koubek, his Czech Language instructor, and Dr. Mila Saskova-Pierce (the enthusiastic director of the Czech Language Program), to be the President of the Czech Komensky Club, a non-profit student organization in which capacity he is currently serving for a second year.
The Czech Komensky Club, humbly named after Jan Amos Komensky, the "Teacher of Nations", has been continuously active in Nebraska since 1904, providing a celebration of Czech culture. As President, Ron (with profound help from Jitka) took it upon himself to liaison between the Nebraska Czechs of Lincoln and the Czech Komensky Club, thus promoting both to one another. The Czech Komensky Club publishes a newsletter entitled "Nas svet" (Our World) which has a circulation of almost 400, and deals with upcoming club events, Czech news around Nebraska, famous Czechs mini-biographies, and news from the Czech Republic. The club meets once every two weeks throughout the university year, providing guest lecturers, films, music, dance, and entertainment related to Czech history, language, and customs. At each meeting, the Komensky Club provides a supply of free soft drinks to its members.
Specific examples of recent Komensky Club meetings include: a presentation and demonstration of Czech bagpipes (dudy) the Capital City Czech Choraliers, a Nebraska polka band a lecture on "Czechoslovakia During the Second World War" an early music ensemble named Dulces Voces to sing Czech Baroque music, a lecture on "The Unique Culture of the Czech Republic" (by Jitka) the screening of the Czech film "Hanele"; a Polka Party involving the history and instruction of the dance; and separate lectures on Czech Christmas, and Easter (spring) traditions followed by a potluck party with Czech-American foods. Jitka has managed to raise over $3000.00 during the last year in grants offered to student organizations through UN-L to enable the Komensky Club to pay for musicians, lecturers, event supplies, and official club T-shirts.
As a rolling snowball continues to get larger, so did Jitka and Ron's contacts to other Czech organizations. Dr. Mila Saskova-Pierce and her husband, Layne, solicited their help in a project of theirs -- the Czech Heritage Digitalization Project. The aim of this undertaking is the digitalization and inventory of all items (including oral histories, books, toys, clothing, kitchenware, paintings, jewelry, photographs, etc.) of authentic Czech heritage that exist in Nebraska. In July, after returning form a month in the Czech Republic, Jitka and Ron began to attend meetings for the Czech Heritage Digitalization Project. Ron was able to obtain a $300.00 grant from the Center for Great Plains Studies in support it.
When Dr. Saskova-Pierce invited the former Czech Ambassador Dr. Alexandr Vondra to come to Nebraska at the beginning of August, 2000, Jitka and Ron were honored to able to meet with him personally to discuss the activities of the Komensky Club, and the Digitalization Project. When the new academic calendar year began at UN-L, Mondays alternated between meeting for this project and the Komensky Club meetings from September through October 2000.
Soon after the former ambassador's visit, Dr. Saskova-Pierce and Cathleen Oslzly conceived the idea and pitched it to members of the Czech Heritage Digitalization Project to bring the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences (SVU) 2001 North American Conference to Lincoln. Once granted this opportunity, Jitka and Ron began close collaboration with other groups -- this time, the Czech Language Foundation, and the Nebraska Czechs of Wilber. As such, they became members of the SVU and were involved from the outset offering suggestions, ideas, and support as members of the organizational committee. From October 2000 through August 2001, planning for the Czech Heritage Digitalization Project was suspended in favor of preparations for the SVU Conference.
The Komensky Club was again awarded a grant, this time in the amount of $1000.00, to enable it to become a sponsoring organization of the conference. Jitka and Ron spread flyers, called the newspaper in order to enhance the publicity of the conference, and continued to spread the word through the Komensky Club, Nas svet, and at Nebraska Czechs of Lincoln meetings. Moreover, Jitka attended the Governor of Nebraska's Proclamation that August first through the third, 2001 is "Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences Days". She was able to arrange a Czech movie entitled "Musime si pomahat" (given the English title "Divided We Fall"), nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, to be brought to Nebraska for special screening during this conference and booked the Baroque vocal group Dulces Voces to perform.
To kick-off the SVU conference, Ron was one of the Masters of Ceremonies at the Wednesday night reception, and sang the Canadian national anthem at the opening ceremonies. Both Jitka and Ron were panel chairs and presented papers during the conference. Jitka chaired the panel on Czech and Slovak Contributions to Medicine and the Life Sciences, contributing the paper "Positive and Negative Aspects of Molds in the Food Industry". Ron chaired the panel on The Assimilation and Acculturation of Youth, explaining his perspective on "Language: The First Target of Assimilation". He hopes to have this paper published in "Kosmas". Ron also organized and chaired the free-form Poetry reading session. Finally, the Czech Komensky Club was proud to provide cold soft drinks to accompany the kolace and coffee breaks provided by other sponsoring organizations throughout the conference.
Since the SVU conference, Jitka and Ron have resumed their duties with the Czech Heritage Digitalization Project, archiving the Czech artifacts from the "Wall of Remembrance", which were gathered and displayed at the Great Plains Art Collection. Jitka is also preparing to teach the intermediate Czech class at UN-L for the 2001-2002 academic year. Within a few days, Jitka and Ron plan to meet again with the conference organizational committee to assist in founding a new SVU chapter here in Lincoln. Although as yet undecided, it is likely they will serve as officers in the new chapter.
Unfortunately, Jitka and Ron Stiles will be leaving Nebraska to return to the Czech Republic in the fall of 2002. They will be leaving behind many great friends and a legacy of collaboration, which they hope will continue long after they have left. In the mean time, there are still ongoing projects keeping them busy, and many more people to meet and work along side with. By working together in cooperative groups, we can achieve great things, but musime si pomahat.
The Stiles' are looking forward to seeing and meeting you at the SVU World Congress in Plzen, Czech Republic, 2002.
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