100 years of Czech Language Program at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln
The establishment of the Czech Language and Culture Program at UNL in 1907 had in addition to educational program political and ideological goals. It constituted culturally the highest step in the transplantation of Czech culture into the Great Plains, which started with the Homestead Act, the establishment of Czech townships and their governance.
The Homestead Act set conditions that lead a massive transfer of populations settled in US towns to the Plains where they established ethnically homogenous towns. Czechs in the US formed settlement clubs in New York, Chicago and other towns, with the aim to settle on the newly available land and established fully functioning Czech communities. Several types of organizations such as Sokol, Orel, fraternal associations, reading clubs, and theatrical associations provided space for cultural life. A number of periodicals (48 titles in Nebraska alone) informed their readers in Czech about subject ranging from Homestead Act and US constitution to livestock breading.
The cultural institutions such as theaters and periodicals needed educated leaders. High schools in the Czech towns taught the Czech language, however, it was perceived that Czech culture should be taught on the university level as well.
The Czech Language Program at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln (UNL) was established 100 years ago, in the fall of 1907. The fall 2007 will mark an important milestone for the teaching not only of the Czech language, but also literature, cultural programming for the university community, and the preparation of students who became cultural and political leaders in the US, such as Dr. Olga Stastny and Roman Hruska.
In the beginning of the 21st century the Nebraska program is one of a handful in the US that teaches Czech. In the 20th century, however, the University of Nebraska was not the only institution involved in the teaching of Czech language and culture even in the state of Nebraska. At that time students in other Nebraska institutions of higher learning, such as Creighton University in Omaha also negotiated with their academic institutions, which then introduced Czech language and literature courses. However, at different times their programs were discontinued, usually because the small number of students could not support small programs. (For example Creighton had in 1907 only 800 students, while UNL had 2000 students.) By the end of the 20th century, the University of Nebraska at Lincoln remained the sole academic institution teaching Czech language and culture in Nebraska.
The Czech program at UNL has been closely tied to the existence of the UNL Komensky Club. The club was conceived in 1903 and officially incorporated in 1904. The goal of the Komensky Club was first to practice the literary Czech language. The club meetings provided a place for the sharing of students' literary works such as stories and poems, discussions of Czech literature published overseas in their mother country, and talking about political news. One of the stated aims of the club was to formalize the learning that took place in the club meetings and take it to a higher plane in the form of course work led by university professors.
The student members of the Komensky Club together with other Mid West personalities led by professor Shimek from Iowa and the writer and journalist Jan Rosicky, submitted to UNL a proposal for a Czech language and culture program. In 1907, together with Nebraska politicians of Czech background Frank Rejcha, Vaclav Bures, and Victor Rosewater, the students in the Komensky Club approached the Nebraska Regents (on the Board of Education) and reiterated their request. After successful political maneuvering in the Nebraska Senate to obtain the levy for the financing of the University, which was the condition of the then UNL Chancellor Andrews, the Czech program was approved. The Czech community felt that it was an important victory. Its language and culture could be studied by its elite and future leaders.
The stated aim of the program was to help the continuation of Czech culture on the American continent, as well as the sharing of the achievements of Czech culture with English speaking compatriots.
>From its inception in 1907 the program had many illustrious professors and graduates. The first teacher was the poet and writer Jeffrey Hrbek. He was chosen because of the admiration the community had for his literary achievements. Unfortunately he died in December 1907, shortly after he was appointed. The community was shocked, as his untimely death was perceived as a cultural blow to the whole program. Jeffrey Hrbek was replaced by his sister - writer, political activist, social worker, and journalist Dr. Sarah Hrbek (Šárka Hrbková). Dr. Hrbek devoted all her time to the promotion of the Czech language in the state of Nebraska, and in the whole USA. Under her tenure the Komensky Club flourished. Not only did it provide cultural events for the students of Czech language and culture, it also opened its doors to the non-Czechs. It organized events for Nebraskans regardless of their ethnic origin, such as balls, classical music concerts, and Czech literature and poetry evenings. The UNL Komensky Club and the Czech program shared its cultural experience with other universities. As the Czech program graduates left Nebraska and started their graduate studies and/or teaching in other institutions in the United States, they followed the Nebraska example and founded other Komensky Clubs in their new institutions. Twenty eight Komensky clubs were founded in North America by 1919.
The first twelve years of the Czech program at UNL were very successful. However, in 1919 after 12 years of devoted teaching, Dr. Sarah Hrbek (Šárka Hrbková) moved to New York to become the director of the federal Foreign Language Information Service. The newsletter of the Komensky Club she published for 12 years was discontinued.
In 1920 Professor Orin Štěpánek was hired to teach Czech. Thanks to his study of Slavistics at Charles University in Prague, he came as a full professor to teach Czech and Russian until his death in 1955.
>From its inception in 1907 until 2007, the Czech language program has constituted a cradle from which came politicians, scientists, and social activists serving the American public at large. It saw the flourishing of Czech culture in the Great Plains in the first half of the twentieth century and the decline of the use of Czech language in Nebraska in the second half of the twentieth century. The program inspired the Czech cultural life in the state; it also mediated contacts with and presented the cultural achievements of the mother country.Mila Saskova-Pierce
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