Monday, May 25, 2015

Whitney's Mike Cartwright dies at age 72

by Larry Miller

Whitney native Mike Cartwright died unexpectedly on Friday (5/22/15) at his home in Whitney, Nebraska.  He was 72.  Services are planned for 2:00 p.m. this Wednesday, May 27, 2015 at the Warring Memorial United Methodist Church in Whitney.

Growing up in Whitney, Nebraska
A long-time college professor and administrator, Mike was born in Crawford and grew up on the Cartwright farm and ranch operation just outside of Whitney, where his grandfather had homesteaded in 1891.  He attended Whitney School through eighth grade, then attended high school in Chadron.  He was a 1960 graduate of Chadron High School.  Mike attended Chadron State College for a couple of years before transferring to the University of Nebraska, where he would earn his bachelor's, master's, and finally a Ph.D. in 1970.

Dr. Michael P. Cartwright then became an English professor at California State University-Bakersfield, where he remained for 13 years.  By 1983, he was serving as Chairman of the English Department and Assistant to the Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences when an opportunity opened for a return to his Nebraska roots and a teaching job at Chadron State College.  He remained at CSC for 24 before retiring.

Ten years ago this month — in May of 2005 — Mike was awarded the Chadron State College Teaching Excellence Award.  At that time, CSC Director of Information Con Marshall wrote a comprehensive story about Mike's impressive career:  Award recipient's strategy seeks student interaction.  

Not only was Mike Cartwright an outstanding teacher, he also served three years as Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences while at CSC, and he was instrumental in helping revitalize the struggling Mari Sandoz Heritage Society.

Professor Mike Cartwright
In 2006, Mike served as a director for the Nebraska Festival of the Books, and the organization included a short biographical sketch of him in their newsletter.  In part, they wrote:  "Mike is a bicoastal Nebraskan, splitting his time between Whitney and Lincoln. An eight-hour drive across the state is a normal day for Mike. Having found the route with only two stoplights between Lincoln and Whitney, he is now searching for the one with fewer than three stop signs. One day it's 501s, cowboy boots, and his dad's '59 Ford truck. The next it's tweed jackets, suede shoes, and a briefcase. In a given week, he might help a neighbor drive cattle to the Fort Robinson Wood Reserve, teach world literature to undergraduates at Chadron State College, and lounge at the Coffee House in downtown Lincoln. Now, he may also be found directing the Nebraska Book Festival and reading for the Nebraska Library Commission's Talking Book and Braille Service."  That was quintessential Mike — something of a Renaissance man.

It's fair to say that Mike was also a rancher/farmer, too, albeit part-time.  He retained his parent's property just outside of Whitney, as well as his grandmother's old house in downtown Whitney.

A personal note or two.  I first knew Mike when we were in high school together at Chadron High.  He was an outstanding student, winning honors in English, but also competing effectively as a halfback on the Cardinal football team and was part of the Two-Mile Relay track team that set a new record in 1960.  He was an officer in the "C" Club and was also among those selected for Regents Scholarship honors. Mike had a key role in the 1960 CHS production of  Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Carousel" at Memorial Hall.  Teachers Ron and Jane Becker had spearheaded the production.  Alas, Mike is among several cast members who have since died.

It was after we had both retired that Mike and I rekindled our friendship.  Although he and his wife Jeanetta lived in Lincoln, he loved coming back out to Dawes County and spending time on the place outside Whitney where he had grown up.  We shared an appreciation of our Whitney heritage, and Mike took steps to try to help revive the little village.  He generously offered numerous Whitney photos from his family albums to be used in the "Whitney Yesteryear" video we produced a few years back. 

Whitney proclaimed capitol of Greater Nebraska
Mike Cartwright had a wonderful sense of humor.  Part of it was reflected in his marketing of Whitney as the "Capitol of Greater Nebraska," that part of the state west of Grand Island.  He produced posters, certificates, and even coffee mugs — one of them beckoning folks to "Join Now! Greater Nebraska No-Coast Guard!"  We have featured some of his tongue-in-cheek initiatives, and you can read a bit about them in our Whitney Photo Gallery.

But wait a minute.  The capitol city of the Territory of Greater Nebraska should have a meeting place! But there had been no store or filling station in Whitney for several years — no place to even congregate for a cup of coffee and conversation.  So in 2011, Mike and his wife Jeanetta decided to open "Cora's Place." With able assistance from fellow Whitney resident Budge Cripps, Mike made several improvements to the house on Missouri Street once owned by his great-grandmother and opened a coffee shop and lending library.

Cora's Place offered not only coffee and conversation, but antiques and artwork, too.  The front room was outfitted with a stereo system and some great music, too. The shop was named in honor of his grandmother Cora (Cripps) Cartwright.  They created a small lending library, and books were checked out on the honor system.  We understand Mike was planning to open "Cora's Place" today  — Memorial Day— just as he had done the last few years.  While it was no threat to Starbucks — for the local and area folks who stopped in for coffee and conversation, Cora's Place was a very special place, indeed. We shall miss it.  

And we'll certainly miss Mike Cartwright.  

Our condolences to Mike's wife, Jeanetta, and his two sisters, Nancy Hamer and family of Mankato, Minnesota, and Evelyn Geu and family of Sidney, Nebraska.