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Southwick, Helen Cather



Helen Cather Southwick is the daughter of Willa Cather's brother, James Cather. Helen grew up in Red Cloud, Nebraska, and still remembers visits from her aunt. She met her husband, Philip L. Southwick, while both were students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. For more information please see the Helen Cather Southwick or Philip L. Southwick biographies written by their son Jim Southwick.

Helen Louise Cather was born in Red Cloud, Nebraska, on 15 June 1918. Her parents were Willa Cather's brother James Cather and Ethel May (Garber) Cather, who was related through her father to Silas Garber. Helen has vivid memories of Willa Cather's visits to Red Cloud, during which Helen and her cousin Mary Virginia Auld would often serve their aunt afternoon tea.

Helen lived in Red Cloud until 1931, when her family moved to Long Beach, California. Following high school graduation, she attended Long Beach City College for two years. She returned to Red Cloud in the summer of 1939 to help with the care of her invalid Grandmother Garber and that fall enrolled at University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL), where she pledged Kappa Kappa Gamma. Shortly thereafter she met Philip L. (Phil) Southwick, a masters degree candidate in chemistry, who was earning extra money by tutoring members of her sorority.

After graduating from UNL and becoming engaged to Phil, she went home to California in June 1941, and joined the personnel department of Douglas Aircraft Company. In the summer of 1942, she returned to Nebraska for her marriage to Phil on September 1st at her Aunt Elsie's Lincoln home. Following the wedding, she and Phil traveled to Champagne, Illinois, where Phil was pursuing a Ph.D. in chemistry.

Upon completion of Phil's studies, they moved to New Jersey, where Phil had accepted a position in the research laboratories of Merck and Company. Their home in Plainfield, New Jersey, was conveniently close to New York City, permitting frequent visits to her Aunt Willa's apartment.

In 1946, Philip obtained a faculty position at Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and a few months later, on 18 December 1946, Helen gave birth to their son, James Philip (Jim) Southwick.

During her son's early childhood years, Helen remained a full-time homemaker, taking particular pleasure in gardening. As Jim was finishing the sixth grade, Shady Side Academy, a Pittsburgh prep school, was preparing to open a middle school in Fox Chapel, Pennsylvania, quite close to the Southwick's home. It was decided the Jim should be enrolled there, and when the school learned that Helen had had experience working in the library at UNL, she was offered the job of running the new Shady Side Academy Middle School Library; she accepted. After several years at the middle school, Helen moved to a part-time position at the Shady Side Academy Senior School Library and continued to work there until her retirement.

Since childhood, Helen has had a keen interest in the life and works of Willa Cather. She is a long-time member of the Board of Governors of Red Cloud's Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial and Educational Foundation and has for many years enjoyed sharing with Cather scholars her personal recollections of her aunt as well as photos and other mementos. After acquiring Willa Cather's Grand Manan Cottage from Edith Lewis in 1965, she and Phil devoted much time and energy to its restoration. In 1982, she published an article dealing with Willa Cather's Pittsburgh years, "Willa Cather's Early Career: Origins of a Legend"in Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine 65:2 (April 1982), 85-98. And in the summer of 2000, she journeyed to Lincoln to present a 1923 portrait of her aunt by the Russian émigré artist Nicolai Fechin to UNL's Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery.

Following Phil's death in 1992, Helen left Pittsburgh and joined her son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter in Utah's beautiful Heber Valley.

Philip Lee Southwick was born at Lincoln General Hospital, Lincoln, Nebraska, on 15 November 1916. His parents were Philip Orin Southwick, a 1915 graduate of University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL), whose family owned the First National Bank of Friend, Nebraska, and Dorothy Harpham Southwick, whose family owned Harpham Brothers, a leather goods manufacturer in Lincoln. (Because there was at that time no hospital in Friend, Mrs. Southwick stayed with her parents for the last month of her pregnancy.)

Young Phil grew up in Friend. He was active in the Boy Scouts and compiled an outstanding record in school. He was valedictorian of his class at Friend High School and a member of an undefeated Friend High School football team that had only 11 players on its roster.

In 1935 he enrolled at UNL on a Regent's scholarship. His continued academic success was rewarded with election to Phi Beta Kappa and Sigma XI and graduation with "High Distinction" in 1939. That fall he returned to pursue his Masters in chemistry, and it was then that he met Helen Cather.

After receiving his M.S. in the spring of 1940, Phil was awarded a Rohm and Haas fellowship, which enabled him to begin working toward his doctorate in chemistry at the University of Illinois. During Phil's first year in Champaign-Urbana, he and Helen Cather announced their engagement. Following their marriage in Lincoln on 1 September 1942, Phil returned with his bride to Illinois.

Upon receiving his Ph.D. in 1943, Phil accepted a position in the research laboratories of Merck and Company in Rahway, New Jersey, where he was involved in early antibiotic research.

Realizing that freedom to pursue his own research interests was more important to him than a high salary, Dr. Southwick left Merck in 1946 and accepted a faculty position at Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. During a 36 year teaching career, he supervised the work of 55 Ph.D. candidates and post-doctoral fellows, many of whom remained life-long friends. Among his numerous honors and awards were the Carnegie Teaching Award (1953) and election to the New York Academy of Sciences. Following retirement from the active teaching faculty, he continued to pursue his research interests until the time of his death.

Despite his heavy work load, Professor Southwick maintained a serious commitment to several hobbies, including ice skating, photography and skiing, interests which he shared with his son, James Philip Southwick (born shortly after his parents' arrival in Pittsburgh.) In later years he was active in the Pittsburgh Bibliophiles and in the restoration of Willa Cather's cottage on Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick.

Lee Liggett, a Phi Kappa Psi fraternity brother, provided a fitting epitaph: " He is remembered by his many friends as brilliant, modest, sensible, unassuming, a man of high principles and a solid citizen."

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

Philip and Helen Cather Southwick Collection

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: MS-0077
Scope and Contents The Southwick materials include correspondence written to Cather in regard to her works, particularly One of Ours and Sapphira and the Slave Girl. Of great significance are the manuscripts represented in the collection, including revisions made in Cather's hand to eleven of her books and short stories. The collection contains photographs of Cather throughout her life, including her travels to Europe. There are also photographs of Willow Shade, Cather's early home, and general group...
Dates: 1913-1987