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A Love Story

By March 26, 2021 8 Comments

If you look closely, you can tell it’s not the Great Plains. That big tree is too perfect; prairie trees get mauled regularly by incessant big winds. They almost always look akimbo. This one seems vintage Joyce Kilmer, too polite for the plains.

The roof tops make clear the artist was out near a farm, but the outline of that house–see it, beneath the branches of the tree?–doesn’t look much like a Dakota homestead at the turn of the 20th century. Seriously, Corinthian columns? You could find hilly terrain like this all along the Missouri River, but eastern South Dakota, the place where Ada B. Caldwell spent her life, doesn’t offer much akin to the scene she caught in this sweet, boring oil.

No matter. Think of this as a love story anyway, because it was, maybe not in a conventional sense–I mean, I don’t think there was any hanky-panky between teacher and student. He was rough hewn, to say the least, fresh off the farm, at the college only because the place was land-grant and therefore full of offerings for boys/men like himself, looking to learn something about the spreads they’d come from. In fact, the place was called, in 1901, the South Dakota Agricultural College.

Only he wasn’t wholly one of them. This particular student was at Brookings because of his mother, who loved him and probably wasn’t all that much different from the strong woman who plays the central role in his most widely- loved painting, The Prairie is My Garden.

This mom here is not going to be on the cover of Vogue any time soon, but she’s perfectly beautiful in a resolute and determined prairie way. Her kids love her, and she loves them, takes them along when she determines to grace her place up a bit with some cone flowers. The Prairie is My Garden, by Harvey Dunn, is quintessential Great Plains stuff; and she, or so the docents at the SD Art Museum claim, with a few chuckles, is “the Mona Lisa of South Dakota.”

That determination–she’s not smiling–is a facet of a work ethic that’s formidable. The frame buildings behind her suggest that the hardscrabble days of homesteading are now history for the family. Her place has been “improved”; there’s livestock and a house that’s already seen an addition or two. But things are not Edenic–they never are–because creating a life around the weather on the all-too viscous plains is never really behind you. Mom needs to be wary.

Is she Dunn’s mother? In spirit certainly. His mother was strong enough to get his I-shall-not-be-moved father to allow the boy to go the agriculture school. It was mother who had sat beside him, the two sketching together by lamp light. It was mother who determined her boy–no longer a boy, but a man–needed to get away from the demands of the homestead and see, even if only for a year, that other people lived unimaginably-other lives. His mother believed in flowers, she’s the one who saw the prairie as a garden.

Ada B. Caldwell

Then again, this Mona Lisa is also a woman named Ada B. Caldwell, the woman who painted that oil at the top of the page. Prof. Caldwell was a teacher at the agricultural college that became South Dakota State University, the only teacher who paid much attention to the strapping farm kid from a town called Manchester, a town a tornado blew away just a couple decades ago. She saw what he could do on a canvas for what it was–talent. Sheer, raw talent.

She’s the one who sent him off to the school she attended herself, the Chicago Art Institute. She ‘d taken a job at Yankton College, stayed there only a year, then moved on to Brookings, where she stayed in the classroom for the rest of her life, where in just her second year, she taught drawing to a hulking farm boy named Harvey Dunn. 

Ada B. Caldwell + Harvey Dunn?–it is a love story. She made it clear to him that what he was feeling in his heart wasn’t illusion or fantasy. She helped him understand that he’d likely never be happy just going back to the homestead. She allowed him to love what he already did, to follow what he couldn’t get enough of in directions he’d never imagined.

She noticed what was deeply there in this broad-shouldered farm boy, who looked nothing like Paul Gauguin, but could do wonders with a brush. She saw what was there for what it was, talent; and she let it grow, nurtured it, then sent it on its way to gardens just as wondrous as his Mona Lisa’s.

For seven years already, I’ve been out of the classroom. I hardly know any more what goes on. But we’ve got grandkids who’ve spent too much time at home, and I know teachers, good old friends, who claim that last year was the very worst year of their careers.

There was Covid, after all, and an entire country split like a melon right down the middle during a raucous Presidential campaign.

We may be coming out it now–or so we hope and pray. I can’t give teachers any help with Zoom or Teams or whatever platform now opens to the podium, so I thought, maybe for those of you holding forth right now, what you might need to hear is a love story.

Ada B. Caldwell changed the life of a big green kid named Harvey Dunn by loving him enough to insist the kid perceive and accept his own strengths. That’s a love story, a teacher story.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Much appreciated, again.

  • Annie Valkema says:

    Have enjoyed your writing since you visited the writing majors at Houghton College (Jack Leax) back in the 80s. You had an affect on me!

  • Katy says:

    Teachers who see and cultivate the things that we love to do, who nurture and encourage us ARE true gifts!

  • Harvey Kiekover says:

    I’m no longer in the classroom, but this “love story” was good for my soul. Thank you, Jim.

  • Henry Baron says:

    What all of us retired teachers like you hope is that we had at least one Harvey Dunn kind of student we blessed like Ada Caldwell did him. Thanks, Jim!

  • Karen Wynbeek says:

    Thanks so very much. There was so much in this article that I can relate to and “it was good for my soul.” I was born in NW Iowa to parents who were teachers. I taught for 30+ years in NJ and CA. I retired 7 years ago and I felt appreciated. Today, I appreciate teachers of my grandchildren who have the additional job teaching during a pandemic.

  • Jeff says:

    Thank you. I enjoy Dunn’s paintings and have a large print of “The Prairie is my Garden” from SD State in Brookings years ago when we took our daughter on a “Little House” trip. DeSmet SD was our favorite stop.

  • /svm says:

    Why is that knife such a focal point??

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