Spreading Enlightenment to All Corners of the State

Editor's Note: "Why the Humanities" is a new SDHC blog series explaining the importance of the humanities to our state and nation. The series features guest posts from experts in the humanities disciplines and those who have been touched by humanities programming. The opinions expressed in this series do not represent official views of the South Dakota Humanities Council and are the sole property of the author. 

Terry Woster is a 1966 graduate of the South Dakota State University journalism program who worked as a news reporter covering the South Dakota Legislature and state government for more than 40 years. He's a semi-retired freelance writer living in Fort Pierre.

Why the Humanities?

By Terry Woster

My parents introduced me to the humanities well before I was aware that there was such a thing. They didn’t set out to do it. It just happened. My earliest memories include stories, books and music – words and thoughts and ideas - all essential pieces of this experience called the humanities.

After supper, when the dishes had been washed, wiped and put away, my little Irish mom would sit at the stout, black-varnished piano, playing and singing soft songs – Irish lullabies, popular big-band numbers, themes from early films and standards from Broadway musicals. My towering Bohemian dad often joined her, harmonizing in a rich tenor voice until it was time to put the children to bed with colorful stories he made up on the spot. Night after night after night, a new story.

As I grew older, I noticed that my parents filled any idle time with books and magazines, and by the time I entered grade school, so did I. Reading was important to them, and they made it clear the same should be true for their children.

A Formal Introduction

My formal introduction to the humanities probably came when I first walked up two flights of stairs in my home town city hall and stepped into the municipal library, a magical place where a kid could find stories like “Treasure Island’’ and “The Jungle Book’’ or rich histories of Barbary Pirates and Old Ironsides and Daniel Boone and Crazy Horse. It was heaven on earth. I could check out three, four or five books at a time, free of charge. As long as I returned them on time (and even if I didn’t once in a while) I could check out another armload of books. It’s difficult to describe the wonder of being in a place filled end to end with shelves of books and to know that the stories and other information in each of those books on each of those shelves was mine for the asking.

What the city library back in Chamberlain did for me, the South Dakota Humanities Council has been doing for all of the state. For the past 45 years, the council has been directing and encouraging programs that foster a culture of critical thinking, civil conversation and reasoned response. That’s the essence of what makes us human, and I venture to say it is vital to nurture that culture in a time when fake news, 140-character messaging and instant, sometimes ill-considered responses threaten to smother civic discourse.

Sharing Our Cultural Heritage

Through the Speakers Bureau, the One Book South Dakota programs and the annual Festival of Books, the council provides us with opportunities to learn about and to share our culture and heritage, our past and future, our fears and our dreams. We learn more about each other, and we learn more about ourselves. We have the opportunity to better understand the human experience, and what can be more important than that?

Back in 2014, my wife and I drove to St. Cloud to pick up our granddaughter, a college freshman who needed a ride to Sioux Falls for the South Dakota Festival of Books. We arrived at the festival with mass book signing in full swing. Forty or more authors sat tables, surrounded by noisy, excited readers. Our granddaughter stopped at the doorway, her eyes as wide and alive as if she’d found the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. A lifetime reader, a thoughtful observer and a dedicated writer, perhaps she had.

Another memory from that same festival: After the book signings and a light meal, we hurried to the Washington Pavilion where Kate DiCamillo spoke to a packed house of young readers. Dozens of hands waved frantically each time the author asked for questions, and in the eyes of each of those young readers, I saw the same sparkle, the same look of wonder, I’d seen just a couple of hours earlier in the eyes of my granddaughter when she entered the room full of authors. I wondered if Katherine Arp, the Chamberlain librarian, might have seen the same look in my eyes the first time I stepped into her enchanted world.

Whether my parents’ example was responsible or not, I spent my professional life as a newspaper reporter, a writer and always a reader. Early in my career with The Associated Press, I read a quote from Mark Twain that went, “There are two forces that can carry light to all corners of the globe – only two – the sun in the heavens and the Associated Press down here.’’

I would suggest that the Humanities Council has for 45 years been a force that has spread, if not light then certainly enlightenment, to all corners of South Dakota. It’s an essential undertaking.