Iowa Alumni Magazine | October 2008 | People

Wild About Millie

By Emily Grosvenor
PHOTO: DOUG KALISH

Latecomers arriving at Shambaugh Auditorium last fall for a book-reading discovered that the place was standing room only. Hundreds of people had packed in to hear an 85-year-old, first-time author read from her book, Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression, one of 2007's most celebrated memoirs.

When Mildred Armstrong Kalish, 48BA, 49MA, finally took the stage, audience members could barely discern the wispy fluff of her light brown hair over the top of the podium. The chatterbox they had come to know through the book was, for once, speechless.

"I'm so happy to see all of you home folk out there tonight," she said, wiping her eyes with a tissue and climbing atop a bar stool. She couldn't go on.

Then they cheered. They cheered like they were at a football game. They cheered like their voices could lift this little woman up and bolster her confidence to go on. And she did.

"I wrote this book because I wanted to go back to those days—to hear the voices I heard, to meet the people I met," Kalish said. "This book is not necessarily about me, but about that time and that era."

After surviving the Great Depression, Kalish and her husband, Harry, 49BA, 51MA, 52PhD, attended Iowa with the help of the G.I. Bill. Kalish, who went on to a career as an English professor, honed her craft as a graduate student in the UI Department of English. "It was fabulous training," she said. "I don't think I could have taught writing without it."

Readers in Iowa and beyond are connecting with the infectious joy of Kalish's writing voice—a voice that compelled the editors of the New York Times Book Review to name Little Heathens one of the five best nonfiction books of 2007.

Kalish's fans also appreciate her irrepressible personality. At the Shambaugh event, an audience member asked if someone could take down the lamp on the podium obscuring the author's face. The tech people shook their heads. But Kalish still has the can-do attitude of her Iowa upbringing.

"Oh, pish posh," she said, inspecting the lamp. "Anybody got a screwdriver?"