Here she comes (with her memoir) … ‘Kalamity Kate’

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Local TV pioneer Leta Powell Drake giving back to her alma mater and her fans

She once was the Queen of the Amazons.

That was back in Leta Powell Drake’s grad school days at UNL, for a role in a play called “The Warrior’s Husband.’’

“I had to wrestle Hercules,” she says. “What did I know about wrestling?”

She laughs.

“We had to go to the athletic department at the University of Nebraska, and we had them try to help me learn how to wrestle the guy (playing Hercules) and make him submit to my superior strength.”

It was one of many roles Drake played in those theater days at UNL’s Temple Building, when she won a trophy five times as Best Actress and where she learned lessons that helped give her a career she loved.

Drake once was the queen of Lincoln TV. She was Kalamity Kate for Channel 10/11’s “Cartoon Corral,” which she hosted and produced from 1967 to 1980.

She’s played many roles in her life that she’s loved. She was KOLN/KGIN-TV’s morning show host, a producer and a Nebraska Broadcasting Hall of Famer. She was a single mother who could fly a single-engine plane. She was an athlete who raced canoes on the Platte River and climbed Rocky Mountain cliffs and once even competed in a calf-roping contest in the UNL rodeo. (A photo of her in that rodeo dirt sits in a bookcase in her home on Capitol Beach Lake in Lincoln along with other mementos, including those Best Actress trophies.)

She was an ice skater. She skated on the frozen lake out the back door of her home until about a year ago, when she slipped on black ice outside her front door and fractured her knee. But she’s still a bowler and a golfer and a horseshoe pitcher. This summer, she’ll be a competitor in the National State Games in Lincoln.

Four years ago Drake, who’s now 77, took on a role that she says was one of the most difficult of her life – author. Her memoir, “The Calamities of Kalamity Kate: A History of Nebraska’s Children’s TV Shows,” was published last fall.

She laughs again as she lifts her book off of the coffee table. She looks at the faded photo on the front – a smiling young woman in a blonde Dolly Parton wig and a brown-fringed cowgirl outfit.

“That’s me! Uh, almost fifty-some years ago! Look at the change. Isn’t that incredible?

She’s been wearing that same outfit to her book signings and talks around the state, joking that it’s so tight she can barely breathe. At a book-signing last fall at a Corvette Club show in Lincoln, middle-aged kids from her “Cartoon Corral” cult lined up at her booth to buy her book and take her photo.

“It amazes me that today, people still walk up to me and say, ‘Oh, you’re Kalamity Kate! I was on your show!’ or ‘I watched your show!’”

That is one reason she says she wrote the book – because those “kids” still remember. And they tell her what it meant to them to be her show.

“Think about this: Television was live back then. It was a big deal to be on television. Kids came from across the state – from Kearney, from North Platte, from Milligan, from all over the state to have their five seconds of fame. And they could wave to their grandmother in Benkelman, Neb., and say, ‘Hi, Grandma! Hi, Grandma!’

“The stories have never been told, so I told them. And those stories are so wild!”

It’s important, she says, to give back to people who helped you along the way. Her fans helped her have a fun career. And the University of Nebraska, she says, helped launch that career.

She started giving back to UNL in 1967 when she finally had a little money to spare to create a scholarship at UNL’s theater department. It goes to the two students who are named Best Actor each year. As of this spring, 94 awards have been made from the Leta Powell Drake University Theatre Acting Awards Fund.

She also gives back through her involvement in OLLI – the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the university, a program for people 50 and older who want to continue to learn. She helps create classes and stage plays. She takes classes, too. Leta also is a member of the Hixson/Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts Alumni Board.

And she is a Planned Giver – she has remembered the university in her will.

Back in her grad school days, she says, she struggled to make ends meet. It feels good to her to know she will be helping young people get through school long after she rides off into the sunset.

She wipes a tear from her cheek.

And then another.

“I just wish I could be here to give it to them,” she says, “and to just say, ‘Go for it. Here’s another little extra to just go for it.’”

Leta Powell Drake is a member of the University of Nebraska Foundation’s Burnett Society, a giving society for people who have named the foundation as a beneficiary of their estate or have made a planned gift.
For more information on the group, please contact the foundation’s Kim Waller or call 800-432-3216.

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