So it Goes… Honoring The Legacy of Kurt Vonnegut

Writer  /  Kara Reibel
Photographer  /  Stephanie Duncan

S5“Slaughterhouse Five” was Julia Whitehead’s first dive into Vonnegut. She read it during high school for her own curiosity. While in college, she read “Cat’s Cradle” and then reread “Slaughterhouse Five” while she served in the Marine Corps as it was required reading by the military.

“It’s funny to watch people react when they find out I am a Marine,” says Julia with a smile, who is the Founder and CEO of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library. “People are surprised to learn of my past military service.”

The idea to serve in the military was inspired by her father’s service and solidified by a comment her mother made while on a drive with their family through Culver when she was a kid. On the trip, Julia spotted a group of young adults on horseback looking regimental and polished along the roadside. Julia asked her mother, “Who are they, and which school is that?” and her mother replied, “That’s where bad girls go.” Julia knew at that moment she would go into the military.

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” – Kurt Vonnegut

Julia majored in English at the University of South Carolina, and upon graduating, she honored her call to serve. Her final assignment in the Marine Corps was at the Marine Corps History Center located on the Marine Corps University campus. The Marine Corps History Center is an archive that includes personal papers from Marines with many of the items donated by family members after their loved one passed away.

During a Marine Corps History conference she had organized, Julia struck up a conversation with a Vice President of Random House. He offered her a job, saying, “When you get out of the Marines and want to get back into the war of words, call me.” And just like that, Julia marched away from the Marines and straight into a job with Random House.

Random House was interested in military memoirs, and Julia was assigned to acquire war stories. This experience led her to a position with a military nonprofit organization called Military Officers Association of America (MOAA). Julia was offered the assistant editor position and almost didn’t accept the job.

2“I will always be grateful that I took that job,” says Julia, who loved working for MOAA. She fought for veterans benefits by working with every state to ensure that they are providing adequate benefits to their service members which totaled around 400,000 at that time.

Julia taught English in Thailand and traveled around Asia, gaining a different perspective on the world that she didn’t get in the military. She journeyed back to Indiana where she worked for Eli Lilly as a medical writer for nine years prior to opening the Vonnegut Memorial Library with the support of her then-employer.

“I am so grateful that John Lichlighter and others [at Lilly] were tremendously supportive of my efforts to start a Vonnegut Museum,” shares Julia, who left Lilly once funding was secured and the doors opened at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library. “Vonnegut’s interest in justice and common decency are beliefs that resonate with the Lilly organization.”

“I tell you we are here on earth to fart around. Don’t let anyone tell you different.”

– Kurt Vonnegut

Since its founding in 2009, over 200,000 people have visited the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library or attended its arts programming. In 2015, Lonely Planet listed the Vonnegut Library first in a list of reasons to visit Indianapolis.

The first three months of being open are described by Julia as “crazy.” The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library was featured in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune and The Los Angeles Times, plus a feature on Australia’s NPR program. One of Vonnegut’s books was banned in the rural Missouri town of Republic, so to mark their first anniversary, 75 copies of “Slaughterhouse Five” were given to students in that high school from the Vonnegut Library.

“People really appreciated that kids could access the book,” says Julia of the book ban. “Many of these kids were possibly going off to serve.”

The incident emphasized the importance of learning more about what is happening with censorship within the arts across our country, precipitating the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library’s Banned Book Week.

“There are still battles to be fought. Vonnegut was a proponent of sex and reproductive rights. This, coupled with the ban, led to the idea of hosting a ‘Banned Book Week,’” states Julia. This year’s Banned Book Week is scheduled for the end of September.

“Over the years, people I’ve met have often asked me what I’m working on, and I’ve usually replied that the main thing was a book about Dresden.” – Kurt Vonnegut

“I confess that my Vonnegut exploration was slower than some,” says Julia, who married into a wonderful library, for her husband had the complete Vonnegut collection.

Julia is far more interested in Vonnegut as a writer and his life story. She enjoys reading his letters and essays. “The best biography is the ‘Letters’ book that was compiled by Kurt’s friend and fellow Shortridge High School graduate, Dan Wakefield. This is my favorite book. It’s by far the best source of biographical information on Kurt. And thanks to Dan, the letters are placed into context as to the events in Kurt’s life at that time.”

“True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.” – Kurt Vonnegut

Few writers are as beloved as Kurt Vonnegut. “He speaks to the mess of being human with such candor, wit, truth and encouragement. World War II veteran, pacifist, satirist, humanist, environmentalist, visual artist, internationally acclaimed writer and Hoosier, Kurt Vonnegut is one of the most influential American writers and thinkers of the 20th century, and we are thrilled to honor him with his namesake museum,” says Julia. A capital campaign with Kickstarter is underway, along with large donor solicitation, to raise the funds needed to enable the Vonnegut Library to move to a new, larger home along Mass Ave.

“We are so grateful to be a popular destination. We feel our mission will be better served in a more accessible location on Mass Ave. This is no small effort and requires vast community support,” says Julia. “We feel confident that this building is the right move for us.”

The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library has two full-time employees, Julia, Founder and CEO, and Matthew Altizer, Deputy Director. Along with several part-time employees, they rely heavily on many volunteers.

“All of the people we have involved [with the library] and most of the staff started as volunteers. The level of their talent, dedication and trustworthiness is amazing,” says Julia. “And thanks to Matthew, we have evolved faster, thanks to his creativity and skill set.”

“The exciting thing about the library and museum is that it truly is a national gym. It’s great that it is located here in Indy, and it’s amazing to hear the stories of college kids going on a cross country tour and having to stop at the Vonnegut Library,” says Matthew. “We’ve had people fly over from Russia just to see the Vonnegut Library. We are grateful for what it has been able to accomplish in such a short period of time.”

”A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.” – Kurt Vonnegut

Over the better half of the last year, a writing group facilitated by the Indiana Writer’s Center met in the back conference room of the Vonnegut Library. While groups such as these commonly meet at the Vonnegut Library, this gathering of 14 women (nine participants and five volunteers) was unique in that these women are sharing their stories for an anthology with the Indiana Writer’s Center. Their stories are woven with similarities. They are all military veterans.

Julia’s story is one of them. Others include Marian University School of Nursing Dean Anita Siccardi, Ed.D., and WWII Veteran and fellow Marine Betty Smith. The group was lead by Shari Wagner, Indiana’s Poet Laureate. The anthology is scheduled to be released this fall.

When Julia is frequently asked by someone what to select if they had to pick just one book of Vonnegut’s books to read, her response is consistently “Letters,” yet she enjoys all of his works. Julia especially loves “Welcome to the Monkey House.” “Given the wide variety of topics covered by this collection of [short] stories, there’s something for anyone in that book.”

”What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.” – Kurt Vonnegut

So it goes…

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