“Legacy Ozarkers” is a series where we learn about — and from — residents with deep roots in the region. Individuals featured in this column are either 80 years old or greater or have lived in the Ozarks for generations. Stories have been condensed for length and continuity, and are presented primarily in the interviewee’s own words. Please send an email to Kaitlyn@OzarksAlive.com if you know of someone who would be good to consider as a feature.
Like stars that build constellations, distant — yet equally bright — points of life collaborate to comprise Gary Kester.
The Ava resident, now 79, represents the fourth generation of his family to live in Douglas County. While much of his life and even more of his story is intertwined with the place where he now resides, parts of his heart also tie to elsewhere: To New York City, where he lived for decades. There, Kester experienced a place both literally and figuratively far from the Ozarks, but one that shared the unique ability to make him feel at home.
With passing time, however, quiet echoes of the hills grew loud enough to reach his ears on the East Coast. He ultimately moved back, but also into a paradox: One fueled by a love for both where he is, and where he cannot be, and rooted through deep ties with the Ozarks that can seemingly never be broken.
“On my father’s side, we go back to Turners and Kesters who came here around the time of the Civil War, because the Ozarks was sort of unpopulated before then.
“The Kesters came from Germany in the 1600s and settled in Pennsylvania. The original Kester who came over was a stone cutter; Paulus Kuster was his name. (Note: Kuster, with an umlaut over the u, is the former spelling of the name.)
“Paulus and Gertrude came from a little village in Germany and settled in Germantown, Pennsylvania, under the egis of William Penn, because they were Mennonites, and Mennonites weren’t allowed free practice in Germany.
“And then the family proliferated and moved west. Our immediate ancestor was William Kester, who lived down in Lawrence County, Arkansas. What my grandfather told me was remembering this William who was his grandfather, (and) that William was one of a big family of Kesters who differed over the Civil War. He was the only one that favored the Union while the rest of them favored the Confederacy. So he and his wife, Angeline, who are patriarch and matriarch, moved up to Missouri just before the Civil War, and because of that split and they settled here in Douglas County and had a big family.”
It was around a half-century later before Kester’s mother’s family moved to town. They arrived in 1935 from South Dakota, attracted to Ava because of the mill; her father was a miller, one of generations to practice the trade. The move also led Kester’s parents, Virgil and Charlene, to marry in 1938.
“I was born in 1942, and my sister in 1949. We were both born in the old St. John’s Hospital on the north side of Springfield, which is still my favorite part of Springfield.
“The population (of Ava), I think, in 1950 was like 1,200. And literally everybody knew everybody. And it was kind of one big family. It was a very, very pleasant place to grow up — because, like I said, it was just one big extended family.
“Everything took place on the square. Of course, in those days the family farms were still active, and there was a big split between the town and the country.
“On Saturday afternoons, they had stock sales, cattle sales at the salebarns, which are gone now. Everybody came into Ava, and the square would be crawling with people. You could walk around the square and literally see everybody you knew. It was just very, very different from today, and the old families were still pretty much in charge. We called the area up by the old water tower ‘Society Hill’ because those big old houses were where the leading families lived.
“It was a very pleasant place to grow up.”
Kester’s family crossed that divide between town and country, as he also had deep connections with Rome, Missouri, a village in the southwest corner of the county. When Kester visited as a child, at least one rural store was still in operation. Today, little is left of the once-thriving stop; another ghost disappeared a few years ago when its locally famed and iconic iron bridge was removed.
“We still had family on family farms in that part of the country. So my grandfather Kester’s sister, Aunt Lou Felton, and her husband, Jim Felton, had a big farm down between Smallett and Rome, and we used to have big family reunions down there and family get-togethers. And she had a big classic family Missouri farmhouse that unfortunately burned down.
“She had a big dining room with a long harvest table that would be just full of every kind of food you can think of — just wonderful food. We’d have big family get-togethers down there, and everybody in the neighborhood would come in.
“It was not only just our blood family, but everybody in the neighborhood, the community.”
Kester spent all of his growing up years in Ava, where he began studying Spanish in high school. That one class lit an interest that continued to grow: Upon graduation in 1960, he decided to leave Missouri for Millsaps College in Mississippi.
“I’d made a trip down to New Orleans in 1958 with my aunt and uncle to visit her son who lived in New Orleans. We drove to Mississippi and drove by Millsaps College, and I was looking for someplace to go — I didn’t want to go locally, I just wanted to get away and see the world or something. So I chose Millsaps, and it was a very good experience.
“I think people from the South have the same connection to the South that people in the Ozarks have to the Ozarks, because the Ozarks is kind of an extension of the South.
“The South was still very traditional at that time. Very, very Southern still. People still had very strong Southern accents, the old aristocratic Southern accent, which they don’t have anymore. Younger people growing up in the South don’t have Southern accents anymore. It’s losing its sense of place also.”
After graduating from Millsaps, he pursued his master’s degree in Spanish at the University of Missouri-Columbia, and then his Ph.D at the University of Kansas. These degrees took him to other places in the country to teach, and ultimately to the New York City area in the 1970s. Eventually, he shifted from teaching to the Strand, a famed independent bookstore in the city since the 1920s, where he worked in the review department.
“The review department bought new books from book reviewers situated in New York, and my job was to catalog all those new books that came in. So I sat at a computer and entered all the information and wrote a description of the book for catalogs that went out. It was a wonderful job, and I loved it.
“But the pay was really low. They just won’t pay because it’s a situation where they almost have a captive audience as far as the employees — they can pay low wages and still have a lot of people who want to work there. And I don’t have the business ability to have a big business job and make money. I’m a hopeless ivory-tower, absent-minded professor type.”
For years, that pay was offset by compensation in other ways. Cultural experiences — such as ballet, opera, theater and art — were new, defining and regular parts of Kester’s life, and were also accessible due to their affordability.
“I went to the operas, the ballet, Carnegie Hall. I heard a lot of musical recitals at Carnegie Hall. And New York City Opera, which doesn’t exist anymore, but it was kind of a lower cost.
“If you go to Lincoln Center, it’s the three buildings arranged around the big fountain in the middle. And head-on is the Metropolitan Opera, which is the big famous opera. On the right is Philharmonic Hall, which is where the New York Symphony plays. On the left is the New York State Theatre, and it was the home to the New York City Ballet, which is still in existence. That was George Balanchine’s creation, the very famous ballet company, so I went there a lot. I spent a lot of time; I saw a lot of operas and ballets.”
“The Russian opera came to the Metropolitan, and I paid $35 for an orchestra seat at Lincoln Center. And I thought that was just outrageous. I thought that was incredible. It was almost blood money to pay that much because you could get nosebleed seats for $2 or $3 at that time.
“Well, the same ($35) seat now would cost a couple hundred dollars. So yes, I mean, things just went up. It’s not a pleasant place to live anymore unless you do have a lot of money.”
Despite Kester’s connection with the city, the increasing cost of living made it progressively more difficult to live there. However, by the early 2000s — and after around 30 years in the city — there was another factor that made him think beyond New York: The call of home.
“I loved New York City, and I just took to it like a duck to water. I really loved it. But one thing was the fact that, for some reason, the Ozarks just gets in your blood in a way that other places don’t.
“I missed the people. I missed the connections. I came back here every October for a vacation, and would visit with people and go on tours. My sister and I would take drives around. New York is very stressful, and I would come back here and get de-stressed and very relaxed and mellowed out. And I missed that, and the connections to the people and the landscape.
“The Ozarks landscape is kind of unique because it’s a beautiful landscape; it’s hills, but it’s human-scale landscape. In the East you have the Appalachian Mountains, in the West you have the Rockies and everything is huge and overpowering. But the Ozarks just kind of draws you in.
“It’s hard to describe, but there is something almost spiritual about the landscape. And, like I said, it’s on a human scale. It doesn’t overwhelm you. It draws you in. Especially if you have a long family connection, I think.
“(I and a friend) talked one time about how the Ozarks really gets in your blood and just won’t let go. I think that’s true of places like the Ozarks that have a really distinctive sense of place. You really have a sense of being different and distinct when you grow up in the Ozarks.”
That concept — sense of place — was something that stuck with Kester from his time at Millsaps College, where he became acquainted with the work of writer Eudora Welty.
“Eudora Welty grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, and she wrote some wonderful short stories, some of the best short stories ever written. When I was at Millsaps, she lived in Jackson, a few blocks from me. They had a literary festival there in 1963 and she gave a talk on the sense of place and literature. She had a book signing afterwards, and I got her to sign a book. That’s where I got the phrase ‘sense of place.’ I think people who do grow up in the South or in the Ozarks, or in any place that really has a distinctive sense of being different, you grow up with a sense of place that maybe other people don’t have so much.
“She gave the talk in the auditorium at Millsaps and there was a big crowd. There was a question-and-answer session after, between the talk and the book signing. So some guy got up with a very obnoxious Northern accent and asked her, ‘Why do you stay in a backward place like Mississippi and write about a backward place like Mississippi?’ And she just came right back with, ‘Because there’s more to write about here.’ That was her answer about why she stayed in this backward place.
“I used to take an afternoon walk every Sunday when I was at Millsaps, and I walked by her house every Sunday afternoon. I always wanted to go knock on the door. I’m sure I would have been politely but firmly told totally to get lost. But I always wanted to go up to meet her, and I did, on that (book signing) occasion.
“That was a big highlight in my life.”
After moving back to the Ozarks, Kester found the years away initially made him more known as “Marilyn’s older brother” than by his own identity. He reconnected through the local Anglican church and genealogy projects — fueled by a love of history as well as Spanish — which he worked on with friend Ken Brown, a well-known local historian who passed away in 2020. It has not, however, always been easy. Despite the undercurrent pull of the Ozarks, the feeling of missing something else still remains as well.
“It’s not so much being here — the problem is not being in New York. I think you really are a city mouse or a country mouse, and I think there’s a difference in the people. When I moved back here, I kind of thought I was a country mouse. But it turns out that I’m really a city mouse. And I just need the excitement and the energy and just the experience of being in the city.
“It’s hard to get used to everything being kind of slow-moving, which is very relaxing at first, but then it gets to where you just want that energy, vibrancy that you get in the city.
“There’s very good cultural activity in Springfield. I was just amazed when I moved back here. I was just amazed at the quality of the music, especially the classical music because I’m a big classical music fan. And I love Gilardi’s restaurant. It’s my favorite place. I told James, the owner of Gilardi’s, that it’s the nearest to being in New York in Springfield, here in the Ozarks. I love it for that reason.
“When I moved away, I was still young. I wanted to get out and do other things, see other places, be my own person, I guess. But as you get older, the connection will grow. I found that to be very true. As you get older that connection to home and genealogy and your roots will really grow.
“I think the Ozarks is changing a lot. And I wonder if people who are growing up here now will have the same attachment and same feeling. I have a feeling they may not. I don’t know, because when Ken and I were going up, like I said, the traditional Ozark was still very much alive. And it was still a very distinctive place to live.
“This friend of mine, Lewis, who lives in Boston — I talked to him about this quite a bit, because we still keep in touch and have long telephone conversations. And he talked about when he was in high school and growing up in Wichita. There were all these people in the Ozarks moving to Wichita for financial reasons. And he talked about how the people that moved from the Ozarks to Wichita were seen by the native people as sort of aliens. Like the ‘Beverly Hillbillies,’ because they still just had the old Ozarks speech and Ozarks habits, and they were always kind of aliens to the people in Wichita. It’s funny because some of those aliens were my relatives — I mean, literally.
“I don’t think the Ozarks is as distinctive of a place as it was back then. So people growing up here now might not have the same emotional connection. It’s still a very good place to live. But I think that emotional connection and that sense of tradition and being part of the past, I think that may be lost.”