Nebraska Television Pioneer Leta Powell Drake Passes Away

Sept. 15, 2021, 6 p.m. ·

A smiling Leta Powell Drake with a scarf around her neck.
Leta Powell Drake, who worked in Nebraska television and theatre for decades, passed away Wednesday morning at the age of 83. (Courtesy photo)

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A television pioneer in Nebraska has passed away. Leta Powell Drake died Wednesday morning after a long career in local television at KOLN/KGIN in Lincoln and Nebraska Public Media. She hosted a popular children’s show and also acted in many plays. Nebraska Public Media News Director Dennis Kellogg spoke with her only son, Aaron Drake, about his mom’s life and legacy.

Dennis Kellogg, Nebraska Public Media: Aaron first of all condolences, thoughts and prayers going out to you not only from everybody here at Nebraska Public Media, but I'm sure from hundreds of thousands of people across the state who kind of felt like your mom was a part of our family through the years. I know it's a very difficult day for you, but can give us a feeling of what it was like to grow up with Leta? And what kind of influence she had on you?

Aaron Drake, Leta Powell Drake's Son: Well, thank you for those kind words. You know, the experience with Leta was probably not unlike a lot of the people around Nebraska got to experience. I mean, we talked about a shared family, even though I was an only child. I think the rest of Nebraska really got to be an extension of that family, which was nice. I've heard from people just throughout the years about their experiences with Leta on her television shows, whether it be the morning show, whether it be "Cartoon Corral," or the many other things that she did, everyone always had a great story to tell. And for me, that was very special, because whether I was in Nebraska or out traveling around the world for my career, I always got to experience others' experiences with my mom, and I guess vicariously if you will, and so it was always easy to keep up on her and her activity. So it was quite an experience.

Kalamity Kate talks to children on a wooden corral television set.
Leta Powell Drake hosted the popular children's television program "Cartoon Corral." She played the part of Kalamity Kate on the show. (Photo courtesy KOLN-KGIN Television))

Dennis Kellogg: She was such an accomplished woman in so many different areas. I mean, from the arts, in the theater, to television. Of course, she'll probably always be remembered as Kalamity Kate on "Cartoon Corral." What kind of stories, what kind of memories do you have of her time as Kalamity Kate?

Aaron Drake: Well, I think really, all her life really was an adventure. Whether it was the "Cartoon Corral" and letting these young people of Nebraska get to express their 15 minutes of fame, if you will, on their birthdays, eating a McDonald's hamburger and a bottle of Coke. Or whether it was the many people that she brought in throughout Nebraska that were on the morning show to showcase local talent. And I think that's one of the keys to really what she had done. Even though she was a transplant from Minnesota, she was born in Minnesota, Lincoln was really her home. And throughout her career, she was able to allow the people of Nebraska to really shine whether it be the local barbershop quartet who is singing for the first time on TV, whether it be the local kid from Hebron, Nebraska who is celebrating his fifth birthday on television, or maybe bringing in celebrities from around the world and letting them connect with the people of Nebraska on a local level. I think that was really the key to what she was able to accomplish to let Nebraska have its moment on the world stage and everyone within it. So I think that was something that she accomplished very well.

Leta Powell Drake talks in front of a phone bank during a television fund drive.
Leta Powell Drake hosted fund drives and auctions as part of her work for Nebraska Public Media. (Photo by Nebraska Public Media)

Dennis Kellogg: That's a great description. How would you describe her philosophy of life, her approach to life? She always seemed so upbeat and so fun.

Aaron Drake: Yeah, she was and her whole life is an adventure. But she was very driven. I mean, it was an adventure from an excitement standpoint, but I think a lot of it had to do with her desire to prove that women could be equal to men, not only in the workplace but in all areas of life. And I think she did a great job of that. She really entered into a career in an industry that was mainly dominated by men back in the early 60s and 70s. Very few women were involved, or if they were, they were just kind of an ancillary role, support roles. She tackled that at all levels. And she went after it. And she really carved out an area of the segment of that market that had never really been dominated by women. And I think she did an excellent job of that. She has been a real force, I think, for women to prove they can. Understand, I've always been surrounded by women. My was my mother was a single mother. I had no siblings. I have a wife. I have two daughters. I even had a female dog. So you know, for me, it's always been very important to let Leta be that role model to show that women don't have to take a backseat, that they can establish themselves in their own careers and take whatever path they want to take and I've instilled that I think in my daughters. They've seen their grandmother is someone who has accomplished so much. And I'm just so proud of her life and, and hopefully other peoples' lives, especially women who she's impacted in a positive way.

Leta Powell Drake poses next to a television camera with video tapes in the background.
Longtime television host Leta Powell Drake passed away at the age of 83. (Photo courtesy of KOLN-KGIN Television)

Dennis Kellogg: Leta was a member of the Nebraska Broadcasters Hall of Fame, the Nebraska Press Women's Hall of Fame. She appeared in more than 100 plays. She just recently got an honorary doctorate degree from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. As I mentioned before, we all feel like she's a part of our family, but no one knew her better than you. So if you had to sum up the legacy that Leta Powell Drake leaves, how would you do that?

Aaron Drake: Well, for Leta, she always had a childlike approach to things. I don't mean that in an immature way. I mean, that just always kind of a fascination, a curiosity, a willingness to explore something a little bit greater, a little bit deeper. And share that with other people. I think she accomplished that. And there's a famous old movie quote, I can't remember it verbatim, but it really just says, don't ever let that childlike outlook of life leave you. And I think that really embodied her spirit. In a sense, she's always exploring, always trying more, still taking classes, even at her age, under the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, and creating classes for other people. So it was just always this ongoing curiosity to explore, to learn more and that was her life.

Dennis Kellogg: Aaron Drake, the son of Leta Powell Drake, who passed away at the age of 83 on Wednesday morning. Aaron a difficult day for you and thank you so much for sharing some memories of your mom with us.

Aaron Drake: Yeah, well, sharing her life is what my life has been all about. So I'm glad your listeners can share this with me as well because she really is truly the daughter of Nebraska here and proud to be a part of that.

Leta Powell Drake in a kitchen with a guest during a cooking segment with a KOLN-KGIN television camera.
Leta Powell Drake during a cooking segment on a KOLN-KGIN Television program. (Photo courtesy of KOLN-KGIN Television)

Nebraska Public Media News Senior Reporter/Producer Bill Kelly with more on Leta Powell Drake's career:

Leta Powell Drake loved television. She began her career in Duluth, Minnesota in the mid-1950s before moving to Lincoln to take a job at KOLN doing live commercials. When the host of the afternoon kiddie show left, Leta took over in the persona of cowgirl Kalamity Kate with a big smile and big blond wig.

"And we'd show cartoons. All the kids got gifts and prizes. And we celebrated the child's birthday. And these were all his friends. That was memorable. They drove in from North Platte, Nebraska, to have their 15 minutes of fame as Andy Warhol would say, on "Cartoon Corral" in Lincoln, Nebraska, and then they could say hi to the grandma in Benkelman. 'Hi, grandma in Benkelman!' It was a big deal," Powell Drake said.

Leta Powell Drake with two puppets over her shoulders.
Leta Powell Drake on the set of her children's television program. (Photo courtesy of KOLN-KGIN Television)

When "Cartoon Corral" faded away, Leta hosted other programs and rose to management as program director at 10-11. She took on a similar job at the state’s public television network, then NETV and now Nebraska Public Media. During fundraising auctions broadcast at the time audiences were charmed and sometimes taken aback by her wacky costumes. In retirement she was active in community theater and adult education. She got a second burst of notoriety recently when History Nebraska uploaded her celebrity interviews from the 70s. Leta understood she would always be Kalamity Kate, and she was just fine with that.

"Hardly a day goes by today that someone doesn't come up to me and say I was on your show, or I watched the show all the time. It never ceases to amaze me. The power of the impressions that television had when there were only three stations. So here it is these many years later on people. They will still, but I'd say to them, you were on the show. Oh, yeah. I said, 'What did you say you were going to be when you grew up? (They would say) When I grew up I'm gonna be a farmer. I'm going to be a milkman. I'm going to be in electronics.' And they can tell me about that experience. That's how significant it was."

Leta Powell Drake ended her children's show with these song lyrics, "Now our time with you is through. Hope we made a friend or two. But for now we'll have to say goodbye."

Leta Powell Drake in a costume during a fund drive with a camera in the background.
Leta Powell Drake (second from the right) in costume during a public television fund drive. (Photo by Nebraska Public Media)