McALLEN — It’s not hard to pick out Nedra Kinerk’s house from the cul de sac it sits on: you just have to look for the census signs.
There’s one stuck out in the yard and a stack leaned against the wall by the front door, and another stack just inside.
If you ask nice enough, Nedra might give you one, but you have to swear an oath that you’ll actually put it in your yard and not leave it in your trunk.
The census is one of dozens of causes and projects Nedra has undertaken since she came to the Rio Grande Valley in 1988.
Nedra steadily works on those projects in her home office, surrounded by scores of neatly organized files and photos of her husband Robert, who died in 2010. When Robert was alive, the room doubled as Nedra’s office and a place for Robert to display his model trains. Now the trains are in the Pump House Railroad Museum in Hidalgo and the office is just an office.
There’s a dozen or so cards on a table near the door, yellow envelopes with purple Post-it notes. Easter cards waiting to be sent.
“They’re for my children, my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren, and some children that I’ve adopted around here,” Nedra said. “I serve as their pseudo grandmother.”
At 87, Nedra Kinerk is a deceptively benign-looking woman. She’s slight and soft-spoken, consistently polite with a charming wit. Those attributes belie a constant drive in Nedra to make something better in her community, whether it’s the census or the city’s centennial or a local newsletter.
Nedra spends a good portion of every day working; occasionally she’ll indulge herself and read a book or do a puzzle.
“I have a bad habit of doing puzzles on my iPad. It’s not very productive,” she said. “I like getting things done that need to be done.”
Nedra started getting things done when she enrolled in Ball State University, where she studied teaching.
“I only had to pay nine dollars in tuition because I had a state scholarship,” she said. “Times have changed.”
Nedra met her husband, Robert, during her freshman year.
“He worked fast,” she said. “He came and started messing up my hair and the next thing I knew he was riding me around the house on his shoulders.”
The couple got married half a year later, and Nedra went on to complete her master’s degree. While she was in school a professor complimented her writing and encouraged her to pursue a doctorate.
“I went to the library and cried for an hour and then I went home and told my husband what this crazy professor had said. He said, ‘I always felt you would want to do that,’” she said.
Occasionally she faced discrimination as a woman pursuing higher education in the 1960s.
“One professor did not want to put me on the program because I was a woman and I probably would not use my degree advantageously because I had four children and I was a woman, but they put it on me anyway,” she said. “I had a great time.”
Nedra went on to teach at a primarily African-American school, where she says the cultural divide made the job a challenge.
“Those were great kids, but they lived a different life than I had,” she said. “I learned so much, and it was a really wonderful experience.”
At one point a student threatened to have his brother “knife” Nedra.
“We got him calmed down and turned out that we became pretty good friends,” she said.
Nedra went on to teach at Indiana University Kokomo, where she would work for the next 18 years. During that time she was appointed by the governor of Indiana to the state’s civil rights commission.
“I was very much interested in that. My husband was very much interested in that. He had a very strong sense of ‘things need to be right for everybody,’” she said.
Nedra and Robert started visiting the Valley in 1979 before moving full time when Nedra retired in 1988.
“We loved it down here. We liked the climate, we liked the people and we liked the general ambience. It was a small town, very pleasant and all of that. Now look at it, we have grown so tremendously,” she said.
Gradually, Nedra began to get involved in the community, writing newsletters and attending city commission meetings.
In 1999 she and some other community activists started Futuro McAllen, a citizens group focused on quality of life initiatives in McAllen. Nedra and the group pushed for a number of changes to things like building codes and landscaping on city property.
“There were a number of things that we felt needed to be addressed in the city of McAllen,” she said. “I went to city commission meetings and I became notorious; infamous. At that time there was more public comment … a lot of those things we worked for got done and I’m very proud of what we’ve got done.”
After the group had accomplished its main goals, the organizers rechristened it Futuro RGV and shifted to a regional focus. Since then Futuro RGV has organized festivals and founded a museum and hosted dozens of forums and debates.
Nedra acknowledges that she doesn’t have the most traditional retirement. She doesn’t see any point in doing it any differently though.
“If I can do it, why not do it?” she said.
“If you can make a difference on something that you care about, why not do it?” she said.
Problems or challenges are really what make you who you are, and if you don’t have any it’s probably because you’re not really doing anything. You’re not really living. If you live, you find things that are interesting. Scary. Challenging.”
After over two decades of volunteering in the Valley, Nedra’s work has certainly been recognized. In 2014 she was the chamber’s Woman of the Year. More recently, she was inducted into the Walk of Fame in Hidalgo.
Now Nedra says she’s considering taking a slightly more leisurely approach to retirement — maybe a little fewer public forums, a few more puzzles. She says she’ll stay involved, but she thinks it’s time for the next generation to step up.
“You’ve gotta stand on our shoulders and make McAllen and RGV what it’s going to become,” Nedra said, “and I haven’t a clue as to what you’re going to do about some of these challenges that we have, but you guys have to solve them, and I think you will.”