September 5, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Denise Fackler is cool.

That is, if cool still means what it meant when the singer-songwriter was touring coffeehouses as a teenager in the ‘60s, or later helicoptering over the war-torn jungles of South Vietnam. The Omaha native even dashed off at 19 to marry her guitar-shredding flame, Lightnin’ Lyle, whose long locks made him an ill-fitted suitor in her parents’ eyes.

Yeah, the 62-year-old is pretty cool.

Of course, a duet with John Denver, a rock performance with Ted Nugent, and two improbable encounters with Lou Rawls and Ed Sullivan doesn’t hurt either.

At the very least, Fackler’s life can surely gussy up a diner — Shirley’s Diner in Millard, to be exact, which she’s owned with her husband, Lyle “Doug” Fackler, for 22 years.

“We decided to do something different,” Fackler says, reflecting on her transition from musician to business owner. “We needed something a little more secure.”

Adorned with relics from less certain times, to call Shirley’s a mausoleum would be a big mistake. The memories Fackler has amassed in the form of photographs, newspaper clippings and other miscellany are very much alive to tell her story.

Above the diner’s booths and tables, a guitar case displays the name, “We, the Living,” the three-piece folkadelic act she says she helped found in junior high. At 14, Fackler and her bandmates, Nikki Lycan and Salli Evans, signed to a local agency and began playing out-of-town gigs.

“We were good. We did three-part harmony,” she says. “We just practiced so much after school everyday, that you just get good — you get good at anything you practice at,” just like the wonder that is the diner’s Stick-to-Your-Ribs Chili.

Like all good things, the band eventually petered out, but a lingering war and its disheartened U.S. troops still required their musical prowess. A framed letter and photograph hanging just outside the diner’s kitchen reminds Fackler of her tours with the USO through Vietnam and Thailand.

“I’m most proud of that in my life,” she says with watery eyes. “I remember the sad faces of those boys—never smiling. I had no idea what they were going through every day.”

And then there’s Fackler’s youngest son, filmmaker/musician Nik, 29, whose framed movie poster for Lovely, Still, starring Martin Landau and Ellen Barkin—both Oscar-winners—proudly decorates the opposite wall. The director wrote the film’s script in high school and credits his mother for encouraging him to write at a young age.

“It didn’t matter what the story was about or how it ended, just that it was created,” Nik says. “Because of her, it became a habit to create.”

Perhaps as a form of continued maternal support—and amping up her hipster quotient three more notches—Denise has even provided background vocals while performing on the Waiting Room stage with her son’s ethereal art-rock band, InDreama.

Yep, in this or any other decade, Denise Fackler is just that cool.   

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