October 9, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Half a century ago, while attending Mercy High School, Anne Marie Kenny cultivated a Francophile passion. At 21, she followed it to realize a dream of being a cabaret artist in France. She went from singing in Paris streets to headlining chic venues.

After that yearlong taste, she returned to Omaha hungry to maintain French ties. Her conduit became Alliance Française d’Omaha, a chapter of an international organization dedicated to promoting French language and culture. She departed again, this time a married woman, to study voice and ply her craft abroad.

Kenny and her husband settled in the south of France—commuting to their beloved Paris. They lived there for more than a decade, during which time she also became a successful entrepreneur in the Czech Republic.

Since returning home permanently, she’s served as an Alliance board member and president.

“It’s been my lifeline to French-going. I so missed the excitement of Paris—the language and all that,” she says, adding that when members of the local organization asked her to serve, “I felt I owed it something because it gave so much to me.”

As the current president, she has overseen preparations for the Omaha chapter’s centennial celebration in 2017. Alliance marked the milestone with the August launch of its illustrated history book, along with an upcoming centennial gala at KANEKO on Sept. 9.

Alliance events often feature French food, wine, and music. But the centennial bash is going to exquisite extremes with an elegant feast of authentic cuisine and entertainment. French dignitaries will be among the special guests. Kenny will emcee and lead the attendees in singing France’s national anthem, La Marseillaise.

The events also honor the legacy of the late Sam Mercer, who divided his time between Paris and Omaha. Mercer opened the French Café and helped reactivate the city’s historic Old Market district (inspired by his exposure to French urban planning). Mark (his son) and Vera Mercer, along with Nicholas (his nephew) and Jane Bonham-Carter are the gala’s honorary chairs.

Kenny emphasizes that the party is “a community event.”

Under her two terms as president, the group has increased membership and French language class offerings.

She appreciates what French fluency gives her.

“Exploring the poetry of a language is an optimal way to not only learn how to speak the language but to understand its nuances,” she says. “It’s a new way of thinking and seeing.”

Learning the French language came naturally to her.

Her fascination changed the course of her life when she followed her muse abroad. “I wanted to use French and apply it to who I was,” Kenny says, adding that she values the “global mindset” gained from the experience.

Alliance members share a vision of having their own cultural center after a century of borrowed spaces.

“We’re not able to offer as many classes as I know the community would like,” Kenny says.

She says the lack of a dedicated home hasn’t prevented the Omaha branch from sponsoring “a very successful scholarship program” for students studying French.

Community service is at the core of the Omaha group, which she described as “one of the older” American Alliance Française chapters.

“We’re very active. After 100 years, we know we’ve got staying power,” she says. “I’m humbled and proud to be part of this lineup of figures in our city who brought French culture to the fore.”

Guiding the organization through its centennial, she says, has “been a wonderful labor of love.”

Visit afomaha.org for more information.

This article appears in the September/October 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.