November 20, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

In the early evening hours of December 7, Susan Koenig will put a fun party dress on her slender frame, bling on her wrists and strappy heels on her feet. She will then travel a short distance from her gracious second-floor home on South 13th Street at the edge of Little Italy to an art gallery in the Old Market. And, as she has done for the last 20 years, Koenig will greet dozens of people—friends, family, and friends of friends, who have paid to be there. In return, she will offer them much more than beverages and food.

Hers will be one of several pre-parties held across the city as a fundraising prelude to the main event later that evening—the annual Night of a Thousand Stars to benefit the Nebraska AIDS Project (NAP).

“At the beginning, I didn’t know hosting a party would be something I would always do,” laughs Koenig, a founding partner of the Koenig/Dunne Divorce Law firm, whose offices are downstairs from her home. “But my friends have made it evident that it’s meaningful to them because they show up every year with their checkbooks open.”

Meaningful to her friends, but very personal to Koenig; Night of a Thousand Stars offers a bittersweet time for reflection.

Koenig knew something was terribly wrong when her younger brother moved back to Omaha in 1990. Of eight siblings, Koenig had always been closest to Tim. They shared a special bond as the fifth- and sixth-born. While Tim didn’t dwell on the reasons for coming home or mention his health, Koenig saw through the silence.

“Tim’s long-time partner had just died of AIDS,” explains Koenig, the mother of two sons. “They owned a beautiful home and a successful restaurant in Atlanta. Tim sold them and came back to Omaha. He was diagnosed here.”

“[The gala] has strengthened my belief in the importance of making a contribution where you can; of the power of small things done over time…” —Susan Koenig

In the early ’90s, a diagnosis of AIDS equaled a death sentence. Baffled scientists hadn’t yet put all the pieces of the headline-grabbing scourge together. There were no life-extending medical cocktails. Koenig, who had spent years successfully helping spouses navigate the shoals of Nebraska divorce laws, suddenly found herself in need of answers and direction. What she did next changed her life.

“I called the AIDS hotline. I contacted NAP.”

Still a young organization at that time, NAP became her family’s lifeline by helping them stay positive.

“Tim’s diagnosis wasn’t the focus of our relationship with him,” says Koenig. “He transcended his diagnosis by continuing to be the best of who he was, by continuing to work. He taught us about living. We appreciated every minute we had with him.”

Koenig and her husband, John Mixan, attended the very first Night of a Thousand Stars in 1992 in support of Tim. In December of 1994, the couple hosted their first pre-party. Tim didn’t see it. He died that Thanksgiving.

Through the years, the couple raised over $40,000 for the HIV/AIDS community. Koenig, who now works mainly as an executive coach, still says “we” when referring to the pre-party planning, as her husband was always by her side. Sadly, cancer claimed John two years ago. But memories of John and Tim bring comfort, and the opportunity to gather friends close for a good cause brings joy.

“[The gala] has strengthened my belief in the importance of making a contribution where you can; of the power of small things done over time,” reflects Koenig. “And it’s just a great party!”

On December 7, hundreds of people will leave the various pre-parties and gather at the historic Mastercraft Building north of downtown for more beverages, food, music, and a silent auction at Night of a Thousand Stars. If you haven’t been invited, call Koenig. Everyone has a place at her table.