Tag Archives: parade

Ralston Fourth of July Volunteer

July 19, 2017 by

Ralston, Omaha’s neighbor just south of Q Street, has a population of less than 7,300 for 364 days a year.  On Independence Day, the town’s Fourth of July celebration brings in approximately 40,000 people for its parade, fireworks display, and other events. Chamber of Commerce volunteer Dennis Leslie has been key to keeping it all running smoothly for years.  And the semi-retired local businessman loves it.

“The past three or four years I’ve been manning the phones on the Fourth of July in the (chamber) office,” he says. “Fielding questions like ‘When are the fireworks gonna start?’ ‘What time does the parade start?’ [and] ’Where can I park?’” Leslie knows the answers to all those questions and more. He also collects and tracks raffle ticket money that other volunteers hand in throughout the day, and helps out in any other way he can. In the past, he’s even worked on setting up the parade grandstands. The Chamber of Commerce staff (an office of two) say they rely and lean on him on the holiday, and throughout the year . . . even when he’s out of state.

“He probably knows more than I do,” says Tara Lea, former president of the Ralston Chamber, which presents the parade and other events. When she started at the chamber four-and-a-half years ago, Leslie had already been a dedicated volunteer for more than a dozen years. Besides putting in a 12-hour day on the Fourth of July, Leslie has been a person the chamber could tap to be at before- and after-work meetings, to assist with events, and to, well, haul stuff.  Leslie has worked for the moving company Chieftain Van Lines, located on Ralston’s Main Street, for more than 40 years.  Back in the 1970s, before his volunteering officially began, he helped out at the Fourth of July parade when it was still growing by being in it.    

  “They (parade organizers) actually called to see if we wanted to put a couple of our trucks in the parade. So two of us spiffed up our tractor trailers,” Leslie says. “We were the last ones to go through the parade.”

Leslie (who remains a vice president at Chieftain) spends less than half of the year in the Omaha metropolitan area. During the colder months he’s “out of state, southerly.”  But even when he’s not in Ralston, the chamber calls him, and he calls the chamber at least once a week. 

“This is a fun group.  Absolutely fun people,” he says. “[Even if] I’ve been gone for five months, I show up to the chamber luncheon…and it [is] like old home week seeing everybody.”

His volunteering passion was discovered when a former Ralston Chamber official asked him to join and help out.  He hadn’t thought of being a volunteer earlier because “[no] one ever asked us to be.”

And just like a dedicated volunteer, he says he can’t imagine not helping out, seeing people he likes, and supporting his community.  “Why not?” he says.  “It’s a good time.”

Visit ralstonareachamber.org for more information.

Independence City

July 10, 2014 by
Photography by Sarah Lemke

Confirming the population of any given city requires nothing more than a glance at census figures, right?

Not so fast. To best understand at least one local community, it would be advisable to also have a calendar handy. For 364 days

of the year, Ralston’s population is estimated at almost 7,000 people. But on that remaining day, July 4 to be exact, the city bursts at the seams when as many as 50,000 people swarm to the place known as the Independence City.

Carrying on that patriotic theme, the Fourth of July parade route wends its way along Independence Avenue, the honorary label of Miller Avenue. And the mini park downtown is named Independence Square.

Ralston Mayor Donald Groesser explains that the “Independence” label has dual meanings. Sure, the town’s star-spangled Fourth of July parade and surrounding events are crowd-pleasers that make the city the third largest in the state that day, but there’s more.

Omaha was positioning itself to annex Ralston in 1964, but the town had other ideas. A deal was struck where Omaha agreed to leapfrog Ralston so long as the suburb did not itself expand to the magic number of 10,000. State law mandates that Omaha may annex any burg with a population below that number without putting the issue to a vote by that community’s people.

“So I have my little pilgrimage downtown every four or eight years,” says Groesser, who is serving his fifth term and has been in office for 18 years, “just to reaffirm the deal and to repeat that handshake with each new mayor elected in Omaha.”

The same kind of casual, handshake aura defines the very nature of the close-knit community that has retained its distinct, small-town vibe even as the metro has grown around it. It’s a thriving, one square mile island of folksiness smack dab in the middle of an equally thriving city.
And it’s the type of place where roots run deep.

Music teacher Ladonna Johnson has been a fixture at the Independence Day festivities for decades. “When I was a kid,” Johnson says, “we’d decorate our bicycles with crepe paper and ride in the parade. It was a lot simpler thing in those early days, but it was so exciting for all the neighborhood kids.”

Johnson took a larger role in last year’s affair. And there wasn’t any crepe paper involved this time. She rode in a convertible as Parade Marshall, an honor bestowed for her lifelong service to the little city on the hill, a place where the historical museum—The Frank and Velma Johnson Ralston Archive Museum—is named for her parents.

“Many of my current and former music students came to the parade and chanted ‘Ladonna! Ladonna!’ as I passed by,” she says. “It was such grand fun!”

Many of the local businesses have roots that run equally deep.

A crashing cacophony of 7-10 splits have been heard at Scorz, the local bowling alley, since the ‘50s. A quintessential corner hangout—the ancient Village Bar—may have a snazzy, new, and hip logo, but the everybody-knows-your-name atmosphere remains the same.

And then there’s the tacos. Since 1976, Maria’s Mexican Restaurant has been a magnet for margaritas and a hub for habaneros.

Michael Sanchez, son of the restaurant’s titular founder, Maria, goes “all in” when it comes to Ralston boosterism. He’s chairman of the Ralston Chamber of Commerce and is running for a seat on the city council. But what about his mother? Does Maria have a plan to retire any time soon?
“My mom will probably one day be the Mrs. B of Ralston,” he says, “riding around the restaurant in a little scooter,” just like the late, iconic entrepreneur associated with Nebraska Furniture Mart who was, in her later years, known to (literally) wheel and deal from her perch atop a custom
scooter contraption.

The rise of the Ralston Arena—home of Omaha Lancers hockey, University of Nebraska-Omaha men’s basketball, the arena football Omaha Beef, and more—has changed the city’s landscape in more than just a literal way. It is the anchor for an ambitious, 20-year development plan that Mayor Groesser dubs “The Hinge.”