Tag Archives: U.S. Supreme Court

Florence and the Political Machine

May 10, 2017 by
Photography by Provided by Douglas County Historical Society

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Omaha’s annexation of Florence—the historic and scenic riverfront community on the far northeast reaches of our city. The milestone warrants a look back at this contentious time in Florence’s history, when its rapidly rising southern neighbor unapologetically gobbled up the settlement despite the objections of many residents.

Why Annex Florence?

It helps to understand a bit of the community’s history. Best known as the site of Winter Quarters, the settlement for thousands of Mormon pioneers making their way West during the 1840s, Florence became a “city” in 1855 when Iowa businessman James C. Mitchell and his surveying team platted the land and officially incorporated.

Florence Kilbourn was the namesake of Florence, though her lineage is unclear. She has been referred to as the adopted niece of Mitchell’s wife or the granddaughter of Mitchell’s wife (depending on the historical account).

Mitchell recognized the busy frontier town’s big potential due to its convenient proximity to the Missouri River and frequent ferry service. The river’s narrow profile—at just 300 yards—and its solid-rock bottom just east of Florence also made it the most natural place to build a future bridge.

In the 1860s and ’70s, Florence grew into a bustling, young city. Early industry included a flour mill, brick manufacturing plant, lumber sawmill, and blacksmith shop, to name a few. Its population swelled well above 3,000, and its economy boomed.

Ana Somers, research specialist at the Douglas County Historical Society, says pressure for Omaha to annex surrounding municipalities really began in 1910 with the Greater Omaha Proclamation. “This was a direct response to the growth crises of 1910 that created a need to annex neighboring towns and villages,” Somers says.

But by early 1915, despite high tax levies, Florence began finding it fiscally difficult to meet community needs. Business leaders in Florence began fearing for the financial solvency of the city moving forward. At the same time, Omaha was building a strong reputation as a Midwestern hub of business and industry. Most members of the Omaha Commercial Club, an organization of area business owners and leaders, became proponents of Florence’s annexation for the “great savings to the taxpayers” it would provide through reduced redundancies in government, and they claimed such action would “provide residents with more benefits, not fewer.”

With the Merger Bill of 1915, the State of Nebraska passed a controversial law allowing Omaha to annex neighboring communities unilaterally, providing these areas lie adjacent to current city boundaries, are situated within Douglas County, and have fewer than 10,000 residents.

A legal battle followed, with representatives from Dundee and South Omaha opposing the decision. Omaha was poised to annex Florence, but lawsuits to the Nebraska Supreme Court left the possibility in limbo.

Some in Florence, fearing taxation without representation, were convinced to join the pro-annexation cause after being assured they would have a Florence representative in city government. The Omaha Commercial Club appointed a committee to explore annexation further, then held a public meeting in January 1916. According to newspaper accounts, 76 in attendance voted in favor, while only nine voted against it. Although the club had hoped to complete annexation by the May 1916 election, it took more than a year longer for it to come to fruition.

Even train cars full of anti-annexation protestors from Florence, Benson, South Omaha and elsewhere flooding the state capitol in Lincoln during hearings could not kill the law. The fight dragged on for two years, until Feb. 14, 1917, when the Nebraska Supreme Court finally dismissed a lawsuit on behalf of the once-independent Dundee.

Confirmation of the new law was a welcome development to then-mayor of Omaha James Dahlman, or “Cowboy Jim,” as he was called, who saw it as a prime opportunity for his administration to grow the city quickly and gain tax revenue. The law allowed for the huge expansion of Omaha later that year with the annexation of Florence and Benson on June 6, 1917, while sealing the fate of South Omaha and Dundee.

According to an article in the Omaha World-Herald dated June 10, 1917, city officials reported the annexation of Florence and Benson expanded the city to 38 square miles. For reference, the present-day City of Omaha occupies roughly 127 square miles (according to the U.S. Census in 2010). Boundaries of the former City of Florence had been Read Street, 40th Street, Florence Heights Boulevard, and the Missouri River.

During subsequent years, the annexation law has been nicknamed “Omaha’s secret weapon,” allowing for continual expansion of its city limits, year after year.

The Dissenters

Not all of Florence was convinced annexation was the best option. Among those in opposition: Florence’s mayor, Freeman Tucker, was concerned for the “political integrity of the village.” He vowed to take his fight against annexation all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court (though he never did). Another dissenter was Dr. Carr, a prominent local dentist and investor who feared that annexation would reduce the likelihood that Florence would be the site of a promised river bridge, says Rosemary Allen, a longtime member of the Florence Historical Foundation.

“There were concerns about a lot of promises [made by the city] not being delivered on, including security and safety services, such as a rescue squad. And, in fact, a lot was promised but never materialized,” Allen says.

“As I recall, the citizens of Florence didn’t end up having much to say about it all. It was just sort of pushed through. It was a very contentious thing,” she explains. “I do know there were a lot of residents who weren’t happy about it one bit, with some public meetings almost erupting into fist fights. And even years later, there were those that remained bitter about it.”

Allen says residents of Florence were also fearful that annexation would mean the loss of the community’s identity and important history. And in fact, through the years, many of the historic structures from its pioneer town days fell to ruin from neglect, fire, or normal decay.

Years later, it became the mission of the Florence Historical Foundation to keep its historic sites alive and maintain community pride—a mission the foundation has found great success with, preserving many historic landmarks, including the Fire Barn, Keirle House, Depot Museum, Bank of Florence, and Mormon Bridge Toll House. The foundation coordinates the annual Florence Days every May as well as other entertainment and holiday events.

The independently restored Florence Mill and another community group, Florence Futures, also collaborate on community and heritage initiatives. The neighborhood on North 30th Street has witnessed an uptick in activity in recent years, thanks in part to a lively restaurant scene. Blooming flowers (planted by the Northern Lights Garden Club) accent the booming streetscape.

The North Omaha Commercial Club—no relation to the historic Omaha Commercial Club that advocated for Florence’s annexation—is one of Omaha’s oldest civic groups, where Florence business owners meet regularly to discuss ways to keep the corridor alive and thriving. All celebrate the small-town and family-friendly feel of this unique river city community.

Despite being in the shadow of the Big O for nearly a century, Florence maintains an identity and appeal all its own.

Florence Days takes place on the second full weekend of May, with a parade Saturday. Visit historicflorence.org for more information. Archival resources provided by the Omaha Public Library archives of the Omaha World-Herald (omahalibrary.org) and the Douglas County Historical Society (douglascohistory.org).

This article printed in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Home.

From Omaha to Notre Dame

October 27, 2015 by
Photography by Bill SItzmann

On a seasonably pleasant Friday evening last July, members of the Jenkins and Wessling families gathered at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church for a wedding. The bride’s uncle had traveled back to his hometown to officiate. Dr. Erin Jenkins and her dozens of cousins know the priest simply as Uncle John. You know him more formally as the Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C. (Congregation of Holy Cross), president of the University of Notre Dame.

As leader of the most renowned Catholic school in the country—perhaps in the world—Jenkins’ responsibilities and schedule leave little room to breathe. Yet he found time to honor a twin daughter of his older brother, Tom, and to squeeze in another opportunity to visit with his beloved 86-year old mother, Helen.

“My father, Harry Jenkins, was a gastroenterologist who taught at Creighton Medical School and mother went to nursing school,” says the Rev. Jenkins.  “Dad died in 2004,” shortly after his son’s election as Notre Dame’s president. “Our parish was St. Pius X and then St. Leo’s. My mother still lives in the family home.”

“Omaha is still very important to him,” says Tom Jenkins. “Even though he has another family [the priests], he’s very interested in coming back here and spending time with Mom and our family. He’s humble that way. Genuine.”

Returning to the city that formed his Catholic faith and to the family that molded him as a man seems to agree with Jenkins. Laughter and a relaxed mood punctuated the wedding weekend.

“John has always been kind of quiet and calm,” Tom says. “People don’t realize he’s also a lot of fun and quick to laugh. He’ll be the first one to share a joke or a story.”

The Holy Cross priest’s sense of humor has served him well since assuming the helm of the 12,000-student campus near South Bend, Indiana, a decade ago. Under his leadership, Notre Dame’s reputation as an academically elite undergraduate program and a top research school has ballooned, its endowment has tripled to $10 billion, and the Fighting Irish football team has fought its way back into the conversation.

As president, how does he balance the decidedly secular issues of academics and research with the school’s Catholic identity?

“Notre Dame is a place of faith,” Jenkins says. “That gives it a distinctive role in being a place of conversation, of inquiry that can take up issues of faith and morality in ways that are powerful. We have a set of Catholic principles that guide our educational efforts as well as our work in the world.”

Notre Dame’s Catholic identity, some would argue, has hit turbulent times.

Like many Catholic institutions, including Creighton University, Notre Dame has recently drawn fire for its response to hot-button social issues—granting employee marriage benefits to same sex couples, for example. Jenkins has absorbed the blows with grace, for beneath his quiet, thoughtful demeanor lies the steeliness of a man with a keen sense of identity and mission. As Creighton theology professor Dr. Eileen Burke-Sullivan points out, “Anyone who actually operates on behalf of the kingdom of God knows that you draw criticism on yourself. I don’t think any religious leader can have thin skin.”

Jenkins2Jenkins’ quick wit, his seeming ease with everyone he meets, and his ability to listen and compromise no doubt spring from a childhood surrounded by what can politely be described as controlled chaos.

“We had 12 kids in our family, six boys and six girls,” says Jenkins, who checks in at number three in the lineup. “I’m very close to my brothers and sisters.”

In 1966, when Jenkins was 12, the family moved from 75th and Blondo to a new, seven-bedroom home in a lively Catholic neighborhood on 100th Street, then the western edge of the city.

“I would say on our block alone, there were about 50 kids,” says Tom, an attorney. “We never had any trouble getting baseball teams together. We usually had 11 to a side.”

The Kizers lived next door and contributed nine children to the mayhem.

“There was something different about John, something special, even when we were young,” muses John Kizer, the Rev. Jenkins’ best friend growing up. “He was a big thinker and was always looking for a place to get quiet time, which was tough in a household of 12 kids.”

The friendship between the two Johns extended all through St. Pius X grade school and Creighton Prep, where Jenkins ranked high on the popularity meter. His classmates voted him Prom King senior year.

“I got a lot from Creighton Prep,” says Jenkins, whose middle name, Ignatius, honors the founder of the Jesuit order. “I’m very grateful to my Jesuit friends.”

Jenkins’ popularity at Prep benefited from his athletic abilities. He was one of the top swimmers in the state and played on the school’s inaugural soccer team, following his parents’ example of mental discipline and physical activity.

“Our dad entered the Hawaii Ironman contest when he was 58,” Tom marvels. “And his triathlon buddies dedicated a steel-sculpted bench with depictions of bike riders along [Omaha’s] Keystone Trail to him.”

Harry and Helen Jenkins also encouraged each child to follow their heart, opening the door for the third oldest to explore his desire to contribute to society. That desire became evident during a backpacking trip through Europe with Kizer the summer between their freshman and sophomore years in college.

“We had two different sets of interests,” laughs Kizer, president and chairman of Central States Indemnity Co. of Omaha. “I had the beaches of Saint-Tropez and [golf’s] Old Course at Saint Andrews on my list. John was more interested in Dachau [Concentration Camp] outside Munich, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, and Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. We spent lots of time in Rome.”

Following his continental adventure, Jenkins decided to join Tom at Notre Dame. He earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1976, followed by a master’s degree in the same subject.

“Notre Dame gave me a superb education, a very vibrant and robust intellectual life, and an ability to combine that with a serious faith,” Jenkins says. “I had questions about my life and what I should do with it. That eventually led me to prayer and to the seminary about a year after I graduated.”

“It didn’t surprise me he became a priest and rose through the ranks,” says Kizer. “There are certain people that, when you meet them, you know they’re a cut above.”

Jenkins’ decision to join Notre Dame’s founding community of priests necessitated a separation from his Omaha family and, according to a 2005 Chicago Tribune article, “a difficult breakup with his [Omaha] girlfriend.” After receiving his doctorate from Oxford, Jenkins returned to his alma mater in 1990 as a professor of philosophy.

Since he first stepped onto what is called the campus “God Quad” in 1973 as a sophomore transfer student from Creighton University, Jenkins’ goal has been to serve the school he loves in whatever capacity it needs. That he would reach the highest level of service makes for an impressive Omaha success story, but not an isolated one.

Jenkins joins several current, high-profile priests with doctorate degrees who call the Omaha area home. William Leahy, S.J., 67, the president of Boston College, was born in Omaha and raised across the Missouri in Imogene, Iowa. Leahy still has family here. Daniel Hendrickson, S.J., 45, is Creighton University’s new president. He calls Fremont home and attended Mount Michael Benedictine High School in Elkhorn. His identical twin, the Rev. Scott Hendrickson, also a Jesuit, teaches at Loyola Chicago. Archbishop Blase Cupich (pronounced SOO-pitch), 66, was recently appointed by Pope Francis to head Chicago’s archdiocese. He grew up in ethnically rich South Omaha. He and Jenkins first met in Rome during the aforementioned backpacking trip and remain friends.

Omaha produces not only heavy hitters in the Catholic Church, but heady intellects as well.

“Omaha has always had an excellent system of Catholic schools,” Jenkins says. “It had a big impact on me, and I’m sure it had a big impact on Bishop Cupich. It’s a vibrant Catholic community.”

“Historically, we have had an unusually high Catholic population,” explains Dr. Burke-Sullivan. Much of that can be traced to the European and Eastern European immigrants who came to work in South Omaha’s meat packing plants. “They brought with them a rich, progressive Catholicism, plus the belief that hard work and cooperation with others is the norm.” She says Omaha’s Jesuit and Benedictine communities influence intellectual pursuit. “And I would not discount the importance of the excellently educated orders of religious women who set up the lower school system.”

The belief in civil, open discourse characterizes much of President Jenkins’ response to a seismic shift in this country’s social thinking. Unlike many of their brethren, neither Archbishop Cupich nor Jenkins condemned the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage. Cupich, in a letter, pointed out the high court had redefined civil marriage, with no bearing on the Catholic sacrament. He cautioned against discrimination—a sentiment echoed by Jenkins.

“It’s incumbent on us to articulate our views clearly and in a persuasive way, but at the same time to respect those who disagree,” he says. “That’s one of the great challenges: to nurture a more healthy exchange of ideas.”

That “exchange of ideas” turned testy in 2009 when Notre Dame invited President Barack Obama to speak at graduation. Because of Obama’s stance on abortion and embryonic stem cell research, his presence at the school caused a furor. Some Catholic bloggers and newsletter editors hurled verbal vitriol at Jenkins. More than 70 bishops condemned the Obama appearance, calling it a “scandalous decision,” as did many faculty members, students, alums, and activists. The emails, letters, and phone calls piled up and piled on.

“The backlash was greater than I expected,” admits Jenkins, who went on to explain the tradition behind the invitation. “From the very beginning, Notre Dame has always invited newly elected presidents to come and receive an honorary degree; just about every one, except for Johnson and Nixon in the ‘60s,” which corresponds to campus unrest during the Vietnam War. “I thought it was particularly important to invite the first African American president, but for a number of reasons it created a tense controversy in the Catholic community and the wider world,” he says in a calm, measured manner.

Through tough times and good, Jenkins “relies on his faith to get him through and uses it for guidance,” says his brother, Tom.

Jenkins’ quiet time, once found in the corner of a basement on 100th Street in Omaha, has moved to a chapel on the Notre Dame campus. His apartment in the Graduate Student Residence also provides solitude.

Known on campus as “Father John” or simply “JJ,” Jenkins, who’ll turn 62 in December, looks fit, lean, and youthful. He works out in the gym and takes daily walks. Exercise, he says, continues to be “an effective stress reliever.”

The recent success of the school’s storied football team also helps relieve stress. When asked if he has gotten over last season’s offensive pass interference call that cost the Fighting Irish the game against Florida State, the priest chuckles and—ever the tactful diplomat— refuses to criticize “the higher power” that is a referee.

“We were kind of thin and had some injuries, but that’s football, as anyone from Nebraska knows.” Jenkins takes pride in a great football team and in the fact the players are also serious students. “The most important thing I tell them is, ‘national championships are great, but get a degree.’”

Amen to that.

Jenkins3