Tag Archives: Union Pacific

A Timeline of Chinese in Omaha

March 2, 2018 by , and
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Chinese migration to Omaha began, indirectly, during the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s. The “Old Gold Mountain” (i.e., the Chinese term for California) attracted a flood of unskilled laborers known as coolies. Nationwide, the Chinese population grew by leaps and bounds: from 758 (in 1850) to 35,565 (in 1860) to 104,468 (in 1880), according to U.S. Census data on the country’s foreign-born population.

Facing open hostility in the goldfields, many went to work in agriculture, mining, fisheries, started laundry or restaurant businesses, or joined construction of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad. The railway industry dispersed Chinese migrants throughout the American interior. With Union Pacific’s headquarters in Omaha, it’s likely that the railroad helped populate Omaha’s own early Chinatown. But documentation of Union Pacific’s role in attracting the city’s earliest Chinese residents remains scarce.

“We don’t have archival records of Union Pacific bringing Chinese labor to Omaha, but we’ve seen this pattern throughout cities and towns of the American West,” says Patricia LaBounty, curator of the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs. LaBounty spoke with Omaha Magazine while preparing a research presentation focused on the contribution of Chinese labor to Union Pacific.

Among the earliest documentation is an illustration of Chinese railroad laborers crossing the frozen Missouri River with Omaha’s sparse skyline in the background—including the old territorial capitol, now the site of Central High School (printed in the Jan. 22, 1870, edition of Harper’s Weekly). 

Mounting opposition to Chinese immigrant labor led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which halted immigration and banned citizenship. Many American Chinatowns dwindled and disappeared in subsequent years, with Chinese-American communities remaining staunchly Cantonese-speaking due to the early immigration from China’s southern regions. Post-World War II waves of Chinese immigrants predominantly spoke Mandarin, the language of mainland China and Taiwan.

The second wave of Chinese immigrants arriving in Omaha—and the U.S. in general—consisted of Chinese Nationalists and their families coming overseas after civil war split the Republic of China (Taiwan) from the communist People’s Republic of China.

A third wave of immigration followed normalization of U.S. diplomatic ties with Beijing during Richard Nixon’s presidency. This group included highly educated professionals, scientists, doctors, and students from the People’s Republic of China.

At the dawn of the 21st century, the number of students coming to U.S. universities (evident at the University of Nebraska system, Creighton, and Bellevue University) has steadily grown. Meanwhile, what could be considered a fourth wave of Chinese migration to North America has taken the form of wealthy Chinese looking to the U.S. for property and stock market investments.

May 10, 1869

Promontory, Utah—The driving of a ceremonial golden spike signals the completion of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad. Chinese labor played a critical role in completing the eastbound Central Pacific that met with Union Pacific.

Jan. 22, 1870

Harper’s Weekly prints “Chinese Coolies Crossing the Missouri River” with Omaha pictured in the illustration. The article claims 250 Chinese laborers passed through Omaha to build a railroad in Texas.

Early documentation of Chinese labor passing through Omaha


The 1872/1873 Omaha City Directory lists Chinese laundries for the first time. There are two: “Yingalongjingjohn & Yingyang” between Farnam and Harney on 10th Street, and “Hong Lee” on Harney between 14th and 15th streets.

June 4, 1874

The Omaha Daily Bee reports on the burial of “Ting-a-ling” at Prospect Hill Cemetery, noted as the city’s first Chinese burial. His death is attributed to “too much ironing and ice cream.” The article explains that his remains will be exhumed after two years to be returned to China for final burial in accordance with traditional custom. The article also notes that the local Chinese population consists of 12 men and one woman.


Omaha has 14 Chinese residents.*


The Chinese Exclusion Act is passed by Congress and signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur.

May 6, 1892

The national Methodist Episcopal Conference is held in Omaha. A speaker condemns the Chinese Exclusion Act for jeopardizing U.S. missionary work in China, denounces the U.S. president and Congress, and argues “that the Chinese had the same right to be here as other foreigners, notably the Irish” (according to the New York Times on May 7, 1892).


Omaha has 91* or 93 Chinese residents.**

Feb. 15, 1893

Dr. Gee Wo Chan goes to the Supreme Court of Nebraska for practicing medicine without a license. He will lose his case, but his traditional Chinese medicine practice continues. At the peak of his business, he operates storefront clinics in Omaha, Milwaukee, and Chicago. The Omaha Daily Bee frequently publishes full-page ads promoting that Dr. C. Gee Wo “the greatest doctor that China ever produced is in your city.” His 1892 marriage to a Caucasian woman in Chicago was reported in the Omaha Daily Bee. His life story will be featured in a free online book, Chinese Medicine in Post-Frontier America: A Tale of Three Chinese-American Doctors (published in 2016).

Dr. C. Gee Woh ad in June 7, 1891 Omaha Daily Bee

Aug. 31, 1894

An article in the Omaha Daily Bee covers a revolutionary meeting of 150 Chinese “from Denver, Cheyenne, Sioux City, St. Paul, Minneapolis, Kansas City, and other surrounding towns within a radius of 200 miles,” who meet to discuss overthrowing the Qing Dynasty. Chinese revolutionaries draw support from overseas Chinese communities around the world. Years later, China’s Revolution of 1911 will overturn the country’s last dynasty and set in motion the establishment of the Republic of China.


The 1895 Omaha City Directory lists at least 21 Chinese-owned laundries (featuring names that appear to be Chinese).

Oct. 23, 1898

The Omaha World-Herald reports that 438 men, women, and children—including artists, performers, and cooks—were brought to the United States from China to help with the Chinese village at the Trans-Mississippi Exposition in Omaha. The expo allowed them to bypass the Chinese Exclusion Act restrictions. The newspaper alleges human trafficking and claims that women were sold into slavery or prostitution.


Omaha has 94* or 103 residents.**

Aug. 19, 1900

The Illustrated Bee publishes an article titled “Chinese in Omaha—Some Prominent Men,” which claims a Sunday school has offered English language education to Chinese youth since September 1885. Laundry is the chief occupation of local Chinese residents, and cleaners tuck “good luck mottoes” into fresh linens. Opium smoking is on the decline (allegedly the only crime in an otherwise “peaceable, quiet, and law-abiding” community). A sort of Chinese credit union offers loans to the immigrants at exorbitant rates. Joe Wah Lee is named as the community’s best English interpreter, the wealthiest local Chinese person, and the shrewd owner of Bon Ton Restaurant. Leo Mun, head of Quong Wah Co. is named the community’s most educated in Chinese but lacking in English skills.“Henry” Hong Sling is noted as affiliated with the community but based in Chicago where he is a railroad passenger agent.


Omaha has 53 Chinese residents.*

January 1912

Gin Chin opens the Mandarin Cafe at 1409 Douglas St.

Nov. 22, 1916

The Omaha World-Herald reports on the opening of a “new hall” for the Omaha Chinese Merchants Association at the first known site of the On Leong Tong (111 N. 12th St.). Leo Wing is president and Chue Fing Sue is secretary. The report claims there are 150 Chinese living in Omaha.

The former home of the On Leong Tong, photographed in 2018


Omaha has 126 Chinese residents.*

Sept. 16, 1920

Gin Chin opens the King Fong Cafe near 16th and Harney streets.

Photo from the September/October 2007 edition of Encounter Magazine


Omaha has 147 Chinese residents.*


Following the Stock Market Crash of 1929, a city directory is not printed in 1930. The 1931 Omaha City Directory lists at least eight Chinese laundromats remaining in Omaha (six are included under a “Chinese Laundry” category, two are listed as hand-laundries). Omaha has 147 Chinese residents.* “When the Depression came in, there was no more business,” says Jeanette Chin, wife of Carl Chin (Gin Chin’s son). “If families could save some money, they could go back (to China) and live like royalty.” She came to Omaha in 1942 from a prominent family in New York City’s Chinatown. Local Omaha papers claimed her 1942 marriage to Carl was the city’s “last arranged marriage.”

July 16, 1938

The Omaha World-Herald reports on firecrackers and festivities involved in the dedication of the relocated On Leong Tong at 1518 Cass St. The article notes that the tong is raising funds for China’s fight against Japan in the war effort.


Omaha has 69 Chinese residents (44 native-born and 25 foreign-born).***


The year after the Chinese Exclusion Act is repealed (1943) during World War II, Gen. Albert Wedemeyer takes command of U.S. forces in China, relieving Joseph Stillwell. Wedemeyer was born in Omaha in 1897. He was likely familiar with Omaha’s ethnic Chinese community as he attended Creighton Preparatory School (when the school was located near downtown on the Creighton University). In 1919 he went to West Point Academy. Upon graduation, he was assigned to Tientsin, China, where he learned to speak Mandarin and gained a deeper understanding of China’s turbulent political climate with the consolidation efforts by the Nationalists and the rise of the Communist movement.


The 1946 Omaha City Directory lists one business under the category “Laundries—Chinese” (Louie Chas at 209 S. 13th St.), and the name disappears in the next year’s directory. The Chinese laundry category vanishes from record in subsequent city directories.


Omaha has 106 Chinese residents.*


Omaha has 130 Chinese residents.****


Omaha has 186 Chinese residents.****


Joe Kuo and his wife, Alice, open the Great Wall Restaurant at 72nd and Farnam streets. The restaurant’s success will spawn other Great Wall restaurants downtown (at 11th and Farnam streets), near 84th and Center streets, at Oak View Mall, and in Council Bluffs. Kuo had graduated from Fort Hays State University in Kansas with a mathematics degree in 1972, but with a new family decided against doctoral studies to enter business as a restaurateur in New York City and Chicago before coming to Omaha. The Kuos were founding members of a Christian fellowship of Omaha Chinese (established in 1977), which started as a bible study group (officially renamed the “Omaha Christian Chinese Fellowship” in 1980, and again renamed as “Omaha Chinese Christian Church” in 1986). Kuo’s restaurants host bible study gatherings. The church’s founding minister, Pastor Job Lee, is married to Joe’s elder sister (Grace). The church fellowship serves as a center for Chinese language and culture education. The Kuo family will sponsor local Chinese cultural events, leading to the creation of the Metropolitan Omaha Chinese American Association.


Omaha has 374 Chinese residents.****

The Omaha Chinese Christian Fellowship rents space at First Presbyterian Church. A few years later, in 1983, the fellowship will relocate to First Christian Church on 66th and Dodge streets.


The Metropolitan Omaha Chinese American Association forms with the goal of bringing all Chinese immigrants and American-born Chinese together, regardless of regional origins or political affiliation. The organization’s board includes Dennis Chin (a Bellevue Public School educator and Gin Chin’s grandson), his wife Betty Chin (a research organizer at Creighton and UNMC), and UNL engineering professor Bing Chen, among others. The association will eventually discontinue as political tensions mount and the community shifts to a predominantly mainland Chinese orientation.

From left: Dennis Chin, Betty Chin, and Bing Chen (at the Nebraska Chinese Association in 2018)


The Metropolitan Omaha Chinese American Association’s Chinese New Year celebration moves to UNO’s Milo Bail Student Center for a Chinese meal cooked by UNO chefs under the watchful eye of Joe Kuo followed by music, acrobatics, and dance performances at the Strauss Performing Arts Center. During its years of operation, the group also participates in the Omaha Ethnic Festival at the Civic Auditorium and hosts Mid-Autumn Moon Festival and Dragon Boat Festival gatherings.


The Omaha Chinese Christian Church purchases its own building at 81st and Blondo streets.
Omaha has 553 Chinese residents.****


Mainland Chinese in Omaha are believed to organize local community events, including Lunar New Year gatherings. (Individuals known to be involved did not respond to Omaha Magazine’s request for comment.)


Omaha has 1,155 Chinese residents.****
In 2000, UNMC begins a formal faculty exchange program with Shanghai University. It is the first time the Chinese government has “awarded and funded a faculty exchange program between a Chinese medical school and [a] U.S. medical school.” In subsequent years, UNMC’s exchange programs with Chinese medical institutions continue to develop. By the year 2018, UNMC’s Asia Pacific Rim Development Program will have established partnerships with more than a dozen Chinese medical schools.


Creighton philosophy professor Jinmei Yuan begins annual student trips to China, supported by the Rev. John Schlegel (president of the university) and Soong Ching-Ling Foundation in China.  


Omaha-born filmmaker Alexander Payne is part of a group that buys King Fong Cafe from the Huey family that has managed the restaurant in the years following Gin Chin’s passing. Also in 2007, the Confucius Institute (which operates around the world teaching Chinese as a second language) opens at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; the institute will become a key sponsor for holiday celebrations with the UNL chapter of the Chinese Student and Scholar Association, Lincoln Chinese Cultural Association, the Asian Community Center in Lincoln, and the Omaha Chinese Cultural Association/Nebraska Chinese Association.


In 2008, Creighton’s School of Pharmacy and Health Professions establishes a three-month Rehabilitation International Summer Program. By 2014, the university will establish the China Honors Interprofessional Program for medical students and health care professionals in China. Partner schools will include 10 universities across China (along with universities in five other countries).

May 2008

The Omaha Chinese Culture Association establishes in the wake of China’s tragic 2008 Sichuan earthquakes. In China, more than 69,000 are confirmed dead and 5 million people are displaced. Bellevue University’s director of global partnerships in Asia, Julie Verebely, was born in the area devastated by the quake. Verebely knew her home was affected, but she didn’t know how badly. She couldn’t contact any friends or family in the province. “She called me up and said, ‘We need to do something. It’s my hometown,’” recalls Linda Steele, who works with Verebely at Bellevue. With a core group of more than 30 Chinese-Americans and Chinese expats, they arrange several fundraisers that accumulate more than $30,000. During their fundraising efforts, Ping Ye (a systems analyst at HDR) suggests to fellow volunteers that they organize as a continuing Chinese association. Ye is the Omaha Chinese Culture Association’s first president, followed by Mae Keith, and then Steele. John Zhang is the association’s first chairman of the board, followed by Hong Zheng.

Linda Steele


The Omaha Chinese Christian Church moves to its current location at 4618 S. 139th St.


Omaha has 1,437 Chinese residents.****

Feb. 3, 2009

The first Lunar New Year Gala is hosted by the Omaha Chinese Cultural Association at Christ Community Church. Locations will change in later years: Millard North High School in 2010, Burke High School in 2011-2012, Westside High School in 2013, Westside Middle School in 2015-2017, and Burke again in 2018.

April 2009

In April, an Omaha delegation visits Yantai (in Shandong province) at the invitation of the mayor of the northeastern Chinese city. In October, Yantai officials will visit Omaha to sign a letter of intent to become “sister cities.” In June 2010, Omaha’s Mayor Jim Suttle will visit Yantai, China, in a trip to establish Omaha and Yantai as “sister cities.”

Oct. 3, 2009

The Omaha Chinese Cultural Association hosts the first annual Mid-Autumn Chinese Cultural Festival at Zorinsky Lake to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival.

June 4, 2011

The Omaha Chinese Cultural Association hosts its first annual Dragon Boat Festival on a Missouri River cruise.


Bellevue University establishes a partnership with Guangzhou College of Commerce in 2012. The first group of Chinese students will arrive in 2015. Also in 2012, the UNO College of Business Administration begins annual study trips to China.

August 2012

During a visit to China, Nebraska’s Gov. Dave Heineman announces the state will open a trade office in China.


The UNO College of Business Administration hosts a China Conference focused on US-China economic relations and business partnerships. The conference continues for a second year in 2014.

March 18, 2013

Ceremonies in Nebraska and Shanghai are held to announce the opening of the Nebraska Center China in Shanghai. Upon taking office in 2015, Gov. Pete Ricketts continues to foster China-Nebraska trade relations with trade trips in 2015, 2016, and 2017. The Omaha Chamber also participates in overseas trips to China on an annual basis.

May 2014

An estimated 1,000 Chinese investors visit Omaha for the annual Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meeting. In China, the “Oracle of Omaha” Warren Buffett is known as “the God of Stock Investing.” The number of Chinese visitors to Omaha during the shareholder meeting will continue to grow every year. An estimated 2,000-3,000 Chinese investors will visit Omaha for the shareholder meeting in 2016.


The Nebraska Chinese Association replaces the Omaha Chinese Cultural Association under the leadership of local Omaha businessman Hong Zheng (owner of the Asian Market) and its president Linda Steele (an adjunct professor Bellevue University).

Hong Zheng

April 2016

Lion Dancers help the Nebraska Chinese Association celebrate the grand opening of the Nebraska Chinese Center in the site of a former church at 8206 Blondo St. The center offers language classes, cooking classes, a farmers’ market, tai chi exercise programs, and other cultural events.


King Fong Cafe closes “temporarily.”

May 2017

The annual Berkshire Hathaway shareholders’ meeting continues to draw more Chinese visitors every year. Buses take Chinese tour groups to Warren Buffett’s home in Dundee for photographs. In 2017, Linda Steele estimates that there are 3,000-4,000 Chinese visitors. A gala dinner hosted by the Nebraska Chinese Association introduces overseas investors and local businesses. Steele expects 5,000 Chinese visitors for the Berkshire meeting in 2018.

June 14, 2017

Forty boxes of beef arrive in China from Greater Omaha Packing Co. The Omaha-headquartered business has emerged as an industry leader in reopening U.S. beef exports to China. It is the first shipment of U.S. beef to China since 2003 (following a mad cow scare that halted imports).

November 2017

The National Register of Historic Places recognizes the historic status of the On Leong Tong at 1518 Cass St.


In the 2017/2018 academic year, Bellevue University has 258 overseas Chinese students; UNMC has 96 students from mainland China; UNO has 124 overseas Chinese students; Creighton has 36.

March 3, 2018

The 10th anniversary of the Lunar New Year Gala hosted by the Nebraska Chinese Association/Omaha Chinese Cultural Association takes place at Burke High School. Of the approximately 200 volunteers organizing the gala, 100 are overseas Chinese students. The association’s members include close to 800 people.

Nebraska Chinese Association board members from left: Grant Wu, Hong Zheng, May Yap, Jun White, Linda Steele, Li Li, Sarah Luo, Qiuming Zhu, Ping Ye, Jenny McAtee

*Source: U.S. Census data provided by the Nebraska State Historical Society

**Source: An Almanac of Nebraska: Nationality, Ethnic, and Racial Groups (published in 1975)

***Source: U.S. Census data provided by the Nebraska Library Commission

****Source: U.S. Census data provided by University of Nebraska-Omaha Center for Public Affairs Research

This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

See other Omaha-Chinese content from the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine:

A Family Masterpiece

May 10, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Some childhood memories stick with you. Dave Carroll, a retired Union Pacific manager, holds onto the memory of one fateful childhood leap that dented his grandfather’s prized 1950 Mercury.

“I’ve got so much of my life in this car,” Carroll says. When he was about 6 or 7, Carroll was playing with cousins at a tree house on his grandparents’ farm in Fullerton, Nebraska. His grandfather John Carroll’s out-of-commission vehicle sat under the tree house.

“I remember it like it was yesterday. Instead of going down the rope ladder, I jumped out of the tree house onto the car and I caved the roof in.”

Carroll remembered his grandpa’s large hands. “He got in the car and he took his hand and popped it out, and I thought, wow.” Some wrinkles remained in the car’s roof and would stay there for many decades. “The funny story is, years later, I paid to fix that roof,” he says.

His grandmother, Etta Carroll, bestowed him the car after his grandfather passed away. Then she accidentally sold the car for $50 to a neighbor kid, while Dave was serving in the military during the Vietnam War. Dave and his father, Jack, travelled to Fullerton to get the car back after Dave returned from overseas. The duo were quickly chased off of the property by shotgun.

“We went downtown and we found the local constable. He was having coffee at the coffee shop. My dad knew him. We told him the story and he said ‘come on, we’ll go back.’” The story ended well for Dave, who was still in possession of the car’s original title. And the car has been with him since then.

Over the years, the Mercury was transported across the United States on a flatbed trailer while Carroll worked his way up at Union Pacific, from a position on the track gang to one in management at the company’s headquarters. His career led him to places such as Sydney (Nebraska), Denver, and Cheyenne. At every new location, Carroll brought along his beloved Merc’. “My intention was to build it, but being a railroader, I didn’t have the time or the funds.”

Carroll returned to Omaha in the ’80s. He met and wed Dianne Cascio Carroll, owner of Anything Goes Salon. Soon after, he began his odyssey of fixing the Mercury. Having the roof repaired is just one of the many changes Carroll has made to his car.

“There’s so many things that have been done to this car,” he says. Over more than 30 years, Carroll says he has spent thousands of hours refurbishing the car. Some projects were finished, only to be torn up again and redone so that he could try the ever-evolving products in the industry that worked better. “That’s my problem,” he says. “I redo things.”

He has often lost track of time while working in his garage in the Huntington Park neighborhood in Omaha. “I’ve had my wife open the door and say, ‘you know what time it is?’ I look at the clock and it’s 10 after 1 in the morning and I’ve got to be to work at 6 in the morning.”

“It’s not about me. It’s about my parents, and honoring the memory of my grandfather. I kept this car because it was in the family and it’s never been out of the family.”

Carroll’s imagination has affected every aspect of the car, from the striking Candy Purple body color, to the custom purple snakeskin roof interior. The air-conditioning vents were salvaged from a 2002 FordTempo. He ordered the custom-made steering wheel from California, and the windshield from Oregon. Thanks to Carroll’s insatiable creativity, the car has a digital dash, an electrical door opener, a late-model motor with custom aluminum valve covers, four-wheel disk brakes, rounded hood corners, a smooth dash and Frenched-in (curved) headlights.

The restoration has also been helped by Ron Moore of Moore Auto Body, Rick White of Redline Upholstery, and Rod Grasmick, an antique auto restorer. Using qualified professionals means that Carroll knows his car is taken care of, but he also finds them to be knowledgable friends.

“I have a couple of friends that are helping me with this car, that’s how our [automotive] community is—everybody helps everybody,” he says.

Will the car ever be finished? “My dad is always telling that he hopes to get to ride it in when it is done, and him being 92 years old puts a lot of pressure on me,” he says.

“My wife says, ‘you’re taking forever.’ Well, look at it this way, there’s better and newer stuff coming out all the time,” Carroll says. And so the journey continues.

This article was printed in the Spring 2017 edition of B2B.

Java Journey

April 28, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Like many who guzzle black gold, Sagar Gurung started downing coffee purely for utilitarian reasons.

The taste—he could have done without.

Sagar Gurung

“I started for the caffeine,” Gurung says. “When I took that first sip, I said, ‘What the hell is this? It’s bitter.’ I would add a lot of sugar, milk, and cream to it.”

Gurung has come a long way in his java journey. He is the founder and part-owner of one of Omaha’s newest non-chain caffeine joints, Himalayan Java Coffee House. It launched in June 2016 at 329 S. 16th St., across from the Orpheum Theater on Harney Street.

Not that long ago, what Gurung knew about coffee didn’t amount to a hill of beans. He has worked as a business analyst (currently for Valmont Industries) after earning a degree in computer science from Bellevue University in 2004. Gurung was born in Chitwan, Nepal, but lived mostly in India until he moved to Omaha in the 10th grade to live with his older sister. He graduated from Omaha Gross High School.

He took regular trips back home to Nepal, and it was during one of those trips that he went from coffee novice to coffee aficionado. The spark was a visit to Himalayan Java Coffee, a franchise launched in 1999 by Gagan Pradhan and Anand Gurung in Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu.

Nepal is mostly a tea-loving country, but Pradhan and Anand Gurung were changing that with a concept utilizing small coffee farmers whose harvest had mostly been going outside the country. Nepalese farmers were more likely to grow millet or maize than they were coffee, which wasn’t introduced to the country until 1938 by a hermit who brought seeds from Myanmar (then Burma).

By the 1970s Nepalese farmers were beginning to pay attention to coffee as a serious cash crop. Today, it’s grown in nearly three dozen districts, thriving in one of the highest elevations in the world.

Pradhan and Anand Gurung, according to Sagar, “introduced coffee to Nepal,” showing countrymen how it should be planted, raised, roasted, brewed, and imbibed. Their efforts resonated—today, more than 20 Himalayan Java shops have been introduced in Nepal.

On Sagar’s first visit to Himalayan Java Coffee in Nepal, “I instantly loved everything they were doing,” he says. He began to lobby the duo to let him bring their brand and their coffee to his adopted homeland. He also proposed the idea to Nepalese friends who lived in Omaha, asking them to join as partners.

Finally, the founders relented. “I think they just wanted to make me stop bugging them.”

The Nepalese founders are more like “strategic partners” than they are franchisees, Sagar says, but the Omaha Himalayan Java buys all its coffee from its Nepalese counterpart.

It’s a competitive market in Omaha, dominated by national and local chains. Sagar says such competition only gave him more reason to launch Himalayan Java here. And none of the others in Omaha can offer the distinct Arabica flavor available in his store.

“Coffee has a natural tendency to embody its environment,” Sagar says. “So the taste you get is very unique to the area you grow in.”

He appears to have picked an ideal location for the startup. Customers come frequently from the Orpheum across the street, of course, but Himalayan Java also gets employees from nearby Union Pacific, First National, OPPD, other downtown businesses, students from Creighton and UNMC, and downtown denizens.

Himalayan Java offers a full complement of caffeinated beverages—espressos, cappuccinos, mochas, lattes, and more. The No. 1 seller, Sagar says, is the “Dark Roast 4.” The menu also includes sandwiches, soups, and salads.

Sagar says customer retention has been strong and that word-of-mouth marketing has helped  Himalayan Java enjoy 15- to 20-percent growth month over month. Enough that he’s had at least preliminary discussions about expanding to a second store.

He’s also heard from enough customers that he plans to introduce some home-cooking with a menu that should include Nepalese goat and chicken curry; “thukpa,” an intensely flavored noodle soup; and “momos,” spicy Nepalese dumplings typically filled with marinated minced meat.

“I want to introduce Nepali items you can’t get anywhere else in town,” he says.

For now, though, he’s intent on making sure Himalayan Java makes a name for itself with its roasts — something customers should recognize just steps inside.

“We are a coffee house, and it is a beautiful thing to walk into a store and the aroma hits you,” he says.

It took him a while to get there, but he says the taste is even better.

“Now I like my coffee dark with no sugar, no milk, or cream,” Sagar says. “I just love the way our coffee tastes.”

He’s hoping more and more Omahans will agree.

Visit himalayanjavausa.com for more information.

This article was published in the May/June edition of The Encounter.

How Omaha Railroaded Council Bluffs

April 6, 2017 by
Photography by Provided by Union Pacific Museum

Thirteen years before Nebraska achieved statehood in 1867, a group of Council Bluffs businessmen helped establish “Omaha City.” They didn’t view Omaha as a rival to Council Bluffs; rather, they saw Omaha as a prime route for the transcontinental railroad—and a road to riches. Their efforts laid the groundwork for the nation’s most ambitious construction project, while forever forging a unique bond between the two cities and Union Pacific.

The saga begins in the 1850s, when Dr. Thomas Clark Durant and Henry Farnam partner to construct a rail extension across Iowa, called the Mississippi & Missouri Railroad. They subsequently commission Grenville M. Dodge to explore possible routes for a transcontinental railroad between the Missouri River and Salt Lake Valley.

 It’s a difficult decade for Omaha—a bank panic in 1857 wipes out investors, and the city’s population declines. Then, the Civil War ignites in 1861. Desperate to unite the country east to west, President Abraham Lincoln signs the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862. It OKs land grants to attract private capital for construction and authorizes UP’s origin at a point on Iowa’s western boundary, to be approved by the president.

Motivated by his large interest in the M&M, Durant is determined to link his Iowa rail extension with the transcontinental initiative, says Patricia LaBounty, collections manager at the Union Pacific Railroad Museum. By Oct. 30, 1863, Durant is elected UP’s director and vice president, taking nearly complete control of the enterprise. He appoints Peter A. Dey as UP’s chief engineer (Dey had surveyed the M&M with Dodge) to further explore four possible connections alongside the Missouri River, including Omaha and Bellevue.

Durant lobbies Lincoln, who’s also inundated with requests to fix the origin at locations stretching from Sioux City, Iowa, to Kansas City. Judge John P. Usher, Secretary of the Interior in Lincoln’s cabinet, recalls Durant’s advice: “Now, the natural place for this terminal point is at the mouth of the Platte River, but Omaha is the principal town in Nebraska; the wealth of the territory is there, and the energies of the people radiate from there, and I think they ought to be considered, and the best thing is to start it from Omaha.”

After consulting with Dodge, on Nov. 17, 1863, President Lincoln writes his first executive order on the subject. To ensure the railroad builds a continuous rail line and bridge surmounting the Missouri River, he sets the starting point on the Iowa side, across from Omaha. But his language is somewhat ambiguous, and Durant seizes the opportunity to plan an elaborate ground-breaking ceremony—in Omaha.

Held in early December 1863, near the ferry landing at Seventh and Davenport streets, and featuring bands, cannons, and fireworks, the event attracts throngs of citizens. Writes David Bristow in A Dirty, Wicked Town: Tales of 19th Century Omaha: “And so it was an act of great faith—right there in the middle of a bloody civil war—to begin the most ambitious and expensive building project the country had ever attempted. It began in Omaha—it was a day, as the Omaha Nebraskian put it, ‘to thank God and take courage.’”

On March 7, 1864, Lincoln pens a second, more formal executive order, again specifying the origin on Iowa’s boundary opposite Omaha. Construction languishes due to lack of financing during the war, so a second Congressional Act on July 2, 1864, creates additional land grant incentives. A map detailing the railroad’s first 100 miles west from Omaha is filed with the Interior Department later that year, which President Lincoln approves.

And then, amazingly, Durant flip-flops. Despite two presidential orders, the UP Board of Directors’ approval of the Omaha route and his initial support, he changes his mind. A new consulting engineer, Silas Seymour, has identified steep grades surrounding Omaha, so he and Durant seek to move the origination point to Bellevue.

“Just like Omaha, Bellevue has already authorized land grants to UP, provided it begin the railroad there,” LaBounty says, “and Durant continues playing both sides of the fence. By May 1865, he requests surveys on the Missouri-Bellevue route and the best location for mechanical shops at Bellevue or Fremont.”

Omahans are outraged. The anger is apparent in telegrams exchanged between Durant and Edward Creighton, president of First National Bank and founder of the university that bears his name. Due to the reroute, Durant says no buildings are needed in Omaha. He’s had “enough of interference” and threatens to “make application to the President to change the terminus.” Responds Creighton: “Omaha must be the only point of connection with the Missouri River. Without this, there will be trouble.”

The issue is resolved Sept. 23, 1865, when President Andrew Johnson approves an amended location in Omaha that addresses the grades through a circuitous route, and construction to the west finally begins. But the drama doesn’t end there.

Given Lincoln’s presidential orders, it was assumed the Missouri River bridge would be constructed between Council Bluffs and Omaha. But UP’s board of directors rumors otherwise. In March 1868, a prominent Omaha delegation, including Nebraska Gov. Alvin Saunders, businessman Ezra Millard, and Omaha Herald publisher Dr. George L. Miller travel to UP’s New York City corporate office to settle the issue. They are appalled, writes Bristol, when Dodge announces the board has selected Bellevue. Using a tried-and-true strategy, Omaha and Council Bluffs unite to offer the railroad land, rights-of-ways and money. The railroad accepts, and the $2.5 million iron bridge is completed in 1872.

Two years later, the U.S. Supreme Court settles the argument over the railroad’s origin point, establishing Milepost 0 in Council Bluffs. Both cities become transportation and business hubs, with a major rail yard and passenger transfer hotel in Council Bluffs, and Omaha home to UP’s operational headquarters and mechanical shops. Today the bond continues, with more than 4,000 Union Pacific employees in Omaha and Council Bluffs proudly serving the state and the nation.

Although Union Pacific is headquartered in downtown Omaha, the Union Pacific Railroad Museum is located in Council Bluffs. Visit uprrmuseum.org for more information about the railroad’s history.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Bringing the Community Together

August 19, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Tom Pettigrew was working as a banker at Wells Fargo in the summer of 1989 when his boss approached with a proposition: Would he help coordinate a new public service project?

The plan was to paint houses for low-income elderly and permanently disabled residents. Pettigrew and his team set a goal of painting 10 houses in the Omaha area. But after gathering a group of volunteers, they ended up painting 50 homes that first year.

“It wasn’t being done by anyone,” Pettigrew says. “We said it was like a barn raising, and people came out to help.”

The Brush Up Nebraska Paint-A-Thon is entering its 27th year this summer. Pettigrew, now age 72, remains the program’s co-director alongside his wife, Sheila, 69. The community-wide activity will culminate on the third Saturday of August, with the help of more than 1,800 volunteers.

It’s a project the couple feel passionate about. They started a program in Omaha and have been asked to start programs in South Dakota, in Wisconsin, and across Iowa from Atlantic to Cedar Rapids.

In the U.S., there are 22 million low-income homeowners, many of whom live on social security or an income of less than $1,000 per month. Many of these people are concerned about paying for groceries, not repainting their homes.

“There’s no way they’re going to get this done if someone doesn’t help,” Tom says.

The work builds confidence and makes the homeowners happy, but it also helps them financially.

“In order to get insurance, a lot of times a home has to be painted and in good shape,” Tom says.

Pettigrews1The Pettigrews and their board work with the Department of Health and Human Services to collect the names and addresses of people who need help having their homes painted. They coordinate the volunteers and hand out housing assignments a month before the event.

“That way they have the time to evaluate what they need,” Tom says. “They go to the homeowners, who pick out their paint color.”

The Pettigrews coordinate the donation of supplies and hold a training session on how to scrape, prime, and paint a home. They instruct volunteers on how to properly remove lead paint if they encounter it.

Then, they stand back, and have faith that their volunteers know their jobs.

“On paint day we drive around and see as many houses as possible. The people will be busy, and happy,” Sheila says. “We are not a repair project, yet we find a lot of them will repair things like windowsills. They plant flowers, rake leaves. It’s wonderful.”

“Hal Daub came to paint one year,” Tom says with a smile. “A boy from the neighborhood came over to see what was going on, and Hal taught him to repair screens.”

The couple are astonished and humbled by the way their passion project has grown through the years.

Tom says, “to have teams come back year after year is impressive. We have people who do this year after year, and we’ve gotten to know many of them.”

It isn’t just the individuals that come back. Tom no longer works for Wells Fargo, but the company still puts together teams and paints six homes each year. Other corporations, such as Union Pacific, participate each year. The paint is always donated by Diamond Vogel.

All this work has added up to the brushing-up of 2,724 homes, while building a network of extended friends bonded to their community.

“We get a tremendous amount of satisfaction from this,” Tom says. “We enjoy putting people together to get this done.”

“We meet wonderful people,” Sheila says. “We have friends that we’ve known for 20-some years through this project.”

A Functional Lake House

May 20, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Erin and Steve Albers always envisioned building a lake house “someday,” and three years after making that dream a reality—they say their Valley home has proven to be everything they hoped for.  

“Living on a lake has been a blast. It’s like a vacation every day,” Erin says.


The couple, who are originally from Harlan, Iowa (Erin), and Beaver Lake, Nebraska (Steve), say they enjoy the small town feel of their Mallard Landing neighborhood. It’s a manageable commute for Steve, who works downtown at Union Pacific, and an easy drive for Erin to her west Omaha workplace, Home Instead Senior Care. 

Their home boasts five bedrooms and four bathrooms in 3,078 finished square feet, but the family actually downsized when they moved. Erin Albers says with son Luke, now 10, and daughter Piper, now 8, getting older the toys they play with change. This means changes in the need for space.

“All their toys go away, and all they have are these little electronics. We don’t need all that space.”

Erin Albers says the house they have now is not very large, and the family is extremely minimalistic. The Albers use the space they have in the most effective way possible.


We use every inch of it. So everywhere is very functional,” Erin Albers said. “We wanted to create a space where we could all be together. The four of us, and our dog Bella, are always together in the same space, and this house is perfect for that.”


She says visitors describe the home as open and happy, adding that it reflects the family’s outgoing nature and fun vibe. The interior colors are neutral, but the furnishings and décor incorporate bright hues. This is intended to create a “coastal” feel enhanced by white car siding on the vaulted ceiling. “I wanted it to look a little cottage-ish,” Albers says. “It’s all grays and whites, but it has lots of orange and turquoise and lime. Lots of color.”

The home features unexpected accents throughout such as a lively piece of custom art by local artist Sam Vetter, vividly colored damask accent chairs, lime-green metal bar stools, a versatile Junkstock piece that serves as a sometimes-bar in the lower level, and even a one-of-a-kind reclaimed-wood table made by a retired shop teacher in Kearney who had to painstakingly remove hundreds of nails by hand. 

“It’s a 10-foot long, custom-made table from old barnwood. It is gorgeous,” Albers says. “It has two long benches, and you can fit like 12 people at the table.”


Lake living hasn’t been without its challenges, however. Wood floors proved to be no match for the site’s environmental moisture and had to be replaced with tile. The family also had to consider how to keep sand at bay, and find storage for their recreational items.

“We did have to figure in what we call a ‘lake room’ under the house,” Albers says.

Complete with an outdoor shower and year-round storage space, the transition area helps keep the house up to acceptably tidy standards for the self-confessed “complete neat freak.”

“Our house is perfect for us,” Albers says. OmahaHome


A Track’s Trek Through the Garden

January 8, 2016 by
Photography by Contributed by Jerry Paladino

A train’s song is iconic, and with the flip of a switch, Jerry Paladino’s garden railroad roars to life. When not in use, the cars and engines live on shelves that line the walls of his garage. From there, they chug through a tunnel in the wall, out to the backyard and on to elevated tracks.

“I had to do a lot of talking to knock a hole into a brand-new house,” Paladino says. “My wife is very understanding.”

Trains run through Paladino’s blood. His own father was an employee of Railway Express Agency and Union Pacific, and Paladino fondly remembers riding the California Zephyr in the 1960s.


Today, rather than riding his father’s magic carpet made of steel, he operates N-scale models. Perhaps it was natural he became enamored with garden railroads when he was invited to see the layout of a track run by the Gold Creek Railroad. It included hand-cut ties, hand-spiked rails, and a painted background.

“It just kind of blew me away,” he says. “It was just amazing. Museum-quality.”

Paladino started with his garden railroad hobby in the early 1990s. Indeed, garden railroading is a popular hobby across the country, and Paladino is a member, and serves as the current president of the River City Railroaders Club.

An outdoor railroad with tracks of brass and UV-resistant plastic ties curves through the garden. Trains with classic looks from U.P., Burlington Northern, and other railroads run along a track laid around the edge of a raised concrete planter. The planter, measuring 15 feet by 50 feet, houses a garden of miniaturized plants and model buildings.


The model buildings are both scratch- and kit-built and the layout features figurines of people and animals. There’s a water tower, a gazebo that lights up at night, and a golden spike where Paladino laid the last of the track. Many buildings sport signage and name tags noting Paladino’s family members, including his wife and grandchildren.

It takes tender care for these trains to roll past houses, farms, and fields. Paladino can’t use weed killer for the health of the garden’s miniature evergreens, roses, chrysanthemums, and other plants. The trains can run in all weather and temperatures so long as they have traction and the rails are clean and clear, but the track requires rebalancing from time to time.

“You gotta trim, you gotta prune, you gotta pull weeds,” Paladino says. “There’s always something out there to repair.”

For Paladino, the building and construction is his favorite part of the hobby, although he does enjoy conducting the trains for his grandchildren, who in turn enjoy racing toy cars along the track.

Some enthusiasts like to make their tracks adjustable, but Paladino prefers to keep his permanent.

“I put the tracks and the main lines up against the outside edge of the layout,” he says. “It’s completely flat, there’s no grade to it at all. That’s how I like it.”

One thing is certain—that constant clacking of the wheels on the tracks take him to far away places.

“I just turn it on and sit in a lawn chair and watch it run.”

And then the rhythm of the rails is all he feels.


Ballet Nebraska

September 8, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article appears in the Fall 2015 issue of B2B.

How is it that Midlands Choice has come to make an investment in, of all things, a ballerina?

Sure, the bottom line of any insurance entity is driven by risk management—the investing of premium revenues to hedge against claims.

But taking stock in Claire Goodwillie, a company dancer with Ballet Nebraska?


Erika Overturff

The Midlands Choice example is repeated all across the metro as area businesses support a broad array of arts nonprofits, ones that dwell in everything from tutus to tempura.

And the table is set for a new era of collaboration between business and the arts  because philanthropic giving in America has finally returned to pre-recession levels.

Contributions, which totaled $358 billion in 2014, surpassed 2007’s pre-recession level of $355 billion. Additionally, giving was up from all major sources—individuals, corporations, foundations and bequests—according to Giving USA, an annual report compiled by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and the Giving USA Foundation of Chicago.

“Eight out of nine types of charitable organizations we measure saw increased contributions, and that’s good news for the philanthropic sector as a whole,” W. Keith Curtis told Omaha Magazine in an email. Curtis is chair of Giving USA Foundation and president of the nonprofit consulting firm The Curtis Group. “The 60-year high for charitable giving in 2014 is a great story about resilience and perseverance.”

Themes of resilience and perseverance define the Ballet Nebraska story.

Erika Overturff was 27 years old when the ballet company of which she was a dancer and resident choreographer appeared doomed. She had no money. She had no business acumen.

That was 2009. Flash forward to 2015 and Overturff, now 33, founder and artistic director of Ballet Nebraska, is leading the region’s only professional dance company into its sixth season.

In a city known for its “can-do” spirit, this story could be about almost any local arts nonprofit, but the unlikely saga of Ballet Nebraska is told here because it is perhaps the most improbable of tales, one that best reveals what a business community and the arts can do when they share a common vision.

Like settling into your seat with a program before the lights dim at any performing arts venue, it’s probably best to start by reviewing the cast of characters:

The Connector

Hal Daub knows people. Especially in a city of six degrees of separation that is, in reality, much more like two or three degrees, the former Omaha mayor (1995-2001) and U.S. Congressman (1981-1989) who has served on countless nonprofit boards and is now a partner at Husch Blackwell…knows people.

“When I was first introduced to Hal and he offered to help,” Overturff says, “I assumed that meant he was going to maybe make a few calls and do a little name-dropping.” Daub, it turned out, would become a key player in the often delicate pas de deux that is the coupling of business and the arts. “He not only made those calls, but he set up the appointments…and then he came along to personally introduce me and stand by my side in front of those who would become some of the most generous funders of Ballet Nebraska.”

“The reason I am so fascinated by what Erika has done,” says Daub, “is that Omaha is a city that has clearly evolved to become a place that is not just metropolitan, but truly cosmopolitan.” And investing in the arts, Daub believes, makes good business sense. “The social environment of a city—its arts and entertainment—is critical in attracting and retaining the best workforce. Ballet Nebraska, Opera Omaha, the Omaha Symphony, Omaha Performing Arts…those and so many others are the organizations that help keep the best talent in Omaha.”

The Advocate

Michelle Clark is Union Pacific’s general director of information technologies, which means she probably knows more than a little about computer viruses. As a three-year board member of Ballet Nebraska, she’s also seen how supporting the arts can go viral.

“Employee generosity is furthered by the use of the company’s matching gifts program,” Clark explains. “This creates a sense of pride for employees, and Union Pacific is supportive of the communities in which we live and work. The employees of Union Pacific are very generous and have supported fundraising drives not only for Ballet Nebraska, but a number of organizations such as the Women’s Center for Advancement and JDRF.”


Employees should never underestimate their power to play a key role in advocating for nonprofits within their organizations.

“I am passionate about the art of dance, especially ballet and Ballet Nebraska,” Clark says. “Dance inspires my creativity and provides insights to see beyond the obvious. My hope is that by providing individuals with the awareness of opportunities to experience and support the art of dance they will find their own inspiration to apply to their own life.”

And just as stubborn computer viruses are often cloyingly messy to eradicate once discovered, Union Pacific’s relationship with Ballet Nebraska has a “stickiness” of its own. Clark was preceded on the Ballet Nebraska board by Gayla Thal, the company’s senior vice president and general counsel.

The Bulldog

Don’t let the gentle demeanor of Midlands Choice vice president Greta Vaught fool you. Supporting the arts is often a visceral experience, and Vaught’s passion for dance exerted itself on multiple levels in the early stages of growth at Ballet Nebraska.

“Midlands Choice has always been supportive of my work in the community,” says the board chair of Ballet Nebraska.

“We like to listen to our people when making such decisions,” says Midlands Choice President and CEO Thomas E. Press. ”It is important for us to know that our giving has real meaning for them, their families, and their communities.”

“I looked at what Erika was trying to do,” Vaught continues, “and I thought it was brave, but impossible. But all along the way I just kept going back to the thought that if one of my daughters [Mia, now 15, and Hannah, now 19] wanted to try something so bold one day that”…insert long pause…“I’m sorry, this is making me cry. I would just hope that people with experience and connections and dollars would shepherd my daughters along like so many people have done with Erika and Ballet Nebraska.”

Okay, so maybe “The Bulldog” wasn’t such a great character name for this role after all.

The Artist

“I had to do a lot of on-the-job learning when I decided to try to launch a dance company,” Overturff says. “We were lucky in that we got our nonprofit status right away, but I didn’t know anything about the business side of things, and really nothing about raising funds. I was moved by every $5 check that came in, but it took a lot of mentoring, advice, and counsel to get us to where we are today as a fully funded, professional performance company.”

Ballet Nebraska now has a paid staff of 22, including nine salaries paid to company dancers. Today, Overturff’s once-nonexistent business connections run deep. Personal contributions from the likes of philanthropists Richard Holland, and Fred and Eve Simon, further fuel the growth of ballet in Omaha. Foundations also play a major role in funding. A recent gift of $124,000 from the Iowa West Foundation is the largest in Ballet Nebraska history.

“Talented professionals from all over the world that have trained their whole lives to pursue a career in dance now come to Omaha in the hopes of performing with Ballet Nebraska as we serve the state and western Iowa in performances, education, outreach, and more” she says. “A ballet company—any performing arts company, any arts organization—is about its people…the artists, the staff, and hardworking, selfless volunteers. But it is the people of Omaha, from the smallest donations to the relationships we have with such great businesses, that makes it all happen.”


Back to the River

August 27, 2015 by

This article appears in July/August 2015 The Encounter.

The Asarco lead refinery along the Missouri riverfront was Omaha’s largest company in the mid-1880s. In fact, in the early 1900s, the Omaha plant was the largest lead refinery in the world.

The company then known as American Smelting and Refining Co. was looked upon as a good
corporate citizen.

But a century went by and people began learning how lead could pollute the Missouri River and the air, as well as possibly affect their health. Asarco began facing scrutiny, especially from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Not only was there a question of pollution, but the riverfront area that sustained other heavy industrial companies, including four battery companies, was unattractive and unappealing.

“The riverfront was drab and dismal and it was embarrassing to come to Omaha out of Eppley with all the industrial and junk yards and Asarco, which had the largest land piece on the riverfront,” Former mayor Hal Daub says.

Cleaning up the area was a first step toward a renovated riverfront. For Daub, focus on the riverfront began in 1995 with debate on renovating the old Civic Auditorium that sat in downtown Omaha. Daub proposed that, instead of spending city funds fixing up the auditorium, the city should clean up the riverfront and build a new auditorium there.

At the same time, he also saw developing the riverfront as key to downtown renewal. Prominent business leaders were telling him they might move their companies from the dying downtown.

Daub wanted a cleaned-up riverfront to anchor the renovation of downtown. So he picked up the phone and called Asarco’s corporate office in New York.

A former U.S. congressman, Daub knew his way around the Superfund and federal rules on cleaning up sites determined to be hazardous to human health.

“I knew Asarco qualified as a Superfund and that Nebraska could shut down the plant,” Daub says.  “We got the title to the land and $50 million for cleanup from Asarco.”

He is quick to point out that Asarco was cooperative.  “They understood the dilemma they faced in a changing environment and they agreed.”

The facility closed in 1997 after 110 years.  Demolition ended in late 1999, completing the largest cleanup of lead-contaminated yards in history.

The closing of Asarco paved the way toward Omaha’s riverfront development. Today Lewis & Clark Landing and Storz Brewing Company sit where Asarco was located.

In 2000, the city added a second project in the revitalization effort, buying 107 acres from Union Pacific where the railroad’s shops sat near the river, after cleanup efforts directed by the EPA.

The cleanup also made way for the new convention center-arena in 2000, the project that had first turned Daub’s attention to the riverfront. Voters approved bonds to build near the riverfront what is now the CenturyLink Center Omaha.

The Union Pacific land also now hosts TD Ameritrade Park, the Hilton Hotel, and parking lots, according to Greg Peterson, who was then the city’s assistant planning director.

Union Pacific and Asarco were both important to an integrated plan for development along the riverfront, says Daub.

“Sometimes you have to tear down old stuff because you can’t see past the ugliness of what’s there in order to envision what could be there,” says Daub.


Building a Meca

October 7, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Diane Duren remembers the desert days of Downtown Omaha.

“I was here when there was not much happening, even after work and on weekends,” says Duren, who’s either studied or worked in the area for nearly 40 years, today as an executive vice president at Union Pacific.

Now, Downtown is dynamic.


That’s thanks in large measure to the work of Omaha’s Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority, the nonprofit that runs CenturyLink Center Omaha, TD Ameritrade Park Omaha, and the now closed Omaha Civic Auditorium. According to a recent economic study, the CenturyLink Center Omaha has generated nearly $5 billion in economic benefit for Omaha.


As the newest member of the MECA board of directors, Duren wants to spread the good word.

“I’ve spent 10 years watching the growth and development,” Duren says. “Seeing what MECA has done…has been truly amazing. It’s made downtown more vibrant.

“The MECA Authority itself, I think, is doing a lot of things very, very well. I don’t always think that we are telling the story as well as we should. We need to tell the story very broadly and the public needs to understand what’s happening and what we’re doing.”

The biggest MECA-related story earlier this year wasn’t exactly good press. The MECA board voted to extend board-member terms from five to seven years. That would have lengthened the stay of existing board member Jim Vokal. Instead, Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert, who asserted the board didn’t have the authority to change member terms, appointed Duren to replace Vokal. That was a way, Duren says, of getting some “diversity of thought” onto the board.

A Creighton graduate, Duren joined Union Pacific in 1985 after starting her professional career with Deloitte, Haskins & Sells in Omaha. She’s held a variety of roles with the railroad, working for departments including finance, marketing and sales, and agricultural products.

The Omaha City Council voted unanimously to support Duren’s nomination. The MECA board conceded, and in May, Duren joined the
five-member board.

Duren is no stranger to board play. Among her main responsibilities at Union Pacific as corporate board secretary is facilitating the railroad giant’s board meetings. She also oversees Union Pacific’s human resources department, its strategic planning and administration of resources such as its heritage fleet and planes (yes, Union Pacific still owns trains).

“It’s not a 40-hour workweek,” she says. “My iPad is on all night long.”

When it’s not on, she’s spending time with her husband, Drew Collier, and their four sons, ages 20 to 29. When extended family comes over, Duren does all the cooking, often for two dozen or more people. To get away, she and Drew head for snowshoeing, skiing, fishing, and other outdoor pastimes in Sun Valley, Idaho, where they own a home.

But Omaha is home base.

“The things that have impressed me is really the sense of community that’s here, the philanthropic work that’s done,” says Duren, who is extensively involved in the community, serving organizations including the WCA, Arthritis Foundation, Girl Scouts, American Red Cross, and Children’s Hospital and Medical Center. “If you look across any city in America, you don’t see that kind of giving back.”

Duren is just starting to tell the story.