April 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

On a Monday afternoon in early March, Mike Mancuso steps out of the home office at CenturyLink Center Omaha and walks into the Great Hall of the arena. An exhibitor getting ready for the upcoming Triumph of Agriculture Expo sees Mike, one of the show’s managers, and immediately comes over to ask for help. Apparently, the space he has been given for his farm equipment display isn’t big enough. Could Mike come over and take a look? Mike puts an armful of papers and a can of pop on the floor, then disappears for a few minutes. When he returns, he picks up his papers and pop and continues to his original destination. Problem solved.

This is the life Mike and his two older brothers, Bob, Jr., and Joe, have willingly chosen. It is the life their father, Bob Mancuso, Sr., carved out for himself and the family he cherishes back in 1964, when his three sons were babies. The Mancuso family is the force behind Mid-America Expositions, Inc., producer of trade shows, expos, fairs, and festivals in the metro. For nearly 50 years, Mid-America has kept products rolling and people strolling through Omaha’s numerous indoor and outdoor venues with events like the Farm and Ag Expo, Omaha Home & Garden Expo, Taste of Omaha, and the Omaha Products Show for Business and Industry—events that have become long-standing traditions, drawing families from all over the Midwest.

Despite a diverse slate of productions, Mid-America adheres to a simple driving philosophy: “We bring business and people together,” states Bob, Jr. “The Ag Expo helps farm businesses, the Taste of Omaha helps restaurants…Our aim is to make businesses successful.”

From left: Bob, Jr., Bob, Sr., Mike, Dona, and Joe Mancuso.

From left: Bob, Jr., Bob, Sr., Mike, Dona, and Joe Mancuso.

It’s no coincidence that the ascent of Omaha on the national stage parallels the transformation of Bob, Sr., from an athlete and teacher to a business-savvy entrepreneur whose deep devotion, keen vision, and strong faith in the city he loves changed the way marketing is done around here.

“Our family is rooted in Omaha,” says Bob, Sr., proudly. “My father and mother were both born and raised here. The Mancusos seldom got out of Omaha to go to school.” Except for him.

A standout wrestler at Omaha Central, Bob, Sr., scored a full ride to Kansas State and majored in phys. ed. and biological science. His teaching and coaching career began in 1956 at the old Bellevue High School. Coach Mancuso’s impact was immediate and startling. He molded a group of teenagers from a small, Class B school into state wrestling champions his very first year—Bellevue’s first championship ever, in any sport. The wins kept piling up.

Bellevue also produced the love of his life. A pretty young waitress who worked in her parents’ café across the street from the high school caught Bob, Sr.’s eye early on. In 1958, Dona Marie Hansen and Robert Mancuso were united in marriage.

Meanwhile, the coach’s impressive record at Bellevue caught the attention of a lot of eyes in Lincoln. In 1961, Bob, Sr., became head wrestling coach at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where his squads did well but were dwarfed by the large shadow cast by the football program.

“I was making $4,000 a year. My family didn’t need much to live on. But I kept thinking about my future and wondering, ‘Am I going to sit on a stool the rest of my life?’”

The answer came from Bob, Sr.’s older brother, the late Charles Mancuso, who at the time ran Omaha’s Civic Auditorium, Rosenblatt Stadium, and the Orpheum Theater. “Charlie told me I should quit the coaching business. He wanted more activities at the Civic, and he wanted me to help him.”

 “We bring business and people together…Our aim is to make businesses successful.” – Bob Mancuso, Jr.

After talking it over with his wife, Bob, Sr., joined with former AkSarBen General Manager Jake Isaacson and talent agency head Don Romeo to form Mid-America Expositions. The Mancuso magic struck again. “Our first event was Queen For A Day, with host Jack Bailey,” Bob, Sr., remembers as if it were yesterday. “The show broadcast live from Omaha for a week. Women stood in line around the auditorium to get in.”

Over 50,000 women swarmed the Civic during that week in late September of 1964, not only to see one of early TV’s iconic shows with its classic “applause meter” that determined the winner, but to also visit the Food Festival and Housewives Fair that accompanied it. Omaha had never seen a production on this scale before. “[Changing careers] was a good move for me,” says the elder Mancuso, who will turn 80 in September. “The future was wide open for aggressive people in the events market.”

Today, Mid-America Expositions produces between 12 and 15 shows a year, many at the CenturyLink Center Omaha, and they are a family affair. Each son joined their father one by one after pursuing their own corporate careers. Mike came aboard in 1988, followed by Bob, Jr., in 2005, and Joe in 2007. The love and respect each son carries for their father is evident in everything they say and do. They get emotional when trying to put into words what his legacy means to them.

“Dad has been a great example to me,” says Joe. “I have pretty much modeled everything I’ve ever wanted to do off of him—the way he has handled his life and lived his life.”

All three sons are fine athletes like their father and have been instrumental in adding the Outland Trophy Award Dinner, the Health, Wellness, and Fitness Expo, and the Corporate Cycling Challenge to the roster of events.

Next on the agenda: the 16th Annual Taste of Omaha May 31-June 2 at the riverfront, followed by the Nebraska Balloon & Wine Festival August 9-10.

As for the future, “We want to continue making our events stronger and greater,” says Mike. “We want to keep them good for the city of Omaha and the people of Omaha.”

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