November 27, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Walt Disney Elementary School in the Millard School District is a wonderful world, but you won’t find a castle anywhere on the grounds. Students don’t spend their days watching animated films, and there are no beloved Disney princesses and mascots roaming the halls.

Forty years after its opening in the Roxbury neighborhood off 108th and Q streets, staff and students still find that community members can be a little puzzled by the Disney name.

“I do get questions frequently about where that name came from,” says Principal Bethany Magana, who’s been with Disney six years. “I explain the process of how Disney got its name and we share the story.”

If you think Disney sounds like a name chosen by schoolchildren, you’re right. All Millard Schools are assigned a name by the Millard Board of Education, and in the early 1970s all Millard elementary schools were named for deceased famous Nebraskans like Mari Sandoz and J. Sterling Morton or for the neighborhood in which they were located (Holling Heights, Montclair). In 1974, only eight years after the death of Walt Disney, a 5th-grade girl—whose name has been lost to history—submitted an essay advocating for the Roxbury neighborhood school under construction to be named for Disney. The Walt Disney company agreed to give permission for use of the Disney name, the school board approved, and the children were involved in the process as well.

“We got to vote on the name of the school and we got to vote on the name of the mascot,” recalls former student Brad Utecht. “I remember them announcing to us that Disney won and we cheered.”

“Of course you’re thinking Disney World and Disneyland with Walt Disney, all those fun things for kids,” Micki Finkenbiner remembers, adding: “Mickey Mouse wasn’t there.”

“As kids, you do have this expectation of walking into this school and seeing Disney characters everywhere,” Mark Klein says. “Of course it was nothing like that, but it was nice because it was new.”

Before construction was complete, some of the teachers and students had to spend a few months in temporary space at what is now the Roxbury Plaza strip mall. Not only were they located next to a restaurant/bar (Robin Hood’s), but resourceful teachers had to hang butcher paper-wrapped cardboard to serve as dividers and sound batting, and they also wrapped cloth around the feet of the students’ chairs to counter the noise of the large, open space. There wasn’t much they could do about the cricket infestation, however, and everyone was thrilled to move to the new building, retired teacher Jane Slovenske says.

The Jiminy Crickets could have been a perfect mascot name, but with Disney officials denying rights to any of their characters, the students voted to become the Disney Dolphins.

“We thought, ‘Dolphins? We’re in a landlocked state and we’re the Dolphins?’” Slovenske says. “But the kids liked it and that was the main thing.”

It should also be noted that the Miami Dolphins were wildly popular at the time. The 1972 squad ran the table for the only undefeated season in NFL history, and the Dolphins had won back-to-back Super Bowls at the time of voting.

Utecht says that although he finds it a little amusing now, “We seriously thought, ‘How cool! We’re the Disney Dolphins!’”

Slovenske says that teachers and staff quickly learned to roll with the unusual name.

“When the school first opened, the first week or two the office kept getting these phone calls: “Is Mickey there? This is Minnie,” she says. “And then a few weeks later somebody else called and said,
‘This is Mickey. Have there been any messages for me?”

But soon everyone was taking the Disney name in stride.

“We just kind of laughed it off and just go on with making sure we were giving the kids the best education we could and prove that we weren’t just a ‘Mickey Mouse’ operation,” she says.

“I remember the staff was fantastic and a lot of those teachers I’m still in touch with,” Klein agrees. He’s now a Millard Public Schools teacher himself. “It was positive memories for me.”

“One thing that stands out with Disney Elementary school—within our school and within the community—is that we have a huge compassion for other people and a caring family,” Magana says. “The school community, the teachers staff, the students, they’re all such a strong family and that’s one of the traditions that’s always been here.”

It’s a small world, after all.

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