I had a stock comment while at UNL meant to deflect Omahans who might try to diminish me for being from a town of only 4,600 people. “Just because I’m from a small town doesn’t mean I’m stupid.” I’d say it in a country-bumpkin drawl unlike anything actually heard in Falls City. My Omaha buddies would laugh. It was a standing joke (repetition is the key to comedy, right?). But as with many of those preemptory, self-protecting, self-flagellations, I was never fully sure folks were laughing with me or at me.
Sure, I carried a few country-kid resentments; longings turned sour in youth. Particularly in winter I’d imagine the lives of Omaha kids spent in a buzz of light and excitement—a perpetuity on the ground floor of the Brandeis Department Store during holiday.
In the passing moments when such trifles are even pondered, many Omahans seem perplexed that outstate Nebraskans have such a range of emotions regarding them. When non-Omahans are stereotyping, Omahans can seem arrogant, self-possessed, and dismissive if not wholly ignorant of the rest of the state. Think of it this way: On a bad day, Omaha is to York what New York is to Omaha.
Often we see the schism in sharpest relief at election time. Although he claimed otherwise in my interview with him in November, outgoing Governor Dave Heineman does speak differently in Falls City compared to Omaha (My spies in Falls City say so). And he had the highest approval ratings for any governor in the country to show for it. Pete Ricketts followed the Heineman playbook and he won. Ricketts busted tail driving around the state shaking hands and talking plain. People stopped seeing the 10-zillionaire Daddy Warbucks from Omaha. They only heard the stories about the values he learned from his working-class grandparents in Nebraska City.
Heineman, who lived in four small towns in the state growing up, is very aware that we Nebraskans immediately take a liking to someone who can prove some kinship. Heineman seems to have some connection to every town in the state. Heck: Dave’s dad ran the J.C. Penney store in my hometown. I got my first running shoes in that store. I use to wrestle Dave’s nephew. I’m far from unusual in my accidental acquaintance. In every part of the state he was able to trigger that fond feeling that “he’s one of us.”
Here’s my homer pet peeve: People in my hometown and in other rural communities respond too readily to being told they are “good people.” Heineman talks about hard work, small-town values, the Good Life on the farm, the value of community. Wonderful values. Mostly true. But even when all the talk actually meets the walk, the tone is grossly self-congratulatory. And here’s the real drag: Such rhetoric implicitly suggests that there are places out there where people aren’t as wonderful. Those places would be Omaha and that one area of Lincoln where the ladies don’t shave their legs. You know: Gays, big government, and, in hushed tones, “North Omaha.” No way am I claiming this is the voice of the majority. But I know that subtext exists because I have spent a lot of time amongst it. And you know it exists because preaching to that choir is a proven winning strategy in Nebraska.
Having long since joined the enemy, I’ve mostly lost touch with any roots of discontent. The smartest, most cosmopolitan overall-wearing hillbilly I know is a guy named John Heaston. Based in Cozad, Heaston is the Platte River Program Director for the Nebraska Chapter of the Nature Conservancy. He has lived in both worlds. Now he bounces between those two worlds. He spends much of his life suffering misconceptions and bridging gaps.
“There’s this perception (in rural Nebraska) that people in Omaha think that if you live outside Omaha, you’re automatically wearing Duck Dynasty beards and freaked out and horrified by the idea of guys kissing guys.” And, that, “The only thing Omahans know about rural Nebraska is that there aren’t many Starbucks to stop at on their drive to Denver.”
Then there’s the century-old frustration: “There’s the feeling that Omaha is draining all the money from the downtowns of smaller towns. The fat hogs are getting fatter,” Heaston says.
A good part of Heaston’s job is spreading an appreciation for Platte River ecosystem. That has entailed introducing hundreds of Omahans to the river and rural Nebraska.
If those Omahans aren’t rural Nebraska transplants, he says, they very often are carrying major misconceptions about life outside Omaha. “I’ll take them for dinner in the area and they’ll just be amazed that we actually know how to cook out here. There are some people who come out and genuinely seem amazed we can do anything at a high level.”
Bob Pinkerton, retired publisher of the Western Nebraska Observer in Kimball, argues that the split between urban and rural–and east and west–became exacerbated several years ago when the Omaha World-Herald stopped daily delivery in western Nebraska. “It’s easier to focus on differences when you lose those common threads.”
At the same time, though, most every rural family now has someone close to them living in Omaha. And it’s hard not to love an Omahan when they’re your son or daughter, he says.
What Omaha needs will continue to be different for what Cozad and Kimball needs. Urban and rural legislators will always wrestle in Lincoln. But perhaps Omaha folks could try a little harder to get to know Nebraska outside of Omaha. And maybe keep the Golden Rule in mind when you meet a Falls City kid: Do unto him as you would have that guy from the East Village do unto you.
“Sure, it’s about respect,” Heaston says.