Tag Archives: Ak-Sar-Ben

Elmwood Park Paved for a Parking Lot

February 13, 2019 by
Photography by provided

Elmwood Park is an oasis of green in the heart of Omaha. It is a place for pick-up baseball and ultimate frisbee, picnics, barbecues, and 18 holes of golf. There’s a grotto and historic pavilion available to rent near a public swimming pool, playground, and more. The park is a favorite for family reunions, was the longtime home of a Swedish folk festival, and has hosted annual productions of Shakespeare on the Green since 1987.

Elmwood Park was named the “Best City Park” in Omaha by public voting in the 2019 Best of Omaha contest. Looking back in history, the park could have easily met a different fate—paved for a parking lot—as in the famous 1970s environmental anthem by Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi.”

The “delightful shady retreat” was officially christened Elmwood in June 1890 as the name for the “new park on West Leavenworth,” reported the Omaha Daily Bee on June 25, 1890. According to the book Omaha and Omaha Men by John T. Bell, the park began with 55 acres of donated land. Bell, Henry M. Hurlbut, and Henry B. Wiley gave 20 acres, while Lyman Richardson, Leopold Doll, and William Snyder combined in offering “35 acres as I remember it,” Bell wrote.

Within three years of opening, Elmwood grew to 215 acres. It was Omaha’s largest park, planned as “the principal park of the system.” The Elmwood Park pavilion was built in 1909 and is now 110 years old. In 1895, the Nebraska State Fair grounds opened under the auspices of the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben just south of the park. The illustrious and backward (in spelling) Nebraskans only added to Elmwood’s prominence.

The tremendous growth of automobile traffic flowing across the country during the 1920s brought about a “tourist camp” located at Sunset Point in Elmwood Park. The new facilities were designed by the Omaha Automobile Club with plans for “telephones, laundry service, benches, gas, and electric lights and attendants.”

For three years, between 1933 and 1936, Elmwood was home to several rhesus macaques enclosed on “monkey island.” Escaped primates and lackluster maintenance made the short-lived monkey island a source of ridicule for city officials. 

Elmwood got a new neighbor in 1936 after the University of Omaha purchased 20 acres from John Potter Webster to relocate its campus. By 1952, a brief notation in the university’s Tomahawk annual referenced the notorious lack of parking and how cars from campus “overflow into Elmwood Park.” That situation only worsened with the university’s growing enrollment as a parking permit came to be seen as more of a hunting license (rather than a guarantee of a parking spot).

The future of Elmwood Park came into question during the effort to integrate Omaha’s municipal university into the larger Nebraska system in the late 1960s. Nebraska Gov. Frank Morrison suggested Elmwood as a possible place to expand in 1967, but he quickly backpedaled by claiming it was his own idea and had never been brought up by the university or the University Merger Committee. In November 1967, the Friends of the Parks committee agreed to support the merger as committee co-chairman Rachel Gallagher claimed the park’s preservation for public use was “assured” by a 1951 ruling of the Nebraska Supreme Court. 

The University of Omaha would be no more, having become the University of Nebraska-Omaha—but the parking problem and prospect of campus expansion remained. Omaha City Councilman Lynn Carey proposed in May 1969 that the city should buy Ak-Sar-Ben “for park use as part of a chain reaction to replace Elmwood.” Another effort to deal with the university’s growth was presented in September 1969 by Omaha City Planning Director Alden Aust. This plan was formulated by three architectural students who had interned at the planning department and called for the “construction of four, four-level parking buildings in the Elmwood Park ravine” with space for 1,120 vehicles at a cost estimated at $2.24 million. There were approximately 12,000-12,500 students that year, and the first day of classes found police issuing “more than 250 tickets for illegal parking” in just three hours, mostly for parking in the grass at Elmwood Park. A parking pass cost $12 a semester but “many students complained” they still couldn’t find a place to park on campus.

The simmering parking controversy corresponded with protests against the Vietnam War. On Oct. 15, 1969, UNO students and Omaha citizens gathered at Elmwood Park and marched north to Memorial Park for the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam (a nationwide event involving protests at college campuses).  The rally at Elmwood was originally canceled due to weather, but the Omaha-World Herald estimated the turnout at Memorial to be 300-400.

Then came the protests after Omaha instituted a curfew in Memorial Park just across Dodge Street. Drug use and complaints by neighbors led to the curfew, protests, and a few arrests in August 1970. The next year, in July 1971, those protests grew violent and spread onto the university campus and into Elmwood Park. That summer there was taunting, truncheons, and tear gas after fireworks were thrown onto Dodge Street. Two policemen and a photographer were injured while one police car was pushed down the ravine adjacent to campus. More than 100 were arrested or treated at hospitals due to confrontations between Tuesday, July 6, and Friday, July 9. Free rock concerts were organized in Elmwood as an attempt to calm youths angry about the Memorial curfew.

In February 1971, park advocate Rachel Gallagher filed suit against the city and the Nebraska Board of Regents over their plans for parking at Elmwood Park. That lawsuit reached all the way to the Nebraska Supreme Court, which ruled in February 1973 that the joint-use agreement between the university and the city failed to meet the standards to change the park’s specific use. Instead of finding parking, university students that fall would find in Elmwood a six-hour rock concert featuring Luigi Waites, Eclipse, and Froggy Beaver. Instead of Elmwood Park, the university would turn to the stately neighborhood west of campus to find additional parking. 

Then, in more recent years, the university’s south campus developed parking, student housing, and buildings over the site of Ak-Sar-Ben Race Track and Coliseum on the former state fairgrounds. Even into the 21st century, university-linked parking problems linger in Elmwood Park. In November 2017, the city announced it would make efforts to enforce parking regulations at Elmwood, mostly aimed at university students.

Visit bestofomaha.com for the full list of winners in the 2019 Best of Omaha contest, including “Best City Park.”

This article was printed in the March/April edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Elmwood Park historic scene of protest

In May, 1969, children protested plans to pave Elmwood Park. The photo by Robert Paskach belongs to the Omaha World-Herald’s Paskach Collection at the Durham Museum Photo Archive.

Going to the Fair for 140+ Years

July 8, 2018 by
Photography by Douglas County Historical Society
Illustration by Matt Wieczorek

4-H played a big part in Tracy Behnken’s youth. The Nebraska Extension educator, who grew up on a dairy farm near Bennington, showed dairy cattle and participated in horticulture and entomology competitions from the age of 8 to 18.

So when the Douglas County Fair rolled around each year, Behnken and her siblings filled with excitement. “I’m the youngest of four, and we all showed [livestock] and looked forward to fair time. We’d spend morning ‘til night there, caring for our animals. My cousins were there, and I got to see many of my classmates. And we’d get to see kids from across the county…reconnect with friends we’d made.” 

Behnken, 54, says a highlight was riding the Zipper carnival ride with friends, over and over again. She’d also go to the open-air auditorium and watch the song competition and fashion review show. “And I remember us girls trying to keep away from the 4-H boys who’d try to throw you in the stock tank,” she says, laughing. “They were an ornery bunch.”

The Douglas County Fair has created great memories like Behnken’s for countless Nebraskans for more than 140 years. And that longevity is no small feat, considering the changing landscape of the county, both geographically and culturally.

Just a couple of years ago, the fair appeared to be near an end. Its events and entertainment had been cut to the bone, attendance was dismal, and fair planners wondered if it could survive. 

1906 Douglas County Fair Ribbons

But today, with a new home and management, the fair is poised to make a comeback. So believes Matt Gunderson, chair of the Douglas County Fair Advisory Committee and president of Friends of Extension Foundation, which took over management this year. The 2018 fair will be held July 10 to 15 at Village Pointe in West Omaha and Chance Ridge Event Center in Elkhorn. Chance Ridge won’t have parking, so visitors will need to take weekend shuttles from lots at Village Pointe or Metropolitan Community College’s Elkhorn campus. 

To say that the fair has weathered many changes is an understatement. The first fair (in the area now known as Douglas County) was during 1858 in Saratoga prior to Nebraska statehood, according to the Douglas County Historical Society. But the official Douglas County Fair got its start on a parcel of land in Waterloo in the mid-1800s. A portion of property taxes paid by Nebraska landowners went to the Douglas County Agricultural Society, which initially funded the fair. 

“County fairs started as a means for the rural population to showcase what they’d done all year,” says Vernon Waldren, executive director of the Friends of Extension Foundation. “The farmers came out to show the quality crops they’d grown, compare the size of their melons, and show off their best livestock.”

“Eventually they added home economics—baking, sewing, and other domestics. Then 4-H started in 1902 and became part of Extension, and joined the fair with the goal of educating people about these things.” 

The fair steadily grew, adding musical acts, carnival games and rides, and other family fun. Held in late summer, the event lasted from five to 10 days. The fair stayed in Waterloo for over a century, until the fairgrounds were sold.

In 1988, the Douglas County Fair relocated to Ak-Sar-Ben in Omaha, with the Knights of Aksarben taking over management. The tract of land—bounded by 50th to 72nd and Leavenworth to Center streets—seemed a good fit, offering an indoor arena, a racetrack, and stables with plenty of room for exhibits, livestock, rides, and a midway. The location also brought the action closer to the population center, though not all were happy about the fair leaving a small-town setting. Participation by both 4-H and open-class competitors grew, as events were opened to kids from outside counties. The late-July fair was a boon to the city. 

In 2003, following the sale of Ak-Sar-Ben for development, the fair was forced to move again, this time settling at the Qwest Center Omaha in downtown. The fair combined with the River City Rodeo & Stock Show to become a four-day event in late September. The urban venue did not appeal to many traditional fair-goers, as events were moved indoors, and many complained the fair had lost its identity. But there was no denying the high turnout. “There were as many as 100,000 people in attendance during those four days,” Gunderson says.

The first few years at the Qwest Center (eventually renamed the CenturyLink Center), the fair offered carnival rides in the parking lot. “But economics dictated that that end pretty quick,” says Eddie Biwer, another Friends of Extension Foundation board member. “Too expensive.” 

“Also, the 4-H presence at the [Douglas County] fair was dropped,” Waldren says. “[The kids] went to the Sarpy County Fair. There were still open-class persons exhibiting, but not in those numbers.”

To keep the fair relevant in its new city setting, organizers recognized it had to become more diverse, Gunderson says. “We began hosting chess tournaments and robotics competitions. We worked to become more inclusive.” 

Douglas County Fair McArdle exhibit, 1910

In 2016, the Knights of Aksarben ended its oversight, and the rodeo/stock show parted ways with the fair. Management was turned over to the Douglas County Fair Foundation. During this uncertain time, the group chose to scale the fair back to three days in late July and sought out an inexpensive venue, choosing Crossroads Mall at 72nd and Dodge streets. Mostly vacant, the mall housed most of the fair events indoors, with a few bounce houses and a small petting zoo in an outside lot. 

The bare-bones fair offered some live music, a magic show, a Disney film screening, and the traditional cake and quilt shows. But without carnival rides and livestock events (rabbits and chickens were showcased indoors), the fair proved lackluster and had disappointing attendance. Fair organizers knew big changes had to come for it to survive.

Last year, the Douglas County Fair Board moved the event to Chance Ridge Event Center in rural Elkhorn. The one-day July event was a trial run to see if the venue would suit the needs of the fair going forward. Its tagline was “Back to the Dirt,” referencing the fair’s return to the country and the basics of a county fair (minus the carnival rides). It had the regulars—quilts, bunnies, a “sugar arts” baking competition, as well as a progress show (a livestock event for youth to practice their showcasing skills for the state fair). Like in past years, all events were open class, meaning anyone could compete. A beer garden and music concert closed the event. Though the fair did not boast big numbers, competition entries were up and it was received well by attendees. 

The Friends of Extension Foundation is hoping to sign a multi-year contract with Chance Ridge to continue hosting the Douglas County Fair, Gunderson says. With the help of new sponsors and additional marketing this year, organizers hope to build on this momentum. 

This year’s event tagline is “Where Urban and Rural Meet,” as the fair focuses on educating fairgoers on how agriculture relates to all of us, as well as pathways to careers in agriculture.

“One-third of all industries in Omaha are tied to agriculture in some way,” Gunderson says. “You can work in IT, as an accountant, a welder, or in transportation, and still play a part in agriculture and food production.”

Adds Waldren: “Even if you don’t want to work in agriculture, there are skills we teach to help in everyday life, like how to pick fresh produce or selection of meat…[teaching] people how to be better consumers.”

Gunderson realizes that building the fair back to the size it once was is unlikely given the more urban nature of Douglas County, not to mention club sports, technology, and summer camps competing for kids’ attention. But he hopes parents will take the time out for the fair to “create those special memories with their kids and grandkids, and spur that fire and interest in agriculture. It’s great family time.” 

For more information, visit douglascountyfair.org and douglascohistory.org.

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. 

A Thriving Community

March 3, 2017 by

This article appears in the program book for the FEI World Cup Finals, produced by Omaha Magazine in March 2017.

Omaha’s connection to horses has a long local history that stretches back even before the city was founded in the mid-1800s; the city’s namesake Native American tribe was reportedly the first documented equestrian culture in the Northern Plains.

So it seems fitting that in and around Omaha today, a thriving equestrian culture provides plentiful resources for casual or serious horse enthusiasts and riders. A broad spectrum of lessons, trails, leasing, boarding, shows, and competitions are readily available. A handful of state parks within an hour’s driving distance provide extensive equestrian trails and some even offer camping facilities for horse owners or guided trail riding. The equestrian community is also supported by a host of goods and services providers, from tack and apparel shops, to farriers and large-animal veterinarians.

Lessons, Activities, and Services

The Omaha area offers a wide array of lessons for beginners and advanced students alike, in English and Western riding, jumping, dressage, and more. Many of these facilities also offer boarding, grooming, and other related services, offer open access trails, or provide corrals and practice rings where riders can independently develop their horsemanship skills. Some even offer party space for special events. A sampling of these local equestrian facilities, which present various services through membership or per visit, includes:    

  • American Legacy Complex (Omaha)
  • Elkhorn Equestrian Center (Elkhorn)
  • The Farm at Butterflat Creek (Bennington)
  • Hampton Ridge Equestrian Center (Elkhorn)
  • Infinity Farm (Springfield)
  • Ponca Hills Farm (Omaha)
  • Phoenix Equestrian Center (Bellevue)
  • Prairie Gem Stables (Omaha)
  • Quail Run Horse Centre (Elkhorn)
  • The Riding Center (Omaha)
  • Seefus Riding Stable (Council Bluffs, Iowa)
  • Winnail Stable (Waterloo)

Horse Shows

Dozens of horse shows in multiple classes are held in the area year-round, a tradition that goes back decades. For example, a resource for the Nebraska hunter/jumper schooling show circuit—NebraskaHorseShows.com—had already posted 10 unrated events for 2017 at the beginning of the year. By February, Urban Equine Events (UrbanEquineEvents.com), a local equestrian production company, had already listed four major events taking place in 2017 alone. National sources HorseShowCentral.com and USEF.org already list more than 20 shows scheduled for the area throughout 2017, with more to come.

“Every single weekend there’s a show if you want one,” Omaha Equestrian Foundation board member and volunteer Karen Ensminger says. Her two daughters have ridden competitively, and although she jokes about competing in the “rusty stirrup” circuit for middle-aged riders, Ensminger emphasizes that local riders have abundant options for A- and B-rated shows along with non-rated shows “for everyone.” In fact, local shows “attract riders from the entire region,” she says. 

Horse-themed Activities

Along with a significant presence at the FEI World CupTM Finals, local organizations are also embracing the festivities by offering external horse-themed community events such as:

  • Equus Film Festival (March 30 – April 1)

Two matinees each day will be featured at Marcus Midtown Cinema in conjunction with the FEI World CupTM Finals. The festival empowers storytellers to show the rich history and diverse tapestry of horses in human culture through a selection of feature films, documentaries, shorts, music videos, commercials, training educational materials, art and literature.   

  • Ak-Sar-Ben: A Good Place to Race (now through May 28)

This exhibit, hosted by the Durham Museum, presents a glimpse of one of the nation’s premiere racing tracks of yesteryear through both photographs and objects from the museum’s collection.

Equestrian Service Organizations

In addition to offering a multitude of activities for recreational and competitive riders, the equestrian community also includes groups with working horses that serve the community, like:

  • The Omaha Police Mounted Patrol Unit

The horse patrol started in 1989 as a part-time unit on a trial basis and was so successful in law enforcement, special events, and public relations that it was quickly elevated to a full-time unit. Today, a dedicated team of officers and horses comprise the unit, which is housed in a state-of-the-art equine facility in downtown Omaha.

  • Heartland Equine Therapeutic Riding Academy (HETRA)

HETRA is a nonprofit organization offering therapeutic riding programs for adults and children with disabilities. The organization has 19 specially trained therapy horses and is currently the only PATH Premier Accredited Therapeutic Riding Center in the state.

  • Take Flight Farms

Take Flight is a nonprofit organization which incorporates horses into therapeutic and learning programs. Take Flight is a member of Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA), an association that is dedicated to improving the mental health of individuals, families, and groups by setting the standard of excellence in equine-assisted psychotherapy.

With the wealth of equine industries, groups, events and shows in the area, it may take some research along with a little trial-and-error for budding equestrians to find their particular fit, Ensminger says. She adds that her contemporaries are generally happy to answer questions and provide information, and that the diverse local “horse people” community is, above all, welcoming.

“There’s a wide gamut,” she says. “But they love to talk about their sport, their passion and their obsession.”

Multiply by 50

December 29, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Opportunity leads to success. Success opens the door for even greater opportunity. Such is the cycle of the American dream. But many youths across the Heartland face more adversity than opportunity. Poverty, suffering, and staggering obstacles are their reality.

“Coming from an immigrant family, my parents only studied up to sixth grade in Mexico,” says Oliver Ramirez-Gutiérrez, a freshman at the University of Nebraska-Omaha with a dual major in biology and foreign language. “My dad works in a meat-packing plant, and my mom cleans houses. We don’t have the finances for my parents to pay for me to go to college. Even though there are obstacles in the way, you just overcome them because you don’t really have an option of failing.”

As a 2013 Ak-Sar-Ben scholarship recipient, Gutiérrez’s options just expanded in a big way. He was one of 50 winners of $6,000 college scholarships presented at the recent Ak-Sar-Ben Coronation & Scholarship Ball.

Gutiérrez says the scholarship opens a whole new world for him. “There are endless possibilities that you can do once you have your college paid,” he says. “That money is basically my future. If I hadn’t received it, I don’t know where I would have gone.”

Founded in 1895 as a harvest celebration, the Coronation & Scholarship Ball honors the volunteer efforts of families throughout the Heartland by selecting their children as members of the royal court. A civic-minded business leader of the region serves as king and the queen is honored for the civic contributions of her family.

“The ball is a party with a purpose, that being each individual scholar and how we can help each individual succeed,” says Jane Miller, chairman of the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben Board of Directors.

Ak-Sar-Ben partners with the Horatio Alger Association offering Ak-Sar-Ben scholars access to matching scholarship funds from colleges and universities across the country, including many local institutions. “I’m just really proud,” Gutiérrez continues, “that the people at Ak-Sar-Ben were able to see the potential in me to become something great and to one day give back.”

Now take Gutiérrez’s potential and multiply that by 50.


The People Behind the Curtain

August 29, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann and Dwyer Photography

Considering that the theme of this year’s Ak-Sar-Ben Coronation and Scholarship Ball is “On the Golden Road,” a nod to The Wizard of Oz, perhaps it’s time we did pay attention to that man behind the curtain. Or, rather, the people behind the curtain. In fact, six volunteers work together on the ball’s production team for nearly the entire year to make certain that the music, the set, the lights, and the words all meld into one seamless production.

All six have full-time jobs outside of the Ak-Sar-Ben Ball.

In M. Michele Phillips’ case, she has several: “Sometimes I’m acting, sometimes I’m teaching, sometimes I’m writing, sometimes I’m the wine steward at the bistro at Fort Omaha.” As the team’s scriptwriter, it’s up to Phillips to keep track of the massive script, 45 pages that detail the ball’s many players and their movements.

“It’s such a behemoth!” she says. “There are songs that unify the theme; there are quotes that unify it. Sometimes there are procedural things that change, so you can’t even count on the way things have been done in the past.” Phillips adds that the chairperson of the coronation can have a hundred million ideas or none. “So you kind of have to help them, guide them along. Sometimes their ideas are impossible to execute, and sometimes they’re not thinking as big as they could be.”

When those big ideas do come out, Phillips remarks how Jim Othuse, as set and lighting designer for the ball, is always budget conscious but “always comes up with something really spectacular.”

“Getting [the Pages] to stay in their lines or do it any sort of order is…interesting.” – Patrick Roddy, choreographer

Othuse, scenic and lighting designer at the Omaha Community Playhouse, states that designing the ball’s huge set does get easier over the years; after all, he’s been doing it since 1979. “That was the year the theme was ‘One Thousand and One Knights’,” he recalls. “I was a little unsure as to whether I could handle such a big project; in those days we had lots of scenic elements, far more than we do now.” Thirty-four years later, his favorite part of the job is still figuring out how to fit in each year’s new pieces.

It’s a sentiment he shares with Patrick Roddy, who by day is a dance instructor at Creighton University. As the ball’s choreographer, Roddy’s had to come up with some creative solutions each year, particularly for corralling 50 youngsters during the Page run. “Getting them to stay in their lines or do it any sort of order is…interesting,” he says with a laugh. “Last year, we decided to get them out onto the runway, which is about 300 feet long. All the pages were bumblebees, and we played ‘Flight of the Bumblebees.’ I gave them some cues for when they should start a big circle. Everybody had not much faith that I could do it. It’s a huge room, there’s so much stimuli, but, by gosh, they did it. They found their little music cues, they found their spots to spread out.”

Tom Ware, M. Michele Phillips, Chuck Penington, Stephanie Anderson, and Jim Othuse manage to grab a quick break together in front of First Christian Church (unaffiliated with Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben).

Tom Ware, M. Michele Phillips, Chuck Penington, Stephanie Anderson, and Jim Othuse manage to grab a quick break together in front of First Christian Church (unaffiliated with Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben).

Herding people is a task near and dear to the heart of Stephanie Anderson, the stage director. “Let me think, we’ve got princesses and Heartland princesses and pages and governors and councilors and court of honor and performers and orchestra…” Anderson, a veteran actor-director, pauses. “It’s got to be between 100 and 150 people.”

And the majority of the people who will be on stage aren’t used to performing in front of huge crowds, she adds. “You cannot expect that they’ll remember how to hit marks when they’re facing 2,500 people. Suddenly, the lights are on, and it’s deer in the headlights. It’s very unpredictable, and there’s very little you can do about it.” That can just be part of the appeal of the evening. Anderson states that the young pages are adorable because of their unpredictability. Still, it’s a good thing Roddy plans to give them great musical cues again this year, this time with “Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are” from The Wizard of Oz and “Ease on Down the Road” from The Wiz.

“We all get along so great. There’s no egos, no drama involved. We take it seriously, but we have a good time.” – Tom Ware, sound designer

But if we’re talking about music, well, now we’re getting into Chuck Penington’s domain. It’s his life, after all. He’s a professional bass player, as well as president of PANDA Productions, a music production company in Omaha. As the team’s music director, he recalls that his first association with the coronation was in 1974. “At the time, the music director was a guy named Richard Hayman,” Penington says. “He was the orchestrator for Boston Pops Orchestra.” He recalls that, at the time, the Ak-Sar-Ben Ball committee had found an old piece called “The Ak-Sar-Ben March,” a commemoration scored for piano, and they wanted to employ Hayman to orchestrate it. “He said he would do it, but he needed a copyist,” Penington remembers. “So I had a great week with Richard Hayman, copying the parts with him. I got to study his scores close up. It was a very nice opportunity for me.”

Sound designer Tom Ware has his own memories of celebrities he’s met thanks to the old Ak-Sar-Ben Stadium where the ball used to be held…specifically the show where Yanni, performing with Chameleon, winked at Ware’s girlfriend. “I made his monitor feedback,” he says a touch proudly. Even though the story showcases his abilities as the typical sound guy twiddling knobs on a board, Ware (owner of Ware House Productions, Inc.) says there’s a bit more to his job for the ball than that. “I personally do the mix for the whole room, but, wow, getting to that point and figuring out what the show needs with regard to the sound, the acoustics? Are there theatrics and extra sounds that need to go along with that? It’s a mix of music and production.”

With such a job description, Ware obviously works closely with Penington and Othuse, and well, everyone else on the team. “We all get along so great,” he says. “There’s no egos, no drama involved. We take it seriously, but we have a good time. It’s great to see it all culminate in this show. The individuals are greater than the sum of the parts.”

The 2013 Ak-Sar-Ben Coronation and Scholarship Ball will be held Oct. 19 at CenturyLink Center Omaha. For more information about the event, visit aksarben.org.

Filling Mom’s Shoes

April 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Daughters become inspired, motivated, and awed by their mothers as they see them dash out the door on a volunteer mission time after time. They often follow in their footsteps.

But as daughters trail mothers down the volunteer road, they’re finding the path has veered. More women in the workplace means a different approach to volunteering. Meetings once scheduled for mornings are now scheduled for noon so volunteers can return to jobs. An e-mail sent at midnight is now more likely to happen.

How volunteers schedule their time has changed. The dedication and sense of responsibility that daughters learn from mothers has not. Here we share four stories about the gift mothers give daughters that keeps on giving —the gift of volunteering.

Gail Yanney & Lisa Roskens

Gail Yanney became an anesthesiologist in the 1960s when few women held careers. At the time, the consensus was that working women didn’t have time to volunteer. (We know better now.) But she soon became one of Omaha’s most active volunteers.

Her volunteering career began while she was a busy student at UNMC College of Medicine. Invited to join Junior League, she asked permission from her department head.

“He said, ‘Physicians need to be part of their community,’” remembers Gail, who is now retired.

Passionate about the environment, she was a teacher naturalist at Fontenelle Forest on her day off. Gail is also a founder of the Women’s Fund of Omaha.

 “I was inspired by my mother, who did things women didn’t do then. If you’re not influenced by your parents, you’re not paying attention.” – Lisa Roskens

With her husband, Michael Yanney, she received the Spirit of Nebraska Award from the Eppley Cancer Center last year.

Gail’s daughter, Lisa Roskens, learned from her mom. “I was inspired by my mother, who did things women didn’t do then. If you’re not influenced by your parents, you’re not paying attention.”

Lisa is chairman of the board, president, and CEO at the Burlington Capital Group, a company founded by her father, who partners with his wife in philanthropy. Volunteering is a family affair at the Roskens’ house where Lisa’s husband, Bill, and their two children join in. They rally around animals and kids and have helped at the Nebraska Humane Society and at Take Flight Farm.

Lisa tries to pass on to Charlie, 13, and Mary, 10, what her mother passed on to her. “We try to instill that sense of giving back as an obligation to being a citizen in a community. I don’t tell them what charities to support, but foster independence.

“Mom said the only thing you get out of life is what you give away.”

Sharon Marvin Griffin & Melissa Marvin

Sharon Marvin Griffin and her daughter, Melissa Marvin, have received many of Omaha’s top honors for volunteering. For Sharon, they have included Arthritis Woman of the Year, Ak-Sar-Ben Court of Honor, Salvation Army Others Award, and United Way of the Midlands Volunteer of the Year, among others. For Melissa, awards have included the 2010 YWCA Women of Distinction and honors from the Omaha Junior Chamber of Commerce.

Each has been involved in more than 40 charitable activities over a lifetime. Each presently serves on 10 nonprofit boards. Coincidence? Not likely. Melissa has inherited her mother’s zest for volunteering.

“Mom is a professional volunteer,” says Melissa. “No. 1 is the importance of giving back. No. 2 is the importance of how to be a leader, how to work together in teams. I try to emulate that.”

“Mom is a professional volunteer…I try to emulate that.” – Melissa Marvin

Melissa remembers her first volunteer experience at age 7. She and brother Barney, then age 2, delivered Christmas gifts to shut-ins. “We looked on it as an honor,” she says.

The family, including her father, Sam Marvin, who died in 1997, together rang bells for The Salvation Army.

The mother and daughter also have in common busy careers. Sharon, who is married to Dr. William Griffin, has had a 25-year career in real estate at NP Dodge. Melissa is with the Cohen Brown Management Group and is director of Community Engagement for Metropolitan Community College.

Mom has the final word: “The more you give, the more you grow.”

Susan Cutler, Jeanie Jones & Jackie Lund

Susan Cutler has big fans in her daughters.

“I watch all the friends Mom has made and the rewards you get from giving. I have huge shoes to fill,” says Jeanie Jones. “I don’t think she realizes how big those shoes are.”

Those shoes took the first steps to volunteering in her hometown of Council Bluffs, where Susan lived with her husband, Bill Cutler, a funeral director. They moved to Omaha in 1987. “When I started volunteering, I learned so much about my community,” she says.

She volunteered at her children’s schools. “I wanted to meet other parents, learn what was happening,” says Susan, who was a third-grade teacher earlier in her life. She presently is on the board of directors of the Methodist Hospital Foundation and Children’s Hospital Foundation and is co-chairman for Joslyn Art Museum’s 2013 Gala.

“I have huge shoes to fill. I don’t think [Mom] realizes how big those shoes are.” – Jeanie Jones

Her daughters have their own impressive resume of community service.

“I remember Mom was involved in Ak-Sar-Ben when I was in sixth and seventh grades. I had to go to stuff and didn’t like it,” laughs daughter Jackie Lund. The mother of two children is owner of Roots & Wings Boutique in Omaha. But Jackie now goes to “stuff” and enjoys it. She is guild board treasurer of the Omaha Children’s Museum.

“I met some of my best friends through volunteer work,” says daughter Jeanie, who has three children. She serves in leadership positions for such groups as Clarkson Service League, Ak-Sar-Ben, Joslyn Art Museum, and Girls, Inc.

Susan said she didn’t try to influence her daughters. “Your children do what they watch, not what you say.” She continues her devotion to volunteering. “You learn about yourself, as well as about the community. It all comes back to you more than you can ever imagine.”

Sharon McGill & Kyle Robino

Kyle Robino remembers as a child slapping stickers on hundreds of mailings for charities. That was her first exposure to the world of volunteering with her mother, Sharon McGill.

Their family’s tradition of volunteering has been passed down from generation to generation. Sharon inherited the volunteering gene from her mother, who helped establish the Albuquerque Garden Center, and from her grandmother, a strong force in her rural New Mexico community. “I looked back at their lives and learned how they made things better for others,” she says.

Sharon brought along her talents as a ballet dancer when she moved to Omaha in 1968. Not surprisingly, her first volunteer act was helping to build a professional ballet company. A dancer, teacher, board president, and, later, ballet mistress for Ballet Omaha, Sharon took her two daughters along. They attended ballet classes and absorbed the essence of volunteering from watching their mother. She now serves on the Joslyn Castle board.

“I think people who volunteer clearly had mothers who were great role models. My mom was a great role model.” – Kyle Robino

Kyle and her sister, Gwen McGill, who resides in Napa Valley, Calif., are following in their mother’s ballet shoes.

The JDRF is the center of Kyle’s volunteer work. Five years ago, her older daughter, Olivia, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Kyle’s husband, Mike, is board president of the JDRF Heartland Chapter.

“As you get older, you figure out what your passions are and what causes are personal to you,” says Kyle, who owns Old Market Habitat flower shop. “I think people who volunteer clearly had mothers who were great role models,” she says. “My mom was a great role model.”

Kyle is now a role model for a possible fifth generation of volunteers—daughters Olivia, 14, and Ava, 7. These young ladies will have big shoes to fill, too.