Tag Archives: Brook Bench

Woodmen of the World

August 14, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The Woodmen name has graced a downtown Omaha skyscraper for nearly 50 years, but the organization behind it, WoodmenLife, also stands tall with nearly $11 billion in assets, $38.5 billion of life insurance in force, and an A-plus/superior rating by the independent agency A.M. Best. Since its 19th-century beginnings, WoodmenLife has also built a towering history of philanthropy and service to the community. 

“WoodmenLife was founded in 1890 to provide financial security for families while making a difference in their community. As a not-for-profit fraternal organization, we’re able to offer competitive life insurance and cash-accumulating products,” President and CEO Pat Dees says. “When I say, ‘fraternal,’ it’s a not-so-common word, but it’s a description of our business model. My modern definition of ‘fraternal’ is ‘to find an unmet need in the community and purpose yourself to find a way to meet it.’ That’s the guidance that we give our individual local chapters throughout the U.S.”

Brook Bench is director of City of Omaha Parks, Recreation, and Public Property, which has benefitted from Woodmen’s beneficence through the donation of American flags. Woodmen has donated more than 3 million American flags to parks, schools, churches, and other civic organizations.

“WoodmenLife’s American flag donations have enhanced our parks for years. We are so fortunate to have brand-new American flags we can display in our parks to honor veterans and show patriotism towards our country,” Bench says.

Although the range of activities is too extensive to enumerate, Dees says WoodmenLife focuses its support in three primary areas: family, community, and patriotic endeavors.  

One example of supporting family is the WoodmenLife Focus Forward Scholarship program for WoodmenLife members and families. Applicants who meet basic eligibility criteria are considered for awards based on factors including volunteer activity, work history, career goals, and patriotism. 

“We created this two years ago to support their futures and a chance to get ahead,” he says. “This is one of the unique benefits of being a member of WoodmenLife that extends to families.”

One community-oriented activity specific to Omaha was providing funding to the Omaha Police Department Mounted Patrol. 

“WoodmenLife has generously donated funding to be used towards the purchase of new horses for the Omaha Police Mounted Patrol Unit,” says Sgt. Joseph Svacina of the OPD Mounted Patrol. “Several horses have been retired, creating a need for quality replacements. The Omaha Police Department welcomes and appreciates this relationship and financial support from our partners at WoodmenLife. This level of corporate support is invaluable in our growing city, particularly our evolving downtown riverfront area and entertainment district. We look forward to growing this relationship, as well as maintaining a highly professional mounted patrol unit.”

“We adopted a focus on a national scale to fight hunger,” he says. “One of the more powerful things we can offer is, that, because we have nearly 700,000 members throughout the country, we mobilize them for volunteer efforts in local food pantries, or to raise funds, or to have canned food drives to support food pantries. In just the last few years [since 2015] we have collected 627,337 pounds of food and donated $1,117,120 for community food banks.”

Even after more than a century of giving, the people of WoodmenLife continue to look for ways of serving others, Dees says. Because like a tall building, WoodmenLife was built on a strong foundation—of giving, Dees says. 

“There are so many ways we connect with the community. It’s part of our founding principles,” he says. “It is who we are.”

Visit woodmenlife.org for more information.

This article was printed in the August/September 2018 edition of B2B.

Pat Dees, president and CEO of WoodmenLife

Gene Leahy Mall Renovation

June 23, 2014 by

When the nearly 10-acre Central Park Mall was dedicated in 1977 (it was officially named the Gene Leahy Mall in 1992), it was considered a jewel of downtown Omaha.

“At that time there was nothing like it,” says Brook Bench, director of City of Omaha Parks, Recreation and Public Property. People marveled at the green space and manmade lagoon stretching from 10th to 15th Streets between Farnam and Douglas, surrounded by tall buildings and placed right in the midst of the downtown hustle and bustle.

“We have pictures of what it looked like—but it did not look like that lately,” Bench says. It’s a credit to the original planners that the mall held up for nearly four decades, he explains, but over the years, design flaws have become evident.

“The biggest challenge for the mall is that 85 percent of the ground down there is sloped. It’s a very large park, but it’s not very useable. And it’s an absolute nightmare to keep that place clean, because everything blows in and nothing goes out,” Bench says.

The sloped design that leaves the lagoon and most of the park below street level had also contributed to deterioration of the shoreline, plus walking paths presented trip hazards and multiple blind corners. And aging and weathering created inevitable deterioration of fixtures and features. But it was water quality that served as the impetus for renovation, Bench says.

“It was so silted in that the depth of the water was only this deep in places,” Bench says, spanning his hands to indicate less than a foot. The lagoon drains to the river, but has no natural inflow, he adds, and the buildup of silt was exacerbated by sustained drought two summers ago. Compounding the problem further, the integrity of the lagoon’s bed had long been compromised and the lagoon needed to be regularly fed by city water.

The much-needed, nearly $1.8 million renovation was finally kick-started by a $600,000 water quality grant from the Nebraska Environmental Trust Nebraska and augmented by Parks department capital improvement program (CIP) money.

“We have all our planners and our managers and we try to prioritize what needs to be done next,” Bench says of the CIP budget. “And most of the time it is a need—we need to do this, we need to fix this.”

Bench’s philosophy of preservation and maintenance before all else makes sense considering that the CIP budget must encompass the city’s hundreds of properties—community centers, pools and water playgrounds, golf courses, parks and playgrounds, athletic fields, tennis courts, recreational trails, dog parks, skate parks, marinas and more.

“We probably wouldn’t have done it without getting that grant because it was such a huge amount,” Bench says of the Gene Leahy Mall project. Other enhancements such as an expanded playground, public restrooms and a covered entertainment space may come later through private funding, he adds, but he sums up the most urgent priorities as “deeper, cleaner, safer.”

Work started in March 2013. A temporary road had to be built so vehicles and equipment could access the lagoon for pumping, dredging and shoreline stabilization.

“Now we have a bentonite liner, which is a clay liner, so we’re hoping to capture water and not have to keep pumping city water into it.” Bench says.

Crews also built a new trail around the lagoon and installed new lighting, he adds. The restoration was completed this spring, and visitors are immediately noticing the improvements.

“It’s more airy and so it’s not like you’re down in the mall. There’s more visibility,” Bench says. “It’s about just having a nice place where people can walk through.”