Tag Archives: Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben

Do You Remember?

December 30, 2015 by
Photography by Contributed by Douglas County Historical Society

It’s hard to believe the Ak-Sar-Ben Race Track and Coliseum has been closed for 20 years (the coliseum closed later, in 2002), as it was long one of Omaha’s iconic locations. Here is a brief look back on its long history.

The track was built in 1919 to underwrite the various activities of Omaha’s famous Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben, a civic and philanthropic group dating back to 1895 inspired by the various “krewes” of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras parades. Initially created to provide an alternative to the rougher entertainment then popular at the state fair held in Omaha, the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben quickly expanded to supporting civic improvement projects, funding local charities, and overseeing various social events.

The first race at the Ak-Sar-Ben track was an informal harness race on July 6, 1919. The track itself was not officially dedicated for nearly another year. That ceremony was held on September 14, 1920, with Nebraska governor Samuel Roy McKelvie officiating. At that time, admission cost 85 cents, and the track featured four harness and two running races every day.

In 1921, the racetrack expanded, adding a new grandstand at the cost of $400,000; that same year Nebraska created a racing commission and made pari-mutuel betting legal—the style of gambling favored by horse races, in which odds are not fixed until the pool is closed, allowing for a great variety of bets. You can bet that a horse will win, place, or show, or place even more complex bets, such as sweep six, in which the bettor must correctly pick the winner of six races. The more challenging the bet, the more the bettor stands to win.

The track built an adjoining coliseum in 1929, which quickly became Omaha’s premiere events center, serving as both an ice rink and a concert stage. Over its long life, the coliseum hosted many of the country’s most popular musical acts, acting as virtually a who’s who of changing tastes in music: The venue offered performances by Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and Nirvana.

The track shut down from 1943 to 1945 during World War II. When the track opened again, on May 13, 1945, a crowd of 6,500 attended.

When a tornado struck Omaha in 1975, the race track was so close to its path that the twister was visible to people attending the races. The tornado carved a 10-mile path, killing three people, injuring 133, and scattering the debris of destroyed homes and businesses for miles. The total damage from the tornado, adjusted for inflation, was $1.1 billion, but the race track was mostly spared significant damage.

The track is often associated with a horse named Omaha, who won the Triple Crown in 1935. The horse had no relationship with Ak-Sar-Ben until retiring to Nebraska City, when he was sometimes paraded around the track. When he died in 1959, Omaha was buried at Ak-Sar-Ben, but in the intervening years, the exact site of the grave was lost to time and remains a mystery to this day.

Visit douglascohistory.org to learn more.


Flexing Some Muscle

June 2, 2015 by

Article originally published in Summer 2015 edition of B2B.

Tim McGill used to tag along with his dad to various job sites. He liked watching the cement masons mix, pour, and work the mixture into a heavy, viscous mass before swirling it over cracks and crevices to a smooth finish—pretty cool stuff to a little guy.

McGill was 7 years old when his father, Tim Sr., started McGill Restoration, a structural concrete repair, masonry repair, and waterproofing company. At 15, he started working for his dad in the field. He labored on commercial and industrial facilities for the next seven years until earning a construction engineering degree from the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

McGill and his older brother, Rich, now own the company their father started. They’re busy—that’s the good news. But a virtual sign constantly hovers over the company’s Grebe Street location in Florence:

Help Wanted.


“We’re always hiring,” says McGill, who pays what he calls very competitive wages.  “Our company has been around 30 years and finding people who want to be a craftsman their entire life and dedicate themselves to a trade has always been tough. But it seems to get tougher every year.”

Contractors across America echo McGill’s frustrations. The numbers bear witness. A survey conducted last fall by the Associated General Contractors of America shows 83% of firms nationwide report difficulty finding craft and trade workers: electricians, plumbers, tile setters, welders, carpenters, bricklayers, roofers—the list goes on and on. Midwest businesses reported even greater problems filling positions. Amazingly, all 18 companies surveyed in Nebraska by the AGCA said they had job openings they couldn’t fill.

“I have personally been involved in projects that turned away from Omaha because we couldn’t provide the skilled workers that they need,” says Bill Owen, board chairperson of the Downtown Improvement District.

Owen’s full-time job, however, puts him in a position to do something about the skilled labor shortage. As associate vice president for effectiveness and engagement at Metropolitan Community College, Owen helps guide an ambitious $90 million job-training expansion.“It’s a huge project for us,” he says.

The first iron beams currently rising from the dirt on the south end of Metro’s Fort Omaha location signal the beginning of three buildings being constructed simultaneously. When it becomes operational (hopefully in late 2017), the complex will provide more space and state-of-the-art equipment for career and technical training—a modern moniker for the kind of training once called vo-tech, or vocational education. The buildings will house an academic skills center, a center for advanced and emerging technology, and a construction education center, effectively consolidating all the trades and technology programs at the main campus in North Omaha.

“There’s not a career that technology doesn’t play a role in,” says Owen, explaining the importance of Metro’s new advanced and emerging technology center. “The laptop computer is part of the tool pouch for the trades or crafts person.”


Blue-collar trades like welding or pipefitting, once considered about as contemporary and relevant as a VHS tape, are not only in demand, they have been re-booted to add electronic brains to the traditional brawn. Metro actually has a welding machine that requires no welding rod, no flame, and no spark, giving the student a completely virtual welding experience.

The 100,000-square-foot construction education center will feature a large, shared space for students to work on projects such as building modular homes. Sections will include electrical, plumbing, HVAC, and carpentry work.

“Metropolitan Community College has always been here serving the career and technical student needs,” says Owen. “It’s now much more apparent to other members of the community just how important that role is.”

Metro’s vision captured the attention of a very powerful member of Omaha’s community— the Knights of AKSARBEN Foundation, the area’s premier philanthropic organization consisting of a broad swath of business and civic leaders. Now in its 120th year, the Knights of AKSARBEN has evolved into a facilitator of education, focusing its scholarship largesse on high school students who often don’t have doors opened for them. When Metro announced its skilled-trades expansion, AKSARBEN saw an opening to expand its brand.

Championed by reigning King of AKSARBEN Michael Yanney, and nurtured by the board of governors, the foundation recently launched a pilot post-secondary scholarship initiative to funnel deserving students to Metro’s skilled trades and technology offerings.

“The AKSARBEN Scholars Career Connectors program is an effort to hit two needs within our community,” explains foundation president Jonathan Burt. “One is the need for more skilled and technical workers as well as a need to address the high pockets of poverty that we know still exist in our Omaha community.”

Working with current scholarship partner the Horatio Alger Association and a new partner, Avenue Scholars Foundation of Omaha, AKSARBEN hopes to award at least 150 two-year scholarships worth up to $8,000 by this fall. Career Connectors has also partnered with the Iowa West Foundation and Iowa Western Community College, a union that’s likely to add 30 to 35 students to the effort.

“Avenue Scholars, embedded in seven schools, identifies students who come from a high-needs background but who have a defined interest in a career path,” says Burt. “Those students can then apply for a Career Connectors scholarship.”

Burt and Avenue Scholars President Dr. Kenneth Bird, both educators by profession, understand the mindset of 17-, 18-, and 19-year-olds. They know a student may go to Metro with one career in mind and then choose a different path, perhaps going into the distribution, management, or business end of things. That’s to be expected. And it doesn’t matter whether a student uses the scholarship money to take a six-week certification course, a six-month course or to acquire a two-year associate’s degree. “As long as the student exits the program with a skill set needed for a quality career, one that can open them up to a middle class lifestyle, then (the program) will be a success,” says Burt.

Through the generosity of the Knights of AKSARBEN and the innovation of Metropolitan Community College, scholarship winners will discover what many young adults haven’t: a career in the trades can mean money. “Department of Labor data, not self-reporting data, show our graduates in the construction trades, just one to two years out from our program, earn between $36,000 and $39,000 a year,” says Owen, pointing to scads of graphs and spread sheets. In the trades, experience counts more than education, leading Owen to pose, “Imagine what your salary will be when you’re 10 years out.”


Manual labor can also mean longevity. Those same Labor Department numbers project a 27 percent increase in skilled labor jobs through 2020. Certainly the big-ticket building boom on both sides of Missouri—the $400 million Google project in Council Bluffs, the $1.2 billion StratCom headquarters in Bellevue, and the $323 million cancer center in Omaha—define a golden age in the Midlands. People who do have the skills are already employed.]

So what’s the problem? Why aren’t more young adults going into the trades? The explanation
has many parts, some more sociological than economic.

“The shortage actually started 20 to 30 years ago—long before the Great Recession,” according to Dr. Eric Thompson, an economics professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “As we become more of a service economy, fewer and fewer children have parents who were blue-collar workers. People did more of their own home repairs back then and they tinkered with cars. Young people were picking up skill sets as they watched their parents and transitioning to those occupations.”

Thompson also points out that young adults are staying single longer now, making them more inclined to take a chance on a career, “that may be less steady but potentially more exciting and rewarding.” The cyclical nature of construction and manufacturing, so vulnerable to downturns, makes young people hesitant, he says.

Another part of the equation—a big one—involves education. “Those of us in the education community have been steering teenagers toward four-year degrees,” says Thompson. Latching onto that explanation, Bill Owen adds, “It isn’t just the high schools. In many cases, it’s the parents who feel, ‘Well, my child is going to aim higher than a trade job and is going to aim for a profession.’”

As someone who came up through the trades before parlaying his associate’s degree into a master’s degree in education from Iowa State, Owen sees the pendulum swinging the other way. “These jobs were looked down on in the past. And now people are really beginning to admire and respect those who can do things with their hands because it’s almost a lost art. Perception has changed.”


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.