It was in late May of 1995, barely over a month after the senseless bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The day before our moving van was to arrive for a move from Illinois to Nebraska, I got up in the early morning to go to the bathroom. I was barefoot and managed to ram my toes into the corner of the bathtub. The second toe on my right foot cracked like a gunshot, broken cleanly.
A few hours later I explained to a doctor, while he was wrapping my foot and fitting me with a stylish black boot with Velcro fasteners, that we were moving the following day and that I was going to need to be lifting and unpacking boxes in short order. “Au contraire,” said the doctor. He directed that I not lift heavy objects for six weeks, and further that my dear wife would need to do the heavy lifting while I sat in a chair to unpack boxes.
I could hardly wait to tell Ellen about this in the waiting room. When I broke this news to her, with a big smile on my face, she just looked astonished with a “Why me?” look on her face! But she came from very strong Chicago stock, very similar to the strong women described by Garrison Keillor in Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, and I knew she could handle the hardship.
Shortly after the moving van left the following day, we headed out driving our two cars west, picking up U. S. Highway 136 across central Illinois and into northern Missouri. As we stopped in the evening in an area surrounded by rolling farmland, Ellen’s super-human strength returned as she lifted our luggage out of our cars and wrestled it to our motel room, and when she reversed this process in the morning. We eased our cars back onto Highway 136 and headed west toward southeastern Nebraska, toward our first domicile west of the Mighty Mississippi. Soon we arrived at the bridge over the storied Missouri River that the Lewis and Clark Expedition traversed in the early 1800s. Nebraska was on the other side.
When our moving van arrived in Lincoln, I sat in a corner with my crutches leaned against the wall while Ellen directed the movers as they unloaded our furniture, boxes, assorted garden tools, and other unpackable objects. They all seemed to appreciate my constant encouragement from my assigned corner. The serious work began after the movers left. Ellen became quite adept at moving boxes and soon she adapted to the point where she was obviously having great fun with strenuous effort as I hobbled around and whispered more encouragement in her ear.
The house we bought was built in 1938 by German craftsmen who had paid very careful attention to detail. It was a two-story prairie-style home that was among the smallest ones in this established, quiet, and beautiful neighborhood. The exquisite woodwork was fine-grained oak, the plastered walls were thick and sound proof, and as we settled in here we began to feel like we had our own little fortress on the prairie.
Our jobs were not to begin until July 1, so after settling a bit, we decided to take a car trip around Nebraska to get acquainted with places we would get to know more about later. Six days and over 1,400 miles later we had visited Omaha, Fremont, Norfolk—Johnny Carson’s hometown where we ate at a café in the same building where Johnny had done his first radio program when he was twelve years old, and numerous Indian reservations. We visited O’Neill, Valentine, Gordon, the expansive and starkly beautiful Sand Hills, Chadron, Crawford, Fort Robinson (where on September 5, 1877, a U. S. soldier had stabbed Chief Crazy Horse in the back with a bayonet and killed him). We stopped in Harrison (where we shared the famous twenty-eight-ounce Coffee Burger at Sioux Sundries café that was full of ranchers and cowboys), Alliance, Scottsbluff, portions of the Oregon Trail where wagon ruts could still be seen, Chimney Rock, Ogallala, McCook, Arapahoe, Red Cloud (near the farm where Willa Cather grew up), Fairbury (home of the famous bright red hot dogs), Beatrice, and scores of other places that painted an indelible picture of a beautiful and diverse Nebraska that few travelers have ever seen.
While describing this trip to the summer conference of Nebraska’s agriculture teachers, one of the older members commented to the group,
“Hell, I’ve been in Nebraska all my life and he’s seen more of Nebraska in just a few days than I have in over fifty years!”
Then there was the food. We noticed something characteristic about waiters in restaurants and cafes around Nebraska that we had not experienced east of the Mississippi River. Within a minute or two of our food arriving at our table, the waiter would come by and ask,
“How does it look?”
Then after we had taken a few bites, the waiter would return on cue and ask,
“How does it taste?”
We learned early on that Nebraskans are known as “good eaters” and all those waiters wanted to be sure we were pleased with our food before we got far into our meals. We have never experienced such consistently kind attention to customer satisfaction anywhere. This is but a tiny example of the exceptional friendliness of Nebraskans.
On July 1 the final and most satisfying years of my academic career began. My department was in the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources on East Campus, and we were housed in the same building with the administrators of the Institute. The department was the result of a fairly recent merger of two smaller ones, and it carried the longest departmental name in the entire University of Nebraska system, the Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communication. The department was well known for excellence in teaching, had an impressive record of public service through leadership workshops statewide, but had a spotty and disappointing record in research. So, in addition to my administrative duties, I focused mainly on expanding the research programs of the department.
After several months of part-time work in the College of Education, Ellen got a bit restless and took on a more active and demanding full-time position as Nebraska’s Director of Education for High-Ability Learners (i.e., gifted students). She traveled across the entire State, visiting every county, to work with groups of teachers and parents of the gifted. What got a bit old with Ellen was having to pack boxes full of materials for these teacher and parent conferences and schlep them from her car to conference rooms in the sizeable space between Iowa and Wyoming, and between Kansas and South Dakota. Lifting boxes after our move was one thing, but lifting them across Nebraska was another. Beyond that, steady travel can and sometimes does become a real drag.
A year later she became director of Nebraska Network 21, a Kellogg Foundation funded program at the University. Here she worked with educational and community leaders across the State, awarding mini-grants for new initiatives, and winning friends in the process. She led this program until our retirement from academic life in June 2000.
One of the bejeweled memories of my time in the department came in early 1997 when one of our faculty members of Czech heritage, Susan Fritz, generously gave me about two pounds of a gray Czech liver sausage, called“jaternice.” This word is pronounced in the nearby historic Czech town of Wilber, Nebraska, as “e-th-r-nitsy.” She said her grandfather loved it.
Ellen said she didn’t want to try it. So when she was out of town, I cooked it. The sight of it oozing from the casings around the skillet in a semi-liquid form, the smell of it turning my nose inside out, and the taste of it taking my appetite away were just more than I could bear. The next day when I told Susan I tried it and couldn’t believe she liked the stuff, she said with a mischievous look in her eyes, and this is a direct quote:
“I didn’t say I liked it. I said my grandfather liked it!”
So she did. I needed to pay more attention and ask more questions.
We made a point of going to the lively Czech Days festival in early August and hearing Susan and her husband Russell play in the Wilber Alumni Band. She plays the clarinet and he plays the tuba. Wilber is known as the Czech Capital of the USA and visitors there find this moniker pretty convincing. Czech authenticity is evident in the Wilber Bakery, Wilber Meat Market, the historic Hotel Wilber, and the Fox Hole Tavern where the Wilber Alumni Band marches through to loud cheers and hoisted steins as the climax of their annual march.
Nebraska just felt good to Ellen and me. Other adventures were to come and will be reported on later.
I still miss Nebraska.