Town Story: Kearney
Even in the dead of a prairie winter, it’s still warm and toasty in one of Nebraska’s liveliest cities. Kearney, Nebraska is all about offering warm welcomes, bridging gaps, and making dreams come true.
The Great Platte River Road Archway Monument should woo many more highway visitors with the opening of a second I-80 exit.
Steve & Bobbi Olson / Chris Amundson
(This story originally appeared in the January/February 2013 NL issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)
KEARNEY CLAIMS some of the busiest thoroughfares in the nation: Interstate 80 and the Lincoln Highway. Many of the freeway motorists passing through central Nebraska are discovering a destination city that is a daily attraction for its 31,175 residents. There are three modern arenas, sprawling convention complexes, a thriving arts community, unique museums, nature parks, 1,600 rooms at hotels and motels, more than 100 restaurants, powerhouse retailers like Cabela’s and Buckle, the state’s only drag-racing track, and hundreds of jobs at both its premier university and the pioneering regional hospital. This bustling community warmly receives not only mass migrations of motoring travelers, but also throngs of college students, millions of Platte Riverbound waterfowl in spring and fall, and accompanying flocks of birdwatchers.
Kearney’s brick-paved downtown, historic architecture and 1880s military fort bridge a gap between the old days and today. And the nation’s only freeway-spanning bridge that is also a museum, the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument, is here, too. Kearney’s caring residents sympathize with the occasional motorist who leaves I-80 to visit the strange bridge, only to encounter an obstacle course to get there because there’s no nearby highway exit. Some drivers get a little hot under the collar.
But it’s those folks unfamiliar with the hotness factor of the offerings at the Suwanee Thai restaurant who might, for a few water-gulping moments, find Kearney a pinch too hot to handle.
For obvious reasons, Tveesak Prapassarangkool, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Suwanee, introduces himself as Pat.
They both had previous marriages in Thailand, met at a restaurant in Maine, and later left cooking jobs in Wyoming to pursue their dream in Kearney, where they’ve lived for the last three years.
“The city is very clean and it is very nice and quiet,” he said. “I wanted to take a chance here.”
Since its opening in 2010, the restaurant lovingly named after his wife has often filled its 50 seats as well as grateful tummies of customers craving this exotic cuisine, of which only a few menu items are truly too hot for most to enjoy. Pat cheerfully explains that you can’t get drunk from the intoxicating flavors of their drunken noodles, and says the name got cooked up in Thailand from the drunken enthusiasm some inebriated chefs had late at night in adding more ingredients to the dish.
There’s been a lot of business from the nearby campus of the University of Nebraska at Kearney, but Pat says his most loyal customers are the doctors and nurses from Good Samaritan Hospital. Pat’s accent, like Suwanee’s menu, is richly flavored and influenced by his homeland, but the words come from the heart about the warm acceptance offered by local residents and the reciprocated affection he and his wife have for their adopted home.
“I paid off my loan last month because the Kearney people come and eat and support me,” he said. “I feel so thankful for the customers. We cook with love and care.”
Kearney’s charming and vibrant downtown, with its blend of new businesses and historic landmarks, warmly welcomes strolls about this sweeping main street filled with the grandeur of 15-pound bricks paved with painstaking pride in 1915. This poetic portion of Central Avenue and other downtown streets still inspires UNK’s poet-in-residence, Don Welch.
He is now in his 50th year teaching at the college where he once played basketball; and while there has been a fast break of change since he and wife, Marcia, returned in 1959 to raise their five children, the 80-year-old Welch says the inherent kindness of Kearney folks never leaves. This past summer, the Welches hosted guests from the Netherlands, and after the European visitors headed west to tour the country, they returned to say the friendliest people they met during their trip were in Kearney.
“We’re still hospitable, we’re still courteous, we’re still warm,” said Welch of his town. “We still look at people in need of help and we are willing to give them that kind of help.”
Welch vows that his third retirement this spring will be the charm no matter how much UNK colleagues try to coax to him carry on. Meanwhile, Professor Welch’s daily trek to his office in Thomas Hall passes his own bronze statue created by Kearney sculptor Martha Pettigrew. Besides the many teaching gifts he’s given to students over the decades, the former point guard also seems to have passed along a biting wit to his children. When the statue outside the Calvin T. Ryan Library was unveiled in 2001, his older daughter joked, “dad, you’re not just a bust, you’re a complete bust.”
But you probably won’t see any pigeons on that statue, since Welch has most of the locals residing in his backyard coops, where for decades he’s cared for dozens of carrier pigeons. Welch has flown them as far away as Texas, but they always return home to Kearney, just like 500,000 of those spectacular sandhill cranes, who in late February start filling the skies and the city’s wallet with about $10 million in tourism revenue during their annual six-week visit.
Kearney is still small enough that when it’s clear at night, the sky is filled with shining stars. But even when it is cloudy, about 7,000 fill the artificial sky inside the 30-foot-high dome at UNK’s Bruner Hall, the state’s most sophisticated planetarium. There’s a NASA-designed projector, fiberoptic technology and a computerized navigational system that can project how the sky looked from anywhere at anytime in history.
“It is definitely the best for projecting the stars in the most accurate ways,” said UNK planetarium director Lee Powell, who runs the free star shows the first Friday night each month. “If you live somewhere like Omaha or Lincoln, you don’t get to see the night sky like that anymore. You don’t get to see the Milky Way come out the way it does in the planetarium.”
There were many stars in town this past year, including the Kearney Catholic High girls’ volleyball team, which finished off its spectacular undefeated season this fall by winning the first state title by any team in the school’s history. There are also Kearney’s boys of summer, who in August won the Midwest baseball crown to become the first team ever in Nebraska to make it to the Little League World Series in the 66-year history of the international tournament.
They lost two games, but the 13 smiling ballplayers returned home from Pennsylvania as the people’s champs with a police escort outside the viaero Event Center. They were greeted by a cheering crowd of 250 and a drum line of 8th graders. Then Kearney Mayor Stan Clouse saluted the players’ summer hit as “a historic moment in our community.”
With his flowing locks and beard, UNK art professor John Stanko looks like he could be jamming with a guitar on stage, but his rock star status draws from his fame as an illustrator in the fantasy world of dungeons & dragons, and Magic: The Gathering. When he returned here six years ago to teach graphic design and digital illustration, Stanko was amazed by the changes in Kearney since graduating from the college in 1995.
“Kearney had been growing so astronomically that I didn’t recognize the town,” Stanko said. “The town so much more feels now like a really edgy college town.”
Stanko tells his students to follow their dreams, which is just what he did after leaving the security of his Omaha graphic designer job to pursue his art fantasy. He became a hit, and recently spent 16 hours signing autographs during a two-day gathering of fantasy game enthusiasts.
Yep, Kearney, accomplishment by hard-won accomplishment, is moving into the future, swiftly, without forgetting its past. But it’s been that way since the Platte River decided more than 10 millennia ago to take its most southern dip and flow past here on that journey into the Missouri. It lured bison herds that were still so massive in 1855 that the county of 975 square miles here was named Buffalo County after the animals’ common name.
In 1848, a fort named after the father of the U.S. Cavalry, Gen. Stephen Kearny, was built about seven miles south of the river from the future city. Feared raids by Plains Indian tribes never came, and Fort Kearny was abandoned in 1871. A postal worker didn’t spell the name properly for the railroad settlement, and Kearney Junction was named.
Within 15 years, the city of 250 was bursting with more than 10,000 residents. By 1890, Kearney was becoming known as the electric city of the Midwest, with trolley cars and electricity in homes and businesses from one of the world’s first hydropower plants. In 1892, Kearney residents talked of moving the U.S. capital to their hometown, but then came the devastating drought of 1893. A massive city gamble on the state’s second largest industrial structure folded when the giant cotton mill shut down.
The comeback began when a normal school to train female teachers was established in 1905, and that grew into today’s UNK campus. The turnaround was completed in 1924 when the Sisters of Saint Francis established Good Samaritan Hospital. It serves 350,000 people today, unveiled a $63 million expansion in August and provides about 1,500 jobs as the city’s biggest employer.
In between was the biggest road to progress with the first coast-to-coast highway, connected in 1913. Kearney was so central to this historic transcontinental highway that it has been named the official national host of this year’s Lincoln Highway Centennial celebration. Bicoastal caravans connect in Kearney on June 30 to take part in the city’s official two-day centennial celebration of what most motorists today know as Nebraska Highway 30.
Another roadside journey should have an even bigger impact.
This spring, a second exit will finally open off I-80 for Kearney and end the obstacle course to perhaps the world’s most awesome highway museum attraction, the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument, which spans the super highway. Just months after its opening in 2000, the one-of-a-kind museum lured President Bill Clinton for a tour, but the hassle of getting there has turned away thousands of potential visitors. Eastbound motorists endure a 12-mile turnaround because the next exit is five miles away.
While the new exit should be an Arch of Triumph, time will tell if it can lift the 1,500-ton monument from a $59.7 million debt owed to its bondholder investors. The highway interchange is just the first step in three legs of a $55 million journey for a 12-mile beltway on the city’s east side.
This exit will hopefully bring attention to one of the Archway’s noble neighbors, the Nebraska Firefighters Museum. Kearney is a fitting home because its 76-member volunteer fire department is the second largest in the state and reportedly saves the city several hundred thousand dollars every year. The museum has a gallery full of antique firefighting apparatuses, photographs and rare memorabilia, and director Lindsay Schluntz proudly praises the museum’s educational program – including interactive exhibits that focus on fire prevention. A memorial dedicated to the state’s fallen firefighters and EMS workers stands in their honor in the museum’s backyard.
Kearney is filled with determined dreamers who stay the course. One of them is local businessman and kayaking fanatic Carson Rowh, who wants to build Nebraska’s first whitewater park inside Kearney’s 80-acre Yanney Heritage Park. Although he’s facing red-tape challenges akin to paddling up Niagara Falls, Rowh has a boatload of data supporting his plan and enough energy to row around world.
“It would be a tremendous boon to the Kearney area and serve as a real differentiator for this city compared to almost anything else in the nation,” said Rowh, who forecasts potentially more than $1 million of annual revenue for the city from tourism and new businesses.
Rowh envisions a two-mile course that starts at the Kearney Canal Tailrace below the dam near UNK, flows east in the park and into Turkey Creek. The president of the nine-member Kearney Whitewater Association also sees specially designed boulders and controlled mini-waterfalls that will provide happy trails for floating families of tubers, rafters and canoeists, as well as a 400-yard stretch for national kayak competitions.
There are still a lot of rough rapids ahead, but he’s joined in the ride by a trio of loyal kayakers: his wife, Amy, their 10-year-old son, Cole, and 8-year-old daughter, Brooklyn. “We have exactly the same amount of boats as we have family members,” he said.
Yanney is the newest gem among the city’s 14 parks, and since the 80-acre cornfield was acquired in 1998, contributions have added an amphitheater, a pirate ship playground, prairie-style lamp posts and a spectacular observation tower with an elevator.
There’s also Harmon Park, first unveiled in 1924, and in its early years there were croquet courts, a fish pond, monkeys in cages and a corral with ponies. The 1930s landmarks live on with an open-air concert stage and a hillside swimming pool and bathhouse, which stand across from the 1930s rock garden said to include stones from every state brought back home by Kearney travelers. A beacon to all these structures, and to the many in-love couples who say their vows in the park each year, is the nearby lighthouse, which was built in 1940.
For many Kearney residents, their best journeys are short trips to the beloved Cottonmill Park and its tree-lined trails. The park also has a petting zoo and a 43-acre lake with residents that include largemouth bass, bluegill and northern pike.
Kearney also offers plenty of wide open spaces indoors with its three major arenas, the biggest being UNK’s 6,000-seat Health & Sports Center, and the newest at the Buffalo County Fairgrounds’ Expo Center, completed just over two years ago, with room for 5,250 spectators. Yet a smaller venue in town has a growing following and is a major celebration of something old and something new.
The Merryman Performing Arts Center hosts more than 130 events a year. This spectacular stage is home to dance recitals, plays, major entertainers, school concerts, performances by the Kearney Symphony Orchestra, the Miss Crane Watch Festival Pageant and even a wedding that had nearly 400 guests. It is the nation’s only community performing arts center to be located in an active elementary school, which gives these lucky students an inside look into music and theater.
“It’s a treat for them to hear a ninepiece band warming up or an orchestra’s sound checks,” said Denise Christensen, executive director at the Merryman. “It’s a true immersion in the arts.”
The majestic makeover eight years ago offers an awesome acoustic experience for up to 750 spectators, but when it opened as a junior high school 1926, the echoing of bouncing basketballs were soon heard on that wood. The nostalgia for that old stage motivated California investor and 1939 Kearney High graduate Robert Merryman to donate $2 million to the renovation before his passing.
“People say this is a hidden jewel and they are still discovering the Merryman even though our seventh season is under way,” Christensen said. “It’s wonderful to have this beautiful, restored venue for a community that is very strong and passionate about the arts.”
At Kearney Floral, the passion for providing area residents with bright, showy flowers for their loved ones year-round has been blooming since 1907. Current owner Todd Thalken worked as a delivery boy in 1975 and then he and his wife, Lois, bought the business in 1990.
The Thalkens have their often dirty hands full with their 7,000-square-foot store and greenhouse. But because their three green-thumbed daughters help out, Todd and Lois have time to play in a local jazz trio. Some of their company’s special deliveries will never be forgotten, like the gentleman who ordered a dozen roses for more than seven decades for his wife on their anniversary. Then there was the customer who ordered a grand arrangement of 144 roses for Valentine’s Day, but it was so grand that it couldn’t make it through the front door of his sweetheart’s business. Love knows no bounds in Kearney, and neither did the primates in Kearney’s legend of the flying monkeys.
In the early 1930s, Kearney Floral owner “Doc” Erickson volunteered to house the city’s monkeys from the Harmon Park zoo at his greenhouse for the winter. When cages were left open during a feeding, the monkeys escaped up the greenhouse vents. Police sirens blared as they rounded up the primate prison break, but fearing a raid, a panicked neighbor poured all her bootleg whiskey from an illegal still into the sink. She never forgave Doc for letting her secret profits go down drain despite her illegal occupation.
Kearney attorney Dan Lindstrom jokes about his legal career being like the Platte River, a mile wide and an inch deep. But it was a love for the river that in 1995 helped launch the Kearney Area Community Foundation during a brainstorming session at a duck blind full of hunting buddies.
Years later, Lindstrom was asked to join another community effort with the nearby Rowe Sanctuary. Lindstrom suspected his love for shooting birds and eating them would put him at odds with the National Audubon Society, which owns the 1,900 acres of managed wildlife habitat at Rowe.
Some of the Audubon crowd shunned him like an odd duck, but he was soon voted chairman of Rowe’s Stewardship Board. He embraced the leadership position for six years, and the hunter found common ground with birders.
“Conservation is a big issue for hunters as well birders.” Lindstrom said. “We just approach the birds a little differently.”
In Kearney, it is more than singing birds that create the soundtrack for this artsy community. Its most beautiful music is practiced on campus by the Kearney Symphony Orchestra. It is a harmonic blend between the community musicians and college students who join together in this 75-member orchestra, which ranges from an 88-year-old cellist and a bassist still in middle school. UNK Music Director Deborah Freedman is the conductor, and the string section is led by her faculty colleague, Ting-Lan Chen, a diminutive yet dynamic violinist from Taiwan who draws dramatic sounds from her 19th-century instrument.
“It takes minutes to get to work here,” Freedman said. “It takes five minutes to go the grocery store. You have hours to do other things. So people just want to play music and come to concerts. It’s wonderful.”
As a 6-foot-5 All-State basketball star at Kearney High, you might expect Doug Koster to dream big, but it’s astounding how high his hoop dreams soared. The summer after his freshman year at UNK, Koster decided to organize a summer basketball tournament, and he got a dozen teams and a few local sponsors willing to give him a shot. Now, two decades later, he is literally known as Mr. Basketball and the top tournament promoter in the Midwest, annually bringing in 1,000 teams and more than $5 million in revenue for the city from the major boys and girls hoop events he organizes year-round in Kearney.
“Several of those events will sell out nearly every motel in town,” said Koster, who estimates more than 200,000 players from 37 states and three Canadian provinces have competed in his tournaments over the years.
Koster runs his Mr. Basketball Inc. promotions out of his Kearney home, and tries to keep the late-night Alaska calls from disturbing his wife, Beth, and their daughter, Keona, and son, Kanon. Of course, Beth knows how to adjust to the bouncing ball of life. Doug proposed to her in the Kearney High gym after coaching a sophomore basketball game.
“You’ve got to do it in your comfort zone,” he said.
Another guy who chased his dreams is Al Simmons, but perhaps it would be more accurate to say he raced his dreams. Simmons is the track manager at Kearney Raceway Park, Nebraska’s only drag-racing track. He’s made it his mission to make this place a go-to track in the Midwest, and with his major upgrades on the quartermile track and a new high-tech timing system, Simmons says it’s been an amazing turnaround from the course the raceway was headed on back in 2008.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life but it’s also the most rewarding,” said Simmons, who is gearing up for 2014, Kearney Raceway’s 50th consecutive year in operation, making it the second oldest drag-racing track in America.
The only thing older than the landmark buildings downtown are the old used books Ed Stevens sells on Central Avenue at his Book Ends. When he retired in 2000 at 59 from a long career as a medical technologist at Good Samaritan, he decided his dream job would be to open up a store that revolved around his love for collecting books. It’s been a labor of love for 11 years.
“I have no new books at all,” Stevens said. “I wasn’t looking for another career so I wasn’t too interested in establishing relationships with publishers. I just sort of opened up and told people to bring their books in and I buy ’em and trade ’em and swap ’em.”
Now he has 18,000 of these books on his shelves, including some from the early 1870s. Sometimes his wife, Diane, lends a helping hand, but Stevens has every book on his trusty computer to point him in the right direction when looking for a particular volume. He doubts he’ll find a Get Rich Quick title on those shelves, though.
“This is Heartland America,” he said. “I don’t get a lot of people walking in here wanting to buy a $500 book.”
A Kearney classic was brought back to life in June with the grand reopening of the World Theatre. Spearheading the drive was Hollywood screenwriter Jon Bokenkamp, who moved back to his hometown just in time to see his beloved downtown theater close in November of 2008. Now the grand marquees, spectacular red curtain, broad seats and its hotbuttered popcorn are back for the weekend showings of legendary films like the Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, and White Christmas. But the biggest blockbuster so far?
“I think it was The Goonies, actually, believe it or not,” said Ben Rowe, the creative director at downtown firm Scorr Marketing, who volunteers his design skills to the World.
Kearney is built on worldly dreams, and perhaps the best symbol can be found on the grounds of UNK at one of the oldest and most majestic homes in the city, the Frank House. The spectacular mansion was built in 1889 by architect George William Frank for his parents, George Washington Frank and Phoebe Frank. The house matched the tastes of the elder Frank, an eclectic entrepreneur who brought electricity to Kearney. The home had 42 rooms, 10 fireplaces, steam heating, a telephone and a 9-foot-tall Tiffany stained-glass window.
Frank soon went bankrupt, lost everything in the Great Depression and had to sell the mansion, but his power plant still lives on. And so do the dreams of the Frank House tour guide, Sally Hale. She is 32 years old and a single mother of four schoolchildren. Just a few years ago she was assembling syringes in a factory in her hometown of Holdrege.
A college degree was something that never happened in her family, and yet this spring she will graduate with a degree in history from UNK after presenting her research findings on a mysterious Civil War diary found at the Frank House. Next fall, she plans to pursue her master’s degree here in psychology. Perhaps it is her dedicated practice in yoga that has taught her nothing is out of reach in life.
“I just thought there was something more,” she said. “Something I was missing out on. I just wasn’t raised to think that was possible.”
But this is Kearney. Whether they were born here or migrated here with the masses, people achieve their dreams in Kearney. It’s a place full of warm and caring dreamers. And that means anything is possible.
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(This story originally appeared in the January/February 2013 NL issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)