Like most people locally, I have enjoyed keeping track of McCook's favorite son, Ben Nelson, since he left our town. When we bought the bakery here in McCook in 1957, one of our early employees was Ben Nelson, a newly turned 16-year-old who answered our ad for a donut fryer and delivery boy. Ben explained that he needed to work to buy a car, and he was sure that he could handle working early and still keep up his school work. While I must confess that no one at the bakery foresaw a future Governor, or Senator in Ben, we did find him to be a very polite and punctual fellow, who caught on to his new duties quickly. He did his work efficiently, and was popular with the other employees -- which is saying quite a bit, as our head lady at that time was not that easy to please.
Ben did not stay at the bakery very long. He was a very busy boy -- an Eagle Scout, Governor of Boys State, active in school activities, etc. But I would like to think that we had a beneficial effect on his career, if only to the extent that we showed him that there must be a better way to make a living than going to work at 4:30 a.m., each day.
Over the next few years I saw Ben only occasionally. I did see his mother, Birdella, from time to time, so I knew of his progress at NU, and later law school. We had heard that he had become something of a specialist in insurance law, but were still surprised when Gov. Exon named him as his State Insurance Director. The next I knew was that he had become the CEO of a large group insurance company. Wow, our Ben was a success.
Still, we didn't hold out much hope, when, in 1991, he announced that he was going to run for Governor -- as a Democrat no less; but we were pleasantly surprised when he not only ran, but won! It was after he was elected Governor that we began to again have more contact with Ben. He and his mother were always close, and we were pleased to often have a chance to deliver special occasion cakes and other bakery goodies, which Ben ordered for his mother. Sometimes his secretary called in the order, but often it would be Gov. Ben himself, which delighted (and flustered) the salesgirls.
I would like to say that I was often invited for dinner at the Governor's Mansion, but we were never that close. Still I did have a chance to dine at the Mansion -- once. I bought a "Dinner with the Governor" package, which Ben had donated for some charitable cause. The Nelsons were fine hosts and we had a great time. His mother, Birdella, happened to be visiting in Lincoln at the time, and she took pride in showing me "the house." She was a very down-to-earth lady, and introduced me to the cook and other servants, who helped with the dinner. Our waiter, she confided, was her favorite, "The nicest young man you'll ever meet -- He's a Trustee, you know."
Ben not only remembered his mother after he left McCook; he has remembered McCook as well. Though others will cover Ben's help to McCook in detail, we thought it might be interesting to take a look at a few of the projects concerning McCook and SW Nebraska that Ben has helped with or instigated since he has been in public office..
In 1998, he established the Nelson Institute, with its headquarters here in McCook. The Nelson Institute was committed to helping Nebraska rural communities by encouraging Nebraska youths to become successful, and to stay in Nebraska to help strengthen their communities. Ben has often said, "The youth in our communities make up 20 percent of the population, but represent 100 percent of the future." He never misses a chance to promote causes that help Nebraska's youth. The Nelson Institute is still a viable organization, but is largely inactive, and on hold, since Ben left for Washington.
Ben Nelson saw his greatest strength to be an ability to bring people with opposing interests together, to work toward a common goal. As Governor he worked hard to get the populated eastern part of the state and the western rural areas to cooperate. In the Senate he sought to be a "Voice of Moderation," getting the Democrats and the Republicans to seek a common ground to work for our country's best interest -- which proved to be a daunting task indeed.
In McCook Ben provided money and encouragement for the project called "Vision McCook," which brings together various organizations, businesses, and individuals, to work for a common image of McCook, for the purpose of promoting the virtues of McCook to potential new businesses and newcomers to our city.
In the late 1990s, Nebraska conducted an exhaustive search for the site of a new state prison. McCook came out as the top choice, but was passed over in favor of Tecumseh, in the eastern part of the state. As somewhat of a consolation prize, Gov. Nelson was able to swing the selection of McCook as the site of a new concept facility, "Work Ethic Camp," which has proved to be a fine addition to McCook. The offenders at the camp, who are mainly young, first time law breakers, have provided thousands of hours of services for McCook and area non-profit agencies, with a minimum of trouble.
To further the concept of Heritage Square, the area around Norris Park, Ben moved his boyhood home to a site on Norris Ave., enhancing the "Home of Governors" theme, while enabling improvements at the Frank Lloyd Wright home next door.
Though I am sure Ben would say that McCook was chosen on its own merits to be the site of the new Valmont factory, which makes irrigation center pivots for the farm industry, few would disagree that his friendship with Valmont President, Morgens Bay, at least provided the reason for Valmont to consider McCook for that plant. The factory is "State of the Art," and has proved to be a good neighbor, even in troubled times.
A chance meeting between Ben and the CEO of the 21st Century Co. led to the selection of McCook as the location for a branch of that company. This in turn led to The Keystone Hotel renovation project. Though, sadly, the 21st Century Systems association was short-lived, the new Keystone Business Center, was realized, greatly aided by suggestions for funding (and encouragement every step of the way) by Senator Nelson.
Nelson has long been interested in providing air service to smaller communities in outstate Nebraska, including McCook, and has supported our efforts in keeping our airport as a vital resource to this part of the state. He has incurred the wrath of some in Washington with his inclusion of funds for rural airports, which he has attached to other bills. It was at his suggestion that the name of the McCook Airport was changed to McCook Regional Airport. He was instrumental in our obtaining the new ILS (Instrument Landing System) for the McCook Airport. These changes have promoted confidence in our airport by our commercial carriers as well as cross country fliers, increasing traffic, and aiding in our keeping commercial air service in McCook.
Putting political differences aside, it is gratifying that Senator Nelson has not forgotten his roots in McCook and to know that he is still involved when it comes to making improvements in his home town. We're grateful for his help.