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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Saying so long to the governor

Monday, October 8, 2012

Ben and Diane Nelson
In November, of 1998, after the election, a number of former McCook residents, who either worked with Governor Nelson, or were closely associated with him, decided that it would be a good idea to have a party at the Governor's Mansion. This party would be in the way of saying thanks to the Governor for his service to the State of Nebraska, and also would be a chance to get together with old friends to see the improvements to the Mansion, which Mrs. Nelson had made. And too, since Governor Nelson would not be running again, I suppose they wanted to think about their own futures in politics, without Governor Nelson. It would be a small affair, not more than 50 or 60 people.

Somewhere along the way it was decided that the party ought to include a few of the people who still lived in McCook. After all, McCook was the Governor's hometown, and there were still people here who were close to the Governor in one capacity or another. This might up the total number of people to 100 or 150.

A little later it was decided that food items at the party ought to be foods which were associated with McCook, and which people, originally from McCook, but who now lived elsewhere, would remember. To help with the food, the party planners contacted the bakery in McCook, and before we scarcely knew what had happened, Sehnert Bakery, McCook, was put in charge of food for the entire event.

Matt Sehnert, who now operates Sehnert Bakery in McCook, was intrigued by the challenge. After all, catering was a large part of his bakery business, and catering for a group of 150, even though the event was 250 miles away, could not be too difficult He accepted the project and called upon a few of his friends at the restaurants and stores to provide some of the food items. The Mansion staff agreed to provide a salad and fruit plate. The bakery provided everything else. A few people in Omaha and Lincoln, with McCook ties, contributed funds to help defray expenses.

In a small town word gets around about unusual activities, and before long people in and around McCook, and former McCookites throughout the state, began asking about joining the party in Lincoln at the Governor's Mansion. The prevailing sentiment in Lincoln was "Sure, the more the merrier!" McCook National Bank, whose president, Pete Graff, was filling out the term as the State Banking Director, chartered a 40 passenger bus for the party.

Benny, as he is known in McCook, is a popular man in his home town. This popularity transcends party lines. Everyone in McCook, it seemed, knew the Governor and wanted to be in on the party in Lincoln. His Cub Scout pack leader planned to go, as did his high school English teacher. Classmates and several cousins were going, as were the mayor and other McCook City officials. Since Ben Nelson's first job experience had been at our bakery, all the Sehnerts wanted to be there. And there were many who were curious about the Governor's Mansion, and there were others who just liked parties. Each day the attendance count grew, to 150 to 250 to 350 -- The planned 40 passenger bus became three 55 passenger buses, with a waiting list for more. On the day before the event, the Governor's office called Matt to say that the count had swelled to 450. The simple catering job had become quite complicated, requiring more vehicles to transport the food, and more people to serve it.

A determined group of workers from McCook arrived at the Governor's Mansion on the day of the party. The finishing details went smoothly, and by the scheduled hour the preparations were complete. The food table was beautiful. Mike Ford, the proprietor of a rather fancy kitchen gift shop in McCook, brought unusual serving trays and dishes to display the varieties of food. There were distinctive decorations, flowers and baskets from McCook florists, for the tables. The whole effect was that of a very classy event. Someone made the observation to Mike that the items of finery he was using were new, and he would have to mark them down as used after the event.

"On the contrary," Mike shot back. "I intend to mark the price up, with the explanation that these are items which were used at the Governor's Mansion."

From comments we heard, I am compelled to report that the food was delicious, and it was what people remembered from their days in McCook. Fuller's Restaurant sent pies and cakes, reminiscent of the old M & E Cafe. The bakery brought miniature bierocs, jiffy burgers, peanut butter brownies, creme horns, and McCookies (cookies baked in the shape of the State of Nebraska, with a cinnamon heart candy to mark the location of McCook). And there were cinnamon toothpicks, made famous by Bud Harmon, and now distributed throughout the country. The food lines were long, but they moved smoothly through the serving area. There were only a few chairs available, and these were reserved for dignitaries such as former Governor Morrison, also from McCook, and older or handicapped guests. Everyone else carried a plate and stood as they ate. The whole atmosphere was like that of an alumni gathering. Old friends greeted one another with genuine warmth. For that day, at least, the differences between Western Nebraska and Eastern Nebraska, Republicans and Democrats, dissolved in the reception hall at the Governor's Mansion. There was much laughter and a non-stop buzz -- no a roar, of conversation. The reception hall, designed for groups of not over 250 people, was jam packed, with over 450. At one point one of the members of the Governor's staff came into the kitchen area, wringing her hands. "I hope to heaven that this is not the day the Fire Marshall decides to drop in at the Mansion."

A splendid program had been planned for the party, including a barbershop quartet, and Sen. Landis, who addressed the group, ala a Chautauqua event, as McCook's Sen. Norris. But there were so many people, and so much noise, that the impact was lost on those who were in the far corners of the room. Mrs. Nelson accepted gifts for the Mansion, and received high compliments and thanks for the work she had done in the Mansion's renovation. Governor Nelson received several awards, including one from the bakery.

This consisted of a plaque, and a pair of donut flipping sticks -- a reminder of his first job at the bakery, at 16 years of age.

Gov. Nelson seemed to genuinely enjoy all the festivities and showed pleasure in greeting his old friends. He gave a short speech in which he recalled his early years in McCook, and thanked everyone for their friendship and support over the years. He appreciated their coming to his party. The event was scheduled to terminate at 7 p.m., though I'm sure it would have gone on for much longer. However, at that hour the call came for people to board the buses for the trip back to McCook -- and the Governor had to leave for another meeting. Soon everyone left.

The party had been a complete success. We had not run out of food, and everyone had had a good time. We, in the bakery crew, were tired, but relieved and overall, pleased with our part in the event.

We were packing things into the van for the trip back to McCook. I had to take something back into the Mansion, and hurriedly opened the door to the kitchen. There was Mrs. Nelson, slumped into a chair, shoes off, slightly disheveled -- still beautiful, but weary. I apologized for bursting in.

"It's all right," she said. "Come on in. I'm just getting ready to go over tomorrow's schedule with the cook." Thinking I should say something, I said, "Great party! Hectic day!"

"Yes, it really was," she replied with a wry smile. "And tomorrow we start in again."

We were finished with, what for us, was a big event, and could bask in the memory of the occasion for a little while. I realized that for the Governor and his wife it was just another day, busy and hectic.

The Nelsons certainly paid a high price for their glamorous life in their loss of personal privacy.

I didn't envy them.

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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By