Past chairman of the Nebraska Community Foundation, Mark Graff, said that Sen. Nelson's legacy would be different for everyone, but he would most remember the Senator's vision in creating the Nebraska Community Foundation during his first term in office.
Walt Sehnert offered a more light-hearted view of Sen. Nelson, recalling when he hired a 16-year-old Nelson to work in his Norris Avenue bakery. Nelson was given Sehnert's blessing to eat as many donuts as he wished while at work, and just as Sehnert expected, promptly "over-donuted."
"Ben never forgot us little people way out here in the sticks," said Berry, who served as master of ceremonies for the tribute.
Other speakers during the reception included former Nelson classmate from the McCook High School class of 1959, Honey Lou Bonar; McCook Economic Development Director, Rex Nelson; and retired Nebraska Sen. Tom Vickers.
Vickers may have made the most intriguing comment of the evening, when he recalled another McCook politician that faced heavy criticism during his final years in office. Vickers referenced the national spotlight given to Sen. Nelson's cloture vote for the Affordable Care Act and the criticism that followed.
"Sen. George Norris left office with many people upset with him. Norris fared well in history, given time. I predict the same for you Ben Nelson," said Vickers.
Sen. Nelson thanked attendees and speakers alike, saying he didn't know if it took a village to raise a child, but he did know that if you had a community that cared and invested in its youth, "young people will respond."
Many have speculated that the retirement of Sen. Nelson had been attributed to the criticism related to his position on the Affordable Care Act, but during a conversation with the Gazette, earlier Saturday, Nelson maintained that nothing could be further from the truth.
Sen. Nelson said that pollsters had approached him and asked if he was ready to spend another seven years in office, after determining the odds were in his favor for reelection. Nelson said he was faced with deciding whether he was ready to make that commitment or begin working on an already sizable bucket list. Ultimately deciding, after consulting with his family and friends, that he was young enough to enjoy chasing his bucket list, he wasn't confident that would be the case in seven years.
"The fact is that some didn't like my vote, but many still supported me afterwards because they knew I was doing what I believed was right," said Nelson, a stance right on target with comments made later that evening by supporters who praised him for standing his ground on issues.
Sen. Nelson described the next chapter of his life as one focusing on family, friends, hunting, fishing and a few other things. He said he had recently spent 10 days on a Safari in Africa and upon his return a reporter asked him if he was concerned with how the vacation would be perceived. Sen. Nelson said he replied with a smile, "The people of Nebraska have been asking for less government and I decided to give it to them."
Sen. Nelson said he was looking forward to fewer 6 a.m. flights, referencing his trips back and forth between Nebraska and Washington D.C., but plans to keep busy. He said he would not be lobbying but hoped to end up consulting for a corporate board or two.
Sen. Nelson and his staff have had a stellar reputation with the Gazette as being readily available for comments and questions, or at a minimum having a prompt and reliable response time. In similar fashion, even though the conversation with Sen. Nelson focused primarily on his future plans and reflecting on his many accomplishments during a 22-year-career in Nebraska politics, he was more than willing to discuss current issues.
Several who spoke during the reception for Sen. Nelson, Saturday evening, mentioned his straightforwardness and always knowing where he stood on a topic.
Sen. Nelson's role in the passing of the Affordable Care Act received much criticism, but right in step with his reputation, he offered no apologies and said that if you only support the popular issues you're not always doing the right thing.
"Sometimes you have to anger the majority to take care of the rights of the minority," said Nelson.
Sen. Nelson further defended the Affordable Care Act by saying it wasn't a federal government takeover of health care as many were describing it, but more akin to a private market system, and described such references as nothing more than scare tactics.
"My hope is that part of what I'm doing in the future is getting the right information out there," said Nelson.
The insurance industry may have been the source for much of the criticism Nelson faced in his final years in office, but it also served as a springboard for his political career. Before running for Governor in 1990 he enjoyed a successful career in insurance law, serving as CEO of the Central National Insurance Group and executive vice president of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.
Sen. Nelson defeated an incumbent Nebraska Governor in 1990 and was re-elected in 1994 with 74 percent of the vote, the largest margin of victory for a Nebraska Governor in half a century.
Nelson successfully ran for U.S. Senate in 2000 and was re-elected in 2006 with 64 percent of the vote.
During his political career, Nelson maintained a reputation for always having his home and staff open to his friends from Southwest Nebraska.