Holidays a time to celebrate, give back

Each year as I get out the tubs of extension cords and Christmas lights I think of Clark Griswold in the “Lampoon Christmas Vacation” movie. I love everything about the Christmas holiday season, and look forward to it every year. Like Clark, I have been known to stand on the top step of a ladder and reach precariously to hang a light on a bough that is just slightly out of reach.

I thought about skipping the lights this year, but the warm sunny weather last week inspired me to get out the ladder and get to work. The colorful lights highlighting the branches and shimmering in the breeze creates a sense of magic.

Another favorite tradition is making a family trip to a local Christmas tree farm to find and cut down the perfect family Christmas tree – at least perfect in our eyes.  We have been doing this since the kids were toddlers, and the trip is associated with fond memories.  Speaking of memories, I can’t remember a year when we have strolled the hills in shirt sleeves and sneakers instead of snow boots.

Fort Calhoun Christms Tree lighting
Fort Calhoun choir members sing around the lighted Christmas tree in the Market Square gazebo.

On Saturday I joined the revelers that crowded around the gazebo in Market Square in Fort Calhoun for the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony.  The Fort Calhoun choir performed a number of Christmas carols before and after the tree lighting.  In addition to lots of hot chocolate and cookies, some of the children and adults walked away with some nice prizes.   

Sugar Plum festival
From left, Kinzlie Johnson puts money in the Salvation Army bucket with Kaylie Johnson, Andyn Ruwe & Kaiya Johnson.

In Blair, the Sugar Plum Festival kicks off the Christmas season.   It is always fun to see the streets filled with families.  The decorative lights, the Downtown Brass ensemble, the Country Bible Church carolers and hay racks rolling up and down Washington Street were just some of the sights and sounds that gave the city center the appearance of a Hallmark Christmas movie set. As families walked along the streets picking up trinkets and treats at local businesses, many  dropped coins and bills in the Salvation Army red kettle and contributed to other worthwhile causes.


Sugar Plum festival
A hay rack pulled by Jenson Shires gave free rides along Washington Street Thursday evening during the Sugarplum festival

The weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year are filled holiday concerts, social events and religious services that inspire a sense of wonder, joy and community. When we feel good about ourselves and our community, more than likely we also want to share and give back.

Otte School pig kissing
Dressed as a strip of bacon, Blair Otte history teacher Terry Bellamy kisses a pig held by Sarah Lambrecht.

Schools throughout the county do their part to encourage sharing.  Before Thanksgiving break I stopped by Joseph’s Coat to take pictures of Blair FBLA members unloading around 4,500 food items collected in the Blair schools. Blair students, staff and teachers also contributed nearly $5,000 in cash to the Blair Area Food Bank.  I also photographed Otte Middle School teachers Terry Bellamy and Kristi Baker puckering up and kissing a pig after the students raised nearly $400 for the Food Bank.  Maybe some of the kids donated just because they like Mr. Bellamy but still they experienced the joy of giving.

BHS Food drive
From left, Sydney Andreasen, Alec Tapp, Dustin Hovanec, Mitsy Dasa, Ben Brunick-Clark relay boxes filled with canned and packaged food items at the Blair Area Food Pantry. BHS Food drive

On Thanksgiving Day I attended the Community Thanksgiving dinner. While it is held at St Francis Borgia Catholic Church, it is a community event for all. What a fantastic opportunity for neighbors to come together to prepare and share a festive dinner with friends and multiple generations of family members. In addition to a satisfying meal, you could not come away from that dinner without feeling a sense of gratitude and good will.

Community Thanksgiving Dinner
Michele Dean ladles the gravey on a plate heaped full of turkey, mashed potatoes and dressing. Community Thanksgiving Dinner

A new opportunity to show gratitude and goodwill is to participate in the first ever  “Giving Tuesday” in Washington County which is November 28 -the day this newspaper is published.  The Blair Area Community Foundation and the Blair Area Chamber of Commerce have combined forces to create awareness and inspire people to be generous to Washington County nonprofits.  Donations may be made online at  or in person at the Blair Area Chamber of Commerce office and other drop-off locations throughout the county.

Community Thanksgiving Dinner
Blair residents Beverly and Martin Homes enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner with family members at the Community Thanksgiving Dinner at St. Francis Borgia Church Thursday. Bev and Martin live at Carter House.

Another opportunity to give and get a good breakfast is the seventh annual Christmas for the Coat to be held at Fernando’s Café and Cantina on Dec. 6 from 6:30 to 9 a.m.  Last year the event raised over $43,000 for the Washington County Food Pantry.

Breakfast for the Coat
Ellie Schrad with mother Angie thanks Santa for the sucker at Christmas for the Coat Wednesday at Fernando’s Cafe and Cantina.

With this column, I want to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a happy holiday season.  I hope that we all will take advantage of the many opportunities to celebrate and find our own best ways to give back to our community.

Blair area Band and Choir Concert
Blair Area Community Choir performed five numbers during the Sunday afternoon combined community and and choir concert held in the auditorium at Blair High School.

In the next few weeks I plan to show up at many of the concerts and events throughout the county. Making photographs is my job, but also my way of giving back – of showing appreciation for the generosity and sense of community that has been shared with me.



Snapshot wandering at WC fairgrounds

Wandered around the Washington County Fairgrounds to make some images for some upcoming publications.  The newer facilities are much more comfortable for both humans and animals, but I love the architectural style of the older structures that have been around for many, many years.

I have no idea why they are there, but for some reason, Cinderella left her glass slippers in the swine barn.


Dinner is served

Volunteers prepare 850 meals at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Blair

Following the same recipes they have been using for the past 50 or 60 years, St. Mary’s Episcopal Church volunteers served up around 850 turkey dinners to guests from throughout the area and beyond. The dinner featured a tasty and popular home made cranberry and fruit salad and giblet dressing that some say is better than grandma used to make.
St Mary's Church Turkey dinner
From left, Jon Hutchson, Jason Cloudt, Josh Dick, Travis Will, and Bruce Will carved 44 turkeys for the annual St Mary’s Church Turkey dinner. 
Pat Steinke who helps organize the event said many of the volunteers have been doing the same jobs for years, and pretty much everyone knows what they are doing.  Steinke makes sure the veteran cooks have what they need and stays out of their way.
Preparation for the meal began on Wednesday before the dinner with breaking of 145 loaves of bread for the dressing. The work continued Thursday with grinding and cooking up the giblets for the dressing, and cooking up the cranberries for the salad.
St Mary's Church Turkey dinner
Kim Morse mixes cranberry and fruit salad with a canoe paddle. St Mary’s Church Turkey dinner.
On Saturday the cooking crew prepared the dressing, and by Saturday evening the 44 turkeys were stuffed with dressing and ready for the roasters.  Longtime turkey cookers Bill Smutko and Paul Kolbe roasted the turkeys through the night and allowed  them to cool so they were ready for carving early Sunday morning while other volunteers prepared the trimmings and cut and plated the desserts.
Steinke said almost everyone remembers a story about things going wrong, but it always seems to work out.
St Mary's Church Turkey dinner
Rhonda Dick cuts and plates desserts St Mary’s Church Turkey dinner


Snapshot wandering in Wyoming

Yellowstone and Teton 2017
Tourists stream along the boardwalk overlooking the Grand Prismatic Spring In Yellowstone National Park.

From Homer’s Odyssey to works by John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac and Robert Frank’s photographs in The Americans, books about travel have always caught my imagination.  I read Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie when I was in high school, and I knew then that traveling the country in a home on wheels was something I wanted to do some day.

I recently bought a small pickup and fitted it with a pop up camper.  A few weeks ago, I set off on my first adventure in my new wander wagon.

Originally my plan was to visit Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. Heavy snow fall helped to extinguish the raging fires in Glacier, but also pretty much closed down much of the park.  I decided to save Glacier for next year and stay in Wyoming.

My trip to Yellowstone was in part sentimental.  My wife and I visited the park on our honeymoon. Driving through the park was kind of like listening to golden oldies from the ’70’s and 80’s that bring back fond memories. The appearance of the park was about what I expected, but there were changes too.  Many of the facilities have been modernized and some completely replaced. After thirty plus years, my appearance has changed too.

Yellowstone and Teton 2017
Yellowstone Falls from Artist Point – a must see stop on a visit to Yellowstone National Park.

As I snapped frame after digital frame of geysers, mountain vistas and buffalo with my cameras, I remembered that on my trip with Kris I brought along one Pentax SLR camera and maybe a dozen rolls of film.  Now I can click the equivalent of that many frames in one day.  There are always trade-offs to new technology.  When I was shooting film, by necessity I tried to make each shot count by spending more time composing and calculating the exposure.  I think those years of shooting film also has made me a better digital photographer.

Yellowstone and Teton 2017
The Grand Geyser is a fountain geyser that shoots higher than Old Faithful and continues to erupt for average of eight to twelve minutes.

That being said, I usually don’t miss using film until I see some of the fabulous prints by some of my fine art friends who use medium and large format film cameras. I am pretty much a snapshot wanderer.  I enjoy the instant gratification of being able to look at the back of the camera to check the composition and exposure.  I like not having to carry around a pocket load of film rolls, labeling each roll, and keeping the exposed rolls separate from the fresh ones.  I like the freedom of trying a variety of framing and exposure combinations without worrying about wasting film- digital media cards are cheap.

The bad thing is that it is too easy to practice the “spray and pray” method of shooting away like crazy with the idea that at least one of the frames will look good.

Today, everyone has a cell phone camera and just about every geyser gawker extended a selfie stick and stopped every ten yards to make another selfie or pose with a girlfriend, boyfriend or family member.  Fortunately, by late September the tourist numbers have declined.  I can’t imagine what the crowds must be like in the summer time.  For the most part I tried to be patient, and enjoy people watching and making pictures of people taking pictures.

Yellowstone and Teton 2017
Tourists take photographs of the hot spring, themselves and each other along the boardwalk at the Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park.

Yellowstone is a national treasure and something everyone should experience.  It is a part of our American Heritage, and the National Park Service does a tremendous job maintaining the parks and assisting and meeting the needs of an ever-increasing volume of visitors.

But it some ways, standing in front of Old Faithful or on the board walks at The Grand Prismatic spring is kind of like jostling through crowds at The Henry Doorly Zoo.

Yellowstone and Teton 2017
Tourist pose for portraits and selfies as they walk the boardwalk across the Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park.

Tourists by the bus and van load move from venue to venue to capture the Kodak moment before hurrying on to the next natural wonder without stopping to take in the extraordinary experience.

But Yellowstone is a huge park, and there are many beautiful back country trails where one can move about in semi-solitude and catch singular views of landscapes and wildlife.  My principal souvenir of my Yellowstone treks along back country trails is a canister of bear spray to ward off unexpected trail companions.

While Yellowstone may have been a sentimental journey, Grand Teton National Park was a new and exciting adventure.  My first stop in Jackson WY was for a tire repair.  While driving through the rain, sleet and snow, I ran over some road debris.

Yellowstone and Teton 2017
The calm waters of the Snake River reflect the magnificent, snow covered peaks of the Teton Mountain Peaks at Schwabachers landing in Grand Teton National Park.

Fortunately, it was not a blow out and I was able to cruise into Jackson, Wyoming  after making stops along the way to add air.

Flat Creek Towing and Tire Repair in Jackson was open on Sunday, and in about an hour my tire was fixed and I was good to go. I also happened on to the Virginian Resort and RV Park to hole up during the rain and snow storm.  Since the date was October 1, the official tourist season had ended and the hotel rate was about half of what it would have cost to book the room the night before.

Yellowstone and Teton 2017
Photo of me (Joe Burns)  taken at Phelps Lake, Laurence Rockefeller Preserve, Grand Teton National Park.

I think the Tetons are the most strikingly beautiful mountains I have ever seen -particularly in autumn when the Aspen trees are iridescent yellow and the peaks are covered with snow from the unseasonably early snow falls.  The Cathedral Peaks rise majestically above the lakes and trees.

Yellowstone and Teton 2017
Early morning view of the Teton Peaks from Gros Ventre camp ground, Grand Teton National Park.

For three nights I camped at the Gros Ventre campground just outside Jackson and within the boundaries of national park.  As I returned to the campground one evening, the light from the full moon brightly lit the snow-covered peaks against the ink black and star filled sky.

Yellowstone and Teton 2017
My Toyota Tundra pickup and Four Wheel pop up camper at my campsite at Gros Ventre campground, Grand Teton National Park.

The next morning as I looked out of my camper window I saw a herd of photographers traipse through the campground following two bull moose and a harem of cows and calves that were heading toward the river.

Yellowstone and Teton 2017
Bull Moose at Gros Ventre campground on the Gros Ventre river, Grand Teton National Park.

After nearly two weeks on the road, I took the long way home by heading south into national forest preserves.  Near Cokeville, Wyoming I found myself in the middle of a cattle drive.  Driving my camper rig, I navigated a steep and winding dirt logging road that overlooked breath taking scenery.

Yellowstone and Teton 2017
Sleet and rain was falling on this bronze sculpture of a bull moose at  the National Museum of Wildlife in Jackson, Wyoming on an inclement October day.  The museum holds more than 5,000 works of art representing wild animals from around the world. The sculpture garden is magnificent.

At the summit, I took the wrong turn and rocked and rolled down a log trail through mud holes and past deer hunter camps.  I was so happy I was driving my four-wheel drive Tacoma.

Yellowstone and Teton 2017
Navigating a logging trail in Bridger-Teton National Forest, near Cokeville, Wyoming in my Toyota Tacoma and Four Wheel Camper.

The trip turned out to be everything I had hoped for and more. I look forward to the adventures to come.



Summer snapshots, Washington County 2017

Arlington VFR grain elevator rescue training

Arlington volunteer training
Trainer Craig Berg and John DiGiorgio  grain assemble  a grain elevator rescue equipment in a grain wagon on the Dunklau Dairy Farm.

Grain Bin Rescue trainer Craig Berg joined Arlington Fire and Rescue personnel inside a grain wagon at the Dunklau Dairy Farm Monday evening to practice grain elevator rescue.  The assembled rescue tube allows responders to extricate grain elevator victims who have been caught in a grain collapse and unable to get out without assistance.

The tubes were purchased through a grant from Farm Services of America.   All three Fire and Rescue departments in Washington County are now equipped with the life saving rescue tube kits.  Farm Services of America donates 100 sets of rescue tubes in a 5 state area each year.

‘Salad Days’ are the sweetest

Do Moore Be  Moore
Sandy Moore stands between “Do Moore, Be Moore recipients Alec and Evan Wick.

The phrase “salad days” describes a season when the taste of life, like the spring garden harvest, is fresh and sweet.   My first years of teaching were salad days.  I was young and enjoying the moment, living the life and learning my craft. There was the reality of hard work and some heartache and frustration, but I had few cares or responsibilities other than myself. Life was good – or at least fresh and fun.

Shakespeare coined the phrase “salad days” in the tragedy Cleopatra to mean “green in judgement,” and certainly that could be said of me at that time.  More broadly the term evokes the light heartedness, vitality and optimism of youth.   I think of late spring like that –  an idyllic time of freshness, novelty and fun – and I have tried to capture that spirit in my photos.

Memorial Day is one of those salad days.  From my youth, I associate the holiday with blue skies and sunny days.  My memories are of pleasant walks with family along cemetery lawns filled with colorful displays of flags and fragrant flowers. The cemetery visits were a significant family ritual and history lesson.  This year I attended and photographed ceremonies in Herman, Fort Calhoun and Kennard as well as visited and placed flowers on graves of my own relatives in Omaha.  I still prefer and often use the old term “Decoration Day.”

The last weekend in May now has added significance because my daughter Erin is now Erin McElroy.  She and her husband Declan were married on the Saturday before Memorial Day in a beautiful ceremony in the Fontenelle Park Pavillion in Omaha. While I had absolutely nothing to do with selecting the venue, I grew up on Ames Avenue in Omaha, and the park brings back many childhood memories.

Nothing evokes images of youth and summer more than swimming at outdoor pools.  No matter the temperature, kids dive, splash and play. The weather and the water temp was near perfect the week that the Blair pool opened. Unfortunately, a few days later the pool was shut down while a maintenance crew removed shattered glass particles imbedded in paint at the bottom of the pool.

Gateway to The West events and similar summer festivals bring out the kid in many of us.  Blair Otte Middle School was the new venue for Taste of Blair and the Blair Area Community Band Summer Concert. Holding the concert in the Otte commons area seemed to be an excellent fit and everyone enjoyed the performance.

While June Jam was again held at The Depot in Lions Park, the revamped park layout is a significant improvement. Kids swarmed the new and relocated playground.  Concert goers could see and hear the band while families picnicked and watched their kids swing, slide and climb on the new playground equipment.  The park will be even more family friendly when the modern all-season restrooms are completed.

Despite the toasty weather, families filled the sidewalks along the Gateway to the West parade route.  Fire trucks spraying water, and parade participants throwing frozen treats to parade watchers proved to be particularly popular for the kids.  After the parade, I stopped at the Blair Volunteer Fire Department beer garden for a refreshing beer and bratwurst before watching the kids and fire fighters water fight contests.

I can think of no better example of youthful vitality and celebration than the Kids Triathlon which took place this past Saturday.   I have no interest in stats – I have no idea who won or even how many kids took part.  I do know that for over an hour I watched kids ages 5 to 15 of all ability levels take part in the challenge and have a great time doing it.  I watched a host of volunteers organize, monitor and keep kids safe while family members cheered the kids on.

I also applaud Kids Triathlon organizers for instituting the “Do Moore, Be Moore” award.   which was presented to BHS graduates Alec and Evan Wick.  The two outstanding and record setting  cross country and track athletes have assisted with the triathlon each year since the event was first organized.

“Do Moore, Be Moore” honors recently retired PE teacher and Kids Tri co-founder Sandy Moore.  Physical education teacher Kim Leggott said, “The award is based on all things ‘Sandy’, – hard work, kindness, compassion and dedication!”

Spring is at an end, and summer officially begins this Tuesday at 11: 24 PM.  I am looking forward to the vacations and summer activities ahead, but I will miss the soft green salad days of spring.