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 wcnegives.org  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.

 

 

‘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.

 

Enterprise Publishing earns awards at NE Press Convention

Omaha Triathlon

My co-workers at the Enterprise Publishing Company brought home a load of awards and honors at last week’s Nebraska Press Association Convention in Lincoln. In addition to the sixty-four awards from the Better Newspaper Contest, the Washington County Pilot-Tribune received the World Herald Service to Agriculture and Community Service awards in its circulation category.

I was also pleased to learn that I received the “Sports Photo of the Year” for my photo of USA Triathlon cyclists as they passed through southern Washington County last summer. I also received first, second and third place news photo awards in Class D – which is the class for weekly newspapers in our circulation category.

The majority of the 60 plus honors were  awarded to “staff ” – the talented team effort by writers, photographers, editors and visual artists.  Well done!

 

Making Portraits

Arbor Park faculty in tee shirts
Arbor Park Intermediate School Faculty and staff stand in the shape of a heart in the school’s gym. The educators are wearing T-shirts in honor of reading teacher Kris Burns who died suddenly of heart failure in September. The teachers purchased the T-shirts or made donations which will be given to the American Heart Association in Burn’s name.

If you picked up a copy of the  Citizen or Enterprise newspaper last week you found it wrapped around our annual Washington County Progress edition. This slick covered publication is packed with 100 or so photos, not counting the advertising and nearly as many articles about the people and history of our county.  Progress always reminds me of Thanksgiving dinner – all that planning and preparation for a feast that it is placed before us and then consumed in one sitting with plenty of leftovers to return to later.

The planning for this 80 plus page section begins in October and much of the interviewing, writing and photography is completed before the new year begins.  I have the easy part, and I think the fun part which is making the portraits and producing images that matches and hopefully enhance the fine writing by my colleagues.  I enjoy accompanying my co-workers or going out on my own to meet these interesting and accomplished people and to find unique visual ways to tell their stories.

Last week the P-T and Citizen newspapers were also packed with stories and images chronicling performances by Washington County Athletes at the State wrestling tournament at Century Link in Omaha.  I was pleased to assist sports editor Grant Egger in capturing images that helped to tell the stories of our wrestlers’ performances at the state meet.  I can totally relate to Grant’s comments that sports writers attempt to capture, “The powerful moments that, unfortunately, not everyone can see up close.”  I try to do the same thing in pictures.

For the past 13 years I have covered state wrestling, first in Lincoln when the tournament was held at the Bob Devaney, and now at Century Link in Omaha. In my opinion, there is no other sports event quite like it. I am addicted to the energy and to the intense rollercoaster ride of emotion that erupts from the mats that fill the arena.

Another fun activity that I usually photograph in February each year is the K-2 Jump Rope for Heart.  Photographs of the kids jumping rope will be featured in the Classroom of the Week in the Enterprise.  The “Pie the Teacher” assemblies celebrate the efforts by students to collect money for the American Heart Association.  Some of the pictures of smiling students and their pie-in-the-face teachers are in the paper today. This year the combined total for the K-2 effort approached $17,000.  That is no small piece of change!

I get online comments once-in-awhile from people who think it is terrible that kids hit their teachers with pies, but the pies are more placed and smooshed than thrown, and always with TLC.  Teachers and celebrity staff members happily volunteer and literally stand in line to get pied.

And finally, I want to comment on the Arbor Park and Blair Community Schools fundraiser in honor of my wife Kris Burns. Arbor Park physical education teacher Sandy Moore contacted me weeks ago to tell me about the T- shirt fund raiser they had planned. Sandy knew Kris well, and told me that the tee shirt they were designing would be simple and a design that Kris might wear. And she was right.  On Wednesday, wearing my ‘Forever a Piece of our Hearts’ tee shirt I was in the Arbor Park gymnasium before school with assistant editor Leeanna Ellis to do my job and take the picture of the Arbor Park teachers standing in the shape of a heart.  The picture and the accompanying story are something I will always treasure.

There is an intimacy to my job that is incredible.  Whether I am working on my own or with co-workers I try to make portraits that capture the qualities and character of the people in Washington County.

 

Dana campus cleanup

Dana College cleanup
Kathy McKinnis and Faith Andreassen remove branches in Letha’s Garden.

The Dana College campus cleanup is certainly the good news story of the week.   On Saturday, June 25th, more than 150 Dana alumni and community volunteers worked in the sun, heat and humidity to remove tree limbs and overgrown shrubbery and weeds. Another estimated  40 volunteers pitched in on Sunday.  The volunteers included Blair Team Mates mentors working side by side with their school age mentees to clean up flower beds.  High school and college students who are members of CRU, formerly  known as Campus Crusade for Christ,  also worked tirelessly throughout the day on Saturday.   On Sunday a group of Midland College football players helped out. 

Dana College Alumni and Friends Association member and clean-up organizer Linda Jorgensen said she was overwhelmed by the number of volunteers standing in line at the Gardner Hawks Center at 8:00 AM Saturday to fill out waivers and strap on white wristbands and go to work. Starting on the north end of campus at Pioneer Memorial, the teams of volunteers moved south across the campus attacking  one tangle of weeds and shrubbery after another.
I helped drag some branches to refuse piles, but more likely got in the way as Tom Jackson, Kathy and Dave McKinnis, and Faith Andreasen  removed a jungle of greenery in Letha’s Garden. The Garden adjacent to the Durham Center is a memorial to Letha Jorgensen Pagel and Gordon “B” Jensen. I tried to stay out of the way, but I was fascinated by the statuary that emerged as Tom and Dave cut away bushes and tree branches hiding the terra-cotta statues.
What happened in Letha’s Garden  pretty much exemplified what took place all across the campus as volunteers removed unsightly and damaging vines, weeds and shrubs from building facades and walk ways.
On days preceding as well as during the cleanup, McKinnis Roofing and Sheet Metal crews wielded chain saws and trimmers and provided the heavy equipment.  Dana repairs project manager Bobby McKinnis was gratified by the size of the turnout, and the amount of work accomplished.  “It looks great, doesn’t it?” McKinnis commented. 

 

Jorgensen calls Bobby a  “home town hero”  for his efforts in making the clean up a reality. Home town hero is an appropriate phrase to describe all who came out to do what they could to beautify the campus.   
There are nay sayers who think there is  no good  reason to work for free when a private developer now owns the property.  While owner Frank Krejci has a financial stake in the campus, community members and alumni have  a personal and emotional stake in this institution. We all hope that good things will happen to the Dana campus, but we have little control over that.   
What we can do is be good neighbors.  And we can all feel good about that.  

DeSoto favorites

The weather was bitter cold one year ago in January 2015 when I photographed these swans on a patch of open water on lake DeSoto.  These are my favorite DeSoto NWR photos from last year.

DeSoto Bend
A flock of swans swim back and forth keeping a patch of open water on DeSoto lake last January 4, 2015.
DeSoto Bend
Swans swimming on lake DeSoto
DeSoto Bend
Swans make a fast exit from the lake under the watchful eye of an eagle perched in the trees.
DeSoto Bend
The wings appear translucent as the swans fly from the lake.

Remembering the Blizzard of ’75

If you lived in eastern Nebraska in the 70’s, you will most likely have memories and stories of the Blizzard of ’75 which occurred 40 years ago last Saturday.

The storm rolled in from the southwest with a speed and ferocity that caught weather forecasters, and those who depend on the forecasts, off guard.

The morning commute was in progress and students were arriving at school for classes.  I was a relatively young teacher at Benson High School at that time. I remember standing in the hallway and watching students and faculty members wearing leather jackets and jeans or sweaters and poodle skirts for ’50’s day.

The announcement that school would be closing due to the quickly approaching blizzard arrived before first period began. Some buses turned around before unloading students and headed back. Other buses returned to the building to pick up students who had arrived earlier. Of course the students, and staff, were overjoyed.

By midmorning, the students were all out of the building and staff members were advised to go home immediately.  At that point the roads were not that bad, and I joined a group of teachers at a local watering hole in downtown Benson. Big mistake.

By the time I was heading home to my apartment, the blizzard was in full force and Maple Street was snow packed and crowded with homebound traffic. As I neared the intersection at 90th and Maple, I could see that traffic was at a standstill.  I abandoned my little yellow Vega in a restaurant parking lot and slogged my way like Dr. Zhivago through the blizzard to my apartment at Camelot Village.

Later that afternoon the thought of being cooped up in my efficiency apartment for a day or more was not that appealing, so I strapped on my cross-country skis and headed out to a friend’s apartment on Fort Street nearly 2 miles away.

Whiteout conditions made seeing more than a few yards difficult and snow drifts obliterated roadways and intersections. The trek was foolish, but it was an adventure, and it was fun. While I was 27 at the time, I still felt and acted like a kid. I had independence, income, and few responsibilities.

Three days later on Sunday, the weather was bitter cold, but bright and sunny. The storm was over.  As usual, I could count on my Dad to help me get my car started. That afternoon my brother and I helped dad retrieve his truck, and with the help of friends, we dug out my parent’s drive way. Life was good.

The Paul Harvey, “Rest of the Story,” is that my dad suffered a heart attack that night and died two weeks later. And that’s when I grew up.  I no longer could count on my dad to help me out in a jam, and as oldest son, I took on the responsibility of looking out for my mother and the family home and finances

This is where I add the John Lennon quote: “ Life is what happens to you when you are busy making plans”

Extraordinary events such as the Blizzard of ’75, and our recent June hailstorm from which our city is still recovering makes us pay attention to and respect Mother Nature. It makes us appreciate and cherish home and family. It is also the stuff of memories and of stories.

-Joe Burns