What is a Nebraskan?

It is my wish that we push our common good qualities to the top

April 5, 2022 3:00 am
Scenic prairie field

Sunflowers dot a Nebraska field planted to native grasses and flowers as part of the voluntary, federal Conservation Reserve Program. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

Who are we? Who are we who call ourselves Nebraskans? As I contemplate this, my mind takes me to a place far away from Nebraska.

When I was a student at Colgate University in upstate New York in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Professor Jonathan Kistler taught English and welcomed all his students into his perception of the world. He shared that a favorite pastime was to sit on his back porch in the evenings and listen to the trains as they passed. He wondered where they had been, where they were going and who or what they were carrying. It made me think of home and the seemingly endless prairies, crisscrossed by railroad tracks, roads both Interstate highway quality and gravel, and the occasional remnant ruts left by the covered wagons of the century before last.

So many people have traveled through Nebraska, and many fewer decided to stay. I am grateful my family stayed. Whether in Dakota County or Douglas County, they became part of the Nebraska story. The people of the First Nations, including the Omaha Tribe, the Ponca Tribe, the Santee Sioux Nation and the Winnebago Tribe, were the first to find sustenance and create homes in Nebraska. They were the first to understand the complexities that nature bestows upon our land — blizzards, tornadoes, flooding, drought and beauty. They were the first to understand that one must be strong to be a Nebraskan and withstand challenges with the same ferocity with which the obstacles attack.

Once European settlers started to populate the land, I think of the farmers, like my wife’s family. They came from Ireland to Greeley County to farm. It is beautiful country, although not known for the rich black soil that makes the best farmland. But they persevered and made it. Some of my family went to Dakota County and were merchants. They learned the hard lessons of running a business in which their customers’ ability to pay their bills was dependent on the whims of nature and the economic conditions of the marketplace. But they learned to manage uncertainty and survive down cycles.

I think of the diversity of Nebraskans, from those whose great-great-grandparents were among the children saved in a blizzard by a schoolteacher to the new Americans who have just arrived as refugees. From the railroad employee on the road repairing tracks to the nurse in a critical access hospital caring for patients who drive 50 miles on country roads for treatment. From the mom who was robbed of her child by gunfire to the firefighter who just used the jaws of life rescuing a car accident victim.

I think of Sam Mercer, who started with a single warehouse in downtown Omaha to develop the Old Market. I think of Bob Spire, who came back to Omaha after World War II and became the state’s attorney general and helped start Legal Aid of Nebraska. I think of Mildred Brown who, with her husband, started the Omaha Star, with the distinction of being the only newspaper in the country started by a Black woman. I think of Rose Blumkin, who immigrated here from present-day Belarus and began Nebraska Furniture Mart.

We have the purest form of representative democracy in the world. Our nonpartisan Unicameral Legislature provides all Nebraskans with the opportunity to voice their thoughts on every single piece of legislation in process. Not bad for a state that has long spelled our name backward, Aksarben, to attract businesses and tourism while serving the community good.

Nebraskans have courage. We are resilient, persistent and strong. We come to the aid of one another when circumstances call for it. We are there in good times and bad, celebrating successes and working to solve issues. We protect our resources, whether that is farmers protecting the land or legislators required to balance the state’s budget. We build upon our heritage, we listen to others and, at the same time, we chart our own course. We look for commonalities and ways to move forward together.

No matter the circumstances, time and time again, when Nebraskans need help, we step up. We take pride in doing what we can to ensure that no one suffers needlessly nor alone. We are generous in both spirit and act.

We look to the future and pride ourselves on creating a wonderful place in which to raise a family. And as our children grow, we hope that we have done our best to instill Nebraska values and that our children will want to stay. Willa Cather in “My Antonia” captured those moments. “Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.”

I have spent much of my life, both personal and professional, intentionally not placing labels on people. There is one exception. I am a Nebraskan and want to define what it means to be a Nebraskan. There are some labels we should own with pride.

It is my wish that we push our common good qualities to the top. That those are the qualities that form the behaviors by which we conduct ourselves. That we always resort to our better selves, in good times and bad.

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Brad Ashford
Brad Ashford

Brad Ashford was a public servant and attorney. He served four terms in the Nebraska Unicameral Legislature and one term in the U.S. House of Representatives. Brad's later focus was on bringing a New Attitude to all involved in governance — to work together without regard to labels. He died April 19, 2022. His widow, Ann Ashford, continues to share some of Brad's essays with the Nebraska Examiner.