Nebraskans celebrate Gov. Jim Pillen at his inaugural ball

3,500 attend ball at CHI Health Center in downtown Omaha

By: - January 7, 2023 8:04 pm

New Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen greets guests at his inaugural ball in Omaha on Jan. 7, 2023. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

OMAHA — About 3,500 Nebraskans dined, danced and feted the state’s new governor Saturday evening at the CHI Health Center convention hall in downtown Omaha.

Gov. Jim Pillen and First Lady Suzanne Pillen dance together during the inaugural ball Saturday in Omaha. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Trail/Governor Pillen Inaugural Committee)

Gov. Jim Pillen’s inaugural ball attracted former governors and U.S. senators, including Ben Nelson and Mike Johanns.

Members of Nebraska’s current congressional delegation  attended, too, including U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., and U.S. Reps. Don Bacon, R-Neb., Mike Flood, R-Neb., and Adrian Smith, R-Neb.

The ball attracted state senators from both parties, including Suzanne Geist, Steve Erdman, Terrell McKinney and Tony Vargas.

One of Pillen’s top supporters, former Gov. Pete Ricketts, greeted people at a reception before the ball.

Outside that upstairs ballroom, Gov. Pillen and First Lady Suzanne Pillen posed for pictures with a line of attendees.

Ricketts, in a brief interview before dinner, described the emotions of his own first inaugural ball.

Former Gov. Pete Ricketts speaks to people during a reception before Gov. Jim Pillen’s inaugural ball on Jan. 7, 2023, at the CHI Health Center. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

“There’s a lot of people that you know and love,” he said, “and you get like two minutes with each of them.”

Ricketts called it “a wedding reception except on steroids.” He said Pillen is likely thinking back to what it took to run.

In 2014, Ricketts spent most of the night posing for pictures, he said. On Saturday evening, he got to relax and enjoy Pillen’s moment.

“I’m really happy for him,” he said.

Pillen, as a former Husker, picked a theme for his inaugural from his old coach, Tom Osborne: “Day by Day, Better and Better.”

He said he was pleased to see Nebraskans gathering together.

He said his late father would have told him that the crowd was there to celebrate the office, not him.

He choked up speaking later Saturday about how far the Pillen family and agriculture had come from those days when his dad was a tenant farmer.

A crowd of 3,500 people gathered to celebrate a new Nebraska governor at the CHI Health Center in downtown Omaha. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Pillen said he would do his best to get through the dance with his wife and the walk out on stage.

“I’m a pretty slow two-stepper, so I think we’ll do OK” he said. “I really hope when we do the run down the runway that my grandbabies are crazy.”

Pillen, a hog operator from Columbus, laughed when asked about serving pork at an inaugural ball in the Beef State.

He said the cattle guys give him a hard time, in jest, but the meal was Nebraska-raised pork, processed in Fremont, and Nebraska-raised potatoes.

“Tonight is Nebraska, through and through, every square inch of it,” the new governor said

Unlike at some previous balls in Lincoln, Pillen was able to get his supporters into a single room of the conference hall.

The governor and the first lady, after being introduced to the crowd, danced to the Rod Stewart version of “What a Wonderful World.”


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Aaron Sanderford
Aaron Sanderford

Political reporter Aaron Sanderford has tackled various news roles in his 20-plus year career. He has reported on politics, crime, courts, government and business for the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal-Star. He also worked as an assignment editor and editorial writer. He was an investigative reporter at KMTV.