Finding the Nebraska Beyond Omaha and Lincoln

I’m a recovering (retired) lawyer. I had the pleasure of working with REAP for the past five years as part of my job at the Community Economic Development Clinic (CED Clinic) at Creighton University’s School of Law. Dena Beck, REAP senior project leader in their Southwest/Central Region, asked me to write about my experience.

The CED Clinic is basically a law firm for microentrepreneurs and community nonprofit corporations. It is staffed by senior Creighton law students and serves the whole state. Part of my job involved community education presentations on business and nonprofit legal issues. Most of the presentations in rural Nebraska were done in collaboration with REAP.

REAP loan specialists worked with community partners to identify topics, provide facilities, and promote the workshops. Topics included the pros and cons of limited liability companies and S corporations, getting IRS recognition as a tax exempt 501 (c)(3) organization, and others. We did presentations in 21 rural towns attended by over 250 people. I was always impressed by the participants’ questions, energy, and ingenuity.

In personal terms the most important impact of my work with REAP was experiencing small-town and rural Nebraska. I’ve spent most of my life in Nebraska. I grew up in Fremont, and I’ve lived in Omaha since 1977. But prior to the CED Clinic I hadn’t spent much time in rural Nebraska. For the most part my experience of it was driving I-80 to get to Colorado for summer vacations. Not a very engaging drive.

So my first REAP-sponsored workshop in Arnold was a revelation. I came in on part of the Loup Rivers Scenic Byway and drove the rest of it the following day. I tacked on a county road connecting Dunning and Arnold. It’s beautiful country with rolling hills and three rivers. The section between Dunning and Arnold was particularly striking.

I had no idea the Sandhills came so far east. “Wetlands” isn’t the right term, but there were lots of springs and seeps, daubs of water here and there, feeding grasslands, and sandy hills. Wonderful clear sky; lots of birds; no traffic. I pulled over several times to enjoy it. On subsequent trips to Broken Bow, Ord, Loup City, and St. Paul, I always found time to poke around the Scenic Byway.

I had the same experience south of I-80 with presentations in towns like McCook and Red Cloud. I remember a wooded, green stretch of Highway 136 where time seemed to expand. Highway 6 was fun too, driving back to Omaha on a birthday singing along with Bob Dylan and the Stones. I found time to visit not only the Willa Cather museum but the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie with its unplowed ground and tall native grasses.

The experience was also educational, guided by Dena’s exasperated responses to my ignorance about rural life. “You don’t know what the Junk Jaunt is?” Or: “You’ve never heard about the Minden Christmas lights?” Plus I picked up a Nebraska Baseball Hall of Fame T-shirt in St. Paul and a Sandhills Open Road Challenge ball cap in Arnold.

I enjoyed the presentations and the people I met. I am convinced the powerful entrepreneurial drive I encountered is vital to rural prosperity. Most important for me, I found out that there’s quite a bit to see and do in our state outside of Omaha and Lincoln.

By Milo Alexander, newly retired from the Community Economic Development Clinic (CED Clinic) at Creighton University’s School of Law.