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Columbus woman nets prestigious honor for service

November 17, 2018

As Columbus native Denise Kracl looked out at the crowd at St. Augustine Parish Hall in Schuyler, it was hard for her not to be emotional seeing so many people from both towns.

“It’s an honor and I don’t take any of this for granted, she said, wiping away the tears in her eyes. “It’s much easier for me to do things for other people and be in the background than it is to be acknowledged.”

Kracl on Tuesday afternoon was recognized by the Schuyler Sertoma Club with its annual and prestigious Service to Mankind award, an honor presented to someone not affiliated with the organization that goes above and beyond in service to the community. A few dozen people attended the banquet.

Sertoma, which saw its Schuyler chapter start in 1968, is one of the oldest service clubs in the United States. It aims to improve the lives of those who need help, particularly those at risk or impacted by hearing loss, through education and support. Each club around the country selected a recipient for the Service to Mankind award.

Twila Wallace, Kracl’s mother, made the trek from her home in Columbus, along with several others, to watch her daughter receive the honor.

“It shows that hard work pays off. She’s dedicated,” Wallace said. “When she starts something, she finishes it. It’s just good to be recognized.”

Wallace learned that long ago.

“When she was 5 years old, she told me she was going to be a lawyer and I was like, ‘oh, yeah right,’” Wallace recalled, noting she and many other family members were teachers and so she assumed her daughter would follow in their footsteps.

Kracl did actually earn her Bachelor of Arts in secondary education (history and political science) -- before pursuing law school.

“She always kept this law idea in the back of her mind,” her mom said.

Kracl credited her mother, noting she is always right by her side.

“Honestly, she helps me with a lot of the projects and things that I do,” she said. “She has been on all of the mission trips with me and supports all of my causes.”

Kracl is no stranger to hard work. In addition to raising her 12-year-old daughter, Kodie, she has found ways to help Columbus and Schuyler. In Columbus, she has contributed to numerous nonprofit organizations’ efforts, and since 2017, has been teaching political science in person and through a long-distance learning program offered through Central Community College.

Among her many other accomplishments was being part of the organizational committee for Comfort Closets by Thrivent Financial, an initiative that sees volunteers gather basic necessities like clothing and school supplies for students in Columbus and Schuyler.

“Denise displays the most empathy and has the biggest heart of anyone I know,” said Columbus’ Melanie Knoepfle, who with Kracl, ran the private practice Knoepfle & Kracl for several years and is the founder of the local Comfort Closets program. “She has put other people’s needs above her own continually for years. She genuinely cares about the people around her and her community.”

Eight years ago, she and Colfax County Diversion Officer Saul Soltero started the Schuyler Food and Toy Drive. Since its inception, it has become heavily backed by area volunteers, businesses and service groups, resulting in hundreds of less fortunate area families getting toys, food and more during the holidays.

“She doesn’t know the word ‘no,’ said Columbus resident Lureta Dierberger, who said she has been friends with Kracl for about 10 years. “She’s involved with so many activities.”

Dierberger said Kracl was there for her when her husband passed away several years ago.

“She has been a wonderful friend,” she said. “She just does things. She is never asked to do them, and no matter what it is, she always gives 110-percent. That is Denise to the T.”

The toy drive is near and dear to Kracl’s heart, and after graciously accepting the award, she took a few minutes to highlight the program as the holiday season gets underway. She spoke about the various donations that have been accepted over the years, noting even things like unopened little bottles of shampoo from hotels can make a difference and go to families in need.

“The toy drive is to just give people hope,” said Kracl, who previously won the Distinguished Alumni Award from CCC’s Columbus campus. “I just try to improve people’s lives for the better, even if it’s just one week out of the year.”

Gov. Pete Ricketts sent a letter to Kracl congratulating her on the honor, which was read aloud during the ceremony.

“Through my interactions with Ms. Kracl, I consider her to be an intelligent, kind-hearted person of strong character. She is also a selfless, hardworking Nebraskan that cares deeply about her local community and our state. This is evident in her dedication to the well-being of the Schuyler youth through her work with the Schuyler Food and Toy Drive and Thriven Comfort Closets,” Ricketts said in an email to The Telegram. “Denise is a great example of the amazing quality of people we have in Nebraska that help make our state the best place in the world to live, work, and raise a family.”

Kracl, when looking back on her childhood in Columbus, said her desire to help others has always been part of who she is – from a very early age. She recalled when she was in seventh grade her mom coming home from parent-teacher conferences and commenting about how she learned Kracl had been helping a special needs child in English class.

“As a student, I was the one who stood up for other kids if they were getting picked on or treated unfairly. I have always had the attitude that people who are strong owe it to people who need to help them,” said Kracl, who noted she was ‘painfully shy’ until about age 8. “I just feel like there is so much more work to do. I’m not done; I feel like I am just getting started.

“So (my younger self would say) that if I could wake up each day and try to make a difference in someone’s life or make the world a better place, then the day was well spent.”

Matt Lindberg is the managing editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at matt.lindberg@lee.net.

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