Inside Schuyler’s historic Oak Ballroom on March 21 a group of more than 40 people wrapped their arms around one another and bowed their heads in unison to pray.
The group was made of folks of all ages and from all walks of life – National Football League players and former Husker standouts, businessmen and businesswomen, law enforcement officers, first responders, government officials, moms, dads, children, as well as residents from Schuyler, Columbus and beyond.
But there was one common thread among them all and the dozens more who came into the building in the moments that followed: They were all Nebraskans. On this night, 14 letters – two words – on display just outside of the building along Higgins Drive said it best: Nebraska Strong.
“Nebraskans take care of their own,” said Buffalo Bills guard and former Husker football standout Jeremiah Sirles. “All of the guys here, we’re Nebraskans. Whether we live in Lincoln, Columbus or Schuyler, we just all take care of our own.”
Sirles, along with former Huskers Spencer Long, Brent Qvale, Cody Green and Zach Sterup, came to town to show love to Schuyler and the surrounding communities that were ravaged by floods earlier this month. The former Huskers, in conjunction with Columbus resident Saul Soltero and his family, Whitetails Unlimited and the Colfax County Attorney’s Office, orchestrated the special community dinner for area residents, law enforcement and first responders.
The more than 100 people in attendance came from Fremont, Omaha, Columbus and numerous other towns in between. There were also numerous Schuyler and Colfax County residents on hand to take in the festivities after a stressful week in which floodwaters wreaked havoc on various roads and homes, forced emergency evacuations, destroyed area farms and killed livestock.
The people of Colfax County, like many other Nebraska communities, have been to hell and back. But, they proved resilient through it all. When it mattered most, they came together and supported one another in the days that followed the initial flooding. March 21 wasn’t a community gathering, but rather one massive Nebraska family.
“After the last week, anything that brings a smile to any face in this area is so greatly appreciated,” Colfax County Attorney Denise Kracl said. “It just goes to show that it doesn’t matter where you live or what part of the world you travel to or where you go for work, that if you have roots in Nebraska, the roots run deep.”
Kracl said she and others gave the former Nebraska football players a tour of some of the areas in Schuyler that were hit hard, adding her appreciation for them making the time to help plan the event, attend and have it in Schuyler. Attendees were also able to participate in a tetanus shot clinic on scene and pick up supplies thanks to numerous donations made available there.
“I think for the entire community that this is one step closer to healing,” Kracl said. “And the fact that the entire area is invited is wonderful. I think it gives the whole state and the world a whole different view of Schuyler, Nebraska.”
Oak Ballroom Manager and longtime Schuyler resident Sandi Bourn was all smiles as she interacted with people coming in the door that night. The 81-year-old building also fell victim to Mother Nature, as Bourn said it had accumulated as much as 3 feet of water at one point. But, she noted, her crew worked hard and was continuing to pump it out in true Schuyler spirit.
“There were a lot of lives put in turmoil, but the city, they rocked it,” she said, with a smile. “Everyone worked together to get everything going, whether it was country people, city people, whatever race .... everybody worked together to keep this community safe and keep it up and running.”
As part of the dinner, attendees were treated to quite the feast. Ham, mashed potatoes, rolls, warm cookies, bottled water and more were all there, catered by Hy-Vee in Columbus and courtesy of the football players and other generous parties who helped orchestrate the event. Hy-Vee donated the labor for the event and was happy to be on hand helping out, according to Kitchen Manager Ernie Menchaca.
“We’re a business for sure, but when something like this happens, Hy-Vee is so good about wanting to help out, and I am of the same mind frame,” Menchaca said, watching as the line for food got larger. “When this came up, yeah, it puts a dent in everything that we do, but we just stopped what we were doing and wanted to help.”
He noted Hy-Vee officials were also feeding a rail crew breakfast, lunch and dinner while they fixed railroad out near Duncan, but that all of the volunteered time and efforts were worth it. Menchaca was all smiles as he mentioned seeing various people walking around the building.
“I think it’s great,” he said. “It’s a great mix of people, great mix of community and that’s what Nebraska is all about.”
Remarkably, it all came together in a matter of 48 hours. Soltero, who is known for helping launch the Schuyler Food and Toy Drive with Kracl years ago, said it started when Sirles and Long reached out to him on March 18 to ask what could be done to help Nebraskans. So he took a few minutes to brainstorm.
“I just thought, ‘you know what, because there’s so much to be done, we’re not sure even where to start.’ So we thought why don’t we just have a dinner, and cater to first responders, volunteers, displaced families, anybody who wanted to come.”
Soltero said he then reached out to Kracl and his friends at Hy-Vee, and by the next day, everything had come together. Sirles, Soltero and others spread the word through social media, inviting folks from all around Nebraska.
“It’s just a community effort at its grassroots,” said Soltero, who works for Whitetails Unlimited. “And that’s kind of this community, in a nutshell.”
Soltero’s in-laws, Columbus’ Fred and Carol Johnson, were among the many people volunteering their time to pitch in.
“It doesn’t make a difference, we’re just here to help,” Fred said.
Carol said after watching all of the flood coverage in Nebraska, they were inspired to aid others. The Schuyler event came at the perfect time, she noted.
“We heard about this and we thought, ‘this is perfect, it’s local.’ It’s people in our neighborhoods and communities that need help badly, so this is a good way to get publicity out that people can help in small ways and bigger ways.”
Long, a center for the Bills, said he and Sirles were working out together days earlier when they began discussing what could be done. An Elkhorn native, he said at the very least he hoped people were able to have a good meal. But, he stressed, for him and his fellow Huskers, it was about being there for those in need.
“We have a platform, we’re fortunate we have a platform where we can reach people through social media,” he said.
Qvale had a similar perspective.
“It hits pretty close to home … To see something like this in your own backyard and how it affected so many people, it’s pretty simple that you have to help out,” the New York Jets offensive tackle said. “We want to be here. We want to do things to help start the healing process among all the craziness that has happened. … We bond together and try to make a difference in any way we can.”
All of the players pitched in setting up tables and then visited with first responders, law enforcement and the many community members who spoke with them. There were smiles, laughs and plenty of hugs shared.
“Just seeing how tight-knit this community is and how everyone is coming together and helping,” Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Zach Sterup said, shortly after visiting with a Fremont man who told him about how his home was flooded and the struggles he and other Nebraskans are experiencing. “It means a lot to me being from Nebraska, so I try to pay it forward.”
Schuyler residents Dana and Lori Schultz were smiling while talking and eating with friends after enduring a stressful week in which they were displaced from their Ski Lake home. They said they were nervous as the water entered their yard and came about 1 inch away from their home before they were rescued by first responders via airboat.
The couple before the dinner went to check on their home, having spent the last week with friends, then at Cobblestone Inn and Suites in town and now in Fremont. They said they hope to return home soon (they hadn’t as of Monday), but praised the community as a whole.
“The people in Schuyler have just been incredible,” said Dana, a Schuyler sixth-grade language arts teacher, before specifically praising police officers and first responders for their rescue efforts and constant updates. “Everybody here just did a great job of working with us, helping us and making us feel safe. And the outpouring of people donating, the schools, all of the kids filling up sandbags and stuff, just made us really, really proud we live in Schuyler. We couldn’t believe how everybody came through and helped us and everyone in Schuyler.”
Schuyler Mayor Jon Knutson greeted residents and was undoubtedly proud of his small town.
“We were facing all sorts of problems, turmoil and uncertainty, and yet the community pulled together,” he said. “It was awesome. The volunteers showed up, our police were awesome, our firefighters were awesome, our first responders, our city and our county all worked together so well … In all, we know we’re lucky compared to a lot of communities.”
State Sen. Bruce Bostelman, who represents Colfax County, and his wife brought a truckload of supplies from a facility in Butler County to help those in need to the dinner. He praised area first responders and residents for their efforts through a difficult time.
“It’s important for the people of Schuyler and it’s important for the people around the area, whether it’s North Bend, Columbus or here, to see the support of everyone who is here …” Bostelman said, noting state and community leaders, as well as the NFL athletes. “It’s really neat to see that here and come together as a community once again just to share in the times and know we’re all here for each other.”
By the end of the evening, there were smiles throughout the entire room. There is a long road ahead as Nebraskans get underway with cleanup efforts, but the night clearly meant a lot to those who attended.
“A little bit of hope,” Qvale said of what he hopes people got out of the dinner. “It’s been a long week for a lot of people, so just knowing that people are here supporting them. Just to keep pushing, as I just saw with my own eyes there’s a lot of work that needs to be done, but also there’s a lot of hope. And that’s what makes Nebraska special – people come together and bond together and really get through this tough time.”
Bourn said their kind gesture wouldn’t be forgotten.
“I even told the gentlemen that I’m overwhelmed by their kindness and generosity for coming in and doing this, because a lot of times places get forgotten,” she said. “It’s nice to be remembered and have people come in and show that they do care and are willing to help people who need help.
As for the Oak Ballroom, which will officially turn 82 in May, Bourn said work would continue to get out all of the water and clean it up. She then cited a Lincoln Journal Star story from decades ago that nicknamed it “Queen of the Platte” when it first opened while looking around the venue. Like the community, the building has been weathered but is definitely not broken.
“I think she’s still reigning,” she said, with a big grin.
Matt Lindberg is the managing editor of the Schuyler Sun. Reach him via email at email@example.com.