17 Nebraskan Groundbreakers
Nebraska is truly a land of pioneers. From botany to business, social justice to fine art, we've produced some of the world's greatest innovators. Although there are far more Nebraskan groundbreakers than just those mentioned on our list, this selection of 17 features a few folks we think are among our state's very top movers and shakers.
(This story originally appeared in the January/February 2014 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)
FROM NEBRASKA'S FIRST pioneers to our champions of social justice and leaders in the environment, Nebraska has been a land of trailblazers. There are a select few who stand out even among that crowd. Some are immortal icons, and others have been overlooked by much of society. Their ideas and contributions made dramatic changes for the lives of Nebraskans, and sometimes even the world. These are Nebraska’s “groundbreakers.”
1 & 2 - Frank Zybach and C.W. McConaughy
No list of Nebraskan groundbreakers is complete without these agricultural giants, who changed the very landscape of the state.
In 1913, C.W. McConaughy, then mayor of Holdrege, began a campaign to harness the flood waters of the Platte for irrigation in the semi-arid center of our state. It took many long years, but in 1936 this community organizer saw his vision take the form of a reservoir on the North Platte River, just north of Ogallala. Completed only months after his death in 1941, Lake McConaughy now brings much-needed moisture to Nebraska’s very productive farmland.
While growing up on the family farm near Columbus, Frank Zybach didn’t much care for farm work. In fact, at 26, his aversion to field work led him to invent away for his tractor to do the plowing without a driver.
While that contraption wasn’t particularly well-received, his later development of the center-pivot irrigation system was a huge success. His system of pipes, sprinklers, trusses and wheels was far more efficient than traditional irrigation methods, and it dramatically reduced the labor involved in watering a field.
Zybach’s center-pivot invention now is used worldwide, helping farmers everywhere get the most out of limited water resources. Some folks have called it the greatest agricultural achievement since the invention of the tractor.
When combined with McConaughy’s reservoir, Zybach’s invention also changed the face of Nebraska. The former Dust Bowl has become the verdant, fertile and economically prosperous state we have today.
3 - Willa Cather
There have been many great writers and poets from Nebraska who have gifted the world with literary treasures, but no author’s prose more profoundly speaks to the world of the prairie struggles than the captivating writings of Willa Sibert Cather.
She was born with the baptized name of Wilella near Winchester, Va., on Dec.7, 1873, but thousands of her pages would be drawn from that frontier life of her childhood in Nebraska.
The journey began when she moved with her family at age 9 in 1883 to a farm in Nebraska’s Webster County, and later 12 miles south to Red Cloud. It was here that Cather attended her first school. The fierce power of the prairie carved images in her writing that would lead to novels lyrically written in the plainspoken people of the Plains. She wrote the Great Plains trilogy of O Pioneers!(1913), The Song of the Lark (1915) and My Ántonia (1918).
She wanted to be a doctor when she was a student at the University of Nebraska in the early 1890s. She reportedly wore masculine clothing and often used the nickname “William” and was one of the first women to graduate from the university.
In 1922, Cather was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours, about the conflicted son of a wealthy Nebraska farmer and pious mother who tries to find himself while in the horrors of World War I. Although its reviews were mixed, the novel gained her a much wider audience.
Cather fell out of favor with critics in the 1930s, and some accounts have her fading into a bitter recluse, but her literary writing has stood the test of time. Her last published novel in 1940 was Sapphira and the Slave Girl.
A tribute to Cather’s work and building tours of her childhood are preserved by the Willa Cather Foundation in Red Cloud, including the never-plowed Willa Cather Memorial Prairie.
4 - George Beadle
The only ground George Beadle would have broken was on his father’s 40-acre farm near Wahoo if a teacher hadn’t recognized his talents in science. Instead, Beadle became a groundbreaking geneticist and the only Nebraskan ever awarded a Nobel Prize.
After George’s loving mother, Hattie, died when he was 5, and his older brother was killed by a horse, he faced backbreaking chores demanded by his stern father, Chauncey. The Wahoo High science teacher, Bess McDonald, saw brilliant potential in this farm boy. She finally convinced Chauncey that if his son got a degree in agriculture at the University of Nebraska he’d bring home even greener profits to the prosperous vegetable farm.
But when Beadle enrolled at the Lincoln campus in 1922, the agronomy department head, Frank Keim, encouraged him to switch majors and follow his fascination in an emerging scientific field. The seeds were planted for Nebraska’s Isaac Newton of genetics.
Beadle’s genetic experiments started naturally with corn then moved to fruit flies. After exposing bread mold to X-rays, Beadle was able to demonstrate that one gene is linked to one enzyme. This “one-gene-one-enzyme” concept led to Beadle and two other scientists sharing the 1958 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. That same year, Beadle also was honored with the Albert Einstein Commemorative Award in Science.
His academic career ended in 1967 after serving six years as president of the University of Chicago, where he said his main accomplishment there was encouraging grass to grow on campus instead of cement. Known to friends as “Beets,” this world-famous scientist always considered himself a country boy – he tended a garden wherever he called home.
5 - Grace Abbott
Any citizen who gets that Social Security check each month should never forget this dedicated social pioneer from Grand Island. The fact that Abbott played a key role in drafting the Social Security Act that became law in 1935 is in itself a groundbreaking achievement, but she dug deep for many historic causes with style, and always Grace.
She was a noted feminist, author and a champion of immigrant rights, but it was her tireless struggle to protect children against labor violations that made her one of Nebraska’s treasured gifts to America. From 1921 to 1935, she served four U.S. presidents as head of the federal Chil-Nebraska State Histocial Society.dren’s Bureau in Washington, D.C., and helped stop the horrid work abuse of children in America’s mills and factories.
Abbott was born in Grand Island on Nov. 17, 1878, and grew up there where this shining activist apple didn’t fall far from the family tree. Her father, Othman Abbott, was elected Nebraska’s first lieutenant governor, but Grace and her older sister, Edith, were really inspired to become social reformers by their mother, Lizzie. Their Quaker mom helped free slaves as an abolitionist and she was an early campaigner for women gaining the right to vote, a struggle that Grace would carry on for her mother.
After graduating from Grand Island College in 1898, she continued her studies in Lincoln at the University of Nebraska, but then completed her graduate work at the University of Chicago. Beyond her vast intellect, one of Abbott’s secret political weapons was said to be a charming wit. In 1934, she became a social service professor University of Chicago, where she penned her groundbreaking legislation for President Franklin Roosevelt.
Abbott died at 60 of multiple myeloma in Chicago, where she lived with her sister, but they are both buried in Grand Island Cemetery. Although she never married, she was called by the press a foster mother to 43 million American children.
6 - Roscoe Pound
His amazing intellectual journey took him from the sod houses of early homesteaders on the Lincoln prairie in 1870 to the stately ivory towers at Harvard Yard. We’ve grown a lot of deep thinkers here in the Heartland, but it’s hard to imagine a more inventive mind than the one Nathan Roscoe Pound shared with the planet for 93 years.
Although basically self-taught, he was perhaps the most significant legal scholar of the 20th century and the dean of Harvard Law School during what was known as its golden era from 1916 to 1936. He managed all these accomplishments while dropping out of Harvard Law School after just a year of study. Of course, who needs Harvard when one has years of book learning at dear old Nebraska U. Pound was no ordinary legal eagle. He had a memory that became legendary at Harvard, where he was noted for being able to recite the names of almost every law school graduate. He could read in 11 languages, including Sanskrit and Chinese, which he learned at age of 76 in his travels to reorganize the judicial system of the Nationalist Government of China that was led by his friend, Gen. Chiang Kai-shek.
He was one of the great thinkers of the law whose famed 1906 address to the American Bar Association sparked judicial reform. He was the most cited legal scholar of the 20th century with more than 300 published writings, including his five-volume Jurisprudence that was completed in 1959, just years before his death at 93 in 1964.
“The law must be stable, but it must not stand still,” said Pound, whose sister was the noted folklorist and standout Nebraska athlete Louise Pound.
Pound earned three degrees at the University of Nebraska, including the university’s first doctorate in botany in 1898. In 1903, he helped establish the university’s Society of Innocents, the prestigious honor society still in existence at UNL. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment was becoming the first football fanatic of the university’s debut team in 1890.
Now that’s something to cheer about!
7 - Charles Bessey
He was a towering figure in botany science, and his Bessey System’s classification of flowers remains a worldwide standard nearly a century later, but what makes Charles Edwin Bessey stand out ina crowd of important Nebraskans is how he made two state treasures grow.
He joined the University of Nebraska as botany professor in 1887, and in that year Bessey spearheaded the passage of the federal Hatch Act, which granted annual state aid for experiment stations. Nebraska jumped at the program and in Bessey’s stints as acting chancellor (1888 to 1891, and 1899 to 1900) he transformed UNL into a cutting-edge environment for research centers.
His greatest experiment can be found driving through the man-made forest in the Nebraska Sandhills. Despite these vast sand dunes in north-central Nebraska, Bessey’s research found that the region had forests before the Ice Age.
The government finally agreed with Bessey’s experiment for potential timber reserves and planted trees in the Sandhills from 1891 to 1893. Listening to the urging of Bessey and others, President Theodore Roosevelt established two Sandhills forest reserves on April 16, 1902. It would become known as the Nebraska National Forest, and 60 percent of those 180,000 acres is the Bessey Ranger District that proudly shades the Dismal River. In 1902, ponderosa pine planted by the Bessey Nursery led to the 28,000-acre forest, and now nearly 3 million seedlings are produced each year. His tree-planting experiment was the world’s first artificial national forest, and it’s still the largest in North America.
There are supposedly bigger hand planted forests in China and South Africa, but it was only Bessey who saw a forest in the sand.
8 - Harold Edgerton
In 1964, art and science had a dazzling collision when Harold “Doc” Edgerton took a color photograph of a bullet piercing a playing card. That shot aided the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor’s experiment on unseen motion while also providing a spectacular splash of artistic beauty. It was one of many eye-catching and groundbreaking images captured over decades by the former Aurora resident to promote use of his 1931 invention, the strobe light, the electronic flash that revolutionized photography.
He was born on April 6, 1903, in Fremont, the eldest of three children of Frank and Mary Edgerton, and after four moves, the family finally settled in Aurora. Young Harold fell in love with fixing broken things. Then his uncle, a studio photographer, got him to focus in on the camera. After spending summers working at Nebraska Power and Light Co. doing everything from sweeping floors to mending downed power lines, Edgerton got his degree in electrical engineering at the University of Nebraska and then headed east for his master’s at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
He married Nebraska native Esther May Garrett in 1928, and then in 1931 –the same year his first of three children was born – Edgerton announced the birth of the stroboscope for use in both ultra high-speed and still photography.
To prove he wasn’t just another nutty professor, Doc spent years demonstrating his invention, freezing objects in motion with his camera’s strobes, like an archer’s arrow, a tennis ball bouncing off a racket and a hummingbird in mid-flutter. The invention even was used in aerial night photography to map the Normandy Invasion for D-Day.
He later developed underwater inventions in his sea adventures with his longtime friend Jacques Cousteau, including the "boomer," which located objects on the ocean floor, including a hydrogen bomb off the coast of Spain.
He died at 86 on Jan. 4, 1990, dropping dead of a heart attack after paying for his lunch at the MIT faculty club. But his life’s work shines on for millions.
9 - Bob Devaney
After stringing together five successful years as coach at the University of Wyoming, in 1962 Devaney took on the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers coaching job for the annual salary of $17,000. That paycheck may have been the biggest bargain in the history of contract negotiations, because within a decade he had turned Nebraska football into a multimillion-dollar merchandising Big Red Nation for the university and the state.
One of Devaney’s smartest moves was hiring an assistant for no money at all in 1964 named Tom Osborne.
Devaney brought Nebraska its first two national championships, including the undefeated 1971 team with its classic win at Oklahoma that became known as “TheGame of the Century.” That game brought the Huskers international fame as a college football juggernaut.
During his 11 years as Nebraska’s head coach, Devaney had a record of 102-20-2, leading his teams to six postseason victories, including his debut season, with the most bizarre bowl game of all. The Huskers prevailed with a last-second win over Miami in the second and last rendition of the Gotham Bowl, played before a crowd of several thousand freezing fans at Yankee Stadium on Dec. 4, 1962. The promotion had been hampered by a New York newspaper strike, and the Huskers didn’tfly out to the Big Apple until a day before the game when their $30,000 expense checked cleared.
After crushing Notre Dame in the 1973 Orange Bowl, he passed the Big Red baton to Dr. Tom, but Devaney’s work as athletic director from 1967 until 1993 may have had nearly as big an impact.
In August, Nebraska unveiled the most overdue sculpture in the history of modern art. Now, at the east side of Memorial Stadium, a legend stands forever in bronze.
10 - Joyce Clyde Hall
With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, it would be a real heartbreaker if we didn’t feature the Nebraska pioneer of the world’s greeting card industry. The story of this David City native, who as a teenager in 1910 created a $4 billion company from a few shoe boxes filled with fancy painted postcards from the family’s Norfolks tore, is a real Hallmark moment.
This amazing journey of an uneducated, impoverished and fatherless child is the ultimate symbol of Nebraska grit. Born in 1891, Hall’s first struggle in life was his preacher father dubbing him Joyce in honor of a Methodist bishop’s last name, and Hall would go by J.C. as soon as his father fled for good from their ramshackle David City home. He left behind the 7-year-old boy, J.C.’s two older brothers, and their virtually bed-ridden mother.
During the family’s struggles, Hall heard his preacher father tell the family,“The Lord will provide.” After his father abandoned the family, J.C.’s reply was, “It’s a good idea to give the Lord a little help.”
At age 8, J.C. already was selling perfume to neighbors. A year later, the family moved to Norfolk. By 1902, his older brothers and a partner bought the Halls bookstore in Norfolk, and J.C. helped them resell picture postcards.
In a train ride with destiny in 1910, the 18-year-old Hall took a couple of shoe boxes of the hand-painted cards to Kansas City, Mo., and pitched his business while staying at the YMCA. Soon, an older brother joined him, and even though their first batch of Valentine’s Day cards were massacred by an office fire in 1915, the company took off under J.C.’s vision. He started marketing the greeting cards under the classic Hallmark name in 1928.
The president of the iconic Hallmark Cards retired to chairman in 1966, and in 1982, this dirt-poor Nebraska boy died a multimillionaire in Kansas City at 91. But in a final Hallmark moment, that first brick building in Norfolk still lives on.
11 - Evan Williams
Tweet-tweet-tweet! Twitter is “blowing up” because its 500-million-plus flock is chirping away over the news that a Clarks native has landed on our list. Well, perhaps some of the rumored online chatter is because we’re paying tribute to its co-founder and former CEO, and doing it in more than the 140 characters that the world’s second largest social networking service allows.
Evan Clark Williams is a vegetarian who embraces the San Francisco lifestyle with his wife and two young children, but growing up surrounded by a cornfield planted the seeds for his creative curiosity.
“Ev” learned discipline from irrigating the cornfield of his father’s large farm near Clarks, a village of about 370 in Merrick County. He loved how there were all sorts of tools around to fix equipment. In his sophomore year at the local Clarks high school he became fascinated by those early Apple computers of the late 1980s.
Williams spent his senior year at Columbus High School. He dropped out of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln after three semesters, where he said he didn’t fit in like his brother, who had been a standout football player and fraternity president. But for years, Williams would return to the family farm in the middle of Nebraska working on early online business adventures like a multimedia CD-ROM on UNL football financed by his father.
The young man headed west with his then-Nebraskan girlfriend at the time, and early in the 21st century he reportedly made millions selling his Blogger website to Google. Twitter, the global instant messaging system on steroids, was born after a brainstorming session in 2006 with several other partners. Rumors have yet to confirm that initial programming code spelled out “Git-R-Done.”
Celebrities have orchestrated Twitter for a gazillion followers. Williams’ designer wife, Sara Morishige, even Tweeted about her water breaking during labor. She blasted away instant Tweets while waiting to deliver their first child.
Williams, who turns 42 in March, also is expected to turn into a billionaire this year from his 12 percent stock ownership in the company he helped start. For the rest of the story, follow him on Twitter. Hashtag, Nebraska Life, of course.
12 - J. Sterling Morton
When you’re the Johnny Appleseed of tree-planting in Nebraska, you’ve certainly broken a lot of ground. Julius Sterling Morton is not only a hero to environmentalists for inspiring the planting of millions of trees in Nebraska and creating a National Arbor Day, but he probably is beloved in Nebraska by many state workers and schoolchildren who get that last Friday off in April as an official state holiday.
Morton’s influence branched out in many areas as one of the true Nebraska pioneers. In 1854, the Detroit native left Michigan and headed to the massive and disorganized Nebraska Territory and planted his roots in Nebraska City,where he became editor of the Nebraska City News. President James Buchanan appointed him secretary of the territory. He served that post from 1858 to 1861, and he also served as Nebraska’s acting governor from December 1858 until May 1859.
During this period he also built Nebraska’s version of the White House –a 52-room mansion that welcomes awed visitors as part of the Arbor Lodge State Historical Park. But Morton was building even a more beautiful creation – trees. Lots and lots of them. Morton and other pioneers noticed that their prairie was a virtual tree-free zone, and Morton began planting all types of trees to combat soil erosion and provide beautiful shelter from the sun and wind.
Then at a session of the Nebraska Agricultural Board on Jan. 4, 1872, Morton suggested a holiday to grow trees. A total of 1 million trees were planted that year in Nebraska’s first Arbor Day, which became a legal holiday in Nebraska in 1885. President Richard Nixon proclaimed Morton’s day a national Arbor Day in 1970.
Some of Morton’s greatest accomplishments for farming and forest growth came when he served as the U.S. secretary of agriculture from 1893 to 1897. Morton died on April 27, 1902, five days after his 70th birthday and two days past the Friday that would become his national tree holiday.
13 - George Norris
If you’re a rancher or a farmer grumbling about an electric bill, you should save that energy and instead give a nod to the stars and thank George William Norris for bringing rural Nebraska out of the Dark Ages.
We could fill up an entire magazine on the accomplishments of this gallant five-term U.S. senator from McCook, but nearly seven decades after his passing, his liberation of America’s literally powerless farmers is a legacy that shines on.
Norris was one of the most influential legislators of the 20th century, and his achievements in the heart of the Great Depression of the 1930s are a milestone in political history. Back home, he led the drive to gain a one-house state legislature, which in 1937 created the nation’s only Unicameral. And in Washington, D.C., his dogged efforts in Congress formed the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1934, which rescued a devastated Southeast agrarian society by providing a regional electrical utility, flood control and economic development.
Perhaps his finest hour came in 1935 when President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Rural Electrification Act, which brought the installation of electrical distribution systems to serve America’s neglected rural areas. It was a bill Norris fought for against powerful industry leaders like Henry Ford and was a godsend for many Nebraskans, freeing women hours of needless toil without electric power to use refrigerators and washing machines.
The free-thinking Republican even won his fifth term as an Independent, but going against the grain finally caught up to him when Norris was defeated in 1942 in his final election. He died two years later in the McCook home he lived in for 40 years. The road now is known as Norris Avenue, but for many grateful Americans, it should be called Electric Avenue.
14 - Warren Buffett
If he can make No. 2 on the most recent list of Forbes 400 Richest Americans, it seems fitting that the Oracle of Omaha should make our list, too. There’s no disputing the positive impact Warren Edward Buffett has had on millions of lives with his stock tips and charitable contributions, but some intangible effects are priceless for Nebraska.
When sophisticated global travelers notice that the 83-year-old, super-duper billionaire chooses not to live on some fantasy island and instead resides at the same gray-stucco, five-bedroom house in Omaha’s Dundee neighborhood that he paid $31,500 for in 1958, it is a siren’s call for travelers to investigate this good life. And on May 10, Omaha will once again be America’s Must-See City, as the longtime CEO of his Berkshire Hathaway investment firm hosts the legendary annual Shareholders Meeting at the CenturyLink Center.
Last September, Forbes listed the wealth of arguably the shrewdest investor since biblical times at $58.5 billion, but he first became a millionaire in 1962. That led him to start buying up shares in that previously unknown Berkshire textile company.
Buffett’s first tax return was filed at 14, when his father, conservative firebrand congressman Howard Buffett, moved the family from Omaha to Washington, D.C. Young Warren took a $35 tax deduction for using a bicycle and wristwatch on his newspaper route delivering the Washington Post.
He married Susan Thompson, and they had three children. Although they were separated for many years, they remained married until her death in 2004. Then Buffett married his longtime companion, Astrid Menks, in 2006 on his 76th birthday.
Buffett, who is not related to Jimmy, doesn’t appear to be wasting too much time looking for that lost shaker of salt. He bought the Omaha World-Herald in 2011, and after a multi billion-dollar deal last summer, he now owns half of the ketchup king, Heinz.
Here’s some free advice from the Oracle himself: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.”
15 - Heyward G. Leavitt
Of all our gallant groundbreakers, there is one character whose historic trail seems like an endless murky bog. But there are many historical clues that put Heyward G. Leavitt on solid ground as the man responsible for the explosive growth of the sugar beet industry in Scotts Bluff County.
That white gold rush gave Scotts Bluff a leading industry that in the decade of 1910-1920 spiked the county’s population growth to an astronomical 263 percent, which was the highest in the nation.
“He was like a Horace Greeley of the sugar industry in Nebraska,” said Jack Preston, a historian and archivist, and a vice president of the Legacy of the Plains Museum in Gering.
Preston has written the definitive historical account of Leavitt, and even though his research found a mysterious wheeler-dealer, Preston also saw Leavitt as a visionary of the growth potential of this cash crop in the North Platte River Valley.
The wheeling and dealing by Leavitt began in 1887 when this graduate of Harvard and Columbia Law School left New York City to run his grandfather’s gas plant in Grand Island. Leavitt became fascinated with experiments going on with sugar beets. When his high-roller Harvard classmate from California stopped in for a visit, Leavitt persuaded him to make Grand Island the home of the sugar-refining plant he was shipping over from France.
By 1891, Henry Oxnard and his brothers had sugar factories up and running in Grand Island and Norfolk. Soon Leavitt arranged for a new investor to build a sugar refinery in Dodge County near Ames at the town aptly named Leavitt.
Neither the town or sugar factory would last long, but Leavitt turned west to the city of Scottsbluff. In the early 1900s he took over a failed irrigation company and presided over the company that would build the first canal to the North Platte River to help sugar refineries thrive.
The ditch for the canal hit a snag and Leavitt was ousted as president in 1909 before its eventual historic completion. But that same year he helped to finally persuade the Colorado-based Great Western Sugar Co. to move his closed Leavitt factory to the city of Scottsbluff. The rebuilt factory was up in running in Scottsbluff in 1910, and the sweet history of this crop in the region was born.
Leavitt died in New York in 1929, and while he donated two-thirds of his estate to his wife, the rest of his money went to a mystery woman in Hawaii.
16 - Kay Orr
As the first woman in Nebraska ever elected to statewide office and the only female governor in the state’s history, Kay Orr gets our vote as a political groundbreaker.
Orr became the nation’s first Republican woman to be elected governor in a groundbreaking 1986 election by winning the Lincoln showdown against the city’s former mayor and Democratic candidate, Helen Boosalis. It was the nation’s first gubernatorial election where the two major candidates were women.
Even Bill Orr delighted in his groundbreaking role as the first gentleman, and the insurance executive’s First Gentleman’s Cookbook sold thousands of copies.
Kay Orr was born in Iowa on Jan. 2,1939, and attended one year at the University of Iowa before marrying her husband in 1957. They moved to Lincoln in 1963, and while raising her two children, Orr became a staunch GOP activist and in Nebraska State Historical Society 1981 was appointed to fill the state treasurer’s seat. She then was elected treasurer in 1982 in her first groundbreaking race.
After Orr’s trailblazing path to the Governor’s Residence, she had to hurdle a firestorm of issues. While she was hailed for Nebraska gaining the nation’s lowest unemployment rate, Orr came under fire for large tax breaks to businesses and for backing plans to build a low-level nuclear waste site in the state.
Despite her campaign losing valuable ad-buying time over a scheduling snafu and a major snowstorm hampering voter turnout in western Nebraska’s GOP turf, Orr lost her re-election bid to Ben Nelson in 1990 by barely 4,000 votes.
There have been other female political pioneers in Nebraska, including former Omaha resident Nellie Tayloe Ross, who in 1925 was elected in Wyoming as the first female governor in America, but Kay Orr will always be the first woman who led Nebraska.
17 - Fred Astaire
He never broke ground. He glided across it.
He dazzled us for decades with an effortless joy of movement in Hollywood’s most memorable musicals, especially when he was paired with the most spectacular second banana in history, Ginger Rogers.
But most important for Nebraskans, he was ours. This state is famous for its stockyards,roughhouse rail yards, dusty prairie pioneers and the good, bad and ugly of Huskerland, but Fred Astaire was the ultimate symbol of style, grace and elegance while floating about in his trademark top hat and tails. And he was an Omaha boy.
The first Fred was his father, the Austrian immigrant Frederic Austerlitz, known as Fritz. He landed in New York from Vienna in 1895 but quickly moved to Omaha to draw on his brewing experience to sell beer for the city’s brewing king, Storz. A year later, he married Johanna Geilus, who was 10 years younger and raised in Omaha, a daughter of Lutheran Alsatian immigrants.
Astaire was born as Frederick Austerlitzin Omaha at a house on 2326 S. 10th St.,which still exists as a private home.
His mother saw dancing potential inFred’s 18-month-older sister, Adele, and she pushed them into a vaudeville act that ended up in New York after their father lost his job. Their dance name was changed to Astaire, but the gifted Adele was outgrowing Fred in height and talent. His father got them signed onto the national Orpheum circuit, including performances in Omaha, where it was rumored young Fred was a part-time salesman for Storz in the early 1920s. He and his sister became stars on Broadway until Adele left to marry the son of a British duke in 1932.
Then he had his dance with destiny in an immortal career that enchanted everyone from Russian ballet legend Mikhail Baryshnikov to Michael Jackson.
He died in Los Angeles in 1987 at age 88, but he lives on in the minds of millions who dream of tripping the light fantastic just once like Fab Fred. To catch a glimpse of this genius, take a spin on YouTube and watch him turn the dance world upside down with his legendary “Ceiling Dance” from the 1951 classic Royal Wedding. He danced on walls, but those first magical steps were taken in Nebraska.
(This story originally appeared in the January/February 2014 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)