O'Neill's Tielke Sandwiches

O'Neill, Nebraska's sandwich pioneer serves up good food and good deeds.



Beth Tielke, a mother of seven, started her now-statewide sandwich business with her late husband, Vernon. Three decades after Tielke wrapped up her first sandwiches in O’Neill, 8,000 are made each day at the company’s plant in Norfolk. Now 82, the sandwich matriarch turned the business over to her sons years ago, but this dedicated community volunteer still has a lot on her plate.

(This story originally appeared in the March/April 2013 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)


SHE IS KNOWN as the queen of Nebraska sandwiches, but for the countless people who have been touched by her kindness, O’Neill’s Beth Tielke will forever be the queen of hearts. It’s been three decades since she packed her first boxes of cold-cut creations in that old family Ford. There were two boxes in the back seat, a third in the trunk, and next to her, the spare tire was riding shotgun. Then she drove about Holt County, pitching her lunches to mini marts and gas stations like she was the Joni Appleseed of sandwich makers.

“We started on the third of January, so I didn’t even need refrigeration,” said Tielke, whose husband, Vernon, later built her coolers.

Within seven years, 200,000 of her sandwiches were being delivered to Nebraska stores each year. Now, about 2 million are sold annually in a five-state region, but this brainstorming entrepreneur decided years ago to clear her sandwich plate. The 82-year-old Tielke would rather just serve up good deeds, including special deliveries to American troops.

For the past seven years, the woman who once packed a ton of sandwiches now packs a ton of love in caring boxes for America’s military. She founded the organization Nebraska Troop Support to honor 176 members of a National Guard unit in O’Neill sent to Iraq. Tielke’s first gift box landed with a sniper specialist from Atkinson. Since then, 8,000 boxes have been delivered, filled with goodies, essential supplies and kind wishes.

Many days, Tielke’s mission begins at 8:30 a.m. and won’t end until 3:30 the following morning, when she’s packed the last box at her O’Neill home. If the package is headed to someone from Nebraska, she and her packing platoon of local volunteers include a Nebraska Life Magazine neatly tucked inside these special deliveries.

She’d also like to see every military veteran put on a pair of comfortable slippers. With help of $10 donations mailed by loyal supporters, Tielke wants to provide a pair of slippers to anyone who has ever served. Ever.

“And how do we do it?” she said. “One pair of slippers at a time.”

Any veteran who contacts the Share Our Dream link at her Nebraskatroopsupport.com will get a pair of slippers thanks to her army of volunteers paying for the $10 mailing costs. She’s already got piles of slippers in her home, including 1,800 made by Loretta Wagner from Winnetoon and another 800 knitted by Atkinson’s Shirley Peterson.

Stories about her adventures have been blossoming for decades. Her daughter, Patti Swanson, who for three decades has been running the Tia Zia Mexican restaurant a few feet from her mother’s original dairy supply store, remembers a young Mexican man who wandered into town. Her mother tried to find housing for the man for the night, but then law enforcement discovered he had entered the country illegally. Before the man headed off for his deportation, Tielke piled sandwiches in his lap and even talked a local police officer into donating some of his own clothing for the guy.

Tielke is well known for befriending a telemarketer calling her from India. She didn’t buy what he was selling, but she sold the young man on a dream of coming to Nebraska. After several years of her encouragement and friendship, he began his journey and now is studying business and nursing at Scottsbluff Community College.

Patti recalls the day her mom found a motorcyclist on the side of the road, stranded without a motel room for the night. Beth’s husband, Vernon, was watching TV when she suddenly walked in with the strange biker. Beth showed him his room and headed off on a sandwich delivery, leaving a bewildered Vernon with a new guest.

When it comes to sandwiches, Tielke’s legend piles up a triple-decker. Some family members claim the first sandwiches were made when the manager of the nearby doughnut shop saw Tielke’s store lights were still on at 3:30 a.m., while she did some bookkeeping. The doughnut guy asked if she could make some hoagies for his customers. Her response: “What’s a hoagie?”

Tielke made the hoagies, but she says the first official sandwiches fed a hungry farmer named Dave Troester. In a fitting recipe for the Irish capital of Nebraska, it was corned beef, Troester recalled decades later. Was the sandwich any good, Dave?

“Of course it was good,” said the still-appreciative O’Neill farmer.

In 2007, Tielke was honored in Washington as Nebraska’s 2007 Outstanding Older Worker, and this past November, Congress again honored her public service in a proclamation read by Nebraska Rep. Adrian Smith. Tielke said her kind heart comes from the love shown to her when she was raised in Springview as the only child of Charlie and Doris Sloan. It’s also sweetly symbolic that this bighearted lady attends Mass at St. Patrick’s Church in O’Neill, the first parish of a priest famous for a big heart, Boys Town founder Father Edward Flanagan.

“It’s just my journey through life,” she said. “I’ve always felt like I was riding in a convertible with Jesus, and I’m sitting in a back seat and he’s driving along the road and he says, ‘Sometimes this road’s going to be a little rough and sometimes it’s going to be smooth, but when we get to the end we’ll always be looking over a beautiful bluff of a gorgeous sunset.’ Each day is a new adventure.”

And if they get hungry on the ride, Beth knows where to stop for some sandwiches.

 


(This story originally appeared in the March/April 2013 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)

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