The Life's Work of Maxine Moul

A chance meeting with Robert F. Kennedy steered Maxine Moul toward a career in politics.



Alan J. Bartels

(This story first appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)


ON LONG DRIVES from South Dakota back to her Lincoln home, Maxine Moul works in her most important capacity yet. For a woman who has lived a life of service to Nebraska – from small-town newspaper publisher to lieutenant governor and rural economic development expert – she’s done a lot. Still, she describes her role as grandmother to two little girls as the job of a lifetime. On those rides home, Maxine keeps journals for each girl, meticulously documenting their experiences.

Moul wants the girls to read the journals one day and discover the rich appreciation she has for them and family life. Most of all, she wants them to know they can be anything they want to be, a philosophy that Moul herself has exemplified.

She’s a native of Burt County, and grew up on a 160-acre farm and attended a one-room schoolhouse, where she says she received an excellent education and made lifelong friends. The causes she’s championed, namely rural economic development, have grown from her early life in Oakland and the small school that formed her social conscience. It was there in Burt County where Moul watched her parents work together.

“My mother was definitely a farmer as well as my father,” Moul said. “She worked hard.” Her mother’s integral role in running the farm held deep meaning for Moul while growing up. She credits the same dogged persistence as the fire behind her life of public service. That and a chance encounter forecasted how she’d spend the next five decades of her life.

In the mid-1960s, Moul’s 4-H Development Organization group visited Washington, D.C. During a free afternoon, the teenager walked into one of the few open doors in the Senate office building.

The sign on the door read “Senator Robert F. Kennedy.” A staff person asked Moul if she would like to meet the senator. “Meet the senator?” she mused. A quick “Yes!” presented her to Bobby Kennedy, senator at 40, champion of the cause to usher the next generation into public service. She was hooked – on Kennedy first, and later on public service.

“After that, I got involved in politics and in his (Kennedy’s) campaigns right away,” Moul said of her initial foray into political life. After studying journalism at the University of Nebraska, she began working as a reporter in Sioux City, Iowa. Shortly thereafter, she married Francis Moul, a political science instructor. When Maxine was 24, they bought The Syracuse Journal-Democrat.

They had one full-time and two part-time employees and some new worries. “We had to expand to support the four families,” Moul said.

They started newspapers in Louisville and Peru, and bought existing papers in Sterling and Talmage.

The business became Maverick Media and ultimately created dozens of jobs. While the Mouls built their newspaper and family in Syracuse, Maxine still felt pulled toward public service. She says her entry into politics was a natural outgrowth of her journalistic background.

“It used to be that you’d be a teacher or a nurse until you get married,” Moul said. “It was not the way it is now when I was growing up. I needed to build on the women’s accomplishments that came before me, and I had very strong journalism teachers who pushed me.”

The Mouls sold Maverick Media in 1988. “One of the stipulations of the sale was that we would get a free subscription to the newspaper for the rest of our lives,” said Moul, laughing.

She ran for lieutenant governor with the goal of bolstering economic development opportunities for rural Nebraska. She believed politics was the key to accomplishing the greatest good, for the most people. Moul won, and served from 1991 to 1993.

Sen. Ben Nelson, who was then governor, took right to Moul. “I was lucky enough to have her on board,” he said.

“What is uniquely Nebraska about Maxine is her rural small-community experience that helped her understand economic development, job creation, creating new businesses and affordable housing,” Nelson said. “She understands rural Nebraska in the way very few people do.”

Nelson isn’t the only Nebraska politician to sing Moul’s praises. “I believe Maxine Moul is not only a mentor for young women with political aspirations but indeed an inspiration for all Nebraska women,” said Nebraska state Sen. Danielle Conrad.

Moul has a rare ability to bridge rural and urban interests, Conrad said. She places Moul among the great Nebraska women of public service. “My generation can learn from their shared experience and collective wisdom,” Conrad said.

Moul resigned in 1993 to become the director of the Nebraska Department of Economic Development, a position she held until 1999. From 2001 to 2006, she served as president of the Nebraska Community Foundation, a statewide nonprofit foundation that includes 200 affiliated community and program funds. Even though the post was apolitical, her passion remained the same – finding innovative ways to spur economic development in rural Nebraska.

In 2006, Moul decided to campaign for Nebraska’s first congressional district, then occupied by Jeff Fortenberry. Though she didn’t win the election, she said she came out of the grueling experience with no regrets.

She worries that the caustic nature of politics today, even at the local level, will discourage the next generation from pursuing political office. “Politics is so much more abrasive than it used to be,” she said. “I’ve seen how even a candidate’s hometown paper can get nasty. Campaigns have gotten dirty. I find that troubling. I hope our young people will sort through it all.”

In 2009, the Obama administration appointed her as Rural Economic Development director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She directs stimulus funding allocation, determining how to best put those federal dollars to work creating Nebraska jobs. Some recent examples are new hospitals in McCook and Syracuse, bringing better Internet access to Scottsbluff, expanding a winery in Pawnee City, and helping a greenhouse to grow off-season tomatoes in O’Neill.

“At first, people may have some misgivings about the stimulus,” Moul said. “But when we talk about the number of jobs saved and created, we get applause.”

Maybe it’s her training as a journalist that gives her an edge working between everyday Nebraskans and Washington politicians. Or maybe it’s her early life on the farm. Perhaps, it’s the work she did in office.

It’s all of it, really. Moul’s life tells its own story. And her legacy, according to Nelson, she’s still working on it. “She is still building her legacy,” he said.  “It will be very difficult for anyone to match what Maxine has done for Nebraska.”

Moul sees things a bit more simply.

“I see myself as a journalist who created jobs,” Moul said. “And I’ll retire from this job to be a full-time grandma.”


(This story first appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)

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