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Debutante, Nurse, and Society Matron Anna Millard Brought Healthcare Reform to Omaha

By Rita Shelley

For her coming out party in 1890, Miss Anna Millard wore a Paris gown of pale pink mousseline de soie, trimmed with a garland of tiny pink hyacinth buds. The daughter of former mayor and First National Bank President Ezra Millard also wore hyacinths in her hair.[1] At subsequent parties throughout the season, she wore white lace with apple blossoms adorning the bodice, white silk and tulle with sweet peas on the bodice, a black gown with red poppies on the shoulders, a red bonnet trimmed with American beauty roses, and white crepe with white flowers in her hair.

But in 1894, Omaha begrudgingly relinquished its favorite daughter to Johns Hopkins nursing school in Baltimore. “She will be missed,” it was reported, especially as an “indefatigable worker among the wounded and heavy laden of Omaha.” [2] Becoming a nurse changed Anna’s life; it also changed Omaha when she returned from the east coast with a vision for a visiting nurses’ association to train public health nurses, to provide care to patients who could not pay, to reduce infant and maternal mortality, and to teach hygiene practices in times when cases of scarlet fever, diphtheria, typhoid, measles, and whooping cough could quickly alight into epidemics.

Thus, in the winter of 1896, several women gathered at 4 p.m. on a Thursday at the Omaha Woman’s Club in the Gold Coast neighborhood to hear what their friend Anna Millard had to say. Attendees Winifred Gallagher, Annie Baum, Agnes McShane, Minnie Lord, and Laura Whitney had grown up with Anna. They had hosted and attended birthday and coming-out parties together and worn gowns magnificent enough to make the paper. By this time, all attendees except “Miss Millard” had married scions of Omaha’s leading industries – factories, banking, steel and iron, construction, medicine, real estate, and agriculture.

As soon as the women of the club announced their decision, a Daily Bee reporter opined that Anna’s work, and the support of her wealthy friends, “opened the way for a noble and much-needed work of charity and provides a wide field of usefulness for young women who desire active employment in the relief of the sick and distressed.[3]

But it was not the first time since nursing school that Anna had advocated for public health, especially that of women and girls. Upon first returning to Omaha, she had helped organize the city’s Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA, now the Women’s Center for Advancement). At the YWCA’s first formal meeting, she was elected both third vice president and recording secretary. Anna also earned the county board of health’s gratitude for “volunteering her services, kindness and watchfulness nursing to an impoverished woman.”[4]

Perhaps it was during her professional training that Anna learned about women like Lillian Wald in New York and Jane Addams in Chicago, women who drew on their families’ wealth and connections for the greater good in public health and social welfare. Whether or not she had direct knowledge isn’t known, but the agency she started as a solo nurse in 1896 with the commitment of $1 per year dues from 30 Omaha women was modeled after Wald’s and Addams’ work. Wald is credited with coining the term “public health nurse” and starting the nation’s first visiting nurses’ association.

For many years, membership dues were the sole ongoing support for Anna’s VNA. But local philanthropists George and Sarah Joslyn looked out for their own when, in 1897, they made their five acres at 39th and Davenport available for a Lawn Fete fundraiser for the VNA. Admission was 25 cents for adults, a dime for children. Tents, awnings, and drapery were donated by enthusiastic merchants. Bunting was sufficient for an event encompassing five acres, as were Electric Light Company incandescents around the lake for swimming and at entrances. Dancing was accompanied by the 22nd Infantry Fort Crook band.


In June of 1898, Anna married Herbert Rogers, a Princeton-educated attorney who was recent heir to and president of Milton Rogers and Sons Hardware Company of Omaha. The wedding was at the Millard family home, followed by a reception for 500. Entrepreneurial Anna was now “Mrs. Herbert Rogers.” Within four years she and Herbert were parents to Milton, Millard, and Hellen, in a household that also included two sisters-in-law, two nieces, and a servant.

As the VNA’s honorary president, Anna continued fundraising and guiding the ongoing development of the small but mighty agency. In 1918, she helped recruit reserve nurses to care for patients on the home front while professional nurses were deployed in Europe. (VNA nurses also risked their own health to care for soldiers who returned home with the Spanish flu.)  

During Anna’s lifetime and in the decades until she died at age 67, she also worked with women who have almost become invisible with time. It is difficult to find and tell some of their stories when being known as “Mrs. Husband’sName” carried more power and was a source of pride. In one case, it would take a professional researcher to locate a woman known, even in her obituary, as “Mrs. Felix McShane.”

Anna would want these women’s stories told:

Louise McPherson, one of Anna’s early advocates and a long-time VNA member, was the daughter of a livestock commissioner, rancher, and stockman. She directed a play to raise money for the VNA. She and Anna grew up and attended the Cathedral School of Saint Mary in New York together. In 1911, Louise moved to her grandfather’s home in Maryland, where she was a dairy farmer who was active in the Democratic Party.[1]

Dr. Mattie Arthur, an informal medical director of the VNA in its early days, deserves a book of her own. Born in Ohio in 1859, she taught in Burt County rural schools for five years beginning when she was still a teenager herself, studying for medical school at night. According to her obituary, she graduated from Iowa’s medical school in 1886, the only woman in her class, and did post-grad work in New York, London, and Edinburgh. She returned to Burt County to practice medicine before setting up her practice in Omaha’s Paxton block. She taught anatomy at Creighton Medical School and obstetrics at Omaha Medical School.[2] At age 75, she was still recovering from a rattlesnake bite at her ranch in western Nebraska when she tripped on a rug and broke her hip.[3] She regained her health and still saw patients the day she died in 1940 at age 81.[4]


Bessie B. Randell was a VNA nurse for two years before she was appointed its director in 1911. She was also an advocate for suffrage. She resigned from the VNA in 1917, claiming that the work was straining her health. She married Dr. F.E. Coulter the following year.[1]

Florence McCabe succeeded Bessie Randell as VNA director in 1918. Her arrival was lauded owing to her education at St. Luke’s Hospital in Chicago and the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy, her executive experience at the Red Cross, and her work at Chicago’s tuberculosis sanitarium.[2] In 1918, she became ill during the flu epidemic, but recovered. [3]


VNA nurse Greta Paulsen was Omaha’s first orthopedics specialist who went on to be superintendent of the Hattie B. Munroe Home for Crippled Children.[1]

Anna Millard Rogers died at her home in Omaha in 1931 at age 67. During her lifetime she and the battalion of nurses she trained and worked alongside were widely recognized for saving lives and bringing comfort to the afflicted. Anna envisioned a future in which medical professionals bridged the gap between care that could be provided and the people who needed it. Today, 125 years later, the VNA responds to epidemic and pandemic crises while also sustaining infusion services, home health care, parenting support, flu and immunization clinics, clinics at homeless shelters, hospice, and palliative care. The agency’s annual budget surpasses $5 million.[2] The 19th and 20th century women who applied their medical expertise, as well as those who martialed Omaha’s philanthropic resources, would be proud.


According to an article in the Omaha World-Herald, these 32 women “[stand] ready in all kinds of weather to lend aid to the sick poor, or to anyone wishing hourly paid service.” Source: OWH, 24 May 1925, p. 7.

Interested in learning more stories about essential workers who have made a difference throughout Omaha’s history? Visit us at the General Crook House Museum – our holiday decorations and exhibit “Highlighting Our Heroes” will be on display through Jan. 13. Each room of the house celebrates dedicated Omahans who have worked to improve our community in industries like education, food service, transportation, social justice, delivery services, and more!


[1] “Little Cripples Thank Rotary For Its Help.” Omaha World-Herald. May 3, 1928, p. 3.

[2] Visiting Nurse Association. Our Services, 2022. https://www.vnatoday.org/services/overview/. Accessed 15 Nov. 2022.

[3] “Bessie B. Randell.” Omaha World-Herald. 28 May 1918, p 66.

[4] “Miss Florence McCabe Assumes Duties as Visiting Nurse Chief.” Omaha Evening Bee. 21 Jan 1918, p. 1.

[5] “All but Three Visiting Nurses are Ill with ‘Flu.’” Omaha Evening Bee. 24 Oct 1918, p. 2.

[6] “Louise McPherson. ”The Public Mirror. 26 July 1923, p. 1.

[7] “Dr. Mattie Arthur Dies.” Oakland Independent and Republican. 26 April 1940, p. 1.

[8] “Bitten by Rattler and Hip Broken; Cheerful.” Omaha Evening Bee News. 6 December 1934, p. 1.

[9] “Dr. Mattie Arthur Dies.” Oakland Independent and Republican. 26 April 1940, p. 1.

[10] “A Week in Omaha Society.” Omaha World-Herald. 26 January 1890, p. 6.

[11] “Farewell to Miss Anna Millard.” Omaha Daily Bee. 11 March 1894, p. 4.

[12] Omaha Daily Bee. 21 November 1896, p.4.

[13] “Board of Health.” Omaha Daily Bee. 6 April 1893, p. 2.

Horrific History

By Tara Spencer

Every community has its own tales of spiritual happenings, hauntings, and horror. In my hometown, there was an abandoned house known simply as Unity where people claimed to have seen buckets of blood in the barn and experienced forces pushing them and slamming doors in the house.

Here in Omaha, I’ve heard stories about Mystery Manor, The Hatchet House, and of course, The Black Angel, which my own mother told stories of. Then there’s the infamous Hummel Park, which is purportedly haunted, though it doesn’t need the added drama if one looks at the already tragic stories of provable horrors that happened there.

As an avid watcher of Criminal Minds and early reader of books about serial killers, it’s often the real-life tragedies that haunt me the most. I’ve never understood wanting to be scared by horror movies when there’s already enough awfulness in the world.

My partner, who grew up in Bellevue, remembers stories about John Joubert’s time of terror during 1983, when parents were scared to let their children, especially their young boys, out of the house. Recently, I learned of another murderer who terrorized our community, and many others across the country, from the late 1920s until his capture in 1947.


Jake Bird was born somewhere in Louisiana, a place he left around the age of 19. He worked off and on for the railroad as a laborer. This allowed him to live a rather transient existence, which no doubt helped him evade police while pursuing his other interests—robbery, stalking, and murder.

In some ways, Bird fit the stereotype of a serial killer. U.S.-born, transient, male, clever, and often with an element of sado-sexual overtones to his crimes, Bird was said to stalk his victims, usually women, and rob them in their homes.[1]

Bird’s full history is unknown. He first showed up on Omaha’s radar in the summer of 1928 when he served as witness in a trial to determine if one of his traveling companions at the time—a young man from Cleveland, Ohio, who had been killed by a railroad employee—had in fact been murdered.[2] The case never made it to trial, but Bird decided to stick around afterward. This would prove an unfortunate decision for the community, specifically for Joseph W. Blackman and Gertrude Resso, her sister Creda Brown, and their friends and families.

Blackman, 76, was Bird’s first victim, beaten to death with a sharp instrument in his home in North Omaha on the morning of November 18, 1928. The house had been ransacked and a small fire set in an attempt to burn evidence. His son, Cecil, found his body and was considered a suspect for a time.[3] Then the bodies of Resso, 21 and Brown, 18 were found by Resso’s husband Waldo the following day and authorities realized there was a serial killer in their midst. This time, Bird left a witness—the Ressos’ 3-year-old son, Bobby. Sadly, the poor boy’s statement was of little help.[4]


Earlier that year, another tragedy struck the town when Harvey Boyd, 8, went missing in Carter Lake, Iowa. His body was discovered in a patch of sunflowers just north of Avenue H, nearly five weeks after his disappearance. Clarence Lukehart, who had pled guilty to and been convicted of assaulting an 8-year-old girl two days after Boyd’s disappearance, was immediately a suspect. He was serving time at Anamosa State Penitentiary in northeast Iowa when he was questioned in Boyd’s murder. After hours of interrogation, Lukehart confessed.


Clarence Lukehart was the first to confess to the Harvey Boyd murder, “after hours of questioning.”[5] Image Source: Omaha World Herald.

He said he struck the boy in the head with a hammer to stop his crying after sexually assaulting him in the Lukehart basement, hitting him until the crying stopped.[6] The Omaha World-Herald later printed part of his handwritten confession on the front page. Lukehart crossed paths with Bird after being transferred to Iowa’s Fort Madison State Penitentiary, where Bird had been sent for a crime he’d committed in Carter Lake.

Omaha authorities could not prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that the ax murders that took place there were the work of Bird. However, he left a more credible witness during his next Carter Lake attack.


Originally, Carter Lake was a recreational and resort community with swimming holes, social clubs, and an amusement park. For a time, it also had a reputation as a bit of a legal no-man’s-land between Iowa and Nebraska. At the time of the attacks, the community was just coming into its own as an incorporated city.[7] (The lake was renamed Carter Lake in 1908.) Image source: Douglas County Historical Society.


“Axman Remains At Large” was the headline on November 21, when yet another account of an ax attack was reported in the Carter Lake Club area. Husband and wife Harold and Mary Stribling, both 25, were the next victims. In the early morning hours of November 20, Harold was attacked and severely injured with an ax while he was in bed. When the intruder turned on Mary, she blunted the blow by turning away just as it was delivered. She then pleaded with her assailant to spare further attack on her husband and their baby, Mollie. She agreed to go with him peacefully if he would leave her family alone.

Two hours later, she was found by police officers, wandering near 5th and Locust streets in a daze. The authorities took her home where Harold was found in grave condition. He was transported to Lord Lister Hospital in Omaha, where he lingered near death for several days before he began to recover.

Mary described the man who attacked her family to the police. Acting on a tip, the police department of Omaha detained a man and arranged for Mary to see him face to face in her hospital room, also at Lord Lister. It was Jake Bird.

Reportedly, Mary said, “As sure as there is a God in Heaven, you are the man, Jake,” and Bird’s response to her accusation was simply “I don’t know what you are talking about, lady.” However, this statement is unlikely. In one World-Herald story, it was reported that she simply said, “That’s the man. Take him away,” before becoming “hysterical.”[8]

Regardless, with Mary as a witness able to identify Bird, he was turned over to Iowa to be prosecuted for the attack, where he was given a 30-year sentence at Fort Madison. In 1941, only twelve years later, Bird was granted parole.

Clarence Lukehart remained in jail, serving out his life sentence. Bird did try to get it reduced for him by confessing to Boyd’s murder when he was later arrested in Tacoma, Washington. Once again, he had killed two women with an ax— Bertha Kludt, 52, and her daughter Beverly June, 17, This time he was caught by police when neighbors heard their screams. While in custody, he claimed to have murdered a total of 44 people.[9]


Jake Bird, in handcuffs, being escorted into Judge Rosellini’s courtroom in Washington State, 1948. Image source: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/22426986/jake-bird.

On July 15, 1949, at 12:20 a.m., Bird was hanged at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla for the murders of the Kludt women. The “Tacoma Ax-Killer,” as he was dubbed by papers, was likely one of the most prolific serial killers to have existed.[10] Yet his name is relatively unknown to most, despite his having confessed to murdering more than some of the most notorious, Netflix-famous slayers of the past century.  


[1] “Lured to Weeds, Hit With Stone To Stop Crying.” Omaha World-Herald. 3 August 1928, p. 1.

[2] Newton, M. “Hunting Humans: An Encyclopedia of Modern Serial Killers.” 1990. Accessed: https://www.ojp.gov/ncjrs/virtual-library/abstracts/hunting-humans-encyclopedia-modern-serial-killers.

[3] Reports Conflict on Identification by Mrs. Stribling. Omaha World-Herald. 23 November 1928, p. 1.

[4] “‘Chopper’ Slays Omaha Sisters; Strikes as Both Sleep.” Omaha World-Herald. 19 November 1928, p. 8.

[5] “Suspect Denies Any Knowledge of Ax Attacks.” Omaha World-Herald. 28 November 1928, p. 1.

[6] Ibid.

[7] https://www.cityofcarterlake.com/history

[8] “Bloody Ax Found Concealed Is New Blackman Clue.” Omaha World-Herald. 19 November 1928, p. 1.

[9] “Probe Ordered of Bird’s Story.” Omaha World-Herald. 1 January 1948, p. 8.

[10] McClary, Daryl. “Jake Bird, convicted of murdering two Tacoma women, is hanged on July 15, 1949.” HistoryLink. 31 October 2009. Accessed: https://www.historylink.org/File/7973.

For the 1939 Golden Spike Days Extravaganza, Show Business Was in High Gear. So Were the Sewing Machines.

By Rita Shelley

This story started as one about several dresses in the DCHS textiles collection.

When Collections Coordinator Natalie Kammerer proposed the idea of delving into the history of several of dresses in the Society’s archives, she explained that they had been worn during Omaha’s Golden Spike Days in 1939. The Spike Days had coincided with the much-anticipated release of Cecil B. DeMille’s movie about the original 1869 driving of the golden spike at Promontory Point. Aptly named Union Pacific, the movie premiered in Omaha’s Orpheum and Paramount theaters. Thus, the entire city got behind an ecstatic welcome of the movie’s actors and the premiere. The celebration, I was to learn, rivaled the epic proportions for which DeMille was known. Evocative of railroad worker and townspeople “extras” employed by DeMille, thousands of “pioneer” Omaha women — and their dresses — played important roles in the lollapalooza of the movie’s premiere.


In an 1869 ceremony at Promontory Summit in Utah Territory, a crowd of thousands celebrated the joining of the rails of the First Transcontinental Railroad across the American West, connecting the Union Pacific Railroad to the Central Pacific Railroad. The 1869 ceremony was celebrated with the 1939 release of the movie Union Pacific and Golden Spike Days. Image source: Douglas County Historical Society collection.

“How quaint,” I thought while (cotton glove) handling the calico dresses with their sunflower buttons, fussy fichu collars, and yards of rick-rack trim, not to mention matching bonnets. I wondered whether seaming, sleeve setting, collar attaching, waist gathering, and hem finishing had changed in the 80 years since the dresses were made or in the five decades since I’d aced 8th grade Home Ec.  Would the products of a 1930s iron horse Sears machine compare to what I can produce on my Swiss engineered sewing computer that cost more than (gulp) my first car?

With both awe and disappointment, I discovered that garment sewing methods have not changed. If you studied the inside of a dress I sewed recently (sans ruffles and rick-rack), you wouldn’t see a difference in technique. As to how the quality from today’s computerized machines compares to that of 1939, a modern machine feeds fabric more smoothly and stitches more evenly. But the Golden Spike dresses are as solidly seamed as if they were made yesterday.

For DeMille, future director of The Greatest Show on Earth, whose genius was bringing the spectacular to the screen, Union Pacific was another resounding success in a career of film after blockbusting film. But more importantly for Omaha, 1939 answered UP President William Jeffers’ call to action, to “convince the people that they are capable of making Omaha a greater, more progressive community.” If an east coast Atlantic magazine journalist could allege that Omaha’s days of glory had long since departed[1] he’d better prepare to answer to thousands of ladies in pioneer costumes first. Men in ¾-length double-breasted frock coats, brocade vests, gingham shirts, ascot ties, souvenir canes, false beards, and golden spike cuff links were a force to reckon with as well.

The movie starred Barbara Stanwyck as a good-hearted woman with an Irish brogue who stands by her man, Robert Preston, as the charming but train-robbing man who breaks her heart, and Joel McCrea as the law-enforcing, buffalo-taming good guy who doesn’t get the girl. An army of swarthy but good-natured-in-spite-of-endless-backbreaking-toil workers build the UP ribbon ever westward, one spike at a time, all the way to Utah. The movie scene depicting the ceremony featured a replica of the 17.6-karat gold original spike, property of Stanford University.

Filming locations ranged throughout Utah and California, including Paramount Studios in Los Angeles. The scene in which Joel McCrae shushes a bull buffalo from the safety of a train car was filmed in Utah and superimposed by a skillful editor against a background of a grazing herd that had been filmed in Oklahoma.[2] DeMille’s sprawling late-Depression-era canvas declares independence and the power of patriotism over adversity. It recalls a time of clarity and hopefulness, after the Civil War had nearly torn the country asunder and President Lincoln (who in 1862 had signed the transcontinental railroad into existence) had died. Yes, [White] America was united. Nothing but blue skies up ahead. The hard work was done.

For their own part, Omaha’s captains of industry readied for the massive local production with committee assignments. Committee chairs included Walter Byrne, general manager of MUD; George Brandeis, president of Brandeis Department Store; James Davidson, president of Nebraska Power Company; Frank Fogarty, a Chamber of Commerce Commissioner who later would be general manager of WOW; J.M. Harding, assistant publisher of the Omaha World-Herald; Ford Hovey, executive director of Occidental Building and Loan; J.J. Isaacson, activities director for Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben; Morris E. Jacobs, president of Bozell Jacobs advertising firm; Arthur A. Lowman, president of Northwestern Bell Telephone; J.F. McDermott and E.F. Pettis, vice presidents of First National Bank; E.L. Moser, a contractor; Bert Murphy, president of Andrew Murphy & Son Chrysler dealership; Cecil Slocum, a trader for Burns Potter investment bankers, and A.A. Westergard, owner of an insurance agency. Mrs. Dorothy Wickham, vice president of National Construction headed the “women” committee.[3]

As I studied the women’s costumes, I tried to imagine hordes of working-class women finding precious time and money to devote hours to making dresses, all cut from the same cloth and the same pattern. I also found it difficult to picture upper class women suddenly taking up sewing.  Then I read that Francis Matthews, Chamber of Commerce president, and W.O. Swanson, Nebraska Clothing Company president, had overseen the sourcing of women’s costumes. Thousands of $1.40 dresses were ordered in 13 color combinations and with white organdy bonnets trimmed to match. Orders for thousands of dresses were placed at Kilpatrick’s, Brandeis, Nebraska Clothing, and Beaton’s.[4]  Somewhere in America, a small army of garment workers were bent over factory machines. Their cumulative 100,000 hand-stitched buttonholes required surgical precision; there is no record of who these invisible workers were. 

Matthews and Swanson had no idea what furor would transpire. In late March, they announced that no more orders would be accepted. It was getting too close to the deadline for getting them done in time; 15,000 had already been ordered. I can only imagine Swanson’s near despair when only two weeks before the big event, he hung up after a “long distance phone conversation with the manufacturer of the Union Pacific world premiere 1869 dresses.”[5] The shipment was late, but 90 percent of the full shipment was guaranteed to arrive within days, Swanson assured World-Herald readers. The Central Dress Depot would probably open Monday morning. Definite announcement would be in the Sunday paper and over the three Omaha radio stations.[6] On April 17, a scant 10 days before the premiere, the workers at the dress depot (the location is not given) opened for business. By 9:30 a.m. on a cold, rainy morning, 350 women were already waiting in line. Until all orders were filled, the depot would be open every day until 6 p.m. Once again, reassurance came from Mr. Swanson at the Nebraska Clothing Company: For every ticket, there would be a dress.[7]


Annie Doyle was a merchandise manager and buyer for six Kilpatrick’s department store departments when she modeled her costume in downtown Omaha. Image source: Douglas County Historical Society collection.

Twelve Kilpatrick’s department store saleswomen modeled the costumes they wore for Golden Spike Days that could be ordered from their store. Pictured: Anne Solka, Lavaughn Smith, Mary Sullivan, Ruth Turner, Alberta Walker Anders, Irene Burger McDonald, Ruth Pierce, Mildred Letovsky, Cloris Short, Bess Maly Huxford, and Alice Cosson. Image source: Douglas County Historical Society collection.

Women who couldn’t or chose not to shell out $1.40 could instead DIY with four yards of “percale, 36 inches wide fast color in historical prints 19c per yard”[8] and six yards of rick rack. In the long run, homemade dresses weren’t the best value though if their owners wanted to enter to win round-trip Pullman tickets to California. The winner of the Queen of Gingham championship at the Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum was to be recognized on the fourth day of festivities. Chairman George Brandeis would award the winner, but no official costume, no prize. Men could also compete for the best beard, the blackest beard, the reddest beard, as well as the most ridiculous and the most becoming.[9]


Two ladies in downtown Omaha modeled their brocade costumes during the Golden Spike Days celebration. Unlike “pioneer” costumes worn by thousands of women, these costumes likely were the work of a professional tailor. Image source: Douglas County Historical Society collection.

Top hats, frock coats, vests, and canes were in demand during 1939’s Golden Spike Days. Image source: Douglas County Historical Society collection.

In the days leading up to the premiere, a city auditorium exhibition displayed the original spike in an “honored niche.”[10] The spike was enclosed in glass, guarded by railway agents and police. It had been in a Wells Fargo vault in San Francisco since 1869. As part of the exhibition, an “Indian Village” was set up on the courthouse lawn.[11]


Stereotypical portrayals of Native Americans featured in De DeMille’s movie were also present in 1939 Omaha. These thirty-two members of the Sioux tribe performed dances and demonstrations for festival-goers; four of the men are pictured above. Image source: Golden Spike Days Souvenir Program, Douglas County Historical Society collection.

Then came the parade that must have astonished even DeMille. Cue the floats recalling settlement of the Great Plains! The Lewis and Clark expedition, Omaha being built, Abraham Lincoln at Council Bluffs, the Colorado Gold Rush, and rails following trails! Omaha’s first railroad depot, the Golden Spike uniting  America, and the prairie being broken! The mounted police and the 22 bands! The horse drawn Brougham carriages carrying UP president William E. Jeffers and Board Chairman W.A. Harriman! The university students dressed as Native Americans, the Mormons arriving at Winter Quarters, the Prairie Schooner with families and riflemen! The bearded iron workers, the pony express riders, prospectors marching with burros and packs, Civil War soldiers afoot and 4-H boys dressed as farmers![12]

At last came the movie premiere. Omaha’s fete “eclipsed” Hollywood, a news headline declared:

For the multitudes assembled on Douglas Street, the show began shortly before 8 o’clock, when private cars and taxis began arriving with visitors, guests and Omaha elite. It was a fashion parade in which all imaginable types of costumes and all imaginable combinations of costume were in evidence.

Waves of applause greeted the most spectacular shots of the film, such as the wrecking of a train by the Indians, the destruction of an engine in a snow slide, and the dramatic scene in which the gallant little engine, “General McPherson,” carried the troop of rescue soldiers across the blazing Dale Creek bridge.

Audience reaction was marked to such emotional high spots as when a young Irishman about to send to the old country for his wife was shot to death by a gambler; when old Monaghan, engineer and father of the heroine, was killed in the snow slide, and again in the faithful reproduction of the ceremony at the driving of the Golden Spike.

The only hitch in the evening occurred when the sound system blew a tube and the dialogue was barely audible for a couple of minutes.[13]

When the financial impact of the celebration was tallied, it was reported that, in addition to 200,000 parade-goers, 40,000 people saw the premiere and 15,000 more saw its second showing. 40,000 women and 25,000 men wore costumes.[14]




Wearing the dresses, a newspaper columnist observed, served several causes, not the least of which was honoring the railroad’s 40,000 employees: “When those two steel ribbons were laid eastward and westward, 10 May 1869, the destiny of the west and middle west was fixed. …Thereafter products of the machine could be carried across the continent and products of the land carried back….when we wear calico dresses of uniform pattern, when we celebrate the laying of the golden spike and the picture premiere, we do something for our souls,” the columnist wrote. “We revel in pageantry and have a whale of a good time.”[15]

Meanwhile, smaller-type headlines began to hint at what was ahead. Britain drafted 20-year-old men for the first time in modern history as a warning to Italy and Germany. Czecho-Slovak officials defied an order to surrender the country’s consulate general to German authorities. A Polish woman was imprisoned for slandering Chancellor Hitler. On the morning of the Union Pacific premiere, a prominent World-Herald headline reported that Hitler had scrapped treaties with Britain and Poland.

Two other blockbuster movies were released in 1939: Gone With the Wind and Wizard of Oz.

The suggestion was made that costumes should be kept on hand for a future Golden Spike Days. As it turned out, the costumes wouldn’t be needed again for a very long time.


[1] Footnotes. Lincoln Star. 26 June 1938, p. 5.

[2] Union Pacific. Union Pacific (1939) Filming & Production. IMDb, www.imdb.com/title/tt0032080/location.

[3] Golden Spike Days Souvenir Program, 1939. p. 3. Douglas County Historical Society archives.

[4] “Gals, If You’d Get a Fellow, Wear Bright Red, No Yellow.” Omaha World-Herald. 16 April 1939, p. 8.

[5] “‘69 Dress Depot May Open Monday.” Omaha World-Herald. 12 April 1939, p. 4

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Distribute 1869 Dresses Tuesday.” Omaha World-Herald. 17 April 1939, p.1.

[8] “Golden Spike Dress Prints.” Omaha World-Herald. 16 April 1939, p. 18.

[9] “Gingham Gals, Whiskeroos to Win Trips.” Omaha World-Herald. 16 April 1939, p. 18.

[10] “Spike Given Honor Niche at Exposition.” Omaha World-Herald. 25 April 1939, p. 77.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Golden Spike Days Souvenir Program, 1939. p. 16. Douglas County Historical Society archives.

[13] “Hollywood Is Eclipsed by Omaha Fete.” Omaha World-Herald. 29 April 1939, p. 3.

[14] “No Fooling! ‘Twas a Big Celebration.” Omaha World-Herald. 30 April 1939, p. 1.

[15] “Dear Mary Lane.” Omaha World-Herald. 29 March 1939, p. 15.

Band Kid or Budding Psychopath?: The Crimes of Leslie Arnold

By Elise O’Neil

Humans are resilient. When horrific events or tragedies inevitably take place, we attempt to rationalize them. Finding some meaning, a motive, a reason why – can help us to cope with disaster, move on, and trust that the circumstances that created our misfortune are unlikely to present themselves a second time. And when we can’t immediately understand a tragedy, we feel obligated to rehash it again and again until we find an explanation that makes the most sense to us.

On September 27, 1958, 16-year-old William Leslie Arnold murdered his parents. Police officers, prosecutors, judges, family members, his fellow students at Central High School—all have put forth various theories as to why he did this. Was he a budding psychopath with a violent streak, quick to lash out when he didn’t get his way? Was he a good kid who finally snapped after years of verbal abuse by a domineering mother? Maybe it was simply the inevitable outcome of feeling trapped in a dysfunctional version of the idealized one-size-fits-all nuclear family structure ubiquitous in mid-century America. Whatever the case, his reasons remain oblique. All we can do is comb over 64 years of retellings and draw our own conclusions.

He seemed like a good kid. He had just started his junior year at Central where his teachers referred to him as “quiet…polite, attentive in class and well behaved.”[1] Known by his middle name, Leslie, he was a mostly B student who enjoyed science and was interested in going to college. A glance at the yearbooks from his freshman and sophomore years (both of which can be found in DCHS’s extensive yearbook collection) show him participating in numerous extracurricular activities including ROTC, track,[2] and band.[3] He was reportedly an avid Elvis fan,[4] and his affinity is evident in his sophomore year band photo. He has removed his hat, showing off an impressively tall greased hairstyle in imitation of the King.[5] It’s difficult to look at these photos of Arnold without thinking about the acts he would soon commit. But without that context, he appears incredibly unextraordinary.


Leslie Arnold on the left holding a tenor saxophone during his freshman year in the ROTC Band at Central. Image source: 1957 Central High School O-Book, page 72. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.
Leslie Arnold, easily visible in the column of his bandmates with his hair teased in homage to Elvis Presley. Image source: 1958 Central High School O-Book, page 63. Courtesy of the Douglas County Historical Society.

Still, in the aftermath of his crimes, accounts of his precarious emotional state began to slowly trickle into the pages of the World-Herald. His great-uncle, Benjamin McCammon, told a reporter, “Leslie always did have a violent temper,” couching this assertion with another: “But he didn’t smoke or drink.”[6] And though McCammon claimed he’d never seen him “lay a finger on anybody,” Arnold’s younger brother Jim later recalled that Leslie would often physically attack him with socks on his hands so that he wouldn’t leave a mark.[7]

And then there was Opal, Arnold’s slain mother. Descriptions of the 40-year-old homemaker are tinged with vague references to a possible mental illness. Both neighbors and Arnold himself spoke to the difficult relationship between mother and son. It’s alleged that she showed little interest in her older son apart from verbally berating him and mocking him for his musical inclinations. It was clear to neighbors that she preferred the 13-year-old Jim. Later, Arnold would tell psychologists that Opal would sometimes refuse to let him back in the house, resulting in his sleeping in the nearby Ak-Sar-Ben stables.[8] His allegedly “henpecked” father, Bill, was little help—encouraging him to grin and bear his treatment to maintain the family unit.[9]


Opal and Bill Arnold with their younger son, Jim. Image source: Omaha World-Herald, 12 October 1958.

The pressure cooker environment created by Arnold and his mother’s clashing tempers was perhaps bound to result in tragedy. Then again, most children mistreated by their parents don’t end up shooting them six times each in the kitchen of their family home.[10]

The Arnold home at 6477 Poppleton Avenue. It remains standing today. Image source: Omaha World-Herald, 3 September 2017.

On the day in question, a Saturday, Arnold and his mother launched into an hours-long heated argument about his girlfriend (of whom his mother didn’t approve) and his use of the phone (she felt he was tying up the line for too long). She ended the row by declaring that he could no longer use either family car to take his girlfriend to a drive-in movie that night. He pulled his father’s 22-caliber semiautomatic Remington rifle out of his parents’ closet, apparently intending to show his mother he meant business. And then she laughed at him. So he shot her. And kept shooting her. When Bill arrived home minutes later, he took in the scene and lunged at his son, so Leslie shot him, too. Arnold’s behavior in the aftermath of the murders is notable. After dragging his parents’ bodies to the basement and asking a neighbor to take in his brother,[11] he picked up his girlfriend and her brother in the family’s 1957 Mercury and headed for the drive-in. He took in a double feature and ended the night at Tiner’s[12] (whose sign is featured in DCHS’s current exhibit Omaha’s AUTO-biography, on loan from the Durham Museum.) The next night he buried the bodies in his backyard beneath a lilac bush[13] and tossed the bloodstained rugs on which his parents died into the Papio Creek.[14] He covered his tracks, materializing to open his father’s business the Monday morning after the murders, telling all that his parents had had to take a sudden trip out of town.[15] Leslie only missed two days of school in the subsequent two weeks before his crime was discovered.[16] Eight months after Arnold led police to his parents’ shallow graves in their own backyard, he pled guilty to two charges of second-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison. In court appearances, he clutched a rosary and “blinked back tears.”[17]


Leslie Arnold escorted by Detective Thomas Curran. Image source: Omaha World-Herald, 12 October 1958.
Leslie Arnold leading detectives to the location of his parents’ bodies. Image source: Omaha World-Herald, 11 October 1958.

The question remains: Why did he do it? What was on his mind in the seconds it took for him to raise the rifle and shoot at the sound of his mother’s laughter? Some killers relish talking about their crimes. Others are openly remorseful. Still others spend the remainder of their lives never speaking to a soul about the details of what they’ve done. But we can’t ask Leslie Arnold for any reflective thoughts on his crimes, because in 1967, nearly nine years into his prison sentence, he escaped.[18] And he’s never been located. His reasons for making his escape at this juncture are even more unknowable that those for his parents’ murder. Because he was a minor when he was sentenced to his life term, he likely would have been eligible for parole in a just a year or so.[19] Barring any potential future crimes, Leslie Arnold would be free and among us today if he hadn’t escaped.

Instead, he’s a fugitive. Though there have been several leads over the decades, it has been assumed that Arnold landed in Brazil. He had spoken to a fellow inmate of escaping to Brazil, and in 2017 a recently-digitized Brazilian immigration card from 1968 containing his information was located on familysearch.org. If it was indeed Arnold who provided his information to immigration agents, he confoundingly gave them his real full name, birth date, and place of birth. And though there is a notation on the back of the card connecting Arnold to an FBI investigation for a missing fugitive, it is unknown whether the FBI was ever informed by Brazilian authorities of his arrival to the country.[20] If he is still alive today, he would be 80 years old.


Brazilian Registration Card from 1968 showing Leslie Arnold’s personal information. Image source: Omaha World-Herald, 13 September 2017.

It’s unlikely anyone will ever get the chance to speak to Leslie Arnold again about the murders of his parents and his subsequent escape from the Nebraska State Penitentiary. He likely wouldn’t be able to provide satisfactory answers anyway. This is a story that has been told many times resulting in increasingly compelling theories. Could the rationalization from the mouth of the killer ever measure up to what we can conjecture from imagination? One thing is certain, however. There is no halting the human desire to make sense of a case like this. And after all, a spooky story is that much more frightening when it doesn’t have an ending!


Age progression of Leslie Arnold. The first two photos were taken in 1958 and 1959 respectively. The 3rd is a projection of what he could have looked like in the 1990s and the 4th is a projection from 2010. Image source: Omaha World-Herald, 13 September 2017.



[1] “Youth Called Quiet, Polite; School Shocked by Story.” Omaha World-Herald. 12 October 1958, p. 24.

[2] Central High School O-Book 1957, p. 112. Douglas County Historical Society Archive.

[3] Central High School O-Book 1958, p. 63. Douglas County Historical Society Archive.

[4] Cordes, Henry J. “The Mystery of Leslie Arnold – Part One: The Killings.” Omaha World-Herald. 3 September 2017, p. 11A.

[5] Central High School O-Book 1957, p. 112. Douglas County Historical Society Archive.

[6] “Boy Was Unconcerned After Parents’ Murder.” Omaha World-Herald. 12 October 1958, p. 24.

[7] Cordes, Henry J. “The Mystery of Leslie Arnold – Part One: The Killings.” Omaha World-Herald. 3 September 2017, p. 11A.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Once Upon A Crime Podcast. “Episode 159: Bad Seeds: Leslie Arnold.” 2/24/2020.

[10] “Local” Omaha World-Herald. 13 October 1958, p. 2.

[11] “Youth Kills Father, Mother to Get Own Way About Car.” Omaha World-Herald. 12 October 1958.

[12] Cordes, Henry J. “The Mystery of Leslie Arnold – Part One: The Killings.” Omaha World-Herald. 3 September 2017, p. 11A.

[13] “Life Sentence to Youth Who Killed Parents.” Omaha World-Herald. 2 June 1959, p. 1.

[14] “Relatives Tell Youth: Don’t Discuss Killings.” Omaha World-Herald. 3 October 1958, p. 3.

[15] “Youth, 16, Confesses: Shot, Buried Parents.” Omaha World-Herald. 11 October 1958, p. 1.

[16] “Youth Called Quiet, Polite; School Shocked by Story.” Omaha World-Herald. 12 October 1958, p. 24.

[17] “Life Sentence to Youth Who Killed Parents.” Omaha World-Herald. 2 June 1959, p. 1.

[18] “Two Omahans’ Escape ‘Clean.’” Omaha World-Herald. 19 October 1967, p. 6.

[19] “Is Arnold Alive, Dead? Police Still Puzzled.” Omaha World-Herald. 12 September 1976, p. 41.

[20] Cordes, Henry J. “Part Four: Epilogue.” Omaha World-Herald. 10 September 2017, E-Edition.

Ella Fleishman Auerbach: A Voice for the Exiled

by Tara Spencer

Where there are now some rather bland industrial and government-style buildings, there used to stand a stately structure that housed the Pacific School. Surrounded by tidy residential homes, this school was where Ella Fleishman was educated.

Unattributed newspaper article, circa 1905. Likely The Omaha Bee. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

Known for welcoming young students from all faiths and serving nearly every ethnicity, this school was where the future Jewish author of Russian descent* first expressed her desire to become a writer.

Ella demonstrated her talents early in life, if one can judge by her written intent at the age of 10 in 1905 to be an “authoress.” Her photo and the declaration appeared in a story on the Pacific School† that focused on how the children of immigrants learned together at this rather unique school. The author of the piece recognized Ella’s talent, using her as an example of one of the “noble minds” found at this “school of all nations.”

Likely from The Omaha Bee, circa 1905. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

The writer of the piece (which was not listed) described Ella as a slender dark-eyed girl with “a rare foresight almost unknown to children,” able to recognize how much more effective she would be in life with a good education.

Her father, Esau Fleishman, was a rabbi at the orthodox Jewish church. As the Omaha representative of the Industrial Removal Organization (responsible for the
removal and settlement of Jewish refugees), he met every train and found housing for those fleeing persecution, often in his own home until other arrangements could be made. Ella—who spoke several languages by the time she was 10, including English, German, Bohemian, Yiddish, Polish, some Asian languages (unlisted), and of course Russian—often served as an interpreter for the visitors.

Esau was also a mohel and a shohet‡ work which often called him to other Jewish communities in the surrounding area to perform the associated duties. According to Ella’s own book, Jewish Settlement in Nebraska, he was the first secretary of the Omaha Hebrew Club and the first Vice President of Wise Memorial Hospital.

* * * *

While it’s not certain, Ella’s Russian parents may have fled to the U.S. during what was considered the second wave of Jewish migration from Eastern Europe and the Russian Empire. Severe restrictions had been placed on Russian Jews by the czar during the 1880s. As a result of regulations that went into effect in May 1882, Jewish people in Russia were forbidden freedom of movement. They were unable to live outside of towns or own rural lands. Other laws prevented them from seeking higher education.

According to Carol Gendler’s thesis titled “The Jews of Omaha: The First Sixty Years,” which was published in the Western States Jewish Historical Quarterly, “The instigation of pogroms** in 1881-1882 further outraged Russian Jewry and left great numbers of Russian Jews with little choice but to emigrate. A total of 26,619 Jews came to America from Russia in these two years alone, and by the end of 1882 the Jewish population of the United States had reached 250,000.” After the initial exodus, they continued to emigrate to the U.S. until the early 1920s when the passage of restrictive laws in 1921 and 1924 limited new arrivals. Jewish emigration from Eastern Europe to the United States never again reached the levels that it did before 1920.

Fortunately, most of those who arrived as part of this influx continued to speak Yiddish and built strong networks of cultural, spiritual, voluntary, and social organizations.

* * * *

Ella became a noted journalist in her time. She worked as a city editor for the Omaha World-Herald and was head of the women’s news department for the Omaha Bee. She covered Omaha society and traveled around the world, often writing about how war was affecting the areas she visited. These stories included topics such as whether the U.S. should give aid to then-president of the Republic of China Chiang Kai-shek and the proliferation of propaganda in Russia.

As a reporter, however, her best-known story coverage was that of a Burlington train robbery for The World-Herald. The robbery happened in Council Bluffs and was later made into an NBC radio program in 1948 called The Big Story, in which Ella’s role in catching them was featured.

In 1927, Ella wrote Jewish Settlement in Nebraska, a 40,000-word typescript book that identified Jewish people from Omaha to “towns in which there are only one or two Jewish residents.” It was a prolific work and is a great resource for those who want to know about the history of Jewish people in Nebraska. She was later asked to write a book on the medical history of the state, simple titled History of Medicine in Nebraska. This task was directed by the managing editor of the official journal of the American College of Physical Therapy, Dr. Albert F. Tyler of Omaha.

Ella strove to work for her people, serving with the Jewish Welfare Board in France during World War I, where she ministered to the soldiers and people of the war-stricken area. While unattributed, some sources also indicate Ella may have served as a Red Cross volunteer nurse aide in WWII.

The Omaha Bee, 12 April 1919. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

Growing up, Ella lived in a full house. Besides the many boarders from abroad, she had several brothers and sisters. They included her brother Max, who later became a doctor, perhaps sparking her interest in the medical field. She married prominent Omaha businessman Herman Harry Auerbach in 1922, becoming known as Ella Fleishman Auerbach from then on. Their travels are well-documented, and Herman sadly passed away from a heart attack after a trip to Buenos Aires in 1948. The two did not have children, and after Herman’s death, Ella continued to travel and write, sometimes giving talks about her experiences in the world abroad. She lived a full, exciting life and is now buried at Beth El Cemetery in Ralston.

While we may not know Ella’s full story, it would seem she accomplished the early dream she wrote about: “I intend to work for the good of others and to work hard, until I have made a name and place for myself in this world.”

*****

Want to learn more about Ella Fleishman Auerbach? Next month on Oct. 16th, Nebraska Jewish Historical Society is having a 40th Anniversary Celebration and one of the co-founders of the organization Oliver Pollack will be the keynote speaker. He will deliver a speech titled “The Amazing Ella Fleishman Auerbach, Nebraska Journalist and Historian.” More here: https://nebraskajhs.com

*While several sources say Ella’s family was from Russia, technically her parents were from Lithuania. However, Lithuania was considered part of the Russian Empire from the 1880s to the early 1900s. They would have emigrated to the United States during this time, therefore they are referred to as Russian in this piece.

†The article was featured in a scrapbook made by Margaret McCarthy, then-principal of the Pacific School, and likely clipped from the Omaha Bee circa 1905.

‡A mohol is a Jewish person trained in the practice of brit milah, the “covenant of circumcision.” A shohet is a person officially licensed by rabbinic authority as slaughterer of animals for use as food in accordance with Jewish laws.

**A pogrom is an organized massacre or general violence against a particular ethnic group. In Russian, it means “to wreak havoc.”

 

Sources:

https://history.nebraska.gov/sites/history.nebraska.gov/files/doc/publications/NH1977Synagogue.pdf

https://digitalcommons.unomaha.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=&httpsredir=1&article=1586&context=studentwork

https://history.nebraska.gov/sites/history.nebraska.gov/files/doc/publications/January-March%202014%20Nebraska%20History%20News.pdf, pg. 11

https://issuu.com/jewishpress7/docs/1929-06-07

https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/23601062.pdf,  pg.140

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6211283/

https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/haventohome/haven-century.html

https://www.britannica.com/place/Lithuania/Russian-rule

https://digitalcommons.unomaha.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=&httpsredir=1&article=1586&context=studentwork

The Dynamic Life of Esther L. Boyer Green Humphrey

by Kelli Bello

After the first few sentences of a Benson Sun article from 1962, I felt like I had met my new best friend.

In her profile of the late great Esther Green, writer Rosemary Madison opined, 

“She’s a dynamo.

She’s as resilient as a cork bobbing in water.

She’s as open, friendly, and easy to know as the old-time neighborhood family druggist.

She’s a force in an all masculine world, and as feminine as a lace parasol.”[1]

Can you blame me for being a little smitten by this horseback-riding, portrait-painting, Hollywood-adjacent, polio-surviving dynamo?

The life story of Esther L. Boyer Green Humphrey leapt off the pages as I began to research her. At the time, I was working as the production manager of the Firehouse Letterpress. Shop owner Larry Richling and I had recently moved his massive collection of vintage letterpress blocks, printing presses, film equipment, and Hollywood press kits in order to build a new print shop in Council Bluffs.

While sorting through the endless boxes, one name kept appearing: FEPCO.

FEPCO stands for Film Exhibitors Printing Company, and was founded 1924 by a 21-year-old Esther Green and her husband Walter Green. FEPCO produced “movie papers,” which contained everything a theater needed to successfully promote a film release.  

After a theater booked a film for screening, Hollywood studios would issue them a press kit. In the kit was the cast list, plot synopsis, photo stills, and a plethora of poster themes and sizes that could be ordered. The regional or small town theaters typically received their press kits from a middleman, not the studios, and this is where FEPCO made its mark. At the height of its business in the 1950s, FEPCO was serving over 4,000 small towns, and had clients in all 50 states and Canada.[2]

Examples of FEPCO press kits from the Firehouse Letterpress collection. Image courtesy of Kelli Bello.

Walter and Esther Green established their business at the perfect time in the 1920’s – when the Golden Age of Hollywood was in its early years and the appetite from movie-goers was insatiable. In Omaha, Theater Row sprung up along Douglas Street between 14th and 16th to meet the need. This bustling stretch of downtown was home to many iconic theaters in the first half of the 20th century, including The Moon, The Rialto, and The Empress theaters. FEPCO’s offices were located right near the heart of the action at 15th and Davenport.[3]

Unfortunately, in 1950 Walter Green passed away from a heart attack at the age of only 50.[4] Esther soldiered on with the business and under her leadership, elevated FEPCO to a national and international player in the Hollywood advertising business.

The Greens outside of the Omaha Community Playhouse in 1935. Image Source: The John S. Savage Collection, The Durham Museum.

“I was a widow for seven years, played the part of a man and a woman,” she said. She went on to remarry Harry Humphrey, a retired representative of the Field Paper Company.[5]

For Esther and FEPCO in the 1950’s and 1960’s, business was good and demand was constantly increasing. In the 1962 Sun profile, Esther proudly declared,

“And just think, it’s right here in Omaha, and being centrally located enables us to give comet-fast service with personalized theater advertising such as heralds, programs, window cards, monthly calendars, mat service and photoengraving. We’re the largest in the world and that’s not stretching the blanket one bit!”[6]

Business boomed from the 1920s -1960s, until studio relationships with these regional “exchanges” evolved away from the established middleman model, and eventually the rapid dawn of the Digital Age drastically changed the printing business.[7] Where once FEPCO was in high demand to produce the mats and blocks required by newspapers to print film advertisements, the shift to modern offset printing made FEPCO’s bread and butter products obsolete.[8]

Letterpress advertising blocks produced by FEPCO. Image courtesy of Kelli Bello.

This was the final deathblow to the “movie papers” industry, and FEPCO shuttered its doors in 1980, with Esther passing away shortly after in 1981.[9]

In the span of FEPCO’s 56-year reign, Esther was faced with many challenges in a rapidly evolving film industry. Audiences were also evolving, and the business weathered multiple wars. She seemed to take these obstacles in stride and pivoted her business accordingly. In 1966, she even received a citation from President Lyndon B. Johnson for her participation in the Youth Opportunity Campaign – a home front effort to create skilled labor positions for teenagers.[10] For Esther and many employers, this was an opportunity to fill positions left vacant by soldiers fighting in Vietnam.[11]

At the time of the recognition by President Johnson, 18 of FEPCO’s 22 employees were minors. She said, “You can only have so many key people. Viet Nam has taken away three of my really key people. Youngsters train easily. They’re agile. They’re smart.[12]

Modern inventions like air conditioning, television, and drive-in theaters kept FEPCO constantly on its toes.

“At one time, we worked our heads off in the winter time. Then summer was slack time. Now, because of outdoor theaters, it’s a complete turnaround. Air conditioning was a big factor at one time, and theaters were the pioneers. At first, we dealt with the small-town theater. Then TV came in, little theaters went out, and the industry developed into huge drive-ins.”[13]

All of this business acumen appears to be a part of her family’s fiber. She was born Esther Boyer to Irish and French parents. Her father, Charles Boyer, founded Boyer Coal and Ice Company, and all five of her brothers struck out to form their own enterprises including Boyer Trailer, Boyer Insurance, Boyer Candy, and Boyer Hardware.[14]

The Boyer family business, c. 1930. Image courtesy of Council Bluffs Public Library.

 A childhood bout with polio left her wheelchair-bound for years. It was during this period of recovery that she fostered a talent for drawing and painting. Her artistic talents were so strong that as an adult, a portrait she painted of her gardener was even displayed in the Joslyn Art Museum.[15] She was also a ceramicist, a dancer, an organist, and a horsewoman.

She went on to run a marathon and swim two miles a day.

“None of it came easy. Everything was a challenge and a struggle. I had missed a lot of things, having polio.”[16] 

Her friend Mrs. Robert Hoff summed up Esther’s “kinetic energy” well, “There’s nobody like Esther. People half her age will be leaving the dance floor, exhausted. And Esther is still going strong – and I mean she knows all those fancy jitterbug things.”[17] 

With a penchant for spinning straw into gold, it was her difficulty walking as a teenager that eventually brought her future husband Walter Green into her life. He noticed her struggling on the way home from school and offered her a ride home on his bicycle. They were married in 1920, when Esther was just 17 years old.[18] 

Her role as a titan in the Hollywood film industry allotted her certain cache among celebrity circles. At her home, Greencrest Acres, a sprawling property at 96th and Dodge Street, she displayed framed photos of her celebrity friends, many of whom were houseguests on the property. The A-List names included Lucille Ball, Cary Grant, Bob Hope, Jayne Mansfield, and Anna May Wong. One of her and Walter’s dearest friends was a young nightclub singer named Walt Liberace. Before becoming the rhinestone-encrusted mono-monikered icon, he recorded his first commercial record in Esther’s basement recreation room.[19]

Esther meets her idol Kim Novak. Omaha World-Herald, 25 March 1956. 

But nobody had Esther as star struck as Golden Globe-winning actress Kim Novak. Esther said, “I’m so crazy about her. She’s not only a good person, she’s religious. She has the highest standards, a background of culture, devotion to her parents. She’s my favorite.”[20]

In 1956 while attending the Drive-In Theater Convention in Cleveland, Esther waited in line for 45 minutes to meet her idol face-to-face. Kim Novak signed Esther’s menu, but like so many before her, was deeply charmed by Esther and invited her to sit down and share a dessert.[21]

Esther in her penthouse apartment located above FEPCO headquarters at 416 S. 14th Street. Omaha World-Herald, 19 February 1967.

I feel honored to have initially “met” Esther by working with the equipment she and FEPCO produced at the letterpress shop Larry and I built. Scratching under the surface a little deeper in local newspaper archives revealed a dynamic, well-respected, and savvy trailblazer who built an empire and appears to have been unanimously beloved by everyone who met her.

When Esther L. Boyer Green Humphrey passed away in November of 1981, she left behind an immense legacy. A legacy that still inspires women today…well, at least one woman. This one.

_______________

 

 

[1] Madison, Rosemary. “The Private World of Esther Green – After Polio, She’s a Dynamo in a Man’s World” Benson Sun, 22 November 1962.

[2] Ibid.

[3]  Madison, Rosemary. “The Private World of Esther Green – After Polio, She’s a Dynamo in a Man’s World” Benson Sun, 22 November 1962.

[4] Obituary. Omaha World-Herald. 13 November 1950.

[5] Madison, Rosemary. “The Private World of Esther Green – After Polio, She’s a Dynamo in a Man’s World” Benson Sun, 22 November 1962.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Nicol, Brian. “Hollywood Flashbacks.” 2009, p.6.

[8] Ibid. p. 6.

[9] Obituary. Omaha World-Herald. 19 November 1981.

[10]Johnson, Lyndon B. “Statement by the President on the 1966 Youth Opportunity Campaign.” 11 April 1966.

[11] “President Cites Omahan for Employing Young.” Omaha World-Herald. 24 June 1966.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Madison, Rosemary. “The Private World of Esther Green – After Polio, She’s a Dynamo in a Man’s World” Benson Sun, 22 November 1962.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Omaha World-Herald. 3 December 1940. p. 5.

[16]  Madison, Rosemary. “The Private World of Esther Green – After Polio, She’s a Dynamo in a Man’s World” Benson Sun, 22 November 1962.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Omaha World-Herald. 25 March 1956. p. 88.

Omaha’s Other “Boys Town”

By Natalie Kammerer

Father Flanagan’s Boys Town was never segregated, but they also couldn’t help every boy in need. It was because of the persistent need in their community, and what Anna Partridge described as her “duty to humanity” that she and her husband, Gaines Partridge, began to take in as many boys in need of a home as they could.

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Photographs of Anna and Gaines Partridge, Sr. Image source: FindAGrave.com

By the late 1930s, Mr. and Mrs. Partridge had already raised three children of their own: Helen, Lyndell, and Gaines Jr. (Dr. Gaines Partridge, Jr. would go on to become a highly respected educator and student advocate, spending much of his career at Loma Linda University in California. In 1961, he became the second Black Nebraskan to earn a PhD.)

Luckily for dozens of North Omaha boys in the late 1930s through the 1950s, the Partridges didn’t like the idea of empty nesting. So they partnered with the Douglas County juvenile probation officers and the Child Welfare Society to provide a home for boys who had been orphaned, abandoned, or otherwise in need of a stable environment. First, they welcomed a few boys into their home at 2863 Miami Street. But the small house was crowded, and they wanted more room so that they could help more kids. When they didn’t find anything in the Omaha area, they tried Pennsylvania. Only after they’d found land they liked and made a down payment were they notified of a “restrictive clause” that excluded them from the neighborhood. 

Soon the Magnolia, Alabama natives were headed back to Omaha, where they found a rundown 65-acre farm on Route 2, Florence Station, near the Washington-Douglas County line. Gaines continued his work as a plumber while Anna took care of getting as many as 12 boys fed, taken to and from school and overseeing their chores. The older children attended Howard Kennedy and Tech High in town, while the youngest were students at District 58 School in Nashville, NE. There, they were active in the 4-H program. The Partridges rented out the majority of the land, but kept enough for each boy to have a garden plot of his own. Each was also responsible for at least one pet. The boys also had other jobs, such as helping in the kitchen and maintaining the property. After their work was done, they had free range to play in the large, hilly yard shaded by oak trees.

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Six Oakview boys sit on a bench in the yard with a rabbit and one of the farm dogs. Image source: Omaha World-Herald, 4 September 1949.

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Two young boys help Mrs. Anna Partridge prepare lunch in the kitchen. Image source: Omaha World-Herald, 4 September 1949.

Religion also played an important role in the Partridge’s lives. They were both very active members of the Sharon Seventh Day Adventist Church and encouraged all the boys to attend whatever church they preferred. Weekends were often spent in town attending various church activities, visiting relatives, and a seeing a movie.

Though Oakview received some money to help feed and clothe the boys, the farm was expensive – many of the outbuildings had been neglected for years, and any additions that could be made to the house meant that more children could find a home there. The farm, which became popularly known as the “Oakview Home” received support, praise, and a little funding from the community. In addition to individual donations, the Memo Charity Club hosted an annual “Experience Rally” to raise funds for the Oakview Home. In 1951, Anna Partridge was named “Woman of the Year” by the Zeta Phi Beta sorority. For the occasion, some of her colleagues in law enforcement testified to the Oakview Home’s impact:

“…[she] provides a wonderful home to seven or eight youngsters ranging in age from 12 to 18 in addition to caring for two of her grandsons.  The Juvenile Court has found that Mrs. Partridge is a real mother to the youngsters under her care. … The children under Mrs. Partridge’s care learn to know love, understanding, companionship, and a proper religious life, all combined with kindly but firm discipline. … Whatever recognition and honor Mrs. Partridge has or may receive as a result of her work and unselfish devotion to the youngsters whose privilege it is to live in her home, is richly deserved.” Lawrence Krell, Probation Officer