III

This is my 3rd season for Throwback Thursday.

Nebraska’s first game of 2016 is on September 3.

The first Husker to take a trip with me down memory lane this year.. a player known to many as simply RK3.

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#12 Ron Kellogg III, Class of 2013

The Rule of 3’s is certainly at play here, but it’s not the only factor contributing to my choice to kick off this years series.  Ron Kellogg III is also a proud Westside Warrior, an alum of the school district I now proudly represent as Director of Communications & Engagement.  These first few weeks in my new role have been an absolute pleasure; I am BLOWN AWAY by the level of devotion and innovation this District has for the thousands of young people who learn here everyday.  To share these stories on a daily basis is truly an honor.

For Kellogg, his time as a prized student athlete at Westside had a huge impact on his trajectory into Nebraska Football history, a journey that began several years before he started high school.

“I have a picture of myself on Halloween in a #12 Nebraska uniform, so I guess you could say it was fate I would be a part of the Husker program,” Kellogg told me recently.  “The main reason I went to Nebraska is all because of Eric Crouch.  He signed a picture I drew for him and he wrote me a message saying Go Big Red, shook my hand and took a picture.  I waited 2 hours and 30 minutes to get that 2-minute encounter.  Thanks, Eric! LOL.”

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At Westside, Kellogg was the star quarterback who led his team to state playoffs his senior year, passing for 12 touchdowns.  The Lincoln Journal Star gave him Class A All-State honors, and several colleges including Northwest Missouri State and North Dakota offered him scholarships.  Kellogg wanted to stay red.

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Kellogg, surrounded by his parents, signing his letter of intent to play football for Nebraska

“D1 schools did not recruit me heavily.  I was actually only offered a walk-on spot because I won a quarterback camp at Nebraska,” said Kellogg.  “When I was given my opportunity to play, I knew from that point on, I needed to show everyone #1: that walk-ons can play, #2: that every time I put on that helmet representing this great state I would be an example for those young men watching in the stands or at home that with heart, determination, and a pinch of humbleness you can compete with the best of them.”

And he did.  After waiting patiently for three seasons, Kellogg finally saw playing time in several games his junior year.  His senior year, 2013, everything changed when 4-year starter Taylor Martinez suffered a foot injury.  Kellogg completed 4-of-5 passes against Southern Miss.  He completed another 8-of-9 passes against SDSU.  Game after game he was consistent and strong.. but when Nebraska played Northwestern, he became legend.

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Photo courtesy Nebraska Athletics

Kellogg threw a 49-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass to then redshirt freshman Jordan Westerkamp, the first game-winning Hail Mary TD in Nebraska history.

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Photo courtesy Nebraska Athletics

“My favorite moments are talking with fans about that night,” said Kellogg.  “Apparently I am the reason A) they had to buy a new TV and B) I caused a couple to go the hospital due to heart attacks.”

Believe it or not, that game is not Kellogg’s standout memory when he looks back at his time at Nebraska.

“My favorite moment was the Penn State game,” said Kellogg.  “It started to snow.  It was picture perfect to be in that historic stadium, the fans in all-white, and then snow started to fall.  Plus we won in overtime.”

For years, Ron Kellogg had been the guy in the background while Husker nation focused its attention on other players.  Suddenly, he was THE guy, the big fish swimming in a Sea of Red.

“It was definitely an eye opening experience,” said Kellogg.  “No one prepares you to be in situations where everyone from the elderly to toddlers, know EVERYTHING about you, from knowing all about my family to what classes I was taking.  You have to be mentally prepared for that, and most importantly, you have to be careful.  Fame and power can swallow a sane person whole.  But, that fame part is something I will never get over, not because it’s cool to take pictures with people or talk about ‘what is was like to throw the hail mary’; it’s much more than that.  My senior year of playing Nebraska football was the best time of my life.  I was able to impact and reach people that I never thought I could prior.”

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Photo courtesy Stephen Rickerl for the Fremont Tribune

Kellogg won the Nebraska Student-Athlete HERO Leadership Award in 2012, was on the Brook Berringer Citizenship Team in 2012 and 2013, and the Tom Osborne Citizenship Team in 2014.

“There is nothing I love more than talking Husker football with people,” said Kellogg.  “Especially the kids.  If my words inspire them to be a Husker I know my job is done.”

Ironically, guiding young athletes IS now Kellogg’s job; he’s the Athletic Director at Dawes Middle School in Lincoln, currently in his second year.

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Photo courtesy Gwyneth Roberts for the Lincoln Journal Star

“I am a part of these students’ lives from athletics to academics and social life,” said Kellogg.  “It’s honestly the most interesting thing in the world seeing these young boys and girls grow up and mature.  The crazy part is sitting back at the end of a school year and being able to say to yourself and your team of staff that you were a part of helping these children go on to the next level.  I love every moment of it because I feel like I am making a difference one way or another.”

Kellogg will also be watching a few other students this fall… his Huskers, now led by an entirely different regime than he had during his days at Nebraska.  He offers his support for Coach Riley, and for wide receivers coach Keith Williams, recently arrested for DUI.

“I have faith he’ll straighten up and continue to be the dominant leader of the team,” said Kellogg.  “Look at what he does with his players and NFL players, and how he uses social media.  As a fan, you have to be excited about this.”

Kellogg is also excited to watch De’Mornay Pierson El, a guy he calls ‘explosive’, able to impact the game from special teams to offense.

“With that kind of weapon, not to mention the other five wideouts we have, and the mobility and absurd arm strength Tommy has, we can make some noise,” said Kellogg.

Speaking of noise.. Ron Kellogg isn’t ready to go quietly into the Nebraska night.  A proud ‘Westside Warrior for life!’ he wants to return to his alma mater someday to coach and teach, and maybe lead a new generation of nationally respected athletes.

“My dream job is to build a performance center,” said Kellogg.  “I want to be able to wake up everyday and say to myself, I am going to send this set amount of student athletes to compete in Division 1, D2 or D3 athletics.  I truly believe there are students athletes here [in Nebraska] that should be playing D1 sports and maybe they just need help or a little nudge in the right direction.”

It wasn’t so long ago, Ron Kellogg was that guy, the walk-on from Westside High School who became a Nebraska Football star.   In 2013, he was awarded the Tom Novak Award, described by Nebraska Athletics as “an honor which best exemplifies courage and determination despite all odds.”

“I had extra drive to show kids throughout the state of Nebraska, that ‘hey! You can do this!’  You don’t need any stars next to your name to make an impact,” said Kellogg.  “I guess you can say I am living proof that if you put your mind to something, you can accomplish it.”

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Many thanks to Ron for the interview.. and for his incomparable softball skills helping Team Benning dominate the 2015 Celebrity Softball game!

***

The Fisherman

POST KETV.. a long awaited trip to the Lake of the Ozarks.  No partying, no late night booze cruises, just family time and the peace of the water.  My Dad says it’s the Dane in us that pulls us to it.. that makes us feel complete serenity when we can hear the calming slap of water on the dock.  Even in sweltering heat; a day at the lake is bearable.  Even when you don’t catch a thing, fishing is nature’s therapy.  There’s something about the water that puts everything in balance.

In a few short weeks, a Papillion family will once again answer a similar calling to the water.  Four, incredible women will stand side by side and breathe in a place that helps them feel whole.. and at peace.

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***

Sherry was a 15-year old cheerleader at Wayne High School.  In the late 70’s, it was an annual tradition for the girls to muster up their courage and ask a guy to the Sadie Hawkins dance.  Sherry, just a sophomore, had her eye on 17-year old Kevin Murray, a junior football player.

“We grew up together in Wayne, a small town, where everyone knew you,” said Sherry.  “Kevin played multiple sports in school.  He enjoyed hunting and fishing with his family and friends, a real guys’ guy.”

And from the beginning it seems, he was Sherry’s guy.

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Their lives from that point on were a John Cougar Mellencamp song brought to life.  They began dating after that Sadie Hawkins dance, and married less than a year after Sherry graduated from Wayne High.  April 12, 1980.. two American kids doing the best they can.

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“Kevin excelled in industrial tech classes and landed a job with a couple small town contractors building farm buildings,” said Sherry. “Work was slow in the winter months and after adding a child, Jennifer, 1982, to the mix we started to have bigger aspirations.   I had an uncle in Omaha that said he thought Kevin could get a job with Peter Kiewit and Sons Construction Company if he wanted to move to Omaha.”

They did; Kiewit hired Kevin in August of 1984.  He didn’t have a college degree, but he did have talent, determination, and an incomparable work ethic.

“He continued to work his way up the ladder with each job he was on,” said Sherry.  “He impressed his foremen and the company bosses and was promoted many times.”

Kevin Murray climbed to the top; the VERY top, named General Superintendent overseeing all of Kiewit’s work in Omaha, including the First National Bank Tower.  Kevin was superintendent for the project, the tallest building in downtown Omaha.

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“He would say that was his mark left on the city, they couldn’t take that away from him,” said Sherry.  “He had a very high standard that he held himself to. He was very proud of the man he had become, coming from a small town with no college education to holding one of the highest positions in the company’s construction world. He was lucky enough to become a stock holder with Kiewit and earned a fine salary for someone without a college degree, providing his family with a wonderful life.”

By then, Kevin and Sherry’s family had grown to five, the couple raising three beautiful, spirited daughters.  The ‘guys’ guy’ was the ONLY guy in the Murray household, and taught his girls about the same simple pleasures he had known growing up; hunting, camping and family.

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From Sherry: “Kevin had been fishing at a farm pond in Iowa and caught these nice bluegill that the girls helped him clean! Yummy supper that night!”

The Murray girls grew up with barbies, ribbons.. and fishing poles.

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From Sherry: “Kevin and I and the girls fishing at a Buckskin lake up in NE Nebraska 1990!”

The Murray sisters grew up beautiful, well rounded and strong.  Jennifer excelled in the arts, winning leading roles in musical groups and plays throughout junior high and high school.  Ashley showed athleticism early on, a key varsity softball player on 2 state championship teams.  Marissa, a born leader, set trends and standards from school hallways to the football sidelines as a competitive cheerleader.  No matter what their activity, their parents were their rocks.. and their friends.

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Fall of 2004.. Jennifer had moved to Lincoln to pursue a degree in dental hygiene. Ashley had just started classes at UNO, and Marissa was just starting her freshman year at Papillion-La Vista High.  Kevin planned to attend the funeral of his favorite great aunt in Dixon, Nebraska, then stop in Crofton for an afternoon of walleye fishing with his cousin.

“The morning he left he was in a hurry and franticly looking for his sunglasses, and we were having a slight disagreement about a parenting issue. I guess you can say we left each other with mad feelings between us,” said Sherry.  “I called him on the phone about 2:30 that day to let him know I had found his sunglasses in a basket of laundry I had put away. He said Gary already had two fish, he was eager to get out there ,too. He was just getting ready to go out on Lewis and Clark Lake, a place he and I had fished many times together, but this day he would be alone. I told him good luck and I love you.”

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Four hours later, Sherry received a phone call.  Kevin’s boat had been found adrift on the lake, but there was no sign of Kevin.  His cousin, Gary, immediately joined a group of searchers that grew by the day to find any clues.. to find Kevin.

It took five days.  On October 12, 2004.. Sherry’s 43rd birthday.. crews found her husband.

“His death was ruled a drowning,” said Sherry.  “We will never know what caused him to be tossed from the boat.  There was damage to the passenger seat and rod holder that looked as an impact of some sort caused him to be thrown overboard. I have kept those sunglasses and the lesson they taught me: to never forget to say I love you to someone you love. You never know if you will get that chance again.”

Jenni Murray-Rohacik is one of my dearest friends.  In the days crews searched for her dad, I had dreams they found him alive; that everything was OK.  I went to the Murray home during that terrible stretch of days and stood next to Jenni as she knelt down next to Sherry, who stared in her eldest daughter’s eyes, shaking her head, unable to form sentences.  When Jenni and I drove to St. Columbkille to talk to a priest about services, Jenni broke down in grief.  I broke down in tears days later, as Jenni bravely stood in that church and read the Fisherman’s Prayer in tribute to her beloved father.

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I thank the Lord I have never known grief like what this family went through.  At some point in the weeks and months that followed, Sherry and her girls decided to channel their pain into something.. a fishing tournament to honor Kevin.

“That first year planning the fishing tournament gave me something to look forward to and to plan and focus on something positive,” said Sherry.  “I used those sleepless nights to brain storm and ideas just kept popping into my head. With my daughters help, we had our first Kevin J Murray Memorial Fishing tournament September 24, 2005.”

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66 fishing teams signed up.  Countless friends, loved ones and colleagues came to take part, volunteer, or just show support.  Dozens of items were auctioned and raffled off, all raising money for a scholarship or two at Wayne High School for students pursuing building trades just like Kevin did. The tournament was held at the same place Sherry lost Kevin, at Lewis and Clark Lake near Crofton, Nebraska.

“It was a gathering place for friends and family and coworkers who had come to help in the search at the time of his accident. It was the place where we had our summer home. It only seemed fitting that we have a reunion of sorts,” said Sherry.  “I never dreamed we would have the response we did. But I also knew Kevin had so many friends and family that loved him and all wanted to do something to pay tribute to him as well.”

That first year, the tournament raised $8,000.  Every year since, the Murrays have returned with another bigger and better event.  Kevin’s daughter, Ashley, spends months in advance contacting sponsors, bringing in raffle prizes, and organizing the tournament.

“We have all types of fishermen; some who are local to the area and have never met our family, others who are friends and family from the Wayne or Omaha area. Some are experienced fishermen; others who fish once a year for our event,” said Sherry.  “Regardless of fishing knowledge or expertise, our fishermen come away with memories, maybe a prize, and probably many exaggerated fishing stories.”

Later this month, the Murray family will hold their 12th fishing tournament honoring Kevin.  Their hope: to top $100,000 in money raised for Wayne High.  That plan for ‘one or two scholarships’ has grown to 25 scholarships and awards, as well as playground equipment, weight room rubber mat flooring, treadmills for rehabbing athletes, to welders for the tech department, softball and baseball field repairs, and more.

“I think Kevin would be very proud of the event,” said Sherry.  “He would love to be sitting around telling fish stories with all the guys after a day of fishing. He would be happy that we have honored him in such a way.  Together we leave a mark in history, to the place where it all started for us, Wayne High School, In Wayne, America as it is known there!  I think he would be surprised that people still think of him and continue to come after all these years.”

His family thinks of him every, single day.

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Of all of the incredible things Kevin Murray accomplished during his time on earth and inspired by how he lived his life, I’d argue THIS is what he’d be proudest of.  The three confident, striking, INCREDIBLE daughters he raised who are all successful and happy.  Joe and Deven, the two men who are raising his grandchildren and offering love and friendship to his girls.  Nathan, Kyler and Maggie.. the kiddos who never got to meet their grandpa, but no doubt know him and learn his fishing secrets every year at the annual tournament named in his honor.  And his high school sweetheart, wife and best friend who dug deep to find a new path, never forgetting what always mattered most to them; finding happiness through love, family, and to simply live like you were dying.

“After a tragedy you have choices to make.. shrivel up and die or move forward,” said Sherry.  “I chose to move forward, with the emotional support and love from my family and friends. I guess when life throws you lemons make lemonade, is a message I always heard. A guy who was a small town boy made it in a big town. People like to see others succeed in life. He was a success. Although he didn’t get the chance to live a much longer life, being taken in his prime at the age of 45, I know he lived what he had to the fullest. He loved big and worked hard and always found time to enjoy the outdoors with his friends and family.”

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I pray that I may live to fish, Until my dying day.
And when it comes to my last cast, I then most humbly pray:
When in the Lord’s great landing net, And peacefully asleep
That in His mercy I be judged, Big enough to keep.

On August 27, hundreds of people will once again drawn to the water to share their love and respect for a great friend.  It’s another opportunity to raise money for students who want to follow in the footsteps of a man who climbed to the very top. One more day for Kevin’s family to remember their father, grandpa and husband, and to remind each other to make the most of every day we have.

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“I have a different perspective on the fishing tournament than my daughters do.. I guess I think of it as a tribute to a man I loved. A love story of sorts, I guess you could say,” said Sherry.  “Through the help of my friends and family all with a common goal to raise money with our event, it has helped to heal the hole left in my heart with Kevin’s absence. It is my way of paying him back for the wonderful life he gave me and our children.”

***

The 12th Annual Kevin J Murray Memorial Fishing Tournament will take place August 27, 2016 at Lewis & Clark Lake near Crofton, Nebraska at Weigand Marina.  Teams of 2 are welcome to sign up in advance online or in person the day of the event; cost is $120/team, which includes shirts and a buffet meal at a banquet following the tournament at CJ’s in Crofton.  Prizes include $500 for 1st place, $250 for 2nd and $150 for 3rd largest weight totals.  Prizes are also awarded for largest walleye and largest non-walleye.  Raffle prizes are available all day at the tournament.

For more information, CLICK HERE to visit the event’s website or

CLICK HERE to visit the event’s Facebook page

Signing Off

First, to all reading this, I SIMPLY CANNOT thank you enough for the outpouring of support, kind words, encouragement, and simply, the act of reading these posts and reaching out.  As a writer, that means SO VERY MUCH to me, to know people are reading and watching.  THANK YOU.  I don’t know what I did to deserve so much love and kindness, but it has truly filled my heart and soul.  THANK YOU.

Second, my sincere apologies to anyone and everyone NOT included in the first post.  I’ve reread With More Complete Coverage probably 50 times and EVERY TIME I think ‘Holy crap!! How did I forget ____?!?”  And I feel TERRIBLE about that!!! We have so many influential people among us here and we have formed AMAZING friendships over the years. To be honest, at the time I wrote the post I was selfishly wading in a baby pool of my own memories and thoughts, and wish I had taken a few steps back to focus on OTHERS more than myself.  GUYS, I even forgot to WRITE ABOUT MY HUSBAND, BRIAN (who is the most amazing supporter, my best friend and my ROCK for the last 11+ years.)   I don’t want to be one of those people that’s all ‘focus on me.. FOREVER!!!’ BUT I do desperately want to recognize the people who have been so special to me throughout my years here.  I’M STILL ADDING NAMES AS I WRITE THIS!  And still, I know someone will be accidentally left off–PLEASE KNOW, to ALL of my coworkers past and present, the impact you’ve had on me as a person and journalist.  THANK YOU.

CARRIE ECKERT-PATTERSON.. my producer and partner in crime in the newsroom, at the poker table, and on the softball field.

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TODD ANDREWS.. my first co-anchor, a destined partnership since Trina Creighton paired us up at UNL for a mock broadcast.

STEVE GOETZ.. the undisputed CHAMP of ‘Name That Tune’, ‘Slug Bug’.. who I could always rely on for baseball talk and to give 100% to our stories together.

BOB GILLUM.. the KINDEST MAN EVER.  EVER!!

CATHY BEELER… KIND, caring, GIVING.  A legend in our business, a leader in our newsroom.

RYAN LUBY.. watch for him now, because he’ll be a network reporter someday soon.  To me, he’ll also always be the guy who drove to King Kong to get me french fries at 9pm when I was 8 months pregnant.

ADRIAN WHITSETT.. my good friend since JUNIOR HIGH.  The big brother that I never had.  I am so damn proud of this guy, and so HONORED to be his friend.

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MATT SCHICK and OWEN LEI.. yes, they go together.. because the three of us were a TERRIBLE TRIO for a stretch of time in the mid-2000’s.  From ‘frog wars’, to My Buddy ring tones, to getting yelled at at Omaha Press Club show practice (‘Carol KLOOOOOOOOSSSS!’), they are TRULY awesome, amazing men and friends.

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JOHN CAMPBELL.. my fellow Monarch and friend.  Amazing father and husband, HILARIOUS, and I am SO HONORED to have shared our time at KETV together.

CHUCK McWILLIAMS.. our American hero, whose selflessness showed at KETV long before he sacrificed his safety and time with his family to keep us ALL protected here at home.

BEN GRAY.. strong, confident, patient.  The guy who pulled me aside when I was taking criticism with my head hung low and told me, ‘You stand up for yourself!’  I will NEVER forget that moment.

JIM REDING.. a man DESTINED to be a journalist.  A friend to everyone, and one of our leaders as our Managing Editor here at KETV.

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MELISSA FRY.. my news SISTER.  One of the most beautiful people inside and out I have ever known.

PETE SOBY.. an unparalleled talent, and constant teacher to everyone around him.  I dare say HALF of the photographers in Omaha television were guided or influenced by Pete.

ROSE ANN SHANNON.. my mentor, boss and friend.  She went to bat for me when I was a green, wannabe, college student.  I owe my career to her.

SUZANNE DEYO.. my desk buddy for so many years in the Newsplex, and who I confided in that I ‘had a crush on a KPTM photographer.’  She called my now-husband, helping lead to our first date.

MATT BROWN.. ONE OF THE MOST TALENTED GUYS I HAVE EVER MET.  Director, graphics genius, team player, FRIEND.

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TOM ROCK.. DOCTOR TOM.  The Godfather of KETV.  Along with Rob, there are few I respect more in our business, and as a human being.

RUTH BEHRENS.. QUEEN RUTH.  So dang smart, caring, and makes THE BEST. CHILI. EVER.

JOSH GEAR.. So, SO talented, eager and willing to learn, and literally GOOD AT EVERYTHING in TV news.

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ALEX HOFFMAN.. my Miss America soul sister, a woman you literally just STARE at because she’s so striking and perfect.. then want to just HANG OUT WITH forever because she’s just so cool and AWESOME.

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JULIE CORNELL.. in a world where transitions can be awkward and difficult, she welcomed me with open arms, guided me, and has ALWAYS been there with advice, an ear to listen, and INSPIRATION in everything she says and does in her own life and career.

TYLER WHITE.. JEREMY MASKEL.. STEVE HENNEBERRY.. JIM HEALEY.. KYLE GRAVLIN.. CAMILA ORTI.. this list could honestly continue FOREVER, and I will still have forgotten someone.  MY BRAIN IS AN EMOTIONAL TORNADO RIGHT NOW.  THESE are the people who have not only been my coworkers, but my friends and confidantes for the last 15 years.. and Sunday night, I will say goodbye to them here at KETV.

There’ve been countless others, too–the people we meet everyday who have allowed us to share their stories.  Bottom line, I’ve done a lot of reflecting over the last two weeks, about the stories and people both here at KETV and out in the field.  My friend, teacher and Assistant News Director Vonn Jones asked me to choose three of my most memorable stories to look back on these last few newscasts.  I did it.. with GREAT difficulty.. so here’s a little addendum to that final assignment.

Baby Lawrence

Paralyzed Bride, Gina Springhower

Casey Charf

Derek Ruth

Operation: Open Hearts

Evan Sharp & Rhonda Sharp

Westroads

Clayton Hildreth

Drew Fiala

Jake Childs

Lane Thomas, Brayden Skillings, and the fight against SIDS

Ashley Bunn

Kyle Ienn

Amber Harris

Kayla Wilkins

Kasey Remmereid & Cassi Collier

Kerrie Orozco

Josue Ramirez-Marinero & Ismenia Marinero

My intention was to write something about each of these stories… what I still see and hear when I close my eyes.  But right now, it would be like trying to focus on one piece swirling in that tornado.. I feel like all of these stories and people have passed by in a FLASH.  I could write a novel.. and I INTEND TO.  As I’ve mentioned.. someday I want to write a book.  I want to devote the time and detail to each of these stories, and their ‘back stories’, that they deserve.  Someday.

I want to tell stories.  It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do, consciously or not.  Sunday at 10 on KETV, I will close this chapter for now, fully intending to revisit it when my hubs and I are retired in San Diego.  He’ll golf, I’ll write.  For now, I am SO VERY EXCITED to begin this new adventure at Westside, and with that, I invite you to sign up here for email alerts about blog posts, or follow me on social media.. the stories will continue, just in a different way!!  There is SO MUCH GOOD in these students, in our teachers… WE NEED MORE GOOD STORIES!!!  THAT is where my focus will shift.. to the Westside Warriors family, and to my own at home.  I also plan to continue writing here on Anchor’s Away; pursuing my Throwback Thursday series this Husker Football season, and featuring the 2017 Class of Miss Nebraska and Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen contestants, as well as other things that pique my interest in our amazing community!

I don’t want to rehash too much from my first post (TOO LATE!!)  but hey, I’m fulfilling our More Complete Coverage mantra one more time🙂 My apologies for this one last walk (a long, LONG walk) down memory lane.  It’s been one hell of a trip.

THANK YOU

THANK YOU

THANK YOU

THANK YOU.

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See you Sunday at 10.

With More Complete Coverage..

Journalism 101.  Start every story with your best sound and your best video.  Don’t bury the lead.  With that… this month is my last at KETV, after 15 years as a journalist at the only station I’ve ever known.

***

When I was a little girl, I used to sit on the stairs in our split level house in Papillion, with my legs dangling through the steps and a notebook in front of me.  I would just write.  I would write about my day.  I would play the game Life by myself, and use each space as a prompt to write a fictional story.  I’ve kept a journal since I had huge glasses and buck teeth.  In college, long-form essays and papers weren’t hassles, I relished them; I love letting the words just HAPPEN, and the surge of accomplishment when those words come full circle and everything just FITS.

I’ve always been a natural ‘performer’.  I was the ham hogging the attention for our 1st generation camcorder, jumping in front of my Dad with a goofy voice or song whenever he had the thing rolling.  I tried out for show choir every year I could, and joined the speech team my very first year of high school.  Speaking just came easily for me; and I was GOOD at it.  Forensics, theater and choir were my LIFE in high school.

I was never in journalism.  I didn’t carry around a Barbara Walters lunchbox.  I floated around my first year of college not knowing where I belonged or what my future looked like.  My sophomore year at UNL, I took Introduction to Broadcasting with Tom Spann, and was fascinated by a world of history, SHARING history, writing, and reporting.  Somehow the idea of an internship surfaced, and KETV was the station I grew up watching.  My mom bumped into longtime weekend anchor/reporter Pamela Jones at a city meeting, got contact information for the intern program, and I emailed Managing Editor Joe Kasmir the next day.  I showed up for my interview a good half an hour early.. and I will never forget walking through the Newsplex doors, overwhelmed to see the same set and newsroom I had watched on TV for so long.  Julie Cornell and Rob McCartney were just finishing the 6pm broadcast, and Julie looked up and smiled at me.

***

How do you sum up 15 years?

My first breaking news live shot at NP Dodge Park… that was God awful.

Covering my first night of tornadoes as an intern, Scott Buer at the wheel of the car, and me in the passenger seat wearing a green skirt suit and heels, trekking around in mud and rain COMPLETELY unprepared, but willing to stay out as long as Scott did.

Talking to a suspect in jail dubbed the ‘Bare Butt Bandit’, and hearing later from my best friend’s now-husband: ‘I said, Please God, let Brandi be doing that story..’

An Iowa shooting late at night with photojournalist Mike Richard, and then lying in the backseat on the way home  with my eyes squeezed shut, battling a nauseous migraine.

Live shots on the field at Memorial Stadium with Rob on one side and Jon on the other.. when a stray football was punted right into the side of my face.  Hearing my Assistant News Director Vonn Jones yelling in my ear ’30 seconds!!’ as I tried to regain my composure.. as did Jon and Rob (from dying laughing…)

Driving 8 hours throughout the night with Justin Riviera to cover an arrest in the Jon Benet Ramsey murder in Boulder, Colorado.  I was overwhelmed by literally HUNDREDS of rabid reporters; he shoved me and said ‘get in there, Petersen!’

Covering an afternoon and evening of tornado threats across western Iowa with photojournalist Dave Hynek.  Laughs because of a nerve-wracking live shot.. laughing that turned to chaos and sheer sadness when we learned less than an hour later about the tragedy at the Little Sioux Boy Scout Camp.  We worked through the night side by side, waiting for the details that would shake our community and the country.

Countless tears when things went wrong.  Crying to my roommate, wondering what I should have done better.  Coming home and sobbing to myself, questioning my decisions as not only a reporter, but a human being.

Westroads.  Derek Ruth.  The Butternut fire. The paralyzed bride.  Clayton Hildreth.  Evan Sharp.  Pediatric brain cancer.  Amber Harris.  Baby Lawrence.  La Paz, Mexico.

JP Carter.  John Matya.  Trisha Meuret.  Tom Elser.  Joe Kasmir.  Cathy Beeler.  Jay Roberts.  Vonn Jones.  Jon Schuetz. Sean McMahon. Justin Riviera.  Renee Ludvik.  Kristyna Engdahl.  Jeremy Maskel.  Adrian Whitsett.  Andy Ozaki.  Natalie Glucklich. Melissa Fry.  ROB, ANDY, DAVE. My coworkers that have become my family.

Through KETV, I met my husband.  I was on air throughout my pregnancies with both of my boys.  We moved; twice.  This is where we grew up; this is home.

At KETV we lost Joe, my mentor who hired me, fueled my passion for journalism, and always, ALWAYS pushed me to be better, while making me feel like I was really something special.  I often wish he had been alive to see me anchor ‘the big show’.

We lost Jeff Frolio, the photographer who told me about jazz, and how special music was for him and his wife.  It was the music at his final service that broke me down.

***

Just like my stories… in so many ways, THIS story has come full circle for me.  My sweet ‘baby’ boy Easton will start Kindergarten in a few short weeks.  Guys, I need to be here with my children.  I need to hear about their days, I need to be there for school concerts and carnivals and dinner on our deck.  I need to hear THEIR stories, and I need to be PART of their stories when they look back and share them throughout their lives.  News is a business like no other; it never stops.  Tornadoes don’t drop from the sky from 9-5, Monday through Friday.  Tragedies don’t happen just while we’re on the clock.  There will be another journalist, waiting and ready, to slide into that spot next to Rob to anchor our evening newscast every night, but I am my boys’ ONLY MOTHER.  I am the ONLY MOMMA they will ever have.

God works in mysterious ways; he always has a plan, though we may not understand it as it’s unfolding.  Next month, I will join the Communications team with Westside Community Schools.  I still get to tell stories; GREAT stories about incredible students, teachers making a difference, programs that impact generations of kids.  I get to showcase the GOOD in our world; I get to WRITE.  But every day, I also get to go home to my family.  We can eat dinner together.  We can play at the park, and watch the sunset, wake up the next morning and do it all over again.  I know I’ll be home every Christmas morning, I’ll get to watch fireworks with my kids every 4th of July, I get to stay at the pool with them Sunday mornings instead of putting on my makeup, straightening my hair and heading to the station.  I need to say this: I have SO MUCH RESPECT for working parents, regardless of their shifts.  People all over America work crazy hours, love what they do, and love their lives at home.  I work with many of them here at 7!

For me.. it’s just time.  Still, as I write this, I still feel the tears welling up behind my eyes.  I am so excited for this new opportunity and new chapter in my life, but it truly is so hard to say goodbye.  My fear is that I didn’t matter.  That time will go on and it will be like I was never there. That sounds really narcissistic and egotistical; truly, I’ve tried to make a point in my career to NOT make everything about me, to make our stories about THE PEOPLE, PLACES, AND ISSUES we are sharing.  But to everyone throughout these 15 years who’s made me feel ‘like a big deal’.. to everyone who has watched us, followed us, trusted us.. THANK YOU.  From the bottom of my heart, thank you.  I don’t have words beyond that.. but I hope you understand the deep gratitude from the bottom of my heart: THANK YOU.

WATCH KETV.  You will NEVER find a better journalist than Rob McCartney.  This dude is one of the best human beings I have ever known; he cares, he listens, he is always asking questions and trying to dig a little deeper to share the most complete story possible, and I’d argue NO ONE is trusted as a journalist in our state more than Rob.  He is noble, smart, a leader, compassionate.  He is a good friend.  Bill Randby is HANDS DOWN THE BEST meteorologist you could ever turn to; NO ONE cares more about providing people accurate information than this guy, and truly one of the most genuinely KIND people I have ever met.  Kristyna Engdahl is BRILLIANT.  Her writing is phenomenal, she’s fair, she has a GIFT for public speaking and thinking on her feet, and I WISH everyone at home could meet her and feel her energy in person.. because she makes EVERY DAY better when you’re around her.  Andy Kendeigh is the big brother I never had–always supportive, always caring, just an AMAZING GUY and such a wonderful friend.  And holy crap, is this guy GOOD.  Athletes and coaches LOVE him for a reason–he’s hilarious, hard working, devoted to what he shares every night and throughout every season.  In addition… our future is so very bright.  Alexandra Stone, Chinh Doan, Laurann Robinson, Sean Everson, Matt Serwe, Cem Brinklow, Ashley Nodgaard, Josh Gear, Davonte McKenith, David Earl, Katie Bane, Tanner Kahler, Matt Lothrop, Camila Orti… all of the people you see and many you don’t… they are HUNGRY for good journalism.  They want to tell good stories.  They are willing to sacrifice sleep, personal time, personal LIVES, to make KETV the best it can be.  This team IS TRULY THE BEST.  You will not find local news in our state that is better–YOU JUST WON’T.

***

I knew this day was coming.  I didn’t think it would be this WEIRD.  That’s the only word that makes sense.  I don’t have enough words, and at the same time, I feel like I’ve said too much.

We’ve got a few weeks left, Omaha–let’s make it awesome.  Westside, I hope to make you proud.  KETV, I hope I’ve made a mark, some kind of difference.

And to my boys.. I love you.  Let’s go hunt some pokemon and have a great morning together.

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Photo courtesy Photography By CB

The Year of the Phoenix

“Phoenixes burst into flame and are reborn from the ashes.”

Every lyric of her song shone through her face.  She didn’t spin, raise a leg or lift an arm without passion behind her movement.  Finally, as the audience cheered and applauded, she jogged off stage and collapsed into the arms of a woman behind the curtain, allowing emotion to overcome her.

Miss Nebraska 2016 was simply the Year of the Phoenix.

***

Guys, I don’t have words to tell you HOW MUCH I LOVE MISS NEBRASKA WEEK.  These women are simply INCREDIBLE; they are physical specimens after months of devotion to health and unwavering dedication to fitness.  They glow with energy and charisma, arguably some of the most charming, personable, enjoyable people you could hope to meet.  They are intelligent; they are well spoken; they are confident; they are TALENTED.  They are the best of the best, and not just the contestants, but the board members and volunteers who work tirelessly year round to make Miss Nebraska week happen.

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This year, my role shifted from the giddy spectator in the audience, to the selfie-loving goofball turned co-host on stage.

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I was so very honored to emcee this year’s preliminary and final nights of competition, alongside respected News Director and community leader, Scott Carlson.  THIS GUY IS AMAZING! A consummate gentleman with the classic announcer voice who made the entire week just FUN!  We didn’t get the front seat view hundreds of others did this month in North Platte, Nebraska.. we got a behind the scenes look every day at rehearsal, and every night when everything was on the line.  For this year’s ‘recap’ addition of my There She Is series.. I’m filling you in.

***

June 6, 2016

‘Wow. I am so unbelievably blessed with the most incredible people in my life. I could not ask for a better host family. I feel so at home here. We stayed up for like an hour just talking about everything and my platform. I am really taking it all in. And I love this! I am enjoying every minute of it which is exactly what I am supposed to be doing. Even just reflecting on my year and all of the incredible people that played such an important role in helping me develop into the person I am. I am so so so lucky by being blessed with the Halls and Denise and this organization. Honestly no matter what happens. God is good all the time. All the time God is good.’

She hit ‘send’ on her phone, connecting with her mom at the beginning of what would be an unforgettable week.  She’d been part of Miss Nebraska week twice before, finishing in the Top 5 and then as 1st Runner Up.  She’d spent years telling students and groups about how she’d been bullied as a teenager, tormented into self-doubt and silence.  She wanted this.. to BE Miss Nebraska.. but she already had perspective.

5 days later..

“Your new Miss Nebraska is contestant #12, Miss Omaha Aleah Peters!”

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Photo courtesy Brooke Butterfield Photography

Who is Miss Nebraska 2016 Aleah Peters? I hope you’ll CLICK HERE and check out my interview with Aleah months before she traveled to North Platte.  You could also CLICK HERE to read about how she came OH so close two years ago, finishing 1st runner up.  Still, as I’ve written before, I believe you can tell so much about a person’s true character by what they say and do when they’re OUT of the spotlight…

Aleah sent that text message to her mom, Kay, two full days before she even began preliminary competition.  Folks, this year’s competition was CRAZY TOUGH.  Not just the Top 5, but any of the Top 10 could’ve become Miss Nebraska.  THEY WERE/ARE SENSATIONAL.  Yet this panel of incredible judges (including a motivational speaker, a woman traveling the country handing out checks to cancer survivors, a Top 5 finalist at Miss America, and one of Omaha’s most well known businesswomen and entrepreneurs), chose ALEAH to represent our state and everything we stand for.  Yes, they saw THIS..

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Photo courtesy Kamie Stephen for the North Platte Telegraph

..a 3-time world champion baton twirler dazzling the crowd with her craft.  YES, they saw a CHISELED athlete who has muscles I don’t even know how to tone.  And YES, they saw a bright, articulate young woman with an action plan and mission to make a difference… but perhaps they also saw what Aleah’s mom was proudest of in her daughter through that text message.  Gratitude.  Maturity.  Perspective.

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And THAT is what she will now bring to countless children across our state and beyond, leading by example as Miss Nebraska 2016.

***

She smiled on stage, trying to hide the nervous electricity pulsing through her veins.  It was the first night of preliminary competition, the first opportunity after MONTHS, no YEARS of preparation, to take that step closer to becoming Miss Nebraska 2016. And then she heard it, “Miss Queen City Lianna Prill!”

Another night, another final stretch to wait for that envelope to be passed up to the stage.  She had performed her talent first that night; she set the bar for how the judges would compare and score all of the other talents that followed.  Then, she heard her name AGAIN, “Miss Queen City, Lianna Prill!”

Photos courtesy Brooke Butterfield Photography

Lianna was a double-prelim winner, claiming awards in both Evening Gown and Talent (a tie on Night 2 along with Aleah.)  The look on her face, BOTH nights, was PRICELESS, disbelief and sheer joy.  Lianna went on to finish 2nd Runner-Up at this year’s pageant, a huge jump from her finish two years ago, outside the Top 8.  I’d argue few deserved a boost like this more than this incredible young woman, knowing what she’d battled through over the last year.

As Lianna told me in her interview earlier this year, she has Celiac Disease; though she has completely changed her lifestyle to stay as happy and healthy as she can be, she IS still dealing with a chronic disorder.  Regardless, Lianna took on a full-time internship with us here at KETV, while working as an editor with the Daily Nebraskan, WHILE attending classes full time at UNL, WHILE taking part in events from Hastings to Omaha as Miss Queen City.  Already put to the test physically, Lianna was then dealt an unimaginable emotional blow; personal events in her family ultimately lead to her parents’ divorce.

Lianna needed this week. Her family needed this.  I simply BEAMED on stage watching Lianna accept her awards, and by late Thursday night I was nothing short of giddy for her when I bumped into Lianna after visitation.

“Lianna, you are a DOUBLE PRELIM WINNER!  You won TWO prelim awards!” I told her.

“I can’t believe it,” she told me, unable to hide her smile.  “I’m just so, so grateful.”

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Focused.  Kind.  Humble.  THAT is the caliber of person this program recognizes and lifts up, helping inspire others facing challenges of their own.

***

June 10, 2016

‘I am heartbroken. Such a senseless waste of a beautiful life that contributed so much to the 4H community. She would have been the 6th Boulder County Fair Queen to receive the crown and join the sisterhood after me. I will always remember her as a great teammate, competitor, role model, horsewoman, and a kind soul. We will miss you Ashley.’

She had already been through a grueling week of rehearsals, appearances, and competition.  Saturday’s final run-through was supposed to be low-stress, and quick.  The night before she had received crushing news.. a close friend was dead.  Murdered, allegedly at the hand of someone she cared for.  She went to rehearsal Saturday stoic, telling her fellow contestants what happened.. women she knew in much the same way as the girl who was now gone.

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Miss Western Nebraska Marie Allison lived in and competed in pageants in Colorado for several years before moving to Nebraska.  Through those experiences, she met Ashley Doolittle.  Police say June 9, Ashley’s ex-boyfriend shot and killed her, upset she had broken off their year-long relationship.

Less than 24 hours after hearing the news of her friend’s terrible death, Marie competed on the Miss Nebraska stage for one final time, and won the Non-Finalist Interview Award.  Somehow, she pushed through whatever pain and despair she was feeling, and stood tall not only for herself and the loved ones supporting her, but for the Little Sisters who idolized her.  They knew nothing of the horrors of what happens in our world.. they only saw beauty, love and kindness.

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Self-confidence.  Leadership. Resolve.  THAT is what these young women showed more than 30 little girls this year, many of whom will grow up wanting to be just like their Big Sisters.

***

Now, the dancer.  The girl who conveyed every word and every beat of her music on the Miss Nebraska stage.  I stood behind the curtain, thinking ‘wow.. she is so passionate about this!’ and suddenly, I noticed that volunteer Jordan Engel was waiting alongside me.

“We’re trying to make sure someone is back here every night for Alex,” said Jordan.  After talking to Miss Fur Trade Days Alex O’Connor this spring, I knew she cared deeply for her platform, Congenital Heart Defect Awareness, and that she had dedicated her performance to kids everywhere facing what she had as a child.  I thought that was fueling her.

“Her uncle died last week,” said Jordan.  “His funeral was Friday.”

Alex had said goodbye to her uncle, who died suddenly and unexpectedly, just one week before arriving in North Platte to compete for Miss Nebraska.  What should have been a joyous and prideful time for her family to celebrate this amazing woman, was diluted and tempered by raw emotion and grief.  Alex used whatever she was feeling on the inside to light up on that stage and make everyone watching feel something incredibly powerful.. for herself, for her family, and for her uncle.

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Photo courtesy Brooke Butterfield Photography

‘Billy O helping me with my queen wave. ❤️ you always knew the right things to do in order to make me smile. I cherished every moment I got to be with you. You will truly be missed. Rest in peace ❤️ my uncle.’

Compassion.  Strength.  Love.  THAT is what makes this entire week more than just a competition, it’s a showcase of the best attributes women everywhere; no, PEOPLE everywhere, should aim to achieve.

I’ve been a contestant in the Miss Nebraska Pageant.  It is exhilarating.  It is an honor.  It is SO MUCH FUN.  But it is also EXHAUSTING.  It is emotionally draining.  It is a competition that pushes you to become your best, but requires ALL you have to give.  To hear each of these stories throughout this week, knowing what these women were enduring as they took part in this marathon week..

I’m speechless.

Except I still have my Brandi Petersen Unofficial Fan Club Awards to hand out.  Oh yeah, I didn’t forget!! I know how much my readers look forward to these!

<crickets>

WHATEVER.

The Walking The Red Carpet Like a BOSS Awards

Ohhhhhhhhh, evening gowns, how I love thee.  Before I go any further, THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU to Joe Bohac and the Black Swan Dress Boutique for loaning me three GORGEOUS gowns to host the pageant!  I felt like a PRINCESS (albeit a princess who tested how far jersey can STRETCH before bursting..)

Another HUGE thank you to the backstage GENIUSES, Becky Serrano who styled my hair each night, and Sue Miller and her Mary Kay team for transforming me from Troll to Ta-da!  THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU everyone!

OK.. now the AWARDS..

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Miss Douglas County Savannah Rave (who was also 1st Runner Up!) had one of my FAVORITE gowns of the week.  I GASPED when I saw this gown… absolutely STUNNING on stage, and plus.. WHITE. JERSEY.  I mean, who can wear white jersey and make it look THIS dang amazing?  Her name is Savannah.  She’s AWESOME.  (Gown by Tarik Ediz from the Black Swan Dress Boutique.)

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Miss Scotts Bluff County Allison Baird (a Top 5 finalist!)  was STUNNING.  I’ve said before how much I love COLOR.. yet two of my favorite gowns were Savannah’s white and Allie’s black.  THIS GOWN WAS SOOOOOO PERFECT.  It was elegant, mature (in a good way!), and SUCH a show stopper!  (Gown by Ritzee from the Black Swan Dress Boutique.)

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Miss Kearney Stacy Pospisil (a Top 10 finalist) won a Preliminary Evening Gown Award for this dress.. and OH, HOW I LOVED IT!  Again, I LOVE color, and not everyone can work a hot pink, ruffly princess dress.  STACY DID.  It was GLORIOUS.  (Gown by Jovani from the Winning Crown Boutique.)

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Another of my favorite gowns was on a teen contestant.. Miss Scotts Bluff County’s Outstanding Teen Carsyn Long!  THIS. WAS. PERFECTION.  (Carsyn is pictured above on the left next to the equally fabulous Miss Chadron’s Outstanding Teen Emma Wilkinson!) You guys, I still can’t get ENOUGH of this BEAUTIFUL gown.. it’s like it was MADE for Carsyn and for the Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen competition.  Elegant, fun, regal, stunning. This might have been my FAVORITE gown of the week.  (Gown by Jovani from the Winning Crown Boutique.)

Finally, not competing but HOLY. COW.  THIS GOWN, worn by Miss Nebraska 2015 Alyssa Howell during Wednesday Night’s Awards Presentation.

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No words.  Ok, two words:  HOLY CRAP.  (Gown by Mac Duggal from the Black Swan Dress Boutique–FABULOUS owner Joe Bohac is next to Alyssa in the picture!)

***

The Our State’s More Talented Than Your State Awards

Two talent winners Night One.  Two talent winners Night Two.  Two Overall Talent winners.  An INCREDIBLE Non-Finalist Talent Winner.  An outgoing teen who is also a 6-time world champion, and a show-stopping teen crowned in her place.

Our state > your state.

MIC DROP.

This year’s field of talent was OUT OF THIS WORLD for both the Miss and the Teen contestants.  I have a strong feeling you’re going to see/hear from these incredible women long after their pageant days are done–they have PHENOMENAL gifts and those of us in attendance at this year’s pageant were blessed to witness firsthand!  It’s so hard to narrow this down.. but here were my favorites!

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Photo courtesy Brooke Butterfield Photography

Miss Chadron’s Outstanding Teen Emma Wilkinson.  Sometime, I’d like to talk to Emma’s mom about WHAT POINT she knew Emma had this GIFT–no, not a talent, a GIFT to sing.  Yes, you can improve.. yes, you can fine tune, but what this girl has is a God-given GIFT.  From the MOMENT her music began and she raised that microphone, I was BLOWN AWAY by her performance.  So was the crowd and the judges; Emma was this year’s 1st Runner Up.  Assuming Disney or Pixar doesn’t hear this girl and snatch her up for their next blockbuster, I am SO EAGER to see her compete on the Miss Nebraska stage someday!!

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Photo courtesy Kamie Stephen for the North Platte Telegraph

Miss Nebraska State Fair Payton Merritt.  I’ve been pretty clear in my past posts that I ADORE this girl.  She’s brilliant, she’s kind, she’s stunning.. and MY LAWD can this girl sing.  Her voice is SO UNIQUE.  She can do things while she’s singing that are SO DIFFICULT: growls, vibrato, power, range.   She simply TRANSFORMS on stage from a petite blonde to a POWERHOUSE vocalist. This year, she shared her own rendition of the classic House Of The Rising Sun, and I texted a friend that this girl could WIN a prelim talent award at Miss America with it,  IT WAS THAT GOOD.  Payton walked away Wednesday night with a Miss Nebraska Prelim Talent Award (tying with Miss Twin Rivers Jenni Wahonick!) and was named a Top 10 finalist.

Right photo courtesy of Kamie Stephen for the North Platte Telegraph

Miss Omaha’s Outstanding Teen Hannah Miller… now THE NEW Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen!  What a JOYOUS performance from our state’s new teen titleholder.  For Miss America groupies like me, this performance reminded me SO MUCH of Miss America 2013 Mallory Hytes Hagan.  Hannah’s tap dance was sassy, energetic and fun, it was a SHOW STOPPER!  For the last two years, Nebraska’s teen titleholders have finished in the Top 10 on the national stage in July, and I can’t WAIT to see Hannah continue that trend this summer!

Ok.. I just can’t narrow down the rest.  Miss Alliance Kate Duncan‘s vocal performance was simply BEAUTIFUL, and earned her the Non-Finalist Talent Award.  Miss Chadron Tyler Rambali’s performance of Let It Go with her Idina-Menzel-like-pipes shot her into the Top 10 in this, her FIRST try at the Miss Nebraska crown.  Miss Kearney Stacy Pospisil’s dance was absolutely BREATHTAKING, also helping her make the Top 10 this year.  This year’s competition was simply a talent SHOWCASE that I wish our entire state could have seen and been proud of.

***

The Put-Down-That-Runza, Petersen! Awards

Since I’ve been home from Miss Nebraska Week, and I’m talking to people about how it went, these women and their bodies are usually the FIRST thing I brag on.  Yes, I’m aware of how creepy that sounds.

I think ‘Swimsuit Competition’ and the stigmas associated with that phrase will in someway ALWAYS be stereotypes and negative connotations our program is faced with.  Here’s the deal; this is NOT a skinny competition.  This is NOT a contest to see who can survive the longest on chicken broth.  This is NOT public shaming of young women, in fact, it’s just the opposite. What I see more and more each year I return to North Platte are fit, strong, healthy women, PROUD of the work they have put in and ready to show that off.  I know better than anyone (thank you, Spanx), you can hide things under clothes.  The thing with a swimsuit–there’s NO hiding.  So these women have learned how to be the best physical version of themselves to prepare for that moment, and in doing so, establish healthy lifestyles that last long beyond Miss Nebraska week.  To ALL of this year’s contestants, I BOW DOWN TO YOU.

Aleah, Savannah and Stacy’s photos courtesy Kamie Stephen for the North Platte Telegraph.  Allison’s photo courtesy Black Swan Dress Boutique/Joe Bohac

Miss Scotts Bluff County Allison Baird was my Lifestyle and Fitness winner.  MUSCLE ON MUSCLE WITH MUSCLE.  ABS FOR DAYS.  It was like a magazine cover!  And Allie’s PROUD of that photo!! She told me ‘I worked hard to feel confident up there!’

***

Neither I, nor any of the audience gets to see the Interview portion of competition, but we all did get to see the On Stage Questions these women were presented with.  Folks, I’ve interviewed a lot of people over my 15 years of journalism.  I’ve heard politicians dance around questions they don’t want to (or can’t) answer.  I’ve heard leaders stumble and stammer when thousands (or more) were listening in.  These women, all 17-24 years old.. fielded some DIFFICULT questions on issues ranging from the transgender rights debate, to the presidential race, to prison control in Nebraska.  They were articulate, confident, INTELLIGENT.  THIS is the part of the competition I wish I could LIVE STREAM to haters everywhere, because IT. WAS. AWESOME.

***

I woke up groggy and immediately aware my feet HURT after a week straight of standing in heels for hours at a time.  I grabbed my phone, hoping to feed my social media addiction by seeing how far word had spread that Aleah Peters was the new Miss Nebraska 2016.  Instead, I saw pain, anger, grief.  49 people had been shot and killed inside a nightclub in the deadliest shooting in recent American history.  I drove home from North Platte, listening to news coverage on satellite radio the entire trip, my heart heavy for my friends in Orlando covering the horror, and for the country we increasingly seem to be turning into.

I don’t want to believe that.  I want to focus on the good.  I need to believe that like the Phoenix, we can be reborn from the ashes and soar to something higher.

These women give me hope.  That hard work still exists.. and pays off.  That good things happen to good people.  That when you recognize the good, it spawns MORE positivity, a cycle that leads to endless energy, smiles, and inspiration.

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LOVE BEATS HATE.  Love for each other, love for what we do, and love for LIFE.

 Congratulations and THANK YOU to the Miss Nebraska Class of 2016 for allowing me to share these stories of challenges and successes.  I cannot WAIT to see how high and far each of you soar.

***

My thoughts and prayers are with Ashley Doolittle, her family and friends.  May she rest in peace.

Fire and Gold

June 4, 2015.

I had the humbling honor of hosting the Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen pageant, and spent the day at North Platte High School in rehearsals.  During breaks, I tried to upload as many photos to the Miss Omaha Facebook page as I could, typing furiously to tag contestants and draw more viewers to our site.  I almost didn’t notice when a stunning blonde sat next to me and said ‘Hi, how’s it going?’

Her name was Alyssa Howell.

Funny how such a small gesture of kindness, just taking a moment to ask someone how they are doing, can make such a big impact on how you think of a person.  A panel of six judges thought VERY highly of Alyssa.. naming her Miss Nebraska 2015 just 24 hours later.

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Photo courtesy the North Platte Telegraph

“Miss Nebraska week was the most fun I have ever had!” Alyssa told me recently.  “I was surrounded by 12 amazing contestants that not only were great friends to me during the week, but who also supported me throughout my year.”

And so began a reign that represents everything this Miss Nebraska has stood for; friendship, kindness, genuineness.

As a longtime Miss America fan and a journalist who is always subconciously observing, I’ve noticed over the years the reaction of other contestants speaks volumes about the woman crowned.  Minutes after Alyssa was named Miss Nebraska, she was immediately embraced by  her ‘pageant sister’, Miss Omaha Megan Gould.  Just weeks later, Alyssa invited Megan, as well as other Miss Nebraska finalists Brooke Ludemann, LaRissa McKean and Allison Tietjen, to perform at her send-off party for Miss America.  These women, Alyssa’s competition at this time last year, seemed genuinely happy for her and showed up in full force to give her their support; Alyssa was eager to share her spotlight that night to showcase the titleholders who had become her friends.

For me.. it goes back to that day in the cafeteria.. Alyssa Howell is REAL.  She doesn’t pretend to care about people; she just DOES.  She’s taken that incredible quality across the country for the last year, focusing much of her time and energy on children.

“Not having grown up in Nebraska, this year took me to so many new places!” said Alyssa.  “Just being able to reach Nebraskans across the state was such a wonderful experience.  Whether it was a Pumpkin Chuckin’ in a cornfield in northeastern Nebraska, a small town elementary school with a total of 42 students, or a large scale fundraising Gala in downtown Omaha, I was able to reach out to the people of Nebraska on so many levels.  If anything, this year reminded me just how much I love being a part of the Cornhusker State.”

Alyssa visited dozens of schools across Nebraska, and four Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals in several states.  THAT has been Alyssa’s passion for years now, connecting with sick children through her Miracle Bags program.

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Alyssa recruiting 2016 Miss Nebraska contestants to put together and deliver bags of goodies, ‘Miracle Bags’ to kids at Omaha’s Children’s Hospital & Medical Center

CLICK HERE to watch KETV’s story about Alyssa & her Miracle Bags!

“As soon as I won Miss Nebraska, one of my priorities for the year was to impact as many children as I could with my Miracle Bags program,” said Alyssa.  “And with that goal in mind I was able to visit the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals in Omaha, Denver, Milwaukee, and Washington DC, and deliver over 180 Miracle Bags!  Many people ask me how I am able to visit children who are in such dire situations, and not be completely depressed after the fact.  I always tell them that the feeling of seeing a child who is going through the most difficult time in their life light up at the sight of my crown and Miracle Bag is indescribable.  And I will never forget the parents who tell me that this is the first time they have seen their child smile in days.  Children’s Miracle Network will forever be a passion of mine.”

To countless families and children, Alyssa made a profound impact.  She also made a huge mark on the pageant world, when in September, she travelled to Atlantic City to represent Nebraska in the 2016 Miss America Pageant.

“I have watched the Miss America Pageant every year on TV since I can remember, but never in my wildest dreams did I believe that I would one day be on that stage!” said Alyssa.  “Even after winning Miss Nebraska, my goal for Miss America was to have a blast, meet some amazing girls, and represent Nebraska well.”

Check, check, CHECK.  And when 7-million Americans tuned in to see who would make the Top 15..

Left photo courtesy Getty Images

..they heard Miss Nebraska, Alyssa Howell.  I screamed and jumped in my living room.. Alysa’s family and friends were EXUBERANT in the crowd in Atlantic City.  With the confidence women dream of and the swagger of Bruno Mars, Alyssa strutted her stuff on that stage in Lifestyle and Fitness.. and sauntered right into the Top 12.

Photos courtesy Getty Images

“Being called into the Top 15 was a complete and total shock,” said Alyssa.  “Standing on that stage with 51 other talented, beautiful, intelligent women, I never thought that I would hear NEBRASKA called! I still get goosebumps when I watch the video.  When I made the Top 12, I was just so excited and honored to move on!  I was surrounded by some of my best friends in the competition and it was such a surreal moment.”

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Photo courtesy Getty Images

That is where Alyssa’s journey ended, sadly, before she could play her INCREDIBLE piano solo for America.  But when I spoke to her just a few weeks later at the Miss Omaha Pageant, Alyssa didn’t have ONE negative thing to say about her experience;  no trash talk on her fellow contestants, no coulda woulda shoulda’s.. simply a completely EXCITED outlook on what she could accomplish next in her home state as Miss Nebraska.  And holy cow.. has that been a lot.  After Miss America, Alyssa was featured in US Weekly and Pageantry magazines.  She was a high profile model in Omaha Fashion Week.  She secured and strengthened partnerships and sponsor connections with Omaha’s world renowned Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, Sun Tan City, Kontempo. and nationally known stylist Kirby Keomysay among others.

Alyssa also became a frequent muse for photographers, taking part in numerous photo shoots with Deyo’s Photography in Nebraska and Jenn Cady Photography based in South Carolina.

Alyssa accepted every interview request that came her way, including the nationally recognized Pageant Junkies (CLICK HERE to listen!), Omaha’s KFAB and KETV (CLICK HERE to watch!)the North Platte Telegraph (CLICK HERE to read!), and ME!

“This year was definitely more challenging than I expected,” said Alyssa.  “Seeing all of the work Miss Nebraska does from Facebook and Instagram posts pales in comparison to the actual job.  What people don’t see is the full hair and makeup 4+ days a week, the early mornings, the days when I drive 8+ hours for an appearance, the days that I was sick, the days that I had three appearances and events.  Truly, this is a 24/7 job.  But what I also didn’t expect is how rewarding this whole experience would be! By going through everything this job requires, I have not only learned so many life skills, I have also learned so much about myself.  I know that if I can be Miss Nebraska, I can do anything.  This job has given me a strong sense of confidence about what I am capable of, as well as so many amazing memories and friendships!”

***

June 4, 2016.

I have the humbling honor of writing this blog post, chronicling Miss Nebraska 2015 Alyssa Howell and her year of service.  Initially, I wanted to title this article Humble and Kind, inspired by the Tim McGraw song that to me, so reflects who this incredible young woman is.  Despite her jaw-dropping beauty, smile and grace, she doesn’t radiate a shred of arrogance.  She is giving, real, and most of all KIND.

Alyssa Howell is fire and gold.  She has a huge heart that she has opened to countless children over the last year and more, with the aura of a woman who can only be called QUEEN.  As this journey ends, she’ll pick up where she left off one year ago.. pursuing her Elementary Education degree at Creighton University, intending to impact even more children through her career, now with a big boost from her life experiences and financial awards from being Miss Nebraska.

“I have won over $20,000 in cash scholarships for school,” said Alyssa.  “This has made all the difference in my future!  I started at Creighton University with a total of $27,000 in student loans over four years.  Graduating to become an elementary school teacher with that debt was going to be difficult to say the least.  This program is first and foremost a scholarship organization, and I cannot say enough about the impact that Miss Nebraska and Miss America makes on young women who are getting a college education.”

As I close out.. I must share a ‘shout out’ to part of  Alyssa’s dream team.. her boyfriend, Grady, and her directors, Kayla and Rachel.

These three are superstars in their own right; people who have been in Alyssa’s corner since the moment that crown was placed on her head.  They have also become near and dear to my heart with their humor, loyalty and dedication to helping Alyssa become the absolute best she could be.  Each of this year’s 36 women I’ve profiled have set out to make the world a better place, supported emotionally and otherwise by their own #TeamAlyssa’s.  To ALL of you, THANK YOU for helping these fires burn so brightly, for allowing these gems to sparkle.  They’re about to embark on one of the craziest, exhausting, yet exhilarating weeks of their lives.. and they’ll need you.

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“To this year’s contestants, whether you win or not, Miss Nebraska week is the most fun you will ever have!” said Alyssa.  “Don’t let the stress get to you, and don’t take yourself too seriously.  Just have fun and enjoy that time that you get with your Miss Nebraska sisters!  To Miss Nebraska 2016, I am so incredibly excited to see everything that this year has in store for you!  Remember to make this year your own, to take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way, and find those small moments that make every challenge worth it.  Most importantly, remember that this is a year of service.  Never underestimate what an impact a crown and a sash can make.”

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Photo courtesy Jenn Cady Photography

***

CLICK HERE to follow Miss Nebraska 2015 Alyssa Howell

on Facebook and on Instagram.

WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT ALYSSA?

2015 * ROAR

2015 * Miracle Worker

2014 * The Kid Whisperer

***

CLICK HERE to meet the 2016 Miss Nebraska Pageant contestants!

The 2016 Miss Nebraska Scholarship Pageant takes place June 8-11 in North Platte, Nebraska.  Learn more on THEIR WEBSITE, FACEBOOK PAGE, or follow ON TWITTER and ON INSTAGRAM.

***

PREVIOUS.. Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen 2015 Steffany Lien!

CHECK BACK for my 2016 Miss Nebraska Pageant ReCap, and for a look at Miss Nebraska 2015 Alyssa Howell’s farewell video!

To read more about this year’s contestants, or the Miss Nebraska/Miss Nebraska’s OT classes of 2015 & 2014, click the THERE SHE IS link at the top of the page!

Twirling To The Top

Last night, I had one of those moments where I just stopped, breathed deeply, and thought ‘this is the life!’  My boys, my man and I were all at the pool.. I was listening to them splash and laugh together, while I laid in the glorious sun for a few blissful minutes.

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Then I immediately felt GUILT… why was I just lying there?!? I should have been in the pool WITH them, right?!?  I *hope my guilt was unfounded.. that after a long two months of blog-writing, documentary-producing, news-anchoring, event-emceeing, etc… it was OK for me to sit and relax.

However, there are those among us who never stop.  They use every moment of every day to their full advantage.They rarely take a break for downtime… and in return, every day they are one step closer to the top of whatever peak they are climbing.  They define ‘outstanding’ in their attitudes, goals, and the way they touch people along that journey.

Steffany Lien has spent the last year twirling to the top.

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Photo courtesy Jenn Cady Photography

“It has been a busy year, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way!’ said Steffany, who  next week, will pass on her title as Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen.  Anyone who was there to watch Steffany last year (click here to read more!) will tell you how outstanding this young woman truly is.

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Steffany started her year as Miss Nebraska’s Oustanding Teen with media coverage across Nebraska.  CLICK HERE to read her story in the Lincoln Journal Star!

Let’s start with her talent… which is WORLD CLASS.

“I compete with baton twirling,” said Steffany.

OK, STOP.  Steffany doesn’t just COMPETE with baton twirling

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Photo courtesy Blinq Studio

Steffany is a 6-TIME World Champion baton twirler.  Her talent WOWED the crowd at Miss America’s Outstanding Teen (more on that later..) and leaves audiences EVERYWHERE in awe.  Steffany and her incredible gift have been featured by Omaha’s Metro Magazine, by television news outlets, by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, by the Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in Lincoln, even as part of the Pegasus Parade at the Kentucky Derby.  This spring, she was also selected by the University of Louisville to be the school’s featured twirler, a highly coveted position including a full-ride scholarship.Folks, that’s $25,000+ A YEAR.

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Steffany has fine-tuned and perfected this incredible gift with years of training and performing, and showcasing her art has been a highlight of her year as Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen.

“I was invited to perform for the Big Red Tailgate to benefit the Completely Kids Program in Omaha,” said Steffany.  “Not only was I proud to be the headliner at the event that raised $175,000 to combat childhood hunger and provide after school programs, but Tommie Frazier sang ‘Dear Old Nebraska U’ a capella while I twirled!”

“Performing at the Kentucky Derby and the Pegasus Parade was clearly a highlight of my year,” said Steffany.  “When I signed autographs and took pictures with people at a festival the same weekend in Kentucky, the people there couldn’t have been nicer to Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen!”

CLICK HERE to read more about Steffany’s performance at Churchill Downs, thanks to the Lincoln Journal Star!

As I’ve written about previously, the Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen program is the ‘little sister’ organziation to Miss Nebraska, all part of the Miss America Organization.  One of the biggest differences between the Teen and Miss program.. these teens are also STUDENTS.  While their Miss counterparts often defer their college entrance or postpone classes during their year of service, Teen titleholders take part in events and service all year IN ADDITION to their time in the classroom.  Steffany is no exception; in fact, she’s set a new standard for what is possible, even expected, out of these exceptional young women.

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“I dance and compete with Madonna ProActive Dance Team, I teach baton twirling at Madonna ProActive, I’m in National Honor Society, and I’ve maintained a weighted 4.28 GPA,” said Steffany, who just graduated this May from Lincoln Southwest High School.  “Most importantly, I had decided early on to leave a legacy of active participation at charitable events, so this year I performed at, appeared for, and worked at an average of two events a week for the year.  This means that I have participated in over 110 events as Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen.  My white sash is now grey, my crown is spotted from raindrops and races, my tennis shoes have logged miles for health runs, and I need new heels!  It has been a very busy schedule, but I have loved every moment because I will remember these experiences for the rest of my life.”

The montage above barely scratches the SURFACE of the photos posted on the Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen Facebook page, showcasing Steffany’s service this year.  She also returned to Peru on a mission trip with orphans, work she has dedicated countless hours to over the years. (Click here to read more!)

ORPHANAGE

“When I became Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen, I expected to be out and about in the community, attending charity events and promoting a variety of organizations,” said Steffany, who has volunteered for the Child Advocacy Center of Lincoln, Kids Against Hunger, March of Dimes of Omaha, Food Bank of Lincoln, People’s City Mission, the Autism Family Network, the Alzheimer’s Association, Pinwheels for Prevention, the LSW Parent’s Advisory Council… the list goes ON AND ON AND ON.  “While this was my main focus throughout the year, the part I had not anticipated was how much these experiences would change me and how I view life.”

THIS is the caliber of young woman we want to represent our state, do we not?  And Steffany did, oh so well, at the 2016 Miss America’s Outstanding Teen Pageant in Orlando, Florida.

For the second year in a row, Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen finished in the Top 10 in this national competition, in front of the 2016 Miss America Class and tens of thousands, if not more, online.  Steffany had a clear impact on the audience and the organization, later featured by MAOT on their Facebook page, and drawing wide support from fans across social media.

CLICK HERE to read more about Steffany’s success at Miss America’s Outstanding Teen, in an article featured by KETV!

“Miss America’s Outstanding Teen was amazing, and so different from any other experience I’ve ever had,” said Steffany.  “I loved meeting other young women from across the US, and gaining friendships that will last a lifetime.  I was surprised to hear my name in the Top 10, because every girl competing at MAOTeen was well-spoke, talented, and we had all been working hard leading up to the national pageant.  For me, it was just an honor to be standing among them, but it was also satisfying to maek the Top 10 and be able to represent Nebraska at the competition.”

TONY BOWLS

Steffany came home from Orlando with $3100 in scholarship money, adding to the $1500 she won at Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen.  She also caught the attention of designers Tony Bowls and Ashley Lauren, nationally renowed photographer Jenn Cady, as well as Lincoln boutique The Black Swan, leading to several modelling opportunities throughout her year.

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Photo courtesy Jenn Cady Photography

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“The big events, the fashion shots with Ashley Lauren and Tony Bowls, and all of those wonderful purple bags from the Black Swan Dress Boutique bring me more pleasure than I’d like to admit,” said Steffany.  “However, I had one recent experience that made me understand the real meaning of being an outstanding teen.  Last week, a mom unpacked her daughter’s backpack at the end of the school year.  In it, she found a paper her daughter had written in school after given an assignment to write about someone that is important to her.  I was surprised this quiet, thoughtful child wrote about me.  I had no idea the impact on her values and her perspective about my attitude and ‘kindness’.  And although I giggled that she wrote I am the ‘world’s most amazing teen’, I am humbled and know that the title of Miss Nebraskas’ Outstanding Teen is one that I hold for life and that I better live up to this little girl’s expectations!”

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One year ago, Steffany Lien looked up and focused on her goals and dreams.  While many of us would get tired, and take a break, she kept climbing.. or in her case, twirling.

When Steffany represented Nebraska on the national stage this year, her program’s new directors, Kali Tripp and Heather Edwards, created her catch phrase: #TwirlingToTheTop.

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Steffany Lien has EARNED blissful moments poolside or otherwise.  She IS the top.. the essence of what it means to be outstanding, and a young woman our state will continue to be so very proud of.

JENN CADY

Photo courtesy Jenn Cady Photography

Even now, as the clock winds down on her time as Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen, Steffany continues to put others ahead of herself.

“More than anything, I am thrilled for the next girl who will earn the crown, and can’t wait to see all the great qualities she will bring to this organization and how she will represent Nebraska.”

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CLICK HERE to follow Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen 2015 Steffany Lien on Instagram

WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT STEFFANY?

2015 * Vision For The Future

For more information on becoming a Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen contestant, contact Director Heather Edwards at heatheraloseke@gmail.com or Director Kali Tripp at kalinicoletv@gmail.com.

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The 2016 Miss Nebraska Scholarship Pageant takes place June 8-11 in North Platte, Nebraska.  Learn more on THEIR WEBSITE, FACEBOOK PAGE, or follow ON TWITTER and ON INSTAGRAM.

***

PREVIOUS.. SPECIAL FEATURE: Miss America 2016 Betty Cantrell!

NEXT.. Miss Nebraska 2015 Alyssa Howell!

To read more about this year’s contestants, or the Miss Nebraska/Miss Nebraska’s OT classes of 2015 & 2014, click the THERE SHE IS link at the top of the page!