This Week's Editorial
Outdoor classroom PDF E-mail

School bells won’t ring for a month or more, but there is a whole lot of learning going on here in Hamilton County.

A nature discovery camp established by the Prairie Plains Resource Institute back in 1992 has evolved into a fabulous outdoor learning lab, inviting children out on the land, and into the water, to discover the great diversity of life that exists just beyond their own backyards. Summer Orientation About Rivers, better known to some 200 campers this month as SOAR, is a genuine, memorable, first-class blend of education and fun.

That’s a rare find for kids these days, many of whom spend too much time planted in front of the television or tuned into some form of electronic device. SOAR invites them to unplug from their everyday lives and discover the wonderful world of nature and history that lies in the fields and streams not far from where they live.

It’s no wonder that kids come away buzzing about the program after what is most likely their busiest week of the summer. The list of activities in the week-long camp features the always popular River Day, sand sculptures, obstacle courses, archery, art projects, nature hikes and so much more. Seeing their eyes light up telling about their SOAR adventures makes you want to be a kid again and sign up for next year’s camp.

We have heard time and again from area residents that it’s not just Hamilton County youth who are soaking in this unique experience. Many of the students wearing the colorful SOAR caps are grandchildren, cousins and friends or kin of local residents who have heard about this unique outdoor learning lab. They come and spend a week learning during the day, and bonding with their friends or families in the evening, creating an experience they will remember for years. What a powerful testimonial!

I can’t say enough about the hard work and commitment Bill and Jan Whitney and so many other dedicated staff members and volunteers have contributed to this program over the years. Their vision to create an interdisciplinary curriculum including natural and physical science, history, art, agriculture, language arts and music was ahead of its time.

Kurt Johnson

A blow to justice PDF E-mail

The fallout from recent revelations about sentence miscalculations by the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services has only just begun.

Due to a flawed formula for determining the number of years convicted criminals were to spend behind bars, an estimated 300 or more lawbreakers were released too early over the past 20 years, according to a story published in the Omaha World-Herald. State officials confirmed immediately that mistakes were made, thus beginning a complicated, controversial and most probably lawsuit-ridden process of making things right.

The first and foremost question that has yet to be answered is, “How in the world could something like this happen, and for so long?”

One would think there are so many levels of checks and balances when it comes to determining and serving time in prison that someone would have raised a red flag long, long ago. How did a judge, defense attorney, litigator, or even a passionate juror consumed with a particular case not notice an early release from prison and start asking questions?

More importantly, how did state officials both hired and elected to oversee such serious issues not get the job done, collectively, for so long?

Instead, it took a curious reporter who wondered why a prisoner wasn’t still in jail to start asking the right questions. The World-Herald deserves tremendous credit for devoting the resources no one else would to get to the root of the problem and expose it to the light of day. That’s serious, in-depth journalism the likes of which you just don’t get from modern-day social media.

The focus in the two weeks since this story broke has been on dealing with how or if released prisoners could be, should be or will be rounded up and sent back to prison. It’s a messy situation, since some prisoners have begun living law-abiding lives, while some went back to their criminal ways.

There is also renewed talk among lawmakers about the need for increased prison capacity, though that was apparently not why inmates were released too soon. The newly calculated sentences have compounded the problem, adding more than 2,000 years of prison time at an estimated $56 million.

At some point soon, this investigation will turn back toward officials involved with this most serious offense. The consequences should be severe.

There is no simple way to correct the Department of Corrections in this case, however. This isn’t a revenue/taxation mistake or road construction miscue. It involves accountability, public safety and faith in our legal justice system, all of which have taken a serious blow.

Kurt Johnson

Hometown proud PDF E-mail

Twenty-five years and counting ...

A quarter of a century ago the late Jim Schneider and a group of community-minded volunteers decided Aurora needed a summer shin-dig of some kind; something unique for this community to call its own.

That something will unfold again this weekend in the form of a feel-good, family-friendly A’ROR’N Days celebration which has become all its founders envisioned, and more. It’s a highlight of the summer calendar for many and a reason for extended family and Husky alumni to come home. It’s also a great excuse to roll out the red carpet and have some fun.

There is a palpable feeling in the air during A’ROR’N Days, especially on Saturday when the population peaks to the year’s high. If you take a moment to just step back and soak it in a bit, the atmosphere really does reflect a genuine, rural character that makes Nebraskans who they are.

I’ve heard some folks use a Norman Rockwell reference when describing the look of our downtown square and county courthouse. On Saturday afternoon you could capture your own “Rockwell original” with a colorful snapshot of Aurora in its finest hour. Year in and year out that image could be titled “Hometown proud,” depicting a scene that captures the spirit of smalltown living.

One local native once told me that his kids think Aurora is one of the best places on earth because the only time they come here is to see family at Christmas and for a few days each summer during A’ROR’N Days. While every-day living here in A-Town may not always seem like Shangri-La, it is refreshing to hear that perspective. And, we wholeheartedly agree that this is a pretty special place to live, work, go to school and raise a family ... all year long.

As we mark the silver anniversary of our community’s signature weekend, it is more than fitting to tip the hat toward a hard-working group of core volunteers who make it happen each year. They don’t have a large budget to work with, there isn’t a lot of glamour involved and the time spent before, during and after the big weekend goes above and beyond the call to serve.

They do it because they love Aurora, and because they want to give others who share that passion something to celebrate. Or, as the late Jim Schneider would say, “Something to hang our hat on.”

Mission accomplished!

Kurt Johnson

Bring on the rain PDF E-mail

If you don’t like the weather in Nebraska, just wait a day and it will change.

Natives know that saying all too well, but those words have become more of a daily reality check lately than a light-hearted perspective on Nebraska’s fickle climate.

Folks who make their living based in part on what the weather does, which let’s face it is a pretty big percentage of our friends and neighbors here in Hamilton County, have to be scratching their heads. What in the world will Mother Nature do next?

The dust is still settling from the brutal hail, wind and tornadoes that blew threw the county on June 3. Corn crops that were already off to an unusually late start due to a cool, damp spring took a major hit, in some cases virtually wiping fields clean. The gut-wrenching question of do you replant or take a knee with some fields this season leaves many wishing they had a better option from which to choose.

The good news wrapped in this year’s bizarre spring weather is that the drought’s grip seems to be loosening, at least for now. Two to six inches or more of rain have fallen on most of the state since June 1 (before this weekend), including portions of southwest and central Nebraska, which have been especially dry.

A monitor compiled by the National Drought Mitigation Center at UNL reveals that many sectors of the state were upgraded from extreme to moderately dry, and others are now listed as abnormally dry or normal. That’s at least a step in the right direction.

Here in the Upper Big Blue Natural Resources District, 2014 moisture levels are being watched oh so closely and producers know there is a lot riding on the outcome. This year’s crops need the rain, as always, but the impact of a particularly dry versus wet year has long-term implications as well.

The region narrowly avoided automatic water allocations based on groundwater readings taken in the spring. Those same readings will be taken again next spring and if the levels continue to drop as they have been area farmers will face three year, 30-inch water restrictions they have never had to deal with. The stakes are incredibly high.

The next month will be key to seeing whether the moisture level improvements hold. Our fingers are tightly crossed, hoping for that perfect mix of slow, steady rains, plenty of sunshine and no extremes.

Looking at today’s extended forecast, we’re optimistic, but also realistic, knowing all too well that Nebraska’s weather is subject to change!

Kurt Johnson

Nature’s fury PDF E-mail

It happened again! Horrific, life-changing winds of terror struck hard in Hamilton County.

Just over 50 years after the Hampton area was hit by a tornado, Mother Nature unleashed its full fury in the area again last week, destroying property and disrupting lives. Fortunately, there was no loss of life this time, as there was in 1964, but to those hit hardest by the storm it was a devastating blow.

Our heart goes out to the Klawonn and Bankson families who lost their homes, and to the many, many others who suffered damage of any degree. Until you’ve been in that unthinkable situation it’s hard to know just how gut-wrenching that sensation of instant, inexplicable loss must feel.

A former high school teacher of mine, Ron Leece, was one of the five victims of the June 3, 1980 Grand Island tornado, so the reality of the looming danger seemed very real to me last Tuesday. As we watched the radar and monitored news reports that afternoon and evening, it looked as though Hamilton County had dodged a bullet. All the severe warnings were for further north on a day that had the entire state on full alert, hoping and praying the storms would pass without any significant damage or loss of life.

Unfortunately, there was significant damage, mostly due to hail, gushing rain and straight-line winds of up to 70 mph. The National Weather Service confirmed, however, that three tornadoes did hit the ground, the strongest of which struck near Hampton at around with winds up to 110 mph. Early reports hint that the damage to area crops was widespread and severe.

Two thoughts stand out in the aftermath of the storm.

One is a tried and true lesson Nebraskans know all too well, and that is the life-and-death reality of what it means to be prepared when the skies turn dark and dangerous. Tornadoes are a fact of life around here, confirmed by reports of 50 years ago and as recently as 2008 and again in 2009. Weather forecasting and communications technologies have advanced to the point that we should NEVER be caught off guard.

The other is the heartwarming stories of instant volunteer help, love and support shown to storm victims at their time of need. You simply cannot put into words what it means to know that the good people of Hamilton County have your back when times are tough.

Clearing debris, replanting crops and picking up the pieces of your life is a painful process, but we’ve heard time and again how that web of support helps those in need trudge forward, one step at a time.

Kurt Johnson

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