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Long-abandoned veterans memorial hall in Nebraska City transformed through volunteer effort

NEBRASKA CITY — If Ted Beilman had wanted to, the first time he swung open the doors to the Veterans Memorial Building, he could have written his name in the layer of dust caked upon the auditorium floor.

Instead, he sought a reason to clean the place up and display its potential value to the community.

The building first opened as a center for war veterans with a four-day ceremony that began on Nov. 11, 1929. It was a joint effort by local leaders and the American Legion, and the front of the program read, “Offering the world another great idea: ‘Work Together!’”

Celebrated by upward of 3,000 people, including Gov. Arthur Weaver, the town centerpiece at 810 First Corso soon became a hub of all kinds of social activity in Nebraska City, which took ownership of the building in 1943.

On rainy days, Beilman and his buddies headed into the unlocked Memorial Building and played hoops on the now-creaky auditorium floor.

Now retired, Beilman first moved away from Nebraska City when he was 13, and after college he ended up in Alaska, working for the state legislature as a committee aid, as well as for Princess Cruises. (“And that was a lot more fun,” he said, laughing.)

He and his wife, Gloria Glover, moved back to Nebraska City full-time in 2014 after traveling to-and-from Alaska to help care for his mom during her final years. In doing so, he rediscovered his hometown and found that his childhood haven was in a state of disrepair.

The city-owned building has been closed for about a decade. There’s major roof work required on the east side of the building — a rainy day now floods some of the rooms inside. But the auditorium, save for a few droopy roof tiles, held its charm, Beilman said, even under the cover of dust.

ERIC GREGORY, Journal Star 

This tribute to World War II veteran Emil Steele is one of the more than 800 Otoe County veterans' stories gathered and represented by Ted Beilman and a team of volunteers to display in Nebraska City's Memorial Building for Veterans Day. 

On Saturday, the doors will open to the general public for the first time in recent memory as part of the city’s salute to Veterans Day.

At 11 a.m., a massive mural painted by Kent Schwartz will be dedicated in the nearby Memorial Way. Then until 6 p.m. Saturday and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, visitors can explore the collection of stories, photos, uniforms and quilts compiled by a group of volunteers who reinvigorated the long-dormant Memorial Building auditorium.

Beilman said he wanted to showcase it, and proposed the idea of collecting veterans’ stories as one potential Nebraska City offering as a committee planned out events and celebrations tied to the state’s sesquicentennial.

Amy Allgood, executive director of the Nebraska City Tourism and Commerce, said the agency provided a little financial support and offered to help Beilman spread the word about his effort to collect veterans’ stories.

When he first said he wanted to collect 150 of them, Allgood remembered thinking, “Are you joking me?”

This week, the chamber’s monthly meeting was inside the Memorial Building. Patriotic bunting lined the auditorium balcony, easels displaying framed collections of personal histories, Western Union telegrams and photos of soldiers from Otoe County lined the floor.

The final collection of stories includes histories of more than 800 of the county’s veterans.

“Moved to tears,” Allgood said when asked her reaction upon walking into the auditorium. “Because I was in there nine months ago and it was a filthy old gym deteriorating. You walk in today and it’s amazing. Then you start walking around and reading these stories, it’s so moving.”

ERIC GREGORY, Journal Star 

George Fenske's World War I-era uniform is on display in Nebraska City's Memorial Building, where Fenske's grandauighter Connie Sackles helped create the city's tribute for Veterans Day. 

Many of the displays started with a scavenger hunt of sorts led by Beilman, who culled information about veterans from dozens of gravesites, volumes of books, heaps of newspaper clippings and, in one case, a typed thank-you note signed by President Ford found in the back of a World War I vet’s photo that had been bound for the trash.

Beilman said it couldn’t have been completed without a group of volunteers that got the auditorium presentable and filled it with tributes to veterans. Middle-schoolers helped sweep up the dust from the court. The Blue Star Mothers of Nebraska City not only collected names and stories of veterans for the display boards, but also knitted 18 Quilts of Valor that are draped upon peg boards that Beilman fished out of a nearby dumpster.

On Thursday, as some of the volunteers perused the near-final project, Beilman led a brief tour of some of the displays.

He stopped at the display of William Hayward, a Nebraska City-born Army colonel for whom the nearby elementary school is named. Hayward led the 369th U.S. Infantry Regiment, an all-black unit that came to be known as the Harlem Hellfighters, who fought along with the French army against German troops through much of 1918. Beilman found some of the photos on the display in a book he found for sale online at a Boston bookstore.

“So I tracked that down, and it told the story of the 369th U.S. Regiment, talked about Col. William Hayward and how they organized the regiment, how they recruited, how they trained, and then they went over to France,” he said.

Then he moved on to a smaller display: “And here’s the one I found in the garbage heap.”

ERIC GREGORY, Journal Star 

Artifacts, photos and stories representing Otoe County veterans' war experiences fill Nebraska City's Memorial Building Thursday.

Beilman said he found the framed photo of Willard Stong, a World War I vet, as an estate sale was concluding. It was among the unsold items, in a pile. He picked it up, flipped it over and discovered a letter from Ford congratulating the man for his service.

“And it was being tossed out!” Beilman said. “It was being thrown away. I asked the auctioneer, ‘This is being thrown away? Can I buy it for a buck?’”

He bought it for a dollar, and spent hours looking into Stong’s past. Beilman learned that Stong was married, but had no children and served as the postmaster of Syracuse during his post-military career, dying in 1975.

“I could hardly get any information, but I found his grave marker in Syracuse,” Beilman said. “It’s pretty emotional to think, you know, that guy was in the uniform in World War I, and to find his photo and this letter on the back of that photo in a pile of trash that was getting ready to be thrown out. I rescued it and did some research, and this is what I was able to find. And then to find his grave out at the Syracuse cemetery.

"This display is an attempt to remember this gentleman. Otherwise, he’s forgotten.”

Many veterans or descendants provided information for the effort after Beilman began visiting VFW halls and Rotary meetings and the like in search of their stories.

The contributions include the story of Duane Smith, 81, who ran ground radio communications at Wheelus Field in Libya in the mid-1950s at the outset of a 20-year Air Force career.

“I could’ve done more,” Smith said as he looked at the board featuring his accomplishments, next to the two displays of his grandsons who both enlisted in the Air Force.

Each stood upon an easel that Smith fashioned from bundles of 96-inch-long 1-by-2s he bought at Mead Lumber. His wife, Jackie, helped paint them black.

ERIC GREGORY, Journal Star 

Gloria Glover looks over one of the more than 800 Otoe County veterans' stories that have been gathered and will be on display in Nebraska City's Memorial Building Saturday. 

“If you need any pieces of 1-by-2s that are 2-feet long, I’ve got a couple hundred of them at home,” Smith said.

He said he started volunteering to help with the Veterans Day display more than a few months back, after hearing Beilman talk about the idea and the need for easels.

“It started out at 50,” Smith said. “Then a little later, he said, ‘I think I’m gonna need a hundred.’ I said, oh my gosh. And so we made a hundred of them, got ‘em painted, got ‘em assembled in here and then yesterday afternoon, he said, ‘I’d like to have another 10.’”

He made 11.

“Ted’s done so much work,” he said. “You can tell — it’s obvious.”

Beilman said his goal is to revive the Memorial Building, a place where longtime Nebraska City residents have all kinds of memories.

“It was a building in town where everyone would come together,” Beilman said. “It was a truly community building.”

David and Connie Sackles went to their senior prom together there in 1965 — she’s pretty sure that wasn’t the “Midnight in Paris”-themed one. Gary Strange remembered the auditorium's hardwood floor and the balcony filled for a pro wrestling match featuring the American Wrestling Association’s owner and longtime top fighter, Verne Gagne, who headed over to the still-open Dinty Moore’s Lunch Room to slam some beers after signing autographs for adoring fans.

“This place was used a lot, for all kinds of things,” Strange, 75 and a retired Army colonel, said.

Beilman created a 17-minute documentary about the building, his first YouTube posting. “My wife calls it Ken Burns in fifth grade,” he joked.

And last year, he shepherded the Memorial Building through the process of being listed on National Register of Historic Places.

Once the weekend’s celebration concludes, Beilman will lock the doors on the Memorial Building, and they’ll remain locked for the foreseeable future.

ERIC GREGORY, Journal Star 

Ted Beilman has not only headed up an effort to recognize Otoe County veterans, but has also sparked new interest in preserving Nebraska City's Memorial Building. 

Along with his YouTube video, first National Register application and first all-volunteer honor project, Beilman also created his first nonprofit, the Nebraska City Veterans Memorial Building Project. The goal is to raise the $4 million needed to repair and upgrade the city centerpiece and reopen it to serve as a performing arts center, a culinary incubator and a meeting space for veteran groups, among its many possibilities. He said he's received confirmation from Omaha architectural firm Leo A Daly, which has performed several on-site visits, that the historic building remains structurally sound.

“Because of the building, I’m learning all this,” Beilman said. “I probably wouldn’t be doing it any other time. Then again, I’m retired. I spent 45 years of my life working to make a living, and now I’m working to make a difference for my community. And that’s what I want to try and do. This Veterans Memorial Building can be a key part of Nebraska City.”

Remembering Nebraskans loved and lost

To learn more, go to the nonprofit’s Facebook page — Or head to Nebraska City this weekend. The first 150 through the door each morning get a free American flag.

“I didn’t know what the reaction would be from folks,” Beilman said. “I just had no idea. But it’s been a pretty rewarding experience. Soldiers sacrificed a lot. Rain or shine, we’re gonna have a dedication. That’s how it is.”

GOP test: Expiring tax cuts would mean little bang for buck

WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans have run into a problem with their proposed tax cuts: Under Senate rules, the cuts would expire after 10 years.

Problem is, most economists say temporary tax cuts would swell the national debt while doing little for economic growth. And without faster growth, few individuals would stand to benefit from the pay raises and job gains being promised by President Donald Trump and Republican congressional leaders.

"We have identified this consistently as one of the fundamental principles of tax reform," said Jared Walczak, a senior policy analyst at the conservative Tax Foundation. "Any time you build in a sunset, you're encouraging businesses to not make the long-term investments."

Businesses that are considering making investments that might span decades, for example, would need to know that the Republicans' proposed 20 percent corporate tax rate won't jump back up to the current 35 percent in a few years.

It is a theory rooted in the work of Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist who argued that individuals and businesses make economic decisions based on what they expect their net income to be over the long run. And that expectation depends, in part, on tax rates.

Though Republican leaders accept this theory, they have yet to show that they could make their tax cuts last beyond 2027. Enacting permanent tax cuts that that would raise the deficit after a 10 year-period would need 60 votes in the Senate. So instead, Republicans intend to cut taxes with a simple majority that wouldn't require Democratic votes.

Within the 10-year period, its budget would allow the Senate to add up to $1.5 trillion to the national debt. Beyond 10 years, they couldn't add any debt. So the tax cuts would expire if not paid for.

Temporary tax cuts, Republican leaders concede, wouldn't achieve the key economic benefits that Trump has said would flow from their bill: Sustained annual economic growth above 3 percent and yearly income gains averaging of $4,000 per household.

"These reforms — these tax cuts — they need to be permanent," House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a speech last summer. "Every expert agrees that temporary reforms will only have a negligible impact on wages and economic growth. Businesses need to have confidence that we will not pull the rug out from under them."

But most economists say the tax cuts wouldn't pay for themselves. So making them permanent would entail further costs. And a steady shortfall in tax revenue could force deep spending cuts to many popular programs involving college, housing or medical aid, among other areas. Or it could require tax hikes. Or the debt could grow and potentially send interest rates up, thereby making it costlier for people to borrow to buy a home or car.

"We should have stability in our tax code, and this introduces instability in multiple ways," said Jason Furman, a professor at Harvard University and formerly the top economist for President Barack Obama.

The potential consequences of the Senate plan released Thursday are still being calculated. But if the tax cuts in the House plan were made permanent, the national debt would surge by at least $6.3 trillion through 2040, according to an analysis by the Penn Wharton Budget Model. This, in turn, could create an additional drag on the economy because a rising debt makes it harder to accelerate growth.

What lawmakers may or may not do to preserve the tax cuts is one of the unsettled and unsettling questions going into the Senate Finance Committee's work of the proposal next week.

"We are still working through some details on that," Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania told reporters Thursday.

Congressional estimates project the yearly deficit from the tax cuts rising to nearly $220 billion in 2027. Congress could cut all discretionary funding for the Education Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development and still make it only about halfway toward covering the cost of the additional debt.

Toomey, a member of the Finance Committee, said his goal was to permanently set the corporate tax at 20 percent and establish an international system designed to tax business profits primarily within the United States rather than globally.

He said his preferred way of making the tax cuts permanent would involve scrapping the requirement in the 2010 health care law that Americans buy health insurance or face a tax penalty. This is politically risky given that the Senate tried and failed this year to repeal and replace the health insurance law.

On Wednesday, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that eliminating the individual mandate would save $54 billion in 2027. But it would also deprive 13 million people of health insurance.

There's also the possibility that Republicans might not pass permanent tax cuts and force Congress years later — when many current members would be out of office — to address the problem.

House Republicans have already suggested that family tax credits set to expire in their proposal after five years won't actually sunset, because members will vote to renew them. But keeping those credits in place would mean that the national debt would exceed the $1.5 trillion limit over 10 years.

Republicans would be betting that potential tax hikes would upset voters and the economy. They saw this possibility play out during the 2013 "fiscal cliff" when tax cuts that had been enacted in 2001 and 2003 were set to expire. So President Barack Obama signed a deal that essentially preserved many of the expiring tax cuts while returning some rates to higher levels.

"One of the lessons learned from fiscal cliff is that once these tax cuts are in place for 10 years, it's really hard to take them away," said Rohit Kumar, a former tax counsel to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and now an executive at PwC. "Temporary is not really temporary unless you think the government is going to let the corporate tax rate and individual rates jump."

KAYLA WOLF, Journal Star 

Nebraska running back Devine Ozigbo (22) tries to get past Northwestern safety Kyle Queiro (21) in the third quarter at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017.

Talking tough on trade, Trump pushes 'America first' in Asia

DANANG, Vietnam — President Donald Trump stood before a summit of Asian leaders keen on regional trade pacts and delivered a roaring "America first" message Friday, denouncing China for unfair trade practices just a day after he had heaped praise on President Xi Jinping in Beijing.

"We are not going to let the United States be taken advantage of anymore," Trump told CEOs on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference. "I am always going to put America first, the same way that I expect all of you in this room to put your countries first."

The president — who pulled the United States out of the Pacific Rim trade pact known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership — said the U.S. would no longer join "large agreements that tie our hands, surrender our sovereignty and make meaningful enforcement practically impossible."

Instead, he said, the U.S. will pursue one-on-one trade deals with other nations that pledge fair and reciprocal trade.

In a major breakthrough, trade ministers from 11 nations remaining in the Trans-Pacific Partnership — representing roughly 13.5 percent of the global economy — said today they had reached a deal to proceed with the free-trade pact after it was thrown into doubt when Trump abandoned it. However, an immediate formal endorsement by the countries' leaders meeting in Vietnam appeared unlikely.

A statement issued in the early hours today said an accord was reached on "core elements" of the 11-member pact. The compromise was delayed by last-minute disagreements that prevented the TPP leaders from meeting to endorse a plan on Friday.

"Ministers are pleased to announce that they have agreed on the core elements of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership," the 11 nations said in a statement.

Separately, a 16-member region-wide pact called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership was also under negotiation. It encompasses China and India but also does not include the U.S.

Regarding China, Trump said he'd spoken "openly and directly" with Xi about the nation's abusive trade practices and "the enormous trade deficits they have produces with the United States."

It was a stark change in tone from the day before, when Trump was Xi's guest of honor during a state visit in Beijing. There, Trump opted for flattering Xi and blaming past U.S. presidents for the trade deficit.

Trump said China's trade surplus, which stood at $223 billion for the first 10 months of the year, was unacceptable. He repeated his language from Thursday, when he said he did "not blame China" or any other country "for taking advantage of the United States on trade."

But Trump added forceful complaints about "the audacious theft of intellectual property," ''massive subsidizing of industries through colossal state-owned enterprises," and American companies being targeted by "state-affiliated actors for economic gain."

U.S. officials have raised similar concerns in the past about China, especially with regard to intellectual property.

Today, Trump opened a day of meetings with leaders of the 21-member APEC countries. Later in the day, he was to fly to Hanoi, the capital, to attend a state banquet before formal meetings Sunday with Vietnam's president and prime minister.

Behind the scenes, White House officials quietly negotiated with the Kremlin over whether Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin would hold a formal meeting on the sidelines in Danang, with the Russians raising expectations for such a session.

As speculation built, the two sides tried to craft the framework of a deal that Trump and Putin could announce in a formal bilateral meeting, according to two administration officials not authorized to speak publicly about private discussions.

Though North Korea and the Ukraine had been discussed, the two sides focused on trying to strike an agreement about a path to resolve Syria's civil war once the Islamic State group is defeated, according to officials. But the talks stalled and, just minutes before Air Force One touched down in Vietnam, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that the meeting was off.

When asked about the outcome, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov later snapped at reporters: "Why are you asking me? Ask the Americans."

Trump and Putin crossed paths Friday night during the summit's welcome gala: The two men, each wearing traditional Vietnamese shifts, shook hands and greeted each other as they stood side-by-side for the group photo of world leaders.