A group of Pershing Elementary School fourth-graders will soon meet their peers in Heuvelland, Belgium — a virtual exchange for which they can thank the career paths of two Lincoln Southeast High School graduates, World War I and the famous general who commanded American forces in Europe.
What brings these students together from opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean starts with the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended the Great War.
Then there’s Gen. John J. Pershing, the six-star general, namesake of the small, northeast Lincoln school who taught in Lincoln at the University of Nebraska and earned his law degree here before leading American forces on the western front.
And finally — and probably most importantly — come Jaci Kellison and Jameson DeBose, who became friends in eighth grade and stayed in touch after graduating from Southeast in 2002.
Kellison became an educator who now oversees the social studies curriculum for Lincoln Public Schools. DeBose become a diplomat with the U.S. State Department, a post that has taken him to Africa, Thailand, Nepal, Pakistan and Belgium.
As a deputy public affairs officer in the U.S. Embassy in Brussels, DeBose decided the 100-year anniversary of an important moment in history presented an opportunity.
“Everywhere I’ve gone I’ve tried to connect the dots with kids back home,” he said. “It's gratifying whenever I can find opportunities to bring the world to Nebraska and bring Nebraska to the world.”
He didn’t attend Pershing Elementary but remembers it — probably, he said, because of his fascination with military history and the fact that his paternal grandfather served in World War I.
One of the entry points for U.S. troops was near Heuvelland, Belgium. There’s a monument there commemorating the sacrifices of American troops who fought nearby, some of whom are buried in a U.S. cemetery 30 miles east.
“What better way to commemorate (the end of the war) than to bring kids together around this?” DeBose said.
DeBose said he also liked the idea of a project that connects groups outside the two nations’ capitals.
So he called Kellison, and “Heuvelland-Lincoln Connect” was born. It is part of a pilot project through the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs called Virtual Communities Connect.
Students will learn about life during the war in their communities and countries and share what they find with their overseas counterparts Feb. 22. In May, they’ll talk about what it’s like to live in their communities today.
Pershing students took a field trip to the Nebraska State Historical Society, where they learned about Gen. Pershing and what life was like in Nebraska during the war.
Stephanie Fowler, an instructional coach at Pershing, tracked down some wartime artifacts students found meaningful on the field trip: a mess kit and canteen, a wool hat and a pin U.S. soldiers wore on their uniforms. She found a newspaper article from the Omaha Daily Bee announcing the surrender of Germany and another appealing to Omahans to donate clothes to the people of Belgium.
In addition to Gen. Pershing, DeBose said he highlighted the work of Charlotte Kellogg, a Grand Island woman who traveled to Belgium under a program led by Herbert Hoover to research and document life in Belgium under German occupation. Her work is credited with much of the relief efforts for Belgian victims of war, he said.
The Pershing students will send the artifacts they've researched, along with a photo album of their field trip, to the students in Belgium and will await a similar package from the students in Heuvelland. Then they’ll have a virtual face-to-face meeting to talk about the artifacts.
Pershing's Manny Yuma will offer details about the scratchy-wool caps soldiers wore, Micha Smith and Roberto Escutia will describe why that stained metal canteen was so important, and Jameson Raley will talk about how the Huskers almost didn’t have a football team in 1918 because so many of the players were overseas fighting in the war.
“I think the coolest part of this for the kids is a connection to a place they’ve probably never heard of before this project,” Kellison said. “Not just reading about it but receiving something they actually get to touch and feel. I like the idea that they’re getting the box (of artifacts from Belgium) first so they can analyze and make predictions (about the artifacts) ... they kind of get to be the historians in this.”
Learning about what life is like today in Belgium will allow them to see how things change over time, another important part of social studies, she said.
“I’m just really excited,” she said. “I wish all kids in LPS could have this experience.”
Lenora Letcher baked the communion bread at her church, the black congregation of Mount Zion Baptist.
She fed members of Beta Sigma Psi at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, nearly all of them young white men.
She prayed for a Nazi when he sent her death threats and terrorized the city’s African-American community.
From the time Letcher arrived in Lincoln in 1944, she knocked on doors and registered voters. She led the NAACP and served the Malone Community Center, counseled mayors and governors, served the Human Rights Commission and Lincoln Action Program, nurtured her grandchildren and an extended family, who called her Mom Letcher, a sign of their abiding respect.
“Her goal was always to make life better for people across the board,” her son Paul Letcher said. “And for people to see more than just color.”
His mother had lived in Kansas City until her first husband died, leaving her alone with two young daughters. Her sister lived in Lincoln, so Lenora packed up her girls and moved. She married Robert Letcher and they had Paul.
She found work as a cook, and for 43 years fed fraternity brothers who would name a scholarship in her honor at her retirement.
Paul Letcher remembers the Beta Sigma Psi men he met at the university — college students whose fathers and grandfathers had also been fed by his mother. They called her another name: Lenora Legend.
“Prejudice is nothing more than ignorance,” the cook told a newspaper reporter in 1989, on the eve of her retirement.
“Letcher said she is the first black person that many if not most of the fraternity members have ever seen,” the story said. “Some have written her letters after graduation, saying how glad they were to have that experience.”
Rod Krogh is one of those men. Letcher was more than a great cook, said the 1989 UNL graduate. “She was appreciated beyond words by everyone there. It was a tremendous blessing to know her.”
She changed people with love, her daughter, Willene Miller, said in 2002. “She wanted everybody to understand that it’s about love. That if you love and respect yourself, you’ll do that for others, too.”
Laws are necessary, Letcher told a reporter in 1993. “But love is necessary, too, and you can’t legislate love.”
So she loved.
The 2012 book “Not by the Sword” recounted her role in the transformation of a Lincoln man and Ku Klux Klan grand wizard: Lenore Letcher, an African-American woman who had been on the receiving end of Larry Trapp’s hatred, prayed, ‘Dear God, let him find you in his heart.’ And that night, the skin on Trapp’s fingers burned and itched and stung so badly he had to take his Nazi rings off.
Trapp was eventually taken in by a local Jewish couple, Cantor Michael and Julie Weisser.
“She was part of the process of his change,” Paul Letcher said. “She had a chance to meet him and talk to him about her faith.”
A faith that was central to her life.
A photo of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. hung on her living room wall, always.
And like King, she spoke truth.
When the police officers who beat Rodney King in Los Angeles were found not guilty in 1992, she had something to say: “It just proves that there is still a lot of racism in this country. When a (minority person) gets in trouble with the law, there’s an overreaction from the authorities … because of biased discrimination. It happens here, too, in Lincoln, Nebraska.”
She made peace.
She was an old woman when she stood in the Capitol Rotunda in 1993 to honor MLK on his birthday, taking the hand of the white woman standing to her left and the white man standing to her right to sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the black national anthem, her voice clear and sweet.
She died a few years later, at the age of 83, a grandmother and great-grandmother.
A woman with a beautiful voice who traveled the state entertaining congregations with classical and gospel music. A soprano with a favorite hymn: “How Great Thou Art.” A crooner who backed up jazz groups when she lived in Kansas City.
An actress who stood on the Lincoln Community Playhouse stage, a lone black face in a sea of white.
A civil-rights leader honored by the NAACP with the Lenora Letcher Community Service Award.
A woman of faith, her son said, who considered her work to improve the lives of others her civil and godly duty.
“She instilled in me a deep sense of pride as a black woman,” said granddaughter Roslen Ross. “A love of people, fairness and to see past the color of skin.”
Paul Letcher’s daughters — Kiara Bullerman and Kaleah Latenser — were little girls when their grandmother died. Many of their memories spring from family stories.
But their grandmother's gift to the larger world is apparent when they say their family name — Letcher — in Lincoln.
“People talked about her with such wonder,” Bullerman said. “Her mark and her legacy have left such an impact on my life.”
Her younger sister feels the ripples, too.
“I plan to raise my daughter the same way my grandmother raised my father,” Latenser said. “And the same way my father raised my sister and me.”
Frost heats up Signing Day
Huskers haul in class of 24 signees.
A February 2017 sampling of likely Nebraska voters showed 77 percent of those surveyed would vote in favor of allowing doctors in the state to prescribe medical marijuana to patients with serious illnesses or conditions.
Fifty-seven percent of those surveyed identified themselves as Republican or leaning Republican, and 27 percent as a Democrat or leaning Democrat.
Lincoln Sen. Anna Wishart said the bipartisan numbers confirm what people from across the state have been telling her since she started working on the medical marijuana issue last year.
"It is clear that Nebraskans believe that patients should be able to safely and legally access the medicine they need," she said.
Wishart provided results of the survey Wednesday to the Journal Star. She introduced a resolution (LR293CA) this legislative session to allow voters to weigh in on a constitutional amendment that would legalize medical cannabis.
Fifty-two percent of those polled in the statewide survey last year said they would definitely vote yes to legalize medical marijuana, and 22 percent more would probably vote yes. Three percent were undecided but leaning yes.
Twenty-two percent at least leaned toward voting no, including 15 percent that said they would definitely vote no.
Eighty-three percent of those surveyed said regardless of how they felt about the ballot measure, they favored allowing patients with terminal or debilitating conditions to possess and consume marijuana, if their doctors recommended it.
The telephone survey included 403 people reached on both cellphone and landline numbers.
David Drozd, a University of Nebraska at Omaha specialist in data compiling and analysis, looked over the survey, which has a sampling error of plus-or-minus 5 percent, and said overall it seemed methodologically sound.
It was split appropriately among congressional districts and counties, he said, and if anything, the poll had a higher sampling of Republicans and those who have college degrees (53 percent) than the state averages.
Twenty-eight percent described themselves as very conservative, 29 percent somewhat conservative, 19 percent moderate, 11 percent somewhat liberal and 8 percent very liberal.
The majority of respondents, 65 percent, were 50 and older, and 30 percent were 18-49 years old.
Drozd said it would always be a good idea to have a second survey confirm or validate the findings.
Wishart has said Nebraskans deserve to vote on establishing protections for patients who would use medical cannabis. Those patients include children, veterans and those who are terminally ill.
Her proposed resolution, which will be discussed at a hearing Thursday afternoon in the Judiciary Committee, would provide a right to use or consume medical cannabis safely, subject to laws, rules and regulations developed by the Legislature, she said.
The medical marijuana survey was conducted by the California firm Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz and Associates, and commissioned by the Marijuana Policy Project, whose mission is to change federal law to allow states to determine their own marijuana policies. The organization has participated in successful campaigns in states such as Minnesota, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada and California.
In the 2017 Nebraska survey, 72 percent of respondents said no family members or friends currently used marijuana, while 25 percent said a friend or family member used the drug.
Twenty-seven percent of those who favored a medical marijuana ballot measure did so as long as it was only medical marijuana, and 38 percent said they'd vote yes because the drug helps those experiencing seizures or epilepsy patients. Nine percent of those who favored it did so because they believe it relieves pain.
Of the 22 percent that said they would vote no, 17 percent said they generally opposed medical marijuana or believed it would cause problems. Sixteen percent of those opposed said it would be abused or used recreationally. Nine percent said there was no tangible evidence it would help, and 6 percent said it was a gateway drug.
Wishart also has a bill (LB622) that would legalize medical cannabis, subject to rules laid out by the Legislature. The proposal reached first-round debate last session, but has not yet been voted on.
During that debate, Lincoln Sen. Suzanne Geist opposed the bill, saying marijuana had not gone through the same clinical trials as legally-prescribed drugs. Doctors who use drugs that have had those scientific clinical trials know how they operate, know about their dosing and what medication interactions they have. That's not the case with medical marijuana, she said.
Other opponents were concerned about the burden of responsibilities that would be put on an already-stressed Department of Health and Human Services. And some stressed that the drug is still a federal Schedule I controlled substance with no approved medical use.