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Cindy Lange-Kubick: Dad Drennen, the musical missionary on his final journey with a message from God

He whispered the prayer, a farm kid from Iowa on a battlefield in the Philippines in 1945.

He survived the war and went back home — born again — to start a new life, Drennen Watts says.

“I surrendered my life to Christ. I knew Jesus had died for my sins and he was waiting for me.”

The faith-filled soldier is telling his story from a wheelchair Tuesday, weak after a 26-hour flight from overseas.

He’s wearing pale-blue pants and open-toed leather shoes that Julie Andresen, the activities director at the Lexington, teasingly calls his Jesus sandals.

Watts lives here in a first-floor apartment he shared with his wife, Beverly, who died on Christmas Day 2016.

Last month, on the day after his 93rd birthday, Watts boarded a plane and returned to the Philippines, where they still call him Dad Drennen, a musical missionary who had planted churches there in the decades after the war.

“We were there 20 years,” he says. “I had asked the Lord to be a missionary on July 10, 1953, and on July 10, 1973, I headed for home.”

The widower has been back to the Pacific island many times since that July — but this trip was his last.

“When I got all done, I felt like mission accomplished.”

His grandson made the three-week journey with him, and Watts reunited with former parishioners and fellow pastors, preaching a message he felt God had called him to share.

“He was wanting to pass on some of his leadership onto the pastors and church leaders he’d mentored,” said Mike Watts, the traveling grandson. "And he has a strong appreciation for the Filipino people. He wanted to go back one last time."

Watts is an example of faith, said Fidel Fernandez, a pastor in the Philippines. A selfless man and a servant leader.

A man who battled two wars in his country: "As a young soldier of the liberation forces of the United States...and second as a soldier of the Lord Jesus, Fernandez wrote in an email.

"He is an example that there is no retirement in serving the Lord...I love this man very much."

More friends shared their affection on the old missionary’s Facebook page, sharing photos and praising him in Tagalog and English.

What a wonderful worship celebration with the oldest missionary we know @ 93, a man of God!

Our Dearest Dad Drennen Watts ...

Still the best man I’ve ever known, playing harmonica ... alive and kicking and ministering to the body of Christ.

Drennen Watts shares his message and his music in Lincoln, too. Playing his harmonica every night before the evening meal in the Lexington’s communal dining room, strumming his ukulele at the assisted-living center’s weekly prayer group.

He plays it for me, too, a worn, wooden instrument with a shellacked coconut shell body. He sings in Tagalog. Who will say how great thou art? Who will teach it? Who except us who are made?

Watts came to Lincoln after the war. He’d been engaged when he left the farm to serve and when he came back a changed man, he told his fiancée that he thought God wanted him to be a preacher or a missionary.

“We split up,” he says. “She graciously gave me my ring back.”

And Watts went off to St. Paul Bible School in Minnesota, where he met Beverly, two years ahead of him in the three-year program.

“I met her and I courted her and I married her,” he says. “She already wanted to be a missionary.”

They made a perfect match.

By the time they headed to the Philippines, part of the Far Eastern Gospel Crusade, the couple already had three little boys — Daniel, Timothy and Thomas. Rebecca, Jared and David would arrive on the island.

The family rented a house in Manila, and Watts attended language school so he could preach to the people in words they knew.

They followed local customs, eating rice at nearly every meal and taking daily siestas.

“And we learned to like that.”

He smiles.

After they gave up the missionary life, Watts made a living fixing cars. The family joined Lincoln Christian Fellowship Church, where he was an elder and a fill-in preacher.

He became a longtime member of the Lincoln Chaplaincy Corps.

He wrote a book: “Nuggets from Drennen and his God.”

He still sends out an email newsletter to his friends in the faith, sharing his reflections.

He often hands out sparkly bracelets to visitors.

They love Drennen here, Andresen says. Watts still lives in the apartment he and Beverly shared, a map of the islands taped to the door. There’s a collage of photos over the couch from Beverly’s memorial service — tracing their lives. An old Christmas card from 1968, ocean and sun and a grass-covered hut: Greetings from the PHILIPPINES. May God Bless You.

On Tuesday, Andresen prints out photos from that final mission trip, copies for Watts to keep.

There he is, sharing a meal with his pastor friends, preaching to a full house, standing under palm trees in a familiar land.

He looks at the pictures — a man of conviction wearing Jesus sandals — and explains why they call him Dad.

“Because I’m usually older than anyone else.”

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Tax adjustment bill approved, sparks some revenue concerns

The Legislature on Wednesday gave final approval to a bill designed to protect Nebraskans from an estimated $226 million in state income tax increases that could result from recent federal tax reform.

Passage of the legislation (LB1090) was accompanied by some words of caution and concern that the bill might not turn out to be revenue-neutral and could result in a reduction in state revenue at a time when the state already is experiencing a revenue crunch.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion, was enacted on a 44-0 vote.

Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha raised a warning flag before the final vote, noting that unanticipated changes in individual taxpayer behavior could lead to "additional budget problems" for the state, compounding its current revenue crunch.

Renee Fry, executive director of OpenSky Policy Institute, expressed the same concerns.

"While it is important to ensure low- and middle-income Nebraskans don't experience state tax increases because of the federal tax cuts, LB1090 leaves no margin of error should the federal cuts have a negative impact on state revenues," Fry said.

"We don't know how taxpayers will react" in making individual decisions resulting from the federal tax reform, she said.

"If state revenues are negatively impacted by the federal tax cuts, lawmakers will be faced with having to either increase other revenue sources, such as sales taxes or fees, or make further cuts to key services like education and health care."

The Platte Institute applauded enactment of the bill, noting that more of a Nebraska taxpayer's income would be subject to the state income tax due in 2019 if the law was not changed.

LB1090 creates a new personal exemption in Nebraska and increases Nebraska's standard deduction in an effort to prevent state tax hikes resulting from the federal tax changes.

Smith, chairman of the Legislature's Revenue Committee, has said the purpose of the bill is to "keep Nebraska citizens and businesses whole."

Meanwhile, Platte Institute CEO Jim Vokal issued a challenge for all sides in the state's ongoing tax reform debate to "start fresh and aim for a new tax code and a new approach to education funding."

"Let's put everything on the table: incentives, exemptions and the taxing authority for local political subdivisions," he said.

"If there is any positive takeaway from this session on taxes, it's that dissatisfaction with the system we have is growing among the (legislative) body, even if it could always be worse."

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Barry's found guilty of overserving, allowed to remain open

State regulators have spared Barry's Bar and Grill in the Haymarket from being closed after finding the bar guilty of repeated liquor license violations in recent years.

Instead, Barry's may pay a $5,000 fine to avoid a 50-day suspension. The Nebraska Liquor Control Commission also ordered the bar to cease bottle service, notify the commission one month in advance of its promotions, and provide a plan to reduce overservice at the bar, 235 N. Ninth St.

"If you think you're getting off light, you're not. I could cancel it (the liquor license) but that would be the easy way," said commission Chairman Bob Batt of Omaha.

Commissioners voted 2-0 Wednesday to find Barry's owners guilty of overserving one patron Sept. 23, the day of the Nebraska-Rutgers football game. Bruce Bailey of Lincoln was the other commissioner who voted. The third commissioner, Janice Wiebusch of Kearney, did not vote because she was not present for the original hearing.

An attorney for Barry's, Mike Kelley of Omaha, said he believes the punishment is fair but disputed the guilty finding and said the bar is considering an appeal.

Assistant Nebraska Attorney General Milissa Johnson-Wiles implored commissioners to cancel the bar's liquor license after they found Barry's guilty. That punishment is recommended by the commission's penalty guidelines after the bar's fourth violation in four years.

Richmond Rollins LLC, which owns the bar, had failed to appreciate the role of a liquor license holder, and its record of violations showed that, Johnson-Wiles said.

At a contentious hearing in March, Kevin Fitzpatrick of Richmond Rollins passed blame onto drinkers,  saying the bar had done all it could to prevent overservice.

Johnson-Wiles on Wednesday took issue with that attitude and said a college town like Lincoln deserves a bar that takes its liquor-serving responsibilities seriously.

"It's time for Barry's in Lincoln to have a new owner or certainly be given a message," she said, adding cancellation was the only way to go.

But Kelley criticized her prosecution of the case, describing it as narrow enforcement outside the intention of the law and built on flimsy evidence.

A Lincoln police officer testified during the hearing that he had observed a man who could barely walk holding a drink inside the bar the night of Sept. 23. He brought the man outside and observed a "high level of intoxication." 

After the hearing, Kelley said Barry's staff barely had time to notice the man, who had just stood up and stumbled in the crowded bar.

Though Batt said last fall the bar was "on thin ice," he said Wednesday the punishment fits the crime.

He questioned whether the Kansas City-based company would have handled things differently if it was based in Lincoln. Batt also said bottle service promotes excessive drinking among the young crowd that Barry's serves.

Bottle service is the sale of liquor by the bottle. It typically includes a reserved table for the buyer.

A bar manager told commissioners Barry's had already ended bottle service, but as of Wednesday, its website still advertised bottle service, with a la carte bottles starting at $100 and packages at $200.

Kelley said he didn't think the bar was getting special treatment, given the strings attached to the commission's ruling.

On social media, Duffy’s Tavern called the commission’s ruling shameful and characterized the fine as “less than a day of revenue.”

Batt and Bailey want the bar, whose 90 employees are college students, to send the promotions it's advertising on social media to the commission for review a month in advance.

Hobert Rupe, the commission's executive director, said promotions for double shots — which the bar advertised for Fat Tuesday — may feed into the problem the commissioners want to correct.

These restrictions are reasonable, Kelley said, and the owners have spent "hundreds of thousands of dollars" to comply with the state's liquor laws.

But Kelley said if the goal is for cops to catch drunk people in Lincoln bars on gamedays, then Barry's isn't the only guilty party.

"Based on that, we could close every bar in Lincoln, because I'll find you something," Kelley said. "Deputize me, and I'll find you as many as they want."

Ryan says he'll retire, leaving big election-year GOP vacuum

WASHINGTON — House Speaker Paul Ryan abruptly announced Wednesday he will retire rather than seek another term in Congress as the steady if reluctant wingman for President Donald Trump, sending new ripples of uncertainty through a Washington already on edge and a Republican Party bracing for a rough election year.

The Wisconsin Republican cast the decision to end his 20-year career as a personal one — he doesn't want his children growing up with a "weekend dad" — but it will create a vacuum at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. It will leave congressional Republicans without a measured voice to talk Trump away from what some see as damaging impulses, and it will rob Trump of an influential steward to shepherd his more ambitious ideas into legislation.

It's unusual for a House speaker, third in line to succeed the president, to turn himself into a lame duck, especially so for Ryan, a once-rising GOP star who is only 48 and was the party's vice presidential candidate in 2012. His decision fueled fresh doubts about the party's ability to fend off a Democratic wave, fed by opposition to Trump, in November. And it threw the House into a leadership battle that could end up pushing Ryan aside sooner that he intended and crush any hopes for significant legislation before the election.

Ryan, though, said he had no regrets after having accomplished "a heckuva lot" during his time in a job he never really wanted. He said fellow Republicans have plenty of achievements to run on this fall, including the tax cuts Congress delivered, which have been his own personal cause and the centerpiece of his small-government agenda.

"I have given this job everything I have," Ryan said.

Speculation over Ryan's future had been swirling for months, but as he dialed up colleagues and spoke by phone with Trump early Wednesday the news stunned even top allies.

Ryan announced his plans at a closed-door meeting of House Republicans. Rep. Mark Walker of North Carolina said an emotional Ryan "choked up a few times trying to get through" his remarks to colleagues and received three standing ovations.

He later briefly thanked Trump in public for giving him the chance to move GOP ideas ahead.

While Ryan was crucial in getting the tax cuts passed, a prime Trump goal, he and the president have had a difficult relationship. Trump showed impatience with Congress' pace in dealing with his proposals, and Ryan had to deal with a president who shared little of his interest in policy detail.

Still, for many Republicans, Ryan has been "a steady force in contrast to the president's more mercurial tone," said Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina. "That's needed."

The speaker had been heading toward this decision since late last year, said a person familiar with his thinking, but as recently as February he had considered running for another term. His father died suddenly of a heart attack when Ryan was 16, and though he's in good health, the distance from his family weighed on him. A final decision was made over the two-week congressional recess, which he partly spent on a family vacation in the Czech Republic.

Ryan, from Janesville, Wisconsin, was first elected to Congress in 1998. Along with Reps. Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy, he branded himself a rising "Young Gun" in an aging party, a new breed of hard-charging Republican ready to shrink the size of government.

He was GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney's running mate in 2012.

Ryan was pulled into the leadership job by the sudden retirement in 2015 of Speaker John Boehner, who had struggled to control the chamber's restless conservative wing. He has had more trust with the hardliners in the House.

"That's probably his greatest gift to us," said Rep. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota. "His ability to bridge the vast divide."

House Majority Leader McCarthy, a Californian known to be tighter with Trump, is expected to again seek the top leadership post that slipped from his reach in 2015. He will likely compete with Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana. Both men spoke at the closed-door meeting Wednesday, delivering tributes to Ryan.

Another potential rival, Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, demurred when asked if he'd pursue the speaker's job. "Leadership has never been on my bucket list, and it's not on my bucket list today," he said.

Ryan's announcement came as Republicans are bracing for a potential blue wave of voter enthusiasm for Democrats, who need to flip at least 24 GOP-held seats in November to regain the majority.

As the House GOP's top fundraiser, Ryan's lame duck status could send shockwaves through donor circles that are relying on his leadership at the helm of the House majority. He has hauled in $54 million so far this election cycle.

"It injects some more uncertainty to be sure," said the No. 2 Senate Republican, John Cornyn of Texas. "It's just another issue that's floating out there, and obviously there's going to be some competition for his successor."