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PAWNEE CITY - People here call their most famous native Dan.

Not Larry or Larry the Cable Guy.

Just Dan, as in Dan Whitney, the kid who used to live at 14th and H streets across from the sale barn until his sophomore year in high school, when he and his family moved to Florida.

His father was a minister in nearby Humboldt. He was the youngest of three children. He played trumpet in the school band.

And, oh yeah, he was an ornery cuss.

"We always tease Dan because he hasn't changed much, and I don't mean that in a bad way," said Pawnee City's Mike Habegger, a longtime Whitney friend. "He always was a smart aleck. Now, he gets paid for it."

His eighth-grade math teacher, Lavon Covault, even predicted it, telling the young Whitney "he should be a comedian."

Covault doesn't remember saying it, but Whitney swears he did in a phone interview to promote his Larry the Cable Guy performance Saturday at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln.

Whitney has very fond memories of his teacher, who had a love for Sherman tanks, and that's why he remembers the Covault remark that became true.

"That was our running joke," Whitney said. "Whenever he started talking about something that was boring, we would, to get him off topic, say, 'Mr. Covault, what about them Sherman tanks?'"

Whitney was born Feb. 17, 1963, and lived in Pawnee City until 1979. He spent his next 30 years in Florida, yet he often refers to Nebraska as his home.

He has a house here, just outside of Lincoln, to go with the one in Florida. He said he plans to send his children, son Wyatt and daughter Reagan, to school in the Cornhusker state.

"Oh man, the greatest days of my life was when I was a kid," he said. "I had a great childhood here and was friends with everybody."

After he moved, he returned the next three summers.

"My friends in my graduating class, we literally were like a family," he said. "We had been together since kindergarten.

"When I moved to Florida, I never forgot my Nebraska roots."

Especially his Pawnee City hometown.

The tiny southeast Nebraska city - population 1,033 - is nestled eight miles north of the Kansas border on Nebraska highways 8 and 65. It's the county seat for Pawnee County.

The town was home to Irish McCall, who portrayed the title character in the 1950s TV series "Sheena: Queen of the Jungle," and to David Butler, who was Nebraska's first governor (1867-71).

The Pawnee Historical Society & Museum is here, where 20 historic buildings, including Butler's home, occupy seven acres. The latest addition is the barn from the Whitney property.

"Barns are disappearing in this county, and we wanted to salvage one," manager Yvonne Dalluge said. "This was the closest to us, plus, it was Dan Whitney's barn."

People outside Nebraska know Pawnee City as Whitney's hometown, referring often to it in interviews and stage performances.

The city - to a certain extent - has embraced its famous native son.

Whitney's management company closely monitors how his name and image are used. The only reference to Larry the Cable Guy in the town is a banner hanging on a fence at the Prairie Hill Sports Complex.

You will find references to Dan Whitney, however,including two street signs and a small plaque above the heavy wood door leading into the school auditorium, where he donated money for a new sound board, lights and theater curtains. The metal cut-out statues on the town's walking trail are because of him, too. He donated money for the metal and tool used to cut them out.

"To be honest, I don't think a lot of people here realize the magnitude of how big he's made it," said Betsy Spitser, the guidance counselor and former speech and drama teacher at Pawnee City High School.

That's because to most people, he's just Dan, the cut-up who liked to help farmers unload their cattle at the sale barn.

But for those who do understand his success - he twice has been among Forbes' top 100 richest celebrities (2006, 2007) - they know why.

"He's not where he is today because of luck," said Sharon Schilling, who co-owns Pawnee City's Schilling Bridge Winery and Brewery with her husband, Mike. The business brews and bottles Git-R-Done Golden Lager, an ale featuring Larry the Cable Guy's famous catchphrase. "He is where he is because he works."

Whitney said it's because of the work ethic his father instilled in him as a kid.

"My dad was a hard worker," Whitney said of the late Tom Sr. "He had a ton of jobs and never took a break. I guess I learned from him. Everybody (in Pawnee City) is like that. You just don't sit back and wait. You go out and make it happen."

Whitney did.

People often forget he toured tirelessly under his own name before finding his niche with the other Blue Collar comedians as Larry the Cable Guy.

They forget he spent 13 years calling morning shows of 30-some radio stations - including Todd and Tyler at Z-92 in Omaha - five days a week.

Many of those calls came the morning after performing and then staying up to write new material for radio.

"I knew I had to create my own breaks," he said. "I couldn't sit back and let something happen. If I had an opportunity to do it, I did it. Sometimes, it paid absolutely nothing. But you never knew who would be in the crowd or what was going to happen."

And we all know what happened.

Reach Jeff Korbelik at 473-7213 or jkorbelik@journalstar.com.

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