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Kelly Erisman

Kelly Erisman (left) and Katie Skinner celebrate at Panic, a Lincoln gay bar, after a federal judge struck down Nebraska's ban on same-sex marriage in March 2015.

Inside the doors of the Panic Bar, co-owner Kelly Erisman inspired courage and exuded acceptance to many in Lincoln's LGBT community, her friends said Thursday.

Outside the bar at 18th and N streets described as a refuge since the 1980s, more than 150 mourners gathered to grieve the death of the 53-year-old who died in her sleep Saturday. 

"The Panic was the safe place," Stacie Schultz told the crowd."And Kelly was the pillow."

Born in Lincoln July 15, 1962, Erisman went on to become a letterwinner for the University of Nebraska softball team in the 1980s.

Once while in Oklahoma practicing, Erisman and teammate Ann Schroeder picked up snakes and chased their teammates around with them, Schroeder said.

Erisman got into the bar business in the 1980s and co-owned Panic with her spouse Kara Kugler, her partner of almost 29 years.

Teammates, bar patrons, coworkers and friends described her as a "stratospheric prankster" who would crabwalk in the bar, an entrepreneur and activist who supported those in need.

At her bar, she made people feel comfortable and brought a sense of safety to a group of people who at times felt apart from their community, they said. 

"We who are older know the fear that even coming to a bar could get us egged, beaten or killed," said Lin Quenzer.

"Kelly provided us with her beautiful smile, understanding and nonjudgmental love and we were safe!

"We were home here!"

Barbara Baier first met Erisman at Panic Bar when Baier was in her late 20s.

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She knew she needed to come out, she said, and she felt alone.

Erisman approached her when she came in, realizing Baier was coming to find out who she was, Baier recalled.

"You can always count on me," Erisman told her. "You're always safe here."

Erisman helped Schultz transform from a shy 19-year-old from Seward who stood in the back of the bar against the wall to a "barnacle," who became an LGBT activist who helped changed federal policy.

She saved Schultz's life, she said, noting she met her wife there.

In bartenders, Erisman inspired confidence but told them their family always came first, mourners said.

Speakers on a black stage next to Erisman's red Porcshe with the license plate "RU12" wiped their eyes as they spoke of how she created a community.

Those gathered in the street that had been blocked off Thursday night hugged and held candles in Erisman's memory.

Quenzer, the city's ombudsman and LGBT liaison, called Erisman "one of those brilliant points of light" who helped the city become an epicenter for change for gay rights.

In her speech, Deb Cirksena said there were few places in the United States safe for LGBT people when Panic opened. 

With her immense likability, Erisman helped connect a community of strangers, she said.

"Thank you for making this place and making us know that we are welcome in it," Cirksena said.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-2657 or rjohnson@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSRileyJohnson.

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