Twelve years ago, a group of kindergartners got a visit from a man named Barney Oldfield, who promised each of them $1,000 when they graduated from high school.
It was a message about the future and education’s role in it; a little help for the millennium generation from a man who was born in Tecumseh and went on to lead a big life.
The year was 2000, and Oldfield -- who retired from the Air Force as a colonel, worked as a press agent to Hollywood stars and as an aide to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower during World War II -- stressed the importance of education to the kindergartners, who had come from Johnson County’s three schools to meet him.
He gave them a certificate and wrote them letters, telling them they were the “millennium class” and that there would be great curiosity about them and their endeavors.
Then Oldfield said goodbye, and those kindergartners spent the next 12 years growing up. They played sports and music, acted in plays, joined clubs and won awards. They began reading, conquered algebra and learned some of the history their guest had lived.
Now those kindergartners are graduating from high school.
And Oldfield, who died in 2003, is making good on his promise.
He’s had some help, from Ardyce Bohlke, a former state senator and program director for the Vada Kinman and Col. Barney Oldfield Family Foundation, from high school counselors such as Shelley Moles and from Judy Coe, a friend who was instrumental in getting a portion of state highway named in his honor and 12 years ago organized the program in which Oldfield met the kindergartners.
Bohlke said Oldfield would be thrilled to know his promise is helping those kindergartners, who will get an additional $1,000 if they enroll in a Nebraska college.
“He would be so excited,” Bohlke said. “And he would probably call each one of them. He loved talking to the students. He was quite a guy.”
Oldfield and his wife, Vada, contributed more than $3 million to scholarship funds around the country, including hundreds of thousands that benefited Nebraskans. In addition to his promise to the 67 kindergartners, he gave $1,000 to 87 Johnson County seniors from the class of 2000, a gift of $154,000.
So far, officials have found 36 graduating students who will receive the scholarships, a job that hasn’t been easy. And they’re still looking.
When the students were in kindergarten, there were three public schools in Johnson County -- Nemaha Valley Schools in Cook, Tecumseh Public Schools and Sterling Public Schools. There also was a Catholic school in Tecumseh, and a couple of students were being home-schooled.
Since then, Tecumseh and Nemaha Valley districts consolidated into Johnson County Central schools, where 22 of the students graduated Saturday.
There also are seven graduates from Sterling High School, and others from Johnson, Syracuse, Beatrice, Hastings, Waverly and Adams. One student, Luke Saathoff, died at 13 when a car hit his sled in 2007.
Some parents and kids remembered the scholarship -- and some didn’t.
Deb Kucera, whose son is a Waverly High School graduate, thought maybe it was a joke when Coe called her to confirm that her son Zach had attended Nemaha Valley as a kindergartner.
"We had forgotten all about it," she said. The family moved from Cook to Waverly when Zach was in second grade.
In the fall, he’ll attend Doane College, where he’ll play baseball and study exercise science and biology, and Kucera said they appreciate Oldfield’s generosity.
"It was such a nice surprise, because we were just saying, 'It's so expensive; how are we going to do this?'"
Shelby Strubel, a senior at Johnson County Central, remembers the visit from Oldfield, though she doesn’t remember him promising them $1,000 upon graduation.
"We were really excited that we had a visitor. I don’t remember much of what he said."
She moved on from kindergarten to become a track and cross-country runner, a member of National Honor Society and various student organizations. She'll use the gift to help pay for tuition at Wayne State College.
"It will help, and I appreciate it and plan to use it wisely, to study hard," she said.
Daniel Jett, another Johnson County Central grad, didn’t remember the visit or the gift, though his mom did.
"I thought it was very cool," said Elizabeth Jett. "I didn’t know if anyone else would remember, so I wasn’t expecting it or anything."
Daniel will use it to help pay for tuition at ITT Technical Institute in Omaha, where he plans to study computer programming and graphics.
Laura Dieckgrafe remembered the scholarship and going to a different school to meet Oldfield as a kindergartner. Next fall, she’ll be attending the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and wants to go into pharmacy.
"I think it’s really generous of him to do that for us," she said.
She addressed her class at graduation Saturday. She said she planned to make a couple of jokes, thank her family, then offer her fellow graduates some advice: to live up to their potential. To go out into the world and do their best.
"We are the future, so we need to go out and do what we can."
Which is exactly what Oldfield was hoping for when he made a promise 12 years ago.