Bennie Shobe often wonders if he’d have ended up a different person had a North Carolina State University recruiter not messed up his address.
Would the Kentucky native have gone to dances at Auld Pavilion and learned about kolaches and realized that Nebraskans — at least back in the late 1990s — really hated the idea of consolidating their small, rural schools?
Would the bridge-builder have decided to use those skills as a City Council member in the middle of the country?
Hard to say, though this much is fact: In 1998, Shobe decided to earn his doctorate at UNL because it was committed to diversity and offered him an attractive financial package. He wouldn’t learn until later that North Carolina State had offered him a very similar package but mailed everything to the wrong house.
The reasons he stayed here hearken back farther, to a farm near Bowling Green, Kentucky, where Shobe's parents raised dairy cattle, pigs, corn, hay and tobacco and four children, of whom Bennie is the oldest.
He remembers being in one of the first federal early childhood Head Start classes, and that his parents sheltered their kids from the segregation legacy they’d experienced.
“I asked my dad later on, why, and he said ‘We didn’t want to expose you to any negative culture, so we just kind of kept you insulated from it,'" Shobe said. “It was basically school, church, work and sleep. Those are the four things we did.”
Schools “tracked” students then, he said, and he was one of the few African Americans placed in the higher-level classes. Education was important in his family, a sort of unspoken expectation.
“There was always a set of encyclopedias in our house,” he said.
They’d get hand-me-down books, and Shobe and his brother would go to the library when his mom occasionally did housekeeping work for a family that lived across the street from it.
Once, he remembers complaining about a soap opera, and his mom told him to go write a script himself if he thought he could do so much better.
“She was always challenging me to do things,” he said.
He thinks those experiences helped him be successful in Nebraska, though it would be awhile from his script-writing days before he got there.
His dad worked at the Coca-Cola plant in Bowling Green, and Shobe began working there in high school, and joined his dad full-time after graduation.
He left within a year and joined the Kroger Co., a grocery store chain where he stayed for two decades. He enrolled at Western Kentucky University, got married, and 2½ years later decided he didn’t need a college degree.
He later divorced, but after about a 10-year hiatus, went back to school and finished his undergraduate degree. The last course he took was on social inequalities, and it inspired him to go on and get his master’s degree in sociology.
“All the things, my life experiences were explained through that social inequalities class,” he said.
He taught at a community college, worked at the grocery store and in 1998 came to UNL. He saw the very different culture in Nebraska as adventures to be had.
“I’m a little bit outside my comfort zone here, but I’m developing a better comfort zone every day. And if I’d stayed in the South, I would never have ventured outside it.”
He left Kroger in 2000, after the company changed its leave policy, and finished his coursework, but not his dissertation at UNL. He taught at Doane College, and worked a number of jobs until he landed at the Nebraska Department of Labor in 2008, where he is still a program analyst.
He hadn’t been in Lincoln long before he started getting involved in the community: The Malone Center, the NAACP, the Indian Center. He began to notice a disconnect between Lincoln’s residents and the government that represents them.
He tried to bridge that gap.
“One of my superpowers is to be able to get past the incendiary words and say 'Here’s what we’re talking about,’” he said.
He ran for City Council in 2017 to try to build those bridges, work he’d like to continue. He saw the need following the protests last summer.
“No one learned anything,” he said. “The protesters didn’t learn how the system works. We didn’t learn what they really wanted. We didn’t make a lot of changes. We’re basically right where we were before the summer protests. There’s still mistrust, there’s still misunderstanding, there’s still status quo."
Watch Now: Voter's Guide for the Lincoln city general election on May 4
The Lincoln Journal Star posed questions for candidates on the May 4 general election ballot. Read the responses and watch the videos from Lincoln City Council, Lincoln Board of Education and Lincoln Airport Authority candidates.
Learn about the candidates' positions on the issues before voting in the May 4 general election.
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