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British columnist Katharine Whitehorn once wrote of Playboy magazine: “The whole thing is a Midwestern Methodist’s vision of sin.”

Whitehorn wasn’t wrong.

The magazine and media empire’s creator, Hugh Hefner, was the son of Midwestern Methodists — Glenn and Grace Hefner — who were Nebraska natives and alumni of Nebraska Wesleyan University, founded in 1887 by members of the United Methodist Church in University Place.

The Hefners’ connection to Wesleyan opened the doors to the Chicago Playboy Club for the university’s marching band.

Hugh Hefner died Wednesday night at age 91 at his home in Los Angeles.

Hefner’s father, Glenn, who managed the books as the accountant for the girly magazine edited and published by his son, grew up in the Nebraska village of Atlanta, in Phelps County.

The elder Hefner was a member of Theta Phi Sigma fraternity at Wesleyan, and involved in basketball and track. He graduated in 1918 with a degree in mathematics.

Grace Swanson, Glenn’s childhood sweetheart, grew up in Holdrege and followed Glenn to Lincoln, where she became president of Alpha Kappa Delta sorority, joined the Chemistry Club and Physics Club, and was beat out by Viola Talich to be treasurer of the YWCA on campus.

If that wasn't enough, she was in the Phi Kappa Phi academic honorary to boot.

Swanson graduated in 1920 and went on to become a teacher, working for a time in Barneston, in Gage County, before moving to Chicago, where she married Glenn, who was also a teacher before he became Playboy's accountant and treasurer, and later gave birth to Hugh and brother Keith.

The money Glenn Hefner made working for his son in the publishing business was later left to Grace in a trust after his death in 1976 at age 80.

When Grace died in 1997, at age 101, the trust was distributed to several beneficiaries.

About $181,000 went to the Methodist Memorial Homes — now the Holdrege Memorial Homes, a skilled-nursing and assisted-living facility — where Hefner's father and grandfather both lived late in their lives.

Glenn Hefner's estate also left about $182,000 to the Phelps Memorial Health Center for the betterment of the critical-access hospital in Holdrege.

The bulk of the money in the trust — more than $950,000 — was given to Nebraska Wesleyan, establishing a scholarship fund for students and helping fund the Weary Center for Health and Fitness.

The Glenn and Grace Hefner Endowed Scholarship doesn't award money to a specific student, but helps bolster a pot of financial aid distributed to several students, Nebraska Wesleyan spokeswoman Sara Olson said.

It was "established by Glenn and Grace to give current students the same access to quality education that they enjoyed," the scholarship documentation says.

The liberal arts college's band also has a connection to the Playboy empire.

Under the direction of Bob Marshall, the “Pride of the Plainsmen” marching band regularly traveled to Soldier Field in the Windy City to play a halftime show at the invitation of Chicago Bears owner George Halas.

On two consecutive visits in the late 1960s, Marshall leveraged Wesleyan’s connection to Hefner to get the whole marching band into Chicago’s Playboy Club for dinner, according to then-trumpeter John Ulrich of Lincoln.

“(Marshall) was something of a wheeler-dealer as far as knowing people,” Ulrich recalled. “Through his connections in Chicago and Wesleyan’s connections with Hugh’s parents, the stars kind of aligned for us to have dinner.”

The band was waited on by Playboy bunnies in a reserved room, the retired music teacher said. The “awestruck” 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds in the band bought souvenirs from the club's gift shop.

“This was in the days before political correctness,” Ulrich said. “It was such a big deal back then. It was just a different time.”

Omaha would later get its own Playboy Club in 1984, situated near the interchange of I-80 and L Street. Before Hefner closed all Playboy Clubs across the U.S. in 1988, the Omaha club boasted of 19,000 "keyholders" or members — nearly 40 percent of them women.

Hefner, who was born and raised in Chicago and attended the University of Illinois and Northwestern University, was also known to host his Nebraska kin at the Playboy Mansion near Los Angeles.

When the Huskers took on UCLA in 1988 for a regular-season game at the Rose Bowl (No. 2 Nebraska lost to the No. 5 Bruins 41-28), Hefner invited cousin Mae McClymont and her Holdrege family to stay at the Gothic/Tudor-inspired estate.

"He's the same as he's always been," McClymont said in a 1989 Associated Press story. "He's easy to talk to."

Another cousin, Ralph Spongberg of Kearney, said he got to know his famous relative better when both were enrolled at Northwestern. They remained friends, and Spongberg said he would regularly visit Hefner, including after the publisher's father died in 1976.

"We sat around the living room and kicked around childhood stories," said Spongberg, who died in 2002. "We talked about some of the silly things we did."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.


Higher education reporter

Chris Dunker covers higher education, state government and the intersection of both.

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