When Ernie Chambers was forced out of the Legislature by term limits in 2009, it was noted by The Associated Press that he was “Nebraska’s longest-serving state senator, having served for more than 35 years.”
With his re-election, Chambers now easily has eclipsed his earlier contender for the honor in Sen. Jerome Warner, who served just more than 34 years.
But often overlooked is the family record of Warner and his father, Charles, who together amassed 60 years in the Legislature and held the office of lieutenant governor four times.
As a group, the Swedish were the last major nationality to arrive in Rock Creek Precinct, Lancaster County. Brothers C.V. John and S.G. Warner, all born in Sweden in the 1840s, immigrated to the United States, first to Alton, Ill. From Illinois they traveled first by rail to Omaha, then into Lancaster County, a three-day trip in all.Between them, it was said, they had “three horses, a cow, one pig and an old wagon, some lumber and a few tools.”
In March 1871, they pitched a tent on Section 25 in Rock Creek Precinct and built a 12-by-18-foot cabin. The closest town was Waverly, about six miles away, and seven miles distant were Havelock and Greenwood, all on the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad.
John’s son Charles Joseph Warner was born on the family farm March 29, 1875. After high school, Charles studied at Luther College in Wahoo from 1891 to 1893, at Lincoln Normal College and received his Bachelor of Science from the University of Nebraska in 1899.
In 1901, Charles was elected to the Nebraska House of Representatives. While in the lower legislative chamber, he entered Columbia Law School in Washington, D.C., and worked at the U.S. Treasury; he then was re-elected to the Legislature in 1903 and 1905.After being elected president of the Lancaster County Bank in 1918, he was elected to the Nebraska Senate the following year.
Although a lifelong Republican, when Nebraska became a one-house legislature, Charles not only was elected as its first speaker but unanimously, not a feat easily accomplished or perhaps even possible today. Although not elected, Charles ran for governor in 1938 and 1940. During his second campaign for governor, it was noted he had the “longest service record of any man in the Nebraska Legislature” and, though defeated by Robert Cochran, Warner did become lieutenant governor in 1949.
Known as President of the Legislature and Grand Old Man of Nebraska Politics, he felt two of his greatest achievements were the establishment of Kearney State Teacher’s College and the Nebraska Tractor Testing Laboratory.
Charles Joseph Warner died Sept. 24, 1955, while still lieutenant governor and overseeing the farming of 1,600 acres. Warner had many elected offices through the years, from Waverly’s school board to 10 terms in the Nebraska House of Representatives, three terms in the Nebraska Senate, as senator in the unicameral and four terms as lieutenant governor.
Charles’ son Phillip Jerome Warner was born on the family’s farm near Waverly on Nov. 23, 1927. One of Jerome’s earliest political memories undoubtedly was at the age of 9 when his father was elected speaker of the first unicameral. After graduating from Waverly High School, Jerome received his Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Nebraska. In 1952, he married political reporter Betty Pearson, and 11 years later was elected to the Legislature, becoming speaker in 1969.
When Jerome Warner died of cancer on April 22, 1997, he was still a member of the Legislature, and an Omaha World-Herald editorial noted that at that time, he had served in the Legislature 35 years “longer than any other person,” including 13 years on the Appropriations Committee.
Known as the “Dean of the Legislature,” Jerome perhaps was best known as an indefatigable friend and supporter of the University of Nebraska as well as Nebraska’s roads and highways and its fair system of taxation.
Outside the Legislature, he continued to operate the family farm, raised Hereford cattle, was in the Nebraska Air National Guard and on several boards, including Lincoln Mutual Life Insurance Co. He and his wife also are credited with reading and vetting Professor Robert Knoll’s "The Prairie University: The History of the University of Nebraska."
After Betty Warner died March 21, 1994, at age 70, the eastern segment of Nebraska 2 from Lincoln to Nebraska City was named the Jerome and Betty Warner Highway.