Kelly Erisman owned a bar called the Panic.
She drove a red, turbo-powered Porsche and was a master scuba diver. She played softball for the Huskers in the ‘80s and practical jokes on all her friends always.
She was generous and fun and committed to her community.
She fought cancer and its fallout for six years and had a love of learning that lasted a lifetime.
She died on a late April Saturday in 2016.
Friends are gathering again this Saturday at the bar the 53-year-old tended all of her adult life.
“Kelly was extremely generous with people,” Dan Kitsmiller said. “She’d fly all the bartenders to Vegas to see a show. Or take you to a performance at the Lied. If you were down on your luck, or a young person having trouble, she’d find you a room for the night or hook you up with services you needed.”
Kitsmiller met Erisman in the '80s; he moved back to Lincoln after her death to help out at the bar.
He’ll be there Saturday, depositing all of his tips in the Kelly Erisman Memorial Scholarship Fund.
The Panic’s bartenders came up with the idea for the fundraiser, said Kara Kugler-Wright, who married her partner of 29 years in a quiet courthouse ceremony a year before Erisman died.
She’d tucked away a $1,200 memorial donation after Erisman died, waiting for the right time and place for that money to make a difference.
“I wanted to do something to honor Kelly and pass on and pay forward what she stood for,” she says.
A scholarship made sense. One that provided financial assistance to a student active in the LGBTQA+ community to attend UNL made even more sense.
And holding a fundraiser for it at the bar made perfect sense.
Because the bar was Erisman’s baby.
She was just 19 when she bought it, sidelined from softball after a knee injury.
“She’d been attacked outside another bar downtown just for being who she was,” Kugler-Wright says.
She sought refuge at 18th and N streets — at a gay bar that catered to women in the basement and men upstairs.
Erisman didn’t return to school or the softball team.
Instead, she found a business partner and together they transformed those separate spaces into the Panic.
“She wanted to build a safe space,” Kugler-Wright said. “Her motivation was getting attacked and not letting that happen to anyone else.”
The bar was open seven days a week and Erisman was there to create a gathering place, a community center, a sanctuary.
She became a combination den mother and mentor, community activist and caretaker, who hosted free Thanksgiving dinners there and fed free corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day, doing all of the cooking herself.
When the festival run by Lincoln Pride was at risk of shutting down in 2007, Erisman helped resurrect it as Star City Pride.
“If there was a rally at the Capitol, people would gather here and walk over together and come back together,” Kugler-Wright said.
After Erisman died, a patron and friend said this: “The Panic was the safe place and Kelly was the pillow.”
Kugler-Wright owns the Panic now. Many of her bartenders worked for Erisman.
“We’re all just entertaining, generally,” said bartender Laura Davies. “We like to make our customers laugh. They’ll be excited to see us make a fool out of ourselves.”
There’s a lot of love and camaraderie at the Panic, Davies said.
“This is home; it’s more like a protective family and that’s exactly what Kelly instilled in her staff.”
So they’ll honor Erisman on Saturday night at the place she nurtured and grew. Where she crab-walked for giggles and hid in the dumpster until some unsuspecting employee came out with the trash.
There will be singing and comedy and drag. Every penny of the $5 cover charge and all of the night’s tips will go to the cause.
The goal is $10,000. Enough to endow the Kelly Erisman scholarship at the Lincoln Community Foundation.
Kugler-Wright is selling Erisman’s 1987 Porsche to help boost the scholarship.
There’s a sense of urgency, she said.
“I really want to draw attention to Kelly’s legacy.”
And help pass it on.