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Peru State art exhibit offers view of 1950s Nebraska through lens of sheriff's deputy

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Long before he was a business instructor at Peru State College, Max Kathol was known for other things across Southeast Nebraska.

He'd grown up behind the counter of his parents' jewelry shop in Plattsmouth, where he was born and raised, and went on to flip and preserve modern and historic houses, serve in economic development roles in three Nebraska cities and, along the way, he developed a reputation as "a seller of all items," he says.

Through The Eyes of a Rural Nebraskan Sheriff

Nearly two dozen photographs pulled from 500 negatives are featured in "Through The Eyes of a Rural Nebraskan Sheriff," an exhibit at Peru State College's AV Larson Gallery through Nov. 30.

So it wasn't a surprise when he got a phone call about five years ago from the descendant of a former Cass County sheriff's deputy who had no use for boxes full of law enforcement memorabilia from the 1950s.

At the time, Kathol didn't know there were negatives from an old film camera stowed within the boxes. But soon, he uncovered about 500 snapshots of daily life in 1950s Nebraska, most of which were taken by a deputy who would later become the sheriff, depicting scenes ranging from morbid to mundane.

"There's a balance between the good and the bad," Kathol said. "But there's also this embodiment of how people come together. … (They're) very real pictures that depict real people."

Now, 22 of those negatives have been developed into photographs and placed on display at Peru State College's AV Larson Gallery in an exhibit titled "Through The Eyes of a Rural Nebraskan Sheriff," curated by Kenneth Curtis, an assistant professor of art at the school.

Kathol quickly realized he had a piece of Southeast Nebraska history on his hands after purchasing the boxes, and he spent parts of the next four years — 10 minutes here and there on a slow night, he said — sorting through the photos, waiting for the right opportunity to share them with the region.

That's where Curtis entered.

A relatively new presence at Peru State, the 60-year-old arrived in Nemaha County in 2019 after teaching stints in Dubai, United Arab Emirates and New Mexico.

When Kathol shared the photos with Curtis, the art professor saw them as a vessel to introduce his students — and himself — to the realities a generation faced.

"My students often — they don't necessarily say the ’50s — but they say it's hard in this world, that the world they're living in, that they're experiencing, is more difficult," Curtis said. "And that's the way I felt when I was growing up. That it must've been nice, at some point, to live in another time frame."

But the scenes captured by the sheriff's deputy — a car crash on a rural road, a tow truck driver freeing a struck vehicle while a crowd gathers to watch — provided a different perspective.

"There were a lot of photos that were graphic in nature," he said, noting that the most gory negatives in Kathol's batch of 500 were never considered for the exhibit.

"And some of them interesting. Some of them I wanted to include. Because a lot of students suffer with depression. And a lot of people back in the ’50s suffered from depression."

In selecting the featured photos, Curtis didn't intentionally seek photos of Cass County residents on their worst day or their best day. Instead, he sought photos that told the story of every day. 

"Most people, when they get their photo taken, they're posing," he said. "A lot of times they will be in their best outfit, or they try their best to look as well as they possibly can.

"In these photos, it was just people. It was Nebraskans."

Through The Eyes of a Rural Nebraskan Sheriff

Nearly two dozen photographs pulled from 500 negatives are featured in "Through The Eyes of a Rural Nebraskan Sheriff," an exhibit at Peru State College's AV Larson Gallery through Nov. 30.

Kathol said the curators took steps to conceal license plate numbers and other identifying characteristics to preserve the anonymity of both the subjects of the negatives and their photographer.

For the Southeast Nebraska native and a self-described booster of the region, the exhibit offers a window into the closeness of rural life, where he said there is less of a filter between residents and the tragedies they observe.

"When you're outside of Omaha and you're outside of Lincoln, the people that show up in the ambulance are who's next door," Kathol said. "And, when there's a fire and that emergency is taken care of, you know that person. Either the victim or the person that is the hero in that story."

Curtis and Kathol were both quick to note that the collection of photos they discovered and curated would never have reached the AV Larson Gallery without the college's support.

The art professor sought a grant more than a year ago to purchase the scanner necessary to turn the negatives into the photographs, now on display in Peru, where they will remain in the galley through the end of the month.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7223 or awegley@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @andrewwegley

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A Kansas City, Missouri, native, Andrew Wegley joined the Journal Star as breaking news reporter after graduating from Northwest Missouri State University in May 2021.

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