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'The girl who pitched in' -- Small Nebraska town loses its humble helper
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'The girl who pitched in' -- Small Nebraska town loses its humble helper

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She was a humble, small woman from a humble, small town in the big quiet of north-central Nebraska.

She had watched her Newport flourish and fail. The grocery stores, gone. The churches, gone. The post office, gone. The steakhouse and convenience store at the highway’s edge, gone.

But Betty Christensen wasn’t going to watch her town die. She was in her 80s when she hatched an improbable plan: to raise more than $200,000 to replace the community center and the fire hall.

In Newport, buying time for a dying town

The buildings were important to Newport. When Christensen’s husband, Elmer, was mayor in the 1950s, he’d helped convert the former granary into a gathering place. Generations of Rock County families attended parties, potlucks and reunions there, to celebrate what they still had, and funeral dinners, to mourn who they lost.

Her husband also helped build the fire hall, a small, second-hand Quonset for the 30 or so volunteers who serve 350 square miles, the eastern third of the county.

But both buildings were beyond repair. The volunteer firefighters struggled to squeeze all of their rigs in through its single door, and to even afford to pay its heating bills, which could soar to $5,000 annually. The community center would flood during heavy rains and become a refuge for snakes.

Pieces of Newport's future, waiting for assembly

“I just knew something had to be done and I started asking questions,” Christensen said in 2014. “And everybody was for it.”

She enlisted volunteers, and they envisioned a modern, 6,000-square-foot steel building, with enough room for the fire department, the community center and village office.

They didn’t want to burden their 70 or so neighbors, so they pledged to avoid public money. No bond issues, no levy increases, no tax dollars. Instead, they sold cakes, cookies and candies, hosted rummage sales, suppers and dances, raffled quilts, pigs and, one year, a rifle.

Newport map ONLINE ONLY

They also asked for donations, with Christensen quietly contributing the first $10,000.

When the Journal Star wrote about the effort in 2014, they had raised $117,000. Then their total grew by nearly $70,000, much of that from strangers who read the story.

And in 2017, Christensen toured the nearly finished building. It had ample room for the firefighters and their equipment, a modern kitchen and gathering place for the community, a roof that held. The cost was higher than expected -- $260,000, which they covered with no public money -- and construction took longer than they wanted, but here it was.

She was 90 by then. “I felt pretty good,” she said after. “I didn’t know whether I was going to live to see it.”

Newport's ambitious plan finally complete: 'It's a nice-looking building'

Christensen died Monday at the Rock County Hospital in Bassett, her daughter, Lonna Allison said. She was 94.

When the building was finished, some people in Newport suggested it should bear her name. But her mother wouldn’t have wanted that, Allison said.

“She was a pretty humble person. That would have been a little strange for her.”

The building occupied her later years, but Christensen’s legacy was so much bigger than that, her daughter said. She helped on their farm, at her children’s school, in the community.

In tiny Newport, Betty's building nearly finished

“She was the girl who pitched in,” Allison said. “She was just always there.”

She’ll be buried Monday. And then her friends and family will gather for coffee and cookies in the community center Christensen helped build.

Tiny town still saving for fire hall, gym and future

Reach the writer at 402-473-7254 or psalter@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSPeterSalter

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