Throughout my two years as NFPW president, Mary Pat Finn-Hoag sent me cards and emails or called me. We talked about a lot of things, but she always ended every phone call and each written note with these words, “just breathe.”

Mary Pat has known me for all 35-plus years that I’ve been a Nebraska and NFPW member. So she knows that some of the things I do best are worry, stress the details and constantly make to-do lists.

There are two to-do lists on the table next to me that outline things I need to take to the 2014 NFPW Conference and things I need to do before I go.

Many other people in my state affiliate and on the national level were similarly supportive during my term as president … and well before and long after, too.

But it’s Mary Pat’s “just breathe” that I say to myself when I’m getting to wound up and worried.

Taking walks and going outside with my camera are two things that help me relax. I have a butterfly bush in my front landscaping, just below my kitchen window, which is a prime location to take photos just steps from my front door.

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A section of hike-bike trail will be going along the north side of my property sometime soon, which will require a fence and some new landscaping. I plan to include another butterfly bush or two.

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I had expected the trail work to be done already. One thing on my travel to-do list is to check with the Kearney city engineer about when he thinks the contractor might start tearing out a hedge on my property and a big section of my front yard for that project.

I have told him I don’t want any work done when I’m traveling, mostly because I want to be sure the part of my lawn sprinkler that will be involved will be properly plugged to prevent water from running everywhere.

That became a bigger worry overnight Aug. 8-9 when we had a terrible storm come through Kearney that dropped about 3.5 inches of rain in an hour or so. You may have seen on the Internet or network TV news the Good Samaritan Hospital security video of a river of water breaking through the floor-to-ceiling windows of its relatively new lower level cafeteria and kitchen.

Anyway, I’m getting excited about coming to Greenville, S.C., in a couple of weeks. I’ll have things checked off of my checklist and can enjoy some travel fun, the networking, learning opportunities, good food and wonderful hospitality for a week.

I’m also keeping President Teri Ehresman in my thoughts and prayers. No one understands the pre-conference preparations she’s making better than a past president. Also, I know she has a big week ahead with work responsibilities and her daughter’s wedding.

So Teri, two words come to mind: Just Breathe!

I’ve often said I would not have made a good pioneer, but thank God my ancestors were.

The good pioneers were brave and bold in heading west, while not knowing where the great overland trails that passed through Fort Kearny would take them. Their goal was to find a better life for themselves and their children in that great somewhere out there to the west.

They knew there would be hardships when traveling the Great Platte River Road and trails even farther west, but they could not have imagined just how hard it would be to face weather that always was too hot, too cold, too wet , too dry or too windy. They dealt with injuries, diseases, rivers too wild to cross and mountains too high to climb.

And there was the constant threat of conflicts with Native Americans who were desperate to hold onto their lands and their ways of life in the midst of a great migration of pioneers passing through and eventually settling on their lands.

In Nebraska, many of those conflicts were in 1864. So, when organizers of last week’s first Oregon-California Trails Association Convention in Kearney were selecting a theme, they chose that piece of history.

The conflicts were discussed by people with ancestors on both sides. The day tours and presentations also included topics about the Pony Express, military history tied to Fort Kearny, Native American and pioneer cultures, and road ranches along the Oregon, California and Mormon trails.

The convention’s concluding event Saturday night was a Nebraska supper at Fort Kearny State Historical Park featuring locally grown sweet corn, potatoes and apples baked into cake, plus smoked beef brisket and chicken.

The fort’s regular crew of re-enactors demonstrated military drills and fired a big canon. There also was a demonstration of a Pony Express mochila hand off by a grandfather and his 13-year-old grandson, who is just a few years younger than most of the original riders.

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A Colorado couple brought a team of milking Devon oxen, which were the kind of oxen used by many pioneer travelers. The same animals could pull a heavy wagon loaded with provisions and personal items, and provide milk. If one died, there was value in the meat.

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We still have pioneers today in people who see brave new worlds to explore in their travels or professions. Many NFPW members could wear that title, even if they’ve never been in a Conestoga wagon or spent time on the Oregon Trail.

They are the types who always hear the word “challenge” when someone tells them “no.”

Willa Cather’s “O Pioneers” is one of my favorite books. It is set a little later in pioneer history and describes hardships faced by the first and second generations of pioneers who settled the Nebraska prairie, including people like my grandparents.

When the storm clouds gathered in the western sky, as they did Saturday night at Fort Kearny, those settlers closed the barn doors, huddled in their sod or wooden houses, and prayed that their crops and livestock would be safe in the morning. Farmers and ranchers still do that today during stormy summers like we’re having this year.

The earliest travelers on the overland trails had nowhere to hide. When storm clouds came their way in any form or fashion, they lowered their heads and continued to go west.

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At the end of the Buffalo County Fair each year, I give myself permission to start anticipating the annual NFPW conference.

It has been later or earlier than usual the past two years, with the 2012 conference in Scottsdale, Ariz., a few weeks into September and the 2013 conference in Salt Lake City in late August. We’re back on schedule this year to be in Greenville, S.C., during Labor Day week.

I can hardly wait.

There are constant reminders now in the emails from President Teri Ehresman, our headquarters staff and conference planners as we prepare for the business meetings, COA and contest banquets, Education Fund silent auction, speakers and other learning experiences, and tours.

I had another reminder this week that came out of the blue, but with perfect timing. It was early Wednesday morning – the morning after the last events at the fair – and I was getting ready for work.

I went to the bathroom to brush my teeth, turned on the radio and one of my favorite singers, James Taylor, immediately sang, “In my mind I’m going to Carolina.”

If that wasn’t permission to mix in some planning and anticipation time with all the things I still need to do at work in August, I don’t know what is.

We had an NFPW spring board meeting in Greenville a few years ago, which was my first visit to South Carolina.

So, I did a little research and found a woman there who gives van tours around the northwest part of the state. She showed me part of Appalachian country, plus some historical sites around Greenville.

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I loved it and I looked forward to coming back for a longer visit.

I have signed up for three of the day tours, Sept. 1, 2 and 3, prior to the actual start of the conference. The pre- and post-tours set up by our conference hosts everywhere we go are a great way to see parts of the country in just a few days. Best of all, there is more time to visit and have fun with NFPW members from other states.

Some of the sites on the South Carolina tours I’m taking are places I saw during my first visit to Greenville, but many will be wonderfully new.

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I’ve started to think about the things I’ll take with me to the 2014 conference and I will make my travel checklist soon. As inspiration, I looked at photos I took earlier in the Greenville area.

So, as James Taylor said, “Yes, I’m going to Carolina in my mind.”

Better yet, in four weeks, I’ll be going to Carolina for real!!!

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The 2014 Buffalo County Fair concluded today, making it a day of great relief for me. For seven days straight – some of them with heat indexes over 100 degrees – I was at the fairgrounds for an hour or two or six.

I cover the fair as part of my agriculture beat at the Kearney Hub. There were many things to see and do, including a concert by the country group Little Big Town, a carnival with lots of rides and games, and exhibits of all kind.

However, Nebraska’s number one industry is agriculture and Buffalo County is one of the top-producing counties for crops and livestock, so the focus of the fair always will be on ag-related competitions and entertainment, and especially on 4-H.

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As usual, I was asked several times this week if I was having fun. Usually, I say it would be more fun if I wasn’t working, although most of what I do is take photos, which can be fun when it involves events such as bull riding and mutton busting.

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It also would be more fun if there wasn’t several hours of work to do after every fair day to sort and identify photos, and write about the grand champion winners in the market sheep, beef and swine competitions for 4-H members.

The heat and humidity did take the starch out of me on several days, but mostly I’m just brain tired. Sleeping for about 48 hours – if that were possible – sounds great. I hope to take a day off this week, and just getting back to a more normal routine helps in my recovery process.

I’m sure members of the fairgrounds and Extension Service staffs, and all those 4-H families (at least the parents) are thinking the same thing.

NFPW members know the feeling, too. Maybe they’ve never covered a county fair, but everyone I know has been involved in covering, planning and/or hosting big events or projects.

Parts of such things are fun and it certainly is rewarding at the end of it all to know that you did a good job.

However, days later, it still can feel like I’m on a roller coaster that hasn’t quite stopped. Or in the case of the Buffalo County Fair, the 360-degree Fireball that took riders – certainly not me!!! – upside down.

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So was covering the county fair fun in general, or more or less fun than the past 20-plus fairs I’ve covered?

Ask me in a week or so when my brain is rested, the house is sort of clean again, the laundry is all done and the roller coaster ride truly seems to be over.

I’ve always had a need to organize things, plan ahead, create to-do lists and edit stories just one more time, if time allows.

I know that drives other people crazy. It even drives me crazy sometimes, especially when I’m focusing on planning instead of getting a good night’s sleep.

However, I know my age-related memory issues would be a lot more frustrating if I couldn’t count on having a written list of things I need to remember. Being so routine oriented eases my mind because I probably did things at the right time, even if I don’t really remember doing them.

After a very long week of work and facing the always trying Buffalo County Fair in the week ahead, it was nice to stumble upon one benefit of my plan-ahead personality this afternoon.

I found my stash of things I may bring to Greenville, S.C., Sept. 4-6 for the NFPW Education Fund Silent Auction that is a highlight for many of us at every annual conference.

I’m focused on it even more this year as the Education Fund director.

The silent auction is a critical fund-raising event for NFPW’s 501(c)3. The proceeds allow us to offer members professional development grants and also first-timer grants if they haven’t attended a conference before.

First-timer grants will pay the full conference registration for 14 members coming to the 2014 conference.

The Education Fund also supports our annual high school communications contest.

I knew that, as usual, I had put away in my spare bedroom several things with the 2014 Education Fund auction in mind. So, I went into the bedroom this afternoon to just take a look … and start figuring out if the things I want to take will fit in my suitcase.

I remembered several of the items. However – and this is where memory loss can be a good thing, sort of – I found other really cool things that I had forgotten until I saw them.

At least I think they’re cool.

I won’t spoil all the surprises, but here is one example. Sometime in the past 10 months, I found an NFPW purple handbag. I really hope that someone in Greenville will decide she can’t leave the conference without it.

It was one of those forgot-all-about-it surprises that seem to occur all too often these days.

I’m sure there will be many surprising items at the 2014 auction. There have been great events, memorable moments and many surprises at every NFPW conference I’ve attended – all but two since 1987.

I hope to share a bunch of them with you in Greenville!!

I took Mom and one of her friends to the Museum of Nebraska Art this afternoon. For those of you who were on the 2011 NFPW Conference pre-tour to Nebraska, this was the old Kearney Post Office building where we had our Sunday night supper seated in the largest exhibit space.

There were many interesting things to see, including “Regionalist Works of Grant Reynard,” who was a Grand Island native best known as an illustrator for many of America’s most well-known magazines during the first half of the 20th century.

However, we spent most of our time in the NFPW supper room admiring the “Stitching Time: Over 100 Years of Quilts in Nebraska” exhibit that featured 20 quilts on loan to MONA mostly from historical museums in central Nebraska, Nebraska State Historical Society, and the International Quilt Study Center and Museum at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Although there were masterpieces of color and design, including geometric, traditional and other quilt patterns; pictures done in cloth; and a beautiful vase of flowers that could be considered fine art, I mostly think of quilts as common people’s art, history and poetry all in one package.

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Some were made only for display and some for use as bedspreads.

There was even a newspaper quilt by an unknown artist that was dated 1911 and kept under glass because, as could be expected, the newspaper base had not held up that well. It’s amazing that it and other household type quilts survived at all.

It was fascinating to look at the fine stitches and consider the choices of patterns and colors by the true artists. However, the most interesting to me were the crazy quilts.

These are the ones done by people who obviously grabbed scraps of cloth and other things around the house that had been kept because they were pieces of family history from old clothes, bedding and other sewing projects. The pioneer artists cut the scraps into unusual shapes to avoid holes and wear patterns, and put the quilt puzzle together in a way that suited them.

The “You are the Darling of the Earth Crazy Quilt” made in 1898 by Edith Withers Meyers was embroidered with names – primarily first names or nicknames – sayings and dates. I’m sure it all meant something to her, her family and neighbors at one time.

Today, it just seems like sweet foolishness.

But think a minute about what it means to the maker to have saved these pieces of history. Think about all the interesting, wonderful people you’ve met in your lifetime, just at NFPW and affiliate conferences alone. Wouldn’t you like some way to tell the world how much those people meant to you and how being with them, even if only a few times, enhanced the quality of your life?

Maybe a crazy quilt or written personal history or blog or albums filled with old photos aren’t so silly. Especially if many years down the road they give viewers or readers a reason to smile, even if those viewers have no clue about what they are seeing beyond knowing that someone cared enough to record some memories.
The Meyers’ crazy quilt made Mom, Ada Lynne and me laugh for one more reason. At the bottom was an embroidered message that was spelled wrong, but still reflected a thought we’ve all had at the end of a hard day or big project.

“done at lass.”

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Mary Jane Skala and I made our annual July 4 trip to the Sumner Rodeo Friday afternoon.

She sat in the stands soaking in the events and the atmosphere of a small-town rodeo in an outdoor arena along Highway 40 that has been organized and run by generations of the same local families for 63 years.

I enjoy going to the Sumner Rodeo because I like to take photos on my own time in my own way, when I don’t necessarily have to think like a photojournalist who is illustrating a story or providing a daily feature.

I always offer my “on my own time” Nebraska photos to my editors, who usually want my images of cowboys trying to hang onto bucking horses and bulls, sandhill cranes and other wildlife, or just pretty places in the country.

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Yes, I’m one of those people who does for recreation something similar to what I do at work. When I ask people I interview about their hobbies and interests, most either describe something similar to their professions or something 180 degrees different.

At the Sumner Rodeo, I know the people. I know where to stand to take good photos, while not blocking the view of people in the stands and, most importantly, not getting run over. I understand enough about the events to anticipate (as much as is possible with animals) where the action might be.

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In this case, Mary Jane and I like the same thing for different reasons. However, our paths part when it comes to other spare time interests.

For example, she went to the Indy 500 as usual for a Memorial Day weekend family gathering. I can respect the technology and talent that goes into building race cars and driving them fast, but I just don’t care to watch car races. Ditto for NASCAR – sorry, Hoffman sisters.

I’ll admit it here: World Cup or no World Cup, I find soccer boring. The field is too big and there isn’t enough scoring. There always are a few moments of excitement, but those are shown on TV as highlights after the match, game or whatever it’s called.

I like riding in boats to see beautiful scenery, but I couldn’t stand to be in a boat all day fishing. I love visiting mountains, forests, prairies and beaches, and taking long walks with my camera in hand.

However, I don’t want to camp in the great outdoors. On our drive to Sumner Friday afternoon, Mary Jane talked about having her camping gear in her car and just itching to use it in some remote place.

Isn’t it great that no two people are exactly alike in any way, including our talents and the things we love to do in our spare time?

That truth always is reflected in our NFPW Conferences. There are workshops specific to different areas of professional communications every year, along with opportunities to indulge various special interests in the pre-tour and post-tour offerings by our host affiliate.

The South Carolina members have a three-day post-tour planned to Charleston, but also day trips for the three pre-tour days, Sept. 1, 2 and 3, before we go into our Sept. 4-6, 2014, conference.

Each pre-tour day there are several choices of things to do to fit your interests. I chose ones that have “great photos” within their designs. I’ll see waterfalls and mountains, historical sites and botanical gardens, and even take a zip line through the trees.

I can’t wait, and I hope to see you there!!!

My habit of making plans weeks ahead of time for important events in my life, whether it’s for work, family responsibilities, Nebraska Press Women and NFPW activities, or just plain fun, is both a positive and a negative.

It can be stressful to micro-manage some things. I probably pack and repack a suitcase in my mind at least a dozen times before I go anywhere. And I tend to do that at night when I’m trying to go to sleep.

However, anticipating a wonderful event is half the fun.

So, after my shorter-than-intended Sunday morning walk – I tried to get it done as rain clouds approached, but called it a walk after he first hint of lightning – I looked at my calendar and discovered I will be flying to Greenville, S.C., nine weeks from today.

That’s a long time, when I think of all the things I need to do over the next nine weeks. But I also know how fast the last nine weeks of my life seem to have passed.

So, let the countdown begin.

I have signed up for a day tour each of the three days before Sept. 4-6 NFPW Conference meetings, workshops and banquets.

I love the pre-tours and post-tours our conference hosts plan for us each year. What a great way to see many parts of our beautiful, amazing country in just a few days. Each tour is just a sample of a place, but it’s enough of a serving to have me put nearly every place I’ve been with NFPW on my “must return someday” list.

Last year, a small group of us had an amazing pre-tour to the Tetons and the Idaho Falls area with NFPW President Teri Ehresman. And then a larger group took the post-tour to the Moab, Utah, area.

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Among the great things that happen at our annual conference and during the tours is you find people with similar interests. Katherine Ward and Jim Smigie of Delaware invited me on a photo adventure while in Moab, and we’re signed up for the same pre-tours in South Carolina this year, having made the selections based greatly on their photography potential.

As Education Fund director, I must remind everyone that July 1 is the deadline for first-timers to apply for a grant that will pay their registration fees for the 2014 conference. It is the last minute, but not too late to get the form off of the NFPW website, http://www.nfpw.org, under “resources” and get it in the mail to me.

In the works is a new feature for first-timers in Greenville, pairing them with mentors. We’ll start with POPPS members because we know most of them have been to many conferences and can answer all the questions related to attending one for the first time. Also, POPPS President Pam Stallsmith and I will look to match first-timers with a mentor who is in a similar area of professional communications.

Director of Fun Jill Miller also will have some special activities for our first-timers, and we all share a role in making them feel welcome from the moment they step inside the hotel in Greenville.

I’m certainly not a first timer, and I will be proud to receive my 35-year membership certificate at this year’s conference. Yet I’m as excited – maybe more so – to go an NFPW conference as I was the first time.

Two longtime NFPW members are spending this Saturday, this first day of summer, surveying heartache in northeast Nebraska.

Mary Jane Skala, the Cleveland native who moved to Nebraska two years ago and is the business/lifestyle reporter at the Kearney Hub, had a longstanding invitation from Mary Pat Finn-Hoag to visit her some weekend in Norfolk. They settled on this weekend.

Little did they know that a series of tornadoes would roar through northeast Nebraska the past two weeks, shattering farms and ranches, killing livestock, and devastating towns, none worse than the small town of Pilger east of Norfolk.

Many of you probably saw storm chaser video from last Monday of unique twin tornadoes following each other across that corner of Nebraska. That’s the storm that hit Pilger.

Thousands of Nebraska volunteers have been there most of the week helping to clean up. The focus mostly has been on Pilger and other towns. However, many rural residents also lost their homes and their businesses that night.

Two people died, including a 5-year-old girl whose mother remains hospitalized in a drug-induced coma.

A group from Kearney headed there this weekend with trailers full of supplies to rebuild miles of farm and ranch fences. Mary Jane’s trip that was planned as just a fun weekend with Mary Pat now includes a Mary Pat-guided tour of the devastation, plus a story and photos for the Hub of the Kearney area folks pitching in.

Many other parts of Nebraska have been severely damaged by a series of storms since Mother’s Day weekend that have brought tornadoes, straight-line winds of up to 100 mph, hail of all sizes and flooding rains. We desperately needed the rain in a state that was mostly categorized as being in severe drought going into this spring, but we’re paying a high price for the moisture.

There are millions and millions of dollars worth of damage to homes, farm buildings, grain bins, hail-beaten and windblown crops, and pivot irrigation systems. I heard one estimated that there are 1,100 pivots damaged or destroyed across the state, and that was before this weekend’s stormy weather.

My hometown of Wilcox, about 25 miles southwest of Kearney, is almost identical to Pilger in size, ag-based economy and small-town culture. Wilcox and much of south-central Nebraska was hit by a terrible straight-line windstorm a week ago today that caused a lot of damage, although nothing as heartbreaking as was seen in the Pilger area.

NFPW members who took the 2011 NFPW Conference pre-tour in central Nebraska will remember visiting the KAAPA Ethanol plant about 15 miles south of Kearney on Labor Day morning. One of its 625,000-bushel bins was bent over by the wind as if it had been kicked in its stomach.

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Another nearby elevator at Keene had several bins shattered and scattered all over the place.

On my Monday morning tour of the area to get photos to send back to the Hub, I made my way to Wilcox, where there was a lot of tree and roof damage, another bent grain bin at the co-op elevator and an upturned pivot irrigation system like so many others across the country. Corn had stripped leaves from the wind.

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I went the 11 miles south to our farm. On the road right outside the driveway, Southern Public Power District crews were replacing polls and wires that went down. My cousin’s boys were pickup up pieces of two small antique grain bins that had flown from one of their farmsteads across the road and into a field and the farm yard where I grew up, and where my sister-in-law still lives.

The crops looked better there, but there still was a lot of pivot system and farm building damage.

If anyone was in doubt, Mother Nature has made it clear that she remains in charge. Unfortunately, the forecast says the dark side of her may visit the central Great Plains nearly every evening in the coming week, with tonight into Monday having the highest risk.

It is good to be reminded sometimes that our days working as professional communicators, whether it’s at newspapers, in public relations, as broadcasters, in advertising, as authors, in various types of new media or combinations of those things, involve more than just endless deadlines, long hours, low pay and often unreasonable demands.

We also get to experience amazing events, outstanding people, history, culture and breaking news, and then we get to tell everyone else about it.

I was coming home to Kearney from just such an experience at this time last Saturday: the first Buffalo County Korean War Hero Flight. It had been three years since the fourth and last such flight to Washington, D.C., for World War II veterans.

Hub News Clerk Tammy Eaton and I were the reporting and photography team for that WWII flight. Also, Barbara Micek of Fullerton went along because of her longstanding interest in telling the stories of America’s veterans.

Last week, it was just me. It was long, exhausting work to do all three jobs – reporting, photos and video – by myself. I regret not having time to even share a coffee break with our NFPW headquarters staff. I just waved in their direction when we landed at Reagan National Airport.

Three things made my job doable.

First, I had run short profiles of all 25 Korean War veterans in the Hub before the Hero Flight started, and I had longer features about two of them, plus a war milestones piece and several other info box type things done in advance. They were ready to run in the newspaper while I was gone, so I could send to the paper just one story and a few photos at the end of the two days in D.C.

Second, the schedule and places we visited in Washington, including Arlington National Cemetery and the WWII, Korean War, Vietnam War, Lincoln and FDR memorials, were almost the same as during the WWII Hero Flight I was on. So, I knew where to stand and where to set up my cameras.

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The biggest benefit was getting an amazing work assignment and being around 25 veterans, their escorts (mostly a spouse, son or daughter) and Hero Flight leaders who were excited about going to Washington. Many of the veterans had never been there before.

They were willing to share their stories with me and our readers.

It’s an amazing thing to watch people who have held in their hearts the stories of such a life-changing event react to seeing their memorial. The conversations among the veterans were mostly private, but I could tell they were talking about things only another soldier who was in the Korean War would truly understanding.

Both the WWII and Korean War veterans were amazed at the receptions they received when they stepped off the airplane in Washington, and also having strangers come up to them at all the Washington sites to thank them for their service.

At Reagan National last week, Delta Airlines employees waved flags and cheered, along with travelers in the terminal. A group of transplanted Nebraskans also was there to greet them, and a guy played military songs and “There is No Place Like Nebraska” as a French horn soloist.

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I’m still catching up on sleep and laundry. Covering a Hero Flight solo was a big job and I’m not sure I’d be up to doing it again anytime soon.

However, in the middle of this experience and so many others during my 36-plus years as a full-time newspaper journalist, I had to smile to think about how blessed I’ve been to be in a profession that lets me do so many interesting, wonderful things.

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