Rural Nebraskans know it’s almost impossible to have your hometown mentioned in national news publications or broadcasts unless a tragedy is involved.

Hardly anyone had heard of Pilger, Neb., until it was nearly destroyed last year by a tornado. Even then, the headlines beyond our state borders lasted only a few days. In tornado alley, your weather-related tragedy often is quickly knocked off the front page by someone else’s monster storm.

Sadly, my hometown of Wilcox, Neb., has been newsworthy this week because one of the pilots on the U.S. Marine Corps helicopter that crashed while delivering aid to earthquake victims in Nepal was a Wilcox native.

Capt. Dustin “Dusty” Lukasiewicz was featured in a video shot just a few days earlier about the Marines’ work in Nepal. He narrated the story of how they were delivering food and tarps to people in remote mountain villages and ended the video with, “We stand with Nepal.”

Dusty graduated from Wilcox-Hildreth High School in 2003. My nephew, Scott, was a K-12 classmate and the boys were close friends. I heard Scott talk about doing things with Dusty over the years, and they were groomsmen in each other’s wedding.

I called Scott Friday and got him to tell me some stories about Dusty. They played side-by-side on the offensive line on their eight-man football team, went hunting and, with another classmate, bought an old beat up pickup that they drove through pastures and on other adventures.

Both boys are grown men now with families of their own. Scott has a 2-year-old boy and baby girl born in late February. Dusty has a young girl and his wife is expecting their second child in June.

The news of Dusty’s death is a reminder of the dangers involved in military service, even when the work is humanitarian in nature, not war.

It also puts a focus on why the Marines are there. Every family in Nepal who lost loved ones, homes and their livelihoods is feeling the same pain as the families of the U.S. Marines lost in the helicopter crash.

It’s a reminder for journalists that the stories we cover about deaths, storm damage, fires and other tragedies involve real people and not just characters in a story. The Bible’s instructions to treat others as we would want to be treated should apply to covering such hard news stories.

Until the bodies of the six Marines and two Nepalese soldiers killed in the shadow of Mount Everest are retrieved, brought to their hometowns and laid to rest, Wilcox probably will be mentioned in the national news.

And I’m sure the video featuring the Wilcox kid everyone called Dusty, with the difficult-to-pronounce last name, will be shown and watched online thousands of times.

Someday, it probably will be used to help tell two young children why their dad was a special man who served his country well.

On this cold, damp, cloudy November type day before Mother’s Day, I’ve spent much of my time watching a friend prepare to move to New Mexico.

If it weren’t for the scary forecasts for snow, heavy rain, hail and even tornadoes along all possible driving routes to her destination, the Ghost Ranch retreat in northwest New Mexico, longtime NFPW member Mary Jane Skala would be well on her way there.

Mary Jane is a Cleveland native who spent most of her career as an editor of suburban newspapers there and the last three as a staff writer for my newspaper, the Kearney Hub. We have known each other for decades as leaders of our affiliates and NFPW. We often roomed together at the national conferences so we could catch up.

Before she came to Kearney, I had visited her in Cleveland and she had spent a long weekend with me in Kearney on the way to a year in The West after leaving her editor’s job.

That year … and a little longer … took her to many wild and wonderful places. But it was volunteering at the Ghost Ranch that captured her heart and renewed her spirit.

So when the staff there contacted her several weeks ago about a paid position as volunteer coordinator, I think she knew in her heart that she would accept, even before the rest of her had considered all of her options.

She bought a new-to-her used SUV and started packing it with things form her small Kearney duplex. The couch, chair, mattress and box springs that had been in my basement and were moved to Mary Jane’s home in 2012 were donated to charity. They sure didn’t need to sit in my basement unused for more years to come.

However, other things that simply couldn’t fit in the SUV will reside here for however long they need to stay. It provides me some certainty that Mary Jane will come back to Kearney to get them, all at once or a few at a time, during her journeys between New Mexico and her family in Cleveland.

She has spent the afternoon getting a spare tire for the SUV that, for some odd reason, was not sent with her when she bought it; stopping at the Hub office to check email one more time; and returning to her duplex to clean.

She will stay in my spare bedroom tonight and leave early Sunday morning on what we both hope is a calm, sunny spring day. Her new job at the Ghost Ranch starts on Monday.

We’re both invited out to eat and to a movie tonight with two of her best Kearney friends. I might go to supper, but it will depend on some family plans I still have late this afternoon.

It was wonderful to have such a longtime NFPW friend nearby for three years after so many years of enjoying face-to-face meetings only at the conferences that are for so many of us like family reunions.

Mary Jane won’t be coming to the 2015 conference in Anchorage, but I’ve pointed out that the 2016 conference in Wichita will be almost a straight shot east for her. And that many of her newer Nebraska Press Women friends will carpool and caravan to the Kansas conference.

I’ve never moved very far away from my childhood home and never lived outside of Nebraska, so I can’t really understand someone like Mary Jane who loves to find new places to call home.

Maybe I never felt that I’d landed in “the place” somewhere new because I was blessed to have been in that place all of my life.

I hope all of you will be sending good wishes Mary Jane’s way on Mother’s Day for a safe journey and wonderful new next step in her life.

It might sound like an odd connection, but farmers and NFPW members do share similarities.

Yes, there are members from rural areas and even states where agriculture is, by far, the number one industry. Several of us have ag communications-related jobs at newspapers, other businesses, universities and in government.

And, although it is not acknowledged nearly enough in my opinion, if you eat food, you are beholding to farmers and ranchers.

The connection that isn’t so obvious is that farmers and NFPW members are optimists.

Why else would farmers who had their crops wiped out by natural disasters in 2014, plant seeds again in 2015? With the costs of production higher than the market price for corn, why are Nebraska farmers rushing to get seeds in the ground this spring planting season?

It only recently occurred to me that the giant statue of “The Sower” on top of the Nebraska capitol in Lincoln is more than a symbol of our agricultural roots. It also represents the optimistic pioneer spirit still reflected by our modern farmers each spring.

They plant seeds because they believe Mother Nature will be kinder to them. They hope that prices will improve later, at least to a level good enough to make it economically possible to plant again in 2016.

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I’m sure there are tractors in many Nebraska fields this Sunday morning as farmers rush to get work done ahead of a forecast for a rainy week ahead. It’s a double-edge sword. You never speak ill of rain during growing season, but if it could wait just a week or two longer, all the corn seeds would be in the ground.

Then the farmers move on to soybeans.

The same optimism for the future of NFPW and our affiliates is obvious every time we approve a budget and schedule future conferences. Why would we set conferences years in advance if we didn’t believe we would be a viable organization with members who would attend?

In the meantime, we plant seeds by inviting other professional communicators to join us, enter the professional contest, learn from the conference workshops and build networks with other members.

The plantings also include encouraging high school students to enter their contest and offering to mentor youths who think they might be journalists, public relations specialists or communications educators in the future.

They will need nurturing, of course, just like a farmer’s crops. The rewards are watching them grow, and seeing a harvest in the months and years to come.

So, plant a few seeds along your way for your profession, your affiliate and NFPW.

I’m that happy tired that always come after a fun, interesting, networking Nebraska Press Women convention weekend.

Barb Batie and Jill Claflin hosted us in Lexington for the necessary board and general membership meetings, workshops on leadership and that took us a step farther in our affiliate’s strategic planning journey, good food, and good fun.

We had two high school students from Grand Island attend the lunch to accept first-place awards in the NPW High School Contest, Jill announced the names of our college and high school scholarship winners, and awards were presented to our professional contest winners at the Saturday night banquet at Mac’s Creek Winery.

However, it was the Marian Andersen Nebraska Women Journalists Hall of Fame induction ceremony that truly reflected who we are after 69 years as NPW.

One inductee, Pulitzer Prize nominee Beverly Deepe Keever who was the longest serving Western journalist during the Vietnam War, was presented her award on March 9. She had come home to Hebron from Hawaii for her mother’s 100th birthday, so four NPW members presented her awards there.

A short interview video I shot then was shown at lunch Saturday.

The other inductee was Joan Burney, who was the 1993 NFPW Communicator of Achievement.

She laughed when the highly inept NPW Kazoo Khorale she founded played in her honor.

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We laughed back during her speech when she summed up our many years together by saying, “You’re all crazy.” Clearly, she knows that knows that some of her spirit has rubbed off on all of us.

Joanie obviously was touched when shown the plaque with her photo and a short description of her many accomplishments as a columnist, author, and humor and inspirational speaker. It will hang on a wall with the other 15 Hall of Fame members – the first six were inducted at the Nebraska luncheon that was part of the 2011 NFPW Conference in Council Bluffs – in the building that houses the University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism department.

She smiled when handed a Nebraska-shaped engraved plaque to hang on her wall and a photo of mine featuring snow geese flying across a nearly full white moon in a bright blue sky.

Then, our Mary Pat Finn-Hoag had one more surprise. She gave Joan an over sized “Congratulations” card that had handwritten messages from all the NPW members present, plus her two sons and daughters-in-law, and a granddaughter already writing for her school newspaper who came to Lexington to help her celebrate.

Joanie and Mary Pat both wear their hearts on their sleeves, so some tears were shed.

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Perhaps my favorite moment, the one that summed up who we are and have been to each other over the years, came during the break right after the Hall of Fame presentation.

There was Joanie and longtime member Mary Ann Blackledge of North Platte, both former presidents in the day when they sometimes paid for NPW expenses themselves because the budget was so tight.

It also was a time when women of that generation ahead of us Baby Boomers were overcoming obstacles to be taken seriously in the newsroom, even when they knew they would be paid less than men doing the same work.

And when Joan and my NPW-NFPW recruiter the late Marianne Beel, a Sandhills rancher from Valentine, found their voice as writers after already having rich, full lives as ag producers, mothers and volunteers for almost everything in their communities.

So for a long, amazing moment Saturday, Mary Ann and Joan just looked at each other. I’m not even sure they spoke. They each gave a knowing look of people who had become soul mates simply by coming to NPW conventions for years to be with people who understood them.

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Technologies and media have changed. Those of us who looked up to these leaders of NPW when we joined as rookie journalists now are the leaders.

Many of us on both the state and national levels feel bad that we can’t see each other more often. However, when we do, we laugh, cry and share those looks of understanding.

It’s who we are.

A long weekend in Las Vegas may sound like a wonderful time of good food, bright lights, laughs with friends and entertainment, whether it is seeing a show or spending some time in a casino.

There was some of that last weekend during the NFPW board and directors meeting, but much more time by far was spent looking closely at our nearly 80-year-old organization and its future.

The team of Cynthia Price of Virginia and Karen Stensrud of North Dakota led us through a strategic planning session for nearly all of our eight-hour meeting time on Friday and most of the final session on Saturday morning.

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We discussed what we had learned from a member survey and broke into small groups to define our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. We considered the professional needs and wants of our members from different generations.

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The sessions included looking honestly at our financials, and developing some specific tasks and goals under assigned leaders in the areas of conference, advocacy, membership and contest.

You will be reading a lot more about this in the spring AGENDA, which editor Cathy Koon is putting together now, and in the coming months from the monthly eletter and at the 2015 NFPW Conference in Anchorage, Alaska, this September.

Setting a course for a journey, a family, an organization or a career is difficult and, yes, a little scary. No matter how much information we gather or how much we know when making plans, there always are uncertainties.

Although we joked about it in Las Vegas, we know we can’t count on hitting the jackpot to ensure that we can do all the things we’d like to do for NFPW and still have a balanced budget.

Some luck may part of our future, but the hard work and dedication of your current leaders, the willingness of other leaders to step forward on the affiliate and national levels, and our ability to change as the roles of professional communicators change will actually determine our future.

I hope all of you will be a big part of that future.

A first step is to come to the 2015 NFPW Conference. I guarantee that attending a first conference will forever change your opinions and expectations of the National Federation of Press Women.

It sure did mine in 1987 and I have missed only two conferences since then.

It has been another week of NFPW connections I did not expect.

Colorado’s Lori Rapp contacted me about a water issue in the South Platte Basin of northern Colorado and sent me a copy of an outstanding story about it in the Greeley newspaper. I won’t go into the details, but Lori was told that the only way to stop a project to transport groundwater from an agriculture area south to the city of Thornton is if a downstream water user has objections and became involved.

Well, Nebraska is that downstream water user and the biggest interest in preserving river flows for wildlife habitat in the Central Platte Valley where I live is the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program that involves Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming and the U.S. Department of Interior.

The program’s headquarters are in Kearney, so I showed the newspaper story to the executive director and asked some questions. I didn’t have good news for Lori, because the program leadership does not have a reason to intervene.

However, it was one of those NFPW networking moments I think are great.

I had another one recently when I walked out of Rowe Sanctuary’s Iain Nicolson Audubon Center southeast of Kearney – one of the 2011 Nebraska pre-conference tour stops – and glanced at a rack of brochures and cards promoting other bird-related conservation places to see.

There was one for Creamer’s Field, a migratory waterfowl refuge and national historical site near Fairbanks that is one of the places featured on the Sept. 6-9 pre-tour ahead of our 2015 NFPW Conference in Anchorage, Alaska.

Some of the hundreds of thousands of sandhill cranes that have been in central Nebraska the past six weeks go to Creamer’s Field for the summer. In fact the Tanana Valley Sandhill Crane Festival is Aug. 28-30.

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The entire pre-tour sounds fantastic and this stop will be a special treat for me. And maybe a Kearney Hub story opportunity.

I don’t know if the Creamer’s Field stop was made a part of the pre-tour itinerary especially for me, but thank you Alaska hosts if that was the case. It will be wonderful to see some of my favorite, wacky, wonderful birds in six months instead of having to wait an entire year.

I know their dancing time is focused on courtship here in the Platte Valley, but I hope there will be some hops, skips, jumps and wing stretches for all of us to enjoy in Alaska in September.

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I just finished judging the sports story category in Nebraska Press Women High School Communications Contest.

The task was a late addition to a busy day. Contest director Bette Pore of Grand Island needed some help after another judge had to go out of state for the weekend and was not getting home until later today. The judging had to be done by midnight tonight for our first-place winning entries to advance to the National Federation of Press Women High School Communications Contest.

I had already judged the feature and sports photos. I’m sure Bette had completed some categories too. But there were two left, so I took sports and she handled the editorials.

I know this type of activity is going on across the country with contest directors and judges for both the high school and professional contests.

I hope every NFPW member in either of those roles came to the same two big conclusions I did today.

First, these contests are so important to our organization. Not only are they learning experiences for our members and, we hope, the next generation of professional communicators, many of the award winners may have few other opportunities to get their talents and hard work acknowledged and rewarded.

Second, I see evidence in the high school entries I judged that our profession is in good hands…if only we can get the young people who did outstanding work in the many areas of communications represented in the contest categories to become print and broadcast journalists, public relations specialists, web and print content designers, photographers, authors, editors, and publishers.

We know that the long hours and often low pay in our industries don’t make a good sales pitch for a lot of young professionals, but we also know the rewards of doing something so important.

What is more important than informing and educating people in our communities, states and country, maybe even the world, about what is going on around them? What is more important than standing up for the First Amendment, or doing honest, fair, accurate, informative and entertaining work worthy of that great right to free speech?

Anyway, it was uplifting to be reminded that there is good reason to believe the next generation believes in those things too, as reflected in the talent and passion I saw in the words and photos I judged.

By the way, I’m pretty sure there will be some Nebraska students at the top of the winners list when the national judging is completed.

Whenever surveys are done for the National Federation of Press Women or a state affiliate, one of the top interests and benefits listed by members is networking. Often, it is at the top of the list.

I have had a great networking weekend with Nebraska Press Women friends.

Judy Nelson of Lincoln, who I met at my first NPW convention about 36 years ago, came to Kearney to see the sandhill cranes that congregate in the Central Platte Valley by the hundreds of thousands each March at the midway point of their spring migration.

I had invited Judy for years to come for a better look at one of the world’s great migration events, but long work days and family responsibilities always made that impossible. So when she retired from her ag communications job at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln last fall, I made sure she circled the last weekend in March for a trip to Kearney,

On Friday, we drove the 25 miles to my hometown of Wilcox to eat dinner in the tiny Wilcox Cafe, before driving another 10-plus miles to my family’s farm. Judy grew up as a farm girl in northeast Nebraska.

In the evening, we ate a wonderful beef brisket supper at a restaurant on a farm – they also have a bed and breakfast business – about halfway between Kearney and Minden. We took country roads back toward Kearney and saw an amazing sunset in farm country.

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We spent most of Saturday watching sandhill cranes in fields and visiting the National Audubon Society’s Rowe Sanctuary, one of the stops on the 2011 NFPW Conference pre-tour in Nebraska. After an afternoon rest, we spent an hour at downtown Kearney’s Museum of Nebraska Art before meeting NPW-NFPW members Glennis Nagel and Mary Jane Skala for supper.

Then we all went to the Fort Kearny State Recreation area to stand on a 19th century wooden railroad bridge over the Platte River’s main channel that is part of the hike-bike trail. People gather there to watch and listen to thousands of cranes make their way from area cornfields and meadows where they feed during the day back to their overnight river roosts.

Most cranes roost farther east on bare sandbars and open river maintained by Rowe Sanctuary. However, as the light faded Saturday, several dozen decided to try the grassier sandbars west of the bridge.

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Many of the bridge watchers already had left, after seeing another amazing Nebraska sunset, so they missed the show as black bird silhouettes dropped from the sky. They didn’t hear the symphony of crane sounds to our west and or east.

As we walked down the trail to our cars, Glennis offered to treat us to ice cream. So we went to the Kearney Dairy Queen and continued to visit for another hour. It’s great to be with people who understand the ins and out, joys and frustrations of being a professional communicator.

We also shared stories about the people we know because of our Press Women ties. And decided that, without a doubt, we had enjoyed a very nice night of networking.

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I remember my parents telling me as I was growing up that no matter how much you love your job, there always will be parts of it you don’t like.

I experienced both ends of the love-hate spectrum last week.

On the “don’t like “end was an assignment for all the newsroom staff to make a bunch of confirmation calls for a “Best of Kearney” advertising section that has well over 100 categories. It took time away from my more enjoyable tasks of writing stories and taking photos.

And then Thursday arrived.

First, a good column idea had fallen in my lap, making that morning project go well. Then I had an opportunity to do some sandhill crane watching on my way to the National Audubon Society’s Rowe Sanctuary along the Platte River southeast of Kearney.

We’re blessed to have in our backyard one of the world’s greatest wildlife migration events. An estimated 600,000 sandhill cranes stop in the Central Platte Valley for about six weeks of late winter-early spring to rest on the river sandbars and feed in adjacent meadows and harvested cornfields halfway along in their travels from south Texas and Mexico wintering grounds to breeding areas in northern Canada, Alaska and Siberia.

This is the world’s largest gathering of cranes.

I took a few photos Thursday afternoon on my way to Rowe Sanctuary to interview one of the longtime volunteers for a Hub Monday Profile. I got one good one of cranes flying, but I hope to get better shots this coming Saturday when I’ll be in a Fort Kearny blind in a cornfield, hopefully surrounded by cranes.

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I told my interview subject Thursday that I would follow him on his evening blind tour at least to get a photo of him leading Rowe visitors there, and might stay to watch the cranes come to the river to roost on sandbars overnight depending on the blind he was assigned.

His tour was in the far west blind, which generally is the best for a good sandhill crane show. But you just never know. As much as I’d like to orchestrate the locations and actions of cranes and other wildlife I want to photograph, I know that’s impossible.

The big show started with a fabulous Nebraska sunset. It just kept getting better and wave after wave of cranes decided the sandbars outside our blind were the place they wanted to sleep Thursday night.

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The sights and sounds were fabulous. Words, photos or even a combination can’t do them justice. I was in awe mostly because I had never had that one great crane watching experience at Rowe Sanctuary.

Just the Saturday before, I was in the far east blind doing a story about Metropolitan State University at Denver journalism students gathering information for a writing project and documentary about cranes and their habitat. Not one bird landed near us that night.

I’ve had other times in the blinds when there have been beautiful sunsets and flying cranes, but nothing even remotely as magical as what I saw Thursday night.

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I’m getting up early tomorrow to join a group of North American travel writers going to a Rowe Blind at sunrise. It is supposed to be a cloudy morning, so the best outcome will be that the cranes stay settled on the sandbars until the sunlight allows for photos.

I won’t be too disappointed if that doesn’t happen. It seems greedy to expect another great crane experience so soon.

However, I’ll still hope for a beautiful morning next Saturday. My NPW friend Judy Nelson of Lincoln and I will be in that cornfield blind and keeping our fingers crossed that it is the place where some amazing, dancing sandhill cranes also want to be.

I had another example this week of how being a member of the Nebraska and National Federation of Press Women has enriched my life.

Those of you who attended the 2011 Iowa-Nebraska conference in Council Bluffs may remember that the Nebraska members had a separate lunch at which we inducted the first six members into the Marian Andersen Nebraska Women Journalists Hall of Fame located at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The goal, for which former Omaha World-Herald Publisher Harold Andersen and his wife provided an endowment, is to recognize the many women journalists with Nebraska ties whose outstanding accomplishments were either ignored or are little known.

Much of that void was filled when Creighton University journalism teacher Eileen Wirth, an OWH reporter in the days when women still worked in a separate area of the editorial department, wrote “From Society Page to Front Page Nebraska Women in Journalism.”

She told stories about many incredible women journalists. I had the opportunity to meet one of them Monday.

One of our 2015 Hall of Fame inductees is Beverly Deepe Keever, a south-central Nebraska farm girl who became fascinated with China after reading Pearl Buck’s “The Good Earth” and dreamed about traveling the world.

After earning degrees in journalism from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Columbia University, she set off for China. When she reached Vietnam, planning to stay just two weeks, she found out no Americans were being allowed into China.

That’s how Deepe’s career as a foreign correspondent and longest serving western journalist covering the Vietnam War was born. She reported for Newsweek, New York Herald Tribune, two London newspapers and the Christian Science Monitor, which nominated her for a Pulitzer Prize.

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She lives in Hawaii where she taught journalism at the University of Hawaii for 29 years.

NPW members hoped that Deepe could come to our April 25 spring convention in Lexington to attend the official 2015 Hall of Fame induction program. Several of us also saw great potential in having her speak to us and to area college and high school students.

Four of us did hear her amazing stories about covering Vietnam on Monday afternoon at the assisted living facility in Hebron where her mother lives. Deepe was there to celebrate her mother’s 100th birthday, which obviously was more important than coming to the NPW meeting in April.

So it was special when NPW Vice-President and Hall of Fame Director Cheryl Alberts Irwin of Lincoln presented Deepe with her HOF plaque in front of Deepe’s mother, and many other Nebraska friends and relatives that had packed to the room to hear her speak.

I have a short video interview with Deepe to show at the NPW convention.

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