As big news broke Monday for Omaha Public Schools, a woman with a familiar name slept in until 8, worked out at a gym and met friends for a leisurely lunch.
It's not as if Luanne Nelson was uninterested that the school board had named the next superintendent. But after a career in public relations, including 15 years as the OPS communications director, Monday was her first full day of retirement.
And after years of arriving at work by 6:45 a.m., eating lunch at her desk and taking calls from reporters at all hours of the day and night — once while visiting her daughter in Hawaii — she was enjoying the first day of the rest of her life.
You may not know Luanne, but her name appears more than 1,100 times in World-Herald archives. In her school job, she took pride in newspaper and TV reporters' not having to say that an OPS spokeswoman was "unavailable for comment."
She may not have had the answers to questions right away, but she would get them. And she was available, whether at Thanksgiving dinner with her family or on her cellphone while driving in Honolulu.
"If you accept a position like that," she said, "that's one of the parameters. You are on call 24/7."
She was not a policymaker herself but rather the chief spokeswoman for the state's largest and most diverse school district — some 50,000 students, 71 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
In Nebraska, the two-county Omaha area has 11 school districts, but OPS by far has the most families living in poverty. The Nebraska Legislature set up the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties, with a shared tax base, in an attempt to equalize opportunities for children.
That controversial and historic 2007 law drew wide attention, with Nelson receiving news media calls nationally.
When she was asked for information or comment locally, the topic often wasn't pleasant: a school bus driver so upset with kids' conduct that he ordered them to get off; a second-grade boy's blue Mohawk haircut causing a distraction to learning; a middle-school teacher telling two boys to take their fight outside; charges of bullying or impropriety; questions about academic achievement.
Or worse, tragedies.
"She was outstanding, and worked tirelessly," said Superintendent John Mackiel, who is retiring. "A lot of the stories were traumatic for families, students or staff members.
"Behind the scenes, Luanne was sensitive to individuals long after news of the house fire or the loss of a parent or a child. She followed up on her own to ensure that there was support, resources and a shoulder to lean on."
Mackiel, whose years as superintendent parallel Nelson's as spokeswoman, officially departs in July. He said he plans to teach school law at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to prospective school administrators.
Nelson, 64, grew up as Luanne Mainelli, the oldest of 10 children in a widely known Omaha family. Her grandfather founded Mainelli Construction Co. Her father, Robert Mainelli, became president but died of cancer at 47. An uncle was the Rev. Vincent Mainelli, who became pastor of St. Cecilia Cathedral.
After a divorce, Luanne became a single parent when her children were 8 and 5. She often has urged people not to use insensitive terms such as "broken family."
Her children were educated in OPS and graduated from Northwest High School.
After college, her son, Eric Nelson, entered the work world before returning to school, becoming a teacher and eventually an OPS principal — first at Kellom Elementary and now at Fontenelle.
Her daughter, Gretchen Nelson McCormack, became a forensic anthropologist for the U.S. government in Hawaii, identifying remains of military personnel from Southeast Asia. Today she is vice president of the U.S. Vets Initiative in Los Angeles, which assists homeless veterans across the country.
Luanne worked in advertising, public relations and marketing before joining the Omaha Schools Foundation in 1992 and becoming OPS spokeswoman in 1997. She said she greatly admires teachers, staffers and principals.
"I'm honored by what they do every day," she said. "I'm not sure the public is aware how difficult their jobs are."
Now she is the spokeswoman for herself alone, the keeper of her own 24/7 clock and — unless she chooses to talk about travel plans to see grandkids — very unavailable for comment.
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