A lot has changed in Omaha over the past 25 years.
The city has emerged as a Midwestern hub for business, arts, culture and medical research. Women are better represented in top leadership roles. Omaha is a worthy destination for concerts and conventions, and the College World Series has a fancy new home.
A core group of eight women played a role in crafting the changing face of Omaha through their pursuits in the arts, business, politics and philanthropy. In 1988, those women were the first to be honored by the YWCA Omaha (now the Women's Center for Advancement) for their achievements and contributions to the community. At that time, they were prominent corporate executives, entrepreneurs and community advocates.
In the intervening 2 ½ decades, some of the women's job titles and addresses have changed, but not their commitment to enhancing the city. They've led fundraising drives, mentoring programs and community improvement projects that have changed the people and places of Omaha.
In recognition of the 25th anniversary of the WCA's “Tribute to Women,” we decided to catch up with the organization's first “Women of Distinction.” A tribute luncheon for this year's honorees is tomorrow.
Title in 1988: vice president of public relations for ConAgra Inc.
Now: age 64, retired in Corpus Christi, Texas
Twenty-five years ago, Phares worked 50 to 60 hours a week as the food giant's public voice, sharing news about trademark lawsuits, acquisitions and food safety. She climbed to the top rungs at the company, becoming vice president of corporate relations in 1990 and eventually leading ConAgra's charitable foundations until her retirement in 2006.
Today, Phares is a grandmother, wife, retiree, world traveler, boater, swimmer, YWCA officer, bridge player, book club member, exerciser and — even though she's in Texas now — shameless Husker fan.
She says she loves living close to the water, but she misses “everything” about Omaha.
Lyn Wallin Ziegenbein
Title in 1988: Peter Kiewit Foundation executive director
Now: age 60, Peter Kiewit Foundation executive director
Ziegenbein's job title hasn't changed in more than 25 years, but her job has. The foundation's assets have grown, and her position is more demanding than ever, requiring 10-hour days, nights and weekends.
The results of her labor are tangible: Under her leadership, the foundation has spent millions to beautify Abbott Drive, redevelop the riverfront and help build T.D. Ameritrade Park and the downtown arena.
Ziegenbein — a wife, mother, fifth-generation Douglas County resident and member of the Omaha Business Hall of Fame — is one of Omaha's most prominent and vocal fans.
“I always tell people we're a best-kept secret,” she says.
Title in 1988: community volunteer
Now: died in 1995 at age 84
The organizations that Cherniack served and honors she received for her work are almost uncountable: the YWCA, Boys Club of Omaha, Joslyn Art Museum, Children's Hospital and the Salvation Army are a mere few on a list of at least 50 groups.
She received multiple “of the Year” awards during her time as perhaps Omaha's most prolific volunteer, including the United Way's “Citizen of the Year” and the Arthritis Foundation's “Woman of the Year.”
While in hospice at her longtime Omaha home, she fretted about volunteer groups and activities, not her lung cancer, said her daughter Wallis Klein.
“She never, ever lived her life in any way that made you think, ‘This is someone who wants to be an important person,'” Klein said. “She just was an important person.”
Dr. Gail Walling Yanney
Title in 1988: retired anesthesiologist
Now: age 76, philanthropist
Yanney is no leisurely retiree. For her, “retirement just kind of means that you leave one area of life but move on to some others,” she says.
She spends much of her time wearing one of two hats: that of a master fundraiser or that of a cheerleading grandma.
She and her husband, Michael, are leading a multimillion-dollar capital campaign at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, where she once was a clinical instructor. For over 25 years, she's served on a litany of boards for medical, arts, environmental and women's issues groups.
In her other role, she stays busy watching youth basketball, theater, horse shows and track meets.
Title in 1988: senior counsel for Union Pacific Railroad
Now: age 58, state senator
Council's parents instilled in her a sense of service, she says, “with the objective of improving conditions, and that's why I do what I do.”
Her career in public service has been long, marked with successes and failures. She has won seats on the Omaha Board of Education, Omaha City Council and in the State Legislature, but also has lost two mayoral races.
Throughout her career, she's maintained a focus on north Omaha, her longtime home, with the goal of improving schools, creating jobs and encouraging young blacks to transcend tough circumstances.
“I've done what my parents encouraged me to do,” Council says, “which was to share my blessings.”
Ree (Schonlau) Kaneko
Title in 1988: co-founder and executive director of the Bemis Foundation/Alternative Work Site
Now: age 66, co-founder and board member of the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts and KANEKO
Kaneko is a pioneer of “cool.” She helped establish the Bemis in the Old Market in the '80s before the area and contemporary art were really “hip” in Omaha.
Since then, the Bemis and KANEKO (described as not a museum, gallery, library nor a research center, but an open space for open minds) have expanded into multiple Old Market buildings and increased Omaha's cultural profile nationally and internationally.
The Bemis has lured more than 700 artists-in-residence from all over the world, and KANEKO has hosted large events such as Big Omaha, a conference on entrepreneurship, and Omaha Fashion Week.
“These places exemplify that creative and productive things can happen in Omaha,” says Kaneko, who this year joined the Omaha Business Hall of Fame.
Title in 1988: president of Lovgren Advertising Inc.
Now: age 64, president of Lovgren Marketing Group
Chances are, you've seen Lovgren's work. She's an Omaha marketing ace who masterminded the informational campaign for the city's ongoing sewer project and helped develop Omaha's ubiquitous O! hallmark.
Lovgren founded her advertising company in her home in the late '70s with a 16-month-old baby on her hip and another baby on the way. The business has evolved into a reputable public relations firm with a 3,500-square-foot office and four additional employees.
Lovgren has had personal victories along the way, too. She has become a grandmother and beaten breast cancer.
“I love what I do every day, and I'm happy to say that I'm in great health,” says Lovgren, a member of the Omaha Business Hall of Fame. “I plan to stay at the helm here for a while.”
Title in 1988: president of Northwestern Bell Co.
Now: age 71, retired in Phoenix
Stoney planned her retirement much like a business move: She and her husband outlined an informal strategic 15-year life plan to consolidate and simplify.
As part of that, they sold their homes in Omaha and Colorado and moved into a condo in midtown Phoenix, where life has taken on a different form of busy.
Stoney isn't a corporate executive or politician anymore (she lost the 1994 gubernatorial race to Bob Kerrey and then worked on the national finance team for Bob Dole's presidential campaign), but she's still active, serving on the boards of the Phoenix Seminary and the Williams Companies.
“I'm very careful about the allocation of time,” Stoney says of retirement. “We're all getting older, and we know that time is finite.”