BLAIR, Neb. — Blair’s fairy-tale partnership with the little Danish college on the hill is ending sadly.
Neighbors and friends are suddenly out of jobs. Families and friendships might be uprooted. A historic link to the city’s cultural roots has been severed.
Dana College officials announced Wednesday that the private liberal arts school would close.
The loss of Dana, which shared a Danish heritage with its hometown, goes far beyond the annual $27 million economic impact the school contributed to this eastern Nebraska community.
Harriet Waite, executive director of the Blair Area Chamber of Commerce, came to college here sight unseen 40 years ago from Brooklyn, N.Y. She never left.
“I’ve been at the chamber for eight years, and this is the first real kick in the gut,’’ she said. “I know a lot of communities have dealt with bad things. It just doesn’t feel good.’’
Waite said Blair would miss the energy, loyalty and volunteerism of more than 500 college students and about 150 faculty and staff. She recently started planning welcoming events for an estimated 300 freshmen expected to arrive this fall.
“They’re a huge part of our community,” Waite said of Dana’s students and faculty. “We live and work side-by-side with them. They volunteer at the food bank, the thrift stores, the hospital rummage sale, the recycling center and Habitat for Humanity. They’re members of Rotary, Kiwanis, Optimists and Lions clubs. They built dream homes and had dream jobs. Now it’s a nightmare.”
Adam Thiel, owner of Butch’s Deli, said he usually has four or five Dana students on his part-time payroll.
“It will be a loss to the community to have that big empty space up there,’’ he said of the vacant campus. “I can always find someone to work for me, but I feel sorry for the kids.”
Dan Hunt, president of HCI Holdings in Blair and a member of the college’s board of regents, called it “a big shock.” “Dana had a very, very positive economic impact on this community,” he said. “Lost wages, money spent in the community, social interactions. Nothing good is going to come out of this.”
Rod Storm, city administrator, said the closing surprised most community leaders.
“I don’t think they think they were informed of the severity of the financial crunch,” he said.
Storm said it’s impossible to determine all the pieces of the economic loss because, for example, city officials don’t know exactly how many professors live in Blair. Most did, he said, but some commuted from Omaha, Fremont and other places.
“We don’t have to like it,” Storm said of the closing, “but we have to accept it.”
Dana is the ninth-largest employer in Blair. Since the opening of Cargill’s corn-milling campus in 1995, Blair has added about 1,000 jobs in new and expanding businesses, Storm said.
“Now we’re losing 10 to 15 percent of that all at once,” he said.
Storm said it would take six months to a year before the economic shakeout is established.
Blair had been cruising along. Besides the bio-refinery campus centered on Cargill, the hospital recently completed $25 million in improvements and Walmart is considering a small Supercenter in the city.
Ken Misfeldt, the college’s baseball coach, said the community would miss its Dana connection. The name “Dana” is the poetic variant of “Denmark.”
“This place has been here for more than 125 years. It was started by Danish immigrants, and that Danish Lutheran culture is going to be missed. If people don’t realize it now, they will in the days and years ahead,” Misfeldt said.
“Everybody’s kind of walking around in a daze today,” he said. “It’s part anger and it’s part sadness. But I’m sure everybody will land on their feet. It’s happened before.”
John Mark Nielsen, a professor emeritus of English at Dana and executive director of the Danish Immigrant Museum in Elk Horn, Iowa, said there is a lesson in the college’s sad end.
“Dana was an institution that served a particular constituency for a particular point of time,” he said. “In the longer view, it’s part of the assimilation process.”
World-Herald staff writer Matthew Hansen contributed to this report.
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