Omaha’s business community honored six of its prominent members Tuesday evening, and the six returned the compliment to the city where they have succeeded.
“Right now is Omaha’s time,” said Lyn Wallin Ziegenbein, executive director of the Peter Kiewit Foundation, “and I am grateful to be here to see it.”
She and Richard Bell, Dan Gordman, George Haddix, the Rev. John Schlegel and Wallace “Wally” Weitz were inducted into the Omaha Business Hall of Fame during a supper and ceremony at the Holland Performing Arts Center.
Ziegenbein, the ninth woman of 114 inductees since the hall of fame program began in 1993, joked that Omaha doesn’t have a “glass ceiling. It’s just a thick layer of men.”
In seriousness, she said that it was men who gave her opportunities in Omaha, as an attorney before taking a job with the foundation in 1983 and with community groups since then. “Omaha has prospered, and we have done that in our own quiet way,” she said.
She said she views the honor as a recognition of nonprofit groups as partners in Omaha’s economy. “Nonprofits are the conscience of the community.”
The hall of fame, coordinated by the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, is housed at the Durham Museum. About 800 people attended Tuesday’s $200-a-plate event, with proceeds to support the display and the chamber’s annual Young Professionals Summit.
Schlegel, who retires this summer after 10 years as president of Creighton University, said one of his goals as head of an urban university was to become part of the downtown revitalization and growth of the city. Achieving the “greater good” for Omaha fit with his objectives as a priest, he said.
He led a $470 million fund drive that added 40 acres to Creighton’s campus, extending it eastward toward downtown and building housing, academic and athletic facilities along the way. He also cited increases in diversity among Creighton’s student body and its growing attraction of students from outside Nebraska.
“The Jesuits have always migrated to the bustling heart of great cities to teach, preach and serve,” he said. “We thrive being in and of Omaha.”
In retirement, Schlegel said, he may work as a hospital, parish or campus priest and return to “saving souls, including my own.”
Weitz is a New Orleans native and founder of an Omaha company that manages $3.7 billion in investments. He said that while he loves to return to the quiet atmosphere of Omaha after visiting cities like New York, having a good life in Omaha has not been for everyone.
He said his philanthropic work focuses on improving education for disadvantaged children. “It’s much harder than investing in stocks, but I think it’s much more important.”
Haddix, who helped found or served as a top executive for several computer and software companies in Omaha, said it was challenging to attract skilled people in high-tech fields to the city. “Once they get here, they like it,” he said.
Haddix also has contributed to universities in the state, in part because his late wife, Sally, was a former teacher but also because he wants to encourage the study of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. “Our education system is our problem, and it’s also the answer.”
Gordman died in 1993 at age 81. A video was shown in which he said that “you have to be able to live in the present and the future, not in the past.”
He built the Richman Gordman and-Price Stores into a regional chain, now headed by his grandson, Jeff, with 70 Gordman stores in 16 states.
Jeff Gordman, who accepted the award for the family, said his grandfather was passionate about education, opera, baseball and retailing.
Bell, the CEO of HDR Inc., said a defining moment in his 37-year career has been leading the employees’ buyback of the firm from its French parent company in 1996. He said the French owners, who had wanted to move the company’s headquarters to Dallas, were “shocked” at the buyout offer but accepted it.
Since then, he said, the Omaha-based company has built itself into a world-class engineering and architecture firm. Accepting a job in Omaha, Bell said, was “one of the best moves I’ve ever made.”
The evening was not entirely about business and the city of Omaha, however.
The inductees paid tribute to their families, as well. Bell said he was “smitten” with his future wife, Pat, when they met in sixth grade, adding, “I can remember what she wore the first time I saw her.”
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