LINCOLN (AP) — Twelve years ago a group of Johnson County kindergartners got a visit from a man named Barney Oldfield, who promised each of them $1,000 when they graduated from high school.
Those kindergartners are now graduating from high school, and a foundation established by Oldfield is working on fulfilling his promise. The retired Air Force colonel died in 2003.
Oldfield stressed the importance of education to the 67 kindergartners he met in 2000 from Johnson County's three schools.
He gave them a certificate and wrote them letters, telling them they were the “millennium class” and that there would be great curiosity about them and their endeavors.
Oldfield was born in Tecumseh and went on to work as an aide to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower during World War II and as a press agent to Hollywood stars.
Oldfield and his wife, Vada, have contributed more than $3 million to scholarship funds around the country. In addition to Oldfield's promise to the 67 kindergartners, he gave $1,000 to 87 Johnson County seniors from the class of 2000.
Ardyce Bohlke, program director for the Oldfields' foundation, said 36 of the kindergartners have been located, graduated and will receive the scholarships. Others are still being sought.
Bohlke said Oldfield would be thrilled to know his promise is helping those kindergartners, who will receive an additional $1,000 if they enroll in a Nebraska college.
“He would be so excited,” Bohlke said. “And he would probably call each one of them. He loved talking to the students. He was quite a guy.”
It hasn't been easy to find all the scholarship winners because of changes in the school system since 2000 and families that moved.
When the students were in kindergarten, Johnson County had three public schools: Nemaha Valley Schools in Cook, Tecumseh Public Schools and Sterling Public Schools. There also was a Catholic school in Tecumseh, and a couple of students were being home-schooled.
Since then, Tecumseh and Nemaha Valley districts consolidated into Johnson County Central schools, where 22 of the students graduated Saturday.
There also are seven graduates from Sterling High School, and others from Johnson, Syracuse, Beatrice, Hastings, Waverly and Adams. One student, Luke Saathoff, died at 13 when a car hit his sled in 2007.
Some parents and students had forgotten about the scholarship promise.
Deb Kucera, whose son is a Waverly High School graduate, said her family moved from Cook to Waverly when her son, Zach, was in second grade. In the fall he will attend Doane College, where he'll play baseball and study exercise science and biology.
The family had forgotten about the scholarship. They appreciate Oldfield's generosity, Deb Kucera said.
“It was such a nice surprise, because we were just saying, ‘It's so expensive; how are we going to do this?' ” she said.
Shelby Strubel, a senior at Johnson County Central, remembered Oldfield's visit, but not the scholarship promise.
“We were really excited that we had a visitor,” she said.
Strubel became a track and cross-country runner and a member of the National Honor Society and various student organizations. She will use the gift to help pay for tuition at Wayne State College.
“It will help, and I appreciate it and plan to use it wisely, to study hard,” she said.
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