Click here to view a photo showcase from the Ak-Sar-Ben Coronation and Scholarship Ball.
Breaking from tradition, Robert Duncan wore stripes Saturday evening.
Specifically, he wore a long-tailed, black-and-white striped topcoat over a gold silk jacket, red knickers accented with teal buttons and a black-and-white striped hat topped with a grapefruit-sized teal ball.
Duncan, chairman emeritus of Duncan Aviation in Lincoln, was crowned the 116th King of Ak-Sar-Ben before a crowd of 2,000 Saturday night at the CenturyLink Center Omaha.
Afton Robertson was crowned queen at the Coronation and Scholarship Ball. Robertson is a senior at Indiana University, majoring in apparel merchandising and is a member of the university's swim team.
The royalty both are tied to the transportation industry.
Robertson, 21, is the third generation of an international trucking family. Her mother, Gail Werner-Robertson, is president and CEO of GWR Wealth Management. Her father, Scott Robertson, is the founder and CEO of UltraAir and director of the Werner Aviation Division.
The queen's grandfather is Clarence “C.L.” Werner, founder and chairman emeritus of Werner Enterprises, headquartered in Sarpy County.
During Saturday's event, 50 Horatio Alger scholarships worth $6,000 each — and matched by the University of Nebraska system and Creighton University — were awarded to high school students from Nebraska and western Iowa.
Four Omahans — Dr. Linda Ford, Ken Bird, Joan Squires and Paul Jessen (posthumously) — were inducted into the Court of Honor during the annual celebration of volunteerism, civic pride and philanthropy. Jessen's widow, Mary Jessen, drew a standing ovation as she walked toward the stage to accept the honor.
But Duncan and his apparel stole the show.
His attire was a vast departure from the gold-and-ivory satin outfit traditionally worn by kings. That outfit also has tails and knickers, though no whimsical buttons or ball-topped hat.
The modern ensemble was fitting for Duncan, who has a collection of more than 1,800 pieces of art and is on the board of many arts organizations.
When Duncan, 70, was approached earlier this year about serving as the king, one of his first questions was whether he could depart from the normal dress.
“I like different things, I like unusual things,” he said.
He also likes the work of Omaha artist Jun Kaneko, whom he considers a friend.
Kaneko is probably best known for his paintings and sculpture, but he also has designed costumes for operas, including a 2006 Opera Omaha production of “Madama Butterfly” and a 2012 San Francisco Opera production of “The Magic Flute.” Duncan and his wife, Karen, attended both and were “blown away by the beauty, the color ... of seeing a Jun Kaneko-designed opera.”
Duncan was so taken with the costumes that for years he dreamed of buying one. But the costumes are property of the opera companies, he said, which made doing so difficult, if not impossible.
Being crowned the Ak-Sar-Ben king presented an opportunity.
With the ball committee's blessing, Duncan asked and Kaneko agreed to make the outfit, as well as a coordinating ensemble for Karen (her attire included a long, black-and white, polka-dot coat trimmed in teal).
This summer, Duncan flew to California for a fitting at the San Francisco Opera's costume shop where the ensemble was created. There, Kaneko spent 90 minutes adjusting and reshaping the semi-finished garment, allowing Duncan to see the artist at work up close.
“I thought I was just going in for a fitting, but really it was part of the design,” Duncan said.
And he loved the finished product.
“I feel very royal and regal and special, because I know that it's got Jun's hand in it,” he said.
Women's ball committee chairwoman Kelly Thedinger loved the ensemble, too.
“Everybody should put their own mark on their particular reign, and this is his way of doing it,” she said. “I think it's just perfect.”
Duncan said he suspected not everyone would feel that way. In fact, before the coronation, Karen told him to be prepared for a variety of reactions.
“They're either going to think I look fabulous or look like a fool,” he said.
When Duncan addressed the crowd for the first time as king, he thanked Kaneko and turned to the crowd.
“Well, what do you think?”
The audience responded with applause and cheers.
Duncan said he will donate the costume to the collection at the Kaneko Gallery, 11th and Jones Streets.
It will be the first garment in the collection, Duncan said. He said he was glad to use his position as Ak-Sar-Ben king to give a gift to the community — more people would be able to enjoy it at the gallery than if he kept the ensemble.
“I can't imagine wearing it again for any occasion,” he said.
Robertson wore a traditional gown designed by Monique Lhuillier, a prominent bridal and red carpet designer whose gowns have been worn by actresses Gwyneth Paltrow and Drew Barrymore.
Robertson's white strapless gown of silk satin, lace and silk tulle featured an asymmetrical sweetheart neckline, which Thedinger mentioned was a nice tie-in with Duncan's ensemble. The dress has a fitted bodice and full tulle skirt adorned with lace cutouts. The one-of-a-kind dress was adapted from one of Lhuillier's bridal designs.
During her speech, Robertson focused on philanthropy. She is active in the Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Care and Prevention, the Humane Society, the Salvation Army, and Heartland Family Services, among other organizations. She credited her parents with teaching her that serving others was the path to happiness and fulfillment and said she looked forward to a year of service to others.
The 50 Ak-Sar-Ben and Heartland princesses, women between the ages of 21 and 24 whose families have demonstrated volunteer leadership in Omaha and throughout the region, also wore gowns designed by Lhuillier.
The identical princess gowns also featured a sweetheart neckline, as well as a structured bodice, grosgrain embellished belt, and full pick-up skirt.
The regal shade of the princess gowns complimented the theme of the night — “Harvest Fete Royale.”
Tables topped with purple or magenta tablecloths were adorned with rustic centerpieces that included sheaves of wheat, purple artichokes, pillar candles, metal lanterns and copper bowls. Guests dined on Medallion de Boeuf au Madére and a chocolate mousse dusted with edible gold.
The Ak-Sar-Ben ball started as a harvest festival, Thedinger said, and the 2012 theme was a nod to the event's beginnings.
“By reflecting on the past, we're emphasizing the promise of the future,” she said.
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