When 2,500 people cheered the recent Christmas tree lighting at Omaha’s old train station, few knew how close the beautifully restored Art Deco structure once came to demolition.
In the early 1970s, the building suffered from a leaky roof, peeling paint, falling plaster and piled-up bird droppings.
Around that time, Itey Crummer of Omaha, who had remembered the Union Station of her youth, saw past all that — envisioning what it would become. Today it’s the gleaming Durham Museum, full of Omaha’s history.
“In her mind, it didn’t look like it was crumbling,” said her daughter, Barbara Lincoln. “It embodied so many memories for her. She could see beyond the falling plaster, that it was something worth saving. For her, it was a crusade.”
Itey, so striking that Barbara’s friends said her mom looked like Elizabeth Taylor, died last year at 80. Her husband, Tom Crummer, had died previously. Today their children gather in the building Itey helped save for the unveiling of a statue in her memory.
Titled “Anticipation,” the John Lajba sculpture depicts a little girl eagerly anticipating Christmas.
“It’s gorgeous,” Barbara said, “and it’s a tribute not just to our mom but to all the people who were able to capture the spirit of the building and save it from the wrecking ball.”
Itey grew up in Omaha as Elliott Downs, her first name being her mother’s maiden name. When her sister tried to say Elliott it came out as “Itey,” and a distinctive nickname was born.
As a child, Itey went with her parents to the train station to see the Union Pacific’s big Christmas tree. She later used the station when traveling for college.
Opened in 1931, the year Itey was born, the station welcomed 64 passenger trains daily during its World War II peak. But the station closed in 1971, and the Union Pacific deeded it to the City of Omaha in 1973.
Critics called the white-exterior structure a white elephant, and then-Mayor Ed Zorinsky opposed spending taxpayer funds on it. Omaha attorney Ron Hunter, who joined with Itey in trying to save the building, said the future wasn’t bright.
“Mayor Zorinsky promised me it would be torn down,” Ron said. “Everybody was against us.”
Preservationists raised $5,000 and cleaned up a corner of the building, Ron said, giving a glimpse of the future. Progress was slow, but enough money came in to keep things going.
A modest Western Heritage Museum opened on Nov. 22, 1975. A year or so later, Itey revived the Christmas-tree tradition, but it was a classic shoestring operation.
Ron said he and his wife had driven around town buying lights for the tree. But after it was raised and opened to the public, it had no lights.
“I didn’t want to be critical, but I asked Itey why the lights hadn’t been strung,” Ron said. “She replied that we had no ladder.”
Like a steam engine, the museum gradually picked up speed. Hunter gave hundreds of speeches. More people became interested.
Years later, in 1992, philanthropists Charles and Margre Durham donated millions. Others also donated.
In 1996, sculptor Lajba crafted the six groups of statues spread throughout the concourse, called the Great Hall.
Expected to attend the unveiling of “Anticipation” today are Barbara Lincoln, who lives in San Diego, and her siblings — brother Flip Crummer of Minneapolis and sisters Ellen Anderson, Beth Crummer and Kiki Crummer, all of Omaha.
Today the main concourse looks much as it did in its heyday, especially for “Christmas at Union Station.” Permanent exhibits down at track level tell the story of Omaha, and the Durham regularly hosts temporary exhibits that rotate in and out.
Itey Crummer, long active in Omaha arts, history and education, helped save an Omaha icon that we easily could have lost. It once lacked a ladder, but that didn’t keep her from raising hopes and a vision — one rung at a time.
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