The yellow brick road led to Quivira on Saturday evening, the mythical kingdom occupied by philanthropists from Omaha, western Iowa and Nebraska for one evening each year during the annual Ak-Sar-Ben coronation and scholarship ball.
The theme of this year's event, held at the CenturyLink Center, was “The Golden Road to Quivira,” a nod to the classic movie “The Wizard of Oz.”
The ballroom was transformed to resemble the Emerald City and featured a hot-air balloon reminiscent of the one in the movie. The gowns for the princesses, designed by Carmen Marc Valco, were emerald green and featured a silver and gold jeweled belt. And guests were entertained with numbers from both the “The Wizard of Oz” and “The Wiz,” as well as other musicals.
The evening culminated, as it always does, in the coronation of a new king and queen of Quivira. This year's king was William A. Cutler, a partner with Heafey-Heafey-Hoffmann-Dworak & Cutler mortuaries in Omaha and Cutler-O'Neill-Meyer-Woodring funeral home in Council Bluffs. Carolyn Lea German, an English major at Creighton University and daughter of Cal and Karen German, was crowned the organization's 117th queen. Cal German is the president and CEO of DMSI Software in Omaha.
Despite all the pomp and circumstance of the annual ball, the event is at its heart a fundraiser for the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben scholarship program, which provides around 50 need-based scholarships of $6,000 each year.
“Quivira may be a mythical kingdom,” Cutler said as he addressed the crowd after receiving his crown, “but the philanthropy sure is real.”
Just as the pull of home was strong for Dorothy in the movie, for many participants, the Ak-Sar-Ben coronation is a homecoming.
Many of the college-aged princesses and escorts fly home to attend the ball with their families.
“These young kids, they're off at school and they're coming back this weekend to celebrate their family's commitment to volunteerism,” said Ann Tjaden, this year's chairwoman of the Women's Ball Committee.
Tjaden remembers watching the ball on television as a little girl and being impressed back then by the pageantry and excitement of it all. It's a tradition she still finds exciting.
After dinner, last year's king and queen, J. Robert Duncan and Afton Robertson, appeared on stage together one last time. Notable members of the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben, including the Board of Governors, Councilors, members of the Women's Ball Committee and donors to the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben scholarship members, were recognized for their service. The princesses, accompanied by their escorts, walked the runway in their classic full-skirted gowns, and the elementary-school-age pages darted along waving brightly colored ribbons as vocalists Tiffany White-Welchen and Tim Abou-Nasr sang “Ease on Down the Road,” from “The Wiz.”
Additionally, four local philanthropists were inducted into the Ak-Sar-Ben court of honor: Father Thomas M. Fangman Jr., pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church and CEO of the Christian Urban Education Service in Omaha, was honored for his contributions to education; Penny Mannschreck Parker, executive director of Completely Kids, was honored for her work with at-risk youth; Bruce Rasmussen, athletic director at Creighton University, was inducted for his role in Omaha's sports community; and Michael Simmonds, founder and developer of Simmonds Restaurant Management Inc. and frequent chairman of Omaha fundraising events, was honored for his contributions to business and industry. The four received standing ovations from much of the crowd as they walked the runway to their thrones on the stage.
Tjaden described this year's court of honorees as “rock stars.” It's humbling to see how generous so many Midlanders are, she said.
“This is truly unique to our region.”
For Tjaden, the most fulfilling part of her duties as the Women's Ball Committee chairwoman was helping to select the scholarship winners.
More than 1,000 students applied from Nebraska and western Iowa for the $6,000 scholarships, which the Ak-Sar-Ben Foundation offers in partnership with the Horatio Alger Association. Of the 51 high school seniors selected, many are the first in their families to attend college. They come from households with an average income of $15,845. Most are on free or reduced lunches or some other form of assistance. Five of the students live without their parents or on their own.
“These are extremely need-based,” Tjaden said.
The ball recognizes both the students who receive those scholarships, as well as the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben who make them possible.
“For more than 116 years, Ak-Sar-Ben has remained committed to its mission ... to leverage collective business leadership to build a more prosperous Heartland,” said Terry Kroeger, publisher of The World-Herald and chairman of the Coronation Ball Committee. “Tonight we recognize and celebrate our dedication to volunteerism, our heritage as an organization and the leadership we count on in our community.”
Kroeger added that the organization is committed to “providing Heartland youth with education and opportunities to better themselves and our region.”
Many of the scholarship recipients plan service-oriented careers — 24 percent will major in nursing, pre-med or other medical-related majors; 18 percent of the scholarship recipients want to be teachers.
In the scholarship recipients, the princesses and escorts and the pages, Tjaden sees the future of service to Omaha and the Heartland.
“There's so much history involved with this,” she said, “But then you see the 9-year-old page whose family is just starting to embark on that community involvement and giving back.”