It’s not just the unlikelihood of growing up in a dysfunctional, blue-collar family and then marrying into a blue-blood Omaha clan.
Jeff Wilke also carried secrets. Difficult secrets, not easy to talk about, even with his wife, Heidi. And so for years, he did not.
Heidi Wilke is descended from Gilbert Hitchcock, Henry Doorly and Dr. Richard Young — respectively, a U.S. senator, a World-Herald publisher for whom the Omaha zoo is named and a psychiatrist whose name graced an Omaha hospital.
Wooing her took chutzpah, but no one has ever said Jeff Wilke lacked brass. He also was, by his own account, brash — a barroom brawler who got into plenty of scrapes.
He and Heidi met at his brother’s wedding, and the next day he asked her to marry him. When she eventually said yes, “Everybody was really nervous about this greenskeeper’s son marrying a rich girl, an Aksarben princess.”
Her father is Dr. William Hamsa, an orthopedic surgeon. Jeff’s father maintained the Miracle Hill golf course, and the seven kids grew up in a small house near the 12th tee. There was a lot of drinking.
“I don’t think I ever had a chance not to be a drinker,” Wilke said. “I sneaked drinks when I was a kid. When I turned 16, we had a kegger for my birthday. Drinking was a part of our lives.”
When he and Heidi married in 1980, he was 22 and worked as a janitor. He moved up the job ladder, and the couple raised two daughters.
But early in 2002, something horrible happened. As Heidi left a board meeting she attended at Richard Young Hospital, a man opened her car door, abducted her and raped her.
The event changed their lives.
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The trial was widely reported in The World-Herald, and the attacker was convicted and sentenced to prison.
In the aftermath, Jeff and Heidi raised $1.7 million to start the Heidi Wilke SANE/SART Survivor Program at Methodist Hospital, a compassionate and professional setting for survivors of rape and domestic violence. (The acronyms stand for sexual assault nurse examiner and sexual assault response team.)
Not publicly known was that his wife’s trauma caused Jeff to tell Heidi, for the first time, sordid details of his early life.
“After Heidi’s ordeal, I told her everything,” Jeff said. “When she was kidnapped and raped, she needed me. But I also had to revert back to things I had never dealt with.”
From about ages 5 to 9, he said, he was sexually abused by men not related to him. At 15, he said, a 25-year-old woman he knew forced him into sex.
Meanwhile, he said, home life was tumultuous, including beatings of his mother by his father. (Both are deceased.)
After Heidi was raped in 2002, Jeff stopped drinking for a while. But in the aftermath, he started drinking again, though he tried to “manage” his drinking.
“You can’t manage alcoholism,” he says now. “You either drink or you don’t.”
He’d had job successes over the years, but an early white-collar position required lots of travel and entertaining clients, which always included drinking.
He later started Data Media Solutions, providing technology for commercial and governmental entities. With that and another company, he once employed 30 people.
He no longer does so, but still works as a consultant. He also has volunteered on civic and charitable boards, such as the Salvation Army and the Offutt Advisory Council.
Another was the nonprofit Project Harmony, the anti-child abuse agency. Executive Director Gene Klein said Wilke was unconventional but valuable.
“Jeff was an outside-the-box thinker and challenged us, in a good way,” Klein said. “He pushed us to think bigger than what we were. He approached things with brutal honesty. But underneath it all, he had a soft heart for the people we work with daily at Project Harmony.”
Wilke was honored in 2010 as a “Hero of the Heartland” for donating blood, platelets, bone marrow and stem cells for more than 20 years. He also donated a bone marrow transplant to a boy suffering from leukemia.
When not doing that good work, though, the drinking continued.
In 2011 came another life-changing event for the Wilkes. Their daughter Kristy was getting married in Minnesota, near their longtime lake home.
Jeff drank too much wine at the prenuptial dinner. He got pulled over on the highway, physically scuffled with a state trooper, got thrown to the pavement and spent the night in jail.
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￼He made it to the wedding on time, but he and Heidi had a talk.
“I told him, 'I don’t want to go through this anymore,’ ” she recalled. “He said he didn’t want to, either.”
Ever since, he has stayed sober.
He pleaded guilty to the DUI, and charges related to the scuffle were dropped. He got credit for the night in jail, was placed on probation and paid a $500 fine. Lawyer fees cost him thousands more.
He’s had therapy, even practicing meditation in California with author and speaker Deepak Chopra.
In 2014 Jeff founded Karma Koffee near 156th Street and West Dodge Road. He often helps others fight addictions.
He now has another passion — a racehorse named Ransom the Moon.
He owns “a leg,” meaning a fourth. The other owner is friend Mark Martinez of San Antonio, through his Agave Racing Stable.
Last month at the Del Mar track in California, Ransom the Moon won the six-furlong $300,000 Bing Crosby Stakes for the second straight year.
The 6-year-old sprinter, which has earned about $850,000 overall, has qualified for the Breeders’ Cup in November at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky.
Wilke, 60, sees a bit of himself in the horse, and gets teary-eyed talking about it.
Bred in Canada, Moon wasn’t seen early in his career as a future champion. Original owners entered him in long races, when his talent actually was for sprints.
“He didn’t get a proper chance,” Jeff said. “Just like I didn’t get a chance because of the house I was raised in.”
With the change in ownership, the horse was flown to California, where a trainer addressed health issues and put Moon on a new training regimen. He has won six races, including last year’s Kona Gold at the Santa Anita track.
Wilke grew up around horses, cleaning stalls, and his brother became a quarter horse trainer. Jeff once owned a horse at Fonner Park in Grand Island, “but I could outrun him. He was awful.”
Now Karma Koffee displays racing memorabilia, including a trophy and photos. And Jeff looks forward to standing again in the winner’s circle.
“I’m still surprised at every success I’ve had,” he said. “Seven years ago, I would have said I was an alcoholic loser. But if you can’t forgive yourself, you can’t go anywhere. I’m not proud of the totality of my life, but I’m proud of who I am today. It took a long time to get here.”