COLUMNIST

When Mariam Villamonte entered the world on New Year's Day 2001, her birth was heralded by the mayor, a local businessman and news media outlets around Omaha.

Mariam wasn't just Omaha's first baby of the year. She was Omaha's first baby of the millennium.

A magazine publisher decided that the occasion called for a time capsule, which was dedicated in a ceremony downtown at the Sheraton Hotel, following the hospital bedside ballyhoo at Bergan Mercy. Into the time capsule went mementos from 2001, including a photo taken that day of Mayor Hal Daub greeting 6-pound, 21-inch Mariam.

The plan was to put the time capsule at the yet-to-be-built convention center/arena and open it 100 years hence.

Mariam's parents, Roger Villamonte and Maria Ortiz, were thrilled. What an honor! The attention helped make up for the fact that none of Mariam's grandparents could be in Omaha. Roger's family was in Panama. Maria's folks were stuck in her native Colombia, having to finish a one-year wait requirement before their visa was approved for travel to the United States.

Maria and Roger had The World-Herald article matted and framed. They treasured the baby gift from Daub — a signed photograph taken that day on which he'd written that Mariam was "a special person to all of us." The news reached Panama, where a newspaper did its own story under the headline, "Nina del milenia."

But as years passed, the couple wondered about that time capsule. They couldn't find it at what was then called the Qwest Center. And no one seemed to know anything about it when they asked. Mayors changed. The publisher of B2B Omaha, Mark Matthews, left the magazine. Even the name of that giant silver building changed from Qwest to CenturyLink. And Mariam's family eventually moved.

They left Omaha in 2008 for the north Alabama town of Athens. Mariam was 7.

But Omaha, where they still have relatives, wasn't far from their minds. In Mariam's bedroom hang the newspaper articles and Daub's signed photograph. Even though the city of her birth and this supposed trunk were some 840 miles away, the bragging rights thrilled her. A time capsule? For me!

Last month, as Mariam's 15th birthday approached — an important coming-of-age milestone in her Latin American culture — Mariam's aunt in Omaha had an idea. Wouldn't it be cool if she could track down that old time capsule?

I got the request via email. "I live here in Omaha and have visited the Century Link Center many times," wrote Yuriko Doku, "and have not seen the time capsule yet... I would love to have Mariam come to visit Omaha and show her."

Aunt Yuriko attached a copy of The World-Herald story from Jan. 2, 2001.

What a flashback. Daub was mayor. Tenth Street, north of Dodge, was a mess. And the story was by a reporter who is no longer with the paper, writing from a newspaper building that no longer exists.

It made me realize that you didn't have to wait 100 years to see big change. Architecturally speaking, in Mariam's short lifetime, downtown Omaha has practically been reinvented: First National Bank Tower (2002), Union Pacific headquarters and Hilton Omaha (2004), Holland Center (2005), Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge (2008), TD Ameritrade Park (2011). And that Sheraton? The swanky hotel on Howard Street is now called the Magnolia.

But where was the time capsule?

The Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority, which runs the Century Link Center, had no idea that it even existed. One thing was known: It isn't here, a MECA spokeswoman said.

David Williams said he'd dig around. For the past few years, he's been the editor of Omaha Magazine, which also publishes B2B.

He called back to say, somewhat sheepishly: We found it. Williams said he didn't know what happened or when, but he did learn that the time capsule was in a former employee's storage locker. He pledged to find a proper home for it.

I begged him to open it. The time capsule was actually a century-old travel trunk donated by the Union Pacific Railroad, on whose land the Century Link Center now sits. Back in 2001, the time capsule's contents included, among other things, a cellphone. I wanted to see that clunky old device.

No way, David said. The original plan had been to reopen that trunk 100 years from Mariam's birth date, he reminded me. That wouldn't change.

"History," he said, "commands respect."

David said he has approached the Durham Museum and the Union Pacific Railroad Museum about giving the Mariam Villamonte time capsule a rightful home.

"Our focus has shifted to how we make sure Mariam's great-great-grandchildren don't have to go on a similar treasure hunt in 2101," he said.

Mariam didn't seem to mind that her namesake historical treasure had been forgotten. She said she was honored that anyone even cared.

It was the icing on the cake of an already pretty terrific 15th birthday.

Mariam, a bubbly, soccer-playing, dual language-speaking honors student, rang in the new year, big-time. After the stroke of midnight on New Year's Day, Mariam got fireworks, a rousing "Happy Birthday," and a party with relatives from Omaha, Panama and Colombia. She celebrated with her kid sister, Sulmita, her dog, Ziggy, and, of course, her parents, Roger and Maria. Now a newspaper was calling?

"It's like — whoa!" she gushed. "I feel so special! This is what you see in movies!"

Oh, Mariam.

Time changes our buildings and mayors, our lives and perspectives. And time has a way of putting Mariam's kind of teenaged enthusiasm into a trunk, closing the lid and forgetting it in a storage locker.

As I hung up the phone, I realized that my birthday wish for Mariam wasn't to see an old trunk, after all.

I hope in all her New Year's birthdays to come that Marian Villamonte roots herself in history — but lives in the present. And stays, as the song says, forever young.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1136, erin.grace@owh.com twitter.com/ErinGraceOWH

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