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$3 million grant will help revitalize York College's 116-year-old Hulitt Hall

YORK, Neb. — Hulitt Hall has stood on the York College campus for 116 years, and with the help of a $3 million grant, it might serve the school for 116 more.

The brick structure links the college almost to its beginnings in 1890. At various times, Hulitt has served as the college’s music conservatory, classroom building, office space, bookstore, mail room and dormitory. About the only thing it hasn’t done is host basketball games.

But time has had its way with Hulitt. It currently houses only four faculty offices, one classroom and a meeting room. Numerous other spots are vacant, cluttered with remnants of the past or intentionally used as storage space. The fire escape broke down, and the college can’t use the top two floors for any activities.

“I’m just excited to save this building,” said Steve Eckman, York College’s president since 2009. This year, Eckman received a $3 million commitment from a foundation that prefers to go unnamed, and work on revitalizing Hulitt Hall will start in 2020.


Built-in corner cabinets house Native American pottery from the southwest in the one remaining classroom in Hulitt Hall.

Eckman expects to launch a capital campaign centered on the $3 million for Hulitt. He envisions a campaign of more than $10 million for facility upgrades, improvements to the training room and athletic venues, science equipment and other needs.

Patch-job renovations have taken place at Hulitt Hall through the years, but none have been significant. Some of its windows are boarded up. The building isn’t handicapped-accessible. It needs an elevator and improvements to the heating and air conditioning systems.

“It’s just been kicked down the road,” said Tim McNeese, York history professor. “Waiting for the next guy to take care of it.”

Eckman appears to be that guy. He attended York College about 50 years ago, when it was a two-year college. Eckman lived in Hulitt when it was a dormitory. He worked as financial aid director on Hulitt’s bottom floor.


A room on the top floor of York College's Hulitt Hall has graffiti on the ceiling.

The exterior will retain its historic look, but the interior will be modernized, he said. There are no cracks in Hulitt’s façade, and Eckman hopes its foundation is sound. That will be determined by preconstruction inspections.

McNeese, whose faculty office is on Hulitt’s main floor, is confident that the structure is solid.

“I think it’s got good bones,” he said.

Hulitt became the oldest building on campus when Old Main burned in 1951.

McNeese attended York in the early 1970s and has served on the college’s faculty since 1992. He has written about 130 books, many for young adults.

“I’m loyal to this institution,” McNeese said.

York, which is affiliated with the Church of Christ, currently enrolls about 510 students. Sixty percent of the students play intercollegiate sports, including those on the women’s wrestling team, which started two years ago.


A renovated conference room is in the basement of Hulitt Hall at York College. With the impending renovation of the entire building, the administration hopes some of the original brick and woodwork will be showcased.

Cole Satterfield, a pitcher on the York College baseball team, has had a history class with McNeese in Hulitt Hall and attended other activities there. Satterfield, a senior from Colorado, said Hulitt is a college landmark that deserves upkeep.

“I am really excited to see how the building turns out,” he said. “It should be exciting, for sure.”

Eckman, 68, already is emotionally invested in Hulitt and is eager to put some money into it, too. While on a tour of the building last week, Eckman showed the third-floor room where he and two other guys lived as students.

“There was a little hole over here, and a mouse used to come out,” he said. “We used to feed him. He liked our popcorn. Brings back memories.”

Now, with an infusion of money, Hulitt Hall will provide the backdrop for more memories.

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141-year-old fruitcake means love to family as it's handed down

TECUMSEH, Mich. — If fruitcakes improve with age, a Tecumseh, Michigan, family may have the finest in the land. It's certainly one of the oldest — 141 years.

What would possess the seemingly normal Ford clan to hold on to a fossilized dessert for five generations?

In a word, "love." The cake was originally preserved to honor its maker, Fidelia Ford.

Now it's being kept in tribute to Ford's great-grandson, Morgan, who was its biggest champion until his passing in 2013.

"He took care of it to the day he left the earth," said Morgan's daughter Julie Ruttinger. "We knew it meant a lot to him."

Despite the sweet sentiment, the years haven't been kind to the confection.

The round brown slab is hard as a rock with a blistered surface. A date andmaybe a clove are visible. The smell of rum and spices wafted away a long time ago.

"Smells like old people," Morgan once said, chuckling.

Guinness World Records doesn't keep track of the life spans of fruitcakes. As for cakes in general, the oldest is 4,176 years old, the Guinness organization said. Once tucked in an Egyptian tomb during the time of a pharaoh, the world's oldest cake is now displayed in a food museum in Switzerland.

The story of the Ford fruitcake begins with Fidelia, a mother of seven who was born on the Fourth of July.

The star-spangled farmer's wife was a wunderkind around a wood stove in her Berkey, Ohio, home, according to family lore. Every year she whipped up a fruitcake that would age for a year before being served the following holiday season.

After making a cake in 1878, the 65-year-old matriarch died before it could be eaten. When the holidays arrived, the family no longer regarded her handiwork as food. They saw it as a legacy.

Fidelia's obituary, which is kept atop the cake, described her thusly:

"She lived, not for self, but for her family. No service was too great that was for the good of those around her."

Despite its age, the fruitcake has had only two homes, the Berkey farmhouse and a Tecumseh bungalow.

The farmhouse was home to Fidelia, then her children, then her children's children.

When her grandson Lyman had a stroke in 1952, he asked his son, Morgan, to become custodian of the candied-fruit concoction, relatives said.

It was a fitting choice because he was interested in genealogy, later compiling a family history.

Morgan stored it on the top shelf of a china cabinet in the dining room of his Tecumseh home, where it remains today. The reason for the lofty perch was to keep it from the prying hands of his five children.

But some of the kids and grandchildren wanted nothing to do with it. An 8-year-old grandkid once pronounced the crystallized lump as "yucky." Then again, many people say the same thing about fresh fruitcake.

Another grandchild once sent Morgan a greeting card that teased him about his treasured keepsake.

"Oh, how nice, a fruitcake!" it read. "Nobody likes getting food that will outlive them."

Morgan didn't allow the towheaded naysayers to spoil his fun. He learned early on that, when prizing something as maligned as fruitcake, it paid to have a sense of humor. The mechanical engineer not only had a well-developed funny bone but also the gift of gab, relatives said.

He loved to show off the once-edible artifact at church and family gatherings, regaling his grandchildren with stories about its history.

"He really enjoyed sharing the joy of the cake," said Morgan's daughter Sue Durkee. "He took a lot of pride in it."

Let it be recorded that, in the annals of Ford family history, the infamous fruitcake has been eaten exactly twice — once by a wisecracking relative and once by a professional wisecracker, Jay Leno.

In 1964, Amos Ford told a family gathering that it was a dirty shame his grandma's creation had never been tasted, relatives said. He said he had a notion to right the wrong.

He was a jokester, so no one took him seriously. The cake was 86 years old, two years older than Amos.

To his relatives' surprise and delight and horror, he took out a jackknife, sliced off a sliver and popped it into his mouth.

He didn't say how it tasted. Witnesses described it as crunchy.

Amos would later die but not for another two years, so the fruitcake is in the clear.

The other time the cake was sampled was when Morgan brought it on "The Tonight Show" in December 2003. He and host Leno took a chew.

Leno said it needed more aging. Morgan, a farmer's progeny, said it tasted like thrashed wheat. That is "not good."

With the passing of Morgan, Ruttinger has become the latest bard of the family foodstuff. It's important to her because it was important to her dad, she said.

After being a part of Morgan's life for 93 years, the cake joined him in death. When he died, his family tucked a piece into his jacket pocket. An Egyptian pharaoh would have approved.

"It's a great thing," said Ruttinger. "It was tradition. It's a legacy."

The family has no doubt the cake, minus a few divots, will flourish several more generations.

Several grandchildren and great-grandchildren are interested in inheriting the relic.

During all the times Morgan talked to them about the cake and its value to the family, they were apparently listening.

A stitch in time: Omaha woman picks up tablecloth project, finishes for Christmas

Kelly Metcalfe finally received her grandmother’s Christmas gift.

It took 21 years to arrive. It took multiple tries. It took extraordinary effort.

In the end, this gift needed the careful eye, focused hand and big heart of an Omaha woman who, after 400-some hours this year, finally completed what Kelly’s late grandmother had intended.

Kelly got this gift after Thanksgiving. It drapes over her dining room table today.


The late Doris Tritsch could sew anything and gave hand-embroidered tablecloths to all her grandchildren.

And when the 47-year-old looks at it, she remembers her sweet, soft-spoken seamstress Grandma Doris, who died in 1998. She thinks of her mother, Mary Ellen, who might have tossed the gift but kept it for years in hopes she could find a way of giving her daughter what her own mother had started. And Kelly, of course, thinks of Sarah, who said “yes” to the project back in April and then spent every spare minute on it so Kelly could finally have it in time for the holidays.

“It’s breathtaking. It’s absolutely breathtaking,” said Kelly, who lives in the Denver area. “Just to know the amount of work that was put into it. And the amount of love.”

Christmas gifts come in all shapes and sizes. They can be practical, things we need. They can be extravagant, things we want. Christmas gifts, whether machine- or handmade, are supposed to reflect the human desire to give and to receive, and gifts aren’t always things. Christmas gifts can capture that which you can’t wrap, like time or love or dedication.

Kelly’s Christmas gift is all of that.

It is a thing — a tablecloth, a Christmas tablecloth. It is a rectangle of white cotton fabric measuring 52 by 70 inches and decorated with embroidered poinsettias. It is a decoration that Kelly, the youngest of Doris Tritsch’s five grandchildren, finally gets to have for her Christmas table. Doris hand-stitched four Christmas tablecloths for her older grandchildren, but died in 1998 before she could get to Kelly’s.


Kelly Metcalfe poses with her new-old Christmas tablecloth. Her late grandmother had bought the kit but died in 1998 before she could get started on it. Metcalfe, now 47, finally got her Christmas present.

Doris was a beloved grandma with a soft-spoken, kind nature and an inner strength. She raised five daughters, including one with special needs, after her husband died when he was in his young 50s. She endured the loss of a child; daughter Nancy Ahmed, who started Souq Ltd. in the Old Market, died in a car crash. Doris loved her grandchildren and used her ability to sew and create, always with someone else in mind.

Doris made all the curtains and drapes in the old Lutheran Hospital in Omaha. She made quilts and dish towels, teaching mentally challenged daughter Carol how to hold a needle and do it, too. For all her grandchildren, she made Christmas tablecloths. She bought kits and did painstaking, careful embroidery work for all but Kelly’s tablecloth. Doris died of aggressive lung cancer when she was 85 before she could get to it.

The tablecloth also represents an almost lost art form. And it requires incredible patience, to embroider 15 colors of thread — four reds alone for the petals — and five kinds of stitches.

Kelly’s Aunt Phyllis took the tablecloth for a few years and completed one corner, handing it back to Mary Ellen saying she wasn’t going to get this done in her lifetime.


Mary Ellen Metcalfe of Denver tried her hand at her mother’s unfinished Christmas tablecloth, but she found embroidery too hard.

Mary Ellen called a friend in an embroidery guild, took down careful instructions and gave it an hour, completing an area “less than the size of a dime” before calling it quits. After pricing what it would cost to hire out the work, she stuck the tablecloth in the closet.

But it nagged at her. Now 80, Mary Ellen saw her late mother’s project as her responsibility. But what to do?

This past spring, when back in Omaha for a funeral, Mary Ellen told family members about it. One of them, the 34-year-old wife of her great-nephew, piped up. Sarah Wynn happened to be a two-time Nebraska State Fair embroidery first-place ribbon holder.

“Wait a minute. You embroider?” Mary Ellen said.

Oh, Sarah embroiders. And knits. And crochets. And cross-stitches. And macramés. And takes photographs and draws. Sarah’s mind is a creative one, and when it comes to thread or yarn, “something clicks in my brain,” she said.

Needlework is meditative for Sarah. It focuses her mind. It gives her deep satisfaction at being busy and productive. Plus, she can indulge in true-crime podcasts, guilt-free. When her toddler naps or after bedtime, Sarah pops in earbuds and gets to work.

So she said “yes” to this, but, after flipping through “basically a novel of instructions,” wondered what she’d gotten herself into.

“In my mind, it was going to be an easy little thing, you know,” she said. “Then I told (Mary Ellen) I will do my best. We’ll see how far I get.”

Like any project that seems daunting, the tablecloth was involved but not impossible. Sarah spent about four to five hours a day on it and finished the tablecloth in a couple of months.

It was the biggest project she had taken on. She found herself both eager to finish it and panicked at the thought of what to do after it was done. Embroidery requires such focus that “I can’t think about all my problems,” she said.


Sarah Wynn of Omaha loves handicrafts and needlework. She is shown here embroidering flowers on a skirt she made for herself.

Embroidering this tablecloth also put her in touch with her husband’s late “Grammie.” Doris was great-grandmother to Matt Wynn, a former World-Herald reporter.

“Matt always talks so fondly of his Grammie, has all these beautiful stories about her,” Sarah said. “I never met her. When I did that tablecloth, as I was doing it, I felt like I got to know her a little bit. I felt close to her.”

She said that while stitching, Matt sometimes chuckled and said he saw his Grammie in Sarah, which was touching for her.

So the process of this incredible labor involved a lot of love. Love of a woman she never met. Love of her husband. Love of her husband’s great-aunt.

“I was just really happy to make her happy,” Sarah said. “It brought me joy to give her joy.”

Sarah figured she clocked 400 hours on the project, and when it was done, she said she felt lost.

“I kept going to pick it up to work on, but it wasn’t there,” she said. “It was like losing a dear friend. That was the most work I’d ever put into any one project, ever.”

She gave the tablecloth to Mary Ellen in August. Mary Ellen gave the tablecloth to Kelly over Thanksgiving.

Kelly was born and raised in Omaha. She graduated from Westside High School and Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln. She worked at First Data, then moved to Chicago and now works in Denver, where her sister and parents now live. She has that tablecloth on her dining room table for decoration and display; she won’t dare serve food on it.

This Christmas gift might have arrived late, but it came.

It came because of patience. It came because of skill. It came, most of all, because of love.

And someday, Kelly will give this gift back to Sarah for her children so that they can be connected, as she is, to family.

Photos: Durham Museum’s Christmas at Union Station over the years

Photos: Durham Museum's Christmas at Union Station over the years

Once winded walking up stairs, Omaha man is back in gym thanks to new cystic fibrosis therapy

Nicholas Bell arrived at the gym on a sunny December afternoon, climbed aboard a treadmill and jogged, occasionally slowing for a breather.

His run done, he headed for the weights. It’s a routine he’s been trying to fit in three or four days a week.

But until a few months ago, Bell, 36, had largely stopped working out. Just walking up the stairs of his Benson-area home left him winded.

Then in late September, he started a new therapy for cystic fibrosis, the rare, progressive disease he was diagnosed with at 6 months old.

The treatment, a three-drug combo called Trikafta, has been hailed as the first to show dramatic improvement in lung function in most people with the disease. While not a cure, it’s expected to benefit 90% of patients, including those who have the most common mutation in the cystic fibrosis gene, called CFTR, which was discovered 30 years ago. The Food and Drug Administration approved the therapy in late October for patients 12 and older.

Now that he’s back to working out, Bell realized it wasn’t motivation he lacked, but the ability to do the work.

“It’s exciting I can work out and still have energy to walk the dog and go be with my friends,” he said of his recent turnaround.


Until a few months ago, Nicholas Bell, 36, had largely stopped working out. Just walking up the stairs of his Benson-area home left him winded. Then in late September, he started a new therapy for cystic fibrosis.

Cystic fibrosis affects an estimated 30,000 people in the United States and 70,000 worldwide. It causes thick mucus to build up in organs, damaging patients’ lungs and digestive systems.

In clinical trials, the drug boosted lung capacity an average of 14%, said Dr. Peter J. “Jim” Murphy, program director of the Adult Cystic Fibrosis Program at the University of Nebraska Medical Center/Nebraska Medicine. That program and the Pediatric Cystic Fibrosis Center at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center form the Nebraska Regional Cystic Fibrosis Center, which treats more than 300 patients. One Children’s patient participated in clinical trials of the drug.

“We face, every day, steady decline in lung function in virtually all of our patients,” he said. “In one fell swoop, you’ve turned that around. It’s whoops and hollers for the cystic fibrosis team, and has driven quite a few patients to tears of joy.”

And while most attention has focused on the initial boost the drug provides in lung function, Murphy said, doctors also are hoping it will decrease the rate of decline in that function by as much or more as earlier drugs. Long-term results, of course, are not yet in.

All adults face a decrease in function after age 30, he said, but it’s typically not enough to cause problems. Cystic fibrosis patients, however, lose lung function about four times faster on average than the typical person.

“They very quickly cut into the lung function they need to live their daily lives, not just to run marathons,” he said.

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Bell has had his own ups and downs with the disease, including a near-death episode in 2016 that prompted his doctor to suggest it was time to consider a lung transplant. He avoided that by focusing on his health, and saw some significant improvements. But he became really ill in mid-2018 after catching a bug.

He got Trikafta a bit before the FDA approved it through a program that offered the therapy to people like himself who at the time had low lung function.

By the two-month mark, his lung function had increased by 19%, the biggest gain he’s ever seen. He’s been using that improvement as a springboard to bolster his physical fitness. He’s been working to push his mile time below 10 minutes, and he plans to train for a cystic fibrosis extreme hike in Colorado next fall. He hasn’t experienced any notable side effects, although he’s seen posts in online groups from some who have.

With his improved energy level, he’s also back to doing more writing. A teaching artist with the Nebraska Writers Collective, he coordinates a program that sends instructors into prisons to teach creative writing and also helps teach a slam poetry class at Omaha’s Central High School. He and his wife, Kristin, celebrated their third anniversary earlier this month.

“I’m happy to be where I’m at now,” he said.

He’s also keeping on top of his cystic fibrosis treatment routine. That includes donning a percussion vest that breaks up mucus in his lungs three times a day for between 30 and 45 minutes. He also uses a nebulizer, a device that turns liquid medications into a mist he inhales.

He encourages other people with cystic fibrosis to do the same. A clinical trial is being launched to determine whether patients can pare back their regimens, but those results aren’t in. He said his fear is that younger patients will decide the disease is cured and drop their treatments.

“I think it’s important for us right now to just stick to our regimen,” he said.


Nicholas Bell said his fear is that younger patients will decide that with the new therapy, cystic fibrosis is cured and drop their treatments. “I think it’s important for us right now to just stick to our regimen,” he said.

Dr. Heather Thomas, director of Children’s cystic fibrosis center, is eager for results of other studies, those testing the drug in children ages 6 to 11.

Kids stand to benefit even more than adults if the therapy can slow the disease’s progression.

“The earlier we can get kids on, the better,” she said. So far, there’s no indication the therapy won’t work in younger children.

Older pediatric patients who got the drug also experienced fewer “pulmonary exacerbations,” meaning they didn’t get sick as often. That would be a huge win for families, Thomas said.

Research also is needed to help the 10% of patients whose disease is caused by different mutations. The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation launched a $500 million campaign in late October intended to accelerate efforts to cure the disease.

Another concern raised after the drug’s approval was whether patients would have access to it, given its price tag of $311,000 a year.

But Murphy said patients have been able to get the drug through insurance and patient assistance programs, typically with a relatively small co-pay. A small minority have been denied, but those denials have been reversed on appeal.

“It’s dramatic, life-changing and, we believe, life-prolonging,” he said. “It’s important to know that it’s not a cure, and that our job as cystic fibrosis providers is still going to be here. But it’s going to be different.”

Bell, the poet, has his own word for it.

“It’s freeing,” he said. “It definitely has been very freeing.”

This report includes material from the Washington Post.

17 rare and unusual health stories out of Omaha