He was a 12-year-old boy on summer vacation. So, like any kid would, Dennis Riesselman groaned when his mother woke him at the crack of dawn on June 30, 1954, in Butte, Nebraska.
They drove just south of town, joining about 40 or 50 others at the top of a tall hill. There, staring due east through darkened glass, Riesselman watched the moon slowly blot out the rising sun.
It was a sight that wouldn’t be visible again in the Cornhusker State for more than 60 years. And even though he couldn’t have cared less when he woke that morning, Riesselman, now 75 and living in Omaha, remembers it sharply after all this time.
“It just got completely dark,” he said recently.
Riesselman has found himself sharing his story with family and friends as another total solar eclipse approaches on Aug. 21. That day, onlookers in a 70-mile-wide swath, stretching from the western end of the state to the east, will be able to see the moon fully eclipse the sun.
Last time, things were a little different.
The path of the 1954 eclipse extended 8,000 miles from the U.S. through Canada, the North Atlantic and Eastern Europe before concluding in India. But it began in a small patch of northeastern Nebraska, visible in its totality only from a handful of small towns such as Butte, Atkinson and O’Neill.
It began in the early morning. Days before the event, The World-Herald predicted that Omaha would see a “black sunrise” with 96 percent of the sun obscured at 5:05 a.m.
In coverage that wouldn’t look out of place today, the newspaper warned readers against staring at the sun without eye protection. It advised viewers to watch the eclipse through “heavily smoked glass, welder’s glasses or strongly exposed photographic film.”
Newspapers advised amateur photographers to use deep filters and listed recommendations of prime viewing locations. In Omaha, the newspaper suggested North 72nd Street “near the North Omaha Airport, one of the highest spots in Douglas County; hills in Hummel Park or near the top of a downtown office building,” such as the City National Bank Building (also called the Orpheum Tower).
So Omahans scoped out their spots and made their preparations. And when the big morning arrived, well ...
“Hundreds of Omahans who went to high points to watch were disappointed,” The World-Herald reported in its June 30, 1954, evening edition. “Clouds left over from a thunder shower covered most of the eastern sky.”
Those who had chosen points in north Omaha saw the partially obscured sun for about a minute, the newspaper said, before it disappeared behind the clouds. A photo from the day shows a group of people staring at an ordinary-looking overcast sky.
It was a similar situation in Lincoln, according to the Lincoln Star. Maybe that’s why Joe Workman, who was 12 at the time and appears in a Star archive photo with friends photographing the eclipse, has such a hazy memory of it.
“I’m not sure I remember it at all,” said Workman, now 75. Though, after thinking awhile, he does recall a vague memory of making his own pinhole projector.
Later this month, Workman and his family plan to make the trip west to view the coming eclipse within the path of totality.
“I thought maybe it’d be once in a lifetime, but maybe it’s twice in a lifetime for him,” said Workman’s wife, Tina.
The view of the 1954 eclipse was far better for those who made the journey north. The World-Herald reported that several Omahans traveled to O’Neill or towns in Minnesota to see the event in all its glory.
That morning, newspapers reported, the sun rose partially obscured.
“The sky was clear as a bell when the first rays of the sun peeked over the horizon,” reported the Holt County Independent. “Within a few minutes the sky became darker until the sun was totally covered. A faint circle of light could be seen around the edges of the sun.”
The streetlights in O’Neill, each controlled by an “electric eye,” flickered back on for a quick moment as the sky darkened. At about 5:06 a.m., the moon was centered on the sun.
The following day, the Frontier, another Holt County newspaper, described a lively celestial scene: “The eclipse, however, did not bring total darkness. The sun’s corona or halo appeared outside the shadow of the moon, and around the rim of the sun were red, jet-like tongues of incandescent hydrogen gas.”
As quick as it began, it was over. And Nebraska’s last total solar eclipse became just another memory, forgotten by many, preserved in scant photographs and yellowing newsprint.
But when he looks back on it, Riesselman is glad his mother woke him up that morning in Butte. He feels lucky, he said, to have seen such a rare event. After this month, Nebraska won’t see a total solar eclipse again until May 3, 2106.
So Riesselman and his family are making the most of the experience. They’re heading south, just across the state’s Missouri border, to watch the eclipse with friends. He’s looking forward to it. After all, he already knows what to expect.
“It’s awe inspiring,” he said. “It really is.”
Photos: Nebraskans wowed by eclipses through the years
For more news on the upcoming solar eclipse, visit Omaha.com/eclipse.