LINCOLN — For the first time in its 118-year history, the influential members of the Omaha-based Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben Foundation met Monday in the Capital City.

The private meeting Monday at Lincoln's Lied Center was a way for the civic organization to learn more about the programs and challenges of the University of Nebraska system, according to Jon Burt, president of the Omaha-based foundation.

The 50 members of the Ak-Sar-Ben Board of Governors and His Majesty's Council — a virtual who's who of Omaha business leaders — were scheduled to hear a “state of the university” presentation by University of Nebraska President J.B. Milliken and the chancellors of NU's four campuses.

Milliken is among the 23 members of the Board of Governors, which includes the corporate heads of Peter Kiewit Sons' Inc., HDR, First National Bank and other leading Omaha companies and banks.

Burt, the foundation's president, said Milliken's membership on the board was a key reason the meeting was being held in Lincoln. The current chairwoman of the board, Jane Miller, chief operating officer of Gallup, was born in Lincoln.

The board, Burt added, has established new goals to become engaged in a broader spectrum of community issues and to reach out beyond Omaha.

Burt, a Lincoln native, noted that Gov. Dave Heineman is an honorary Ak-Sar-Ben governor and that three members of the 27-member His Majesty's Council are from Lincoln.

Ak-Sar-Ben (“Nebraska” spelled backward) was founded in 1895 by a group of Omaha business leaders and patterned after the civic groups that stage the Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

For decades, Ak-Sar-Ben was known chiefly for operating the Ak-Sar-Ben Thoroughbred racetrack in Omaha. Its coronation and ball, in which a local business leader is crowned King of Ak-Sar-Ben, remains an annual highlight for the city's business and social elite.

Revenue from gambling on horse races fueled the foundation's philanthropy for years.

Proceeds purchased ambulances for dozens of communities and awarded hundreds of college scholarships.

The racetrack closed in 1995, but the foundation has lived on with the mission “to leverage collective business leadership to build a more prosperous Heartland.”

It still awards dozens of scholarships each year. It provides “Pioneer Farm Family” awards to those who've owned farms and ranches for more than 100 years, gives grant money to community groups and, in conjunction with The World-Herald, hands out “Good Neighbor” awards to Midlanders who perform good deeds.

Besides the annual coronation and ball, the Ak-Sar-Ben Foundation operates the River City Rodeo and Stock Show, scheduled this year from Sept. 26 through 29 in Omaha.

The most recent tax report for the Ak-Sar-Ben Foundation indicated $4.7 million in revenue and $3.8 million in expenses for the year 2011. It listed net assets of $6.5 million, about $400,000 more than in 2010.

World-Herald researcher Sheritha Jones contributed to this report.

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