Helen Kenefick

Helen “Hani” Kenefick

Helen “Hani” Kenefick was hands-on in all aspects of her life, whether she was crewing a lobster boat in Maine, working as a master gardener or serving on community boards.

“She developed a love for physical work in her earliest years,” said John Ryan of Portland, Maine, Kenefick’s son. “Her three older brothers had her toting gear and scrambling to keep up with them from the time she could walk. She put her full effort into every endeavor she undertook.”

Kenefick, 93, died Monday in hospice care at her home. A funeral Mass will be celebrated 10:30 a.m. Friday at Sacred Heart Catholic Church at 2207 Wirt St.

Born Helen Perot Walker near Philadelphia, Kenefick grew up as the youngest of four children. She spent every summer of her life on Cliff Island in Maine, where she learned to explore nature and met her first husband, John Ryan.

“Well into her 60s, Mom worked as a crew member on a lobster boat in Maine, hauling and baiting traps,” her son said. “It was a job that was intensely demanding and was mostly performed by people less than half her age.”

She and John Ryan married in 1952 in Philadelphia and moved often as Ryan rose through the Bell Telephone system, becoming a vice president for Northwestern Bell when they came to Omaha in 1960. He died in 1970. She married John Kenefick, then the CEO of Union Pacific Railroad, in 1973.

“They had a wonderful 38-year marriage until my stepfather’s death in 2011,” her son said. “They traveled all over the world, to six continents, after he retired. Mom also made many trips to wild places with members of the Omaha zoo staff.”

Kenefick’s travels often included spontaneous trips with her children, her son said. She thought nothing of piling all four kids in the car and heading off on trips in the western United States, including the Black Hills, the Grand Tetons and the Colorado Rockies.

“Mom also drove back and forth to Maine from Omaha every summer with all of us, two dogs and a cat crammed into the car,” he said.

In Omaha and Maine, Kenefick was an avid gardener. She attained the honor of master gardener as a member of the Loveland Garden Club and served on the board of directors of Lauritzen Gardens.

A longtime supporter of Sacred Heart School in Omaha, Kenefick also served on the boards of St. Joseph’s Hospital and the College of St. Mary and volunteered at the Joslyn Museum.

“Mom was too busy doing things to take time to reflect philosophically,” her son said. “She was a doer.”

In addition to her son, Kenefick is survived by daughters Elizabeth Ryan, Mary Ryan Ferer and Nancy Ryan, all of Omaha; stepdaughter Mary Kenefick Connor of Omaha; eight grandchildren; one great-grandchild; and many nieces and nephews.

Notable Omaha-area deaths of 2018

A look back at some of those from the Omaha area who died in 2018.

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North Omaha cattleman and entrepreneur Herbert C. Rhodes lived a singular life of self-determination, from defeating racial segregation at the Peony Park swimming pool in 1963 and running the half-mile for Omaha University to leading the City of Omaha Human Relations Board and using skills from a long corporate career to create private success.

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Kira Gale was widely known in Nebraska arts and historical circles, most recently for researching and writing about her theory that Meriwether Lewis was assassinated. 

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Smith served as interim chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the early 1980s, when he defended workplace sexual harassment protections against forceful political attack. He later became the dean of Howard University’s law school and authored a seminal book on the history of black lawyers in America.

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“She’s been an amazing advocate for children,” said Benjamin Gray, a review specialist with the Nebraska Foster Care Review Office. “Rosemary helped me to always maintain a perspective of aspiration — to continue to question whether what we were being told was the best the system could do.”

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