Congressman Jeff Fortenberry

Representing the 1st District of Nebraska

Fort Report: On Being Nebraskan

Mar 6, 2017
Fort Report

For 150 years, Nebraska has held a special place in the history of America. Nebraskans take justifiable pride in the values of hard work, community life, and the proper stewardship of our precious resources. The mystique of the Great Plains, the nobility of the family farm, and the vibrancy of our people create the conditions for “The Good Life.” Our story is one of strength and dignity. That is why I am so proud to celebrate our 150th anniversary.

Some time ago, I attended a groundbreaking ceremony at the National Homestead Monument near Beatrice. The National Park Service personnel who run the Monument were kind enough to invite me to the dedication of the new center. During the event, a young woman from a seventh-generation farm family—and in high school at the time as I recall—gave a beautiful talk about Nebraska values: our connectedness to the land, the deeper meaning of living on the plains, and the ideal of maintaining the continuity of family life.

Her remarks moved me so much that I tossed my own speech aside and spoke off the cuff. I said something like this: “Perhaps it was on a day like today when a settler family came over that hill and looked at the great expanse of the plains before them. Perhaps that day they felt the warm spring sun on their cheeks, they heard the chirp of the western meadowlark in the air, and they watched as the beautiful bluestem prairie grass swayed in the wind. Perhaps it was then that they made a decision: we stay right here. Nebraska will be our home.”

When I finished, I sat down, very proud of myself. Then the next speaker came up, another political figure, and he had this to say: “Well, my family came here because they were horse thieves!” So much for my poetic words. Nebraskans’ colorful history and droll wit were simultaneously captured in that moment.

Nebraska’s official motto is: “Equality Before the Law.” It makes sense, since Nebraska was the first state admitted after the Civil War, a time of great woundedness in our country. However, our unofficial motto is: “Nebraska Nice.” It is true. Nebraskans are generally nice. At the same time, beneath the friendly veneer is an unmistakable, unvarnished realism. Nebraskans have a unique ability to look at a situation and size it up accurately, if often humorously. “Git er dun”—with a nod to my friend Larry the Cable Guy—is an often-used phrase that can be safely attributable to us.

Sometimes Nebraska has been pejoratively described in the popular imagination of our country. First, as the “Great American Desert” because it was thought that nothing would grow here. Today, we have the largest amount of acreage under irrigation in the country. In addition, we are a leader in livestock production and multiple types of commodity production, as well as specialty crops, like popcorn.

Nevertheless, sometimes we are still castigated as “Flyover Country.” I hear that around Congress occasionally. You might even believe that caricature—right up until you come to Nebraska and realize that it is a wonderful place to live, work, and raise a family. Our state is relatively free of congestion, pollution, and crime (including horse thieves). Nebraska routinely has the highest high school graduation rate and lowest unemployment rate in the country.

I am proud to serve in the United States Congress seat once held by William Jennings Bryan, who is arguably the most famous politician in our state’s history. As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of Nebraska’s admission to the United States, I recall Representative Bryan’s words from over 100 years ago. His words are outside of the University of Nebraska football stadium, Memorial Stadium, home of Tom and Nancy Osborne Field. It says this: “Destiny is not a matter of chance, it is a matter of choice.”

And perhaps we can add to that quote the following: “And the choice to be good makes the destiny arrive well.”

Happy Birthday, Nebraska.