Historic gift fills growing district with gratitude, excitement

Historic gift fills growing district with gratitude, excitement

By Tyler Dahlgren

You see the lights first.

Travelling west along Highway 2, approaching the outskirts of Lincoln on a Friday night, there they stand, tall and bright, illuminating a white water tower with "Palmyra" painted in red. Beneath those Friday night lights, the Palmyra Panthers battle their way to a 25-22 win, the first of many in the beautiful new stadium.

If you roll down the windows, you can hear the cheers echo through a refreshing September breeze. The pads popping and the whistles blowing. Fans from the Palmyra and Bennet communities, which together make up District OR-1 Schools, fill the new stands and leave very few open spots. In the midst of all the excitement, they almost have to pinch themselves to make sure this is all real.

This complex, a historic gift from the Olson Foundation, has Palmyra buzzing on this Friday night, but at first, it rendered the district speechless.

"This gift is recognized as perhaps the largest to a school district and village in Nebraska history," District OR-1 superintendent Rob Hanger said of the $5.4 million donation, which will additionally fund the construction of a new baseball field, a competition track, walking trail and renovations to the town's softball facility. "It has provided a tremendous boost to the communities of Bennet and Palmyra and will serve the school and communities for years to come."

The Olson Foundation was founded in 1993 by the late Dr. Leland and Dorothy Olson. For the past two decades, the foundation has served local needs in the Omaha and Seattle areas by focusing on grants in education, family, health and wellness, and the environment. Dr. Leland Olson was born in Palmyra in 1920, and, following the death of his father, had decided to leave school to run the family's hardware store.

Palmyra's high school principal and the town mayor at the time devised a plan with Leland's mother which would allow her son to stay in school and attend college. Leland did so, earning a full Regents Scholarship to UNL, where he studied literature before moving on to the University of Nebraska Medical Center and, eventually, his own practice, Midwest OB GYN in Omaha.

The present-day gift to Leland's hometown and high school alma-mater is a result of that investment Palmyra's educational and community leaders made in a young man over 80 years ago.

"We are proud to support the people of Palmyra," Dr. David L. Olson, President of the Olson Foundation, said in a news release when the gift was given last year. "The village helped foster the educational growth of our father."

Nemaha Valley Contruction worked dilligently to have the football stadium ready for the August 30th opener. Hanger said students, staff and the community had been at a "feverish pitch of excitement" for the unveiling of the complex. If these comments on NPSA's recent Facebook post are an indicator, the stadium is as awesome as they had imagined.

Our first tour of new facility, which is complete with a spacious press box and locker rooms for both the visiting and home teams, was the week of the Panthers' first game against Nebraska Lutheran. We arrived mid-morning, greeted by the band marching on the existing field next to the high school. Now, the district has two fields and some flexibility with how each is utilized. Ultimately, students benefit.

"In the past, we did not have a practice field and we were limited to all of our activities for the fall taking place on one field," said Hanger. "The additional space featuring artificial turf will provide an all-weather surface that doubles our practice and playing space, as well as providing opportunities for additional community use."

On game night, the complex comes alive. The band, stationed behind the north corner of the west endzone, provides the pep while fans holler and future Panthers wear their youth jerseys and toss a ball around the concourse near the concession stand. On the field, the Panthers make play after play and pull out a hard-fought victory.


They're the first group of Panthers to play here, and they certainly won't be the last. Tonight is exciting, and, for District OR-1, so is the future.

"With continued student growth, the gift provides a state-of-the-art activities facility for patrons now and many years into the future," said Hanger.

On this Friday night, the clock is winding down.

But under these lights, out on this field, it feels like the Panthers could just play forever.

The neat thing about it?

They just might.