Kelly: John Y. McCollister gets warm words from Washington — including White House -
Published Saturday, November 9, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 2:15 am
Kelly: John Y. McCollister gets warm words from Washington — including White House

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel brought words from President Barack Obama to the memorial service Friday in Omaha for John Y. McCollister.

“As I was flying out this morning,” Hagel said, “I spoke to the president of the United States, the commander in chief. He knew where I was going, and he asked that I relay his expression of sympathy to the family.”

“The Navy Hymn” was sung at Dundee Presbyterian Church in honor of McCollister's service as a radar officer in the Pacific during World War II. The longtime Omaha businessman, civic leader and three-term congressman died last week at 92.

McCollister was an early mentor for Hagel, a twice-wounded Vietnam veteran. The congressman hired him in 1971 for $200 a month. Hagel didn't have a desk, working instead at a table next to a Coca-Cola machine.

“It was not an auspicious beginning,” Hagel told the congregation. “I would have to move every time anyone wanted a Coke.”

Even after Hagel became a two-term Republican U.S. senator, McCollister kidded him: “Don't forget where you came from, Charles.”

Attendees Friday included many Democrats as well as Republicans. John Y. was remembered as a strong fiscal conservative, but as politically moderate.

In 1961, he served as manager for Democrat James Green's campaign for the nonpartisan job of Omaha mayor, a race that Green narrowly lost.

As an elected Douglas County commissioner, McCollister was close friends with Democratic colleague Jack Cavanaugh. And in 1976 when John Y. lost a race for U.S. Senate that many had expected him to win, he followed his concession speech by going to the victory party for Cavanaugh's son, John, a Democrat elected to McCollister's former seat in Congress.

John Y. McCollister believed strongly in traditional Republican principles. Politicians from both parties today could emulate his moderate approach to dealing with those across the aisle.

Anna Green, the subject of my Oct. 22 column, has set a citywide prayer rally against violence for Dec. 7 — with a goal of 1,000 women dressed in red.

The event will start at 10 a.m. at Salem Baptist Church, 3131 Lake St. Women of all neighborhoods and denominations are invited.

Green, 77, who raised six successful children, marched for voting rights in Alabama in 1965 and attended this summer's 50th anniversary of the civil rights “March on Washington.”

She asks women to wear red as a sign of unity as they pray for an end to bloodshed on the streets.

Speaking of prayer but in a lighter sense: What is the origin of the term “Hail Mary” pass in football?

Ron Kellogg III ignited the state last Saturday with his last-second Hail Mary pass that fell into the arms of Nebraska teammate Jordan Westerkamp for a game-winning touchdown.

The term goes back at least to a Notre Dame game in 1922, but it became more widespread after Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach threw a desperation TD pass in the playoffs on Dec. 28, 1975.

It had looked as if he didn't have a prayer — but it turned out that's exactly what he had. Staubach, a devout Catholic, said that as he heaved the ball, “I closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary.”

The Huskers' “miracle” finish last week caused lots of hearts to palpitate, a reminder of perhaps the most memorable and heart-pounding first paragraph written after a Nebraska victory.

“Calm down, old ticker, and let me write,” World-Herald sports editor Fred Ware typed in 1937. “Just let me say what happened. I can't believe it. No, I can't believe it. But I saw it — I think I saw it — every minute of it — and yet my senses insist that it was all a hallucination.”

Ware was grasping for words — and gasping for breath — in describing Nebraska's 14-9 upset of Minnesota in Lincoln. The Golden Gophers had lost only one game in the four seasons prior to the game.

OWH Columnists
Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.

About 30 Omaha friends gathered Monday night at Creighton Prep in memory of a remarkable alum who overcame polio and enjoyed an Emmy Award-winning career as a writer for television.

Rift Fournier died on Oct. 6 in St. Louis at age 77. Days before that, he had visited Omaha one last time to see his old haunts.

As an athletic 16-year-old in Omaha in the summer of 1952, he was diagnosed with polio during an epidemic and lost the use of his legs. Six weeks later, The World-Herald pictured him in a hospital bed.

For the rest of his life, he used a wheelchair. After graduating from Creighton University, he embarked on a career that included writing for the “Mike Douglas Show” as well as for “Kojak,” “Baretta,” “Charlie's Angels,” “Matlock,” “NYPD Blue” and others.

He consulted on soap operas, wrote commercials, produced documentaries and pioneered the use of 16 mm film and hand-held video cameras. He worked in Spain, Norway and Germany, and said he was proudest of his accomplishments in children's television.

“Rifty,” as friends called him, in recent years taught creative writing and the cultural history of television at Lindenwood University in the St. Louis suburb of St. Charles. Last spring, continuing his pursuit of learning, he received a master's degree in fine arts.

As for his polio, Rift told me in a 2007 interview: “I never felt I was dealt a bad hand. It was my hand, and it was up to me to play it.”

He signed every communication: “Grace and courage.”

The Omaha Irish Cultural Center will honor the memory of President John F. Kennedy at Memorial Park in Omaha at noon on Nov. 22, the 50th anniversary of his assassination.

Spokesman James P. Cavanaugh cited Kennedy's “courage, eloquence and grace,” and said those of Irish ancestry “are proud to claim President Kennedy as one of our own.”

Contact the writer: Michael Kelly    |   402-444-1000

Mike writes three columns a week on a variety of topics.

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