Kelly: Zoo rejected gift of Union Station, but Durham Museum has done just fine -
Published Saturday, December 7, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 3:43 am
Kelly: Zoo rejected gift of Union Station, but Durham Museum has done just fine

With the dazzling Durham Museum in the old Union Station decked out for Christmas and drawing crowds, could you imagine it ever housing zoo animals?

An idea for zoo exhibits in the old passenger-train station (1931-71) didn't come about, but it once was considered.

Dr. Lee Simmons, former zoo director and now chairman of the Omaha Zoo Foundation, said Union Pacific offered to give the vacant building to the zoo in the early 1970s. Free.

“The main room has that huge, tall ceiling, and I could see a rainforest, an aquarium and a reptile house,” Doc recalled. “I wanted that building so bad I could taste it.”

Then he was shown all the repairs that were needed. The zoo said no thanks. “By the time we finished listing everything,” he said, “it was way more than our annual budget. I like elephants, but not white elephants.”

The City of Omaha accepted the building, but there was eventually talk of tearing it down. A small group of volunteers worked to save it, and donors later provided millions that restored it to beauty.

The nonprofit Durham, affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, also houses an excellent Omaha history museum, as well as rotating exhibits.

With the help of big ideas and big donors, the zoo did OK, too. It eventually built a rainforest, an aquarium and lots more, and now ranks among the world's best zoos.

Anna Green of Omaha requests that women of all denominations and parts of town wear red today and attend a citywide prayer rally against street violence.

The event, which starts at 10 a.m. at Salem Baptist Church, 31st and Lake Streets, will include prayer “for healing for our city and country.”

Omaha and Nebraska apparently remain a mystery to other parts of the country, and I smile when reading how our various high rankings are sometimes reported.

After a listing last month of “best cities for people 35 and under,” an Albuquerque business publication sounded dismayed that its city “was beaten by some unlikely towns, such as Omaha, Neb.”

The Boston Globe, after a report that Beantown had dropped in the ranking for startup companies, wrote: “Even cities in Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri are calling themselves Silicon Prairie, and have been actively recruiting startups and hipsters alike.”

Three other rankings for the Omaha metro area in the past few weeks may have surprised people elsewhere: one of the “top 10 affordable cities for renters;” one of just 19 major markets — out of 102 — where home values have increased in the past five years; and eighth out of 100 metro areas for high-paying jobs.

Hundreds of singers will gather on Dec. 15 for the 39th Annual Omaha Holiday Caroling Festivities.

The tradition was started by Vincent Leinen, who grew up in Dow City, Iowa, and was a student at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He expects as many as 300 people to join in this year, and invites the public to add to that number.

Attendees are asked to meet at 2 p.m. on that Sunday at the Nebraska Skilled Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, 7410 Mercy Road.

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

“We send out caroling squads of 10 to 15 each to different areas,” said Vince, whose career is in business marketing. “The people we visit want to be home. We provide them the magic of music, love and fellowship.”

Leinen lives in Los Angeles but returns each year for the event. Singers also will go to nearby Select Specialty Hospital and Bergan Mercy.

Volunteers don't have to commit to an entire afternoon, and are free to come and go.

Vince organizes another caroling event, now in its 32nd year, in Los Angeles. He has similar events in Tennessee, Florida, Missouri, Arizona and the Iowa towns of Dunlap and Denison.

“I want to have chapters all over the U.S.,” he said, adding that he makes no money from the caroling.

If people are unable to attend the Omaha event, he said, they are encouraged to visit shut-ins or those in other senior centers.

“This simple act of kindness,” he said, “can make a difference and add true meaning for all involved this holiday season.”

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

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

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