During his teaching career, Orville Menard published several books, won the highest awards offered by the University of Nebraska at Omaha and helped found several successful conferences and programs.
But maybe his greatest accomplishment, according to family and friends, was to have a cadre of former students around the country who thought of him like a father, and later a grandfather.
Menard, who taught political science at UNO for nearly 35 years, died Friday. He was 80. He donated his body to science; he asked that no memorial service be held.
Instead, a gathering of friends and family with drinks and Dixieland music, per his request, will be held on the UNO campus today. The event will be at the Thompson Alumni Center from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Darlene Menard, his wife of almost 60 years, said her husband kept in touch with many students decades after they left his classroom, the most prominent of whom is Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
Darlene Menard said she, too, began to look upon them as the couple’s children; the students who moved away often visited with the Menards whenever they came back to Omaha.
Hagel and Menard had been good friends since Hagel returned from Vietnam and took Menard’s class, Hagel said in an interview Monday. When Hagel began teaching at Georgetown University, he called Menard for advice. When Hagel was sworn in as Secretary of Defense, the Menards flew to Washington to see it.
And though their political leanings were very different, Hagel said, he learned a lot about political science — and people — from Menard over the decades.
“There are a lot of smart people in the world, but all of them aren’t necessarily equipped with a certain humanity he had,” Hagel said. “We didn’t agree on all the issues, but I always admired what he had to say and I listened carefully.”
Michael Rice, a 1995 UNO graduate who now works for the Defense Department, bonded with Menard over Rice’s growing love for French culture. The Menards lived in Paris for a few years early in their marriage, and Menard was a founder of UNO’s annual European Studies conference.
Rice kept Menard in mind as he pursued his love for France, visiting often. He sent Menard a baseball cap from a visit to the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle and was surprised this week to see the baseball cap prominently displayed atop Menard’s roll-top desk.
At UNO, Menard was awarded the Chancellor’s Medal in 1988 and the Great Teacher Award in 1971. He also gained local prominence with his 1989 book, Political Bossism in Mid-America, Tom Dennison’s Omaha, 1900-1933.
Menard gave more than 120 presentations in the first-person as Dennison after the book was published, Darlene Menard said, and even dressed in period costume as the crime boss who ran Omaha’s political scene until the mid-1930s.
Menard’s book was reprinted last year with a new name: River City Empire: Tom Dennison’s Omaha. The first run quickly sold out, said Laurie Smith Camp, chief judge for the U.S. District Court’s Nebraska district who wrote the foreword for the new edition.
Camp’s father was the prosecutor in the 1932 federal case against Dennison. She learned a lot about her father and the case from Menard’s three-dimensional treatment of the players.
“I think he was sympathetic to almost all the characters, including Tom Dennison and Billy Nesselhous, who were deeply flawed individuals,” Camp said.
Menard's kindness and willingness to help became a big part of the initial character of UNO, said Tom Gouttierre dean of international studies and programs and director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at UNO.
Menard began as a student at what was then Omaha University, and he was instrumental in the creation of UNO's international studies department, Gouttierre said.
“He's known for his research, but I think the thing for which he will be most remembered was his insatiable interest in working with and commitment to working with students,” Gouttierre said.
“That's the key to any successful institution of education.”