At the bottom of Hancock Street, along a winding road hemmed by industrial buildings, where the land is flat and prone to flooding, there sits a sudden testimony to America’s love of the bat and the ball.
The World Baseball Village, complete with playing fields, dormitories and good food, is an oasis of recreation, an escape into good old American wholesomeness for teens across the nation.
It is three years old, and it has struggled to keep its feet.
Indeed, without a helping hand from a legend of Bellevue’s civic life, it might have died aborning.
A few home run lengths from that complex sits the new bridge over the Missouri River, which will give the City of Bellevue an unimpeded link to Interstate 29 and the possibility of vast new development.
There, too, the legend’s shoulder has been much at the wheel, for 20 years pushing and cajoling officials in Lincoln and Des Moines to commit to the project, and then visiting Washington on numerous occasions to make sure the Iowa and Nebraska delegations stayed true to the cause.
It was the same shoulder that pushed hard to ensure construction of the Kennedy Freeway through Bellevue and worked to bring a national veterans cemetery to Sarpy County.
It is the same helping hand that provides Creighton University scholarships to undergraduate students displaying high academic ability, with first consideration given to Native Americans, then students from Bellevue’s two public high schools, then graduates of Bellevue’s Daniel J. Gross Catholic High School, and finally to high school graduates from Dakota County, Neb., whence the benefactor came.
The list is lengthy, beginning with large and visible things like his 18 years on Bellevue’s school board, his 20 years representing Bellevue in the Nebraska Legislature, and his current service with the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties.
And then there is his ongoing service on the board of the Bellevue Housing Authority, his long and active commitment to St. Mary’s Church of Bellevue, not to mention little-known contributions such as his sponsorship of the National Children’s Lewis and Clark Interpretive Art Wall at Haworth Park, volunteer tax preparation work and countless behind-the-scenes kindnesses of whose origins one admirer said their recipients probably will never become aware.
For his lifelong commitment to the children of Bellevue, beginning in 1958 with his service as assistant principal at Bellevue High School and culminating in his vital role saving the World Baseball Village, for his historic role in preparing the city of Bellevue for the new century and for a quiet but encompassing philanthropy, the Bellevue Leader today names D. Paul Hartnett its Person of the Year for 2013.
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Everyone calls him “Paul.” It reflects the ever-present comfort zone he establishes with a shy demeanor that suggests a reluctance to be recognized. A self-deprecating laugh colored with a giggle is something of a calling card for Hartnett, who turned 86 in September.
But behind that easy demeanor, as many testify, resides a sharp mind and a determined spirit.
Sue Crawford calls him “the recruiter in chief,” herself having been recruited by Hartnett to run for his former seat in the Nebraska Legislature.
Successfully ensconced now as one of Bellevue’s two state senators, Crawford said Hartnett, a Democrat, is always on the hunt for people he thinks would serve Bellevue well.
“He’s inviting them, asking them, cajoling them to be on boards, and run for office,” she said. “He’s out there meeting people and bringing them on board to get involved in public service.”
Thankfully, she said, his encouragement does not end on election day.
“He recognizes that in order for people to step into these positions they need mentors and supporters,” she said. “So he’s alongside of you, to help you succeed in that position.”
Dean Jungers, an attorney and himself a fixture of Bellevue’s civic scene, first encountered Hartnett in 1958 when Jungers was a student at Bellevue High School and Harnett, 15 years his senior, was the school’s assistant principal.
They served together as members of the Bellevue School Board in the 1970s.
“His concern there was always about the kids,” Jungers said. “What’s best for the kids. And he had foresight, he was able to look down the road and see what the long-term benefits would be.”
Education has always been Hartnett’s cause.
He was professor of education at Creighton University for 31 years from 1966 to 1997 and left a mark there with the establishment of the D. Paul & Marjorie S. Hartnett Scholarship, which supports Native American students first, and then students from Bellevue high schools.
Steve Scholer, a senior philanthropic advisor at Creighton, said the scholarship is “nicely endowed,” and a reflection of the “very generous” relationship Hartnett and his wife, Marjorie, have always had with the school.
“Great people, really, really nice people,” he said.
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In addition to Hartnett’s commitment to education, and his success helping to lay the groundwork for a 21st century Bellevue, the World Baseball Village has been a significant focus since its founding in 2010.
Doug Hill, the current general manager of the baseball/softball complex, said Hartnett’s moral and financial support kept the village alive when historic Missouri River floods threatened its future.
Hill said a group of investors from Utah in 2009 believed a baseball complex somewhere in the Omaha metropolitan area could succeed by tying itself to the annual NCAA College World Series.
They were also convinced that assembling a group of local investors would help move the development along. Hill, who took an early interest in the proposal, turned to Hartnett.
“Paul saw that this could be a good thing for the community over the long term, and immediately supported it,” Hill said. “He was one of the first to step up to the plate and say, ‘You betcha. I’d like to be involved.’ He was a huge supporter from the very beginning.”
The project fit perfectly on Hartnett’s radar screen, Hill said, combining his lifelong concern for children with an opportunity to boost Bellevue’s economy.
“Paul stepped up to the plate and made some significant financial investments to buy down the Utah group,” Hill said. “He just believes in it totally. He has invested amounts that most people probably would not have because of the risk involved.
“It was all about securing this thing that can be so good for the community.”
Hill said Hartnett’s support made it possible to meet city-backed bond payments and to reduce the Utah interest so the village today truly is a local entity, managed and operated by people who know the local scene, its personalities and its issues.
And like Crawford, who said Hartnett’s support does not end on Election Day, Hill said Hartnett’s involvement in the sports complex goes far beyond the writing of checks.
“He’s involved on a day-to-day basis, trying to make it better, trying to get through the rough waters,” Hill said. “I’ve taken over as general manager, and Paul is with me three, four, five times a week.
“He’s with me many times when I meet with folks, and I want that, because he has a great mind. He sits back and listens, and then he shares his thoughts. And it’s invaluable.”
Hartnett was born Sept. 29, 1927, in Hubbard, Neb., up north near Sioux City, Iowa.
He came to Bellevue 31 years later, having agreed to become assistant principal at Bellevue High School after gaining an educational grounding teaching high school in Brunswick and Hubbard.
He was already seven years into his ongoing 55-year marriage to his wife, Marjorie, who also served as a professor at Creighton University.
His long tenure at Creighton began on Sept. 1, 1966, after earning a doctorate in education from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and is recorded in Creighton’s records with the following notation:
“Dr. Paul Hartnett, principal of Bellevue, Nebraska Junior High School since 1963 will join Creighton Sept. 1 as assistant professor in education.”
Marjorie said her husband has always displayed unbounded energy, beginning with his years as a boxer in high school and college, and time spent coaching high school football.
She has grown accustomed to his activism.
“He still serves on several boards, and he doesn’t just join them,” she said. “He has to be treasurer, or secretary or something like that. He has always had very good health, and that has helped him do so much, but really he just loves people and loves to be involved.”
And then, of course, there is Bellevue.
Bellevue, Marjorie said, along with education and children, has always been her husband’s great cause.
“He really likes Bellevue,” she said. “He worked 20 years with the Iowa delegation on that bridge, and on the Kennedy Freeway, too, and on the veterans cemetery, which he wanted nearer Bellevue but you have to take what the feds give you.”
Those are the big things, made possible by Hartnett’s status as a legislator and chairman of powerful committees.
But Hill likes to focus on the small things, which he said are the true measure of a man.
“Paul always takes the high road,” he said. “I’d be hard pressed to think of a situation where Paul has not taken the high road on people and events as long as I’ve known him.
“That’s his nature, it’s just the kind of guy Paul is. He’s top of my book of people. He and Marge both.”
And a big part of taking the high road is helping people stranded by the wayside.
“There are literally hundreds of people that Paul has helped over the years,” Hill said.
“He knows so many people, and if you mention any kind of hardship you’re having, or trouble, he’ll make a phone call, and nine times out of 10 he’ll get you a good, solid result.
“A lot of times people don’t even know he helped them.
“He’d bump into someone, he’d think of a conversation, and before you knew it somebody was getting help and didn’t even know he was behind it.”