Enterprise Media earns NPA awards

The Nebraska Press Association released the results of the 2019 annual Better Newspaper contest on June 30.  The Washington County Enterprise, Pilot-Tribune and Arlington Citizen earned 24 first-place awards. The Citizen and Pilot-Tribune were both awarded First Place General Excellence in their circulation divisions.

Personally, I was pleased to earn the First Place Class D Breaking News photo award for “Semi swept into floodwaters” photo,  First and second place photo page awards for Fort Atkinson living history days and Tower of the Four Winds, and first place feature series award for my North-West Adventure travel column series.

Congratulations to all Enterprise Media editorial staff, artists, and design team members for their outstanding work.



Thanks for the memories Don Johnson

Current and retired faculty and staff formed a caravan which included a fire truck and school bus and paraded past the entrance to Feet Calhoun Middle School and High School to honor Dr. Don Johnson on his final before retirement  on Tuesday, July 30, 2020.

Johnson served as Fort Calhoun high school and middle school principal for 20 years and superintendant for 10 years.

Family members and well wishers gathered at the school entrance to watch as the parade of 30 or so vehicles of waving faculty and staff passed by.


News Photographer recollects Dana Closing

Ten years ago this week on June 30, 2010 the Dana Board of Regents and Dana Corporation abruptly announced that the 126 year old Lutheran institution would permanently close.

As photographer for the Enterprise newspaper I had regularly visited the campus to photograph the annual Sights and Sounds of Christmas, picturesque seasonal campus landscapes, and occasional sports, concerts, homecoming and other Dana events. One of my favorite subject for photo compositions was the Little Mermaid that greeted students along the walkway to the Durham Center. I have photographs of that little bronze statue in winter spring and fall from just about every vantage point that you can imagine. The statue was removed after the college closed.

The bronze statue of the Little Mermaid was a gift of Folmer and Vera Nyby in 2005. The statue was removed following the campus closing.

During the days following the closing announcement, I was on campus to document the impact on the students, the faculty and staff and the community.

Mickelsen Hall.
Sculpture and inscription, Mickelsen Hall.

While the news  of the closing came as a  shock, it was not without warning.  Everyone associated with the school thought the campus had been saved when the Board of Regents announced in March that the campus would be sold to a non-profit. The Dana Corporation  had pledged keep Dana’s faculty and programs in place while working to double the enrollment to 1,000 students. Following the announcement of the sale, I was on campus to photograph and report on the reaction of students to the proposal.

Lindsay Fibranz and Brittney Naseman head back to their dorm in March 2010 after learning the college would ge sold to a for-profit corporation.

Students Lindsay Fibranz and Brittney Naseman said they saw the change as a positive one, but they would like more details.  At the meeting they were told that the change would lead to more students, and the old dorms would be fixed up.  “For the future of the school, I think it’s good,” Lindsay said.

While not everyone in the community was comfortable with the idea of the school becoming a for-profit institution, pretty much everyone agreed that it was the best option available.  The transition appeared to be moving along as expected until the  news on June 30, that the plan was rejected and the school would close immediately.

Peggy Neidecker leaves Mickelsen Hall with a box of her personal effects. following the closure announcement.

Over the 2010 Fourth of July weekend I wandered the eerily quiet campus takin photos of campus landmarks.

Administration Building

One week after the announcement, managing editor Doug Barber and I drove to Midland College in Fremont to attend an information session and open house for  prospective former Dana Students. As we walked from the parking lot, I remember two distinct sensations.  The first was that the Midland  campus could not compare to the natural beauty of the Dana campus. The other was that Midland was buzzing with life, energy and activity and Dana was not.

Beau Vest speaks with Dana athletes considering attending Midland. The former Dana wrestling coach was hired to coach at Midland.

That afternoon on the Dana campus, students in search of school options filled the Durham Education Center where more than 50 colleges were represented. Smiling Dana students whom I recognized as former Blair High School students greeted the former Dana students and offered dana@midland tee shirts.  By the beginning of the fall semester nearly half of the former Dana students were attending Midland.

Dana students pick up packets to begin the process of applying to a new school

In addition to leaving Dana faculty and staff without jobs, the school closing left the Danish American Archive Library (DAAL) without a home.  On the following Saturday an army of more than 100 volunteers and a fleet of cars and trucks transported the critical contents of the archive to temporary storage at Professional Forms Inc. in Blair.  The Archive also lost as much as $4,000 in endowment funds held by the college.

Bob Krogh and Sandra Ort Jensen tape a box of documents for transport.

Less than two weeks after the closing announcement and one day before the school was officially closed, the Blair and Dana Community gathered at First Lutheran Church to bid the college farewell.

The Blair and Dana community gathered at First Lutheran Church Sunday evening to bid farewell to Dana College.

On that Sunday evening, members of the Blair and Dana College community  filled the Life Center at First Lutheran Sunday evening to sing, tell stories, pray and just be together in the wake of the closing.  As the service concluded, ushers lit candles  and former chorus members were invited to come forward and lead the gathering in an emotional rendition of Hail Dana.

The following day, Dana College was officially and permanently closed.







May Cruise Night in Blair

If you can drive it, you probably could find it on the streets in downtown Blair on Cruise Night in May.  Another cruise night is planned for July 4 before the fireworks show.

The event, organized by Blair resident Matt Saunders, drew hundreds of cars — both classic and modern — that cruised along Washington Street to South Highway 30 and the roundabout before looping back on the 5.3-mile stretch of road.



Ready to wander

The plastic tiara I am wearing in a photo taken by my daughter announces that I am, “Officially Retired.”  And I am.  -Well sort of.  The tiara was a gag gift from my kids when they unexpectedly showed up at my house to give me a surprise retirement party.

Joe wearing tiara
Joe Burns wears Officially Retired tiara gift.

For more than seventeen years I have worked at the newspaper photographing just about every possible kind of news and feature story that I can imagine. For all of those years I have thoroughly enjoyed being the “photo guy” that shows up to photograph classroom of the week and other school and community events. While I will no longer work regular news beats, I still will be around working on special projects and regularly writing feature columns accompanied by photos from some of my wanderings.  I am hoping this will allow me to travel when and where I want, and still work as a photojournalist when there is an interesting photo opportunity.

My first post-retirement adventure was a short visit to the Niobrara river valley near Valentine.  Over the years I have driven along scenic byways in northwest Nebraska and gawked at the sandhills, but seldom actually left the main highways.  I have been to Valentine a number of times, but generally on my way to somewhere else. This time I was looking forward to leaving the paved highways and get a feel for the timeless beauty of the region.

Early morning fog partially veils trees above Smith Falls at Smith Falls State Park.

My first stop was Smith Falls State Park just 20 miles from Valentine.  I have visited the falls before but never camped in the park. When I arrived on Thursday some camp sites were reserved for the weekend, but most were vacant. The campsites at the park are large and a number are located right on the river – perfect for groups who are planning to canoe, kayak or tube. The restroom facilities are modern style vault toilets and a new bath house is under construction and nearing completion.

Early in the morning I followed the trail to the falls as the sun broke through low fog along the river.  It was a peaceful, quiet and meditative experience.

Sun breaks through morning fog at Smith Falls State Park.

After leaving the campground I drove to the town of  Merriman and to the Bowring Ranch State Historical Park. The ranch has been on my list of Nebraska places to visit for years. Due to Covid-19 the Visitor Center was closed, but the visit was a pleasant diversion and a chance to see what a working sand hills cattle ranch might look like.

Sandhills ranch landscape
Cattle graze in the sandhills at the Bowring State Historical Ranch.

Next I headed west to Gordon, and then south along state highway 21 into the heart of Mari Sandoz country. I have always been a fan of history and historical fiction and visiting the locales where the works are set.  The region between the Niobrara and the Loupe river valleys is the area where Sandoz grew up, and is the setting for her book about her father, Old Jules. About halfway between Gordon and Elsworth there is a turnoff to Mari Sandoz’ grave and a Sandoz family ranch and fruit farm.

My plan had been to continue south to Crescent Lake Wildlife Sanctuary and then on to Ash Hollow State Historical Park. I bumped along winding trails linking sandhill cattle ranches and followed the directional signs to the refuge until I reached a spot where the road was underwater for maybe a hundred yards.  Maybe I could have made it, and then maybe not. I decided to turn around and retrace my path to good old Highway 2.

It was getting late, so I returned to Valentine, and the next day toured Valentine NWR instead.  The area is beautiful, but the water table throughout the sandhills remains high and some of the roads in the Valentine refuge are underwater as well.  I followed the auto tour through much of the refuge and then walked a nature trail to the Civilian Conservation Corps Fire Tower built by the CCC in the 1930’s. During the depression the corpsmen worked in national wildlife refuges, national parks and national forests for $30 a month and part of the pay was sent back to the Corpsmen’s homes. The observation platform at the tower allows a panoramic view of a number of lakes in the refuge.

Valentine NWR landscape
Morning clouds above one of more than a dozen lakes at Valentine NWR.

The trip was a pleasant getaway, and I look forward to going back to Crescent Lake NWR and other sites that I was unable to visit on this short trip.  One of the pleasures I generally look forward to on these getaways is the chance to spend time in local cafes, taverns and restaurants.  This was not possible on this trip due to Covid restrictions.  As in Washington county, many of these local establishments are still closed, or open only for take-out.

Before ending this little travel essay, I want to say thank you to those who have wished me well and also to say that this is not the last time that you will read my byline or see my photo credit.  My relationship with the newspaper is something like that of a substitute teacher who enjoys retirement but also looks forward to getting back in the classroom once in awhile. I have and still do enjoy my role as a community journalist and plan to continue working as a contributing photographer and columnist.  As I facetiously mentioned in a Facebook post, if there is breaking news and managing editor Leeanna Ellis lights the bat signal, I will most likely show up.



April snowfall creates silver-white wonderland


A six inch snow fall late Thursday and early Friday morning created a silver white wonderland in Washington County and the Omaha Metro area.  Early morning light and clearing skies made for a picture perfect walk along paths at Black  Elk – Neihardt Park and Arbor Park Arboretum in Blair.

Winter Band Concert

Blair High School bands presented their annual winter concert in the Lela Neve Auditorium.

Holiday Cheer

The Blair Area Community Band and the Blair Community Choir performed their annual holiday concert  for an appreciative audience in the Lela Neve Auditorium at Blair High school.

Christmas for the Coat

The yearly fundraiser for Joseph’s Coat and the Washington County Food Pantry netted around $34,000.  The Washington County Food Pantry serves 143 families, 366 individual and 12 new families in an average month.

Clearing the shelves to support Blair Bakery owners

The Blair Bakery is usually busy on Saturday morning, but nothing like November 23, when cars began arriving before 4:30 and customers lining the sidewalks waiting for Connie Custard to open up so they could buy out the donuts and cookies to allow  Connie to spend time with her husband Jim.
Jim, a Marine veteran has faced numerous health issues and is in need of constant care.  Many who waited in line and crowded overpaid, asked for no change, or just filled the tip jar.
Connie reaches in display case.
Connie Custard reaches for one of the few remaining filled rolls in her showcase Saturday morning
“This is a good community. I love Blair, Connie told Enterprise Media managing editor Leeanna Ellis, “I’ve been here all my life and it’s one of the best.  It doesn’t matter, when somebody needs it, they’re out to help.”