Sunday, December 30, 2012

They Left; Where Did They Go? What Did They Do?

Following the stories of Sutton folks out in the world.

By Jerry Johnson and the Sutton Historical Society

The Sutton High Alumni Directory tells us that our classmates and friends and those of our parents and grandparents have dispersed all over the country and beyond. Ever wonder what they are doing, what those in the past did? Their stories are part of the history of the Sutton community too.

State and town promotions include the famous people who were born, or had a connection to the state or town. Nebraskans take pride in claiming Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, David Jansen, Sandy Dennis, Gordon MacRae and others from the entertainment world. A favorite Omaha trivia question is, “Who gave 18-year old Henry Fonda his acting start at the Omaha Community Playhouse?” The answer of course is Marlon Brando’s mother. Towns create a tourist industry based on the birthplace of a president or movie star or other celebrity. Those connections become part of the local history and heritage.

The cover of a collection of political cartoons from the 1930's
by Herbert Johnson of Sutton

We’ve had recent reminders of our own similar heritage here in Sutton. Madeleine Leininger’s Sutton funeral reminded us of her incredible career as a pioneer in the nursing profession. This 1942 Sutton High graduate created the discipline of transcultural nursing. The archive of her papers (1961-1995) at Wayne State University measures 15.5 linear feet; her name at generates 116 results of her books, collections and related works. She had an influence in the world and as her hometown, Sutton and those of us in Sutton can be proud of her.

The opening production in the newly refurbished Allegro Wolf Arts Center was a performance of the play “The Guys” which in its eleven-year history has become the signature work of the arts to commemorate the 9/11 World Trade Center disaster. After performances of the play, the playwright, Anne Nelson told us of visits as a girl to her grandparents in Sutton. She convinced us that even as a New Yorker who was raised in Stillwater, Oklahoma she feels a special affection for Sutton, Nebraska. Those of us in Sutton can take pride in that connection.

The poster for the movie version of Anne Nelson's play
"The Guys" about a NYFD captain and a journalist one
afternoon in September, 2001. Anne's parents are Sutton
natives and graduates of Sutton High School.
In the earliest days of the Sutton Historical Society we began to collect the stories of past residents of Sutton and others who had some connection with our community.  Some were well-known but many had been forgotten; either their stories had never been told or had faded to obscure references on yellowing newsprint in the news office basement.

We enjoy the story of Walter Wellman, one-time 14-year old Sutton newspaper publisher who became obsessed with hot air balloons and tried to become the first man to the North Pole via his balloon. (See the historical society blog at )

Herbert Johnson was a political cartoonist and drew cover cartoons for the Saturday Evening Post and other publications. Again, see the blog.

Ummo Luebbens, the son of a Sutton banker invented the round baler.

1964 Sutton grad Diane Klein as Diane Jordan, moved to Nashville and began a recording career that is best described by the title of an interview a few years ago: “Almost Famous.” She appeared in a couple of movies including “That’s Country” where she shared billing with quite a lineup of country stars:  

Paula Felps (Burklund), class of ’81 enriched the Open House at the Sutton Museum a few years ago with a book signing featuring a few of her works. An internet search today reveals her current work as a writer, editor and among other things, car critic for ladies. Not ordinary cars either. Check out for a photo of her in a $480,000 Mercedes McLaren. Anyone else here ever driven that car?

We’ve revived a few sports stories. Johnny Bender was a star halfback at the University of Nebraska for five pre-NCAA years before coaching and naming sports teams such as the St. Louis Billikens, K-State Wildcats and Houston Cougars. His story is at our blog.

A few years ago I fielded a call from the NFL Historian (yes, he said it was a real job) who was working on a web site listing the 1,000 oldest living pro football players: He had traced the Oregon State star and late 1930’s pro Morris Kohler to Sutton, Nebraska and asked if I knew when he had died. I stammered a bit then said, “I could give you his phone number.” I called the Kohler home to warn them before calling the historian back. We soon learned that Morrie was #14 on that list of 1,000 old pros. We were able to revive Morrie Kohler’s football story here in Sutton while he could still enjoy the recognition, again.

Incidentally, two Nebraska-connected fellows were ahead of Morrie on that list: Tippy Dye, the genius who hired Bob Devaney in 1962 and Bill Glasford, NU coach 1949-1955 who still holds down third position on the list of 1,000 at age 98.

Soldiers have brought distinction to our town. We’ve written about the two Medal of Honor winners, Jacob Volz and Orion Howe a number of times – again, see the historical society blog. About a dozen Sutton area men perished in World War II including Marine Merritt Walton who received the Navy Cross entitling his family to see a Navy ship named after him. The destroyer U. S. S. Walton thus is likely the only warship with such a Sutton connection. Nebraska’s southwest Asian war fatalities including Sutton’s own Sgt. 1st Class Tarango-Griess are recognized at the Fallen Heroes Marsh southwest of town.
The Navy Destroyer USS Walton (DE-361) named for Marine Sgt. Merritt
Walton killed August 7, 1942 on Gavutu Island in the Solomon Islands.
Sutton newspapers identified Walton as the first Sutton man to be lost
in World War II.

Ted Wenzlaff from the class of 1921 had a distinguished military career but he also made a great contribution to the understanding of the history of the Germans from Russia. His nephew Jim Griess continues to extend that work.

There are lesser, but still interesting connections between our community and history in general. One hundred years ago Wisconsin Senator Robert “Fighting Bob” LaFollette visited Sutton during his brief run at the Republican nomination for president. Fighting Bob made his connection with Sutton by reminding them that his brother had once lived in Sutton.

Others from Sutton have made contributions to the business world, the arts, education – the list goes on and on. Knowing where our “ex-pats” went and what they’ve done is interesting and worth knowing. Taking pride in someone else’s accomplishments is a sincere way to honor that work.

Members of the Sutton Historical Society consider it part of our mission to collect and preserve these stories that are a part of the community’s history and making them available to be enjoyed by all.

Do you have any nominees who belong on this list? If so, let us know. Better yet, join us in our efforts to build the list. The historical society meets the first Tuesday of the month at 7:30 PM, generally at the Historic House at 309 N. Way Ave. And we have a pancake breakfast at the American Legion the first Saturday of each month from 7:30 – 10:30. Stop in for breakfast, coffee or “just visiting.”  Call 773-0222 for information.

This article first appeared in the October, 2012 issue of Sutton Life Magazine. Contact Mustang, Inc. for more information:  or  510 West Cedar, Sutton, NE 68979 or 402-984-4203.

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