Belle of the Ball
Thus ran the description of Omaha’s main society event of the mid 1950s, according to Arvid E. Nelson Jr. in his 1967 clothbound tome, “The Ak-Sar-Ben Story: A Seventy-Year History of the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben.”
There was a time, not all that long ago, when attending the annual Aksarben Ball was the highlight of Omaha’s entire social season. The annual event, marked by the crowning of a king and queen to rule over the mythical kingdom of Quivera, commanded pages of in-depth newspaper coverage, and for a time, even warranted being presented live on local television stations.
Successful men basked in recognition for their civic efforts, while women had an opportunity to make their debutante entry into society. It was a glittering gala, where even children participated in the pageantry. Whether princesses, knights, escorts, pages, or standard bearers, countless Omahans have donned the ball’s silken costumes and tailored finery throughout the decades.
Sandra Reding, President of the Aksarben Foundation, said, “The Durham is the archive for all ephemera surrounding the Aksarben Foundation, particularly the Aksarben Ball. One of the curators took us through the collection, and we saw the very first page costume and the very first queen’s ballgown. They hold that history around all of the things that represent Aksarben.”
Included among those things, for example, is an Aksarben Princess dress from 1968 worn by Suzanne Sullivan and designed by Helen Rose, an MGM costume designer who created the wedding gown for Grace Kelly when she became Princess Grace of Monaco in 1956. That kind of extravagant purchase indicates the level of importance Omaha’s glitterati assigned to the event.
The roots of those ephemera lie in the tail end of the 19th century, when civic leaders convened to figure out a way to keep the state fair in Omaha. The state was moving backwards, they fretted, so they spelled Nebraska backwards for their new organization’s namesake. During a discussion on a train, one of the leaders allegedly said, “Why not reverse the name of our beloved state, since everything seems to be going backwards these days? Nebraska hyphenated and spelled backwards is Ak-Sar-Ben.” Another suggested they become “knights,” since they were saving the city. They adopted the name “Quivera” for the mythical city of gold the conquistadors sought.
“Aksarben was a play on words,” Reding said. “They wanted to change the trajectory of the state. The name stuck and was very clever.”
Inspired by Mardi Gras, the leaders envisioned similar festivals, including a capstone event that became the city’s most famous social gala. While the fair eventually moved to Lincoln, then Grand Island, most famously a racetrack and coliseum/arena that operated from the 1920s through the 1990s became the organization’s centerpieces. Both were demolished in the mid 2000s to make way for what is today Aksarben Village.
Since its founding, the organization has awarded over $65 million in scholarships and community grants.
Today, the organization continues to honor its past and beloved traditions but has moved to the future. The annual ball, held at the CHI Health Center rather than the Aksarben Coliseum, is still a night of celebration that honors Nebraska and western Iowa citizens for the philanthropic and civic work to embody the Spirit of Aksarben. In 2017 a king and queen ceased to rule over Quivera. Instead, there are now “Most Honored Citizens,” with Dr. Jeffrey Gold, chancellor of the University of Nebraska Medical Center, garnering the foundation’s top award last year at the 128th annual ball.
Reding is gratified at the foundation’s enduring role in Nebraska. “When you think about it, there aren’t many celebrations, much less organizations, that have been around for over 125 years,” she said.
And while the racetrack has now slipped into the Omaha of yore, the Aksarben Foundation, unlike its backwards namesake, has continued moving forward toward the future with initiatives like the Nebraska Tech Collaborative, a business-led workforce initiative committed to convening leaders from government, education, and not-for-profit organizations across the state to develop, attract, and retain tech-talent and entrepreneurs to Nebraska. It’s about as far away from what the founders could have envisioned in 1895, yet still in keeping with the original mission.
“When you think about what Aksarben is doing today, it’s so similar to what the original group of leaders did,” Reding said. “They’re coming together around issues. That one piece has really remained the same. It’s about leaders coming together to make a difference and make positive impact for the state. It’s about recognizing the people who make a difference in Nebraska for Nebraska.”