When Drew Sillman began to show signs of poor vision at age 5, his parents Michael and Cara assumed he needed glasses. If only it were that simple.
Testing uncovered what the underlying problem was — a disease so horrific that it cost the young boy his sight by age 6.
The disease: Juvenile Battens Disease.
The rare but devastating disease mimics symptoms of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), continually attacking its victims throughout their teen years. A clinical trial to combat the disease is months away, but treatment will be costly. And that’s where the communities of Gretna and Hastings enter the picture.
High school and summer softball programs from both communities met in a first-ever NSAA jamboree scrimmage at Smith Softball Complex Saturday to help raise money and awareness of the disease. The event, Batten 4 Drew, included softball played on four diamonds and a free-will barbecue luncheon, with proceeds going to the Sillman family to be used to help offset costs of the experimental trial treatments for Drew and other children battling the disease.
An estimated 600 people turned out on Saturday to pack the complex parking lot, with many of them taking part in the free-will luncheon fundraiser.
The event was the brainchild of Bill Heard, Gretna varsity softball coach, who happens to be friends with Pete Theoharis, Hastings High varsity softball coach. The two teams have players who played against each other in summer ball and are well acquainted with one another.
Heard’s son also plays with Drew’s older brother Colton on a summer team for 10-year-olds coached by Michael Sillman, a former pitcher for the University of Nebraska Husker baseball team who played four seasons in the St. Louis Cardinals organization.
Heard pitched the idea to Theoharis, who in turn, presented it to his team for consideration. The resounding yes from the squad set the wheels in motion for what turned out to be a perfect day for softball and pulled pork sandwiches.
“Wow! (It is) a really good turnout (and) amazing that so many people are learning about Battens Disease and Drew and our story,” Cara Sillman said. “We’re just really excited and thankful that people care that much to help support Drew.”
Accompanied by two friends, Drew spent the better part of the tournament doling out rubber bracelets to supporters that contained such messages as “Juvenile Batten Disease” and “Drew’s Crew.”
A diehard baseball fan, Drew reportedly crushes the ball himself when hitting off a tee playing in the Miracle League for children of all disabilities. On this day, he had little to say as he busied himself collecting bracelets and dog tags to hand out to spectators in the stands.
Situated in covered blue chairs on the first base side of the diamond, Michael Sillman said he and the family were humbled by the tremendous support shown for his son by the event.
“Oh man, incredible!” Michael said. “We’re overwhelmed with the amount of support we’ve received. It’s turned out to be a great day at the park with so many people here in support, and a great game to watch, too!
“Coach Bill and Drew have a pretty special bond. Drew knows Coach Bill’s voice anywhere he’s at, and he’s always listening for it. Bill came to us and said, ‘Hey would you be open to this?’ and we said, ‘Yeah, 100 percent!’ We feel blessed that we had this opportunity and couldn’t really ask for much more.”
Candice Gant, 14, right outfielder on the Hastings Tigers junior varsity team, was one of several players manning the concession stand at the fundraiser barbecue.
“It’s for a good cause,” Gant said. “It feels like I’m doing the right thing.”
Teammate and fellow outfielder Rachel Johnson, 14, said she was glad to lend a hand to help further the search for a cure. She said that in an event like this, everyone takes something positive away from the experience.
“We all learn something from today,” she said. “Giving back is the right thing to do, to help people out in need.”
LINCOLN — A lawmaker who doesn’t believe humans are causing climate change is nevertheless leading a push to ensure Nebraska farmers are better prepared for extreme weather like the blizzards and flooding that hit the state this year.
The Legislature’s Agriculture Committee will look for changes to state law that might help farmers recover more quickly from such storms, which killed livestock and left farmland flooded for weeks. The review comes at the request of the committee’s chairman, Sen. Steve Halloran, a former farmer from Hastings.
“I see this as more about preparedness after the fact,” Halloran said. “The next 500-year storm could happen next year. What tangible lessons can we learn from these most recent storms?”
Halloran believes the climate is changing as part of natural environmental cycles but rejects the census of climate scientists who say it’s indisputably driven by human activity.
Nebraska’s top climatologist has said climate change will lead to longer, hotter summers in the state as well as more frequent flooding from intense rain and snowstorms. Average river and groundwater levels could drop as well, requiring more conservation.
Although he doesn’t believe in manmade climate change, Halloran said he wants state officials to use this year’s extreme weather as a case study to see how agencies such as the Nebraska Department of Agriculture should respond in the future.
Halloran said state officials responded quickly to the farmers hurt by the March floods, but he’d like to know whether agencies could have done anything better. He said he was particularly concerned about disasters that kill huge numbers of cattle or hogs, and how state officials should dispose of the carcasses.
Nebraska Farm Bureau President Steve Nelson said many of his group’s members are concerned about the weather extremes, but they view this year as an anomaly and haven’t drawn a conclusion as to whether it’s part of a longer-term trend.
Nelson said that while his group has held discussions about how to adapt to a changing climate, his member farmers question whether the warmer temperatures are driven by human activity. Most Farm Bureau members are more concerned about rising property taxes and the impact of the U.S. trade war on their bottom lines, he said.
“All of this is happening at a time when we have really tight margins for practically everything farmers and ranchers grow,” Nelson said.
Nelson said his group supports efforts to mitigate future floods and better manage Nebraska’s water supply in drought years. He said he was satisfied with the state’s efforts to rebuild flood-ravaged roads and bridges and to connect them to services they need, but he noted that many farmers are still recovering.
One farm group that has pushed for more renewable energy welcomed the legislative review, saying it’s important to help producers adjust to a less-forgiving climate. For farmers, more extreme weather means greater crop damage, soil erosion and stress on livestock.
“Everybody knows that something’s going on, that things aren’t quite the way they normally are,” said John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union.
Hansen said the changes are particularly concerning for younger farmers who want assurances that they can sustain their operations.
“For them, it’s not a political issue. It’s a reality,” he said.
Some Nebraska lawmakers have pushed unsuccessfully to prepare the state for climate change by creating a formal response plan, but the idea hasn’t gained much traction despite major droughts, flooding and wildfires in the last few years. Lawmakers have created a committee to study the matter but haven’t yet taken significant action.
Nebraska is one of seven Plains states that haven’t drafted such a plan. Across the country, 33 states and the District of Columbia have created such plans since the mid-2000s. They typically call for reductions in greenhouse emissions, a proposal likely to draw opposition from Nebraska’s conservative Legislature.
AYR — When a visitor to his blacksmith demonstration at the 36th annual Platte Valley Antique Machinery Association Antique and Collector Show suggested aloud that wood was for burning in a fireplace and metal for forging creativity, Jerod Dack found he couldn’t sit just idly by and let the comment pass without asserting a sliver of protest.
“Hey now, hey now!” he said with a smile. “Certain wood.”
As a blacksmith hobbyist who often accompanied his father, Stuhr Museum blacksmith Randy Dack, to such events, he was very much in his element as he hammered out sight sticks for a snow plow and horseshoes during his two-hour demonstration Saturday morning at Crystal Lake Recreation Area near Ayr.
What was new to him — though no one observing him at work would likely have noticed — was the gift of gab infused with his presentation for the sake of those who stopped to see him forge steel into usable products.
“I’m not a public speaker,” he said. “That’s kind of Dad’s job. It kind of scares me a bit, but I’m stepping out of my comfort zone a little bit to visit with people and pass on a little of the knowing.”
The weekend event, which kicked off with a tractor drive on Friday, opened Saturday with a pancake breakfast and flag-raising ceremony. Blacksmithing was one of several demonstrations on the weekend agenda, which included a garden tractor pull, antique tractor pull, kids’ pedal tractor pull, live music, tractor and vehicle parades, oldtime farming demonstrations and a Sunday church service.
With temperatures climbing into the 80s, Dack appeared comfortable and unfazed by the rising heat. Accompanied by his eldest son, Ethan, 17, he fielded questions from passers-by as he hammered away at projects with a steady hand and careful eye.
“It’s been a good day,” he said. “I’ve had quite a few gentlemen stop by and talk about their experiences with blacksmiths over the years and some of the tips and tricks of the trade they’ve witnessed. It’s been a good time talking to people.”
A native of Hastings, Dack spent his formative years growing up in Doniphan before settling in Shelton with his wife, Stephanie. The couple has six children.
Though he calls woodworking for C&C Millwork in Grand Island his profession, Dack enjoys dabbling in blacksmithing whenever possible, picking up the hammer for projects a few times each month.
“My passion is to mix wood with traditional ironwork,” he said.
One of his favorite projects is to make miniature horseshoes for veterans deployed overseas. It’s a practice started by his father when Jerod’s older brother deployed to Bosnia in 2002.
“Dad started making miniature horseshoes for all the soldiers that were deploying for luck,” he said. That luck associated with horseshoes is based on an ages-old story involving the devil and a blacksmith named Dunston.
“Legend has it that the devil asked Dunston to make him some shoes to protect his feet,” he said. “Dunston made horseshoes and put them on the devil, throwing the money he was paid back into the fire.
“As the devil leaves, the shoes hurt him more and more as he walks. He finally throws them down a well because they’ve caused him so much pain. Now whenever the devil sees a horseshoe, he turns and runs from it.”
Projects Dack tackles at home range in difficulty from fashioning his own blacksmithing tools to decorative benches, the latter which requires ran investment of more than 500 hours to complete.
Though they are less in demand these days than in previous generations, Dack said he’s still glad to be among the preservationists who keep the art of blacksmithing relevant for future generations to appreciate. To him, it a labor of love worth its weight in metal.
“There’s still a call for it,” he said. It’s definitely a niche that’s kind of unique, but I think when people see you make something and they say, ‘I stood there and watched him make this out of a stick of steel,’ there’s a story that goes with it. People still enjoy a good story and seeing the product finished right before them.”
Though he readily acknowledges the importance of his father’s work, Ethan said he prefers investing his own free time into playing sports and fishing rather than blacksmithing. Nevertheless, he said he welcomed the opportunity to spend some quality time with him.
“It’s pretty cool how you can move metal like that,” he said.
Tony Ourada, 69, of Kearney, worked in metal welding and fabrication for more than 40 years as maintenance engineer at Eaton Corp. Previously an exhibitor at the event, he stopped for the blacksmith exhibition with his grandson, Porter Ourada, 8, of Hastings, in tow to observe Dack at work. Both seemed anxious to share their knowledge and experience of the ages-old art form.
Producing a pocket knife he forged from Damascus steel, the now-retired Ourada was all-too-willing to share multiple examples of his own work with steam engines and steel from the digital photo file in his cellphone.
“I’ve been a metal worker my whole life,” he said. “Metal working is just my thing. When I worked for a living, I did a lot of welding with modern equipment and kind of grew up with it.”
He said demonstrations like Dack’s give the upcoming generation a much-needed history lesson on just how different things were a a few centuries ago.
“People don’t realize how far we’ve come in only 200 years,” he said. “In the old days, when something broke and you couldn’t run to the shop and get a new part, you had to have somebody who knew the secrets of finding a way to put it back together,” he said. “They could forge-weld, or using a hot chisel, pierce holes, make bolts and rivet it back together.
“They would find a way and a means. Some of them were very ingenious in the things they had to do.”
That blacksmithing has diminished in popularity today reflects badly on society as a whole, going well beyond the mere service itself. Rather, its decline is a classic example of independent people have become today, an independence devoid of neighborly love and assistance.
“We’ve got to remember the past,” he said. “It’s going away fast. With technology, everything is electronic anymore, and we’re losing what we built the country out of. Go back a generation and people needed their neighbors. It was necessary to survive: You helped them, they helped you.
“We’re getting away from that. People are now wealthy enough they’re totally independent and don’t need or want anything to do with anybody. They buy their way through life, and there’s no happiness anymore.”
Porter was less philosophical about taking in the show with his grandfather. Also a previous demonstrator of steam engines at the event, he said it was chock full of interesting things to see and do.
“I think this show is really fun,” he said. “There’s all the engines, steam engines, water pump engines, and I like watching them run.
“I like blacksmithing. I’ve done it with my grandpa and my dad, and I really like watching it, too. You can make knives and cool stuff.”
Terra Zuellner, 30, of Campbell, was joined at the laid-back family outing by her husband, Heath, sons Payden and Ryker, and younger brothers, Caleb and Levi Walden.
“We’re just checking it out,” she said of Dack’s blacksmithing station. “It’s something that’s nice to see that they used to do back in the old days and see somebody still doing it. It’s nice to see all the old equipment they used back in the day and see a lot of it running and how it’s still running today.
“I married into a farming family, and my boys love tractors, so that’s a big thing why we came out today. It’s a nice family event.”
For Caleb, the outing brought him up closer to things he typically only gets to see from afar.
“I don’t really get to do stuff that much,” the 12-year-old said. “I always like to watch people do stuff on YouTube and this is much better. It’s awesome to come to these events.”
Joe Hafer, 75 of Blue Hill, is retired from a 50-year career at Flo Serve that included work as a punch operator, welder, and saw operator.It was his fascination with all things metal that drew him to Dack’s station.
“I like to watch and see what he’s making,” he said. “It shows you the old-time way of making stuff.”