RED CLOUD — Lonnie Knehans, who served Webster County residents in every way from repairing bridges to supervising elections to reading rural water meters over a long career, is being remembered this week in his hometown for his many contributions to the community.
The Red Cloud man, whose career centered on 27 years as county clerk and ended with brief service on the Webster County Board of Commissioners, died Saturday after a brief battle with cancer. He was 71.
Funeral services are 10:30 a.m. today at Zion Lutheran Church in Red Cloud.
In interviews Wednesday afternoon, longtime friends remembered Knehans not only for his paid positions in government service, but also for his volunteer efforts on behalf of community organizations and area youth.
“He cared deeply about the taxpayers and the people of Webster County,” said Webster County Clerk Liz Petsch, who served as Knehans’ deputy in the Clerk’s Office for 27 years and was elected to the position herself in November 2018. “He was very dedicated to his job.”
Knehans, a Republican, was elected in November 2018 to represent District 5 on the County Board of Commissioners. He served on the board through the time of his death.
Knehans grew up in the Red Cloud community and was a lifelong member of Zion Lutheran Church. He and his wife, Brenda, were married in 1976 and operated a plumbing business for several years before Lonnie went to work for the Webster County bridge crew.
He served as the county’s clerk and election commissioner for 27 years before retiring in March 2013, but continued to work as the county’s zoning administrator for some time thereafter. Petsch said Knehans had handled the zoning duties for a time in his capacity as county clerk, then ceded those duties to someone else before accepting them back later as a way to save the county money. He kept up that work after stepping down as clerk.
Petsch said Knehans’ work as zoning administrator included regulatory functions related to proposed construction of the large wind energy development project now operating south of Blue Hill. The development was controversial but had many strong supporters as well as opponents among Webster County citizens.
“Anything that would benefit the county was his goal,” Petsch said of Knehans.
Petsch credited Knehans for his efforts to get Webster County into the Nebraska Intergovernmental Risk Management Agency, a nonprofit, member-owned risk management and self-insurance pool for Nebraska counties, shortly after the group was established in 1988. Today, NIRMA counts 82 of the state’s 93 counties among its members.
“Lonnie was very instrumental in getting Webster County in with that program,” Petsch said. “It was a good thing for the county to be associated with that.”
Knehans also oversaw Webster County elections through many changes in technology and other updates.
“We kept up with all of it,” Petsch said.
Dave Garwood, a Red Cloud lawyer who knew Knehans for many years and went to church with him at Zion Lutheran, said Knehans was a committed member of the congregation, an accommodating and capable county clerk, and a man who kept busy serving the community in one way or the other — in retirement, even working as a rural water district technician for the Lower Republican Natural Resources District, which serves customers along the Repubican River from Franklin to Guide Rock who don’t have a reliable source of domestic or livestock water.
“He was a faithful servant of whatever it was he was doing,” Garwood said, noting that Knehans was known for his honesty.
“He never tried to cheat anybody, or get ahead of anybody, or do anything underhanded,” Garwood said. “He was just Lonnie.”
In his personal time, Knehans enjoyed camping, fishing and shooting sports. He was a member of the Red Cloud Gun Club, taught hunter education courses for the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission, and coached many youth trapshooting teams over the years.
Merle Illian, who lives near Red Cloud, worked for many years as a local official with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Trailblazer Resource Conservation & Development District and today is coordinator of the Twin Valley Weed Management Area. He especially mentioned Knehans’ work with the rural water district, as well as his service to area youth teaching hunter safety.
“He was a heck of a good shot,” said Illian, who shares Knehans’ enthusiasm for outdoor activities. “He could zero in and put three bullets in that target and make it look like it was one shot.”
Illian said Knehans also will be fondly remembered for his efforts on behalf of the Red Cloud Lions Club, an important local organization well known for its pancake feeds, fundraising Colorado peach sales and the annual Street Car Days parade, which the group coordinates.
“He really took it to heart,” Illian said of Knehans’ Lions Club involvement.
Knehans’ survivors include his wife, Brenda; son Chris and wife Amanda of Fredonia, Wisconsin; daughter Kati of Overland Park, Kansas; son Kelsey and fiancée Mariah of Juniata; and six grandchildren.