Authentic Czech food offerings, accordion dance music, the coronation of queens and celebration of heritage were all staple favorites at the 44th annual South Central Nebraska Czech Festival Saturday at the Hastings Eagles Club.

Embracing Czech and Slavic traditions, the event draws visitors from across the region, Czech and non-Czech alike, to share a meal that evokes fond memories for many who frequent the event each year. Vendors carrying traditional Czech offerings from the old country are always well received, while Czech songs sung by Czech queens prompt a sing-a-long response from those learned enough in the culture to know them.

Alan Krupicka, president of South Central Nebraska Czech Society, said the chapter is one of eight Czech societies across the state celebrating Czech heritage and culture. A resident of Tobias, a village of 110 people located 22 miles southwest of Wilber in the corner of Saline County, he and his wife, Diane, have been commuting 65 miles each way to participate in the festival and monthly society meetings at the Eagle’s Club for 21 years.

“It’s a great bunch of people,” he said. “It’s basically sharing our Czech heritage with music and baked goods and things.”

What makes the food and overall experience so memorable is that most of the presenters are of Czech heritage, Krupicka said. Favorites like kolaches and stew are prepared by society members from recipes that in many instances have been handed down for generations.

“We don’t farm anything out,” he said. “We’ve got a daughter-mother duo that does a fantastic job with the kolaches, houskas and strudels. A husband and wife and their son and daughter-in-law do all the meals: The kraut and the dumplings and pork. They’ve got Bohemian goulash and duck dinners this year.

“All we want to do is promote the food and the music that has been passed on from generation to generation. And the Czech beer!”

Georgia Bishel, 100, and George Janko, 90, both of Hastings, are among the regulars who circulate at the festival each year to share their love of Czech music and heritage with all in attendance. Both were recognized at this year’s festival for their respective contributions through the years, with Janko receiving an award for his lively accordion recitals and Bishel being crowned as honorary queen for her many years of service to the chapter’s royalty since the club’s formation in 1976. A resident of Hastings for more than 50 years, she taught elementary school at Longfellow from 1964-84.

Czech queens past and present joined in the presentation honoring Bishel, presenting her with a sash, flowers and tiara. The surprise nearly brought the unsuspecting honoree to tears.

“I’m speechless, and that’s unusual for me,” she told attendees, her voice trembling with emotion. “I can’t tell you what this means to me. The Czech society and Czech people have been one of my lifelines since I’ve been here. My mother and dad too, although he wasn’t Czech, enjoyed every minute they were with the Czech people, and I want to thank you all for being here and honoring me on this special day.”

Afterward, she reflected on what the presentation meant to her and the importance of sharing her Czech heritage with others.

“I had no idea such would happen,” she said. “It’s overwhelming. My Czech heritage is very important to me.

“Both of my grandparents were born in Czechoslovakia and came here in the late 1800s. Of course, I didn’t get to really know them, but they homesteaded and in their last years lived at Crete, Nebraska, and that’s where I remember seeing them. I can remember my little grandma sitting along the Blue River fishing, and Grandpa would always take us down to the beer hall and get candy for us. Those are my special memories of them.”

Both are buried in a small Bohemian cemetery in Crete.

Through the internet Bishel has managed to connect with distant relatives residing near Prague. She uses email to stay in touch with and mentor area Czech royalty.

“I’m very pleased we have this active group in Hastings,” she said. “I think the important thing is that many people are made aware of the Czech people who settled in Nebraska and the culture and traditions that we carry on.

“The community has been very good in helping to continue our work in our society and having our festival every year. I’m very pleased and thankful about that.”

Pauli Nejezchleb, 54, of Gretna said she attends the festival each year with her father, Jim Nejezchleb, 90. Crowned the society’s Czech queen in 1981, she said she was excited to see Bishel honored for her work with countless area Czech queens, including herself.

“To have Georgia honored is an incredible thing for the society to do,” she said. “She’s done so much work for so many years.”

Nejezchleb said the festival still stirs warm memories she enjoys sharing with her father, who is of 100% Czech heritage.

“It means a lot to me because it means so much to my dad,” she said. “We took a trip in 2012 to the Czech Republic, so it was nice to really experience our Czech heritage. And to come here and see it celebrated by so many people is a real blessing.”

Helen Kohmetscher, 86, of Lawrence said she and her husband, Chester, 92, are drawn to Czech festivals across the state each year by dance. A full-blooded Czech who still speaks the language, she said they enjoy the camaraderie and commonality that defines each festival experience.

“I’m a true Czech,” she said. “It’s my heritage. We love to dance and see the people and the crafts they have to sell. And listening to music.”

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