Former Gov. Ben Nelson donates $500,000 to establish Birdella Nelson Endowment for McCook Public Library

A generous gift from former U.S. Sen. and Nebraska Gov. Ben Nelson will honor his mother’s memory while ensuring his hometown’s public library continues to enhance residents’ knowledge, skills and quality of life.

Nelson’s $500,000 donation kickstarted the Birdella Nelson Endowment for the Library account within McCook Community Foundation Fund (MCFF), an affiliated fund of Nebraska Community Foundation (NCF). Named after Nelson’s mother, the endowment’s payout— expected to exceed $20,000 within its first year—will fund programs, activities and technology to assist the McCook Public Library in achieving a margin of excellence for years to come.

In addition to the endowment, the gift also established plans for the Birdella Nelson Technology Center within the library. Birdella took a young Nelson to get his first library card at the McCook Library, an event of significance that remains poignant more than 70 years later. He vividly recalled watching as Librarian Millicent Slaby dipped a steel pen nib into an inkwell and wrote out his name and library card number.

Without his mother’s teachings and encouragement, Nelson said he may not have seen such success in life. Birdella’s love of reading and writing, as well as her lessons on the importance of tenacity and perseverance, contributed in no small part to his successful Nebraska gubernatorial and U.S. Senate bids.

“I thought it was appropriate to associate my mother with the library and to do it in a novel way,” Nelson said. “Whatever else has happened for me, it was because of the foundation she created in terms of my interest in reading and learning.”

The endowment will be a substantial addition to the library’s future, said McCook Public Library Director Jody Crocker. Currently, the library budgets $3,000 annually for technological upgrades. The increase in funds will open doors for everyone.

“This will be a nice boost for us,” Crocker said. “We have a lot of ideas for the future. We are thrilled and honored that Sen. Nelson chose the library to honor his mother.”

Working with an NCF affiliated fund was an easy decision for Nelson. During his governorship, Nelson gave the go-ahead to Nebraska Rural Development Commission Chair Maxine Moul and Executive Director Don Macke to study the feasibility of launching a statewide community foundation. That study paved the way for NCF, which now serves more than 250 communities in 82 Nebraska counties. Nelson praised the work of community leaders throughout the state for seeing potential, getting involved and ensuring the effort’s success.

Members of MCFF were key in helping Nelson develop the endowment, as were other residents who found common cause in the effort. They all sought the shared goal of enriching the library and, in turn, enriching the community.

“This will benefit McCook and the library for generations,” said Executive Director of the McCook Economic Development Corporation Andy Long. “It’s not a one-time thing. It’s forever.”

Community members believe the endowment will transform the library and offer residents a way to connect to the world at large. The emphasis on technology and adaptation will continue the library’s mission to provide advanced resources to every member of the community.

“As a rural community, technology helps us be part of the global society,” said Mary Dueland, member of the McCook Library Advisory and Library Foundation boards. “It can bring the world into McCook. That’s what’s very exciting about this. To continue to bring people into the library, we need to continue to change the library.”

Nelson expects the endowment to continue the McCook Public Library’s long tradition of inspiring a love for knowledge among learners young and old.

“The internet has changed the way in which people gain their information, but the library is not going out of circulation, as long as it changes with the times,” Nelson said. “Part of our fundamental being is knowledge, and a great deal of knowledge is experienced through reading and technology. To have a first-class library in a community is essential.”

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