Carson never forgot hometown
By Jenny Welp Journal staff writer
Though Johnny Carson was known for slipping into his hometown of Norfolk, Neb., and leaving before many knew he was there, one does not have to look far to find proof of his generosity.
"Everything from art to education to health - every aspect I think he's touched tremendously," said Don Wisnieski, city council member. "It's not one thing. He's touched every aspect. Everybody in Norfolk has benefited from him in one way, shape or form."
The former host of "The Tonight Show" lived in Norfolk from age 8 until he graduated from high school. However, his connection to the community continued for a lifetime.
American Family Inn
Denny Reeves remembers Carson interviewing celebrities and then relating their comments back to his positive memories growing up in Norfolk. Carson came back to the community for several weeks in the early 1980s for the television special "Johnny Goes Home" about growing up in small-town America -- about Norfolk and the values he learned there.
"It was the best public relations anybody could get," Reeves said.
But Carson gave more to Norfolk than publicity. City Administrator Michael Nolan said it was conservative to estimate that the celebrity donated well over $5 million in the community over the years.
Since a merger in 1996 formed Faith Regional Health Services hospital, Carson donated about $1.5 million -- mostly to the cancer center in honor of his parents. Without that generosity, northeast Nebraska residents would have to drive two additional hours for radiation and medical oncology services, reported Bob Driewer, CEO of the hospital.
Carson also topped off a 1996 campaign for a business and industry training facility by donating $1 million to Northeast Community College. With a gift of that size, the first question is usually how big the donor wants the letters of his or her name on the building, said Dr. Bill Path, community college president. But Path said Carson declined the offer to name the Lifelong Learning Center in his honor.
"He said, 'What you can do is you can name one of the rooms inside the building after my favorite high school teacher," Path said. A room was named after Fay Gordon, the teacher who Carson took the time to visit on her 100th birthday, city residents said.
Carson's generosity touched the community for high profile projects like the high school theater and lesser known ones like repairing the senior center. Nolan said the senior center struggled for years because its roof design and duct work meant the water pipes froze every time there was severely cold weather. But then someone asked Carson to help, and he provided the money to take care of the problem.
"That's just the way he was," Nolan said. "I don't know of any occasion when anyone asked him to help out on a project that he didn't. He was generous to a fault."
For the Elkhorn Valley Museum and Research Center, Carson cleaned out his office and donated almost all of his memorabilia, said Betty Bohac, museum director. She said the exhibit features everything from awards to framed magazine covers to photos of him with celebrities.
Carson did not ask for recognition for his charity, but community members wanted to honor him in some way. The city changed the name of the road where his old house still stands to Johnny Carson Boulevard, and billboards at the main entrances to town say "H-e-e-e-r-e's Norfolk! Proud Hometown of Johnny Carson."
"Everything that he has done for this community has just been overwhelming," said Sue Kaspar-Beckman, city council member. "There is no way we could say thank you enough."
THAT is a worthwhile legacy. God bless Johnny Carson for being real.
Rarely will a democrat donate without fanfare.
I am still of the opinion that Johnny was NOT a lib
or even left of center. His midwest roots indicate
he's one of us, plus his viewing of Fox News Channel.
Add to that his close friendship with David Letterman,
who my daughter insists is a staunch Republican as told
to her by a mutual close friend of DL's.