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Warner family showed Nebraska what public service means

Charlyne Berens

Published Oct. 4, 2023 by the Nebraska Examiner


First, there’s the Jerome and Betty Warner Highway between Lincoln and Nebraska City. Then there’s the Warner Chamber in Nebraska’s State Capitol.


Yes, it’s the same family – a family which, throughout nearly all the 20th century, showed their fellow Nebraskans what it meant to be public servants who could wield significant influence but could also maintain their integrity and principles.


Charles Warner served in the Nebraska House of Representatives from 1901-07, in the state Senate from 1919-37 and in the Unicameral Legislature from 1937-39. Although the majority of the new 41-member body were registered Democrats, Charles Warner, a Republican, was elected the first speaker of the one-house Legislature. That says something about how seriously the legislators were taking the whole “nonpartisan” idea – and also about how much they respected the senator from Waverly.


A farmer who raised prized Hereford cattle and who held both an agriculture degree from the University of Nebraska and a law degree from Columbian College, Charles Warner went on to serve as Nebraska’s lieutenant governor from 1949 until his death in 1955.


While he was influential throughout his legislative career, his most significant legacy probably was his son, Jerome, who took over the family’s Hereford operation and the family’s dedication to public service. Elected to the Unicameral in 1962, Jerome was reelected term after term and served until his death in 1997. He was so highly respected by his colleagues and his constituents and pretty much everyone who knew him that he earned the unofficial title “dean of the Legislature.”


When I interviewed Jerome Warner in the mid-1990s, he told me he learned from his father that politics meant service, not self-aggrandizement. He learned that being a senator meant serving the entire state, not just his own district. He learned not to sacrifice what he believed in just to get elected. He learned that no issue has only one side.


Whether or not Nebraskans today realize it, much of what makes their state work is the result of groundwork laid by Jerome Warner. He was a major force in the state’s remake of its tax system in the late 1960s, pushing especially hard to be sure state aid to schools was included and then following up with legislation in the 1970s that made it even more effective.


He was behind the first state plan for roads and highways, making sure there actually was a plan that would benefit the entire state instead of watching the Legislature allocate funding for individual roads depending on which senator could make the best case for his pet project.


He shepherded the inclusion of the former Kearney State College into the University of Nebraska system. And, as chair of the Appropriations Committee, he brought method and order to the process of allocating money for the myriad projects and programs that the state provides its citizens.


He was known as a good listener and a leader, and his institutional memory was unparalleled. He used those gifts to gently mentor scores of other state senators and other politicians and to give shape to legislative deliberation and decision-making


Jerome Warner also followed in his father’s footsteps by serving a term as speaker of the Legislature. They are the only father-son duo to hold that office.


The soft-spoken, unassuming Warners expected a lot of themselves, and Nebraskans benefited. In response, the state named the stretch of Highway 2 after Jerome and Betty Warner in 1994 and the East Chamber in the Capitol the Warner Chamber in 1998.


Safe to say, the honors are not something the Warners sought. They got elected so they could serve, so they could make their state better and help its people flourish. As Jerome Warner told me, “When you get all said and done, there’s nothing there but that you feel you contributed something.”


Safe to say, the Warners did exactly that.


All photos courtesy of the Nebraska Legislature via the Nebraska Examiner



ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Charlyne Berens, Lincoln, is a professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Journalism and Mass Communications, and has served as an honorary member of the Nonpartisan Nebraska Board of Directors since 2020. She is the author of two books about the Nebraska Unicameral Legislature and of a biography of longtime State Sen. Jerome Warner.


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