They blazed their own trails. Some led the way for others to follow. The 12 women earned their spots in a special exhibit at Omaha’s Durham Museum that runs through July 13.
“Women in Omaha: A Biographical Sketch Through History” includes women who created the world’s largest furniture store, became the first female train engineer and a leader for transgender military members.
The exhibit is a collaboration between Durham, University of Nebraska at Omaha’s history department and the Service Learning Academy. UNO students worked to identify, interview and present the information regarding each woman. The project was overseen by Dr. Elaine Nelson from UNO, who is also the executive director of the Western History Association.
The 12 women highlighted in the exhibit are:
Rose Blumkin – aka Mrs. B. – created Nebraska Furniture Mart in 1937 after she and her husband operated a small secondhand clothing store. She emigrated to the United States in 1914. The Blumkins settled in Omaha in 1917.
Mrs. B was known for offering quality products at a fair price. She and her family ran the company until she sold it to Berkshire Hathaway, owned by Omahan Warren Buffett, in 1983. Mrs. B passed away in 1998 at the age of 104. Her family continues to manage the store.
Edwina Justus worked for Union Pacific Railroad for 22 years, starting as a clerk. She was promoted to train engineer in 1976, moving to North Platte for the position. She became the first African American woman to work as an engineer. The trailblazer later campaigned to become North Platte’s mayor.
Margaret Suchy grew up in a poor South Omaha family. She is noted for being an example of growth women experienced during the 1960s and ‘70s. It wasn’t common for women to work outside the home when she started working at various companies. Married in 1979, she and her husband divorced five years later. Her life eventually saw her move to west Omaha, so during her life she grew from poverty to living in newer areas of the city, as well as the economic and social changes the city experienced.
Omaha elite and culture
Sarah Joslyn and her husband George arrived in Omaha from Vermont in 1880. They completed their mansion – dubbed Joslyn Castle because its resemblance to one – in 1903. The couple were known for their support of charities. Sarah continued her community-focused drive following her husband’s death in 1916. Sarah’s best-remembered donation may be Joslyn Museum, which was created as a memorial to her husband.
Octa Keen was raised on the Uma”Ha” (Omaha) reservation in Macy, Nebraska. Following her career as a nurse, she has dedicated her time for revitalizing and preserving the tribe’s native language.
Kimi Takechi, 100 years old, is part of a family with an interesting history. The Takechis – her husband’s name was Kaz – moved to Omaha in the early 1900s. However, following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the family moved back to Idaho until after the war. Once back in Omaha, the family eventually opened a downtown jewelry store.
Takechi has been involved with the community for decades. She played a major role in creating a sister city program between Omaha and Shizuoka, Japan, more than 50 years ago.
Civil rights advocates
Linda Garcia-Perez work as an artist celebrates the Hispanic community in the Omaha area. She works to preserve art for the Latino culture through overseeing and donating works. Her work can be described as folk and contemporary styles.
Raised in a racially-mixed neighborhood, Omaha native Ella Jean Rogers thought the discrimination she experienced as a child was “just the way it was.” But, as an adult, she fought for equality, including marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The family has remained longtime members of their church.
Rita Melgares is an attorney who has worked for the rights and protections of the Latino community. The Colorado native relocated to Omaha, where she went on to complete her law degree. She represented one of her brothers against charges including sending mail bombs to the government. Following a mistrial, he was freed. Melgares went on to work for Legal Aid and other groups.
Cleo Moore grew up in Omaha during the Depression. She studied graphic arts during college, which was considered a male-dominant field. She went on to work as an artist for Gordman’s and Brandeis department stores before starting her own business.
Jacqueline St. John’s work as a professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha led her down an interesting path. During the late 1960s, she was one of a few women teaching Soviet history. She later fought colleagues to create a women’s history course at UNO. St. John went on to start Omaha’s chapter for the National Organization of Women.
Ashleigh Buch spent her youth as a male. She identified as a female early in life. She arrived at Offutt Air Force Base to serve as an instructor for a reconnaissance unit. It was during this time that the staff sergeant started to transition to a female. Serving as a male during work hours, she lived as a woman afterward. As word leaked about her transition, Buch officially came out as transgender to her family and commander.
Buch, an Iowa native, began to completely transition to a woman in 2016. Support for her as the first openly transgender airman at Offutt has been good, according to the exhibit.
The “Women in Omaha” exhibit offers an outstanding look at the different paths women have taken through the city’s history and the accomplishments they’ve achieved. The exhibit serves as a positive example of successful women. We recommend visiting the special exhibit.
For more information on “Women in Omaha,” as well as other exhibits, please visit www.durhammuseum.org.