School tours of the State Capitol are a rich tradition that fill Nebraska’s most iconic building with life, wonder and awe

By Tyler Dahlgren

The steps on the State Capitol building’s north-side seem to go on forever.

Nebraskans, young and old, have stomped, climbed and trudged that flight since construction of the Capitol, a remarkable feat in its own right, finished in 1932. Once at the top, they all do the same thing, no matter their business in the state’s most iconic structure.

They look up. Four-hundred feet up. All the way to the Golden Sower, an unfaltering figure that lives among the clouds, steady and strong, a testament to the state that sprawls below.

“The building is a symbol of Nebraska, and the building is the seat of the state government,” said Roxanne Smith, supervisor of tourism at the Capitol.

Smith has been guiding school tours since 1987. Nebraska Studies is a part of fourth-grade curriculum across the state, and visits to the Capitol have become both a rich tradition and a journey through time for generations of students.

“It’s a total and immersive experience for the kids, not just looking at it on a screen or reading about it from a book,” said Smith. “They’re in the building. They’re watching people go back and forth. They’re seeing the legislature work. It comes alive. Nebraska and Nebraska history comes alive for them here inside the building.”

Senator Mike Flood can remember that moment vividly. He was a fifth-grader in 1985 when his class rolled down K Street and spilled out of a school bus. Flood was floored by the majesty of the building. For him, the Capitol came to life that day. So, too, did some aspirations.

“For somebody like me that was looking for outlets other than sports, it was more than an educational experience,” Flood said. “It was a chance to see something that every Nebraskan should be proud of. It opened my eyes to the value there is in public service.”

Thirty-six years later, Flood is set to embark on his third term representing District 19 in the Legislature. He still remembers that day, how small his class looked on the north steps in photographs. It defined a large part of his life. He hopes the continued tradition of school tours will do the same for future generations.

“You never know who you may be inspiring to serve in the legislature,” said Flood. “Or to work in state government. Or to be the next governor of Nebraska someday.”

Senator Lynne Walz is no stranger to those steps. Still, the Chair of the Education Committee, a former educator, regularly catches herself in moments of awe.

“Every single day I walk up to the Capitol, look up to the top, and just think to myself ‘I can’t believe I get to do this job,’” Walz said. “It reminds me of what an opportunity I have.”

Right before Walz talked with NCSA, she was visited by a group of fourth-graders. Senators prioritize speaking with touring students, especially the ones from their home district, interactions that have a way of brightening their day.

“Having students in here absolutely brings new breath into the Capitol and reminds you why it’s so important to be here and making decisions for those kids, our future,” Walz, who represents District 15, said. “I talk about why I became a Senator, the ins-and-outs of what I do, how a bill becomes a law, and then I try to detail the process using an example the students convey to me.”

Their suggestion?

“They had an idea to have chocolate ice cream served every day at every school in Nebraska,” Walz laughed. “So we go through that idea and how it’s relayed to me and how I relay it through the Committee and hearings and to the floor. We carry chocolate ice cream being served in school into law.”

Creating those memories early on is an important quest.

“That’s one of the cool things about Nebraska, is that we value things like that,” said Scott Harrington, Principal at Adams Central Junior/Senior High. “It’s a positive field trip that creates such early and positive lasting memories. Our Capitol building is so amazing, the architecture and design. I still remember going as a student and realizing this is where it happens, understanding that local government has such an impact on our lives.”

Teaching government at Norris High School, Harrington made a point of taking his students to the Capitol. He wanted them to be familiar with the uniqueness of Nebraska’s government, to see the openness with which decisions are made.

“Those visits stressed how you can have an impact in the government while being a normal citizen, and the earlier kids come to that realization the better,” Harrington added. “I feel like Nebraska does that really well in comparison to other states.”

For schools, touring the Capitol is a can’t miss opportunity, but the tradition is equally beneficial for lawmakers. While many of their questions will make a Senator or a tour guide chuckle (Does the Governor have a helicopter? Why aren’t the statues wearing clothes? Is it lunch time yet?), some serve as a reminder to why they are where they are.

When a Tyson Foods plant closed in Flood’s district in 2006, Flood remembers a fourth-grader from Norfolk’s Washington Elementary raising his hand and asking “Are you doing anything to try and find jobs for my mom and dad who don’t have jobs right now?”

That question still sticks with him 15 years later.

“It’s easy to find truth in children,” Flood said. “Them being in the Capitol, seeing their eyes light up and talking to them about the opportunities that are out there for them, it’s important for school children to have this experience.

Flood encourages administrators across Nebraska to take advantage of such an excellent opportunity. He can’t stand the idea of having two waves of students that have missed out on such a formative and educational experience.

“I know there’s a lot of activities that administrators can’t replace due to COVID, but my message to superintendents across the state is to prioritize this,” Flood said. “Make sure that each wave of students coming through your school system has visited the Capitol.”

The pandemic made things around the Capitol too quiet, Walz said. They’re ready for the tradition of school tours to resume, revitalized and reinvigorated. After all, there’s so much to explore. So much to learn.

“I hope the students learn the three branches of government, I hope they learn Nebraska history and Native American history and of the little kids in the blizzard of 1888,” said Smith. “These stories make us one group of people with one shared history.”

If only the walls of the Capitol could talk, the clattering of sneakers down its dimly-lit and hauntingly charming corridors is a decades-long story they’d surely tell.

 
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