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They Left Their Hearts in Nebraska

Times Staff Writer

When hundreds of transplanted Nebraskans began to outgrow a small Orange County pub, Danny Kuykendall saw his chance.

His carpet cleaner, a member of Californians for Nebraska, a Southern California group with a century-long presence, had told him about five years ago that the group needed a new hangout. So Kuykendall went to work to lure the expatriates to Danny K’s, his billiard and sports bar in Orange.

He paid hundreds of dollars to have University of Nebraska games beamed in via satellite each week. He put up magazine covers of Nebraska athletes and team banners on an entire wall. And he made sure to open early enough on Saturday mornings during football season when the Huskers began playing.

He’s been rewarded every football game day since, with as many as 200 ex-Nebraskans cheering in his bar.

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“They made a big impact because they’ve been very loyal customers,” Kuykendall said.The nostalgic Nebraskans at Danny K’s are just some of the 1,500 or so who gather at “watch sites” in Huntington Beach, Palm Springs, Hermosa Beach and Santa Monica to watch games during the football season and catch up on what’s new in the Cornhusker State.

But their fanaticism doesn’t end there. Hundreds sign up for the annual “migration,” as they call it, to fly back every year for one game, where the always-sold-out Memorial Stadium with its 75,000 fans becomes the third-largest “city” in Nebraska.

Despite warmer weather and more lucrative jobs in California, many Nebraskans aren’t about to completely let go.

Nebraskans, explained Kent Wiedel, the group’s president, share a heritage, having memories of being raised in a “simpler town in a simpler life.” So for natives, meeting up with other Nebraskans is more like having a “family reunion,” something Trojan or Bruin fans, for example, aren’t as likely to share, he said.

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Also different is that Husker football is common to all Nebraskans, in a state where the game is king and fans drive hundreds of miles to attend. And those fond memories of squeezing through the crush of fans on Saturdays or gathering around the family radio to hear the score, Wiedel said, for many have formed the core of “strong childhood memories.”

“It could be that we went to our first football game with our grandparents, or it was broadcast on the family radio on your family farm,” he said.

Californians for Nebraska traces its roots to an alumni chapter founded in Southern California in 1903, but the organization took its current form and name in 1963 -- and was reborn as a base for football fanatics.

It was in that year that a few couples, brainstorming fundraising ideas for the university, thought of flying former Nebraskans back home for a game and donating profits from the flight to the university. The group decided to charter a Flying Tiger plane to carry about 100 ex-Nebraskans back to Lincoln -- beginning the migration tradition, said Raymond O. Peterson, 86, a retired Santa Ana dentist who left Nebraska, in part because he didn’t want to shovel any more snow.

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Peterson, a former group president, said the trips to Lincoln were a fun chance to bond with other ex-Nebraskans. Natives liked to joke that Nebraskans in the 1960s and early 1970s controlled Los Angeles, noting that Mayor Sam Yorty and Dist. Atty. Evelle Younger -- who sat behind Peterson on one trip -- hailed from Nebraska.

Over the next few years, organizers raised money to have low-wattage radio stations in Southern California broadcast Nebraska games for homesick natives, first broadcasting from Catalina Island and reaching much of the coast.

When one game at Louisiana State University couldn’t be broadcast Sept. 11, 1976, because the game started after the radio station went off the air at 5 p.m., Peterson said, more than 300 fans crammed into a room where a technician rigged speakers to a phone line to hear the game.

The proliferation of satellite TV and rising cost of radio transmissions -- $2,000 per game for an eight- to 12-game season -- scuttled the radio broadcasts for the 2004 season, Wiedel said, to the chagrin of old-timers who had for decades listened to the broadcasts.

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But Wiedel said money raised through earlier raffles and ticket sales to the group’s annual banquet could now go toward other uses.

“You can give $3,000 to a kid to go to school,” he said -- in Nebraska.


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