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OTD stalwart retires after 62 years
September 02, 2010 Jerry Purvis    Jerry Purvis/Gering Citizen

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Oregon Trail Days Committee President Chuck Cowan present Frances Fowler with a picture or an Eagle Rock by local photographer Jim Mathis. Frances is stepping down from 62 years of hosting the Dignitaries Coffee.

Frances Fowler of Gering has helped play hostess to Old Settlers and political dignitaries for the past 62 Oregon Trail Days celebrations, but that came to an end last week.

Frances announced her retirement from organizing and hosting the Dignitaries Coffee, scheduled for the morning of the main parade during Nebraska’s oldest celebration.

Frances said there were no restaurants in Gering during the early celebrations of Oregon Trail Days. So, Della Wood, wife of newspaper publisher Warren Wood and Frances’s aunt, started hosting a luncheon at her home. The luncheon was to honor the Old Settlers President and Vice President and other out-of-town dignitaries who came to Gering for the celebration.

“Governor Val Peterson always stayed with the Woods when he came out here,” Frances said. “Della asked if I’d help her fix lunch and that’s how I got involved.”

Later, with approval from the Oregon Trail Days Committee, Frances started hosting the luncheon in her home. At that time, the Oregon Trail Days main parade was on Friday.

Frances recalled that one year, Warren Wood asked who was invited to the luncheon. She told him she hadn’t invited anyone in particular. “The politicians from Lincoln are coming to see the people, not each other,” he told Frances. So Frances went around and invited neighbors and friends. And over the years, she always emphasized the event was to honor the Old Settlers and their families, which is at the heart of Oregon Trail Days.

By the time the Gering Civic Center opened in 1993, the luncheon had outgrown the available space in Frances’ house. So it became a Saturday morning coffee and moved into the Civic Center. The event, still held to honor the Old Settlers officers, has also attracted all variety of Nebraska politicians, from governors, U.S. Senators and Congress members, Nebraska mayors and state officials.

“The families of the honored Old Settlers keep telling me how appreciative they are for that event,” Frances said. “I’ll always remember the many friends I’ve made over the years.”

And there have been quite a few. Each year, attendees sign the guest register at the coffee. “Looking back, I remember a lot of dear names in there of people who are now gone,” she said. “We just want those things to keep on going through the years because it’s important to the community.”

Frances said she really isn’t retiring. She still wants to stay involved with Oregon Trail Days and help out wherever she can.

After a stop at the dignitaries coffee, a reporter for Nebraska’s largest newspaper wrote, “Unless you’ve been to the coffee, you’ve missed Oregon Trail Days.
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