Sen. George Gerdes

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George Gerdes

Alliance Sen. George Gerdes spent his childhood on the range during the twilight years of the Old West.

Remembered as one of the state's greatest senators, he grew up hearing all sides of American Indian and cattle conflicts. He learned to speak Sioux with the Sioux Indians and, with his gruff voice, became a master at the art of storytelling.

"He was a cowboy, a link to the Old West," said one newspaper article after his death in 1973. He was 74.

The Box Butte County farmer and rancher served as a state senator from 1959-1969, and was a leading force behind most of the major legislative changes of the 1960s.

Gerdes worked to bring improvements to the western parts of the state. He was influential in the development of educational television, which brought public television to otherwise remote regions. He worked for school improvements in northwest Nebraska. He co-sponsored legislation with former Sen. Jules Burbach of Crofton to institute a state sales and income tax for relief from property taxes. His legislative efforts helped convert Fort Robinson into a recreational area and brought improvements to Chadron State Park.

His work also benefited the entire state. He was influential in district reapportionment and creating the Department of Administrative Services, which centralized the state's accounting procedures. He devised long-range building plans for the University of Nebraska. He was known for salvaging other senators' unfinished business and for finding consensus behind the scenes. Fellow legislators called him the "Great Compromiser," and once voted him "most able legislator." Despite his many accomplishments, he avoided seeking public credit for them.

After serving as a state senator, he headed the Nebraska Legislative Council, which at that time was the staffing arm of the Legislature. The World War I veteran also was president of the National Council on State Governments and several wheat growers' associations, a board member of the Nebraska Boys Ranch and a recipient of the NU Builders Award.

Gerdes died working in the fields of the place of his birth, the family ranch in Box Butte County. He is remembered as a true cowboy and a true statesman who brought honor to both of those callings.

Sources: The Lincoln Star, Lincoln Journal, Omaha World-Herald and Nebraska Blue Book.