If you notice one thing about Grace Ault, it’s the gratitude she has for her life in America and its people.
Ault was just 21 when she escaped from then-Communist-controlled Poland. She came to America not knowing the language or anyone here.
Now — 35 years later — Ault is a nurse with a successful career.
And the former North Bend resident said she is grateful to people who helped her become successful, especially Ron and the late Janet Merryweather.
In the early 1980s, Grazyna (Grace) Godala was part of the Solidarity movement in Poland. Solidarity, which began as a non-governmental trade union, became a widespread, non-violent, anti-Communist movement.
Under Communism, people in Poland had no freedom of speech and although they worked hard — had no future, Ault said.
The movement was trying to change that and people like her were working to raise awareness.
“As young people, we were all very active back then,” Ault said.
The Communist government wanted to destroy the pro-democracy movement, however, and began interrogating anyone, sending people to prison.
“Many prisoners were doing hard labor and whether you were a political prisoner or a criminal you were treated the same way,” she said.
Ault said she didn’t have an important role in Solidarity, but learned she could become a government target for persecution.
A policeman warned her to leave the country.
“Please try to get out of Poland, because they will be coming for you,” the man said.
Ault told her father, who helped her arrange an escape by airplane.
“I had no idea at that time that I would not see my family for over six years,” she said.
Ault escaped in September 1981 — about three months before the Communist government imposed Martial Law.
During that time, thousands of soldiers manned the streets of major cities in Poland. A curfew was imposed, telephone lines disconnected, national borders sealed and airports closed.
Thousands of activists were jailed. More than 90 are said to have died.
Ault made it to a refugee camp in Austria, where she spent nine months. After interviews with the American Embassy, Ault learned she had a sponsor in North Bend.
She came to North Bend in 1982. She began working at a lumberyard there, trying to adjust to her new life and learn an unfamiliar language.
It wasn’t easy and at one point, Ault said she was ready to call her father and ask him to help her return to Poland, saying she’d deal with the ramifications.
But local people would help her.
While at the lumberyard, she met two young women, named Taffy and Candy.
Ault said she’s since lost track of these women, but remains thankful for their help and willingness to care for a total stranger from a different country.
“These two ladies took a chance on me and helped me to succeed,” she said. “They were so kind to me despite the language barrier.
“They not only worked with me, but made sure that I received proper medical assistance when I became ill.”
When she injured her hand, they made appointments and drove her to the doctor’s office. They invited her into their homes and included her in their social life, “never hesitating to provide me with car rides whenever there was a need.”
Taffy introduced Ault to the Merryweathers and their daughter, LeeAnn Kingry.
They would become her American parents, mentors and family.
Ault moved in with the Merryweathers.
“By then, I was speaking broken English,” Ault said. “There were certain words I had to literally show them what I meant. They spent a lot of time with me, figuring out what I was trying to say.”
Family members took their time, providing support and helping her assimilate into the American way of life.
They helped her learn the language, too. Jan took Ault to night classes to learn more English.
“She drove me from North Bend to Fremont, because I didn’t have a car,” Ault said.
Ault didn’t have the money to buy a car with cash and didn’t have credit so she couldn’t get a loan. So they co-signed on car loan for her.
She still marvels at that, knowing they would have been responsible had she not paid off the loan.
“LeeAnn allowed me to use her personal car to take the driving test,” Ault added.
Ault started the nursing program at what’s now Midland University, but only finished one semester.
“It was too hard, because of the language barrier,” she said. “I was taking microbiology, which was another language in itself.”
Ault worked at a nursing home for a while, then LeeAnn helped her get a job with ENCOR (Eastern Nebraska Office of Retardation).
While working for that agency, Ault met her husband. They moved to Colorado in 1985. She went to the University of Northern Colorado, graduating with a bachelor’s of science degree in nursing in 1992.
“It was difficult, but I managed to finish the program,” she said.
Ault worked for an occupational medicine clinic, then for workers compensation insurance. She now works for the University of Colorado Health Medical Center of the Rockies in the rehabilitation unit with the prospective payment system.
“We have to follow Medicare regulations when we’re admitting patients to our unit,” she said.
Ault reviews cases, which she takes to a medical director who makes the decisions regarding patient admissions.
It’s a busy job.
Ault and her husband divorced. She raised a niece, who was 16 when she came from Poland, and later graduated with a business finance degree from the University of Northern Colorado.
Her niece is fluent in English and Spanish.
Looking back, Ault remembers when her father was allowed to leave Poland for a visit to the United States in 1987.
Ault took her dad to a grocery store. He took pictures of everything to show people back in Poland, because under Communism store shelves there were practically empty.
Ault said she’s very glad she came to America and doesn’t know what her life would have been like had she not done so.
Coming to America gave her a life that — years ago — she had no idea even existed.
“This is my home,” she said.
Now 57, Ault said she’ll always love the Merryweathers and LeeAnn.
“I would never have achieved my goals and who I am today,” Ault said, “if it had not been for their kindness, love and generosity.”
Later this month Oakland native and longtime journalist Tim Anderson will be honored at the Neihardt Laureate Feast as he receives the Word Sender Award.
The award is given annually to someone who is dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the life and works of Nebraska’s Poet Laureate in Perpetuity, John G. Neihardt.
“The last several years we have been honoring him by honoring other authors and people who have been promoters of Neihardt and perpetuating his legacy,” Nancy Gillis of the Neihardt State Historic Site said. “The name given to Neihardt by the Holy Man Black Elk was word sender, and so we thought it was a fitting name for the award.”
The event will be held in the Swanson Conference Building at Metropolitan Community College Fort Omaha Campus, 32nd and Sorensen Parkway, from 5 to 9 pm on Sunday, November 12. Tickets are $100 per person or $1000 for a table of eight; $45 of each ticket is tax deductible.
Anderson spent his life as a journalist and educator, working for the New York Times among other papers, and teaching in the School of Journalism at the University of Nebraska LIncoln.
Now retired, he recently completed a long-time project as Neihardt’s official biographer with “Lonesome Dreamer”, which was published by University of Nebraska Press in 2016.
“I worked on the book for a long time so getting the Word Sender Award is just a really rewarding payoff for all the time and effort I put in,” Anderson said in a phone interview with the Tribune. “I spent two decades thinking about John Neihardt and the book has been out for more than a year and I have spent a bit of time traveling around talking about it and it has been really fun.”
To complete “Lonesome Dreamer,” Anderson poured over thousands of pieces of Neihardt’s published works including over 20 books and 3000 essays and book reviews.
“I also used a lot of his personal letters and I think I travelled to nine different states to find all of those, and those were really the most helpful,” Anderson said. “They told me things that other people didn’t know and gave me insight into what he was thinking as he worked on his various books and poems, and told me about his personal life.”
Since the release of the biography in August of 2016, Anderson has spent time travelling around Nebraska speaking about Neihardt and his work.
“I don’t know if it surprised me, but what I have run into is there is still a considerable number of people who remember having heard him speak or recite poetry,” Anderson said. “They tend to be older people, simply because he died in 1973, but in the 1960s he was in Nebraska and traveled around and talked quite a bit.”
According to Anderson, Neihardt even kicked off one of his speaking tours in Fremont.
“He was getting awards and being honored everywhere, and in 1961 he did a little mini lecture tour of Nebraska and that started in Fremont, at the old Midland College,” he said. “It has been fun, almost every place I have spoken somebody there had a personal story to tell me about their encounter with him, and having heard him speak at their college or in their community and that’s been interesting.”
At the event Anderson will be the keynote speaker which also includes a wine and hors d’oeuvres reception and silent auction followed by a gourmet dinner prepared by the culinary arts students and a live auction.
Music during the reception and silent auction will be provided by Ed Elfers of Wayne State College; emcee will be Paul Hammel from the Omaha World Herald, and the auctioneer will be Dr. Myrv Christopherson, former president of Dana College.
Auction items include tickets to local events, gift baskets, seasonal décor, original artwork, and a number of other unique items including first edition Neihardt works.
“The dinner and the auction, all of that goes into raising funds to operate the Neihardt State Historic Site in Bancroft,” Gillis said. “It is an honor for us to recognize an author like Tim Anderson and his dedication to all things Neihardt.”
While the annual White Light City Film Festival encompasses far more than just viewing movies, the numerous films highlighting several themes and genres is the clear draw of the event, scheduled for Nov. 6 through 12.
On Saturday, Nov. 11, 18 films are being shown inside of Midland University’s Eppley Auditorium, and on Sunday, Nov. 12, an additional eight are being featured at the same location. The films include a wide range of lengths and genres, enabling directors and producers to showcase their skillsets on different platforms, said Stacy Heatherly, president of The Digg Site Productions and commissioner of the Eastern Nebraska Film Office.
“We tried to really open the festival up to screen the creativity of the film maker,” she said during a Friday interview with the Tribune. “When you do that, a lot of times a film maker showcases their talent in a short film, a medium-length film or a feature film. We didn’t want to exclude a project that we thought was really high-quality because of the category of film, so that’s why you see all that variety (in film length).
To view a full list of movies being shows Nov. 11 and 12, people are encouraged to visit www.thediggsite.org, and click on the White Light City Film Festival tab. Individual movie tickets can be purchased online or at the gate for $10 per-movie, or a day-long All Access Pass can be purchased for $30.
Two Sunday films – EMBRACE and YMCA student films – will be shown to the public free of charge. EMBRACE, which focuses on redefining and rewriting the ideals of beauty, is being shown at noon; and YMCA student films are being shown at 1:50 p.m.
“I’m really excited about the student film,” she said. “That’s really a priority to me.”
Heatherly encourages those interested to purchase tickets in advance.
“People can pay at the door, but we recommend that they pay online and register, because last year we sold out on many screenings,” she said. “So if we don’t have the seats we can’t sell the ticket, so they can register early to prevent that.”
One of the beauties of the festival is that the vast majority of the films involve directors, producers or actors with Midwest and Nebraska ties. Heatherly said that for the past 4 ½ years, the prime focus of the Eastern Nebraska Film Office has been to bring opportunities to Nebraska film professionals in conjunction with showcasing the state itself.
In regard to how the films were selected, Heatherly said that she and her cohorts utilized software from “Without a Box.”
“This year we took a new step and we used a program Without a Box, and that is a tool for film makers in film festivals to submit films based off of different categories that we dictate,” Heatherly said. … “They make you fill out the boxes that meet the criteria, and then if it meets that criteria Without a Box allows them to submit their film.”
There will be local representation for Fremont natives during this year’s festival.
Producer, director and screenwriter Kevin McMahon will be showing four films, including: “Military Husband,” “Don’t Text and Walk,” “No Intent,” and “Vain.”
In addition, Fremont residents Joel and Dana Reeves are showing their documentary film, “Things That Go Bump in the Night: The Spooky Pinball Story.” The documentary is takes place in Benton, Wisconsin, a town with a population of a little less than 1,000 people. The story revolves around Charlie Emery, a man with a vision of making his own pinball machines; who was never going to be swayed by people who told him he was made for leaving his secure job of 20 years to pursue his dream.”
The movie is being shown at 10:30 a.m. Saturday.
“Dana and Joel produced their first film for us in our film festival,” Heatherly said. “We are so fortunate to have them move back to Fremont. Joel is from Fremont and they are tech savvy in the website industry, as well as the film industry. Joel worked on our “12 Days of Giving” project as an editor.”
For additional information about the White Light City Film Festival, as well as for a full list of films and showing times, people are encouraged to visit www.thediggsite.org.