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FHS senior ready for new challenge in Ivy League

When Fremont High School senior Pierse Gray Coen got the news, she was halfway through her shift as a certified nursing assistant at Nye Pointe.

“I was about three hours into my shift,” she said. “So I snuck into the break room and saw that I had two emails, one from Harvard and one from Yale.”

Both emails, from two of the highest-regarded institutes of higher learning in the world, contained information that could change the course of her life forever.

In a moment of doubt, Gray Coen decided to go ahead and check the Harvard email.

“I just decided to check it, because I thought there was no way I got in,” she said.

But when she clicked on the link to open the email, the message blew her away.

“It said congratulations, and I actually think I dropped my phone,” she said. “I was just so shocked, it was crazy.”

With that email, Gray Coen became one of the 1,900 distinguished high school students across the country to be accepted into Harvard College’s Class of 2022.

While getting accepted to Harvard is an impressive accomplishment for any student, this year it is particularly special considering the school accepted a record-low 4.59 percent of applicants with just 1,962 of 42,749 candidates securing spots, according to the Harvard Crimson.

Along with earning cum laude with distinction honors when she graduates from Fremont High on Saturday, Gray Coen also will take with her to Harvard a bevy of experiences and accolades she has earned through her four years at the local high school.

As a senior, Gray Coen has served as one of three drum majors in the FHS marching band while also performing on stage in multiple theater productions, the school’s one-act play, and serving on the student government.

She is a member of the Fremont High School chapter of the International Thespian Society, National Honor Society and Spanish Honor Society while maintaining a 4.16 grade point average and earning a score of 30 on the ACT.

According Fremont High marching band director Doug Bogatz, Gray Coen’s hard work and dedication to so many different activities is a testament to her ability to persevere through difficult situations.

“Competition brings out the best in Pierse, absolutely it does,” he said. “I know that she will accomplish anything that she sets herself out to. She is just that kind of student and I don’t see that slowing down whatsoever when she gets to Harvard.”

Along with all of that Gray Coen also finds time to work at Nye Pointe as a Certified Nursing Aide, which has helped prepare her as she heads off to the Ivy League to concentrate on her dream of becoming a trauma surgeon.

“At Nye you have such a diverse range of residents, so I have worked with residents who are almost completely independent and I have seen residents in their last stages,” she said. “There are so many opportunities to learn so many things in a nursing home, and it is a really good stepping stone into a medical career.”

For Director of Human Resources for Nye Health Service Marcey Darmento, Gray Coen’s ability to reach her goal of attending an Ivy League university while juggling so many other responsibilities is one of the things that makes her special.

“There isn’t a day that goes by that I am not amazed by the talented people we have on our team,” Darmento said. “We are so incredibly proud of Pierse and how hard she has worked to achieve this extraordinary goal, all while taking exceptional care of the people we serve.”

When Gray Coen departs for Cambridge in the fall, she plans to pursue concentrations in biology and Spanish on a pre-medical track.

While she really became enamored with the medical field after taking an anatomy and physiology class at FHS, becoming a medical doctor is a dream she has always harbored.

“You know how kids are always like, I want to be a doctor or I want to be a lawyer,” she said. “I was one that said I want to be a doctor and it just kind of stuck.”

Gray Coen has already applied to be a part of the Crimson EMS, which is Harvard’s student-run volunteer Emergency Medical Service. If accepted to the program, she will get the opportunity to get her EMT certification and work at Harvard sporting, and other campus events.

Along with all of her academic accolades, Gray Coen also enjoys reading, writing poetry, hiking and spending time outdoors.

When she was in seventh grade, Gray Coen got the opportunity to recite one of her poems, titled “The Woods”, at the State Capitol in Lincoln after she was chosen as a finalist in the Nebraska Writing Project’s statewide Poetry of Place competition.

According to Gray Coen, one of her favorite activities since she got her driver’s license is to take road trips to places she can hike.

“I like to road trip a lot, too, and sometimes I’ll just get in the car and go,” she said.

One of her favorite places to visit is Niobrara State Park.

“I went there a lot as a child and I kind of wanted to revisit that, and when I did I fell in love with it all over again,” she said. “So I’m up there all the time now. It’s really beautiful.”

Although Gray Coen will be far from Niobrara State Park when she heads off for Harvard in the fall, her first week in Massachusetts will offer her the chance to enjoy the beauty of her new home.

“I’m actually doing a freshman pre-orientation program, and it’s actually an outdoors program,” she said. “So we will spend six days hiking, canoeing, camping and stuff like that so it should be a great chance to meet some of my classmates and enjoy some of my favorite things.”

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Community participated in the Big Give

It was after 10 a.m., and Sheri Wilberding was giving a zoology lesson.

Well, sort of.

“Can you say armadillo?” Wilberding asked at group of little children in the daycare center at the Fremont Family YMCA.

Little voices responded in unison.

Reading from the book, “Good Night Gorilla,” Wilberding asked other questions like “Do you think an elephant and a giraffe could fit in your house?” and “What is the monkey doing?”

Wilberding gently corrected an excited little boy who confused a hyena with a porcupine and, before long, she and other Fremont Area United Way representatives were headed to another stop.

The mini storytime at Y-Care was just one of several activities planned during the Fremont Area Big Give on Tuesday.

Again this year, the Fremont Area Community Foundation hosted a 24-hour event designed to raise funds and awareness for nonprofit organizations in Fremont and the greater Dodge County area.

Would-be donors were encouraged to participate in the online fundraising event for 56 Fremont area, non-profit organizations.

As of 5:10 p.m., $300,679 already had been raised as recorded on the website.

Businesses and individuals were busy on Tuesday helping draw attention to nonprofits organizations such as the YMCA in Fremont and the area’s United Way agency.

Shawn Shanahan, FAUW executive director, listened as Wilberding read storybooks including, “Llama, Llama, Gram and Grandpa” to children at Y-Care.

“We’ve had a good time traveling around this morning,” Shanahan said. “The kids are excited to see books, to be read to and to have visitors.”

Shanahan said the United Way was participating in the Big Give by reading in daycare centers across Dodge County.

“What we are asking donors to support today is our Imagination Library, which provides an age-appropriate book to any child in Dodge County — birth to age 5,” Shanahan said.

The Fremont Area United Way funds and sponsors the Imagination Library through which a total of 1,100 books are delivered to children’s homes each month.

Shanahan noted the importance of reading to young children.

“Reading lays the foundation for lifelong success,” Shanahan said. “There’s statistics and data that show kids achieve higher assessment scores during the critical times if they have exposure to reading material at those critical years of birth to age 8.

Shanahan appreciates the Big Give.

“This is an opportunity for donors to give for a great cause of early reading-early learning,” she said.

Donors had the option of making their contributions online or visiting one of several Giving Stations throughout the area.

Volunteers at the stations helped donors make donations with a credit card, electronic check or cash. Personal checks were entered online.

First National Bank in downtown Fremont was one of the giving stations.

There, lead teller Kim Mruz donated to Archbishop Bergan Catholic Schools via a check. Becky Lowery, senior administrative professional, worked with the online process.

“My kids got a good, faith-based education and I want to help other kids be able to have the same opportunity,” Mruz said.

Mruz also appreciates the Big Give.

“It gives people an opportunity to give at a different time than they normally would think about giving,” Mruz said. “It reminds us that all charities need financial assistance. In order to make good things happen, you have to help out.”

Throughout the day, nonprofits celebrated the Big Give in various ways.

Lutheran Family Services Rupert Dunklau Center for Healthy Families in Fremont hosted an open house.

“It was a way to say thanks to everybody who has been so generous in the Fremont and Dodge County area all year long — and give them a chance to see what goes on at the center,” said Kathy O’Hara Brehm, LFS public relations director. “It’s a way of reminding people how important it is that they are contributing to area nonprofits on this day.”

O’Hara Brehm said the center has many programs that address parent and child needs. Behavioral health services are available here as well.

“It addresses an important part of people’s wellness, because mental and physical health are everything we’ve got and LFS is glad to help people strengthen both,” she said.

By listening to Wilberding, children at Y-Care may have strengthened their future reading skills.

And they certainly had the opportunity to think about what will — and what won’t — fit into a house.

Because everybody knows that while an elephant might not fit in your house, a hyena that looks like a porcupine certainly will.

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Candidates vie for District 7 Supervisor seat

Providing much-needed services while being fiscally responsible is on the minds of candidates for the District 7 Dodge County Board of Supervisors seat.

Incumbent James Vaughan faces two challengers — Doug Backens and Kurt Brown — in the May 15 primary election.

This week, all three Republican candidates talked about what they believe is the county’s most pressing issue and how their own work and life experiences help qualify them for the position.

“The biggest thing we’re facing capital expenditure-wise is going to be the first responder radio communications system upgrade,” Vaughan said.

Dodge County needs to upgrade its radio system so it can stay in contact with the City of Fremont, the Nebraska State Patrol and other counties, he said.

Vaughan cited cases in recent times in Iowa where a sheriff’s department was involved in high-speed pursuits across county lines, but the department couldn’t communicate with the State Patrol and or local jurisdictions pursuing suspects.


“We have the same potential disadvantage in communications systems where our local first responders may be in a situation where they can’t talk to other entities who are there on an assistance basis,” Vaughan said.

Such a system can carry a hefty price tag. Vaughan said he was one of the first board members to suggest finding an expert.

Rey Freeman of RFCC, LLC, who is representing the county on the matter, has suggested reducing the size of four new towers, which can still provide quality coverage for less cost.

When considering the most pressing issue, Backens cited the costs of transporting to and housing inmates in Saunders County.


Backens said he’d like to look into having a facility in Dodge County so the money would stay here.

“Obviously, it would be an expense upfront to get the jail going again or build a new one, but in the long term we’d be further ahead,” Backens said.

Backens also said he’d want to make important changes to support the employees and citizens of Dodge County.

Like other candidates, Brown addressed the situation elected officials face in making sure the county provides services in a cost-effective manner.


“People want as many services as they can get, but they don’t want to increase taxes so that’s the fine line that elected officials have to try to follow,” Brown said. “We want to keep taxes down, but still maintain quality services.

“The growth of Fremont that’s going to be occurring because of Costco is going to cause problems as well as the good parts of it and that’s something that’s going to have to be dealt with in the future — and the jail situation and the collaboration with the City of Fremont on where we head with that would be another major issue,” Brown said.

Each of the three candidates pointed to his experience as being an asset.

Backens, who is a lieutenant at the Fremont Fire Department, said he has spent 35 years with the fire service helping people.

At 18 years old, Backens had to get his mom’s signature so he could become a volunteer firefighter — something he did for 10 years.

Backens has spent 25 years as a professional firefighter helping citizens in Fremont and Dodge County.

He also has had a rental business, Backens Enterprises, for 18 years and said he has experience working with budgets.

Backens said he is a good communicator, has leadership skills and is a dedicated, hardworking individual.

A lifelong Fremont resident, Backens belongs to the Fraternal Order of Eagles, Barnard Park Historical Society and Delta Waterfowl organization, the latter of which he said is similar to Ducks Unlimited.

Backens said he has been attending the county board meetings for a year, watching how the board operates and how and where tax dollars are spent.

Brown owns Buck Shoes Stores in Fremont and Omaha. His father, F. Douglas Brown, bought the Fremont store in 1964 — and Kirk became owner in 1986. The Fremont store is situated in the downtown historic district.

“The county is a big business and I’ve been a business owner for over 30 years and so I bring a vast business experience and I’ve also been involved in county government having served as a member of the Dodge County Convention and Visitors Bureau board for over five years so I have experience with county government from that,” Brown said.

Brown cites his volunteerism as well.

“I have vast experience in volunteer work in the community — not only as a volunteer, but as a leader through organizations such as John C. Fremont Days, Mainstreet of Fremont, the Fremont Downtown Business Association and The Presbyterian Church,” Brown said. “I feel I have great business experience and volunteer experience.”

Brown said Gary Osborn, a previously elected supervisor, was a next-door neighbor and good friend.

“We talked about county government during the six years he served on the board and my plan was to run when he retired this year, but he had to move out of Fremont prior to the end of his term,” Brown said. “Now that the election is here, I want to continue in the good work he’s done and the experience he’s given me and he’s endorsed my campaign.”

Vaughan said his job at Valmont Industries has involved being in charge of three different manufacturing sites and having people from different backgrounds report to him. He said that has prepared him well for dealing with people he encounters through the county board.

He cited his experience in attending board meetings.

“I’ve been going to these meetings for probably two years now and obviously a good chunk of that was when I was not actually on the board, but in preparation for a run. I had the background necessary to be able to step right into the role without any learning curve and any disruptions to the functions of Dodge County,” Vaughan said.

Appointed to the board in September 2017, Vaughan said he’d like to continue serving.

Vaughan also noted that he is a seventh-generation resident of Dodge County and being a life-long resident here has given him an admiration for this area and desire to keep it as an awesome place to live.