In many ways, the road to Celebration of Service winds through all four seasons, over 365 days, which is apt, since it is a celebration of the passage of time.
Once employees have enjoyed the food, conversation and presentations at the annual celebration, Marcy Neeman, a facilitator in human resources, turns her attention to next year’s ceremonies. There are hundreds of staff involved in the execution of the event, but it all starts with careful planning by Neeman.
Neeman began preparations for the 2021 Celebration of Service just days after the 2020 virtual event was finished. This year’s event is 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Nov. 18 in the Coliseum, and is open to all employees.
Neeman starts with building the list of employees who will be honored next. Neeman took over responsibilities for the celebration in 2018. It’s a big job, but she finds the work satisfying and important.
“We honor nearly 1,000 employees each year, and many really look forward to those awards,” Neeman said. “We need to recognize these employees. It’s incredible to me that we have so many people who’ve given so many years of service to the university. The knowledge and skills they have — that’s irreplaceable.”
After running the list, Neeman contacts the vendor, Awards Unlimited in Lincoln, to give them an estimate of each of the type of awards that will be ordered. Since the awards are based on 5-year increments of service, each grouping has its own set of awards to choose from. Once the list has been checked, Neeman works with colleagues in Information Technology Services to prepare email lists, which are sent each spring, notifying employees that they can select their award.
Neeman then spends time in the summer placing the orders and working with vendor representatives to double-check personalized items.
“We order in May, to know if anything is going to be back-ordered,” Neeman said. “It gives us plenty of time. Items also go into production or arrive in the facility with the vendor around July and then they take that time, usually July or August, to get everything ready and prepped.”
Neeman and her colleagues receive the awards, sort them and finalize plans for distribution, which usually happens at Celebration of Service.
In tandem with Neeman’s work is the planning by the Special Events office, led by Annette Wetzel, executive director. Wetzel’s office, and colleagues in University Communication, begin laying the groundwork during the summer months. The planning hits a crescendo just as the fall semester starts. In the weeks and days leading up to the event, content ranging from scripts to videos is produced, food is ordered and prepped by Dining Services and set up is completed by staff from across campus.
With a global pandemic as a backdrop, Wetzel said 2021 and 2020 were years like no other in terms of planning the event. But, as Wetzel noted, the Celebration of Service has gone through many iterations over the decades.
“This is an event that has really evolved,” Wetzel said. “It started a long time ago as a dinner, and then it changed to a luncheon coinciding with the State of the University address. In recent years, it became a stand-alone event, which I think is nice because people can really come together and enjoy being rewarded for their years of service.
“Of course, with COVID, that also changed the event again.”
The event went virtual in 2020, relying more heavily on video, photo and graphic design. This year, organizers decided to make the event hybrid, offering both the in-person open house and lunch to all employees who wish to attend, as well as an online experience. Both will feature the voice of longtime contributor Rick Alloway.
“In many ways, he makes the event,” Wetzel said.
Alloway, associate professor of broadcasting and a 35-year awardee this year, has produced “Milestones and Memories” nearly every year since 1999. The look-back at campus and national history for each of the start years being honored is a fun way to remember life as it was when honored employees were forging their university careers.
Alloway has hundreds of files to look back on now and forms the script from tidbits of past scripts and some new information, and writes one completely new script each year — for the many things that happened five years ago.
“Each year, I have to go back and take a first stab at what happened five years prior because I have nothing to lean on from prior scripts from that standpoint,” Alloway said. “I’ll try to figure out what are some of the things people will go, ‘Oh, sure. I remember that.’ But also, what are some things that they might not remember, or might not have heard of at all?”
Combing the scripts, editing and tweaking them with an ever-evolving historical lens and finding common threads to tie some or many of the years together usually takes Alloway a day or two.
“It’s fun to throw in some information for each year if I can find it, like prices of things — maybe the cost of a Husker football ticket — or who the coach was, or what a gallon of gas cost at that point in time,” he said. “I have a blizzard of stuff to use and the vast majority of my time is sifting through all of it, looking for the connective tissue so that I can weave together a bit of a narrative.”
Alloway looks forward to taking the trip down memory lane with the audience. While his presentation was again recorded on video this year, he’s looking forward to sharing it with a live audience.
“Anybody who writes or produces content loves to have that audience reaction, and I’ve missed that going online,” he said. “It’s enjoyable to hear people laugh or express shock or surprise when you throw out how little a gallon of gas cost 40 years ago.”
Overall, he just wants to add to the recognition of the service employees have given, many he admires as a colleague.
“It’s very heartening to have people reach out afterwards, send you an email and just say, ‘Wow, that was 1965 when I started here, and it really brought back a lot of memories,’” Alloway said. “That’s the whole point — to celebrate time. It’s enjoyable and an honor to be part of the celebration, because I just am so in awe of the people who work here.
“These are people who are extraordinary human beings and have given so much of themselves in their lives for the betterment of this place. It’s truly an honor to share a script with people of that caliber. It’s fun to give these folks a moment of recognition.”