Community members are remembering Ken Gnadt, a former mayor of Grand Island, for his commitment to the city and his service that didn’t stop once he left office.
Gnadt passed away Thursday at the age of 85 at CHI Health St. Francis. Services will be at 3 p.m. Monday at St. Pauls Lutheran Church.
He served as mayor of Grand Island from 1994 to 2002, and was known as an endless promoter of the city. During his time as mayor, he helped bring the Nebraska State Fair to Grand Island, started the Grand Island Community Youth Council, and led the establishment of hike and bike trails in the community and the city’s support of the Heartland Events Center. The business improvement district was created during his time along South Locust Street, as well as construction beginning on the South Locust/I-80 interchange.
His accomplishments in office have been praised, as has Gnadt’s passion for Grand Island.
“Ken was always bigger than life. I was obviously very surprised to hear of his passing. He’s always been tremendously supportive and energetic when it came to our community. I think that’s what gave him his constant youth. Ken Gnadt never seemed to grow any older,” said Hall County Supervisor Pam Lancaster.
She said she knew Gnadt for what seems like a lifetime, and called him a man who had a very kind nature and was always supportive of elected officials.
His involvement in the community never seemed to stop.
“He carried a notebook that he’d write all his appointments in. He’d open that thing and there was so much every day and every minute,” said friend Don Deitemeyer.
Gnadt was a good sport, too.
Deitemeyer recalls approaching Mayor Gnadt with the idea of starting a local Groundhog Day celebration.
“I walked into his office and told him I needed him to wear a top hat and talk to the groundhog. He looked at me and said, ‘Now that sounds like a good idea,’” Deitemeyer said.
Gnadt was raised in Kansas and later moved to Grand Island. His election to the mayor’s office was his first time running for a political position. He also served as investment division vice president at Grand Island Trust and Financial Services, and prior to that he was president and general manager of Cargill Taiwan Corp.
Though not originally from this area, he made it his home.
“He was a native son of Kansas, but he sure became Grand Island’s very own,” Deitemeyer said.
Grand Island Chamber of Commerce President Cindy Johnson called Gnadt “Mr. Grand Island,” and praised him for bringing people together to work toward a vision for the city.
Johnson worked as the city clerk/community projects director when Gnadt was mayor. She said he came into the office at a challenging time.
“He was able to restore calm, build teams and consensus and move Grand Island forward,” she said.
He was a mentor and role model to her.
“His approach to challenges, or opportunities as he always called them, was always positive and inclusive. He empowered people. I’ve often said this: If Ken asked me to come with him, I never once questioned where we were going or why. I knew that whatever he had in mind, it was going to be good for the community and something I would want to be a part of. He inspired that level of loyalty and trust. There are not many people who have that ability,” Johnson said.
Gnadt was also a humanitarian. As a member of the Rotary Club of Grand Island, he was passionate about the club’s PolioPlus Campaign, which is a project by Rotary International aimed at ending the scourge of polio around the world. He was instrumental in bringing in Jeff Raikes, chief executive officer of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as a guest speaker at a Rotary Club meeting in 2012. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a major partner with Rotary International in the fight to eliminate polio.
Polio, a crippling and potentially fatal infectious disease, can cause paralysis and sometimes death. Because there is no cure, the best protection is prevention. It was Gnadt’s wish to see polio eradicated in his lifetime.
He was also on an advisory group for Grand Island Public Schools and a supporter of the district.
“This showed not only in his role as mayor and dignitary, but in his presence at school events, activities, sports and fine arts performances through the years. Mr. Gnadt always had a way of finding the positive in a situation and speaking to it, never letting an opportunity for praise go by unshared. He will be missed. We thank you, Mr. Gnadt, for all you’ve done and represented in Grand Island,” GIPS said in a statement.
Mayor Jeremy Jensen said Gnadt truly epitomized service above self.
“He’s not only a former mayor, but really a lifelong ambassador and statesman for our community. You celebrate those rare people who set such a high bar for others to achieve. Ken moved that bar to a level that really only the all-time greats will ever hope to achieve,” Jensen said.
He described Gnadt with the following four words: endless energy and endless enthusiasm.
“I really believe that he woke up every morning thinking what he could do to make Grand Island better,” Jensen said.
Reporters Robert Pore and Austin Koeller contributed to this report.