Volunteer fights for Industrial Arts Building

Diane Walkowiak wants to save the Industrial Arts Building on the old state fairgrounds. “I can’t do it alone,” she says.

Story and photos by Seanica Reineke

Growing up as a shy, introvert in Spalding, Neb., Diane Walkowiak never imagined she would be a community activist, fighting to save a 97-year-old building.

Now, Walkowiak, 52, calls herself “one concerned citizen who believes in historic preservation.” She plays a leading role in the effort to save the Industrial Arts Building, one of the oldest buildings on the old state fairgrounds in Lincoln.

It’s in danger of being torn down to make way for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Innovation Campus. A federal agency is investigating whether the building can be included on the National Register of Historic Places, which would make it tougher for the university to demolish the building.

The original group working to save the building was Heritage Nebraska, an organization dedicated to advocating for Nebraska’s history.

Heritage Nebraska Executive Director J.L. Schmidt said Walkowiak came to him out of the blue and said she wanted to help raise public awareness about saving the building.

Since her involvement began in January, Walkowiak has created public exposure for the building, which is already on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. In September, the Nebraska State Historic Preservation Board recommended the building be placed on the national register despite opposition from UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman. The federal review, which started last month, should take three to six months.

Schmidt said Walkowiak created a website about the building and lobbied the UNL Board of Regents on her own, as a volunteer.

“It has been phenomenal to watch the passion and tenacity with which she goes about the task,” Schmidt said.

She submitted more than 900 signatures of people who support saving the building and got countless people to send e-mails and letters to university officials.

“Through my website, save-the-IAB.com, and public campaign, I have given Nebraskans a vehicle to express their support for saving the Industrial Arts Building,” Walkowiak said. “Hundreds of people have told me they care about the building, but I can’t force them to act.”

She worries that many people fear speaking out against the university so they give up without trying. That attitude frustrates her. One of her pet peeves is people who complain about something but never do anything to change it.

The building was included in the original master plan for Innovation Campus but was taken out a year ago. When Walkowiak realized the building was endangered, she contacted Schmidt, Perlman and some regents.

Nebraska Innovation Campus will be a place for research, including agricultural-based research, according to a campus overview. Walkowiak thinks the Industrial Arts Building would be a meaningful connection to the new campus by being at its new entrance.

“I think it would be a wonderful segue from our past agricultural research and achievements to our future ones that will take place at Innovation Campus,” she said.

Perlman disagrees that the building is critical to Nebraska’s heritage and doesn’t want it to interfere with the development of the Innovation campus.

“We are preserving the 4-H building, which my guess is has more connection to the fair and agriculture than industrial arts,” Perlman said in an e-mail. But Perlman said he would support private sector investment in preserving the building. He says the old building has some unique architectural features.

The university is required to participate in the federal review of the building because the U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to build a research center on the campus.

For years, Walkowiak said she would go to the state fair not to see the exhibits but to gaze at the Industrial Arts Building.

“I have always loved the fact that the Industrial Arts Building is a unique piece of architecture, what with the archways, contrast between white and the brick and soaring steel trusses,” Walkowiak said.

Feeling the brick walls of the 93,000-square-foot building, Walkowiak explained how the construction of the building in 1913 was a fantastic endeavor for the time. She said for decades it was a grand showcase for agriculture, showing the best Nebraska had to offer.

To her, the people who built it passed it on for this generation and the next generation’s safekeeping.

“We’ve neglected this part of our agricultural heritage that I think we need to preserve,” she said. Though it took her awhile to become involved in community issues, Walkowiak strongly believes it’s important for people to be active advocates.

“If you want things to happen, you have to make them happen,” Walkowiak said.

She didn’t gain confidence in her ability to make a difference until she was in her 30s. She realized she had a talent for speaking after a Toastmasters International meeting, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping others develop communication and leadership skills, in 1986.

Since then, she has tried to use her talents to help society.

Diane Walkowiak hopes to make a difference by saving the Industrial Arts Building.

It’s not the first community issue Walkowiak has been involved in, nor is it her first leadership role. She moved to Lincoln in 1976 to attend UNL. Walkowiak became involved in the Young Democrats organization, was a page in the Nebraska Legislature and also a legislative aide. She makes her living as a freelance writer and speaker.

She is involved in many different groups as a volunteer, including Habitat for Humanity and the University Place Community Organization (UPCO). Two years ago with UPCO, she worked to save a grocery store near her neighborhood.

In five weeks, Walkowiak and other supporters for the store collected 1,000 signatures and got Hy-Vee to introduce a small store concept, now Heartland Pantry, which she says is still doing well and is an important part of the neighborhood. Today, Walkowiak is president of UPCO.

“Some people shy away from being labeled an activist,” she said,” but to me it means being active in your community, society and issues by urging others to be active, which I think is a good thing.”

Walkowiak doesn’t stay involved just because she feels it’s the right thing to do, but also because of her father who died almost three years ago from lung cancer.

He went through chemotherapy, and despite the odds, held on longer than doctors expected. Her father told her “a person’s gotta try, don’t they?”

“Whenever I face an issue where I think something needs to be done, I hear him saying those words,” she said, “and I try my best to make a difference.”

Whenever she gets discouraged, Walkowiak said her father’s words keep her going. She said he lives on in many ways, especially through the stubbornness and perseverance she inherited from him.

“I think my work on this issue is to honor him and the people who came before us,” she said, “the people who built this building and laid the foundation for us.”

The Industrial Arts Building, to Walkowiak, represents a part of agricultural heritage.

“We de-value the contributions and sacrifices of the people before us if we tear this building down.”

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