The story of my ancestors is one filled with wars, bare knuckle brawls and years of hard work.

I am a combination of Danish, Scotch-Irish and Czechoslovakian.  My mother Lizbeth Neely, now Lizbeth Stanek, is of Danish descent.  My father, Michael Stanek, is Scotch-Irish and Czech. The name Stanek derives from the Czech name Stanislav, which was changed at Ellis Island when my father’s ancestors immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s.

Michael Stanek on campus at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Photo by Elizabeth Moran

Michael Stanek on campus at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. / Photo by Elizabeth Moran

My mother’s family, the Neelys, had been in the U.S. more than 200 years before my father’s family. Her ancestors fought in both the American Revolution and the American Civil War, according to my grandfather, David Neely II.

“Neelys can’t seem to escape war,” he said. “When we got out of one, we found ourselves thrust into another one.  I never thought it would happen to me until I found myself in the Navy fighting the Second World War.”

The Neely name was established in the U.S. when the Danish immigrant and banker Henry Neely married Mary Roberts, who was a great-great-granddaughter of “the Savior of the South,” Major General Nathaniel Greene of the Continental Army, according to my uncle, David Neely III.

“Distantly related, for sure,” he said. “The Greene family was large, complex and somewhat scattered by the mid-1800s but related nonetheless.”

In 1850, the Neelys moved to New York, where Henry Neely was promoted to lieutenant in one of the New York regiments of the Union Army.  He later fought in the battle of Gettysburg, where he claimed to have witnessed “true hell on earth,” my grandfather said. After the war, he returned to his career in banking and gave up the life of a soldier.

The Neelys still live in Omaha Nebraska, through the birth of my uncle in 1959 and mother in 1963.

“My father’s grandfather always said that what he saw at Gettysburg was enough to make him want to live in peace for the rest of his life,” my uncle said.  “The Neelys moved to Nebraska, far from any conflict.  It is here that he established himself as a prominent banker.”

Thirst for opportunity

The other side of my family — the Staneks — also found Nebraska welcoming, driven there by a thirst for opportunity and a lack of jobs for new immigrants in Chicago and New York City.

“There’s always been discrimination towards immigrants,” my dad said.  “Their work ethic is strong; this has always been a threat to the job security of natural-born-citizens.”

The Staneks, too, established themselves in Omaha, where Dean Stanek, who would become my great-grandfather, met and married Elsa Burda, also of Czech descent, according to my dad, Michael Stanek.

“One of the hardest workers I have ever met,” my dad said of his grandfather.  “He loved repeating the common saying: ‘Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.’”

Dean and Elsa became the first of their families to have children in America when Elsa gave birth to two children – Jerry and Jean.

Eventually, Jerry met my Barbara Rasser, and in 1968 they had a son, Michael, who would become my father.

Scottish ancestors settle in Nebraska

The Staneks were not my only ancestors to come to Nebraska because of a lack of opportunity.

My grandmother’s side of the family — the Rassers — trace their roots all the way back to the settlers from Scotland and classify themselves as Scotch-Irish.  The Rassers were forced out of New York after several years because of lack of jobs.

Buck Rasser, who would become my great grandfather, was so poor that he made his way to Nebraska on freight cars and earned what little money he had in bare-knuckle boxing.

Buck ended up in Red Cloud, Nebraska, where he started a small farm and where Barbara Rasser, who later became my grandmother, was born.