Doppelt Family Rail-Trail Champions Award
Since 2011, the Doppelt Family Rail-Trail Champions Award has honored more than 30 individuals around the nation who have made significant contributions to the rail-trail movement through their hard work, volunteerism or support—in short, people who have gone above and beyond in the name of trails.
Friends. Teammates. Energizer bunnies. And don’t forget tenacious.
These are all words that have been used to describe Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s (RTC’s) 2017 Doppelt Family Rail-Trail Champions, Ross Greathouse, 79, and Lynn Lightner, 83, who have spent nearly four decades developing some of Nebraska’s most treasured pathways.
“With persistence through resistance—Ross as the fundraiser and coordinator, and Lynn as the bridge designer and builder—they’ve blazed trails for a lot of years … donating thousands of volunteer hours,” affirmed Charles Griffith, president of the Nebraska Trails Foundation and executive director of the Merrick Foundation. “And they just keep going. They have had challenges—and they’ve persevered through them all.”
“Stories from the early days of the rail-trail movement are always inspiring. People like Ross Greathouse and Lynn Lightner were truly pioneers—literally fighting to preserve the land and the corridors as trails that millions now consider commonplace,” said Keith Laughlin, RTC president.
What sets Greathouse and Lightner apart, though, is that their volunteerism, their steadfast commitment, their drive to build trails—even under tough circumstances—has never waned, and we have them to thank for miles and miles of rail-trail in Nebraska.
—Jeff Doppelt, the benefactor of the Rail-Trail Champion award
A Strong Foundation
An interior designer (Greathouse) and engineer (Lightner) by trade who have worked on some of Nebraska’s prominent buildings—Lightner served as the chief engineer on the University of Nebraska’s Lied Center for the Performing Arts among many other accolades, and both helped to remodel the Nebraska Coliseum in 1980—the men first became acquainted in the 1970s as members (and later presidents) of the Lincoln Track Club. It was the club’s efforts to support trail building in the city that first introduced them to advocacy and served as a forerunner to 40 years of dedicated volunteer trail work.
In 1984, the same year that the Rock Island Railroad announced the discontinuation of a segment of rail corridor between Omaha and Lincoln, Greathouse and approximately 24 other individuals got together to form the volunteer-based Nebraska Trails Council. Despite their unsuccessful attempt to transform the disused Rock Island corridor into a trail—the council flourished, evolving into the nonprofit Nebraska Trails Foundation, which since its founding in 1986 and with many dedicated trail advocates, has helped create and raise millions of dollars for trails around the state.
A Partnership for the Ages
Both Greathouse and Lightner have served in numerous leadership roles for the foundation over the years, raising funds for Nebraska trails and building bridges, literally and figuratively, as the saying goes.
Griffith credits the team for helping to lay the groundwork for the foundation in its early years and for playing significant roles in the fundraising for, and completion of, most of the trails now supported by NTF. “They built the foundation of the Nebraska Trails Foundation,” he affirmed.
For example—in 1988, the foundation started work on the 21.7-mile MoPac Trail East. Lightner was one of 15 individuals to sign a promissory note for $167,000 to put toward the $275,000 purchase price for the trail, which now spans from Lincoln to Wabash and features some of the rural landscapes and woodlands for which Nebraska is known.
In 1997, Greathouse raised $500,000 to restore—under Lightner’s watch—the 1,714-foot Lied-Platte River Bridge, which crosses the Platte River on a piece of the former Rock Island Line and connects to the 13-mile MoPac Trail through Springfield. The bridge is a linchpin in the plans to one day connect the trail systems of Omaha and Lincoln.
Other trails that have received joint effort by the team include the 8-mile Dark Island Trail from Central City to Marquette, which began in 2000 and now includes one of the longest converted railroad trestles in the state; and the 13-mile Oak Creek Trail which inhabits a rural corridor between Valparaiso and Brainard.
A Landmark—and Lasting Legacy
As a “career” highlight, both men point to the 22.9-mile Chief Standing Bear Trail—launched in the late 1990s by the NTF and completed in 2017—which now spans from Beatrice to the Nebraska-Kansas border. The former Union Pacific railway corridor travels along part of the same route of the 1877 Ponca Trail of Tears, in which 700 Ponca were forced to relocate 500 miles from Niobrara to a barren corner of modern-day Oklahoma. Named after the tribe’s legendary leader, Chief Standing Bear, the trail serves as a lasting landmark for the tribe and its history.
Greathouse and Lightner had the initial idea to name the trail after Chief Standing Bear and put that idea in motion in 2014. Later on, former Lincoln City Councilmember Curt Donaldson would suggest that NTF give the trail to the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, and that’s exactly what they did in a formal transfer of ownership ceremony in May 2017. Today, the Ponca own 19.5 miles of the trail, which is maintained by the Homestead Conservation and Trails Association through an NTF grant.
“It’s one of the best things we’ve ever done, and it will probably be the most lasting,” said Lightner, who also served as the trail’s manager for years after a team helped raise $500,000 to acquire the corridor in 2002. Later, Greathouse would raise an additional $800,000 for the trail’s construction.
Greathouse agrees. “It certainly is a highlight and the culmination of nearly 40 years of our work as trail builders,” he stated.
And though there were challenges—Lightner specifically mentions the early negative sentiments from some adjacent landowners, many of them farmers, who challenged the project—they overcame them with a little help from their early upbringing.
“Both Lynn and I grew up in a very small town. His family owned farmland, and I lived on a ranch in Western Nebraska,” said Greathouse. “So we understand the farmers—the rural mindset. Our ability to deal with them positively and get along was key to completing the long-term project.”
He added, “They are not all with us yet, but things have changed immensely.”
Full Circle: Passion, Motivation, Friendship
To date, Lightner has overseen the construction of 40 trail bridges and some 30 volunteer work crews, and his work extends to Iowa, where he helped raise money and complete a bridge on the Wabash Trace Nature Trail, part of RTC’s national Rail-Trail Hall of Fame. In 2008, he was the recipient of American Trails’ Nebraska “Trail Worker Award” for his outstanding contributions to developing recreational trails in Lincoln.
Greathouse estimates having raised $2.5 million for trails in the past four decades, and has also contributed to the planning of major trails and networks such as: the 219.3-mile Cowboy Trail, which has been decades in the making and will stretch more than 321 miles when complete; and the Quad-State Trail and Missouri Statewide Trails Plan, an extensive trail system in Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri and Iowa.
What’s kept them going all these years?
Active runners and cyclists—Greathouse still competes in Senior Olympic events—both credit the health benefits of trails for themselves, their families and their fellow residents as motivating factors for their efforts. “Hopefully we all have a better life because of trails and the environment they create for our community,” said Greathouse. “Lincoln is a great community in many ways, and trails and parks are extremely important to our city’s quality of life.”
But it’s the strong, enduring friendship forged 40 years ago that is arguably the true driving force.
“We are such good friends, we’ve done so much together, and we continue to push and motivate each other today,” Greathouse stated.
Lightner was in complete agreement.