The other day, we came upon a very small item in the sports pages. It stated that a professional ice-hockey team named the "Ak-Sar-Ben Knights" had just appointed a head coach. American sports team names begin with their cities -- and we have some unusual city names -- like Oshkosh and Chillocothe. But we could find no one who had ever heard of Ak-Sar-Ben.
Who, what, or where is Ak-Sar-Ben?
It turns out, the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben is a civic organization in Omaha, the largest city in Nebraska. The group started in 1895, when business leaders thought the state was going backwards. Instead of building up that farming and ranching state, people were moving and investing in more glamorous places, like California. So since Nebraska was sliding backwards, these Omaha executives called their organization "The Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben" -- which is "Nebraska," spelled backwards.
Like other civic clubs such as the Knights of Columbus and the Lions, the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben set about spending their own money to improve Omaha and Nebraska. The female and male leaders of almost 50 Omaha companies who make up the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben today financially support the city's rodeo, agriculture show, and river festival. And when they learned that ice hockey was returning to Omaha after a 30-year absence, the Knights invested in that, too -- on one condition: that the name of the new team be the "Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben Knights."
And so "Ak-Sar-Ben" doesn't stand for a place or a person. It stands for an idea: that those who have prospered in a community owe something in return -- whether it's funding the opera or bringing another form of sports entertainment to town.