Tonya & Hayes Ngotel Interview
I joined the Near South Board a year ago when I moved back to Lincoln after being away for 15 years. We ended up living in the Near south by chance and I like to think that even if the circumstances that led us back here to the Near South didn’t put us here, that we would have chosen to live here. There are certainly lots of different areas in Lincoln but the historical houses and areas around the capitol building are interesting and worth looking at. I was curious, then, as to what led other people to the Near South. What I proposed to the Publications Committee was doing a series of interviews with people that live in the Near South and maybe why they live here, what amenities they enjoy about living here, and maybe build a little neighborhood pride.
My first subject was a peer of mine, Tonya Ngotel. We both are on the Near South board, we both have children in the neighborhood school, Prescott Elementary, and seem to share similar views about living here. She and her husband, Hayes, live at 1929 Washington Street. You’ll see their Little Free Library sitting out front on top of a bicycle. Tonya works for the University of Nebraska Medical Center and has for the past 18 years. Hayes works as a construction/maintenance manager for Runza.
GREGG: What is your connection to Lincoln?
TONYA: I went to school here. Graduated in a small town directly south of here called Wymore and came to college. I left in 1999 after I graduated from college and came back in 2002.
G: You were born in Wymore? Your parents from Wymore? How many generations of Nebraska are you?
T: Yes. Still there. My mom was born here. My dad was born in West Virginia. So he came to Nebraska, met my mom and stayed. My dad was a plumber so he had a plumbing shop down there. That’s kind of where they landed when he started his business and that’s where I graduated. My sister is still there in Wymore.
G: How big is Wymore? Is there a Runza there? (Hayes works for Runza)
T: How big is it Hayes? 1,000 people?
HAYES: 1,000 people. Pretty small. There’s only a Subway, a gas station.
G: And what did you get your degree in?
G: Did you ever think about going to anyplace but the University of Nebraska?
T: I didn’t go to the University of Nebraska. I went to Doane. Doane is housed in Crete, that’s where their main campus is, but then they have an alternate campus - like an adult learner sort of campus - here in town. I got a bachelor’s degree in psychology and then I joined the Peace Corps. That’s where I met Hayes.
G: Right away you decided to join the Peace Corps?
T: Yes. It takes about a year and a half to get in. So it’s a process. So I started that in ’99 and moved back to Nebraska in 2002.
G: …and then? In 2002 you came back to Lincoln?
T: We came back to Nebraska. We lived in Beatrice for awhile and then we moved here, to Lincoln, in 2006. So we moved into the house in May.
G: Right after college you go to the Peace Corps. Do you have a choice of where you are going?
T: If you have certain skills. If you have french language, then you go to a french country…
G: What was your skill?
T: I don’t have a skill! I mean, I have a degree in psychology. I worked with kids before, as I was graduating at Doane. I worked with the Regional Center, so like the toughest of the tough behavioral issues. That was really my skill: youth development. But I didn’t have a language skill and I hadn’t traveled outside of the continental United States. So at that point, I didn’t really have a lot of skills. Some people do. Like if you have a specialized biology skill or a specialized health skill, like if you want to teach public health somewhere, then you’re going to go to Africa and teach AIDS. I was kind of a crap shoot. They gave me choices: I could go to Micronesia, which I had to google (Sorry, Hayes) or I could go to Nicaragua, which I didn’t think was far enough from Nebraska, so I chose Micronesia. I ended up in the South Pacific. It’s south of Japan, Guam, so that whole swath of islands is called Micronesia and at the very end of that is Palau, and that is where Hayes is from.
I spent my first four months in an island on the east part of that called Pohnpei but then my eventual state assignment was Palau, so I spent two years there. I was supposed to be working with kids, developing youth programs. I ended up teaching english in elementary school and eventually the college.
G: Where were you living?
T: I was living with a host family. It’s kind of like a foreign exchange student for us, same concept, but in a small village. It’s probably 400 people in the village. Is that right Hayes?
H: Maybe less,
T: So I was working with the state there. But the state was basically right next to the school, it was all one community. I ended up spending most of my time at the school.Peace Corps is only a two year term, but I stayed for a 3rd. I applied as a volunteer to stay for a third year. So then I was assigned to a job, kind of, but I was still a volunteer. I was in charge of the incoming volunteers. I was the lead volunteer. Never thought I would come back to Nebraska. I had no intention of coming back. But family brings you back and here we are. My mom, my family all in Wymore, they said come back and so we came back in 2002. I was looking for jobs you know in Hawaii, Guam, some where in between the two. But we just kind of settled in, found good jobs.
G: When did you meet Hayes?
T: I was probably gone 6-7 months when I met Hayes. So six to seven months into my three year term. We kind of dated, I guess. We got married in 2006, same year we bought the house.
G: How did you know you would want to live in Nebraska, Hayes?
H: When she said she was leaving, my first thought was like: Well, I guess it was nice to know you. Because I was scared to leave home.
G: Did you have any concept of what Nebraska was like?
H: No. I had no idea. I was scared to leave home to begin with. I didn’t want to tell her that I don’t want to leave home because I didn’t want to get away from my family. It was something I kept to myself. And then I kind of think about it and think about it and then I thought I might give it a try and if I don’t like it, I can always go back. It’s been 17-18 years. Yeah, when I came here I always thought there was still wild Indians and cowboys chasing each other. The wild west. When I came here I realized, …yeah, nevermind.
G: Wasn’t the winter disconcertingly rough to your mindset?
H: Yeah. It was at one time. When we first moved here, we lived in Beatrice in a little house and the house was about the size of this kitchen. It was the second day after the first snow that I’d ever seen. I can feel from inside the house that it was freezing outside and I didn’t like that. I thought: if I go out there and freeze, that’s the end of me and the snow. But, …here I am.
G: So why this house? How did you not end up in Havelock, for example? Or clear south?
H: Well, I think we were looking for a house. We weren’t looking for a neighborhood. I think it was the house that we were really looking for.
T: We wanted a big house, like this. We wanted established trees. And we wanted a diverse neighborhood. So we wanted a neighborhood that wasn’t suburbia, you know, all white, no diversity. So our realtor showed us a lot of houses in this neighborhood. One of the things that was in the back of our mind when we moved into the neighborhood was Lincoln High. Lincoln High has an International Baccalaureate Program. Even though we didn’t have kids in 2006, I think we thought about that. We come from pretty diverse cultures, both of us, and we like to travel. And just having worldly knowledge was important to us. And so that was a draw. And again, just the diversity of this area of town as opposed to maybe some of the non-midtown areas.
H: We even went to Eagle to look at houses. We went all over Lincoln looking at houses.
G: Do you always do your own remodeling?
H: It’s always been me.
T: The last project was tearing down this wall. This was a weight-bearing wall, is that what they call it? An outside wall. So this part of the house would have been an addition. So we tore that down 2-3 years ago?
H: 2-3 years ago. I got lucky it was drywall. There was the fridge, stove, and the washer and dryer on the other side. So every day I would come home from work and little by little take the wall down.
G: Where did you eat at during all of that?
H: It goes from this much of a kitchen (1/2 of the existing room) to this. When we had company, before, we would be crammed in. I can’t imagine going back to a smaller space.
G: I like the red sink.
T: That was the selling point! It was here.
G: They say don’t fall in love with the house before you buy it.
T: I did though. I fell in love with the house. It was a re-po. So we bought it as-is in 2006. There was a lot of repos after the house market crashed. I walked in, my realtor was not impressed at all. I mean it was pretty much… it was dirty. It was old and big and needed a lot of work. There was furniture on the porch. It was just a …a repo. But then I walked in and I saw that staircase and then it has that stained glass window. I think that was one of my “Oh my gosh” moments, but as I walked through there were other things: like the wood and the red sink. Also, I think it was the potential. I thought of all the things that my poor husband could do.
G: Is it historically significant? Do you know anything about the history of the house?
T: No, I don’t think so. I really don’t [know]. I should ask Ed Zimmer. I think that’s one of the challenges of these homes. You want them to have re-sale value. Like our kitchen: it’s not an historic home, but if it was, then you’d have to consider that. But what’s the resale value? We need a bigger kitchen. If you’re going to sell a house, you don’t want to destroy the historic value of it in trying to create a bigger kitchen. So where’s the balance in all that?
G: I have this idea, from living here previously, that the north and the south sort of have this thing… what is that? Is it working class versus white collar on the south side?
T: It’s flipped now. So the south side, south of Pine Lake that area is more of the people trying to get out of this area to the suburbs. There’s a pocket over by Fallbrook, by the Supersaver. I still think the largest group of upper class is down in the south. Wilderness Ridge. That area.
G: Can you think of another area of town where the houses are this big and this nice? I mean there’s Sheridan Boulevard. But we don’t have that kind of money.
T: I would like to live there. Maybe if I win the lottery some day. Otherwise, there’s a pocket near East Campus, Professor’s Row. I think we are definitely the biggest historic area in midtown. There’s a few near Wesleyan but again it’s small, probably built more for the professors. And then, where is that? UNI Place? There’s some pretty huge, substantial houses. And then again, there’s Piedmont. There’s some really pretty houses in there. I don’t know if they’re historic but they’re big.
G: I need space to put my books.
T: We have books on the upstairs to our attic. Boxes and boxes of book that we just don’t have space for. It’s one of the reasons we put our Little Free Library out there. We talked about it for awhile: [having] a Little Free Library in our front yard. My friend had a Little Free Library in Omaha and she knew about my love of books and she kept saying you got to do this, you got to do this. And I thought, who wants a box on a stick in their front yard? That’s boring. Thats not us. So I kept thinking about it. Then I weighed the pros and the cons. We have people walking past our house ALL THE TIME. Daytime nighttime. Middle of the night. 4 in the morning. People are walking by.
G: Why are people walking past your house like that?
H: They’re on their way to Russ’s. It used to be 24 hours.
T: That was before we put the bricks around the tree. We didn’t want that to be a patio for people to be sit and relax. We put the bricks around the tree to stabilize that and then we found the bike in my mom’s garage. Hayes designed the actual library that sits on the bike. And we have never, until about a month ago, had a problem with that. How long has that been? 4-5 years? Never had any vandalism. The books just keep going. That’s fine, we just keep replenishing.
G: Do people leave you books?
H: Once in awhile you see an old lady that will stop and go there and put some adult reading books in there. I never see kids’ books but mainly it’s like whenever they put their books in there something that they probably are done with.
T: It’s not very often, more often than not we are stacking that thing with books. It’s a neat thing. It has been for us. We’ve got a lot of kind notes left in there.
H: Summer time, usually, you see like 5 little kids sitting on the bricks with the books and just reading. Going in and out. Kind of neat to see them sitting there talking about the books right there in front of them.
T: The kids on the other side of the street will drag their parents across the street to go to the library. It’s so rewarding to us. It’s been a good thing,
G: We are perceived as being a high crime area. Do you think that’s true? I think there’s a lot of drugs.
T: I think there’s a lot of petty crime issues. When you have the highest population in an area crammed in a small space you are going to have issues. So I think Sergeant Ward says it well when comparable to the whole city we don’t have a lot of crime but the crime we do have is sometimes bigger than the other crime. Does that make sense? So if there is going to be a drive-by situation its probably going to be here or north of “O” - it’s not going to be in the Highlands. It’s proximity. We have a lot of resources. A lot of people. A lot of transient communities.
G: What are your favorite amenities of living here? What’s close that you like? That your kids like?
T: We’ve been fortunate not to have to use the hospital, but the trauma hospital is close. The only down side of that is that we hear the helicopters all the time. And we can walk to a lot of places. We’ve got a store within walking distance if anyone gets snowed out. Prescott School, too. It’s not just a school to us, its a park and it’s a gathering center. It’s like the hub of our little elementary universe.
H: We’ve got the zoo down east of here. Antelope Park.
T: I think, for me, recently changing my job, so now I have to drive to Omaha. I worked here in Lincoln for 14 years. A couple blocks away, actually. It took me 2-3 minutes to get to work. So now I commute an hour. And I like being here because it’s central. I can get on 9th Street within 3-4 minutes and get to Omaha in an hour. My friend who also commutes and has for 14 years, takes about an hour and a half because he lives out on Pine Lake and there is no way to get around this town. So this is central, we can get anywhere. If I want to go south I can do that in 10 minutes. If I want to go north I can get to any shopping centers within 10 minutes.
H: Yes, pretty much for me it’s the center of everywhere.