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Hall of Fame process unearths controversy

LINCOLN, Neb. -- It's not exactly Cooperstown. In fact, many members of Nebraska's Hall of Fame -- like auctioneer Arthur Weimar Thompson and philosopher Hartley Burr Alexander -- aren't even household names in Nebraska.

But a major-league fight has erupted at the hall over efforts to induct Malcolm X and a US senator who made a name for himself for removing homosexuals from the federal government in the 1940s and early '50s.

The nomination of Senator Kenneth Wherry, who died in 1951, ''is very, very bad thing and it speaks very poorly to Nebraska as a state," said Lin Quenzer, a lesbian who works as ombudsman for the city of Lincoln.

Wherry's nomination is just one element of the Hall of Fame selection process this year that has had more twists and turns than the corridors of the state Capitol, where the bronze busts of the honored are installed.

It started with the nomination of Malcolm X, who was born in Omaha but left a few months later and spent the rest of his life elsewhere, in such places as Detroit and New York. His eldest daughter, Attallah Shabazz, traveled from Los Angeles to attend a meeting of the Hall of Fame Commission.

''While you can take the man out of Nebraska, you can't take Nebraska out of the man," she said, deflecting complaints about how little time Malcolm X actually spent in the state.

Dan Wherry, the nephew of the senator, nominated his uncle, a follower of Senator Joseph McCarthy who represented Nebraska in Washington from 1943 until his death.

Dan Wherry (pronounced ''wary") argued that his uncle was the best choice to enter the hall, given that he spent his entire life in Nebraska and helped get the US Strategic Air Command -- the nation's global nuclear strike force -- to establish its headquarters near Omaha.

Nebraska History magazine, published by the Nebraska State Historical Society, ran a cover story in its most recent issue titled '' 'Homo-Hunting' in the Early Cold War: Senator Kenneth Wherry and the Homophobic Side of McCarthyism." The article described the Republican Wherry's role in removing homosexuals from the government at the height of McCarthyism.

''That was a different time," Dan Wherry said. ''We haven't heard any of these objections for 53 years."

The Hall of Fame inducts just one person every five years. In April, the seven-member commission, employing the secret balloting it has had since the hall was created in 1961, voted 4-3 to induct Wherry over Malcolm X.

All that seemed to be left was finding an artist to create the bust, until the Lincoln Journal Star newspaper asked state Attorney General Jon Bruning whether the secret vote was legal. Bruning said the secret vote violated the Nebraska open meetings law, and nullified the action.

The commission set a new meeting for June 21 to vote again. But in a surprise announcement this week, the commission put off the meeting until next year. It turns out the commission was not supposed to meet at all in 2004, because of the once-every-five-years rule contained in state law. The last person inducted, Chief Red Cloud, was approved in 2000.

That leaves supporters of both Malcolm X and Wherry waiting months to make their case again. It also opens the door for any of the five other nominees to become the 24th member of the hall.

James Denney, 79, a retired reporter for the Omaha World-Herald and chairman of the commission, said the next few months will be a good cooling-off period for both sides. He said he hopes Wherry opponents will take the time to learn more about the good things he did. Denney, who knew Wherry, voted for him.

If selected, Malcolm X would become the first black member of the hall. Three of its members are American Indian, but there are no other racial or ethnic minorities represented.

Busts of the most famous members -- like Buffalo Bill Cody and Father Flanagan, the founder of Boys Town -- line the center hallway leading to the Rotunda of the Capitol. Lesser-known names are tucked away in less well-traveled corridors and do not get much attention.

''On occasion someone will come in and ask where the bust is for a certain person," a Capitol tour guide, Roxanne Smith, said, ''but usually they are family members."

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