Originally from Scribner and Hooper, Nebraska, George Henry Dern was on the NU football team, ran businesses, became a state senator, Governor of Utah twice, and was the Secretary of War for President Roosevelt, too.  His wife was also a Nebraskan, from Fremont.

Their grandson?  Actor Bruce Dern.  Their great-grandaughter?  Laura Dern.

The film “Nebraska” — starring Bruce Dern — shot in Hooper, and was headquartered in Fremont, in 2012.

This photo shows Bruce at the Cannes premiere of “Nebraska” proudly showing off his Nebraska granddad to Todd Nelson of the Nebraska Coast Connection. Todd attended the premiere with his old friend director Alexander Payne, and after chatting with Bruce in Cannes, invited him to guest at the Nebraska Coast Connection’s Hollywood Salon. He said he’d love to do it.

From the website HuskerMax….

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Sept. 8, 1872 – Aug. 27, 1936

George Dern was born in 1872 on a farm near Scribner, northwest of Fremont, to German immigrant parents. After attending public schools in Hooper and graduating at age 16 from Fremont Normal College, he worked loading lumber and shoveling wheat into freight cars – building brawn as he earned money to attend the University of Nebraska. He enrolled at NU in 1893, and the newcomer was an immediate success on the football team.

Newspaper accounts show he started every game in 1893 at right guard. In a late-November preview of the season finale against Iowa, the Omaha Bee said this about him:



“Dern will play right guard. He is a very light man for that position, but he has met nobody yet who has overmatched him. Dern is a new man, but he plays like a veteran, and by many he is called the best man in the eleven.”

Outside of football, meanwhile, he took in a broad spectrum of college life. He joined the university cadet corps (led by Lt. John J. Pershing, the future World War I general) and played alto horn in the cadet band. He was one of the earliest members of the NU chapter of Delta Tau Delta fraternity, and he traveled to Europe with a university group during the summer of 1894.

And yet, he later expressed this lament:



“Football is too all-absorbing. During the season we had no time to think of anything else but the winning of the pennant. … I am heartily in favor of college football, if not carried to such an extreme.”

When fall of 1894 arrived, Dern moved to right tackle. He also became team captain, but not without controversy. The players had elected George Flippin, Nebraska’s African-American halfback, but coach Frank Crawford voided the selection, saying, “It takes a man with brains to be a captain.” (It also takes brains to be a doctor. Read more about the remarkable Flippin here.)

The season again saw Dern start every game, and he scored a touchdown on a short run against the Omaha YMCA in early November. But it was his game against Iowa on Thanksgiving that stood out. His long touchdown gallop on Nebraska’s third offensive play of the second half helped turn an 8-0 halftime lead into a 36-0 final. The Lincoln Evening News described the run:



“Captain Dern made sixty-five yards around [Otis] Whipple’s end and planted the ball behind the porte. [Wilmer] Wilson accompanied him on his triumphant journey down the field, knocking down Hawkeye men as the small boy knocketh down the late fall apple with the little shinny cane.”

A tackle toting the ball? It wasn’t unusual back then, when the sport was a closer cousin to rugby. Dern – listed at 170 pounds, lighter than halfback Flippin by 20 pounds – actually had several carries that day, many for healthy gains. On the TD run, the Omaha Bee wrote, Dern “got away with the ball” thanks to “a succession of neat tricks” by end Frank Wiggins and guard Albin Jones.

Nebraska had one more contest to play, but the frolic against Iowa would be Dern’s last game. By the time his teammates were slogging through a Christmas Day rematch against the Omaha YMCA, George Dern was going places.

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Sept. 8, 1872 – Aug. 27, 1936

After the Dern family moved to Utah in December 1894, George seemed to find success at every turn. His father had acquired a financial stake in a mining company, and George began work there as a bookkeeper.

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As a Cabinet member, Dern occasionally rubbed elbows with the era’s cultural icons. Click on these images for video of him with Babe Ruth and Charles Lindbergh.

By age 29, he was running the place.

He became known as an adept manager and innovator, helping to develop a process for recovering silver from low-grade ore. Other business interests beckoned, and he would hold executive positions in the banking and power industries.

In his early 40s, he took the plunge into politics. He won election to the state Senate in 1914 and 1918 and displayed a reformist streak, winning enactment of Utah’s first workmen’s compensation law, among other things. Then came successful runs for governor in 1924 and 1928. As the state’s chief executive, he steered Utah toward reliance on the income tax and away from property taxes.

How did this Democrat and Congregationalist get along so well in a Republican and Mormon state? The Times of London said this:

lindbergh_1933 (5K)“Dern’s success in life was the result of his own ability and perseverance. He possessed charm and good humour, with a gift for efficient administration. Politically he was a man of progressive rather than merely party ideas.”

The New York Times noted that he “did not let his wealth prejudice his legislative views, and he sponsored legislation which was opposed to his own interests.”

When the Boulder Dam project sparked water disputes among western states and the federal government, Dern led efforts to resolve the issues, raising his national profile. His peers elected him chairman of the National Governors’ Conference. It was in that post that Dern became friends with his New York counterpart, Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1933, the new president tapped Dern as his Secretary of War.

As Dern’s biography in the Utah History Encyclopedia notes, “Although matters of national defense were of secondary importance to domestic concerns during these first years of the New Deal, Dern managed to enlarge and motorize the army.” In a few years, that would come in very handy for the nation.

Dern’s own defenses, meanwhile, were taking a beating, starting with a severe case of influenza while he was still governor. Flu attacks became recurrent and took a dreadful toll on the once-robust outdoorsman. On July 13, 1936, weakened by kidney trouble, Dern entered the hospital for the final time. Death came 6½ weeks later, just short of his 64th birthday.

Dern was survived by his wife, Lottie (a Fremont native), two daughters and three sons. There was also a grandson, not yet three months old. That infant is 75 years old now, and you’re probably familiar with some of his work.

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Born  1872 – 1936 – 1967

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Hollywood is where the Dern name lives on most prominently today. George’s grandson Bruce Dern is still going strong after half a century in television and film. Bruce’s daughter Laura Dern chose the same career, and both have Oscar nominations to their credit. Bruce’s role in the recently concluded HBO series “Big Love” prompted him to learn more about his grandfather’s Utah days. George died before Bruce was born, so they never met. Bruce was unaware of the Nebraska connection until brought to his attention by HuskerMax.