Brian Kramer asks a lot of questions. His questioning attitude is one of the first things a person notices upon meeting the 30-year veteran of OPPD.
Kramer, a few inches over 6 feet with fair hair and bright blue eyes, is naturally curious. He’s always been the type to take something apart to figure how it works.
And he’s someone who has always looked out for others. Whether it is co-workers, or people who just arrived in the United States from the other side of the world, friends and colleagues say they can count on Kramer.
Kramer works tirelessly not only for the utility’s customers and his fellow coworkers, but also for community members who are among those most in need.
It’s a simple question: What do you need? But as Kramer pointed out recently, that question can elicit so much.
“Most people aren’t going to come out and tell you ‘Well I need this and this and this,’” he said. “You won’t know if you don’t ask.”
Kramer and his wife, Tammy, belong to Prairie Lane Christian Reformed Church, near 120th Street and West Center Road. The church and its mission play a vital part in their lives. Kramer said his faith guides him in all he does.
Kramer and his wife have helped lead a partnership between the congregants of Prairie Lane and the Heartland Integration Center (HIC) since 2020. Prairie Lane provides space in its GIFTS House (Generations in Faith Serving Together) for HIC’s use. The building sits across the parking lot from the church.
HIC, formerly known as the English Learning Network, is dedicated to helping immigrants and refugees assimilate to their new country. At Prairie Lane Church, the organization hosts citizenship classes as well as classes to help Afghan women to learn English and grammar.
Prairie Lane also has a recycled clothing center where adults and children can browse and pick out lightly worn clothing, free of charge. The clothing center grew out of a holiday clothing drive at the church that turned into one that is open all year.
On Saturday afternoons, Kramer and other congregation members staff a food pantry in the GIFT House.
The pantry is on the ground level. Shoppers make their way through a winding line where groceries are set on plastic folding tables. There are dry goods like rice, pasta and bags of dried beans in one section. Fresh fruits and vegetables are set up in the room’s center. Near the exit are packaged snacks and breads. Meat and eggs are in the refrigerator.
Volunteers help haul the groceries out on long carts. Kramer is the conductor orchestrating the whole process, making sure everyone gets enough healthy food to see them and their families through the week. Occasionally he sees someone filling their cardboard box with one too many of a certain item. He gently but firmly reminds the shopper there are others still waiting to come through the line.
“We had this space we weren’t using anymore,” Kramer said on a Saturday afternoon once the final person has gone through the line. “We had heard about this need in the immigrant community, and our congregation was looking for ways to make a difference.”
Recent immigrant and refugees can be taken advantage of, he said. He has heard stories of families paying $500 to a scammer for a Medicaid card that they should receive for free from the state, 0r buying cars that break down days later.
“If we expect people to come here and be productive members of our society, we need to help them do so,” he said.
He said the people they assist have come from places as far off as Ukraine, Syria, Tajikistan and the Congo, to name just a few.
Kramer said the real hero of the operation is Pierre Sagitteh, executive director of HIC. A call Sagitteh placed to church leaders seeking space to host adult education classes for HIC got the ball rolling.
The members of Prairie Lane had been looking at different ways to branch out. They wanted to share and diversify their faith community with others. Several rooms at the GIFT House that had at various times been used for diaper drives, religious education classes and day care for children became available. In a stroke of serendipity, Sagitteh called looking for space.
From that initial call, unused space at Prairie Lane has become an extension of HIC’s mission in helping make a difference in the Omaha immigrant community.
“I feel like we were connected by God,” said Sagitteh. “It is the perfect match. We have people here who care. And we all see how much this place has impacted other people’s lives.”
Kramer asked how he and the congregation could help. Sagitteh asked if Prairie Lane could help teach classes and help integrate Afghans.
“So that’s what we did,” Kramer said.
After graduating from Unity Christian High School in Orange City, Iowa, Kramer attended nearby Northwest Iowa Community College (NCC). He knew he wanted to learn a craft. An instructor thought he was a natural for a career in instrumentation and controls. While attending NCC, Kramer joined the Instrumentation Society of America, a professional group for people in automation careers.
A trip to Omaha for an ISA conference and dinner event included a tour of OPPD’s Fort Calhoun Station. Kramer had never heard of OPPD before, but he liked what he saw on his tour and applied to work at the utility after graduation.
However, he quickly found a job as an engineering aid and moved to Norfolk. A few months later, someone from OPPD called Kramer to offer him a job with the utility. He started work at the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station in the Instrumentation and Control department.
“It was a foot in the door, and I was glad to have it,” he said.
Seven years later, Kramer transferred to the Substation and System Protection department as a relay specialist. He eventually moved up the ladder to become manager of the department and is now the senior director of Utility Operations, Maintenance and Construction.
It was mid-March in 2019 and disaster was about to strike the area. Kramer was driving home from work at the Elkhorn Service Center and heard the weather forecast for the following week.
“It’s going to flood again,” Kramer said. “That’s what I was thinking.”
Having worked through the 2011 flood, he knew how bad things could get. “I called Jake Welchert (now OPPD’s Master Facilities Program manager) and asked him, ‘Where’s our flood barriers, where’s our materials?’”
The flood that struck the Midwest that second full week of March was devastating. A bomb cyclone unleashed blizzard conditions and heavy rainfall, which fell on still-frozen ground, a combination that led to widespread flooding. Damage to the state was estimated at $2.6 billion.
A perilous span of several weeks ensued. Some of the utility’s most critical infrastructure was threatened. That included Nebraska City Station’s (NCS) substation.
A few months before the flood, Kramer became manager of Substation & System Protection. He had not been on many people’s radar prior to the flood, he said; his new role was a chance for him to prove himself while joining others in helping the customers and communities OPPD serves.
Plant personnel graded the area around the substation and built a pumping station to pump out the floodwater. It worked.
Kramer also helped save a key substation in the Valley area. That substation helps power Fremont and some industrial customers, and it was taking on water. Kramer and a field supervisor helped walk a crew leader through the process of de-energizing equipment to replace a broken fuse and then re-energizing the equipment to keep the power flowing.
“You’d grab two or three hours of sleep a night when you could, then snap awake to a phone call and scribble a bunch of notes,” he said of those weeks in March and early April.
The utility was full of people with stories like his from that time, Kramer said.
Kramer has worked during numerous high-pressure situations at OPPD, including the Flood of 2011, the polar vortex in 2021 and an ice jam on the Missouri River in December 2023 that threatened power plant water supplies along the river. He is OPPD’s storm manager, which includes leading outage restoration efforts during large power outages when storms strike.
Kramer realizes he asks a lot of questions. It’s part of who he is. He cares for and wants to help others, and doing so is his passion.
He and Tammy have been foster parents over the years for several children. It’s hard for him to say no to anyone in need.
The questions he asks puts him in the position to help find answers, he said, and that’s how he thinks it should be.
“My volunteering has never been anything official,” Kramer said. “I started just going out and scooping my neighbor’s driveways around our neighborhood in Blair. But as the dynamics in my life have changed and my kids have grown and have their own lives, I can be more intentional about it.”
The one place he stops asking questions is when he has a fishing rod in his hands – unless he’s asking, “What are they biting on?”
He loves all kinds of fishing and has caught them all, from walleye and northern pike to marlin and swordfish.
Family vacations often revolve around water and the hope of more fishing.
He hopes the partnership between Prairie Lane and HIC is one that will inspire others to find ways to be of service to others.
The world needs more of that, he said.
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