Longtime Columbus City Councilman John Lohr has never felt his decades of public service made him special. The call of duty was just in his blood.
His grandfather, Harry Lohr, was Columbus’ mayor from 1937-1944 and a longtime member of the Columbus City Council. His son and Lohr’s father, “Bus” Lohr, once served as the president of the Columbus Area Chamber; was a member of the Columbus Volunteer Fire Department, Boy Scout Executive Board, Columbus Home Builders, Loup River Basin Association, Red Cross Membership Committee, Community Chest Board and the Y.M.C.A., among other things.
“I had a great mentor. My Dad was in all kinds of things and didn’t make a big deal about it,” Lohr recalled on a recent afternoon at City Hall. “He loved to hunt and kept time for hunting and fishing, but his heart was in Columbus and what he could do for Columbus.
“I kind of learned from that and just started doing the same thing.”
The U.S. Army veteran and successful businessman whose family has called Columbus home for generations takes pride in his decades of service with boards such as NeighborWorks Northeast Nebraska, the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce, First National Bank, the Board of Northeast Nebraska Economic Development District and the League Larger Cities Legislative Committee.
“We appreciate all John has done for the League,” League Membership Service Assistant Brenda Henning said. “He will be missed!”
For about 19 years (five-consecutive terms), Lohr has also proudly served on the Columbus City Council representing the Fourth Ward. But citing “personal reasons,” he recently announced his decision to resign from the Columbus City Council. During his tenure, Lohr has served under two mayors (Mike Moser and Jim Bulkley) and three city administrators (Joe Frei, Joe Mangiamelli and Tara Vasicek) and enjoyed working with them all.
“They were all different, but all very, very good,” he said. “I got along with all of them.”
Lohr agreed to stay on the City Council at least through February so the mayor has time to find a suitable replacement. Bulkley said he respects Lohr’s decision and is happy the longtime city councilman isn’t done quite yet but called his pending departure bittersweet.
“He’s been on the City Council the whole time I’ve been on the council and now as mayor. It has certainly been a pleasure to have John on the council,” Bulkley said. “He has brought a lot of knowledge and background to the Council being a lifelong resident of Columbus and an active businessman in our community for years. I’ve just always respected the business mind he has brought to the discussions we’ve had.”
Lohr is someone who always did his homework when it came to City Council matters and asked good questions before weighing in on a matter, the mayor noted, adding he considers him a friend and community leader.
Of course, that doesn’t mean they didn’t have fun while doing the work. Lohr became known for showing up to City Council meetings “right on time,” according to the mayor. Members of the Columbus City Council awaited Lohr’s arrival to the Feb. 6th meeting when he walked in all smiles at 6:59 p.m. He and the other council members shared a laugh as he sat down and Bulkley swung his gavel to commence the 7 p.m. meeting.
“He was never too early to a meeting. That became his calling card,” Bulkley said, with a laugh. “With two-three minutes to go, he’d come in, and if he was early, he’d take a walk. That was just John’s way.”
City Clerk Janelle Kline met Lohr shortly after he was elected to the City Council in late 2004 and praised his commitment to his role and the community.
“Council Member Lohr is very easy to work with. He is dedicated to his community and genuinely interested in making decisions that are best for the community as a whole,” Kline said. “He researches asks questions, and does whatever it takes to become fully educated about any issue before making decisions.”
City Administrator Tara Vasicek echoed that sentiment.
“John always has been just a selfless servant to the City. He has just been a good representative for the City of Columbus,” Vasicek said. “He doesn’t ever come with preconceived notions. He always wants to learn, he’s always respectful of the public and City staff, and he always made good decisions based on what was good for the majority.”
Although he’s been part of the City Council for nearly two decades, his involvement with the City of Columbus dates back even further.
It began when he joined the Park board in hopes to help secure funding to improve the City’s tennis courts at the time. He ultimately helped that and other efforts happen. He recalled City officials discussing what to name a new park they were constructing on land in southeast Columbus that had just been purchased in 1975. Some ideas were floating around when he remembered the U.S.’s Bicentennial celebration plans set for 1976.
“So, I said, ‘let’s call it Centennial Park,’” the former Eagle Scout recalled.
Former Columbus Mayor Gary Giebelhaus appointed Lohr to serve as a liaison for the Junior City Council Board of Governors in 1998. The Junior City Council Board was made up of high school students (three from each of the high schools) and functioned the same as the City Council with eight students serving as council members and one as a mayor, making recommendations to the City Council.
With support from former Fourth Ward City Councilman Mike Fleming and others, Lohr decided to run and was elected to his City Council seat in late 2004. He’s played a role in the development of numerous City efforts throughout the years, such as the new Community Building that will house City Hall and the Columbus Public Library, among other things.
Library Director Karen Connell has enjoyed working with Lohr, noting he was part of the interview process when she was hired as the library director in 2019.
“He has been a supporter of building a new library since the first iteration of the project and served on the Steering Committee for the project development. He seeks to bring art, culture, and new ideas to the citizens of Columbus,” Connell said. “He has been a wonderful asset to the Columbus City Council and will be missed!”
Lohr is undoubtedly proud of the things he has been involved with, though there’s one thing in Columbus that is at the top of his list that may surprise people.
“I’ve always said, in a kind of humorous way, that I feel the jewel and crown of Columbus is our sewage treatment plant,” he said. “That place is so good, so efficient, and it makes us so much further ahead than our counterparts as far as attracting new businesses that need that kind of facility. It’s just marvelous.”
Lohr’s no stranger to the business world. After returning from duty in the military, he began working with UPLAND Industries, the real estate division of the Union Pacific Railroad at the time, as a development specialist. He soon made his way back to Columbus to take over ownership and duties of the business his father founded in 1932, Lohr Petroleum Company. He eventually merged the business with Sapp Bros. Petroleum and ultimately retired.
After leaving Lohr Petroleum, John was hired as the first foundation director of the Columbus Community Hospital Foundation and served on the Hospital Board as chairman of the Board during the building of the new community hospital.
Lohr has relished being an active community member throughout the years. As a city councilman, he always made a point to do the research to make sound decisions and is proud that projects were built well and utilized local contractors as often as possible.
“Everybody likes to be liked, but sometimes you do things that don’t make you liked. They occur from time to time and somehow or another, you have to be judicious enough to try to bring change to somebody that even though they don’t like it, they have to accept it for the reasons you’re proposing,” Lohr said. “I’m sure I haven’t made everybody happy … but if people say, ‘he did a pretty good job and he’s a good guy,’ I can live with that.”
Despite his accomplishment and years of service, Lohr loves talking about others. He praised all of the City staff he’s worked with throughout the years, calling them “just really good people who know what they’re doing and have their hearts in the right place.”
He mentioned his longtime wife, Kathleen, is a talented artist; and that they’re planning another trip to Poland to visit their grown son, John; daughter-in-law, Angelika; and their two grandchildren. He also insisted his father will always have an even more important note in Columbus’ history, recalling the instrumental role his dad played in bringing Becton Dickinson & Company (BD) to town decades ago.
A collective of BD leadership was looking for the New Jersey-based company to have a facility in the Midwest and away from the East Coast. So, they made a trip to Kansas to consider it as a possible location. After touring one town there, they made a trip to a Nebraska city about 45 minutes away from Columbus. Lohr didn’t include that city’s name but said the group opted to make the trek to Columbus for a tour when nobody was available to provide one in the other Nebraska community.
Lohr’s father, the Chamber president at the time, got the call and jumped at the opportunity.
“The Chamber had this group at the time called ‘The Minute Men,’ who were all businessmen who pledged to drop anything they were doing if they had a good prospect coming to town to show them the highlights of the city,” Lohr said.
The BD leadership was impressed with the highlights and the large facility near downtown the company ultimately made home.
“That was a dumb-luck deal, but a deal my dad helped put together and it was really formative for the whole City,” Lohr said, proudly. “The rest is history.”
Fellow City Councilman Richard Jablonski, who represents the Third Ward, said he has known Lohr for years and served on various board with him. He had high praise for Lohr.
“He’s just a quality guy,” Jablonski said. “He’s what makes Columbus great.”
Although stepping away from City Council, Lohr will still be around Columbus. He plans to do some volunteer work with his church, Federated Church. He said he hopes residents will continue to step up and serve the community to help it grow for decades to come.
“You have to be involved or you’re not as effective as you could be. I found that to be true on the council,” he said. “You don’t carry a big stick, but you carry a stick, and sometimes that’s enough to get things going the way you want them to go. And that’s just your way. You still have to convince other people of the same thing … I’ve just been very blessed.”