Volunteer Spotlight – Campground Host Eleanor Shimek

June 3, 2024 Justin Haag

Campground is second home for Gering woman


Eleanor Shimek of Gering has served as a campground host at Nebraska state recreation areas in the Panhandle and central Nebraska since the late 1990s.

Photo by Justin Haag, Nebraskaland Magazine

By Justin Haag

If you’re looking for Eleanor Shimek in the summer, your best bet is to check the campground.

The Gering resident has served as a campground host at Nebraska state recreation areas in the Panhandle and central Nebraska since the late 1990s and continues to make the most of her time doing it.

Dan Thornton, superintendent at Lake Minatare State Recreation Area, considers Shimek to be one of the park’s outstanding volunteers. He met her at the Fort Robinson State Park’s Soldier Creek Campground many years ago while he was working there. After becoming superintendent of Lake Minatare, he urged her to host at his new park and says she’s been a steady presence since then.

“She’s really good at dealing with the public,” he said. “She’s always busy. We don’t ask a lot of our hosts, but she’ll go the extra mile. She’ll walk the roads and pick up trash off the ground. She’ll jump in the office every once in a while if they’re swamped over there. She’s willing to do anything we ask her to do.”

She hasn’t always done it alone. The first hosting experience came in 1998 when she and her husband, Jim, took their big motorhome to Calamus Reservoir.

She said Jim wasn’t too excited about being a campground host when she proposed the idea, but he was a natural.

“After we got set up at the campground that first time, he sat in the camper for a bit and said ‘Well, I guess I’d better go do my job.’ He went out and hardly came inside after that. He was always out talking to people. He really enjoyed it.”

The two hosted somewhere each summer after that, often in the central part of the state where they could visit family who lived there.

Jim’s death in 2014 created a void in Eleanor’s life, but she found solace in continuing their beloved summer activity.

“I hosted in the big rig a couple of times after he died, but it was just too much for me,” she said. “So, I got my little rig, and I’ve been hosting in it for 10 years.”

Shimek keeps a journal that chronicles her hosting experiences over the past quarter century. Photo by Justin Haag, Nebraskaland Magazine.

The “big rig” was a Class A, the largest of all RVs. Her little rig is a Sunseeker class C motorhome. She keeps it washed, waxed and sheltered in the winter, and it looks as good as the day it came off the lot.

Shimek said she’s always loved the outdoors, and Nebraska’s campgrounds are among her favorite places to be. She’s reflected on her love of the endeavor in a journal of hosting experiences over the past quarter century. It includes a list of all the places they’ve hosted and business cards of the Game and Parks employees they’ve worked with.

“I get outside and meet people and help them,” she said. “I do my own thing. I do a lot of sewing, so I take my sewing machine. If I don’t feel like being outside or the weather is nasty, I can sew.”

When at Lake Minatare, she can make the 16-mile drive to tend to her house, the same place she’s called home since 1964 — other than the campground, of course.

This summer, she plans to be at Lake Minatare’s Lake View Campground until the end of July and move to Little Thunder Bay Campground at Lake McConaughy State Recreation Area to close the season.

Shimek said camping provided a lot of fond memories, beginning long before she became a campground host.

She and Jim got their first camper in about 1970, around the time the youngest of their three children was born. A few years later, they bought what was Eleanor’s favorite camper of the many styles they owned.

“The one we enjoyed so very much was a Hi Lo — one of those hard-sided telescoping pull-behinds,” she said. “My parents and my brother went with us to the West Coast, East Coast and points in between. We just had a great family time in that thing.”

Eleanor surely honed her skills in dealing with the public during her career. She started teaching in the late 1950s at a rural school in South Dakota. She was 19.

After marrying Jim in 1963 and moving to western Nebraska, she became a third-grade teacher at Gering.

Shimek’s journal. Photo by Justin Haag, Nebraskaland Magazine.

She took a break from the profession and immersed herself in her children’s activities as they were growing up, but returned and taught remedial studies at Gering Junior High until her retirement

She sees some of her former students while hosting at Minatare, even though she doesn’t always recognize them at first.

“Especially these guys who grow beards. They don’t look anything like they did in junior high,” she said.

Gering residents expressed their admiration for Eleanor by giving her the honorary title of vice president of the community’s annual celebration, Oregon Trail Days, in 2023.

In the winter, she’s heavily involved at another one of the Panhandle’s premier tourist attractions, Gering’s Legacy of the Plains Museum. She both volunteers and serves on its board of directors.

“I’m still in teacher mode. For nine months, I have Legacy of the Plains and I’m there almost every day,” she said. “Then, I have to have a break in the summertime. That’s when I campground host.”

More information about the Campground Host program may be found at OutdoorNebraska.gov.

The post Volunteer Spotlight – Campground Host Eleanor Shimek appeared first on Nebraskaland Magazine.

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