Each March, the history of notable women who have changed history is celebrated around the world. The list grows longer each year and highlights trailblazers and those who flew under the radar to ensure lives of others are permanently impacted in positive ways. One such woman, Esther Stock Kroger, is one who stamped change in many lives in the Kearney area, but isn't really that well known. We are here to change that.
Esther Stock Kroger was the first woman secretary in the State of Nebraska and was one of only 3 in the entire United States when she began her role in September of 1919 at the Kearney Commercial Club, known today as the Kearney Area Chamber of Commerce. Secretary was a common term for Chamber Executive back then. She replaced S. H. Burrows that had been secretary since 1917 causing a stir among her male counterparts, some even refusing to acknowledge her role and still considering Mr. Burrows as the secretary. Esther was the only female member of the National Association when she joined in 1919. The history of ACCE dates back to 1914 and it was called the National Association of Commercial Organization Secretaries, or NACOS. Today this association is known as the Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives, or ACCE, of which the Kearney Area Chamber of Commerce are still active members.
Esther filled the role of secretary until 1926 when she resigned to become associated with the Platte Valley Tribune. Her husband, Henry, was the editor of this newspaper and Esther worked in the advertising department. Eventually Henry and Esther bought out the Platte Valley Tribune and changed the name to Kearney, Nebraska Daily News. Henry and Esther continued their same roles until Esther sold the newspaper in December of 1941. That newspaper is still published today, now known as the Kearney Hub. Esther was a proud member of the Chamber of Commerce for years and that membership has continued with the Kearney Hub since!
Times have certainly changed.
Esther was not openly accepted in her role, in fact, several community members felt that no woman could possibly run an organization like the Chamber and figured its demise would come soon. Below is an excerpt from an essay written by a Kearney student dated April 17, 1920 which referenced Esther and her role. The student writer was part of a campaign of Kearney school officials and faculty members where they were working to become better citizens.
“Say, Bob. I wish I knew more about the Chamber of Commerce. I hear we have to write a story about it,” said Jay.
“Something about the Chamber of Commerce? Well that’s easy,” said Bob.
“Easy? How about those questions teacher has on the board?”
“Well, the first one, a chamber of commerce,” continued Bob, “is a place where men may assemble to talk over business matters and its business is to work for Kearney and for Buffalo county.”
“Who can be members?” asked Jay
“Well let me see,” continued Bob. “why anybody that wants to can.”
“That is not right!" interrupted Jack, who had just happened that way. “Women can’t join, although there are two women members, and men can’t join that don’t live in Kearney but are not very liable to join anyway.”
“Where are its rooms?” said Jay.
“The rooms of the chamber of commerce are on the entire fifth floor of the opera house,” said Bob.
“Well, I know who is secretary,” said Jay, “she is Mrs. Esther Stock Kroger.”
“I don’t know much about her duties though and that’s one of those questions. Couldn’t you tell me some of them?” asked Jay.
“If I told you all of them I would be here till dark,” said Bob, “But I will tell you some of them. Her duties are to look after the club and to attend to the details.”
“The way that sounds she has quite little work to do,” said Jay.
“But the next one, I never found out about so don’t ask me who is the president of the chamber of commerce,” said Bob.
“Well I know that,” said Jay.
“Why Mr. W. T. Sounders is the president.”
“What are some of the committees,” asked Jay.
“There are seventeen committees altogether, but we only have to tell about five or six of them,” said Bob.
“Well do you know five or six of them to tell me?” asked Jay.
“Executive committee, that’s one, and that committee looks after the details of the club.
The budget committee raises money. Banquet and dinner committee looks after the banquets and dinners and that’s enough isn’t it? If it isn’t, I’ll tell you more,” said Bob.
“I thought you said we had to have five.”
“I know all seventeen of them,” said Bob.
“Well let’s hear them,” said Jay.
“Industrial committee and that committee brings new industries to Kearney and the traffic committee and they look after shipping and transportation and things of that sort.”
“There’s the hand bell and I’ve all but the last,” said Jay, “Hurry and tell me why the chamber of commerce are interested in boys and girls clubs.”
“Why, to make better citizens and when they grow up they will be running the city and the Kearney Chamber of Commerce are looking to the future of this city.”
Esther continued to work with the Kearney Chamber until her death in 1985. She believed that the Chamber paved roads for business and growth in the Kearney area and committed the community to the betterment of Nebraska as a whole. Many times during her life, Esther was the only female attendee, volunteer, patron, or leader in organizations around our community. She forged a path with tenacity and grace, showcasing her brilliance and integrity.
Esther Stock Kroger - may we know her, may we be her, may we continue her legacy of building, growing, and changing for a better tomorrow.