Editor's note: "Community Champions" is a weekly feature in which area residents who are advocates for the community are profiled. To recommend someone for consideration, send an email with the subject line 'Community Champions' to email@example.com. Please include contact information about the person and their background. Read previously published stories on columbustelegram.com.
Growing up on a small farm in Albion and later in Columbus, Nathan Karges didn’t necessarily have aspirations to leave the state, let alone the country. At that time, he couldn’t fathom not being ready to cheer on Big Red during football season in the fall.
“I had professors encouraging me to study abroad, but I didn’t want to miss Husker football. I couldn’t miss Husker football games,” Karges recalled. “That was my mindset as a 21-year-old kid.”
But early into his senior year of college at Nebraska Wesleyan University and not yet sure what exactly he wanted to do with his life upon graduation, Karges decided to venture out beyond America’s borders. So he rolled the dice, and with his then-girlfriend, Ashley, got a work visa and went with her to Australia at the end of the summer in 2000. There, he got an opportunity to work at the 2000 Summer Olympics.
It may be considered unconventional to go overseas with a work visa after college graduation, but it’s arguably an experience that helped shape Karges.
“One of the things I tell people now is, ‘go abroad when you have the chance,’” he said. “Just the connections you build make it a pretty fun experience. I learned about the importance of networking and making connections. I met some pretty cool people.”
Today, Karges is the managing director of Northwestern Mutual branches in Columbus, Fremont and Norfolk, and has involvement in sites in other Nebraska towns on the west side of the state. But more importantly, he’s the ultimate family man to his wife and four young children. He's also quite the community member, having gotten involved in a number of ways throughout the years. Although if you ask him, he’s just doing what he can to aid the place he’s called home for the majority of his life.
“More than anything, I think I just want to be helpful,” he said. “I did one of those personality surveys once and I was a ‘connector.’ I think that I enjoy helping people get what they want. If that happens, I will get what I want.”
FINDING HIS WAY
Karges started out living on a family farm in the Albion area, where his grandparents and uncle were in close proximity.
“I was lucky growing up. I pretty much grew up with my grandparents, too,” he said. “So family was and is a big deal.”
The family eventually relocated when he was a sophomore in high school to Columbus, where he attended Scotus Central Catholic High and met Ashley, his high school sweetheart who he married years later. Upon graduation in 1996, both of them attended Nebraska Wesleyan University, where he majored in business and minored in German.
Karges acknowledged he really wasn’t sure yet as to what he wanted to do post-college and that he didn’t have any concrete plans when he got over to Australia in the summer of 2000. He and Ashley just decided to take a leap of faith and journey abroad together.
“We literally showed up with our bags,” Karges recalled. “We were walking the streets of Sydney and saw a sign for ‘workers wanted.’
He decided to follow up on that sign, which paid dividends. Karges got to talking with an operator of a sporting goods store who had been approved to run a general store of sorts inside the athlete’s village during the Summer Olympic Games that year. An Olympic village is an accommodation center built for the Olympic Games, usually within an Olympic Park or elsewhere in a host city. Olympic villages are built to house all participating athletes, as well as officials and athletic trainers.
Karges ended up getting a shot to be the manager of that store, where he found himself stocking shelves and pricing items, among many other things, while serving some of the world’s greatest athletes.
“I kind of snuck my way in,” Karges said, with a big smile, noting he just worked hard and made the most of the opportunity.
He also witnessed firsthand quite a bit during the Games, which ran from Sept. 15-Oct. 1 and saw the U.S. claim the most gold medals (37) and overall highest amount of medals (93). Karges said he remembers seeing members of the U.S. men’s basketball team washing their clothes in the village and selling top-notch athletes plenty of sweets when they were done competing.
“It’s interesting. These athletes are just amazing,” he said. “The gymnasts - so when gymnasts were done with their events, they would come in and buy like eight candy bars. They’re done and not worried about calories.”
After the Summer Games, he and Ashley applied for and were granted travel visas. They spent the next several months exploring Australia and visiting friends they had made across various portions of Europe and Southeast Asia.
By February 2001, Karges had an elaborate plan to propose to Ashley at Italy’s "Path of Love (Via dell'Amore), a pedestrian path of 1 kilometer between Riomaggiore on the east side of Cinque Terre and Manarola. The famed path ended up being closed when they visited it on Valentine’s Day 2001, but he still came up with a romantic proposal later that day, according to Ashley.
“It was great,” she said, noting they called their families from a payphone afterward.
When the two returned to Nebraska in April 2001, Karges said he still found himself unsure of what he wanted to do with his life. But, a connection he made working in the Olympic Village had some ties to the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah. That resulted in him getting a new opportunity out west.
“I was part of the committee that managed the different shops where athletes hung out,” he noted of the 2002 Winter Olympics, adding he once served as a “bouncer” at one of the village’s clubs where the athletes hung out.
COMING BACK HOME
After his second experience working the Olympics, the Karges found themselves living in Missouri for a while. There, Karges worked for an events/marketing company. But in 2003, they decided to move back to Lincoln when Ashley got a job working for Nebraska Wesleyan.
Eventually, a career in the financial services industry took form when he joined Northwestern Mutual’s Lincoln branch in 2008 as a financial adviser. Over the next few years, the Karges welcomed two sets of twins – Ian and Sofia on Dec. 3, 2006; and Vivienne and Samantha on Sept. 10, 2010. Having a growing family played a significant factor in their desire to return to Columbus in 2011.
“They are the reason I am who I am,” he said of his family.
After coming back to Columbus that year, his responsibilities continued branching out in 2013 as he began working as a field director in Columbus and the company's northeast district; coaching and networking with other clients and advisers, helping them reach their individual goals.
Karges is now one of the organization’s four managing directors in Nebraska, where he has steadily worked to grow his service area and diversify his clientele – and staff – during his time manning the helm. A little more than two years ago, he said, the Columbus office housed a couple of financial advisers. That number has steadily grown to nearly 10.
“I did well enough early on I felt like I could build a career,” he said, adding that College Unit Director Jordan Crook has played a key role in the office’s success as he has been part of it since its inception. “What drew me to it was the independence. The three I’s – income, independence and making an impact for people.”
Helping people is something that Karges strongly believes in, whether it’s through Northwestern Mutual or his many philanthropic efforts outside of work. Since returning to town eight years ago, he’s made a point of getting involved in the community however he can.
Longtime friend Erin Nahorny, who was two grades above him when they attended Scotus, bestowed a title on him that she said fits him perfectly.
“I call him Mr. Columbus,” she affirmed. “He would just do anything. He wants to do so much good in Columbus … I’ve watched him grow and develop in the community as a leader.”
So much so, that she said she sought him out to join the Board of Directors for local nonprofit Sammy’s Superheroes, an entity she helped form to raise money for children seeking a cure for childhood cancer.
“He was a natural fit to bring him on the Sammy’s Superheroes board,” she said of Karges, who has served as the board’s president at one time and was recognized with the prestigious Community Service Award from the Northwestern Mutual Foundation.
Karges doesn’t have a tally of what he has or is involved with because he doesn’t do it for credit and arguably because it would be easy to lose track. In the last eight years, he’s served on boards for Sammy’s Superheroes Foundation, Simon House, Columbus Elks Lodge 1195 and Northwestern Mutual Childhood Cancer, among others.
He’s volunteered with the Columbus Area United Way, the local holiday basketball tournament that happens each December and the Scotus alumni basketball tourney, to name just a few more.
He’s gotten his Northwestern Mutual office highly involved with the community, too, as it has partnered with the Hudnall girls in Columbus the last several years to support Alex’s Lemonade Stand, an organization dedicated to supporting childhood cancer research through various lemonade sales across the country. The group is one of Northwestern Mutual’ s top philanthropic partners, and Karges makes community engagement a key part of what he and his employees do.
“I’d love to say all our programs work, but they don’t,” he said. “But I want to continue to grow and I want to help this community continue to grow. I always say, ‘take a chance and see what happens. We’ll figure it out.’”
Ashley said her husband has always been a selfless individual who cares about others.
“I personally feel like he’s the same person he always has been. He’s always been ambitious, confident, willing to take a risk and just a good guy. He likes to meet new people – he’s always been very social,” she said. “He always does the right thing and that’s one of the things I’ve always liked about him.”
Family, above all, is what drives him. Karges and some other local residents played significant roles in forming some new local baseball teams that play opponents from around the region and use a field in Duncan as their home. He takes pride in having coached all four of his kids in various sports throughout the years and playing an active role in their lives.
“My dad was around growing up – coaching, whatever. He was there. That’s important with our kids, as well,” he said. “I want to be around for them.”
But, he stressed none if it would be possible without Ashley, whom he called a great mother.
“It’s Ashley more than me,” he said. “She’s the one who was in the muck of it more than I was, especially when I was starting my career … It’s just an interesting dynamic with two sets of twins.”
Ashley said her husband is a terrific family man and only needed a few words to boil down who he is as a person.
“He’s just a good guy,” she said. “I got a good one.”
He remains a Huskers fan, though isn’t “the die-hard” he once was growing up. In some ways, that initial trip abroad and being unafraid to meet people and experience new things paved the way to where he is today.
“I can look back at a lot of the major things in my life and see that it occurred because I knew someone or ‘networked.’ I’m at Northwestern Mutual because of my good friend Joe Dierks. I worked at the Salt Lake Olympics because of my networking in Sydney,” Karges said. “It’s interesting that I am in the career I am in because it is a ‘prospecting and promotion’ business, where I meet clients by getting referred to them from others. I guess you could say it is in my DNA.”
Matt Lindberg is the managing editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.