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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 news@columbustelegram.com. Please include contact information about the person and their background. Read previously published stories on columbustelegram.com.

Jeff Gokie was only a senior in high school when he started up his first business as a way to make some money and solve a community-wide problem.

His idea was to design and install underground sprinkler systems in his hometown of Atkinson after overhearing in a relative’s machine shop how it was a pain for residents to get someone from Omaha to make the nearly four-hour trek to the north-central Nebraska community.

“I remember thinking, ‘Who is going to come out from Omaha and do that?’ I figured I could do it a lot cheaper,” Gokie recalled, noting he then went through the necessary training to learn how to install Toro sprinkler systems. “So I began ordering parts, designed it, loaded it up and installed them with a little help from my dad.”

It became quite the job each summer all the way through college for Gokie, who hired multiple people in their teens to help him with the installation process for homes in Atkinson and in surrounding towns.

Each summer, he developed a steady routine. He would be out the door by 7 a.m. to work all day, get home around 6 p.m. for a quick meal and then would go make door-to-door sales calls until dark. After that, he would draw up designs for people’s sprinkler systems until midnight or sometimes as late as 1 a.m. Somewhere in the middle, he also found time to do some volunteer umpiring for young baseball and softball squads.

“Then I would wake up and do it again,” Gokie said, laughing.

It was well worth it, though. Gokie said he made about $6,000 each summer and solved an issue for residents as they didn’t have to wait to get a sprinkler system or to have it serviced.

Since then, Gokie has gotten married, raised his kids and relocated to Columbus. Despite the move and passing of time, there are three things Gokie undoubtedly continues to be known for today: His endless generosity, kindness and his work ethic.

“A person can always do a lot more than they think they can,” Gokie said. “You give a little more and it’s amazing how much of a positive difference it makes in people’s lives.”

EARLY DAYS

Gokie grew up volunteering his time for different efforts, going to church and playing various sports. He was quite the athlete, according to his now-wife, Cathy, who he first met in third grade and began dating their senior year of high school. He was particularly good at basketball, she added.

“I loved his sense of humor. I loved his athleticism,” Cathy said. “He was a really kind guy, very personable and outgoing.”

As for his volunteerism, Gokie said the importance of giving back to the community was instilled in him by his and Cathy’s parents, who were always very generous and known for helping others however they could.

He and Cathy went to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln after graduating high school, where he studied business management and she pursued chemical engineering.

Cathy graduated a semester before him and got a job as a process engineer for Texas Instruments in the Dallas area. He followed her down there once he graduated and they got married in 1983. That same year, he was hired by Texas Instruments as a manufacturing manager.

The Gokies together worked on weapons systems while at T.I. for the U.S. government. They specifically focused on the AGM-88 HARM (High-speed Anti-Radiation/Radar Missile), a supersonic air-to-surface tactical missile designed to seek and destroy enemy radar-equipped air defense.

“We had a hand in small parts, strategic parts,” Gokie said.

In a twist of fate, a nephew on Cathy’s side would later grow up and use those missiles while flying fighter jets off aircraft.

“That was kind of full circle,” he said.

FINDING THEIR HOME

After 12 years of living in Texas and welcoming three children, the Gokies desired to get back to their home state.

“Dallas is a great place to be young. We enjoyed it ….” Gokie said. “T.I. was a great place to work, but we wanted to be closer to family.”

Cathy shared a similar perspective, noting it was important to them that their children grew up with that same Nebraska work ethic they did.

The Gokies looked at various Nebraska communities that were close enough to their parents, such as Grand Island, Lincoln and Omaha, but came about Columbus thanks to a recommendation from high school classmate Dr. Jeffrey Gotschall, who lives and works here.

The couple knew they wanted to live in a smaller-sized manufacturing town based on their backgrounds and desire to get away from the big city atmosphere. The two quickly found a house, new jobs, and the right local Catholic school system for their young kids, and in 1995, moved their family up north.

MAKING A LASTING IMPRESSION

It didn’t take long for the Gokies to get established. They got involved in various volunteer efforts, but then in the late 1990s, they opened up a Big Apple Bagels franchise at 2320 23rd St. and then ran another location in Grand Island.

“Columbus was very good to us. We were very successful,” Gokie said, noting all three of their kids worked at the store growing up and the support from the community enabled the business to give back in various ways.

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Become a Member

Despite all of the success the Gokies experienced with the franchise, they decided to close it in 2007 after much soul searching and praying. The initial plan was to relocate the popular establishment to another city location as Walgreens had purchased the site that housed its building, but the Gokies couldn’t find an ideal spot to move the eatery to at that time. They eventually sold the Grand Island business, as well.

This year, Gokie is coming up on his 10-year anniversary of working as a sales representative for C.S. Nelson Co., selling residential and commercial real estate. He took on the opportunity after Owner/Broker Chris Nelson extended an invitation to join the team, a decision Nelson remains extremely happy about.

“I feel very fortunate to have had the pleasure of having Jeff as a key part of our real estate office team for the past 10 years. Jeff is always upbeat and he brings a smile and positive attitude to the office each and every day. He has an amazing skill set and a tremendous amount of energy,” Nelson said. “Jeff provides an extremely high level of customer service and truly goes the extra mile to ensure that his customers and clients are completely satisfied with all facets of their real estate transactions.

“He genuinely cares about people and that is evident through his volunteerism and countless activities with family and friends, at church, in the community and even here with our team at our office.”

The Gokies are also business owners, having purchased the historic Henry Building at 2521 11th St. in the downtown district in 2011 and turning what was formerly 4 Jokers Bar into Henry on 11th - a reception hall that blends the old with the new.

Henry’s charm comes from the mix of renovations the Gokies made while maintaining the building’s history that dates back decades. Part of the building was constructed in 1886, according to Gokie, while the other half was done in 1903. Among some of the older appeal is a mirror featured inside that dates back to 1889.

“So it’s 130 years old,” Gokie said.

People can rent out the venue; though bring their own food and drink or have events catered. The formula has worked well for the owners.

“We hosted 108 events last year,” Gokie said.

MAN OF THE PEOPLE

Gokie’s biggest challenge is arguably finding time for sleep, mostly because he has something going on practically at all times. Besides work, he’s been and has remained highly involved in various community initiatives throughout the years.

He’s served as a TeamMate mentor for the last 20 years, is on the hospital board and is serving the Knights of Columbus as family director, a state-wide role. He also is heavily involved at the family’s parish, St. Isidore’s Catholic Church, where he serves on the planning commission and leads a rosary session every Monday night.

Through the years his many other accomplishments include serving as president of the local tennis association (which got new tennis courts constructed during his tenure in that role), co-chair of the Relay for Life of Platte County several times, acting in numerous Platte Valley Playhouse shows, coaching several local youth teams and serving on the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce board.

“The way I look at it, you can go to work and go home, go to work and go home, but then you miss out on it all - a lot of life,” Gokie said. “There’s a lot of flavor you get a sense for by being involved. I think people miss out by not volunteering for things.”

Sandie Fischer, the local chamber’s events planner and entrepreneurship/membership developer, said she first met the Gokies when they started up Big Apple Bagels and quickly became friends. She called them both special people, praising Gokie’s selfless personality.

“He does not know the word ‘no’ in his vocabulary. He gives 125 % to everything he does,” she said, noting they co-chaired Relay for Life together on several occasions. “I love Jeff and all he has done for the Chamber, the community and his faith. He is very involved at St. Isidore’s Church and a member of the Knights of Columbus organization.”

His wife has a similar view.

“Jeff very much has a servant's heart. I think that sums him up,” Cathy said. “Wherever his skills can benefit another person or another group, he’s always willing to take the time to give to that … He’s also a really great father.”

Gokie said his family has been key in his ability to volunteer, noting it was something they all did and continue to do together. The Gokie family made Columbus Days floats together, did renovation projects and committed to other community efforts as a unit.

“We really bonded as a family,” he said. “Bring the family into it. It adds so much, and kids learn a lot about volunteering and so forth. I would encourage people to do that.”

Gokie’s volunteerism was recognized last year when he was appointed King Ferdinand XLIV for Columbus Days, something that he enjoyed.

“It was an honor, a privilege to be nominated for King Ferdinand,” he said. “It really is neat, so it meant a whole lot to represent Columbus, to be part of it and to be recognized for what you’ve done in Columbus.”

Today, the Gokies’ children are raised and successful. Michael, 31, is in the Catholic seminary in Philadelphia. David, 29, lives in Omaha with his wife and three children. Jenn, 26, is married and is a vice principal for a Catholic school in the Lincoln area.

Their kids have relocated, but the Gokies don’t have any plans to leave Columbus. There’s only one certainty: He won’t be jumping back into the sprinkler business.

“No, I’m probably past that,” said Gokie, who also enjoys photography, playing tennis and golf when he does manage to carve out a little spare time. “I don’t know what the future will bring.”

The one thing he hopes for is that his own efforts will inspire others.

“I would really encourage people to get involved and volunteer and bring your family,” he said. “Get outside your normal box. Even if you don’t think you have time, you do. I guarantee it.”

Matt Lindberg is the managing editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at matt.lindberg@lee.net.

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