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Omaha Magazine

Adjusting the Rear View Mirror: A Look Back at a Teenage Milestone

Sep 29, 2022 04:23PM ● By Mike Whye

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

Those attending privately run drivers’ education academies today might not know that drivers’ ed class was part of the curriculum in junior and senior high schools years ago—and they were free.  

Deb Ketelsen, a retired nurse and reservations clerk, recalled drivers’ ed being fun, particularly when using a car simulator.  That was prior to driving a real car when she was a junior in 1970 at Omaha’s Central High School.

The one-hour drivers’ ed class met three times a week to cover traffic laws, the risks of driving, drivers’ responsibilities, and more.  “We learned how to change a tire. That’s something everyone should know, regardless of gender,” Ketelsen said.  

Students drove an Oldsmobile Cutlass with an automatic transmission or a Volkswagen station wagon with manual drive.  Ketelsen learned on the latter because her father had a 1953 Ford pickup she wanted to drive.  

She remembered a student driving while fiddling with the radio, even though the instructor told him to leave it alone.  “He went up over a curb and got close to a tree, and the instructor slammed on the brakes,” Ketelsen said, adding that the instructor kicked the boy out of the car. “We were only three blocks from school and the instructor made him walk back to it.” 

Kevin Bessey attended drivers’ ed at Arbor Heights Junior High School (known today as Westide Middle School), partially to earn a discount on his car insurance.  At times, he practiced with drivers’ ed cars in the parking lot of Christ the King Church.  “A couple high school seniors set out cones and directed the kids at 10 to 15 mph through a little course in the parking lot,” said Bessey, now retired from the Ft. Calhoun Nuclear Power Plant.  “They also taught us to parallel park and park in slots.”     

The parking lot exercises were solo, but two or three students would drive with an instructor on Pacific and Dodge Streets.  After driving for around 20 minutes, the students would rotate.  One time in the classroom, Bessey watched a don’t-do-this video.  “They showed a ’67 Corvette driving through some rolling hills.  I was supposed to be looking at it as ‘this is dangerous,’” he said.  “But it was the coolest thing I ever saw.”  

That video might have ignited Bessy’s passion to collect muscle cars, including a Ford Mustang Mach 1, a Pontiac Trans-Am, and a Mercury Cougar.  

Julie Powell, who grew up in the metro, took drivers’ ed at Abraham Lincoln High School in Council Bluffs. At first, like the other students, she drove a simulator.  “The simulator was a lot of fun—where you sat in front of a screen—and this was before I learned to drive a stick,” Powell said.

The simulator thrust students into different driving scenarios.  “The one that everyone dreaded was a trip through Los Angeles,” Powell said. She remembered one teacher saying that everyone on the road is crazy, “so you have to anticipate the other guy; call it ‘defensive driving,’” she said. 

Radio host and Omaha Magazine columnist Doug Wesselman said his grandfather taught him to drive at age 14, practicing on a farm and gravel roads and shuttling crops in rural Kansas. Once enrolled in a drivers ed class, he had an instructor named Art.   “He was a really nervous guy,” Wesselman remembered. “What we (Wesselman and another student) would do sometimes, we’d go really fast toward a stop sign and not touch the brakes.  It was like playing chicken with Art to see who would hit the brakes first…his eyes would get really round.”   

Three days after Wesselman got his license, he earned his first speeding ticket while driving his brother-in-law’s Pontiac GTO convertible.  “Its nickname was ‘Probable Cause,” he said with a smile. 

Alex Czeranko also has memories of drivers’ ed, though from a teacher’s perspective, having taught the course for 17 years at Lincoln High School. On the first day of class, each student filled out a card listing his or her driving experience.  “When I saw those who had driven six or more times already, I’d challenge them by going downtown and telling them to do lane changes,” Czeranko said.  When he encountered a student with no or little experience, they would just drive through a quiet residential neighborhood. 

“A lot of times, I had to talk them through a drive, to signal for a turn, to slow down,” Czeranko said, remembering with gratitude that his Chevy training vehicle had dual brakes, critical for avoiding hitting other vehicles or being hit.  “I’d tell them if they could practice at home, then practice at home.”  

Czeranko, who retired from teaching but still coaches track, said about 500 to 600 students took the course every year.  And yes, there were a few close calls, but he survived.

This article originally appeared in the October 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

Photo by Bill Sitzmann
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