Former Councilman Lo dies

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Lormong Lo in 1997. The 5-foot-tall Laotian immigrant, who served seven years on the Omaha City Council, died in his sleep last week after feeling ill. He was 52.

Former Omaha City Councilman Lormong Lo morphed quickly from lowly and unassuming to bold and assertive during his seven years on the council.

When board members selected the soft-spoken, 5-foot-tall Laotian immigrant to fill a vacancy on the board in 1994, he bowed to them and told them that his interest in serving stemmed from his hunger to give back to the community.

Four years later, as a council president, Lo was daring enough to settle a prolonged contract dispute with the firefighters union while then-Mayor Hal Daub was out of town. Daub's absence made Lo the acting mayor.

Omahans learned not to underestimate Lo, who was being remembered after his July 19 death at his Arkansas home. He was 52. The cause of his death has not been determined, said his brother, Doua Lo of Omaha.

Lormong Lo started feeling sick on July 18, went to a hospital near his home and then returned home, where he died the next day in his sleep, Doua Lo said.

An autopsy was performed and the family was waiting for results, his brother said.

Lormong Lo grew up in Laos during the Vietnam War. By day he attended school. By night and on weekends, he said, he joined his family and other Hmong people who worked with the CIA against communist forces and rescued American pilots shot down in enemy territory.

But the Hmong became endangered after the United States withdrew from the war. Lormong and Doua escaped into Thailand. Lormong later remembered being a teenager sleeping under a scrap of an American parachute in a Thai refugee camp.

He arrived in Omaha in March 1976, receiving help from a Ralston church. Lo graduated from Ralston High School in 1979, working two jobs during the week and an extra one on the weekends. He said he slept two hours a night and developed ulcers. Lo earned a degree in political science from Creighton University in 1983.

In 1980, Lo founded the Lao-Hmong Association of Nebraska, a refugee service. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1988.

During the summer of 1990, Lo worked as an intern in the mayor's business development office. Lo commuted to Sioux City, Iowa, in 1990 and 1991 as executive director of the Woodbury County Community Action Agency. He joined the Omaha Planning Department in 1991 and worked there three years in housing rehabilitation.

Lo's decision to settle the fire contract dispute while he was acting mayor stunned Omahans and made him the fodder of talk radio. Lo had worked on Daub's campaign staff and at one time was seen as a Daub loyalist. Daub later rescinded the agreement but signed virtually the same package a short time later.

Daub said he remained friends with Lo. He said any differences they had were minor. "They never interrupted our friendship or our ability to get things done," Daub said.

"I considered him a dear friend," the former mayor said Monday night. "He was a very hard-working fellow who cared about his family and was proud of his heritage. He was so very proud to be an American."

Lo's experience as a refugee fleeing to the United States made him fiercely patriotic and freedom-loving, friends have said. When he interviewed for a vacant seat on the Omaha City Council, Lo spoke of his gratitude at starting a new life in the United States.

"I thank you, America, I thank you, Omaha," he told the council.

Lo was said to be the first Hmong American to be appointed to a City Council in the United States and the first to serve as a council president for a city as large as Omaha.

He lost a 2001 re-election bid to fellow Councilman Marc Kraft, after redistricting moved Kraft into Lo's District 1. Lo bought a chicken farm in Lincoln, Ark., about seven years ago but kept a residence in Omaha, his brother said.

"I know he loved Omaha very much," Doua Lo said. "He loved his hometown and the people of Omaha."

Lormong Lo also worked preparing taxes in Siloam Springs, Ark., near his home.

Lo was involved in forming national refugee policy under the Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations. He worked on economic development with the National League of Cities in Washington, D.C.

Lo also was a member of the governing council of the Nebraska Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Survivors include his wife and five children, all of Lincoln, Ark.

Private funeral services in Arkansas were pending. The family is planning a memorial service in Omaha but did not have a date yet, his brother said.

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