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Alice Dittman, woman of many Nebraska firsts, publishes memoir
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Alice Dittman, woman of many Nebraska firsts, publishes memoir

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Stepping Stones

"Stepping Stones" by Alice Dittman.

For decades, Alice Dittman fought to earn the respect of male colleagues while attempting to break into the banking and corporate world.

Now, the 91-year-old has published a memoir that details her success story.

On Saturday, Dittman celebrated the release of her new book, "Stepping Stones," which tells of her experiences as one of Nebraska’s trailblazing businesswomen. Friends, family and inspired fans lined up for Dittman to sign a copy of the book at Cornhusker Bank in east Lincoln.

Dittman is Cornhusker Bank’s first female president, the first woman to preside over the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and the Nebraska Bankers’ Association, and the first female board member of both Bryan Health and the Country Club of Lincoln. Her friend and co-author, Mary Schwaner, called her a “glass-ceiling breaker.”

Schwaner said when Dittman first approached her about the project, she wanted to craft a short pamphlet about her most formative experiences to give to her grandchildren.

“I told her right away, ‘There’s no way it’ll all fit in a pamphlet. There are way too many successes and experiences in her life for it to just be a pamphlet,’” Schwaner said. “So, it quickly expanded into a book.”

Schwaner was the perfect partner for Dittman, as she had previous publishing and writing experience. So, Schwaner pieced together Dittman’s life based on the stories she told and interviews she had given.

Schwaner said Dittman has harrowing stories that show her grit and bravery. As a female bank president, Dittman often ruffled the feathers of her male counterparts.

When she extended a handshake to powerful executives and they wouldn’t accept, she refused to drop her hand.

“That really surprised them,” she said.

Over and over, the book recounts similar tales of Dittman paving her way in a man’s world. As a Harvard Radcliffe Institute graduate student, she was forced to enter lecture halls through the back door, away from the men. While president of the Nebraska Bankers’ Association, Dittman was hosting events at the Country Club of Lincoln, even though the club didn’t allow women to tee off at the same time as male golfers.

In her attempts to be taken seriously in the business world, even when her abilities were brought into question, Schwaner said Dittman was never anything but classy.

“It’s a kind way she gets her point across. There’s never any belligerence; there’s never any aggressiveness,” Schwaner said. “I admire that so much, and it does come through in the book.”

Dittman was shaking hands again Saturday, but this room was filled with people who have been touched by her life and character.

One of the people who came to see her was Sharon Shelley, a stockholder of First Nebraska Trust, where Dittman served on the board.

“I followed her career forever,” Shelley said. “She’s just an amazing woman — everything she’s accomplished. I suppose I wanted to be like her.”

Local bookshop Francie & Finch sold the books Saturday and will continue to carry copies for anyone who wishes to read about Dittman's journey.

She continues her mission to encourage others, urging readers to carve out their own path, like in the R. Lee Sharpe poem the book gets its name from. Dittman can recite it by heart.

Isn't it strange how princes and kings,

and clowns that caper in sawdust rings,

and common people, like you and me,

are builders for eternity?

 

Each is given a list of rules;

a shapeless mass; a bag of tools.

And each must fashion, ere life is flown,

a stumbling block, or a stepping-stone.

Reach the writer at jthompson@journalstar.com

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