Al Uncle, Bev Aunty and the M&M Girls

UNO graduates Al and Beverly Thomsen have been longtime supporters of their alma mater. That includes establishing scholarships, erecting statues on campus, making general donations and donating their time serving on boards and committees. Recently, they’ve found another way to do more good by sponsoring two young women from India to live in Omaha and attend the university.

Al and Bev Thomsen with (front, left to right) Manali Kate, Sister Lucy and Manasi Kate. Photo by Ryan Soderlin.

By Susan Houston Klaus

Al Thomsen really didn’t want to interrupt his yardwork that hot summer day in 2018.

A neighbor had called to invite him and his wife, Beverly, to stop by for a casual get-together. She wanted them to meet Sister Lucy Kurien, the founder of the Maher orphanage in India. The woman was in the United States on a fundraising tour.

Al protested, but Beverly persuaded him to take a couple of minutes to chat.

Grudgingly, and covered in a layer of dirt and sweat, Al walked up the street to the neighbor’s home.

“My appearance didn’t faze Sister Lucy at all,” he remembered. “She welcomed Beverly and me with open arms.”

The group chatted about Maher, and Al and Beverly learned more about the work Sister Lucy is doing at the orphanage, which provides shelter and support to people of all ages, from birth to death.

This wasn’t the first the Thomsens had heard about Maher. A few weeks earlier, they visited with a young woman named Ravina at a party hosted by the same neighbor. Ravina had lived at Maher with her sisters and was now attending college in Missouri.

The Thomsens were so inspired by Ravina’s story they decided to provide her with financial support as she pursued her degree.

Both Al and Beverly, both 85, believe in the power of education. They graduated from Omaha University, Al with his BSBA in real estate in 1957 and Beverly with a BS in education in 1958.

Al would go on to build an impressive real estate career and was involved in some of Omaha’s best-known additions to the city skyline, including the WoodmenLife Tower and First National Bank building.

Beverly taught fourth grade for eight years and, after their two children went to college, was a substitute teacher for 24 years.

In the thank-you note Ravina wrote the Thomsens, she said she would share their gift with her sisters, who lived at Maher.

Later, during their conversation with Sister Lucy, Al and Beverly learned more about Ravina’s 19-year-old twin sisters, Manali and Manasi Kate. The three siblings, who had lost both of their parents, had lived at Maher’s main campus in Pune City for about 10 years.

“After about 30 minutes of conversation, I remember standing up in the neighbor’s living room and telling Sister Lucy that I enjoyed meeting her and having the opportunity of visiting with her,” Al said.

“And while I had not discussed this with Beverly, I believed we should try to get Manasi and Manali to the United States.”

While they walked home, Beverly asked Al what he meant. Did he mean for a week or two? For a month? Just what did he mean?

“I told Beverly I didn’t know,” Al said. “I really hadn’t thought about it.”

Together, they agreed to take a huge leap of faith.

The next thing they knew, the couple were securing visas, passports and airline tickets for Manali and Manasi.

It was a typical February evening in Nebraska in 2019 — around 20 degrees and with about 10 inches of snow on the ground — when the Kate sisters landed at Eppley Airfield.

They each came with a large bag, “packed with the most important things we could think of,” said Manali, including clothes, toiletries, detergents, some traditional Indian clothing and jewelry.

The Thomsens-and-friends welcoming party was there to greet them with a bouquet of balloons with their names on them, warm coats, hats and mittens, and the prospect of some Indian food when they got to the Thomsens’ house.

Beverly remembers that Manali and Manasi “came up that aisle with the biggest smiles on their faces.”

Omaha was a literal and figurative world away from their lives at Maher.

They were giving up the familiarity of home and extended family, as well as the time they had invested in their college-level studies. But they also knew their big sister wouldn’t steer them wrong.

“Back home, we weren’t even using phones, so we didn’t know actually what was happening behind the scenes,” Manali said.

“Ravina explained to us, ‘This is the opportunity and if you want it, it’s all your decision.’ And we were like, ‘We trust you and we’ll just kind of go with whatever you say' and we decided to come.”

The young women hadn’t yet fully grasped the extent of what the Thomsens’ support would include: providing them with UNO tuition and housing for five years, and the accompanying funds for books, supplies, clothing and the extras that college students need.

The morning after they arrived, the Thomsens accompanied Manali and Manasi to UNO, where they enrolled in the university’s eight-week Intensive English language program.

The Kate sisters would have to complete the program with nothing less than As and Bs to be able to enroll in classes at UNO.

Both of the sisters, who knew academic English but didn’t know how to speak it, passed with flying colors — and made a lot of international friends in the process.

For Al and Beverly, learning about the program itself was eye-opening.

“We had no idea UNO had an English as a second language program,” Beverly said. “We found out that many people come from other countries not necessarily to continue their education, just to learn to speak English.”

Just a month after they arrived, Manali and Manasi displayed their talents, and the result of years of study, at the International Student Services International Banquet. They performed a traditional Indian dance before a crowd of about 450 attendees, who Al and Beverly proudly point out gave them a standing ovation.

After completing the program, the twins enrolled in classes at UNO.

Manali is studying studio arts with a concentration in graphic design and a marketing minor. Manasi has a double major in communication studies and international studies, with a sociology minor.

They have made the dean’s list and the chancellor’s list while working on campus an average of 15 hours a week.

The Thomsens’ generosity is always top of mind for them.

“I always wanted to do well because the Thomsens were paying so much money,” said Manasi. “They would always say ‘do your best’ and they’re so proud that we are doing so well in school.”

Manali and Manasi consider Al and Beverly their family. They correspond by email with the Thomsens’ daughter in Texas and have met both of their children.

They call the Thomsens “Al Uncle” and “Bev Aunty.” And Al and Beverly affectionately refer to them as “the M&M girls.”

As the Kate sisters have graduation in their sights, likely next year, they’re reflective about the Thomsens’ gift and the impact it’s had on them.

Both hope to pay it forward for someone else someday, as Al and Beverly have done.

“I am so glad that I got this opportunity. This is one of our dreams and I’m also thankful and grateful for how much they do. We are so blessed,” Manasi said. “When I got here, I got to see the world and I got to see the people, and I’ve really grown up. I’d really like to make that change for someone else.”

Manali says they can’t begin to explain what the Thomsens’ generosity has meant.

“We’re so grateful for them. What they’re doing, no one does. They’re just so kind and they really treat us as their grandkids. It just really feels like someone from our family.”

She encourages others to “Take the opportunities. Don’t miss opportunities. It happens for good and it takes you to a better place. We are always thankful and grateful for Alfred and Beverly Thomsen.”

As for Al and Beverly, they had no idea that warm summer day would lead them to this relationship with two young women from the other side of the world.

“They’re just delightful,” said Al. “They’ve brought a lot of brightness and light into our life, no question about it. It’s been as much of a wonderful experience for us as it has been for them.’

“We hope that they’re happy and most importantly that they find something that they don’t even think is a job, that they’re so thrilled in what they’re doing that they don’t even think of it as work at all.”

Al says he has no idea where he’d be without his wife of 63 years, and without the degree he received at UNO.

“Had it not been for that education, we wouldn’t have been able to do the things we have done. So this is just a way of paying back what the university did for us.”