“Community builder” may best describe the late David Catalan, whose commitment to improving Omaha was all the more impressive given he made this his adopted hometown.
Catalan arrived in 1980 as a Union Pacific manager. He immersed himself in community affairs and public service the next four decades — a far cry from his earlier, rootless life.
“My whole life had been like a gypsy,” he told a reporter in 2017. “I was a vagabond traveling from place to place and never really having a fixed home — until I came to Omaha. I chose to stay even after I left U.P. because I really felt at home here … after all those years wandering around.”
Catalan grew up in a Tucson, Arizona, barrio after World War II. His father worked in the copper mines. As a young teen, he and his family made the migrant worker circuit, leaving each spring-summer for California.
He finished high school in Merced and earned a scholarship to UCLA, becoming the first in his family to obtain a diploma or degree.
A U.S. Army stint brought him to Paris, where a love of the arts was sparked. Back in the States, he joined Union Pacific, which paid for MBA studies at Pepperdine University.
Once he got settled in Omaha, Catalan said, “doing community service, being on nonprofit boards became an identity for myself.”
Catalan later worked at Metropolitan Community College, in the cabinet of Mayor Hal Daub and as executive director of the Omaha Press Club and the Nonprofit Association of the Midlands. He was president of the South Omaha Business Association and the South Omaha Optimist Club.
He consulted nonprofits and small businesses.
The arts champion and published poet served on the Opera Omaha, Omaha Symphony and Nebraska Arts Council boards, cofounded SNAP! Productions and helped start El Museo Latino. He supported projects by local artists, some of whom commemorated his passing in original new works.