WAYNE, Neb. | As an elementary school student, Randy Bertolas happily took all the old National Geographic magazines that one of his teachers was planning to throw away.
The magazines all had maps that Bertolas could pore over, wonder what it was like in those countries and how a person would travel to get there.
"I was that kid in elementary school that liked to read maps. Maps spoke to me," said Bertolas, a professor and chair of the Wayne State College geography department.
Thanks to Bertolas, Nebraska fourth-graders could hear maps calling out to them this fall.
As part of the state's celebration of the 150th anniversary of statehood, the Nebraska Sesquicentennial Commission asked that the Student Atlas of Nebraska, researched and written by Bertolas, be used for a statewide educational curriculum this fall. A total of 30,000 copies have been printed and will be distributed to every fourth-grader and fourth-grade teacher in the state for use in the Nebraska studies curriculum taught at that grade level.
The atlas, first published in 2015 and updated for its second edition this year, is full of maps, pictures, charts and statistics that cover just about everything a fourth-grader might want to know about Nebraska. There's information on crops, rivers, transportation, pioneer trails, population, ethnicity, economics and more.
A Minnesota native who has taught at Wayne State for 22 years, Bertolas hopes students gain a deeper appreciation for their home state.
"I hope fourth-graders get this and realize this was written for you, and it's about you. Learn about your place and where you are," he said.
But even more so, he hopes it sparks an interest in geography.
"I just want teachers to use it, have students get it in their little hands and learn about geography," said Bertolas, whose enthusiasm for the subject is obvious in conversation and a glance at his office walls, which are covered with photos from trips he and his students have taken throughout the world.
Bertolas never imagined that the atlas would play an important role in Nebraska's 150th anniversary celebration. The idea to produce an atlas grew from strategic planning by the Geographic Educators of Nebraska about five years ago. The group decided to pursue it, and Bertolas was more or less volunteered to write it.
He worked on it mostly on weekends in his office, researching, compiling data and creating maps. Yes, it took up a lot of his free time, but for a geographer, it was more fun than work.
"I like to learn. You're in the wrong business if you're a teacher and don't like to learn," Bertolas said. "I love looking at things like this, and I love to share."
His wife, who worked as an elementary school paraprofessional, helped him use language and write questions aimed at fourth-graders. Finally, after months of weekends spent at the office, the atlas' first edition was published and made available, along with a teacher's guide and lesson plans, to fourth-grade teachers to use in their Nebraska studies.
The atlas flew mainly under the radar. With no funds for distribution, it was hard to get it out to every corner of the state.
But with a 150th birthday coming up, the Sesquicentennial Commission saw the possibilities that the atlas presented for education. Nebraska First Lady Susanne Shore helped secure the funding for printing the new edition.
Bertolas spent four months of weekends to update and add new information to the atlas, a slick 56-page book full of color that he hopes students will flip through over and over, going back to look things up.
Through that hands-on approach and the questions posed to readers on each page, Bertolas hopes the atlas will make students more curious about their state and its history. In the larger picture, he'd love it if it got them more interested in geography in general.
"We have to start people at a young age to get interested in geography," he said. "If we don't, it's hard to get them hooked on it when they're older."
Maps don't speak to everyone like they do to him, Bertolas acknowledges.
But his atlas has a lot to say, and students shouldn't have a hard time hearing it.