Archive for July 6, 2010

The Pawnshop Beat

July 6, 2010 5 comments

Modern pawnbroker storefront.

Image via Wikipedia

The first and last time I walked into a pawnshop was when I did this story.  On second thought, I may have been in a pawnshop or two when I was a kid, accompanying my dad on trips to find some bargain items, maybe a guitar for my older brother Greg or something like that.  But otherwise my only take on pawnshops is derived from the movies and from books and articles.  My research for this story didn’t necessarily overturn any assumptions I had about these places, other than the fact that they can be extremely large and profitable operations with vast warehouses full of merchandise that rival that of discount department stores.  This story for the Omaha Weekly may not dispel any of your ideas about pawnshops either, but after doing the piece I did have a better appreciation for why they are so ubiquitous — simply put, they fill a need or demand that all the banks and loan offices cannot.  I try in the piece to present the good, the bad, and the gray about these marketplace and moneychanging emporiums, where commerce of all kinds is transacted.

The Pawnshop Beat

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Omaha Weekly

In what is a combination bazaar, everything-under-one-roof discount store and cash-on-the-barrelhead lending operation, the neighborhood pawnshop offers something for everyone. This marketplace for buying, trading and borrowing is a center of commerce where the down-and-out rub shoulders with the upwardly mobile in a common search for a good deal. From cars and boats to lawn mowers and weed whackers to guns and games to stereos and VCRs to rings and necklaces, pawnshops, which have been called the world’s greatest garage sale, deal in it all.

Because they are also historically dumping grounds for stolen goods, every single transaction is reviewed by law enforcement authorities, who, based on hunches and crime reports, look for red flags in the merchandise moved there and in the profiles of customers doing business there.





You generally don’t seek a loan at a pawnshop unless some life event — usually a bad one — has brought you to one. Maybe you’re out of work or in between pay checks. Maybe your credit cards and checking accounts are tapped out. Maybe your car’s on the blink. Maybe medical bills are due. Perhaps you’ve lost more than you can afford at Harvey’s.

Whatever your story, and there’s a million of them, you find yourself strapped for cash and unwilling or unable to borrow from family, friends, traditional lending institutions and more non-traditional sources like loan sharks. So, you grab whatever possessions you can lay your hands on and hock them for some greenbacks to help you get out of a bind. Often described as the bank of last resort, pawnshops are, for some, a stop-gap money source for when true crises arise and for others simply a way of life whose no-questions-asked ready-cash supply helps folks get by when other avenues are closed.

Jack Belmont, who’s been in the trade since growing up in the Great Depression, explained the basic appeal for people of doing business at a pawnshop as opposed, for example, to a bank. “It’s a quick deal,” he said from behind the main counter at Mid-City Jewelry & Loan, where he is a partner with owner Don Hoberman. “You walk in when you feel you’ve got something to pawn and you make the loan. You can be in and out of here inside of five minutes. You can come back anytime you want. Nobody knows your business. You don’t have to fill out a balance sheet or anything else like that. It’s very convenient, very quick.”

For those engaged in that left-handed form of human endeavor known as crime, pawnshops are convenient places to unload hot property and turn a fast buck, although the chances of avoiding detection are slim. Indeed, if it wasn’t for pawnshops, police officials say, many stolen goods would not be recovered. When stolen property in a pawnshop is detected and its rightful owner contacted to identify and retrieve it, the owner is invariably upset to find out he or she must pay to get the stuff back. This redemption charge, which is usually a fraction of the item’s cost, may seem somewhat heartless but is completely legal.

Clerking at a pawnshop is a little like being a bartender or a barber. Just about everyone who sidles up to the counter has a hard luck story to tell. Saul Kaiman, the introspective bearded owner of Sol’s Jewelry & Loan, which has four locations in the Omaha metro area, said, “When I first started working in pawnshops in the ‘50s I heard so many tales of people needing $50 to get to a funeral that I didn’t think there was anybody left alive in the United States. I was naive. I believed everything they said at first. After awhile, you know some of them are just stories and you just try to keep a straight face,” he said.




Christy, a pretty clerk in Sol’s downtown store at 514 N. 16th Street, said she has heard it all. “We get a lot of people who need help with their bills or need to get their car fixed or need to get their house repaired. Once in a while we get pawners who’ve never pawned before. They have some family emergency and they actually cry they’re so desperate.”

For a gun lover, getting a loan on a prized weapon can be as torturous as giving up a first-born son. At least that’s how painful it appeared for a man wearing a jacket and hat emblazoned with NRA slogans who came to Sol’s to pawn his Mossbach 810 rifle: “My car broke down and I needed to get it working again and this is all I had to get me what I need to get by,” he said, referring to the gun. “It’s a very fine gun. I just want to get it back.” He said it’s the first time he’s had to give up his gun. As with any pawn transaction in Nebraska, he has four months to redeem his weapon, with interest accruing from the date of the loan.

According to Tedi, a pert and petite clerk at Sol’s downtown store, “There’s a lot of people that come in here that feel bad about the circumstances they’re in. I tell them that it’s happened to everybody. That bad stuff happens and we all need money to get out of jams, and that’s what we’re here for. I try not to make them feel embarrassed about. I try to make them feel like it’s OK.”

Don Hoberman, the sardonic owner of Mid-City Jewelry and Loan at 515 So. 15th Street, explained there is an implied Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell pact in place at pawnshops to protect people’s privacy. “You don’t ask them why” they need the cash, he said. “It’s immaterial anyway. It’s their money. They don’t have to tell me why. Some people just walk in, borrow money and walk out. But some people feel they have to, so you listen,” he said.

A pretty but sad-eyed wife and mother of two recently entered Sol’s looking distraught as she used one hand to push an electric snowblower ahead of her and the other hand to cart a camera case. “I missed a payday at work and I needed a little help to pay some bills today. That way I won’t get behind and I know I still have time to come back down and get my stuff out. I’ve been dealing with Sol’s for 10 years and they don’t ask any questions — they just help if they can.” With her $275 loan in hand, she left with a smile.

Customers don’t always leave happy, however. In assessing the fair market value of a pawned item, for example, there is bound to be some difference of opinion. Christy at Sol’s said, “We get quite a few irate customers. They get mad because we don’t give them what they want or they think we’re gypping them. We’re not. We’re being fair with the game. When they sign the contract they know what they’re signing.” Tedi at Sol’s added, “No matter how hard we try to explain the loan process, you get some people that…don’t seem to understand that the item they pawned a year ago and never paid on is no longer here, because if you don’t come back for it or pay on it after four months we can sell it. A lot of times it was a sentimental thing, and they’re angry about it. Like it’s all our fault.”

Then there are the regulars. Take Judy Johnson, for example. She often pawns jewelry at Mid-City to help tide her over when things are tight. “Right now I’m painting my house, and I need extra money” for supplies, she said one morning at the shop. She still has several jewelry pieces in hock.

“I miss them a lot,” she said. She is one of several loyal customers to follow Belmont to Mid-City from the shop he and his late brother ran, and that their late father started, Crosstown Loan, which was located on N. 24th Street until it burned down in the 1969 riot, and which later moved to 16th Street. At Sol’s, the regulars include a mother-daughter combo who say they’re such frequent customers that “they should put a revolving door in for us.” Kaiman said many elderly customers, including a man who pawned his Colt. 38 revolver over and over again, make a habit of pawning as much for the social interaction as for the money.

Hoberman and partner Jack Belmont own a combined 90-plus years in the business. For them, the pawnshop is a kind of social laboratory and money changer in one where the disparate mix of human kind meet to haggle and strike a deal.



So, what’s the oddest thing someone has tried pawning? Hoberman recalled the man who came in once and asked, ‘Do you take anything?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He goes, ‘How about an eyeball?’ I said, ‘C’mon quit kidding.’ So, he popped it out and put in on the counter. And I said, ‘Make it wink.’ He couldn’t do it, so I had him put it back.” Then there was the World War II veteran who made a habit of pawning his prosthetic leg, which he never picked up — Veterans Administration Hospital workers did. Hoberman draws the line at living creatures. “We always figure if you gotta feed it or clean it, you don’t want it, so we don’t take it.”

You never know who will show up at a pawnshop, either. Back in the early 1980s then-Governor Bob Kerrey, who became a good friend of the store’s through his predecessor, former governor and senator Jim Exon, whom Hoberman knew from Exon’s days in the furniture business, stopped by to ask, “What do you give somebody who’s a movie star?”  Kerrey was referring to his then girl-friend, screen actress Debra Winger. “I told him one of the fashionable things was pearls, and so we acquired 30-inch strand of pearls and he gave them to her for a present. Two day afterwards her picture was taken at some event and she had them on. He sent me the picture. He doesn’t have the girl anymore, but she still has the pearls.”

If all his years in the trade have taught him anything, Hoberman said, it is that people “from all walks of life” — from high rollers to penniless tramps — frequent pawnshops and the thing is you can’t always tell who’s who.

“You can’t qualify who comes through the front door and decide what they’re going to pawn or what they might be able to buy. It’s a lesson I learned a long time ago. I once had somebody pawn a $5 watch and then he wanted to look at a $1,000 ring. And I thought, Well, why should I show him this ring when he’s having trouble getting $5 together?

“But I soon learned you don’t look at it that way. The guy came back and he said, ‘Thank you for loaning me on the watch,” and he walked over to the jewelry case and plunked down cash to buy the ring. You see, you just don’t decide what they can and can’t do by what they look like.” In other words, assuming someone is broke just because he or she needs fast cash is a no-no. “It isn’t always because you’re broke,” Hoberman said, “it’s because you’re short.”

Or, as a distinguished looking black man said one morning at Sol’s, where he was redeeming a bracelet he originally bought there, “I get paid every two weeks and with utilities the way they are and everything in general going up, I get little shortfalls between paychecks, and so pawning’s a matter of just being able to make it and keep everything current with bills, groceries, bus fare and things like that.” He added, “You know, sometimes you don’t want to do it, but it just comes in handy as a safety net. It’s just another tool in helping you make it through.”

Besides, the kind of fast turnover loans made by pawnshops just aren’t available elsewhere. “Say you have a ring you bought at a retail store for $1,000, and now you need $200 for something. You can’t take it (the ring) to the bank because they don’t loan on products like that,” Hoberman said. “Even if the ring was worth $40,000, the bank still won’t loan on it. I have people come in with $10,000 in their pocket. They need another $4,000 to buy something and they’ve got to do it NOW. They come with something we can loan them $4,000 on and they’re out the door and they’re back.”



pawn shop



Hoberman believes most people find themselves financially short due to their own actions or decisions. He points to the casinos across the river as a major reason why some people end up on the margins or fringes. He said where items were once being redeemed at a nearly 80 percent rate, they are now redeemed at only 62 percent.

“The redemption percentage has dropped because I think people never recover from their gambling losses,” he said. “I have one gentleman who pawns his car here. He stops in on his way to the casino. We loan him money on the car, then we drive him over and drop him off at the boat, and we put his car into storage. On occasion…he hits and he’s back to get his car the same day.” Other times, the car sits in storage for days or weeks before he can afford to retrieve it.

Kaiman, of Sol’s, agrees that gambling addiction, along with drugs, accounts for the lower redemption rates being seen in pawnshops.

“My personal opinion is that a lot of people get financially hurt over at the casinos. You know they pawn their diamond ring or something with hopes of winning over there. They don’t win and they don’t have enough to get it back. The casinos have probably changed the way we operate more than anything than I can remember. It used to be a cyclical thing. From October to February more people were buying things and picking up things, and the rest of the months were more input — with people bringing things in more than picking up. But because the casinos are 12-months a year, 24-hours a day, that’s changed a lot. We get less pickups and just more coming in.”

It’s meant an ever expanding inventory at Sol’s, which must increasingly try to resell unredeemed items, often at close to cost just to reduce backlogs.

Detective Mike Salzbrenner of the Omaha Police Department’s Burglary/Pawn Unit works the local pawnshop beat. He, and his colleagues, follow a daily routine that finds them making the rounds at the local shops, where they scour through identification cards completed on every transaction. Each pawn card includes the customer’s name, address, telephone number, height weight and fingerprint as well as a summary of the transaction and a description of the items dealt. Rifling through the cards, the well-tanned and blue-suited Salzbrenner looks for anything that appears fishy.

“See, this one bothers me,” he tells a visitor one morning at Sol’s. “Here’s a young lady who just turned 18, which is the legal minimum age to pawn, and she brought in a $250-$300 tennis bracelet. Because of her age, that makes me think the bracelet’s her mother’s or somebody’s. That’s one I’ll call and speak with the mother about. I swear, half the time the mother will come back and say, ‘It’s not in my jewelry box.’ And I’ll tell her, ‘I’m sorry ma’am, but she just pawned it and you better find out why.” Often, Salzbrenner said, it’s to support a drug habit or to cover debts.





Although he has no hard evidence to prove it, Salzbrenner is sure that pawning — of stolen goods or not — has increased since the arrival of the casinos. Gambling debts, he said, force otherwise law-abiding citizens to take desperate measures. “A typical case I’m working on is somebody with a gambling problem. They get addicted to gambling and, of course, they run out of money. They turn around and start stealing from their employer. Well, a lot of these people are not common thieves. They wouldn’t know a fence out on the street. But they do know pawnshops, where they go and claim items as their own and get $20 for a watch or whatever. They go across the river, lose their money and they want to gamble again.” So, they steal again. And the cycle goes on.

The job, Salzbrenner acknowledges, calls for much interpretation. “We’re the judgment call beat. We’re looking for anything suspicious. Suspicious to us,” he said, includes youths bringing in merchandise not appropriate to their age or anyone selling things, especially new items, for a fraction of their value or customers not knowing much about the goods they represent as their own.

He said in following up on questionable deals, citizens often grow defensive about what they consider a hassle and an intrusion into their private lives. “We get a lot of accusations thrown at us. A lot of times they say, ‘If there’s no victim, then why are you bothering me?’ Well, I tell them, we’re trying to find out if there is one.”

When his nose tells him something stinks, he said, he’ll track the customer’s pawn and criminal records on the police computer, he’ll place phone calls and he’ll make other inquiries until he’s exhausted all lines of investigation. “Somebody’s going to have to satisfy me someplace,” he said. Until he has an answer, he can put a hold on any item, and it cannot be touched again until he releases it.

Salzbrenner’s superior, Sgt. Mary Bruner, said smart thieves either avoid pawnshops altogether — preferring to exchange their ill-gotten goods on the street — or else enlist accomplices, including residents of shelters, to pawn the booty, which makes suspect identification and apprehension more difficult. While only a fraction of all stolen goods is ever recovered, Bruner said the OPD’s Burglary/Pawn Unit cleared a record $752,000 in recovered stolen property last year. Contributing to that total, she said, was the unit cracking a couple large jewelry theft rings.

According to Hoberman, the way business is conducted at pawnshops these days — with paperwork filled out in triplicate and unredeemed items stockpiled in warehouses brimming with goods from floor to ceiling — some of the joy has gone out of the work. He said there isn’t quite the trust and conviviality there once was.

“People have changed. It used to be word was bond. Way back, a guy would come in with a two-cent lead pencil and you’d loan him $10 on it. Now, that may sound strange, but his word was bond. That’s all he had was his word. He would come back and get that lead pencil. Now, he knew he could go out and buy another pencil for two cents. He didn’t have to come back and pay that $10, but he would. It used to be a little more casual and a lot more fun. It’s still fun, but it’s more business. Back in the old days you could kind of fly by the seat of your pants. I used to keep a whistle under the counter and when it would get really crazy in here, I’d blow the whistle and say, ‘Wait a minute, let’s start this whole day over.’”

Sacred Trust, Author Ron Hansen’s Fiction Explores Moral Struggles

Seated man reading a book

Image by National Media Museum via Flickr

Word for word, phrase for phrase, thought for thought, there may be no better American writer of the last quarter century than Ron Hansen, an Omaha native whose body of work is impressive for its breadth and depth.  He is perhaps best know for two of his earliest novels, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Mariette in Ecstasy.  I’ve had the pleasure of reading those and other novels by Hansen, who has graciously given me a handful of interviews over the years.  As time goes by I will post other Hansen stories I’ve written.  This one appeared not long after the release of his Hitler’s Niece and while he was adapting an unproduced screenplay of his into a book, Isn’t it Romantic?.  His sheer command of language is astounding.  His research and detail overwhelming.  He’s also a fine storyteller.  Then when you add to this the spiritual themes and currents that occupy him in real life, and you have a rich reading experience.

My story appeared in the Omaha Weekly, one of at least three different publications that’s published my Hansen work.





Sacred Trust, Author Ron Hansen’s Fiction RExplores Moral Struggles

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Omaha Weekly


Whether exploring the worlds of saints or sinners, real moral questions and struggles swirl at the heart of author Ron Hansen’s work, which reflects this devout Catholic’s abiding interest in faith. His novels are explorations in the ethical choices characters make and the consequences that ensue. In The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Knopf, 1983) Hansen essayed the kinship and treachery of an outlaw family. In Mariette in Ecstasy (Harper-Collins, 1992) he chronicled a young novitiate’s ardent love for God growing so intense that it overwhelms her mind, her body and the convent she becomes a curiosity and outcast in.




In Atticus (Harper-Collins, 1996) he brooded on the legacy of a strained father-son relationship, the futility of ever fully knowing someone and the nature of forgiveness. In Hitler’s Niece (Harper-Collins, 1999) he examined the brewing evil of Hitler in the 1920s and early ‘30s through the prism of the only woman the despot ever loved — the fuhrer’s young and innocent niece Angelika “Geli” Raubal, who was destroyed by her uncle.

In his life and in his work, Hansen, an Omaha native, seeks the spark of some connection with the sacred and the ethereal. It gives him sustenance and constitutes his muse. “Some of my favorite moments are late nights with other people talking about miraculous experiences in their lives or times when they felt the hand of God or the solace of God and they learned more about themselves or about God’s benign mercy,” he said in an interview during a recent Omaha visit to deliver the William F. Kelley, S.J. Endowed Lecture at his alma mater, Creighton University. “Those things are kind of ways of inspiring you and bucking you up. It’s a way of becoming aware of another world that’s totally unseen.”

It was while struggling with Atticus that Hansen felt the healing presence of God.

“I’d been working on Atticus and it was going badly,” he said. “This was back in 1985. I’d written like 120 pages that were rotten. I was in Cancun — throwing rocks into the ocean late at night as the waves were crashing in. I was really angry about my book and about the hard time I was having finding a teaching job. I was feeling really awful. I was full of self-pity. And I thought, What’s going to become of me? And then I just had an incredible sense of God laughing. It was a sense of Him saying, If you knew what I know, you wouldn’t be so worried. And I realized it was all going to come out all right, but it wasn’t going to be immediate. I just had this feeling of calm. Almost everybody has the same experience when they have this kind of God moment. You just feel at ease about things. So, I put the book away and started other books.

“I went back to it and it was terrible still. And I just kept going back to it. And then, finally, when Mariette was published I had one book left on a two book contract and I said, ‘Oh, I’ll just go back to this one (Atticus).’ It took me a long time to rewrite it. I kept trying to use the words I used already. But it was almost like somebody else had written that. I was not that person anymore. I finally gave up on that and started writing totally new words, and then it worked fine. I found that sense of God smiling and saying — Take it easy, kid — made me take it easy.”





According to Hansen, the writing process itself is a somewhat mysterious and metaphysical experience that finds the writer drawing on resources he is not always fully aware of or in control of. “Writing well is a form of a waking dream,” he said. “It’s almost the same thing that happens when you’re in a dream state. Images start to occur. You don’t know where they come from. And you try and fit them together. Often, you have a mental picture of something and you see characters in relationship to each other, but you don’t know exactly what they’re going to say to each other. And sometimes that’s where the zest comes — when you hear something surprising and just right that comes from one of them. Part of it is because it’s really your subconscious that seems to be writing the novel at its best. It’s your conscious mind that revises it, but it’s the subconscious that supplies all the scintillating details — the colorations you could not have thought of yourself.”

Whether it’s the spirit or the subconscious moving him, Hansen said, it is no accident these voices speak to him because he is open to the possibility of such a communion happening in the first place. “Partly, I think it’s because I want these things to happen, and some people don’t want them to happen. They might get spooked by them. It’s part of the writer’s equipment to seek out those experiences and to live them fully. And other people are maybe more guarded and maybe necessarily so, so they can’t be as available to that sort of thing. I always describe a writer’s life as being different from others in that some people kind of have venetian blinds that are closed and the writer’s are open, so that everything can come in. And that’s what makes writers go crazy. That’s what makes them obsessive and everything else. But it’s also one of the things they need to do.”

If creative writing flows out of some deep well fed by intuitive streams, then it is easier to appreciate how something like a novel comes into being as a complex and coherent whole from a seemingly disparate and random collection of ideas, themes, issues, preoccupations, incidents, places and characters. The way Hansen sees it, a novel only reaches its final shape after the novelist has played a game of sleuth with himself and all the narrative threads dangling from his imagination. He said for most of the writing process the novelist is only aware of bits and pieces of what the book will eventually comprise — discovering the contents as he goes along. During that creative journey, the writer must be ready and willing to go in many directions and to follow many leads, some of which may be dead ends. It is only in searching out and sifting through the many loose story strands, that the nut of the novel is finally revealed and its elements tied together.

“Well, it’s as if an alphabet exists and you don’t know all the letters to the alphabet,” he said. “You might know A, J, L and Z, and with that foundation you then have to fill in all the rest. It’s like when scholars tried to translate the Egyptian hieroglyphics. They had a few words that they knew and then they’d go from there. I think the same thing is true with writing a novel. You know, for example, certain things about it and then you have questions about other things, and then the questions will reveal things as you write the novel. Knowing a few things gives you the confidence that you can actually lay it all out there.

“But you’re still kind of writing in the dark no matter how well you plan. There’s all kinds of spontaneity that comes into the novel. There’s all kinds of surprises and wrong turns that you can take. So, you have to be disciplined enough to kind of say, This is tangential or doesn’t belong, or, I did this badly, or, Maybe I don’t need this scene after all, or, This character doesn’t belong in this novel — he belongs somewhere else. All kinds of changes happen in the process of writing. It’s part of the fascination but part of the drudgery as well.”

Now that Hansen has created a fairly large body of work, he finds himself running up against the same dilemma a writer friend of his faced a while ago. “I don’t think it’s legal anymore, but a friend of mine got a tax write off by claiming his creative ideas were being diminished year by year. He was actually able to depreciate his intellectual capital. And, he was right. How many ideas can you have, you know? In my own writing, there’s all kind of metaphors I can’t use anymore because I’ve used them already. Characters I can’t have. Situations…Certainly, Stephen King has shown you can exhaust your own ideas.”

For Hansen, “part of the interest” and the challenge of writing is tapping his inner being to better understand himself and the world he inhabits and interprets. It is an ongoing search for answers — much akin to the spiritual journey that Hansen, who has a master’s degree in Spirituality, has taken. It is a journey, he said, that has no end. “Yeah, I don’t think anybody ever reaches a stopping point or, at least, they shouldn’t. I mean, God isn’t knowable but you learn a little bit more and more and you learn a little bit more about yourself. I guess I don’t really know myself very well. I think I know who I was 10 years ago and I can look back at the past and understand everything about myself, whereas in my present circumstances I’m just poking around like everybody else.”

As far as injecting himself into his work, he avoids drawing closely on his own life. “I’m not very good at autobiographical writing,” he said. “The only time I ever really write autobiographically is when I write nonfiction (as in his new book of essays, A Stay Against Confusion, Harper-Collins, 2001). I want to have my anima come through in my fiction rather than who I am right now or who I seem to be.” He also knows himself well enough to shy away from certain projects that are not a good fit. “In terms of my strengths and weaknesses, there are some types of writing I wouldn’t attempt and some kind I know I have a propensity toward. There’s certain novels that won’t ever suggest themselves to me because I know I’d do them badly. Among the genres I could never do are fantasy and science fiction because I just don’t have that yen to do them. On the other hand, I like historical writing.”

In much of his historical writing, which ranges from the misadventures of the Dalton gang in Desperados (Knopf, 1979) and the machinations of the James gang in Jesse James to the unholy union of Hitler and Geli Raubal in Hitler’s Niece, Hansen has been drawn to outlaw figures. He said a beguilement with practitioners of left-handed forms of human endeavor is a natural for writers, who share an outsider’s perspective with the lawless, the rebellious and the fringe dwellers of the world.

“Outlaws are in some way marginalized, but also they live outside the world of convention. I think most writers, too, feel marginalized in some way and they feel they live outside conventional rules and boundaries. It doesn’t mean they’re all breaking windows. I think what it means is that the way most people live their lives is unfamiliar to the writer because it has to be,” he said. “I think most writers begin wanting to be writers because they feel like, Oh, I’m different, and they feel somehow they don’t fit into the normal pattern of things, and so consequently they have a sympathy toward outlaws. There’s a tendency among writers to feel like these guys (outlaws) are just misguided writers. Also, I think a lot of outlaws are really control freaks in their own way. And I think writers are, too. They want to form their own world and have complete control over all the characters in it. That’s what happens to a lot of outlaws, and that’s why they keep running up against the law.”





In his literary sojourns Hansen plumbs the depths of his conflicted characters’ souls, whose shadows and secrets are revealed in a world come unhinged by sudden shifts in the terra firma. Hansen said his own world view has taken on certain fatalistic shadings as the result of dramatic losses and reversals he has observed in people’s lives. “A good of friend of mine was killed in a motorcycle accident when I was a kid and another friend was killed in a motorcycle accident when I was older,” he said. “And you realize it all can change in an instant.” He feels literature is fertile ground for playing out in the mind’s eye how one might react to such dire events in real life. “I think writing is a way of being precautionary,” he said. “It’s a way, like in dreams, where you kind of forecast a situation you wouldn’t want happen and see how you would respond to it. So, in some ways, it’s kind of a dress rehearsal for tragedy. You have some kind of preparation and a sense of calm at a point where you otherwise panic.”

In the case of writing Hitler’s Niece, Hansen was compelled not so much by a desire to imagine himself struggling in the web of evil but by a desire to weave an historically-based story that offered up a cautionary tale about the dangerous lure of evil. He explained how and why he came to devote months of his life to researching the book. “I was reading a biography of Hitler and in there the author said that Geli Raubal was the only woman Hitler ever loved or would ever consider marrying and that Eva Braun, who we know much more about, was just a kind of mistress he had sex with. Hitler used to say to his secretary that Eva was ‘a woman I have at my disposal.’ And, of course, it’s symptomatic of Hitler that he would commit suicide the day after his wedding.”

For Hansen, the real attraction to telling Geli’s story, which is also pre-war Germany’ story, was that she “knew Hitler when all his evil and his power was incipient — when he was just a failed politician and a guy who made his money from giving speeches, but did nothing else. That he was a person she really couldn’t imagine doing all the things he ended up doing was fascinating to me. And, also, it became a kind of moral lesson of how we get sucked in by evil. Of how a poor girl becomes a groupie, essentially, to her uncle. And how he sucks her in and imprisons her with blandishments and how for awhile she tries to turn away from the bad side of her uncle. But then she realizes that this isn’t just a cranky guy with terrible ideas about Jews, but that he’s crazy and dangerous and she tries to escape, and that’s how she dies.”

According to Hansen, part of what he tried to do with Hitler’s Niece was help readers understand “how Germany could fall for” Hitler’s repugnant diatribe and help turn his doctrine of hate into a nationalistic movement. He hopes that lesson gives us pause in considering our leaders today. “As a famous quotation goes, ‘The only reason to write history is to give lessons for the future,’” he said. “So, all we can do is identify those qualities in a political leader that could lead to a Hitler. I think people like Hitler make a deliberate choice for evil, but they disguise it as well as they can. So, Hitler would come across to most people who knew him as incredibly charming and suave. People get deluded. I think we have politicians today who are like that. If you met them you would say, Oh, what a wonderful guy, yet you know down deep there’s a kernel in there that in many ways is opposed to what is right.”

A moral universe filled with choices pervades Hansen’s thinking and writing. How his faith colors his work is something he frequently addresses in lectures and essays. In his April 7 talk at the Alpha Sigma Nu Dinner at Creighton University, he delivered a lecture entitled “Hotly in Pursuit of the Real — The Catholic Way,” part of whose title he took from a quote by another famous Catholic author, the late Flannery O’Connor, who said it is the obligation of a writer to be in hot pursuit of the real. On the eve of his talk, Hansen explained what he hoped to convey: “I’m trying to talk about not only how one finds one’s vocation as a writer, but how being a Catholic that might be somewhat different than it is if you were a Jewish writer or a Protestant writer. I’m trying to identify those kinds of characteristics. I talk about my faith and how it affected me. For instance, growing up with the Catholic liturgies, the reverence for saints, the sacramentality, the sense of God being imminent but being distant — all those things helped my formation as a writer.”

Outside his faith, among the strongest influences on his writing have been the teachers in his life. While attending the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa, he came under the sphere of noted American author John Irving, with whom he lived. “I learned from him how to live the life of a writer,” Hansen said. “How to keep on producing books, how to be focused, how to be disciplined, how to manage a life while writing.” Over a period of four summers at a writers conference in Vermont, Hansen found a mentor in the late John Gardner. “I really liked him as a teacher. He was a very generous person with his time and with his intelligent reading of your manuscripts. I kind of modeled myself as a teacher after him.” And at Stanford University Hansen became a devoted student of John L’Hereaux’s, who years before as a fiction editor at Atlantic Monthly gave Hansen “the first sign I had that maybe I could do this (write professionally). He was the person who helped me with my first novel, Desperadoes.”





Teaching, which is how Hansen has supported his writing the last couple decades, enriches his work as well. “There’s that old saying, How will I know what I think until I see what I say. And teaching gives you all kinds of opportunities to say things that you might not normally address,” said Hansen, a tenured professor in the English Department at Santa Clara University. “Just as writing workshops allow  students to see all the different ways a story can go wrong, which will help them avoid those mistakes, the same is true for the teacher. I’ve read thousands of stories in class, and so I’ve seen the ways stories go wrong — so I don’t make those mistakes.” He said for some writers teaching “can have a stultifying effect in that you expend so much of your energy addressing other people’s writing problems that you feel like you’ve written yourself and you don’t do a lot of writing. But that’s not true for me. I do all my work for school at school and all my own work at home, and I don’t let them infiltrate. And dealing with young people who are full of energy about the writing process can be energizing as well.”

Hansen, who never signs a contract until a book is done (“It gives me more freedom.”) is now adapting an unproduced screenplay he co-wrote into a book. “I don’t know if it’s a novella or a novel. I know the dialogue works and the situations are funny, but I don’t think the tone is exactly right. It’s about a French couple who have the bad idea of traveling through the United States as tourists on a bus. They get waylaid in a small town in Nebraska where they’re taken on as kind of mascots for the festival held there. It’s full of misunderstandings and sliding doors and French farce.” Nebraska has figured prominently in several Hanson short stories, most notably in the collection of stories published as Nebraska. He said having some distance from his roots helps him write about them. “I don’t think I could write about Nebraska while living in Nebraska. It’s easier when you’re away from home, partly because it becomes the Nebraska of your imagination, which is much more interesting than the real thing.”

The Fighting Hernandez Brothers

July 6, 2010 15 comments


Image via Wikipedia

Another of my boxing stories is featured here, this time about a family of fighters, the Hernandez brothers.  It’s a story of overcoming odds, winning great victories, enduring brutal losses, experiencing tragic events, and, where possible, keeping on despite all the blows.  Rarely has a single family produced as many good boxers as this one did, but as the story goes into, there was a price to be paid.  The article originally appeared in a paper that no loner exists, the Omaha Weekly. Boxing seems to give journalists license to take a more literary approach and I pulled out all the stops in this one.

NOTE: The Hernandez brother who was perhaps the most accomplished in the ring, Art Hernandez, passed away recently. He was a world-ranked contender for a time, holding his own with some tough hombres.  He once fought an aging but still dangerous Sugar Ray Robinson to a disputed draw in Omaha. Most observers felt Art should have been given the decision.

The Fighting Hernandez Brothers

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Omaha Weekly

Armed with fists of fury and cajoles of brass, the Fighting Hernandez brothers strode into town from the sun-baked Panhandle to whip nearly all comers in Omaha ring events from the late 1950s through the mid-1970s. Ferd, Art and Dale Hernandez each left their mark on the amateur and professional boxing scene, not only here, but regionally and nationally as well. The brothers’ lives inside the ropes were filled with more than the usual pugilistic triumph and failure. Three of them achieved Top 10 rankings — Dale as a lightweight and both Ferd and Art as middleweights. They fought all over the globe. They crossed gloves with several world champions, including some legends. They held titles. They got robbed of some decisions. An injury ended the career of one. A bad beating spelled the beginning of the end for another. A fourth brother, Chuck, never really had the heart for boxing and quit after a brief and uneventful career.

Life outside the ring has also held more than its share of highs and lows. There have been wives, girlfriends, kids, breakups. Separated by a year in age and quite a bit older than their male siblings, Ferd and Art were fast buddies and, by all accounts, bad influences on each other — indulging in vices that fighters-in-training are supposed to avoid. “We had too much fun together,” Art said from the south Omaha home he shares with his wife, Mary, and their children. “We were bad — that’s for sure. I guess we had no will power.” He said things got so bad even his big brother realized it was best if he moved on. “He knew that if we were together we wouldn’t be right, so he went west. The greatest thing he ever did for himself and for me was to get the hell out of town.” Ferd went to Las Vegas of all places.

After compiling a 35-10-3 record as a pro, Ferd incurred a detached retina that forced him to retire early at age 33. He stayed on in Vegas, becoming a main event referee, a straight man in the “Minsky’s Burlesque” show at the Aladdin and a casino bartender, before contracting liver disease that killed him at 57. Art finished with a 44-20-2 pro mark. In his post-boxing life he worked the security detail at Douglas County Hospital, often responding to calls in the psyche ward, before becoming chief of security. A freak accident in 1997 led to his left leg’s amputation. Dale, the hardest puncher of the bunch, slugged his way to a 37-6 pro record, but his disdain for training led him to quit before ever maxing-out his ability. A trucker by trade, Dale has spent the last several years in and out of prison for assault. Today, he is persona non grata with his surviving brothers.

Born in Minatare, Neb., Art and Ferd moved with their family to Sidney, where the Hernandez boys were weaned on The Sweet Science by their father, Perfecto “Pete,” a former glove man himself. The old man worked his sons hard. For Perfecto, now caring for his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife and the mother of his six children, Rebecca, in Cheyenne, Wyo., boxing was an art form whose object was skillfully avoiding being hit while laying leather on your opponent. “His thing about boxing was defense,” said Art, the only brother still living in-state and, according to some local ring observers, the best boxer, pound-for-pound, produced by Nebraska the past 40 years. “His philosophy was, ‘Hit, and don’t get hit.’ We just moved and moved and moved and threw a lot of jabs. He never yelled. He just told you exactly what you were doing wrong. ‘Throw more jabs, boy. Throw more upper cuts, boy.’ It was always, ‘boy.’”

From the time they were 5 and 6 years old, respectively, Art and Ferd were urged to scrap by the old man, who fashioned a makeshift ring at home and ran a gym Sidney boxing boosters built for him in town. “That’s where we learned everything that we knew. There were always fights,” is how Art describes those early years. “He had us sparring all the time. He was a great inspiration.” The two tykes became a kind of novelty opening act on local fight cards when their dad had them fight exhibition matches before regularly scheduled bouts. Art said that while definitely pushed into boxing, he genuinely liked the sport and only threatened quitting once under his father’s heavy hand, “but it never happened.”

As the brothers began dominating the junior boxing circuit, they quickly made names for themselves as tough little hombres. The Midwest Golden Gloves tournament, once a huge draw at the Civic Auditorium, became their personal showcase. They represented the southwest Nebraska district out of Scottsbluff. Art so outclassed the field he became the first fighter to win five Midwest Gloves titles and, after capturing his fifth, tourney officials told the then-19 year-old he was not welcome back. Ferd won two Midwest crowns and used the second as a springboard to do something his younger brother could not — win a national Golden Gloves championship (taking the 1960 welterweight division title in Chicago). Despite the brothers being virtually the same size, their father kept them in separate weight divisions for good reasons: one, to double the family’s chances at winning trophies and titles; and, two, to placate Mama Hernandez, who forbade her sons from ever fighting each other “for real.”

Fresh off his championship, Ferd, along with Art, competed for spots on the 1960 United States Olympic boxing team during tryouts in Pocatello, Idaho. At the tryouts Ferd lost in the finals and Art bowed out in the first round. While their bid for Olympic glory ended before it could begin, they scored a coup when Idaho State University boxing coach Dubby Holt, scouting prospects for his program, offered them scholarships. “He wanted a brother team and, so, we said, ‘Sure, why not?’ and we went there,” Art said. Things did not pan out for the pair in Pocatello, where they spent more time carousing than working, a pattern that played out over and over again whenever they teamed-up. Back home for Christmas break, Perfecto sized up his sons and determined while they were not cut out for school, they just might have the right stuff for prizefighting.

Art turned pro first, signing with Omaha promoter Lee Sloan, who acted as his manager and matchmaker. “When I turned pro, Sloan asked me, ‘Do you think you can be a world champion?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Well, then, you’re mine.’ That was a motivating thing my whole life.” He trained under the tutelage of veteran handler Sammy Musco, a former prizefighter. Musco refined his punching style. “When he first started training me, my left hook used to come all the way around, where his style of fighting was to stay in tight and just throw it with leverage. Just a real short punch. It worked all the time. He was a good trainer — no doubt about it. He’d make you work and make you work.”

Art Hernandez

As Hernandez tells it, his first pro fight was nearly his last. Matched in a 4-rounder against Ray Terry of Chicago, he easily out pointed his foe the first three rounds but in the fourth he got careless and was dropped by a hard left to the jaw. He won the decision, but the pain was so brutal for so long he considered hanging up the gloves for good. “I thought, ‘Oh, shit, if this is the way it’s gonna be, I don’t want to do it anymore.’ I went back home for a whole year. I was weighing not to come back at all because that punch hurt me so bad. But there was nothing there for me in Sidney, and so I just decided to go back and do it to it.”

Ferd entered the prizefighting arena a few months after Art’s debut. Once Art overcame those nagging doubts to resume his career, he and Ferd notched a few more wins under their belts. Then, according to local boxing historian and former matchmaker Tom Lovgren, their shared manager, Sloan, decided one or the other had to go. It seems the two were raising such hell together that, in Sloan’s view, they were holding each other back and, so, he decided to separate these modern Corsican Brothers. He reportedly asked a promoter friend to overmatch the boys, vowing to keep the one showing the most poise in defeat. The fights were made and, as expected, each lost. The verdict: Art stayed on, while Ferd left for Las Vegas, just then evolving into a hot fight market.

By the mid-60s the brothers’ careers began taking off — each emerging as middleweight contenders. Before long, they were fielding offers to fight each other. “Yeah, we had offers,” Art said. “Well, he was rated No. 2 and I was No. 3. I asked my dad what he thought about it and he said, ‘Hey, you’re in the game for money. If the money’s right, take it.’ But, you know, our mom said, ‘No,’ and that was it.” In 1964, a young, inexperienced but promising Art got his first brush with immortality when matched with six-time world champ Sugar Ray Robinson, by then in his 40s but, as the saying goes, possessing every trick in the book. When the fight was initially made, Hernandez admits he felt intimidated by the Robinson legend. “When my handlers first mentioned the fight I thought, ‘I’m going to be killed,’ but then as I was training I got in terrific shape and I thought, ‘Well, shit, I’ve got nothin’ to lose — I’ll give it all I got.’ Which I did.” A steamy Civic Auditorium was the site of the 10-rounder, which went the distance and ended in controversy when a cagey Robinson, sensing he was behind, twice hit Hernandez below the belt. No fouls were called, much to the fans’ dismay. “I’m sure he hit me below the belt intentionally, but…that’s the fight game, you know?” Hernandez said.

Most ringside observers gave the decision to Hernandez, but the judges scored the fight a draw. “I won that fight. There’s no doubt about it,” Hernandez said. “I boxed him superbly, and then he tried making a butt of me. He slipped a punch one time and spun a little bit and slapped me on the ass. It made the crowd laugh.” He said while Robinson was ring savvy, his arsenal had little else left. “He didn’t have real hard, sharp punches. It was mostly slapping stuff. He never hurt me.”

Mere months after that tussle, Hernandez’s manager, Sloan, died of a massive heart attack. “That broke my heart,” he said. For the next few years he fought for Dick Noland, also the manager of heavyweight Ron Stander, who often sparred with Hernandez at the old Fox Hole Gym and once said of his much smaller and more agile partner, “He’s harder to hit than a handful of rice.”

Ferd was at the Robinson fight and after seeing how well his kid brother performed he grew confident he too could trade leather with the best. He proved his point a year later by winning a split-decision over Sugar Ray at the Hacienda Hotel, among the venues Ferd headlined at during the “Strip Fight of the Week” cards his promoter, Bill Miller, founded. Although both brothers became top contenders in the middleweight division, neither ever got a title shot. Art always felt Ferd hampered his chances by letting his Las Vegas camp change his style from the pure boxing stratagem their father instilled to more of a close-in style ill-suited to him. “That was his downfall. Instead of moving and boxing and slipping punches, he became a come-in fighter. He got hit too much. Then, he got that detached retina (in 1968). It’s too bad…he was a terrific boxer.” As for himself, Art chalks up his lost opportunities to ring politics, bad breaks and stupid choices. In a career of what-might-have-beens, he was often only one win away from landing a championship bout, but could never quite close the deal.

Perhaps his biggest frustration came in a 1969 duel with former champ Emile Griffith, then still in his prime. Fought in Sioux Falls, S.D., the well-boxed bout went the full 10 rounds and, in a reversal of popular opinion, Griffith was given a split decision. “The fight was a good fight,” Hernandez recalled. “I loved it. He was well-versed in boxing. I can remember bulling him into the ropes and throwing a lot of body punches, which is something I never did. I just saw where he was susceptible to it.” As against Robinson, Hernandez felt he clearly won, but again fell victim to scoring vagaries. “I don’t think it was close at all. Those yokels that judged the fight for Griffith were completely out of line.” What hurt most, he said, was the fact a victory might have set-up a title challenge. “I knew I was at my peak when I fought Griffith. If I had won that fight I probably could have fought for a world championship.” In the end, he said, “I guess I wasn’t impressive enough. There’s a lot of politics in boxing with the judging and the ratings and all that kind of crap.”

Hernandez had other chances to catapult himself into a title slot, but he always came up short, whether it was bad breaks or just plain bad habits. For example, a cut he suffered to his eye forced the stoppage of his first fight with world champ Nino Benvenuti in Rome and a leg injury he suffered in preparation for his second fight with Benvenuti in Toronto hampered his movement during the 10-round fight, which he lost by unanimous decision. The night before his match with former champ Denny Moyer in Oakland, Art reverted to his old ways by partying with Ferd. He paid for it in the ring the next night, losing a unanimous 12-round decision. He had more than his share of success, too, twice winning the North American Boxing Federation middleweight title and evening the score with Moyer in a 12-round decision in Des Moines. Ferd also faced the best, losing to Benvenuti and Luis Rodriguez, beating Robinson and boxing to a draw with Jose Gonzalez for the World Boxing Association American middleweight title in Puerto Rico in 1966.

Art’s toughest opponent? “That would have to be Jimmy Lester. He never stopped coming. I was in very good shape for that fight, but God, he would just pump and pump and pump. He was a tough guy. He beat me in a split decision.” Hernandez said while he never made much money fighting, and didn’t care much about the size of his purses anyway, boxing did let him see the world. His favorite stop? Marseilles, France. “The Mediterranean. Beautiful, man.” The worst stop? Vietnam, where he went as part of a USO tour during the war. “It was really disheartening to see all those kids in hospitals with their arms and legs shot off. It was terrible.”

While an injury forced Ferd to stop fighting, it took Art getting KO’d three consecutive fights to finally call it quits in 1973. “Bennie Brisco stopped me in three. Jean-Claude Bouttier stopped me in nine. And, in the last fight I had, Tony Licata stopped me in eight. After that, I thought, ‘Well, there’s no place else to go.’ So, I just gave it up.” He made an aborted comeback attempt when he started sparring with his up-and-coming brother Dale. “Once, he hit me somewhere on my head and I just tingled all over. I took the gloves off and said ‘That’s it. I’m done forever.’” He turned his attention to helping train Dale, the last great fighter in the Hernandez line. Where Ferd and Art were consummate boxers, Dale was a classic slugger. “He was a terrific puncher,” said Art, who often worked his corner. “Dale’s whole idea was he could knock anybody out and so he didn’t think he had to train too much. That was his problem.” The approach worked well enough for a time, with Dale securing a No. 9 world lightweight ranking, but the gambit caught up to him in a junior welterweight bout against Lennox Blackmoore. The sight of his brother beaten to a pulp at the hands of the counter punching Blackmoore was too much for Art to take. “I about had a heart attack in that corner because he got the shit beat out of him. I told Dale at the end of the fight, ‘I’m done working in your corner. I will not take it anymore.’ I never worked his corner again.”

After that thumping, Dale was never the same again, falling farther and farther off the training wagon. Away from boxing, Dale’s behavior spiraled violently out of control. He has done hard time for a series of aggravated assaults, the latest of which finds him serving a stretch in a Cheyenne, Wyo. jail. He is estranged from his once close-knit family. “I don’t know what his problem is. I have nothing to do with him anymore,” Art said. “I don’t even talk to him.” Just thinking of what his brother once was and could have been makes Art sick. “He could have been world champion. At 135 pounds he could whip anybody in the world. At 142 pounds he was too small. But he wouldn’t train to get down to 135. He wanted to play.”

With Dale out of the picture and Chuck living quietly in Des Moines, Art pined for the old days with Ferd, but they were separated by miles and lifestyles. Then, when Ferd became terminally ill in the mid-90s, Art and his wife Mary, a nurse, flew him out to Omaha. The change in the former world-class athlete was drastic. “I did not recognize him,” Art said. The couple cared for him the last three weeks of his life. He died in their home on July 17, 1996. Most of all, Art misses his brother’s “sense of humor. He was a funny guy.”

Two years later Art experienced the next biggest test of his life when, while clearing storm-strewn branches from the roof of his father-in-law’s house, he slipped and fell to the pavement below, his lower left leg shattering upon impact. He underwent eight surgeries to repair the damage. Then his recovery suffered a severe setback when infection set-in. Faced with months more of painful rehab and the possibility of infection redeveloping, he opted to have the leg amputated below the knee. “I knew that in order to get well, it had to be done,” he said, massaging the stub under the prosthetic he wears. He fought depression. “A lot of times I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’” He credits his wife for seeing him through it all. “If it weren’t for this woman, I’d be dead.” Friends helped, too. His old sparring chum, Ron Stander, hooked Hernandez up with another ex-athlete amputee — legendary pro wrestler “Mad Dog” Vachon, who lives in Omaha. “Ron called me and said, ‘I’m going to take you to Mad Dog’s because he’s got a leg like yours,’ and from there we become friends.” Hernandez made a quick recovery, resuming work four months later. He retired a couple years ago and, today, draws a county pension, enjoys watching televised fights and, like many old jocks, doubts this era’s competitors could have stacked-up with his generation of warriors.

In an era when boxing is largely dead in the state, Hernandez is the last link to one of Nebraska’s great sports dynasties. Leave it to Omaha boxing historian Tom Lovgren to put the family boxing legacy in perspective. About Art and Ferd, he said, “They could step up to fight anybody in the world. They showed no fear. They were animals.” About Dale, he reminds us, “At 135 pounds, he could beat anybody in the world.” Today, many pounds over his fighting trim, Art Hernandez battles diabetes and high blood pressure, but this still proud man is not one to wallow in Why me? pity. “Things happen,” he said, “and you just gotta go with the flow.”

Anyone for Classics? Brigit St. Brigit Theater Stages the Canon

The image of the title page of the Henrik Ibse...

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Omaha has an unusually strong theater community considering the fact it has few, if any, full-time professional companies.  What it does have is several committed theaters doing quality work despite meager resources.  One of these is the Brigit St. Brigit Theater, the focus of this story from about eight years ago. BSM has an ever harder task than most theaters because it is dedicated to staging classics, which means it puts on plays that most audiences have little familiarity with except perhaps the title or the name of the playwright or their reputation.  But BSM has been faithful to its mission and always finds a way to survive another season.   A long-stated goal of founder Cathy Kurz has been to establish the BSB as a full-fledged professional regional theater, and I’m happy to say that since this article appeared in the Omaha Weekly it’s taken some major steps toward that goal. Other things have changed since then as well, including the theater’s location. But one thing hasn’t — its focus on the classics and its high standards.

Anyone for Classics? Brigit St. Brigit Theater Stages the Canon

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Omaha Weekly

The forte of Omaha’s Brigit St. Brigit Theater is its productions of classic plays. Whether Shakespeare, Ibsen, O’Neill, Becket, O’Casey or Williams, you get the genuine article rather than some diluted, spoon-fed, pabulum version. There is such faithfulness to the text that, despite a makeshift theater in Gross Auditorium on the College of St. Mary campus, you are completely transported to the period and context of the piece. This pure, rigorous attention to themes, tones, details, is a tribute to founder and artistic director, Cathy Kurz, who directs most productions, and to technical director, Scott Kurz, her husband, and a dynamic player in what’s become a regular stock company of actors with the theater.

Another key member of the troupe is Amy Kunz, the leading tragedienne among Omaha actresses, who’s essayed such “roles to die for” as Maggie the Cat, Nora in A Doll’s House, Medea, Roxane in Cyrano de Bergerac, Cassandra in The Trojen Women, Hedda Gabler and Blanche Dubois. Kunz, who serves as Brigit’s education director for its many outreach programs, has also directed and created one-woman shows at the theater.

Rounding out the core company is John Durbin (known off-stage as John Jackson), a founding board member and veteran player. Durbin, an Equity stage actor, has, in recent years, lived and worked out of Los Angeles, where he is also a busy film and television actor. For Brigit’s current production of Robert Bolt’s critically-acclaimed A Man for All Seasons — running weekends through September 29 — Durbin has returned to Omaha to play the fetching role of The Common Man. As part of an Equity Artist-in-Residency, he will be commuting here from Los Angeles this fall to appear in and direct a series of Brigit productions.

After years directing plays at nearly every theater venue in Omaha, Cathy Kurz, formerly Wells, formed the Brigit St. Brigit  — in 1993 — out of frustration. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate, with masters degrees in English and drama, had always been nourished by classic literature and had carved out a niche for herself directing such material, particularly at the Norton Theater, whose namesake, Rudyard Norton, was a classically-trained actor and contemporary of Henry Fonda’s. When the Norton closed, Omaha was left without a venue devoted to the classics and Kurz without a steady employer. She thought for sure another theater would fill the void, but when none did she plunged ahead and formed a new playhouse dedicated to the very material she felt most deeply about.

“I founded the theater in order to be able to work on the kind of material we do — the classics,” she said. “This isn’t a snobbish thing — it’s just my taste — but, to me, if you’re willing to work as hard at this as we do, and most of us do have full-time jobs and come to the theater after work, than it should be more satisfying in terms of challenging one’s self.” And, with that, she gathered around her a group of fellow thespians sharing the same sensibility, including Durbin and Kunz, and launched the Brigit with a production of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gablerat Joslyn Art Museum, where the theater was housed its first two years.

“Trepidation perhaps” is how Kurz described her gut feeling going into that inaugural show. “We didn’t know if anybody would come.” Come they did, first in small numbers, particularly for a first-season rendering of Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, but slowly and surely a sufficient audience and contributor base took hold. As Kurz likes to put it, “Once we got rolling, people saw that it’s (classic work) not boring or dusty but that in fact it’s more blooded than watered-down TV or box-office conscious cinema.” Still, arts funding being what it is in Nebraska, the theater is never completely on sure financial footing and is still far away from its goal of having a paid company of actors.

As the very mention of classic theater connotes elitist, dull-as-dirt assumptions, the Brigit is constantly working to overturn such stereotypes. Its reputation for doing heavy drama is something even Cathy Kurz jokes about it when she says, “I’ve tried to bring myself to do The Three Penny Opera, but it’s too grim even for me.” In her role as artistic director, Kurz is smart enough to program a rousing, crowd-pleasing Shakespeare comedy like Much Ado About Nothing — held over to close the 2001-2002 season — because it makes patrons “more likely to come back and try something else” more demanding. This season, her teaser is Beth Henley’s black comedy Crimes of the Heart. One avenue the theater uses to develop a classical following is the Literacy Touring Program in which Amy Kunz and Scott Kurz do residencies and workshops for schools and community groups. The two artists say  young people are easily won over. “The first thing to get across is that the classics are fun and interesting,” Kunz said. “We rarely talk at kids. We involve them in learning in an active way. When we present a Shakespeare play they not only study the text, but the class system of the time, the politics, the food, the customs and just things kids find neat like the fact the white-leaded makeup actors wore then slowly ate their skin away.” Scott Kurz, who includes sword-fighting demonstrations in his lessons, said any reservations are soon overcome. “A group of seniors can be a little standoffish when we walk in, but then we do a scene right to them — saying Shakespeare’s words just like we’re talking to them — and we see them get it. By the end, they’re so into it. It’s just the biggest rush. A lot of times we’re fortunate enough to get teachers who integrate the material into their curriculum and bring the kids to see the play, and then they see how cool this stuff is.” At the other end of the spectrum, he said, the theater’s “older patrons often thank us for doing this material. It’s gratifying to know we’re giving them something that maybe they thought they had lost and would never get to see again. We’re giving them a link to the classic literature and quality theater” of their youth.

John Durbin said the Brigit shows courage by presenting work other theaters shy away from and by staying true to playwrights’ vision without taking shortcuts or condescending to the masses. Now 10 years old, the theater has never wavered from its purpose to, as its mission statement reads, “revitalize classic literature by making it come alive through professional quality performance and related educationally-focused programming.”

For Durbin, the theater’s survival, given its lofty pedigree, is an example of just how dogged its leaders have been. “What’s remarkable to me is the tenacity of Cathy in…not letting it die. She never let go of that dream, ever, and it’s really a testament not only to the men and women who have volunteered, but also to her,” he said. “The challenge for that theater is two-fold. It’s not only to mount the plays physically and financially, considering they have so many obstacles in their way, but to make this kind of material accessible to and enjoyable to a contemporary audience in the Midwest. How do you reach out to a community that is fed on football and South Pacific? I think the reason they succeed is they never talk down to their audience… never. It’s almost like they draw a line in the sand with the audience and say, ‘OK, we’re going to do this. And you trust us and you believe in us, because you’ve been around, and we’re going to take you that much further. We’re going to challenge ourselves and we’re going to challenge you. I would say that at its core the Brigit has a passion for literature and a pure love for live theater. I mean, who else but Brigit St. Brigit is going to do Juno and the Paycock? But — you know what? — the amazing thing is, it’s as timely now as when it was written.”

He said the work done there and the integrity brought to it, is what draws him back to perform. “This is really the kind of stuff that interests me…plays that are not done that often in a community theater setting…that have something more to say…and that have stood the test of time. I mean, all hats off to Neal Simon, but I just don’t see The Star-Spangled Girl lasting for the next 200 years. We’re going to mount a production of The Rivals in the spring, and that play is like 500 years old, and it’ll be done in another 500 years.”

Another thing the Brigit is known for is its penchant for Irish plays, which is a natural given the fact founder Cathy Kurz has a deep affinity for Irish literature (“I love the Irish’s gift for humor and turns-of-phrase”), one so deep she named the theater for the mythological St. Brigit of County Kildaire. Each spring the Brigit celebrates its cultural heritage with Irish productions. This season, the selections are, in repertory, Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa and The Freedom of the City.
Because the Brigit creative team is cut from the same classical cloth and has worked together so intensively for so long, there is a symbiosis among its members in the way they approach rehearsals and the overall creative process. According to Amy Kunz, the working relationship she has with Cathy Kurz, who’s directed her in dozens of productions, and with Scott Kurz, whom she’s often played opposite, “is almost a second language, literally. Cathy can just give me a look and say, ‘Well, you know, if you move to the right, then your interpretation…’ and I’ll say, ‘Yes, I know what you mean.’ It doesn’t take much for all three of us — we’re really all so attuned to each other.” Scott Kurz said one reason he’s worked almost exclusively with the theater since joining it in 1993 is “because of that rapport” the close-knit company cultivates. That kind of intimacy, not to mention the dynamics of a husband and wife working together, could cause problems in some companies, but not the Brigit.

Said Kurz, “I can’t ever remember a time when there was this turbulent production. We all look at the work the same way — that you need to come prepared and that you need to listen. We all agree on these certain things and it makes it easier for new people to jump in. They can see we have a comfort level with each other and share a certain philosophy when it comes to the work.”

Kunz said she forged a similar relationship with fellow artists when a member of the Omaha Theater Company for Young People. Ultimately, she said, it’s an exercise in collaboration. “That’s what the theater is about on any level, really. With each play you work with a group of people to try and honor the playwright and, together, you try to tell the story well. It’s a new experience every time and you don’t know if you’ll make it or not.” She said Cathy Kurz is “very open” to input from her and other actors. “I’m really opinionated, and so is Scott for that matter, about what we’re doing on stage. But it’s always done in the spirit of feeding each other.”

Scott Kurz said, “That’s how things get figured out — you can’t do it any other way, I think.” Cathy Kurz said she enjoys the “give and take” with her casts but she emphasizes the director must be the final arbiter. “You know what you need to have and you hope you can bring people around to seeing it the same way you see it, so you have to remain flexible on the one hand. On the other hand…you’re the interpreter and the voice of the playwright. You’re all the playwright’s got.”

Rehearsals are where, as Scott Kurz describes it, you “find the play” and it is in this process the Brigit’s legendary diligence elevates the company’s work from the merely ordinary to the finely nuanced, right down to the smallest bit or part. In fleshing out a scene during rehearsal, Cathy Kurz attempts to make her directions “as specific” and as rooted in the script as possible. “It all has to come from the text,” she said. “If I see a scene isn’t right, but I don’t know how to fix it, I’m going to keep watching the scene and thinking about it. I never give up on something.” A Man for All Seasons rehearsals stretched into the wee hours leading up to opening night as Kurz and company grappled with an unwieldy scene.

Kunz said she appreciates Kurz as a director because “she tells you exactly what she wants from your character early on. She’s very specific right away and then you have this groundwork to build on. She doesn’t make you stick within this structure. I think it’s a really productive way to work and it saves a lot of time. I’ve worked with a lot of directors who will wait…for weeks for you to ‘find it,’ and then will give you this nebulous kind of direction like, ‘Well, be more this’ or ‘Be more that.’ And then you maybe get it and maybe you don’t.”

Ten years. In that time the Brigit St. Brigit Theater has established a niche for itself. Cathy Kurz feels a paid acting company is still a “realistic” objective but for now she is satisfied the theater has achieved a “consistent level of quality” and “a good foundation.” As Scott Kurz sees it, the theater is on track to realize its goal of being “a professional company. There’s that sense that we’re getting to that point and being able to answer people when they ask ‘What do you do for a living?’ with — ‘I’m in theater.’ And that’s what it’s all about. I don’t know how many times my parents have told me ‘Get a real job.’ My family’s been incredibly supportive but they don’t always understand what I do. My dad says, ‘You work harder than anybody else in the family and you’ve got nothing to show for it.’ And I’m like, ‘That’s not true — I do. I’m working towards something.’ And so it’s really nice to feel we’ve stepped up a notch and we’re getting closer. We just have to keep going and we’ll get there.”

After the 1994-1995 season, the theater moved to the Bellevue University campus, at the invitation of Bellevue drama professors who admired the company’s work. In  1997 the Brigit, searching for an Omaha site, relocated to its present home at the College of St. Mary. It was a case of good timing, as CSM, host of the annual Nebraska Storytelling Festival, was looking to renew its long dormant drama program. “We had a very popular theater major in the ‘60s, and as we worked toward reemphasizing the arts at College of St. Mary,” president Maryanne Stevens, RSM, said, “we wanted to have the presence of a theater company. The presence of a theater on campus makes a statement in terms of the college’s affirmation of the arts and the importance of arts in education. And having the Brigit St. Brigit here has meant a revival of theater studies at the college. A lot of our English classes have integrated the various works that have been performed by the Brigit St. Brigit into their semester’s curriculum and therefore assign reading the play or going to the play…Cathy Kurz actually teaches some classes in theater at the college and has developed a minor in theater.” The Brigit triumvirate of Kurz, husband Scott and Amy Kunz hold adjunct faculty positions at CSM.

But why did CSM feel the Brigit was a good fit there? “Well, because of the kinds of things they do,” Stevens said. “They do classical theater as well as what they call ‘intellectually-twisted theater,’ but it’s all rooted in classic playwrights and I think that brings a level of integrity to an understanding of theater here at the college. Anything in the arts invigorates the core curriculum of the college.”

As far as the Brigit’s continued presence at CSM, there is discussion of an expanded theater space on campus. “Cathy and I have both talked about that,” Stevens said, “because there’s not really a backstage — there aren’t any dressing rooms or things like that — and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see that in the future.” And, as far as what’s in store for theatergoers at the Brigit, Kurz would like someday to tackle O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh and Chekhov’s The Seagull, two demanding plays rarely performed around here.

Playing to the Beat of a Distant Violinist

Silent violin

Image via Wikipedia

One of my favorite stories from my checkered career is this profile of Stephen Kelley, a fine symphony violinist who at the time I interviewed him lived in a trailer park and worked a warehouse job — not exactly what you would expect from a classical player. Various traumas sent him on a path of meditation, yoga, philosophy, and enlightenment, hardly the pursuits you associate with a trailer park resident.  But then again everything about Kelley was incongruous, always in an interesting way, always overturning your stereotypes.  He’s a genuine eccentric in the best sense of the word.  I understand he’s still playing of course but that he’s left behind that warehouse job to teach school.  This story epitomizes my penchant and instinct for writing about people and their passions and their magnificent obsessions. I think I gravitate to these subjects because I identify with the subjects so much.  The piece originally appeared in the now defunct Omaha Weekly.

Playing to the Beat of a Distant Violinist

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Omaha Weekly

The surprisingly spacious house trailer is situated on a small lot in the Park Meadows Mobile Home community in northwest Omaha. The pale blue trailer’s owner, Super Target warehouse laborer Stephen Kelley, is a balding, middle-age man dressed in the sweatshirt, jeans and sneakers he will wear on the overnight shift that evening. The decor inside is warm and cozy. Vintage photographic portraits adorn the imitation wood-paneled walls. By mid-afternoon a fine bottle of wine has been opened and, as sleet showers shimmer outside, a relaxed Kelley removes his concert violin from a case and begins playing a passage from Antonin Dvorak’s Four Romantic Pieces. The vibrato is rich and sweet. The technique, assured. The incongruity of it all — a mobile home dweller who stocks frozen foods for a living who also happens to play the violin sublimely — is a bit surreal. But, in one of those instances where appearances and labels can be deceiving, it turns out his craftsmanship is the result of years of serious classical training. He has, in fact, played in the first violin sections of several Midwest symphony orchestras, including the Omaha Symphony, which he first joined at the tender age of 18.

Once on the fast track to a promising career in the mainstream classical music world, Kelley has in recent years chosen to follow a road less traveled, especially for someone with his solid credentials. He has two degrees from Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, he trained under top violin instructors and he boasts a resume full of solid professional music performances. A self-described “misfit,” he has largely dropped-out of traditional music circles to pursue an artistic-survival course some might call eccentric. That has meant working a series of regular jobs, including a long stint as a manager and maintenance supervisor with McDonald’s, to support himself, his wife and son. Since suffering a severe head injury in an automobile crack-up in 1985, and reeling from an emotional collapse that followed, Kelley has worked no fewer than nine positions.

All the while, he has continued perfecting his violin playing. He did advance studies with, among others, the late David Majors, who was a respected violin instructor in the area, and with noted violinist Kenneth Goldsmith, a member of the world-renown Mirecourt Trio. He has performed occasional solo recitals and as part of several ensembles. He still sometimes sits-in with area orchestras.

He has also continued a lifelong search for inner peace and spiritual enlightenment. Raised a Catholic, Kelley became enchanted with the writing of Thomas Merton and at one point came close to entering the monastic life (he earned a vocation scholarship to Benedictine). Later, he fell away from Catholicism to explore Quaker teachings and Eastern philosophies. In the past six years he has immersed himself in yoga, using meditation, along with his beloved music, to help him deal with his demons. Chief among those demons is his highly emotional nature and his fanaticsim with doing things right. A serious student of past music and musicians, Kelley sets standards that are perhaps beyond his reach. An instructor of piano at Creighton University, Elaine Majors, knows Kelley well and his preoccupation with trying to achieve a purity in his playing that approaches the masters. “He is so well-versed in how a piece of music should sound that if he can’t produce it, it’s very defeating to him and absolute agony for him.” It’s why, she said, he would find teaching music too frustrating — as the search for that perfect golden tone would surely always elude him or his students.

Thomas Merton

Those familiar with Kelley confirm he is an artist of rare insight who has followed a maverick path. “He has a very fine musical background. He’s very talented. He’s very perceptive. He studies other musicians carefully. He’s constantly self-analytical. He continually veers off in other directions. He’s always looking for new approaches. He’s interesting, he’s different and he’s engaged. Music is his life,” said Elaine Majors, whose late husband, David, he studied under many years.

“His talent is evident in his unflagging interest in all aspects of the violin,” said Arnold Schatz, a longtime Omaha Symphony player and retired music educator whom Kelley has studied with on several occasions. “He has not only a deep interest in the violin, but rather a passion and almost an obsession with the violin.”

Kelley acknowledges his hard-to-satisfy aesthetic nature has been a source of torture inside and outside the music scene. “I’m sensitive and I’m a perfectionist, and that’s very tough on me. I often work with people who don’t understand me at all. People harass the hell out of me. But I understand how to do my job very well. I don’t ever slack off and I don’t ever do second-rate,” he said before charting a litany of dirt he asserts has been done to him by employers and co-workers upset with his overzealousness. “I’ve had all sorts of nasty things happen to me. I’ve been walking through disasters for 20 years.”

He realizes he sometimes may have exacerbated bad situations by having “stepped on a few toes” or by “taking a stance” or by speaking out against “greedy, ruthless, dishonest” practices he feels are rampant in corporate America. “What you find out in these companies is that everybody’s in it for themselves.”

Call it naivete or idealism, but Kelley himself sometimes sounds like a dreamer who cannot quite come to terms with the human condition. He has paid a price for his rather romantic notions and high-strung nature. For example, as a young man he crumbled under the strain of losing a prized violin and breaking up with his then fiance in short order and subsequently endured the first of his nervous breakdowns. While he has avoided further emotional crises since the head trauma he suffered in the 1980s, he still occasionally battles a bad case of nerves when performing in public. His stage fright first reared its ugly head when, as a Benson High School senior, he froze on a solo of Autumn Leaves during a school concert. “I locked up and I couldn’t move the bow. The nerves just exploded on me. I never even put the bow on the violin. I had practiced the piece so intensely and with so much trepidation that when the movement came my body gave out — literally. So, I’ve had to fight nerves ever since.”

He said he has come to largely control his butterflies through a combination of intense preparation and pharmaceutical aids. “Part of dealing with nerves is being prepared 200 percent and understanding your craft like a rocket scientist. I’ve been working on my craft for over 30 years, and I still fear the nerves. I tend to take a beta blocker to keep from flying off the handle. The pill doesn’t stop the adrenalin at all, but at least I can function” with it.

Far from being crippled by his intuitiveness, Kelley makes great thrift of it when performing, which for him is an intense experience but one made even more so when playing passages of heightened emotion. “When I play a piece of music I look for the emotional high points. The passages where goose bumps come. They’re there. If you don’t find them, you don’t know the music.” Those moments become what he calls “ecstatic” moments for him and, hopefully, audience members as well. “The emotions are overpowering and I let them flow into the music. The emotion is carried. You want to connect emotionally with the audience — from your very heart, right to the person in front of you, so that they can feel you right through the violin.”

Not unlike meditation, he said playing can transport him to another place. “There are spots in the music where I feel the breath coming and releasing with a sense of peace. They’re like lifting spots. It’s rather magical.”

Giving into one’s emotions during a performance can detract from technical perfection, which is why he said most classical violinists prefer to play it safe rather than expose their depth of feeling and risk tonal variations on stage. “Part of that reluctance,” he said, “is because everything is so professional and competitive and it’s the whole thing about — you’ve got to get every note perfect and the critics have to like what you do.” It’s not that Kelley doesn’t believe in rigorous technique. He does. In fact, he finds far too many of today’s players technically sloppy, with excessive movement in their bowing elbow and wrist producing a wavering and somewhat flattened vibrato. The player is working against his instrument rather than being one with it. The technique he prefers employs minimal arm movement, which he said produces a richer, more seamless tone. “I have a very advanced, efficient violin technique that is focused, tight, fast, and that produces the incomparable…the essence — beauty. There’s no other word for it. There’s a little roundness to it. Not so much that it overpowers what you’re trying to play. But it just takes it further. Then you’re bringing out the potential of the violin. And then if you think beauty, it seems like the violin itself responds.”

Kelley’s affinity for the mystical and ethereal has driven his quest to try and master yoga. Since attending a public meditation given by her in Boulder, Co., Kelley has become a devotee of Shri Anandi Ma, a world-renowned instructor in Kundalini Maha Yoga, which is based on the premise that there is a divine healing energy in each of us waiting to be tapped. Kelley, who describes her as “a saint,” feels yoga has changed his life. “It has been very effective for me with stress reduction and with moving me into other levels of consciousness. Breath regulation is the be all and end all of it. My most intense experiences — what I call ecstatic experiences — have meant that my breathing went from self-control to almost divine control. The sensations in the body are subtle and intense. The feeling within you is a physical sensation of great cellular togetherness and peace. Breathing becomes almost like a joy. I wish my violin playing went that far.”

Shri Anandi Ma

Beyond these ancient mind-body-spirit traditions, Kelley derives what might be called spiritual sustenance from his favorite authors, including Loren Eiseley and Sherwood Anderson, and from his favorite composers, including Johann Brahms and Franz Schubert. From early childhood on Kelley has indulged his two primary passions — reading and music — with the kind of enthusiasm found only in the most ardent followers. He once owned an extensive collection of books and records, but has sold or given most of it away. Before he began devouring books at the Benson public library (he read through all the classics as an adolescent), he had long ago cultivated a love of music.

“I was born with this connection to sound. Music was so strong with me that as a toddler I could walk up to the radio or TV and tell you who was singing. My mother was into music. I was able to access her record collection, which had some of the best classical recordings you could get your hands on, and I learned it all — forwards and backwards. At home we had an Admiral TV with a turntable and four speakers. It had unbelievably good sound. I ran that system from grade school right into high school.”

He began studying the violin at age 9, but did not take his first private lesson until 12. While not quite a prodigy, he made an auspicious recital debut about a year later when he played the Mylnarski Mazurka without accompaniment. Then, in a rare feat, he joined the Omaha Symphony just out of high school in 1968 — as an 18-year-old — under the baton of conductor Joseph Levine. He received a graduate music fellowship to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. And as a junior in college he played the entire Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, Brahms First Sonata and First Bach Sonata unaccompanied and from memory.

After such early success, including two later stints with the Omaha Symphony under conductors Yuri Krasnapolsky (whom he adored) and Thomas Briccetti (whom he despised) and performing with the Opera Omaha Orchestra under such famous guest conductors as Arthur Fielder, Kelley quit the symphony scene and its “politics” to do his own thing.

He made himself persona non grata with the local symphony when he publicly questioned Briccetti’s credentials in a Sun Newspaper commentary. He discontinued the UNL fellowship in the midst of his first nervous breakdown. He rebounded to perform as a member of the David Majors and Myron Cohen String Quartets.

He also founded and performed in a string trio — Les Troi Cords — for which he wrote many arrangements. More recently, he has used his diverse connections to serve as “a catalyst” in putting together concert programs, including performances by the Mirecourt Trio and the Omaha Youth Orchestra at his alma mater (Benedictine) and organizing and performing in recitals, like one in 1997 at First Unitarian Church in Omaha featuring “outcast artists” like himself.

The iconoclastic journey Kelley has opted to take has been a difficult one, but he feels venturing off the beaten track to follow his muse and to find the truth has been worth it. “It’s become more creative every step of the way. I do what I love to do,” he said, a contented smile creasing his face.

Redemption, A Boys Town Grad Tyrice Ellebb Finds His Way

July 6, 2010 5 comments

Go! Victory

Image via Wikipedia

When I met Tyrice Ellebb about a decade ago he was a young man who had turned his life around in a dramatic way through the aid of many caring individuals and institutions, including Boys Town, but he was also reeling from leaving the powerhouse University of Nebraska at Omaha wrestling program, where he achieved much.  He had personal matters to attend to that in his mind at least took precedence over collegiate athletics, even though he was a key cog for a team poised to win a national title.  He was also a very good football player.  He felt bad about the way things worked out but as my story makes clear the people you may have thought he most disappointed were still in his corner.  I lost contact with Tryice after the story but I understand he did get things together in his life and I know he’s excelled at indoor professional football.  This story originally appeared in the Omaha Weekly, a paper that is no more, and I offer it here as another example of the kind of sports writing I like to do.

Redemption, A Boys Town Grad Finds His Way

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Omaha Weekly

As the No.1-ranked UNO wrestling team enters the stretch-run in its national championship hunt, the man who should be holding down the heavyweight spot for the Mavericks is no where to be seen. Senior Tyrice Ellebb, projected as a strong title contender, left the team this winter after the latest in a series of personal crises sent him reeling. A sweet, soft-spoken goliath who loves to dance, Ellebb was at his best when he bounced around the mat to the beat of whatever song was in his head. Sadly, he has had his last dance in a UNO uniform.

At only 23, the massive Ellebb (he stands 6’3 and his weight hovers around 300 pounds) has weathered a topsy-turvy life that’s found him both on the side of the angels and the devils. Growing up on Chicago’s south side, he ran with the notorious Gangster Disciples. Looking to escape his hometown’s mean streets, he followed four uncles to the former Boys Town, where he won election as mayor. While he flourished in the nurturing Boys Town setting and, later, in the family-like UNO wrestling program, he also made some bad choices along the way, including fathering three children — all out of wedlock. Still, he applied himself in high school and developed into a standout football player and wrestler — winning two state heavyweight championships (pinning all his opponents as a senior).

Possessing great size, agility and quickness, he was courted by Nebraska and Kansas State as a walk-on gridiron prospect. When he did not qualify academically he signed with Iowa Central Community College, where he twice garnered junior college All-America honors and earned an associate’s degree. At UNO he fought homesickness, endured the death of a dear aunt and worked with teammates and coaches in managing his complicated life. Although an acknowledged leader on and off the mat, Ellebb’s frequent missed practices and late arrivals were distractions. Allowances were made, but it never seemed enough. “We demand a lot here in our program and it was hard for him to get all that together. We tried to be flexible and to give him some leeway, but you can only do so much,” UNO Head Coach Mike Denney said.



Mike Denney


Despite the distractions, Ellebb proved a force to be reckoned with by winning the North Central Conference heavyweight crown and finishing a solid fourth at last year’s NCAA Division II tournament. Heading into this season he was seen as the linchpin of a dominant UNO squad tabbed as odds-on favorites for the team title. After working so hard and overcoming so much, this was going to be his year. Then, last December, it all came crashing down around him and his dreams of glory vanished. His story can be seen as both an object lesson in overcoming the odds and a cautionary tale of taking on too much-too soon.


Tyrice Ellebb



To understand just how far he came, one must understand that for the longest time this product of a broken home appeared headed for prison or a violent death — the fate of several friends he hung out with as a youth. Even though his mother, Sharon, was a security officer, she almost found out too late his gangbanging was threatening to destroy him the way it already had one of her brothers. There were street fights, drug dealings, gunshots, threats and reprisals. Through it all, Ellebb avoided incarceration, completed school and remained close to his family.

“I was letting the streets get to me. You always had to worry about looking behind your back. Somebody always wanted to take you out because they wanted your name. It’s just crazy. It got to the point where in my head I felt I needed to kill somebody if people bothered me,” he said.

It took the senseless death of a family friend who was like a favorite uncle for him to rethink the gangster life. “Two rival gangs were involved in something stupid and a gun went off and it instantly killed him. That kind of tore me up real bad. That made me understand I didn’t need to be involved in gangs anymore. I needed to get away before they beat me or before I wouldn’t see my next birthday.”

When his mother found out she was losing him to the streets she promptly saw him off on the next train to Boys Town, where other wayward men in the family had found refuge. “I listened to her and I’m glad I made that choice to come here. I accomplished a lot at Boys Town,” he said. There, he came under the influence of teacher-coach Don Bader, who said, “Tyrice had a lot of issues. He needed a lot of work. But he got on the right track. He’s a great kid.” These days, when Ellebb visits his old stomping grounds in Chicago, he finds little changed. “My friends are still doing the same thing. The only thing different is everyone is older. When I go back there I’m like, ‘God, I’m glad I left there.’ I couldn’t picture myself being that way now. When I tell people, ‘I used to be a thug,’ they say, ‘I couldn’t see you that way.’ And I go, ‘Yeah, I know, I changed. I made myself change.’” UNO’s Denney said despite the baggage Ellebb carries, “he has a lot of good in him.”




Prior to his latest troubles Ellebb’s commitment to wrestling waned at various times, but he always rededicated himself. With the birth of his third child last year, however, his passion lagged. Soon, he fell behind in his classes and was declared academically ineligible the first semester. The only action he saw offered a vivid display of his inner turmoil when, for the only time in his wrestling career, he was disqualified after throwing a punch at an opponent who earlier elbowed him.

According to Ellebb, “When that happened, I said to myself, ‘I can’t do this right now. I need to get my head together.’ Coach Denney told me to work through it. He chose for me not to wrestle the following weekend, but sitting out didn’t help. A lot of stuff was going wrong then. It just started piling up so fast.” The final straw was when his beloved grandmother, Anne, who helped raise him, was stricken with cancer. “She’s the backbone of our family. She keeps us together. She’s the only person I can talk to. She’s the one who makes me keep striving to do right. When I found out about my grandmother being sick, it was more than I could handle.”

Overwhelmed, he retreated into a cocoon. “I was struggling with myself. I just stayed away from everyone. I wasn’t talking to anyone. I felt I was going to have a nervous breakdown.” Finally, on December 15, he left Omaha for Chicago to be with his family. His departure caused him to miss some final exams, resulting in two incompletes. By re-enrolling this semester as a full-time student, he unwittingly used up any remaining eligibility. No matter, Ellebb had already decided he could not continue wrestling. “I felt (quitting) this was probably the best thing for me and for the team because I couldn’t wrestle to my potential if my head and heart wasn’t in it,” he said. His decision has caused him anguish. “I hate that I’m not part of the team now and not out there trying to help them win the national championship. If things didn’t fall out like they did and if I didn’t make my load as heavy it was, I’d probably still be part of it.” Perhaps his biggest regret is abandoning the team without formally giving his coaches or teammates an explanation. “They deserve to hear something,” he acknowledges.




During Ellebb’s tailspin Coach Denney said he tried contacting him but could not reach him. “I made attempts to find out what was happening. I even tried to contact some of the people he hangs with, but I could tell he was drifting away from us. I could sense as early as last summer he was struggling again and I tried to be really positive with him. But we just didn’t seem to be able to create enough positive power to hold him. The negative forces just kind of overwhelmed him.”

In gauging how much Ellebb’s absence hurts, Denney said, “Certainly, we miss him. We miss what he could have contributed. We were counting on him. The Lord blessed him with a lot of talent. We went from a senior who, in my mind, was the frontrunner to win a national championship to a redshirt freshman, (Lance Tolstedt). Losing all the experience Tyrice had and all the work and time we put into him is a huge impact on our team.”

To a man, Ellebb’s former teammates say they feel no bitterness. Instead, there is frustration and empathy. For 125-pounder Mack LaRock, Ellebb’s departure “was a big disappointment because we know how much stronger he made our team, but we also realize all the different problems and situations he has in life. He did let us down, but I can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same thing if I was in his shoes. There’s no really hard feelings. Tyrice made his bed and he has to lie in it now.”

Perhaps the most disappointing thing to those who care about Ellebb is that so much effort went into his athletic success that stopping short now seems a waste. Then there is the fact wrestling provided a sometimes uncertain young man a structure and stability he often could not find elsewhere. “Being part of our team gave him a positive force that could really help him, but when he’s away from that he gets into these other forces that aren’t so positive,” Denney said.

As for himself, Ellebb looks forward to making amends with his former UNO comrades and taking care of business with his family. “I have all my priorities in order now and the main ones are being a part of my children’s lives and finishing school. People tell me I’m a good person. I’m just trying to find that person in me and to do what I’m supposed to be doing in life.”

Wright On, Adam Wright Has it All Figured Out Both On and Off the Football Field

July 6, 2010 2 comments

Though not a sports writer per se, I love writing about sports and I think I have a certain flair for it. So while I write about anything and everything in the course of a typical year, and certainly do not specialize in sportswriting, I like to keep my hand in it.  The following article is an example from about nine or 10 years ago.  The subject is an impressive young man named Adam Wright who made his mark on the football field at Omaha Nigh High and at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, my alma mater, as a running back.  He wasn’t recruited by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln but the way he developed and dominated at the Division II level at UNO he certainly indicated he could have excelled in Division I and helped the Huskers.  He even made it all the way to the National Football League as a free agent, but successive knee injuries stopped him in his tracks before he ever got to play a down.  This story originally appeared in the Omaha Weekly, a paper that no longer exists.



Wright On,  Adam Wright Has it All Figured Out Both On and Off the Football Field

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Omaha Weekly

Adam Wright has been so indestructible for the streaking UNO Maverick football team this year that no one foresaw this walking Adonis being sidelined by injury. After all, the senior has been the one constant and main workhorse for the often sputtering UNO offense in 2000, lugging the ball 30 times per contest the first seven outings. Time and again, the big bruising tailback with the ripped body crashed into a human wall at the line of scrimmage and came out the other side still intact, if not unscathed. He has taken many hard knocks, but delivered some too, usually leaving a litter of bodies in his wake. “I take pride in knowing I’m not going to be stopped by any one guy, no matter who he is, no matter how big he is,” Wright said. “I’m always looking to turn into somebody to dish out some punishment.”

But Wright, a bright and amiable student-athlete with a career in engineering (he is a civil engineering major) awaiting him if a hoped-for stint in pro football fizzles, was not always so assertive. The Omaha North High School graduate played quarterback as a prepster and arrived at UNO lacking the requisite toughness to be a hard-nosed tailback. As a freshman, he was even moved to wide receiver for a week. His passivity on the field was an off-shoot of his desire to blend in off it, where he grew up in an interracial home struck by tragedy. After losing his father at age 8, he watched his two older siblings make some bad life choices and set about being a model child for the sake of his mother.

He did anything to avoid being branded a troublemaker, even to the point of not using his God-given size to run over smaller players on the gridiron. Even after bulking up in college from 195 to his present 230 pounds, the 6’1 back steered clear of putting all of himself into runs. It took an attitude change, plus watching tapes of great backs, before he became the physical runner he is today. UNO Offensive Coordinator Lance Leipold recalls a heart-to-heart talk he had with his ballcarrier: “I said, ‘You’ve built yourself into this big back, now you’ve got to play like one.’” He said Wright, a devoted weightlifter, now not only “finishes off runs” but possesses a keen sense for the game: “He’s learned the blocking schemes better. He knows what’s really happening up front — where the hole is going to hit.”

His brute-force style, smarts and occasional breakaway speed (He cut his 40-yard dash time by two-tenths of a second over the summer — to a 4.7 electronic.), put Wright atop the NCAA Division II individual rushing chart for a time and allowed him to shatter UNO’s career rushing mark. He has 1,216 yards this season (just 100 yards short of the UNO single season record) and 3,761 overall. Earlier this year he recorded a stretch of three straight 200-yard-plus rushing performances. It’s been that kind of productivity that’s made him a regional finalist for the Harlon Hill Trophy (Division II’s Heisman).

By mid-season, he was a bruised but unbowed target for opposing defenses, absorbing hit upon hit but always picking himself up off the turf to get back into the fray. More often than not, tacklers were worn down by game’s end, not him.

Late, when defenses are tiring, he said, “you go for the kill. You put your head down a little lower, squeeze the ball tighter, fire out and go stronger.” Indeed, his late game heroics sealed wins against Northern Colorado and South Dakota. But with one twist of the knee early in the first quarter of UNO’s October 28 game versus South Dakota State, Wright went down in a heap, the medial collateral ligament in his left knee sprained. The injury happened on his first carry, a draw designed to go up the middle that he bounced wide. A defensive back came up on the play, making helmet contact just below Wright’s bent knee. As Wright tried to pull out of the tackle, his leg extended back and he felt his knee “wobble.” Playing in pain all season from tendinitis, he stayed in for a second carry, then with the knee only “getting worse,” he limped off, unable to return to a game UNO won 24-7 thanks in part to the steady play of his backup, redshirt freshman Justin Kammrad.

After week-long treatments, Wright was available for emergency duty last Saturday but with UNO dominating and Kammrad running wild (for a school record 239 yards) in a 45-7 win over Augustana. Wright did not see action. Instead, he nervously paced the sidelines — loudly encouraging his teammates. He should be close to full strength for this Saturday’s regular season finale at home against Top 20 foe and North Central Conference rival North Dakota (8-2). A healthy Wright will be a timely addition, as the 1 p.m. contest at Al Caniglia Field has major regional and national implications. Featuring a swarming defense that allows less than 10 points a game and a battering-ram offense that runs the ball down opponents’ throats, No. 5 UNO, now 9-1 and on a nine-game winning streak, is poised to capture just its second outright NCC title ever and to secure home field for the opening rounds of the NCAA playoffs. With their go-to guy back, look for the Mavs to feed the ball to No. 6 and, if his knee holds up, to ride his strong back as many times as needed.

Wright will gladly bear the load, too. “If it takes 40 carries for our offense to be successful, then give it to me 40 times,” he said. Following a 37-carry, 151-yard performance versus UNC on October 7, including gaining 38 yards on a crucial 4th quarter drive, Wright gouged South Dakota for 130 yards on 34 attempts the very next week. The more carries he gets, the more he starts “getting into a rhythm.”  When he and his linemen get into that flow, running turns effortless. “It seems like once the ball is snapped, I’m beyond the hole. I’m in the secondary already. It’s kind of weird. It’s like, all of a sudden I’m there. I don’t even remember the run.”

The last few minutes of the SDU game offered another gut-check for UNO and Wright when, tied 7-7 in the 4th, the Mavs ground out two drives — with Wright the main weapon — to secure a 21-7 victory. With only minutes left, he was feeling the effects of all the pounding, but refused to sit out for even a play. “To tell you the truth, there was a point in time when I got up really slow and I was pretty sore. It was ridiculous. It was like being hit by a car — twice. My teammates were telling me in the huddle to get out of the game, but I knew J.J. (reserve tailback James Johnson) had sprained his knee and that Justin Kammrad was only a redshirt freshman. I felt I had to stay in. It was a close ballgame. And with only four minutes to go, I was like, ‘Ah, I’ve already been hit 30 times, what’s four more?’” Wright made his last four carries count, too, tearing through a tiring Coyotes defense on a short drive he capped with a nifty 23-yard touchdown run.


Adam Wright today as Northern Natural Gas Vice President of Marketing


Doing whatever it takes has been ingrained in Wright since he lost his father, Jesse, to cancer in 1985. He has fond memories of the man, who was a packing house laborer. “The weird thing is, I can hardly remember his face, but I can remember a lot of lessons he taught me about life — about honesty, about integrity, about loyalty.” Prior to his father’s death, Wright’s mother, Liz, had been a stay-at-home mom. She returned to school (to study nursing) and entered the work force to provide for her three children. The demands took her away from her family more than she wanted. By the time her two oldest kids reached their teens, they were running wild. Adam, the youngest, sat back and saw how much grief his siblings’ behavior caused her and determined he would do nothing to add to her worries.

“My brother and sister pushed the limits to see how far they could go,” he said. “I saw how hard our mom was working just so we could have a chance for a better life and I didn’t want to disappoint her and make all the things she was doing be in vain. I tried not to disappoint anybody. Today, all of us are on the straight and narrow, but we each took different paths to get there.”

Liz Wright, an RN, recalls how as a child Adam displayed a maturity beyond his years. “Adam sort of comes from an underdog situation — being of mixed race, growing up in a poor area of the city and losing his father so young. I could have easily lost him to the crime environment in north Omaha.” She said his coming of age amid the near northside’s gang culture offered real temptations he resisted. “He didn’t take that path. A lot of his friends did. And what I admire most about him now is he doesn’t judge people who live that life. He’s a fair person. He’s kind of a keeper of justice.” Such congeniality, combined with male model good looks and a penchant for doing the right thing (he mentors disadvantaged youths), endear Wright to just about anyone he meets. For example, he was elected co-captain of the football squad and was recently voted vice president of the UNO student government.

His coaches — past and present — uniformly sing his praises. Herman Colvin, the head football coach at North High during Wright’s two years on the varsity there, became a father figure to the player. “He’s somebody I have a tremendous amount of respect and love for,” said Colvin, now assistant principal at Monroe Middle School in Omaha. “I really love the guy. He has made some good choices and I’m really happy with his choices. Has he done a lot to make me proud? He certainly has.” UNO Head Football Coach Pat Behrns said, “Adam’s a great guy. He does any type of public service work we ask him to. He’s great with young people. He’s a very classy young man. We’re going to hate to see him go.” Wright’s position coach, Lance Leipold, added, “He’s been a pleasure to work with because of his outstanding work ethic. He’s done a lot of little things to make himself a very quality back for us. But he’s not going to be one of those guys who’s going to be real frustrated if pro football doesn’t work out. Adam, from day one, has had such a plan in life. Someday, I might be working for him.”

The man instrumental in getting Wright to refuse Division I scholarship offers for UNO, Mid-American Energy CEO and fellow North High alum David Sokol, also commends Wright, whom he speaks of as a kind of protege (Wright has been an intern at Mid-American since 1996). “He has two characteristics I think are particularly important. One is, he has a very high character level. He is very cautious about keeping himself out of situations where, you know, bad things are liable to happen. The second thing is, he is extremely hard working and he has his priorities pretty well laid out. I think he can probably do anything he wants to, whether it’s the NFL or corporate America. We certainly would be more than happy to hire him after graduation.”

Clearly, the NFL is not an all-or-nothing proposition for Wright. It remains what his mom calls “a little boy’s dream.” As Wright himself said, “I’m a realist. I know it’s extremely hard to get there. If the opportunity presents itself, fine. But I’m going to leave my options open and do what’s in the best interests for my future.”

Carrying extra weight as “a cushion” against all the wear and tear he can expect to incur, Wright has his sights set on helping the Mavs make a run for the national title. “The way our defense is playing, if our offense can just control the clock, grind out the yards, get first downs and keep getting in the end zone, we have the potential to win every game.” Being on the sidelines has almost been more than he can take. “It’s killing me. I want to be on the field when we win.” he said. He will do whatever it takes to return. “I’ll argue, scratch and claw to get out there.”


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