From the Archives: Warren Francke, A Passion for Journalism, Teaching and Life
When I studied journalism at the University of Nebraska at Omaha there were three professors in my major area of concentration who stood out: the late Bob Reilly for his warm personality and engaging storytelling; the late Todd Simon for his brilliant analytical mind; and Warren Francke for his passion in teaching us about the rich history of the Fourth Estate. I was an odd bird of a student because my rampant insecurities kept me from really ever getting to know any of my fellow J students. The only prof I got somewhat close to was Reilly, which was no great feat because he was welcoming to all. Simon probably most stimulated my sensibilities, though his intellect intimidated me. Francke is someone I wanted to know better and sought more affirmation from, but I don’t think I gave him much to work with. After graduating college and pursuing my career I remained friendly with Reilly, who became a mentor of mine. I doubt if I would have stuck it out as a freelancer those early years without his encouragement. After college I never had any contact again with Simon, who just passed away in early 2012. Francke is someone I likely would not have encountered again if not for the fact that he and I both became contributing writers to the same alternative news weekly, The Reader. He’s a fine writer and human being and I am proud to call him a colleague. Like his good departed friend and colleague Bob Reilly, he too has had encouraging words for him that I greatly appreciate. When I did the following New Horizons profile on Francke about a dozen years ago he was just as I remembered him from UNO – a vital presence excited by his craft as teacher and journalist. I can happily report that he is still that vital presence today. I hope to have his energy and engagement 20 years from now.
From the Archives: Warren Francke, A Passion for Journalism, Teaching and Life
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
When University of Nebraska at Omaha communications professor Warren Francke gets a certain misty, far-off gaze in his eyes, chances are he’s lost in another Rocky Mountain reverie. As a veteran Colorado summer dweller, he can’t help but daydream about hiking where the wild flowers bloom or waking to the warm golden glow of the morning sun glinting off snowy peaks or filling his lungs with the cool crisp ether of pure mountain air or sitting under a canopy of stars from atop a tall ridge at night.
Perhaps he even conjures his long-awaited rendezvous with a bear on some remote mountain trail.
He’s been hooked on Colorado’s high country life since the early 1970s, when summers first found him hauling his family out west, into the Estes Park region of the Rockies, where they grew enchanted by the languid pace and natural beauty of those rarefied heights and eventually extended their two-week vacations there into months-long visits.
Francke and his late wife of 31 years, Sue, adored life in those far upper reaches. When she died of a heart attack in 1991 he, son Chris, and daughter Cara scattered her ashes in a place she loved. Now, he shares the towering landscapes with his second wife, Carol, who suffered the loss of a longtime spouse. After meeting and surviving what Francke calls “the human comedy that is dating after 30 years,” he and Carol married in 1994. After years renting in the Estes Park area the Francke family finally have a cabin of their own — in the Tahosa Valley, a half-mile north of the town of Allenspark. Situated at 8,500 feet elevation, on a lot dotted with tall ponderosa pines and small aspens, the cabin looks out on Mt. Meeker to the west and the lush valley below. The couple drive their jeep to secluded spots and make cross-country jaunts on foot to favorite hideaways.
When not sampling the great outdoors he reads books (preferring mystery novels), writes features for the Estes Park Trail-Gazette and pens articles for various professional journals and reference volumes.
Since joining the UNO faculty in 1966, he’s always remained a working journalist. You may remember him best as a a reporter-columnist with the Omaha Sun Newspapers in the 1960s and 1970s and as that curmudgeon media critic Watching the Watchdogs on WOWT-TV in the 1980s. These days you can find Francke-penned theater reviews in the Council Bluffs Nonpareil. At UNO he teaches Literary Journalism and History of Mass Communication courses as well as a graduate seminar. He feels writing and teaching give him the best of both worlds.
“I love to write. It helps my teaching and it helps fill some creative need I have. For my entire 34 years of teaching I’ve had the good fortune to also do the kind of journalism I enjoy most. I haven’t had to do the routine, mundane, grinding work of daily journalism. I do stories I like to do and I teach classes I enjoy teaching,” he said from his modest Fairacres home, his two faithful old dogs (“the ancient ones”) lolling nearby on the floor.
“As I approach retirement it’s a source of great enjoyment to me to find that I enjoy writing as much or more than ever. If I had had to give up writing to be a teacher I don’t know that I would have, but I didn’t have to. There’s an enormous variety to teaching, especially if you mix it with journalism, and when you get good results it’s wonderful.”
A past Excellence in Teaching Award winner at UNO, he’s seen many former students achieve high success, including Omaha World-Herald executive editor Larry King and Merrill Lynch executive vice president for communications Paul Critchlow. Among his most memorable years as an instructor came in 1975, when, as part of UNO’s Overseas Program, he taught seven months at Ramstein Air Force Base in West Germany. His wife and children were there for the duration and together they toured the festive wine country and traveled to prime European getaways. “We had a great time. We bought a Volkswagon and ran all over Europe,” he said.
Last fall Francke, 62, took a sabbatical from UNO to hole up in his cabin and begin writing the centennial history of Omaha’s Dundee Presbyterian Church, where he worships. He will take a leave of absence next fall and head for his cabin to complete the project, one he’s excited about because it combines his thirst for history with his love for a good yarn. It also means returning to his mountain retreat in time to hear the trumpeting echo of mating elk.
His research into old newspaper clippings, church bulletins and meeting notes is uncovering a rich tapestry of church history that coincides with Dundee’s growth and the founding of nearby Omaha University as well as early links with the Buffett and Fonda families.
“You’re talking about a church being formed at the turn-of-the-century in a little village called Dundee, fifteen years before it was annexed by Omaha. You read what you think might be dry records of meetings of church elders, trustees and ladies aid members, but as you learn to know these people you can’t help but have an enormous admiration for them,” he said. “You become so immersed in the life of this church and of these people that when you turn a page and you find someone — who’s been a real pillar and force for good — has died, you feel a personal loss.
“You really come to share the experience of building a church with them. These people become great heroes and heroines to you. It’s very rewarding to bring the lives of these people back to life, so the people in the church now can know who came before them and what they did. It provides a wonderful way to understand the story of a church and a neighborhood.”
Serving the greater good has been a sort of family inheritance. His late father, Ted, hailed from a German Lutheran family that produced an unbroken line of ministers dating back to the 1600s. His father studied for the ministry but was never ordained. If his father hadn’t broken tradition, Francke himself might have been a preacher. He thought about it. As things turned out he’s followed a similar calling as a writer — giving voice to
people and their stories — and as a teacher — helping young people find their way. “Sure, teaching is a form of ministry to me. There’s a real common ground there,” he said.
His zeal for a finely-crafted story or well-turned phrase shines through whenever he reads aloud his students’ work. Then, his eyes grow wide and voice gains inflection as if the Holy Spirit itself has moved him. “My students turn in stories from life experiences that are so powerful.”
In that way things have of coming full circle, Francke led a church-centered life as a youth, then, in the contrary ‘60s, drifted away from organized religion — exploring Zen Buddhism — before eventually returning to the fold and even being ordained an elder. Ancestral currents run deep.
Born and raised in Council Bluffs, Francke and his sister Rhoda grew up in a hilltop home above the Missouri River. Their father was a study in contrasts. The former top athlete was a physically-imposing man who worked as a manual laborer, even doing custodial work at the church the family attended, yet delighted in displaying his classical education by reciting Shakespeare. A bound set of the Bard’s works (which the son inherited) was kept in the family’s home, along with antique ancestral bibles dating back to the 17th century. During some hard times his parents sold the bibles to raise much-needed cash.
While Francke’s late mother Lydia, who hailed from hearty Iowa farm stock, never got past the 8th grade she was an avid reader who encouraged her children’s education.
“She was remarkably good at always taking us to the library and to Joslyn Art Museum,” Francke said. “I had a library card as early as you could get one. I read all the Paul Bunyan books. I read every book by John R. Tunis, who wrote a wonderful series about sports.”
His introduction to journalism came by way of a neighboring family, the Zimmermans, whose father, Reid, and oldest son, Earl, worked as aWorld-Herald editor and reporter, respectively. Francke often joined his boyhood chum, Ken Zimmerman, on weekend visits with the boy’s father to the Herald offices in downtown Omaha.
“While Ken’s dad was reading galley proofs or doing something else in his office, we’d run around the World-Herald, sliding down the brass pole in the press room or visiting different parts of that plant. Having newspaper people as neighbors did have great significance in my life. I got the idea a newspaper was an interesting place to work.”
He succumbed to the reporting bug at Abraham Lincoln High School, parlaying his interest in athletics (He collected autographs of sports idols, including Iowa’s own fireball pitching phenom Bob Feller.) as sports editor for the school paper, Echoes. Even as a novice newsman he got a kick out of being thrust into the action and reporting about it.
“I loved it. That experience epitomized the enjoyment of journalism, which is being in the middle of things people are interested in and then writing about them and participating in them. It’s the fact that you have the opportunity to experience a rich array of life and then get to make use of that experience by articulating it.”
With his reporting appetite whetted, he applied and was hired as a copy boy (copy messenger) at the World-Herald in the spring of 1954.
“It was an easy step from being sports editor in high school to going to work for the World-Herald within a couple weeks after I graduated. By that next fall I was doing something I had already done — covering prep sports. All it really boiled down to at age 17 or 18 is somebody paying you to go to the games you went to all the time anyway.”
The paper’s many strong personalities made an impression on him. Quiet but firm Don Lee, the venerable sports editor, was “always after you to ‘trim it down, trim it down.’” He recalls Fred Ware, “the fire-breathing managing editor,” was always “railing against somebody like Lou Gerdes, the distinguished city editor, shouting, ‘That damn Gerdes,’ and as a copy boy I’d just say, ‘Yes, Mr. Ware,’ and stand there. I can remember one morning it was pretty quiet in the newsroom when suddenly there was a horrendous clap of thunder outside and without even looking up Ralph Smith, who worked on the rewrite desk, said, ‘Good morning, Mr. Ware.’”
Despite his boss’s intimidating presence, Francke said, “There isn’t any question who the main influence on my writing was — it was Fred Ware. He talked about making a story sing. He wrote a style-book for the World-Herald and along with Strunk’s Elements of Style with the introduction by E.B. White and its emphasis on strong verbs and all that kind of thing, Ware’s emphasis on making a story sing had a profound influence on me. I took it seriously. Some of the best things I’ve written are influenced by a real strong sense of the flow and rhythm of language. If I could make a story a work of poetry I did. I think Ware started that in me.”
A gentler influence was the late, beloved sports writer Wally Provost.
“The writer at the World-Herald who was my hero was Wally Provost. Wally did everything I think a writer should do. He was a wonderful, graceful writer, but he also had a conscience and a sense of justice. Wally was the first person at the paper, as far as I know, to write seriously about racial injustice. His was a very effective, quiet voice on issues that mattered.”
In 1958 Francke left the paper to be a full-time staffer at his hometown daily, the Nonpareil. As a roving, Tom Allan-like reporter he covered all aspects of Southwest Iowa life. By the time he joined the staff of Omaha’s weekly Sun Newspapers in 1964, he was dabbling in the freer, livelier New Journalism, whose open literary narrative approach was a bold departure from the rigid, classic journalistic form. Provost, a devotee of the old-school, ribbed him about the new style’s descriptive excesses.
“I can remember running into Wally and him teasing me by saying, ‘Well, are you going to write about what kind of tie I’m wearing?’”
But for Francke, whose work grew out of his deep love for and intensive study of literature and drama (he has a master’s degree in English from UNO), the new wave of writing was no laughing matter.
“There’s no question I tried to change journalism. When Tom Wolfe and the New Journalists came along I was already doing the things they were talking about and I was enjoying doing that. I had the freedom at the Sun to do it. That’s why working there was such a terrific experience. I couldn’t have done that at the World-Herald, which traditionally has not been a place where a writer could work with creative freedom. The Sun was a place where I could experiment. My students every week write things better than I have written, but I attempted at least to be out on the edge.”
Even today he tries not settling for humdrum work. “I’m very unsatisfied when I write what I consider a routine review.”
He credits a friend, noted Omaha author and former UNO colleague Robert Reilly, for pushing him. “There’s no question working alongside Bob Reilly was important to me.” Another key figure for him was the late Ralph Wardle, former UNO English chairman. “A great writer and teacher.”
Francke’s 1968 Sun profile on his celebrated Omaha U. classmate, Peter Fonda, displays how he pushed the envelope then. Fonda, who’d been banished to his famous father’s hometown by older sister Jane to get his head straight, had become a youth movie icon via his starring role in the Roger Corman exploitation biker flick, The Wild Angels (Easy Rider was yet to come). Francke’s piece reflects on the unrebel-like Fonda he knew. A
sweet awkward guy haunted by a messy childhood and distant father. Smitten by first love (with Carol Robinson). Desperate to find acceptance.
Francke cleverly frames Fonda’s college life in dramatic, playwright terms, an apt approach for describing someone whose life was an open book and who hailed from one of America’s preeminent acting families: “Act I, Scene I — Freshman girl hears the son of Henry Fonda is a classmate. She asks a circle of respected elders, fraternity men all…‘What’s Peter Fonda really like? ‘A real phony.’
“Scene II — A girl named Judy dates Peter and writes an English 112 composition about a boy who will always walk alone.
“Scene III — Peter and Carol walk together down Administration Building halls. They’re going to class…they’re not holding hands.
“Act II, Scene I — Christmas 1958. Peter takes Carol to New York. Lauren Bacall throws a cocktail party. Carol meets Jane and Henry.
“Scene II — Sorority leaders call Carol aside. They’ve heard bad reports about her and Peter.
“Scene III — It’s spring…on the campus. Peter’s there…Sad, grieving. What’s wrong? Carol did him wrong. ‘Oh, well,’ he sighed. ‘I guess it can’t be April forever.’”
Francke knew Fonda as a fellow contributor to the student paper, The Gateway, and to the literary publication Francke edited, The Grain of Sand. They also shared a mutual interest in the burgeoning Cool Scene, with its rebellious Beat writers and anti-Establishment musical icons. The pair weren’t above playing their affected rebel image to the hilt — like the time they convinced a KMTV news crew they were radical campus beatniks.
“We didn’t really cut it as bona fide beatniks. We were both full-time students. I held a night reporting job at the Nonpareil. But we’d both read Jack Kerouac. We could talk the talk. We ended up on the 10 p.m. news.”
Once Fonda left Omaha for eventual success on Broadway and in Hollywood, Francke lost touch with him. He’s always had it in the back of his mind to “drive up to his ranch in Montana someday” to kick over old times.
Speaking of old times, Francke misses the vital alternative forum for ideas the Sun offered under publisher Stan Lipsey, managing editor Paul Williams and owner Warren Buffett. With the paper’s folding in 1983, he said Omaha lost “a second voice” it has yet to replace.
“Our constitution is based on the idea of letting truth and falsehood fight it out in the free marketplace of ideas. The marketplace is not so free when you just have one major voice. The Sun took on the important, controversial issues that were being ignored and did a first-class, quality job that won them many national awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting on Boys Town’s finances. None of the alternative publications that followed have had quite the strength of the Sun.”
The paper stopped publishing when, as Francke puts it, “it could no longer compete with certain advertising and business practices of the World-Herald,” which led to a lawsuit settled out of court.
Francke’s fervent but well-reasoned opinions on media and culture are the culmination of his many years as a journalism professional, student, teacher and observer. He holds a Ph.D. in mass communication from the University of Minnesota. His scholarly work on various facets of the media have earned him a national reputation. He recently contributed a biographical overview on James Gordon Bennett, a key early journalist, to Oxford University Press for a mammoth reference work it is publishing.
Watchdogs was Francke’s last major public forum for wading in on media topics. He credits then WOWT news director Steve Murphy with allowing him free reign. “There was no one else in the country doing media coverage and media criticism on television like I was, where I was not only free to criticize the station I was reporting on but to praise people on the other stations. I criticized the World-Herald more than any other entity, but I often said how much better it covered something than television.”
He fears his Herald bashing caused a backlash in terms of lost opportunities for him and his students: “Their top management deeply resented my criticism. It created a lot of tension. There’s a certain price to pay for…taking on the biggest power in town.” While Watchdogs ended its run in 1990, it was not due to any chilling effect. Instead, he simply felt he’d said enough after more than 300 commentaries.
The ever feisty Francke has hardly kept silent. He bemoans what he perceives to be the World-Herald editorial page’s move from “a moderate conservative position” to “The Right,” and categorizes its treatment of the President as “malice.” He is still asked to comment on current media events, as when KFAB sought his appraisal of Barbara Walters’ Monica interview, which he said regrettably only “satisfied our low curiosity.” He looked with dismay at “the sanctifying” of Joe DiMaggio upon his passing, noting the hype still paled next to how Princess Di’s legend grew “beyond all reasonable bounds.”
But where he used to crave always being “in the mix” of news events — putting his wry spin on things, he no longer minds “being away from the battle for months at a time” in that “other world” that is his mountain sanctuary. Yes, it’s a sure sign his Colorado conversion is complete.
“We lead such a simple life out there. When we go back in the summer for the first church service and the choir begins to sing, ‘There’s Something By the Mountain,’ I have a very hard time not getting teary-eyed because these things come to combine in a tapestry of meaning about the experiences you’ve had there and the way in the mountains you feel closer to the grandeur of creation.”
Despite the strong pull Colorado exerts, he has no intention of taking up year-round residence there. “No. I like life in Omaha. I don’t like missing the opening of the theater season in the fall. I would miss not being here for UNO and Nebraska football. I would miss my friends.”
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