Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

From the heart: Tunette Powell tells it like it is

March 10, 2015 Leave a comment

Tunette Powell has taken Omaha by storm since blowing into town like a mini-hurricane a few years ago.  This journalist, author, speaker, nonprofit co-founder, mother, and daughter is a high energy, speak-her-mind advocate for giving at-risk young people the foundational support they need to heal wounds and to pursue dreams.  In a very short time she’s garnered lots of attention and accolades and gained quite a following of admirers.  This story I wrote about Tunette for Omaha Magaizne ( charts her fast-rise to public figure.  On this blog you can find an earlier story I wrote about Tunette.



Natural Imagery: Tom Mangelsen Travels Far and Wide to Where the Wild Things are for his Iconic Photography, but Always Comes Back Home

January 30, 2015 1 comment

Tom Mangelsen’s journey to becoming a world-class nature-wildlife photographer is told in my New Horizons cover story now available at newsstands. The Nebraska native truly goes to where the wild things are to make his iconic photographs. His work is available at his Images of Nature galleries across the country. But as my story details, no matter how far afield he travels for his work, and he travels all over the world, he always comes back home, to where the Platte River flows and the cranes migrate in his native land. There, among the shallows and sandbars, his love for nature and photography first took hold and every year he returns for the song and dance of that perennial ritual that speaks deeply to his heart and soul.



Cover Photo

New Horizons Newspaper

Natural Imagery

Tom Mangelsen Travels Far and Wide to Where the Wild Things are for his Iconic Photography, but Always Comes Back Home

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in the February 2015 New Horizons


Growing up on the Platte

Thomas Mangelsen had no inkling youthful forays along the Platte River’s sandbars and shores would be the foundation for a world-class nature photography and conservation career.

He didn’t even take pictures growing up in the 1950s into the 1960s. That calling didn’t come until later. Without knowing it though his Huck Finn-like boyhood spent closely observing the natural world around him was perfect preparation for what became his life’s work.

His retailer father Harold Mangelsen, founder of the family crafts store now run by Tom’s brother David, was an avid hunter who championed Platte River Basin conservation before environmental stands were popular. The Mangelsens made good use of a family cabin on the river. There, Tom gained a deep appreciation for the wild, an ardor imbued in the painterly images he makes of species and ecosystems. All are available as framed prints at his nationwide Images of Nature galleries. Then there are his photo books, including his latest, The Last Great Wild Places. His work sometimes accompanies articles in leading magazines, too. Best known for his stills, he’s also shot nature films.

From his Jackson Hole, Wyo. residence he travels widely, shooting on all seven continents. He returns to Neb. to visit family and friends. Every March he’s back for the great crane migration, often in the company of star anthropologist Jane Goodall, a board member of the nonprofit Cougar Fund he co-founded to protect wild cougars.

He’s won national and international recognition for his work and brought wide attention to the annual crane migration, the importance of the Platte and endangered animal populations.

None of it may have happened were it not for that outdoorsy, rite-of-passage coming-of-age that gave him a reverence for nature. That, in concert with an abiding curiosity, a restless spirit and a good eye, are the requisite qualities for being a top wildlife photographer.

His earliest memories are of the meandering Platte’s well-worn life rhythms. Mangelsen largely grew up in Grand Island, where he was born. The family moved to Ogallala, where his father opened his first store, before moving back to Grand Island and finally to Omaha when Tom was 15. Wherever he lived, he spent most of every summer on the Platte. When not hunting waterfowl, there were decoys to be set and tangles of driftwood to be dislodged. Mostly, though, it was sitting still in anticipation of a good shot.

“That’s all we did all summer,” says Mangelsen, who got a .410 shotgun at age 6 or 7.

On hunts his father bemoaned the low river levels resulting from diversions to irrigate farms and to feed city water supplies.

“He felt there should be some water left over for the wildlife.”

At times water management policies left the Platte dry.

Mangelsen says, “It went in 50 years from a lot of water to like 15 percent of what it used to be. It’s probably still only 20 percent now from its historical flows. My dad was very much into that. He testified, he wrote letters. So in that sense he was the first conservationist I knew. He taught me all the ethics of hunting – don’t shoot stuff you can’t kill or don’t have a good chance of killing. He taught me how to call, too.” Coached by his father Mangelsen twice won the world’s goose calling championship.

Under their father’s tutelage Tom and his brothers learned to make their own decoys. painting them every year.

Tom wanted to know about sustainability before it had a name.

“When I wasn’t asking questions I saw what worked and what didn’t,” he says of dam releases and other efforts to regulate river flow and to balance the ecosystem.

Watching and waiting became engrained virtues.

“Basically we’d sit there for a week without seeing a flock of geese maybe, That’s just what you did. The challenge was waiting and then when you had the opportunity maximize that by calls, by setting decoys. We changed decoy sets five or six times a day depending on the wind and my dad’s moods or boredom. We’d see pheasants, hawks, eagles and lots of other birds. I’d watch through my binoculars because I was curious. So I fell in love with birds and not just a few.”




From gun to camera
He eventually discovered what makes a good hunter makes a good photographer.

“In reality I traded in my guns for a camera. It’s all the same process, except I don’t have to pick ’em and I don’t have to clean ’em and I can shoot ’em again. It’s like catch-and-release.”

Both disciplines depend upon patience.

“Well, that’s my biggest asset. I didn’t know any better because that’s how we grew up. I don’t mind sitting in a blind for days. I’m entertained just by watching things. People ask, ‘What do you do – read?’ Well, you can’t read if you’re in a blind. If you are, you’re not watching. If you’re not watching you don’t see something, and if you don’t see something you’re not going to photograph it. So you sit there and you wait and you look. So, yeah, I’m very patient and that’s the biggest gift to have.

“But I’m also a very keen observer. From a photographic standpoint you have to anticipate where an animal might be, what it might do. Is it going to go here or there? Is it going to go by its mate? Is it going to sit on the eggs and if so how long will it be there? If it comes flying in will the best cottonwood be in the background.”

He might never have picked up a camera. Like his brothers he worked in the family’s Omaha store. To please his dad he majored in business administration at then-Omaha University. Preferring a smaller school, he transferred to Doane College in Crete after two years.

“It was probably the best thing I did,” he says.

He changed majors from business to biology, with designs on a pre-med regimen, until finally settling on wildlife biology.

Finding his mentor
After graduating from Doane an important figure came into his life to encourage his new path.

“To continue my graduate studies in wildlife and zoology I went down to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to see Paul Johnsgard. Even at that time at age 39 he was considered the world’s authority on waterfowl. I was intrigued by his background, He’s a duck carver and a sketcher and a photographer and a writer and a teacher.”

But Mangelsen first had to convince Johnsgard to take him on, which required a leap of faith since this would-be protege was no academic star. With the military draft hanging over his head, Mangelsen needed Johnsgard to overlook his deficiencies before Uncle Sam called.



Paul Johnsgard


“It was 1969 and the height of the Vietnam War. I asked Paul if he would be interested in being my advisor in graduate school. I showed him my transcripts and he said, ‘These are really not up to snuff.’ He always took straight A students and only took five students a year. I said. ‘Well, I won the world’s goose calling championship twice and I have a cabin on the Platte, and could you maybe make an exception.'”

Johnsgard did, vouching for him to the dean of students. “I think he was mostly trying to stay out of the service,” Johnsgard quips about Mangelsen. The student didn’t let the teacher down. “Paul told me, ‘You may have been one of my worst students but you probably did the best of all.’ So in the end it worked out.”

Johnsgard soon recognized familiar qualities in his student.

“What i saw in him was mostly myself. He was a hunter and although by then I had long since given up hunting I went through a short period of loving duck hunting and that got me to love ducks. And I think Tom already had begun to stray well away from hunting as a passion to be much more interested in photography.

“I set him to work on a little duck counting project but it mostly became lessons in photography, and having a grand time.”

At Johnsgard’s direction Mangelsen bought his first camera, a Pentax, and first lens, a 400-millimeter.

Tom says, “Paul and I would meet on weekends and we’d photograph ducks, geese and cranes, mostly birds in flight, and I got hooked on it.”

The bond between master and pupil was forged during those times.

Johnsgard says the Mangelsen family’s hunting blinds “proved to be perfect photographic blinds,” adding, “I long wanted to spend time on the Platte photographing and this was a perfect chance, so we both got something out of the deal and we became very close friends.”

It was all manual focus, settings and exposures then. Johnsgard helped teach Mangelsen the ropes.

“He told me, ‘You focus in the eye and you shoot at five-hundredths of a second – that will stop the wings,” Mangelsen recalls.

That and a Nikon workshop were Tom’s only formal training. What Johnsgard provided was more valuable than any camera lessons.

“Paul turned me onto watching birds and he gave me a respect for the waterfowl. The more I learned the more I got interested in being a photographer,” Mangelsen says. “I didn’t have any plans other than doing it for a hobby. Then I started a darkroom in the basement of my family’s home in Westgate. I processed my film and I made prints. All black and white. Then I switched to color because it’s more conducive to shooting wood ducks and mallards.”

Tom and his brother David framed those early prints themselves. They banged away late at night in the garage of the family home until their father banished them to a spare warehouse.

Johnsgard says Mangelsen’s talent was apparent from the start. “Tom was very good. He had very good eye sight and hand-eye coordination in terms of focusing on birds moving very rapidly. When we compared pictures his were usually better than mine. He had great ability and it might have been a carryover from his hunting skills.”

Several kindred spirits shaped Mangelsen, who says, “there were all these interesting people I kept meeting along the way,” but he regards Johnsgard as a second father. These men bound by shared interests still get together on the Platte most every year.

“There’s always been a kind of parental sense dealing with Tom, especially in those early years when he was still lost in the woods, if you will,” says Johnsgard, who knows Mangelsen’s career has been no overnight success story but rather a slow steady climb. Once opportunity knocked, Mangelsen was prepared.

Making photography his life
By the time Tom heeded a long-held desire to live in the high country of Colo. he’d “found a different calling” than the family business though he concedes those retail roots taught him how to sell his work.

The mountains had beckoned from the time his family took trips to Estes Park. Then as a young man amid the counterculture movement, with peers joining communes, he moved to Nederland, Colo. outside of Boulder to live in an old one-room schoolhouse. He mastered photography and continued his education there.

“I was still taking some courses, like arctic alpine ecology, from the University of Colorado. At one of the classes this educational filmmaker, Bert Kempers, was doing a dog-and-pony slide show and the teacher knew I was interested in photography and introduced me to him after the class. Bert invited me to come have a beer and a burger with him and asked me if I was interested in work. I said sure.

“I told him I’d never used a movie camera and he said, ‘If you can shoot stills, you can shoot movies,’ which isn’t necessarily true because they’re quite different mindsets. But I didn’t know any better, so he taught me how to use a movie camera. We had an old Bell & Howell with the three-turret lens. Then we moved up to a Bolex and then to an Arriflex. We were doing educational biology films for the University of Colorado. Our advisor there, Roy Gromme, had a famous father, the nature painter and conservationist Owen Gromme.”

Mangelsen later met and was befriended by the elder Gromme.

“Owen was one of the first men making limited edition prints of his paintings, so I thought, Well, why couldn’t I make limited edition prints of photographs? I was stupid and naive at the time and thank God I was because that’s how I started selling the prints.”

Mangelsen opened his first gallery in Jackson Hole in 1978.

Not only did Gromme show him a way to market his work, but he modeled a fierce commitment to bio-diversity reinforced by others he met, including Mardy Murie Didl, widely considered the grandmother of conservation, and Jane Goodall. He also found inspiration in the work of such great photographers as Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, Ernst Haas, Edward Weston, Minor White, Paul Strand and Dorothea Lange. He and fellow Nebraska-native nature photographer Michael Forsberg are good friends. Nature painters like Robert Bateman are influences, too.




Projects with personal meaning
Learning filmmaking from Kempers paid huge dividends.

“I did most of the camerawork and Burt wrote, edited and put the films together. That was a great experience. For five years I made films. Out of that grew other films down the road.”

Among these later films was Cranes of the Grey Wind about the birds’ reliance on the Platte habitat.

“My whole deal with that was to do something about the Platte River, which was running dry. I wanted to show people, mostly in Neb., that we have a resource here that’s vital to the whooping crane migration – a natural phenomenon so incredible that it matches any in the world.”

This was Mangelsen’s chance to combine his talent for photography with his passion for the river and his interest in seeing its ecosystem valued and protected. The fact he could shed light on something so dear was irresistible. He didn’t want to see past mistakes repeated.

“The Platte literally went dry when I was a kid because they sucked so much water out of it for irrigation and for cities like Denver. They were putting more and more dams up. My brother Billy and I would go down to the river to see how deep the water was and sometimes couldn’t even find it. Then when the water came in the fall when the irrigation season was over it would trickle down from (Lake) McConaughy and Johnson Reservoir and people would call us and say, ‘The water’s coming, the water’s coming,’ and we’d wait for it. That’s the truth.

“It was a shrinking river with shrinking channels. It was becoming a woodland not that useful for ducks, geese and cranes. That’s changed quite a bit now. There’s been lawsuits over the dams and things. They have to keep a certain amount of water in the river now. Thank God for the whooping cranes or it probably never would have happened.”

He made Cranes of the Grey Wind for the Whooping Crane Trust. His mentor Johnsgard wrote the script and a companion book.

Johnsgard also turned Mangelsen onto Jackson Hole.

“We had spent time in greater Yellowstone,” Mangelsen says. “He introduced me to that area. I fell in love with Jackson Hole because of that trip I made with him when I was his assistant in the field.”

Johnsgard was doing field work in the Tetons when Mangelsen wheeled-in via a jeep. After a week there Mangelsen was sold.

The two men long talked about doing a book together but it wasn’t until last year they finally released one, Yellowstone Wildlife. They’re working on a new book about the cranes of the world.

Mangelsen’s interest in cranes led him on a kind of pilgrimage that helped generate more projects.

“I wanted to see where the cranes lived in the summer, I wanted to see where they nested in Alaska, where they wintered in Texas off the coasts and all the migration stops along the way.”

National Geographic got wind of this intrepid photographer following the cranes’ migration patterns and they commissioned him for a project that led to a PBS Nature film and so on. His reputation made, his books became best sellers and more people started collecting his prints. He opened more galleries to keep up with demand.



Staying true to his convictions
Even though he’s gained fame few photographers ever attain, the values, principles and rituals of his work remain immutable.

“You photograph birds in the spring when they’re breeding because that’s when they’re most colorful. You photograph mammals in the fall when they have their antlers and their best color.”

He works in all kinds of weather and even prefers when it’s not a picture postcard day. “Blue skies and sunshine are boring to me,” he says. Old Kodak film stock required “you put the sun at your back because the film was so slow it was sensitive to light.” But, he adds, “it’s all changed with higher speed films and now of course with digital.”

Catching the best light is a sport unto itself.

“They call it the golden hour, around sunrise and sunset. But you can also have wonderful light around storms and rain and fog, so there’s not one light I look for. But obviously the golden light, the early light or late light is classically the best light.”

He once made an image of a mountain lion during the last light of the day, the creature silhouetted against a black cave containing her den.

“That very direct light is really beautiful,” he says.

An elephant “against a black, windy, dusty African sky can be beautiful, too,” he says, as it was when he photographed one amid a rolling storm that shone “this golden light sideways across the plain.”

Another time he captured a group of giraffes in the noon day light but with a storm riding in to create a black sky.

“So there’s millions of different kinds of light,” he says.

From the start, Mangelsen’s viewed his work with an eye to education.

“I looked at all this as not collecting trophies as most photographers do early on, you know, shooting the biggest bucks or the biggest bull elk or the biggest rams or whatever. Instead, I was trying to collect animals in their environment – showing how they live.”

His by now iconic image of a brown bear catching a sockeye salmon in its mouth – entitled ‘Catch of the Day’ – has been so often reproduced he’s lost count. But that picture taken in 1988 at the head of Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park, Alaska and which adorned the cover of his first book, Images of Nature, would not have been possible if he didn’t intentionally look and wait for it.

“It was a moment that hadn’t been recorded before,” he says. “There’s thousands of pictures of bears at the falls. I’d seen them, I’d gone there. I’d researched bear footage. I happened upon a book about the bears of Brook Falls and I saw a picture from a distance of fish jumping and I wondered if you could shoot that, just head and shoulders.”

To get this image he’s now most identified with meant having a plan, then letting his instincts take over. It’s still his M.O. in the field today.

“Anticipation, pre-visualizing, observation is a huge part of it,” he says.

For “Catch of the Day” he was 45 yards from the bear on a platform 10 feet off the river. From his homework he says he knew the bears positioned themselves at the top of the falls, “which is kind of the prime fishing spot,” where they practically call to the salmon, “come to me.”

He says the picture became a sensation because “it’s unique – nobody got that moment before.” Some felt it was too good to be true – suggesting he’d manipulated or altered the image. “It was shot in ’88, before photo shop was invented,” says Mangelsen, who’s emphatic that the picture was not enhanced in any way.

Wherever he is, no matter what he’s photographing, his interest is documenting animals as they actually behave in their natural habitats.

“That’s my goal,” says Mangelsen, who decries the short-cut method of shooting animals on game farms.

“These farms have everything from snow leopards to tigers to deer, bears, foxes, cougars, every animal imaginable. Well, snow leopards don’t live on this continent, but for a few hundred dollars in the morning and for a hundred dollars more you can shoot a snow leopard and a raccoon in the morning and a cougar and a wolf in the afternoon and a fox and a caribou the next day, and by the time you’re done with the week and for a few thousand dollars you can have quite a collection.

“But baiting is used and the animals are half starved to death. There’s electric fences around them so they don’t leave. They are released to perform for the camera and the rest of the time they live in cages the size of a coffee table, which is criminal.”



An activist artist
His work in the wild has instilled in him a passion and activism.

“I’ve learned that all animals are really important, from the smallest to the largest, not just the bears and the wolves and the cougars but tiny animals. People may joke when certain things are put on the endangered species list – it might be a mouse or a small bird or a frog. But we’ve learned that the disappearance of something as tiny and familiar as bees is a whole chain reaction.

“We need to recognize they’re all important and we shouldn’t take it for granted. We also need to recognize individuals within a species are important. We shouldn’t be killing wolves. There’s no good reason to shoot a wolf unless it’s threatening your livestock or your person or your baby. Then you’re entitled to do something about it.”

But he says lawmakers tend to get their priorities mixed up.

“Nebraska’s a great example. They started this stupid cougar season even though there’s only 20 animals in the whole state. The season’s based on a couple legislators who think they saw a cougar moving across their pasture. I dare say I’ve seen more cougars in downtown Boulder, where I lived, than anyone in Neb. has in their entire life. They’re just part of the ecosystem there.”

He says in Colo. human encroachment on wilderness areas means foraging animals become part of the foothills experience. He says the answer’s not to kill displaced cougars but to coexist with them.

“Studies show it’s counterproductive to hunt things like cougars and wolves. Some people like to create fear of these hard carnivores. Some Joe Blow who hasn’t done his homework thinks they’re going to save babies and create safe zones if they kill all the big guys that prey on other animals. What they don’t realize is the big picture. They think they’re heroes somehow because they’re killing things with big teeth.

“It’s a Duck Dynasty kind of mentality.”

He’s outraged by Neb’s recently enacted cougar hunting season.

“It’s unconscionable to basically have open season on this great animal that you have so few of in the whole state. There’s no reason to kill a cougar other than a real valid threat to humans and none of that’s occurred in Neb. or in Wyoming. There’s no scientific reason. It doesn’t create more deer, it doesn’t make it safer. If you end up shooting the older, knowledgeable cougars which are still teaching their young how to hunt then the young are the ones that go out there to become juvenile delinquents looking for food in people’s backyards.”

He says the public has largely unfounded fears of animals like cougars or bears attacking humans.

“You’d be much more likely to get hit by lightning. People don’t put that into perspective. They’re fearful of what they don’t know.”

He supports well-informed hunting policies and practices. “I’m not against hunting if you do it ethically and cleanly and you do it for meat.”

He disdains hunters who kill animals for trophies. “They’re totally insensitive to the fact these animals have a great place in the ecosystem. Without them there are too many deer, they over graze, then there are no rabbits and beavers. It’s a top down thing.””

He’s quick to criticize hunting and wildlife management abuses. “I took a picture that appeared in the Jackson Hole Daily of these hunters at Grand Teton National Park shooting elk off the road. There were no rangers on duty – they were all at a meeting that morning and the hunters knew it for some reason. The game and fish and the park service got their tits in a wringer so to speak.

“National parks ought to be refuges for animals.”



The Cougar Fund tries to prevent mishaps like this from happening.

“The biggest threat to cougars is sport hunting. About 3,500 cougars a year are killed. Seventy five percent of those are females who are pregnant or have dependent young who will die without their mother. That’s tragic. It’s criminal to be shooting an animal that has young dependents. What our job to do is to educate people that cougars have a place and that killing cougars does not make it safer for people.”

He says the organization also monitors game and fish departments “to hold their feet to the fire.”

For his book Spirit of the Rockies: The Mountain Lions of Jackson Hole he followed a mother cougar and her kittens for 40-plus days, detailing their precarious existence and overturning some myths along the way.

Mangelsen’s travels around the world have put him on intimate terms with the challenges certain animals face on other continents.

“Africa’s in dire straits right now mostly because of the illegal trade in wildlife. Elephants are being slaughtered for their tusks and rhinos for their horns. They say one elephant is killed every 15 minutes. A lot of large elephants are gone. Poachers are shooting baby elephants that have tusks the size of a hot dog. Ivory and rhino horn are worth as much as gold is now. America has its own guilt over that in buying ivory trinkets. People don’t understand that every ivory trinket adds up to a wild animal. Most of the ivory and rhino trade is in China now because of the growth of the middle class there. The middle class didn’t exist not that long ago and now that millions have become affluent they want the cars, they want the fashions, they want the trinkets.

“Rhino horn has absolutely no more value than your toenails or fingernails do. There’s absolutely nothing there for medicinal purposes or aphrodisiacs or any of that. It’s all culture, all tradition, all bullshit. And ivory is just for ornamental purposes and as a status symbol.”

He’s appalled by this rampant destruction of species.

“It’s an amazing crime. People are trying to stop it. People need to stop buying the stuff. It’s not the poor villager who trades in it who’s the problem. I mean, he’s going to feed his family, that’s what comes first, and this is a lot easier than trying to eek out a living goat herding. It’s the people buying it and then of course all the middle men. Terrorist organizations are involved. Elephant ivory is considered valuable enough to be traded for guns, so not only are elephants being killed, so are people. I’m working potentially on a feature film on this issue.”



Full circle
By now he’s photographed just about everything that walks or runs or flies – from elephants to elk and from penguins to peregrine falcons. Two bucket list exceptions are wild snow leopards and pandas. He’s developed some favorites, especially polar bears, brown bears and grizzly bears, and he just hopes it isn’t too late for these creatures.

“They’re really intelligent, they’re beautiful to look at, they’re at the top of the food chain. They’re like wolves in that way. Wolves are terribly persecuted for no good reason. With all these animals there’s a competition with man. It’s not only a competition its a threat.”

There are consequences to being so outspoken. He says, “I’ve been threatened by people for speaking out.”

If there’s one place in the world that has the greatest pull for him it’s the Serengeti in East Africa, which is where he was in January.

“I went to photograph elephants before they’re gone. They really figure they’ll be extinct in 14 years.”

In March he’ll be back home, on the Platte, where his journey in photography began, watching the cranes again. Jane Goodall at his side. He still can’t believe she’s a friend.

“She was always a hero.”

He’d briefly met her but it wasn’t until 2002, when he was asked to introduce her at a talk she made in Jackson Hole, he got to know her.

“She happened to have the following day off and I took her to Yellowstone and we just had a great time. We talked about cougars and Jane joined the Cougar Fund. She asked about the migration of cranes to Neb. and I told her we just happen to have a cabin right in the heart of that crane migration and she said I’m coming to see you and the cranes, and this will be her 13th year she’s come.

“Jane has been to thousands of more places than I have been and yet she comes to Neb. to see the cranes. That should tell you something – that these cranes and the river are very meaningful to her.”

He’s still in awe of her.

“She’s an inspiration to me in that she can keep going through a lot of adversity. She sees a lot of poverty and animal abuse. She’s working very hard on elephant-rhino preservation because it’s coming now to be such a big deal. She’s known for chimpanzees and yet she joined the Cougar Fund. She has more causes and energy than the man in the moon. She’s 80 now and yet she won’t let anything slow her down.

“She’s got so much energy, drive, passion. She’s unstoppable.”

As anyone who knows Mangelsen can attest, he could be describing his own indefatigable self. One that knows no bounds. But like the cranes he loves, no matter how far afield he travels, he always migrates home.

Follow his adventures at


See the fireworks Leo Adam Biga created by blogging on WordPress.Com: 2014 annual report for Leo Adam Biga’s Blog (

December 29, 2014 2 comments

See the fireworks Leo Adam Biga’s Blog created by blogging on
Check out my 2014 annual report.

To all the visitors and followers of my blog,, please accept my wishes for a very happy new year and thank you for your interest and support. Here is a link to a report about how my WordPress blog performed this past year. When all is said and done it appeears the site will have had just under 100,000 views and approached 70,000 visitors. Between folks who follow my blog online or get email updates about it, I have nearly 700 followers. My blog posts feed into my Facebook page, My Inside Stories, which going on 500 folks have Liked. You can also stay up to date with my posts on LinkedIn, Tumblr, Twitter and About Me. I hope you find the content on my blog continues to entertain, inform and perhaps even educate you. Be sure to let friends and family know about it.

BTW, the 2014 post that got the most views and comments was titled “Color Blind Love: Five Interracial Couples Share Their Stories.” It was a cover story I did for The Reader (
You can link to it at-…/color-blind-love-five-i…/

This new year on the blog you can expect to see as usual my latest work for the various newspapers and magazines I contrbute to, including The Reader, Omaha Magazine, Metro Quarterly and the New Horizons. You can also expect to see excerpts from a new book I’m completing as well as teasers for the new edition of my Alexander Payne book.

See the #fireworks I created by blogging on #WordPressDotCom. My 2014 annual report..



Milton Kleinberg: Omaha resident who survived little-known chapter of Holocaust history releases new edition of his memoir

November 7, 2014 Leave a comment

Holocaust survivor stories come in every conceivable variety, just like the people and lives behind them.  I’ve had the privilege of telling many such stories in the course of profiling survivors who settled in Nebraska after World War II or later.  Each story, each survuvor, is distinguished by elements that make them singular.  I thought I had heard and read it all when it comes to these sagas but then along came Milton Kleinberg’s story.  There may be more dramatic or traumatic tales but I can’t imagine one that covers as much time and distance as his tale.  It is epic in terms of sheer scale yet it’s also achingly intimate.  I don’t pretend to capture more than just the surface of his story in the following Omaha Magazine ( article, but it should give you a sense for the aamazing rc of his surivival experience.  For a full appreciation of what he endured, you must read his book Bread or Death.




20141001_bs_4865Milton Kleinberg

Milton Kleinberg

Omaha resident who survived little-known chapter of Holocaust history releases new edition of his memoir

Now appearing in Omaha Magazine (
November 5, 2014
©Photography by Bill Sitzmann

As a child in Poland, Milton Kleinberg got caught up in a little known chapter of the Holocaust when he and his family were among Jews exiled to Soviet labor camps. The forced journey took them from occupied Poland to the siege at Stalingrad to the vast wastelands of Siberia. To be uprooted, thousands of miles from home, was awful, but it also meant being beyond the reach of death camps.

The 77-year-old native of Poland and longtime Omaha resident endured many hardships. Forced to travel on foot and by train, he was confined to warehouses, barracks, and institutions. He witnessed starvation, disease, suicides, beatings, executions. He weathered illness, injuries, predators. The epic ordeal spanned thousands of miles and many years. He experienced things no child should face. To defend himself and others he took actions no one should have to take.

His saga continued after the war in displaced person (DP) camps. After reinventing himself in Milwaukee, he went years not saying anything about his odyssey, not even to his wife and children. After moving to Omaha in his middle-years he still kept quiet. Keeping silent is not uncommon among the survivor community, for whom the trauma of loss is difficult to relive.

“When I came to America I made a pledge to myself I was going to put this behind me, that I was not going to dwell on the past, and that I was going to start a new life,” Kleinberg says. “My whole attitude was that the past was the past and I didn’t care to look back.”

Then circumstances conspired to break his silence. His grandchildren visited Holocaust sites and pestered him with questions. In applying for Social Security benefits he discovered his birthdate was different than what he thought it was. A genealogical search turned up two step-sisters, with whom he shared a father. The women posed more questions.

Always alert to anti-Semitism and to events in Israel, which he’s visited several times, he’s grown concerned by the rise of militant, extremist elements around the world. Finally, he decided, he should recount his story. In 2010 he self-published Bread or Death. He gave it to friends and relatives as well as clients of his successful business, Senior Market Sales Inc., which employs more than 170 people.

This past year he expanded the book with the help of professionals, including Institute for Holocaust Education staff who developed a teacher’s guide, a glossary, study questions, and historical background sections. IHE develops Holocaust curriculum for schools state-wide.

Released in August, the new edition is available to schools and youth-serving organizations as an educational tool. IHE executive director Liz Feldstern says Kleinberg’s made a valuable contribution to understanding the Holocaust survivor experience.

Bread or Death adds another important voice to understanding a narrative that affected millions of people in millions of different ways,” Feldstern says. “Anne Frank has become the voice of those who went into hiding. Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi are the voices of Auschwitz. Gerda Weissman Klein is the voice of the death march. Hadassah Rosensaft is the voice of the DP camps. Perhaps Milt Kleinberg will be the voice of those deported to Soviet labor camps.”

The memoir completes an obligation Milt felt to himself and his family.

“I wrote the book as a legacy for my children, grandchildren, and siblings that were born after the war,” he says. “Everyone had bits of information on what happened during the war. I was the only one with all the pieces of information. I could connect all the dots. So, I have written it all down.”

“Milt has fulfilled his responsibility admirably to share his story and break a lifetime of silence so that others can learn from that history…and hopefully not repeat it,” Feldstern says.

Milton M. Kleinberg shortly after arriving in America

Though reticent most of his life about his own experience, he’s never shied from confronting anti-Semitism. While residing in Milwaukee he actively opposed a neo-Nazi group there through the Concerned Jewish Citizens of Wisconsin, a group he helped form.

“We decided we were going to respond to the Nazis rather than stand silent or lay down. Some of us had learned hard, tragic lessons and sacrificed far too much to allow these haters to get a foothold in our city, in our neighborhood.”

It wasn’t the first time he stood up. He and his wife, Marsha, co-hosted a Milwaukee radio program. They bought the air-time for themselves in order to present and comment on Jewish news.

His book is a cautionary tale of what occurred as the world slept. It may help ensure another holocaust doesn’t happen in this new era of hate.

“After what happened to me and my family and to millions of Jews in the war, I simply would not keep silent about things I perceived to be wrong.”

Ultimately, Bread or Death is a testament to how a life well-lived is more powerful than any retribution.



Milton Kleinberg Omaha Magazine Cover Story



Leo Adam Biga’s Blog hits 400,000 views & The Many Faces of Leo Adam Biga’s Blog Version 2.0

November 3, 2014 Leave a comment


Leo Adam Biga’s Blog hits 400,000 views & The Many Faces of Leo Adam Biga’s Blog Version 2.0

And the hits just keep on coming.  My blog,, has now surpassed 400,000 views and in celebration of this milestone here is a new mosaic of images from the site. Diversity rules when it comes to my work and the images associated with the people, passions and magnificent obsessions I write about certainly reflect that.























The Many Faces of Leo Adam Biga’s Blog

October 27, 2014 Leave a comment




Artist facing life-altering disease makes Dracula subject of literary festival: Jill Anderson and friends explore Bram Stoker’s dark vision

October 17, 2014 1 comment

A not-so-funny-thing-happened-on-the-way-to Jill Anderson organizing the Joslyn Castle Literary Festival this year: strange, unsettling, and often debilitating symptoms began appearing out of nowhere and after many tests, a mis-diagnosis and many more tests she found out the culprit: multiple sclerosis. In true trouper fashion she has carried on and “the show” is indeed going on in her capable hands. It is ironic perhaps that her life-altering disease should come in the year the festival explores the permutations of Bram Stoker’s classic transmutation novel Dracula.  Her festival, Shadows at the Castle: Bram Stoker’s Dark Vision, runs Oct. 17 through Nov. 1 and uses art, music, drama, film, literature, and more to explore the themes bound up in the Stoker work and the superstitions and cultural traditions that influenced his creation.  Read about Jill, her perseverance, and her festival in this story for The Reader (



Cover Story




Artist facing life-altering disease makes Dracula subject of literary festival

Jill Anderson and friends explore Bram Stoker’s dark vision

Now appearing in The Reader (


When Jill Anderson made Bram Stoker’s dark transmutation novel Dracula the theme for the 2014 Joslyn Castle Literary Festival she never imagined her own life would be marked by fear-inducing, life-altering transformation.

In February the founder-artistic director of the annual festival, now in its fourth year, suffered the sudden onset of debilitating ailments initially attributed to a stroke. After rounds of invasive testing the stroke idea was laid to rest. Instead, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an inflammatory disease affecting the nerve cells of the brain and spinal chord. As the Omaha singer-actress has shared via Facebook posts, she’s dealt with endless doctor visits and frequent bouts of fatigue yet maintained a busy professional schedule. Even during the worst of it, plagued by nausea, double vision and vertigo, she fulfilled many performing obligations. She even made an out-state tour – with the help of friends and family.

“My mom literally went on tour with me, stayed in the hotels, made sure I got fed, It’s weird at age 47 to be like the invalid and having your mom as your caretaker,” she says.

Her indefatigable spirit’s hardly wavered, at least not on social media sites, where her humor shines through. In one post she compared her tour experience to Weekend at Bernie’s because she was nearly dragged from place to place like the corpse of that film comedy, only to be propped up at the mic to perform.

The emergence of her disease is still so new that she’s far from knowing yet what her long-term prognosis is.

“It hits everybody differently, there’s no way to predict how it’s going to affect you. One person might end up in a wheelchair and somebody else – no issues, no problems, or very little. So you have to figure out how quickly and aggressively your case is progressing and there’s no way to know that other than through observation over a number of years.

“I’ve heard stories from a handful of people about someone in their family who has MS and is in dire condition. Those have been the days that have been the hardest for me – hearing about the MS stories that are not triumphant and hopeful. You can’t have a chronic degenerative disease and not have the thought occur to you – What if I get hit really hard at some point in my life and there’s no one around to help me? I’ve had blue days with those kind of thoughts.”

Despite personal challenges, this trouper made sure the literary festival, whose proceeds benefit the Joslyn Castle Trust, was never in doubt. Much like her treatment of past subjects the Bronte sisters, Oscar Wilde and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Shadows at the Castle: Bram Stoker’s Dark Vision is a multifaceted event informed by her curiosity and wit. With the Durham Museum, the University of Nebraska at Omaha and other collaborators, the fest explores its theme through cinema, lecture, drama, dance and music.

“Every new project I do is a whole new world of discovery, especially the literary festival because it requires a lot of research,” she says. “I love to have an excuse to research my butt off. One of the neatest things about what the festival has become is this sort of melting pot of artists and scholars. Visual art is always involved. Drama is always a centerpiece.”

“There’s really no group in town doing exactly this,” she says. Indeed, the downtown Omaha Lit Fest has a contemporary focus. In theater circles she says “Brigit St. Brigit certainly does a great job with the classics, but they’re doing the drama aspect without exploding that out into all these other facets.” What distinguishes her event, she says, is its examination of “what inspired these much loved classic stories that still fire people’s imaginations.” That niche, she adds, has found “a passionate audience and we want to find more people who get it and dig it and are looking for a thought-provoking, intellectually-stimulating, interactive, exploratory approach to this literature.”

Then there’s the singular setting of the Scottish Baronial castle at 3902 Davenport Street. Built in 1903, the imposing four-story structure is the closest thing to a Count Dracula lair as you’ll find in the metro.

“The castle is gorgeous. An incredible, historic venue. It has a built-in ambience. So it’s really like a perfect marriage between this great literature from past periods and that evocative building.”

Anderson says as she filled out the Stoker festival with programming everything she needed fell into place but one element: authentic Transylvanian folk art from the 19th century.

“It’s been the festival of ultimate syncronicity because when I most need something it magically materializes. One thing I wanted for sure was an exhibit of Transylvanian folk art and lore because it informs a lot of things in Dracula. Stoker was a great consumer and enthusiast of folk lore, he was constantly studying it and speaking to people who knew about it and taking it facts and information. I also wanted to get some actual artifacts – a traditional Transylvanian costume from a hundred years ago.




Cover Photo


Searches on eBay only turned up things she couldn’t afford.

“I was beginning to despair and then a friend and I were walking around in the Brass Armadillo antiques store, where I interacted intermittently with a shop clerk with a strange and unidentifiable accent.

My friend and I found this kitsch cross but I said, ‘It will never work for Dracula,’ and the clerk said, ‘I am related to him.’ My friend said, ‘Van Helsing?’ ‘No.’ With a real live relation to Dracula or more accurately to the inspiration for the vampire legend, Vlad the Imapler, standing next to her, she did what any red-blooded girl would do.

“I leaped on him,” she says. The object of her enthusiasm, George Mihai, is not only a Transylvania native but a Romanian cultural studies expert with a personal collection of period artifacts from his home country, including many from his family.

“What are the chances?” asks Anderson, whose own powers of seduction or persuasion has Mihai loaning artifacts for display and delivering a lecture.

Where does a popular entertainer like Anderson fit into all of this?

“I would never be pretentious enough to say I bring any level of academia to this programming. I like to think I bring the juice to it.”

For 2014 she sought “something classic, completely indelible, that everyone knows and is irresistibly popular and sexy to the American public.” With fellow creatives she’s concocted an eclectic look at Dracula. The schedule:

•October 17

Movie Night, 7 p.m.

Nosferatu on the Green

F.W. Murnau’s silent film classic Nosferatu gets projected outdoors against the castle’s north facade. Audience members can throw down blankets on the lawn. Tiki torches and fire pits add to the mood. A UNO scholar comments on Dracula’s rich screen and stage history. An American Red Cross blood drive precedes the event with a bloodmobile taking donors from 2 to 7 p.m.. “Isn’t that fun?” Anderson says.

•October 23 through November 1

Exhibit, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily

Durham Museum at the Castle: Vampires and Victorians

Victorian ways and Romanian folk art take center stage in this exhibition drawn from the Durham’s permanent collection and from the personal collection of Tranyslvania native George Mihai, respectively. Victorian funerary customs and the rise of female emancipation are sub-themes in Dracula. Mihai’s family artifacts go back many generations.

•October 23-26 and 29-30

Drama Duet, 7 p.m.

Kirk Koczanowkski delivers a one-man performance of Dracula: The Journal of Jonathan Harker. Anderson, who’s directing, says, “This brilliant actor played our Oscar Wilde two years ago and just was dazzling. He’s young but sort of timeless and ageless. He’s transmutable, He can shape shift into anything you want him to be.”

Paired with that show is a staged reading of The Jewel of Seven Stars, a Stoker story about an attempt to reanimate an Egyptian mummy. Omaha theater artist Laura Leininger wrote the adaptation.

The two shows take place in the castle’s atmospheric attic full of turrets, nooks and crannies.

•October 27-28

Double Lecture, 6 p.m.

The Man Behind the Monster


Life and Afterlife in Romanian Mythology

Stoker expert BJ Buchelt (UNO) speaks about the author’s life before the iconic novel. Stoker was bedridden as a child. He managed the Lyceum Theatre in London, where he was also personal assistant to England’s preeminent theater personality, Henry Irving. His wide travels in Eastern Europe and his studies of its folk tales prepared him to write Dracula.

Transylvania native and Romanian cultural studies expert George Mihai of Omaha shares what Anderson describes as “absolutely fascinating stories” about Vlad the Impaler, a historical figure whose reign of terror helped inspire vampire mythology, and about that area’s deeply rooted and peristent native superstitions.

•October 31

Vampyre Ball, 7 p.m.

This “big blowout party on Halloween night will feature tarot readers, palm readers, fire spinner dancers, performers enacting vampiress bride scenes live readings by actors and a costume contest. Plus, lots of food, drink, music and revelry.

•November 1

Music of the Unknown, 7 p.m.

Hal France conducts a chamber ensemble of vocalists Anderson, Sam Swerczek and Terry Hodgesand and cellist David Downing performing period folk, operatic and popular stage music that deals with the supernatural.

Anderson, a much beloved and versatile artist equally adept at performing cabaret, Irish music, Shakespeare, Sondheim, high drama and broad comedy, makes sure music is always a part of the festival. The power of music has taken on new import for her.

“My ability to perform music, to use music to soothe and help other people is an incredible thing for me. I’ve gone to care facilities and sung from bedside to bedside for people and it does have an immediate affect on people. I’ve gotten thank you letters from people who’ve seen me in a cabaret show or some musical production saying they brought their father to the show and they hadn’t seen him smile since his wife died. That’s the letter you save for a lifetime. Music did that. Live performance did that.”

Then there are the unexpected, unscripted moments when music’s transformative power takes hold. In a September 9 post she wrote about one such moment at the Mayo Clinic in Minneapolis, where she spend a couple weeks undergoing tests.

“On the lowest level of the big open atrium there is a grand piano. It is open to anyone who feels inclined to tickle the ivories. Most days from 10 to Noon a seasoned old pro of a piano player, a woman who can play pretty much any request, sits at the piano and accompanies anyone who wants to stand up and sing…Yesterday, a barrel-chested surgeon in full scrubs walked up to me with his big baritone booming and, taking me by both hands, sang ‘Climb Every Mountain’ straight to my face.”

“It was totally surprising and wonderful,” Anderson says now in reflection. Never too shy to to break into song herself, at various times she did Mayo solos of “Stardust,” “Amazing Grace,” “Softly” and Tenderly” and “How Great Thou Art,” no doubt moving onlookers with her performances. Having the shoe on the other foot was an eye-opener for her.

She posted:

“Music is and always has been the great healer. I’ve usually been on the providing side of that equation. It’s interesting to be on the receiving end as well.”

The solace of music is always available to her. Her health problems surfaced in the middle of planning the literary festival, which complicated things but also allowed her to lose herself and her woes in the work. She says organizing the event is an “all-consuming feat” she values now more than ever.

“It’s easy to feel like your identity is becoming the disease and I don’t want that to be the case. It’s great to have something like the literary festival to pour my creative passion and energy into. It’s something that pumps me up and keeps me moving forward.”

She’s having fun, too, going goth, fangs and all, in promos.

The public knows her best as a performer but she also directs and she’s looking forward to helming Dracula: The Journal of Jonathan Harker at the fest.

“This Dracula I’m directing is really going to be outside-the-box. It’s a one-man Dracula with a single actor who morphs from one character to another, so that requires tremendous theatrical invention to come up with how do we make that happen, how do we make it clear when you go from one character to another.”

Directing is something she expects to do more of.

“I’ve done more performing than directing but I’ve been directing for years and now I’m feeling I really want to steer my ship in the direction of directing more,” says Anderson, who concedes dealing with stamina and fatigue issues is part of that deliberation going forward.

She owns long associations with the Blue Barn Theatre, the Omaha Community Playhouse and the Nebraska Shakespeare Festival. She and Tim Siragusa had Bad Rep Productions together. She’s left Omaha to make a living doing cabaret and regional theater in places like New York City and Los Angeles, but she’s always returned home.

She’s grateful for the outpouring of care she’s received here in the wake of her diagnosis from extended family and friends. She says the “incredible love and loyalty” she’s received has meant a lot to her as she’s navigated this “scary stuff.”

She’s grateful to for the generosity others have shown. Fellow performers staged a May benefit that paid her way to the Mayo Clinic.

“This big beautiful event went off without a hitch. There was so much heart in all of it – it was overwhelming. It’s almost impossible to describe what it feels like when your friends step in and just support you.”


 Jill Anderson, right, with fellow beloved Omaha entertainer, Camille Metoyer Moten, who survived breast cancer (my story on Camille is on this blog)



She was also gifted with a long dreamed of trip to her ancestral homeland of Ireland.

These experiences, she says, have given her “new insight” into her many blessings and a new appreciation for life.

“I think people are never brought closer to the essence of who they are than when they’re facing scary illness. When you’re sick, the bullshit goes away, you see things very clearly for what they are and in a way you’re hypersensitized. It brings you face-to-face with a lot of truths.

As an actress, Anderson’s called to be in the moment but she says she has just as much trouble achieving that state as most of us do.

“Oh God it’s hard to do. I think people’s ambition and drive put their head down the line instead of right here, right now.”

There’s nothing like a devastating health scare to get you to slow down, be still and surrender to the here and now

“All the weird stuff that’s happened medically has really snapped me into the moment, to being able to be fully and deeply touched by experience. To have sensual and delicious moments I’m actually enjoying and am involved in. I wasn’t able to do that before, not really. My head was always somewhere else. It was very hard to slow down and focus in before.”

In an April 5 post she shared, “Here are the things I noticed today: Spring is here. The magnolia tree outside my parents’ house is in glorious blushing bloom. Sprinklers were sending glistening droplets into the air. Lilac buds were packed and purple on the bush in my south garden. The air had a balmy feel. My sweet potato tasted incredible…I sang my guts out at a rehearsal for a gig and loved the feeling of making musical sounds.”

That ability to be in the moment, she says, “is the best thing that’s come out of it (her health crisis).” It’s why when people ask how she’s doing she can honestly say, “I’m taking it one day at a time.”

For prices and tickets, call 402-595-2199 or visit



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