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Father Ken Vavrina Book Signing – Sunday, Jan. 3

December 28, 2015 Leave a comment

 

 

Sunday, January 3, 2016
at 10:30 AM – 12:00 PM
St Benedict The Moor, 2423 Grant Street, Omaha
Father Ken Vavrina will sign copies of his new book, “Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden,” from 10:30 a.m. to Noon on Sunday, Jan. 3 at St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church, 2423 Grant Street, In North Omaha. The signing will take place in the social hall located in the church basement. The book chronicles Father’s inspiring life of service at home and abroad. As I helped Father Ken realize the book, I will be there as well. Come out and support Father Ken, a much beloved man of God and of the people whose ministry is both a testimony of faith and a call to action. This social justice champion has served parishes on reservtions and in Omaha’s inner city. He’s worked with lepers in Yemen and with the poorest of the poor in India. He’s aided war refugees in Liberia and earthquake surviors in Italy. He’s given all he has to give and now it’s time for the community to show its appreciation for this once close confidante and colleague of Mother Teresa.

Refreshments will be served. All are welcome. We hope to see you there.

 

 

A big thank you to Mike Kelly for his fine column on Father Ken Vavrina

December 23, 2015 Leave a comment

A big thank you to Mike Kelly for his fine column on Father Ken Vavrina

In the Omaha World-Herald issue dated today (Wednesday, December 23, 2015), columnist Mike Kelly finds the heart of Father Ken Vavrina and of the book I did with him, “Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden.”  Mike was aware that Father Ken got to know Mother Teresa quite well during his missionary years overseas.  At Mike’s urging, he, Father and myself took in a screening together of the new dramatic feature film about Mother Teresa, “The Letters,” since Father alone among us could provide first-hand impressions of what Mother was really like.  Mike took notes as Father reacted to various things depicted in the film.  After the film, Mike interviewed us.  Mike’s resulting fine column takes the full measure of the humble humanitarian and servant that is Father Ken.  It is Father’s ardent wish that each of us cross our own bridges to experience other cultures and serve diverse peoples.  This is how we grow and this is how we make the world a better place to live.

BOOK EVENT:

Sunday, January 3rd

Father Ken will be signing his book starting at 10:30 a.m. at St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church (in the social hall in the basement of the church), 2423 Grant Street. Refreshments will be served.

_ _ _

BUY THE BOOK:

“Crossing Bridges” is available on Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com. You can also access it on your Kindle. You can also order the book at- http://www.upliftingpublishing.com/#!book/c24jx

The only two local bookstores carrying “Crossing Bridges” are The Bookworm at 2501 South 90th Street and Hudson Booksellers at Eppley Airfield.

_ _ _

EXCERPT FROM KELLY’S COLUMN:

 

At the new movie about Mother Teresa of Calcutta, an Omaha priest occasionally leaned over and whispered about the saintly Nobel Peace Prize laureate he knew well.

“Sadness took a toll on her,” Father Ken Vavrina said at one point. At another: “Tough lady.”

At the Aksarben Cinema for a showing of “The Letters,” the 80-year-old priest, who himself worked with lepers, admired the actress’s portrayal: “Mother walked stooped, just like that.”

Through letters Mother Teresa wrote over 40 years, the biopic tells of her work amid the slums — and her crisis of faith, never feeling she did enough for God.

Father Ken knew nothing about the letters she wrote to her spiritual adviser, but he knew Mother, who died in 1997. He tells about her in a new autobiography with Omaha writer Leo Adam Biga, “Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden.”

As we left the theater and walked into afternoon light, the cleric remembered the nun, who died in 1997, as an inspiration.

“We meshed well together,” he said. “She contributed so much to my life and was a great influence in the way she was so humble. She reached out to help people without expecting anything in return.”

The last time I interviewed Father Vavrina was 1998, not long after he returned from 19 years of missionary work overseas. He’d just been assigned to troubled St. Richard Catholic Church at 43rd and Fort Streets, where the former pastor was Daniel Herek, convicted of child pornography and sexual assault.

Vavrina, who had worked in poor, sad situations for most of his priesthood, proclaimed that the parish and elementary school would turn the “negative publicity” around. Always optimistic, he predicted: “This school will still be here in 25 years.”

He tried. But because of declining attendance and enrollment, the church and school closed 11 years later.

Vavrina later served as pastor of St. Benedict the Moor parish in north Omaha. He eventually stated from the pulpit that, against his wishes, Archbishop George Lucas was forcing him to retire at 75.

The priest, who since has survived cancer, now looks at the situation differently. “The archbishop was right, and I was wrong. It was time.”

In retirement, Father Ken can look back on a lifetime of helping the poor — and, as a missionary, assisting “the poorest of the poor.”

He grew up in Clarkson, Nebraska, and was 9 when his father died after a fall from a ladder. As a teen, Ken dated and looked forward to a possible law degree.

But he felt a calling and was ordained in 1962. He worked on the Winnebago and Omaha Indian Reservations in Nebraska and later took medical supplies to members of the American Indian Movement during a 1973 protest in Wounded Knee, South Dakota.

He also served inner-city Omaha parishes, taking part in the civil rights movement.

In 1976, Mother Teresa came to Omaha and received an award at Boys Town. (Its official address today is Father Flanagan’s Boys’ Home, 14086 Mother Teresa Lane, Boys Town, NE 68010.)

Vavrina had long been inspired by her work, and in 1977, he received a leave of absence from the Omaha archdiocese.

In Rome, he met Mother, asking if he could help.

“She threw her hands up in her typical way when she was excited,” he recalled. “She said, ‘Father, I need a priest in Yemen to help the sisters working with lepers.’ ”

And so he went, staying five and a half years. He lived in a dirt-floor hut, scraped dead skin from lepers and witnessed amputations. He called it taxing but fulfilling work, “the best job I ever had.”

He contracted malaria, but not leprosy. Eventually, he was arrested and jailed for two weeks, suspected of spying for the CIA. (He says he was not.) The U.S. Embassy arranged his release.

Catholic Relief Services hired him to manage a rebuilding effort after an earthquake, and then to supervise aid in India. As he says in his book:

I will never forget my first night in Calcutta. I said to the driver, “What are in these sacks we keep passing by?”
“Those are people.”

Hundreds upon thousands of people made their beds and homes alongside the road. It was a scale of homelessness I could not fathom.

Father Ken was reunited with Mother Teresa, noting the admiration she received wherever she went. When he left Calcutta in 1991, he wept. He said Mother teared up, too.

He next went to Liberia during civil war, supervising Catholic Relief Services aid and dealing with ruthless dictator Charles Taylor, whom the priest calls “a paranoid egomaniac.”

 

Father Ken hadn’t planned to write a book, but so many people urged him to do so that he agreed, hoping his story might inspire readers.

He contacted Biga, a freelance writer whose work includes a book about director-screenwriter Alexander Payne. Biga also has traveled to Uganda and Rwanda to write about relief work by world champion boxer Terence Crawford of Omaha.

For the rest of the story, visit-http://www.omaha.com/columnists/kelly-from-mother-teresa-to-a-liberian-dictator-nebraskan-priest/article

 

 

 

Creative Couple: Bob and Connie Spittler and their shared creative life 60 years in the making

December 23, 2015 Leave a comment

 

Cover Photo

 

 

A lot of you know me as a frequent and longtime contributor with The Reader, for whom I’ve written more than a thousand stories since 1996, including hundreds of cover pieces. Beyond The Reader, I am fortunate to own extended relationships with several other publications.  I was a major contributor to the Jewish Press for well over a decade.  My tenures with Omaha Magazine and Metro Magazine are both more than a decade old now.  But perhaps my longest-lived contributor relationship has been with the New Horizons, a monthly newspaper published by the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging.  Editor Jeff Reinhardt and I are committed to positive depictions of aging that illustrate in words and images the active, engaged lifestyles of people of a certain age.  Older adult living doesn’t need to follow any of the outdated prescriptions that once had folks at retirement age slowing down to a crawl and more or less retreating from life.  That’s not at all how the people we profile approach the second or third acts of their lives.  No, our subjects are out doing things, working, creating, traveling, making a difference.  My latest profile subjects for the Horizons, Bob and Connie Spittler, are perfect examples.  They are in their 80s and still living the active, creative lives that have always driven their personal and professional pursuits.  He makes still and moving images.  He pilots planes.  She writes essays, short stories and books.  They travel.  They enjoy nature.  Sometimes they combine their images and words together in book projects.  Bob and Connie are the cover subjects in the January 2016 issue.  They join a growing list of folks I’ve profiled for the Horizons who embody such precepts of health aging as keeping your mind occupied, doing what you enjoy, following youe passion, cultivating new interests and discovering new things.  The Spittlers are also in a long line of dynamic older couples I’ve profiled – Jose and Linda Garcia, Vic Gutman and Roberta Wilhelm, Josie Metal-Corbin and David Corbin, Ben and Freddie Gray.  You can find many of my Horizons stories on my blog, Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories at leoadambiga.com.

NOTE: ©Photos by Jeff Reinhardt, New Horizons Editor, unless otherwise indicated.

 

 

Spittlers looking at each other (Leo)

Bob and Connie Spittler outside their Brook Hollow home

 

 

Creative Couple: Bob and Connie Spittler and their shared creative life 60 years in the making

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the January 2016 issue of the New Horizons
Once a creative, always a creative.

That’s how 80-something-year-olds Bob and Connie Spittler have rolled producing creative projects alone or together for six decades. Their work spans television commercials, industrial films, slideshows and books.

Bob, a photographer and filmmaker, these days experiments making art photos. Connie, a veteran scriptwriter, is now an accomplished essayist, short story writer and novelist. Her new novel, the tongue-in-cheek titled The Erotica Book Club for Nice Ladies, has found a receptive enough audience she’s writing a sequel. The book is published by Omaha author-publisher Kira Gale and her River Junction Press.

This past summer Bob and Connie hit the highway for a five-state book tour. Their stops included signings at the American Library Association Conference in San Francisco and the Tattered Cover in Denver. Following an intimate reading at a Berkeley, Calif. couple’s home she and Bob stayed the night. It harkened back to the RV road trips they made with their four kids.

On social media she termed the tour “an author’s dream.” It was especially gratifying given Bob endured a heart angioplasty and stent earlier in 2015.

Connie was also an invited panelist at an Austin, Texas literary event.

“All in all, an unforgettable year of healing, friendship, interesting places and great people,” she wrote in a card to family and friends.

Sharing a love for the outdoors, the Soittlers have applied their respective talents to splendid nature books. The Desert Eternal celebrates the ecosystem surrounding the home they shared in the foothills of the Catalina Mountains in Arizona, where they “retired” after years running their own Omaha film production biz

“When we want down to Tucson we weren’t going to be working together. We were just going to do our own thing,” she says. “We’ve always been able to kind of follow what we want to do. So I started writing literary things and he was out taking pictures. I had a lumpectomy and the day I came home I’m looking out at the Catalina Mountains and I thought, you know it’s strange Bob and I both think we’re doing our own thing when we’re doing the same thing, we’re just each doing it in our own way. We were both doing the desert.

“We lived between two washes the coyotes and other wildlife came through. I had seven weeks of radiation and I had the idea of putting our work together. I downloaded all my essays on the desert and every morning before radiation I’d go into his office and together we’d look through his photo archive for images he’d taken that matched the words I’d written. Well, by the time we got to the end we had 114 photos – enough for a book. Bob formatted it. It came back (from the printer) the day my radiation finished. It was just this cycle.”

Another of their books, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, documents the wild-in-the-city sanctuary around the southwest Omaha home they’ve lived in since 2010, when they returned from their Arizona idyll. Their home in the gated Sleepy Hollow neighborhood abuts four interconnected ponds that serve as habitat for feathered and furry creatures. The inspiration the couple finds in that natural splendor gets expressed in her words and his images.

“Words and images are perfect for each other,” Connie says by way of explaining what makes her and Bob such an intuitive match.

The couple met at Creighton University in the early 1950s. They studied communications and worked on campus radio, television, theater productions together. He was from the big city. She was from a small town, But they hit it off and haven’t stopped collaborating since.

 

 

Spittlers' office (Leo)

The couple’s original office, ©Bob Spittler

 

Her writerly roots
The former Connie Kostel grew up in South Dakota. This avid reader practically devoured her entire hometown library.

Connie developed an affection for great women writers. “I love Emily Dickinson. Her poems are short and kind of pithy. She always has one thought in there that just kind of sticks with you.” Other favorites include Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, Jane Austen.

“I like a lot of classics.”

Terry Tempest Williams is a contemporary favorite.

Success in school got her thinking she might pursue writing.

“I think it was in the sixth grade I won an essay competition. It had to be on the topic of how we increased production on our family flax farm. Well, there were some farm kids in my grade but I don’t think anybody grew flax. My father was a funeral director. But I got the encyclopedia and I found out some facts about flax and I wrote an essay and I won. I think I got $25 or something. i mean it was like, Wow, I think I should be a writer. That sparked my interest.”

She attended the Benedictine liberal arts Mount Marty College in Yankton, S.D., a then-junior college for girls.

“I got a scholarship there. I was interested in writing and I was going to have to transfer anyway and I began to see radio and TV as one way maybe I could make a living writing rather than writing short stories and novels and so forth. So I decided to do that. My parents researched it out and found Creighton University for me, It had one of the few programs with television, radio and advertising,”

His Army detour
Meanwhile, Bob graduated from Omaha Creighton Prep before getting drafted into the U.S. Army. In between, he earned his private pilot’s license, the start of a lifelong affair with flying that’s seen him own and pilot several planes he’s utilized for both work and pleasure. Prior to the Army he began fooling around with a camera – a Brownie.

He recently put together a small book for his family about his wartime stint in Korea. He had no designs on doing anything with photography when he began documenting that experience.

“Everybody bought a camera over there and I bought an Argus C3. I just got interested in taking pictures for something to do. I learned how to use it and I just took a lot of pictures. I didn’t think it was going anywhere. It was just a hobby, you know.”

But those early photos show a keen eye for composition. He was, in short, a natural. The book he did years later, titled My Korea 1952 to 1953, gives a personal glimpse of life in the service amidst that unfamiliar culture and forbidding environment.

The Army assigned Spittler to intelligence work.

“My specialty was artillery but I was put in what they called G2 Air (part of Corps Intelligence). I went to a school in Japan. Back in Korea I coordinated the Air Force with the artillery in the CORPS front.”

Spittler relied on wall maps and tele-typed intel to schedule flights by Air Force photo-reconnaissance planes. “When I first arrived P-51 Mustangs were the planes used. Then after about six months they shifted to the F-80 Shooting Star,” he writes. “In winter a little pot-bellied kerosene stove warmed our tent. At night it had to be turned off and lighting it on a cold morning, below zero, was painful, It took 10 minutes before it even thought about giving heat.”

The closest he came to action was when a Greek mortar platoon on the other side of a river running past the American camp fired shells into a nearby hill, causing the GIs to scramble for cover.

Though he didn’t pilot any aircraft there he did find ways to feed his flying fix.

He writes, “Since my job was using radio contact with reconnaissance flights every day I became ‘talking friendly’ with some of the pilots. One of them agreed to give me a jet ride…”

 

 

Bob at fireplace (Leo)

Bob Spittler

 

 

That ride was contingent on Spittler making his way some distance to where the sound-breaking aircraft were based. “Come hell or high water I wasn’t going to pass up that offer,” he writes. With no jeep available, he hitchhiked his way southwest of Seoul and got his coveted ride in a T-33. From 33,000 feet he sighted the “double bend’ of the Imjin River pilots used as a rendezvous landmark – something he’d heard them often reference in radio chatter.

At Spittler’s urging the pilot did some loops. Aware his guest was a flier himself the pilot let Spittler put the jet into a roll. But before he could complete the pull out the pilot took over when Spittler began losing control in the grip of extreme G-forces he’d never felt before. An adrenalin rush to remember.

 

 

Click to preview My Korea 1952 to 1953 photo book

 

 

Kindred spirits
After a year in-country Bob eagerly resumed the civilian life he’d put on hold. What he did to amuse himself in the Army. photography, became a passion. When he and Connie met at Creighton they soon realized they shared some interests and ambitions. They were friends first and dated off and on. She was entranced by the romance of this tall, strapping veteran who took her up in his Piper Cub. He was drawn to her petite beauty and unabashed intelligence and independence.

Besides their mutual attraction, they enjoyed working in theater productions. They even appeared in a few plays together. Connie’s passion for theater extended to teaching dramatic play at Joslyn Art Museum. She also enacted the female lead, Lizzie, in an Omaha Community Playhouse production of The Rainmaker.

The pair benefited from instructors at Creighton, including two Jesuit priests who were mass communications pioneers. Before commercial television went on the air in Omaha, Rev. Roswell Williams trained production employees of WOW-TV with equipment he set up at the school. He founded campus radio station KOCU to prepare students for broadcasting careers. He implemented an early closed circuit television systems used to teach classes.

 

 

Connie Spittler works the board as Rex Allen gets ready to shoot a scene in the 28-minute film on the story of Ak-Sar-Ben. Published Nov. 16, 1968. (Richard Janda/The World-Herald). Editor’s note: Turns out Connie Spittler, the woman in the photo, has a blog. You can find out more about the story behind this photo here. Also, how awesome is that cigarette behind her ear?

Connie Spittler works the board as Rex Allen gets ready to shoot a scene in the 28-minute film on the story of Ak-Sar-Ben. Published Nov. 16, 1968. (Richard Janda/The World-Herald).

 

 

 

“He was the person that brought television to Creighton University,” Connie says. “He was interested in it in students learning about it.”

Rev. Lee Lubbers was an art professor whose kinetic sculptures experimental, film offings and international satellite network, SCOLA, made him an “avant garde” figure.

“It was so unusual to have him be here and do what he did,” Connie says. “He stirred things up for sure.”

Right out of college she and Bob worked in local media. He directed commercials and shows at WOW-TV. She was a continuity director, advertising scriptwriter and director at fledgling KETV. She also worked in advertising at radio station KFAB.

Bob’s father was an attorney and there was an expectation he would follow suit but he had other plans.

“My father wanted me to be a lawyer and I just kept fighting that,” he recalls. “The gratifying thing about that is that after about 10 years of being in business he said, ‘I’m really kind of glad you didn’t go into it.'”

Bob calls those early days of live TV “fun.”

“I did little 10 second spots for Safeway. They’d just give me the copy and have me go shoot a banana or something. Well, one night I hung them up in the air and swung them and moved the camera and they were flying all over the place and Safeway just loved it.

“But it changed so much with (video )tape coming in. You can always look back and say, ‘Boy, what we could have done if we’d had that.'”

 

 

Spittlers at fireplace B & W (Leo)

 

 

Taking the plunge
Bob and Connie then threw caution aside to launch a film production company from their basement. Don Chapman joined them to form Chapman-Spittler Productions. While leaving the stability of a network affiliate to build a business from scratch might have been a scary proposition for some, it fit Bob to a tee.

“To be honest with you I’m not a team player and I’m not a leader. I’m kind of a loner,” he says. “I could see corporate-wise I wouldn’t get anywhere. I had ideas and things I wanted to do myself. When I did get something done it was always off by myself and I figured out that was the way I wanted it.”

The fact that Bob and Connie brought separate skill sets to the table helped make them work together.

“We didn’t do the same things, that was part of it, so we weren’t competing with each other,” she says. “One other very important thing she did – she kept the books,” Bob notes.

It was unusual for a married couple to work together in the communications field then. Connie was also a rarity as a woman in the male-dominated media-advertising worlds.

She’s long identified as a feminist.

“I was a working woman in the ’50. We were just women that wanted to be able to work, to be able to make a living wage, that wanted to have a family and kids if we chose to but not that we had to.”

There were a few occasions when her gender proved an issue.

“Northern Natural Gas was interviewing for a position and they said there’s no way we can accept a female for this because this job entails going to a lot of parties that get too rowdy, so we’re sorry. When I was at KETV we were doing a documentary about SAC (Strategic Air Command) in-air refueling missions. I wanted to go up so I could write about it, but base officials said we can’t send up a woman, so I couldn’t do that. The station did send up a male director and he came back and told me about it and I wrote the script

“Otherwise, I don’t think I did experience discrimination.”

 

 

Cub silouette (Leo)

Bob’s beloved Piper Cub, ©Bob Spittler

 

 

She wasn’t taking any chances though when she broke into the field.

“I was one of the first people hired before KETV went on the air. My job was as an administrative assistant to work with New York (ABC). That was one place where I didn’t know if there’d be any problem with my being a woman so instead of signing letters Connie Kostel (this was before she was married), I signed them Con Kostel, so they wouldn’t know what sex I was. I didn’t have any problems.”

Connie will never forget the time she wrote a promo for a Hollywood actor on tour promoting his new ABC Western series.

“I directed him in the promo. When I got home Bob said, ‘How’d it go with the guy from Hollywood?’ I said, ‘He’s nice looking but he’s a loser, He had the personality of a peach pit. I just didn’t get anything from him at all.'”

She was referring to James Garner, whose Maverick became a hit.

In retrospect, she chalks up his lethargy to being exhausted after a long tour. “Thank heavens I didn’t want to be a talent scout.”

 

 

 

 

 

The salad days
She says when she and Bob had their own business she was put “in charge of some really big sales meetings” by clients who entrusted her with writing-producing multi-screen slide shows. These elaborate productions cost tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars and often involved name narrators, such as Herschel Bernardi and Rex Allen.

She wrote-produced a 9-screen, 14-projector show for Leo A. Daly having never produced even a single-screen slide show.

“Inspired in the late ’60’s by our plane trips to the Montreal World Fair and the San Antonio HemisFair, Bob and I were both excited by multi-screen shows.”

Once, Connie was asked to produce show in three days to be shown in a tent in Saudi Arabia.

“I always wondered about the extension cord,” she quips.

Bob says Connie was accepted as an equal by the old boys network they operated in. “I never saw any signs of any rejection.” Besides, he adds, “she got along real well with people” and “she was good.”

For her part, Connie felt right at home doing projects for Eli Lilly, Mutual of Omaha, Union Pacific, ConAgra, Ak-Sar-Ben, the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce and many other clients.

“I loved it, I absolutely loved it. And the thing I loved about the writing I did was that each one was a different subject. I’d go visit a big company like Leo A. Daly and they’d introduce me to their top people to interview. I’d be given all these research books and reports to read. It was like a continuing education. Working on the Daly account I learned a lot about architecture.

“Almost anything turned out to be really interesting once I talked to the people who worked there who were excited about their work.”

Their projects played international film festivals and earned industry awards. Bob worked with Galen Lillethorup at Bozell and Jacobs to produce the ‘The Great Big Rollin’ Railroad’ commercials for Union Pacific, which won the prestigious Clio for B & J. Bob recalls the North Platte, Neb. shoot as “fun,” adding, “We got a lot of attention out of it and we did get other business from it.” A few years later, Spittler Productions received their own Clio recognition for an Omaha Chamber project. Assignments took them all over the U.S. Bob would often do the flying.

“Bob either shot, scouted or landed for business purposes and I traveled to locations to research, write and produce sales meetings in every state in the U.S. with the exception of Alaska, Hawaii, Maine and Rhode Island,” Connie says.

One time when Bob let someone else do the flying he and a Native American guide caught a helicopter that deposited them atop a Wyoming mesa so he could capture a train moving across the wilderness valley.

“I sat up there with my Arriflex and that old Indian and waited for that train to come and neither of us could understand the other,” he recalls.

Connie once wrote liner notes for a City of London Mozart Symphonia produced by Chip Davis and recorded in Henry Wood Hall, London. Davis recommended her to Decca Records in London to write liner notes for a Mormon Tabernacle Choir album.

At its peak Chapman-Spittler Productions did such high profile projects the partners opened a Hollywood office. Spittler worked with big names Gordon McCrae and John Cameron Swayze.

The Nebraskans made their office a Marina del Rey yacht, the Farida, supposedly once owned by King Farouk and named after his wife.

“On one occasion I flew a Moviola (editing machine) out there and we edited one of the Union Pacific commercials on the boat over in Catalina,” Bob remembers.

An InterNorth commercial was edited there as well.

Connie adds, “I used the yacht as a wonderful place to write scripts.”

“Ours was 40-foot. We were able to sleep on it. I took the boat out a lot. When we left, that’s where it stayed,” Bob says. “Our boat was right next to Frank Sinatra’s boat off the Marina del Rey Hotel. His was a converted PT-boat.”

Bob also did his share of flying up and down the Calif. coast. Connie wedded her words to his images to tell stories.

One of Bob and Connie’s favorite projects was working with Beech Aircraft. Using aerial photography Bob shot in several states, they produced a film on the pressurized Baron and later a film on the King Air for the Beechcraft National Conference in Dallas, Texas

The variety of the projects engaged her.

“Curiosity is my favorite thing,” she acknowledges.

A hungry mind is another attribute she shares with her mate, as Bob’s a tinkerer when it comes to mechanical and electronic things.

“Bob is curious, too,” she says. “He’s always trying to think of something to invent. Years ago he went out and brought home one of the first PCs – a TRS 80. He wanted to play around with it. Then he pushed me into playing around with it and then he made all the kids learn it so they could do their college applications on the computer. So he dragged the whole family into the computer generation.”

The way Bob remembers it, “When I brought that first computer home we had it for a week and I was still trying to figure out how to turn the damn thing on and my son was programming it. He taught me. But that was neat. I’m way behind now on technology,” though he has digital devices to share and store his work.

 

 

Connie Spittler at table (Leo)

Connie Spittler

 

 

Reinventing themselves
Bob and Connie’s collaborations continued all through the years they worked with Don Chapman. When that partnership dissolved the couple went right on working together.

“We were complementary I suppose in many ways,” she says. “When we had the business I wrote and produced, he shot and edited, so it just worked.”

By now, Connie’s written most everything there is to write. Being open to new writing avenues has brought rewarding opportunities.

“You have to be open to writing about other things just to keep your mind going. I received a phone call in Tucson one day and this person said, ‘We heard about you and we wondered if you’d come read your cowboy poetry at our trail ride?’ I’d never written any cowboy poetry but it sounded so much fun. I said, ‘Let me think about that.’ Well, I like cowboys and nature and all these things, so I agreed to do it. Bob and I ended up making this little book Cowboys & Wild, Wild Things.”

When she got around trying her hand at fiction writing, it fit like a glove.

“I was writing my first fiction piece and Bob said to me, ‘Do you know for the first time since we’ve come down here every time you come out of your office you’re smiling?’ Before, my projects were all kind of heavy, fact-laden subjects. I mean, there was creativity but it was mostly how do you take this subject and make it interesting. With the novel, I could make it anything I want.”

She hit her fiction stride with the books Powerball 33 and Lincoln & the Gettysburg Address.

A project that brought her much attention is the Wise Women Videos series she wrote about individuals who embody or advocate positive aging attributes. The videos have been widely screened. For a time they served as the basis for a cottage industry that found her teaching and speaking about mind, body, spirit matters.

For the series, she says, “I found interesting women I thought other people should listen to. None of them were famous. They were just women introduced to me or once people knew I was doing the series they would say, Oh, you should talk to this person or that person.”

As the series made its way into women’s festivals and organizations she got lots of feedback.

“When I would get letters from cancer groups or prisons or abused women groups I thought good grief, how wonderful that can happen, that they can ‘meet’ these women through these videos.”

The series is archived in Harvard University’s Library on the History of Women in America.

She’s given her share of writing presentations and talks – “I love to attend book clubs to discuss my books” – but a class on memoir she taught in Tucson took the cake.

“The class was inspired by one of my Wise Women Videos and began with each student telling a story about their first decade in life. Then each time we met the women chose one important memory to tell the group about the next decade. The assignment was to write that story for family, friends or themselves. An interesting thing happened: When the class sessions reached the end of their decades and the class was finished the women were so connected from the experience they continued to meet independently for years afterward.”

 

Spittlers on deck (Leo)

Bob and Connie on their deck

 

 

Legacy
Connie’s own essays and short stories are published in many anthologies. She achieved a mark of distinction when an essay of hers, “Lint and Light,” inspired by the work and concepts of the late Neb. artist and inventor Reinhold Marxhausen, was published in The Art of Living – A Practical Guide to Being Alive. The international anthology’s editor sent an email letting Connie know the names of the other authors featured in the book. She was stunned to find herself in the company of the Dalai Lama, Mikhail Gorbachev, Deepak Chopra, Desmond Tutu, Jean Boland, Sir Richard Branson and other luminaries.

“I almost fell off the chair. When that happened I was like, I wonder if I should quit writing because I don’t think I’ll ever top that.”

Bob says he always knew Connie was destined for big things. “It didn’t surprise me a bit.”

Much of her work lives on thanks to reissues and requests.

“It’s interesting how you do something and it isn’t necessarily gone,” she says. “Some of those things have a long life. I always say a book lasts as long as the paper lasts.”

Now with the Web her work has longer staying power than ever.

Meanwhile, one of Bob’s photographs just sold in excess of a thousand dollars at a gallery in Bisbee, Arizona.

Living in Tucson Connie says she was spoiled by the “absolutely wonderful writers community” there. She and some fellow women writers created their own salon to talk about art, music, theater and literature. “The one rule was you couldn’t gossip – it was just intellectual, interesting talk,” she says. “One night the subject of erotica came up. The next day I went to a bookstore and I said to this young female clerk, ‘Do you have a place for erotica here?’ And she said, ‘Oh erotica, yes, let me get my friend, she loves erotica, too!’ and they both took me off to the section and told me all their favorite books. I didn’t get any of their favorites, but I did get this one, Erotica: Women’s Writing from Sappho to Margaret Atwood.”

Connie found writers published in its pages she never expected.

“When I opened this book the first thing I saw was Emily Dickinson, then Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, all these well-known, respected authors. Their work is considered erotica for their time because it was romantic reading with sensual undertones. It’s in your mind, not graphic. I thought it so interesting that that could be erotica. It occurred to me a book club about erotica could be fun.”

Only Connie’s resulting book is not erotica at all but “a cozy mystery.”

“A librarian who gave it 5 stars said, ‘You would not be embarrassed to discuss this book with your mother.'” In the back Connie offers a list of erotica titles for those interested in checking out the real thing.

She’s delighted the book’s being published in the Czech Republic.

“My dad was a hundred percent Czech. I asked the publisher if I could add my maiden name and change the dedication to dedicate it to my dad and my grandmother and Czech ancestors and they said, ‘We’d love that.’ My dad’s been gone a long time and he didn’t have any sons and he always said to me, ‘That’s the end of my line,’ so now I thought it will live on – at least in the Czech Republic.”

 

 

 

 

Words to live by
Closer to home, Connie’s developed a following for the Christmas Card essays she pens. Her sage observations and sublime wordings are much anticipated. This year’s riffs on the fox that visits their property.

“Sometimes in the late evening he trots along the grasslands and pond. Bob, watching TV down in the family room, has spotted the scurrying fox several times – always unexpected and too quick for his camera lens. I haven’t seen this wild urban creature yet since I’m in bed during the usual prowling gorse. Still, imagining his billowing tail flying by int he dark adds a flurry of magic to the winter night…

“As our dancing, prancing fox moves in and out of focus and time, I think of the surprising people, pets, events and moments that visit our lives. They come and go with reminders to be grateful for unexpected things that happen along the way…fleeting or lingering…illusive…intriguing.

“This season our message comes from the fox, a wish for wisdom, longevity and beautiful surprises. Do keep a look out. You never know who you’ll meet or what you’ll see.”

Finally, as one half of a 57-year partnership, Connie proffers some advice about the benefits of passion-filled living.

“One beautiful thing about writing is that by picking up pencil and paper, or using computer, iPad, you can write anywhere. I’ve written on a beach, by a pool, a yacht and in an RV. I always encourage anyone interested in writing to sit down and go to it. It doesn’t cost any money to try and studies show the creativity of writing keeps the mind alert. And it’s a feeling of accomplishment, if you finish a piece or even if you finish a good day writing.”

The same holds true for filmmaking and photography. And for delighting in the wonders of wild foxes running free.

Follow the couple at http://www.conniespittler.com.

LOOK FOR MY NEW EDITION OF ‘ALEXANDER PAYNE: HIS JOURNEY IN FILM’ IN FALL 2016

December 1, 2015 Leave a comment

Coming Attraction for 2016…
The new edition of my Alexander Payne book featuring a major redesign, more images and substantial new content that looks back at “Nebraska’ and that looks ahead to “Downsizing.”

 

Considering Alexander Payne’s ‘Nebraska’

Excerpt from an essay to appear in an upcoming new edition of my book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

Even though Alexander Payne demonstrates time and again that commercial considerations mean very little to him, following the breakaway success of The Descendants (2011) there was every reasonable expectation he might lean a bit more again in the direction of mainstream with his next film. I say again because I count The Descendants as a conventional, even mainstream work even though its protagonist rails against his comatose wife and sets out to wreck the life of the man she was cheating with, all the while trying not to lose it with his two grieving daughters in tow.

Payne soon quashed any notion of playing it safe when he announced the small, insular back roads comedy-drama Nebraska (2013) as his new feature project. It did not help its bottom line chances that the film is set in rural Nebraska, which for most filmgoers may as well be the dark side of the moon for its unfamiliarity, remoteness, and perceived barrenness. Indeed, if Nebraska conjures any image at all it is of endless cornfields, cows, and monotonously flat, uninspired scenery. When the story laid over such a setting features a confused, depressed old cuss alienated from family and friends and wandering around in a bleak wasteland made even bleaker by black and white photography and desolate late fall, post-harvest locations, it does not exactly engender excitement. The prospect of a dour, feel-bad experience devoid of life and color does not get tongues a-wagging to generate the all important buzz that sells tickets.

Of course, anyone who has seen Nebraska knows the film is not the downer it may appear to be from glimpsing a thirty-second trailer or hearing a fifteen-second sound bite, but that it is ultimately a sweet, deeply affecting film filled with familiar truths amid its very Nebraskaesque yet also quite universal archetypes.

Payne’s insistence on shooting in black and white was a completely legitimate aesthetic choice given the storyline and tone of this stark, autumnal mood piece about an old man having his last hurrah. But it also meant a definite disadvantage in appealing to average or general movie fans, many of whom automatically pass on any non-color film. Compounding the aversion that many moviegoers have with black and white is the fact that most studio executives, distributors, and theater bookers share this aversion, not on aesthetic grounds, but based on the long-held. much repeated argument that black and white films fare poorly at the box office. Of course, there is a self-fulfilling prophecy at work here that starts with studio resistance and reluctance to greenlight black and white features and even when a studio does approve the rare black and white entry executives seem to half-heartedly market and release these pics. It is almost as if the bean counters are out to perversely prove a point, even at the risk of injuring the chances of one of their own pictures at finding a sizable audience. Then when the picture lags, it gives the powerbrokers the platform to say, I told you so. No wonder then – and this is assuming the argument is true – most black and white flicks don’t perform well compared with their color counterparts. Except, how does one arrive at anything like a fair comparison of films based on color versus black and white? Even if the films under review are of the same genre and released in the same period, each is individually, intrinsically its own experience and any comparison inevitably ends up being a futile apples and oranges debate. Besides, there are exceptions to the supposed rule that all black and white films struggle. From the 1970s on The Last Picture ShowPaper Moon, Young Frankenstein,ManhattanRaging BullSchindler’s ListEd Wood and The Artist are among the black and white films to have found wide success. It is admittedly a short list but it does prove black and white need not be a death sentence.

To no one’s surprise Paramount did what practically any studio would have done in the same situation, which was to fight Payne on the black and white decision. In no uncertain terms Payne wanted to make Nebraska in black and white and just as adamantly the studio wanted no part of it. He pushed and they pushed back. He would not compromise his vision because from the moment he first read Bob Nelson’s screenplay he clearly saw in his mind’s eye the world of this story play out in in shades of black and white. It just fit. It fit the characters and the settings and the emotions and as far as he was concerned that was that. No questions asked. No concessions made.

I do not claim to know all the details of this protracted dispute or should I say discussion but I do know from what Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael have told me that the issue became a point of some contention. I do not know if it ever reached an impasse where Payne more or less indicated by word or action he was prepared to walk and take the project with him (his own Ad Hominem production company brought the property to Paramount). It certainly wouldn’t surprise me that he let it be known, subtly or not, that he was willing to make the project with another studio if it came to that. It is a moot point now since Paramount eventually acceded to his wishes, though not insignificantly the studio did cut some of the picture’s already small budget as a kind of hedge I suppose against the small business they expected the film to do. The smaller the budget, and in this case it was $12 million, the smaller the risk of not recouping its cost.

Given Payne’s even temperament and gentility, I doubt if things reached the level of shouting or angry exchanges, though he undoubtedly expressed displeasure with their interference and pettiness. I have to think he wore the execs down with his patience and persistence to win the black and white battle but at the end of the day he was willing to give up a couple million dollars in exchange for realizing his vision. I know he says that losing a million dollars is a huge loss when it comes to small-budgeted films like this one and I understand that in order to get the film made within those constraints he and others worked for scale in return for some points on the back end, but I have to believe those “sacrifices” were completely worth it in the long run. I would even argue that having to work on a bare bones budget and a tight schedule worked in favor of getting this simple story right. It required cast and crew to live frugally like the characters and the frugal shoot placed a premium on efficiency, ingenuity, and everyone pulling together to make the most of what they had to work with. In truth this esprit de corps is evident on all of Payne’s projects anyway because of the tight, loyal stock company he works with from film to film to film. They are a family and a team dedicated to one purpose: getting the film made to his specifications.

I asked Payne if it ever seems like a studio plays this game in order to gauge just how strongly the filmmaker is invested in a choice or preference as well as to what extent the filmmaker can be manipulated. He seems to believe there is some truth in that. Perhaps it really is the studio’s way of testing how firm the filmmaker’s convictions are and how much the filmmaker is willing to give up or to stand fast in terms of creative control. As Paramount surely knew going in and if they somehow didn’t know they surely soon discovered in the process of setting up the film, Payne is no push over and he brooks no fools. That is true at every juncture in the process, from making the deal to pre-production to the shoot and on through post-production. It is his film and he will not be budged from any creative choices he feels are necessary, which is to say he will not be pressured into doing something for the sake of added commercial appeal.

Because Payne is not about burning bridges, except for his public displeasure over the way his first two films (Citizen Ruth and Election) were handled by the studios and releasing companies behind them, he is not saying on the record what he thinks about the way Paramount handled Nebraska. I have to think he is not pleased with the extremely limited release they gave it. At no time during its release did the film ever play more than 968 theaters according to the website Boxoffice Mojo. That is anywhere from two-thirds to a half to a third the number of theaters its main awards competitors played at during their runs. It is hard to understand why the film was not given more opportunities to find a wider audience given the outstanding reception it received from critics (making most Top Ten lists), the foreign press (five Golden Globe nominations) and the Academy (six nominations).

Hampered as it was by the limited release, Nebraska still pulled in more than $18 million domestically by this edition’s summer 2014 printing and I am sure when all the figures are added up from North America and overseas, where I predict the film will fare well, especially in Europe, its total gross will be in excess of $20 million. By the time all the home viewing rentals and purchases are taken into account a year from now, I wager the film will have done some $25 million in business, which would approximately double its production costs. That is quite a return on a small film that did not get much studio support beyond the bare basics.

 

 

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Payne could have made things easier for himself and the studio by filming in color and securing a superstar. Nebraska marked quite a departure from the lush, color-filled canvas of Hawaii he captured in The Descendants and the equally verdant California wine country he committed to celluloid in Sideways. Never mind the fact the stories of those earlier films, despite the radical differences of their physical locations, actually share much in common tonally and thematically withNebraska. The dark comic tone and theme of Payne’s films can threaten to be overshadowed when a star the magnitude of Jack Nicholson (About Schmidt) or George Clooney (The Descendants) attaches himself to one of his projects. But as anyone who is familiar with the subdued star turns of those two actors in those particular films will tell you, Nicholson departed far from his trademark insouciance and braggadocio to totally inhabit his repressed, depressive title character in Schmidtjust as Clooney left behind much of his breezy, cocksure charm to essay his neurotic somewhat desperate character in Descendants. Each star was eager to shed his well-practiced, bigger-than-life persona in service of scripts and parts that called for them to play against type. Instead of their usual live-out-loud, testosterone-high roles, they play quiet, wounded, vulnerable men in trouble. For that matter, the men-children Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church play in Sideways are seemingly complete opposites but in actuality are emotionally-stunted, damaged souls using oblivion, alcohol, and sex to medicate their pain and avoid reality. The beauty of the California and Hawaii locales work as contrast and counterpoint to the chaotic lives of these lost figures careening toward catharsis. In Schmidt Omaha is the perfect washed-out backdrop for a man undergoing a full-scale identity and spiritual crisis once he retires and his domineering wife dies.

That brings us to Woody Grant, the crotchety so-and-so at the center of Nebraska. When we meet him he is near the end of a largely misspent life. Facing his inevitable and nearing mortality he doesn’t much like what he sees when he reviews his life and where he has landed. He is dealing with many deficits in his old age. His body is falling apart. He walks stiffly, haltingly. His alcoholism has been unaddressed and it contributes to his foggy mind, mood swings, propensity to fall and hurt himself, and to utter hurtful things. He seems to derive no joy or satisfaction from his wife of many years and his two adult sons. He almost regards them as inconvenient reminders of his own failings as a husband and father. On top of all this, he is poor and in no position to leave his family anything like a tangible legacy.

This miserable wretch has seized upon what he believes to be his last chance at assuaging a deep well of shame, guilt, bitterness, and resentment. His mistaken belief there is a sweepstakes prize for him to redeem becomes a search for his own personal redemption or salvation. He desperately wants something, namely a truck, to leave his boys. The true meaning of the road trip he embarks on with his son David is only revealed to us and to his boy along the way and that gradual discovery adds layers of poignancy to the story.

When Woody arrives back in his hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska word spreads he is on his way to collect a $i million sweepstakes prize. For a few moments he becomes a person of substance in the eyes of his extended family and the town’s other residents. Some family members and one old friend turn vultures and demand they get a share of his windfall as compensation for favors they did or loans they made that were never returned. But there is another side to that story. We find out Woody has a kind heart beneath his gruff exterior, so much so that he’s been known to do favors and to give money away without ever expecting repayment. That has led him to be taken advantage of over the years. Then when the truth gets out Woody has not won anything but has misinterpreted a marketing piece for a confirmation letter of his supposed million in winnings, he is publicly humiliated and made out to be a fool.

For Nebraska I Payne went one step further in distancing himself from commercial considerations by casting as his two leads Bruce Dern and Will Forte, who at first glance form an unlikely combination but in fact play wonderfully off each other. Dern’s acclaimed performance as Woody Grant earned him a Best Actor prize at Cannes and nominations from the Golden Globes and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Saturday Night Live alumnus Forte is triumphant in his first dramatic role as the sympathetic son David. The next largest part belongs to June Squibb, who until this film was a somewhat familiar face if not a household name (she played Nicholson’s wife in Schmidt). Her stellar work in a colorful role as Woody’s piss-and-vinegar wife Kate has brought her the most attention she’s received in a very long and productive career. Arguably, the biggest name in the picture belongs to Stacy Keach, a veteran of film, television, and stage who has little screen time in the picture but makes the most of it in a powerfully indelible turn as the story’s heavy, Ed Pegram. As strong as these performances are Payne did not do his film any box office favors by choosing actors so far off the radar of moviegoers. That is not a criticism, it is simply a fact. At least a dozen more speaking parts are filled by no-name actors, nonprofessional actors, and nonactors, all of whom add great authenticity to the film but whose obscurity hurts rather than helps the marketing cause.

As you will read in the articles that follow Payne is most proud of the casting and locations inNebraska. These are elements he always takes great care with in any of his films but with this particular film he went the extra mile yet in order to realize the very specific world of the story. Many of the small speaking parts are filled by regular folks – retired farmers and such – who populate the very towns or ones just like them where he shot. He and casting director John Jackson searched long and hard for just the right faces and voices. Similarly, the weatherbeaten, seen-better-times found locations look and feel so right as the homes and pit-stops of the characters that these real locations rather than constructed sets add another layer of verisimilitude.

The choice to populate the film with zero star power ultimately is not the reason the film failed to pull in more of an audience because there are plenty of films that do well with little known, non A-list names, and nonactor finds. No, the real problem with how Nebraska fared had more to do with the perception the marketing campaign for the film imposed on it. The film’s trailers did not communicate the heart and soul of the picture. None of the warmth or depth or populist appeal at its core registered in those clips. Instead, the film was represented as a cold, mean, depressive, rather flimsy sketch concept blown up to fill two hours. Anyone who has seen and appreciatedNebraska will tell you it is far more than that. It is a work replete with deep currents of regret, disappointment, melancholia, rage, nostalgia. and love. Alongside that run streams of humor, sweetness, irony, and slapstick. Then there is the sheer poetic evocation of hauntingly beautiful visuals that turn the wide open flyover terrain, roadside stops, and played-out small towns of Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, and Nebraska into haunting fields of dreams and symbols of neglect. Not to mention centers of quirky, silly, sometimes surreal goings-on.

Plenty of small indie films about similarly unglamorous subject matter have struck a responsive chord with the masses. So what kept Nebraska from resonating the way, say, Juno did or Little Miss Sunshine? No one really knows. If the creatives who make the films and the suits who finance and sell them did, if there was some sure-fire magic formula at their disposal, then every film would be packaged into a box office winner. The truth is some films catch the wave and most don’t and there doesn’t seem to be any reliable rhyme or reason for why some hit and others miss that elusive, always moving wave everyone is after.

It may take a while, but I am quite confident Nebraska will eventually find the large audience it deserves. In my opinion it will be a much viewed and discussed stand-the-test of-time film for its many cinema art merits. As good as Payne’s earlier films have been I believe this to be his finest work to date because it is in my view the fullest expression of his filmmaking talents. Visually, it is a tone poem of the first order and on that basis alone it is a film to be reckoned with. Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael have achieved an expressive black and white palette whose hues perfectly articulate the heavy heart of the story. But Payne also found unobtrusive ways to position the camera and, with editor Kevin Tent, to cut scenes so as to amplify its many moments of humor without ever detracting from its elegiac, soulful mood. Mark Orton’s original music, plus the incidental music used here and there, add more nuances of mood. Payne artfully composed images for the wide screen format he shot in to glean added depth and meaning from the action. Within the same frame he intentionally juxtaposed characters with the stark landscapes, townscapes, and homes they inhabit. Many of these scenes emphasize sadness, stillness and desolation. Irony infuses it all. The result is an ongoing dialogue between people and their environments. Each informs the other and by consequence us.

The filmmaker’s economy of style has never been more evident. He has reached the point of communicating so much with simple brush strokes. Take for instance the way Woody’s harsh childhood experience is encapsulated when the old man and his family visit the abandoned farm house he grew up in. Payne has the camera fluidly glide over the detritus of this once proud home turned wreck and to peak into rooms that carry so much psychic-emotional pain for Woody, who was beaten as a boy. Payne clearly indicates this is a private, anguished, cathartic return for Woody, who has avoided this place and its memories for years.

Or consider that gathering of taciturn men in Woody’s family at his brother’s home in town. Payne arranges the uncles, brothers, sons, nephews, cousins in an American Gothic pose around the TV set, where the men engage in the almost wordless ritualistic viewing of a football game. It is at once a funny and powerful expression of their tribal, tight-lipped bond. A bond more about association by blood than affinity.

Then there are the almost incidental shots of boarded up buildings in town that symbolize and speak to the economic hard times to have befallen so many small towns like the fictional Hawthorne. In a short scene Payne conveys an important way in which the times have changed there and in towns like it when he has Woody visit the auto service station he used to own and he finds the new owners are Spanish-speaking Hispanics. Woody thus personally encounters a demographic shift that has altered the face of his hometown and much of rural Nebraska. No more is made of it then that simple reality and the brief exchange between Woody and the “newcomers,” but it is enough to say that times have moved on and the Hawthorne he knew has evolved in some ways and remained unchanged in others.

 

 

 

 

Perhaps the best example of Payne distilling things down to their simplest, purest, most elemental form is the end sequence when David and Woody are in the truck David has purchased and registered in his father’s name. David, who is at the wheel with Woody beside him, stops the truck on the edge of town and invites Woody to take the wheel and drive down main street in his new rig. What follows is one of the most moving denouements in contemporary American cinema. Woody is granted a rare gift when he accepts the invitation to take a celebratory ride down main street. As the truck slowly passes through town he wins more than any prize money could provide when four people from his past catch sight of him and look at him with a combination of awe, admiration, and surprise. It is a perfect moment in the sun vindication for a beleaguered, bedraggled man who suddenly brims with a sense of confidence and purpose. Woody leaves town on his own terms, his dignity and pride intact, at least for this short interval of time.

What makes that valedictory ride so special is that his sympathetic son David is there to grant him it and to bask in it with him. These two who began the road trip not really knowing each other and often at odds with each other have traveled a journey together that has brought them a measure of acceptance, healing, and peace. David has finally come to understand why his father is the way he is. His fondest desire is realized when he gives Woody that movie-movie opportunity to prove he is not the loser or fool this day. As Woody sits high in the cab of the truck, with David lovingly looking on from the floor, and drives past the artifacts of his past and the denizens of that town, he may as well be a cowboy sitting tall in the saddle of his horse riding into the sunset. He graciously accepts the congratulations of town chatterbox Bernie Bowen. He stares down his former friend Ed Pegram, who now looks the shamed fool. Woody’s heart stirs again for old flame Peg Nagy, whose wistful expression wonders might have been. As he heads out of town Woody says a fond goodbye to Albert, the Grant brother whose favorite pastime is siting beside the road waving at the occupants of passing cars.

Outside of town the truck stops at the bottom of a hill and Woody and David once again exchange places. Doing this out of the view of onlookers preserves Woody’s glorious farewell and signals Woody now accepts his limitations and David’s love for him. With David back behind the wheel and Woody beside him father and son drive off to meet an uncertain future together. Consistent with the way Payne ends all his films, Woody’s last ride reverie does not promise any great turnaround in his life. His problems are still his problems. The fact that that sequence plays out wordlessly and still conveys so much meaning is a testament to the work of Payne and his collaborators in extracting the essence of these scenes through beautifully executed shots that give full weight to glances gestures, postures, and backdrops.

NOTE: To read the rest you’ll have to wait for my new edition to come out.

 

SNEAK PREVIEW OF DOWNSIZING
Just finished reading the script for Alexander Payne’s new film “Downsizing.” He penned it with his old writing partner Jim Taylor. I can report that it is by-turns a hilarious and heartbreaking exploration of the human condition under extremis. It is also a very brave embrace of both kitsch and visionary science fiction conventions that we all recognize from that well worn genre. It is a kind of mashup of “Dr. Strangelove,” “Fantastic Voyage,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” “The Truman Show,” and “Children of Men.” If Billy Wilder had ever made a sci satire, this would have been yet. Like all Payne stories, it revels in the mundanity and banality of life even amidst extraordinary circumstances. Based on the way the character is developed on the page, I can tell you that Matt Damon is the perfect choice as the Everyman protagonist. The miniaturization or downsizing hook allows Payne to deal with all kinds of issues related to the environment – diminishing resources, diversity, discrimination, politics, et cetera. It is at once relevant and revelatory about things that communities and states and nations are grappling with today. Much more to come from me about this film after I interview Payne, Taylor and others involved in the project. But for now just know that “Downsizing” will be worth waiting for as it shoots in the spring of 2016, then gets its specials effects all synched up and undergoes a long editing process. All of that, plus scoring and mixing, will take the project through 2016 into 2017. We won’t actually see the film until weli into 2017. All of that bodes well for a story whose social themes and concerns will likely only grow more urgent, not less, in the interim.

Alexander Payne  

RANDOM INSPIRATION

November 19, 2015 2 comments

 

RANDOM INSPIRATION
Got a call out of the blue yesterday afternoon from an 86-year-old man in Omaha. He’s a retired Jewish American retailer. He’d just finished reading my November Reader cover story about The Education of a WASP and the segregation issues that plagued Omaha. He just wanted to share how much he enjoyed it and how he felt it needed to be seen by more people. Within a few minutes it was clear the story also summoned up in him strong memories and feelings having to do with his own experiences of bigotry as a Jewish kid getting picked on and bullied and as a businessman taking a stand against discrimination by hiring black clerks in his stores. One of his stores was at 24th and Erskine in the heart of North Omaha and the African-American district there and that store employed all black staff. But he also hired blacks at other storees, including downtown and South Omaha, and some customers were not so accepting of it and he told them flat out they could take their business elsewhere. He also told a tale that I need to get more details about that had to do with a group of outsiders who warned-threatened him to close his North O business or else. His personal accounts jumped from there to serving in the military overseas to his two marriages, the second of which is 60 years strong now. He wanted to know why I don’t write for the Omaha World-Herald and I explained that and he was eager to hook me up with the Jewish Press, whereupon I informed him I contributed to it for about 15 years. I also shared that I have done work for the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society. It turns out the man who brought me and my work to the attention of the Press and the Historical Society, the late Ben Nachman, was this gentleman’s dentist. Small world. I also shared with him why I write so much about African-American subjects (it has to do in part with where and how I grew up). Anyway, it was a delightful interlude in my day talking to this man and I will be sure to talk with him again and hopefully meet him. He’s already assured me he will be calling back. I am eager for him to do so. It’s rare that people call me about my work and this unexpected reaching out and expression of appreciation by a reader who was a total stranger was most appreciated. That stranger is now a friend.

Here is the story that motivated that new friend to call me about:

 

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Leo Adam Biga: My Amazon Author’s Page

November 16, 2015 3 comments

Leo Adam Biga

My Amazon Author’s Page

Link to my page at http://www.amazon.com/Leo-Adam-Biga/e/B00E6HE46E

Leo Adam Biga
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Leo Adam Biga is a freelance cultural journalist and nonfiction book author based in his hometown of Omaha, Neb. His feature and enterprise work as an arts and culture reporter appears in several Omaha and greater Nebraska publications. His articles occasionally appear in national magazines as well.

Assignments often find him interviewing celebrities and public figures from various fields.

Every so often Biga travels to get a story. He accompanied a group of Nebraskans who bused to the Barack Obama presidential inauguration in the nation’s capital. He spent several days and nights covering Lew Hunter’s screenwriting colony in Superior, Neb. He spent a week on the set of Alexander Payne’s film “Sideways” in the Santa Barbara, Calif., area. He made an eight-day Midwest baseball tour of Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana. Most recently, he traveled to Uganda and Rwanda, Africa with world boxing champion Terence “Bud” Crawford and Pipeline Worldwide co-founder and executive director Jamie Nollette. That overseas reporting mission was made possible by the Andy Award for international journalism that Biga received in 2015 from his alma mater, the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

His work has been recognized by his peers at the local, state, and national levels.

In addition to the books featured on this Amazon Author’s Page, he has several book projects in development, among them: the history of Nebraska Methodist College; a celebration of Omaha’s black sports legends; and a look at Nebraska’s rich film heritage. He also wrote the script for the documentary, “The Brandeis Store.”

Read a broad sampling of the writer’s work on his popular blog, leoadambiga.com, a gallery of his “stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions.” You can follow his work there or via his Facebook page, My Inside Stories. https://www.facebook.com/LeoAdamBiga/.




Crossing Bridges: A Priest's Uplifting Life Among the DowntroddenOpen Wide: Dr. Mark Manhart's Journey in Dentistry, Theatre, Education, Family, and LifeAlexander Payne: His Journey in Film: A Reporter's Perspective, 1998 - 2012

Mom and Pop Grocery Stores

ABOUT THE BOOKS

Crossing Bridges

“The very first bridge I crossed was choosing to study for the priesthood, a decision that took me and everyone who knew me by surprise. Then came a series of bridges that once crossed brought me into contact with diverse peoples and their incredibly different yet similar needs.”

Father Vavrina has served as a priest for many years, and has served several missions trips to help the needy. Father Ken worked with lepers in Yemen, and was ultimately arrested and thrown in jail under false suspicions of spying. After being forcibly removed from Yemen, he began his tenure with Catholic Relief Services. First in the extreme poverty and over-population of Calcutta in India. Then with warlords in Liberia to deliver food and supplies to refugees in need. Father Ken also spent several years working with Mother Teresa to heal the sick and comfort the dying.

Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden is the story of Father Ken Vavrina’s life and travels – simple acts that moved him, people that inspired him, and places that astonished him. Father Ken has spent his life selflessly serving the Lord and the neediest around him, while always striving to remain a simple, humble man of God.

“I pray this account of my life is not a personal spectacle but a recounting of a most wonderful journey serving God. May its discoveries and experiences inspire your own life story of service.”

REVIEWS

A Humble Man with a Powerful Story
By Sandra Wendel on September 1, 2015
Format: Paperback

As a book editor, I find that these incredible heroes among us cross our paths rarely. I am indeed lucky to have worked with Father Ken in shaping his story, which he finally agreed to tell the world. You will enjoy his modesty and humility while serving the poorest of the poor. His story of his first days in the leper colony in Yemen is indeed compelling, as is his survival in prison in Yemen. Later, his work in Calcutta, Liberia, and Cuba made a difference.

Father Ken Vavrina
By Sandra L Vavrina on September 28, 2015
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase

Crossing Bridges. Father Ken’s life is amazing! He is my husband’s cousin and performed our wedding ceremony 51 yrs ago right after he was ordained.

great book
By ken tuttle on September 1, 2015
Format: Paperback
such an amazing life story

 

OPEN WIDE

Open Wide                                                                                                                                              

By M. Marill on May 10, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase

In people or in art, according to Dr. Mark Manhart, “You may not like nor understand everything you see, but at least you will have a truer view of all that went into making the man or the artwork.” This biographical memoir takes the reader through all of his different lives – his “open life” and his “secret life”. Manhart’s professional side finds him a highly trained dentist who is actively engaged in developing new treatments and therapies. His inner passion, which keeps him charged, is his involvement in theatre as a playwright, director, and sometimes an actor.

REVIEWS

The story about the man who has changed dentistry for the better. He can and ha helped peoples everywhere how care and nourish their teeth. His calcium therapy is preventative just as much as it is curative for many dental issues. Like those in holistic medicine who have bucked the medical organizations he has done so with the dental organization forging the way for alternative prevention and care . Check out his website at http://www.calcium therapy.com and educate yourself and try his affordable products before you dismiss this. He deserves recognition for what he has accomplished and I hope it comes to him.

The story of an innovative thinker, inventor, and healer
By Best reads on August 3, 2015
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase

If you read “Open Wide,” you will understand what philosophies have made Dr. Manhart ” a die hard preservationist when it comes to saving peoples teeth…” (167), and how his brilliant invention of materials for dentistry allows him to work miracles, save peoples’ teeth that other dentists are ready to pull, and spare the pain, suffering, and expense of treatments that mainstream dentistry usually pushes. He is also a preservationist with respect to architecture, a talented playwright, actor, director, and producer, is engaged in civic affairs, and has additional wide ranging interests. If you are seeking more humane and successful dental treatments, this book and his website at http://www.calciumtherapy.com are both invaluable. If you want to read about a brilliant and iconoclastic thinker in many realms, this is also a great book. Richard Feynman won the Nobel Prize for physics, Linus Pauling won two Nobel Prizes (for chemistry, and for peace); Dr. Manhart’s research, discoveries, and patented materials are certainly profound enough to merit similar recognition. Unfortunately, you will also read about why dentistry as practiced in the U.S. is often not open to innovation, or able (and willing) to recognize how it has thrived from overcharging for over-treatment that sometimes causes trauma, harm, hopelessness and yet more visits to the dentist.

 

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

I’d be an Alexander Payne fan even if we didn’t share a Nebraska upbringing: he is a masterly, menschy, singular storyteller whose movies are both serious and unpretentious, delightfully funny and deeply moving. And he’s fortunate indeed to have such a thoughtful and insightful chronicler as Leo Biga. –Kurt Andersen, Host of Studio 360.

Long before Alexander Payne arrived as a world-renowned filmmaker, Leo Adam Biga spotted his talent, even screening his thesis project, The Passion of Martin, at an art cinema. By the time Payne completed Citizen Ruth and prepped Election Biga made him a special focus of his journalism. Interviewing and profiling and Payne became a highlight of the writer’s work. Feeling a rapport and trust with Biga, Payne granted exclusive access to his creative process, including a week-long visit to one of his sets. Now that Payne has moved from emerging to established cinema force through a succession of critically acclaimed and popular projects—About Schmidt, Sideways, and The Descendants—Biga has compiled his years of reporting into this book. It is the first comprehensive look anywhere at one of cinema’s most important figures. Go behind-the-scenes with the author to glimpse privileged aspects of the filmmaker at work and in private moments. The book takes the measure of Payne through Biga’s analysis, the filmmaker’s own words, and insights from some of the writer-director’s key collaborators. This must read for any casual fan or serious student of Payne provides in one volume the arc of a remarkable filmmaking journey.

REVIEWS

Biga’s book may be the best answer to this question
By Brent Spencer on November 9, 2015
Format: Kindle Edition

Leo Adam Biga writes about the major American filmmaker Alexander Payne from the perspective of a fellow townsman. The local reporter began writing about Payne from the start of the filmmaker’s career. In fact, even earlier than that. Long before Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants, and Cannes award-winner Nebraska. Biga was instrumental in arranging a local showing of an early student film of Payne’s, The Passion of Martin. From that moment on, Payne’s filmmaking career took off, with the reporter in hot pursuit.

The resulting book collects the pieces Biga has written about Payne over the years. The approach, which might have proven to be patchwork, instead allows the reader to follow the growth of the artist over time. Young filmmakers often ask how successful filmmakers got there. Biga’s book may be the best answer to this question, at least as far as Payne is concerned. He’s presented from his earliest days as a hometown boy to his first days in Hollywood as a scuffling outsider to his heyday as an insider working with Hollywood’s brightest stars.

If there is a problem with Biga’s approach, it’s that it can, at times, lead to redundancy. The pieces were originally written separately, for different publications, and are presented as such. This means a piece will sometimes cover the same background we’ve read in a previous piece. And some pieces were clearly written as announcements of special showings of films. But the occasional drawback of this approach is counter-balanced by the feeling you get of seeing the growth of the artist, a life and career taking shape right before your eyes, from the showing of a student film in an Omaha storefront theater to a Hollywood premiere.

But perhaps the most intriguing feature of the book is Biga’s success at getting the filmmaker to speak candidly about every step in the filmmaking process. He talks about the challenges of developing material from conception to script, finding financing, moderating the mayhem of shooting a movie, undertaking the slow and often monk-like work of editing. Biga is clearly a fan (the book comes with an endorsement from Payne himself), but he’s a fan with his eyes wide open. Alexander Payne: His Journey In Film, A Reporter’s Perspective 1998-2012 provides a unique portrait of the artist and detailed insights into the filmmaking process.

 

Mom and Pop Grocery Stores

Jews have a proud history as entrepreneurs and merchants. When Jewish immigrants began coming to America in greater and greater numbers during the late 19th century and early 20th century, many gravitated to the food industry, some as peddlers and fresh produce market stall hawkers, others as wholesalers, and still others as grocers. Most Jews who settled in Nebraska came from Russia and Poland, with smaller segments from Hungary, Germany, and other central and Eastern European nations. They were variously escaping pogroms, revolution, war, and poverty. The prospect of freedom and opportunity motivated Jews, just as it did other peoples, to flock here. At a time when Jews were restricted from entering certain fields, the food business was relatively wide open and affordable to enter. There was a time when for a few hundred dollars, one could put a down payment on a small store. That was still a considerable amount of money before 1960, but it was not out of reach of most working men who scrimped and put away a little every week. And that was a good thing too because obtaining capital to launch a store was difficult. Most banks would not lend credit to Jews and other minorities until after World War II. The most likely route that Jews took to becoming grocers was first working as a peddler, selling feed, selling produce by horse and wagon or truck, or apprenticing in someone else’s store. Some came to the grocery business from other endeavors or industries. The goal was the same — to save enough to buy or open a store of their own. By whatever means Jews found to enter the grocery business, enough did that during the height of this self-made era. From roughly the 1920s through the 1950s, there may have been a hundred or more Jewish-owned and operated grocery stores in the metro area at any given time. Jewish grocers almost always started out modestly, owning and operating small Mom and Pop neighborhood stores that catered to residents in the immediate area. By custom and convenience, most Jewish grocer families lived above or behind the store, although the more prosperous were able to buy or build their own free-standing home. Since most customers in Nebraska and Iowa were non-Jewish, store inventories reflected that fact, thus featuring mostly mainstream food and nonfood items, with only limited Jewish items and even fewer kosher goods. The exception to that rule was during Passover and other Jewish high holidays, when traditional Jewish fare was highlighted. Business could never be taken for granted. In lean times it could be a real struggle. Because the margin between making it and not making was often quite slim many Jewish grocers stayed open from early morning to early evening, seven days a week, even during the Sabbath, although some stores were closed a half-day on the weekend. Jewish stores that did close for the Sabbath were open on Sunday.

Author Updates

 

Books by Leo Adam Biga

Two families suffer Omaha’s segregation and waken the conscience of a nation

November 9, 2015 2 comments

My newest cover story appears in the November 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com) and it explores dimensions of race in America through the prism of a 1970 book whose events and themes still have relevance and resonance with today. Lois Mark Stalvey’s book The Education of a WASP largely grew out of her experience learning the architecture and construction of racism from black friends in Omaha and Philadelphia whose lives were, by necessity, built around barriers constricting their lives. The inequality and discrimination blacks faced came as a revelation to the White Anglo Saxon Protestant Stalvey, whose education into social awareness and consciousness changed the arc of her life.  Two of her primary educators in Omaha were Ernie Chambers and the late Dr. Claude Organ. By the time the book came out Chambers had won election to the Nebraska Legislature and Organ enjoyed a noted career as a surgeon educator at Creighton University.  Along the way, Chambers played a prominent role in a famous race documentary shot in Omaha, A Time for Burning, and the Organs, whom Stalvey tried to get to integrate her neighborhood, built a new home in a neighborhood and parish that didn’t appreicate their presence.  They stayed anyway.

 

Two families suffer Omaha’s segregation and waken the conscience of a nation

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the November 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Page01-1 WASP

Page08-1 WASP

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A WASP’s racial tightrope resulted in enduring book

©by Leo Adam Biga

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

When a liberal, white middle-class couple with young kids moved to Omaha from Chicago in the late 1950s they entered this city’s weirdly segregated reality, not uncommon in almost every American city. It was not as public or overtly violent as the segregation in the former Confederate states of the South, but it was no less impactful on the African-American communities in Northern states. Homemaker Lois Mark Stalvey was a former advertising copywriter who once owned her own agency. Her husband Bennett Stalvey was a Fairmont Foods Mad Man.

The Omaha they settled into abided by a de facto segregation that saw blacks confined to two delineated areas. The largest sector, the Near North Side, was bounded by Cuming on the south and Ames on the north and 16th on the east and 40th on the west. Large public housing projects were home to thousands of families. In South Omaha blacks were concentrated in and around projects near the packing plants. Blacks here could generally enter any public place – a glaring exception being the outdoor pool at Peony Park until protestors forced ownership’s hand – but were sometimes required to sit in separate sections or limited to drive-thru service and they most definitely faced closed housing opportunities and discriminatory hiring practices.

This now deceased couple encountered a country club racist culture that upheld a system designed to keep whites and blacks apart. Neither was good at taking things lying down or letting injustices pass unnoticed. But she was the more assertive and opinionated of the two. Indeed, son Ben Stalvey recalls her as “a force of nature” who “rarely takes no for an answer.”

“She was stubborn to accept the accepted norm in those days and that piqued her curiosity and she took it from there,” he says. “She had grown up in her own little bubble (in Milwaukee) and I think when she discovered racial prejudice and injustice her attitude was more like, What do you mean I can’t do that or what do you mean I have to think that way? It was more just a matter of, “Hell, no.”

Though only in Omaha a few years, Stalvey made her mark on the struggle for equality then raging in the civil rights movement.

The well-intentioned wife and mother entered the fray naive about her own white privilege and prejudice and the lengths to which the establishment would go to oppose desegregation and parity. Her headstrong efforts to do the right thing led to rude awakenings and harsh consequences. Intolerance, she learned here and in Philadelphia, where the Stalveys moved after her husband lost his job due to her activism, is insidious. All of which she wrote about in her much discussed 1970 book, The Education of a WASP.

The title refers to the self-discovery journey she made going from ignorance to enlightenment. Blacks who befriended her in Omaha and in Philadelphia schooled her on the discrimination they faced and on what was realistic for changing the status quo.

Among her primary instructors was the late black civic leader and noted physician Dr. Claude Organ and his wife Elizabeth “Betty” Organ and a young Ernie Chambers before his state senator career. In WASP Stalvey only sparingly used actual names. The Organs became the Bensons and Chambers became Marcus Garvey Moses.

A Marshall, Texas native and graduate of Xavier University in New Orleans, Claude Organ was accepted by the University of Texas Medical School but refused admittance when officials discovered he was black. The state of Texas paid the tuition difference between UT and any school a denied black attended. Organ ended up at Creighton University and the state of Texas paid the extra $2,000 to $3,000 a year the private Jesuit school cost, recalls Betty Organ.

His civil rights work here began with the interracial social action group the De Porres Club led by Father John Markoe. Organ became Urban League of Nebraska president and later advised the Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties (4CL). He was on the Catholic Interracial Council board and Mayor’s Biracial Committee.

“He built a lot of bridges,” son Paul Organ says.

Betty Organ got involved, too, supporting “any group that had something to do with making Omaha a better place to live,” she says.

So when Stalvey was introduced to the Organs by a black friend and determined to made them her guides in navigating the troubled racial waters, she couldn’t have found a better pair.

Stalvey met Chambers through Claude Organ.

Chambers says “This woman detected I was somebody who might have some things to offer that would help give her what she called her education. And when I became convinced she was genuine I was very open with her in terms of what I would talk to her about.”

Though it may not seem so now, Chambers says the book’s title was provocative for the time. WASP stands for White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, which defined Stalvey’s background, but racism was rampant across ethnic and religious lines in White America.

“WASP was a term that not everybody to whom it applied embraced. So by using that title she caught people’s attention.”

But he admired the “substance” behind the sensation. He admired, too, that the vitally curious Stalvey asked lots of questions.

“I never got the impression as used to happen when I was interviewed by white people that she was ‘studying’ me like a scientist in a lab would study insects. She genuinely was trying to make herself a better person and I think she succeeded.”

This ever apt pupil threw herself into The Cause. Her son Noah Stalvey says, “I can remember meetings at the house. She had a lot of the movers and shakers of the day meeting there. Her goal was to raise us in an environment of tolerance.”

“At times it was lively,” says Ben Stalvey. “There wasn’t much disagreement. We knew what was going on, we heard about things. We met a lot of people and we’d play with their kids.”

All par for the course at the family home in Omaha’s Rockbrook neighborhood. “It wasn’t until well into my teen years I realized my parents were fighting the battle,” Noah says. “I just thought that’s what all parents do.”

His mother headed the progressive Omaha Panel for American Women that advocated racial-religious understanding. The diverse panelists were all moms and the Organ and Stalvey kids sometimes accompanied their mothers to these community forums. Paul Organ believes the panelists wielded their greatest influence at home.

“On the surface all the men in the business community were against it.

Behind the scenes women were having these luncheons and meetings and I think in many homes around Omaha attitudes were changed over dinner after women came back from these events and shared the issues with their husbands. To me it was very interesting the women and the moms kind of bonded together because they all realized how it was affecting their children.”

Betty Organ agrees. “I don’t think the men were really impressed with what we were doing until they found out its repercussions concerning their children and the attitudes their children developed as they grew.”

Stalvey’s efforts were not only public but private. She personally tried opening doors for the aspirational Organs and their seven children to integrate her white bread suburban neighborhood. She felt the northeast Omaha bungalow the Organs occupied inadequate for a family of nine and certainly not befitting the family of a surgeon.

Racial segregation denied the successful professional and Creighton University instructor the opportunity for living anywhere outside what was widely accepted as Black Omaha – the area in North Omaha defined by realtors and other interests as the Near North Side ghetto.

“She had seen us when we lived in that small house on Paxton Boulevard,” Betty Organ says. “She had thought that was appalling that we should be living that many people in a small house like that.”

Despite the initial reluctance of the Organs, Stalvey’s efforts to find them a home in her neighborhood put her self-educating journey on a collision course with Omaha’s segregation and is central to the books’s storyline. Organ appreciated Stalvey going out on a limb.

Stalvey and others were also behind efforts to open doors for black educators at white schools, for employers to practice fair hiring and for realtors to abide by open housing laws. Stalvey found like-minded advocates in social worker-early childhood development champion Evie Zysman and the late social cause maven Susie Buffett. They were intent on getting the Organs accepted into mainstream circles.

“We were entertained by Lois’ friends and the Zysmans and these others that were around. We went to a lot of places that we would not have ordinarily gone because these people were determined they were going to get us into something,” Betty Organ says. “It was very revealing and heartwarming that she wanted to do something. She wanted to change things and it did happen.”

Only the change happened either more gradually than Stalvey wanted or in ways she didn’t expect.

Despite her liberal leanings Claude Organ remained wary of Stalvey.

“He felt she was as committed as she could be,” his widow says, “but he just didn’t think she knew what the implications of her involvement would be. He wasn’t exactly sure about how sincere Lois was. He thought she was trying to find her way and I think she more or less did find her way. It was a very difficult time for all of us, that’s all I can say.”

Ernie Chambers says Stalvey’s willingness to examine and question things most white Americans accepted or avoided was rare.

“At the time she wrote this book it was not a popular thing. There were not a lot of white people willing to step forward, identify themselves and not come with the traditional either very paternalistic my-best-friend-is-a-Negro type of thing or out-and-out racist attitude.”

The two forged a deep connection borne of mutual respect.

“She was surprised I knew what I knew, had read as widely as I had, and as we talked she realized it was not just a book kind of knowledge. In Omaha for a black man to stand up was considered remarkable.

“We exchanged a large number of letters about all kinds of issues.”

Chambers still fights the good fight here. Though he and Claude Organ had different approaches, they became close allies.

Betty Organ says “nobody else was like” Chambers back then. “He was really a moving power to get people to do things they didn’t want to do. My husband used to go to him as a barber and then they got to be very good friends. Ernie really worked with my husband and anything he wanted to accomplish he was ready to be there at bat for him. He was wonderful to us.”

Stalvey’s attempts to infiltrate the Organs into Rockbrook were rebuffed by realtors and residents – exactly what Claude Organ warned would happen. He also warned her family might face reprisals.

Betty Organ says, “My husband told her, ‘You know this can have great repercussions because they don’t want us and you can be sure that because they don’t want us they’re going to red line us wherever we go in Omaha trying to get a place that they know of.'”

Bennett Stalvey was demoted by Fairmont, who disliked his wife’s activities, and sent to a dead-end job in Philadelphia. The Organs regretted it came to that.

“It was not exactly the thing we wanted to happen with Ben,” Betty Organ says. “That was just the most ugly, un-Godly, un-Christian thing anybody could have done.”

While that drama played out, Claude Organ secretly bought property and secured a loan through white doctor friends so he could build a home where he wanted without interference. The family broke ground on their home on Good Friday in 1964. The kids started school that fall at St. Philip Neri and the brick house was completed that same fall.

“We had the house built before they (opponents) knew it,” Betty Organ says.

Their spacious new home was in Florence, where blacks were scarce. Sure enough, they encountered push-back. A hate crime occurred one evening when Betty was home alone with the kids.

“Somebody came knocking on my door. This man was frantically saying, ‘Lady, lady, you know your house is one fire?’ and I opened the door and I said, ‘What?’ and he went, ‘Look,’ and pointed to something burning near the house. I looked out there, and it was a cross burning right in front of the house next to the garage. When the man saw what it was, too, he said, ‘Oh, lady, I’m so sorry.’ It later turned out somebody had too much to drink at a bar called the Alpine Inn about a mile down the road from us and did this thing.

“I just couldn’t believe it. It left a scorch there on the front of the house.”

Paul Organ was 9 or 10 then.

“I have memories of a fire and the fire truck coming up,” he says. “I remember something burning on the yard and my mom being upset. I remember when my dad got home from the hospital he was very upset but it wasn’t until years later I came to appreciate how serious it was. That was probably the most dramatic, powerful incident.”

But not the last.

As the only black family in St. Philip Neri Catholic parish the Organs seriously tested boundaries.

“Some of the kids there were very ugly at first,” Betty Organ recalls. “They bullied our kids. It was a real tough time for all of us because they just didn’t want to accept the fact we were doing this Catholic thing.”

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

Daughter Sandra Organ says, “There were some tensions there. Dad would talk about how to handle these kind of things and to take the high road. But if they used the ‘n’ word we had an opportunity to retaliate because you defend your honor as a black person.

“An older neighbor man didn’t particularly like black people. But his grandson was thrilled to have these five boys to play with, so he became like an extra person in the family. The boy’s family was very kind to us and they kind of brought the grandfather around.”

Betty Organ says things improved with parishioners, too. “It got to the point where they got to know the family and they got to know us and they kind of came around after a few years.”

Sandra says when her brother David suffered severe burns in an accident and sat-out school “the neighborhood really rallied around my mom and provided help for her and tutoring for David.”

Stalvey came from Philadelphia to visit the Organs at their new home.

“When she saw the house we built she was just thrilled to death to see it,” Betty Organ says.

In Philadelphia the Stalveys lived in the racially mixed West Mount Airy neighborhood and enrolled their kids in predominantly African-American inner city public schools.

Ben Stalvey says, “I think it was a conscious effort on my parents part to expose us to multiple ways of living.”

His mother began writing pieces for the Philadelphia Bulletin that she expanded into WASP.

“Mom always had her writing time,” Ben Stalvey notes. “She had her library and that was her writing room and when she in the writing room we were not to disturb her and so yes I remember her spending hours and hours in there. She’d always come out at the end of the school day to greet us and often times she’d go back in there until dinner.”

In the wake of WASP she became a prominent face and voice of white guilt – interviewed by national news outlets, appearing on national talk shows and doing signings and readings. Meanwhile, her husband played a key role developing and implementing affirmative action plans.

Noah Stalvey says any negative feedback he felt from his parents’ activism was confined to name-calling.

“I can remember vaguely being called an ‘n’ lover and that was mostly in grade school. My mother would be on TV or something and one of the kids who didn’t feel the way we did – their parents probably used the word  – used it on us at school.”

He says the work his parents did came into focus after reading WASP.

“I first read it when I was in early high school. It kind of put together pieces for me. I began to understand what they were doing and why they were doing it and it made total sense to me. You know, why wouldn’t you fight for people who were being mistreated. Why wouldn’t you go out of your way to try and rectify a wrong? It just made sense they were doing what they could to fix problems prevalent in society.”

Betty Organ thought WASP did a “pretty good” job laying out “what it was all about” and was relieved their real identities were not used.

“That was probably a good thing at the time because my husband didn’t want our names involved as the persons who educated the WASP.”

After all, she says, he had a career and family to think about. Dr. Claude Organ went on to chair Creighton’s surgery department by 1971, becoming the first African-American to do so at a predominately white medical school. He developed the school’s surgical residency program and later took positions at the University of Oklahoma and University of California–Davis, where he also served as the first African-American editor of Archives of Surgery, the largest surgical journal in the English-speaking world.

Sandra Organ says there was some queasiness about how Stalvey “tried to stand in our shoes because you can never really know what that’s like.” However, she adds, “At least she was pricking people’s awareness and that was a wise thing.”

Paul Organ appreciates how “brutally honest” Stalvey was about her own naivety and how embarrassed she was in numerous situations.” He says, “I think at the time that’s probably why the book had such an effect because Lois was very self-revealing.”

Stalvey followed WASP with the book Getting Ready, which chronicled her family’s experiences with urban black education inequities.

At the end of WASP she expresses both hope that progress is possible – she saw landmark civil rights legislation enacted – and despair over the slow pace of change. She implied the only real change happens in people’s hearts and minds, one person at a time. She equated the racial divide in America to walls whose millions of stones must be removed one by one. And she stated unequivocally that America would never realize its potential or promise until there was racial harmony.

Forty-five years since WASP came out Omaha no longer has an apparatus to restrict minorities in housing, education, employment and recreation – just hardened hearts and minds. Today, blacks live, work, attend school and play where they desire. Yet geographic-economic segregation persists and there are disproportionate numbers living in poverty. lacking upwardly mobile job skills, not finishing school, heading single-parent homes and having criminal histories in a justice system that effectively mass incarcerates black males. Many blacks have been denied the real estate boom that’s come to define wealth for most of white America. Thus, some of the same conditions Stalvey described still exist and similar efforts to promote equality continue.

Stalvey went on to teach writing and diversity before passing away in 2004. She remained a staunch advocate of multiculturalism. When WASP was reissued in 1989 her new foreword expressed regret that racism was still prevalent. And just as she concluded her book the first time, she repeated the need for our individual and collective education to continue and her indebtedness to those who educated her.

Noah Stalvey says her enduring legacy may not be so much what she wrote but what she taught her children and how its been passed down.

“It does have a ripple effect and we now carry this message to our kids and our kids are raised to believe there is no difference regardless of sexual preference or heritage or skin color.”

Ben Stalvey says his mother firmly believed children are not born with prejudice and intolerance but learn these things.

“There’s a song my mother used to quote which I still like that’s about intolerance – ‘You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught’ – from the musical South Pacific.

“The way we were raised we were purposely not taught,” Ben Stalvey says. “I wish my mother was still around to see my own grandchildren. My daughter has two kids and her partner is half African-American and half Filipino. I think back to the very end of WASP where she talks about her hopes and dreams for America of everyone being a blended heritage and that has actually come to pass in my grandchildren.”

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

Stalvey’s personal chronicle of social awareness a primer for racial studies

©by Leo Adam Biga

With America in the throes of the 1960s civil rights movement, few whites publicly conceded their own prejudice, much less tried seeing things from a black point of view. Lois Mark Stalvey was that exception as she shared her journey from naivety to social consciousness in her 1970 book The Education of a WASP.

Her intensely personal chronicle of becoming a socially aware being and engaged citizen has lived on as a resource in ethnic studies programs.

Stalvey’s odyssey was fueled by curiosity that turned to indignation and then activism as she discovered the extent to which blacks faced discrimination. Her education and evolution occurred in Omaha and Philadelphia. She got herself up to speed on the issues and conditions impacting blacks by joining organizations focused on equal rights and enlisting the insights of local black leaders. Her Omaha educators included Dr. Claude Organ and his wife Elizabeth “Betty” Organ (Paul and Joan Benson in the book) and Ernie Chambers (Marcus Garvey Moses).

She joined the local Urban League and led the Omaha chapter of the Panel of American Women. She didn’t stop at rhetoric either. She took unpopular stands in support of open housing and hiring practices. She attempted and failed to get the Organs integrated into her Rockbrook neighborhood. Pushing for diversity and inclusion got her blackballed and cost her husband Bennett Stalvey his job.

After leaving Omaha for Philly she and her husband could have sat out the fight for diversity and equality on the sidelines but they elected to be active participants. Instead of living in suburbia as they did here they moved into a mixed race neighborhood and sent their kids to predominantly black urban inner city schools. Stalvey surrounded herself with more black guides who opened her eyes to inequities in the public schools and to real estate maneuvers like block busting designed to keep certain neighborhoods white.

Behind the scenes, her husband helped implement some of the nation’s first affirmative action plans.

Trained as a writer, Stalvey used her gifts to chart her awakening amid the civil rights movement. Since WASP’s publication the book’s been a standard selection among works that about whites grappling with their own racism and with the challenges black Americans confront. It’s been used as reading material in multicultural, ethnic studies and history courses at many colleges and universities.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln associate professor of History and Ethnic Studies Patrick Jones has utilized it in two courses.

“In both courses students had a very positive response to the book,” he says. “The book’s local connections to Omaha literally bring the topic of racial identity formation and race relations ‘home’ to students.  This local dynamic often means a more forceful impact on Neb. students, regardless of their own identity or background.

“In addition, the book effectively underscores the ways that white racial identity is socially constructed. Students come away with a much stronger understanding of what many call ‘whiteness’ and ‘white privilege” This is particularly important for white students, who often view race as something outside of themselves and only relating to black and brown people. Instead, this book challenges them to reckon with the various ways their own history, experience, socialization, acculturation and identity are racially constructed.”

Jones says the book’s account of “white racial identity formation” offers a useful perspective.

“As Dr. King, James Baldwin and others have long asserted, the real problem of race in America is not a problem with black people or other people of color, but rather a problem rooted in the reality of white supremacy, which is primarily a fiction of the white mind. If we are to combat and overcome the legacy and ongoing reality of white supremacy, then we need to better understand the creation and perpetuation of white supremacy, white racial identity and white privilege, and this book helps do that.

“What makes whiteness and white racial identity such an elusive subject for many to grasp is its invisibility – the way it is rendered normative in American society. Critical to a deeper understanding of how race works in the U.S. is rendering whiteness and white supremacy visible.”

Stalvey laid it all right out in the open through the prism of her experience. She continued delineating her ongoing education in subsequent books and articles she wrote and in courses she taught.

Interestingly, WASP was among several popular media examinations of Omaha’s race problem then. A 1963 Look magazine piece discussed racial divisions and remedies here. A 1964 Ebony profile focused on Don Benning breaking the faculty-coaching color barrier at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The 1966 film A Time for Burning featured Ernie Chambers serving a similar role as he did with Stalvey, only this time educating a white pastor and members of Augustana Lutheran Church struggling to do interracial fellowship. The documentary prompted a CBS News special.

Those reports were far from the only local race issues to make national news. Most recently, Omaha’s disproportionately high black poverty and gun violence rates have received wide attention.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

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