Archive for the ‘Leo Adam Biga’ Category


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.






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.


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  

My Inside Stories

November 26, 2015 Leave a comment

My blog,, features my stories about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions. The blog also feeds into my Facebook page, My Inside Stories-

However you access my work, thank you for showing interest in what I do. If you like what you see, please Follow and Like.

Happy holiday!


My Inside Stories

“People, passions, magnificent obsessions”


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 … read more
6 days ago
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 … read more
1 weeks ago
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 re … read more
2 weeks ago
2 weeks ago
2 weeks ago
Support Father Ken Vavrina and his new memoir, “Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden,” at a book signing he’s doing this … read more
2 weeks ago
A leading light of Omaha stage, Jill Anderson, has brushed up her Dickens in preparation for the Joslyn Castle Literary Festival. The five year-old ev … read more
3 weeks ago
Sure, Alex Kava is a best-selling mystery author, but as an aspiring writer she faced insecurities. Even now, with a six-figure contract from Putnam, … read more
3 weeks ago
The Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol has long haunted actor-writer-director John Hardy. Though ghosts have yet to visit him ala Scrooge, the … read more
3 weeks ago
Steve and Bari McCormick’s Euro-influenced home in the gated Legacy Villas development draws much attention for its enchanted kingdom appearance. Bar … read more
3 weeks ago
Muddying Omaha’s high quality of life rankings are pockets of chronic poverty and growing new poor populations. Identifiable impoverished sections, h … read more
3 weeks ago
Dear Nebraska Football Program: It is with great concern and compassion that I appeal to your better angels and ask you to accept a therapeutic regim … read more
3 weeks ago
Leave it to an ex-pat Brit to travel Neb. in search of what makes community in this Midwestern place. He did it the old-fashioned way, too, by engagin … read more
3 weeks ago
A Life of Service Retired Catholic priest Father Kenneth Vavrina, 80, has never made an enemy in his epic travels serving people and opposing injustic … read more
3 weeks ago
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 re … read more
4 weeks ago
The name of a long-lived North Omaha black-owned and operated business reads Time Out Foods. “But Time Out Chicken is what everybody tags us as,” says … read more
4 weeks ago
Omaha Police Department gang intervention specialist Alberto “Beto” Gonzales grew up in a South Omaha “monster barrio” as an outsider fresh from the T … read more
4 weeks ago
When hometown hero and reigning WBO world welterweight champion Terence Crawford takes care of business as expected against challenger Dierry Jean Sat … read more
1 month ago
The Mexican American Historical Society of the Midlands will present a free October 17 through November 7 Day of the Dead festival curated by Omaha ar … read more
1 month ago
Catch Blue Tango Project in concert TONIGHT, Friday, Oct. 16, at 7 pm, at Joslyn Castle, 3902 Davenport St. Enjoy this mash-up fusion of Latin rhythms … read more
1 month ago
I never imagined my first venture outside the United States would be in Africa. But in June I found myself in the neighboring East African nations of … read more
1 month ago
Two-time world boxing champion Terence “Bud” Crawford is putting Omaha on the map with the title bouts he brings here, but he also hopes to steer atte … read more
1 month ago
Let me add to the rave reviews Tiffany White Welchen has received for her portrayal of Billie Holiday in the Performing Artists Repertory Theatre prod … read more
1 month ago
AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT On Friday, October 16 at 7 p.m., Argentine Latin Grammy nominee singer-songwriter-acoustic guartist María … read more
1 month ago
Omaha couple Martine and Sam Quartey’s passion for Ghana finds them promoting aspects of that West African nation through various cultural, commercial … read more
1 month ago
The emerging startup accelerator scene supports creative-minded risk-takers looking for an edge to follow their passion and to bring their ideas to fr … read more
1 month ago
The 2015 downtown Omaha Lit Fest, whose theme is “Nervosa: Science, Psych & Story,” celebrates the reflective power of literature to explore human vul … read more
1 month ago
Since Sam Meisels arrived in 2013 to head the Buffett Early Childhood Institute, he’s become the academic-based advocate ally to the socially consciou … read more
1 month ago
Nebraska recruits football players where it finds them. sometimes even in the same family. Several brother combos have played for NU. Once in a while … read more
1 month ago
“… 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 … read more
1 month ago


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

Leo Adam Biga



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,, 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.

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


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.”


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                                                                                                                                              

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.


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 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 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.


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


November 9, 2015 2 comments

File:A typewriter (10995863465).jpg
The Reader Sept. 29 - Oct. 5, 2011The Reader 1-13-2011
The Reader Nov. 3, 2011
New Horizons Newspaper's photo.     Elperico 150205
Iraq War Veteran Jacob Hausman Battles PTSD and Finds Peace | Leo Adam Biga's Blog:
El Perico February 12, 2015
New Horizons Newspaper's photo.
New Horizons Newspaper's photo.
New Horizons Newspaper's photo.



November 9, 2015 2 comments



November 6, 2015 3 comments



Father Ken Vavrina signs his new memoir “Crossing Bridges” at The Bookworm – Sat. Nov. 7 from 1-4 pm

Support Father Ken Vavrina and his new memoir, “Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden,” at a book signing he’s doing this Saturday Nov. 7, from 1-4 pm, at The Bookworm. He’ll be there as part of a local author-book expo. I will be there, too, because I helped Father Ken with his memoir. Show love to this veteran social justice champion who has given so much to North Omaha, to the African-American community and to people around the world. His life of service to others is a calling to all of us.

Father Ken and I hope to see you there.

Leo Adam Biga
My Inside Stories


Father Ken has been one of North Omaha’s most dedicated servants, making great contributions at Sacred Heart, Holy Family, St. Richard’s and St. Benedict the Moor and through Omaha Together One Community (OTOC) and the Bryant Center. He has been a good and loyal friend to the African-American community. His book is an inspirational account of his vocation serving others and it is a call for us to do the same.

The much traveled shepherd has pastored flocks far beyond Omaha. He lived five years in a mud hut minus indoor plumbing and electricity tending to lepers in Yemen. He became well acquainted with the slums of Calcutta, India while working there. He spent nights in the African bush escorting supplies. He spent two nights in a trench under fire. The archdiocesan priest served Native Americans on reservations and African-Americans in Omaha’s poorest neighborhoods. He befriended members of the American Indian Movement, Black Panthers and various activists, organizers, elected officials and civic leaders.His work abroad put him on intimate terms with Blessed Mother Teresa, now in line for sainthood. and made him a friend of convenience of deposed Liberia, Africa dictator Charles Taylor, now imprisoned for war crimes. As a Catholic Relief Services program director he served earthquake victims in Italy, the poorest of the poor in India, Bangladesh and Nepal and refugees of civil war in Liberia.

He found himself in some tight spots and compromising positions along the way. He ran supplies to embattled activists during the Siege at Wounded Knee. He was arrested and jailed in Yemen before being expelled from the country. He faced-off with trigger-happy rebels leading supply missions via truck, train and ship in Liberia and dealt with warlords who had no respect for human life.
If his book has a message it’s that anyone can make a difference, whether right at home or half way around the globe, if you’re intentional and humble enough to let go and let God.
Please support Father Ken and his book. He has a story and a message we can all benefit from.
You can read excerpts from the book on my blog, You can also read about Father Ken in my November New Horizons cover story at newstands now. The story can also be found on my blog and on my Facebook page, My Inside Stories.

Other authors in attendance and their books:

– Marilyn Coffey, Mail-Order Kid: An Orphan Train Rider’s Story and Thieves, Rascals & Sore Losers

– John D’Arcy, Magic Letters of the Alphabet

– Claire Flatowicz, Seeing the World Through Rose-Colored Trifocals

– Natalie Guenther and Kim Schenkelberg, It’s Really 10 Months and It’s Really 10 Months Special Delivery

– Marco LeRoc, Cash In With Your Money and Screw College Debt

– Mary Mahoney, The Thissen Tales

– Kirsten Meier, The Reindeer Tree

– Danica Patchen and Diane Murphy, Ribbit, Qualler, Quack

– Rita Rae Roxx, Once Upon a Rock Star

– Frances Ruh, The Schepp Family Chronicles, Risk Everything, and Question Everything

– Katharine Sires, Grandfather Big Elk

– Fred Tichauer, Real Estate Investors: Clients for Life


Father Ken Vavrina’s new book “Crossing Bridges” charts his life serving others

October 29, 2015 1 comment

Cover Photo

For a man whose vocation as a priest is a half-century long and counting, it may come as a surprise that Father Ken Vavrina had no notion of entering that life until, at age 18, a voice instructed him to attend seminary school.  It was a classic calling from on high that he didn’t particularly want or appreciate.  He had his life planned out, after all, and it didn’t include the priesthood.  He resisted the very thought of it.  He rationalized why it wasn’t right for him.  He wished the admonition would go away.  But it just wouldn’t.  He couldn’t ignore it.  He couldn’t shake it.  Deep inside he knew the truth and rightness of it even though it seemed like a strange imposition.  In the end, of course, he obeyed and followed the path ordained for him.  His rich life serving others has seen him minister to Native Americans on reservations, African-Americans in Omaha’s inner city, occupying protestors at Wounded Knee, lepers in Yemen. the poor, hungry and homeless in Calcutta, India and war refugees in Liberia.  He worked for Mother Teresa and for Catholic Relief Services.  He’s been active in Omaha Together One Community.  There have been many other stops as well, including Italy, Cuba, New York City and rural Nebraska.  He has crossed many cultural and geographic bridges to engage people where they are at and to respond to their needs for food, water, medicine, shelter, education, counseling.  Everywhere he’s gone he’s gained far more from those he served than he’s given them and as a result he’s grown personally and spiritually.  He has attained great humility and gratitude.  His simple life of service to others has much to teach us and that’s why he commissioned me to help him write the new book, Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden.  It was a privilege to share his remarkable life and story in book form.  Here is an article I’ve written about him and his many travels.  It is the cover story in the November 2015 issue of the New Horizons.  I hope, as he does, that this story as well as the book we did together that this story is drawn from inspires you to cross your own bridges into different cultures and experiences. Many blessings await.

The book is available at as well as on Amazon and and for Kindle. The Bookworm is exclusively carrying “Crossing Bridges” among local bookstores.

Vavrina Teresa cover (for Leo)

Father Ken with Mother Teresa

Father Ken Vavrina’s new book “Crossing Bridges” charts his life serving others

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the November 2015 issue of the New Horizons
My profile of Father Ken Vavrina contains excerpts and photos from the new book I did with him, Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden.

A Life of Service
Retired Catholic priest Father Kenneth Vavrina, 80, has never made an enemy in his epic travels serving people and opposing injustice.

“I have never met a stranger. Everyone I meet is my friend,” declares Vavrina, who’s lived and worked in some of the world’s poorest places and most trying circumstances.

It’s no accident he ended up going abroad as a missionary because from childhood he burned with curiosity about what’s on the other side of things – hills, horizons, fences, bridges. His life’s been all about crossing bridges, both the literal and figurative kind. Thus, the title of his new book, Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden, his personal chronicle of repeatedly venturing across borders ministering to people. His willingness to go where people are in need, whether near or far, and no matter how unfamiliar or forbidding the location, has been his life’s recurring theme.

For most of his 50-plus years as a priest he’s helped underserved populations, some in outstate Neb., some in Omaha, and for a long time in developing nations overseas. Whether pastoring in a parish or doing missionary work in the field, he’s never looked back, only forward, led by his insistent conscience, open heart and boy-like sense of wanderlust. That conscience has put him at odds with his religious superiors in the Omaha Catholic Archdiocese on those occasions when he’s publicly disagreed with Church positions on social issues. His tendency to speak his mind and to criticize the Catholic hierarchy he’s sworn to obey has led to official reprimands and suspensions.

But no one questions his dedication to the priesthood. Always putting his faith in action, he shepherds people wherever he lays his head. He lived five years in a mud hut minus indoor plumbing and electricity tending to lepers in Yemen. He became well acquainted with the slums of Calcutta, India while working there. He spent nights in the African bush escorting supplies. He spent two nights in a trench under fire. The archdiocesan priest served Native Americans on reservations and African-Americans in Omaha’s poorest neighborhoods. He befriended members of the American Indian Movement, Black Panthers and various activists, organizers, elected officials and civic leaders.

His work abroad put him on intimate terms with Blessed Mother Teresa, now in line for sainthood. and made him a friend of convenience of deposed Liberia, Africa dictator Charles Taylor, now imprisoned for war crimes. As a Catholic Relief Services program director he served earthquake victims in Italy, the poorest of the poor in India, Bangladesh and Nepal and refugees of civil war in Liberia.

He found himself in some tight spots and compromising positions along the way. He ran supplies to embattled activists during the Siege at Wounded Knee. He was arrested and jailed in Yemen before being expelled from the country. He faced-off with trigger-happy rebels leading supply missions via truck, train and ship in Liberia and dealt with warlords who had no respect for human life.

If his book has a message it’s that anyone can make a difference, whether right at home or half way around the globe, if you’re intentional and humble enough to let go and let God.

“There is nothing remarkable about me…yet I have been blessed to lead a most fulfilling life…The nature of my work has taken me to some fascinating places around the world and introduced me to the full spectrum of humanity, good and bad.

“Stripping away the encumbrances of things and titles is truly liberating because then it is just you and the person beside you or in front of you. There is nothing more to hide behind. That is when two human hearts truly connect.”

Even though he’s retired and no longer puts himself in harm’s way, he remains quite active. He comforts and anoints the sick, he administers communion, he celebrates Mass and he volunteers at St. Benedict the Moor. Occasional bouts of the malaria he picked up overseas are reminders of his years abroad. So is the frozen shoulder he inherited after a botched surgery in Mexico. His shaved head is also an emblem from extended stays in hot climates, where to keep cool he took to buzz cuts he maintains to this day. Then there’s his simple, vegan diet that mirrors the way he ate in Third World nations.

This tough old goat recently survived a bout with cancer. A malignant tumor in his bladder was surgically removed and after recouping in the hospital he returned home. The cancer’s not reappeared but he has battled a postoperative bladder infection and gout. Ask him how he’s doing and he might volunteer, “I’m not getting around too well these days” but he usually leaves it at, “I’m OK.” He lives at the John Vianney independent living community for retired clergy and lay seniors. He’s more spry than many residents. It’s safe to say he’s visited places they’ve never ventured to.

Father Ken #1 (for Leo)

Father Ken today

Born in Bruno and raised in Clarkson, Neb., both Czech communities in Neb.’s Bohemian Alps, Vavrina and his older brother Ron were raised by their public school teacher mother after their father died in an accident when they were 9 and 4, respectively. The boys and their mother moved in with their paternal grandparents and an uncle, Joe, who owned a local farm implement business and car dealership. The uncle took the family on road trip vacations. Once, on the way back from Calif. by way of the American southwest, Vavrina engaged in an exchange with his mother that profoundly influenced him.

“I remember my mom telling me, “On the other side of that bridge is Mexico,” and right then and there I vowed, ‘One day I’m going to cross that bridge'”

“I never crossed that particular bridge but I did cross a lot of bridges to a lot of different lifestyles and countries and cultures and it was a great, great, great blessing. You learn so much in working with people who are different.”

One key lesson he learned is that despite our many differences, we’re all the same.

Even though he grew up around very little diversity, he was taught to accept all people, regardless of race or ethnicity. He feels that lesson helped him acclimate to foreign cultures and to living and working with people of color whose ways differed from his.

As a fatherless child of the Great Depression and with rationing on due to the Second World War, Vavrina knew something about hardship but it was mostly a good life. Growing up, he went hunting and fishing with his uncle, whose shop he worked in. He played organized basketball and baseball for an early mentor, coach Milo Blecha.

“All in all, I had a wonderful childhood in Clarkson,” he writes. “It was a simple life. The Church was dominant. There was a Catholic church and a Presbyterian church. Father Kubesh was the pastor at Saints Cyril and Methodius Catholic Church. When he was not saying Mass, Father Kubesh always had a cigar in his mouth. I served Mass as an altar boy. Little did I imagine that he would counsel me when I embarked on studying for the priesthood.”

All through high school Vavrina dated the same girl. His family wasn’t particularly religious and he never even entertained the possibility of the priesthood until he felt the calling at 18. Out of nowhere, he says, the thought, really more like an admonition, formed in his head.

“I was driving a pickup truck on a Saturday morning, about four miles east of Clarkson, when something happened that is still crystal clear to me. I distinctly heard a voice say, ‘Why don’t you go to the seminary?’ Just like that, out of the blue. I thought, This is crazy.

“Was it God’s voice?

“Being a priest is a calling, and I guess maybe it was the call that I felt then and there. If you want to give it a name or try to explain it, then God called me to serve at that moment. He planted the seed of that idea in my head, and He placed the spark of that desire in my heart.”

The very idea threw Vavrina for a loop. After all, he had prospects. He expected to marry his sweetheart and to either go into the family business or study law at Creighton University. The priesthood didn’t jibe with any of that.

He says when he told Father Kubesh about what happened the priest’s first reaction was, “Huh?” For a long time Vavrina didn’t tell anyone else but when it became evident it wasn’t some passing fancy he let his friends and family know. No one, not even himself, could be sure yet how serious his conviction was, which is why he only pledged to give it one year at Conception Seminary College in northwest Missouri.

He told his uncle, I’ll give it a shot.” And so he did. One year turned into two, two years turned into three, and so on, and though his studies were demanding he found he enjoyed academics.

He finished up at St. Paul Seminary at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. and was ordained in 1962.

Blank bookcover with clipping path

Blank bookcover with clipping path

Calling all cultures
His introduction to new cultures began with his very first assignment, as associate pastor for the Winnebago and Macy reservations in far northern Nebraska. Vavrina was struck by the people’s warmth and sincerity and by the disproportionate numbers living in poverty and afflicted with alcoholism. He disapproved of efforts by the Church to try and strip children of their Native American ways, even sending kids off to live with white families in the summer.

His next assignment brought him to Sacred Heart parish in predominantly black northeast Omaha. He arrived at the height of racial tension during the late 1960s civil rights struggle. He served on an inner city ministerial team that tried getting a handle on black issues. When riots erupted he was there on the street trying to calm a volatile situation. The more he learned about the inequalities facing that community, the more sympathetic he became to both the civil rights and Black Power movements, so much so, he says, people took to calling him “the blackest cat in the alley.”

He was an ally of Nebraska state Sen. Ernie Chambers, activist Charlie Washington and Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown. He befriended Black Panthers David Rice and Ed Poindexter (Mondo we Langa), both convicted in the homemade bomb death of Omaha police officer Larry Minard. The two men have always maintained their innocence..

Vavrina welcomed changes ushered in by Vatican II to make the Church more accessible. He criticized what he saw as ultra-conservative and misguided stands on social issues. For example, he opposed official Catholic positions excluding divorced and gay Catholics and forbidding priests from marrying and barring women being ordained. He began a long tradition of writing letters to the editor to express his views. He’s never stopped advocating for these things.

He next served at north downtown Holy Family parish, where his good friend, kindred spirit and fellow “troublemaker” Jack McCaslin pastored. McCaslin spouted progressive views from the pulpit and became a peace activist protesting the military-industrial complex, which resulted in him being arrested many times. The two liberals were a good fit for Holy Family’s open-minded congregation.

Then, in 1973, Vavrina’s life intersected with history. Lorelei Decora, an enrolled member of the Winnebago tribe, Thunder Bird Clan, called to ask him to deliver medical supplies to her and fellow American Indian Movement activists at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. A group of Indians agitating for change occupied the town. Authorities surrounded them. The siege carried huge symbolic implications given its location was the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre. Vavrina knew Decora when she was precocious child. Now she was a militant teen prevailing on him to ride into an armed standoff. He never hesitated. He and a friend Joe Yellow Thunder, an Oglala Sioux, rounded up supplies from doctors at St. Joseph Hospital. They drove to the siege and Father Ken talked his way inside past encamped U.S, marshals.

He met with AIM leader and cofounder Dennis Banks, whom he knew from before.

“Then I saw Lorelei and I looked her in the eye and asked, ‘What are you doing here?’ She said with great conviction, ‘I came to die.’ They really thought they would all be killed. They were fully committed…On his walkie-talkie Banks reached the authorities and told them, ‘Let this guy stay here. He’s objective. He’ll let you know what’s going on.’ The authorities went along…that’s how I came to spend two nights at the compound. We bivouacked in a ravine where the Indians had carved out trenches. We used straw and blankets over our coats, plus body heat, to keep warm at night. It was not much below freezing, and there was little snow on the ground, which made the camp bearable.

“At night the shooting would commence…the tracers going overhead, the Indians huddled for cover, and several of the occupiers sick with cold and flu symptoms.

“Once back home, Joe and I attempted to make a second medicine supply run up there. We drove all the way to the rim but were turned back by the marshals because the violence had started up again and had actually escalated. When the siege finally ended that spring, there were many arrests and a whole slew of charges filed against the protesters.”

By the late-’70s Vavrina was serving a northeast Neb. parish and feeling restless. He’d given his all to combatting racism and advocating for equal rights but was disappointed more transformational change didn’t occur. He saw many priests abandon their vows and the Church regress into conservatism after the promise of Vatican II reforms. More than anything though, he felt too removed from the world of want. It bothered him he’d never really put himself on the line by giving up things for a greater good or surrendering his ego to a life of servitude.

“I felt I was out of the mainstream, away from the action. Plus, I knew the civil rights movement was…not going to reach what I thought it could achieve…So I decided I was going overseas. I wanted to be where I could do the greatest good. I always felt drawn to the missions…I just felt a need to experience voluntary poverty and to become nothing in a foreign land.

“…an experience in Thailand changed the whole trajectory of my missions plan. I was walking the streets of Bangkok…on the edge of downtown…Then I made a wrong turn and suddenly found myself in the slums of Bangkok…everywhere I looked was human want and suffering at a scale I was unprepared for.

“I was shocked and appalled by the conditions people lived in. I realized there were slums all over the world and these people needed help. What was I doing about it? The experience really hit me in the face and marked an abrupt change in my thinking. I looked at my relative affluence and comfortable existence, and I suddenly saw the hypocrisy in my life. I resolved then and there, I was going to change, and I was going to move away from the privilege I enjoy, and I would work with the poor.”

A reinforcing influence was Mother Teresa, whom he admired for leaving behind her own privilege and possessions to tend to the poor and sick and dying. He resolved to offer himself in service to her work.
The nun, he writes, “was a great inspiration..” Nothing could shake his conviction to go follow a radically different path and calling.

His going away had nothing to do with escaping the past but everything to do with following a new course and passion. By that time he’s already worked 15 years in the archdiocese and “loved every minute of it.” He was finishing up a master’s degree in counseling at Creighton University. “Everything was good. No nagging doubts. But I just felt compelled to do more,” he writes.

He asked and received permission from the diocese to work overseas for one year and that single year, he describes, turned into 19 “incredible years helping the poorest of the poor.”

He no sooner found Mother Teresa in Italy than she asked him to go to Yemen, an Arab country in southwest Asia, to work with residents of the leper village City of Light.

“I simply replied, ‘Sure,’” Vavrina notes in his book.

In Yemen he witnessed the fear and superstition that’s caused lepers to be treated as outcasts everywhere. In that community he worked alongside Missionaries of Charity as well as lepers.

“My primary job was to scrape dead skin off patients using a knife or blade. It was done very crudely. Lepers, whether they are active or negative cases, have a problem of rotting skin. That putrid skin has to be removed for the affected area to heal and to prevent infection…I would then clean the skin.

“I would also keep track of the lepers and where they were with their treatment and the medicines they needed.”

CB Interior Chapter 8 III SMALL SIZE with album and front cover 08_14_15

He embraced the spartan lifestyle and shopping at the local souk. He found time to hike up Mount Kilimanjaro. He also saw harsh things. An alleged rapist was stoned to death and the body displayed at the gate of the market. Girls were compelled to enter arranged marriages, forbidden from getting an education or job, and generally treated as property. Yemen is also where he contracted malaria and endured the first sweats and fevers that accompany it.

Yet, he says, Yemen was the place he found the most contentment. Then, without warning, his world turned upside down when he found himself the target of Yemeni authorities. They took him in for seemingly routine questioning that turned into several nights of pointed interrogation. He was released, but under house arrest, only to be detained again, this time in an overcrowded communal jail cell.

He was incarcerated nearly two weeks before the U.S. embassy arranged his release. No formal charges were brought against him. The police insinuated proselytizing, which he flatly denied, though he sensed they actually suspected him of spying. They couldn’t believe a healthy, middle-aged American male would choose to work with lepers.

His release was conditional on him immediately leaving the country. The expulsion hurt his soul.

“Being kicked out of the country, and for nothing mind you, other than blind suspicion, was not the way I imagined myself departing. I was disappointed. I truly believe that if I had been left to do my work in peace, I would still be there because I enjoyed every minute of working with the lepers. There is so much need in a place like Yemen, and while I could help only a few people, I did help them. It was taxing but fulfilling work.”

He traveled to Italy, where Catholic Relief Services hired him to manage a program rebuilding an earthquake ravaged area. Then CRS sent him to supervise aid programs in India. After nine months in Cochin he was transferred to Calcutta. Everywhere he set foot, hunger prevailed, with millions barely getting by on a bare subsistence level and life a daily survival test.

Besides supplying food, the programs taught farmers better agricultural practices and enlisted women in the micro loan program Grameen Bank. In all, he directed $38 million in aid annually.

The generous spirit of people to share what little they have with others impressed him. Seeing so many precariously straddle life and death, with many mothers and children not making it, opened his eyes. So did the sheer scale of want there.

“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. That was my introduction to Calcutta.

“I was scared of Calcutta. Of the push and pull and crunch of the staggering numbers of people. Of the absurd overcrowding in the neighborhoods and streets. Of the overwhelming, mind-numbing, heartbreaking, soul-hurting poverty. That mass of needy humanity makes for a powerful, sobering, jarring reality that assaults all the senses…

“…only God knows the true size of the population…I often say to religious and lay people alike, ‘Go to Calcutta and walk the streets for six days and it will change your life forever” Walk the streets there for one day and even one hour, and it will change you. I know it did me.”

Vavrina was reunited there with Mother Teresa.

“I spent a lot of time working with Mother, Whenever she had a problem she would come into the office. If there was a natural disaster where her Sisters worked we would always help with food or whatever they needed.”

Vavrina Teresa inside (for Leo)

CB Interior Chapter 9 IV SMALL SIZE with album and front cover 08_14_15

He witnessed people’s adoration of Mother Teresa wherever she went. There was enough mutual respect between this American priest and Macedonian nun that they could speak candidly and laugh freely in each other’s company. He criticized her refusal to let her Sisters do the type of development work his programs did. He disapproved of how tough she was with her Sisters, whom she demanded live in poverty and restrict themselves to providing comfort care to the sick and dying.

He writes, “I disagreed with Mother and I told her so. I knew the value of development work. Our CRS programs in India were proof of its effectiveness…she listened to me, not necessarily agreeing with me at all…and then went right ahead and did her own thing anyway…I cried the day I left Calcutta in 1991. I loved Calcutta. Mother Teresa had tears in her eyes as well. We had become very good friends. She was the real deal…hands on…not afraid to get her hands dirty.”

Years later he read with dismay and sadness how she experienced the Dark Night of the Soul – suffering an inconsolable crisis of faith.

“I knew her well and yet I never detected any indication, any sign that she was burdened with this internal struggle. Not once in all the time I spent with her did she betray a hint of this. She seemed in all outward appearances to be quite happy and jovial,” he writes. “However, I did know that she was very intense about her faith and her work. In her mind and heart she was never able to do enough. She never felt she did enough to please God, and so there was this constant, gnawing void she felt that she could never fully fill or reconcile.”

Even all these years later Vavrina says his experience in India is never far from his thoughts.

CRS next sent him to Liberia, Africa, where a simmering civil war boiled over. His job was getting supplies to people who’d fled their villages. That meant dealing with the most powerful rebel warlord, Charles Taylor, whose forces controlled key roads and regions.

The program Vavrina operated there dispersed $42 million in aid each year, most of it in food and medicine. As in India, goods arrived by ship in port for storage in warehouses before being trucked to destinations in-country. Vavrina often rode in the front truck of convoys that passed through rebel-occupied territories where boys brandishing automatic weapons manned checkpoints. There were many tense confrontations.

On three occasions Vavrina got Taylor to release a freight train to carry supplies to a large refugee contingent in dire need of food and medicine in the jungle. Taylor provided a general and soldiers for safe passage but Vavrina went along on the first run to ensure the supplies reached their intended recipients.

Everywhere Vavrina ran aid overseas he contended with corruption to one extent or another. Loss through pilfering and paying out bribes to get goods through were part of the price or tax for conducting commerce. Though he hated it, he dealt with the devil in the person of Taylor in order to get done what needed doing. Grim reminders of the carnage that Taylor inflamed and instigated were never lost on Vavrina and on at least once occasion it hit close to home.

CB Interior Chapter 13 XI SMALL SIZE with album and front cover 08_14_15

“Not for a moment did I ever forget who I was really talking to…I never forgot that he was a ruthless dictator. He was a pathological liar too. He could look you dead in the eye and tell you an out-and-out untruth, and I swear he was convinced he was telling the truth. A real paranoid egomaniac. But in war you cannot always choose your friends.

“Hundreds of thousands of innocent people died in Liberia during those civil wars. There were many atrocities. One in particular touched me personally. On October 20, 1992, five American nuns, all of whom I knew and considered friends, were killed. I had visited them at their convent two days before this tragedy. May they rest in peace.”

The killings were condemned worldwide.

His most treacherous undertaking involved a cargo ship, The Sea Friend, he commissioned to offload supplies in the port at Greenville. Only rebels arrived there first. To make matters worse the ship sprung a leak coming into dock. Thus, it became a test of nerves and a race against time to see if the supplies could be salvaged from falling prey to the sea and/or the clutches of rebels. When all seemed lost and the life of Vavrina and his companions became endangered, a helicopter answered their distress call and rescued them from the ugly situation.

Back home
Hs work in Liberia was left unfinished by the country’s growing instability and by his more frequent malaria attacks, which forced him back home to the States. At the request of CRS he settled in New York City doing speaking and fundraising up and down the East Coast. Then he went to work for the Catholic Medical Mission Board, who sent him to Cuba to safeguard millions of dollars in medical supplies for clinics in an era when America’s Cuba embargo was still officially in effect.

During his visit Vavrina met then-Archbishop of Havana, Jamie Ortega, now a cardinal. Vavrina supported then and applauds now America normalizing relations with Cuba.

He also appreciates the progressive stances Pope Francis has taken in extending a more welcoming hand by the Church to divorced and gay Catholics and in encouraging the Church to be more intentional about serving the poor and disenfranchised. The pope’s call for clergy to be good pastors and shepherds who work directly work with people in need is what Vavrina did and continues doing.

“This is exactly what the Holy Father is saying. They need to get out of the office and stop doing just administration and reach out to people who are being neglected. A shepherd reaches out to the lost sheep. Jesus talks about that all the time,” Vavrina says.

As soon as Vavrina ended his missions work overseas he intended coming back to work in Omaha’s inner city but he kept getting sidetracked. Then he got assigned to serve two rural Neb. parishes. Finally, he got the call to pastor St. Richard’s in North Omaha, where he was sent to heal a congregation traumatized by the pedophile conviction of their former pastor, Father Dan Herek.

Vavrina writes, “Those wounds did not heal overnight. I knew going in I would be inheriting a parish still feeling raw and upset by the scandal. Initially my role was to help people deal with the anger and frustration and confusion they felt. Those strong emotions were shared by adults and youths alike.”

During his time at St. Richard’s he immersed himself in the social action group, Omaha Together One Community.

Facing declining church membership and school enrollment, the archdiocese decided to close St. Richard’s, whereupon Vavrina was assigned the parish he’d long wanted to serve – St. Benedict the Moor. As the metro’s historic African-American Catholic parish, St. Benedict’s has been a refuge to black Catholics for generations. Vavrina led an effort to restore the parish’s adjacent outdoor recreation complex, the Bryant Center, which has become a community anchor for youth sports and educational activities in a high needs neighborhood. He also initiated an adopt a family program to assist single mothers and their children. Several parishes ended up participating.

Poverty and unemployment have long plagued sections of northeast Omaha. Those problems have been compounded by disproportionately high teenage pregnancy, school dropout, incarceration and gun violence rates. Vavrina saw too many young people being lost to the streets through drugs, gangs or prostitution. Many of these ills played out within a block or two of the rectory he lived in and the church he said Mass in. He’s encouraged by new initiatives to support young people and to revitalize the area.

Wherever he pastored he forged close relationships. “One of the benefits of being a pastor is that the parish adopts you as one of their own, and the people there become like a family to you,” he writes.

At St. Ben’s that sense of family was especially strong, so much so that when he announced one Sunday at Mass that the archbishop was compelling him to retired there was a hue and cry from parishioners. He implored his flock not to make too big a fuss and they mostly complied. No, he wasn’t ready to retire, but he obeyed and stepped aside. Retirement gave him time to reflect on his life for the book he ended up publishing through his own Uplifting Publishing and Concierge Marketing Publishing Services in Omaha.

Father Ken #3 (for Leo)

Father Ken enjoying our book

“I’ve had a wonderful life, oh my,” he says.

Now that that wonderful life has been distilled into a book, he hopes his journey is instructive and perhaps inspiring to others.

“I wrote the book hoping it was going to encourage people to cross bridges and to reach out to people who otherwise they would not reach out to. That’s exactly what Pope Francis is talking about.”

Besides, he says, crossing bridges can be the source of much joy. The life story his book lays out is evidence of it.

“That story just says how great a life I have had,” he says.

“It is my prayer that the travels and experiences I describe in these pages serve as guideposts to help you navigate your own wanderings and crossings.

“A bridge of some sort is always before you…never be afraid to open your heart and speak your mind. We are all called to be witnesses. We are all called to testify. To make the crossing, all that is required is a willing and trusting spirit. Go ahead, make your way over to the other side. God is with you every step of the way. Take His hand and follow. Many riches await.”

Order the book at


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,624 other followers

%d bloggers like this: