Archive for the ‘Omaha’ Category


November 19, 2015 2 comments


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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My newest cover story: 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 ( 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.

My newest cover story:

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 (

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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


November 9, 2015 2 comments

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Joslyn Castle Literary Festival makes it all about Dickens

November 4, 2015 2 comments

The Joslyn Castle Literary Festival gives Jill Anderson the opportunity each year to take the work of one or more of her beloved authors and let her imagination run wild with possibilities for programming events around their fiction.  Having already previously gone through this exercise with the Bronte sisters, Oscar Wilde, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Bram Stoker, she’s made Charles Dickens the focus of her passion for the 2015 festival – “Dickens at the Castle.”  The Dickens theme is getting expressed in multiple ways but perhaps the highlight is John Hardy’s one-man A Christmas Carol.  The November-December fest includes lectures, concerts, and other events.  My story about the fest for Metro Magazine ( follows.

John Hardy

John Hardy

Joslyn Castle Literary Festival makes it all about Dickens

Artistic director Jill Anderson and Co. devise Dickens of a time

John Hardy’s ome-man A Christmas Carol highlights fest

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the Nov-Dec-Jan Metro Magazine (

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 event Anderson formed and serves as artistic director for is celebrating the prolific Charles Dickens after previously highlighting the Bronte sisters, Oscar Wilde, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Bram Stoker.

“Dickens at the Castle” is the latest iteration of this new fixture on Omaha’s cultural calendar. Per tradition, the November 14-18 and December 12-13 festival offers a live theatrical production, panel discussion, lecture and concert. Anchoring it all this time is a one-man performance of A Christmas Carol by actor-director John Hardy.

That Dickens classic is the basis for the popular musical adaptation the Omaha Community Playhouse (OCP) has produced for 40 years. That connection compelled OCP and Joslyn Castle Trust (JCT) to partner for the 2015 fest. It’s not the first time they’ve conjoined. Earlier this year OCP held its 90th anniversary party at the Castle. George and Sarah Joslyn built the Scottish Baronial Revival Castle at 3902 Davenport that hosts the festival. These early Omaha philanthropists supported the Playhouse in its infancy. Sarah donated the land for the theater’s first home near the Castle. She later built the Joslyn Art Museum as a memorial to her husband and as a gift to Omaha.

None of this legacy is lost on the people who make the festival happen.

“We see every event at the Castle as an opportunity to honor the remarkable lives of George and Sarah Joslyn,” says JCT executive director Gina Primmer. “Like Dickens himself, both George and Sarah lacked extensive formal education but were very committed to lifelong learning through the arts and literature. Our festival guests will see first-hand how this magnificent home is designed in celebration of arts, literature and entertainment.”

A well-made match
Proceeds from the festival support the work of the Trust, which preserves and shares the Castle and its history through programs that enrich the community through the arts, culture and education.

The mansion includes a library, music room and ballroom. Hardy’s show will be in the library. Jill Anderson says “there’s something just kind of fun about presenting a literary classic in the library.” Celebrating great literature in a great home is her idea of paradise. “The Castle is a magical place. It sets your imagination going. This incredible building has been recognized as a treasure to our city. It’s a tremendous blessing to be able to take great literature into a gorgeous space like that with its beautiful architecture and the turrets. It’s enchanting.”

Anderson says the library is such an intimate space it will require ingenuity by Hardy to make it accommodate his vigorous performance.

“Doing theater within a private home you’ve got to be resourceful and figure out how to make that work. It’s going to be very challenging because he’s going to be adapting it to a much smaller space than he’s accustomed to working in, so that’s going to call upon all his creativity.”

She’s says even as JCT leadership has changed since launching the fest in 2011, “Consistently the executive director and the staff have recognized the Lit Fest is in line with the Castle’s mission, particularly the portion that deals with the Joslyns’ legacy of cultural enrichment.”

Joslyn Castle

Hardy and his one-man Christmas Carol
She’s excited to have Hardy aboard. She previously brought him to Omaha to perform his original one-man show, Rattlesnake. He’s directed at the Rose Theatre and acted-directed for the Nebraska Shakespeare Festival. They met working at the Barter Theatre in Virginia.

“He’s just one of those artists who has a spark of genius I think. He’s always pushing for an edgier, very raw, committed style of theater. It has an extra energy that keeps it unpredictable and exciting. So when it came time to choose who the literary figure would be I knew he had this A Christmas Carol. So, why not do Dickens? It’s already a world-class drama and we just needed to build the festival around it.”

She says audiences should come prepared to be surprised by Hardy’s 40-character rendition.

“They can expect a completely unexpected reading of the story. They can expect humor where they least expect it. They can expect some pretty exciting tour-de-force character shifting. And they can expect him to get at the heart of the story. Getting down to what the story really is trying to say fascinates me.”

Hardy says, “I’ve seen one-man versions of this and it’s nothing like the one I do. The one I do is not storytelling, it’s theater, it’s characters involved in a world from moment to moment.”

Anderson says Hardy makes it all seem real. “He brings a startling honesty to his acting style that always takes me off-guard in a wonderful way. He will use very little in terms of set and costume but he will transform things and find every possible way to use the things he does have on stage with him. It’s not about huge production values, it’s about creative transformation.”

She says his Carol and the Playhouse’s couldn’t be more different.

“The Playhouse makes it a tremendous spectacle – so much color and beautiful effects and lavish costumes. Music is a major element of it. It’s this kind of confection of a production and it’s lasted all these years because people love it – they eat it right up like candy.”

By contrast, she says Hardy’s “theatrical style is really stripped down, really elemental.”

The panel and lecture programs (see side story) examine Dickens’ influences and motivations.

The Dickens formula
“Dickens had a powerful agenda with all his novels, It was usually to expose some sort of injustice,” she says. “That was his thing. He was a whistle blower but he didn’t do it in a humorless, dour way. He did it through social satire. What could just be an angry man stridently shouting out discontent with British society is instead clever, it tickles your funny bone, it has great pathos. You can’t miss the social commentary but it’s wrapped up in these episodic stories that are fun to follow. They were actually presented to the public in serial form through different publications, so they’re designed to keep you wanting more.

“They feel like they come to you in little delightful parcels and you fall in love with these crazy, amazing characters.”

“We see every event at the Castle as an opportunity to honor the remarkable lives of George and Sarah Joslyn. Like Dickens himself, both George and Sarah lacked extensive formal education but were very committed to lifelong learning through the arts and literature. Our festival guests will see first-hand how this magnificent home is designed in celebration of arts, literature and entertainment.”
(Gina Primmer)

“Dickens had a powerful agenda with all his novels, It was usually to expose some sort of injustice,” she says. “That was his thing. He was a whistle blower but he didn’t do it in a humorless, dour way. He did it through social satire. What could just be an angry man stridently shouting out discontent with British society is instead clever, it tickles your funny bone, it has great pathos. You can’t miss the social commentary but it’s wrapped up in these episodic stories that are fun to follow.”
(Jill Anderson)

“I’ve seen one-man versions of this and it’s nothing like the one I do. The one I do is not storytelling, it’s theater, it’s characters involved in a world from moment to moment.”
(John Hardy)

She admires Dickens’ facility for finding hooks to reel readers in and artfully keeping them engaged.

“He is a master of creating characters that are truly pitiful and struggling against poverty or disability. They’re up against tough odds and it all comes from his biographical background. His father and mother ended up in debtor’s prison, effectively making him an orphan at 10. He had to fend for himself working in a rat-infested factory that made boot black. He was thrust into the heart of the underclass in Industrial Revolution-era London. The filth, the misery – he lived it.

“His examination of class and the disparity between upper class and lower class is something he was very qualified to do.”

Hardy believes Dickens was ahead of his time in terms of insight into human psychology. He feels the power of the work also resides in how Dickens propels characters and thus readers through situations.

“You only really come to know a character when they’re engaged in doing something and therein lies the key I think to A Christmas Carol. It’s not an accident this story has been made into a play and a movie again and again because it’s so active, somebody’s always engaged in doing something. It’s on its way somewhere a hundred percent of the time. It’s never static, it’s not reflective. It moves past a moment into the next moment. Even as a book it really doesn’t take a breath.

“It’s a series of actions that characters do and that reveals them. So it reveals rather than describes.”

Jill Anderson

Jill Anderson

A literary love-in
Anderson is moved that area lit lovers reveal their passion for the classics by supporting the festival, whose audience keeps growing.

“It’s great there are people in this city who appreciate great literature and recognize it tells us something about the human condition. It’s fantastic we’ve lasted five years. I hope we last five more.”

With so much great lit out there, Anderson should never run out of illuminating, stimulating subjects.

“If there’s a literary figure that has sparked my passion or my imagination I know i can produce a good festival around that person, I just know it. You have to have the impetus to be able to create something that has energy behind it. The ideas usually hit me like a bolt of lightning out of the blue. I don’t sit around and chew on it a lot.
I wish for the inspiration to come.”

Several ideas for next year’s theme have already asserted themselves but nothing is definite yet. It’s a fair bet though that The Bard will be featured since Anderson’s a self-described “Shakespeare fanatic.”

Meanwhile, she’ll continue delving into all things Dickens, assured in the knowledge her infatuation will result in a well-rounded experience for attendees.

For details and tickets, visit or call 402-595-2199.

Alex Kava Bestselling Mystery Author Still Going Strong

November 3, 2015 2 comments

OK, so I’m getting old and I can’t remember so well all the stories I have in the pipeline from even a few months ago.  This feature on best-selling mystery author Alex Kava is one of those I forgot to mention when I posted about stories of mine to look for the last part of 2015.  It’s odd I forgot this one though because I had long wanted to interview and profile Kava and I found her a delightful subject.  Anyway, here is that short feature about her for Omaha Magazine (  She has a new book out titled Breaking Creed.


Alex Kava Bestselling Mystery Author Still Going Strong

October 30, 2015 by 
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Appearing in the Nov.-Dec. 2015 issue of Omaha Magazine (

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, there are uncertainties in this brave new world of publishing.

Growing up in rural Silver Creek, Nebraska, her working-class parents considered writing frivolous. Word-struck Alex secretly spun stories from her imagination and committed them to the back pages of used grain co-op calendars, squirreling away the scrawled tales in a shoe box under her bed.

Convinced writing fiction couldn’t support her, she followed an advertising-marketing-public relations career path that, while successful, left her unfulfilled and burned-out. It didn’t help when her first novel-length manuscript received 116 rejection letters.

Kava may never have become the author of the long-running Maggie O’Dell and new Ryder Creed series had she not left her PR job to commit herself to writing at 38.

“There was too many hours, too many meetings. I really was at a crossroads in my life and I decided that while I’m figuring out what it is I want to do with the rest of my life, I’ll try writing. I told myself if I wasn’t published by 40 I would give it up.”

While completing the book, expenses for home and car repairs mounted. She went through her savings. She took a paper route to make ends meet.

She just squeaked under the self-imposed deadline when, three days before her 40th birthday, she signed advance reader copies of her debut novel, A Perfect Evil. Her 2000 portrait of a community traumatized by a serial killer was extrapolated from the actual terror that befell Bellevue and Papillion in the early 1980s when John Joubert murdered two boys there. Kava worked for the Papillion Times at the time.

“What surprised me,” she says in revisiting those events years later, “was that I could remember those feelings of panic that had taken over that community.”

Her stand-alone One False Move was another instance of real-life crime influencing her work. When the 2002 Norfolk, Nebraska, bank robbery gone fatally bad eerily followed a plot she was developing, she used evidence from the actual crimes to inform her novel.

Forensics expert and profiler Maggie O’Dell was among multiple characters on the case in A Perfect Evil, but Kava’s publisher pushed to make O’Dell the subject of a series. Kava resisted. A dozen O’Dell books later, she and Maggie are fixtures in the mystery-thriller genre.

Kava admits she didn’t like O’Dell at first. “We’re both very stubborn and slow to trust.” On the advice of a go-to expert, former Douglas County prosecutor and now district judge Leigh Ann Retelsdorf, Kava gave O’Dell shared interests in dogs and college football.

“Those two little things actually made it easier for me to relate to her,” Kava says. “The series grew, and I grew, and Maggie O’Dell grew. I love that character. She and I have been through so much together.”

Her new protagonist, Ryder Creed, is a K-9 search and rescue dog handler. He teams with investigators like O’Dell to help crack cases.

“I love Ryder Creed because he has this passion for dogs and I can really connect to that.”

Kava says it’s a relief after “so many years writing about something I don’t know—murder,” to write about her four-legged friends. She’s dedicated books to her pets, Molly and Scout, the latter named after Kava’s favorite literary character, Scout Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird.

Kava’s steeped herself in the CSI-law enforcement milieu, even presiding over her own “crime scene dinner club” of attorneys, detectives, and techs who voluntarily plied her with case file details.

“I really do love the research. I’ve never had any problem with people opening up. I’m not sure why they do.”

She admires her expert sources.

“I’ve always looked at law enforcement officers in awe. I could never do what they do and stay sane.”

She’s toured the FBI’s Quantico facility in Virginia, interviewing behavioral science wonks there. She’s turned down opportunities to visit crime scenes and view autopsies. “Some of those things it’s best for me to leave to my imagination.”

Kava, who did a spring book tour for her latest work, Breaking Creed, is grateful for her success. But in this new age of ebooks, publishing mergers, and tenuous contracts, nothing’s guaranteed.

“There’s so much more for readers to choose from, and I think that added choice is great. At the same time it makes it more of a challenge for us as authors to figure out how to get those readers and stay in front of them. I’m now writing two books a year so I can stay in front and say, ‘Here’s the next one, and I’ve got another one coming out, and another one after that.’ You don’t want them to
forget you.”


Fairytale Wonder: A Regal Residence in Legacy Villas

November 3, 2015 2 comments

When I posted about stories I have written that are in the pipeline for the remainder of 2015 a few slipped my mind, including this piece for Omaha Home Magazine ( about a couple’s castle-like residence.


Fairytale Wonder

A Regal Residence in Legacy Villas

Steve and Bari McCormick’s Euro-influenced home in the gated Legacy Villas development draws much attention for its enchanted kingdom appearance.


The French country-style house stands apart from conventional residences for its distinctive features. Start with the decorative 30-foot-high turret. Add the projections, peaks, gables, eyebrow windows, stone-stucco-brick finish, carriage-style garage doors, and sweeping flow of the home on a raised and curved lot.

Castle-like embellishments include lions-head door-knockers.


There’s a secluded courtyard in front and a wrap-around deck and landscaped patio with water feature in back.

Inside are arches, alcoves, recesses, high ceilings, massive solid wood beams, two large fireplaces, built-in bookcases, and a spiral staircase.

This Princess Bride look comes from the Storybook Collection of Missouri-based Ron Hill’s Euro World Designs. The couple worked closely with Hill in conceiving the home. Steve owned his own full-service realty company and developed many properties and spec homes. Bari’s always taken an active role with him to get things just right in their own homes. They both have a good eye and know enough to tell designers and builders how things should be done.

“We just know how we wanted it,” Bari says of their Legacy place. “It’s not an intimidating thing to either one of us. We like the process and we like to see it completed. It’s fun.”


They fell in love with Hill’s work after touring homes he designed at the lake near Branson where they have their second home.


Steve served as the project’s general contractor. He built the courtyard and water feature himself.

Ever since the home began taking shape in 2011 it’s provoked interest.

“It still does,” Bari says. “People come by this house weekly—stop, take pictures, come to the door and ask, ‘where did you get this?’ or ‘what color is that?’ We have a lot of people comment on it, I think, because it’s such a unique style.

“Now, did we ever think we would end up with this home? No. We’ve kind of been all over the place in terms of styles—we’ve had a two-story Tudor and a ranch—but every step moved us towards this.”

The McCormicks met at then-Kearney State College and lived in Kearney, Nebraska, almost all their married lives. He ran his business; she taught public school and later taught physical education at the college, along with running its intramural sports program.

After retiring they moved to Omaha to be close to their three adult sons and four granddaughters.

They’ve always done special things with their residences.


“We did kind of trick them out,” Steve says. “But this is probably the craziest we’ve gone. I wanted to do the things that kind of went over the top, not to the point of being showy, but just neat features.”

A playground feature is the attached, double-high garage. It is Steve’s man cave, rec space, and trophy room. He’s added hydraulic lifts to facilitate storing his collection of classic Ford vehicles. He’s decorated the space with racing posters, motor oil signs, a vintage gas pump, a parking meter, and all things combustible engine-related.


Just off the downstairs family room is a home movie theater that seats 10 in plush, fully reclinable chairs. A whimsical touch is a faux box office with a mannequin ticket-taker.

The family room includes a small bar backed by a distressed wall. Next to the bar is a tiny wine cellar fronted by an iron gate.

The McCormicks worked closely with subcontractors Dick Grace Construction, Timberlane Construction, and others to create certain touches.

Steve says visitors often “use the word ‘detail’ when they’re at our house—and that’s a compliment.”

The home’s two bedrooms are located on the lower level. The guest bedroom is outfitted with furniture and keepsakes the couple inherited from their respective families.

As large as the home appears on the outside, it’s 2,200 square feet, just 400 feet less than today’s average size.


“I find it a very comforting home, a very warm home,” Bari says.

A color scheme of earth and jewel tones offers subtle contrasts to the dark woodwork, pale plaster walls, and hickory floor.


Most of the interior wood is stained alder, including the kitchen cabinets and doors. The kitchen, formal dining room, and living room walls are done in Venetian plaster. The kitchen island, countertops, and backsplashes feature granite.

The beams transecting the vaulted living room ceiling naturally split, lending them even
more character.

“I like the fact that the beams come down and cozy it up,” Bari says. “They are massive, but that’s a lot of space so it needed some weight up there to kind of balance the room.”

Like Cary Grant and Myrna Loy in the old movie Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, the couple spent more than they originally planned, but who can put a price on storybook and heart?

Steve says, “My attitude is why not enjoy it?” Besides, Bari adds, “It’s our last roundup.”


Down and out but not done in Omaha: Documentary surveys the poverty landscape

November 3, 2015 2 comments

Omaha famously ranks high in best places to live, do business and raise a family lists and it infamously ranks just as high in per capita poverty, STD and gun violence rates, particularly among African-Americans.  The economic dichotomy is an especially glaring scar on the Pleasantville face Omaha likes to project.  When it comes to poverty, Omaha goes out of its way to remove traces of struggle amiid the city’s high concentration of millionaires, white collar professionals, and high employment figures.  But if you look close and hard enough, the cracks in the picture emerge and the reality of poverty and homelessness, though often unseen, becomes quite real. More and more folks live paycheck to paycheck and are just one emergency or crisis or even bump in the road away from needing a food pantry or a shelter.  A new documentary commissioned by the helping organization Together and directed by filmmaker Jason Fischer, Out of Frame: Unseen Poverty in the Heartland, tries to paint a picture of the poverty landscape in Omaha.  It has a premiere screening November 12 at Aksarben Cinema. This is my story about the project and its subject in the November 2015 issue of The Reader (




Jason Fischer of Surreal Media Lab

Jason Fischer



Down and out but not done in Omaha: Documentary surveys the poverty landscape

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the November 2015 issue of The Reader (


Muddying Omaha’s high quality of life rankings are pockets of chronic poverty and growing new poor populations.

Identifiable impoverished sections, homeless communities and shelters exist, but most poverty here is insidious and invisible. It’s even in the suburbs. Thus, the title of a new documentary, Out of Frame: Unseen Poverty in the Heartland. It premieres November 12 at 6:30 p.m. at Aksarben Cinema. A panel discussion follows.

Surreal Media Lab owner Jason Fischer made the film for Together, a nonprofit that assists people out of poverty, hunger and homelessness into self-sufficiency and sustainable living. The project resonates with Fischer, who grew up in a poor, single-parent household.

“My mom never made a big deal about it,” he says. “I didn’t know how poor we were until I started thinking back, Oh, that’s why we ate peanut butter and banana sandwiches or pancakes for dinner. We shopped at Goodwilll, That’s what you did. You learn those survival skills. It was a mindset my mom had that she never let it be known we’re doing so bad. That was her superpower.”

Interviewing clients and caseworkers for the film, Fischer’s learned the local poverty landscape.

“It doesn’t feel like there’s a huge homeless sector here but the line between poverty and homelessness is fairly thin. That’s what you hear – that having a roof over your head and not having a roof over your head might just be a matter of days. It’s the working poor who are most vulnerable – the folks barely cutting it and living paycheck to paycheck.”

It’s someone like Rodgers, whose lack of living wage job skills puts him in precarious straits with advancing age and no nest egg or safety net.

Or someone like Air Force veteran Vernon Louis Muhammad, who suffered a severe work-related injury that prevented him from holding a job. His health issues and lost income, combined with a divorce, began a cascade that resulted in him losing his home and nearly everything else. As he recovers a semblance of his old life he helps other disabled and homeless vets find their footing, too.

Takina Humphrey lost her children to foster care when she went into treatment for meth addiction but since getting sober she’s reunited with them and working hard to make ends meet.

Fischer says he’s struck by “the variations and gradations of all the situations,” adding, “I want to give a face and add humanity to the complexities of poverty and homelessness, It’s not what you imagine. It’s not about the person who just gave up. It’s not just black and white. It’s not just the people down by the river and the railroad tracks. It may be a neighbor or a person at your church or someone at the grocery store. That’s the unseen part of it, even though it might be in plain view. And when we do see it, we avert our eyes.”

Together executive director Mike Hornacek says the problem in Omaha “is definitely not unemployment – we have one of the country’s lowest unemployment rates – it’s underemployment.” He adds, “We have a huge socio-economic divide in our community. We have tons of white collar professionals doing extremely well and then another huge blue collar, service-oriented population making $8 or $9 an hour. We’re missing that large segment of $16 to $18 an hour skilled trade sector jobs. So we’re seeing a trickle down effect of all kinds of people asking for help and services that never had to ask before.”

For example, he says nearly half of Millard public schools students are on free and reduced lunch – an indicator that struggles are not confined to the inner city. In this era of excessive cost of living and flat wages and salaries, he says one unforeseen disruptive event or major expense finds many families “suddenly teetering on the edge of working poor and needing to use a food pantry.”



Together Omaha

Mike Hornacek




Clients exhibit a gamut of causes and needs.

“Walking through our door on a daily basis is really a sliding scale of severity. On the minor side it’s somebody who needs to use a pantry for the first time. It may just be once. Maybe hings got tight at the end of the month with a high heating bill and the family couldn’t afford groceries. Not a lot of support services need to be involved.

“In the middle range is a single mom working two jobs, making minimum wage or more, doing the best she can, living paycheck to paycheck. Then her car needs repairing so she can continue going to work to support her family. She uses the rent money for the car and it turns into a snowball that sees her evicted. She comes to Together and we pay the back rent, supply one month to move forward and discuss budget. We cover basic skills to make sure she and her family are sustainable after we provide the help.

“On the extreme end, in a very severe crisis, you have somebody literally homeless or really close to homeless. maybe with PTSD syndrome and needing serious intervention just to be able to regain housing and sustain that on their own. They might need six to 12 months of intense case management to stabilize that living situation and ensure they are mentally stable and getting the right supports.

“The more near you get to homeless and the more years you live in poverty for generations a lot of times the root cause has to do with mental illness and behavioral health.”

Fischer’s discovered that just as many things trigger poverty “different variables go into creating stability.” “Stability comes through support groups, caring and community. No one organization does everything by itself. Several working interdependently, each doing its part, is really the key. That’s how Together came to be and true to its name it works collaboratively. That’s the strength of it.”

Hornacek says,”In a lot of those more medium to severe situations we can provide resources until we’re blue in the face but we’re not going to create any significant or lasting change unless we address those underlying issues and that comes through case management and connecting people to support services that help with mental health, medical needs, substance abuse and things like that.

“It is very complex. It is not one silver bullet that fixes the problem. And the person or family you’re trying to help has to want the help.”

But it’s first things first.

“It’s really unrealistic for us to expect individuals to just make those radical changes unless their basic needs are taken care of. Once past that threshold money doesn’t fix the problem…Then it’s all about education, guidance, mentoring and helping somebody work a plan to get where they want to go.”

Fischer is grateful to those who shared their struggles on film.

“They’re very courageous people for sharing their stories. I was surprised they were as open as they were. When you can see someone that hasn’t given up and is still pushing and still believes, and the hope they have, that’s inspiring. If that person’s still trying, then I have no excuses .”

Hornacek says he commissioned the film as an “advocacy tool.” He adds, “I hope people walk away with a better understanding that we do have some significant, pervasive issues in the greater Omaha area. We need to address families living in poverty and the economic divide. These things have repercussions,” including educational deficits, health problems, criminal activities,

“If we don’t get a handle on it, its going to get dramatically worse.”

Then the problem won’t remain hidden anymore.

The November 12 screening is part of Together’s gala fundraiser. Tickets are $35 per person or $60 for two. Visit or


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