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

December 23, 2015 Leave a comment

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

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

BOOK EVENT:

Sunday, January 3rd

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

_ _ _

BUY THE BOOK:

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

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

_ _ _

EXCERPT FROM KELLY’S COLUMN:

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

December 23, 2015 Leave a comment

 

Cover Photo

 

 

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

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

 

 

Spittlers looking at each other (Leo)

Bob and Connie Spittler outside their Brook Hollow home

 

 

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Spittlers' office (Leo)

The couple’s original office, ©Bob Spittler

 

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

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

“I like a lot of classics.”

Terry Tempest Williams is a contemporary favorite.

Success in school got her thinking she might pursue writing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Army assigned Spittler to intelligence work.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Bob at fireplace (Leo)

Bob Spittler

 

 

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

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

 

 

Click to preview My Korea 1952 to 1953 photo book

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Spittlers at fireplace B & W (Leo)

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

She’s long identified as a feminist.

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

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

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

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

 

 

Cub silouette (Leo)

Bob’s beloved Piper Cub, ©Bob Spittler

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An InterNorth commercial was edited there as well.

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

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

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

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

The variety of the projects engaged her.

“Curiosity is my favorite thing,” she acknowledges.

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

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

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

 

 

Connie Spittler at table (Leo)

Connie Spittler

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Spittlers on deck (Leo)

Bob and Connie on their deck

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Connie found writers published in its pages she never expected.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lourdes Gouveia: Leaving a legacy but keeping a presence

December 18, 2015 Leave a comment

One of the smartest and kindest people I know, Lourdes Gouveia, has stepped down from directing the Office of Latino/Latin American Studies of the Great Plains or OLLAS, a program she helped found at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.  A sociologist by training and practice, she and her program have helped the university, policymakers and other stakeholders in the state better understand the dynamics of the ever growing and more fluid Latino immigrant and Latin American population.  OLLAS has become a go-to resource for those wanting a handle on what’s happening with that population.  She is very passionate about what she’s built, the strong foundation laid down for its continued success and the continuing research she’s doing.  Though no longer the director, she’s still very much engaged in the work of OLLAS and related fields of interests.  She’s still very much a part of the UNO scene.

 

 

UNO's O Icon

 

 

Lourdes Gouveia: Leaving a legacy but keeping a presence

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in El Perico
When sociology professor and researcher Lourdes Gouveia joined the University of Nebraska at Omaha faculty in 1989 it coincided with the giant Latino immigration wave then impacting rural and urban communities.

Little did she know then she would found the Office of Latino/Latin American Studies of the Great Plains or OLLAS in 2003. She recently stepped down as director of that prestigious center she’s closely identified with.

The idea for OLLAS emerged after her field work in Lexington, Neb. documenting challenges and opportunities posed by the influx of new arrivals on communities that hadn’t received immigrants in a century. She focused on the labor trend of Latinos recruited into meatpacking. While doing a post-doctorate fellowship at Michigan State University she came to see the global implications of mobile populations.

“It really did become a transformative experience,” recalls the Venezuela native and University of Kansas graduate. “It gave me a whole new level of understanding of issues I had been working on. It opened opportunities I had no idea we’re going to be so influential and consequential in my life. These were colleagues as motivated as I was to try to understand this tectonic and dramatic shift going on of increased immigration from Latin America accompanied with an economic recession in the United States.

“I learned a tremendous amount. It just opened a lens that gave me confidence to understand this shift in a larger context.”

 

When Gouveia returned from her post doc she accepted an invitation to head what was just a minor in Latino Studies at UNO.

“I said yes but with a condition we explore something larger. Many of us were beginning to realize the minor was just not enough of a space to understand, to educate our students, to work with the community on issues of this magnitude.”

She led a committee that conceived and launched OLLAS and along with it a major in Latin American Studies.

“OLLAS was built upon a very clear vision that Neb. and Omaha in particular was seeing profound changes in the makeup of the Latino immigrant and Latino American population. Neither the university nor the community, let alone policymakers. were sufficiently prepared to understand the significance of those changes and their long-term consequences or respond in any informed, data-driven, rationale way. That message resonated with people on the ground and at the top.”

Lourdes Gouveia (far right) is the Director of OLLAS at UNO. (Photo Courtesy UNO)

Lourdes Gouveia (far right) is the Director of OLLAS at UNO. (Photo Courtesy UNO)

 

 

Significant seed money for making OLLAS a reality came from a $1 million U.S. Department of Education grant that then-Sen. Chuck Hagel helped secure.

From the start, Gouveia says OLLAS has existed as a hybrid, interdisciplinary center that not only teaches but conducts research and generates content-rich reports.

“Community agencies, policymakers, students and others tell us they find enormous value in those research reports and fact sheets we produce. That is a mainstay of what we do. It’s done with a lot of difficulty because they require enormous work, expert talent and rigor and we don’t always have the resources at hand. Yet we have maintained that and hope to expand that.”

She says OLLAS is unlike anything else at UNO.

“We’re an academic program but we’re also a community project. So we’re constantly engaging, partnering, discussing, conversing with community organizations, even government representatives from Mexico and Central America, in projects we think enhance that understanding of these demographic changes. We’re also looking at the social-economic conditions of the Latino population and what it has to do with U.S. immigration or U.S. involvement in Latin America.”

OLLAS also plays an advocacy role.

“We use our voices in public, whether writing op-ed pieces or holding meetings and conferences with political leaders or elected officials. We use our research to make our voices heard and to inform whatever issues policymakers may be debating, such as the refugee crisis.”

Gouveia says the way OLLAS is structured “allows us to be very malleable, more like a think tank.” adding, “We define ourselves as perennial pioneers always trying to anticipate the questions that need answers or the interests emerging we can fulfill. It’s extremely exhausting because we’re constantly inventing and innovating but it’s extremely rewarding. We’re about to put out a report, for example, on the changes of the Latino population across the city. Why? Because we are observing Latinos are not just living in South Omaha but are spread across the city. As we detect trends like this on the ground we try to anticipate and answer questions to give people the tools to use the information in their work. That guarantees we’re always going to be relevant to all these constituencies.”

 

 

OLLAS faculty and staff

 

 

OLLAS has grown in facilities and staff, including a project coordinator, a community engagement coordinator and research associates, and in currency. Gouveia says, “I’m very satisfied we did it right. We thoughtfully arrived correctly at the decision we just couldn’t be a regular department offering courses and graduating students but we also had to produce knowledge. Our reports are a good vehicle for putting out information in a timely manner about a very dynamic population and set of population changes.”

She says OLLAS could only have happened with the help of many colleagues, including Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado and Theresa Barron-McKeagney, “who shared enthusiastically in the mission we were forging.” She say OLLAS has also received broad university support and community philanthropic support.

“There was resistance, too,” she adds. “It’s a very creative space that breaks with all conventions. Like immigrants we create fear that somehow we’re shaking the conventional wisdom. But I think our success has converted many who were initially skeptical. I think we’ve pioneered models that others have come to observe and learn from.”

One concern she has is that as Latino students in the program have increased UNO’s not kept apace its hiring of Latino faculty.

A national search is underway for her successor.

“I feel very good about stepping out at this time. It surprised a lot of people. As a founding director you cannot stay there forever. Once you have helped institutionalize the organization then it’s time to bring in the next generation of leaders with fresh visions and ideas.”

Besides, there’s research she’s dying to get to. And it’s not like this professor emeritus is going away. She confirms she’ll remain “involved with OLLAS, but in a different way.”

Visit http://www.unomaha.edu/ollas/.

 

Half a Million and Counting – 500,000 unique views of my blog Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories @ leoadambiga.com

December 18, 2015 Leave a comment

Half-a-Million and Counting

500,000 unique views of my blog Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories

@ leoadambiga.com

Thanks for helping me get there.

Here are a few of the images accompanying the nearly 1,000 stories and posts on the blog. I invite you to visit the site, take a little or a lot of time, explore and enjoy the ride. Be sure to bookmark favorites and share links with family and friends.

I invite you to join thousands of others in following the blog. You can get email updates whenever I post.

The blog by the way feeds into my Facebook page, My Inside Stories, as well as into my LinkedIn, Tumblr, AboutMe and Amazon pages.

Now that I have Half-a-Million views, I’m Going for a Million

Hope to see you here again @ leoadambiga.com

The site for My Inside Stories about people’s passions & magnificent obsessions

Arts, Entertainment, Culture, Lifestyle, Personalities and More

 

 

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Interface Web School: Coding, Collaboration, Community

December 14, 2015 Leave a comment

Shonna Dorsey is the face of one of Omaha’s new technology success stories, Interface Web School, and she does a great job of selling the endeavor through her personality and passion and her savvy use of social and traditional media. She’s the rare co-founder of a tech company with a real facility and flair for communication. This is a short piece I did for B2B Omaha Magazine on Shonna and Interface Web School. I will soon be posting a longer feature I did about her and the company for another publication. She is a real force on the Omaha startup scene and she does a great job, as the headline of my piece here says, of combining coding, collaboration and community. She’s passionate about putting the tools and skills of technology in the hands of more people. We will all be hearing much more from her in the years to come as she’s sure to consolidate her place as a dynamic leader and entrepreneur.

 

Shonna Dorsey

 

 

Interface Web School: Coding, Collaboration, Community

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the Winter 2016 issue of B2B Omaha Magazine

(http://omahamagazine.com/category/publications/b2b-magazine/)

Shonna Dorsey has merged an aptitude for technology with a desire to help others via Interface Web School, Omaha’s latest cyber ed alliteration. It’s not the first time she’s combined her entrepreneurial, networking and community interests. She’s done that as a Leadership Omaha participant and as co-founder of the monthly Coffee and Code meet-up she hosts with Autumn Pruitt of Aromas Coffee.

Long tabbed a real comer, Dorsey’s been recognized with the 40 Under 40 Award from the Midlands Business Journal.

In 2013 she cofounded Interface with Dundee Venture Capital’s Mark Hasebroock and others. She serves as managing director of the school that until recently housed in north downtown’s tech-haven Wareham Building but now offices in the AIM Building, which is also known as The Exchange at 19th and Harney Streets.

The North High graduate studied technology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

“A turning point for me as a master’s student came working on a project for an organization that serves child abuse survivors – Project Harmony. Our small student team developed an application to store and monitor videos. That was such a meaningful project. It really sparked something to see that people can really benefit from what techies like us know and do.

“It made me think, How can I do this and make it my career?”

While working corporate jobs she mentored for Hasebroock’s startup accelerator Straight Shot. Before long, they formed Interface.

“I’ve always had a knack for saying, ‘OK, this is risky but I can see the reward on the other side.’ That was how I felt about Interface,” Dorsey recalls. “Even though it was definitely a huge leap of faith at the time it made sense when I looked at the market and what the needs were.”

Many tech jobs go unfilled in-state due to a shortage of qualified prospects. Interface strives to bridge that gap.

“We’ve all been affected by this need for more talent in technology, whether it be web developers or project managers or user interface designers,” she articulated in a Nebraska Entrepreneurship video. “We wanted to put together a pretty intensive program people could go through, which started at 200 hours over 10 weeks and has been adjusted to 200 over 15 weeks, meeting three times per week to accommodate students who need to hold down full-time positions during training..”

kidscoding

Dorsey concedes there are online services that teach coding, but she says many Interface students “have tried those tools and realized a more structured approach is necessary.” Among the benefits of a physical versus virtual class is having on-site mentors who personally “help you overcome hurdles and explain why your code isn’t working.”

Interface serves largely nontraditional students.

She says, “Currently 80 percent are full-time employees. Ten percent are minorities. Most are mid-career, late 20s-early 30s, just looking for a way to transition into a new career in web development or tech or to add more skills in order to add more value to their organization. Or to potentially start their own business.

“We usually have a stay-at-home mom or two in every class.”

Interface requires prospects complete an on-line application, in-person interview and assessment.

“It’s been a really effective tool to gauge aptitude and motivation,” she says. “Those things help determine how successful applicants might be.”

Flexible, interactive class offerings are proving popular.

“Students complete weekly evaluations of their performance and how they feel about the class. It allows us to make tweaks and changes as they’re going through it. Students constantly apply what they learn, build on what they know. It’s all pretty hands-on. We’re able to get you to a level of proficiency where you’re marketable at the end.”

In 15-week courses, students design actual applications, portals, websites for nonprofits.

“That’s an important part of what we do. Students really get excited about creating something that is their own by applying what we’re teaching to something very specific. It’s pretty impactful knowing you’re helping organizations who otherwise couldn’t afford development work. It’s a great way for students to get experience working with a client and building a real-world product. It’s good for clients to understand what it’s like to work with developers.”

 

I'm developing a new tech training scholarship fund with AIM and Omaha Community Foundation

 

It all follows Interface’s emphasis on immersive serving learning.

“The nonprofit projects give our students a chance to extend the learning beyond the classroom and maybe learn something new.”

Developer-client Interactions are just as critical as programming.

“There’s so much to web development that cannot be taught in a class. Even if you’re a great technologist if you can’t work well with people then it makes it difficult to stay employed or get promoted. Skills like collaboration, project management and communication are important no matter what our students decide to do outside Interface.”

Dorsey says employers are hiring and promoting Interface grads, many of whom report salary gains. Some employers partner with Interface.

“We’re happily surprised with how much traction we’ve gained in terms of employer support. We have several companies, including Hudl and Agape Red, that offer tuition reimbursement for our students. That’s really helped us on the student enrollment side.”

Dorsey and her partners have cultivated” close relationships” with the AIM Institute and the Omaha Chamber of Commerce. Additionally, Heartland Workforce Solutions provides financial assistance and  Affirm provides tuition financing.

From the school’s inception Dorsey’s been its most public face through the networking and training she does.

“I started offering free workshops through the Omaha Public Library. It proved a great way to get Interface’s name out there and help people get exposed to web development and all the opportunities available. Since then I’ve transitioned to teaching at small startups almost every weekend. We’re starting to offer workshops outside Omaha.”

She says when Interface announced its bootcamp approach, some skeptics questioned its effectiveness.

“Our average reported starting salary is $51,000 after training with us. We’ve had students make $20,000 a year more in a new position. That’s a pretty incredible return on investment. So, the outcomes are real and what students are able to do is real and their jobs are real.”

For Dorsey, having a hand in making people tech savvy and empowered is a heady thing.

“I really do enjoy it so much and I love what we’re able to do in terms of the life changes we help facilitate and get to witness. I could not ask for a better job.”

Visit https://interfaceschool.com/.

 

Philanthropy: For the greater good – Omaha’s legacy of giving continues in old and new hands

December 8, 2015 Leave a comment

Money makes the world go round.  It may not buy happiness, but it sure helps to have some when it’s most needed.  All manner of causes and endeavors need a helping hand from those privileged enough to have a surplus and to have a generous nature in sharing those riches.  It is the rare nonprofit in this or any town that can survive without the aid of benefactors and philanthropists.  These charitable givers help keep the lights on, fund programs and services, and otherwise keep the organzations they support running and their staff employed.  This cover spread I did for the December 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com) gives a brief run down on some of Omaha’s philanthropic heavyweights, including Michael and Gail Yanney, Todd and Betiana Simon, Paul and Annette Smith and that old lion of local philanthrophy, Dick Holland.

 

Philanthropy: For the greater good – Omaha’s legacy of giving continues in old and new hands

Michael and Gail Yanney

Todd and Betiana Simon

Paul and Annette Smith

Old Lion of giving Dick Holland promotes change and progress through philanthropy

©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the December 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Shining Light: News of Omaha Star publisher’s illness spurs admiration for her stewardship and interest in historic paper’s future

December 7, 2015 Leave a comment

Shining Light: News of Omaha Star publisher’s illness spurs admiration for her stewardship and interest in historic paper’s future

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

One of the things that makes North Omaha North Omaha is the Omaha Star, the historic black newspaper made famous by Mildred Brown. For the first time since Marguerita Washington took it over from her late aunt in 1989, the future of the 77-year-old newspaper is unclear as Washington battles cancer. But those close to the situation say under no circumstances will they let the paper fold because it means too much to the community it serves. Check out my Reader story about the legacy of the Star under Brown and Washington and how strongly people feel about it and what it’s meant to them. Read, too, about people’s admiration for what these black women did to give Black Omahans a voice.

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