Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Better together: UNO Community Engagement Center a place for conversations and partnerships

Somehow I missed it, but for years now my alma mater the University of Nebraska at Omaha has been making itself a national leader in local community engagement efforts and service learning projects.  In doing this story for Metro Magazine ( about the still new UNO Community Engagement Center I was properly schooled on just how deeply interwoven the university is in the community.  Just in the few months since filing this piece I’ve found myself drawn to that center for a variety of events.





Better together: UNO Community Engagement Center a place for conversations and partnerships

Collaboration the hallmark of new university facility

Center in line with UNO’s metropolitan university mission

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the February/March/April 2015 edition of Metro Magazine (
Since opening last March the Barbara Weitz Community Engagement Center at UNO has surpassed expectations in its role as a bridge between the university and the community.

“We knew it was going to be a benefit to the community,” CEC director Sara Woods says, “we just didn’t anticipate how much use it was going to get and how many organizations were going to take as much advantage of it as they have.”

In its first eight months alone the two-story, 60,000 square foot building located in the middle of the Dodge Street campus recorded 23,000 visits and hosted 1,100 events. The $24 million structure was paid for entirely by private funds. It’s namesake, Barbara Weitz, is a retired UNO School of Social Work faculty member. She and her husband, Wally Weitz, are longtime supporters of UNO’s service learning programs. The Weitz Family Foundation made the CEC’s lead gift.

As an outreach hub where the University of Nebraska at Omaha and nonprofits meet, the center welcomes users coming for meetings, projects and activities. Interaction unfolds transparently. Conference rooms have windows that allow participants look out and passersby look in. The glass-fronted facade offers scenic views of the campus and lets in ample sunlight. A central atrium creates an open, airy interior whose enclosed and commons areas invite interaction.

“This is a very public place and we want to keep it that way.” Woods says.

She, along with UNO colleagues, students and community stakeholders, worked closely with Holland Basham Architects to envision a collaborative environment that, she says, “feels different than any other campus building and offers incredible flexibility.” Project designer Todd Moeller says, “Spaces were intentionally arranged so that users would be prompted to utilize several parts of the building, thus increasing the opportunity for the spontaneous meeting.”

Artwork by several community artists adorns the walls. UNO junior art major Hugo Zamorano joined community artists in creating a 120-foot mural in the center’s parking garage.

Zamorano is a former tagger who found a positive outlet for his graffiti at the Kent Bellows Mentoring Program, under whose supervision he worked on several community murals. Now a mentor for the program, he joined two other artist mentors and three high school artists in creating the CEC mural symbolizing community engagement after input from UNO and community leaders.



Cover Photo



Diverse partners and spaces
Woods says the collaboration that went into the mural project mirrors the CECs intended purpose to “be a place where people gather, plan, collaborate to find ways to solve problems.” She says that’s exactly what’s happening, too. “People are holding workshops and meetings and conferences around critical community issues and these things are happening very organically, without any orchestration. We’re excited about the extent of use of it and the range of organizations using it. We’re excited about the debates, the dialogues, the forums.”

Nineteen entities – 11 nonprofits and eight university-based organizations – officed there last fall. Among the nonprofits are the Buffett Early Childhood Institute and Inclusive Communities. Signature UNO engagement efforts housed there include the Service Learning Academy and the Office of Civic and Social Responsibility. All have different focuses but each is in line with serving the common good.

“They all work side by side in this great collaborative environment we created,” Woods says. “Those organizations are thriving here with us. They’re great ambassadors. They take advantage of our volunteers, our interns, our graduate assistants, our service learning classes. They have students work on special projects for them.”

Service Learning Academy director Paul Sather and Office of Civic and Social Responsibility director Kathe Oelson Lyons report new partnerships resulting from the ease of collaboration the CEC fosters.

“I mean, you just walk down the hall to have conversations with people,” Sather says and new partnerships get formed.

Building namesake Barbara Weitz, who serves on many community boards, says the sheer variety and number of organizations that office or meet there means connections that might otherwise not happen occur.

“People engage in conversation and find they have common interests. There’s just so many possibilities. The communication just starts to ripple and in a way that’s easy for everybody and in an environment that encourages collaboration and creativity.”

She says many small organizations lack space of their own for meetings and the CEC, whose meeting rooms are free for nonprofits meeting certain criteria, provides a valuable central spot for confabs. Those rooms come in a range of sizes and are state-of-the-art.

Among the CEC’s many engaging spaces, the Union Pacific Atrium, honors the legacy of Jessica Lutton Bedient, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate and UNL Foundation employee who devoted her short life to volunteering.

Nine additional organizations were slated to move in over the semester break. In a few years the current roster of community tenants will have moved out and a new group taken their place. Whoever’s there the center will continue being a funnel for community needs and a tangible expression of UNO’s metropolitan mission to respond to those needs.


Fulfilling a larger community mission
“A metropolitan university has an obligation and commitment to serving its urban community and we do that through purposely applying our student, faculty and staff resources through teaching, service and applied research,’ Woods says. “It’s reciprocal in that way. We don’t just treat the city as a laboratory, although we want to learn from it and gain knowledge from it, but we try to do work that benefits the community as opposed to being in an ivory tower where the university exists within a metropolitan area but doesn’t necessarily give back.

“We really see ourselves as a thriving part of the metropolitan community and because of that we have an obligation to contribute to it. That’s our metropolitan mission. Not only is it part of our DNA we believe urban universities like ours are going to become more and more important going forward.”

She says the ever enhanced reputation UNO enjoys in its hometown is a direct result of the university “connecting to our community and showing the value we offer our citizens in so many ways and you see a lot of these things come together in this building.”

Woods says UNO’s engagement legacy is strong and ever growing.

“There’s a sea change taking place in faculty seeing engagement, whether through their research or teaching or service, as a natural part of what they do. This campus allows that to happen. A lot of physical, student and faculty capital is going towards that. It’s wonderful watching it grow. The CEC is one giant mechanism to promote engagement throughout this campus. We hope to support, encourage and promote engagement wherever it takes place at UNO.”

She says the center is “the only stand-alone comprehensive engagement-focused facility of its kind in the United States,” adding, “We’re very unique and we’re getting a lot of national attention.” Because access is everything the center’s easily found just south of the landmark bell tower and has its own designated parking.


Service learning projects and volunteering opportunities connect students to community
Being intentional about engagement means that not only UNO faculty and staff connect with community at the center, so too do students, who use the CEC to find service projects and positions in the metro.

“We know those co-curricular experiences are really helpful in building a student’s professional portfolio,” Woods says. “If we can engage students as volunteers or inservice they are more likely to do well in school, to be retained, to graduate, to get a good job in a profession. When they are successfully employed they are more likely to be engaged in their community. We know that’s even more the case for first generation students and students of color.”

UNO annually offers more than 100 service learning courses across academic disciplines. In service learning projects UNO students gain experiential opportunities to apply classroom lessons to real-life nonprofits and neighborhoods. UNO students work collaboratively with K-12 students on projects. Some projects are long-standing, such as one between UNO gerontology students and seniors at the Adams Park Community Center. Other projects are nationally recognized, such as the aquaponics program at King Science Center, where UNO biology and chemistry students and urban farmer Greg Fripp teach kids to build and maintain sustainable systems for growing food.

A new project recently found UNO political science students partnering with the Northwest High School student council on the No Place to Hate dialogue process taught by the Anti-Defamation League’s Plains States Region. The ADL invited 100-plus students from nine high schools to the CEC for a discussion facilitated by UNO-ADL. In small groups participants shared views on bullying and racial attitudes and strategies to increase understanding and compassion.

“It’s very much integrated learning where you take learning and combine it with the needs of a nonprofit or a neighborhood or a community organization,” Woods says. “Part of students’ academic credit is earned working with a partner organization.”

Students find other service avenues through the Office of Civic and Social Responsibility (CSR), whose the Volunteer Connection and the Collaborative pair students with organizations’ short term and long-term needs, respectively. Woods says these service opportunities are designed to “put more meaning into students’ volunteer experiences” by putting them into leadership positions. In the Collaborative UNO students serve as project managers for a year with the nonprofits they’re matched with, giving students resume-enhancing experiences that assist organizations in completing projects or events.

CSR director Kathe Oelson Lyons says, “Corporations are more and more seeking employees who are willing to engage in the community. We know service enriches students’ educational experience and that stimulates success in academics and in the soft skills of learning how to interact with others and gaining an awareness of the greater community. We know our students will leave with a rich set of skills transferable to any work environment upon graduation.”

“Service is a great open door,” Lyons says. “Anybody can do it and everybody is welcome. It allows for access to all and that’s a wonderful leveler for community and university. When you have students out in a neighborhood rehabbing a home they’re interacting with neighbors, who see that these students aren’t so different from me. It’s a great equalizer. Students learn a great deal from the community, too. They learn more about what the needs are, what’s happening in areas of the community they’d never entered before.”




Lighting the way
As a conduit or liaison for community collaboration, Lyons says the center “isn’t the end point, it’s the connecting point – we still need to be out in the community” (beckoning-reaching out). “That’s the power of the building. It’s kind of a beacon. It always feels like to me it’s the lighthouse and it shines the light both ways. It’s a reflection of who the university is and the university is a reflection of who the community is.

“What a wonderful symbol of a metropolitan university – to be a lighthouse of stewardship and scholarship.”

Donor Barbara Weitz was turned on to the power of service learning as a UNO faculty member. She and her philanthropic family regularly see the benefit of engagement on the social justice causes they support. Weitz sees the UNO Community Engagement Center as the culmination of what UNO’s long been cultivating.

“For me it’s the embodiment of what everyone’s been working towards at UNO, including the chancellor. This idea that we’re a metropolitan university set in the middle of a community with rich resources but also huge needs. The fact that we can a have a place where we come together and through a variety of methods, not just service learning, and meet and talk about what we’re working, compare it with what other people are working on, and find ways to partner.

“It’s all about bringing people together to create the kind of energy it takes to make big change in a metropolitan area. It’s the kind of vital space that’s needed on a college campus.”

Connect with the CEC at

Arts Patron and Philanthropist Anne Thorne Weaver Gives Where Her Heart is

This is the second time I’ve profiled Omaha arts patron and philanthropist Anne Thorne Weaver, who makes a habit of giving to things she enjoys.  This piece for Omaha Magazine ( tries to convey in very few words her lifetime of giving back to what feeds her heart and soul. After my first profile of her appeared she sent me a beautiful card with a hand-written note expressing her appreciation for what I had written. I certainly don’t expect another card, though I would love one, but I mention what she did as an example of how caring and generous she is.




Anne Thorne Weaver

Arts Patron and Philanthropist Anne Thorne Weaver Gives Where Her Heart is

©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Originally appeared in the January/February issue of Omaha Magazine


National Society of Colonial Dames diva Anne Thorne Weaver is at an age when she says and does what she wants. Fortunately for Omaha, this patron puts her MONEY where her mouth is in supporting the arts.

When the new Blue Barn Theater opens this spring, the box office will be named in her honor for a major gift she made to the company. She admires the Blue Barn’s edgy work.

“I’m just very impressed with what they do,” says Weaver. “There’s something about the intimacy of the smaller theater. I think they’ve done some wonderful productions. I think their new facility will be wonderful, and there won’t be any bats,” she adds in referring to a past production when an winged intruder darted overhead.

“I thought, that’s an interesting prop,” she quips, “and then realized it was a bat.Suddenly there was this thundering of shoes coming down in a mass exodus.”

Weaver likes that the theater’s new site on South 10th Street will be more visible than its Old Market digs. “I think it’s an exciting move and one of the things that’s really going to add to the Omaha scene.”

Her gift to Omaha Performing Arts made possible the Orpheum Theater’s Anne Thorne Weaver Lounge. The dedicated private space is a chic oasis for post-show receptions.

“I think it really puts a little wow into Omaha,” says its namesake, “and really adds a lot to any attraction you’re doing in the Orpheum.”

Outside the metro, her generosity’s recognized in the gift shop named after her at the Museum of Nebraska Art (MONA) in Kearney and the lobby gallery named for her at the Lake Art Center in Okoboji, Iowa. She also donated the center’s stained glass ceiling created by Bogenrief Studios.

She not only gives money but time to venues she believes in, serving on boards for Opera Omaha, the Omaha Symphony, the Omaha Community Playhouse, and MONA. She served on the Western Heritage Museum (now Durham Museum) board and was active in the Joslyn Women’s Association.

Weaver, whose civic volunteering includes the Nebraska Humane Society and the Junior League of Omaha, only gives to things she enjoys. “Life is too short, so why fuss around with something I don’t enjoy or work with people I don’t like. When you give, everything is given back.”

She traces her aesthetic appreciation to her late artist grandmother, Narcissa Niblack Thorne, renowned for her miniature rooms, dioramas, and shadow boxes. Some of her grandmother’s handiwork is displayed in framed cases hanging on the walls of Weaver’s exquisitely designed home, whose expansive sun room features two Bogenrief WINDOWS.

Surrounding herself with beauty comes naturally to Weaver, who grew up in the historic Terrace Hill home in Des Moines. The restored structure is now the Iowa governor’s mansion.

The well-traveled Weaver considers the vibrant arts scene here a cultural and economic asset that makes the city a more attractive place to live and visit. She takes pleasure helping the arts thrive and sampling all the region’s offerings.

“We all need music and art in our lives,” Weaver says.



Culinary artist Jim Trebbien: Lifelong love affair with food led to distinguished culinary arts education career at Metropolitan Community College

Jim Trebbien is one of those good-natured personalities you meet in the course of a working life who remind you that nice guys can finish on top. He’s had plenty of success as an executive chef and as the leader who grew Metropolitan Community College’s Institute for the Culinary Arts in every way possible. Under his reign ICA made great strides in terms of academics, facilties, student enrollment, and industry perception. He faced many challenges trying to elevate the fledgling program he took over in 1985 into a full-fledged institute. But as he retires this spring he leaves knowing he established it as a nationally respected and relevant institute. It took lobbying, pleading, strategizing, and good-old fashioned hard work. The educator and entrepreneur is still an integral part of Omaha’s maturing culinary scene through his Chef Squared and Omaha Culinary Tours businesses.

Read my New Horizons profile of Trebbien here.
Cover Photo





Culinary artist Jim Trebbien: Lifelong love affair with food led to distinguished culinary arts education career at Metropolitan Community College

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the March 2015 issue of New Horizons


Food for life                                                                                                                                            As Jim Trebbien retires from heading Metropolitan Community College’s well-regarded Institute for Culinary Arts, which he was instrumental in building, he leaves with the satisfaction of a job well done. That job was 35 years in the making. Fifty-two years counting the time he put in learning the culinary trade before joining Metro.

He began teaching in the then-fledgling program in 1980 and became its director in 1985. He brought years of experience on the line, working at iconic spots and training under demanding chefs. He brought considerable food management experience at institutions. He gained some of his chops as a U.S. Army cook.

At Metro Trebbien transformed a struggling program, growing it from a few dozen students to 700-plus, boosting its reputation and overseeing a major facilities upgrade. It was all capped by the construction of the $16 million Institute for Culinary Arts building. As soon as the glass-enclosed, state-of-the-art structure opened in 2009 it became the crown jewel and gateway of Metro’s Fort Omaha campus. Along the way, he and his staff put in prodigious time and effort to create a top-notch program that now owns the respect of prospective and current students as well as graduates and food service professionals.

“I feel really good about what’s been accomplished here,” Trebbien says. “I feel real good this is a name brand school that people come to from many miles away and from many states to attend. I feel good that people get a fantastic education here.”

For Trebbien, a 67-year-old father of three and grandfather of five, his passion for food has always been about making people happy. “Food is what gets people to talk around a table and to forget their troubles.” He says this idea of giving people a pleasurable experience over breaking bread is one he tried imparting to instructors and students.

“It’s not just about what happens at the stove, although flavorful food is really memorable. It’s the expectation of having good food that fits the occasion and it’s people sitting at a table, getting involved in that food, and talking. It’s all the conversation that goes on people remember.”

He says it’s no accident many religions connote paradise with a banquet. He grew up in homes with the image of “The Last Supper” hanging on walls.

For the cook who makes a banquet feast, he says, “it’s a high that gets repeated time after time after time.” The high comes just as surely for a home cook satisfying family and friends as it does for a chef pleasing paying customers. It’s all about doing a job well by serving people.



A work ethic was instilled in Trebbien growing up on an Iowa farm in the 1950s and 1960s. He recalls his father as “a complete farmer” who raised livestock and row crops, supplying homegrown meat, dairy and produce for family meals. The home cooking Trebbien’s mother and grandmother did with fresh, off-their-own-farm ingredients gave him an early appreciation for how good food is prepared and presented. The free-range chicken his mom pan fried still can’t be beat.

“You know what it was? Mom knew how to pan fry that chicken and dad raised that chicken and just the last week or so of its life he would feed it corn and that corn would put so much flavor in that chicken.”

Thus, long before the farm-to-table movement became fashionable with today’s foodies and restauranteurs, Trebbien lived it. He grew up knowing there’s no substitute for fresh, local food made with love. It’s something he championed at Metro, where the culinary and horticulture programs are closely aligned and the Sage Student Bistro serves seasonal-based menus utilizing the best local ingredients grown by Metro and area small producers.

“I always looked forward to Sunday dinner because that’s when we went to Grandma Winnie’s after church. She’d always had really good food – better food than you could get at your friend’s house.”

He’s practically rhapsodic about his mother’s potato salad. Her recipe, as with most of her dishes, isn’t written down anywhere. Trebbien, the formally-trained chef, finally found the secret but still can’t duplicate it.

“Nobody can make potato salad like my mom,” whom he calls the consummate cook. “I’ve even stood next to her while she made it to try and do everything she did. When she saw me cooling down the potatoes before adding the dressing, she said, ‘You ought to mix in the mayonnaise while they’re warm yet – just don’t stir them too much or you’ll have mashed potatoes.’ Instead of high-priced mustard she put in prepared mustard, which I consider yucky, but damn if that wasn’t what gave it that kick that made it good. Mom’s 89 years old and she still does a great job. She’s just got this understanding of flavors.”

Amateur or professional, he says good cooks share a knack for developing pleasing flavor profiles. It comes from experience and instinct but it’s all about love – for food and people. That kind of care will always translate into a good dish that makes a good meal.

“I think anybody’s who got a heart to do it can do it with enough practice and time.”

Cooking requires skill that’s part art and craft and gets better the more it’s applied. Learning the right techniques is where culinary training comes in. Where technique leaves off, inspiration takes over.

“I think it goes back to education,” says Trebbien, noting “everybody” in Metro’s culinary program is “classically trained. We’re trained on the cooking methods and on the ingredients. For example, everybody knows how to sauté, when to add the milk to something to make a hollandaise sauce. But most chefs in most kitchens don’t have recipes. The only time you have a recipe is if you’re working for a corporate  kitchen and you want that goulash to taste the same every time because people come to expect it. The same holds true for every franchise restaurant and place like that.

“But if you go to most fine dining restaurants you don’t necessarily expect it to taste exactly the same. It probably does because the chef’s back there anyway but maybe the chef has some fresh ingredient that just came in that day and so he’s going to use it a little bit.”

The addition of a new ingredient or the subtraction of an old one, the application of more or less seasoning, perhaps varying with the mood or whim of the chef that day, is bound to affect the flavor.

All these factors and many more enter into the equation of what makes food stand out enough to get people talking and coming back. The pursuit of that happiness is what’s driven Trebbien his whole career.

Though it took him a while to recognize it, he found his calling at 15, when he first worked in a commercial kitchen.

“I didn’t know it at the time, I really didn’t,” he says. “Even when you find your passion you don’t even know it’s your passion, you just show up for work every day and laugh hard.”


New Horizons Newspaper's photo.

Earning his chops, paying his dues                                                                                            For that first food service job he made onion rings and malts at Rick’s Drive-In in Milford, Iowa near Lake Okoboji, where much of his early food apprenticeship played out. Even way back then, he was “intrigued” by what made people happy or dissatisfied customers.

He went from that dive to the fancy Highpoint Hacienda, where he learned to make a good steak. He worked at Boys Town’a summer camp at Okoboji. “That’s where I met the famous chef Pierre (Bossant).” Trwbbien says he learned culinary basics from the classically-trained French chef who taught him no matter who you cook for and what you make, “you should make it the best tasting you can.”

After graduating high school in the mid-1960s Trebbien let himself be talked into being a college math major, first at the University of Northern Iowa and then at Mankato (Minn.) State. He wasn’t sure what else to study. He was in college as much to avoid the military draft as anything. But Uncle Sam caught up with him and in 1969 this former anti-war protestor found himself in basic training. His kitchen background landed him cooking duty at the Army stockade in Fort Lewis, Washington. Hearing the stories of men who’d been in Vietnam but were now behind bars for violating Army rules, he began feeling “a sissy or a chicken for not wanting to go over there.” So he volunteered for Vietnam, twice, but was denied and assigned to Korea instead.




With his two years up he came back home. He returned to the only work he knew besides farming (though by his admission he never was much of a farmer): food service. He was the assistant school dining hall manager at Boys Town, where he soon realized he was stuck in “a dead-end job,” saying, “I loved the people there and it was fascinating being around the boys, but I had to get out.” He saw an ad in the paper for a “night chef” at the Holiday Inn Central and applied despite warnings from colleagues he didn’t have the temperament to last under the tough executive chef there, Paul Goebel.

“I was a little scared when I went there, thinking, ‘What could this guy be like?’ The first night I report to his office he said, ‘I think you’re late.’ Well, he was late. He introduced me to his head sous chef, Ed Butterfield. ‘This is your new night cook.’ Well, I thought the title was night chef. Then he said to me, ‘I understand you won’t need a lot of training and that you’ve run a burner before. I said, ‘Definitely, where is the burner?’ and he said, ‘You’re looking at it.’ I didn’t even know where it was. I thought, Oh crap, I am really in trouble here. I didn’t know how stupid I was. Goebel yelled at me and after he left Ed said, ‘Don’t worry about it, you’ll be a good chef around here in no time.'”

Trebbien says the saving grace was, “I knew i could work hard, so I just worked hard and I got the system down.”

Goebel never became easy to work for but his perfectionism helped raise Trebbien’s own standards.

“Paul was always intimidating. There was one way of doing stuff and it was Paul’s way. But I kept in contact with that man over the years. Then I hired him to work for me out here (Metro). People that knew me and knew him asked, ‘Jim, did you hire Paul to get a little revenge?’ and I said, ‘Not at all, I treated him like my dad, I treated him with love and respect.’ People wondered why since he’d been so mean to me before – because Paul taught me an awful lot. He was so demanding that you figured out how to do it before he’d get there because you wanted to do it right and please him. I love the guy.”

While at the Holiday Inn Trebbien hired Danny Hunter, one of the first grads of the MCC culinary program, which started in 1974. “He was pretty good and so I thought, Well, maybe there’s something to it, so I came out here, met some people and started taking classes. I thought if I’m going to be in the industry I should get some training.” He was soon asked to serve on the advisory committee.

By the mid-1970s he dedicated himself to a food service career. He boosted his credentials earning an associate degree in Culinary Arts and Management and later being named a Certified Culinary Educator by the American Culinary Foundation (ACF). Many awards followed.

But when he broke the news to his family he was going to cook for a living not everyone rejoiced.

“When I told my grandma Winnie I was going to be a cook she cried.

She was totally disappointed. The images of cooks then was Mel’s Diner – short-order cooks in greasy spoons.”

Metro’s culinary program had a similarly negative reputation its first two decades, Trebbien didn’t know how poor it was until he tried attracting students and teachers. Before he took over there he worked at three Omaha institutions. The first was the Union Stockyards, where he ran the Livestock Exchange Building dining room.

“That was a booming place,” he says of the stockyards, “though I didn’t see the terribly booming years – I was right at the tail end of that.”

The dining room specialized in short ribs, minute steaks,       hamburgers and an item featuring seasoned, battered and deep-fried calves’ testicles. “I didn’t know about Rocky Mountain Oysters until one of the guys out in the pens brought this bucket in and said, ‘Make that.'” The acquired taste delicacy was washed down with copious alcohol. Trebbien recalls, “Oh, God, people used to have good times down there. These farmers and ranchers would come in and they’d work so hard to get their livestock in there and either they were happy to get the price or not, and they’d have a drink or two or three and eat some good food. They’d have a great time. When they were through they’d maybe go to one of the restaurants or bars in South Omaha.”

When the dining room closed he went to work as food and beverage director at the gilded J.L Brandeis & Sons flagship department store, whose wide dining choices included a buffet-style cafeteria, diner-like counter service, a hot dog stand and the fancy Tea Room.

“I loved working at the downtown department store and the coolness of all that. A year and a day after I started my boss called me in his office and said, ‘Jim, we’re going to close this store. We can send you to Des Moines to work there.’ I didn’t want to move.”

And so the intrepid Trebbien adjusted his chef’s hat once again and reluctantly took the job of executive chef and production manager at Began Mercy Medical Center. The pay was much better than he’d been making but he didn’t like the bland, often subpar food that hospital and others settled for in appeasing dietary restrictions.

“God, it was so boring. You could work so hard and we did making the food better but the cooks, who had all been there a long time, all had reasons for why you couldn’t do certain things to enhance flavor.”

He pushed the staff.

“It was really hard to do. I always looked at that as a challenge – to try to make it better.”

He met his wife Patty, a dietician, at Bergan.

He’d been married before but his first wife, Daise, died of complications from an infection.

At Bergan Patty prodded Jim to accommodate patients’ special requests. At her urging, he recalls, “I started meeting some of these patients and they were real people with families. I went back and told my cooks, ‘We cant have these people upset about the food, it’s unacceptable, we’ve got to find a way to make them happy.’ I had them meet the patients, too.”

He had mixed success changing that rigid culture. But the principle underlying that experience applies to the entire food service field.

“You’ve got to get in the mind of the customer,” he says. “No matter what you want to do you’ve got to find out what your customers really want. You’ve got to listen to them carefully.”



New Horizons Newspaper's photo.


The early Metro years and the steep ascent to excellence                                                  He was still at Bergan when he began teaching at Metro. The school’s culinary program was housed then in Building 5 but it originated at a 50th and Dodge storefront. The Dodge site, where CVS Pharmacy is now, is where Patricia Barron, aka Big Mama, attended. Culinary arts eventually moved into Building 10 and that’s where it stayed until Trebbien got its own building erected.

He admits being “petrified” the first class he taught. There were only four students and one lodged a complaint after he exhausted his flimsy notes in less than half the allotted four-hour time, whereupon he excused everyone to go home. A young woman complained she was being short-changed for her tuition.

“She didn’t care I was new and didn’t have time to prepare, she was still paying good money for an education, and she was right. From then on I always looked at things from the student’s point of view.”

More than one person warned Trebbien not to get too deeply involved with then-Metro Tech or its culinary program.

“I was told this place will never amount to anything. The program had a terrible reputation, too.”

He says an “absolute sweetheart” of a woman, Ada Max Brookover, ran the program when he joined the adjunct faculty but she struggled getting herself and the program taken seriously. It was more a home economics set-up than a professional kitchen. Trebbien says, “She had no backing in town whatsoever because she didn’t come up through the chef ranks, so she just wasn’t connected to those people she had to get connected with. She couldn’t get any money for what she needed and nobody understood what she needed.”

Things changed under former Metro president Richard Gilliland after he toured a successful culinary program at an Illinois community college. Ada was let go and Gilliand put out the word he was looking for someone with considerable industry experience. When her replacement didn’t work out Trebbien, tired of the hospital job, applied. Once again, people told him he was making a mistake. After getting the job and discovering just how monumental the challenge was, he had second thoughts. Despite it all, he stayed.

His willingness to stick it out, with a 50 percent pay cut, had much to do with his rearing.

“My dad always had high expectations. When putting hay in the barn there might have been a hundred bales and nobody expected you to do more than 50 but you got 70. Dad would say, ‘I think you could have got more of them, boys.’ And I’d be like, ‘Aw, I let my dad down, I could have got more done,’ And then he’d say something like, ‘You would have built-up a few more muscles, too,’ and I’d think, Yeah, I could have.’ So the next time I’d try to get a few more (bales).

“Failure never was an option. I learned you’ve got to try things. If you can’t do it, that’s fine, but if you say you’re going to do something, do it, and don’t do it half-way. That was the way we were all raised.”

Another factor that kept him from cutting and running, though tempted a few times, was his lifelong “desire to please other people.”

At the start, he says he had no grand vision for what Metro culinary arts could be and he didn’t necessarily see himself as its steward.

“I wish i could say, yes, but no I didn’t start out thinking that. It was more like, I’ll prove that guy wrong and I’ll prove other people wrong – we will make a go of it. But I really didn’t count on staying here. It was kind of a year to year thing with me. Each year I’d say, ‘Yeah, I’ll sign up one more year,’ and each year it got to be a little feeling of ownership. I got that feeling from Richard Gilliland. He’d tell all of us, no matter what our area, ‘Just run that program like it’s yours.’ So I always thought if it’s mine I’m not going to answer to anybody, I’m just going to do it. So I would just start doing stuff.”

One thing he did was check-out the thriving Johnson County Community College Culinary Arts Program in Overland Park, Kansas.

“i asked the director, Jerry Vincent, ‘How did you do this?’ and he said I should take care of my college president. Whatever the president says, he told me, do it, and sometimes suggest something you can do, but don’t try to take care of everybody else because you can’t. You’ve got to concentrate on who’s important. The same with the board of governors. He advised getting to know those people because they’re going to vote sometimes on funding for your program.”

Thus, Trebbien became a political animal. He made it his business to know the college’s decision-makers and the restaurant community in order to build a broad support base.

“So I joined the Omaha Restaurant Association (ORA) and did all that stuff I never thought I had time for or that I thought was stupid before.”

In cultivating friends and advocates Trebbien learned “what makes something good is when a lot of people say it’s good.” When he heard a radio report about a bowlers hall of fame it sparked an idea. “I thought, Why don’t we do that?”

During the annual ORA dinner at the French Cafe he and colleagues Linda Anania and Ron Samuelson formed the Omaha Hospitality Hall of Fame. The outreach and collegiality from that bolstered the culinary program’s profile. At the suggestion of colleague Arlene Jordan she and Trebbien paid early morning visits to local radio and television stations hoping to pitch the program on the air. They came up empty until realizing the way to the media’s heart is through their stomachs.

“Nobody would let us in the door, everyone turned us down, so finally Arlene said, ‘Why don’t we bake them some cinnamon rolls?’ We did and all of a sudden they all let us in. Once inside the door we’d usually talk ourselves into being on the air. Sometimes it’d be two minutes. We were on KQKQ one time all morning long, even after they changed DJs. What I learned from that is that we have a story to tell.”


Turning the corner                                                                                                                        Spreading the word little by little meant getting to know local food writers, speaking to community groups, recruiting students at high schools and schmoozing at parties with potential donors.

All the while he worked to raise standards.

“The first thing I could ever identify that turned it around was rewriting the curriculum and making it tough. Expectations changed. And just like that the enrollment went down but the reputation started going up.”

Then he started attracting better chef instructors. For years though he couldn’t get any local top chefs to even consider teaching there.

“They wouldn’t talk to me. This wasn’t a real culinary school to them and the trouble was we really weren’t. Tightening up the curriculum, being involved in national groups and the exposure from my touring over 20 states to meet chefs and restaurant owners really helped.

“The restaurant industry started to catch on that we placed good graduates and a lot of chefs began wanting to teach here where they didn’t want to be associated with us before ”

New kitchens were added in 1987.

And where school counselors once used culinary arts as a dumping ground for students who didn’t test well or place anywhere else, the program began to have its pick of motivated students.

For all the progress being made, one key element was still missing.

“We needed a building. People wanted a name, like the School of Culinary Arts, that lent it credibility and they wanted an impressive building or campus. Although the enrollment was increasing. it was so crazy, so crowded. Our kitchens were behind the cafeteria.”

Out of sight, out of mind.

“It just didn’t say magic, it didn’t say this place is quality.”

Trebbien and other Metro officials sold donors and the board on the dream. He campaigned for a new name commensurate with the new building, Former Metro president Jo Ann McDowell pushed for the project, which when built greatly expanded and updated the teaching kitchens and added many other amenities.

“The building made a big splash,” says Trebbien, who agreed with McDowell that the structure provided Metro a gleaming front entrance and anchor symbolizing excellence.

Enrollment went through the roof. It’s leveled off some since but interest remains high.

Looking back and ahead                                                                                                                      To Trebbien, the Institute’s success is emblematic of how Metro has come into its own as an educational engine that serves tens of thousands of students. Ground has been broken on a major expansion of the Fort Omaha campus that will add three new buildings. Just like culinary arts overcome negative perceptions, so did Metro as a whole.

Trebbien is a big believer in community colleges and specifically in Metro. He says MCC offers an outstanding education for a fraction of the cost of a four-year school and that it’s the area’s clear applied ed leader for certain careers.

“If you’re studying culinary arts, here’s where you come, You can learn it here, just like plumbing, construction, electrical –. you go to Metro.”

He’s proud the Institute’s produced scores of graduates doing great

things here and from coast to coast, even overseas. He feels comfortable saying its students have helped grow Omaha’s culinary scene, which is far more than steakhouses these days.

“Some graduates have opened their own chef-driven places, like Paul and Jessica Urban with Block 16. I would guess a lot of new restaurants wouldn’t have happened because where would they have found the kitchen staff who understood food enough to execute their concepts? Before the Institute came into its own, a lot of people working in restaurants just weren’t trained.”

Trebbien twice flirted with being a restaurant owner before backing out of deals he just didn’t feel right about. But within the last two years he’s become a food entrepreneur with a pair of businesses he co-owns, Chef Squared, a gourmet oil and vinegar shop in Midtown Crossing, and Omaha Culinary Tours. With his Metro tenure ending he’s devote more time to his booming business pursuits.

“Chef Squared had three profitable months last year and so we’re happy that we’ve turned the corner,” he says. “Omaha Culinary Tours ended with a very profitable year and we feel really good about that.”

Being a business owner has been a learning experience.

“Running a business is a little bit different than talking about it. You’ve got to apply all those principles you’ve taught. When you’re counting your dollars instead of somebody else’s its a lot different.”

He’s planning to develop a new business, this time a Web-based      one-stop shop for all things food. “I’m just waiting to get the right people together. It’s going to be a big deal.”

Meanwhile, he walks away from Metro a departing patriarch anxious that the program he brought to maturation gets the TLC he feels it needs to sustain excellence.

“I don’t know if everybody realizes the building blocks. It’s easy to see what sits here now but what caused it to be is less obvious.”

He says to remain relevant and competitive it can’t sit pat or lose its edge but must maintain the energy and hunger that built it.

“All those principles still need to happen,” he says. “It needs to be rejuvenated all the time.”

Trebbien leaves on his own terms, content that the media now goes to the Institute for stories rather than the other way around. Since announcing his retirement, the media’s sought him out. That’s how he knows what he worked so hard to elevate has truly arrived.



Sex talk comes with the job for Douglas County (Neb.) Health Department HIV-STD specialist Sherri Nared-Brooks

February 11, 2015 Leave a comment

Talking sex is what Sherri Nared-Brooks does for a living.  As the Douglas County (Neb.) Health Department HIV-STD Prevention Specialist she makes it her business to find out what risky behaviors people are engaging in and to get them tested and informed to help prevent them from becoming new casualties in the epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases impacting urban Omaha, particularly the Africa-American community. My profile of her and her work is in the February 2015 issue of The Reader (


Bridge Church

Sherri Nared-Brooks and her mobile sex ed-STD testing clinic, ©Debra S. Kaplan



Sex talk comes with the job for county HIV-STD specialist Sherri Nared-Brooks: Telling it like it is no problem for this veteran on the sexual health frontlines

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in The Reader (


America’s schizophrenic about sex. Images and hookups abound, yet in this information age many folks don’t know, follow or discuss safe practices. That incongruity explains why sexually transmitted diseases are at epidemic levels and why things never slow down for Sherri Nared-Brooks in her role as Douglas County Health Department HIV-STD Prevention Specialist.

Her main focus is North Omaha, where the epidemic’s acute among African-Americans. Her deep ties there, along with her straight talk and personal mission, give her street cred making the rounds at barber shops and clubs.

“I believe in keeping it real, so I talk in the vernacular they understand,” she says of young men and women she encounters at her office or out and about.

She knows urban sex slang and doesn’t make moral judgments.

“It’s about accepting people where they’re at and reminding them the things they’re doing are putting them at risk, so whether it’s at the jail or at a barbershop or I’m walking down 24th Street, I pass out condoms. They may not know my name, but they know me as the Condom Lady or the STD Lady.”

She addresses the topic, too, at prisons, hospitals, schools, churches, community centers, health fairs. Always looking for nontraditional sites, she has eight public libraries holding screenings.

In her experience young people are cool talkng sex but what kids get at school, home, worship center or doctor’s office is often woefully inadequate. That leaves teens gleaning often wrong or insufficient info where they can. Denial and magical thinking – “it happens to other people, not me” – run rampant. She fills gaps, dispels myths and emphasizes anyone not using protection or practicing abstinence is at risk, period. It’s about education and testing, but it starts with self-worth.

“It’s just about loving them and wanting them to love themselves. It’s getting people to understand they’re important and they need to take responsibility for their own health. I teach women they’re the prize. When you know you’re the prize you’re not going to just give yourself to anybody, because once he gets it from you he wants it from your friend, your cousin. If you keep yourself, he doesn’t have a choice but to respect you because you’re respecting you.

“The things I teach I had to learn over my own lifetime,” she says.

Raising five kids helped prepare her.

Then there’s the fellas.

“I tell guys, if she’s having sex with you that easy, you need to be afraid because she’s giving it to everybody else, too, and if she’s saying she doesn’t want to use a condom you really need to be afraid.”

When you have sex with someone, she stresses, you essentially have sex with everyone they’ve been with. It’s all about exposure. She imparts the same message to folks engaging in same-sex relations.

She enlists business owners as foot soldiers in the fight to reduce STDs. Alesia Lester at Gossip Salon, 5625 Ames Ave., is glad to help the cause. “Sherri comes in and educates us and that allows us to educate the client. She makes people aware. She’s very passionate about it and it’s so needed. I had a child at 15. I didn’t understand myself, so I definitely didn’t understand my body. I wish I’d had someone that could have sat me down and talked to me without me being afraid my mom would know. Sherri makes it plain and people respect her.”

“To me, they’re champions in helping get the word out to educate people,” Nared-Brooks says of community partners like Lester.

Nared-Brooks targets barbers, stylists, bartenders on the theory people open up about their sex lives to them. “You may not tell your doctor, but you’re going to tell your barber. They know who’s doing what.” She schools owners on the basics, leaving condoms, fact packs and kits for on-site testing. Lester welcomes it all. Both women say confidentiality is maintained throughout.

With so many places to hit and so many people at risk, Nared-Brooks ends up doing much work on her own time.
“It needs to be done.”

She calls her personal SUV “the STD truck” for all the supplies it carries. She trains others to do prevention-education work and she’d like to train more.”There’s only one of me,” she says.

She’s encouraged her strategy’s working when proprietors take the lead. Lester and her salon colleagues all tested and customers often ask for kits. Confirmation comes, too, when people seek the STD Lady’s advice about behaviors or symptoms and come in for testing.

“That makes me know I’ve done my job. Until we look at getting tested for STDs as a regular checkup and take away the stigma of it, the numbers are going to stay high. We need to give the message it’s OK to get tested and it’s kind of crazy to not get tested. You need to do it for yourself before you start sharing with someone else. And show each other your test results. Before my husband and I got married we showed each other our paperwork.

“It’s about loving me.”

Her husband, Walter Brooks, joins her on the front-lines of sexual health. They earned the Nebraska AIDS Project’s Shining Star Award for their awareness-prevention efforts. It wasn’t their first recognition. He covered prevention as a University of Nebraska Medical Center public relations specialist and still does for the Omaha Star. They met when he interviewed her.

She accepted his invitation to speak at his church. They’ve been a team ever since.

“My husband is awesome. He’s like my biggest fan, my biggest advocate. We do this community service together. He knows it’s not just something I do as a job. Right now, it seems like for me it’s life.

“When I stand before God and give an account of my life I want to know I used all my talents.”

Playwright turned history detective Max Sparber turns identity search inward

February 7, 2015 1 comment

The Reader  The Reader

Max Sparber channeling his inner Buffalo Bill, ©photos by Debra S. Kaplan

Playwright-journalist-blogger-historian Max Sparber has a knack for reinventing himself borne from a lifelong search for identiity, though he’s recently found more clarity where his family roots are concerned. He’s always known he was an adoptee but it’s only in the last year or so he’s discovered specifics about his biological parents. Long before he began searching out his biological mother’s and father’s stories, he was intrigued by history and heritage and much of his writing for publications and for the stage has dealt with matters of cultural inheritance or perception. It’s no wonder he find himself in the day job he works today as research specialist with the Douglas County (Neb.) Historical Society. The very tools he uses there to help people search their family history are the ones he utilizes in his own personal family search. Sparber is Irish and English but he was raised Jewish and he is steeped in that culture. He has written about Africa-Americans and race in his plays “Minstrel Show” and “Walking Behind to Freedom” and he’s the author of a blog, “The Happy Hooligan,” devoted to what it means to be Irish-American. In truth, he’s written about a wide range of people and subjects and always with same incisive and sensitive eye of the outsider. His new play, Buffalo Bill’s Cowboy Band, deals with a historical figure, William Cody, who simiarly dealt with issues of identity and reinvention. My profile of Max for The Reader ( follows below.

As a side note, Max has been a longtime contributor to The Reader as I have. At one point he became the arts editor there and for a brief time served as managing editor. Another superb Omaha writer I’ve written about, Timothy Schaffert, had a similar experience at The Reader.

Oh, and by the way, I wish I had thought of it when I wrote the story, because I would have included it in the piece, but it occurs to me that Max bears an uncanny resemblance to silent film comedian Harold Lloyd.


Playwright turned history detective Max Sparber turns identity search inward

New play about Buffalo Bill explores similar reinvention issues as his own

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in The Reader (





As an adoptee whose identity quest has shaped his life and as a research specialist investigating people’s family trees, Max Sparber perfectly embodies his “history detective” tagline.

His Douglas Country Historical Society fact-finding duties feed his work as journalist-blogger-playwright of wide-ranging interests, from Irish-American culture-history to early Omaha infamy to social justice. Then there’s his thing for singing cowboys, the Old West and everything theatrical. All of which makes him the ideal dramatist for Buffalo Bill.

Sparber’s whimsical new play Buffalo Bill’s Cowboy Band, showing through February 8 at the Rose Theater, is a Victorian era-inspired  musical revue-meets-chautauqua whose identity themes resonate with his own Who-am-I-this-time? life story.

“I definitely think this has a lot to do with my own search for my identity and how identities are often a sort of collective invention.”
William Cody was a scout and buffalo hunter turned entertainer. His Wild West show, first mounted in North Platte, Neb., forever changed perceptions and portrayals of the frontier.

“I think he is in some ways the basis for all contemporary cowboy stories,” says Sparber, who just as Cody cultivated a look with fancy regalia, is seldom without a vintage fedora and tinted glasses

He says the story “is really about how William Cody invented a character called Buffalo Bill as a way of telling tall tales about the West inspired by the actual history of the West.” The play, which uses Cody’s daughter Irma as fan and foil, depicts his conflict over being authentic whole taking dramatic license.



When the Rose commissioned Sparber they didn’t know about his identity search or fixation with Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. They didn’t know he’d done a children’s play, The Ukulele King’s Sunday Family Roundup, featuring his peculiar talents for twirling guns, yodeling and playing the ukulele.

That’s folderol though compared to how the skills of his trade, along with DNA testing, recently aided him, at age 46, in discovering his late birth mother’s identity.

“When I found out who my biological family was, I had exactly the tools needed to churn through that information. It would have been completely overwhelming otherwise.”

The woman who gave him life, Patricia Monaghan, followed pursuits strikingly aligned with his own. She was a journalist and author who often wrote about her large Irish-Catholic family and Celtic mythology. She wrote about and studied theater, just as Max has. He once owned one of her books.

Knowing they were kindred spirits seemed an “astonishing coincidence” he now ascribes to genetic inheritance.

“I do regret not meeting her. I’m just very glad she left behind the wealth of writing and information about herself she did. There’s a lot of people for whom there’s no record of them. Yet she’s unknowable in the sense I’ll never be able to meet her.”

He knows less about his biological father, except he studied art, as Max did.

As best Max can tell he was the unintended result of a fling.

“It turned out the circumstances of my birth were not tragic as I feared. Probably mostly I was just terribly inconvenient and I’d rather be inconvenient than the product of tragedy.”

Now that he’s gleaned things about his mother’s family from her widower and a first cousin, it’s allayed his worst-case-scenario thinking.

“There was a real concern I’d find my biological family and they’d all have tattoos of tears on their cheeks and swastikas on their arms.

Thank goodness it’s nothing like that. They’re very lovely people.”

Most of his Irish clan lives in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, though some reside in Ireland. His birth mother gained Irish citizenship and even though he’s never been there, he may be entitled to citizenship, too. He intends visiting his ancestral homeland of County Mayo.



Above three images from Max’s “The Happy Hooligan,”



He always knew he was not Jewish like his adoptive parents but likely Irish and English. He especially steeped himself in all things Irish, from devouring its literature to learning to play the penny-whistle. His The Happy Hooligan blog explores what it means to be Irish-American.

What he did with his heritage is not unlike what Cody did with his past.

“Being Irish is something I had to invent because I wasn’t raised with that. It was so weird for me for a long time because it felt fabricated and then I realized it’s all fabricated, We all just make up culture. We’re Irish-American because we say we are. We do Irish-American things because we’ve decided that’s what Irish-Americans do.”

He calls a year in Bath, England for a sabbatical his adoptive father made “the defining year of my childhood.”

“It was all very fascinating to me. England is a very old country with a lot of very strange old traditions. One of the things they do is ritualize and reenact history through these pageants. At school I played a Moor battling King George.”

That experience and summers in New York introduced him to the idea of history behind every door or corner.

“I realized the whole world is these little pockets of often undiscovered history. All of a sudden these places around you aren’t just houses people live in but have these entire stories behind them that you can mentally pop into. I really like that.”

Then there’s the Jewish experience he absorbed. “I’m not religious but I do feel I am culturally Jewish, I was raised in that milieu. Jews have a very complex diaspora identity, so they have all these tools for understanding what it means to be Jewish when you’re not in Israel. Irish-Americans have almost none of that.”


As a sign of things to come, the very first play he wrote was inspired by historical events – the Salem witch trials.

Ever since first coming to Omaha from his native Minneapolis, where he wrote about forgotten Minn. history, he’s drawn on Omaha’s past in his writing. His play Minstrel Show examines the infamous 1919 courthouse riot and the lynching of William Brown.

“As a dramatist I’m not interested in when people behaved well in the past, I’m interested in when they misbehaved, and this may be the greatest town in America for that.”

His blogs unearth colorful stories of Omaha’s disreputable past, including Ramcat Alley’s rough trade denizens, the Burnt District’s madams and striptease joints passing as theaters.

He similarly immersed himself in the history of Hollywood and New Orleans when he lived in those places.

He acknowledges his job with DCHS is “a perfect match.”

“I never expected I would wind-up being a professional historian and it’s so hard for me to think of myself that way but that is at the moment the road I’m on. It’s not a surprise to be here but it wasn’t planned.”

His historical writing is a treasure trove for the organization.

“I’m like this steady machine providing content they can make use of.”

He often makes DCHS presentations related to his findings and he teaches a genealogy class for folks searching their family histories.

Now that he can finally wrap his arms around his patchwork identity, he can look back, as Buffalo Bill did, and see where myth ends and reality begins. His journey’s not unlike Omaha’s own self-image problem.

“There’s a sociological concept called a sense of place – knowing where you come from and what it means to come from there – and this is what I’ve been wrestling with my entire life.”

Omaha’s bland present obscures a debauched legacy as wild frontier town and corrupt machine politics city.

“When people find out about it it’s exciting and interesting. It gives you something to connect to. It’s a very different narrative from the one Omahans are taught in schools, and it’s a shame because towns that embrace their own wild history often do very well with it.”

Follow his ever expanding family via social media, including For play details, visit

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

January 30, 2015 1 comment

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



Cover Photo

New Horizons Newspaper

Natural Imagery

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in the February 2015 New Horizons


Growing up on the Platte

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At times water management policies left the Platte dry.

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

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

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

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

Watching and waiting became engrained virtues.

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




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

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

Both disciplines depend upon patience.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Paul Johnsgard


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

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

Johnsgard soon recognized familiar qualities in his student.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mangelsen later met and was befriended by the elder Gromme.

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

Mangelsen opened his first gallery in Jackson Hole in 1978.

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Johnsgard also turned Mangelsen onto Jackson Hole.

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

Catching the best light is a sport unto itself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“National parks ought to be refuges for animals.”



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He’s appalled by this rampant destruction of species.

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

“She was always a hero.”

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

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

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

He’s still in awe of her.

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

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

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

Follow his adventures at


Sparring for Omaha: Boxer Terence Crawford Defends His Title in the City He Calls Home

January 8, 2015 Leave a comment

My latest story about Omaha’s own world boxing champion, Terence “Bud” Crawford, who is fresh off his Nov. 29 title defense in his hometown. I was at the CenturyLink for the fight and some of what I experienced there is in this story for Omaha Magazine ( It’s on the stands now. My blog contains several other articles I’ve written about Terence.



Sparring for Omaha: Boxer Terence Crawford Defends His Title in the City He Calls Home

In a class by himself

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in Omaha Magazine (


Terence “Bud” Crawford grew up a multi-sport athlete in North Omaha, but street fighting most brought out his hyper competitiveness, supreme confidence, fierce determination and controlled fury. He long ago spoke of being a world champion. That’s just what he’s become, too, and he’s now sharing his success with the community that raised him and that he still resides in.

A gifted but star-crossed amateur boxer, he turned pro in 2008 and for years he fought everywhere but Omaha. It was only after winning the WBO title last March against Ricky Burns in Scotland, he finally returned home to fight as a professional. As reigning champion Crawford headlined a June 28 CenturyLink Center card. He successfully defended his title with a rousing 9-round technical knockout over Yuriorkis Gamboa before 10,900 animated fans.

He made a second victorious defense here Nov. 29 against challenger Ray Beltran. Before a super-charged crowd of 11.200 he dismantled Beltran en route to a 12-round unanimous decision. The convincing win made him Ring Magazine’s Fighter of the Year.

Even with everything he’s done, Crawford, who’s expected to move up to the welterweight division, says, “I’m hungry because I want more. I don’t want to just stop at being good, I want to be great. I want to keep putting on performances that will take me to that next level.”

This warrior believes winning is his hard-earned destiny, saying, “If I fight like I want to fight, can’t nobody beat me.”

Through it all he remains devoted to community. Residents reciprocate by turning out in droves, showering him with rock star adulation.

Chants of “Crawford, Crawford, Crawford” and shouts of “We love you” filled the arena Nov. 29. When the ripped, goateed Crawford attacked, fans went wild. He fed off the dynamic energy and high theatrics, his counterpunching, dancing style a perfect fit for the pulsating music, colored lights, fight video montages and amped-up crowd. When the decision was announced family and friends swarmed him in the ring. He climbed the ropes to acknowledge the fans, his face beaming and his gloved hands raised overhead, waving. On his way way to the dressing room, the title belt around his waist and his boy at his side, he humbly accepted congratulations and posed for pictures with admirers.

Known for cool under fire, he doesn’t let the pressure of the big stage get to him.

“With him, man, he don’t give a damn if the fight’s in hell, it’s just another day in the gym,” co-manager Brian “BoMac” McIntyre says. “He knows exactly where he wants to go in this game and he knows how to get there and what it’s going to take to get there.”

North O has a history of producing great athletes. Bob Gibson, Gale Sayers, Johnny Rodgers and Ahman Green all came out of the same poor neighborhood as Crawford. But where the others achieved their real fame outside here, Crawford’s doing it in his hometown. Now regarded as the best fighter ever from Neb. and as one of the best, pound for pound, in the world today, he’s become a darling of HBO, whose telecasts of his last few bouts scored major ratings. He’s also become a true people’s champion.

His local loyalty is seen in his B&B Boxing Academy located in the heart of The Hood. He wants it to be a launching pad for more champions.

“I want to show we’re not just stepping stones, we do have talent in Omaha and I’m not the only one with the talent – it’s just that people have never been given opportunities like I’ve had.”

He’s “lost count” of the aspiring boxers trying to follow his path. He wants boxing to get kids off the street the way it did for him. “I want to be a positive influence and show them a different route.” His partner in the gym, McIntyre, says they aim “to develop young kids into young men and young men into responsible adults,” adding, “We want to let everyone know if we can make it from this community they can, too.”

Treven Coleman-Avant is among the fighter stable there trying to emulate Crawford’s ring success.

“I pray for many years to come hell be the champion and I plan to come right up along with him,” he says.

It’s not all about fighting. Near Thanksgiving Crawford gave away free turkeys outside the gym, personally greeting recipients and receiving hugs, kisses, thank-yous and God-bless-yous in return.

“If I’m going to have my name out there I want to be in the middle of it interacting with the people I make happy,” he says.

“Much appreciated,” a woman in line offered.
“He’s not forgotten us,” another woman said.
“He takes his and gives back to where he started from,” a man added.

Shawntay Crawford says of her brother, “He’s a loving, caring person.”

“You see him being a true champion outside the ring and that’s what its all about,” Coleman-Avant says.

Bud simply says, “We all make the community and I feel like when you’re going good – give back and help out.”

The fighter takes care of his own. McIntyre. among several Omaha-based coaches and trainers with Team Crawford, says, “Bud’s assured me we’re never going to fall apart. He’s given us that security we’re here to stay.”

Crawford’s also revived boxing in Omaha, where the sport was dormant until his emergence. Few thought Omaha could support a world title card.

“A lot of people doubted and now they’re believers,” Crawford says.

He expects to fight again in Omaha for Top Rank and HBO.

“As long as I keep performing to my best abilities, put on a great show and as long as everybody keeps coming out to support me of course they’re going to keep coming back. Why wouldn’t they?”

“LIke I always say, there’s no place like home.”

Follow the fighter at





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