The more researchers explore the human brain the more evidence there is that very young children, even infants, learn from the very start of life and then so much of their continued development is dependent on how they are nurtured and stimulated and what they are exposed to. The more enriching and interacive the environment it seems, the more children thrive and the better prepared they are to succeed as they progress through those critical developmental years. Sam Meisels knows all about that and a lot more when it comes to early childhood. He leads the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska and he and his staff work hard to make Nebraska the standard by which early childhood progams and initiaitives are judged.
Sam Meisels leads early childhood mission through Buffett Institute
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Since Sam Meisels arrived in 2013 to head the Buffett Early Childhood Institute, he’s become the academic-based advocate ally to the socially conscious philanthropist who hired him, Susan A. Buffett.
The dynastic wealth of the Buffetts has always had a progressive bent, Billionaire investor Warren Bufffett’s first wife, the late Susan Thompson Buffett, gave generously to liberal causes.
The daughter has carried on this legacy by supporting quality education for children from low income families. Her Sherwood Foundation is a major player behind programs attempting to bridge achievement and opportunity gaps from birth through college. Her Buffett Early Childhood Fund backs Educare. The Fund created the Institute in partnership with the University of Nebraska.
The research, policy, outreach-armed Institute housed at the University of Nebraska at Omaha emerged from her conversations with NU-system leaders about the need to improve early childhood outcomes for at-risk populations. She and Meisels say since learning begins at birth any early deficits can contribute to later academic-reading struggles. That’s why enriching activities from infancy on are vital. As the Institute’s tag lines read: “Start Early, Start Well” and “All children need the opportunity to develop, learn and succeed in life.”
In Meisels, she tapped an early childhood guru as BECI’s founding executive director and as Neb.’s new Pied Piper for the cause.
“Sam is the real deal. He’s a world-class early childhood leader deeply committed to leveling the playing field for very young children growing up in families facing some very tough odds. Sam’s vision of making Neb. the best place in the country to be a baby is a vision inspiring more and more people, and I’m convinced we’ll get there,” she says.
“Children are born learning. Their earliest experiences set the trajectory for how they will succeed in school and life. Sam has put together a team at the Institute to help him and, really, to help all of us across the state close the student achievement gap and develop an early childhood workforce to do the critical work of nurturing Neb.’s youngest learners.”
Meisels came from Chicago, where he helped make Erikson Institute the nation’s leading graduate school in child development. Before joining Erikson in 2002, he held senior positions at prestigious schools.
The University of Rochester graduate with a master’s and Ph.D. from Harvard Graduate School of Education has ample experience with children both as a parent and as a former pre-school, kindergarten and first grade teacher. As a leading authority on the assessment of young children he’s spent much time observing early child ed programs.
Most of his time today is spent with stakeholders, including school district superintendents, education officials, legislators and philanthropists, as well as with fellow experts in devising strategies and policies for better assessment and training.
On September 11 the Buffett Institute and the Aspen Institute hosted a panel discussion featuring leading early childhood experts about the future of early childhood education and care.
Institute staff have traveled the state to meet with and speak to many constituencies. With the Buffett and NU names preceding them, Mesiels and Co. can get in any door and before any audience to advocate for quality, accessible early childhood programs that educate rather than warehouse, that have well-trained staff and that are accountable to state standards.
Meisels is impressed by the public-private support marshaled for early childhood efforts in Nebraska. Those initiatives are in part responses to societal failures. The state faces a crisis of young children living in poverty, a factor posing serious challenges for healthy development. The 2010 census showed 40 percent of all children birth through age 5 in the state meet the Nebraska Department of Education’s general at-risk criteria, including low income, English as a second language, having adolescent parents or being born prematurely. That percentage equates to 60,000 children statewide. The numbers keep growing.
These problems are magnified in families and communities lacking resources for quality out of home child ed and care. Meisels sees a need for more such programs wherever he visits.
“A lot of pre-schools I go into, not just in Neb. and certainly not just in Omaha, are places where kids spend time, but they don’t learn very much. They meet in places where there’s very little attention paid to something as simple as transitions, whether it’s from home to school or within school from one activity to another activity. Most very young children have trouble making transitions – being able to change what they’re doing into something else and do it in a way that makes sense in a group of 12 or 20 children.
“We’re talking also about relying not at all on television but relying instead on what takes place interactively. We’re talking about having art experiences, alphabet letters, displaying children’s work on the walls, having goals in the areas of social problem solving, literacy, math. Even for 3 year-olds and 4 year-olds you should have appropriate goals in those areas.”
Meisels doesn’t often see those things in place. He also sees disturbing disconnects in the continuum of early childhood programs.
“Right now in this area we have a number of 4 year-old programs sponsored with public dollars but very, very few programs for 3 year- olds. It’s like having sixth grade and fourth grade but no fifth grade.
That doesn’t work.”
Meisels not only finds it illuminating but rejuventating to visit pre-schools in order to get a handle on what’s happening in settings where young children spend much of their time.
“When I go into a pre-school I actually feel transformed, honestly. I’m taken over by the environment. The first thing I do is look around and see how many adults are there and how many children are there. Then I just listen for a little bit to get the tone – how are children talking to each other, how are adults talking to children, how are children tailing to adults. I note the interactions and how problems are solved.
“Then I start to walk around and note what the materials are like – are children able to reach them, are they in good repair, is there a good variety. Do we just have a few books and counters for math or are there blocks, is there a dress-up corner for dramatic play. On and on and on. That gives me a pretty darn good idea.”
He says while most out of home providers are motivated by the right reasons, some cut corners rather than put children first.
“If you’re going to be very concerned about the bottom-line, you’re going to try to have to hold costs down, most of which are for the personnel, and to that extent you’re going to short change everybody.”
He says most providers pay relatively poor salaries – on average $28,000 – to child care educators.
“That’s a terrible salary given that who’s more important to us in the world than our children. We’re also paying it all out of our pocket. The amount of federal and state dollars that goes into early childhood is very, very small compared to what goes into K-12 education. So who pays for it? Parents pay for it.
“Salaries, work conditions and benefits are very, very bad and the status of that profession, my profession, is low as a result.”
All of which serves as a disincentive to enter the field, leaving many inner city and rural communities wanting because there aren’t enough early childhood educators to meet the need.
With providers charging a few hundred dollars to a thousand dollars or more a month, parents must make hard decisions and sacrifices, perhaps going well out of their way in order to access child ed or care.
“These are generally young people and they can’t be stretched very far,” Meisels says.
Parents of limited means sometimes choose the more expedient rather than best option, including in-home providers operating off the radar and therefore outside the eyes of regulators.
“Many people are unlicensed and then they’re totally unregulated,” Meisels says.
Since not all children who receive out of home child care are in licensed-regulated settings, he says, “We have to find ways of reaching out to them through professional development, improving the quality of the programs as a general rule.” He says, “For those programs that do enroll children who receive any kind of state subsidy the state now has a quality rating system and so those programs over the coming years will have to meet certain minimum requirements of quality, not just health and safety, and we will work with that and try to improve that.”
The Institute has launched the Early Childhood Workforce Development Program in order to raise the standards and skill levels of early childhood staffers. It is hosting higher education faculty from across the state October 5-6 for the conference “Transforming the Early Childhood Workforce in Nebraska.”
Meisels says another challenge posed by the early childhood arena is variable quality in day cares and after school programs. ”
Some of them have educational goals, some of them have more fun, play-based goals. It’s a big issue all around. Actually United Way of the Midland here is focusing more of their attention now on trying to improve after school programs.”
A formal approach to the issue is the Achievement Gap Challenge through the Superintendents’ Early Childhood Plan mandated by the Nebraska Legislature (LB 585). The plan will be funded for three years by the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties. Created in collaboration with 11 metro area school districts, the plan aims to reduce achievement gaps for children birth through age 8. It emphasizes creating more quality pre-school for 3 and 4 year-olds and enhancing teaching and curriculum for pre-K through third grade.
Home visits will target at-risk kids up to age 3. The idea is to educate families about activities and resources that aid development in situations where children may not be getting the stimuli they need.
“For example, we know if children aren’t exposed to a lot of words early in life that even as early as 18 months they’re going to show a deficit in vocabulary that can persist all the way through third grade,” Meisels says. “And we know there’s a very tight correlation between vocabulary and learning to read.
“So we want to teach people to talk, to read and to sing to their kids. We want to help them learn how to help their children grow in terms of physical well-being, fine motor and gross motor skills, all aspects. We need to communicate to parents – what are our goals for learning. how well is your child doing in terms of what has he learned about this and about that. We particularly want the parent to have a strong relationship with the child. What takes place between the parent and child is the driving force in childhood development.”
He says it’s not only parents who can stand to be schooled about children’s age appropriate behavior.
“We need to teach parents about why play is a valuable avenue of learning for young children, why there’s always a surplus of activity level in children. We need to teach teachers that, too. Some kids getting expelled are not wanting to sit down all day long or for a few hours, which is what we would expect for a 4 or 5 year-old. Some people don’t know that.”
He says the Institute will monitor and support early elementary ed outcomes with schools, centers and families.
“We’ve got to think in terms of families rather than parents because a lot of children are raised by other family members. We have to think about the family with the child all the time. There’s no such thing as an isolated child because as humans cannot survive alone. That’s not just our physical needs but our emotional needs, our intellectual needs. We need to be supported, scaffolded all the way, for a long time.”
He says education intervention is generally well-received.
“Because you’re very alone when you’re the parent of a very young child and a new-born especially, you want someone to talk about it with. How you do it is very important. Finding someone from the community who understands what you’ve been through is very important.”
He says the early childhood field’s come a long way.
“We have learned what to do with kids, we’ve learned how to do it better. We’ve learned that children can learn a great deal. We’ve learned the first five years of life is when the greatest amount of brain growth occurs. All of that is supportive of what we’re doing. We can teach very young children about letters, about numbers, about shapes, about space, about all kinds of things like that.
“A more recent revolution is we’ve learned we need to teach them about non-cognitive things, too, like taking responsibility for their actions, relating to others, being cooperative. It’s these non-cognitive factors that have a lot to do with how well they succeed then in life. Much of the evidence behind that has grown out of what we’ve learned from early childhood programs as we follow kids longitudinally through their early adult years.”
He says early childhood has more visibility “than at any time” and
“the research is pretty clear that if we can be persistent in our effort we will experience the persistence of effect.”
When it comes to assessment, Meisels says No Child Left Behind initiated “more testing than we’ve ever seen and most of it has not been useful.” He adds, “A lot of it has been punitive in nature. I think something that is punitive is not educational.”
“The assessment work I do,” he says, “is based upon teachers observing, recording and comparing to standards in order to differentiate what they do with individual children. You have to have evidence-based data. We learn how to observe so that we have some reliability and repeatability. Based on that I can see this is a child who learns in this way but not so well in that way and I can use that to help the child develop and have success.
“It is more resource-intensive for a teacher but teaching’s a tough job and this actually improves your teaching.”
Another punitive thing that happens in pre-schools, he says, is children being suspended or expelled for behavioral issues.
“It is a national problem. Boys are more frequently expelled than girls.”
Some reports suggest boys of color are disproportionately impacted.
Meisels isn’t surprised it happens given that the overwhelming early childhood workforce is white females.
“There are problems of identification with an authority figure who looks so different and is so different. Children from minority backgrounds may not have encountered a white authority figure before.”
He says the kinds of behaviors that can lead to disciplinary action are preventable and solvable.
“Often a teacher doesn’t know how to structure a physical space for pre-schoolers. Some kids will respond to your saying ‘no running,’ others won’t, they like to challenge, they like to test limits. which is a very natural healthy thing to do.
“It’s our job as adults to help the child cross that divide and we have to understand where the child is so we can be successful at that. It’s a huge responsibility for the teacher to bring a child into a learning world
and to expel a child at that age is a failure on the part of the teacher.”
Meisels sees a largely health early child landscape here.
“Some factors that led to the establishment of this Institute help Neb. stand out in a very positive way. That doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot of work to do, but it means there are points of excellence here. We have combined public-private programs focusing on the first three years of life that very few states have. We have four Educare schools. We have three colleges of education in the NU system.
“There are things that need to improve, too. We are a rural, low population state, so as you get into greater Neb. there are fewer people prepared at a high level. Our standards of qualification for taking care of children are not high. Some say if we made them too high we’d have nobody to serve the kids in need. We want to find ways of improving that situation. We have very few birth to 3 programs and very few programs for 3 year-olds.”
Overall, he says, “there’s room for a lot of improvement and there’s a lot of strength to build from.”
He says the investment made to support the Institute’s work sends a message that “the lives of young children at risk and their families are important enough that they would rise to be a priority of the university,” adding, “Most universities don’t do that and this is one saying that it’s important enough for us to do it.”
The Institute’s interdisciplinary-collaborative work spans across all four University of Nebraska campuses in Lincoln, Kearney and Omaha.
“What I say to the deans around these campuses is that we can identify where most of the children at risk are coming from and we want every single one of those children 18 years after they’re born to be eligible to apply and to be qualified to be accepted at the university.
“So in a way it’s a jobs program – that these kids should grow up and hold jobs and be real contributors here in this state. Early childhood I always say is not an inoculation, it’s an investment.”
Gina Ponce has a passion for helping girls and women reach their potential because people helped her find her her own best self. She leads an annual event called the Women On a Mission for Change Conference that is designed to empower women and girls to achieve goals in core quality of life areas. This year’s all-day conference is Friday, March 13 at UNO’s Community Engagement Center. Read my El Perico story about Gina and her event and some of the participants it’s helped. The story includes contact information for registration.
Gina Ponce Leads Women On a Mission for Change Conference
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in El Perico
When Gina Ponce meets first-time participants of her Women on a Mission for Change Conference she sees herself 15 years ago. Ponce was then-executive director of the local Chicano Awareness Center (now Latino Center of the Midlands). The single mom was making it but didn’t see much more ahead educationally or professionally.
Then an opportunity came her way. She didn’t think she was up to it at first. But Ponce followed some advice and trusted herself to go back to school for her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. That added education anchored a 10-year work career at Bellevue University. “It was the best thing I could have ever domn,” says Ponce, who then moved into her current job as Salvation Army Kroc Center education and arts director.
She says the annual conference, which this year is March 13 at the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Community Engagement Center, is for all women but particularly aimed at those stuck in life, unsure how to reach their potential.
“The women I’m serving have slipped through the cracks. Maybe they went to college and didn’t finish after getting married or having kids. Some are in relationships where they get emotionally, mentally beat down. These women may be in that stagnant part of their life where they don’t know which way to go. We talk to them about going back to get their degree and how important that is to moving forward.
“Some may be senior citizens who still have the ability to do something else after retirement. We empower them to believe that just because you’re retired doesn’t mean you have to sit home and do nothing. You can go out and get a job or volunteer or go back to school.”
At the event motivational speakers accomplished in various fields address five pillars of self-improvement: change, health, applied life skills, nutrition, growing your spirituality and education. There’s also a meet-and-greet and a luncheon.
“Through this conference women have the opportunity to talk to professionals who are great at telling them the importance of having all these things in their life,” she says.
The event also has a girls component that includes a mentoring program, Women Influencing Girls. Separate speakers present to women and girls. Networking and mentoring opportunities abound. Ponce wants to light a fire under participants to stop settling, start dreaming and pursue goals.
“I hope they take away being motivated to become whatever they want to be. I want them to really walk out of there saying, ‘I can do this and I’m going to do it,’ and to really stay focused and motivated to get a degree, change their job, improve their diet and health, whatever it is. I want women to know they can have a family and still get an education and have a career. I know, because I did it.”
Ten years ago Bellevue University officials asked Ponce to help fill the position of South Omaha outreach coordinator. After searching, officials told Ponce they wanted her. Afraid her two-year associate’s degree wouldn’t make the grade, Bellevue agreed to pay her way through school if she took the job. She wavered until she walked out on faith and believed in herself.
“I was scared. I had been out of school 25 years. I had all those feelings of, Oh my God, can I do this, how am I going to balance this with working and raising kids? All that stuff, But I didn’t let it get in my way. It was an incredible opportunity given to me. Yeah, it was a big strain, but it was worth everything I went through.”
Ponce wants conference participants to believe in themselves and take positive steps to aspire higher and live deeper.
“I want them to do it now. It doesn’t matter whether you’re married and have kids or whatever, just do it. This is something you’re going to do just for yourself.”
Conference veteran Judy Franklin is sold on Ponce and the event.
“When we met I was going through a time in my life where I knew I needed more and needed to expand my horizons, and Gina said, ‘I know exactly where you’re at – come to the conference.’ I did,” Franklin says, “and it really let me look at myself to see the potential in me and what I can do. She really took me under her wing to become a mentor with no strings attached. She just wanted to see me be successful in my work, my family, my relationships.”
Franklin says the conference exposes her to “powerful women doing the things I desire to do,” adding, “I get some good insights. It’s not just a conference, it’s your life as you go forward in your calling to find what you have to do. It’s a very empowering thing.”
She says Ponce has a heart for helping people tap their best selves.
“She’s just all about getting us to where we need to be. She opens up so many doors for me, for other women and for young girls and then it’s for to us to step through.”
Franklin, a state social security district manager, has done some serious stepping. She credits the conference and Ponce with “having a lot to do with me getting the job I’m in now.”
Alisa Parmer has come a long way, too. Parmer was a single mom and an ex-felon when her transformation began 10 years ago.
“I found myself being identified as a leader and a change agent with my employer, Kaplan University. I was a college graduate with a variety of degrees and letters after my name. I was giving back to the community. But I was caught up with working for others – attempting to balance family, career and a variety of roles.”
That’s when she came to the conference, whose board she now serves on.
“It gave me the first opportunity to share my story to empower women, to be empowered, to network and develop life-changing relationships with women in the community whose lives mirror pieces of mine or where I strive to be. The conference is a life-changing experience, Ms. Gina (Ponce) does not settle for anything less for each attendee.”
That holds for girl attendees as well. Judy Franklin says her daughter Abrianna, who earned the conference’s first academic scholarship, and other girls learn goal setting and leadership skills and do job shadowing. “It’s amazing to watch how she grew in a short time.”
When Ponce meets conference veterans like Judy or Alisa she sees her empowered self in them. It’s all very personal for Ponce, who feels obligated to give other women what she’s been given.
“I’m at a place in my life where I want to do it for others. I want to see more motivated women be successful and do the things I know they can do,. They just need somebody to tell them that.”
She believes so strongly in paying-it-forward that she underwrote much of the conference herself, along with sponsors, when she launched it five years ago. She’s since obtained nonprofit status to receive grants. But she feels she’s only just getting started.
“When I retire I’m doing this full-time and I’m going to make it bigger.”
The 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. conference is $40 for adults, $25 for students and $10 for girls 14 to 17 years old.
For registration and schedule details, visit womenonamissionomaha.org or call 402-403-9621.
There was a time, not so long ago, when it seemed Omaha was hell-bent on tearing down its history. All manner of historic structures were razed: the old United States Post Office ; the Fontenelle Hotel, a huge tract of warehouses in Jobber’s Canyon, the Medical Arts Building. Thank God more jewels were saved than lost: the Old Market district; the Orpheum Theatre, the Rose Theater; Union Station, Burlington Station, the Brandeis Building, Joslyn Castle, the Storz Mansion, the Mastercraft, Omar Bakery, the Livestock Exchange Building, St. Cecilia Cathedral and many more that have been protected, renovated, and repurposed. Some of those survived narrowly escaped being razed. It took agitation, activism, vision, and purpose by determined people to save some if not all of those treasures. The tension between new development and historic preservation continues, as witnessed by the recent loss of the apartment buildings just east of Midtown Crossing and the Johnson & Johnson Mortuary on South 10th Street. One of the most signifcant saves was Union Station ,which today goes by the name Durham Museum to reflect its adapted reuse as a museum charting Omaha’s and the nation’s history. My new story about the Durham for Metro Magazine (/www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/) explains how that building has now reached the same number of years, 40, in its role as a museum that it served as a passenger rail station for Union Pacific Railroad. It is one of those grand structures, certainly by Omaha terms, that never fails to mesmerize and impress me by its sheer size and grandeur. My eyes automatically fix on the far upper reaches of that proletarian palace. I never met or caught a train there, but I recently had the privilege of delivering a lecture there and I hope to have the opportunity to do so again in the near future.
It’s not often a grand public space celebrates a dual legacy with a shared milestone of service. From 1931 to 1971 millions of rail passengers passed through. Starting in 1975 the old Union Station became a cultural-historical venue that millions more have visited.
Much like the history it celebrates, Durham Museum was not built in a day. Neither was its home, Union Station. Union Pacific began construction on it in 1929, the year the Stock Market Crash triggered the Great Depression. The Gilbert Stanley Underwood-designed structure opened in 1931, the year when a congressional resolution officially made the “Star Spangled Banner” America’s national anthem.
As soon as Union Station closed in 1971 the site’s future lay in doubt. Its survival looked bleak the longer it sat abandoned and untended. Even after UP donated the place to the City of Omaha in 1973, most officials regarded it as a burden or albatross, not a gift. Many called for the “eyesore” to be torn down. Enter a group of preservationist-minded private citizens who formed the Western Heritage Society as a vehicle for reopening the former train station as a museum. If not for their efforts this monument to Omaha’s vigor may have gone the way of other historic buildings that got razed rather than saved.
Originally known as the Western Heritage Museum, the institution was resource-poor its first two decades yet managed to give new life to the old digs that had seen far better days. Most importantly it built a formidable body of artifacts related to early Omaha, including the Byron Reed Collection of rare coins and documents and the Bostwick-Frohardt Collection of late 19th century-early 20th century photographs. It also originated events, such as Christmas at Union Station, that became community traditions.
Durham executive director Christi Janssen admires the vision and fortitude of those angels, including Itey Crummer, Emi Baker and Ron Hunter, who made the old train station a museum.
“Their challenges were way different than our challenges today,” she says. “They were really fighting hard to raise money to turn the lights on essentially.”
Then, in the mid-1990s, the struggling museum that long postponed much-needed renovations and improvements for lack of funds was gifted with tens of millions of dollars through a Heritage Services drive. That campaign also brought the museum one of its greatest champions, the late Charles W. “Chuck” Durham, who grew HDR Inc. into a national engineering firm and became a major philanthropist.”Fortunately, Chuck Durham showed up with a keen architectural and engineering instinct. Walking into this Union Station Chuck could see beyond the collapsing roof, the peeling paint and the tarnished light fixtures and envision its magnificence with the right amount of money and the best of architecture and construction firms,” recalls Heritage Services President Sue Morris.
As an active museum board member Durham committed himself to helping it reach its potential and restoring the building to its former glory. His children note their father saw great value in the work the museum did and in the history the building represented.
Daughter Sunny Lundgren says, “He thought this is Omaha’s history and we need to preserve it and so the first thing he did was give money to this place and then he started knocking on doors and saying, ‘Do you know what an important building this is? It’s part of Omaha, we need to restore it.'”
“He led the charge in raising dollars from community leaders who responded generously,” daughter Lynne Boyer adds.
Among those Durham reeled in was then-Kiewit Corporation CEO Walter Scott. His support was recognized when the museum’s most iconic space was renamed the Suzanne and Walter Scott Great Hall.
“The building and I have something in common. We were both ‘born’ in 1931,” Scott says. “Many years later it was Chuck Durham who introduced me to its role as a museum. He convinced me to help him establish the museum’s relationships with the Smithsonian, Library of Congress and National Archives. Chuck had a vision for what the Durham Museum could become, and I think he’d be pleased to see the board and staff have realized a good part of his vision.”
Sue Morris says Durham was persuasive enough that the Heritage Services-directed campaign raised more than $30 million for the museum. The funds underwrote a major 1996 project that entailed constructing a new parking deck, installing a new roof as well as new mechanical and electrical systems and creating new office spaces, classrooms and permanent exhibits. The Great Hall was repainted and restored and interactive sculptures added. A 22,000 square foot addition was built over Track #1.
In recognition of Durham’s efforts, the museum was renamed in his honor in 1997 as part of a general rebranding.”It’s always been centered on Omaha’s history and western heritage,” Janssen says, “but as the museum has evolved we have aspired to be much more than that. We want to be a gathering place. The events we host are a great way to celebrate traditions. Beyond Omaha’s history and its western heritage our mission is to share the nation’s story. We are a significant piece of that. We mirror the national story in terms of rail travel and the industry that built this community. So we have broadened our scope quite a bit over the years. Thus, we’ve been able to tap into a new audience.”
Janssen says “a very strong education focus now takes front and center,” adding, “We get into school classrooms, we host school field trips and summer camps down here, we offer a scholars in residence education series that is much sought after.” The museum does special programming around various history months, such as Black History Month (February), Women’s History Month (March), Jazz Appreciation Month (April), National Hispanic Heritage Month (September) and Native American Heritage Month (November).
The lecture hall is fully outfitted for distance learning. Presentations made there are regularly fed to classrooms, community centers and other sites around the nation. A mobile video camera unit allows educators to focus on various architectural details of the Great Hall, for example, as part of distance learning history curriculum.
“We continue to look for ways to engage people and to make the museum a presence wherever we can,” Janssen says. “We want people to realize it’s not just about the permanent and traveling exhibits, it’s about lectures, films, concerts, the Ethnic Holiday Festival, Christmas at Union Station, the authentic soda fountain and more.”
As the building transformed from dusty relic to gleaming palace once again and the museum grew its programming, attendance increased. In the first decade of the new millennium Chuck Durham contributed a generous match to new philanthropic gifts that funded several more infrastructure needs and the building of the Stanley and Dorothy Truhlsen Lecture Hall.
“But I think the thing that continues to get people excited about the museum is that everyone leaves with an appreciation for the history and the experience they find here. We are a repository of stories and we share those stories through our artifacts and our programs. We have been able to capture and retell those stories, and again this building speaks louder than words.”
With the museum’s finances stabilized and the institution becoming an affiliate of the prestigious Smithsonian Institution (in 2002), whose popular traveling exhibits show there, Durham was pleased by how far things had progressed and how bright the future looked.
“My father enjoyed watching the museum come alive with outstanding programs and exhibits which attracted large numbers of visitors from all over the city, state and country,” Boyer says. “It gave him a sense of great satisfaction to know the museum would continue to educate and entertain visitors of all ages for generations to come.”
Right up until his death in 2008 Durham, then wheel-chair bound, made a point of visiting the museum as often as he could.
“He enjoyed coming to the museum,” Janssen says. “Of course, it probably didn’t hurt that we had ice cream. He appreciated the opportunity to visit the soda fountain. He loved to eat a sundae.”
The Durham family remains involved. Lundgren formed the museum’s guild and served as its president one year. She supports various education efforts there and still volunteers at events. She says her family’s Christmas is not complete without visiting the museum.
Boyer enjoys taking her grandchildren there, saying, “When I visit the museum with them I view it through their eyes and gain an even greater appreciation for all it has to offer. It is an educational gem.”
Janssen says the Durham could not have blossomed without the generous support of individual members, families, corporations and foundations or without the committed work of board members, docents, volunteers and staff. She says the museum has been fortunate to have both good leadership and stewardship.
The Durham has become a major attraction – welcoming a record 204,000 visitors in 2013 and on pace to record a similar number in 2014. Its household membership base is over 7,000.
New directions and neighbors
That kind of support, she says, “just changes the way we can do business.” There’s no time to rest on laurels. “Our job is always to take it one step further,” Janssen says. “A big focus going forward is incorporating technology into the experience, both in digitizing our photo archive and in making our gallery exhibits more interactive.”
After years of being an outlier the Durham’s poised to be one of many anchor attractions along a revived South 10th Street. It can partner with such new neighbors as the House of Loom, the resurgent Little Italy district, KETV, which is moving into the restored Burlington Station, the new Blue Barn Theater and the coming Omaha Public Market. That’s in addition to North Downtown, the Capital District, the Old Market, Lauritzen Gardens and the Henry Doorly Zoo.
All of it, she says, speaks to “a new vibrancy” in the area. “It’s not just about us anymore. It’s about everybody around us. We can do so much more if we do it together and we become a destination corridor.”
Follow the 2015 anniversary events at durhammuseum.org.
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 (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-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 (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-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.
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 http://www.unomaha.edu/community-engagement-center.
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.
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.”
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.
Bergan Mercy Hospital
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.”
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.