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Opining about the life of a freelance journalist at a conference

March 28, 2015 Leave a comment

Mike Whye and I did a panel on freelance journalism this morning at the Society of Professional Journalists Region 7 Conference at UNO’s Community Engagement Center. The audience was made up of students, working professionals and educators from Nebraska and surrounding states. It was fun talking sharing craft and business aspects of freelancing. That’s Mike on the left, me in the middle and moderator Jonathan Garcia on the right. Thanks to Chris Bacon and Jeremy Lipschultz for the photos and thanks to Rob McLean for the invitation to participate. I enjoyed meeting Mike (mwhye.home.radiks.net), Jonathan and Rob and I enjoyed seeing my collleague Jeremy again. Doing events like this help remind me why I do what I do, the way I do it. FREElance = Indpendence.

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The Many Faces of Leo Adam Biga’s Blog: leoadambiga.com

March 25, 2015 Leave a comment

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Gina Ponce Leads Women On a Mission for Change Conference

March 11, 2015 Leave a comment

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

 

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.

Omaha history salvager Frank Horejsi: Dream calls for warehouse to become a museum

March 11, 2015 1 comment

In the spirit of somebody’s refuse being somebody else’s treasure, Frank Horejsi has made it his mission to save Omaha history by salvaging architectural remnants off of buildings slated for demolition.  After decades of dedicating himself to this casue, he’s accumulated quite a collection at a near Old Market warehouse he hopes to turn into a museum.  I hope you enjoy my Reaer (www.thereader.com) profile of Horejsi and his magnificent obsession.  On this blog you can find my story about another Omaha salvager who shared his obsession, the late Lucile Schaaf.

 

Omaha history salvager Frank Horejsi

©photo by Debra S. Kaplan

 

 

Omaha history salvager Frank Horejsi
Dream calls for warehouse to become a museum

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in the March 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

South Omaha native Frank Horejsi doesn’t care if he’s called caretaker, curator, historian, picker, salvager, architectural remnants archeologist or his favorite, urban miner.

Just don’t call him late to a salvage site.

For 30-some years he’s scavenged vintage buildings slated for demolition. His keen eye spots ornamental details of historical and artistic value before they hit the rubble heap. He rescues carved finials, corbels, gables, cupolas, columns and assorted hand-crafted items.

He sometimes reclaims entire facades. He saved the upper two stories of glazed terra cotta on the 14-story Medical Arts Building before it was imploded. A crew working 100-plus feet off the pavement dismantled the facing piece by piece. Some was reassembled inside the atrium of the First National Bank tower that rose in the razed building’s place. Parts of the facade adorn a Lauritzen Gardens’ Victorian floral display.

“You have to have some sort of appreciation for art, history, plus you’ve got to be pretty strong and willing to take risks, too,” Horejsi says of his work.

He’s found several decorative elements for Dave Lanoha, who’s integrated many into his southwest Omaha garden center, including an Italian imported frieze from the long-gone Rialto Theater.

What Horejsi doesn’t sell or donate goes into his private collection, It’s housed in a 14th and Marcy warehouse he envisions as an Omaha history museum. The by-appointment facility, whose open-span layout and truss ceiling resemble the Kaneko, is adjoined by a four-story brick building he owns. It all sits directly east of the factory-studio of designer Cedric Hartman, an Old Market pioneer who champions Horesji’s single-minded focus on saving history before it’s lost.

What Horejsi describes as “a hobby” is clearly a passion,

“This is Omaha history. You can’t replace this. The stuff I’ve got is very high-end and historical,” he says while giving two guests a tour of his 10,000-foot space, Its contents are like pieces to a giant jigsaw puzzle of Omaha landmarks. Item by item, he describes the objects, the buildings they came from and any anecdotes about their salvage. Each has a story. The Medical Arts project stands out for sheer audacity.

“That was a very challenging job. Cold, hard, tedious. Risky. It took two months to do it. We had to label each piece, photograph it, crate it up – so it could be reassembled. There was close to 500 pieces, some weighing 500 pounds.”

The direct, personal provenance he has with most pieces separates what he does from many other salvagers.

“I document mine. Taking pictures to me is important to tell where the piece was. I like people to see a picture of the building we worked on and to know I was there to salvage it before its demolition.”

He traces his appreciation for holding onto history to his father, who junked-out old buildings. A young Frank assisted him. Downtown’s historic buildings captured Frank’s fancy as a kid.

“I grew up around it,” he says.

Then, as a young man working for Anderson Excavating, which won most bids razing Omaha’s old buildings in the 1970s and ’80s before historic preservation took hold, Horejsi found his calling to save history.

“It was just a matter that something should be done. In some cases I went in and fought to save the stuff. It wasn’t going to be saved. I did whatever I had to do to get it. I was on my own.”

When fire gutted an old streetcar barn in North Omaha except for an ornately inscribed facade he took it upon himself to rescue the front.

“That was the first time I pursued something hard. To get that was just a miracle. We had only a little area to work on top. Back then all I had was a pickup, pulleys and rope. We lowered pieces down. I didn’t even know what I was doing back then,” he says.

He’s since graduated to cranes.

He has remnants from iconic Omaha structures, including Jobbers Canyon warehouses, the Fontenelle Hotel and the Brandeis Theater, and from vanished landmarks outside Omaha, too.

Retrieving items can be hazardous. He nearly lot his life on a job he prefers not to specify except to say, “I fell 25 feet, hit the cement on my side and broke my hip.”

Not everything he owns is something he’s taken off a building himself. An 8,000-pound sandstone sculpture of Atlas from the old downtown YMCA building razed in 1968 was saved by someone else. He says, “It got moved around here and there and it ended up in Mount Pleasant, Iowa on a farm in the weeds. I was aware of its travels and so I convinced the guy who owned it it needs to come back to Omaha. So then I had this problem of how am I going to get it to Omaha.”

Enter Frank’s 15-minutes of fame on the A&E Network reality series, Shipping Wars that has haulers bid on oddball jobs. The trucker who won Frank’s gig, Jenn Brennan, enjoys a following for her model good-looks. Last year a crew captured her and fellow trucker Jess strutting and preening as they transported Atlas to its new home.

Horejsi welcomes any attention to his hoped-for museum. Citing City Museum in St. Louis as an attraction with a similar concept, he says, “This would be a neat thing for our community.”

There’s much work to be done though.

“It’s not at the level I want it to be. Things aren’t displayed on the walls as they should be. There’s no heat or running water in here.”

Despite its rough shape, he says “this building’s got a really good feel to it,” adding, “‘I’ve hosted parties for Restore Omaha and the Ak-Sar-Ben Foundation and people are curious, they ask questions, they want to see these things. It’s really satisfying to see people happy and that’s what this stuff does – it makes people happy.” Everyone from elected officials to celebrities – “Alexander Payne loves this place” – to students and historians are fans of what he’s assembled.

“Telling people where all this stuff came from is part of the fun for me.”

Omaha interior designer and preservationist Jill Benz admires Horejsi’s “heart and will from a very young age to save Omaha’s treasures,” adding, “We wouldn’t have these incredible fragments and facades from our past if it wasn’t for his hard work and determination.”

She first met him in the late ’70s, when the ruins of early Omaha were being auctioned off.

“Everyone was saying someone should be saving these. Frank came through and pursued saving our heritage.”

Horejsi says, “This is all about preserving the stuff for future generations. It needs to be kept intact.” He suggests he’s taken it as far as his resources can. “I’ve invested a lot of time, money and sweat in this building just to get it to this point. I’m not saying I’m burned out or anything but I’ve put in a lot of effort and sometimes you wonder, Is it worth it?. I’m 60 years old, I’ve done this for a number of years, I ain’t got much time left.”

He hopes a benefactor or investor shares his vision for making his warehouse into an educational center. He has plans for a sculpture garden out front and a condo in back.

He just wants to know his history crusade’s not been in vain and to prove the skeptics wrong.

“I’ve heard over and over, ‘What’s up with Frank?’ When I bought this building it was, ‘Why and the hell do you want to go down there? That’s a blighted area, it’s dangerous,’ blah, blah, blah.”

He’s been stubborn enough to stick it out.

“Nobody’s going to change my mind – I’m a stupid Bohunk. Once I get onto something, I keep pushing forward.”

Besides, he likes that his 1880s building was home to Chicago Lumber when the transcontinental railroad ran through.

“They’d offload lumber, stone, whatever. All these materials went to different building sites to build early downtown Omaha, so it’s ironic it came out of here and now I’ve brought it back.”

Horejsi wants to ensure this history is secure once he’s gone. With no wife or kids, his legacy is his collection. With a sweeping gesture at his bounty, he says, “I’m married to this building. I’m married to all this.”

To arrange tours or to rent his space, contact Horejsi at 402-699-0845

UNO Hockey Staking its Claim


Don’t look now, but UNO hockey may be on the verge of making the kind of noise and capturing the kind of attention traditionally reserved for Nebraska football and Creighton basketball.  My Reader (www.thereader.com) story charts some of the reasons why this already has beenand  continues being a special season for the program.  For the first time this late in the season UNO’s nationally ranked and in a contending position for accomplishing big things in their conference and perhaps in the NCAA tournament.  The Mavs play their last regular season home series this weekend, March 6-7, at the CenturyLink and it’s an important opportunity to keep momentum and maintain a solid spot heading into the post-season.

 

UNO Hockey Staking its Claim

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Since launching hockey in 1997 to subsidize its non-revenue generating sports UNO’s netted a nice return on investment. Maverick hockey crowds rank among the best nationally, with annual ticket revenues of $2 million. When the school dropped football and wrestling in 2011, it added pressure on hockey to be the signature sport.

The University of Nebraska at Omaha has enriched the city’s hockey legacy. The minor league professional Omaha Knights (1939 to 1975) began the love affair. The amateur Omaha Lancers (1986 through today) continued it. UNO found its niche as Neb.’s only collegiate hockey team. Despite gritty performances and many upsets its first 18 seasons. UNO didn’t emerge as a title threat. Until perhaps now.

Coach Dean Blais, tasked with making Mav hockey nationally relevant when hired in 2009, has guided UNO through conference changes, player suspensions, stars leaving for the NHL and solid if not stellar play. Now, for the first time this late in the season, he has UNO contending. His team’s defeated several highly ranked clubs, splitting four games, three in overtime, with perennial power North Dakota, where Blais won two national titles.

His best offensive player, sophomore forward All-America candidate Austin Ortega, recently tied the NCAA single-season record with his nation-leading 10th game-winning goal.

UNO, 17-10-3 at press time, climbed to No. 4 in the Division I ratings. It’s led the powerful National Collegiate Hockey Conference most of the year. Entering the final regular season home series versus Colorado College at CenturyLink Center, UNO hopes for momentum that carries into the NCHC Frozen Faceoff and the NCAA tournament.

As UNO hockey enters the local sports conversation reserved for Husker football and Bluejay basketball, it may establish itself as a must-see attraction and traditional power. The timing’s apt since it gets its own facility next year when the UNO sports arena opens on the Ak-Sar-Ben campus, where the Knights played. Touted underclassmen helping drive this special season were recruited to the new venue.

Sophomore center Jake Guentzel is enjoying the ride, “We’re more on the map, more fans are coming, so it’s pretty special.” He’s not surprised by the success. “I thought we had the players to do it, I just didn’t know if we had the experience. We’re bottom-heavy with freshmen and sophomores but we’ve adapted pretty well. We’ve been fortunate we’ve had the opportunity to play and we’ve taken advantage of it.”

He says preseason predictions of UNO finishing sixth in the league provided motivation. He credits an early road trip to Western Michigan, where UNO got a sweep. as a confidence-booster and bonding experience. The right mix of leadership has team chemistry just right.

Senior goalie Ryan Massa has waited four years for UNO to break out. “It’s nice to finally see all the hard work pay off for the guys.” He feels a humbling exhibition loss to Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in October was a necessary rude awakening. “It kind of opened the new guys’ eyes to understand the level we’re playing at and helped them grow and mature a little bit faster than maybe anticipated.”

Senior forward Dominic Zombo likes this team’s make-up. “I do see a component I haven’t seen in the past. We’ve got a really tight-knit group. We don’t have any passengers here, nobody’s just going through the motions, everybody’s here to get better, to win games. Every single guy’s committed to their job. That’s what makes us so competitive as a team.”

Blais doesn’t know if UNO’s truly arrived but he’s confident it soon will.

“I would think so but you never know from year to year. This is a special group of guys and for them I hope we win a league championship, get to the Target Center (home to the Frozen Faceoff), advance to the national tournament. Those are benchmarks for a program and our seniors know they’re paving the way for the underclassmen. Hopefully getting to the tournament isn’t a big accomplishment, it’s an expected accomplishment every year.

“We have a new arena coming that’s going to take the program to another level.”

UNO athletic director Trev Alberts says the arena signifies that Mav hockey matters.

“You can tell people hockey is very important to your school but if you don’t even have a place you can call home and practice in, it’s difficult to get the kind of talent in here you ultimately need.”

He says the arena will put the program on near equal footing with its stiffest competitors.

“When I hired Dean I really wanted to have somebody who’d been there, done that, who knew what it took to win at the highest levels.
There’s built-in disadvantages to being in Omaha, so far from hockey hotbeds. I just feel good we’re finally able to give he and his staff some tools necessary to assemble the kind of talent we hope to have here.”

Having its own intimate space will benefit UNO, which shares the huge CenturyLink with Creighton. The average hockey crowd of 8,000 downtown still leaves the venue half-empty. That same crowd fills the new arena. It should spike demand from fans and corporate sponsors.

Die-hard hockey fan Ernie May, who’s never missed a UNO home game, says, “I can’t wait to get into our own building. I think that’s going to be fantastic and make the interest grow.”

“Clearly this will be the best opportunity we’ve ever had to have a branded-out facility of excellence our student athletes can compete in,” says Alberts.

Omaha hockey historian and former UNO sports information director Gary Anderson says, “They’re going to go into an arena exactly the right size they need for the fan base they’ve created.” He says there was never any doubt Omaha could sustain college hockey. “When the program was born you still did have a lot of old-time hockey fans and the Lancers were around the peak of their success, so consequently UNO built a really good fan base right from the start.”

That loyal base bodes good times ahead.

“I’ve been absolutely amazed and humbled by the support UNO hockey fans give to this team, even in some pretty poor years,” Alberts says. “Our fans are hungry and we’re hungry to give them what they want, which is a consistent winner on the ice.”

May enjoys that the Mavs are meshing to put themselves in position to make history: “For me this year almost has as much excitement as the first years we had hockey.”

Coach Blais is trying to ensure his team attends to all the details heading into the intense post-season, where little things become magnified and championship teams find ways to win. UNO getting swept on the road at St. Cloud State (Feb. 20-21) resembled the late season swoons it’s suffered in past years.

“I don’t know if we have any more than we’ve given already,” he says. “How many times can you go to the well? My teams at North Dakota could operate at 70 percent and still win. We’re not there yet. Our margin for error’s slim. We’ve got to be all engines going, we can’t have one engine not running. We’re darn close. It starts with recruiting and we’ve been lucky enough to land some dandies.”

Even if UNO should reach the top, he says, “it’s one thing to get there, it’s another thing to stay there.” First things, first.

Massa says, “Every single one of us believes in our potential. None of us doubts we can be playing at the Boston Garden (site of the Frozen Four) competing for a national championship this year. We’ve played against the best all year and we’ve done well against the best.”

Zombo can’t imagine what a UNO hockey title would mean.

“I wouldn’t be able to explain. I’ve never been a part of anything like that that’s a dream.”

UNO’s dream ride continues at home Friday, March 6 and Saturday, March 7. Listen on 1180 The Zone 2.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

Durham Museum to celebrate 40-and-40: Forty years as train station and four decades as museum


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.

 

 

Durham Museum to celebrate 40-and-40: Forty years as train station and four decades as museum
Dual milestone for historic landmark thriving in new use
Museum’s growth spurred by champion and namesake
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Metro Magazine (/www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)Forty years. That’s the length of time the former Union Station in Omaha operated as a passenger train center and come 2015 that same Art Deco-style building marks 40 years as the Durham Museum.

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.”

 
Chuck to the rescue
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.

A new name and mission
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.

Public trust and uninterrupted growth
From that point forward the museum has seen its greatest growth in terms of attendance, membership and donations, Janssen says.”I think the thing that gets people to invest in us is a proven record and we have that now because of the growth we’ve enjoyed and the hard work we’ve been doing. We can get their attention because they see something happening here. They see we’re actually going to do what we say we’re going to do. That’s foundational for us – we never say we’re going to do something and then don’t. We’re intentional to always under promise and over deliver.

“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.

 

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 (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.

 

 

Cover Photo

metroMAGAZINE

 

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.

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