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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.

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


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

 

 

20141119_bs_8943

Anne Thorne Weaver

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Playwright turned history detective Max Sparber turns identity search inward

February 7, 2015 1 comment

The Reader  The Reader

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

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

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

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

 

Playwright turned history detective Max Sparber turns identity search inward

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Above three images from Max’s “The Happy Hooligan,” http://happy-hooligan.blogspot.com/

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His historical writing is a treasure trove for the organization.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow his ever expanding family via social media, including http://happy-hooligan.blogspot.com. For play details, visit http://www.roseheater.org.

COR BLACK HISTORY MONTH EVENTS LOOK AT AFRICAN-AMERICANS THROUGH THE LENS OF HISTORY, CULTURE AND SOCIAL JUSTICE

January 28, 2015 Leave a comment

My place of worship, Church of the Resurrection in Omaha, does Black History Month good. We are a diverse family united in God’s love. Come and join us for these upcoming events that look at African-Americans through the lens of history, culture and social justice. We haven’t forgotten the soul food, either.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

COR BLACK HISTORY MONTH EVENTS LOOK AT AFRICAN-AMERICANS THROUGH THE LENS OF HISTORY, CULTURE AND SOCIAL JUSTICE

Church of the Resurrection (COR), a blended house of worship with a strong community focus, is offering Black History Month events that take stock of Omaha social justice, past and present.

The Cultural Awareness Team at COR, 3004 Belvedere Boulevard, has scheduled a February lineup of Sunday Lunch Talks, plus a Saturday, February 28 finale, that feeds the soul, the mind and the body. This diverse, progressive church family united in God’s love is calling its Black History Month slate, “Omaha Then and Now: Things Gotta Change.” Some programs reflect African-American achievements and cultural touchstones, others address problems that disproportionately affect the African-American population and another focuses on North Omaha revival efforts.

The Sunday event schedule is:

Feb. 1
Great Plains Black History Museum display

Feb. 8
Soul Food Sunday: “Come Get Your Eat On.” This is the church’s annual home-cooked soul food feast that invites people of all races to break bread and talk together.

Feb. 15
“Profiling Then & Now” presentation by the Omaha Anti-Defamation League

Feb. 22
“North Omaha Revitalization” presentation by local community leaders

The Sunday events are free and open to the public. They immediately follow the regular 10 a.m. service in the basement fellowship hall of the church (at approximately 11 a.m.). A free-will donation lunch is served February 1, February 15 and February 22. The soul food feast is served Feb. 8.

COR culminates its observance of Black History Month 2015 with “An Evening of Music and Learning” on Saturday, February 28 at Loves Jazz & Arts Center, 2510 North 24th Street. The 5 to 7 p.m. program will feature live music by the Church of the Resurrection Choir and a talk by Douglas County District Court Judge Darryl Lowe on the topic of “Equality in the Justice System.” Catered hors d’oeuvres will be served.

The event is open to the public. Tickets are $5.

For more information, call COR at 402-455-7015.

COR BLACK HISTORY MONTH EVENTS LOOK AT AFRICAN-AMERICANS THROUGH THE LENS OF HISTORY, CULTURE AND SOCIAL JUSTICE</p><br />
<p>Church of the Resurrection (COR), a blended house of worship with a strong community focus, is offering Black History Month events that take stock of Omaha social justice, past and present.</p><br />
<p>The Cultural Awareness Team at COR, 3034 Belvedere Boulevard, has scheduled a February lineup of Sunday Lunch Talks, plus a Saturday, February 28 finale, that feeds the soul, the mind and the body. This diverse, progressive church family united in God's love is calling its Black History Month slate, "Omaha Then and Now: Things Gotta Change." Some programs reflect African-American achievements and cultural touchstones, others address problems that disproportionately affect the African-American population and another focuses on North Omaha revival efforts. </p><br />
<p>The Sunday event schedule is:</p><br />
<p>Feb. 1<br /><br />
Great Plains Black History Museum display</p><br />
<p>Feb. 8<br /><br />
Soul Food Sunday: "Come Get Your Eat On." This is the church's annual home-cooked soul food feast that invites people of all races to break bread and talk together.</p><br />
<p>Feb. 15<br /><br />
"Profiling Then & Now" presentation by the Omaha Anti-Defamation League</p><br />
<p>Feb. 22<br /><br />
"North Omaha Revitalization" presentation by local community leaders</p><br />
<p>The Sunday events are free and open to the public. They immediately follow the regular 10 a.m. service in the basement fellowship hall of the church (at approximately 11 a.m.). A free-will donation lunch is served February 1, February 15 and February 22. The soul food feast is served Feb. 8.</p><br />
<p>COR culminates its observance of Black History Month 2015 with "An Evening of Music and Learning" on Saturday, February 28 at Loves Jazz & Arts Center, 2510 North 24th Street. The 5 to 7 p.m. program will feature live music by the Church of the Resurrection Choir and a talk by Douglas County District Court Judge Darryl Lowe on the topic of "Equality in the Justice System." Catered hors d'oeuvres will be served. </p><br />
<p>The event is open to the public. Tickets are $5.</p><br />
<p>For more information, call COR at 402-455-7015.

 

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

January 8, 2015 Leave a comment

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

 

 

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

In a class by himself

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow the fighter at teamterencebudcrawford.com.

 

 

 

A Look Into and Back at the Many Diverse Faces of Leo Adam Biga’s Blog (leoadambiga.wordpress.com): “I write stories about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions”

January 3, 2015 Leave a comment

      • A Look Into and Back at the Many Diverse Faces of Leo Adam Biga’s Blog (leoadambiga.wordpress.com): “I write stories about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions”

       


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