I wrote the following feature and sidebar exploring some trends about the changing face of Neb. and the University of Nebraska at Omaha, my alma mater. Slowly but surely the state and some of its institutions are becoming more diverse. Some of the changes can be readily seen already, others not so much, but in a few decades they will be more obvious. It’s a healthy thing that’s happening, though diversity is still taking far too long to be fully felt and lived and embraced in all quarters, but that’s for another story.
Nebraska’s Changing Face
©by Leo Adam Biga
Nebraska’s “Plain Jane” sameness has long extended to its racial makeup. Diversity hasn’t held much truck here. Even when the foreign-born population was at its peak in the state’s first half century, the newcomers were predominantly of European ancestry.
An African-American migration from the Deep South to Omaha in the early 1900s established the city’s black base. Until a new immigration wave in the 1990s brought an influx of Africans and Latinos-Hispanics to greater Neb., the composite face of this Great Plains state was decidedly monotone.
The perception of Flyover Country as a bastion of white farmers has never been completely accurate. The state’s two largest metropolitan areas, for example, have always boasted some heterogeneity. Urban areas like Omaha and urban institutions such as the University of Nebraska at Omaha express more racial-ethnic diversity because of longstanding minority settlement patterns and the university drawing heavily from the metro.
But it is true Neb.’s minority population has always been among the nation’s smallest, which only supported the stereotype.
Finally, though, its minority numbers are going up and its diversity broadening.
Still, if Nebraskans posed for a group portrait as recently as 1980 more than 9 of every 10 would have beeb white. Only 6 percent identified as African-Americans, Latino-Hispanics, Native Americans or Asians.
The lack of diversity extended virtually everywhere. The largest minority group then, blacks, was highly concentrated in Omaha. Despite slow, steady gains blacks still account for only 13 percent of the city’s population and 4 percent of the state’s population.
But as recently announced by UNO researchers, Neb. is changing and with it the face of the state. A group picture taken today would reveal a noticeable difference compared to a quarter century ago, with whites now accounting for 8 of every 10 residents. Indeed, the state’s minority population has more than doubled the past four decades, with by far the largest increase among Latinos-Hispanics, who now comprise the largest minority segment. Latinos-Hispanics are on a linear growth trajectory. They tend to be young and their women of childbearing age.
Minority growth has been even greater in select communities, such as Lexington, where meat processing attracted newcomers.
Celebrated native son filmmaker Alexander Payne’s new movie “Nebraska” – set and shot primarily in the northeast part of the state – accurately portrays a slice of Neb.’s past and present through a large ensemble of characters, all of whom but two are white. The exceptions are both Hispanic. The Oscar-winning writer-director may next make a partly Spanish-language feature about the impact of the immigrant population on Neb.’s towns and cities.
New UNO Center for Public Affairs Research projections posit that by 2050 the state’s portrait will dramatically change as a result of major demographic trends well under way. Within four decades minorities will account for about 40 percent of the entire population. Nearly a quarter of the projected 2050 population of 2.2 million, or some 500,000, will be Latino-Hispanic.
It’s a sea change for a state whose diversity was traditionally confined to a few enclaves of color. Immigration, migration and natural causes are driving this new minority surge.
Everything is relative though. So while CPAR Research Coordinator David Drzod says, “Our diversity will increase,” he adds, “Neb. is one of the less diverse places countrywide and other states are going to become more diverse as well.”
Still, the snapshot of Neb. is changing due to real demographic shifts with significant longterm consequences. Just as the majority white base is holding static or declining, non-whites are proliferating. The results can be seen in the ever more diverse profiles of some communities, neighborhoods, schools and other settings.
Thus, for the first time in Neb. diversity is becoming more lived reality than aspirational goal.
Economic conditions were the main driver for the sharp rise in Latinos-Hispanics migrating here. Plentiful jobs, a low cost of living, coupled with aggressive industry recruitment, lured people to move here from places with comparatively weak economies, high cost of living and job shortages. Neb. grew its Latino-Hispanic base from points of origin in California, Texas. Mexico, Central America and South America, The state also saw its African and Asian populations increase as refugees from Sudan and Bhutan, for example, resettled here.
Drozd says, “People are not coming as directly for new jobs like in the ’90s when the meat processors were expanding and recruiting. We expect to see some regional migration that Neb. has typically seen from smaller locations to more urban locations that tend to have a diverse pool of job opportunities within various industries.”
While migration has slowed from its peak waves it’s expected to continue in fits and starts. Migration, researchers agree is “a wildcard” that can’t be accurately forecast, but Office of Latino and Latin American Studies Research Associate Lissette Aliaga Linares notes an uptick in Latinos-Hispanics from Arizona, which OLLAS Director Lourdes Gouvia attributes to that state’s anti-immigrant policies.
Drozd says Neb.’s minority experience is consistent with some surrounding states and inconsistent with others.
“We are typical of the Great Plains in that we tend to suffer from outmigration especially of young college-aged whites, which is counteracted by in-migration and increase in the minority population groups. On the other hand Neb. is unique in that we are growing faster in some of our metropolitan areas and not holding our population as well as some of the more rural areas.”
The emergence of more minorities is perhaps most visible in urban inner city public schools, where student enrollment naturally reflects the heavily minority communities these schools serve. Minority enrollment in the Omaha Public Schools stands at 68 percent.
“The diversity of UNO will continue to grow and one only has to look at the demographics in the metro area to understand that traditional middle school and high school students will increasingly be students of color,” says UNO Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs B.J. Reed.
Some outstate school districts are now majority Latino-Hispanic.
The impact of diversity in this small population state that suffers from brain drain cannot be overstated.
“There’s a large part of Neb. that would be having population decline if it were not for minority growth,” says Drozd. “There’s all sorts of implications with respect to aging, the workforce, health care, education. From a gerontology standpoint you have the possibility of seeing a younger, more diverse working-age population caring for a predominantly white non-Hispanic aging population and will there be any issues associated there. With programs like Social Security you’re going to be relying more and more on an immigrant population to support payments for predominantly white people collecting from the program. So there are potentials for tension there and of course political ramifications and all sorts of factors.”
Gouveia, a sociology professor, reminds that “Latinos are going to imitate some trends of the larger population the more urban and educated they become,” adding. “The more women are able to work outside the home fertility rates will drop and the population will begin to age. It’s the life cycle.”
As minorities grow they become a larger sector of the tax and voting base that elected officials and prospective candidates must recognize.
Drozd says communities must adapt, whether offering English-as-a-Second Language programs or multicultural competency classes, in order to best serve minorities and their particular needs.
As more minorities graduate high school educators and employers hope that many of these college-bound grads and working-age young adults will attend school and find jobs in-state.
“As people have become upwardly mobile in Neb.’s past that has led to outmigration out of the state,” says Drozd. “It’s going to be a very policy relevant factor because people born in the early ’90s are now hitting age 18. Even if they choose a Neb. college where are they going to go to work? Will there be jobs and associated positions for them here in the state or will they go out of state?”
Just as preparing students to succeed in school is critical, so is preparing a workforce for today’s service and skilled jobs.
“Let’s make no mistake about this, without immigration Nebraskans may have to rethink how they are going to have a viable economy that produces not only jobs but payrolls that produce taxes from which an aging population will benefit greatly,” says Gouveia. “Without this population there won’t be services this Boomer population and this aspiring mini-global city of Omaha depends on. These are increasingly service economies and that means it’s very important for the economy to increasingly be based on higher pay jobs likely to grow, such as information technology or biotechnology.
“That also means educational institutions need to be able to truly know how to train this generation of children of immigrants. The children may not be immigrants themselves but a large number have immigrant parents who endured very poor, disadvantageous conditions that tend to disadvantage the educational achievement of their children. We have to have multidimensional. multidisciplinary perspectives to understand who this population is. And that goes to our research also.”
She believes minorities will succeed to the extent opportunities allow.
“We haven’t addressed the serious barriers to education that would guarantee that new face of America and of Neb. becomes a face with equal opportunities to participate in the prosperity all of us will want to share.” She says if barriers to upward mobility aren’t removed “it may prevent Neb. from truly harnessing what we call this demographic bonus that’s been gifted to this state. A state that was losing population were it not for minority growth and international migration would be in serious trouble today to have a viable economy and future.”
Daniel J. Shipp, UNO associate vice chancellor for student affairs, says schools must find ways to support minority students.
“When combined with the typical struggles of new college students the demographics of race-ethnicity will create even more difficult challenges in both access to and success in college. Not only must we continue to open our doors wider to traditionally under-served student populations but once on campus it is critical for all of us to see their success as a top institutional and community priority.”
UNO Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs Pelema Morrice urges educators and employers to appreciate diversity’s many forms.
“We always focus on racial-ethnic diversity but I think intellectual diversity, geographic diversity, cultural diversity, all those different forms of diversity, really add a lot of value to everyone’s experience. There’s plenty of evidence that the more diverse environment we’re in the more we all have opportunities to learn from each other.
“So I think it’s incredibly important for an institution to be a welcoming and diverse environment where folks can learn from each other at a higher level. I think that adds to the educational experience and it provides students with really good training to go out and be productive citizens and to be successful in the workplace.”
Diversity is also the way of this flatter, interconnected world.
Reed from UNO’s Academic and Student Affairs office, says “Our students will grow up in a much more global environment requiring exposure to difference cultures and different experiences.”
Where diversity often must be programmed, Gouveia is heartened by students’ inherent embrace of it. “About this new Neb. mosaic, one thing I’m particularly hopeful about is the younger generation. I love our new students. From any background they are so much more prepared and so much more ahead of where we are as professors or department chairs or deans in terms of knowing how to do diversity. We are the ones who are often behind them.”
As Neb. becomes more multi-hued, UNO’s Morrice says representative stakeholders should discuss what diversity holds for the state.
“With these new demographics coming forward it means our student base will obviously be more diverse than it is now and that means the outcomes will be more diverse and so we’ll see more diverse workplaces and communities within the state. We’re just a piece of that puzzle but I think it’s a good collective conversation for everyone to have as the state continues to grow and it becomes clear that there will be different faces at the table.”
UNO’s Changing Face
©by Leo Adam Biga
The same demographic trends on pace to make the United States a minority majority population by 2050 and making Neb. a more racially-ethnically diverse place in the second decade of the new millennium, are increasingly being expressed at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Roughly a quarter of UNO’s 2013-2014 freshman class is minority and just under 20 percent of the school’s entire undergraduate enrollment is minority. Both are record marks for the school. In 2000, for example, UNO’s minority enrollment stood at 9 percent. The minority numbers are even greater among graduate students.
The 11 percent rise in UNO minority enrollment from 2000 until now reflects in large measure the Latino-Hispanic boom that happened in-state from 1980 to 2010, when that segment increased from about 37,000 to 167,000. The Latino-Hispanic population is expected to add another 370,000 residents by 2050, according to UNO’s Center for Public Affairs Research.
As a public institution with a state-wide reach, UNO’s a model for the changing face of Neb. Drawing principally from the Omaha metropolitan area, which as the state’s largest urban center has always been Neb.’s most racially-ethnically diverse spot, UNO is, as expected, one of the most diverse campuses in the University of Nebraska system.
At the University of Nebraska-Kearney minority undergraduate enrollment has nearly doubled since 1995. Today, nearly a quarter of its students are non-white or non-resident alien. Meanwhile, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln reports the most diverse student body in its history. UNL’s 2,328 minority undergrads are about 12 percent of the undergraduate total, a 9 percent increase just from last year. Just as at UNO, the largest minority gains at each school are in the Latino-Hispanic and international students categories,
As minorities comprise a growing segment of the state’s mainstream and of its public schools’ enrollment, institutions are tasked with incorporating these populations and responding to their needs.
“The good news for Omaha is that UNO has a proud tradition of supporting minority students through various educational equity and learning community investments such as Goodrich, Project Achieve and the newer Thompson Learning Community,” says UNO Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Daniel J. Shipp. “These programs provide student participants with a network of caring and concerned faculty, staff and peer mentors that help students to succeed and thrive in college. Moving forward, I expect we will continue to build on our national reputation for attracting and supporting the growing numbers of minority students and their families in the Omaha area and beyond.”
“Minority students are an important population but they are only one of an increasing mosaic of diversity at UNO, whether they are military, first generation, students of color or adult learners or transfer students,” says UNO Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs B.J. Reed. “We are working every day to ensure that these students feel welcome at UNO and have the type of support services and environment that will make them want to be want to be here and to be successful. We do this for all our special populations of students. We have programs and learning communities as well as staff specifically directed at helping ease their transition to UNO and success in their academic goals.”
Reed says hiring faculty and staff who reflect the changing face of UNO “is a top priority,” adding, “We have made important strides in diversifying our staff but we lag behind where we want to be here and also with recruiting and retaining a more diverse faculty. We are working on reviewing existing policies and procedures and looking at incentives and support efforts to increase the diversity of faculty and staff to reflect the changing demographics of our student body.”
There’s wide agreement that diversity is a net sum experience for all involved.
“The benefits are substantial,” Reed says. “The workplace is becoming increasingly diverse and employers need and want an increasingly diverse group of employees. We cannot underestimate the shift occurring here. We need to provide a strong educational workforce for employers and UNO must be positioned to do that effectively.”
Office of Latino and Latin American Studies Director and Sociology Professor Lourdes Gouveia agrees that educators at UNO and elsewhere must increasingly consider diversity and its impact.
“We have to educate our professionals and student populations in ways that allow them to be skilled about global issues and diversity and to have multicultural competencies as the world is very connected,” she says. “But also we need to address structural barriers that may prevent Neb. from truly harnessing what we call this demographic bonus that has been gifted to this state. A state that was losing population if not for minority growth and international migration would be in serious trouble today to have a viable economy and a future.”
Soul on Ice – Man on Fire: The Charles Bryant Story (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)
Never is anyone simply what they appear to be on the surface. Deep rivers run on the inisde of even the most seemingly easy to peg personalties and lives. Many of those well guarded currents cannot be seen unless we take the time to get to know someone and they reveal what’s on the inside. But seeing the complexity of what is there requires that we also put aside our blinders of assumptions and perceptions. That’s when we learn that no one is ever one thing or another. Take the late Charles Bryant. He was indeed as tough as his outward appearance and exploits as a one-time football and wrestling competitor suggested. But as I found he was also a man who carried around with him great wounds, a depth of feelings, and an artist’s sensitivity that by the time I met him, when he was old and only a few years from passing, he openly expressed.
My profile of Bryant was originally written for the New Horizons and then when I was commissioned to write a series on Omaha’s Black Sports Legends entitled, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, I incorporated this piece into that collection. You can read several more of my stories from that series on this blog, including profiles of Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Gale Sayers, Ron Boone, Marlin Briscoe, and Johnny Rodgers.
Charles Bryant at UNL
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons and The Reader (www.thereader.com)
“I am a Lonely Man, without Love…Love seems like a Fire many miles away. I can see the smoke and imagine the Heat. I travel to the Fire and when I arrive the Fire is out and all is Grey ashes…
–– “Lonely Man” by Charles Bryant, from his I’ve Been Along book of poems
Life for Charles Bryant once revolved around athletics. The Omaha native dominated on the gridiron and mat for Omaha South High and the University of Nebraska before entering education and carving out a top prep coaching career. Now a robust 70, the still formidable Bryant has lately reinvented himself as an artist, painting and sculpting with the same passion that once stoked his competitive fire.
Bryant has long been a restless sort searching for a means of self-expression. As a young man he was always doing something with his hands, whether shining shoes or lugging ice or drawing things or crafting woodwork or swinging a bat or throwing a ball. A self-described loner then, his growing up poor and black in white south Omaha only made him feel more apart. Too often, he said, people made him feel unwelcome.
“They considered themselves better than I. The pain and resentment are still there.” Too often his own ornery nature estranged him from others. “I didn’t fit in anywhere. Nobody wanted to be around me because I was so volatile, so disruptive, so feisty. I was independent. Headstrong. I never followed convention. If I would have known that then, I would have been an artist all along,” he said from the north Omaha home he shares with his wife of nearly hald-a-century, Mollie.
Athletics provided a release for all the turbulence inside him and other poor kids. “I think athletics was a relief from the pressures we felt,” he said. He made the south side’s playing fields and gymnasiums his personal proving ground and emotional outlet. His ferocious play at guard and linebacker demanded respect.
“I was tenacious. I was mean. Tough as nails. Pain was nothing. If you hit me I was going to hit you back. When you played across from me you had to play the whole game. It was like war to me every day I went out there. I was just a fierce competitor. I guess it came from the fact that I felt on a football field I was finally equal. You couldn’t hide from me out there.”
Even as a youth he was always a little faster, a little tougher, a little stronger than his schoolmates. He played whatever sport was in season. While only a teen he organized and coached young neighborhood kids. Even then he was made a prisoner of color when, at 14, he was barred from coaching in York, Neb., where the all-white midget-level baseball team he’d led to the playoffs was competing.
Still, he did not let obstacles like racism stand in his way. “Whatever it took for me to do something, I did it. I hung in there. I have never quit anything in my life. I have a force behind me.”
Bryant’s drive to succeed helped him excel in football and wrestling. He also competed in prep baseball and track. Once he came under the tutelage of South High coach Conrad “Corney” Collin, he set his sights on playing for NU. He had followed the stellar career of past South High football star Tom Novak — “The toughest guy I’ve seen on a football field.” — already a Husker legend by the time Bryant came along. But after earning 1950 all-state football honors his senior year, Bryant was disappointed to find no colleges recruiting him. In that pre-Civil Rights era athletic programs at NU, like those at many other schools, were not integrated. Scholarships were reserved for whites. Other than Tom Carodine of Boys Town, who arrived shortly before Bryant but was later kicked off the team, Bryant was the first African-American ballplayer there since 1913.
No matter, Bryant walked-on at the urging of Collin, a dandy of a disciplinarian whom Bryant said “played an important role in my life.” It happened this way: Upon graduating from South two of Bryant’s white teammates were offered scholarships, but not him; then Bryant followed his coach’s advice to “go with those guys down to Lincoln.’” Bryant did. It took guts. Here was a lone black kid walking up to crusty head coach Bill Glassford and his all-white squad and telling them he was going to play, like it or not. He vowed to return and earn his spot on the team. He kept the promise, too.
“I went back home and made enough money to pay my own way. I knew the reason they didn’t want me to play was because I was black, but that didn’t bother me because Corney Collin sent me there to play football and there was nothing in the world that was going to stop me.”
Collin had stood by him before, like the time when the Packers baseball team arrived by bus for a game in Hastings and the locals informed the big city visitors that Bryant, the lone black on the team, was barred from playing. “Coach said, ‘If he can’t play, we won’t be here,’ and we all got on the bus and left. He didn’t say a word to me, but he put himself on the line for me.”
Bryant had few other allies in his corner. But those there were he fondly recalls as “my heroes.” In general though blacks were discouraged, ignored, condescended. They were expected to fail or settle for less. For example, when Bryant told people of his plans to play ball at NU, he was met with cold incredulity or doubt.
“One guy I graduated with said, ‘I’ll see you in six weeks when you flunk out.’ A black guy I knew said, ‘Why don’t you stay here and work in the packing houses?’ All that just made me want to prove myself more to them, and to me. I was really focused. My attitude was, ‘I’m going to make it, so the hell with you.’”
Bryant brought this hard-shell attitude with him to Lincoln and used it as a shield to weather the rough spots, like the death of his mother when he was a senior, and as a buffer against the prejudice he encountered there, like the racial slurs slung his way or the times he had to stay apart from the team on road trips.
As one of only a few blacks on campus, every day posed a challenge. He felt “constantly tested.” On the field he could at least let off steam and “bang somebody” who got out of line. There was another facet to him though. One he rarely shared with anyone but those closest to him. It was a creative, perceptive side that saw him write poetry (he placed in a university poetry contest), “make beautiful, intricate designs in wood” and “earn As in anthropolgy.”
Bryant’s days at NU got a little easier when two black teammates joined him his sophomore year (when he was finally granted the scholarship he’d been denied.). Still, he only made it with the help of his faith and the support of friends, among them teammate Max Kitzelman (“Max saved me. He made sure nobody bothered me.”) professor of anthropology Dr. John Champe (“He took care of me for four years.”) former NU trainers Paul Schneider and George Sullivan (who once sewed 22 stitches in a split lip Bryant suffered when hit in the chops against Minnesota), and sports information director emeritus Don Bryant.
“I always had an angel there to take care of me. I guess they realized the stranger in me.”
Charles Bryant’s perseverance paid off when, as a senior, he was named All-Big Seven and honorable mention All-American in football and all-league in wrestling (He was inducted in the NU Football Hall of Fame in 1987.). He also became the first Bryant (the family is sixth generation Nebraskan) to graduate from college when he earned a bachelor’s degree in education in 1955.
He gave pro football a try with the Green Bay Packers, lasting until the final cut (Years later he gave the game a last hurrah as a lineman with the semi-pro Omaha Mustangs). Back home, he applied for teaching-coaching positions with OPS but was stonewalled. To support he and Mollie — they met at the storied Dreamland Ballroom on North 24th Street and married three months later — he took a job at Brandeis Department Store, becoming its first black male salesperson.
After working as a sub with the Council Bluffs Public Schools he was hired full-time in 1961, spending the bulk of his Iowa career at Thomas Jefferson High School. At T.J. he built a powerhouse wrestling program, with his teams regularly whipping Metro Conference squads.
In the 1970s OPS finally hired him, first as assistant principal at Benson High, then as assistant principal and athletic director at Bryan, and later as a student personnel assistant (“one of the best jobs I’ve ever had”) in the TAC Building. Someone who has long known and admired Bryant is University of Nebraska at Omaha wrestling Head Coach Mike Denney, who coached for and against him at Bryan.
Said Denney, “He’s from the old school. A tough, hard-nosed straight shooter. He also has a very sensitive, caring side. I’ve always respected how he’s developed all aspects of himself. Writing. Reading widely. Making art. Going from coaching and teaching into administration. He’s a man of real class and dignity.”
Bryant found a new mode of expression as a stern but loving father — he and Mollie raised five children — and as a no-nonsense coach and educator. Although officially retired, he still works as an OPS substitute teacher. What excites him about working with youth?
“The ability to, one-on-one, aid and assist a kid in charting his or her own course of action. To give him or her the path to what it takes to be a good man or woman. My great hope is I can make a change in the life of every kid I touch. I try to give kids hope and let them see the greatness in them. It fascinates me what you can to do mold kids. It’s like working in clay.”
Since taking up art 10 years ago, he has found the newest, perhaps the strongest medium for his voice. He works in a variety of media, often rendering compelling faces in bold strokes and vibrant colors, but it is sculpture that has most captured his imagination.
“When I’m working in clay I can feel the blessings of Jesus Christ in my hands. I can sit down in my basement and just get lost in the work.”
Recently, he sold his bronze bust of a buffalo soldier for $5,000. Local artist Les Bruning, whose foundry fired the piece, said of his work, “He has a good eye and a good hand. He has a mature style and a real feel for geometric preciseness in his work. I think he’s doing a great job. I’d like to see more from him.”
Bryant has brought his talent and enthusiasm for art to his work with youths. A few summers ago he assisted a group of kids painting murals at Sacred Heart Catholic Church. He directs a weekly art class at Clair Memorial United Methodist Church, where he worships and teaches Sunday School.
Much of Bryant’s art, including a book of poems he published in the ‘70s, deals with the black experience. He explores the pain and pride of his people, he said, because “black people need black identification. This kind of art is really a foundation for our ego. Every time we go out in the world we have to prove ourselves. Nobody knows what we’ve been through. Few know the contributions we’ve made. I guess I’m trying to make sure our legacy endures. Every time I give one of my pieces of art to kids I work with their eyes just light up.”
These days Bryant is devoting most of his time to his ailing wife, Mollie, the only person who’s really ever understood him. He can’t stand the thought of losing her and being alone again.
“But I shall not give in to loneliness. One day I shall reach my True Love and My fire shall burn with the Feeling of Love.”
–– from his poem “Lonely Man”
- A Family Thing, Bryant-Fisher Family Reunion (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Green Bay Packers All-Pro Running Back Ahman Green Channels Comic Book Hero Batman and Gridiron Icons Walter Payton and Bo Jackson on the Field (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Johnny Rodgers, Forever Young, Fast, and Running Free (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)
In the constellation of University of Nebraska football legends, Johnny Rodgers is probably still the brightest star, even though it’s been going on 40 years since he last played for the Huskers. So dazzling were his moves and so dominant was his play that this 1972 Heisman Trophy winner , who was the one big play threat on the 1970 and 1971 national championship teams, remains the gold standard for NU playmakers. The fact that he was such a prominent player when NU first reached modern day college football prominence, combined with his being an Omaha product who overcame a tough start in life, puts him in a different category from all the other Husker greats. The style and panache that he brought to the field and off it helps, too. He’s also remained one of the most visible and accessible Husker legends.
Johnny Rodgers, Forever Young, Fast, and Running Free (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com) as part of my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)
“Man, woman and child…the Jet has put ‘em in the aisles again.”
Viewing again on tape one of Johnny Rodgers’ brilliant juking, jiving broken field runs, one has the impression of a jazz artist going off on an improvisational riff and responding note by note, move by move, instant by instant to whatever he’s feeling on the field.
Indeed, that is how Rodgers, the quicksilver University of Nebraska All-American and Heisman Trophy winner known as The Jet, describes the way his instinctive playmaking skills expressed themselves in action. Original, spontaneous, unplanned, his dance-like punt returns and darting runs after catches unfolded, like riveting dramatic performances, in the moment. Poetry in motion. All of which makes his revelation that he did this in a kind of spellbound state fascinating.
“I remember times when I’d go into a crowd of players and I’d come out the other side and the first time I’d know anything about what really happened was when I watched it on film,” he said. “It was like I was in a trance or guided or something. It was not ever really at a conscious level. I could see it as it’s happening, but I didn’t remember any of it. In any of the runs, I could not sit back and say all the things I’d just done until I saw them on film. Never. Not even once.”
This sense of something larger and more mysterious at work is fitting given Rodgers unlikely life story. In going from ghetto despair and criminal mischief to football stardom and flamboyant high life to wheeler-dealer and ignominious failure to sober businessman and community leader, his life has played out in surreal fashion. For a long time Rodgers seemed to be making his legend up, for better or worse, as he went along.
Once viewed as an incorrigible delinquent, Rodgers grew up poor and fatherless in the Logan Fontenelle projects and, unable to get along with his mother, ran away from home at age 14 to Detroit. He was gone a year.
“You talk about a rude awakening. It was a trip,” he said.
He bears scars from bashings and bullets he took in violent clashes. He received probation in his late teens for his part in a Lincoln filling station robbery that nearly derailed his college football career. He served 30 days in jail for driving on a suspended license. Unimaginable — The Jet confined to a cell. His early run-ins with the law and assundry other troubles made him a romantic outlaw figure to some and a ne’er-do-well receiving special treatment to others.
“People were trying to make me out to be college football’s bad boy,” is how he sums up that tumultuous time.
Embracing his rebel image, the young Rodgers wore shades and black leather and drove fast. Affecting a playboy image, J.R. lived a Player’s lifestyle. By the time he signed a big contract with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League, he was indulging in a rich young man’s life to the hilt — fur capes, silk dashikis, fancy cars, recreational drugs, expensive wines and fine babes. Hedonism, baby.
Controversy continued dogging him and generating embarrassing headlines, like the time in 1985 he allegedly pulled a gun on a cable television technician or the two times, once in 1987 and again in 1998, when his Heisman was confiscated in disputes over non-payment of bills. Then there were the crass schemes to cash in on his fame.
Rodgers, whose early life could have gone seriously astray if not for strong male figures around him, said, “I really wish I would have had mentors in mid-life like I had coming up so I could have been prepared for a lot of things I found myself getting into and out of, whether good or bad. I really don’t have any regrets as far as whatever has happened, one way or the other, because I’ve grown on both sides. I’ve learned probably more from my mistakes than from my successes.”
It is only in recent years he has settled down into the kind of calm, considered, conservative life of a reborn man who, in conversation, often refers to his Creator and to giving back.
As he was quoted in a 2001 Omaha World-Herald story, “I’m a little boring now. I make people nervous these days because they have to put their drugs away now.”
Not that this inveterate risk-taker and spotlight lover still isn’t capable of surprises, just that his escapades are less brazen. In the late 1990s he went back to school to finish his degree and added a second degree for good measure. In 1996 he started a sports apparel, bedding and accesories business, JetWear, located in the Business and Technology Center at 24th and Lake, that got him named entrepreneur of the year. He and his wife Jawana own and operate it today. Then, cementing his lofty status as a sports hero, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and named Husker Player of the Century.
These days, Rodgers, looking fit with his shirt-popping muscular physique and jaunty with the gold bling-bling draping his every appendage, seems comfortable in his role as venerable legend. The media seeks his opinions on the state of the Husker Nation in the aftermath of last season’s debacle.
However much he plays the role of wizened old football warrior, he is forever seen as the dangerous artful dodger whose unique combo of strength, quickness and intuitiveness let him do the unexpected on the gridiron — leaving people grasping thin air with magical now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t moves. In an interview from his office, adorned with images and clippings from his glory days, he spoke like a man still in touch with the electrifying, enigmatic athletic genius that left fans breathless and opponents befuddled. Still every inch the star, he’s finally come to terms with himself.
When viewed in the context of a rather rash fellow who follows his instincts, then his punt returns — the plays where he improvised the most, displayed the most creativity and took the greatest chances — make more sense just as some of his reckless off-the-field antics can be better understood if not excused. For better or worse, his let’s-wing-it, go-for-broke attitude explains his life inside and outside of athletics.
“When you’re a risk taker you do make mistakes because you’re going for it all the time,” he said. “You don’t always make the right move. You can fake yourself right into harm’s way or you can shake yourself right through it. But you have to be willing to take a chance. In a lot of ways I should have been more conservative about things but it’s just not my nature.”
Just like calling a fair catch or lining up behind a wall of blockers was not about to happen when fielding a punt.
“You don’t think, you just react. You don’t know, you just feel,” is how Rodgers describes what it’s like for an impulsive person like himself to feed off whatever is happening around him at any given time, including the chaos swirling about when running back a punt in a preternatural daze. “It’s not like being in what athletes call a zone. You get yourself ready in a zone so you can think about what you need to do and you can get it done. Being in a trance is a whole other level. It’s not a planned thing. You don’t know what’s going to happen. If you make a plan, you’re already wrong because it hasn’t happened yet. The plan is, there is no plan.”
Because of Rodgers’ unusual, innate gifts, then NU head coach Bob Devaney gave him great latitude.
“I had a green light returning punts. I just did whatever came natural,” Rodgers said. “I’d call a punt return right and I’d go left in a heartbeat. When I saw everybody going left, I’d change direction. I never would know. I was never ever told to fair catch the football, even in dangerous situations. There were never any rules for me. I was given that freedom. It got to the point where the only thing I could tell my guys is, ‘Get that first man and meet me down field’ because I didn’t know myself what I was going to do.”
Some of his most famous returns illustrate Rodgers at his extemporaneous best. Take the famous 72-yard touchdown versus Oklahoma in the 1971 Game of the Century.
“It was a right return and I started off right but the whole darn thing happened on the left. On that return my guys didn’t get the first man. I had to shake the first man, who was Greg Pruitt. Joe Blahak broke one way and I went the other way, but still he circled all the way back around the field to pick the last guy off my back and that was because we always agreed to meet down field.
“Where most players would be satisfied getting one block and be jogging the rest of the way my guys, like Blahak and (Rich) Glover, were still fighting until the whistle blew. They knew to meet me down field and that attitude really panned out.”
Call it a sixth sense or a second set of eyes, but Rodgers possessed an uncanny ability to elude defenders he couldn’t possibly see. “I watch myself returning punts on film and I see guys reaching at my head and I’m ducking and you can see clearly that I can’t see them, but I can feel them. At the exact right time I make the move. It’s an instinct. A spiritual thing. Unconscious.”
In a remarkable series of sideline returns against Colorado in 1972, Rodgers executed some fancy arabesques and tightrope maneuvers that defied logic and balance as he repeatedly made sharp cuts, spins and leaps to escape trouble.
On offense, he also enjoyed a degree of freedom. When the Huskers needed a play, he and quarterback Jerry Tagge would collaborate in the huddle. “When push came to shove we called plays ourselves. Tagge would ask, ‘What can you do? What can we get?’ because I was setting up the guy covering me for something. I’d be running down-and-outs all day long just so I could run the post-and-go or whatever we needed. ‘Is he ready yet? Tagge would ask. ‘He’s ready,’ I’d say. I always had the attitude if we were in trouble I want the ball because I could get it done.”
He got things done to the tune of setting numerous single season and career school marks for catches, yards receiving, punt returns and total offense. Amazingly, Rodgers isn’t sure he could be successful today in NU’s highly regimented schemes.
“I was fortunate enough to come along when I did. I don’t know if I could make it now,” he said. “Coaches don’t let you be who you are. They try to coach you to who they are. They’re not letting the great ones be great. You can’t teach this stuff. If you have to think, you’re already too slow. It’s reaction. You have to react. You have to be free and open to sense it and feel it.”
Precociously talented from an early age, Rodgers first made headlines at age 8 by diving over a human pyramid his Lothrop Grade School tumbling teammates formed with their interlaced bodies in tumbling shows. Despite being much younger and smaller than the youths playing at Kountze Park his athleticism gained him entry into sandlot football and baseball contests there that included such future greats as Gale Sayers, Marlin Briscoe and Ron Boone.
“I was ‘too small’ to play but they let me play ball with them because I was good enough.” He honed his repertoire of fakes playing flag football and, later, tackle with teams sponsored by the Boys Club and Roberts Dairy. By the time he starred at Tech High in football, baseball and basketball, Rodgers had a sense of his own destiny. “I noticed I seemed to be special. I saw these older guys go on and do something nationally and I felt if they could, I could, too. It was almost supposed to happen.”
Rodgers wasn’t always comfortable with his own prodigious talents. He said early on his gift, as he calls it, was “definitely a burden because I didn’t know why I was so good and whether I was chosen or something. I didn’t know if I even wanted to have that type of a burden. I was almost upset because I had it. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. I really wasn’t spiritually grown enough to really appreciate this gift, which it really was.” Then there was the fact his prowess caused grief off the field. “My gift was getting me in fights every single weekend…and for no other reason than I was popular, I had notoriety and people were jealous. Girls were telling their guys we were together or whatever. I had people coming down where I lived trying to beat me up. I remember having to crawl out the gall darn window.”
Things got so bad during junior high school he took extra precautions walking to and from the home of his grandmother, who’d taken him in after his brash runaway stunt. “I’d walk in the middle of 25th Street so that if anybody came after me I could get away,” he said. “And it would never be one on one. It would always be several guys and they could never catch me.” If nothing else, being chased helped him develop his broken field moves. One day, Rodgers wasn’t so sure he’d make it past the gauntlet facing him. He and his pal Leroy had just left a friend’s house when they were surrounded by a gang of boys.
As Rodgers describes it, “I had a dog chain and he had a knife and I said, ‘Leroy, you ready?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I’m ready.’ So, I’m looking around to check out the situation and when I turn back around Leroy is turning the corner up the street. He ran off and left me. So, I started swinging my chain until I got me a little opening and I broke. In those days, when I broke I was going to be alright because I had it covered. Well, those guys started chasing me, except they sent one guy out while the rest of them stayed back jogging.” That’s when he got a sinking feeling. Not long before the incident he’d watched a Western on television about a lone settler chased by Indians, who sent a series of runners out after the man until they wore him down and caught him.
“I remember thinking, They saw the same movie. I couldn’t believe it. They had me scared to death because I saw what happened to that cowboy. Luckily, I escaped down the street and ducked into an alley and dove in a car. I laid down on the floor in back and they went on by,” he said, laughing and flashing his best Johnny “The Jet” smile.
Growing up in The Hood then didn’t pose quite the same dangers as it does now, but there is no doubt Rodgers narrowly skirted the worst of its ills thanks to the influence of some black men who nurtured and guided him.
“I see how easily I could have went totally in the other direction and what it really took came from my athletic background.”
There was George Barber, his gym coach at Lothrop, who got him started in athletics. There was Josh Gibson, his baseball coach at the Boys Club. The older brother of Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson, Josh was a legendary baseball coach and “a hard disciplinarian.”
Rodgers, a good enough baseball prospect to be drafted out of high school by the Los Angeles Dodgers, credits Gibson with teaching him to switch hit. His basketball coach at Horace Mann Junior High, Bob Rose, taught him to shoot layups with both hands. Perhaps the greatest lesson learned from Gibson and Rose, Rodgers said, was that “we weren’t there just to play the game, we were there to win. Of course, we lost some games but we learned you never quit. You went back and worked harder and got better.”
And at the YMCA there was Don Benning, still years away from coaching UNO to an NAIA wrestling title, a man whom Rodgers said “has been like a father to me.”
By the time Rodgers emerged as the star of NU’s 1970 and 1971 championship teams and as the 1972 Heisman front runner he was befriended by two more key men in his life — the late community activist Charles Washington and high living attorney Robert Fromkin. A friend to many athletes, Washington helped Rodgers out with expenses and other favors.
But, Rodgers said, what he really gleaned from Washington was “a responsibility to help others. I learned a lot from him about helping out the community.” According to Rodgers what he got from Fromkin, who represented him after one of his arrests, were free lessons in style.
“Bobby was responsible for me having maybe just a touch of class. He always had an elaborate place and a brand new El Dorado. He would invite me to the fights and to shows. We’d have the whole front row. Then we’d go out to the French Cafe and he’d pick up the whole tab. That was stuff I looked forward to at an early age. That showed me how to do it. How to live right. It added to my flamboyance. The thing he taught me is the only shame you have is to aim low. You’ve got to aim high. You’ve got to go for the gusto. It only takes a little bit more to go first class.”
When, on the advice of Fromkin, Rodgers surprised the football world by spurning the NFL for the CFL, he found a perfect fit for his garishness in cosmo Montreal and its abundant night life. “I loved Montreal. It was the city of love. There were some great times in Montreal. The French people and I got along great. We were flamboyant together.” The dash he exhibited off the field complemented his flash on the field, where Rodgers again dominated. After four banner years, it was time to meet his next challenge. “The only thing left to do was to go to the NFL and prove myself there.” He signed with the club that originally drafted him — the San Diego Chargers — and worked like he never had before.
“Because I had so much natural ability I never pushed myself as hard as I really could have. When I got to San Diego I was really determined to go to the next level. I wanted to see just how good I could be. I made sure I was in the best condition I could be in.”
He was coming off a monster preseason showing against Kansas City when his dream fell apart. A series of torn muscles and hamstrings severely curtailed his rookie NFL season. He came back ready the next year only to suffer an ugly, career-ending knee injury. “That was it,” said Rodgers, who after surgery spent much of the next year in a wheelchair and crutches. For him, the biggest disappointment was “never really getting a chance to showcase what I could do. It hurt me, but I’m not bitter about it. I mean, I could have gone crazy but instead I grew from it.”
A perpetual optimist and opportunist, Rodgers has bounced around some since his retirement. For several years he made San Diego his home, starting up a cable TV magazine there that had some success. He returned to Nebraska in the late ‘80s to help support his son Terry during an injury-shortened NU career. Over the years he’s announced several business-community projects that have not come to fruition and some that have. In addition to JetWear, which he hopes to expand, he owns a sports memorabilia business and a promotion arm organizing events like his Husker/Heisman Weekend and public speaking engagements.
Rather than slow down in his mid-50s, he’s poised to make a big move.
“I feel like I had a rejuvenation on life at 50 and so I feel I’m just getting started. I think the best is truly still ahead of me. I have only touched on a small part of the potential I have. Because of my history and my visibility I can create a better future for myself, for my family and for my community.”
Eying Omaha’s riverfront redevelopment, he looks forward to being part of a north Omaha rebirth to match his own. “I think north Omaha’s future is so bright you have to wear shades.” Burn, Jet, burn.
- You: Oklahoma-Nebraska: The End of a Historic Rivalry (bleacherreport.com)
- Stewart Mandel: Nebraska ready to make right move at right time (sportsillustrated.cnn.com)
- Stories That Don’t Suck: College Football’s Greatest Game And Its Greatest Story [Stories That Don’t Suck] (deadspin.com)
- Omaha Native Steve Marantz Looks Back at the City’s ’68 Racial Divide Through the Prism of Hoops in His New Book, ‘The Rhythm Boys of Omaha Central’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
An article in the local daily about paleontologist Michael Voorhies got me excited about interviewing and profiling him, and after a simple inquiry I made arrangements for New Horizons editor Jeff Reinhardt and I to visit the scientist at his home dig — the very cool Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park in Nebraska. It was a fun field trip and I thoroughly enjoyed capturing this engaging man’s magnificent obsession for bone hunting. This was another of those occasions when I never heard a peep from Voorhies after my article appeared in print. Perhaps now that it is getting a second life courtesy this online posting, I might hear something back from him.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the New Horizons
There’s a perfect symmetry to bone hunter Michael Voorhies’ life.
The most significant fossil finds by this professional paleontologist have come in his native Nebraska. He found his first dinosaur bone as a child in northeast Nebraska. Soon after graduating from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln he discovered a prehistoric frieze of two dueling mammoths in the state’s far western Little Badlands. Within his first decade in the field he identified a volcanic ashfall fossil bed on an Antelope County farm near his childhood home that led to the establishment of Nebraska’s most unusual state park.
The ancient remains of Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park are open to the public even as the area remains an active excavation site. This retired UNL curator of vertebrate paleontology now spends his summers there with his geologist wife Jane. They make their “bone camp” in a primitive cabin by a creek. She plays the harpsichord and cooks gourmet meals. They have a ball.
His parents still live in his hometown of Orchard, Neb. — a virtual stone’s throw away from Ashfall, where his life and career as a bone hunter have come full circle.
“I eventually ended up pretty much where I started,” he said.
Voorhies could be doing most anything in retirement. But he prefers scratching and digging around in the ground with his ever-present trowel, using a fine paint brush to clean the silty ash and sand away from whatever remnant he extracts. Holding a freshly unearthed object with relic-like care close to his thick-lensed glasses, he inspects it, hoping for a treasure rich in scientific discovery.
Whether sifting through dirt turns up a treasure or not, it still connects the seeker to a long lost age, even a bit of eternity. It also yields a measure of posterity.
“Every time you swipe through the dirt and you find a bone you know for sure you’re the first person in the history of the universe to see it, and that’s pretty good,” he said.
Bones represent pieces, no matter how small, of an epic tale.
“They all tell some kind of a story,” Voorhies said.
He derives the same joy of discovery from bone hunting today as he did as a boy along streams near Orchard, where his father was a dairyman and the paternal grandfather he idolized was a pharmacist. After one of these youthful tramps that his grandpa sometimes joined him on, Voorhies would empty his pockets of arrowheads, agates, bird shells and plants.
Once, at age 9, he came home with the remains of a tooth he suspected must be very old. He found it scouring the banks of Verdigre Creek. His favorite teacher at school, Mrs. Carlson, sent a letter along with the incisor to Lloyd Tanner, a paleontologist at Morrill Hall, the state natural history museum in Lincoln, asking if he could identify it for her eager student. In his reply Tanner confirmed the tooth belonged to a giant Ice Age camel that lived about two million years ago.
“That really made my day when I got a letter back saying this little hunk of stuff turned out to be something important,” Voorhies remembered.
Tanner sent the fossil back suggesting it’d make a fine specimen for the museum’s collection. Voorhies donated it and a part of him was forever hooked on the ancient wonders contained in the ground, although, he said, “it wasn’t until I got to college I realized you could be a professional paleontologist. This, to me, was some kind of hobby but here were folks making a living doing this.”
It turns out Nebraska’s fertile ground for fossils.
“Almost any of these little creeks in this area carry a load of gravel that has scattered pieces of petrified bones, wood and teeth and so forth,” he said. “If you have any outdoor experience in this part of the state you’re going to find fossils.”
The Nebraska Panhandle is especially abundant in fossils.
He credits both Mrs. Carlson, whom he recalls as “a superb science teacher,” and Tanner for inclining him towards the work he does now.
“I was not a junior scientist. My interest was mostly being outside. If I hadn’t had the teacher I had growing up in Orchard, if she hadn’t nurtured that interest in natural history I had, I think there’s a good chance I could have ended up pushing pills some place and been perfectly happy at that. She encouraged curiosity and creativity in kids. And I’m forever grateful to Lloyd Tanner for taking the time to answer a little kid’s question.”
When a child visiting Ashfall asks him a question, even one he’s often heard before, he responds knowing his answer can impact an impressionable young mind.
In that way his life has of coming full circle, Voorhies ended up working for the very man, Tanner, who certified his first dinosaur find.
Many more significant finds followed. Voorhies was a fresh UNL grad the summer of 1962, working in a field party at the Trailside Museum at Fort Robinson State Park, when two workmen laying electrical lines on the Tom Moody ranch near Crawford, Neb. came in with a large fossil they’d uncovered. They’d placed their find in the only available container — a feedsack — and presented it to Voorhies.
The fossil’s size readily identified it as belonging to a mammoth, the largest dinosaur to roam prehistoric Nebraska. Voorhies and the team went to the site where the hind leg bone laid undisturbed for thousands of years and they spent much time excavating before confirming a once-in-a-lifetime find.
“We had no idea what we were getting into until we dug back into the bank. We dug forward to where we hoped the skull would be and, Wow!, there it was — the back of the skull. I remember there was a moment at which we were disappointed because we found the tip of a tusk and it was going the wrong way. ‘Oh, damn, the tusk has broken off and gone back the wrong way..’ But within a few more days it was apparent there was a second elephant — and that tusk tip was actually from” the second until-then-obscured mammoth.
“So it gradually dawned on us this was a very unusual fossil.”
It took six weeks of digging before the intact skeletons of two fully grown adult male Columbian mammoths frozen in a death embrace emerged; their intertwined bodies evidence of a fight that ended when their tusks became interlocked and the beasts fell, unable to dislodge their ivory appendages or lift their 10-ton bodies.
He said tests run on the tusks indicate the elephants engaged each other “in a testosterone rage. That’s when they’re the most dangerous. Basically, two 10-ton trucks meeting head on.” It was, he said, “the old story” — a fight over sex. What caused these two battling elephants to be fatally entangled, he said, was the fact each had one long sharp tusk and one stump, allowing the spear-like thrusters to get caught up — one’s tusk lodged in the eye socket of the other elephant.
It remains the single most impressive fossil find Voorhies has ever seen.
“This is the only case we know of in the world where you find these elephants locked in combat,” he said.
The mammoths were dressed in a plaster jacket and removed from the ground without breaking a single bone. The fossils were then brought to Morrill Hall, where they remained until a couple years ago, when funds were finally secured for Voorhies and a crew to prepare the mammoths for display at Trailside.
In hindsight he would have left sediment on the bones for the added information it provided. But being green and afire with the heat of discovery, he “was after the trinket — the bones,” he said, not the sediment. He knows better now.
Nine years after the mammoths discovery Mike and Jane were on one of their cherished hikes near Orchard when he spotted something that changed his life.
A baby rhino skull exposed by erosion proved to be the marker for an ancient fossil bed. What used to be an active water hole for dinosaurs became a dead zone when volcanic ash descended there, killing off the natural habitat and the many animals that utilized it. The find led to Ashfall State Park outside Royal, Neb.
Several features distinguish this spot, he said, none more than its rhino, three-toed horse and other skeletons preserved in perfect three-dimensional condition within the very earth that became their burial ground. The sculptural bones jut out of the gray ash like headstones in a dinosaur graveyard. It’s a striking, eerie, solemn, magisterial sight. The tableaux-like remains are protected from the elements in a rough-hewn mausoleum called the Rhino Barn.
“Probably the most unique thing about Ashfall is that we’ve left the fossil bed in the ground so people can get close to it,” he said. “This is the only place in the world that has skeletons of large animals in the round. Their rib cages are still bulging up just like a live animal and that’s really what makes this place unique.”
Ashfall’s distinctive enough that the PBS series Nova featured it.
“What Ashfall has contributed is much more specific knowledge about one particular place and the details of the anatomy of these prehistoric animals. Most fossils are very incomplete. We knew for instance we had rhinos (in ancient Nebraska) but we didn’t really realize this particular species had very short legs. It was built like a hippopotamus. You have to have whole skeletons to figure things like that out. One of the nice things about Ashfall is that it took the guess work out of it for many of these species.”
Voorhies is a storyteller at heart and he likes nothing more than adding to the evolving narrative of prehistoric times.
“One of the pleasures of paleontology is being able to sort of time travel in your imagination and try to imagine what things looked like when they were alive,” he said. “And if you have really good evidence like we do at Ashfall you don’t have to speculate so much The natural body line has been fleshed out. You can see the sag of the belly…”
The more scientists have to work with the more they discern. “We have such excellent materials in the horses and the rhinos we can tell the sexes easily because the males have big tusks and the females have small tusks,” he said. “Many of the females have babies right next to them, some in nursing positions.”
Many of the skeletal remains include stomach contents, complete with undigested seeds and stems of prairie grasses. “Their last meal,” Voorhies said. Thus, scientists theorize most every critter in the ash bed was a grass-eating animal.
“One of the fascinating things to me is how rich the wildlife was here 12 million years ago,” he said. “I think we’re up to something like 70 different species of wild animals that we have evidence were using this water hole. The biggest ones were the elephants and then you work down to rhinos, three-toed horses, various kinds of meat-eating animals — bear dogs, bone crushing dogs and saber-toothed cats — right down to mice, squirrels, shrews, frogs, toads, salamanders, bats and birds. Just all kinds of things.
“Also, we have several new species of animals found here that have never been found anywhere else on Earth, including a type of bird very closely related to the Crowned Cranes of Africa.”
Ashfall might have been lost to the ages if not for what Voorhies calls “a stroke of blind luck.” At the time he discovered the site in 1971 he and Jane were professors at the University of Georgia, where they met. That summer, as was their habit, the couple came to Nebraska to do some bone hunting. They lived like gypsies.
“Every summer we came out here and continued to explore the fossil beds in this area. We visited, oh, probably 60 or 80 farms during the summers of ‘69-’70-’71. We didn’t have a child then so we lived out of the back of our station wagon and sort of went from camp ground to camp ground. I spent my days very pleasantly hiking around country like this,” he said, gesturing to the park’s rolling hills and valleys.
“To me, one of the great joys of paleontology is being out in the environment…”
In later years the couple’s daughter, Harmony, joined them on their treks, developing “a love of the outdoors” in the process, according to her father.
In the early ‘70s, unencumbered by grants or institutions directing his work, he said, “I was pretty much my own boss and so I did basically what I wanted to do — explore the geology and paleontology in northeast Nebraska, which is my home. We found probably a hundred fossil sites in this part of the state and made friends with a lot of land owners up here who encouraged our work.”
Bone hunters, like game hunters, enlist the cooperation of farmers and ranchers to pursue their passion.
“The fella that owned the farm here, Melvin Colson, gave permission to search the grounds. I spent two or three days looking around this 360-acre farm, starting in the obvious places. There’s a high cliff on the other side of the valley which has a nice sandstone bed and there are petrified bones in it,” he said. “So I was perfectly happy. Some of them were worth collecting and some of them were not.
“I made my little map. There was a volcanic ash bed right where there should be at the bottom of this sandstone cliff. I made my notes. Then I wandered over on the other side of the valley. It looked like there was a gully cutting back into Mr. Colson’s corn field. It looked mostly like black dirt, not very old, but once I got in the gully it turned out it was a very nice slice through the bed rock and lo and behold here was the volcanic ash just in the right spot. It was 10 feet thick.”
Immediately he speculated the ash had drifted into what was once a water hole.
“Then there was this little skull that took my eye. Wow! In my business we mostly find broken specimens. Teeth, leg bones, basically the dog’s dinner. A lot of bones have been extensively chewed on by scavengers or trampled on by larger animals. It’s very rare to see the skull with everything perfect. But there it was — a little baby rhino just basically grinning out of the wall.”
Fate led Voorhies to it.
“If I had happened to not walk up the little ravine I happened to walk up that day I’m sure I never would have seen the fossil, so little of the bone was exposed,” he said. “It just happened that erosion had clipped the edge of this very large bed. Most fossil beds, by the time you find them, have mostly or partly been washed away. But Ashfall was exceptional in that the whole time capsule was right there. Nothing has been destroyed by the weather. We were extremely lucky.
“If I had visited that same spot a few years later these fragile fossils would have been destroyed by the weather. So it’s one of those cases of being there in the right place at the exact right time.”
None of that was apparent then. Even after examination all Voorhies saw exposed was that lone skull. Nothing else suggested the treasure trove buried beneath his feet. It took excavations over decades, some funded by the National Geographic Society, before the full extent of Ashfall was revealed.
“There was no sort of eureka moment for me,” Voorhies said. “It wasn’t actually until years later it became evident this was a very large bone bed.”
Mining Ashfall for fossils continues. “We have a lot more to find out here,” said Voorhies, who added the site will remain active as long as the park remains self-supporting through the admission fees and gift shop revenues it collects.
The fact he made the discovery is ironic as his eyesight’s impaired.
“I’m not an exceptionally good fossil hunter,” he said, “but I’m persistent. And like my grandfather used to say, ‘Even a blind nag gets an acorn now and then.’”
A single fossil that leads to a bone bed that draws sightseers from all over the U.S. and the globe is not an every day occurrence. An article Voorhies wrote for National Geographic Magazine brought much attention to the site. Benefactors provided funding to develop Ashfall State Park.
This tourist stop that attracts 25,000 visitors a year owes its very existence to chance. Voorhies said even if a fossil ends up exposed by natural erosion or human construction, the two agencies that bring fossils to the surface, “you sort of have to have a trained eye to appreciate what you’re looking at.” His expert eye just happened to notice the rhino skull.
Still, he said, “I don’t think anyone would have walked away from this baby rhino — it looked too much like a head. But many fossils really don’t look like anything at all. Most dinosaur bones, for instance, look basically like pieces of junk until they’re very carefully cleaned off and glued back together.”
The site’s fossils are so well preserved thanks to the blanket of ash entombing them. Its low acid, alkaline levels did not chemically damage the bones.
“A neighboring farm lady used the ash to press wildflowers,” Voorhies said. “Normally wildflowers lose their color in a few weeks but she was able to keep them fresh looking for years.”
The white volcanic ash, Voorhies said, “is extremely fine grain. It feels like talcum powder.” A natural abrasive composed of many tiny glass particles, the ash was long commercially mined from a central Nebraska site by the Cudahy packing company in Omaha, said Voorhies, where it was shipped by the railroad car full, combined with soap, and sold as Old Dutch Cleanser.
When the ash fell millions of years ago the animals that inhaled it could not expel the abrasive substance from their lungs and they died a slow, agonizing death. The smallest animals perished first. The last to die were the rhinos. The same ash that killed the animals served as a preservative that allowed modern man to discover the remains and extrapolate what transpired.
Where did the ash originate from?
“We’ve never had a volcano in Nebraska,” Voorhies said, “but the eruptions in the Rocky Mountains and farther west” send ash clouds into the jet stream and the prevailing winds carry the fallout over thousands of square miles. Nebraska included. “Even Mount St. Helen’s in 1980 deposited a little bit of ash here. Not enough to make a layer. The fossil record in Nebraska is studded with layers of fallout, which are exceptionally interesting to geologists and paleontologists because they can be dated very precisely with the radioactivity clocks. So that’s why the ashfall here we know is 11.83 million years old,” he said. “Pretty much the whole record of evolution here in the Great Plains is calibrated by its ash beds.”
The ash bed that includes Ashfall can be traced throughout northern Nebraska, across Wyoming, to a large crater in southwestern Idaho. “So the known extent of this ash bed is a thousand miles,” he added. “Obviously, it’s been eroded away in some places but throughout the Niobrara River Valley wherever the streams cut down to the right level you always find the ash bed.”
Ashfall accumulated so much fallout due to it having been flatlands — part of an African-like savanna. The fallout’s thickest in the water hole depression, where the powdery ash drifted, like snow,. It’s here the most skeletons are found.
“Before this depression with the water hole in it filled to the brim with ash thousands of animals died by breathing in the dust,” he said. “So the critters are actually found at the bottom of the ash bed. The whole thing probably took several months from the time the ash first fell until the animals were dead and the carcass bed was covered with volcanic dust.”
The enclosed Rhino Barn with the intact skeletons is the star attraction at Ashfall, but many other fossil beds exist there.
“There’s a layer of sandstone under the volcanic ash which actually in many ways is more rich in fossils than the ash bed itself,” Voorhies said. “It would be the accumulated bones, teeth, jaws, skeletons of animals that had used the water hole probably for many centuries before the ash came.”
The tan or yellow sandstone layer provides a sharp contrast to the grayish-white ash, alternating stripes that mark the millenia and encase the past.
Visit Ashfall this summer and you’ll likely see Voorhies examining fossil finds in a trench being dug by strong bodies wielding shovels along one side of the Barn; the open ground’s striated layers of ash and sandstone clearly visible. The trench, whose manual labor is provided by college students working internships on-site, is part of a planned expansion. When completed by Memorial Day 2009 the fossil excavation/exhibition area will be eight times larger than today.
Fossils are harvested all the time from the trench. Some qualify as what Voorhies calls “significant finds,” albeit small in size. “There’s something new every day.”
Students pitch in more than strong backs — they train sharp eyes on digs.
“Some of the really critical discoveries at Ashfall are made by students,” Voorhies said. “They have good observational skills. They see things through fresh eyes. Some develop a knack for it — like they’re almost born with it.”
Voorhies speaks with admiration about the bone hunters — past and present — whose “natural eye” have led to discovery after discovery.
“Some of my colleagues down at the museum are almost phenomenal as to what they can find,” he said. “I would walk over something and then my buddy would reach over in my footpath and say, ‘You missed this.’ It’s always kind of a joke.”
No joke are the “legendary folks” who preceded him in the field. State museum founder E. H. Barbour was a bone hunter in pre-mechanized times when hauling a heavy elephant fossil out of Devil’s Gulch in western Nebraska required a team of horses.
“Yeah, there was sort of a heroic breed of really pioneer paleontologists that worked in the fossil beds in the old days. Now it’s basically just a couple of clowns in a pickup truck,” Voorhies said, smiling.
He said “a guy who truly did have a sixth sense for fossils” was Morris Skinner, a Museum of Natural History (New York) paleontologist for half-a-century. “As a high school student he found a fossil rhino bone bed on a ranch near his hometown of Ainsworth.”
“He collected just magnificent fossils. Even in his later days he still had an amazing eye for fossils,” he said. “He was a mentor to a whole generation of Nebraska paleontologists like me. He took us out and showed us. He was an expert at reading the rocks, at reading geology. He taught me how to take the anatomy of a hillside by using a simple instrument — a hand level.
“Levels are what we use when we’re out prospecting. It’s very important in paleontology to know exactly the level where a fossil comes from. If you’ve not recorded exactly the level of each fossil you bring in then they’re totally useless. Making maps is really a basic part of our job.”
Besides the dramatic image they make, an advantage to leaving the bones in the ground at Ashfall, he said, is that “in 30 years somebody a lot smarter than me is going to be able to get much more information on those skeletons with new technologies. If we simply took all those bones out of the ground and brought them back to the museum that contextual information would all be lost.” As accurately as he assembled the mammoths at Trailside to replicate what they looked like in the ground, he said, “it’s not like seeing the real thing — the way Mother Nature left it. It’s really not pristine.”
Nebraska remains prime ground for fossils, which people often bring Voorhies for study. Inside the Ashfall visitors center is a lab where the public’s finds are examined alongside those of the paleontologists’. A case out front contains donated fossils. A couple from Basset recently brought in parts of a rare leaf-eating animal’s skeleton. Students will reconstruct the skeleton this summer.
He said the public in Nebraska “has been just outstanding” in supporting paleontologists’ work in the state. “I’m very proud of our state’s tradition of being at the cutting edge in this science.” He suspects the fact that fossils “are so common here” accounts for Nebraskans’ generosity.
Just as not all fossils hold the same interest for him, not all fossil beds spark the same excitement.
“I suppose I have a weakness for mass death. I like bone beds where you have lots and lots of animals, lots of death and destruction, and trying to figure out what happened. To me, it’s the intellectual challenge of trying to reconstruct the past.
The biggest one I ever worked on myself is either the Lisco Camel Quarries or the Broadwater Horse Quarries, both of which cover several square miles.”
By comparison, the Ashfall bone bed covers a couple acres.
“One of my favorite fossil beds we call the mouse mine. It’s hundreds of thousands of petrified bones, mostly small animals. Mice, frogs, weasels, otters, beavers. This is an Ice Age pond deposit just crammed with bones.”
The more diverse a fossil bed the better.
“I do like variety. I guess I would get pretty bored if I were working a site that only had one species.”
He calls what he does “a safari with a shovel” and he’s only too glad his prey lay dormant in the ground for him to hunt down. “It’s a good thing I don’t have to go after them with a gun,” he said, “because I couldn’t hit anything.” He hopes to turn out a book on Ashfall in the next couple years.
How apt that this bone hunter’s fossil odyssey, which began with a letter, then peaked with an article, may now culminate in a book.
- Tiny Fossil May Be New World’s Smallest Dinosaur (inquisitr.com)
- Some dinosaurs may soon go extinct from record books (news.bioscholar.com)
- Paleontologists Define Fossil Records as all the Fossils Found on Our Planet (brighthub.com)
- X-rays Reveal Colors of First Birds (wired.com)