My alma mater, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, doesn’t possess the kind of larger-than-life, romantic tradition one associates with elite schools, which it most definitely is not. But in its own humble way the school has accumulated a notable and rich enough history. A modest book about that history was released a few years ago on the eve of UNO turning 100. This article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) more or less reviews the book and its impressionistic look at that school that’s seen much change over its lifetime and long ago left behind the West Dodge High moniker that many once attached to it.
Book Explores University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Rich History
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
With the UNO centennial nearing, a new book by two longtime historians at the university gives readers a primer on the events and persons that have shaped the school over its nearly 100-year existence. The book, simply titled “University of Nebraska at Omaha,” is part of Arcadia Publishing’s “Campus History Series.”
The text for the photo-rich work is mostly by Oliver Pollak, holder of the Martin Chair in History at UNO. He’s taught at the school since 1974. Pollak is the author of two previous books published by Arcadia — “Jewish Life in Omaha and Lincoln” and “Nebraska Courthouses.”
Selecting the 200-some images that illustrate the UNO volume’s 128-pages largely fell to Les Valentine, a UNO graduate (B.A. 1976, M.A. 1980) who has served as the university archivist since 1986. By virtue of his deep knowledge of UNO history and his intimate familiarity with the thousands of images and documents in the Dr. C.C. and Mabel L. Criss Library’s archives, Valentine was able to provide Pollak the context needed to flesh out the narratives and personalities behind the pictures.
Old acquaintances, the authors teamed up for the book in the spring of 2006 when Pollak suggested the idea to Valentine. The project marked the pair’s first collaboration. Pollak queried Arcadia with the proposal, a contract was signed and a December deadline set. The authors say they met the deadline on the dot.
As the subject is so close to them the men found the project a neat fit. “We’ve both been at UNO for years and years and years,” Valentine says, “and we have a good background on the history of the institution.” Pollak notes they have been at UNO for “a third of the lifetime of the school.”
The process of doing the book around normal duties proved relatively painless. “It was fun working with Les,” Pollak says. “We would get together on Saturday mornings and pull tables together on the lower level of the library and spread out these pictures and mess around with the order…what picture should be facing what picture. Les has been working the archives for so long he had stories and newspaper clippings to support the stories.”
Space issues meant only a small fraction of archival materials made the final cut. “It was a selection process,” Pollak says, adding he and Valentine chose from among digital images, prints, slides and negatives. “There was a variety. We managed to get high quality images and I think they got reproduced very well.” Some choices, he says, “are forced by technology and ratios of width to height.” Enough good photos had to be left out that he and Valentine have toyed with the idea of doing a presentation of them. “There’s still some good images out there,” Pollak says. Or, as Valentine put it, “There’s enough to do four or five photo-books, easy.”
Among their favorites to make it in is the cover image of a circa 1971 campus life scene. It pictures a diverse group of students gathered for a concert outside Arts and Sciences Hall — the then-administration building. The columned structure’s familiar cupola towers overhead. Pollak calls the photo “the iconic vision” of UNO. “It’s students spread out on the green, it’s 1971, it’s music, it’s diversity, it’s an urban university, it’s a school on a hill, it’s springtime. It was just a natural.”
Adding to its weight is the fact the 1938 building was the first structure built on the present north campus.
Valentine likes the background cover image, composed of smiling student faces, documenting a significant aspect of the school’s past. The picture is from a 1951 mill levy election victory party. In the institution’s municipal era, from 1938 to 1968, funding hikes were at the whim of city voters. Often as not, elections went against then-Omaha University. Some students actively campaigned in these elections.
The authors agree the milestone events in UNO’s history, each well documented, are the school’s 1938 move from its original north Omaha site to the current main campus and the move from the municipal model into the NU system. Just as the transition from municipal to state funding opened new horizons, including an expansion program that’s never really stopped, the university’s severing of ties to its Presbyterian Church roots ushered in new growth.
The physical move, Pollak said, was key to OU gaining accreditation by the North Central Association, another major event in the school’s life.
“You can’t live without accreditation. It’s important because it’s sort of like a seal of approval,” Pollak says. “You can’t live without a physical plant that’s attractive, just as you couldn’t live on Presbyterians alone.”He said that the school achieved three major defining goals in the 1930s — to municipalize, relocate and be accredited — amidst the constraints and struggles of the Great Depression “is an accomplishment.”
Change runs through UNO’s history, but the authors say its mission of providing a quality higher ed option to urban, working-class students has remained constant. What may surprise readers? One thing the authors point to is how the school welcomed women and racial minorities long before politically correct to do so.
UNO’s latest sea changes, they say, include the addition of dormitories, the development of the south campus and the embrace of information technology. Pollak says the way the university adapts to its times “is like a breeder-reactor” — putting out an ever exponentially greater return than what it takes in. UNO’s growth, while not always smooth, moves forward.
“Some hiccups, some burps, some setbacks, some waiting a little bit longer than you thought you would want to wait for innovation, and then crafting it in a way that fits Omaha,” he says. “Some people oppose it because it’s state funds, some because ‘they’re coming into my neighborhood,’ but it’s positively relentless.”
Leadership drives change and the figures at the top over this 100 years range from loyal soldier W. Gilbert James to tragic William Sealock to strong Milo Bail to embattled Leland Traywick to visionary Del Weber. The authors say the tenures of UNO presidents/chancellors tend to be placid or stormy. But the heartbeat of a university is its students, faculty and staff and the book is replete with examples of programs, activities, classes and rituals that express this human dimension.
From parades, athletic contests and commencements to groundbreaking ceremonies to visiting dignitaries to student protests to class/team photos to walks in Elmwood Park, it’s all charted. Even life in those awful annexes/Quonset huts.
Valentine says beyond alums, the book should appeal to a wide readership.
“Certainly people in Omaha should enjoy the book. It was their institution, for years and years and years, and in fact it’s still their institution,” he says. “We kind of grew up along with the city in many ways.”
The book is available online at www.arcadiapublishing.com or at fine bookstores.
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For a long time and even today the University of Nebraska at Omaha was best known for its large Bootstrapper program for military personnel. The school is vastly different than it was when the program launched during the Cold War but it’s impact remains. The following story from a half-dozen years ago or more is about an original play written by the Omaha husband and wife team of Mark Manhart and Bonnie Gill that takes a nostalgic look at the program’s beginnings, and those beginnings involved two strong leaders, then-Omaha University president Milo Bail and Strategic Air Command head and hawk of hawks Gen. Curtis LeMay, who some suggest was the inspiration for the character of Gen. Buck Turgidson that George C. Scott plays in Dr. Strangelove. A Midwest academic and a military reactionary may seem to have made strange bedfellows but then again it’s not hard to imagine that two powerful middle-aged white men should come together in right wing solidarity “for the boys.”
A Homage to the Bootstrapper by the Grande Olde Players
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The Grande Olde Players Theatre pays homage to Omaha’s deep military ties with the new play Bootstrappers Christmas, now through December 17. Written by the theater’s Mark Manhart and Bonnie Gill, the nostalgic 1954-set piece tells a fictional story amid the trappings of history. The relationship between then-Omaha University and the former Strategic Air Command in Bellevue, Neb. is at the center of this holiday-themed dramadie.
Early in his stint as commander of the newly formed SAC, Gen. Curtis LeMay, architect of U.S. bombing campaigns in Europe and the Pacific and overseer of the Berlin Airlift, identified the need for a more professional corps of college-educated personnel. After World War II the U.S. Air Force had a glut of officers. Many had some college prior to the service and once “on the line” accrued credits at schools near where they were based, but few ever got their degrees.
LeMay, an American hero whose reactionary, right-wing views later tarnished his reputation, broached Operation Bootstrap with his egg-head friend, the late Milo Bail, then-president of what’s now the University of Nebraska at Omaha. By helping commissioned officers finish their degrees, the program would aid their climb up the ladder as well as better prepare them for post-military life. The idea of men and women “lifting themselves by their bootstraps” gave the program its name.
Bail and fellow UNO officials recognized the school was well-poised to serve military folks by virtue of a large adult education unit and Bachelor of General Studies (BGS) program that allowed nontraditional students to individualized studies in subjects of interest or deficiency. “Omaha University was really the first school in the country to offer” the BGS, said William Utley, former UNO College of Continuing Studies dean. More appealing still, he said, were the “earned life credits” granted officers for experience gained in the field, which cut by a semester their degree track.
The school’s extensive night courses offered yet more flexibility. Besides the cache of this partnership, school officials craved the extra money derived from the higher non-resident tuition bootstrappers paid. Between Offutt’s close proximity and Omaha’s central location, the military could feed students there not just from Offutt but from bases all over the U.S. and the world.
That’s what happened, too, as an influx of mostly Air Force but also Army soldiers and Marines made UNO the nation’s largest on-campus education provider for bootstrappers. Officers rotated in on active duty or TDY. Utley, director of the UNO program, said at its 1960s peak 1,200 to 1,500 “boots” attended school there at any one time. “There were any number of commencement exercises when over half of the graduating class was bootstrappers,” he said.
Alumni officials estimate 13,000-plus active duty military personnel attended UNO from the early ‘50s to the ‘80s.
Utley said UNO prided itself on being responsive to officers’ needs and interests by “developing” a system to stay in “constant communication” with them, no matter where their assignments took them. He said both active and prospective students received “counseling and advising” services to facilitate their education.
The presence of so many boots changed the dynamic of the school, especially in those early years, when it was a small, financially strapped municipal university, not yet a part of the University of Nebraska system.
“The Bootstrap Program was a major factor for several years in keeping the university afloat with the revenue” it generated, Utley said. “It was a very important element in the survival of the university during that period, when the university was really hard up.”
UNO Alumni Association President Emeritus Jim Leslie said bootstrappers were “a tremendous boon” to UNO’s finances. For a while, he said, UNO enjoyed a near monopoly in serving the bootstrap population. “It was a big deal,” he said. “For a while we claimed we were second only to West Point in the number of general officers that had graduated from our institution.” Some were stars like Johnnie Wilson, a four-star general. Other schools eventually cut in on the action.
Utley said the infusion of so many “highly motivated” students changed the academic culture at UNO. “They were a very serious group. Very good students,” said Leslie, who had boots as classmates there in the early ‘60s. “They were here to gain an education and most of them were older and more mature. Professors loved those guys because they asked the best questions.”
“A lot of students viewed them as ‘curve busters’ who made it harder to compete in the classroom or set a higher standard in the classroom. And no faculty member is going to complain about that,” said retired UNO professor Warren Francke, who had his share of boots. “And its true in general they were solid students because they were all business. They were there to do well in the classes.
“I thought they were certainly an asset. There were times when probably the undergraduates had a legitimate complaint that maybe they dominated things so much. But mostly,” Francke said, the boots “added a dimension to what” otherwise “was a commuter campus without a lot of people who had been all over the world…I thought their addition was sort of a valuable thing to have.”
While Bootstrappers Christmas is a slight, sentimental romp filled with a mix of ‘50s-era rock and traditional Christmas music, writer-director Mark Manhart does anchor the story in the real symbiosis between UNO and Offutt. The flamboyant Curtis LeMay and the non-nonsense Milo Bail are characters. The plot revolves around a boot who befriends a Cold War widow coed and other students in remodeling the campus Snack Shack in time for putting on a holiday show. The fun is tinged with the sadness of separation and loss, but hope prevails.
The play’s also about making new starts, something the bootstrap program epitomized. Ex-Air Force pilot Jim Hughes spoke for many boots when he said, “The university was the first milestone in my growth with the Air Force and I attribute any success and all successes I’ve had to that little development. I owe a debt of gratitude to the university…It introduced me to education oriented to my needs.”
The Iowa native and current Magnolia, Ark. resident said his general education degree catapulted him “up the ladder.” In 1973 he retired from active duty as a decorated colonel. He earned the Bronze Star, four distinguished Flying Crosses and five Airmedals. He received two Purple Hearts for injuries suffered as a POW.
NOTE: Operation Bootstrap supplanted Operation Midnight Oil. In 2002 the Air Force replaced the Bootstrap Program with the Educational Leave of Absence Program (ELA), although many in the service still refer to it by its old name.
Omaha’s KVNO 90.7 FM Turns 40: Commercial-Free Public Radio Station Serves the Community, All Classical Music and Local News Content Set it Apart
Omaha’s KVNO Classical 90.7 FM Turns 40:
While the commercial radio menu leans to blow-hard hosts and pop heavy rotations, public radio’s soothing sounds and erudite musings cut through the clutter. KVNO 90.7 FM further stands out for its all-classical play lists and original local newscasts.
Music, public affairs, news mix by KVNO for Omaha
The UNO-based independent celebrates 40 years on-air in 2012, an impressive feat considering its niche appeal as a commercial-free operation dependent on donor support for survival. The professionally-staffed station maintains high quality. The news division particularly serves as a real-world training ground for students.
KVNO long ago opted to be the master of its own content.
“KVNO’s programming is indeed unique among independent classical stations across the country,” says general manager and mid-day-midnight host Dana Buckingham. “KVNO has developed our own blend of classical music programming format that works well for us and the market we serve.
“Many traditional classical stations stick to a rigid programming formula that rarely deviates from the standard playbook of the ‘tried and true’ classics. This homogenized classical programming format almost never crosses over into more contemporary classical, vocal or film music. At KVNO we cross that line almost every hour and our listeners love it.”
Michael Hilt, who as UNO Associate Dean for the College of Communication, Fine Arts and Media oversees KVNO, sees value in personally crafting the program day.
“I think more and more you’re seeing stations going to services that provide the music. They may program part of their broadcast day but not all of it. We have a music director who works with the general manager on programming the music 24/7.”
Audience feedback is considered in programming decisions, officials note.
Buckingham says a “renewed commitment” to news and public affairs has netted award-winning results. “I am very proud of the achievements our talented news team has made. News director Robyn Wisch is a true professional and a great resource and mentor for our students.”
He says where KVNO once “sought to distance itself” from the university, “no more,” adding, “We are the broadcasting voice of the University of Nebraska Omaha and proud of it.” Hilt says the station maintains autonomy though. “The university lets us do what we do. Sometimes there are things we do they love and then there are other times when they say,’ Gee, we wish you hadn’t done that.’ Is there any censorship or editorial control? No.”
A new partnership, strengthening local arts ties, staying relevant
In January KVNO embarked on a programming partnership with NET Radio that enables each to serve a larger statewide audience and to introduce listeners to new voices. Expanding KVNO’s reach, says Hilt, “is very important to us.” Buckingham terms it “a win-win.”
Public radio and the arts make a natural fit, thus KVNO, which once branded itself “fine arts public radio” and served as “the voice of the Summer Arts Festival,” is a dedicated arts advocate and programming outlet.
“Our affiliation with the local arts scene is very strong and we are always seeking ways to make these relationships even stronger,” says Buckingham. “We’re exploring the possibility of producing an expanded weekly broadcast series of the Omaha Symphony.” He sees possibilities for the series beyond Omaha. “It is my hope we may eventually offer this expanded series for nationwide distribution. We are also in the process of integrating more classical music selections featuring the Omaha Symphony into our regular daily playlist and rotation.”
KVNO broadcasts the UNO Music Department series “Sounds from Strauss” and Omaha Symphonic Chorus and Tuesday Musical Concert performances. The station recognizes youth musicians through its Classical Kids program. Aside from the performing arts, KVNO does its share of live UNO sports broadcasts.
To remain relevant in this new media age of cable, satellite and the Internet, Buckingham says, “we cannot afford to be just another classical music service provider, we must be connected to our community and involved in promoting and providing a forum for the talented musicians and artists in our community.”
Popular on-air hosts help the station build listener loyalty, an essential facet in such an intimate medium.
“I have been an on-air classical music host on KVNO for over a decade,” he says. “In fact, most of our on-air classical announcers have been here a long-time. Over that time, we have established a connection with our listeners that has helped us through the good times and the not so good times. Many regular listeners have established a ‘relationship’ with our local hosts. We are always that familiar and friendly voice in the morning, afternoon, evening or late at night.”
Doing more with less and reinventing itself
University budget cuts and pinched donor dollars have forced a frugal station to further stretch already thin resources.
“Believe me, we know how to do more with less,” he says. “We do it every day. We furnished our newsroom entirely with computers handed down from other departments on campus and office equipment from university surplus..”
That austerity harkens back to the station’s modest roots. When KVNO first went on the air in 1972 general manager Fritz Leigh was the lone full-time employee. At the start KVNO stayed on-air only a few hours a day, gradually expanding the schedule until reaching a 24-hour broadcast day in 1985. For its first 15 years the station called the Storz mansion home before moving to the Engineering Building in 1987.
When Omaha DJ Otis Twelve became the morning drive host in 2006 it was not the first time a media personality joined KVNO. Local TV-radio personalities Frank Bramhall and Dale Munson did so in the 1970s and 1990s, respectively.
It may surprise listeners KVNO once played an eclectic mix of classical, jazz, rock, big band and folk before going all classical in the ’90s. A show it once produced and distributed, Tom May’s “River City Folk,” went national. KVNO is no longer associated with the show. Ironically, the show now airs on KVNO’s local public radio competitor, KIOS.
With a little help from its friends
One thing that’s never changed is the importance of financial support. Corporation for Public Broadcasting funding only covers so much. The rest must come from donors, memberships and sponsors. The station has thousands of loyal fans and some very generous funders, but Buckingham says, “less than 10 percent of those who listen to KVNO on a regular basis actually take the initiative to pony-up and contribute financially. We are obviously not getting the message out effectively.”
Volunteering for pledge drives is another way to help.
He’s actively seeking prospective business sponsors with this pitch. “Underwriting on KVNO is a cost effective way to promote your business and raise your organization’s profile and image. We reach a very desirable demographic-audience.” It’s a more diverse audience than one might expect. “Our listeners are not just scholars, musicians, business leaders, writers, students, intellectuals and teachers. Our devoted listeners are also butchers, bakers and candlestick makers.”
Bottom line, he says KVNO adds to the city’s cultural fabric. It follows then that becoming a sponsor or member helps KVNO improve the quality of life, in turn making Omaha a more attractive place to live. The 2012 membership drive unfolds in March. To join or give, call 402-554-5866 or visit www.kvno.org.
- Classical music Alert: Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols airs this year on Saturday, Dec. 24, at 9 a.m. and again on Sunday, Dec. 25, at 2 p.m. on Wisconsin Public Radio (welltempered.wordpress.com)
- LAist Interview: Radio Producer Jesse Thorn & ‘Bullseye’ (laist.com)
- Star Wars music on the radio (buffetoblog.wordpress.com)
- Classical music news: Wisconsin Public Radio’s music director Cheryl Dring is leaving for Austin, Texas radio station. (welltempered.wordpress.com)
- Classic FM Live (2mfblog.wordpress.com)
- WITF radio may drop weekday classical music in favor of news and information format (pennlive.com)