The Champ Goes to Africa: Terence Crawford Visits Uganda and Rwanda with his former teacher, this reporter and friends
The Champ Goes to Africa
Terence Crawford Visits Uganda and Rwanda with his former teacher, this reporter and friends
Two-time world boxing champ Terence Crawford of Omaha has the means to do anything he wants. You might not expect then that in the space of less than a year he chose to travel not once but twice to a pair of developing nations in Africa wracked by poverty, infrastructure problems and atrocity scars: Uganda and Rwanda, I accompanied his last trip as the 2015 winner of the Andy Award for international journalism from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Until now I’ve posted a little about the grant that took me to Africa along with a few pictures and anecdotes from the trip. But now I’m sharing the first in a collection of stories I’m writing about the experience, which is of course why I went there in fhe first place. This cover story in the coming July issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com) emphasizes Crawford within the larger context of what he and the rest of us saw, who we met and what we did. Future pieces for other publications will go even more into where his Africa sojourns fit into his evolving story as a person and as an athlete. But at least one of my upcoming stories from the trip will try to convey the totality of the experience from my point of view and that of others. I feel privilged to have been given the opportunity to chronicle this journey. Look for new posts and updates and announcements related to this and future stories from my Africa Tales series.
NOTE: This is at least the fifth major article I’ve written about Crawford. You can find all of them on this blog site.
(Below is a text-only format of the same article)
The Champ Goes to Africa
Terence Crawford Visits Uganda and Rwanda with his former teacher, this reporter and friends
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Senior contributing writer Leo Adam Biga, winner of the 2015 Andy Award for international journalism from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, chronicles recent travels he made in Africa with two-time world boxing champion Terence Crawford.
Expanding his vision
Terence “Bud” Crawford’s rise to world boxing stardom reads more graphic novel than storybook, defying inner city odds to become one of the state’s most decorated athletes. Not since Bob Gibson ruled the mound for the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1960s has a Nebraskan so dominated his sport.
When Bud overheard me say he might be the best fighter pound-for-pound Neb.’s produced, he took offense:. “Might be? I AM the best.”
En route to perhaps being his sport’s next marquee name, he’s done remarkable things in improbable places. His ascent to greatness began with a 2013 upset of Breidis Prescott in Las Vegas, In early 2014 he captured the WBO lightweight title in Glasgow, Scotland. He personally put Omaha back on the boxing map by twice defending that title in his hometown before huge CenturyLink Center crowds last year.
In between those successful defenses he traveled to Uganda and Rwanda, Africa in August. He went with Pipeline Worldwide co-founder Jamie Fox Nollette, an Omaha native and Bud’s fourth grade teacher at Skinner Magnet School. After reuniting in mid-2014, he expressed interest going to Africa, where her charitable organization works with partners to drill water wells and to support youth-women’s programs.
When I caught up with The Champ last fall, he left no doubt the impact that first trip made.
“It’s life-changing when you get to go over there and help people,” he says.
Nollette recalls, “When Terence left he had an empty suitcase. He left all his clothes, except what he was wearing, to a bus driver.”
“I just felt they needed it more than I did,” he says. ‘I just thought it was the right thing to do.”
Seeing first-hand profound poverty, infrastructure gaps and atrocity scars made an impression.
“Well, it just made me appreciate things more. It kind of humbled me in a way to where I don’t want to take anything for granted. I haven’t in my life experienced anything of the nature they’re experiencing over there. For one thing, I have clean water – they don’t have clean water. That’s one of their biggest issues and I want to help them with it. They appreciate everything, even if it’s just a hug or a handshake.”
Simpatico and reciprocal
Nollette says the trips and fundraisers she organizes raise awareness and attract donors.
Only weeks after winning the vacant WBO light welterweight title over Thomas Dulorme in Arlington, Texas last April Bud returned to those same African nations with Nollette.
“I told Jamie I would like to go back.”
He says locals told him, “We have a lot of people that come and tell us they’re going to come back and never do. For you to come back means a lot to us.”
“Just the little things mean a lot to people with so little, and so I guess that’s why I’m here,” Bud told an assembly of Ugandans in June.
None of this may have happened if he and Nollettte didn’t reconnect. Their bond transcends his black urban and her white suburban background. He supports Pipeline’s work and she raises funds for his B&B Boxing Academy in North O.
His first Africa trip never made the news because he didn’t publicize it. His June 1 through 12 trip is a different matter.
What about Africa drew this streetwise athlete to go twice in 10 months when so much is coming at him in terms of requests and appearances, on top of training and family obligations?
Beyond the cool machismo, he has a sweet, soft side and burning curiosity. “He really listens to what people say,” Nollette notes. “He wants to understand things.”
His pensive nature gets overshadowed by his mischievous teasing, incessant horseplay and coarse language.
This father of four is easy around children, who gravitate to him. He supports anything, here or in Africa, that gets youth off the streets.
He gives money to family, friends, homies and complete strangers. In 2014 he so bonded with Pipeline’s Uganda guide, Apollo Karaguba, that he flew him to America to watch his Nov. fight in Omaha.
“When I met Apollo I felt like I’ve been knowing him for years. I just liked the vibe I got. He’s a nice guy, he’s caring. He took real good care of us while we were out there.”
Bud says paying his way “was my turn to show him my heart.”
He respects Nollette enough he let her form an advisory committee for his business affairs as his fame and fortune grow.
Even with a lifelong desire to see “the motherland” and a fascination with African wildlife, it took Nollette reentering his life for him to go.
“Certain opportunities don’t come every day. She goes all the time and I trust her.”
His fondness for her goes back to when they were at Skinner. “She was one of the only teachers that really cared. She would talk to me.”
He needed empathy, he says, because “I got kicked out of school so much – a fight here, a fight there, I just always had that chip on my shoulder.” He says she took the time to find out why he acted out.
Catching the vision
Boxing eventually superseded school.
“I used to fall asleep studying boxing.”
Meanwhile, Nollette moved to Phoenix. On a 2007 church mission trip to Uganda she found her calling to do service there.
“It really impacted me,” she says. “I’ve always had a heart for kids and
I always had an interest in Africa.”
She went several times.
“There’s not really anything that can prepare you for it. The volume of people. The overwhelming poverty. Driving for hours and seeing all the want. I didn’t know what possibly could be done because everything seemed so daunting.
“But once I had a chance to go into some villages I started to see things that gave me hope. I was absolutely amazed at the generosity and spirit of these people – their hospitality and kindness, their gratitude. You go there expecting to serve and after you’re there you walk away feeling like you’ve been given a lot more. I was hooked.”
Bud got hooked, too, or as ex-pats say in Africa, “caught the vision.”
“I was very touched by the people and how gracious and humble and thankful they were about everything that came towards them. I had a great time with great people. I experienced some great things.”
Coming to Africa i:
For this second trip via KLM Delta he brought girlfriend Alindra “Esha” Person, who’s the mother of his children. Joseph Sutter of Omaha and myself tagged along, Julia Brown of Phoenix joined us in Detroit and Scott Katskee, a native Omahan living in Los Angeles, added to our ranks in Amsterdam. Nollette arrived in Uganda a day early and met us in Entebbe, where Bud and Apollo enjoyed a warm reunion.
The next seven days in Uganda, which endured civil war only a decade ago, were a blur made foggier by jet lag and itinerary overload. Dividing our time between Kampala and rural areas we saw much.
Roadside shanties. Open market vendors. Christian schools, clinics, worship places. Vast, wild, lush open landscapes. Every shade of green vegetation contrasted with red dirt and blue-white-orange skies. Immense Lake Victoria. Crossing the storied Nile by bridge and boat.
The press of people. Folks variously balancing fruit or other items on their head. Unregulated, congested street traffic. Everything open overnight. Boda bodas (motor bikes) jutting amid cars, trucks, buses, pedestrians. One morning our group, sans me, rode aback boda bodas just for the thrill. I suggested to Bud Top Rank wouldn’t like him risking injury, and he bristled, “I run my life, you feel me? Ain’t nobody tell me what to do, nobody. Not even my mom or my dad.”
Ubiquitous Jerry cans – plastic yellow motor oil containers reused to carry and store water – carted by men, women, children, sometimes in long queues. “All waiting on water, that’s crazy,” Bud commented.
Stark contrasts of open slums and gated communities near each other. Mud huts with thatched roofs in the bush.
Long drives on unpaved roads rattled our bodies and mini-bus.
Whenever delays occurred it reminded us schedules don’t mean much there. Bud calls it TIA (This is Africa). “Just live in the moment…go with the flow,” he advised.
In a country where development’s piecemeal, Apollo says, “We’re not there yet, but we’re somewhere.”
Africans engaged in social action say they’ve all overcome struggles to raise themselves and their countrymen. “I was one of the lucky few to get out (of the slums),” Apollo says. They want partners from the developed world, but not at the expense of autonomy.
Many good works there are done by faith-based groups. Apollo works for Watoto Child Care Ministries, whose campus we toured. Three resident boys close to Nollette bonded with Bud on his last trip. The boys joined us for dinner one night.
We spent a day with Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, whose vocational work with exploited females has won acclaim. Last year Nollette produced a video showing Bud training Sister for a mock fight with Stephen Colbert. This time, Nollette, Bud and Co. outfitted a dormitory for her girls in Atiak, where Pipeline built a well. Bud played music the girls danced to. They honored us with a traditional dinner and dance.
We toured Pastor Ben Kibumba’s Come Let’s Dance (CLD) community development organization. Bud and others gave out jerseys to kids.
Nakavuma Mercy directs CLD’s Thread of Life empowerment program for single moms in Kampala’s Katanga slum.
We met Patricia at Bless a Child, which serves cancer-stricken kids in Kampala, and Moses, who’s opening a second site in Gulu. We met young entrepreneurs Charles Mugabi and Richard Kirabira, whose Connect Enterprise and Chicken City Farms, respectively, are part of a creative class Pipeline partners with.
“One of the things I see is that you have a lot of young people with strong leadership skills and I want to be able to come alongside them and support them in their efforts,” Nollette says.
Apollo says Uganda needs new leadership that’s corruption-free and focused on good resource stewardship.
Nollette says she offers “a pipeline to connect people in the States with opportunities and projects in Africa that are really trying to make a difference in their communities.”
It’s all about leveraging relationships and expertise for maximum affect.
We met ex-pats living and work there: Todd Ellingson with City of Joy and Maggie Josiah with African Hospitality Institute.
Josiah offered this advice:
“A lot of times, especially we Americans come over thinking we have all the answers and we know how to fix all the problems, and really we don’t need to fix any of the African problems. They will fix them themselves in their own time. But come over and listen and learn from them. The Africans have so much to teach us about joy when we have very little, they have so much to teach us about what it really means to live in community, what it means to live the abundant life…”
Hail, hail, The Champ is here
Having a world champ visit proved a big deal to Ugandans, who take their boxing seriously. The nation’s sports ministry feted Bud like visiting royalty at a meeting and press conference. He gained extra cred revealing he’s friends with two Ugandan fighters in the U.S., Ismail Muwendo and Sharif Bogere.
“I want to come back with Ismail.”
Ministry official Mindra Celestino appealed to Bud “to be our ambassador for Uganda.” Celestino listed a litany of needs.
“Whatever I can do to help, I’d like to help out,” Bud said. “I’m currently helping out Ismail. He fought on the undercard of my last fight. We’re building him up.”
Bud won over officials, media and boxers with his honesty and generosity, signing t-shits and gloves, posing for pics, sharing his highlight video and delivering an inspirational message.
“For me coming up was kind of hard. You’ve got gangs, you’ve got drugs, you’ve got violence. I got into a lot of things and I just felt like boxing took me to another place in my life where I could get away from all the negativity. I got shot in my head in 2008 hanging out with the wrong crowd. At that time I knew I just wanted to do more with my life, so I started really pursuing my boxing career.
“I had a lot of days I wanted to quit. For you boxers out there this ain’t no easy sport. It’s hard, taking those punches. You might be in the best shape of your life, but mentally if you’re not in shape you’re going to break down.”
He emphasized how much work it takes to be great.
“Every day, any boxing I could watch, I would watch. I would take time out to study, like it was school. I would tell you to just work hard, stay dedicated, give your all every time you go in there and who knows maybe you can be the next champion of the world.”
He referred to the passion, discipline and motivation necessary to carry you past exhaustion or complacency.
“There’s going to be days you want to quit. Those are the days you’ve got to work the hardest. I never was given anything. I was one of those kids they said was never going to make it – I used that as an opportunity to prove them wrong.”
We did take time out to enjoy the outdoors, hiking to the top of Murchison Falls and going on safari at Paraa game preserve. I brought up the rear on the hike and Bud hung back to encourage me: “I’ve got you, Leo…you can do it.” On safari his fondest wish of seeing big cats was fulfilled when we came across two lion prides. He earlier spotted a rare leopard perched on a cliff.
Into Africa II:
Uganda still swam in our heads after flying into Kigali, Rwanda, a city less teeming than Kampala. Despite only a generation removed from genocide, urban Rwanda’s more developed than Uganda. There are even some street lights and stop signs, plus more Western-style construction. In the rural reaches, it’s a sprawling complex of hills and valleys unlike Uganda’s flatlands.
Our guide, Christophe Mbonyingabo, reunited with Bud at the airport.
Just as Bud was mistaken for Ugandan, Rwandans mistook him for one of theirs, too. He delighted in it, especially when residents tried engaging him in their language and he begged off, “I’m American.”
In both countries, access to clean water is a daily challenge.
“Whether you’re passionate about women or children or health or education, once a village gets access to clean drinking water, this very basic need, it just changes everything,” says Nollette. “If a village gets a well it all of a sudden gets a school, a clinic, some agriculture.”
We met young men hoping to make a difference when they complete their U.S. studies. Another, Olivier, lost his entire family in the genocide but has gone on to become a physician.
As Bud put it, we were “happy to meet new friends, new faces.”
Like the work Apollo does in Uganda, Christophe works to heal people in Rwanda. The eastern Congo native needed healing himself after losing his father and two brothers to violence there. He credits being spiritually saved with his founding CARSA (Christian Action for Reconciliation and Social Assistance), which counsels genocide survivors and perpetrators to find forgiveness. We met a man and woman – he was complicit in her husband’s murder and stole from her – who’ve come to a serene coexistence. They now share a cow.
All of us expressed awe at this turning-the-other-cheek model.
“They love each other, too, that’s the crazy part,” says Bud, though Christophe said not every survivor forgives and not every perpetrator makes amends.
Bud summed it up with, “Life’s about choices.”
We met a survivor widow for whom Pipeline’s building a new home.
Bud caught up with two boys he met last year. He nearly caused a riot when the gifts he gave and the backflips he performed were spent and a crowd of kids clamored for more.
On the drive into the hills, the stunning vistas resembled Calif. or Mediterranean wine country. It’s a sensory explosion of nature’s verdant, colorful abundance and folks plodding the roadsides on foot and bike, selling wares, hauling bundles, Jerry cans,. you name it.
Upon hiking into a pygmy village, a young woman, Agnes, impressed on us residents’ extreme poverty. Their subsistence living and limited water source pose problems. She shared aspirations to finish school. The villagers danced for us. Our group returned the favor. Then Scott Katskee played Pharrell’s “Happy” and everyone got jiggy.
Seeing so much disparity, Bud observed. “Money can’t make you happy, but it can make you comfortable.”
A sobering experience came at the genocide memorial in Kigali, where brutal killings of unimaginable scale are graphically documented.
Group dynamics and shooting the bull
The bleakness we sometimes glimpsed was counteracted by fun, whether playing with children or giving away things. Music helped. At various junctures, different members of our group acted as the bus DJ. Bud played a mix of hip hop and rap but proved he also knows old-school soul and R&B, though singing’s definitely not a second career. Photography may be, as he showed a flair for taking stills and videos.
In this device-dependent bunch, much time was spent texting, posting and finding wi-fi and hot spot connections.
On the many long hauls by bus or land cruiser, conversation ranged from music to movies to gun control to wildlife to sports. Apparel entrepreneur Scott Katskee entertained us with tales of China and southeast Asia travel and friendships with noted athletes and actors.
Bud gave insight into a tell Thomas Dulorme revealed at the weigh-in of their April fight.
“When you’re that close you can feel the tension. I could see it in his face. He was trying too hard. If you’re trying too hard you’re nervous. If he’s intimidated that means he’s more worried about me than I am about him. I won it right there.”
Our group made a gorilla trek, minus me. Even Bud said it was “hard” trudging uphill in mud and through thick brush. He rated “chilling with the gorillas” his “number one” highlight, though there were anxious moments. He got within arm’s reach of a baby gorilla only to have the mama cross her arms and grunt. “That’s when I was like, OK, I better back off.” A silverback charged.
Back home, Bud’s fond of fishing and driving fast. He has a collection of vehicles and (legal) firearms. He and Esha feel blessed the mixed northwest Omaha neighborhood they live in has welcomed them.
Nollette correctly predicted we’d “become a little family and get to know each other really well.” She was our mother, chaperone, referee and teacher. Her cousin Joseph Sutter, an athlete, became like a little brother to Bud, whom he already idolized. When the pair wrestled or sparred she warned them to take it easy.
“Stop babying him,” Bud said. “I’m not going to hurt him. I’m just going to rough him up. You know how boys play.”
Like all great athletes Bud’s hyper competitive – “I don’t like to lose at nothing,” he said – and he didn’t like getting taken down by Suetter.
Once, when Bud got testy with Nollette. Christophe chastised him, “I hope you remember she’s your teacher.” Bud played peacemaker when things got tense, saying, “Can’t we all get along? We’re supposed to be a family.” We were and he was a big reason why. “What would y’all do without me? I’m the life of the party,” he boasted.
Out of Africa…for now
As The Champ matures, there’s no telling where he’ll wind up next, though Africa’s a safe bet. When I mentioned he feels at home there, he said, “It IS home. I’m AFRICAN-American. It’s where a lot of my people come from historically down the line of my ancestors. Damn, I love this place. I’m just thankful I’m able to do the things I’m able to do. I can help people and it fills my heart.”
Our last night in Africa Christophe and Nollette implored us not to forget what we’d seen. Fat chance.
Recapping the journey, Bud said, “That was tight.”
Bud may next fight in Oct. or Feb., likely in Omaha again.
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.
- A Homage to the Bootstrapper by the Grande Olde Players (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- UNO/OLLAS Resident Expert on Cuban and Latino Matters Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- From the Archives: Warren Francke, A Passion for Journalism, Teaching and Life (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Project Improve Aims to Make the Best of a Bad Situation with Illegal Immigrant Detainees (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Gender Equity in Sports Has Come a Long Way, Baby; Activists-Advocates Who Fought for Change See Progress and the Need for More (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
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.