John Sorensen and His Abbott Sisters Project: One Man’s Magnificent Obsession Shines Light on Extraordinary Nebraska Women
The following story was published in the June 2009 New Horizons newspaper. The layout and photographs and article all worked harmoniously together to create a great spread. I post the story here because I think it makes a good read and it introduces you to an interesting personality in the figure of Sorensen and to the remarkable accomplishments of two women I certainly never heard of before working on this story. I think you’ll find, as I did, that Sorensen and the Abbotts make a fitting troika of unbridled passion.
NOTE: John has worked closely over the years with Ann Coyne from the University of Nebraska at Omaha‘s School of Social Work, which was recently renamed the Grace Abbott School of Social Work. Coyne’s a great champion of the work of the Abbott sisters, particularly Grace Abbott, and drew on Sorensen’s work to make the case to university officials to rededicate the school in honor of Grace Abbott. John is also nearing completion on a documentary film that ties together the legacy of the Abbotts and their concern for immigrant women, children, and families and a story quilt project he organized that involved Sudanese girls living in Grand Island telling the stories of their families’ homeland and their new home in America through quilting.
My new story about John Sorensen and his magnificent obsession with the Abbotts is now posted, and in it you can learn more about his now completed documentary, which is being screened this fall.
John Sorensen and His Abbott Sisters Project: One Man’s Magnificent Obsession Shines Light on Extraordinary Nebraska Women
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
Grace and Edith Abbott may be the most extraordinary Nebraskans you’ve never heard of. John Sorensen aims to change that.
Born and reared on Grand Island’s prairie outskirts in the last quarter of the 19th century, when Indians still roamed the land, the Abbott sisters graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. After teaching in Grand Island they felt called to a secular ministry — the then emerging field of social work in Chicago. They earned advanced degrees at the University of Chicago, where they later taught.
No ivory tower dwellers, the sisters worked with Hull House founder Jane Addams at her famous social settlement. There, amid miserable, overcrowded tenement slums, they set a progressive course for the fair treatment of immigrants, women and children that still has traction today. The sisters’ trailblazing paths followed the lead of their abolitionist father, an early Nebraska politico, and Quaker mother, whose family worked the Underground Railroad. The parents were avid suffragists.
The sisters exerted wide influence: Grace as a federal administrator charged with children and family affairs; Edith as a university educator. They were outspoken advocates-muckrakers-reformers-advisers who helped to set rigorous protocols for social work and to craft public policies and laws protecting marginalized groups. Each attained many firsts for women. Both valued their Nebraska roots.
They were feted in their lifetimes but never gained the fame of Nobel Prize-winner colleague Jane Addams. Working in a neglected arena so long ago resulted in the Abbotts receding to the fringes of history. Grace died in 1939. Edith in 1957. Neither married nor bore children, so no descendent was left to carry the torch.
Enter John Sorensen. While it’s true few outside social work circles know the Abbotts, more will if Sorensen, a Grand Island native, has his way. For 17 years the New York-based writer-director has spearheaded the Abbott Sisters Living Legacy Project. The multi-media effort is the vehicle for his magnificent obsession with shining a light on the women and their significant achievements. Why an expatriate Nebraskan living in Greenwich Village is drawn to a pair of largely forgotten Great Plains women can be answered by the affection and affinity he feels for them.
“I simply love the sisters and this love somehow leads to the work I do,” said Sorensen. “I also admire their work for children and women and immigrants, and I feel a family-like connection and perhaps responsibility to them from sharing a hometown. I could no more turn my back on them, their legacy and their story than I could my own family. That love, that sense of faith is unconquerable.”
Just as the Abbotts were mavericks Sorensen goes against the grain. In an era when women were denied the right to vote, excluded from most jobs and treated as chattel, the Abbotts defied convention as working women and social activists who protested injustice. Sorensen’s not an activist per se but a liberal humanist whose youthful interests in film, music and art made him a misfit in rough-hewn Grand Island. His dogged commitment to perpetuate the Abbott story, often in the face of indifference, underscores a determination to do his own thing.
“I do have a high degree of identification with them,” he said. “I empathize with them. In the same way I choose a play to direct or a script to write I look for a character I identify with or something in their story, like in Grace’s story, that is me. There is some part of her that is me.
“The one term that maybe comes up most frequently in Edith Abbott’s memoir about her sister and her family is this word ‘different.’ She said people just looked at the Abbotts as being different — ‘We weren’t like the people in town.’”
Sorensen’s own family stands apart because his parents, who still live in town, are pillars of the community. He feels keenly the expectations that come with that.
Then there’s the whole sibling parallel. “In Grace’s relationship with Edith, two years her elder, I found many things in common with my relationship with my brother (Jeff), who’s four years older,” said Sorensen. “There’s things the younger sibling learned from the older one, felt challenged by, felt threatened by, but all of those things made them develop in very positive ways.”
The parental factor strikes home, too. “The way Grace and Edith’s parents nurtured and encouraged and challenged them as kids I certainly felt growing up through my mother,” said Sorensen, whose mom worked for Northwestern Bell and served on the board of G.I.’s Edith Abbott Memorial Library.
“So there were a lot of things I could identify with,” he said, “but I would say the deeper I dug into the Abbott story, into their childhoods, I felt a particular attraction to Grace. I found Grace was a very clever, very kind, but very naughty little girl basically. Edith writes that Grace was constantly in trouble at school. She remembered a moment where the teacher stopped Grace and said, ‘I’m going to have to call your mother, I don’t know what to do with you,’ and Grace immediately responded, ‘But Mother doesn’t know what to do with me either. Sometimes I don’t know what to do with myself.’ It’s funny but also very moving.”
That disconnection resonates with Sorensen, who said he had trouble fitting in because he was “strange.” “Being interested in the arts only made my weirdness seem more weird in that town in that time. School didn’t make any sense to me. I just didn’t like it.” He dropped out of college, never earning a degree. “Me and school don’t get along too well,” he said.
Just as it took Grace awhile to figure out where she belonged, it took Sorensen a long time to find his way.
“Like Grace, I stayed in town well after my high school graduation,” he said. “She stayed until she was 29, and I stayed until I was 26. Those challenging, waiting, searching years are something else that I feel I share with her.”
Then there’s the mission work the Abbotts felt compelled to do and “a kind of destiny” that’s led Sorensen to the Abbott story. The more he invests himself in their tale the more duty-bound he feels to be true to it.
“Again, that is where the love and the faith comes into things,” he said.
With great love comes great responsibility to get it right.
“This becomes the obligation. If you don’t know what you’re talking about and if you’re not willing to pay the price in terms of the study, the research, the heavy lifting,” he said, “it’s not enough that you care about it deeply.”
Despite his lack of formal training Sorensen’s assembled an Abbott Sisters project that cuts across academic disciplines and partners with scholars and educators. An outgrowth is a recently published book he edited with historian Judith Selander, The Grace Abbott Reader (University of Nebraska Press). This anthology of writings by and about Grace is the first in a series of planned Abbott books.
He’s nearing completion of a video documentary, The Quilted Conscience, that explores how the sisters’ concern for immigrants resonates today in places like Grand Island. Sorensen and his cameras followed a group of Sudanese refugee girls there who worked with renowned quilt artist Peggie Hartwell in making a mural story-quilt with images representing the girls’ memories of their homeland and the dreams they hold for their future in America.
“For many of the girls it has been a life changing experience,” said Tracy Morrow, a Grand Island teacher who works with the newcomers. “They feel better about themselves. They have the ability to stand in front of a group and tell their stories. It was very emotional for the girls. They put so much work into it. I feel like John’s doing what the Abbott sisters did by educating the Grand Island community about the Sudanese and educating the Sudanese about Grand Island and America.”
University of Nebraska at Omaha School of Social Work professor Ann Coyne said the sisters “really are a living legacy because we’re now dealing with some of the same problems related to children, maternal health and immigrants they dealt with” in the early 20th century. She said most striking is the parallel between the 1910s through Great Depression period with today, two eras marked by war, economic crisis, immigration debates and childhood-maternal issues. Coyne said reading the sisters’ words today reveals how “very contemporary” their philosophies remain.
Coyne said the Abbotts’ focus on immigrants echoes the yearly trip UNO social work students make to Nicaragua to live in family homes, visit orphanages and clinics and the biyearly trip students make to China. Students also work with refugee families in Nebraska. She said UNO social work graduate student Amy Panning “is living the legacy of Nebraska’s most famous social worker, Grace Abbott,” as the new head of international adoptions for Adoption Links Worldwide.
The storyteller in Sorensen knows a good tale when he sees one. In the Abbotts he’s hit upon a saga of women with backbone, compassion and vision engaged in social action. These early independent feminists from pioneer stock were part of the progressive wave that sought to reform the Industrial Age’s myriad social ills. He tells facets of their story in film, video, radio, stage and print. He makes presentations. He organizes special programs that pay tribute to their rich legacy.
He’s not alone in seeing the Abbotts as historic do-gooders whose work deserves more attention and greater appreciation. Coyne holds Grace Abbott in the highest regard. “She is the outstanding social worker in American history, so the fact she came from Nebraska just makes it better,” said Coyne, who’s convinced Abbott would he a household name today if she’d been a man.. “What I admire her for is that she knew how to work the political system in Washington to make sure laws got passed to ensure children really were protected and weren’t just left to the whims of individuals. She was savvy. She got things done. Children were guaranteed a number of things for their care and concern that weren’t in place before.”
Edith and Grace Abbott
Though Sorensen shares the same hometown as the Abbotts it took years before he learned anything about them. His first inkling came not at home but back East. Growing up he was aware a G.I. park and library bore the Abbott name, but he didn’t know the stories of the women behind these monuments and inscriptions.
His work has helped the town and state rediscover two of their greatest gifts to the world. Working with Grand Island public officials, Sorensen promotes community-school events that celebrate the sisters. All part of a pilgrimage he makes to this place where the sisters were born and are buried. Call it fate or karma, but this less than stellar former student now gives Abbott talks before G.I. schoolchildren, making sure they know what he didn’t at their age.
Morrow said, “We really didn’t know the Abbott sisters before John.”
“What started as an idea to call attention to the Abbotts has really morphed into something much larger and much more powerful and that’s a tribute to John,” said Grand Island Public Schools superintendent Steve Joel. “He’s got people working on this thing that I think are stretched far and wide — not only in Nebraska but New York and other parts of the country.”
None of this was on Sorensen’s mind 23 years ago. Ironically, the young man who “never felt at home in Grand Island” often now returns to share his passion for the Abbotts. He left home in ‘86 to study cinema at the California Institute of the Arts, where he ended up a protege of British director Alexander MacKendrick (The Sweet Smell of Success). By the early ‘90s Sorensen did film and theater work in New York. He assisted producer Lewis Allen and his wife, playwright/screenwriter Jay Presson Allen, on Broadway (Tru) and TV (Hothouse) projects.
Sorensen founded a theater troupe in Manhattan and began making short films. The very first book he wrote, Our Show Houses, got published. It explores the unusual history of Grand Island’s Golden Age movie theaters and proprietors, including an “in” the town’s leading theater owner enjoyed with Hollywood royalty that brought unexpected aspects of Tinsel Town glamour there.
S.N. Wolbach, a prominent G. I. businessman in the Roaring Twenties, was a friend of Universal Pictures head Carl Laemmle from their days as New York merchants. The association led Laemmle to send Universal contract stars such as Barbara Stanwyck to appear in the small Midwest town at Wolbach’s Grand Theatre and a studio crew to shoot a silent newsreel of the town. Laemmle also convinced top movie palace architect John Eberson, who designed the Roxy in New York, to design Wolbach’s Capital Theatre, where Lillian Gish and Louis Calhern performed live on-stage in The Student Prince and Sig Romburg led his orchestra.
When in the course of research Sorensen discovered the Universal footage of G.I. he recut it with snippets from other vintage moving pictures of the town for a new film he entitled Hometown Movies. It’s shown on Nebraska Educational Television.
In doing these projects Sorensen was following an edict from his mentor. “MacKendrick was very big on writing things that you knew about or that were unique to your experience,” he said.
“Around ‘91 or ‘92 I started looking for other things connected to Grand Island. About that time I was working on a project for the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights in New York,” said Sorensen. “I was editing an anthology of speeches that Bobby Kennedy had given. While doing that I came across a copy of the book A Nation of Immigrants that President (John F.) Kennedy had written and that Bobby Kennedy had written the preface to, and the first name in the bibliography was Edith Abbott. It just kind of threw me. I knew the name, my mother had been on the Edith Abbott library board when I was growing up here.But I had no idea who she was or what she’d done.
“I kind of thought, ‘Oh, that’s interesting, I’ll look up something about those women.’ I went to a library in New York, looked in the Encyclopedia Britannica, and there was no entry for Edith but a very interesting article about Grace, and I thought, ‘Oh, maybe there’s a story here.’ It’s something I do — always keeping my eye out for something unique that hasn’t been covered before.”
His interest peaked, Sorensen continued his quest for Abbott information.
“So I guess the next trip out here to Nebraska I went to the Stuhr Museum (Grand Island) to go through their files on the family. They don’t have a lot but they have some interesting things and among them was a copy of a letter that President Franklin Roosevelt had written to Grace. It was so impressive.”
Sorensen used the letter as a preface to a chapter in The Grace Abbott Reader. Here’s an excerpt from FDR’s 1934 note to Grace Abbott:
“My dear Miss Abbott you have rendered service of inestimable value to the children and mothers and fathers of the country, as well as to the federal and state governments…I have long followed your work and been in hearty accord with the policies and plans which you have developed.”
Coming upon JFK’s reference to one sister and FDR’s adulatory letter to the other proved an “Aha” moment for Sorensen, who also discovered Eleanor Roosevelt was an admirer of Grace Abbott. “At that moment I’m thinking, ‘There’s got to be some story here,’ and at that point I did just enough sniffing around to be certain in my heart there was something worth telling.”
Aptly, Sorensen’s search took him home — to the Abbott library. He later expanded his hunt to searching archives and conducting interviews in his roles as scholar, journalist, detective, documentarian, writer.
“So I was beginning to educate myself. At that point I raised just enough to have like a three-month research project. I went to the University of Chicago.”
He recorded interviews with Chicagoans who worked with or studied under the Abbotts. The more data he gathered the bigger the story grew.
What Sorensen’s discovered about Grace Abbott alone comprises a wealth of achievements that seem too vast for any one person to have completed, especially in such a short lifetime. She died at age 60.
A select list of Grace’s early feats:
•Directed Immigrants Protective League in Chicago
•Wrote “Within the City Gates” weekly articles for the Chicago Evening Post
•Worked with the Women’s Trade Union LeagueTraveled to Central Europe to study emigrant working-living conditions
•Testified before Congress
•Served on Mayor’s Commission on Unemployment in Chicago
•Chaired national Special Committee on Penal and Correctional Institutions
•Served as delegate to Women’s Peace Conference at the Hague
•Organized and chaired Conference of Oppressed Nationalities in nation’s capital
•Named director of Child Labor Division with the U.S. Children’s Bureau in D.C.
•Authored book, The Immigrant and the Community
•At President Woodrow Wilson’s behest served as secretary to the White House Conference on Child Welfare
•Served as consultant to War Labor Policies Board
•Represented Children’s Bureau at conferences in Europe
All this by 1919. Amazingly, she’d only begun her social work career in 1908. Others saw her potential early on and put her in key leadership positions she excelled in. Her phenomenal rise was partly being in the right place at the right time but clearly she was a highly capable doer who impressed those around her.
In 1921 President Warren G. Harding named her Children’s Bureau chief. In her 13- year reign she helped ensure the health, safety, education of the most vulnerable among us. Using every tool at her disposal Abbott spread the word about the pressing needs for child labor reform, improved maternal and childcare, et cetera.
A sample of what Grace did the last 18 years of her life:
•Hosted NBC radio series, produced films, published literature on children’s issues
•Worked for U.S. Constitutional “Children’s Amendment” to regulate child labor
•Administered Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Act, the first system of federal aid for social welfare in U.S. history.
•Named president of National Conference of Social Workers
•Helped pen League of Nations Committee “Declaration of the Rights of the Child”
•First woman in U.S. history nominated to Presidential cabinet post
•Awarded National Institute of Social Sciences Gold Medal
•Good Housekeeping named her one of America’s 12 “Most Distinguished Women”
•Appointed adviser to U.S. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins
•Served as managing editor of the Social Service Review
•Contributed to drafting and passage of the Social Security Act
•Served on FDR’s Council on Economic Security
•Chaired U.S. delegation to International Labor Organization Conference in Geneva
•Chaired U.S. delegation to Pan American Conference in Mexico City
•Authored book, The Child and the State
Her noteworthy credits would be longer had ill health not forced her to decline opportunities, such as succeeding Jane Addams as Hull House director. A case of tuberculosis slowed Abbott in the 1920s. After rebounding, her health declined again in the 1930s, by which time she’d resigned from the Children’s Bureau and returned to teach at the University of Chicago, where she rejoined her sister.
Edith Abbott’s accomplishments were numerous, too. After Hull House she studied in London and upon returning to the U.S. helped establish the country’s first university-based school of social work at the University of Chicago in 1920. In 1924 she became dean, making her the first woman dean of a graduate school in an American university. The field work and training she mandated for social workers set professional standards. She launched the journal Social Service Review, serving as managing editor. She advised the U.S. government on federal aid relief during the Depression and the International Office of the League of Nations on problems of women in industry, child labor, immigration, legislation, et cetera.
The sisters remained close siblings and colleagues, often consulting each other.
“I think from an early age, the sisters recognized they were each somehow mysteriously ‘made whole’ by the other — that together they could learn things and experience things and do things impossible for either on her own,” said Sorensen.
An indication of how dear their roots remained was a habit of referring to themselves in interviews as “the Abbott sisters of Nebraska.” Grace was the star but instead of envy Edith expressed admiration for her younger sister. Their shared experience on the prairie, in academia, at Hull House and on the front lines of social work gave each a deep understanding of the other. If anyone could appreciate the mounting challenges Grace faced inside the Beltway it was Edith. No doubt Grace’s many run-ins with political foes, including President Wilson, and her tireless work around the world weakened her already compromised health.
Grace described public service as “the strenuous life” and dismissed critics with, “It is impossible for them to understand that to have had a part in the struggle, to have done what one could, is in itself the reward of effort and the comfort in defeat.” Her militant campaigning for human rights criticized America for neglecting its children and demanded the state care for its homeless, orphaned, sick, poor. Her strong stances elicited strong responses. She was called a socialist. She was an ardent humanitarian, a watchdog for the dispossessed, a voice for the voiceless.
Peggy Hartwell and the Sudanese studentd holding the quilt they created
Edith fought the same battles. Early social work was a perilous job not for the faint of heart. Sorensen said Edith writes about how “’sometimes you didn’t know if your next step was going to plunge you off the edge of a cliff or come down on a bridge to take you across the gap’. Many people literally or figuratively died in that process but what distinguished that generation is that they were like pioneers — they were willing to go and a lot of them were willing to die for it.”
Sorensen’s struck by how Grace used the wartime idiom of the day to describe the hard, uphill road of social work as “battle front service” fraught with “casualties.” She equated social workers with “shock troops.” Apt language for this warrior-protector of the underclass. She came by her fierce convictions via nature and nurture. As Sorensen put it in a recent Omaha address he gave about the Abbotts:
“The combative way was nothing new to Grace. It was the life into which she had been born…she had met and kept company with her family’s many unusual house guests, including suffragist heroines Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone. Before she had started school Grace had already given several years of childhood service to the new women’s suffrage movement of the Midwest, working alongside her remarkable mother and father, who were leading activists…”
Standing up for what’s right can take a heavy toll. By the end of her life, said Sorensen, “Grace was so physically debilitated by her work, it was so physically exhausting and she was so vilified, her body was falling apart.”
He’s mined insights about Grace from extensive notes Edith left behind for an intended but never finished biography of her sister. His first attempt at synthesizing Grace’s story was a three-hour radio series he wrote, My Sister and Comrade, that drew on Edith’s recollections. The series aired on Nebraska Public Radio in the mid-’90s. He then adapted the script for a short performance piece.
He always wanted to do a book and film about the Abbotts but found scant interest for projects whose subjects were obscure figures from the past. To build support he spoke about the Abbotts at schools, libraries and anywhere that would have him. His fledgling Abbott project became whatever he could cobble together.
“I just did whatever I could to keep transforming it and keeping it in people’s faces,” he said. “I could see I was having success in raising awareness — that people were slowly getting to know around the state who these women were. I shifted the focus of the project to what I call the living legacy work — to say, ‘Look, this is not just the study of people from a hundred years ago, this is the study about things that can help us to live better today, especially women, children, immigrants.’
“We started a series of projects, including restoration of the Grace Abbott Park. We raised the money to have properly cleaned up a bronze memorial plaque to Grace that was never completed. We also raised funds to have bronze busts of the sisters cast and placed in the Edith Abbott Library. Very beautiful.
“Around that time, too, through a series of lucky accidents I made a connection to the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation.”
Since 2003, the Lincoln-based Foundation has presented the annual Grace Abbott Award in recognition, said executive director Meg Johnson, of “those who have made a difference” in strengthening the lives of children and families “in the courageous spirit of Grace Abbott.” This year’s recipient is Doug Christensen, emeritus commissioner, Nebraska Department of Education.
The Foundation helped get then-Gov. Mike Johanns to proclaim an annual Abbott Sisters Day. Momentum for the Abbott Sisters Project gained steam. “I think it just legitimized things for people,” Sorensen said. “It got the word out more.”
Along the way Sorensen’s project has garnered funding from the Nebraska Humanities Council and other public and private supporters. Some Grand Islanders hope to capitalize on the Abbott name the way Red Cloud has with Willa Cather.
Like a Johnny Appleseed, Sorensen’s planted the kernels, tilled the ground, and now all things Abbott are sprouting. The Dreams and Memories story-quilt is touring the state until a permanent home is found. Sorensen hopes The Quilted Conscience documentary airs statewide, even nationally, on public television. The University of Nebraska Press is planning a sequel to the Abbott Reader with the 2010 publication of Edith Abbott’s memoir, A Sister’s Memories. Children of the Old Frontier, a book about the Abbott sisters with input from G.I. 4th graders, is part of the new Great Peoples of Nebraska children’s book series by the Press.
“One of the most thrilling aspects of this work for me is that over the years we’ve had children from all over the country, all girls by the way, develop Abbott projects for History Day competitions,” said Sorensen.
The Abbott sprouts don’t end there.
The Grand Island Independent has begun an Abbott scholarship for Hall county high school grads to study social work at UNO. Ann Coyne’s lobbying for the School of Social Work to be renamed for Grace Abbott. She said it’s “kind of like losing our heritage if we don’t keep her legacy alive and visible,” adding that if Nebraska doesn’t claim Abbott, Chicago will. An Omaha World-Herald editorial stated, “Society should remember and appreciate this remarkable, courageous Nebraskan.”
All of it is music to Sorensen’s ears. Affirmation that the odyssey of his magnificent obsession has been worth the wait now that the Abbotts’ story is getting out.
“There had been things written about the Abbotts before, very important things, but they were I think read by a very small scholarly audience,” he said.
That’s all changing thanks to Sorensen.
Steve Joel said anyone meeting Sorensen is struck by his “commitment and passion. He’s a hard person to say no to.” Tracy Morrow noted, “The Abbotts wanted a positive change in the world and I think that’s what John wants, too.”
Sorensen’s simply grateful his dream’s coming to fruition after 17 years.
“I started this as a project and it became a life choice. I mean, it’s become clear in the last three or four years that it has no end for me. It’s become so embedded in my existence that I can’t stop — also because now it’s actually starting to unfold.”
- Author Honored at the University of Nebraska-Omaha (nebraskapress.typepad.com)
- A Look at Women in History – Jane Addams (socyberty.com)
- John Sorensen’s Decades-Long Magnificent Obsession with the Abbott Sisters Bears Fruit in a Slew of New Works, Including ‘The Quilted Conscience’ Documentary at Film Streams (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
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