Archive for May 1, 2010

Size matters: The return of Alexander Payne, not that he was ever gone



Size matters: The return of Alexander Payne, not that he was ever gone

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in a 2009 issue of The Reader (


Has it really been five years since Sideways? The 2004 film’s success gave its director and Oscar-winning co-writer Alexander Payne the kind of career momentum few filmmakers ever enjoy. What did he do with it? From a crass POV, he squandered the opportunity when instead of leveraging that critical-commercial hit to make some dream project, he chose not to make anything.

Well, not exactly. He did write and direct the short, 14e Arrondissement, for the 2006 omnibus film, Paris, Je T’aime (Paris, I Love You). He and writing partner Jim Taylor took passes at the scripts for I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry and Baby Mama. In 2007 the pair also began work on a script that turned into an unusually arduous process. Payne hopes to direct that script, Downsizing, next year.

Also, Payne helped produce two films, the disappointing King of California and the sublime The Savages. All those commitments kept him busy, which is how he likes it, but they also made it more difficult to launch a new feature of his own.

Besides the Paris short, he’d actually exposed no film for six years from the time  Sideways wrapped in 2003 until last summer, when he shot the pilot episode for the new HBO comedy series Hung. Thomas Jane stars as a typical middle-class American man driven by economic distress to offer his gift to women as a high class escort. The opening episode Payne helmed premiered last Sunday.

Paris notwithstanding, the gap between Sideways and Hung was interminable for this celluloid junkie who once said, “Every day I’m not directing I feel like I die a little.” OK, maybe he was being over-dramatic, but the point is he went a long time not making cinema. He presumably could have had he really wanted. But Payne is nothing if not a considered, deliberate study. Anyone who knows him understands how particular he is when it comes to his work. Everything must be done on his terms. He’ll only shoot after a script’s gone through endless permutations, revisions, vettings, drafts. It must be solid as gold. No question marks, no loose ends.

Given the choice of rushing to follow up Sideways or stepping back to survey his options, he chose the latter course. Thus, the last five years was about regaining his personal/artistic bearings. Things came at him so hard, so fast after Sideways blew up that he lost his equilibrium there for awhile. A breather was in order.

It didn’t help that in the wake of the film taking off he was reeling from his and Sandra Oh’s divorce. Amidst all that, he moved, he had knee surgery, he did a ton of press and he fielded multiple directing offers. He discovered what it’s like to be a hot commodity. It all got to be a bit much and in typical Payne fashion he didn’t want to compromise his principals by just jumping into anything that came along or feeling pressured into a project he really wasn’t passionate about. So, he entered a self-imposed hiatus from shooting. He would only break this pact with himself in the event the right assignment came along at the right time. Paris was such an assignment. He filmed his segment in 2005.

Until last year he hadn’t found anything conducive enough with his sensibilities and schedule to compel him to shoot again. That all changed with Hung. The new HBO series equates America’s desperate new straits to the plight of ex-golden boy Ray Drecker, a one time athletic hero turned high school basketball coach whose life has soured after a run of bad luck that leaves him feeling worthless.

As Payne noted in a recent interview at mid-town’s Caffeine Dreams, this is the first television pilot he said yes to after years of courting by producers. So what made the ever cautious one bite?  “Every May I get a couple offers to direct a pilot and I’ve never done so until now because the scripts weren’t good or at least I didn’t like them, or I was busy. But this time Jim Taylor and I had just finished a draft of Downsizing and I was just so eager to shoot something and maybe let Downsizing simmer before coming back to it to do yet another draft, because the script has been so difficult. I thought, Just go make something short, go shoot some film, go beat up some actors, assemble my team.”

“What interested me,” said Payne, “is that it’s about a guy who loses everything. His house burns down when he’s uninsured, he’s been hit hard in a divorce, and he ends up turning to the only asset he thinks he has left, one that he was born with. And I thought that maybe somehow that was a symbol for America in a way, where so much has been taken away from it that it only has its large member, and however it uses that. So it’s kind of a whacky metaphor but it’s something I could hang my hat on,” he said, smiling wryly, pun fully intended.

The premise may not be Payne’s but given his track record it’s not hard to imagine him envisioning Hung’s scenario. In line with his taste for discerning, critical, original material, Hung explores the nation’s economic, moral downturn through the prism of an All-American male’s experience gone awry. In this downward spiral Ray does what the sorry, wounded protagonists in Payne’s conception of the world do, he acts out. In this case, the beleaguered Ray turns the one endowment he feels he can market into a second career turning tricks.

Is what Ray does really so different than Ruth Stoops playing her pregnancy off the pro-life/pro-abortion camps for cold hard cash (Citizen Ruth)? Or Jim McAllister giving Tracy her comeuppance by rigging the student body’s vote (Election)? Or Warren Schmidt asserting his emancipation by rashly making an RV road trip and assuaging his guilt by supporting an African orphan (About Schmidt)? Or Miles going off on a self-loathing jag and Jack having his last fling (Sideways)?

Payne’s less sure how consistent Hung is with his oeuvre. “I don’t know if it fits into the body of my work or not but it was fun to do and I was certainly able to bring something to it. I’m proud of the work I did on it. I can’t speak for the rest of the show because they just finished shooting it, but I know the pilot. It speaks well for the pilot that the network did select Hung to be a series because part of that decision is the pilot. And it was really great to work with HBO. They’re awesome.”

As he didn’t write the script, he said, “it’s nothing from my soul,” but that he would respond to Hung makes sense as its creators had his tone in mind when conceptualizing the series.

“It’s funny because we recently found our very first notes from our very first session and we had said months before we had Alexander on board that it should be a comedy with ‘a Paynsian sensibility,’” said Burson. “Alexander finds both the humanity and the comedy in every day life. His movies feel very true and yet they’re very funny. It’s comedy that emerges from truth. Comedy without a wink.”

Further, Burson said, when it came time to pitch a director to HBO Payne’s name was at the top of her and Lipkin’s list. “When we met with HBO and they said to us, ‘Who is your dream director?’ we said our number one choice would be Alexander Payne.” To HBO’s credit, she said, the network didn’t blink. “Two days later he had the material and he called us up.”


Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, A Reporter’s Perspective 1998-2012

A compilation of my articles about Payne and his work.  Now available for pre-ordering.



Being Dick Cavett

May 1, 2010 2 comments

TV Guide #1058

Image by trainman74 via Flickr

Former TV talk show host Dick Cavett has been kind enough to grant me several interviews over the years, but we had always spoken by phone, that is until last summer, when we finally met face to face. This story is largely drawn from that encounter.  I have always liked Cavett for his wit and charm and genuine fondness for his native Nebraska.

The story appeared in The Reader ( more or less as it is here.

Being Dick Cavett

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in a 2009 issue of The Reader (  Access the story there at  Cover – | Omaha Weekly Reader.


While Johnny Carson’s ghost didn’t appear, visages of the Late Night King abounded in the lobby of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Temple Building.

Carson’s spirit was invoked during an Aug. 1 morning interview there with fellow Nebraska entertainer, Dick Cavett. That night Cavett did a program in its Howell Theatre recalling his own talk show days. Prompted by friend Ron Hull and excerpts from Cavett television interviews with show biz icons, the program found the urbane one doing what he does best — sharing witty observations.

The Manhattanphile’s appearance raised funds for the Nebraska Repertory Theatre housed in the Temple Building. The circa-1907 structure is purportedly haunted by a former dean. Who’s to say Carson, a UNL grad who cut his early chops there, doesn’t clatter around doing paranormal sketch comedy? His devotion to Nebraska was legendary. Only months before his 2005 passing he donated $5.4 million for renovations to the facility, whose primary academic program bears his name.

The salon-like lobby of the Johnny Carson School of Theatre & Film is filled with Carsonia. A wall displays framed magazines — Time, Life, Look — on whose covers the portrait of J.C., Carson, not Christ, graced. Reminders of his immense fame.

A kiosk features large prints of Carson hosting the Oscars and presiding over The Tonight Show, mugging it up with David Letterman. In one of these blow-ups Carson interviews Cavett, just a pair of Nebraska-boys-made-good-on-network-TV enjoying a moment of comedy nirvana together.

It’s only apt Cavett should do a program at a place that meant so much to Carson. They were friends. Johnny, his senior by some years, made it big first. He hired Cavett as a writer. They remained close even when Cavett turned competitor, though posing no real threat. Cavett was arguably the better interviewer. Carson, the better comic.

They shared a deep affection for Nebraska. Carson starred in an NBC special filmed in his hometown of Norfolk. He donated generously to Norfolk causes. Cavett’s road trips to the Sand Hills remain a favorite pastime. Though not an alum, he’s lent his voice to UNL, and he’s given his time and talent to other in-state institutions.

Looking dapper and fit, Panama hat titled jauntily, Tom Wolfe-style, the always erudite Cavett spoke with The Reader about Carson, his own talk show career, his work as a New York Times columnist/blogger, but mostly comedy. In two-plus hours he did dead-on impressions of Johnny, Fred Allen, Katharine Hepburn, Marlon Brando, Charles Laughton. His grave voice and withering satire, intact. He dropped more names and recounted more anecdotes than Rex Reed has had facelifts. Walking from the UNL campus to his hotel he recreated a W.C. Fields bit.





He’s so ingrained as a talking head Cavett’s comedy resume gets lost: writing for Jack Paar, Carson, Merv Griffin; doing standup at Greenwich Village clubs with Lenny Bruce; befriending Groucho Marx. He hosted more talk shows than Carson had wives. He’s had more material published than any comic of his generation.

On the native smarts comedy requires, Cavett said, “comedy is complete intelligence.” He said the best comics “may not be able to quote Proust (you can bet the Yale-educated Cavett can), but there’s an order of genius there that sets them apart. There aren’t very many stupid, inept, dumb comics. There are ones that aren’t very talented and there are the greatly talented, but the comic gift is a real rare order. It doesn’t qualify you to do anything else but that.”

Good material and talent go a long way, but he concedes intangibles like charisma count, too. He said, “Thousands of comics have wondered why Bob Hope was better than they are. What’s he got? I’ve got gags, too.”

For Cavett, “Lack of any humor is the most mysterious human trait. You wonder what life must be like.” He appreciates the arrogance/courage required to take a bare stage alone with the expectation of making people laugh.

“Oh, the presumption. It’s not so bad if the house isn’t bare but that has happened to me too at a club called the Upstairs at the Duplex in the Village, where many of us so to speak worked for free on Grove Street. A great motherly woman named Jan Wallman ran this upstairs-one-flight little club with about seven tables. Joan Rivers worked there. Rodney Dangerfield, Bob Klein, Linda Lavin. Woody (Allen) worked out some material there early on.”

He knows, too, the agony of bombing and that moment when you realize, “I have walked into the brightest lit part of the room and presumed to entertain and make people laugh and I’m doing apparently the opposite.” A comic in those straits is bound to ask, “What made me do this?” The key is not taking yourself too seriously.

“If you can get amused by it that will save you, and I finally got to that point at The Hungry Eye,” he said. “I knew something was wrong because I’d played there for two weeks and been doing alright and then one night, nothing, zero. The same sound there would be if there was no one seated in the place. Line after line. It was just awful. You could see people at the nearest tables gaping up at you like carp in a pool, not comprehending, not laughing, not moving. And I finally just said, ‘Why don’t you all just get the hell out of here?’ It gave me a wonderful feeling.

“Two, what Lenny Bruce used to call diesel dikes sitting in the front row with their boots up on the stage, one of whose boots I kicked off the stage, taking my life in my hands, got up to leave. And as they got to the door I said, ‘There are no refunds,’ and one of them said, ‘We’ll take a chance.’ And she got a laugh. So they (the audience) were capable of laughing.”

He finished his set sans applause, the only noise the patter of his patent leathers retreating. Inexplicably, he said, “the next show went fine. Same stuff.” For Cavett it’s proof “there is such a thing as a bad audience or a bad something — a gestalt, that makes a room full of unfunnyness, and I don’t think it’s you. It might be something in you. Whatever it is, you’re unaware of its source, not its presence.”

Anxiety is the performer’s companion. It heightens senses. It gets a manic edge on.

“Whether you want it, you’re going to get some,” he said. “I can go into a club and perform without any nerves of any kind now. But if it isn’t there you want a little something, and there are ways you can get it. Like be a little late. Or I found with low grade depression, before diagnosed, not knowing what it was, I would do things like go back and rebrush my hair or put another shirt on. ‘This is dangerous, they’re going to be mad,’ I’d think. ‘But that’s alright somehow.’ I didn’t realize the somehow meant it’s giving me adrenalin that lifted the depressed seratonin level. It raises you a little bit above the level of a normal person standing talking to other normal people. It’s a recent realization. I’ve never told that before.”



Dick Cavett and Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show” in an undated photo. (Courtesy of NBC)



Cavett was always struck by how Carson, the consummate showman, was so uptight outside that arena. “I’ve said it before, but he was maybe the most socially uncomfortable man I’ve ever known. At such odds with his skills. There are actors who can play geniuses that aren’t very smart seemingly when you talk to them, but whatever it is is in there and it comes out when they work. I have a sad feeling Johnny was happiest when on stage, out in front of an audience. I don’t know that it’s so sad. Most people are sad a lot of the time, but some don’t ever get the thrill of having an ovation every time they appear.”

“It’s funny for me to think there are people on this earth who have never stood in front of an audience or been in a play or gotten a laugh,” he said.

People who say they nearly die of nerves speaking in public reminds him he once did, too. “I had the added problem of every time I spoke everybody turned and looked at me because of my voice. It was always low. If I heard one more time ‘the little fellow with the big voice’ I thought I’d kick someone in the crotch.”

He said performers most at home on stage dread “having to go back to life. For many of them that means the gin bottle on the dresser in a hotel in Detroit. On stage, god-like. Off-stage, miserable.”

In Cavett’s eyes, Carson was a master craftsman.

“He could do no wrong on stage. I mean in monologue. He perfected that to the point where failure succeeded. If a joke died he made it funnier by doing what’s known in the trade as bomb takes — stepping backwards a foot, loosening his tie…’” Not that Carson didn’t stumble. “He had awkward moments while he was out there. Many of them in the beginning. My God, the talk in the business was this guy isn’t making it, he’s not going to last. It’s hard to think of that now. Merv Griffin began in the daytime the same day as Johnny on The Tonight Show. Merv got all the good reviews. He was the guy they said should have Tonight, and Merv really died when he didn’t get it.”

When the mercurial Paar walked off Tonight in ’62 NBC scrambled for a replacement. Griffin “was actually seemingly in line” but the network anointed Carson, then best known as a game show host. In what proved a shrewd move Carson didn’t start right away. Instead, guest hosts filled in during what Cavett refers to as “the summer stock period between Paar and Johnny. People don’t remember that. Everybody and his dog who thought he could host a talk show came out and most of them found out they couldn’t.” Donald O’Connor, Dick Van Dyke, Jackie Leonard, Bob Cummings, Eva Gabor, Groucho. Some were serviceable, others a disaster.

Carson debuted months later to great anticipation and pressure. “At the beginning he was really uncomfortable, drinking a bit I think to ease the pain, and as one of my writer friends said, ‘with a wife on the ledge.’ It was a very, very hard time in his life to have all this happen” said Cavett, “and then he just developed and all this charm came out.”

Off-air is where Carson’s real problems lay. “Many a time I rescued him in the hall from tourists who accidentally cornered him on his way back to the dressing room after the show. They’d made the wrong turn to the elevators and decided to chat up Johnny, and he was just in agony.” The same scene played out at cocktail parties, where Carson hated the banter. It’s one of the ways the two were different. Said Cavett, “I don’t seek it but I don’t mind it. He couldn’t do it and he knew he couldn’t do it and it pained him.”

That vulnerability endeared Carson to Cavett. “I liked him so much. We had such a good thing going, Johnny and I. It dawned on me gradually how much he liked me. I mean, it was fine working for him and we got along well, and when I was doing an act at night he’d ask me how it went, and we’d laugh if a joke bombed. He’d say, ‘Why don’t you change it to this?’ He’d give me a better wording for it. I feel guilty for not seeing him the last 8 or 10 years of his life, though we spent evenings together. The staff couldn’t believe I ate at his house. ‘You were in the house?’ On the phone he was, ‘Richard’ — he always called me Richard, sort of nice  — ‘you want to go to the Magic Castle?’ I’d say, ‘Who is this?’ ‘Johnny.’ And I would think somebody imitating him, even though I’d been around him a million times.”

Something Brando once told Cavett — “Because of Nebraska I feel a foolish kinship with you” — applied to Cavett and Carson.





Cavett realized a dream of hosting his own show in ’68 (ABC). In ’69 he went from prime time to late night. A writer supplied a favorite line: “‘Hi, I’m Dick Cavett, I have my own television show, and so all the girls that wouldn’t go out with me in high school — neyeah, neyeah, neyeah, neyeah, neyeah.’ It got one of the biggest laughs. Johnny liked it.”

Getting more than the usual canned ham from guests was a Cavett gift. Solid research helped.

“I often did too much. I’d worry, ‘Oh, God, I’m not going to get to the first, let alone the 12 things I wrote down. Or. ‘I’ve lost the thread again.’ Only to find often the best shows I did had nothing I’d prepared in it. The best advice I ever got, which Jack Paar gave me, was, ‘Kid, don’t ever do an interview, make conversation.’ That’s what Jack did.” A quick wit helps.

At its best TV Talk is a free-flowing seduction. For viewers it’s like peeking in on a private conversation. “Very much so,” he said. “You’d think that can’t be possible because there are lights and bystanders and an audience, and it’s being recorded, and yet I remember often a feeling of breakthrough, almost like clouds clearing. ‘We’re really talking here. I can say anything I want .’”

With superstar celebs like Hepburn, Bette Davis, Robert Mitchum, Orson Welles and his “favorite,” Groucho, Cavett revealed his fandom but grounded it with keen instincts and insights. “That did help. I could see on their faces sometimes, Oh, you knew that about me? I guess I have to confess to a knack of some sort that many people commented about: ‘How did you get me to say those things?’”

He said viewing the boxed-set DVDs of his conversations with Hollywood Greats and Rock Greats reveals “there was a time when nobody plugged anything” on TV. Then everyone became a pimp. “When first it happened it was rare. Then it was joked about,” he said, “and then it got so it was universal — that’s the reason you go on.”

Today’s new social media landscape has him “a bit baffled and bewildered.”

“I have wondered at times what all has changed, what’s so different. It did occur to me the other day looking at the Hollywood Greats DVD — who would be the 15 counterparts today of these people. I might be able to think of three. And that’s not just every generation thinks everything is better in the past than it is now. I know one thing you could start with is the single act that propelled me here — the  fact I was able to enter the RCA Building via the 6th Ave. escalators, which were unguarded, and walk up knowing where Paar’s office was, and go to it.”

He not only found Paar but handed him jokes the star used that night on air, netting Cavett a staff writing job. “No career will start that way today,” he said. Then again, some creatives are being discovered via Facebook and YouTube.

In terms of the talk genre, he said, “it doesn’t mean as much to get a big name guest anymore. They’re cheap currency now,” whereas getting Hepburn and Brando “was unthinkable.” He’s dismayed by “how much crap” is on virtually every channel.” He disdains “wretched reality shows” and wonders “what it’s done to the mind or the image people have of themselves that allows them to think they’re still private in ways they’re not anymore.”

Comedy Central is a mixed bag in his opinion. “I like very little of the standup. I don’t see much good stuff. They all are interchangeable to me. They all hold the mike the same and they all say motherfucker the same. You just feel like I may have seen them before or I may not have. And I don’t believe in the old farts of comedy saying ‘we didn’t need to resort to filthy language’ and ‘they don’t even dress well.’ That’s boring, too.”

Cavett’s done “a kind of AARP comedy tour” with Bill Dana, Mort Sahl, Shelley Berman and Dick Gregory. “It was pretty good.” But he’s about more than comedy nostalgia. He enjoys contemporary topical comics Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher, about whom he said, “he gives as good as he gets and gets as good as he gives.” He’s fine not having a TV forum anymore: “I’ve lived without it and I got what I wanted mostly I guess in so many ways.” Besides, who needs it when you’re a featured Times’ blogger?

“Yeah, I like that, although it can be penal servitude to meet a deadline.”

His commentaries range from reminiscences to takes on current events/figures. His writing’s smart, acerbic, whimsical, anecdotal. He enjoys the feedback his work elicits. “My God, they’re falling in love with Richard Burton,” he said of reader/viewer reactions to a ditty on the Mad Welshman’s charms. He covers Cheever-Updike to Sarah Palin. “My Palin piece broke the New York Times’ records for distributions, responses, forwarding. The two from that column most quoted about her: ‘She seems to have no first language’ and ‘I felt sorry for John McCain because he aimed low and missed.’ Many, many people extracted those two.”

He said Times Books wants to do a book of the columns.

When his handler came to say our allotted 90 minutes were up, he quipped, “Oh, God, it went by as if it were only 85.” And then, “I’ve got a show tonight but I said everything. Biga has had my best.” Before leaving he asked his picture be taken beside the Cavett-Carson repro. Two Kings of Comedy together again.

The Real McCoy: Artist Bob Weaver Charts His Own Hard Course as a Regional Master

May 1, 2010 14 comments

I cannot remember how I first heard about the supremely talented and irascible artist Bob Weaver, but I am glad I did, because he proved a remarkably colorful profile subject. To say that he was reluctant to do the interview would be a gross understatement. Some patrons and friends of his prevailed upon him to meet with me, and then when he showed up he was as agitated as a caged animal. More than once I thought he was going to bolt from his chair and out of the room mid-interview. His general agitation and frequent use of foul language was expected and so none of it really threw me, and besides I knew it would be good for the story.


Bob Weaver’s self-portrait



The Real McCoy: Artist Bob Weaver Charts His Own Hard Course as a Regional Master

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in a 2006 issue of The Reader (


Hard as flint. Variable as slate. He is John Robert Weaver, American artist. Too formal a name really for this “old school” codger, who’s just a “country boy” at heart. Bob Weaver’s more like it. No, better leave it at just Weaver. Direct, yet enigmatic, like the proud, profane, sensitive, soulful man he is. Like the visceral paintings, drawings and prints this Nebraska artist’s been creating for decades. Works that so powerfully capture the animus of figures or objects that the viewer is forced to confront the vital life force behind them.

That life force belongs to Weaver, as expressed through the strokes, splays, daubs, lines and cuts he makes, and the intrinsic energy of the image/subject itself. Like a method actor, he channels the essence of a subject through his art to create an honest representation of all that’s bound up in it, internally and externally.

At age 73, this quintessential working artist with a well-deserved reputation for being difficult may be at the peak of his creative powers. Former Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery director George Neubert says Weaver’s art reflects “the best of time and place in this region.”

Admirers say Weaver’s never wavered from what one calls his “whole-hearted independent spirit.” He’s not compromised his work, as friend Samina Quareshi Shepard says, to reflect “fad or fashion” or to appease “critics or evaluations.” An old grad school chum calls him “driven.”

Weaver is, noted artist Keith Jacobshagen says, “an authentic person and a painter.” Indeed, Weaver’s remained true to his calling — only he refers to it as “the curse”  — despite what he describes as a life of “pain, poverty and purgatory.” As veteran Weaver observer Danny Lee Ladely says in a new film about the artist, “He is his work and he lives his work.” Uncompromising in his art and his life. “Yeah, that word’s gotten me in a lot of trouble in the past,” Weaver told The Reader. “Uncompromising. Rebellious. Non-conformist. A lot of other adverbs and adjectives, too.”

“He’s a rather extraordinary personality,” said Norman Geske, another former Sheldon director. “I don’t think he’s the least bit a conventional artist. Over the years, he gets better and stronger all the time. All of his work has one quality, and that’s intensity. There’s nothing superficial or decorative about it and I think that reflects his very personal stance on almost any subject. He’s a very perceptive person. He paints what he sees…the truth.”




Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery




His portraiture can render subjects, including himself, in merciless detail. His craggy face a bearer of deep wounds. As patron Karen Duncan said, “They’re not smooth, sweet little things. They’re painful. You either love them or hate them.”

Whatever the subject, Weaver first studies it, draws it, photographs it, so as to absorb it. Then, and only then, does he feel he can expressively interpret it.

If Weaver’s name is unfamiliar, it’s because he doesn’t play the game. He likes recognition for his work, which is widely collected, but abhors “all the horseshit” that goes with openings, curators, art dealers, collectors and reporters.

Lately, he’s gotten more attention than he wants, making him more skittish than ever, as the result of a recent retrospective exhibition and a new documentary film and book focusing on him and his art. The 2005-2006 exhibit, John Robert Weaver: American Artist – A Retrospective, had the distinction of showing, concurrently, at two Nebraska museums — the Sheldon in Lincoln and the Museum of Nebraska Art (MONA) in Kearney. The same titled book, with 600 Weaver images, has just been published by MONA. The new film Sleep Under the Sea is director Bob Starck’s intimate portrayal of Weaver. Shot cinema verite style, Stark said the film is “a little bit rough…a little bit crude, like Bob Weaver is.” It premiered at Ladley’s Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln. No Omaha screening is set yet.

As Weaver and the hard life’s he’s lived cannot be separated from his art, projects like the film and book dredge up a heavy past he’d rather forget.

The cruelties of a rural Missouri, Depression-era farming family that didn’t understand him. An aborted Marine Corps hitch. The “outlaw days” that got him incarcerated. The women. The feuds. The tirades that saw him “shit can” his work — “I was notorious for tearing up my work.” The jobs he took, from tarring roofs to plumbing to pumping gas, to support himself — “I mean, you name it, I’ve just about done it, including the bad shit,” by which he means his part in a Butler, Mo. bank robbery he was implicated in when barely out of his teens and was pardoned for a few years later. Working in unheated downtown studios, dingy two-room apartments, decrepit barns. Selling his work for “a steal” to help make ends meet.

“Between the documentary, the book and the retrospective. it’s been a mess…All the petty jealousy, politics, incompetency, it’s left a bad taste in my mouth. I wish I had never done any of it. The work is all that is important to me. I like my work. That don’t mean I don’t have to work for it, because I do work my ass off,” he said.


Bill Kloefkorn-Nebraska State Poet

Robert Weaver
b. 1935, Stillwater, Kansas
Medium: ink, marker
Date: 1984



He resists any intrusions into his rather solitary life.

“Even after the shows and all this stuff, there’s always, it seems like, bullshit coming back, and goddamn, it just never ends,” he said, shifting uneasily in his seat during a recent interview, his mouth working his trademark toothpick to a nub.

He only agreed to speak with The Reader after his patrons, Lincoln, Neb. millionaires Robert and Karen Duncan, perhaps the state’s leading private art collectors, prevailed upon him to do so. He put off the meeting for weeks, and then only reluctantly met at the main office of Duncan Aviation, the Lincoln company Robert Duncan founded and still runs today.

“I don’t like interviews. And this is probably, hopefully, my last fucking interview,” said Weaver, whose nervous agitation makes him squirm, seemingly ready to bolt from his chair at any moment. “I don’t like to talk art… or what I do…or the creative process. It don’t mean I can’t. I just don’t like to. I never have. You either like my work or you don’t, and that’s the bottom line really.”

Lean and angular, like the arrowheads he collects, he prefers blue collar clothes or fatigues to anything dressy, like “the ritzies” wear. He both is and is not what he appears to be. His coarse speech, furrowed brow, macho pose and stubborn ways belie a vulnerable man who wears belligerence as both a badge of honor and as an armor of defense. His wary gait and gaze are that of a man chased by demons.

He hates being analyzed or reduced to labels like this. He resents old indiscretions being thrown back in his face. It’s why he doesn’t easily trust others. The abrasive front keeps folks at bay. As George Neubert says, “He tests you. He tests your interest. He tests your commitment, and I don’t think that’s all bad. It eliminates the riffraff…the frivolous.” Burned enough times before, Weaver reveals little about “the bad shit.”

“In a situation, they’ll fucking use it against you in a minute. I mean, almost anybody. Friends. Family. I’ve been through that. It leaves a mark,” Weaver said.

He can alienate people by the things he says and does. He and Bob Starck, the maker of Sleep Under the Sea, haven’t spoken for months after a series of disagreements over the film. Starck, who considers Weaver “a genius,” chalks it up to “Weaver just being Weaver.”

Before taking questions for this story, Weaver delivered a declaration of principles that basically said, Here I am. Take me or leave me. If you don’t like it, fuck-off.

About his art, he said, “I do things I have experience about or know something about and I do a lot of work in a lot of different mediums. I feel uncomfortable even talking this kind of stuff,” he said, clearing his throat and wringing a pair of gloves he kept putting on and taking off. “The last time (a Lincoln Journal-Star story), I got shot down with a bunch of bullshit that came from other sources besides myself. It really left me in a bad frame of mind. I went through this shit 50 years ago (when he was “discovered” as an ex-con artist with a big talent) and, you know, I didn’t need the past coming back again. All of this is cheap, sensational bullshit, which I don’t really like. I know what I am and what I’ve done and what I’ve been, and it’s always there. I live with that. It gets into my work, whether I want it to or not, and I know that.

“But I don’t like to talk about it. I didn’t start school (at the Kansas City Art Institute) until I was 25, after I’d been out in the big bad world or school of hard knocks or whatever you want to call it,” he said. “And I’m 70 years old now and no quedan muchos días para comprar (there’s not many shopping days left). And I get more aware of that every day.”

Spanish colors his graphic language. He’s been to Mexico — “I like it there”  — and Day of the Dead imagery pops up in his work.

Plagued by “a shot disc” and pinched nerve he originally injured sky diving and aggravated over many years of physical labor, he’s been unable to work much since the flurry of activities surrounding the exhibit, film and book. Surgery’s in order, but he’s putting it off as long as he can. He swims to get his back “into shape, so I can get back doing my work. I want to do some work bad.”



File:Museum of Nebraska Art (MONA).jpg

Museum of Nebraska Art



As recently as six years ago he still painted houses to get by. That, along with tackling large-scale art works that require him to climb ladders or woodcuts that demand he get on his hands and knees, takes its toll.

“It’s physical. It’s hard. Age compounds that, too,” he said.

Time-consuming, too. Karen Duncan said he’s “very slow, very deliberate, very methodical. Very particular.”

A painter first and foremost, he mostly works in oil on canvas these days. Also a lithographer, he produces woodcuts and etchings. Drawing, whether in pencil, pen, ink, marker or charcoal, is the foundation of his portrait/figurative work.

“It’s important for me to draw. I like to draw. I need to draw. I always have.”

His well-used sketchbooks reveal studies of those things that catch his eye and stir his soul. “He’s affected by everything around him,” Duncan said. Faces. Bodies, at rest or in motion. Women, lots of women. Nudes. Erotica. Indelible characters, male and female, whose distinctive features he embellishes. Animals and nature.

Stylistically, his work is most often categorized as expressionistic. But art terms are so many dodges and distractions as far as he’s concerned.

“I mean, it gets to be all relative, you know, because you still use brushes and you still use paint. That’s where it begins and ends. And there again, you like or you don’t like, it works or it don’t work.”

On the sheer range of Weaver’s subject matter, Geske says in the film: “Everything appeals to him. His appetite is just as broad as it can be.”

“Well, I’ve always had that type of thing,” Weaver told The Reader. “I couldn’t play one sport. I had to play four sports. If there had been more, I would have tried those, too. Each medium is different and each sport is different from the other one. It’s the same kind of drive that you have for that stuff. I wanted to be a baseball player…a cartoonist…a wildlife illustrator.”

He was drawing from the time he was a boy. His earliest influences the comic books and cartoons he read. His farmer father offered no encouragement. His mother, some. Weaver knew he wanted a life different than theirs.

Running with the wrong crowd got him in a jam he ended up doing time for. Art was and continues to be his salvation.

“If I hadn’t got in the racket I’m in now, I’d probably of wound up in the pen for the rest of my life or dead or both,” he says on screen. He confirmed to The Reader, “Oh, yeah, definitely, that’s an honest statement. Going to school, I came close going back (to the pen) a couple times. There was one (incident) that was maybe my fault, but the other ones were other people’s fault. But that don’t make any difference. They (the law) don’t give a fuck about that.”

Surrendering to his craft isn’t so much by design as directed.

“I don’t think you have any control over that at that point. I think once you’ve got the curse, you don’t really have any choice. Once the dye is cast, it’s all gonna be, for bad, for good, for in-between. It’s kind of fatalistic, but I’ve seen a lot of examples where that’s true, especially my own.”

His art bloomed in jail (he even began an art club behind bars) but really flourished at the art institute, where he was a student with Quareshi and Jacobshagen in the ‘60s. Later, he did grad studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He said it was at the institute that for the first time “I really felt I could paint a little. I remember when I thought that and the feeling I had about it. The art institute was probably the best period of my life in that sense.”


Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief

Robert Weaver
b. 1935, Stillwater, Kansas
Medium: lithograph
Date: 1965



The institute’s where he lost much of his early work and nearly lost his life, too. One spring day, the smell of something smoldering filled a building on campus he was working in. But the source of the odor couldn’t be found. By night fall, Weaver was still inside and oblivious to the fact the structure was by then ablaze.

“It was really getting smoky. I started to leave, but I couldn’t make it it was so smoky. Then I started crawling to get to my paintings or whatever. I don’t know what I was trying to do. I went back. I tried to get out of one door, but it was locked, and I finally found another one and got out.”

Outside, a crowd watched as the fire raged. He joined the throng, but could only think about his endangered work. Then, as if the devil himself spoke, a lick of fire rained down on his precious paintings.

“There was a big glow in the wall by where my paintings were. I mean, fuck. I’ve never seen anything as weird as that in my life. All of a sudden this flame just jumped out of the wall right on top of my work. It was just like something out of a fucking comic book.”

Or the Bible, someone suggests. “Oh, yeah, ciento por ciento (one hundred percent),” he says, laughing.

Seeing his work about to burn up was too much for him to stand.

“I just yelled and kicked this big fucking plate glass window in and was trying to get in and grab this painting…but they all grabbed me…After the fire was put out and the smoke cleared, I went in and got it. That was the only one I saved and at that time that was my perfect painting. The fire scorched it, but I cleaned it up and varnished it. It was in the MONA show and it really looked good.”

Ask him what a perfect Weaver painting is, and he pretends to be annoyed, saying. “You’re on thin ice. Boy, that’s a loaded question. Goddamn. You know, that’s all. Perfect’s a false word anyway. What the fuck do you want to paint for if they’re all going to be perfect? It’s so fucking relative.”

So, you inquire, How do you know when you’re satisfied with a work? “You just know,” he replies again, tiring of the questions. “I’ve liked paintings at the time I’ve done ‘em and then later I’ve shit canned ‘em. And there’s some I’ve destroyed I wish I hadn’t of, and some I did that I’m glad I did. I know some artists who’ve never thrown anything away, and they should have.” Satisfaction, he said, is ephemeral. “That’s always short lived.”

Suggest the high of creation is rooted in the moment, and he reminds you, “Well, the moment gets into days and years and that kind of thing. I worked on my big airplane painting about a year and on my train painting five years.”

But he acknowledges his work means everything to him. In the film, he and others remark on how hard it is for him to let go of the work, even when it leaves his possession. “I care what happens to my work. I mean, they may own it, but it’s still my fucking work.” On-screen, he’s shown going up to a tractor painting of his on display in a public place and the sensual pleasure he takes from the tactile act of feeling it, caressing it, as he would a woman. “I do that,” he said.

“Are you about done with this bullshit?” That’s Weaver’s way of saying his patience is at an end. You tell him that’s all there is. “Yeah, it’s getting a little bit thin, too,” he says by way of commentary. And with that, the gangly artist ambles off, throwing darting, sideways glances, as if to avoid an ambush. Perhaps he’s off to go “rockin’” on Yankee Creek, the retreat he escapes to when he wants to be “alone,” searching for rocks and Indian artifacts. Like he says on screen, “As long as I can do this, I don’t need no fucking shrink.”

You get the feeling all he needs is the sanctuary of the outdoors and his studio. Alone, with his palette of paints, he mixes colors and takes brush to canvas, feeding off the rush and angst of a new creation he will invariably fight with and swear at. It’s just the piss-and-vinegar tonic for this ever restless seeker. “I feel if I don’t die first and I get through some of this bullshit, I’ll be back,” he vows.

Geske says of Weaver and his art: “Painting is like his breathing. It’s that natural, instinctive and positive.”

“He never quits, no matter what,” said Bob Starck.

And this, for better or worse, is the gospel according to Weaver.


A Contrary Path to Social Justice: The De Porres Club and the fight for equality in Omaha

May 1, 2010 1 comment


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This article is an example of my social justice writing. The publisher of The Reader ( asked me to do the piece because of his own social justice bent. I am glad I did the story, which was originally published in The Reader.  This is an expanded version of that story.  It profiles two men, John Markoe and Denny Holland, some followers, and their fight for equal rights in a discriminatory, intolerant time.

A Contrary Path to Social Justice

The De Porres Club and the Fight for Equality in Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (

For a band of troublemakers, they were an unimposing lot. Yet, in an era when defacto segregation ruled, a small, racially mixed group of well-scrubbed, mostly college-age reformers — many with little experience beyond the classroom — rose up in the late 1940s to challenge the embedded discrimination and division that defined Omaha then. Along the way, they forced Omaha to confront some unpleasant truths and to make some long overdue changes.

Using fairly bold strategies and tactics in the fight against racism, ones duplicated later by more famous civil rights campaigns down south, the activists were viewed as militants. Staging non-violent sit-ins, marches and boycotts, they helped overturn unfair employment practices and opened public places to all. In the process, they took on powerbrokers and exposed inequality. They made enemies. They fell short of goals. They won small victories. More importantly, they broke down barriers and initiated changes whose reverberations are still being felt today.

These unlikely radicals formed the De Porres Club. Its patron namesake was Blessed Martin de Porres, a 16th century black friar who devoted his life to serving the disadvantaged. Led by a stubborn old priest, Fr. John Markoe, and his loyal young acolyte, Denny Holland, the Club worked in large and small ways to assist minorities. It helped some find jobs. It distributed food and clothes. It acted on individual complaints about discrimination. It studied “the race problem” by organizing forums and gathering data. It rallied support for wrongfully accused persons. It kept vigils when blacks moved into hostile white areas. It launched public pressure campaigns against companies that did business in north Omaha and yet refused hiring blacks.

“The problem was to get the damn wall knocked down that was holding and locking people, both physically and mentally, in this terrible system racism had built on Omaha’s near north side,” said the late Denny Holland in Camille Steed’s 1992 Nebraska Educational Television documentary A Street of Dreams. “And so we turned our efforts to what some, I suppose, would term more militant” means.

In one of his most famous denouncements of racism, the late John Markoe said, “Racism is a God Damned thing. And that’s two words — God Damned.” In an article he penned for the Interracial Review, he said, “…the race problem is a moral one.”

The first De Porres boycott targeted a dry cleaners. When that action prompted the firm to integrate its employee rolls, the Club moved on to other employers. Faced with pickets, leaflets, petitions and boycotts, the Coca Cola Bottling plant, Reed’s Ice Cream Co. and the Omaha Street Railway Co. gave-in to De Porres demands and hired blacks. The Club took on its biggest target in the local board of education, which didn’t hire blacks to teach at the secondary level and excluded them from teaching in white schools altogether. The years-long fight finally got the desired remedy. The Club also got such businesses as Dixon’s Restaurant, Crosstown Skating Rink and Peony Park to open their facilities to everyone.

Walking the Talk and Lighting the Torch

In an era when the Catholic Church discouraged blacks from its own congregations, Catholics Markoe and Holland lived their faith. “They walked and talked what they believed in. They were very brazen and unusual” for the time, said Omaha Star publisher and editor Marguerita Washington, a De Porres member in the late ‘50s.

During the Club’s 14-year life, volunteers came and went. When Holland stepped aside, Wilbur Phillips took up the mantle. Most regard the work as a defining moment in their lives. For white De Porres veterans Agnes (Wichita) Stark, Millie (Heifner) Barnet and Virginia (Frederick) Walsh it was an eye-opening experience that sparked a lifelong commitment to social causes. “It was kind of a social awakening,” said Stark, a Creighton student at the time. “I didn’t realize all the problems that existed for blacks. I felt the injustice of it all. That’s how I got interested.” Barnet recalled going to her first De Porres meeting “and just in that one evening, I felt my whole world turned around. It was like suddenly I saw how appalling things were. I was immediately put in touch. It made quite an impact on my life.” For Walsh, “It made college so much more meaningful. I learned we had to change what could be changed. I was just glad to be part of it.” All three women credit the De Porres experience with, as Walsh said, “lighting a torch” for their later involvement in the women’s and peace movements.

Then there’s the effect blacks felt. “We not only formed a family, we got along very wonderfully. We tried our best to bring people together,” said Irv Poindexter, one of the Club’s youngest members. “You know what? It was the best thing that ever happened to Omaha’s black community,” said Helen Jones Woods, a member along with her late husband, Alfred. She said De Porres contributed “to better jobs and better advantages for blacks” — she and her husband included. “Today, I would say because of the De Porres Club a lot of places that didn’t want us, do now, or at least they tolerate us,” Washington said. “A lot of things I am doing today I couldn’t do then. It started changing things. It helped in ending Jim Crow.”




A Renegade

Unless one lived then, it’s hard to understand just how separate and unequal Omaha was for racial minorities. “Omaha had a bad reputation among African Americans,” said Washington, who was born and raised in Kansas City, Mo., but often visited Omaha, where she attended UNO. “The segregation here was very bad,” said Woods, who grew up in segregationist Mississippi.

Choose any quality of life index and blacks lagged far behind whites. On average, they made less money, lived in subpar housing and had less formal education. Blacks were frozen out of a wide spectrum of jobs, restricted to living in certain areas and refused service or admittance at many establishments. They were denied basic rights as part of an insidious, institutional Jim Crow culture that made segregation the rule, if not the law. An unspoken state of apartheid existed in all but name.

It was amidst this pervasive oppression the De Porres Club was born. It took an outsider to do it. De Porres founder John Markoe was a strapping, charismatic Jesuit priest regarded as a renegade by peers and superiors at Creighton University. A few years before, he’d been booted out of St. Louis, where he’d agitated for similar changes to the status quo. He’d also made waves in Detroit and Denver. In his life, his ministry and his writings, he attacked “the heresy of racism.”

Running against the current was a way of life with Markoe, who left behind the comforts of privilege for a hardscrabble life. Before ever joining the priesthood, he was a railroad foreman, an athlete, a cavalry officer, a lumberjack and a derelict. Alcoholism plagued him for years. During a checkered military career he rode in campaigns against rebel Yaqui Indians and Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. Between his drunken brawls — that saw him break up more than one bar and spend more than one night in jail — and his penchant for standing up for minorities, he was always in hot water. He was nearly expelled from West Point and was leading a 10th cavalry regiment of black troops when court martialled and relieved of both his command and commission.

His rebel ways followed him into the Jesuit order, where he became an unpopular champion of civil rights before the cause had a name. In 1917, he, his priest brother William Markoe and a third priest made a covenant “to give and dedicate our whole lives…for the salvation of the Negroes in the United States.” As he later did here, Markoe heeded this calling by immersing himself in the black districts in and around St. Louis, where he set up community centers, chapels and programs. After helping integrate St. Louis University, he was sent packing to Omaha.

Soon after forming the De Porres Club at Creighton in 1947, the group was kicked off campus. The Club next operated from a storefront on North 24th Street. The Omaha De Porres Center began as a grassroots social service mission before finding a niche as a social action group. Early on, center staff maintained a library, held youth programs and rallies and gathered clothes and food for the needy. As part of its education/advocacy calling, the Club: held public forums on racism; organized a lecture series featuring such nationally renown speakers as NAACP general secretary Walter White and baroness Catherine de Hueck, the founder of havens for the poor known as Friendship House; presented such anti-discrimination plays as Trial By Fire; and pressed city, civic and business leaders, to little avail, for more progressive policies. These efforts did spur the creation of a city human relations committee.

Although too controversial to be sanctioned by any religious body, the Club did draw many members from St. Benedict’s the Moor Catholic Church, then a separate “mission” church reserved for blacks, who were unwelcome anywhere else. Markoe and St. Benedict’s pastor, John Killoren, both sought a change at St. Ben’s from its mission status — which condoned segregation — to standard territorial standing. Their different approaches to the issue left them at odds when solidarity, not friction, was needed. In the end, St. Ben’s was made a regular parish church.


Markoe’s staunchest ally was Mildred Brown, founder, publisher and editor of the Omaha Star, which she made the group’s crusading mouthpiece. The Star printed  summaries of minutes from weekly Club meetings, featured stories charting the progress of De Porres actions and ran Club-penned editorials critical of racial bias. When the Club could no longer afford leasing space in its storefront site, Brown took in the orphaned group, who made the Star’s back rooms their offices.

As the Club became more entrenched, it allied itself with the local chapter of the NAACP, the Omaha Urban League and ministers of area black churches, who helped give the fledgling group credibility and spread word of its actions. A key De Porres supporter and advisor was Whitney Young, who left the directorship of the local Urban League to head the national organization. The Club also aligned itself with CORE, the national Congress for Racial Equality. De Porres chapters sprung up in Kansas City, Mo. and Denver, Co.

If Markoe was the De Porres Club’s conscience, then Denny Holland was its passion. Holland was a quiet Kansas World War II vet in whom Markoe saw a kindred contrariness. It was as a Creighton student Holland became a protege and confidante of Markoe’s and the Club’s original president. His social consciousness was peaked by a stint working at Chicago’s Friendship House. As he did there, he lived among the poor black residents he dedicated himself to, often boarding with families with whom he carried on the fight. Even after stepping away from the Club to work full-time as an insurance salesman and to raise a family of seven, he still kept watch and occasionally made waves.

Acting Against A Torrent of Disapproval

Markoe and Holland are gone now, but De Porres members well recall their guiding the struggle to get a resistant citizenry and leadership to do the right thing. Agnes Stark said Markoe was “a consummate leader” who “pushed us laggards along. Although a gentle man, he could get pretty angry.” Holland, meanwhile, was “very calm, always had the right words and was prepared. They worked very well together” in devising strategies, said Virginia Walsh.

The two men often began anti-discrimination campaigns by first appealing, either in person or by letter, to employers. De Porres delegations would meet with owners, managers or CEOs. If no corrective measure was taken, they organized more direct actions. They might hold a demonstration or distribute handbills. Or, in the case of the street-railway company, the public was urged to not ride streetcars and buses and, if they must, to wage a nuisance protest by paying the fare with 18 pennies.

They did all this in the face of criticism and opposition. Threats were made. Some suspected a snitch in the De Porres ranks. Holland’s suspicions that the phones were tapped, the mail monitored and certain members followed were more or less confirmed years later when his Freedom of Information/Privacy Act request netted a cache of FBI files that had been kept on he and the Club. Marguerita Washington said her aunt, Mildred Brown, was offered a top advertising post by a major Omaha employer on the condition she stop her civil rights advocacy in the Star.

“What we were doing was very much socially disapproved of,” said Walsh. She recalled soliciting signatures for a petition aimed at getting the transit system to hire black drivers. “People would say, emphatically, ‘No.’ They called us N…lovers. There was this confidence people had that God wanted it this way. I didn’t know religion could be used to justify a status quo so pernicious. Fr. Markoe was trying to reform the church at a time when it really didn’t want to be reformed.”

Early De Porres member Tessie Edwards said, “It was very scary, because the climate in Omaha was not ripe for” change. Markoe and Holland soldiered on despite having “doors slammed in their face. They had courage and commitment. And they convinced high-powered people this change was necessary,” she added.

In Street of Dreams, Holland described what it’s like pushing against stiff resistance. “It’s like you’re going up a mountain in a great big semi. All the tires are flat, and you’re the only one pushing and everybody that comes by says, Don’t go too fast. The problem isn’t going too fast, the problem is — can you move the damn thing? You soon see that what’s inferred by don’t go to fast is — don’t change anything.”

Markoe had seen it before elsewhere and anticipated Omaha’s opposition. He even welcomed it, writing it was evidence the Club had “at least done something.” to get people’s attention. He also wrote about his own precarious role: “The leader in the field of interracial relations is pretty much like an acrobat walking the tightrope of justice, supported by charity. His only safe course is a straight line. Let him lean too far towards either side, and he loses his balance and falls.”

The priest encouraged members to carry the fight with them wherever they went. For example, interracial groups would go to eateries and occupy a counter or table. “We would be told to go to the back…and we’d refuse to go,” Millie Barnet said. Sometimes, they were harassed. Once, Barnet said, a member flung a donut in disgust and was arrested on trumped-up assault charges. When his court hearing came up, a throng of De Porres supporters were in attendance. The case was thrown out. More often than not, Agnes Stark said, “we wouldn’t get waited on, but eventually they (eateries) came around” after a bit of discussion. If a proprietor didn’t comply, he was reminded of the law. If he still didn’t, a warrant was sworn out for his arrest. The Club rarely, if ever, lost a case.

Working on the front lines of racial justice often elicited raised eye brows and nasty remarks even among De Porres members’ friends and family. “I felt like an outcast,” Barnet said. “My parents looked askance at my involvement,” Stark said.

The Club’s interracial makeup was not for appearances sake. It was practical. Agitating for change was “fraught with hazards” for blacks, who were considered second class citizens, said Walsh. Besides, it was intimidating for anyone to go up against prevailing social mores and the entities that enforced them. “I was scared spitless when we were doing this work,” said Walsh, who was part of a De Porres delegation rebuffed by officials at old St. Catherine’s Hospital for questioning their segregation and hiring policies. “It was so frightening to buck social customs when the highest level of authority in organizations like the school board and the archdiocese approved of segregation.”



Filling the Void

A challenge made all the more daunting, Walsh said, as the city’s conservative daily newspaper, the Omaha World-Herald, imposed a veritable news “black out” on “all the things that would have contributed to social justice. Reading the Herald, you would have thought the civil rights movement never happened.” When her husband Tom Walsh met with a top Herald editor to discuss inequality, she said he was met with indifference. The same “don’t rock the boat” response came from the archbishop, say De Porres members. Walsh said that when her mother, Mary Frederick, asked Omaha Public Schools superintendent Harry Burke to assign black teachers to white schools, “he told her, ‘Over my dead body.’”

Years later, a federal court found the Omaha Public Schools guilty of a decades-long pattern of segregation and ordered the desegregation of its schools. Much of the evidence in the lawsuit brought against OPS was supplied by the De Porres Club’s own Denny Holland and Wilbur Phillips, who remained ever vigilant watchdogs.

De Porres actions didn’t always didn’t always get the intended results, but at least they tried to affect change when no one else dared or cared to act.

“What they did right was having a mixed group of dedicated, responsible people that followed through on their ideas and were unafraid to tell the truth and speak out, with concrete examples, of injustice,” Tessie Edwards said. Prior to Markoe, Holland and company, she said, “There was no one here to say, Let’s lift these people higher. There was no one asking, Do they all have to work service jobs? Do they all have to live in one segregated area? They educated Omaha on a level Omaha had not been educated on before. They raised the awareness of Omaha to the problems. So many people in Omaha had their head in the sand. They did not think there was a problem here. The De Porres Club really opened the doors.”

Agnes Stark said the De Porres Club was the impetus Omaha needed then. “It was moving things forward that were just at a standstill.”

By the 1960s, Markoe was ill and the Club on its way out. New voices were speaking out for change, including the Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties, or 4CL, a religious-secular coalition led by black churches that staged large demonstrations for fair employment and housing policies.

The Men Behind the Mission

The driving force behind the Club was the enigmatic Markoe. He not only preferred working behind the scenes, but had to since he was persona non grata within official Catholic circles. Protest letters from the Club were signed by Holland but often written by Markoe. Even though Markoe kept a low profile, Tessie Edwards said his presence was always felt and his commitment never swayed.

“Father set the example,” Edwards said. “When he finished teaching for the day, he’d take off his Roman color and put on his nice Panama hat and walk North 24th Street. He’d be sitting on the steps of storefronts talking to people. He’d talk to bums and alcoholics. He visited the homes of poor people. He could see the need because he’d hit bottom himself. Part of the Jesuit philosophy is being a man for others. How can you be a man for others if you don’t know them and their hurt? He really did. He loved people. If you asked him a question, he gave you a straight answer. He didn’t just try to proselytize. He was tough. He said things to people at the bottom and at the top that the average person wouldn’t say.”

Virginia Walsh recalled the “very forceful” yet “gentle” and “completely persuasive” Markoe. Helen Jones Woods recalled Markoe as the man who arranged a loan for her to attend nursing school, encouraged her husband to pursue an accounting degree at Creighton and sponsored their daughter Cathy at Duschene Academy. “He did a lot for young people.” Marguerita Washington said Markoe stood tall: “As far as African Americans who were interested in the movement were concerned, he was a hero. As far as I was concerned, he was some type of saint.”

For much of his life, he was a contentious figure. Only later in life were he and his work recognized as righteous. The legacy of Markoe, like De Porres, lives on. Roger Bergman, director of Creighton’s Justice and Peace Studies Program, said that as Markoe’s been “rehabilitated” in Jesuit circles, he’s gained honored status within the order and the wider social justice-peace community. In ‘94, Bergman began the Markoe Lecture Series. “Ever since Fr. Markoe, Creighton has made it a major concern to reach out to the (black) community,” said Edwards. She and others also credit him with helping more widely integrate the campus. Markoe died in 1967.

Denny Holland also casts a long shadow. Before his death in 2003, he was honored with a humanitarian award by the organization formerly known as the National Conference for Christians and Jews. “He was a torch bearer. He was a remarkable gift to the city of Omaha,” Walsh said. In later life, Holland worked on human relations committees, aided a scholarship program for blacks, volunteered at Sacred Heart Parish and found a new crop of troublemakers with whom to stir things up in Omaha Together One Community. He also penned protest articles.

When the De Porres Club disbanded in the early ‘60s, civil rights laws were being shaped and the black power movement formed. De Porres veterans could see the fruit of their labors. Public places were integrated and blacks were employed in jobs and living in areas once off-limits to them. A foundation had been laid. A dialogue begun. The late ‘60s riots that torched black communities like Omaha’s were an expression of a people’s rage over continued oppression. “It kind of had to happen that way,” Holland said of the riots. “Change doesn’t come smoothly. Change only comes, it seems to me, with a threat or with a bit of violence.”

All these years later, the pro-active, interracial coalition that was the De Porres Club remains a model for achieving social justice and economic parity. As one black Omaha leader said, “It’s not so much what ‘they’re’ going to do for us, it’s more about a partnership of what we’re all going to do together — to affect change.”

The Artful Dodger: Lou Leviticus survived the Holocaust as an escape artist

May 1, 2010 3 comments

I have had the privilege of telling the stories of several Holocaust survivors.  All of their stories are compelling. Perhaps the most memorable of these stories, just in terms of sheer drama, belongs to Lou Leviticus.  His many narrow escapes have a visceral, cinematic quality to them that leaves you with the image of him always on the run or in hiding or eluding capture.

The story more or less appeared as it is here in The Reader almost a decade ago.  It was later reprinted in The Jewish Press.  I have always hoped to share the story with a wider audience.

NOTE:  Leviticus has subsequently told his own story in a book he wrote.




The Artful Dodger: Lou Leviticus survived the Holocaust as an escape artist

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader ( and then reprinted in The Jewish Press


“I’ve been an escape artist all my life.”

The apt words belong to Lincoln, Neb. resident Lou Leviticus, a square-headed terrier of a man who as a youth in his native Holland survived the Holocaust partly due to his talents as an artful dodger. He escaped the Nazis more than once, even when those closest to him were caught and put to death. As an orphan on the run he became one of scores of hidden children in The Netherlands, his survival dependent on a cadre of strangers that cared for him as one of their own.

Today, when telling his saga to young Hebrew students at Temple Israel Synagogue in Omaha, the spoken truth sounds less like glib bravado than it does a solemn proverb. And, like an answered prayer, members of the Dutch underground rescued him. Families working with the underground risked their very lives taking him into their home and shielding him from danger. He regards those that helped him, especially Karel and Rita Brouwer, as his “heroes” and “protectors.”

During his time in hiding Leviticus endured and did some unspeakable things. An archly unsentimental sort, he sheds no tears over what happened. Despite it all, he emerged a life-affirming dynamo. The retired University of Nebraska-Lincoln agricultural engineering professor first came to America in the mid-1950s (by way of Israel, where he resided after the war) to obtain his Ph.D. He married, raised a family, got divorced. He wed his present wife, Rose, a native of Great Britain, in 1982. He became a U.S. citizen four years ago. While at UNL he also headed the Nebraska Power Lab and Tractor Testing Laboratory. Today, he is an agricultural engineering consultant.

Until quite recently he kept his story to himself. That changed when the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation requested he tell it for the sake of posterity. The Los Angeles-based Foundation, which filmmaker Steven Spielberg formed after completing Schindler’s List, is dedicated to recording and preserving the largest repository of Holocaust survivor stories in the world. Since 1996 the organization has been conducting videotaped interviews with survivors from every corner of the globe. To date, some 50,000 interviews have been cataloged for use by scholars and for dissemination in schools and libraries.

In 1996 Leviticus shared his story with Omahan Ben Nachman, a Holocaust researcher and Shoah-trained interviewer who’s collected dozens of testimonies. Since then, Leviticus has written his memoirs and related his tale to youths at schools and synagogues. Why, after all this time, is he bearing witness now?

“The only reason I do it,” Leviticus said, “is to maybe make somebody think about it and realize how fortunate they are. That they should not take their lives so easily for granted. That they have a little more gratitude for what they have…because what happened then can happen again. It is happening again. Look at Chechnya. Look at Kosovo. Look at the skinheads in this country. There is hatred. People are cruel. And I do now feel it as an obligation, not necessarily to this generation, but to my school buddies, my parents, my grandmother, and to all those people. If I don’t tell their story, what else is left of them except their names in a register?”



Lou Leviticus, professor emeritus and volunteer curator at the Larsen Tractor Museum on East Campus, holds a copy of his...
Lou Leviticus, professor emeritus and volunteer curator at the Larsen Tractor Museum on East Campus, holds a copy of his recently published memoirs detailing his childhood in the German-occupied Netherlands. His parents were killed at Auschwitz in 1942. Photo by Brett Hampton.

Because ethnic cleansing seems far removed from the modern American experience, it is easy to distance oneself from such evil. But the truth is no one thinks it can happen to them, ever. That’s exactly how most Dutch Jews felt when Nazi Germany overran their nation in May of 1940. That’s why the only way to understand what happened is to recall the insidious events that systematically isolated Jews from mainstream Dutch life, all because they were deemed “different” and ultimately expendable. How else can one explain a child having to flee and hide to save his own life? Unthinkable, yet it occurred.

In a recent interview with The Reader, Leviticus recalled those years. Speaking from the deck of his comfortable tree-shaded home in Lincoln, the scene could not have been more incongruous with what he described. Despite what eventually transpired, his homeland was a tranquil place before the invasion. Pre-war Holland, after all, was a civilized society. Its large Jewish population enjoyed complete freedom, if not full acceptance. Leviticus and his parents led a privileged life in Amsterdam. As foreign correspondent for a large recycling company, his father, Max, handled relations with foreign clients. An outdoorsman, Max enjoyed long bicycle rides and walks in the countryside. Lou’s mother, Sera, was a socialite and spiritualist who gave bridge parties and hosted seances at the family’s large home.

“My mother was pretty deeply into spiritualism — mediums and seances and astrology — which was very fashionable in those days. I can still see her working with these charts on a table, trying to figure out what the hell was going on in the world. I’ve always wondered about that — if she could see what was going to happen to us or not,” Leviticus said.

As a boy he often joined his mother at Heck’s Cafe, a swank gathering spot for the smart set, where he listened to live band music while she hobnobbed with friends.
Music, especially opera, held young Lou enthralled. He had his own radio and spent endless hours listening to favorite tenors and to detective programs. An avid reader, he fancied the adventure tales of German author Karl May. Despite being undersized, he was athletically adept and belonged to swimming and soccer clubs. A cinema lover, he skipped Hebrew school to catch the latest movies.

His family lived quite close to Anne Frank’s family. A cousin of hers, Paul Frank, was a friend and playmate of Lou’s. Because she was two years older than Lou, he only knew her casually, but recalls her as a “nice girl. She was more mature than me.”

Admittedly “a spoiled brat” doted on by his maternal grandmother, Leviticus lived a carefree life. His parents, who employed a servant, had their every need met.

The family’s idyll ended May 10, 1940 when Germany invaded Holland. The Dutch, who remained neutral during World War I, had felt protected from the brewing storm in Europe despite Germany’s increasingly ugly rhetoric and military incursions. Caught unprepared, Holland’s meager defenses were quickly overwhelmed by the blitzkrieg. The Netherlands capitulated five days after the attack began. Even though he was not quite 9-years-old, Leviticus recalls it all.

“I remember all five days. For us kids it was the greatest adventure in the world. We didn’t see the sickness. We heard people were being killed, but we didn’t see it. We did see German planes in the air and men shooting at them. It was exciting.”

Perhaps his most vivid memory then is the sight of a city under siege at night, its lights darkened and streets emptied owing to the mandated curfew and blackout. As a child, the horror of the invasion was finally brought home when he saw adults around him shattered by the events. His father, a WWI vet, had been called up to serve in the civil defense corps. On May 15, the day the Dutch surrendered, Lou was shocked to find his father sobbing at home. “I can still see him sitting in the side room crying. It was the first time I saw my dad cry. I remember asking him, ‘What’s the matter?’ But he couldn’t talk.”

According to Leviticus, who has researched events leading up to the German conquest and the ensuing terror campaign, much of the Dutch ruling class held pro-Nazi sympathies and as such these Fifth Columnists aided Germany in subduing The Netherlands. Beyond politics or prejudice, he said, the compliant nature of the Dutch people, combined with a meticulous citizen registration system, made it easier for the Nazi regime to exert its will there.

“My feeling is that the Dutch have always been very obedient to authority — any authority. The Germans had the authority and when they installed a Dutch puppet government, that was the government, and therefore they were obeyed. The Dutch also had a population registration system in place unparalleled in its accuracy in Europe. In fact, (Adolph) Eichmann liked it so much he copied it in other countries under Nazi rule. That system should have been destroyed when the Germans occupied The Netherlands, but the people who ran it were so proud of their work and so pro-Nazi they handed it over in full to the Germans, who used it to curtail the activities of Jews and other undesirables.”

He said people were so accustomed to registration few saw danger in its application by occupying forces. “Nobody thought much of it, and so they re-registered.” He added the Germans were “very cunning” in passing decrees that, step by step, cut-off Jews from the general populace. “It started with very little things. In June, Jews were forbidden from being part of the civil defense. In July, they were excluded from the labor draft. Then there was a ban on ritual slaughter. In September, Jews were banned from selling in the regular markets. The Germans never targeted the whole population. Otherwise, that would have probably created unrest. Instead, they targeted sections, making each segment register and abide by restrictive laws. First, it was physicians, then pharmacists, then lawyers. Each week there was a different order affecting some group, and the others said, ‘Well, it’s only them,’ and in the end it was everybody. The noose was tightening, but most people didn’t realize it, and by the time they did it was too late.”

The first anti-Jewish regulation affecting him was a 1941 law banning Jews from all movie theaters except the single Jewish-owned cinema in Amsterdam. “I was an avid moviegoer and the only theater left I could go to soon became too dangerous because there were always Nazi youths waiting outside to cause mischief. We were yelled at, spit on, and so forth. It became impossible to go there unless you were with grown-ups and even then it sometimes got a little bit hairy.” He next felt the sting of anti-Semitism when Jews were forbidden from entering parks and from holding membership in sports clubs. In a cruel display of public humiliation, he was drummed off his soccer team by the coach in front of jeering teammates.

At the same time, the Nazi propaganda machine worked overtime inflaming anti-Semitic fervor. He recalls placards affixed everywhere with slogans like “The Eternal Jew,” “The Dirty Jew” and “Watch Out for the Jew” emblazoned on them. The posters typically depicted grotesque, deformed, horned figures with the Star of David displayed on their chest or forehead. Soon, all Jews — their businesses and residences too — were required to bear the yellow star. “When you got the star you were a marked person,” he said. “Now you couldn’t hide behind your looks. There were always groups of Hitler youths running around terrorizing people. They started making life very difficult. We, as kids, were beaten up — quite severely at times. Grown-ups didn’t interfere. They were afraid. The police seldom intervened.” Schoolmates he counted as friends turned on him, yelling epithets. “I went to school with great trepidation. I took a terrible beating one day and adults stood by laughing. Things got worse and worse, until every aspect of my life was affected. You felt you were an unworthy person. That you didn’t have the right to walk the same streets as other people. It made me feel terrible, awful, angry.”

Schools were finally segregated, which Leviticus viewed as a welcome relief.  “We were a pretty intelligent and rowdy bunch and we had a lot of fun in fact. We were all in the same boat. We were all together. That was the best part of it.”

By 1942, people started disappearing. Rumors spread the missing persons were hauled away to camps to be gassed or shot. “Nobody talked about it,” Leviticus said. “Not the teachers, not the parents. They didn’t know how to talk about it. They didn’t want to believe what was happening.” The fear turned personal when his girlfriend, Anita, was arrested along with her mother and sister. “I was very, very heartbroken for a long time because she was really my pal. We did homework together” He later learned she and her family died at Sobidor concentration camp.

As early as 1942 Jewish men were rounded up and taken away. It happened to Leviticus’ father, who ended up in the work camp, Ommen, where men worked clearing forests for agriculture, but in truth awaited transit to concentration camps and certain death. When the elder Leviticus learned of his group’s impending transport, he concealed himself in one of the deep trenches the men dug and escaped at night. Lou has since documented his father was the only prisoner from his work detail to escape alive. While in hiding, Max got word of his escape to Sera, who fled to a prearranged safe house in the country. Lou, in school at the time, was unaware of the unfolding intrigue. His first inkling of it came when an unfamiliar man came there one day with a note from his mother.

“My mother’s note said for me to go with him. The man told me, ‘Your mother’s waiting for you. Don’t worry.” Of course I was worried. I didn’t know what was happening. I had never seen him before, but I knew my mother’s handwriting, so I went. He took me into a hallway, took my coat off, gave me another coat without a star on it, grabbed my hand and we walked away. We went on a train. The train trip was frightening for me. We had to pass German police controls at various stations. By then I had been brainwashed so that I was sure I looked like any of those pictures of the Eternal Jew. I was afraid of anyone who had a uniform or boots or a dark coat on because those things represented Nazis. By then, I didn’t trust anyone any more. I’d lost my trust in the grown-up world.”

The pair passed through police checkpoints without a hitch. They got off at Amersfoort, a town 40 kilometers southeast of Amsterdam, where, it turned out the boy’s mysterious escort, a Mr. Van Der Kieft, was a plain clothes detective. Secretly, he was also a top operative in the Dutch underground movement that provided false identity papers, ration cards and safe havens to fugitives. As Leviticus soon found out, the underground network would be his lifeline. Van Der Kieft took Leviticus by bike to the farmhouse his mother had gone to. His father joined them days later. After two months in hiding, the family had to find refuge elsewhere when the farmer sheltering them demanded more money than they could pay. Leviticus said there were any number of people ready to help then, whether “out of good will or for good money.”

Thanks again to the efforts of the underground, the family was put up at a house in Amersfoort belonging to a coachman, who lived on the ground floor. Lou’s family shared a pair of small rooms on the third floor. Between the two rooms were sliding doors. The back room opened on a veranda with a railing. The family had to be on guard at all times. “We had to keep very quiet during the day and not show ourselves in front of the windows,” he said. “We couldn’t close the curtains then, as that would arouse suspicion in Holland, where there’s little light. When the bell rang at the main door below we would freeze. We could hear the bell, but we couldn’t see who was calling. At night we could become a little more active because then we could close the doors and curtains. But if there were guests we had to sit still. We couldn’t use the toilet then, so we used a chamber pot.”

Father, mother and son passed the time reading and playing board games. “I don’t remember that as being terrible because there was so much to read,” he said.

Then, one October afternoon in 1942, the bell rang and the word “police” was spoken at the bottom of the stairs. Raised voices barked, “Stay where you are. Don’t move.” Leviticus recalls his mother “started crying.” They knew the authorities had come for them. With police bounding up the stairs to the family’s third-floor hideaway, young Lou made a fateful split-second decision and, without  a word, clambered to the veranda opening, hopped atop the railing, and jumped. That moment of fear and flight was the last he saw his parents alive.

“Before I jumped the last thing I remember is seeing my dad close the doors behind me. That gave me enough time to get away. My dad didn’t hesitate. It happened so fast. Below me on the ground floor, luckily, was a large awning jutting out. I hit the awning, slid over it, landed on my feet and whew, I was gone. I didn’t look back. I didn’t run either — a good thing, too, because police were out searching the grounds. One policeman probably saw me, but lost me when I climbed over a bunch of fences. I came to a house and climbed up on a rain pipe. I got to another porch, climbed over the railing there and found a big wash tub. I pulled the wash tub over me — it made a helluva racket — but nobody was home.”

He credits his quick actions to “pure self-preservation,” adding, “It was just pure instinct. I don’t know where it came from, except maybe the Karl May stories inspired me not to be caught. I knew what I had to do. I had seen other people being picked up by the police on the street and they never came back, and that wasn’t going to happen to me.” He does not second-guess his fleeing. He only wishes his folks escaped too or at least knew he was safe. “I knew I’d done the right thing because, number one, I’m alive. I’m sorry I couldn’t say goodbye and hug my mother and father. That is my only regret. That, and the fact they suffered and I couldn’t do anything.” His parents, like most of his family, were soon killed.

After eluding the police, he waited until dark, then fumbled his way to the home of a man who was active in the underground. When he arrived there the man’s frightened family explained the head of the house was in hiding. Earlier that day police had cracked down on the local underground cell and come looking for the man, who’d escaped. The family feared the police’s return. Leviticus felt safe for the moment but as he lay in bed that night he overheard the family discussing turning him over to authorities. “When I heard that I decided that wasn’t going to happen. Early the next morning I stole some clothes and food, opened the door, and went on my own to the east.” Fending for himself in a world intent on his destruction, he learned to live by his wits’ end, foraging for food and shelter at local farms. But as a child on his own, he stood little chance for long. After days on the road, he came to the same farm he and his family began their hidden life at.

Fearing the farm was not a secure hideout, Leviticus was relieved when the underground placed him with Karel Brouwer, then a 24-year-old civil servant with a new wife and young child. Neither the first nor the last person Brouwer rescued, Leviticus stayed with him and his family for much of the remainder of the war. “He’s a remarkable man. He took me to his home in Hamersveld. He practically adopted me. He never intended to be a hero, but somehow it was thrust upon him, and he risked everything to feed, shelter and keep me and others out of harm’s way.” Lou still keeps in touch with his “second family.” In a fateful twist, the first refugees Brouwer helped were Lou’s aunt, uncle and maternal grandparents. Through his position in local government, Brouwer’s covert network used the registration system to provide hunted Jews and non-Jews alike with false names and documents. Thus, Lou took on the identity of Rudi Van Der Roest, a Christian boy his own age from Amsterdam. Researcher Ben Nachman said such actions underscore how Holland was rife with contradictions. For example, while a high percentage of its native Jews were murdered, the country’s active underground movement shielded a great number in hiding.

As Rudi, Lou lived the unencumbered life of a non-Jewish child — attending school, playing in parks, traveling freely. Whenever detained, his cover story was that he was away from home due to hardships caused by the war. The deception worked. “Each of us in hiding were stopped and interrogated by the Germans at least once or twice, so we knew how to lie with a straight face. You got very adept at that. Every time you did something to thwart the Nazis it made you feel good.” He enjoyed freedom but guarded what he said and did so as not to compromise his true identity and therefore risk endangering himself, the Brouwers and the underground. “I had to be careful. I couldn’t afford any slips of the tongue, so I couldn’t get close to a lot of people. Whatever I wasn’t told, I didn’t ask. You learned that very quick. I knew the less I knew, the better it was.”

Life with the Brouwers was sweet. “A lot of beautiful things happened during the war,” Leviticus said. “There were times when I forgot the misery. I was extremely lucky to get through that experience, not unscathed exactly, but well-looked after.” He adds that not all hidden children were as lucky as himself. “The Brouwers loved me. They were good to me. In many cases, though, kids were shuttled from place to place and mistreated by their host families.”

As a base for the underground the Brouwer home witnessed many comings and goings. All the activity must have raised suspicions because, in February 1945, the police raided it. The whole family, including Lou, then 14, was home that day. The police found mounds of incriminating evidence — from papers to ration cards to guns. Everyone was interrogated on-site. Crying after being roughed up, Lou regained enough composure to hatch another escape. He explains: “I asked if I could use the toilet, and the police said I could if I left the door open. The toilet was situated behind a stairway, and when the bathroom door was opened it hid another door which led to a side room, which led outside. As soon as I entered the bathroom, I went through the side door and ran.”

He ran all the way to the city hall building, where he knew underground contacts operated. There, he found that Brouwer, who’d also escaped, had arranged for his  transport to a new safe house — a farm belonging to Peel Van Den Hengel. It was there he worked and stayed until war’s end. When the Van Den Hengels insisted he be baptized Catholic, he complied. In April 1945, events unfolded at the farm that gave Leviticus a taste of Old Testament revenge. Blood was spilled, lives taken, eye-for-an-eye revenge extracted. It began when two German soldiers arrived to plunderthe farm at gunpoint, ordering Leviticus and his fellow farmhands to load-up food and other supplies. Earlier, one of the soldiers molested a young maiden. Then they went too far, pushing Lou and another farmhand past the breaking point.

“I was cutting silage with a very sharp spade but I wasn’t working fast enough for one of the soldiers. He poked me in the kidneys with his gun, and that hurt. I turned around with that spade and I hit him straight in the throat and opened him up all the way. He sank to his knees. He didn’t utter anything. He bled to death on the spot. The other soldier came running, but didn’t see behind him one of the other boys, who struck him with a pitchfork. There was so much anger in us that we just went bezerk and cut them up into pieces. It’s something you wouldn’t do to a dog. I’m not very proud of it, but I’m not sorry about it. I wanted my revenge.”

After Germany’s unconditional surrender, he returned to live with the Brouwers. Then, much to his dismay, a humanitarian organization enforced a separation by placing him in a Jewish orphanage. “I hated it.” Always the escape artist, he hightailed it out of there and went back to the Brouwers. Upon completing high school, he toured Europe with a jazz band. When a rift caused the group to split-up in Marseilles, Leviticus stayed on. He later took to sea as a merchant seaman, applying his mechanical aptitude to the ship’s engines. In 1951 he made his way to Israel, not out of idealism, but rather the lure of a pretty blonde, whom he followed to a kibbutz in Haifa. Finding communal life too restrictive, he left to study at the Israel Institute of Technology, where he earned an engineering degree.

After obtaining his Ph.D. in the states (at Purdue University) he returned to Israel. He served in two wars against Egypt — in 1957 and in 1973 (The October War). In the latter conflict he was a liaison between the U.S. and Israeli armies, working with the armored division and corps of engineers on the mobility of military vehicles and their off-road conditions. He helped engineer a bridge crossing the Suez Canal. He came to live in the states for good in 1974, joining the UNL faculty in 1975.

Although he downplays it, his wartime experience has haunted him. How could it not? All during the war, and even long after it, he did not know his parents’ fate. “I never was sure, really. I think I really didn’t want to know. I was always hoping they were still alive somewhere,” he said. Only much later did he confirm they were gassed to death at Auschwitz just a few months after their capture. He remains as unforgiving about what was done to his family as he is unrepentant about what he did to prevail. “I’m not very, shall we say, humanitarian in my beliefs. I still adhere to the principle that your best enemy is a dead enemy, which I know is not a very Judeo-Christian thought, but I don’t give a damn — that’s the only way I survived.”

Hard times ring sweet in the soulful words of singer-songwriter-author Laura Love, daughter of the late jazz man, Preston Love Sr.

May 1, 2010 4 comments



Image by armadilo60 via Flickr

As a journalist I knew the late Omaha jazz musician Preston Love Sr. fairly well, but I didn’t know about his daughter, Laura Love.  By the time I learned of her, Preston was gone. My work as a  journalist and the relationship I had with her father led me to Laura, whom I first got to know through her autobiography. Then I heard her music.  Then I interviewed her, by phone, and I felt as if I’d known her all along.  Like her father, she’s an immensely talented musician and author.

My story about her appeared in a somewhat truncated form in The Reader (  I offer it here because I would like to introduce more people to her and her work.


Hard times ring sweet in the soulful words of singer-songwriter-author Laura Love, Ddughter of the late jazz man, Preston Love Sr.

©by Leo Adam Biga

A version of this story appeared in a 2006 issue of The Reader (


Hard times never sounded so sweet as sung by Laura Love, the Seattle jazz-folk-R & B-gospel fusion artist whose bittersweet Nebraska past informs her soulful work.

The singersongwriter-bass player was born and raised in Lincoln, along with her sister Lisa. The girls did part of their growing up in Omaha. Meanwhile, their single mother, Wini Jones, a lithe, sophisticated, swing-era big band singer-turned social worker, bounced around as mad as the March Hare. Paranoia gripped her. Between psych ward stays, undergoing electric shock treatments, her sanity wavered. Her young daughters awaiting the next breakdown. There were attempted suicides. Once, heeding the voices inside her head, she readied herself and the girls to hang themselves before the family cat interrupted the proceedings.

“A lot of the things she did were irrational, illogical, but when you’re a kid you go, ‘Oh, that’s just Mom.’ You don’t necessarily have a label for it. You don’t necessarily notice it as a pathology or a psychotic reaction,” Love said. “You just know that it’s really damaging. Then you get good at gauging where it’s going and when it’s going to come on — what’s going to trigger it.”

From the 1960s to the mid-1970s, the sisters flitted in and out of foster care homes as their mother went in and out of mental hospitals. With Wini unable to hold a job for long, bills piled up and creditors hounded them. Living on the edge, the family rarely stayed in one place more than a few months. Amid the dysfunction and chaos, they improvised a survival strategy that somehow staved off fatal disaster.

Just when Laura and Lisa staked their independence as teens, they discovered the father they’d been told was dead was alive. His name — Preston LoveSr. Omaha’s ebullient jazz icon. He’d been a sideman with Count Basie and played with scores of other legends. He’d hired Wini to front his touring band in the late ‘50s and the married man with kids had an affair with his lead singer. Laura and Lisa were the result. It was not his first affair and the girls were not the only children he sired out of wedlock. As if that wasn’t mind-blowing enough, Laura, then a budding musician, found a man who looked and sounded just like herself, yet whose cavalier attitudes about fatherhood challenged her ideas of Daddy Dearest.



“At 16 I’d lived my whole life not having a father. And when you don’t have one you make up the perfect father,” said Love, who found hers didn’t share her storybook fantasies. “Meeting him was just such a huge deal to me and I was so sure it would be for him, too. I just longed and yearned to have this family connection with him and to really understand who he was. It was a life changing experience for me and it took me many years to realize it wasn’t the same experience for him.”

That first meet came in 1976 at Lincoln’s Zoo Bar, where Preston was performing. She saw an item in the local paper about the return of the veteran musician to the area music scene after years heading up Motown’s west coast band. The name was the same but could this possibly be the same man whom her mother said died in a car accident? When she approached him after a set to inform him she thought she was his daughter, he confirmed it. They spoke at length and saw each other more times over the years. Lisa met him, too. Laura even sat in to sing with Preston and his band on stage. Once, he dedicated the classic ballad “Laura” to her when she surprised him by walking in unannounced to see him perform in a London club that was part of one of his many European tours. “That was sweet,” she said.

He offered no apology for his wicked ways. He rationalized it as rites-of-passage for men on the road. Laura couldn’t square such nonchalance with his warm persona.

“As affable and good-natured and smart and talented as he was,” she said, “he really didn’t have any sense of responsibility for me whatsoever. He had an incredible distance and familiarity at the same time. He was so accessible and inaccessible, just a walking contradiction. He never denied me access to him, but I never really got access to him either, unless I sought him out. We never didn’t get along, it’s just that we didn’t have a great connection either. He was just kind of a happy-go-lucky guy that went through life sort of hedonistically, doing what he pleased. On the one hand, it was a cool way to live your life and on the other hand there was this kind of trail of carnage left.”


Preston Love Sr.



The times she reached out to him posed problems for Preston, his wife Betty and the family. Betty made it clear Laura and Lisa were unwelcome at the Love home. A few years ago Laura was touring with The Temptations when Preston was booked to serve as the band leader for the group’s Omaha concert. It was a gig he’d handled before. As Love tells it, “At the last moment he begged off and took another gig…because it was a very sore subject with Betty that I was in existence, that I was in the world. It was their agreement to sort of ignore that. Her agreement, I think, with him was, I don’t like it, but if you’re going to do it, don’t put it in my face. So, in order to be respectful to her, he just bailed out…”

Despite feeling unappreciated here, Preston was undeniably a big fish in this small pond. He didn’t want a scandal to sully his name. He was a major presence by virtue of the steady gigs he performed locally, the long-running music column, “Love Notes,” he wrote for the Omaha World-Herald, the public radio jazz program he hosted for years on KIOS-FM and the many talks he gave about jazz as a visiting artist and lecturer. An opinionated and brilliant man, he spoke frankly and eloquently about black music and would not hesitate to call out or slam musicians he felt disrespected the art form. He was also an oft-quoted observer of the north Omaha scene. He wore well the term “legend” so often attached to him.

By 2000, Preston was pushing 80. Back in Omaha he basked in the glowing reviews of his 1998 book, A Thousand Honeycreeks Later, while in Seattle she enjoyed breakout success in her own career. After a period when they spoke very little, he began pressing her to come visit him in Omaha. In 2002, she did. Preston, his wife Betty and their children Norman, Richie and Portia were there. It came just in time, too, as Preston fell ill in 2003 and passed away the next year.

“It was a very sweet gathering. I enjoyed everyone’s company so much. They were warm and generous and loving to me. It was a great experience to have before he died,” Love said. His death came months before the release of her own acclaimed memoir and companion CD, You Ain’t Got No Easter Clothes (Hyperion Books and KOCH Records), which focus on her Nebraska odyssey. Chapters correspond to songs. References to north Omaha’s ghetto include Sacred Heart School, where she and Lisa went, and the Spencer Street Barbershop, where they took refuge from bullies under the watch of resident poet-barber-philosopher Ernie Chambers.

She bravely revisits her perilous early years in clear, simple prose and lyrics. Despite all she went through, Love’s words soar with a wry, forgiving tone that avoids any of the woe-is-me self-pity that she would have been justified expressing.

“I don’t feel sorry for myself. I do really feel grateful for those experiences now. I see people growing up now that don’t have nearly the resources I had. I mean, I had a really hard life growing up, but my mother, crazy as she was, gave me the tools to have a good life. She introduced me to reading and literature and musicals. If you can read, you can go anywhere and you can leave any horrible circumstances, at least for that time. I look at kids I know now that have no idea how to live in the world or how to cope with adversity or have no interest in reading and are intellectually impoverished. Or, kids that have been really well taken care of financially but have no rudder — no sense of how to do anything.

“So, one of the things I really treasure now is that even though we were really poor and had these really humbling and humiliating experiences my sister and I were also — through living in foster homes and all-white neighborhoods — exposed to how the other half lives. It’s kind of one of those, If-you-can-see-it, you-can-be-it, things. We understood there weren’t people living the way we were living. They were all around us. Some of them were our friends. We understood we had things in common with very poor and very wealthy people. We understood, especially living with a bipolar person, one day can be bad and the next can be just a blast.”

The irony, she said, is that her sense of La Dolce Vita mirrors that of her father, who emerged a bon vivant even though he came from a poor single-parent home himself. Preston was one of 11 children raised by Mexie Love in a ramshackle house jokingly called “the mansion.” He didn’t meet his father until he was a young man.

“I think a part of my basic personality is a lot like Preston’s,” Love said, “in that I just feel like life is good, and if today sucks tomorrow might be just incredibly fun.”

After two years at UNL, Love left Nebraska at 20 to follow a guitar player named LeRoy, whose band she sang in. Years later, she confronted her past in her work when fans encouraged her to expand on the rough childhood she alluded to in the liner notes of her early records. Mining that past proved healing.

“The whole experience was incredibly cathartic for me,” she said. “I remember I would just sit there, pour myself a shot of whiskey and start typing on the computer and start getting into the story. There were times I was almost scared to start writing because I’d left off at a place that was still painful or I was coming up to a place that was painful and I had to finish the story and to examine deeply how I felt and look back at what happened. Then I’d put the computer away and I’d get out the tape recorder and there I was again, having to think about it in a different way as I put it down lyrically in some way that made sense and evoked some kind of emotion. So, before the catharsis there was pain.”

Leaving Nebraska years earlier was cathartic for her in a similar way. She said getting away can be a healthy thing, even if you venture into uncharted waters as she did in the Pacific Northwest, where she and LeRoy no sooner arrived than broke up, leaving her to figure out a future alone.

“I think one of the things you need to do is leave comfort to challenge yourself. It wasn’t very nurturing or comfortable for me when I first got out to Portland and then to Seattle. It was hostile. I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t have an advanced degree or anything. It made me have to dig deep and look for a job, look for a friend. I just like hit the pavement as far as music went.”

Left high and dry in Portland, Love clung to one truth. “I didn’t know if I was going to have a career in music but I knew I absolutely needed it in my life.”

She scoured local papers “looking for anyone who was jamming” or “might possibly have gigs.” Again, she pushed beyond her comfort zone. “I got into sort of a funk garage band. It made me step put of myself and establish friendships with people and do things normally I’m not that great at, like being social. I was in a little Pop 40 band for a minute called Desire. It really is a huge education to go out there and just try to find people who are where you are musically or just a little bit further.”

Fixing on who she was as an expressive artist proved daunting. “I didn’t know what kind of music I really wanted to do. I mean, I was really drawn to jazz as well as funk as well as folk and pop music, and so to find out what I wanted to do I had to keep finding out what I didn’t want to do,” she said. Being African-American, she’s struggled with others’ expectations of what music she should or should not make.

“Oh, yeah, constantly. When I was kind of dabbling in funk music, we did a couple gigs in some black establishments and I just remember being stared at by the crowd and them thinking I wasn’t black enough. There’d be like dead silence after every tune. It was a really good band, too, but we only had three black people, including myself, and the rest were white. I remember saying, ‘We’re going to take 10 minutes and we’ll be right back,’ and this woman yelled out, ‘Hell, take twenty.’”

Confusing the matter even more is the fact many people “can’t quite tell often if I’m black, so they can’t quite tell what I should be playing. People always ask me, ‘What are you?’ I think one of the reasons they ask is they want to infer or have some notion about what I should be playing.”

The pull of music not deemed black still tugs at her.

“Even now, I’m just really, really loving bluegrass music, and there’s not a lot of black folks in bluegrass music. And folk music — you don’t run into a lot black people there. So, at times I have a little identity crisis there, thinking I don’t fit cleanly into any genre. Because I like so many, I have never really settled on a genre. I just write what feels good to me and sounds good to me.”

Those diverse roots set her richly-layered music apart.

“Yeah, I think it’s my strength and my curse sometimes that I love all kinds of music. When I write a song it’s like there’ll be bluegrass and folk and funk and jazz in it. And I love to do that. It’s not like I consciously seek out all these influences — they’re just in me. I listened to all kinds of music growing up in Nebraska. Radio was so much better in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I remember listening to WOW Radio in Omaha and KFOR in Lincoln and hearing this huge array of music. You’d hear James Brown and then Joni Mitchell, and it wasn’t like insulting to your intelligence. It didn’t occur to DJs and programmers back then that you couldn’t like folk because you liked rap or that you couldn’t like R & B because you liked country.”

Music labels prefer specialization to eclecticism, as she found in her dealings with Mercury Records, whom she was signed to for awhile.

“Particularly when you’re on a major label, they really want you to fit cleanly into a genre and kind of push you into that. And I think there is a lot of frustration among the labels about — What radio stations are going to play this?”

Her maturation as an artist coincided with her move to Seattle in the mid-’80s.

“I fell smack dab in the middle of the grunge scene, which is great, because I really wanted to learn how to play an instrument and with grunge you didn’t really have to know how to play an instrument, you just kind of had to have one. I remember buying a bass and getting a gig really before I even knew how to play it.”

Devoted to teaching herself to play, she made ends meet growing and selling pot.

“I bought a lot of records and I learned how to play with them. I listened to how the bass lines worked inside these records and things like that. I’m an ear player, but I had a lot of time on my hands to kind of figure things out.”

Her musical voice emerged in the process.

“The early ‘90s is when I really started putting down chords and melodies and writing my own music and that’s when I really started to define what I wanted to hear as my own sound. To some extent, it was limited by my ability to play guitar or bass and to play and sing at the same time. So, I was somewhat defined by my limitations as well as my broad musical experiences.”

Love said she writes when the mood “hits me,” adding she doesn’t have the “this-is-a job” discipline artists in music cities like L.A. or Nashville exhibit. However laidback she appears, she concedes to business realities. “Occasionally I write songs just for the fun of it and just because a melody hits me or something like that, but I have to have the motivation of a record deal to write songs.”

She’s musing over a possible new album that would mix original songs with her renditions of such beloved American tunes as “This Land is Your Land,” “Shenandoah,” “John Henry,” “Erie Canal,” “Red River Valley” and “Five Hundred Miles.” She feels these American classics are unfairly maligned or ignored. “They’re profound and incredibly powerful songs. Just beautiful songs. Just because we learn them when we’re younger doesn’t mean they have no value.” This project comes on the heels of her writing eight songs for a new musical, No Boundary, that premiered in New York.

With the success of her book and her music, she’s in a good place professionally. Her touring finds her playing festivals and clubs from coast to coast. More importantly, she’s in a good place emotionally. She shares a house with three other women — her partner Pam, her manager Mary McFaul and her sister Lisa. In 2002 Laura and Pam became foster parents to a baby, Chrsity, they’ve since adopted.

Her realization she is gay took time.

“Well, you know, as I got older I realized I like boys and I like girls, but I really, really like girls,” she said, laughing. “I’ve had a few really serious, long-term relationships with men. I was engaged a couple times actually. I just never quite felt comfortable there. I’ve jusr realized in my adult years that my deepest partnerships and connections were with women. I ended up falling in love with a woman who was actually dating the same man I was dating.” That was 20-odd years ago. She and her current partner Pam have been together nine years.

Laura’s mother is still alive. After years of separation, Love moved her out west and built a home for her. Untreated, Wini’s mental state worsened. One crisis after another convinced Love “I’d bitten off more than I could chew.” When asked to voluntarily commit herself Wini resisted but finally relented. Since being put on the newest psychotropic drugs, she’s thrived in a group home setting. “She’s very happy there. She’s very able to be regal and queenly and above it all,” Love said.

The specter of mental illness is something “I often think about,” Love said. Referring to her and her sister Lisa, she added, “We’re both prone to depression and despair and those kinds of things. I don’t know whether those things are learned or genetic. But, you know, I find my responses to things sometimes very much mirror my mother’s. I just have more coping strategies than my mother ever did.” Lisa is also doing fine, having just been accepted into an RN program.



Wini “doesn’t know of” her daughter’s book. “She’s in this isolated community there and I don’t want her to know of it,” Love said. “I just think it would hurt her because she’s never admitted to having any mental illness at all.”

What Love’s father would have made of her book is a mystery to her, except she notes, “He didn’t really do guilt, so I don’t think he would have felt guilty.”

For a long time she harbored hard feelings toward him, dismayed by the blase way in which he held her. She’s since come to terms with it all. “You know, he did what he could. He did what he was capable of,” she said. She’s even come to the point where, she said, “I’m grateful for the independence and autonomy his absence fostered in me. In the small amount of time I spent with him in my life, I never really heard him complain about his own deprivation. He never bemoaned his own fate. You just do. You realize your life is what you do with it.”

She did not attend his funeral. He died in 2004 after a long illness. His wife Betty is also deceased. Love maintains an awkward relationship with her half-brothers Norman and Richie and her half-sister Portia. She’s never met another half-brother, Preston Love, Jr., who’s recently returned to Omaha.

“I talked to him when he was in the hospital and kind of made my last peace with him and told him I loved him,” she said. “You know, I did not have that really big a connection to him in life other than he was my father and…I just thought it would be an odd thing to have people coming up to me offering me their condolences. I was one of his children biologically, but not really in day to day life.”

She regrets not having got to know him better but feels he’s a part of her, from the way she looks to the way she holds court on stage. “It’s funny because now that I make my living at music I see so many similarities in my performance to his, as far as being happy and talking to people and feeling very fortunate to be able to do all this. He would play some of the most beautiful ballads and play them with such soul but still this underlying playfulness, and I’m very much like that, too.”

Again, not unlike her dad, she’s apt to say politically incorrect things. While he rarely did on stage, she makes a habit of it, enjoying, as she describes it, a “definite free-association, stream-of-consciousness kind of thing going on there.” She proudly proclaims her Green Party sympathy and anti-Republican antipathy, using the stage as a kind of platform for her beliefs. Airing her political views has cost her work, she said. “Sometimes I wish I could suck the words back up into my head.” Still, she added, “it’s kind of a game to see how many ways you can screw The Man. It makes life more interesting and more fun.”

All of her CDs can be found at

Hadley Heavin’s Idiosyncratic Journey as a Real Rootin-Tootin, Classical Guitar Playing Cowboy

May 1, 2010 4 comments


Image by Adrian Whelan via Flickr

I first met Hadley Heavin 20 years ago.  He was one of the first profile subjects I wrote about as a freelance journalist.  I loved telling his story then, and I always knew I would return to it.  I did a few years ago.  Upon catching up with him, I found him and his story just as intriguing as I had before.  It’s not often you find someone who combines the passions he does, namely competing in rodeo and performing classical guitar.   He is a singular man whose twin magnificent obsessions make him one of my favorite and most unforgettable characters.


Hadley Heavin’s Idiosyncratic Journey as a Real Rootin-Tootin, Classical Guitar Playing Cowboy

©by Leo Adam Biga

Versions of this long story originally appeared in Nebraska Life Magazine and The Reader (


Traditional Spanish classical guitar follows certain lines. It flows most directly from the source of this passionate art form, Francisco Tarrega, the father of Spanish classical guitar at the turn of the last century. Tarrega passed on his legacy to his musical progeny, a few prized pupils, who in turn taught it to select disciples, and so on down the line.

Improbably, this line of maestros, the great interpreters of Spanish classical guitar, includes a longtime area resident and an American to boot, Hadley Heavin. He grew up a cowboy, jock and blues-rock lead guitar player in Baxter Springs, Kansas. He learned guitar at 5, began riding horses soon after, adding rodeo, football, basketball, track and baseball. The Vietnam combat vet has been a University of Nebraska at Omaha music instructor since 1982.

Beginning in the late ‘70s, Heavin became the primary student of the late Segundo Pastor. Decades-before, Pastor was the favorite student of Daniel Fortea, once the anointed disciple of Tarrega himself. So it is this direct Spanish line goes from Tarrega to Fortea to Pastor to Heavin.

“… there’s a real lineage that goes to the source of classical guitar in Spain that’s been handed down to me, almost by rote. Not even Spaniards have that,” Heavin said. “That’s why Spanish music is it for me. And when I play Spanish music I play it very much probably how Tarrega played it, because it was passed down that way. I’m probably just one of a handful of people in the world that got that experience.

“It isn’t so much about reading the notes and learning the music as it how the music is played.”

As if not’s unusual enough an American should be part of that rare Spanish line, then consider that at age 59 Heavin still competes in rodeos and horse shows around his busy teaching-performing schedule. The fact he’s both a concert-level artist and competitive roper never fails to surprise.

“It’s so odd to people that I do these two things,” he said.

He and his daughter Kaitlin share a small, white, wood-frame house on a 25-acre spread he rents in Valley, Neb.. He’s at home there with his dogs, horses and steers. There are barns for storing hay and boarding horses as well as pens, a round and an arena, complete with box and chute, for working stock and practicing roping. He has a horse trailer and a truck parked there. His precious guitars, a Brune for classical and a Cordoba for Flamenco, always near.

Much like his boyhood home, when impromptu family concerts broke out, the sound of Heavin playing and Kaitlin singing often blend with the music of cicadas, crickets, meadow larks, steers and horses.

In a kind of dual life he alternately spends weekends playing paying guitar gigs or riding-roping for prize money. One weekend might find him performing solo or with his new Latin-influenced band, Tablao, at trendy Omaha spots like Espana and the Corkscrew. Kaitlin is Tablao’s lead vocalist. Another weekend might find him competing in American Quarter Horse Association or Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association team-roping events in such Nebraska backyards as Wilber and Burwell.

At home in his frayed tank-top undershirt, dusty jeans and worn boots, he’s the Marlboro Man. For a big guy he sits light in the saddle. The way he expertly handles a horse makes clear he’s no weekend warrior playing cowboy. He’s the Real McCoy. With a pull of the reins, a bump of his spurs or the command of his voice, his old bay, Champ, obeys instantly as he puts the animal through its paces, starting at a walk, building to a trot, then going at a full gallop. Rough stock is in his blood.

Cut to Heavin, the artist, this time in a freshly-pressed flowered shirt, clean jeans and polished boots, making love with his guitar at the Espana tapas bar in Benson. As he sits on stage, cradling and stroking the instrument like a woman in his thickly-muscled arms, he is every inch the maestro. His posture erect, his fingering precise, his feel for the music complete, he makes the expressive sounds his own. From soft, gentle trills to full crescendo runs, it is a seduction. Given his roots in the music, when Heavin plays, one hears echoes of past maestros Tarrega, Fortea and Pastor, a privileged connection he’s ever conscious of.



Hadley Heavin


His sound is so much like Pastor’s, he said, a good friend from Spain named Pedro once got upset that a gringo like him should be able to master it.

Pastor entered Heavin’s life at a key juncture. The then-angry young American was not long removed from a war that “scarred” him. Then, his father, “an incredible guitarist,” died at 47. “And there was no music anymore…” he said.

At the time Heavin worked a job unloading trucks in Springfield, Mo.. On a whim one night he went to see a classical guitarist perform, and Heavin’s life changed.

“I was enthralled and it just came over me like that,” he said, snapping his fingers. “Right then and there I knew what I was going to do with my life. The feeling that came over me fulfilled me more than anything else ever had up to that time.”


“Well, for a lot of reasons. A part of it was the war had scarred me and right after that my father passed away, and I needed something,” he said. “Classical guitar was the thread that gave me something to hang onto just to get through life and the pain I had lived with. The guitar was my salvation.”

He began by teaching himself via recordings and books. When he exhausted those he found an instructor, who soon did all he could for such a prodigy.

“I worked really hard,” Heavin said. “As soon as my hands could take it I was practicing six to eight hours a day and working a full-time job.”

He then brashly convinced the music dean at then-Southwest Missouri State University (now Missouri State) to start a degree guitar program with him as its first student.

“I had such a passion for it that I was going to find a way…whatever it took.”

Then, a meeting changed his life. Pastor was touring the U.S. and saw Heavin play a late ‘70s concert on campus. Pastor asked to meet Heavin.

Mind you, Heavin was just a beginner in classical guitar, yet the maestro plucked him from obscurity to make Heavin his sole student and the privileged inheritor of a rich music lineage he now passes onto his own students.

Heavin and Pastor enjoyed a decades-long friendship that saw the American study under the maestro in the U.S. and Spain. Heavin arranged for Pastor to perform UNO and Creighton concerts. They toured together. Heavin once performed with him at Carnegie Hall. Their friendship deepened.

“He was like a father and a mentor to me. He not only gave me a career, he gave me back myself,” Heavin said.

It’s not unlike how Heavin became a vessel for his father’s and his family’s legacies.

In his small hometown fast on the Oklahoma-Missouri border, Heavin was weaned on Ozarks culture. Music, horses and sports were family inheritances. From early childhood he excelled at them all.

His father, Ernest played with such bands as Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. Several uncles played, too. Heavin played trumpet and drums in bands his father led, traveling to gigs at VFW post and American Legion hall dances, performing swing, jazz, ragtime and country. The family home was alive with music, too.

“Making music,” Heavin said, “was just something we did. I grew up with music and I was a little freak because I could play really well. I grew up in an environment thinking everybody was like this. I couldn’t believe it when a kid couldn’t sing or carry a tune or do something with music.”

The life he leads today balancing music with rodeo is not so different than the one he knew as a youth. Heavin’s father paid him for the band gigs he played as a boy. Child or not, young Hadley was expected to carry his own weight.

“I remember about midnight I’d start falling asleep,” he said. “My dad would start to feel the time dragging and see me nodding. Then he’d flick me on the head with his fingertip and wake me up, and I’d speed up again.”

The paying dates made Heavin rich compared to his friends. “I’d be sitting with $20 in my pocket where everybody else would have a quarter.”

The grind of playing “got to be a chore.” He flirted with blues-rock groups for a time, but got “burned out” on music.

Classical was not even a possibility. Early ‘60s rural Kansas had few outlets for it. Heavin still recalls the first time he heard it. A Rachmaninoff concerto playing over a music store loudspeaker enraptured him on the spot. That was about the extent of his exposure until years later.

Sports and horses became his new means of expression. Athletics, like music, were another Heavin family forte. An uncle, Charles “Frog” Heavin, played minor league ball with Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle. Heavin’s own mother was a catcher in the women’s pro circuit immortalized in A League of Their Own.

He was introduced to horses courtesy his grandfather — a horse shoer and blacksmith — and youth rodeos. His first brush with rodeo came at age 12, an experience as dramatic for him as when he first heard classical guitar.

“I was at the fairgrounds and these guys were bucking out stock. Just practicing. I was sitting on the fence watching and I asked if I could ride one. They said sure. The first animal I rode was a bare back bronc, Mae Etta. I sat on her and I was kind of nervous and they told me what to do and that horse came out and started bucking and I rode her about three jumps and got bucked off.

“I just jumped up and said, ‘I gotta try that again.’ And I tried it again. I couldn’t wait…It was like the biggest rush I ever had in my life. Then I rode a bull. I loved that, too. That’s where it started.”

He progressed from Little Britches events to amateur competitions on up, earning his spurs along the way riding bulls and bare back broncs.

His folks “didn’t understand it,” he said. But he stuck with it. He’d found something of his own. “The thing I remember as a teenager is…I wasn’t really sure who I was, and rodeo really gave me a defining sort of picture of…what I needed for my own life. And that’s why I still do it on some level.”

As a teen he moved with his family to Lawrence. Kansas, where he lost himself in sports. He possessed enough talent that he owned state sprint records and got a look from Kansas University as a football halfback.

“I played every sport in high school but rodeo was my favorite. Once I got into roping and horses, I’ve just never gone back,” he said.

He enrolled at KU in 1967 with the military draft on his mind. He walked-on for football and made the freshman team.

The huge campus and sea of strange faces were “a major culture shock.” He took his chances with the draft and in ‘68 had the bad luck to be an Army conscript in an increasingly unpopular war.

Heavin was in-country 1969-70 as a forward observer and artillery fire officer with the 1st Field Force. He was shuttled from one LZ to another — wherever it was hot.





“I was what they called a ‘bastard.’ I would work with all different units. They would just send me wherever they needed me. I was on hill tops, some I can remember like LZ Lily. I was at Dactau and Ben Het during the siege. We were surrounded for like 30 days. I was in so many places I can’t remember them all. I was in the jungle the whole time…mostly in the north, in Two Corps, close to the border of Laos and Cambodia. I saw base camp twice,” he said.

Wounded by an AK47 round in a fire fight, he came home to recover. Stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, he impulsively entered the bare back at a local rodeo.

“I drew a pretty rank horse, plus I hadn’t ridden in years and I was still sore from my war injuries.” he said. “The horse came out and was bucking and bucked towards the fence and my spur hung in the fence and hung me upside down, facing the opposite way. He was kicking me in the back as he was bucking away from me. I got hurt. I could hardly walk that night. When I got back to the base they were mad at me because I couldn’t pull my duty. Here I was a decorated combat vet, and they were going to court-martial me.”

Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and the incident forgotten.

Back home he struggled with memories of the war and his father’s death. He  floundered, looking to get his head right. He’d seen cruelty in the jungle. Fraggings. Buddies killed. Rapes, mutilations and killings of innocent Vietnamese women and children. “Emotionally, I was a mess from the war,” he said. “I had some years there where I had a hard time because I felt I was part of something that was wrong.”

He felt angry over what he viewed as U.S. betrayal of the South Vietnamese people. He wanted to forget it all, but couldn’t. He’d prefer to put it behind him today.

“When people find out I was in Vietnam they start asking a lot of questions and I find myself not wanting to deal with that issue at this point in my life,” he said.

He harbors hard feelings about U.S. military adventurism. “I’m not as patriotic as most people,” he said, “and that’s the one thing that gets me in trouble with my cowboy friends.”

He was in such a funk after the war he quit music, roping and riding for a time. He rediscovered music first or as he prefers to think of it, music found him.

It all began with Heavin’s classical guitar epiphany. But the real journey commenced when Pastor heard Heavin play in college and the great man befriended the green American. The Spaniard was unlike anyone he’d met before.

“I was introduced to this little old man who couldn’t speak English. He was very kind but very formal, very upper-crust European society. There was a definite respect one had to acquire. I spent an entire afternoon playing for him. He was helping me, showing me some things, and then he’d play. I think he saw in me that I was wide-eyed and open and very grateful that he would spend this time with me.”

More than Heavin could dream came next.

“He played a concert that night and it was awesome. He dedicated a song to me,” Heavin said. “Before he left he said, ‘When I get to Spain I’m going to send you some music.’ About two weeks later I got a big stack of music I started working on. He came back the following year and this time he worked with me for 10 days in Springfield. All this music I’d worked on I played for him. I studied some more. And at the end of the 10 days he said, ‘If you come to Spain, I’ll teach you for nothing. You’ll be my only student,’ and I was.”

At the time though, Heavin said, “I didn’t know what this meant or how it was going to work out.” A university official aided Heavin’s overseas studies by finding grant monies for him. But Heavin still had no inkling his apprenticeship would turn out to be, “with the exception of my daughter’s birth,” he said, “one of the most wonderful experiences of my life.” Off to Madrid he went.

“When I arrived there was an apartment for me. The maestro’s wife was like my mom. His son was like my brother. And I realized shortly after I got there that I was his only student,” he said. “He rarely took them. There were Spanish boys waiting in line to study with him.”

Heavin immersed himself in all things Spanish. “I lived in the culture. I wasn’t with Americans at all. My friends were all Spanish. I taught them English, they taught me Spanish.” Ironically, the one thing this former bull rider didn’t care for was bullfighting, yet he lived a block from the Plaza de Toros, the bullfighting arena, and next door to the hospital for bullfighters. He’d watch the injured fighters come out “all bandaged up,” but felt even worse for the bulls.


Mostly his life revolved around the music.

“During the 10 months I was there I had a lesson from Segundo almost every day,” he said. “He put all of himself into that one student. That’s why he didn’t take on many. It was really like a fairy-tale…”

To this day Heavin’s unsure what Pastor saw in him to make such a commitment. “Maybe it was my sound,” he speculates. He feels it must have also had something to do with “the fact I loved Spain and I loved to play guitar and I loved that music.” Even when Heavin struggled to get the music right, “he never gave up on me.”

“The thing that’s odd about it is that I had only been playing about a year when the maestro invited me to Spain,” he said. “It was confusing because there were Spanish boys who could play better than I.”

It nagged at Heavin the whole time he was there.

“I kept asking him, ‘Why did you pick me?’ And he would never answer it. The last night I was there he knocked on my door and we went to the university in Madrid. It was one of those romantic Spanish evenings. We were walking down a wet, cobblestone street and he put his arm up on my shoulder and he squeezed it and said, ‘You keep asking me this question. True, the Spanish boys are good guitarists, but you’ll be a great guitarist.’ You see, I was too naive to know if I was any good or not. But he knew. It gave me everything I needed to go forward.”

Not only did Pastor give him a career, Heavin said, “he gave me back myself.”

Pastor’s high praise for his student — “A brilliant guitarist…he likes to make poetry out of music” — has been seconded by others.

After graduating from Southwest Missouri State Heavin received a fellowship from the University of Denver and after getting his master’s there he joined the UNO music department. Wherever Heavin lived, he continued to visit Pastor in Spain and to spend time with him in the states.



Segundo Pastor



In 1993 Pastor fell ill. Heavin flew to Madrid to be with him. When he got there he found the maestro confined to a wheelchair — weak and having not spoken for weeks. Heavin said when Pastor’s wife announced, “‘Look, maestro, Hadley’s here,’ his face just lit up. It was great. That night I slept on the other side of the wall from him. The next night I walked in his room, and as I was standing over him, looking at him, he awoke with a start. He rolled over on his back, pulled my face down to his chest and patted my head. He started talking. He said, ‘You know I love you. I hope some day you’re blessed like I have been with a woman. When my mind clears I’m going to write a great piece for you.” Those sentiments were the last words the maestro uttered. He died within a couple weeks.

Pastor’s gone now but Heavin keeps alive the tradition. He said the students who excel under him today are the ones who appreciate the gift Pastor gave him that he now passes onto them.

“It’s not just me they’re getting it from, they’re getting it from all of us in the line. The students that figure that out and treasure that are the ones that go off to other schools and blow everybody away,” he said.

One such student is 2002 UNO grad Mike Cioffero, an award-winning player and now a teacher at the prestigious New York City Guitar School.

“To have that direct connection is so important and wonderful,” Cioffero said. “Hadley definitely establishes that.”

Heavin’s “day job” is at UNO. He works one-on-one with students and ensembles and serves as a graduate lecturer. Some students have gone on to a good bit of success, like Cioffero. Teaching is something he loves. He’s not so fond of navigating academia’s politics and personalities. “I’ve stayed,” he said, “because of my students.”

In his 30s Heavin resumed roping and riding. “I started missing the horses, the competition and my cowboy friends,” he said. Without them, he was incomplete. As “the Good Lord saw fit to give me an extra shot of adrenalin,” he said, he needs both extremes in his life.

“Playing the guitar is a very disciplined, very quiet, very by-yourself, very sedentary thing. Mentally it isn’t, but physically it is. I couldn’t just sit on my ass and play guitar all the time — it’s too boring. When I was back from the war and just playing guitar, I was a little crazy, a little anti-social. For me, rodeo satisfied something in me that made it possible for me to play guitar. I think it helps me play a lot better.”

At first glance it appears as if he leads dual lives. Yet so intertwined are these pursuits with who he is, he can’t separate them. Each is an expression of himself.

“For me that’s my balance,” he said. “One balances out the other.”

Then there’s his hell-bent for leather nature. “I’ve learned to try anything,” he said, “but it wasn’t like I chose those things, it was like those things chose me. I was meant to do those things.”

He doesn’t just dally in one endeavor or the other. He’s trained by masters in each and performs at “a high level” whether in the concert hall or the horse arena.

His maestro, Pastor, toured the world as “Spain’s representative on guitar.” He had his own television show in his homeland. He was the subject of books. One book, printed only in Spanish, devotes a chapter to the Pastor-Heavin relationship.

Similarly, Heavin was schooled by roping-riding gurus D.K. Hewitt, Kent Martin and Jim Brinkman, “some of the best in these parts or anywhere,” according to Heavin.

Knowing the proper way of doing things is no small matter for a man whose art depends on his hands and yet who puts them at risk in a sport where injuries are common. Whereas, he said, “a lot of my friends are missing a thumb or fingers,” he’s never seriously hurt his digits. “I’ve skimmed up my little finger a few times heeling. Those coils are the dangerous things. It just cauterizes it when it burns through.” Every time he ropes he puts his music career in jeopardy.

“Lots of people tried to talk me out of roping,” he said. Pastor was not among them. He actually fancied his cowboy ways. “ He thought it was cool,” Heavin said.

Despite the hazards, Heavin’s confident in his training.

“If I was going to lose a finger it probably would have been the first year I was roping,” he said. “But for me the secret is being a good enough horseman. Like one time I was heading and the rope was wrapped around my wrist and I felt it coming tight against the horns. It would have broken my wrist pretty badly but I just kicked the horse up so I could get it (rope) undone, which saved me. Most guys when they get pain they stop their horse. Your horsemanship is the key… I’ve learned to do it correctly. There’s an art to it.”

He’s so adept he once qualified for the AQHA world horse show finals in Oklahoma City.

Plus, he’s never found anything like the thrill of running down a steer on horseback, swinging his rope high overhead, throwing it with a quick snap of his wrist and hitting his mark with a perfect figure-eight loop.

“The fact is I’ve tried everything. I mean, I’ve tried racquetball, golf, every sport, just so I wouldn’t take a chance on losing a finger, but nothing works for me,” he said. “When I’m running full-speed on a horse it’s exciting as hell. No matter how long you do it it’s always a rush.”

There’s a shared ebb-and-flow, give-and-take to his pursuits. “Music is like that, riding is like that, roping is like that,” he said. “It’s knowing when to be aggressive and when to back off.” In music, it’s as much knowing when the silence needs to be there between the notes as it is filling the silence. In the saddle, it’s letting a horse circle around or move forward or backward before getting him settled in the box for a run. For team roping, it’s the timing of the heeler working in tandem with the header to rope the bull.

“It’s figuring out when to do what,” he said.

There’s no where Heavin would rather be than home. At the end of a long day riding, roping, baling hay, caring for animals, he relaxes with his guitar. The instrument and the music he makes on it provide the counterbalance he craves.

“I pick up my guitar at night, when it’s quiet, and it calms me right down.”

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