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Rosenblatt-College World Series

June 19, 2010 3 comments

When the last College World Series was played at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha the special relationship that that event and venue share, including all the CWS history that’s been made there, got plenty of attention via press reports, fan blogs and forums, books, and films. I wrote my own opus about Rosenblatt and I am posting it now to join all the tributes and memorials pouring in for that most Americana of sports championships and settings.

Much has changed since I wrote the piece and it was published in The Reader (www.thereadercom), like the decision to retire the city owned facility  and to replace it next season with a new downtown stadium. Rosenblatt was razed and the property developed by the adjacent Henry Doorly Zoo. A mini replica park was included in the design as a way to memorialize the stadium and its 60 years of hosting the College World Series, an enduring marriage of event and venue unlike any other for a major championship.

If nothing else, my dusted off story, which I call A Rosenblatt Tribute, may give you an added perspective on this slice of baseball culture and history. In this same post I am also sharing a few more of the CWS and Rosenblatt stories I have done over the years, though I still need to put one up called The Boys of Summer.

 

2nd game of 2006 finals of College World serie...

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UPDATE: The summer of 2011 finds Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Neb. now an empty shell and ghost of a ballpark, its parts being cannibalized and sold off, while the new home of the College World Series, TD Ameritrade Park, is a resounding hit with fans and media.

Eleven years ago or so I wrote this story about Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, the home of the College World Series.  As I write this intro, the CWS is a day away from starting play in 2010, the last year the event will be played at the stadium that’s hosted NCCA Division Imen’s baseball championship for 60 years.  Rosenblatt is being razed in early 2011, when the series will move into a new downtown stadium now under construction.  Rosenblatt has become the symbol for the series because of all the history bound up in it and the special relationship residents and fans have with it and with the blue collar neighborhood surrounding it.  My story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader,com).

When Rosenblatt was Municipal Stadium. At the first game, from left: Steve Rosenblatt; Rex Barney; Bob Hall, owner of the Omaha Cardinals; Duce Belford, Brooklyn Dodgers scout and Creighton athletic director; Richie Ashburn, a native of Tilden, Neb.; Johnny Rosenblatt; and Johnny Hopp of Hastings, Neb.:

©Omaha World-Herald

When Rosenblatt was Municipal Stadium. At the first game, from left: Steve Rosenblatt; Rex Barney; Bob Hall, owner of the Omaha Cardinals; Duce Belford, Brooklyn Dodgers scout and Creighton athletic director; Richie Ashburn, a native of Tilden, Neb.; Johnny Rosenblatt; and Johnny Hopp of Hastings, Neb.

 

A Rosenblatt Tribute

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

It’s baseball season again, and The Boys of Summer are haunting diamonds across the land to play this quintessentially American game. One rooted in the past, yet forever new. As a fan put it recently, “With baseball, it’s the same thing all over again, but it isn’t. Do you know what I mean?”

Yes. There’s a timelessness about baseball’s unhurried rhythm, classic symmetry and simple charm. The game is steeped in rules and rituals almost unchanged since the turn of the century. It’s an expression of the American character: both immutable and enigmatic.

Within baseball’s rigid standards, idiosyncrasy blooms. A contest is decided when 27 outs are recorded, but getting there can involve limitless innings, hours, plays. Stadiums may appear uniform, but each has its own personality — with distinctive wind patterns, sight lines, nooks and crannies.

Look in any American town and you’ll find a ballpark with deep ties to the sport and its barnstorming, sandlot origins. A shrine, if you will, for serious fans who savor old-time values and traditions. The real thing. Such a place is as near as Omaha’s Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium, the site the past 49 years of the annual College World Series.

The city and the stadium have become synonymous with the NCAA Division I national collegiate baseball championship. No other single location has hosted a major NCAA tournament for so long. More than 4 million fans have attended the event in Omaha since 1950.

The 1998 CWS is scheduled May 29-June 6.

In what has been a troubled era for organized ball, Rosenblatt reaffirms what is good about the game. There, far away from the distraction of major league free-agency squabbles, the threat of player/umpire strikes, and the posturing of superstars, baseball, in its purest form, takes center stage. Hungry players still hustle and display enthusiasm without making a show of it. Sportsmanship still abounds. Booing is almost never heard during the CWS. Fights are practically taboo.

The action unwinds with leisurely grace. The “friendly confines” offer the down-home appeal of a state fair. Where else but Omaha can the PA announcer ask fans to, “scooch-in a hair more,” and be obliged?

Undoubtedly, the series has been the stadium’s anchor and catalyst.  In recent years, thanks in part to ESPN-CBS television coverage, the CWS has become a hugely popular event, regularly setting single game and series attendance records. The undeniable appeal, besides the determination of the players, is the chance to glimpse the game’s upcoming stars. Fans at Rosenblatt have seen scores of future big league greats perform in the tourney, including Mike Schmidt, Dave Winfield, Fred Lynn, Paul Molitor, Jimmy Key, Roger Clemens, Will Clark, Rafael PalmeiroAlbert BelleBarry Bonds and Barry Larkin.

The stadium on the hill turns 50 this year. As large as the CWS looms in its history, it is just one part of an impressive baseball lineage. For example, Rosenblatt co-hosted the Japan-USA Collegiate Baseball Championship Series in the ‘70s and ‘80s, an event that fostered goodwill by matching all-star collegians from each country.

Countless high school and college games have been contested between its lines and still are on occasion.

Pro baseball has played a key role in the stadium’s history as well.

Negro League clubs passed through in the early years. The legendary Satchel Paige pitched there for the Kansas City Monarchs. Major league teams played exhibitions at Rosenblatt in the ‘50s and ‘60s. St. Louis Cardinal Hall of Famer Stan Musial “killed one” during an exhibition contest.

For all but eight of its 50 years Rosenblatt has hosted a minor league franchise. The Cardinals and Dodgers once based farm clubs there. Native son Hall of Famer Bob Gibson got his start with the Omaha Cardinals in ‘57. Since ‘69 Rosenblatt’s been home to the Class AAA Omaha Royals, the top farm team of the parent Kansas City Royals. More than 7 million fans have attended Omaha Royals home games. George Brett, Frank White and Willie Wilson apprenticed at the ballpark.

With its rich baseball heritage, Rosenblatt has the imprint of nostalgia all over it. Anyone who’s seen a game there has a favorite memory. The CWS has provided many. For Steve Rosenblatt, whose late father, Johnny, led the drive to construct the stadium that now bears his name, the early years hold special meaning. “The first two years of the series another boy and I had the privilege of being the bat boys. We did all the games. That was a great thrill because it was the beginning of the series, and to see how it’s grown today is incredible. They draw more people today in one session than they drew for the entire series in its first year or two.”

 

 

For Jack Payne, the series’ PA announcer since ‘64, “the dominant event took place just a couple years ago when Warren Morris’ two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth won the championship for LSU in ‘96. He hit a slider over the right field wall into the bleachers. That was dramatic. Paul Carey of Stanford unloaded a grand slam into the same bleacher area back in ‘87 to spark Stanford’s run to the title.”

Payne, a veteran sports broadcaster who began covering the Rosenblatt beat in ‘51, added, “There’s been some great coaching duels out there. Dick Siebert at Minnesota and Rod Dedeaux at USC had a great rivalry. They played chess games out there. As far as players, Dave Winfield was probably the greatest athlete I ever saw in the series. He pitched. He played outfield. He did it all.”

Terry Forsberg, the former Omaha city events manager under whose watch Rosenblatt was revamped, said, “Part of the appeal of the series is to see a young Dave Winfield or Roger Clemens. Players like that just stick out, and you know they’re going to go somewhere.” For Forsberg, the Creighton Bluejays’ Cinderella-run in the ‘91 CWS stands out. “That was a real thrill, particularly when they won a couple games. You couldn’t ask for anything more.”

The Creighton-Wichita State game that series, a breathtaking but ultimately heartbreaking 3-2 loss in 12 innings, is considered an all-time classic.  Creighton’s CWS appearance, the first and only by an in-state school, ignited the Omaha crowd. Scott Sorenson, a right-handed pitcher on that Bluejay club, will never forget the electric atmosphere. “It was absolutely amazing to be on a hometown team in an event like that and to have an entire city pulling for you,” he said. “I played in a lot of ballparks across the nation, but I never saw anything like I did at Rosenblatt Stadium. I still get that tingling feeling whenever I’m back there.”

A game that’s always mentioned is the ‘73 USC comeback over Minnesota. The Gophers’ Winfield was overpowering on the mound that night, striking out 15 and hurling a shutout into the ninth with his team ahead 7-0. But a spent Winfield was chased from the mound and the Trojans completed a storybook eight-run last inning rally to win 8-7.

Poignant moments abound as well. Like the ‘64 ceremony renaming the former Municipal Stadium for Johnny Rosenblatt in recognition of his efforts to get the stadium built and bring the CWS to Omaha. A popular ex-mayor, Rosenblatt was forced to resign from office after developing Parkinson’s disease and already suffered from its effects at the rededication. He died in ‘79. Another emotional moment came in ‘94 when cancer-ridden Arizona State coach Jim Brock died only 10 days after making his final CWS appearance. “That got to me,” Payne said.

Like many others, Payne feels the stadium and the tourney are made for each other, “It’s always been a tremendous place to have a tournament like this, and fortunately there was room to grow. I don’t think you could have picked a finer facility at a better location, centrally located like it is, than Rosenblatt. It’s up high. The field’s big. The stadium’s spacious. It’s just gorgeous. And the people have just kept coming.”

Due to its storied link with the CWS, the stadium’s become the unofficial home of collegiate baseball. So much so that CWS boosters like Steve Rosenblatt and legendary ex-USC coach Rod Dedeaux, would like to see a college baseball/CWS Hall of Fame established there.

Baseball is, in fact, why the stadium was built. The lack of a suitable ballpark sparked the formation of a citizens committee in ‘44 that pushed for the stadium’s construction. The committee was a latter-day version of the recently disbanded Sokol Commission that led the drive for a new convention center-arena.

With a goal of putting the issue to a citywide vote, committee members campaigned hard for the stadium at public meetings and in smoke-filled back rooms. Backers got their wish when, in ‘45, voters approved by a 3 to 1 margin a $480,000 bond issue to finance the project.

Unlike the controversy surrounding the site for a convention center-arena today, the 40-acre tract chosen for the stadium was widely endorsed.  The weed-strewn hill overlooking Riverview Park (the Henry Doorly Zoo today) was located in a relatively undeveloped area and lay unused itself except as prime rabbit hunting territory. Streetcars ran nearby, just as trolleys may in the near future. The site was also dirt cheap. The property had been purchased by the city a few years earlier for $17 at a tax foreclosure sale. Back taxes on the land were soon retired.

Dogged by high bids, rising costs and material delays, the stadium was finished in ‘48 only after design features were scaled back and a second bond issue passed.  The final cost exceeded $1 million.

Baseball launched the stadium at its October 17, 1948 inaugural when a group of all-stars, featuring native Nebraskan big leaguers, beat a local Storz Brewery team 11-3 before a packed house of 10,000 fans.

Baseball has continued to be the main drawing card. The growth of the CWS prompted the stadium’s renovation and expansion, which began in earnest in the early ‘90s and is ongoing today.

Rosenblatt is at once a throwback to a bygone era — with its steel-girdered grandstand and concrete concourse — and a testament to New Age theme park design with its Royal Blue molded facade, interlaced metal truss, fancy press box and luxury View Club. The theme park analogy is accentuated by its close proximity to the popular Henry Doorly Zoo.

Some have suggested the new bigness and brashness have stolen the simple charm from the place.

“Maybe some of that charm’s gone now,” Forsberg said, “but we had to accommodate more people as the CWS got popular. But we still play on real grass under the stars. The setting is still absolutely beautiful. You can still look out over the fences and see green trees and see what mid-America is all about.”

Payne agrees. “I don’t think it’s taken away from any of the atmosphere or ambience,” he said. “If anything, I think it’s perpetuated it.  The Grand Old Lady, as I call it, has weathered many a historical moment.  She’s withstood the battle of time. And then in the ‘90s she got a facelift, so she’s paid her dues in 50 years. Very much so.”

Perched atop a hill overlooking the Missouri River and the tree-lined zoo, Rosenblatt hearkens back to baseball’s and, by extension, America’s idealized past. It reminds us of our own youthful romps in wide open spaces. Even with the stadium expansion, anywhere you sit gives you the sense you can reach out and touch its field of dreams.

 

 

 

NCAA officials, who’ve practically drawn the blueprint for the new look Rosenblatt, know they have a gem here.

“I think part of the reason why the College World Series will, in 1999, celebrate its 50th year in Omaha is because of the stadium we play in, and the fact that it is a state-of-the-art facility,” said Jim Wright, NCAA director of statistics and media coordinator for the CWS the past 20 years.

Wright believes there is a casual quality that distinguishes the event.

“Almost without exception writers coming to this event really do become taken with the city, with the stadium and with the laidback way this championship unfolds,” he said. “It has a little bit different feel to it, and certainly part of that is because we’re in Omaha, which has a lot of the big city advantages without having too many of the disadvantages.”

For Dedeaux, who led his Trojans to 10 national titles and still travels each year from his home in Southern California to attend the series, the marriage of the stadium-city-event makes for a one-of-a-kind experience.

“I love the feeling of it. The intimacy. Whenever I’m there I think of all the ball games, but also the fans and the people associated with the tournament, and the real hospitable feeling they’ve always had. I think it’s touched the lives of a lot of people,” he said.

Fans have their own take on what makes baseball and Rosenblatt such a good fit. Among the tribes of fans who throw tailgate parties in the stadium’s south lot is Harold Webster, an executive with an Omaha temporary employment firm. While he concedes the renovation is “nice,” he notes, “The city didn’t have to make any improvements for me. I was here when it wasn’t so nice. I just love being at the ballpark. I’m here for the game.” Not the frills, he might have added.

For Webster and fans like him, baseball’s a perennial rite of summer.

“To me, it’s the greatest thing in the world. I don’t buy season tickets to anything else — just baseball.”

Mark Eveloff, an associate judge in Council Bluffs, comes with his family. He said, “We always have fun because we sit in a large group of people we all know. You get to see a lot of your friends at the game and you get to see some good baseball. I’ve been coming to games here since I was a kid in the late ‘50s, when the Omaha Cardinals played. And from then to now, it’s come a long way. Every year, it looks better.”

Ginny Tworek is another fan for life. “I’ve been coming out here since I was eight-years old,” the Baby Boomer said. “My dad used to drop me and my two older brothers off at the ballpark. I just fell in love with the game. It’s a relaxing atmosphere.”

There is a Zen quality to baseball. With its sweet meandering pace you sometimes swear things are moving in slow motion. It provides an antidote to the hectic pace outside.

Baseball isn’t the whole story at Rosenblatt. Through the ‘70s it hosted high school (as Creighton Prep’s home field), collegiate (UNO) and pro football (Omaha Mustang and NFL exhibition) games as well as pro wrestling cards, boxing matches and soccer contests. Concerts filled the bill too, including major shows by the Beach Boys in ‘64 and ‘79. But that’s not all. It accomodated everything from the Ringling Brothers Circus to tractor pulls to political rallies to revival meetings. More recently, Fourth of July fireworks displays have been staged there.

 

Fans wait outside Rosenblatt Stadium to watch Game Three of the 2009 NCAA College World Series between the Texas Longhorns and the Louisiana State University Tigers on June 24, 2009 in Omaha, Nebraska.

 

Except for the annual fireworks show, however, the city now reserves the park for none but its one true calling, baseball, as a means of protecting its multimillion dollar investment.

“We made a commitment to the Omaha Royals and to the College World Series and the NCAA that the stadium would be maintained at a major league level. The new field is fairly sensitive. We don’t want to hurt the integrity of the field, so we made the decision to just play baseball there,” Omaha public events manager Larry Lahaie said.

A new $700,000 field was installed in 1991-92, complete with drainage and irrigation systems. Maintaining the field requires a  groundskeeping crew whose size rivals that of some major league clubs.

Omaha’s desire to keep the CWS has made the stadium a priority.

As the series began drawing consistently large crowds in the ‘80s, the stadium experienced severe growing pains. Parking was at a premium.  Traffic snarls drew loud complaints. To cope with overflow crowds, the city placed fans on the field’s cinder warning track. The growing media corps suffered inside a hot, cramped, outdated press box. With the arrival of national TV coverage in the ‘80s, the NCAA began fielding bids from other cities wanting to host the CWS.

By the late ‘80s Omaha faced a decision — improve Rosenblatt or lose the CWS. There was also the question of whether the city would retain the Royals. In ‘90 the club’s then owner, the late Chicago business magnate Irving “Gus” Cherry, was shopping the franchise around. There was no guarantee a buyer would be found locally, or, if one was, whether the franchise would stay. To the rescue came an unlikely troika of Union Pacific Railroad, billionaire investor Warren Buffett and Peter Kiewit Son’s, Inc. chairman Walter Scott, Jr., who together purchased the Royals in 1991.

Urged on by local CWS organizers, such as Jack Diesing Sr. and Jr., and emboldened by the Royals’ new ownership, the city anteed-up and started pouring money into Rosenblatt to rehab it according to NCAA specifications. The city has financed the improvements through private donations and from revenue derived from a $2 hotel-motel occupancy tax enacted in ‘91.

The makeover has transformed what was a quaint but antiquated facility into a modern baseball palace. By the time the latest work (to the player clubhouses, public restrooms and south pavilion) is completed next year, more than $20 million will have been spent on improvements.

The stadium itself is now an attraction. The retro exterior is highlighted by an Erector Set-style center truss whose interlocking, cantilevered steel beams, girders and columns jig-jag five-stories high. Then there’s the huge mock baseball mounted on one wall, the decorative blue-white skirt around the facade, the slick script lettering welcoming you there and the fancy View Club perched atop the right-field stands. The coup de grace is the spacious thatched-roof press box spanning the truss.

Rosenblatt today is a chic symbol of stability and progress in the blue collar south Omaha neighborhood it occupies. It is also a hub of activity that energizes the area. On game days lawn picnics proceed outside homes along 13th Street and tailgate parties unwind in the RV and minivan-choked lots. The aroma of grilled sausage, bratwurst and roasted peanuts fills the air. A line invariably forms at the nearby Zesto’s, an eatery famous for its quick comfort food.

There’s a carnival atmosphere inside the stadium. The scoreboard above the left-field stands is like a giant arcade game with its flashing lights, blaring horns, dizzying video displays and fireworks. Music cascades over the crowd — from prerecorded cuts of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and the Village People’s “YMCA” to organist Lambert Bartak’s live renditions of “Sioux City Sue” and “Spanish Eyes.” Casey the Mascot dances atop the dugouts. Vendors hawk an assortment of food, drink and souvenirs. Freshly-scrubbed ushers guide you to your seat.

The addition that’s most altered the stadium is the sleek, shiny, glass-enclosed View Club. It boasts a bar, a restaurant, a south deck, a baseball memorabilia collection, cozy chairs and, naturally, a great catbird’s seat for watching the game from any of its three tiered-seating levels. But you won’t catch serious fans there very long. The hermetically-sealed, sound-proof interior sucks the life right out of the game, leaving you a remote voyeur. Removed from the din of the crowd, the ballyhoo of the scoreboard, the enticing scent of fresh air and the sound of a ball connecting with leather, wood or aluminum, you’re cut-off from the visceral current running through the grandstand. You miss its goosebump thrills.

“That’s the bad thing about it,” Tworek said. “You can’t hear the crack of the bat. You don’t pay as close attention to the game there.”

Even with all the bells and whistles, baseball still remains the main attraction. The refurbished Rosenblatt has seen CWS crowds go through the roof, reaching an all-time single series high of 203,000 last year. The Royals, bolstered by more aggressive marketing, have drawn  400,000-plus fans every year but one since ‘92. Fans have come regardless of the won-loss record. The top single-season attendance of 447,079 came in ‘94, when the club finished eight games under .500 and in 6th place.

Why? Fans come for the game’s inherent elegance, grace and drama. To see a well-turned double play, a masterful pitching performance or a majestic home run. For the chance of snaring a foul ball. For the traditional playing of the national anthem and throwing out of the first pitch.  For singing along to you-know-what during the seventh inning stretch.

They come too for the kick-back conviviality of the park, where getting a tan, watching the sun set or making new friends is part of the bargain.  There is a communal spirit to the game and its parks. Larry Hook, a retired firefighter, counts Tworek among his “baseball family,” a group of fans he and his grandson Nick have gotten acquainted with at the Blatt. “It’s become a regular meeting place for us guys and gals,” he said. “We talk a little baseball and watch a little baseball.

Once the game’s over everybody goes their separate ways and we say, ‘See ya next home stand.’

The season’s end brings withdrawal pains. “About the first couple months, I’m lost,” Hook said. “There’s nothing to look forward to.” Except the start of next season.

As dusk fell at Rosenblatt one recent night, Charles and Stephanie Martinez, a father and daughter from Omaha, shared their baseball credo with a visitor to their sanctuary above the third-base dugout. “I can never remember not loving baseball,” said Charles, a retired cop. “I enjoy the competition, the players and the company of the people I’m surrounded by.”

Serious fans like these stay until the final out. “Because anything can happen,” Stephanie said. “I like it l because it’s just so relaxed sitting out on a summer day. There’s such an ease to it. Part of it’s also the friends you make at the ballpark. It doesn’t matter where you go — if you sit down with another baseball fan, you can be friends in an instant.”

That familiar welcoming feeling may be baseball’s essential appeal.  Coming to the ballpark, any ballpark, is like a homecoming. Its sense of reunion and renewal, palpable. Rosenblatt only accentuates that feeling.  Like a family inheritance, baseball is passed from one generation to the next. It gets in your blood.  So, take me out to the ball game, take me out to the crowd…

____________________________________________________________________

Rosenblatt is a magical name in Omaha because of the popular mayor who belonged to it, the late Johnny Rosenblatt, who in his day was quite a ballplayer, and because of the municipal stadium whose construction he speerheaded.  That stadium was named after him and became home to the College World Series.  The subject of this story is his son Steve Rosenblatt, who inherited his father’s love for the game and followed the old man into politics.  Fabled Rosenblatt Stadium is no more, replaced by TD Ameritrade Park as host of the CWS.  The stadium, the series, and his honor the mayor are more than just tangential memories to Steve, they are lifeblood and legacy.

When Rosenblatt was Municipal Stadium. At the first game, from left: Steve Rosenblatt; Rex Barney; Bob Hall, owner of the Omaha Cardinals; Duce Belford, Brooklyn Dodgers scout and Creighton athletic director; Richie Ashburn, a native of Tilden, Neb.; Johnny Rosenblatt; and Johnny Hopp of Hastings, Neb.:
At the first game, from left:  Steve Rosenblatt; Rex Barney; Bob Hall, owner of the Omaha Cardinals; Duce Belford, Brooklyn Dodgers scout and Creighton athletic director; Richie Ashburn, a native of Tilden, Neb.; Johnny Rosenblatt; and Johnny Hopp of Hastings, Neb.
©photo from the Steve Rosenblatt Collection

 

 

Steve Rosenblatt, A Legacy of Community Service, Political Ambition and Baseball Adoration

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Jewish Press

 

Legacy plays a big part in Steve Rosenblatt’s life.

The Omaha native and his wife, the former Ann Hermen, live in Scottsdale, Ariz.

His late father, Johnny Rosenblatt, became an Omaha icon: first as a top amateur baseball player; than as a sponsor of youth athletic teams through the Roberts Dairy company he managed; and finally as a popular Omaha city councilman and mayor. The elder Rosenblatt, who served as mayor from 1954 to 1961, led efforts to build the south Omaha stadium that became the city’s home to professional baseball and to the College World Series.

The city he loved paid tribute to one of its greatest boosters when Omaha Municipal Stadium was renamed Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium in 1964. The venue and the name have become synonymous with the NCAA college baseball championship played continuously at the stadium since 1950.

In a classic case of the apple not falling far from the tree, Steve Rosenblatt was a ballplayer in his own right and served on the Omaha Chamber of Commerce Sports Commission and the Omaha Royals Advisory Board. He followed his father’s footsteps into politics as well, serving two terms on the city council and three terms on the Douglas County Board of Commissioners.

The stadium that’s forever associated with his father played a key role in Steve’s early life. He was a bat boy for the inaugural Omaha Cardinals game played there, a duty he performed the first years the CWS took up residence. He regrets that the facility so closely tied to his family will be razed after the 2010 CWS in line with the planned construction of a new downtown palace slated to host the Series beginning in 2011. But the pragmatic Rosenblatt knows the decision is driven by the bottom line, which trumps nostalgia every time.

Sports and politics are inheritances for Rosenblatt, who is an only child. Just as his father used sports and charisma to forge a political career, the son used his own passion for athletics and way with people to become a player on the local political scene and to find success as an entrepreneur.

 Steve Rosenblatt

Bearing a name that has such major import in Omaha could have been an issue for Rosenblatt, but he didn’t let it be.

“You can take that and make it a burden,” Rosenblatt said, “or you can take it and have it be an asset, and I wished to take that route.”

Comparisons between he and his father were inevitable. “That’s fine, because we weren’t the same. First of all, he was a better ballplayer than me,” he said with his dry wit. “I was a better golfer than he was. Basketball might have been a toss-up, except he played college basketball — I didn’t.”

Growing up, Rosenblatt couldn’t help but notice what made his father a strong mayor and the sacrifices that job entailed.

“I was aware obviously of it and I learned as time went on how he operated and how he did things. Of course it was intriguing. He was a people-person who had an ability to communicate and to have relationships with his constituency and to make the tough decisions and still maintain a tremendous popularity. He had what I would call a broad-based support. He was well liked all over the community and one of the things that contributed to that — and it was what also helped me — was the background he had in athletics. That benefited him as I think it benefited me.

“He was well known as an athlete long before he was well known as a public official and his abilities as an athlete helped to project him into places.”

Rosenblatt said his father epitomized the “It” factor politicos possess. “All the people you see serve in the public sector as elected officials have in my opinion an attribute that goes beyond the norm,” he said, “in that they have the ability to speak and to be received in a fashion that projects themselves as leaders.”

Being an accessible mayor means never really having any down time.

“What was difficult about it was the fact you learned early on there’s a price to be paid as well,” Rosenblatt said, “because obviously with my dad doing what he did he was not going to be with you doing the things you might like to be doing all the time. He had public obligations to take care of as an elected official.”

The level of commitment required to be an effective, responsible public servant was not enough to dissuade Rosenblatt from seeking a seat on the city council and later on the county board. Even with the cachet of his name, his strong base in the business community and a groundswell of support to make a mayoral bid he never seriously considered running for that office. The same for a Congressional seat.

“I really was never interested in it. It was not aspiring to me. I’m as much a people- person as my dad was but at the same time I’m much more private. You cannot in my opinion be an elected official at that level and be as private as I would have liked to be. I want to do the job I was elected to do and when the day is over I want to go to the golf course, be with my family, watch a ballgame. You can’t do that in certain areas because you’ve given up that right and that time by your election to a particular office.”

He said it all comes with the territory.

“Make no mistake about it, when a person is elected to office, even at the city level, the county level, there’s a sacrifice to be made,” he said. “People may not realize it at the time they do get in but they will find out. I found out and I knew how much I wanted to give and how much I didn’t.

“People thought I should have run for mayor. The thing that used to scare me about that thought was I might get elected. Then I’d have to go do it and, you see, I knew too much about what a mayor had to give up and to do to be successful. I could have done it. I think I could have done a good job at it but it was not appealing to me because my (golf) handicap would have gone up.”

He never discussed with his father prospects for a public life nor went to him for political advice.

“Not really,” he said. “I first got elected in ‘73 and he was stricken with Parkinson’s disease in the latter part of the ‘50s, so he was really not able, but he didn’t have to because I learned from him when he was healthy, vigorous and in office, so I’d already got the lessons.”

Even though he never planned for it, Rosenblatt said he always assumed he would gravitate to public service.

“Well, I’d always thought that as a son of a former mayor and as somebody who had learned that life that perhaps some day I might get involved. I knew how to operate, so to speak. Actually, the way it happened is former MayorEugene Leahy said to me one day, ‘Steve, you need to run for the city council — we need to get some new blood in there.’ I guess he kind of triggered the desire.”

At the time he declared his candidacy in 1972 Rosenblatt was a salesman with Sterling Distributing Company, an alcoholic beverage distributor. He’d done some college work at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Only his mind was more on baseball than higher education.

“I was only interested in athletics and still am to this day as a matter of fact. I really did not have the kind of plan that I would hope my kids would have. I was not academically a good student but I think you could say I was more attuned to the practicalities of life. You might say I was street smart…”

A three-year varsity letter-winner at Omaha Central, he tried to play ball at UNL, he said, “but academically I wasn’t taking care of business and physically I was too young to have an opportunity to be successful.”

While school was hardly a home run, his experience trying to cobble together a college baseball career given him priceless insights. He also gained much from his friendship with two coaching legends — Eddie Sutton and the late Rod Dedeaux.

“I’m fortunate to have been very close to two of the greatest coaches in the history of sports.”

Rosenblatt got to know Sutton when the then-Creighton University head basketball coach and his family moved across the street from Steve and his folks. The families remain close to this day. He got to know Dedeaux when the University of Southern California head baseball coach led his powerhouse clubs at the CWS.

“If I’d have known then what I learned from Rod I would have had a chance to have been a better baseball player,” he said, “but at the time I didn’t have that coaching-mentoring.”

The ability to evaluate talent and to weigh options has made Rosenblatt a kind of scout and adviser for promising young athletes, especially Jewish athletes.

“I’m helping kids to try to get situated within athletics. I had a young Jewish kid and his father from Scottsdale, Ariz. go to Omaha to try to help him get set up collegiately. I’m making calls to some baseball people trying to help a young Jewish kid in Omaha who’s a good ballplayer. People call me. People know that I kind of understand. I try to offer guidance to both the parents and the youngsters as to what could be in their best interests. That, to me, is fun.”

Rosenblatt said it’s not an accident he’s drawn to strong, charismatic men like his father. After losing Johnny in 1979 Rosenblatt drew even closer to Dedeaux.

“He also was a people-person and a great communicator,” Rosenblatt said of Dedeaux. “He learned the baseball business from one of the smartest men in the history of the game, a fella named Casey Stengel. That was his mentor. The two games he played in the major leagues Casey Stengel was the manager.”

By the time Rosenblatt owned his own business — a sales and distribution outfit for corrugated package containers better known as boxes — Dedeaux and he were like father and son. They were also business associates.

“He was not only a good friend but one of my biggest customers. He had a trucking company with warehousing and distribution divisions. Multiple operations. It was really big. Make no mistake, he was a baseball person, but he was also a phenomenon in the world of business.”

Rosenblatt parlayed his background in athletics by serving on the Chamber’s Sports Commission, which had a similar agenda as today’s Omaha Sports Commission.

“It was a matter of trying to do the things that make Omaha an attraction for new athletic environments,” he said.

He described his work on the Omaha Royals Advisory Board as “an opportunity for the Royals management to hear from people that are looking at the franchise from perhaps a different standpoint.” He’s still tight with the Royals today. “The general manager of the Royals, Martie Cordaro, is a good friend. I meet with him literally every time I go back to Omaha to talk about what they’re doing and how we can help them be successful.”

Those enduring ties to the Royals keep Rosenblatt informed on the Triple AAA club’s uneasy status in town. Principal owner Alan Stein is in ongoing negotiations with the Omaha Sports Commission and the Metropolitan Entertainment Convention Authority that will determine if the Royals strike a deal to play in the new downtown stadium or go play ball somewhere else. La Vista and Sarpy County are among the Royals’ in-state suitors and Stein indicates out state communities are courting the team as well. Like any good businessman, he’s playing the field.

“Well, I think he has to have that attitude,” Rosenblatt said. “I’ve met with Alan and Martie. I know what they’re thinking is. I’ve offered them my opinion of the situation. It will be interesting to see what develops.”

Steve’s personal connection to Rosenblatt Stadium and to the pro and college baseball tenants that have occupied it rather uneasily in recent years have put him in a Solomon-like position. He loves the CWS and how it’s grown to become a huge event garnering national media coverage. His long association with the Series and his deep affection for the figures who made it special give him a unique perspective. He knows players, coaches, local CWS organizers and NCAA officials.

He sat in on negotiations between the city and the NCAA as a city councilman. “The city was a cooperative partner with the private sector in the production, basically, of the College World Series,” he said. He played a similar oversight role as a county board member.

On the other hand he appreciates what the Royals offer the community and the compromises they’ve made to placate the city and the NCAA and the proverbial 900-pound gorilla that is the CWS. Just as he still talks with Royals officials, he bends the ear of NCAA officials, acting as a kind of intermediary between the two.

It all came to a head when the political hot potato of the new stadium proposed by Mayor Mike Fahey, and subsequently approved by the city council, sealed the fate of Rosenblatt Stadium. The new downtown stadium is being built expressly for the NCAA and the CWS. If the Royals do play there they’d be the ugly step-child who has to accept the leftovers from the favorite son.

Rosenblatt equates a Royals move from Omaha a loss.

“Well, I would because the original concept of the stadium that has Johnny’s name on it was not initially for the College World Series, it was for professional baseball,” he said, “Because of what has transpired with the emergence of the College World Series, it’s now created what I would refer to as an unfriendly situation for professional baseball. There’s no other professional baseball team in America that has a competitor in town called the College World Series. So it’s awkward.”

Even though he now takes an indirect role in such matters, he’s keeping a wary eye on the downtown stadium project, whose estimated $140 million price tag he considers overly optimistic. He predicts it will end up costing $175-$200 million once all the dust settles.

Like many Omahans he’s concerned that if the Royals don’t play at the new stadium and no minor league franchise is secured in their place, the venue will sit empty 50 weeks a year and not be the economic catalyst or anchor for NoDo it’s intended to be. This longtime proponent of a CWS hall of fame said the stadium would be an apt home for it and an Omaha sports hall of fame.

A CWS hall would acknowledge those who’ve excelled as players or coaches or been responsible for the Series’ success. While he doesn’t feel that venue would be much of a year-round draw he sees an Omaha sports museum as a turnstyle magnet “because so many great athletes have come out of Omaha. That would be very interesting, and if you could incorporate the two, that’s a helluva an idea.”

He also has a vested interest in seeing his father’s name live on in the new stadium.

“In my opinion that would be wise and appropriate given the lengthy association that that name has had with college and professional baseball in Omaha. Hopefully the powers that be will have his name connected in some way,” he said.

The stakes are rarely as high as they are with the stadium issue but he makes a practice of using sports as an ice breaker with people.

“Almost everything I’ve done business-wise, athletics has been a tool of taking care of business. My involvement in athletics is an invitation. If I happen to be calling on new customers and if they’re knowledgeable in athletics, then I’m going to get their business, because I can talk it. If they’re interested in the opera and the theater, I’m in trouble. So athletics is a great tool in communicating.”

Athletics and business were not his only finishing schools for a political life. He gained valuable leadership experience as a Nebraska Air National Guardsman and as chairman of the Midlands Chapter of the Multiple Sclerosis Society.

“That was a very rewarding opportunity,” he said. “Hopefully we did some good there. I had learned, of course, with my dad being afflicted with Parkinson’s and my mother being afflicted with rheumatoid arthritis how devastating that can be. Being associated with the Multiple Sclerosis Society gave me an opportunity to contribute and to try to help people…”

Community service motivated his entry into politics.

“You try to get elected in my opinion to help people who perhaps don’t have the ability to help themselves,” he said, “because everybody needs help. Having the ability to collectively help people is the thing that gives you the most pleasure.”

His political life has taught him some lessons. One is to be “leery” of any candidate who makes promises. “The fact of the matter is there’s very little individually they can do because it takes a collective effort to get something done,” he said. Any rhetoric about reducing taxes is just that. “That’s folly,” he said. “They’ll be lucky if they don’t have to raise taxes.”

His action on some issues elicits satisfaction all these years later. One involved the Orpheum Theatre. Omaha’s then-mayor, Ed Zorinsky, wanted it razed. Rosenblatt, a fellow Jew and key ally, went against Zorinsky to side with preservationists who wanted it restored. The conflict came down to a close city council vote.

“The Orpheum Theatre would not be around today if not for Steve Rosenblatt,” he said. “I felt an obligation to the people of the city of Omaha to ensure that it remained for the use down the road. I was the swing vote on that. If that vote goes the other way it’s gone.”

A controversial decision on his council-county board watch was demolishing Jobbers Canyon to make way for the downtown ConAgra campus. “It was an emotional issue,” he said. “I don’t make decisions based on much emotion. I try to make them based on what I think is right.” He said the project “was an absolute must because we as a community could not afford for ConAgra to go to Lincoln or somewhere out in the suburbs — one of the possibilities at the time. It needed to be downtown to be the initial thrust for the redevelopment of that area.”

He encouraged then-mayor Bernie Simon to have the city match a financial commitment the county was making for the project. The city did. He said, “One of the things I had going for me was having been on the city council I retained a great deal of working relationships with people at city hall. The ability to transcend the workings of city and county government was helpful on a variety of projects.”

He credits ex-mayors P.J. Morgan and Hal Daub with driving forward Omaha’s growth by continuing city-county cooperation and public-private sector synergy. Under current Mayor Mike Fahey Omaha’s makeover has been “phenomenal.”

If Rosenblatt and his wife have their way, they’ll eventually live in Omaha half the year. The Rosenblatt name could once again be center stage in the political arena.

____________________________________________________________________

 

Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium 23:33, 28 November 2...

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The College World Series underway in Omaha is a major NCAA athletic championship that attracts legions of fans from all over America and grabs gobs of national media attention. With this being the last series played at the event’s home these past 60 years, Rosenblatt Stadium, there’s been more fan and media interest than ever before, although a spate of rain storms actually hurt attendance at the start of this year’s series.  Inclement weather or not, the series is a great big love-in with its own Fan Fest.  But it didn’t used to be this way.  Indeed, for the first three decades of the event, it was a rather small, obscure championship that garnered little notice outside the schools participating. Omaha cultivated the event when few others wanted or cared about it, and all that nurturing has resulted in  practically a permanent hold on the event, which has strong support from the corporate community, from the City of Omaha, from service clubs, and from the local hospitality industry. Two key players in securing and growing the series have been a father and son, the late Jack Diesing Sr. and Jack Diesing Jr., and they are the focus of this short story that recently appeared in a special CWS edition of The Reader (www.thereader.com) called The Daily Dugout.  I have another story on this site from the Dugout — it features Greg Pivovar, one of the colorful characters who can be found at the series.

 

The Two Jacks of the College World Series

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

In 1967 the late Jack Diesing Sr. founded College World Series Inc. as the local nonprofit organizing committee for the NCAA Division I men’s national collegiate baseball championship. He led efforts that turned a small, struggling event into a major national brand for Omaha.

When son Jack Diesing Jr. succeeded him as president, the young namesake continued building the brand as Jack Sr. stayed on as chairman.

While the CSW is not a business, it’s a growing enterprise annually generating an estimated $40-plus million for the local economy. More than 300,000 fans attend and millions more watch courtesy ESPN.

Papa Diesing was around to see all that growth, only passing away this past March at age 92. Jack Jr. said his father, who saw the event’s potential when few others did, never ceased being amazed “by how it kept getting bigger and better. The phrase he always said is, ‘This just flabbergasts me.'”

His father inherited a dog back in 1963. Jack Sr. was a J. L. Brandeis & Sons Department Store executive. His boss, Ed Pettis, chaired the CWS. The event lost money nine of its first 14 years here. When Pettis died, Jack Sr. was asked to take over. He refused at first. No wonder. The CWS was rinky-dink. Nothing about it promised great things ahead. The crowds were miniscule. The interest weak. But under his aegis an economically sustainable framework was put in place.

What’s become a gold standard event had an unlikely person guiding it.

“When my father got involved with the College World Series he had never attended a baseball game in his life. He didn’t really want to do it but basically he agreed to do it because it was the right thing to do for the city of Omaha,” said Jack Jr. “Over a period of time he developed a love affair with not only what it meant for the fans but what it meant for the city and what it meant for the kids playing in it. He always was looking to do whatever we could do here to make the event better for the kids playing the games and the fans attending the games and for the community. And the rest is history.”

The son’s affinity for the series started early and by the time the patriarch was ready to pass the torch, Jack Jr. was ready.

“I certainly grew up behind the scenes. I can’t say he was purposely grooming me into anything. It’s just that I was exposed to the College World Series ever since I moved back into town in 1975. I’d go to the games, I was involved in sports in school and still was an avid sports follower after I got back.”

Diesing said the same sense of civic duty and love of community that motivated his father motivates him.

He still marvels at his father’s foresight.

“One of the things people credited him for was having tremendous vision about how to set up the infrastructure and make sure we had an organization moving forward that would stand the test of time. And he thought it would make sense to carry on a tradition with his son following him, and that was another thing he was right about.”

His father not only stabilized the CWS but set the stage for its prominence by partnering with the city and the local business community to placate the NCAA by investing millions in Rosenblatt Stadium improvements to create a showcase event for TV.

College baseball coaching legend Bobo Brayton admired how Jack Sr. nurtured the CWS. “I think he was the single person that really kept the world series there in Omaha. I went to a lot of meetings with Jack, I know how he worked. First, he’d feed everybody good, give them a few belts, and then start working on ‘em. He was fantastic, just outstanding. It’s too bad we lost him…but, of course, Jack Jr. is doing a good job too.”

As intrinsic as Rosenbatt’s been to the CWS, Jack Jr. said his father knew it was time for a change: “He could see and did see the needs and the benefits to move into the future. Certainly, I’m the first person to understand the nostalgia, the history, the ambience surrounding Rosenblatt. It’s going to be different down at the new stadium, and it’s just a matter of everybody figuring out a way to embrace the different.”

Diesing has no doubt the public-private partnership his father fostered will continue over the next 25 years that Omaha’s secured the series for and well beyond. He’s glad to carry the legacy of a man, a city and an event made for each other.

 ___________________________________________________________________

UPDATE: Greg Pivovar’s Stadium View Sports Cards store was left high and dry when Rosenblatt Stadium was closed and the College World Series moved downtown to TD Ameritrade Park, but he does have a presence near the new site courtesy a tent set-up. My story below appeared on the eve of the 201o CWS, as Pivovar, whose shop stood directly across the street from Rosenblatt, prepped for his last dance with the old stadium.

As the College World Series enters the stretch run of the 2010 championship, I offer this story as a slice-of-life capsule of the local color that can be found in and around the event and its festival-like atmosphere.  The subject is Greg Pivovar, who runs a sports memorabilia shop called Stadium View Sports Cards, across from Omaha‘s Rosenblatt Stadium, the venue where the CWS has been played for 60 years.  This is the stadium’s last at-bat, so to speak, as it’s scheduled to be torn down next year, when the event moves to the new downtown TD Ameritrade Park. The ‘Blatt’s last hurrah is inspiring all manner of nostalgic farewells. Pivovar will be sad to see it go too, but he’s not the sentimental sort.  In fact, he’s the cynical antidote to the otherwise perpetually cheery facade the city, the NCAA, and College World Series Inc. like to spin about the series, an event that Omaha has catered to to such an extent that there’s a fair amount of skepticism and animosity out there. Pivovar loves the series and the business it brings him, and he loves serving in the unofficial role of CWS ambassador for visitors from out of state, but he’s not Pollyannish about the event or the powers-that-be who run it. He just kind of says it like it is.  His blog, stadiumview.wordpress.com, is a hoot for the way he skewers sacred cows.

I have posted another CWS story about a father and son legacy tied to the event.

Greg Pivovar, owner of the Stadium View shop, poses in his store in Omaha, Neb., Thursday, May 27, 2010. Pivovar is a one-man welcoming committee for College World Series fans. The Omaha attorney greets every (legal age) customer with a free can of beer and nudges them toward the barbecue, brats or, when LSU is in town, seafood jambalaya.(AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Greg Pivovar, owner of the Stadium View shop, poses in his store in Omaha, Neb., Thursday, May 27, 2010. Pivovar is a one-man welcoming committee for College World Series fans. The Omaha attorney greets every (legal age) customer with a free can of beer and nudges them toward the barbecue, brats or, when LSU is in town, seafood jambalaya.(AP Photo/Nati Harnik) — AP

 

The Little People‘s Ambassador at the College World Series

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Stadium View Sports Cards proprietor Greg Pivovar makes a colorful ambassador for the College World Series with his Hawaiian shirt, khaki shorts and blue-streak S’oud Omaha patter. This bona fide character champions “the little people who built” the CWS.

Enter his sports memorabilia shop across from Rosenblatt and his coarse, cranky, world-weary sarcasm greets you, his barbs delivered with a stiff drink in one hand and a cell phone in the other. He talks like he writes on his stadiumview.wordpress.com blog.

“A lot of it is funny and cynical, but a lot of it is from my heart,” he said..

His shop’s a popular way stop for CWS fans craving authentic Omaha. He’s dispensed free beer since opening the joint 19 years ago. “It’s meant as a gesture of friendship and welcome, not as, Hey, you want to stand around and get drunk here? Part of the ritual,” he said. In 2006 he “took a cheap ass plea” on a ticket scalping charge he claims was bogus. He said the company he keeps is what got him in trouble.

“I have a bunch of scalpers who hang around here,” he said. “They’re friends of mine. I like them, they’re an interesting breed of human being.”

The arrest made headlines. A recent AP story that went viral called him a one-man CWS welcoming committee. Ryan McGee profiled him in the book The Road to Omaha.

“Famous…infamous, I’ve been both,” said Pivovar.

His uncensored ways hardly conform to the Norman Rockwell image the NCAA prefers.

Pivovar, who also serves homemade barbecue and enchiladas during the CWS, and cooks up a mean jambalaya whenever LSU makes it, feels he contributes to a “festival atmosphere.” Vendor and hospitality tents dot the blue collar neighborhood, where enterprising residents make a sweet profit charging for parking spots and refreshments.

The NCAA’s tried distancing the CWS from the commercial, party vibe. A clean zone will be easier to enforce with the move to TD Ameritrade Park next year.

“Piv” likes a good time but acknowledges all “the temporary bars” can be “a negative,” adding, “There’s a few too many people coming down here just to get drunk, and that’s not the idea. That sounds hypocritical coming from a guy who’s given 40,000 beers away, but it really isn’t. Most of my beers are given away one, maybe two at a time.”

The Creighton University Law School grad and former Sarpy County public defender has a private practice he puts on hold for the series. This being Rosenblatt’s last year, he’s stocked extra beer for the record hordes expected to say adieu to the stadium.

His own ties to Rosenblatt go back to childhood. His collecting began with baseball cards, sports magazines, game programs, signed balls. He got serious after college, traveling to buy and sell wares. Eventually, he said, “my collection was pretty much overrunning my home. I’m a hoarder. I needed a place to store my hobby.” Thus, the store was born, although he insists: “It’s not a business, it’s never been a business. I don’t make any money at this, I never have. It’s kind of like a museum.”

Most of his million or so cards, he said, “are just firewood.”

What business he does do largely happens during the CWS. Even then he said I “barely pay the bills.” He doesn’t know what he’ll do after the ‘Blatt’s gone and the series moves downtown. “I’d love to carry my hobby down there but…If somebody comes and shits a couple hundred thousand dollars on my face it might happen, but other than that…”

If he closes shop, he’s unsure what will become of his stuff.

“I don’t even want to think about it. I suppose I could throw it all on e-bay and get a mere pittance for it. That’s the way that works. So much of it has zero to such a narrow market, and I knew that going in. It’s not like I was having any allusions of getting rich from this.”

He’s pissed about the “Blatt’s demise and suspects the new site will usher in a sterile, elitist era.

“I’m a conspiracy theorist. What this is all about is developing that north area (NoDo) and wanting to give the zoo what they need. The bastards are taking my ballpark. Like I end a lot of my blogs, I’ve got so many days until my world’s over. It’s kind of like writing your own obituary.”

At least he has his health. He’s cancer-free after a bout with cancer.

The “Save Rosenblatt” t-shirts he carried have been replaced with ones reading: “To Hell with Rosenblatt, Save Stadium View.”

Stadium View is at 3702 So. 13th St.

A Rosenblatt Tribute

June 19, 2010 4 comments

2nd game of 2006 finals of College World serie...

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UPDATE: The summer of 2011 finds Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Neb. now an empty shell and ghost of a ballpark, its parts being cannibalized and sold off, while the new home of the College World Series, TD Ameritrade Park, is a resounding hit with fans and media.

Eleven years ago or so I wrote this story about Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, the home of the College World Series.  As I write this intro, the CWS is a day away from starting play in 2010, the last year the event will be played at the stadium that’s hosted NCCA Division I men’s baseball championship for 60 years.  Rosenblatt is being razed in early 2011, when the series will move into a new downtown stadium now under construction.  Rosenblatt has become the symbol for the series because of all the history bound up in it and the special relationship residents and fans have with it and with the blue collar neighborhood surrounding it.  My story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader,com).

 

When Rosenblatt was Municipal Stadium. At the first game, from left: Steve Rosenblatt; Rex Barney; Bob Hall, owner of the Omaha Cardinals; Duce Belford, Brooklyn Dodgers scout and Creighton athletic director; Richie Ashburn, a native of Tilden, Neb.; Johnny Rosenblatt; and Johnny Hopp of Hastings, Neb.:

 

©Omaha World-Herald

When Rosenblatt was Municipal Stadium. At the first game, from left: Steve Rosenblatt; Rex Barney; Bob Hall, owner of the Omaha Cardinals; Duce Belford, Brooklyn Dodgers scout and Creighton athletic director; Richie Ashburn, a native of Tilden, Neb.; Johnny Rosenblatt; and Johnny Hopp of Hastings, Neb.

 

A Rosenblatt Tribute

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

It’s baseball season again, and The Boys of Summer are haunting diamonds across the land to play this quintessentially American game. One rooted in the past, yet forever new. As a fan put it recently, “With baseball, it’s the same thing all over again, but it isn’t. Do you know what I mean?”

Yes. There’s a timelessness about baseball’s unhurried rhythm, classic symmetry and simple charm. The game is steeped in rules and rituals almost unchanged since the turn of the century. It’s an expression of the American character: both immutable and enigmatic.

Within baseball’s rigid standards, idiosyncrasy blooms. A contest is decided when 27 outs are recorded, but getting there can involve limitless innings, hours, plays. Stadiums may appear uniform, but each has its own personality — with distinctive wind patterns, sight lines, nooks and crannies.

Look in any American town and you’ll find a ballpark with deep ties to the sport and its barnstorming, sandlot origins. A shrine, if you will, for serious fans who savor old-time values and traditions. The real thing. Such a place is as near as Omaha’s Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium, the site the past 49 years of the annual College World Series.

The city and the stadium have become synonymous with the NCAA Division I national collegiate baseball championship. No other single location has hosted a major NCAA tournament for so long. More than 4 million fans have attended the event in Omaha since 1950.

The 1998 CWS is scheduled May 29-June 6.

In what has been a troubled era for organized ball, Rosenblatt reaffirms what is good about the game. There, far away from the distraction of major league free-agency squabbles, the threat of player/umpire strikes, and the posturing of superstars, baseball, in its purest form, takes center stage. Hungry players still hustle and display enthusiasm without making a show of it. Sportsmanship still abounds. Booing is almost never heard during the CWS. Fights are practically taboo.

The action unwinds with leisurely grace. The “friendly confines” offer the down-home appeal of a state fair. Where else but Omaha can the PA announcer ask fans to, “scooch-in a hair more,” and be obliged?

Undoubtedly, the series has been the stadium’s anchor and catalyst.  In recent years, thanks in part to ESPN-CBS television coverage, the CWS has become a hugely popular event, regularly setting single game and series attendance records. The undeniable appeal, besides the determination of the players, is the chance to glimpse the game’s upcoming stars. Fans at Rosenblatt have seen scores of future big league greats perform in the tourney, including Mike Schmidt, Dave Winfield, Fred Lynn, Paul Molitor, Jimmy Key, Roger Clemens, Will Clark, Rafael Palmeiro, Albert Belle, Barry Bonds and Barry Larkin.

The stadium on the hill turns 50 this year. As large as the CWS looms in its history, it is just one part of an impressive baseball lineage. For example, Rosenblatt co-hosted the Japan-USA Collegiate Baseball Championship Series in the ‘70s and ‘80s, an event that fostered goodwill by matching all-star collegians from each country.

Countless high school and college games have been contested between its lines and still are on occasion.

Pro baseball has played a key role in the stadium’s history as well.

Negro League clubs passed through in the early years. The legendary Satchel Paige pitched there for the Kansas City Monarchs. Major league teams played exhibitions at Rosenblatt in the ‘50s and ‘60s. St. Louis Cardinal Hall of Famer Stan Musial “killed one” during an exhibition contest.

For all but eight of its 50 years Rosenblatt has hosted a minor league franchise. The Cardinals and Dodgers once based farm clubs there. Native son Hall of Famer Bob Gibson got his start with the Omaha Cardinals in ‘57. Since ‘69 Rosenblatt’s been home to the Class AAA Omaha Royals, the top farm team of the parent Kansas City Royals. More than 7 million fans have attended Omaha Royals home games. George Brett, Frank White and Willie Wilson apprenticed at the ballpark.

With its rich baseball heritage, Rosenblatt has the imprint of nostalgia all over it. Anyone who’s seen a game there has a favorite memory. The CWS has provided many. For Steve Rosenblatt, whose late father, Johnny, led the drive to construct the stadium that now bears his name, the early years hold special meaning. “The first two years of the series another boy and I had the privilege of being the bat boys. We did all the games. That was a great thrill because it was the beginning of the series, and to see how it’s grown today is incredible. They draw more people today in one session than they drew for the entire series in its first year or two.”

 

 

 

 

For Jack Payne, the series’ PA announcer since ‘64, “the dominant event took place just a couple years ago when Warren Morris’ two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth won the championship for LSU in ‘96. He hit a slider over the right field wall into the bleachers. That was dramatic. Paul Carey of Stanford unloaded a grand slam into the same bleacher area back in ‘87 to spark Stanford’s run to the title.”

Payne, a veteran sports broadcaster who began covering the Rosenblatt beat in ‘51, added, “There’s been some great coaching duels out there. Dick Siebert at Minnesota and Rod Dedeaux at USC had a great rivalry. They played chess games out there. As far as players, Dave Winfield was probably the greatest athlete I ever saw in the series. He pitched. He played outfield. He did it all.”

Terry Forsberg, the former Omaha city events manager under whose watch Rosenblatt was revamped, said, “Part of the appeal of the series is to see a young Dave Winfield or Roger Clemens. Players like that just stick out, and you know they’re going to go somewhere.” For Forsberg, the Creighton Bluejays’ Cinderella-run in the ‘91 CWS stands out. “That was a real thrill, particularly when they won a couple games. You couldn’t ask for anything more.”

The Creighton-Wichita State game that series, a breathtaking but ultimately heartbreaking 3-2 loss in 12 innings, is considered an all-time classic.  Creighton’s CWS appearance, the first and only by an in-state school, ignited the Omaha crowd. Scott Sorenson, a right-handed pitcher on that Bluejay club, will never forget the electric atmosphere. “It was absolutely amazing to be on a hometown team in an event like that and to have an entire city pulling for you,” he said. “I played in a lot of ballparks across the nation, but I never saw anything like I did at Rosenblatt Stadium. I still get that tingling feeling whenever I’m back there.”

A game that’s always mentioned is the ‘73 USC comeback over Minnesota. The Gophers’ Winfield was overpowering on the mound that night, striking out 15 and hurling a shutout into the ninth with his team ahead 7-0. But a spent Winfield was chased from the mound and the Trojans completed a storybook eight-run last inning rally to win 8-7.

Poignant moments abound as well. Like the ‘64 ceremony renaming the former Municipal Stadium for Johnny Rosenblatt in recognition of his efforts to get the stadium built and bring the CWS to Omaha. A popular ex-mayor, Rosenblatt was forced to resign from office after developing Parkinson’s disease and already suffered from its effects at the rededication. He died in ‘79. Another emotional moment came in ‘94 when cancer-ridden Arizona State coach Jim Brock died only 10 days after making his final CWS appearance. “That got to me,” Payne said.

Like many others, Payne feels the stadium and the tourney are made for each other, “It’s always been a tremendous place to have a tournament like this, and fortunately there was room to grow. I don’t think you could have picked a finer facility at a better location, centrally located like it is, than Rosenblatt. It’s up high. The field’s big. The stadium’s spacious. It’s just gorgeous. And the people have just kept coming.”

Due to its storied link with the CWS, the stadium’s become the unofficial home of collegiate baseball. So much so that CWS boosters like Steve Rosenblatt and legendary ex-USC coach Rod Dedeaux, would like to see a college baseball/CWS Hall of Fame established there.

Baseball is, in fact, why the stadium was built. The lack of a suitable ballpark sparked the formation of a citizens committee in ‘44 that pushed for the stadium’s construction. The committee was a latter-day version of the recently disbanded Sokol Commission that led the drive for a new convention center-arena.

With a goal of putting the issue to a citywide vote, committee members campaigned hard for the stadium at public meetings and in smoke-filled back rooms. Backers got their wish when, in ‘45, voters approved by a 3 to 1 margin a $480,000 bond issue to finance the project.

Unlike the controversy surrounding the site for a convention center-arena today, the 40-acre tract chosen for the stadium was widely endorsed.  The weed-strewn hill overlooking Riverview Park (the Henry Doorly Zoo today) was located in a relatively undeveloped area and lay unused itself except as prime rabbit hunting territory. Streetcars ran nearby, just as trolleys may in the near future. The site was also dirt cheap. The property had been purchased by the city a few years earlier for $17 at a tax foreclosure sale. Back taxes on the land were soon retired.

Dogged by high bids, rising costs and material delays, the stadium was finished in ‘48 only after design features were scaled back and a second bond issue passed.  The final cost exceeded $1 million.

Baseball launched the stadium at its October 17, 1948 inaugural when a group of all-stars, featuring native Nebraskan big leaguers, beat a local Storz Brewery team 11-3 before a packed house of 10,000 fans.

Baseball has continued to be the main drawing card. The growth of the CWS prompted the stadium’s renovation and expansion, which began in earnest in the early ‘90s and is ongoing today.

Rosenblatt is at once a throwback to a bygone era — with its steel-girdered grandstand and concrete concourse — and a testament to New Age theme park design with its Royal Blue molded facade, interlaced metal truss, fancy press box and luxury View Club. The theme park analogy is accentuated by its close proximity to the popular Henry Doorly Zoo.

Some have suggested the new bigness and brashness have stolen the simple charm from the place.

“Maybe some of that charm’s gone now,” Forsberg said, “but we had to accommodate more people as the CWS got popular. But we still play on real grass under the stars. The setting is still absolutely beautiful. You can still look out over the fences and see green trees and see what mid-America is all about.”

Payne agrees. “I don’t think it’s taken away from any of the atmosphere or ambience,” he said. “If anything, I think it’s perpetuated it.  The Grand Old Lady, as I call it, has weathered many a historical moment.  She’s withstood the battle of time. And then in the ‘90s she got a facelift, so she’s paid her dues in 50 years. Very much so.”

Perched atop a hill overlooking the Missouri River and the tree-lined zoo, Rosenblatt hearkens back to baseball’s and, by extension, America’s idealized past. It reminds us of our own youthful romps in wide open spaces. Even with the stadium expansion, anywhere you sit gives you the sense you can reach out and touch its field of dreams.

 

 

 

 

NCAA officials, who’ve practically drawn the blueprint for the new look Rosenblatt, know they have a gem here.

“I think part of the reason why the College World Series will, in 1999, celebrate its 50th year in Omaha is because of the stadium we play in, and the fact that it is a state-of-the-art facility,” said Jim Wright, NCAA director of statistics and media coordinator for the CWS the past 20 years.

Wright believes there is a casual quality that distinguishes the event.

“Almost without exception writers coming to this event really do become taken with the city, with the stadium and with the laidback way this championship unfolds,” he said. “It has a little bit different feel to it, and certainly part of that is because we’re in Omaha, which has a lot of the big city advantages without having too many of the disadvantages.”

For Dedeaux, who led his Trojans to 10 national titles and still travels each year from his home in Southern California to attend the series, the marriage of the stadium-city-event makes for a one-of-a-kind experience.

“I love the feeling of it. The intimacy. Whenever I’m there I think of all the ball games, but also the fans and the people associated with the tournament, and the real hospitable feeling they’ve always had. I think it’s touched the lives of a lot of people,” he said.

Fans have their own take on what makes baseball and Rosenblatt such a good fit. Among the tribes of fans who throw tailgate parties in the stadium’s south lot is Harold Webster, an executive with an Omaha temporary employment firm. While he concedes the renovation is “nice,” he notes, “The city didn’t have to make any improvements for me. I was here when it wasn’t so nice. I just love being at the ballpark. I’m here for the game.” Not the frills, he might have added.

For Webster and fans like him, baseball’s a perennial rite of summer.

“To me, it’s the greatest thing in the world. I don’t buy season tickets to anything else — just baseball.”

Mark Eveloff, an associate judge in Council Bluffs, comes with his family. He said, “We always have fun because we sit in a large group of people we all know. You get to see a lot of your friends at the game and you get to see some good baseball. I’ve been coming to games here since I was a kid in the late ‘50s, when the Omaha Cardinals played. And from then to now, it’s come a long way. Every year, it looks better.”

Ginny Tworek is another fan for life. “I’ve been coming out here since I was eight-years old,” the Baby Boomer said. “My dad used to drop me and my two older brothers off at the ballpark. I just fell in love with the game. It’s a relaxing atmosphere.”

There is a Zen quality to baseball. With its sweet meandering pace you sometimes swear things are moving in slow motion. It provides an antidote to the hectic pace outside.

Baseball isn’t the whole story at Rosenblatt. Through the ‘70s it hosted high school (as Creighton Prep’s home field), collegiate (UNO) and pro football (Omaha Mustang and NFL exhibition) games as well as pro wrestling cards, boxing matches and soccer contests. Concerts filled the bill too, including major shows by the Beach Boys in ‘64 and ‘79. But that’s not all. It accomodated everything from the Ringling Brothers Circus to tractor pulls to political rallies to revival meetings. More recently, Fourth of July fireworks displays have been staged there.

 

 

Fans wait outside Rosenblatt Stadium to watch Game Three of the 2009 NCAA College World Series between the Texas Longhorns and the Louisiana State University Tigers on June 24, 2009 in Omaha, Nebraska.

 

 

Except for the annual fireworks show, however, the city now reserves the park for none but its one true calling, baseball, as a means of protecting its multimillion dollar investment.

“We made a commitment to the Omaha Royals and to the College World Series and the NCAA that the stadium would be maintained at a major league level. The new field is fairly sensitive. We don’t want to hurt the integrity of the field, so we made the decision to just play baseball there,” Omaha public events manager Larry Lahaie said.

A new $700,000 field was installed in 1991-92, complete with drainage and irrigation systems. Maintaining the field requires a  groundskeeping crew whose size rivals that of some major league clubs.

Omaha’s desire to keep the CWS has made the stadium a priority.

As the series began drawing consistently large crowds in the ‘80s, the stadium experienced severe growing pains. Parking was at a premium.  Traffic snarls drew loud complaints. To cope with overflow crowds, the city placed fans on the field’s cinder warning track. The growing media corps suffered inside a hot, cramped, outdated press box. With the arrival of national TV coverage in the ‘80s, the NCAA began fielding bids from other cities wanting to host the CWS.

By the late ‘80s Omaha faced a decision — improve Rosenblatt or lose the CWS. There was also the question of whether the city would retain the Royals. In ‘90 the club’s then owner, the late Chicago business magnate Irving “Gus” Cherry, was shopping the franchise around. There was no guarantee a buyer would be found locally, or, if one was, whether the franchise would stay. To the rescue came an unlikely troika of Union Pacific Railroad, billionaire investor Warren Buffett and Peter Kiewit Son’s, Inc. chairman Walter Scott, Jr., who together purchased the Royals in 1991.

Urged on by local CWS organizers, such as Jack Diesing Sr. and Jr., and emboldened by the Royals’ new ownership, the city anteed-up and started pouring money into Rosenblatt to rehab it according to NCAA specifications. The city has financed the improvements through private donations and from revenue derived from a $2 hotel-motel occupancy tax enacted in ‘91.

The makeover has transformed what was a quaint but antiquated facility into a modern baseball palace. By the time the latest work (to the player clubhouses, public restrooms and south pavilion) is completed next year, more than $20 million will have been spent on improvements.

The stadium itself is now an attraction. The retro exterior is highlighted by an Erector Set-style center truss whose interlocking, cantilevered steel beams, girders and columns jig-jag five-stories high. Then there’s the huge mock baseball mounted on one wall, the decorative blue-white skirt around the facade, the slick script lettering welcoming you there and the fancy View Club perched atop the right-field stands. The coup de grace is the spacious thatched-roof press box spanning the truss.

Rosenblatt today is a chic symbol of stability and progress in the blue collar south Omaha neighborhood it occupies. It is also a hub of activity that energizes the area. On game days lawn picnics proceed outside homes along 13th Street and tailgate parties unwind in the RV and minivan-choked lots. The aroma of grilled sausage, bratwurst and roasted peanuts fills the air. A line invariably forms at the nearby Zesto’s, an eatery famous for its quick comfort food.

There’s a carnival atmosphere inside the stadium. The scoreboard above the left-field stands is like a giant arcade game with its flashing lights, blaring horns, dizzying video displays and fireworks. Music cascades over the crowd — from prerecorded cuts of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and the Village People’s “YMCA” to organist Lambert Bartak’s live renditions of “Sioux City Sue” and “Spanish Eyes.” Casey the Mascot dances atop the dugouts. Vendors hawk an assortment of food, drink and souvenirs. Freshly-scrubbed ushers guide you to your seat.

The addition that’s most altered the stadium is the sleek, shiny, glass-enclosed View Club. It boasts a bar, a restaurant, a south deck, a baseball memorabilia collection, cozy chairs and, naturally, a great catbird’s seat for watching the game from any of its three tiered-seating levels. But you won’t catch serious fans there very long. The hermetically-sealed, sound-proof interior sucks the life right out of the game, leaving you a remote voyeur. Removed from the din of the crowd, the ballyhoo of the scoreboard, the enticing scent of fresh air and the sound of a ball connecting with leather, wood or aluminum, you’re cut-off from the visceral current running through the grandstand. You miss its goosebump thrills.

“That’s the bad thing about it,” Tworek said. “You can’t hear the crack of the bat. You don’t pay as close attention to the game there.”

Even with all the bells and whistles, baseball still remains the main attraction. The refurbished Rosenblatt has seen CWS crowds go through the roof, reaching an all-time single series high of 203,000 last year. The Royals, bolstered by more aggressive marketing, have drawn  400,000-plus fans every year but one since ‘92. Fans have come regardless of the won-loss record. The top single-season attendance of 447,079 came in ‘94, when the club finished eight games under .500 and in 6th place.

Why? Fans come for the game’s inherent elegance, grace and drama. To see a well-turned double play, a masterful pitching performance or a majestic home run. For the chance of snaring a foul ball. For the traditional playing of the national anthem and throwing out of the first pitch.  For singing along to you-know-what during the seventh inning stretch.

They come too for the kick-back conviviality of the park, where getting a tan, watching the sun set or making new friends is part of the bargain.  There is a communal spirit to the game and its parks. Larry Hook, a retired firefighter, counts Tworek among his “baseball family,” a group of fans he and his grandson Nick have gotten acquainted with at the Blatt. “It’s become a regular meeting place for us guys and gals,” he said. “We talk a little baseball and watch a little baseball.

Once the game’s over everybody goes their separate ways and we say, ‘See ya next home stand.’

The season’s end brings withdrawal pains. “About the first couple months, I’m lost,” Hook said. “There’s nothing to look forward to.” Except the start of next season.

As dusk fell at Rosenblatt one recent night, Charles and Stephanie Martinez, a father and daughter from Omaha, shared their baseball credo with a visitor to their sanctuary above the third-base dugout. “I can never remember not loving baseball,” said Charles, a retired cop. “I enjoy the competition, the players and the company of the people I’m surrounded by.”

Serious fans like these stay until the final out. “Because anything can happen,” Stephanie said. “I like it l because it’s just so relaxed sitting out on a summer day. There’s such an ease to it. Part of it’s also the friends you make at the ballpark. It doesn’t matter where you go — if you sit down with another baseball fan, you can be friends in an instant.”

That familiar welcoming feeling may be baseball’s essential appeal.  Coming to the ballpark, any ballpark, is like a homecoming. Its sense of reunion and renewal, palpable. Rosenblatt only accentuates that feeling.  Like a family inheritance, baseball is passed from one generation to the next. It gets in your blood.  So, take me out to the ball game, take me out to the crowd…

Brotherhood of the Ring, Omaha’s CW Boxing Club

June 19, 2010 2 comments

I couldn’t resist posting another boxing story. This one is about an interesting venue that is one part hardcore gym for amateurs and professionals and one part community resource center for at-risk youth. The CW fills a lot of missions and many of those missions coalesce around boxing.  Like any gym worth its weight in sweat, the CW is full of characters straight out of a Ring Lardner story. It’s those personalities, combined with the harsh discipline and many rituals of the ring, that I try to capture in this story, a shorter version of which appeared in the Omaha Weekly.  This won’t be the last boxing story I post either.

 

Brotherhood of the Ring, Omaha’s CW Boxing Club

©by Leo Adam Biga

A version of this story was originally published in the Omaha Weekly

 

It owns a rep as perhaps the toughest, most competitive boxing gym in town. Its junior and amateur fighters shine at local tournaments. It is the training ground for many of the area’s top prizefighters. It routinely matches young pugs with grizzled veterans in an effort to raise the level of beginners. Its members are primarily African-American, but include whites, Hispanics and Asians too.

It is a sanctuary for some and a springboard for others. It is a place filled with colorful ringside characters straight out of a Damon Runyon yarn. It is the CW Boxing Club at 1510 Cass Street, and its take-no-prisoners approach and chip-on-the-shoulder attitude makes it the envy and the outcast of the fractious Omaha boxing community.

Rivalries are strong on the Omaha boxing scene. Every gym has its own stable of fighters, its own turf and its own image to maintain and sometimes when conflicts erupt stupid things are said. When a fighter leaves one gym for another, he may be called disloyal or the other gym may be accused of stealing him away.

In the case of the CW, there is a perception that it caters only to blacks, which even a quick survey of its training roster soon dispels. Disparaging things are also said about the character of the fighters who train there, but in reality it is far from the wild-and-woolly den of thugs that some rival boxing coaches portray it as. Instead, the CW, which gets its name from founder and director Carl Washington, features a no-nonsense, professional environment where serious fighters work intensely under the watchful eyes of experienced trainers Midge Minor, Larry Littlejohn and Chucky Brizendine.

The gym itself is only one part of what Washington, who coached the club’s talented first crop of fighters to national prominence in the late 1970s and early 1980s, calls the CW Youth Resource Center. The center offers near north side youth a venue for making music, working out, hanging out and performing community service projects. According to Washington, the gym’s fighters often get booed or jeered at local competitions because of racism and because the CW’s history of success breeds jealousy. He said his club has nearly boycotted area Golden Gloves events due to the ill treatment he believes his fighters receive.

 

 

 

 

Every gym has its own vibe, and the insistent tone of the CW is set-off by the throbbing bass rhythms and the grating harsh lyrics of rap music blaring from a boom box that plays incessantly in the background. Unlike the foul language of the music, however, there is little profanity heard in the gym, whose walls are plastered not only with the usual boxing posters but emblazoned with a detailed list of rules (which include no spitting on the well-scuffed hardwood floor and no horse playing) and printed mantras that express the philosophy of the place: Lead with Speed, Follow with Power; Only the Strong Survive; and If You Want to Box, Train — If You Want to Win, Train Harder. It is a place where if you can hold your own, you earn respect, but that respect is always tinged with the tension of proving you belong or, if really brazen, proving you’re the top dog.

The gym is a study in contrasts. Take the way that Minor, a four-time Midwest Golden Gloves champion who got his training start at the noted Olympic Gym in Los Angeles, deals with fighters. He is a taskmaster when one of his guys needs pushing and a buddy when one of them needs a pat on the back.

As 13-year-old junior fighter Rosendo Robles prepares to enter the ring one night for some sparring, Minor fastens the headgear and laces the gloves of this angelic, wide-eyed youth with the attentive tenderness of a father helping his son. “Am I going three rounds?” the boy eagerly asks Minor. “If you’ve got three rounds in you,” his smiling coach replies, rubbing the boy’s shoulders. “I’m going to try and get comfortable with my jab first, and then when I get comfortable, I’m going to work on throwing combinations,” the lad tells Minor, his big eyes looking for approval. “That’s right. Your jab sets everything up. It sets up combinations,” Minor tells him in a way that confers the approval Robles seeks. “But I don’t want to see you in there jumping around wasting energy like a little Easter bunny.” Robles grins at his coach’s funny remonstration.

Meanwhile, as this gentle interlude plays out, a rapper performing on a CD explicitly describes various sex acts. The contradiction does not seem to faze anyone, not even born-again Christian Servando Perales, a professional fighter who found religion during a stint in federal prison. To take the contrast even further Minor has the little boy, Robles, spar with the grown man, Perales, in an attempt “to elevate” the kid’s abilities.

Throwing his youngest fighters in with the wolves is one of many ways in which the CW veers from business-as-usual in its training methods. Washington, who began the gym’s tradition of working young fighters with their more experienced counterparts, said, “The reason boxers from Nebraska usually come home after the first round of a national tournament is they don’t have the experience of fighting the skilled fighters you find on the east and west coasts. Guys have to know how to slip punches. You have to work around guys at a certain level or you’ll always be coming home early.” Minor follows the Washington formula with the C.W. crew: “I work all my guys. That’s how they learn,” he said. “Every once in a while I have to elevate them to see where they’re at. I work my fighters a little different than they (other gyms) do. I don’t breed nothing but winners.”

In Robles, Minor sees a kid with “a lot of promise. He wants to learn, That’s what I like about him.” The youth is following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, both of whom boxed in their native Mexico. “My grandpa wants me to carry on with the tradition,” Robles said.

He has dreams of his own, too. “As soon as I can, I want to go to the Olympic Games, and if I do good there I’m thinking of a professional career when I get older.” As for training with adults, he appreciates the tricks of the trade he picks up from such savvy fighters. “I feel comfortable training with them because I learn from them in the ring. I like to learn new techniques. Sparring with these older guys is getting me prepared for bigger guys. Like with Servando (Perales), he puts pressure on me and I work on getting him off me. When I get done sparring I ask, ‘What’d you see wrong in me?’ and they tell me.” He also likes the attention his coach gives him. “I really like Midge. He shows interest in me. He says I’m his little project. That he’s going to build me up.”

Minor’s final words to Robles that night are, “Don’t be intimidated. Every chance you get you try and knock his ass off.” It is all well-supervised, with the adult Perales acting as a kind of moving punching bag — keeping his gloves open at all times to ensure he does not in any way injure the youth, whose father watches the action from ringside, yelling pointers to his son in Spanish.

During the three-round sparring session, Minor, leaning against the corner ropes from atop the ring apron, alternately shouts instructions to Robles with a sharp, disapproving edge in his voice and offers encouragement with a soft, approving tone. “You’ve got to move in closer. That’s the only way you’re gonna reach him,” he tells Robles, who is dwarfed by his sparring partner. “There you go, cut the ring off. Remember what I told you — if you miss with one hand, you lead with the other. Double jab. Stick — don’t wait on him. There you go. Shorten your hook up…too wide. Good hook.”

Robles, a surprisingly skilled little punching dynamo, is spent after the first round, but Minor denies him water. “You tellin’ me you’re tired? Like I care. You don’t need water yet. Show me you need some water.” After a rousing showing in rounds two and three, Minor lets his protege drink all he wants. As a soaked Robles climbs out of the ring, the chiseled Brezendine catches his eye and says, “If you keep fightin’ like that, you’ll be a world champion some day.” The boy’s eyes light up. “Really, Chucky?” “Certainly, Sando.”

 

Dreams of glory and chances at redemption are all over the gym. Take the story of Servando Perales, for example. The Omaha native showed tremendous promise as a junior competitor. Fighting for Kenny Wingo out of the Downtown Boxing Club, he won a National Silver Gloves title at 10 and captured second-place in the same competition at 14 in addition to winning a slew of city, state and regional championships. Then, just when Perales was on the verge of really making a name for himself in the sport, the bright, handsome young man got sidetracked by drugs, alcohol and gang-related mischief.

“Drugs had me real paranoid. I thought I always had to be carrying a gun. I had a few convictions for guns and for basically just acting like an idiot. Crime just caught up to me. It was hell. I was basically living in hell on earth. I was in darkness. Finally, I got sentenced to 18 months in a federal prison in Waseca, Minn. for illegal possession of firearms,” he said. “It was there that I gave my heart to Christ. Inside, I ran into a friend of mine whom I grew up with — Francisco Granados. He had been one of my number one crime partners or road dogs. He had given his life to the Lord a couple years prior to me arriving. He just began to minister to me and I just surrendered.”

For Perales, the reunion with his buddy behind bars was a life-saving one that went well beyond mere chance. “I was like a walking time bomb. I had no peace in my life. No joy, No nothin’. I was really a heartless heart. I wouldn’t open up to anyone other than somebody that I trusted and knew from my barrio. And I’m just so grateful for Francisco being there in my path. God put him there for that reason.” Today, Perales does volunteer work with Granados and his Overcomers in Christ ministry in south Omaha, where they counsel kids to stay away from the drug and gang culture they got caught up in. Perales, who works full-time as a maintenance supervisor at Sapp Brothers, is married with three sons. A fourth son is being raised by his ex and her husband.

In an unusual move, Perales, who had not fought in several years, turned pro only months after his 1997 release from prison. He was 26 and out of shape, but hungry to rededicate himself to a sport he viewed as an expression of his new found faith. “Boxing is the only way for me to say to kids, Hey, this is where I was then, and now look at me today, when I have Christ within me. I believe Christianity and boxing are a lot alike. As a Christian you’re always under attack by the Devil. He knows your weaknesses. It takes a lot of discipline to stay strong. Just like with boxing, you can’t get comfortable. You’ve got to continue training. Besides, boxing is just something I’ve loved all my life. I’ve come up short of some victories, but my real victory has been beating drugs and alcohol.”

 

 

Servando Perales

 

When Perales decided to enter the pro ranks he shopped around for a gym to begin his comeback at and decided on the CW.

“It’s the toughest gym in Omaha. Everybody said, ‘If you can make it at the C.W., you can make it anywhere because here, when you spar, you don’t just spar — you go to war. Basically, it’s a test to see what you’re capable of. I came down here and I got my butt kicked the first three times until I got my timing and my punch back. It took me awhile.”

Regarded as a mediocre pro, Perales is 11-5 and has no real prospects of making a mark, although he is widely admired for his heart. At age 30 he knows his fighting days are numbered, but his sheer determination keeps him going, sometimes to his own detriment. “In a fight I lost in Las Vegas I was a bloody mess, but I wouldn’t quit. I’ve got too much heart. I came out in the 6th and final round and I almost knocked the guy out I was that determined to win, even though my nose was broken, my eyes were closed and my face was bloody.” He has vowed to his wife he will quit rather than endure that type of punishment again.

Once Omaha’s “Great White Hope” — heavyweight Dickie Ryan may soon be facing a crossroads of his own. The battle-scarred 33-year-old, a solid contender a few years ago, is one of the most successful local pros since Ron Stander, but after 56 bouts (his record is 51-5) and countless thousands of rounds sparring his best fighting days are surely well behind him. Like so many men of the ring, he is unwilling to admit he may be past his prime and should, for his own good, hang-up the gloves.

“Everyone says, ‘When you gonna retire?’ I don’t know. I still feel like I’m in good shape. I still like fighting. I’m still trying to develop the best skills I can bring out in me. I don’t think I’ve done that yet, but I’m working on it,” he said. “I’ve been a pro since I was 19. I’m glad I’ve carried on this long because I turned pro the same time as a lot of other guys but I’m the only one still around after all these years, which is special. I wish it could last forever, but unfortunately nothing lasts forever.”

Ask him if he worries about the risk of permanent head injury, and he shrugs off the question with, “If I get brain damage or whatever, than that was my choice. I made it. Just like Dale Earnhardt made his choice and died doing what he loved doing. I have a friend that has Parkinson’s and the doctors think it was caused from boxing. I don’t know. Who knows? Boxing’s been around forever, though. Even if it was banned there’d still be underground boxing, and I’d probably be the first one there, you know, because that’s how I make part of my living.”

 

Dicky Ryan.jpg

Dick Ryan

 

Ryan has a passion for what might be called the Brotherhood of the Ring that he and other fighters share and it is this bond forged from sweat and courage and discipline that helps explain why he toils on. “We get these big muscle guys coming in the gym. These tough guys who knock everybody out on the street. They say, ‘I wanna box.’ We say, ‘Okay,’ and they box a couple days and we never see them back. I don’t know what it is, but it takes a special person. I won’t say it takes a tough person, but it takes a certain type of person to sacrifice your body the way we do. It really is hard. In boxing you can’t have a big ego because right when you think you’re all that somebody’s gonna knock you on your ass. And that’s the truth. If you’ve got an ego going into boxing, you’ll be humbled afterwards.”

According to Ryan, there is a camaraderie in the gym, any gym, that transcends race or religion or age. “It’s one of the only places you can go where there’s no racism at all. It’s neat. Everybody gets along. I never try hurtin’ no one in the gym. I can work with anybody. I can work with a guy that’s 150 pounds and I can work with a guy who’s 250 pounds. I can work with kids just coming up. I’ll help ‘em out. And hopefully by working with me they’re going to get better and then eventually they’re going to be good sparring partners. I’m helping them out and they’re helping me out. It works both ways.”

In a long career that’s seen him be a marquee sparring partner (for the likes of Lennox Lewis and Tommy Morrison) if seldom a main event draw, Ryan has trained at gyms across the country. He could train anywhere in Omaha, but the CW is where he’s gone to work the past eight years.

“I’ve been to Gleason’s Gym in New York and a lot of other big gyms and this (the CW) is as good as any gym around. Me and my manager, Mouse Strauss, seen that Midge (Minor) and Larry (Littlejohn) here were really good coaches and Mouse felt it would be good for me to come here. There’s a chemistry between me and my trainer Midge. He’s just a straight-up guy. He’s not the type of trainer to go, ‘You’ve got to kick his butt’ or ‘You’ve got to do this or do that.’ He’s just got a way of telling me to stay focused. He’s not afraid to cuss me out, though. He’s shows no favoritism.”

After 14 years of grinding out early morning runs and long nights hitting the bags and absorbing poundings as a much sought-after sparring partner Ryan said he stays motivated by the chance for a shot at the title or a big payday — even as remote as that possibility is now.

“I think a lot of it is just knowing in the back of your mind that, Hey, I’ve got to keep going because they might call me for that big fight and I’ve got to be ready.’ Before a fight I don’t have any fear at all because I know I’m in shape and ready to go.”

The closest he came to realizing his dream was when he upset Brian Nielsen in dramatic fashion before a hostile crowd in Denmark in 1999. In what was supposed to have been a tune-up bout for the Dane before an expected match-up with Mike Tyson, Ryan rallied late and knocked out Nielsen in the 10th and final round. Ryan said he was given the match with only two weeks notice but, as usual, was in peak condition. However, the victory did not earn Ryan any title shot but instead a rematch with Nielsen, which he lost.

Ryan, who describes himself as “mellow” even on the eve of bouts, is almost embarrassed to say that, apart from his work in the ring, he is not much of a fight fan. “Not really. I don’t go to the fights around here because I don’t like to see friends of mine get hit. It seems kind of weird, but that’s just how I am. I wish I wasn’t like that, but I am. I’d never encourage anyone else to fight. That’s just my opinion. Boxing’s been great for me. I’ve made a few bucks. It’s a good side job.”

The reality for pros fighting out of Omaha, a burg way off-the-beaten track in the boxing world, is that they must work regular jobs to support their pugilistic dreams. When not engaging in the Sweet Science, for example. Ryan is a meter reader for the Omaha Public Power District.

Featherweight Mike Juarez, another CW regular, is a part-time parcel handler at United Parcel Service. “If you’re in Omaha you’ve got to work a job. There’s no sponsorship around here like there is in big fight towns,” said Juarez, 31, who has compiled a 25-9 record during a 12-year pro career that has seen him fight and lose to several contenders and former world champions. The compactly-built Juarez has been something of a boxing vagabond over the years, including stops in Indianapolis and Vegas. After experiencing some hard knocks on the road, he’s returned to his Omaha roots.

“It’s pretty rough out there, you know? It’s a mean game. I didn’t get the fights. I went broke. I really wasn’t ready for the type of (mercenary) atmosphere that I put myself in. There’s nothin’ like being home around guys that I know,” he said while skipping rope one evening at the C.W. He feels the high-caliber training he gets at the Omaha gym sets it apart. “Midge Minor is a professional coach. He knows his stuff. He’s been in boxing forever,” he said. Like Dickie Ryan, Juarez is pushing the upper limits of his boxing career. He said the decision to retire will “depend on how long I can stay winning. There’s no money in it for losers, you know.”

In keeping with the CW’s belief that young fighters need pushing to reach the next level, Juarez often spars with amateurs much younger than him and possessing far less experience. Two of his regular partners are 20-year-old RayShawn Abram and 19-year-old Kevin Nauden, a pair of brash, promising fighters who, along with a third young phenom, Bernard Davis, are looking to make their marks as pros in the very near future. “I’m fast, I’m strong and nobody my size is going to touch me. I don’t lack for confidence,” said Abram, a 112-pounder sporting two gold front teeth. “I’m looking to win a national championship this year.”

 

 

With his penchant for splash and dash, Abram admits he enjoys ”the attention” that performing in the ring brings him. “When you’re in the ring and you’re doing real good — you’re throwing combinations and looking fast and start dropping your hands and showboating a little bit — then everybody’s cheering for you, and it’s a good feeling.” Nauden, like several young men who have come through the CW ranks, views boxing as a safe haven from the mean streets on the near north side. “I think if it weren’t for the gym I’d probably be in jail or dead or something,” the 132-pounder said. “It’s kept me out of a lot of trouble — for real.”

He was introduced to the sport after being caught fighting in school by an administrator, who brought him down to the CW to get his hostility channeled inside the ring. In Midge Minor he has found a confidante and mentor. “I sometimes get in with the wrong crowd and I sometimes talk to him about it and he keeps me out of trouble. He also helped me get through the time my grandma died. I can call him anytime.”

Nauden and Abram feel they benefit from going against older foes when sparring, but there is no any doubt who is boss inside the ropes. “They’ve got that grown man strength that we ain’t got yet,” Nauden said. “When I first came here and I hit some of the pros with a hard shot, they let me know this ain’t gonna be goin’ on for long. They ain’t gonna hurt you or nothin, but they’ll tap you and let you know they could.”

While Abram won his weight class (as did the CW’s Bernard Davis at 125 pounds) in the recent Midwest Golden Gloves tourney at Harvey’s Casino and is prepping for the national gloves in Reno. Nev., Nauden lost. As for their future plans, the young men are weighing pro offers and, if the money is right, may end their amateur careers later this year and sign contracts to enter the prizefighting arena. They intend to stay under the training arm of Minor and company.

Whether Nauden and Abram ever make any real money in the fight game, they epitomize what the coaches and trainers at the CW strive to do — get the most out of their fighters.

“It’s like a challenge to me to see how I can develop somebody,” Minor said. “I don’t try to change their style. I just try to better the style they’ve got.” He said he can be blunt with fighters, but they seem to respond to his straight shooting. “If I see a bum, I call ‘em a bum. I’m kind of mean to ‘em. but they work for me, though. They perform for me.” Larry Littlejohn is also known as a hard-driving sort. “We do demand quite a bit of you if you’re going to stay in this gym. This is not the place to be down here joking around. We don’t want those guys. We work hard. We want to win,” Littlejohn said.

CW amateur fighter Shabia Bahati said that when Littlejohn shows up “there’s no cutting corners on your workout,” adding, “He keeps us honest. He’ll put us to the test.”

Bahati, a Midwest Golden Gloves runner up at heavyweight, has trained at other gyms in town and he said the C.W. is not for the faint of heart or the frivolous. “It’s real competitive down here. You’ve got to be on your toes when you come and spar. There’s no play time. They take the boxing down here serious.” Jacqui (Red) Spikes is another amateur fighter who has found the CW more rigorous than other gyms. “I was at a different gym and the training was soft there. Here, it’s all business. There are no wimps down here. It’s got the best pros and amateurs in town. They get the most out of you.”

Author, humorist, folklorist Roger Welsch tells the stories of the American soul and soil

June 19, 2010 8 comments

Mark Twain

Image via Wikipedia

Roger Welsch is a born storyteller and there’s nothing he enjoys more than holding sway with his spoken or written words, drawing the audience or reader in, with each inflection, each permutation, each turn of phrase. He’s a master at tone or nuance. New Horizons editor Jeff Reinhardt and I visited Welsch at his rural abode, and then into town at the local pub/greasy spoon, where we scarfed down great burgers and homemade root beer. All the while, Welsch kept his variously transfixed and in stitches with his tales.

On this blog you’ll find Welsch commenting about his longtime friend and former Lincoln High classmate Dick Cavett in my piece, “Homecoming is Always Sweet for Dick Cavett.” Welsch shares some humorous (naturally) anecdotes about the talk show host’s penchant for showing up unannounced and getting lost in those rural byways that Welsch lovingly describes in his writing.

 

Author, humorist, folklorist Roger Welsch tells the stories of the American soul and soil

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

 

It’s been years since Roger Welsch, the author, humorist and folklorist, filed his last Postcard from Nebraska feature for CBS’s Sunday Morning program. Every other week the overalls-clad sage celebrated, in his Will Rogersesque manner, the absurd, quixotic, ironic, sublime and poetic aspects of rural life.

That doesn’t mean this former college prof, who’s still a teacher at heart, hasn’t been staying busy since his Postcard days ended. He’s continued his musings in a stream of books (34 published thus far), articles, essays, talks and public television appearances that mark him as one of the state’s most prolific writers and speakers.

In 2006 alone he has three new books slated to be out. Each displays facets of his eclectic interests and witty observations. Country Livin’ is a “guide to rural life for city pukes.” Weed ‘Em and Reap: A Weed Eater Reader is “a narrative about my interest in wild foods, a kind of introduction to lawn grazing and a generous supply of reasons to avoid lawn care,” he said. My Nebraska is his “very personal” love song to the state. “I believe in Nebraska. I love this place for what it is and not for what people think it ought to be,” he said. “I hate it when the DED (Department of Economic Development) tries to fill people full of bullshit about Nebraska. Nebraska’s great as it is. You don’t have to make up anything. You don’t have to put up an arch across the highway to charm people.”

In the tradition of Mark Twain and William Faulkner, Welsch mines an authentic slice of rural American life, namely the central Nebraska village of Dannebrog that he and artist wife Linda moved to 20 years ago, to inform his fictional Bleaker County. Drawing from his experiences there, he reveals the unique, yet universal character of this rural enclave’s people, dialect, humor, rituals and obsessions.

Roger Welsch on his beloved farm

 

 

He’s also stayed true to his own quirky sensibilities, which have seen him: advocate for the benefits of a weed diet; fall in love with a tractor; preserve, by telling whenever he can, the tall tales of settlers; wax nostalgic over sod houses; serve as friend and adopted member of Indian tribes; and obsess over Greenland.

The only child of a working class family in Lincoln, Neb., he followed a career path as a college academician. His folklore research took him around the Midwest to unearth tales from descendants of Eastern European pioneers and Plains Indians. He lived in a series of college towns. By the early ‘70s he held tenure at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Then, he turned his back on a “cushy” career and lifestyle to follow his heart. To write from a tree farm on the Middle Loup River outside Dannebrog. To be a pundit and observer. People thought he was nuts.

“I walked away from an awfully good job at the university. People work all their lives to get a full professorship with tenure and…nobody could believe it when I said I’m leaving. ‘Are you crazy? For what?’ And, it’s true, I had nothing out here,” he said from an overstuffed shed that serves as an office on the farm he and Linda share with their menagerie of pets. “I was just going to live on my good looks, as I said, and then everybody laughed. That was before CBS came along.”

Before the late Charles Kuralt, the famed On the Road correspondent, enlisted Welsch to offer his sardonic stories about country life in Nebraska, things were looking bleak down on the farm. “We weren’t making it out here,” Welsch said. “I told Linda, ‘The bad news is, we’re not making it, and the even worse news is I’m still not going back.’ And about that point, Kuralt came along.”

No matter how rough things got, Welsch was prepared to stick it out. Of course, the CBS gig and some well-received books helped. But even without the nice paydays, he was adamant about avoiding city life and the halls of academia at all costs. What was so bad about the urban-institutional scene? In one sense, the nonconformist Welsch saw the counterculture of the ’60s he loved coming to an end. And that bummed him out. He also didn’t like being hemmed in by bureaucratic rules and group-think ideas that said things had to be a certain way.

His chafing at mindless authority extended to the libertarian way he ran his classroom at UNL and the free range front lawn he cultivated in suburbia.

“I was a hippie in the ‘60s and I really got excited teaching hippies because they didn’t give a didly damn what the bottomline was. They just wanted to learn whatever was interesting. You didn’t have to explain anything. I never took attendance. I’d have people coming in to sit in on class who weren’t enrolled, and I loved that. I hated grades. Because I figured, you’re paying your money. I’m collecting the money and I deliver. Now, what you do with that, why should I care? It’s none of my business,” he said. “The guy at the grocery store doesn’t say, Now I’ll sell you this cabbage, but I want to know what you’re going to do with it.”

Welsch said the feedback he got from students made him realize how passionate he was about teaching. On an evaluation a student noted, “‘Being in Welsch’s class isn’t like being in a class at all. It’s like being in an audience.’ I asked a friend, ‘Is that an insult or a compliment?’ ‘Well, Rog, actually being in your class isn’t like being in a class or in an audience. It’s like being in a congregation.’ And I thought, Oh, man, that’s it — I’m a preacher, not a teacher. It really is evangelism for me.”

“By the ‘80s they (university officials) wanted to know how they were going to make money out of the popular classes I taught. I said, ‘I have no idea. It’s not my problem. All I’m doing is telling them (students) what I know.’ So, there was that.”

Then there was the matter of UNL selling out, as he saw it, its academic integrity to feed the ravenous and untouchable football program, which he calls “a cancer.”

“I was and still am extremely disillusioned with the university becoming essentially an athletic department. Everything else is in support of the athletic department. And that breaks my heart, because I love the university. There was that.”

But what really set him off on his rural idyll was the 1974 impulse purchase he made of his 60-acre farm. He bought it even as it lay buried under snow.

“So, I bought it without ever really seeing the ground, but it was exactly what I wanted. I loved the river. I loved the frontage on the river. Then spring came and the more the snow melted…it was better than I thought….There are wetlands and lots of willow islands. The wildlife is just incredible. We’ve had a (mountain) lion down here and wolves just north of here.”

 

 

 

 

He used the place as a retreat from the city for several years. Each visit to the farm, with its original log cabin house, evoked the romantic in him, stirring thoughts of the people that lived there and worked the land. “That’s what I love about old lumber…the ghosts.” By the mid-’80s, he couldn’t stand just visiting. He wanted to stay. “I told Linda, ‘One of these days you’re going to have to send the highway patrol out, because I won’t come home. I can’t spend the rest of my life wanting to be here and living in Lincoln.’” Their move to the farm “really wasn’t so much getting away from anything as it was wanting to get out here.”

Then, too, it’s easier to be a bohemian in isolation as opposed to civilization.

“My life is a series of stories, so I have to tell you a story,” he said. “In my hippie days, I really got interested in wild plants and wild foods. As part of my close association with Native Americans, I was spending a lot of time with the Omahas up in Macy (Neb.). I was learning a lot of things from the Indians and, well, I was bringing home a lot of plants that I wanted to see grow, mature, go to seed and become edible. Milkweed and arrowhead and calimus. I got more and more into it. I loved the sounds and flowers and foods coming from my yard.

“One day, I come home to find a notice on my door that my lawn’s been condemned and I have six days to remove all ‘worthless vegetation.’ So, I invite the city weed inspector over to show me what’s worthless. He said, ‘OK, what about that white stuff over there?’ He didn’t even know the names of the plants. And I said, ‘Well, we had that for lunch.’ ‘How ‘bout that?’ ‘That’s supper.”

Welsch said, “As I started looking at this, I found out people were nuts. Anything over six inches high in Lincoln was a weed. The county weed board was spraying both sides of all county roads with diesel fuel and 24D. That’s essentially Agent Orange. They were laying waste to everything. Strawberries, arrowhead, cattails. So, I ran for the weed board on a pro-weed ticket. About this same time, Kuralt was coming through Nebraska. He asked somebody if anything going on in Nebraska might make a good story for his On the Road series. And whoever he asked, God bless ‘em, said, ‘Yeah, there’s a crackpot in Lincoln…’ So, Kuralt called me up and came over to the house with his van and his crew, which eventually became my crew. We sat down and had a huge weed salad and walked around and talked about weeds. And he had me on his On the Road. Well, then over the years every time he came through Nebraska he stopped. I kept a file of any stories I thought were interesting that he might use. That was my way of luring him to Lincoln.”

 

 

Charles Kuralt

 

 

The two men became fast friends and colleagues.

“We always went out to eat and drink. He loved to drink and I do, too. We would just have a good time. He used me for six more On the Road programs, for one thing or another. I tried to then steer him to other things — the jackalope in Wyoming and stuff like that. We got to be really good friends. When he started hosting Sunday Morning, he asked me to watch the show. He called me up and told me he wanted to bring the culture of New York City to towns like Dannebrog.”.

By the time Kuralt next passed through Nebraska to see Welsch, the author was giving a talk before a gathering of the West Point, Neb. chamber of commerce. What Kuralt heard helped him change the course of Sunday Morning and Welsch’s career. “He walked in the back of the room and listened to the program. We drove back to my place and he said, ‘You know, you said about 13 things we could use on Sunday Morning. What we need to do is to take the culture of a little town like Dannebrog and show it to New York City. So, that’s essentially how we got together. He originally thought about doing Postcards from America, where he had somebody (reporting) in every state. It got to be too expensive. I had six or seven years all by myself (with Postcards from Nebraska) before they added Maine. Then, by the time he went off the road, he gave me his old crew. They were like family. It was a great 13 years I was on that show. We had an awful lot of fun.”

Two years into Postcard, Welsch said Kuralt confided, “I thought we’d be lucky to get six stories out of Nebraska.” Ultimately, Welsch said, “we did over 200.”

What Welsch found in the course of, as he describes it, “my rural education,” and what he continues discovering and sharing with others, is a rich vein of human experience tied to the land, to the weather and to community. He’s often written and spoken about his love affair with the people and the place.

When friend and fellow Lincoln High classmate Dick Cavett asked him on national television — Why do you live in a small town? — Welsch replied: “In Lincoln academic circles everybody around me is the same. They’re all professors. In suburbia, everybody pretty much has the same income. But in Dannebrog, I sit down for breakfast and converse with the banker, the town drunk, the most honest man in town, a farmer, a carpenter and my best friend.” What Cavett and viewers didn’t know is Welsch was talking about his best friend Eric, who’s “been all those things. That private joke aside,” Welsch added, “the spirit of what I said is the truth.”

In his book It’s Not the End of the Earth, But You Can See it from Here, Welsch opines: “I like so many writers…have come to appreciate the power of what seems at first blush to be some pretty ordinary folks doing some pretty ordinary things. There is a widespread perception that small town life moves without color, without variety, without interest…but that has certainly not been my experience. My little town is like an extended family. There are my favorite uncles. A mean cousin or two. Some kin I barely see and do not miss. And some I can never get enough of.” It took leaving the city for the small town to find “the variety I love so much. The American small town seethes with ideas and humor, with friendship and contention, with wit and warmth, with silliness and depravity.”

He finds among the people there an inexhaustible store of knowledge to draw from, both individually and collectively, whether in the stories they tell or in the jokes they crack or in the observations they make. “It amazes me how much people out here know,” he said. “I came to love the land and its river so much. I was drawn inexorably to this rural countryside. But the land was the least of it. The real attraction…is the people. As I got to know the people in town, it just really blew me away. I love the people. It’s a cast of characters.”

“When I did It’s Not the End of the Earth I got mail from everywhere, with people saying, ‘I know what town you’re talking about…I live there in Pennsylvania,’ or, ‘I was in that same Texas town you write about.’ It’s the same cast of characters everywhere.” His characters may be fictional, but they’re extracted from real life. “There is no CeCe, no Slick, no Woodrow, no Lunchbox…and yet, I hope you will recognize them because they are not only people I have known, they are people you have known…In fact, if you are at all like me, they are people you have been.”

As he found out long ago in his folklore studies, there is a beauty, a charm and a value in the common or typical, which, as it turns out, is not common or typical at all. Like any storyteller, his joy is in the surprises he finds and gives to others.

“It’s not just me being surprised, but the pleasure I take in surprising other people,” he said. “I like to tell them, ‘Hey, guess what?’ And there are so many surprises. Every week out here when we turn on television to listen to the weather, there’s a new record set — record highs, record lows, record change, record snowfall, record draught. That means we don’t know anything yet. We haven’t the foggiest notion what this place is like. We still don’t know what the parameters are of this place. And as long as it keeps amazing me like that…”

The amazing stories he compiles keep coming. Like the woman who left an elegant life behind in Copenhagen to keep house for two bachelor farmers in their dirt-floor dug-out. Or the American Indian who witnessed the Wounded Knee massacre. Or the children that perished on their way home from school in the Blizzard of ‘88.

By now, Welsch is not quite the oddity he was when he first arrived in Dannebrog, an historical Danish settlement of about 265 today. Ensconced at a table in the Whisky River Bar and Grill, he’s just that loud, funny fella who cultivates stories.

“Up here at the bar, whenever people start to tell stories, I start doing like this,” he said, gesturing for a pen and napkin, “because they know I’m going to jot them down. Eric, who used to run the bar, said, ‘Welsch, everybody hears these stories, but you’re the only one who writes them down, takes them home and sells them.’” Welsch likes to tell the story of the time he and Linda were bellying up at the bar with a couple locals, when they asked, “‘How do you make a living writing?’ And I said, ‘Well, Successful Farmer pays me for the article and Essence pays me $2 a word…’ And one of them said, ‘You mean, each time you say — the — they pay you $2? And Linda said, ‘Well, he can use the same words over and over, but he has to put them in a different order every time.’” That’s when it dawned on Welsch, “Oh, God, that’s all I’m doing. Same damn words — different order.”

He remains a suspect figure all these years later. “To a lot of people in town, I’m still the professor, writer, outsider, eccentric. There’s still people that say, ‘Is that all he does is write?’” He’s used to it by now. This son of a factory worker and grandson of sugar beat farmers long ago set himself apart.

 

 

 

 

His initiation as country dweller was complete once he fell head over heels for a tractor. A 1937 Allis Chalmers WC to be precise. Many vintage models sit in a shed on his farm. He tinkers, toils and cusses, refurbishing engines and discovering stories. Always, stories. He’s penned several books about his tractor fetish.

“On an Allis, there’s a piece of braided cloth between the framework and gas tank to prevent friction and wear. I was taking apart a tractor and it was obvious somebody soldered the gas tank before and hadn’t put back the cloth. What they had done was take a piece of harness and put it in there. What that meant was a farmer working on it looked on the barn wall and made a decision: ‘I’m not going to use that harness again; horses are done; you’re now in the tractor age.’ To me, it said a world of things, and tractors are that way. I’ve still got the harness.”

Welsch feels he only gained the respect of some townies when he “admitted total ignorance” as a tractor hack. “No longer was I Professor-Smart-Ass. I was the dumb guy who didn’t know shit. I’d bring in my welding. I’d ask how to adjust a magneto. They were showing the professor…the guy from the city. That put me in touch with people here in town I never would have known. There was a connection…”

Perhaps no connections he’s made for his work mean more to him than do his ties with the Omaha, Pawnee and Lakota tribes. He said his experiences with them have “changed my life. What amazes me is that the culture is still alive. They’ve maintained it in the face of unbelievable pressure and deliberate efforts to destroy it, and yet it’s still there and they’re still willing to share it. That, to me, is astonishing. It’s being able to go to another country and another world within striking distance of Omaha that has different ideas about what property is and what time is and what generosity is and what family is.” His adoption by members of the Omaha and Lakota tribes has given him large extended tribal families. He treasures “the brotherhood and the closeness of it. Maybe because I was an only child.”

A trip to Greenland gave him a similar appreciation for the Innuits. He hopes one day to write a book about his “love” for the Arctic country and its people. It used to be he wrote books on contract. Not anymore. “You’re really obligated then to write the book the publisher wants. The books I’m doing now are so idiosyncratic and so personal that I want to write the book I want.” Besides, he said, “everybody loves to hear stories,” and he’s got a million of them.

Welsch knows how rare and lucky he is to be doing “exactly what I want to do. So much of my life is just unbelievable fortune. My daughter Antonia said I belong to The Church of Something’s Going On. I really believe there is. That’s about as close as I come to dogma.”

After whirlwind tenure as Poet Laureate, Ted Kooser goes gently back to the prairie, to where the wild plums grow

June 19, 2010 2 comments

Blooming Wild Plum

Image by ShaharEvron via Flickr

This is the second story I wrote about poet Ted Kooser. It followed the first one I did on him by several months. That earlier story is also posted on this site.  This second profile appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) and nearer the completion of his duties as U.S. Poet Laureate.  He’d enjoyed the position and the opportunities it afforded to spread the art of poetry around the nation, but as the article makes clear, he was also relieved he would soon be leaving that very public post and returning to his quiet, secluded life and the sanctuary of home.

 

After whirlwind tenure as Poet Laureate, Ted Kooser goes gently back to the prairie, to where the wild plums grow

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Late spring in Seward County will find the wild plums Ted Kooser’s so fond of in full bloom again. If he has his way, the county’s most famous resident will be well ensconced in the quiet solitude he enjoys. Once his second term as U.S. Poet Laureate is over at the end of May, he returns to the country home he and his wife share just outside the south-central village of Garland, Neb., tucked away in his beloved “Bohemian Alps.” It’s served him well as a refuge. But as a historical personage now, he’s obscure no more, his hideaway not so isolated. It makes him wonder if he can ever go back again to just being the odd old duck who carefully observes and writes about “the holy ordinary.”

When named the nation’s 13th Poet Laureate, the first from the Great Plains states, his selection took many by surprise. He wasn’t a member of the Eastern literary elite. His accessible poems about every day lives and ordinary things lacked the cache of modern poetry’s trend toward the weird or the unwieldy.

“I knew in advance there would be a lot of discontent on the east coast that this had happened. I mean — Who’s he? — and all that sort of thing,” he said. “If it had been given to me and I had failed it would have really been hard. So I felt not necessarily I have to do it better than anyone else but that I really needed to work on working it. It’s really been seven-days-a-week for 20 months now. And I think I have had a remarkable tenure.”

The fact he pledged to do “a better job than anyone had ever done before” as Laureate, said partly out of a pique of regional pride, set him up for failure. By all accounts, though, he’s been a smashing success, taking The Word with him on an evangelical tour that’s brought him to hundreds of schools, libraries, museums, book clubs, writing conferences and educational conventions.

No less an observer than Librarian of Congress James Billington, Kooser said, told him he’s “probably been in front of more people than any other Laureate, at least during his tenure. So, that counts for something.”

 

 

 

 

Kooser wanted to connect with a public too long separated from the written word. To reverse the drift of poetry away from the literay elite and return it to The People. Swimming against the tide, he’s managed to do just that with the stoic reserve and grim resolve of a true Midwesterner. No figurehead Laureate, he’s a working man’s Poet, sticking to an itinerary that’s seen him on the road more than at home for nearly two years. “I can’t remember where I’ve been and when,” he said recently.

For a shy man who “really prefers to be at home,” the thought of coming out of his shell to make the rounds as Laureate seized him with panic.

“At first, I didn’t think I could do it. Looking down the line right after it happened I thought, No way are you going to be able to be that public a person. I’ve always been kind of an introvert and it’s always been very difficult for me to get up in front of groups of people,” he said. “But I decided I would throw myself into it and make myself do it. I learned how to do that and I’m much more comfortable now after doing hundreds of things, although I’m still nervous.”

He estimates he’s appeared before some 30,000 people as the Laureate.

Much as a post-Sideways Alexander Payne expressed a desire to immerse himself in the unseen depths of a new film, a process he likens to “scuba diving,” Kooser craves a time when he can once more lose himself on the road less traveled.

“Now of course my impulse is, as of the end of May, to start retreating back into that very comfortable introversion that I’ve always loved,” he said.

His 2004 Laureate appointment and 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry brought the world to his quiet country home, if not literally to the doorstep, then virtually there via requests for interviews, readings and appearances of one kind or another. He still gets them. The fact he’s obliged many of these entreaties says much about the man and his avowed mission to bring poetry to the masses.

“My principal goal is to show as many people as I can who are not now reading poetry that they’re missing out on something,” he’s said.

His honest, pinched, Presbyterian face, set in the detached, bemused gaze of a portrait subject, is familiar as a result of his weekly newspaper column, “My American Poetry.” The column, the primary vehicle he chose to promote poetry, appears in hundreds of papers with a combined readership of some 11 million. Not that the townies in and around Garland didn’t already recognize him. He’s only reminded of his celebrity when he puts on a tie for some fancy event or is spotted in a public place, which happens in Omaha, Lincoln or more distant spots, like Washington, D.C., the home of the Laureate’s seat, the Library of Congress, where a 3rd floor office is reserved for him. Not that he uses it much.

Besides the phone calls, e-mails and letters he wades through, there’s the more mundane perhaps but still necessary chores to be done around his acreage. Fallen branches to pick up. Dead trees to bring down. Repairs to make. Dogs to feed and water. Distractions aplenty. It’s why he must get away to get any writing done. Yes, there’s sweet irony in having to find an escape from his own would-be sanctuary.

“We have a lovely place and all that, but the problem’s always been that when I’m sitting there in my chair at home with my notebook I’m constantly noticing all the things that need to be done” he said. “So getting away from that is going to be nice. I’ve bought an old store building in Dwight (Neb.). It’s about 10 miles from where we live. It’s a thousand square feet. One story. It’s been a grocery store and various things and I’m fixing it up as a sort of office. In the front room I have a desk and bookshelves and in the second room I have a little painting studio set-up.

“Nobody in Dwight’s going to bother me. I’m really going to try and figure out having a work day where I would go up there at eight in the morning and stay till five and see what happens. Paint, write, read books. And then go back.”

 

 

 

The demands of his self-imposed strict Laureate schedule have seriously cut into his writing life. With a few weeks left before he can cut the strings to the office and its duties, he’s resigned to the fact his writing output will suffer “for awhile” yet, but confident his return to productivity “is gradually going to come about.”

He’s already whetting his appetite with the outlines of a new project in his head. “I’ve been thinking about a little prose book I might like to do in which I would go to my building in Dwight and sit there in the middle of that little town of 150 or 200 people and read travel literature and write about armchair travel all over the world from Dwight, Neb. It’d be a book like Local Wonders (his 2000 work of prose), but I’d be sitting there daydreaming about Andalusia, you know. I don’t like to travel, but that might be a sort of fun way of doing it…learning about the world.”

He may also keep busy as general editor of an anthology of poems about American folklore to be published by the Library of Congress. Kooser originally broached the project with the Library soon after being installed as Laureate.

Then there’s his ongoing column, which he’s arranged to have continue even after he’s out of office. The column, offered free to newspapers, supports his strong belief poetry should be inclusive, not exclusive. He hit upon the idea for it along with his wife, Lincoln Journal Star editor Kathleen Rutledge.

“Kathy and I talked for years and years about the fact poetry used to be in newspapers and how do you get it back,” he said.

A column made sense for a poet who describes himself as “an advocate for a kind of poetry newspaper readers could understand.” Making it a free feature got papers to sign on. He said the number of papers carrying “My American Poetry” is “always growing” and one paper that dropped it was pressured to resume it after readers complained. He’s most pleased that so many rural papers run the column and that perhaps schools there and elsewhere use the poems as teaching tools.

 

 

Karl Shapiro, center, with students in Nebraska nearly a half century ago. Left is Poet Ted Kooser .(Reprinted with permission from Reports of My Death by Karl Shapiro, published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, a division of Workman Publishing.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Besides the feedback he gets from readers, the poets whose work he features also get responses. “And, of course, the poets are tremendously excited. They’re in front of more readers than they’ve ever been in front of in their lives,” he said. It’s all part of breaking down barriers around poetry.

“The work that is most celebrated today is that work that needs explaining…that’s challenging. The poetry of the last century, the 20th century, was the first poetry ever that had to be taught. That had to be explained to people,” he said in an April 24 keynote address before the Magnet Schools of America conference at Qwest Center Omaha. It began “when the great Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs of contemporary poetry fell upon poetry in the persons of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot.”

This drift toward a literary poetry of “ever-more difficulty” and “elitism” continues to this day, limiting its appeal to a select circle of poets, academics and intellectuals. “The public gets left out,” he said. He has a different audience in mind. “I’m more interested in reaching a broad, general audience. I’m in the train of those poets (in the tradition of William Carlos Williams) who always believed in wanting to write things that people could understand.” Rather than a focus on form, he said, “I believe in work that has social worth.”

As a missionary for a common poetry that really speaks to people, his newspaper column amounts to The Ted Kooser Primer for Poetry Appreciation. “I have felt like a teacher all through it,” said Kooser, a poetry instructor for select graduate students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “Basically with the column I’m doing what a teacher would do. I’m trying to teach by example…what poetry can offer.”

He realizes his insistence on realism and clarity rankles the established order.

“I try pretty hard to make it understandable,” he’s said of his own work. “That sort of thing runs against the grain in poetry right now. I’m very interested in trying to convince people that poetry isn’t something we have to struggle with.”

Kooser harbors no allusions about making a sea change on the poetry scene.

“I think by the time I’m done at the end of May, when my term as Poet Laureate is over, I will have shifted American poetry about that far,” he said, his clamped hands moving ever so slightly to mimic those of a clock. “And the minute I’m out of office there’ll be a tremendous effort to get back where it was.”

Still, he feels emboldened by the response he gets. “Everywhere I go doing poetry readings throughout this country I run into people who have felt excluded from poetry almost all their adult lives,” he said. “Invariably after one of my readings a man who was drug there by his wife will come shambling up to me and say, ‘I had a pretty good time and I think I’m going to try this poetry stuff a little bit,’ which is wonderful for me. It’s exactly what I want to happen.”

It’s all about making converts. “Yeah, and, you know, they’re only one at a time. but for the one person that comes up there are others in the audience that are feeling the same way,” he said. “I don’t know that it’s my poetry that’s making the difference. This is not something I’m doing intentionally, but in looking at myself from over on the side I think have de-mystified the process. You know, it’s really about working hard and learning to write. There’s no magical thing I have that nobody else has. It’s just the fact I’ve been writing poetry for 50 years and I’ve gotten pretty good at it. And I think people like to hear there’s nothing really mysterious about it.”

Part of the exclusion people feel about poetry, he said, stems from how it’s taught in schools. It’s why soon after getting the Laureate he made a point of speaking at the National Conference of Teachers of English, “an organization on the front line for expanding the audience for poetry,” yet one ignored by his predecessors.

“I wanted to go there because I thought, Here are the people who have all the experience teaching poetry and usually where poetry goes wrong is in the public schools. It’s taught poorly. It discourages people, and so they never know to read it. And so I figured these teachers are really the prime teachers — any teacher who will pay his or her own way to a convention is pretty serious about teaching — and would have the really good ideas about how to teach poetry. And, as a matter of fact, there were a lot of ideas that came out of it. Mostly enthusiasm, really, and encouragement and that sort of thing.”

 

 

 

 

He never underestimates the power of “a great big dose of encouragement, no matter how bad the students’ work is, because I was one of those students,” he said. Growing up in his native Ames, Iowa, his earliest champion was his mother, the woman who taught him to see and to appreciate the world around him — the local wonders so to speak, and to not take these things for granted. Another early influence was an English teacher named Marian McNally. In college, teachers Will Jumper and Karl Shapiro, the noted poet, inspired him.

As Laureate Kooser’s embraced diversity in poetry. A 2005 program he organized in Kearney, Neb. saw him share the stage with an aspiring poet, a cowboy poet, a romantic poet, a performance poet and a fellow literary poet. Whatever the form or style, he said, poetry provides a framework for “expressing feelings,” for gaining “enlightenment,” for “celebrating life” and for “preserving the past.”

When he battled cancer eight years ago he didn’t much feel like celebrating anything. “And then…I remembered why I was a writer. That you can find some order and make some sense of a very chaotic world by writing a little poem. People need to be reminded there are these things out there that they can enjoy and learn from — and there might be something remarkable in their own backyard — if they would just slow down and look at them. To really look at things you have to shut out the thinking part and look and just see what’s there. It’s reseeing things”

True to his openness to new ideas, he’s agreed to let Opera Omaha commission a staged cantata based on his book The Blizzard Voices, a collection of poems inspired by real-life stories from the 1888 blizzard that killed hundreds of children in Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas. Adapting his work is composer Paul Moravec, winner of the 2005 Pulitzer for Music. The March 2008 production will premiere at the Holland Performing Arts Center and then tour. Recording rights are being sought.

For Kooser, who once adapted his Blizzard poems for a Lincoln Community Playhouse show, the possibilities are exciting. “I met with him (Moravec) and I liked him immensely and so I decided I would trust him to do anything he wanted to do. I think the idea of a blizzard and the kind of noise you could associate with it could be really interesting.”

Music-poetry ties have long fascinated Kooser, who hosted a program with folk musician John Prine. The March 9, 2005 program “A Literary Evening with John Prine and Ted Kooser,” was presented by the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress in D.C.  The program included a lively discussion between the songwriter and the poet as they compared and contrasted the emotional appeal of the lyrics of popular songs with the appeal of contemporary poetry.

“I’ve been following John Prine’s music since his first album came out and have always been struck by his marvelous writing: its originality, its playful inventiveness, its poignancy, its ability to capture our times,” Kooser said. “For example, he did a better job of holding up the mirror of art to the ’60s and ’70s than any of our official literary poets. And none of our poets wrote anything better about Viet Nam than Prine’s ‘Sam Stone.’ If I could write a poem that somebody could sing and make better for being sung, that would be great.”

In anticipation of the Opera Omaha cantata, the University of Nebraska Press has reprinted Kooser’s Blizzard Voices in paperback.

Whoever’s named the next Laureate will get a letter from Kooser. If his successor asks for advice he will say to be sure to avoid talking politics. If Kooser had responded to a national reporter’s question two years ago about who he voted for in the presidential race, he’s sure he’d still be dogged by that admission now. “Instead,” he said, “I’ve gotten to talk about poetry…the job I was hired to do.”

Keeper of the Flame: Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Ted Kooser

June 19, 2010 2 comments

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Ted Kooser was already well into his term as U.S. Poet Laureate and had recently been awarded the Pulitzer Prize when I wrote two stories about him. This is the first.  It appeared in the New Horizons, and it ‘s based on an interview I did with him at his home in Garland, Neb.  Whenever I interview and profile a writer, particularly one as skilled as Kooser, I feel added pressure to get things right. He helped make me feel comfortable with his amiable, homespun way, although I never once forgot I was speaking to a master.  The subsequent piece I did on him is also posted on this site.

 

Keeper of the Flame: Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Ted Kooser

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

 

Forget for the moment Ted Kooser is the reigning U.S. Poet Laureate or a 2005 Pulitzer Prize winner. Imagine he’s one of those quixotic Nebraska figures you read about. A bespectacled, bookish fellow living on a spread in the middle of nowhere, dutifully plying his well-honed craft in near obscurity for many years. Only, fame has lately found this venerable artist, who despite his recent celebrity and the rounds of interviews and public appearances it brings, still maintains his long-held schedule of writing each morning at 4:30. Away from the hurly-burly grind, the writer’s life unfolds in quiet, well-measured paces at his acreage home recessed below a dirt road outside Garland, Neb. There, the placid Kooser, an actual rebel at heart, pens acclaimed poetry about the extraordinariness of ordinary things.

Once you get off I-80 onto US 34, it’s all sky and field. Wild flowers, weeds and tall grasses encroach on the shoulders and provide variety to the patches of corn and soy bean sprawled flat to the horizon. The occasional farm house looms up in stark relief, shielded by a wind break of trees. The power lines strung between wooden poles every-so-many-yards are guideposts to what civilization lies out here.

Kooser’s off-the-beaten-track, tucked-away place is just the sort of retreat you’d envision for an intellectual whose finely rendered thoughts and words require the concentration only solitude can provide. More than that, this sanctuary is situated right in the thicket of the every day life he celebrates, which the title of his book, Local Wonders, so aptly captures. In his elegies to nature, to ritual, to work, and to all things taken for granted, his close observations and precise descriptions elevate the seemingly prosaic to high art or a state of grace.

The acreage he shares with his wife Kathy Rutledge includes a modest house, a red barn, a corn crib, a gazebo he built and a series of tin-roofed sheds variously containing a shop for his handyman work, an artist’s studio for his painting and a reading salon for raiding bookcases brimming with volumes of poetry and literature.

The pond at the bottom of the property is stocked with bluegill and bass.

His dogs are the first to greet you. Their insistent barking is what passes for an alarm system in these rural digs. Kooser, 66, comes out of the house to greet his visitors, looking just like his picture. He’s a small, exact man with a large head and an Alfred E. Newman face that is honest, wise and ironic. He has the reserved, amiable, put-on-no-airs manner of a native Midwesterner, which the Ames-Iowa born and raised Kooser most certainly is.

Comfortably and crisply outfitted in blue jeans, white shirt and brown shoes, he leads us to his shed-turned-library and slides into a chair to talk poetry in his cracklebarrel manner. A pot-bellied stove divides the single-room structure. The first thing you note is how he doesn’t play off the lofty honors and titles that have come his way the last two years. He is down to earth. Sitting with him on that June afternoon you almost forget he’s this country’s preeminent poet. That is until he begins talking about the form, his answers revealing the inner workings of a genuine American original and master.

Kooser, who teaches a graduate-level tutorial class in poetry at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, patiently responds to his visitors’ questions like the generous teacher he is. His well-articulated passion for his medium and for his work, a quality that makes him a superb advocate for his art, are evident throughout a two-hour conversation that ranges from the nature of poetry to his own creative process.

 

 

 

 

So, what is poetry?

“I like to think it is the record of a discovery. And the discovery can either be something in your environment or something you discover in the process of writing, like in new language. You basically record that discovery and then give it to the reader. And then the reader discovers something from it,” he said. “There’s a kind of kaleidoscope called a taleidoscope. It doesn’t have the glass chips on the end. It has a lens and I turn it on you and however ordinary the thing is it becomes quite magical because of the mirrors. And that’s the device of the poem. The poet turns it on something and makes it special and gives it — the image — to the reader.”

There is a tradition in poetry, he said, of examining even the smallest thing in meticulous detail, thereby ennobling the subject to some aesthetic-philosophical-spiritual height. It’s one of the distinguishing features of his own work.

“The short lyric poem very often addresses one thing and looks at it very carefully. That’s very common. I guess I’m well known for writing poems about very ordinary things. There’s a poem in my latest book about a spiral notebook. Every drug store in the state has a pile of them. Nothing more ordinary than that. I’ve written poems about leaky faucets and about the sound a furnace makes when it comes on and the reflections in a door knob. They’re all celebrations in some sense. Praise” for the beauty and even the divine bound up in the ordinary.

His Henry David Thoreau-like existence, complete with his own Walden’s Pond, feeds his muse and gives him a never-ending gallery to ponder and to convey.

“I like it out here. I like being removed from town. I like it because it’s quiet. For instance, I have a poem in my book Weather Central about sitting here and watching a Great Blue Heron out here on the pond. And there are many poems like that. There’s another one in that same book called A Hatch of Flies about being down in the barn one morning very early in the spring and seeing a whole bunch of flies that had recently hatched behind a window.”

The rhythms of country living complement his unhurried approach to life and work. He waits for inspiration to come in its own good time. When an idea surfaces, he extracts all he can from it by finding purity in the music and meaning of language. Words become notes, chords and lyrics in a kind of song raised on high.

“I never really have an idea for a poem,” he said. “I’ll stumble upon something and it kind of triggers a little something and then I just sort of follow it and see where it goes. I always carry a little notebook. If I see something during the course of the day I want to write about, I make a note of it.”

Another element identifying Kooser’s work is the precision of his language and his exhaustion of every possible metaphor in describing something. The rigor of poetry and of distilling subjects and words down to their truest essence appeals to him.

“I think there’s a kind of polish on my metaphors. I’m extremely careful and precise in the way I use comparisons. I wrote about that in my Poetry Repair Manual. How you really work with a metaphor. You just don’t throw it in a poem and let it go. You develop it and take everything out of it you can. With a poem, once it’s finished or it’s as finished as best as I can finish it, there isn’t anything that can be moved around. You can’t substitute a word for its pseudonym or its synonym. You can’t change a punctuation mark or anything like that without diminishing the effect,” he said. “Whereas, with prose, you can move a word around or change the sentence structure and it really doesn’t have that much of an effect on the overall piece. I like the fact poetry has to be that orderly and that close to perfect. I tend to be a kind of orderly type guy.”

Getting his work as close to perfection as possible takes much time and effort.

“I spend a lot of time revising my poems and trying to get them just right. A short poem will go through as many as 30 or 40 revisions before it’s done. Easily. I’m always trying to make the poems look as if they’re incredibly simple when they’re finished. I want them to look as if I just dashed them off. That takes revision itself. I’m always revising away from difficulty toward clarity and simplicity.”

So, how does he know when a poem is done?

“I think what happens is eventually you sort of abandon the poem. There’s nothing more you can do to make it better. You just give up. Rarely do you get one you think is really perfect. But that blush of success doesn’t usually last very long.”

A serious poet since his late teens, Kooser has refined his style and technique over a half-century of experimentation and dogged work.

“We learn art by imitation — painters, musicians, writers, everybody — by imitating others. So, the more widely you read, the more opportunities there are to imitate different forms and different approaches, and I tried everything I suppose,” he said. “You learn from the bad, unsuccessful poems as much as you learn from the good ones. You see where they fail. You see where they succeed. I’ve written the most formal of forms — sonnets and sestinas and ballads and so on, just trying them out, as you’d try on a suit of clothes.”

“I’ve come to my current style, which feels very natural to me,” through this process of trial and error and searching for a singular voice and meter and tone. “Somebody glancing at it would say, ‘Well, this is free verse.’ But it really is not free verse at all. I take a tremendous amount of care thinking about the number of syllables and accents in the lines. I might not have three accents in every lines, but the only reason I wouldn’t add another accent to a line of two is that it would seem excessive or redundant in a way.

“So, I never let the form dominate the poem. It’s all sort of one thing. And I think poems proceed from someplace and then they find their own form as they’re written. You let them develop. You let them fill their own form.”

Being open to the permutations and rhythms of any given poem is essential and Kooser said his routine of predawn writing, which he got in the habit of while working a regular office job, feeds his creativity and receptivity. “It’s a very good time for me to write. It’s quiet. You mind is refreshed. I’m a poet very much devoted to metaphor and rather complex associations,” he said, “and they tend to rise up at that time of day. I think what happens is as you come out of sleep your mind is trying make connections and sometimes some really marvelous metaphors will arise. By the end of the day, your head is all full of newspaper junk and stuff.”

All that sounds highly romantic, but the reality and discipline of writing every day is far from idyllic. Yet that’s what it takes to become an artist, which reminds Kooser of a story that, not surprisingly, he tells through metaphor.

“A friend of mine had an uncle who was the tri-state horse shoe pitching champion three years running and I asked — ‘How’d he get so good at it? — and my friend said, ‘Son, you’ve got to pitch a hundred shoes a day.’ And that’s really what you have to do to get good at anything. And I tell my students that, too: ‘You’ve got to be in there pitching those hundred shoes every day.’ Often times, in the process of writing, the really good things happen. That’s why you have to write every day. You have to be there, as the hunters say, ‘when the geese come flying in.’”

As most writers do, Kooser came to his art as an eager reader. He grew up in a Cold War-era home where books were abundant. He became a fixture at the local public library in Ames. His mother, who had some college and was a voracious reader, encouraged young Ted. But what really drove him, more than the Robert Louis Stevenson books he devoured, was his sense of being an outsider. He was a puny kid who didn’t mesh with the cliques at school. But in writing he found something of his own. A key book in his early formation as an aspiring writer was Robert McCloskey’s novel Lentil.

“It’s about a boy in a small town who doesn’t fit it very well. He’s not an athlete. He can’t sing. Then he teaches himself to play the harmonica. When a very important person from the town returns home, the band is all assembled at the depot, the banners are all hung out and a parade is planned down main street. But the guest has an enemy who gets up on the depot roof with a lemon, and when the band gets ready to play, he slurps this lemon and the band can’t blow their horns. But Lentil can play his harmonica and by saving the day he gets to ride with the special guest in the parade. The last line of the poem is, ‘So you never know what will happen when you learn to play the harmonica. And that really is a seminal story for me. I identified with that kid. And this poetry business is really like the harmonica. This was my thing to do. And so, for me, the lesson was, You never know what will happen when you learn to write poetry.”

Besides writing, Kooser was “into hot rods.” He built one car himself and built another one with a friend. It was inevitable he would combine both passions.

“I was writing these Robert Service-type ballads about auto races. I wrote a long one about a race and some of my friends sent it to a slick teen magazine called Dig. It was nothing I would have ever done myself. I never was one to really put myself forward in any way. But they sent it in, and it was published, much to my surprise.”

 

 

 

 

Between the buzz of his first published story, the strokes his teachers gave him and the emerging Beat Poetry scene he embraced, Kooser was sold on the idea of being a poet despite and, indeed, because of the fact it was so far afield from his proletarian roots. Making his mark and defying convention appealed to the non-conformist in Kooser. It was his way of standing apart and being cool.

“I wanted to be a poet right from the time I was 17 or 18. That was really my driving force. It was the idea of being different and interesting. I wanted to be on the outside looking in. It had a lot to do with girls, frankly. I came from an extremely plain, ordinary, middle class background and I wanted to set myself apart from that. Who knows how that works psychologically? My mother was very devoted to me and had very conventional ideas, and it may have been my attempt to separate myself from her. And to this day, when I become sort of reabsorbed into the establishment, as if I had ascended in class to some other level, I feel slightly uncomfortable and rebellious. I think that to be successful as an artist you have to be on the outside of the general order — observing it.”

In his wife, Kathy Rutledge, whom he met in the ‘70s, he’s found a kindred spirit. A child of the ‘60s, she was caught up in the fervor of the times. Now the editor of the Lincoln Journal Star, she shares his love of writing and is his gentle reader.

“She helps me with my writing. She’s a very good reader of my work. She’s a brilliant woman. She knows terms for the English language I don’t understand.”

He finds it ironic a pair of iconoclasts have ended up in such mainstream waters. She as a daily newspaper editor and he as “a celebrated poet” speaking to Kiwanis and Rotary Club meetings and giving college commencement addresses.

Besides his poetry and his insurance job, which he retired from a few years ago, Kooser’s been on the periphery of the academic circle. He’s taught night classes for years at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he earned his master’s.

Growing up in a college town, he gravitated almost as a matter of course to local Iowa State University, where he studied architecture before the math did him in. His literary aspirations led him into an English program that earned him a high school teaching certificate. He taught one year before moving onto UNL for grad studies. He was drawn by the presence of former U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winner Karl Shapiro, under whom he studied. When Kooser spent more time hanging out with Shapiro than working on his thesis, he lost his grad assistantship and was forced to take a real job. He entered the insurance game as a stop-gap and ended up making it a second career. It was all a means to an end, however.

“I worked 35 years in the life insurance business, but it was only to support myself to write. It was an OK job and I performed well enough that they kept promoting me. But writing was the important thing to me and I did it every morning, day in and day out. Writing was always with me. I’ve never not been writing.”

While his 9 to 5 job gave him scant satisfaction beyond making ends meet, it proved useful in providing the general, non-academic audience for his work he sought.

“The people I worked with influenced my poetry,” he said. “We all write toward a perceived community, I think, and I was writing for people in that kind of a setting.  I had a secretary in the last years I was there, a young woman who’d read poems in high school but had no higher education, and I often showed her my work. I’d say, ‘Did it make any sense to you?’ and she’d say, ‘No, it didn’t.’ And I’d go home and work on it, until it did because I wanted that kind of audience. I would not refer to anything that would drive anybody to stop in the middle of the poem to go look it up in the encyclopedia. The experience of the poem shouldn’t be interrupted like that. I have a very broad general audience. I get mail from readers every day.”

A less obvious benefit of working as a medical underwriter, which saw Kooser reading medical reports filled with people’s illnesses, was gleaning “a keen sense of mortality.” “Poetry, to really work,” he said, “has to have the shadow of mortality carried with it, because that darkness is what makes the affirmation of life flower.”

These days, Kooser is working hard to help poetry bloom in America, where he feels “it’s really thriving” between the literary-academic, cowboy, hip hop and spoken word poets. “It’s so important to do a good job as Poet Laureate, as far as extending the reach of poetry, that I’ve largely set my own writing aside for now.” His post, which he sees as “a public relations job for the sponsoring Library of Congress and for poetry,” has him promoting the art form as a speaker, judge and columnist. His syndicated Everyday Poetry column is perhaps his most visible outreach program. He’s considering doing an anthology of poems about American folklore. He’s also collaborating with educators to distill their ideas for teaching poetry into a public forum, such as a website. “The teachers are really on the front line here. They’re the people who make or break poetry,” he said.

Then, as if reassuring his visitors he’s no elitist, he excuses himself with, “I’ve got to run up to the house — I’ve got a pheasant in the oven.” Yes, even the Poet Laureate must eat.

Art Missionaries, Bob and Roberta Rogers and their Gallery 72


Nan Mason, American painter, 1896-1982, at wor...

Image by Smithsonian Institution via Flickr

If you saw the odd little old couple on the street you would never guess they were serious art connoisseurs. But get them in their element, at a museum or at a gallery opening, and get them talking art, and then there would be no doubt that Bob and Roberta Rogers were much more than some stereotypical representation of narrow minded, buttoned down old fogies. Then you would see them for who they really were — savvy, sophisticated art collectors and dealers whose open minds saw them champion all sorts of edgy art.  Together, they owned and operated perhaps the most respected private gallery in Omaha.  They made their Gallery 72 a fixture on the local art scene.  When Roberta died Bob carried on for a while on his own. Then his son John joined him. By the time Bob died, the gallery was fully in the hands of John, who moved the business to an emerging arts hub on Vinton Street in South Omaha. My story about the couple originally appeared in the New Horizons.

 

Art Missionaries, Bob and Roberta Rogers and their Gallery 72

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

 

For the longest time, Bob and Roberta Rogers of Omaha were models of conventionality.  He did the 9 to 5 office routine. She stayed home to raise their two sons.  Their lives revolved around work, family, home, church, school.  Then, in middle age, a funny thing happened.  The 1960s arrived with a bang and they found themselves drawn to the decade’s vital counter-culture movement.

Unlike most of their generation, who resisted the tumult, the Rogers embraced the era’s provocative art, film, music, literature.  They were especially taken with the Pop Art scene and the groundbreaking work of artists like Andy Warhol. Their new found passion led to a whole new way of life.  She began hanging out at Old Market head shops.  He started breaking out of the corporate mold by opening a donut business.  And although not artists themselves, they became ardent art admirers and collectors.  So much so, they started their own gallery in 1972.

“We learned so much about art by just looking at it.  We just got to looking.  And we both got interested in doing something creative,” Roberta said in the sweet, meandering accent of her native Mississippi.  “In both of our cases we were finally getting around to doing something we should have done when we were younger.”

Better late than never.  Twenty-six years later their Gallery 72 at 2709 Leavenworth Street is a respected venue presenting and selling contemporary works by top American and foreign artists.  They feel a life in art was somehow meant for them.

“I think this is to a certain extent something you almost get a calling for,” Roberta said.  “What we wanted to do was to bring the kind of art people should be looking at and collecting in Omaha — really good contemporary art.  That was our mission.  I guess we wanted to be art missionaries, and any true missionary doesn’t think too much about the consequences or they wouldn’t become missionaries.  It was awful tough getting started, but we survived through various ways and sundry miracles.”

 

 

Bob Rogers

 

 

Their mission has taken them far beyond their gallery walls.  They have long been fixtures at local art shows.  She has been a Joslyn Art Museum docent and a presenter of art educational programs at area schools.  He has advised galleries, museums, corporations and private collectors.  Their undying devotion to art has won them many admirers.

“A lot of people get into gallery work because they know a little bit about art and may have a good eye, but they still look on it as a business,” said Joslyn Art Museum registrar Penelope Smith.  “Bob and Roberta look on it as a vocation.  They really believe in the art they’re exhibiting and they really care about it.”

The couple has acquired a reputation as astute art appraisers, collectors and exhibitors as well as enthusiastic art lovers. Their contributions to the visual arts in Nebraska were recognized with the 1990 Governor’s Art Award.

“I don’t know of anybody within the state that has more personal passion for and commitment to art and artists,” said George Neubert, director of the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery in Lincoln.  Neubert, a sculptor, has shown at Gallery 72. “It’s a full range of support and nurturing they provide, whether it’s at one of their famous potlucks, where they gather together a wonderful strange mix of people interested in art, or whether it’s selling works to museums for their collections.”

Omaha painter Stephen Roberts notes the “very warm atmosphere” the Rogers extend to artists like himself and the fact “they show things they really love.  I think sales are really secondary to them.”

Married 54 years, the Rogers are such stalwart partners in their life and vocation that you can’t think of one without the other.  “I think it was fate that I met Bob,” Roberta said.  “I’d had several young men that were interested, but they didn’t care for the same things that I liked.  We just both liked the same things.  We’ve always done nutty things.”

If nothing else, they prove appearances can be deceiving.  A casual glance at their storefront gallery, across from St. Peter’s Catholic Church in downtown’s Park East area, suggests a curio shop.  But on closer inspection it is a showplace whose spare neutral interior is a perfect backdrop for the paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures displayed there.  The unassuming Rogers are Omaha’s mom and pop art missionaries all right, and so much more.  These forever youthful codgers are full of surprises.  She’s an effusive Southern sprite with a biting wit.  He’s a gruff stoic curmudgeon with a stubborn free-spirit. Together, they’re quite a pair.

Their apartment above the gallery is a single-level New York-style loft whose tall windows overlook St. Peter’s.  Nearly every available inch of  space is covered by art from their extensive, eclectic personal collection.  Book shelves bulge with volumes on art.  A huge industrial cabinet and table double as a kitchen pantry and dining surface, respectively. Magazines and newspapers are strewn everywhere.  Potted plants adorn one corner.  It is a home resonating with the energy of lives lived well and fully.

Although slowed by age — he’s 79, she’s 83 —  their intense feeling for art remains undiminished.  To understand the depth of that feeling, one must return to when their lives were transformed.  They credit their sons, John and Robert, with introducing them to the vital art scene emerging in the ‘60s.  Robert attended the Kansas City Art Institute at the time.

“He came back and told us about all these exciting things going on,” Roberta said.  “Those were the days when the modern old masters were struggling young artists.”

Innovative modern artists like Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg and Frank Stella “changed the history of art forever,” Bob said in the low, flat rumble he speaks in. Adds Roberta, “When I found out about people like Stella and Oldenburg and great foreign movies by Francois Truffaut and Federico Fellini and music by Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, and the Doors, it was like I was finally coming alive.  It almost seemed like we were waiting for something to come along,  and when we discovered all these wonderful things, we were ready.  It seems like I had been just kind of existing up till then.  As I tell people, I think I was really born in the ‘60s.”

Bob was equally inspired by the fervor of the times.  “There was a tremendous amount of energy in America that we don’t have now,” he said.  What many of their generation viewed as a threat, he and Roberta saw as an exciting new experience full of personal growth opportunities.  Instead of rejecting youth, they followed their lead.

“In those days all the parents were screaming about ‘my children won’t talk to me,’ but I never felt we had that problem,” he said.  “We never had a void in our relations.  We let our sons educate us.  They brought us into the 20th century.”

The Rogers, though, were hardly art neophytes.  Each was brought up to appreciate the finer things.  That mutual interest was a point of attraction when they met during World War II.  But even after they married, circumstances left little time or money to pursue their shared passion.

She grew up in a series of Midwestern and Southern towns, moving with her family wherever her father’s civil engineering job with the Illinois Central Railroad took them.  Her mother was an arts devotee and Roberta often accompanied her on cultural outings.

 

 

 

 

“My mother had friends who were artists, so I got a feeling for what they were trying to do. My mother recognized these things were necessary.  She loved music.  She loved the theater.  And when we were in a place where we could go, why we went.”

Roberta’s many travels even brought her, as a teen, to Omaha, where she and her family lived during 1928-29.  She attended Saunders School (since closed) and lived in the Austin Apartments near the Joslyn Castle. She recalls seeing Al Jolson in the first motion picture talkie, “The Jazz Singer,” at the Riviera Theater (now The Rose) and taking the streetcar to attend Saturday afternoon matinees as well as repertory plays at the now defunct Brandeis Theater.

Bob, an Iowa native, fed his artistic muse dabbling in theater at Northwestern University, where he majored in business administration to please his father, a sales manager at John Morrell meatpacking company.

“My father had a dream that I was supposed to carry on what he was doing,” he explains.  “Well, he overlooked the fact that every human that’s born is different.  His idea of what I should do in my life was 180 degrees from what I wanted to do, but you couldn’t tell your father that.  If I could have kicked over the traces I would of got a job in the front-office of the Chicago Cubs baseball team.  I was a baseball fanatic in those days.  If that hadn’t of worked out I probably would have gone in the technical end of the theater in Chicago.”

But like a good son he followed his father’s wishes and obediently punched the clock at Morrell even though he felt stifled there.  Then the war came and with it his active duty in the Army Quartermasters and eventually action in Europe.  His stint in the service also led him to Roberta.  It was while stationed at Camp Shelby in Hattiesburg, Miss. that their lives intersected in 1941.

“We were living in Gulfport at the time.  My father had a little house up in the piney woods about 18 miles from the Gulf Coast.  There was a place where soldiers with a weekend pass could get away from camp and swim and go to movies” Roberta recalls.  “Every Saturday night the ladies in Gulfport had a dance at the community center.  A band came over from Biloxi to play.

“They recruited all the young unmarried women in Gulfport to come.   It was Labor Day weekend and most of the troops from Camp Shelby were over in Louisiana on maneuvers, and so it was one of the few times there were about as many men as there were women.  And that’s how Bob and I got to talkin’ and all.  I liked him.  He was a nice quiet young man.  As we got to know each other and visit more and all, why we just found out we had a lot of common interests.”

The only potential obstacle was their families’ diametrically opposed politics.  Her people were staunch Democrats.  His, dyed-in-the-wool Republicans.  Fortunately, her father was a Northerner by birth and a Republican by nature.  The match could go on.

After an 18-month engagement the couple married in 1943 in San Bernardino, Calif., near the training center Bob was assigned.  After the war he resumed working for Morrell.  It was around this time his father died, and as Bob says, “I really didn’t feel like I had to fulfill his dream anymore.”

He then went from job to job, searching for his niche, but always ending up frustrated.  His job with a packaging services firm led the couple to Omaha in 1958.  Soon he got fed up again and tried a drastic change.

“Bob was seeking.  He felt getting into the donut business was really a creative kind of thing and so we started the Mr. Donut shops here in 1964.  It took off pretty well but then after several years we began to have problems with getting good help,” she said.  “Then Bob just asked one day, ‘What would you think of opening an art gallery?’  And I said, ‘I guess it would be okay.’  We both knew it was going to be an uphill battle with art in Omaha.  But the boys were raised and we decided we could sink or swim or starve in an attic and start our own art gallery.”

Unlike today, galleries were rare then in Omaha.  Still, there was no looking back.  “Once the bug bites you, you’re bitten. That’s the way it is,” she said.  They sacrificed everything for the project, opening in a strip mall on 72nd Street, hence the name.

“We pared our living expenses way down,” she said. “But it didn’t work out too well out there… and so we sold the house we were living in and we looked around for a building.”

They found the building they occupy now, formerly offices of the Association for the Blind, and after renovating it, re-opened the gallery in 1974.  She said their mission has remained constant:  “It was to show the best of contemporary art, because we live in a contemporary world.  Another thing we felt was that the work had to be of museum quality.  In all these years we’ve only had one show where everything in it was not of museum quality.  And we’ve never gone into making a living off of crafts and jewelry. Just art.  We felt like that would be lowering our standards.”

With the advent of area artist cooperatives, the gallery shows fewer local artists than in the past.  The art market has also changed drastically since Gallery 72 opened.  “Then you could get a good fine art print by the best artist for $150.  Now that these artists have become so much better known their prints come out at $3000 or $4000 or $5000 each,” she said.

Three woodcuts the Rogers acquired years ago (by Francesco Clemente, William T. Wiley and Pat Steir) have risen in value many times over.  “I sold a little bit of stock I had and with that and a few dollars Bob put in we got the three of them wholesale.  They were real bargains.  Any one of ‘em is way more valuable than the dividend would have been.  And I feel like I’m getting a good dividend just because I look at ‘em all the time.”

Bob said the law of supply and demand accounts for such steep price increases.  “There’s a limited amount of these things, and a ton of people who want it.  People are always asking me, Do you think this will go up in value?  Well, I never sell anybody art for an investment because there’s very little way you can tell for sure.”

Roberta said the true reward of art is not the money it brings, but the satisfaction it affords.  “Art is something that when it gets in your blood, your mind, your being, it just adds so much to your life and how you feel about yourself.  When you look at a piece of art you’ve got a relationship with this artist’s mind.  It’s like a conversation.  It says something to you, you say something back, and it becomes a visual dialogue.”

Bob, who makes all decisions concerning which artists to show, said too often people fret over the meaning of a work rather than just respond to it instinctually.  “Don’t analyze anything,” he suggests. “If you went to the artist and asked him, he probably wouldn’t be able to tell you, or if he did, it’d be something he made up.”

For him, the best art provokes thoughts and feelings that broaden your mind. One’s likes or dislikes, he said, have “a lot to do with what you’re willing to accept” and what “you’ve been exposed” to.  As far as his and Roberta’s preferences, they both like geometric abstraction.  He prefers minimalist art more than she does.  Although their tastes do diverge, they say they never argue over a piece or artist for the gallery.

To stay abreast of art and cultural trends, he reads art and news publications daily.  He finds artists for the gallery in several ways.  “

One of the best sources we have is the artists we work with,” he said.  Seeing exhibitions is another.  In May Bob attended the annual Navy Pier show in Chicago, featuring some 200 galleries from around the world.  The couple used to make the rounds in New York, but can’t any longer due to physical/ financial constraints.  Now, she said, “We bring the world to us. We’ve brought artists from Spain, Cuba, New York, Chicago, the West Coast.  It’s made life very interesting.”

The Rogers know their gallery has limited appeal. That’s why they’ve tried developing their own market, largely through word-of-mouth.  “And that’s difficult to do,” Bob said, “because the average run of people will buy a picture of a butterfly, but they would never buy a Claes Oldenburg painting or print of a clothespin sitting in the middle of Philadelphia.  So we have to develop the kind of people that will relate to that.”

Many of their best customers are art-savvy residents who’ve moved here from either coast.  The Rogers are known for hosting fun, informal potluck dinners, occasions they use to develop potential clients and to give guests a forum for “exchanging ideas.”

“People who don’t know each other, know each other when they leave.  And so far we’ve never had a food fight,” Roberta said with a smile.

The couple has no plans to retire.  “You don’t retire in art, you die in art,” she said.  “It keeps us young.”

Besides, their mission continues.

“There’s so much to learn about art,’ said Roberta.  “There’s so many different styles and types.  And whether people come in and buy or not, we feel like our role is to educate them.”

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