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Nik Fackler, The Film Dude Establishes Himself a Major Cinema Figure with ‘Lovely, Still’


Now that filmmaker Nik Fackler’s first feature, “Lovely, Still,” has a national theatrical release scheduled, the buzz about the film, its writer-director, and its stars, Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn, is getting serious. I noticed that a Nik Fackler profile on my site has been getting a fair number of hits, and so today I decided to re-post a more recent piece about Nik and his film. Check it out. I will also be adding other Fackler-“Lovely, Still” articles I’ve done. Around the time the film has its national release this fall, I will be adding new posts related to it all. That will include an extensive interview with Martin Landau.

My site also contains articles about many other cinema subjects and figures, including Alexander Payne.  Check them out.

Nik Fackler, The Film Dude. establishes himself a major new cinema figure with “Lovely, Still”


Christmas in the post-War United States

Image via Wikipedia

This article on emerging filmmaker Nik Fackler makes no bones about his establishing himself a major cinema figure on the strength of his first feature, Lovely, Still. The pic is finally getting a general release this fall, but it’s picked up a slew of admirers and awards, most recently from screenings at the California Independent Film Festival.  Watch for this film when it comes to a theater near you or plays on cable or wherever else you can find it, because it’s the work of an artist who will make his presence felt.  As he prepares to make his next projects, I feel the same way about Fackler that I did about Alexander Payne when I saw his debut feature Citizen Ruth – that this is an important artist we will all be hearing much more from in the future.  I look forward to charting his journey wherever it takes him.

NOTE: This article appeared in advance of a limited engagement run of Lovely, Still in Nik’s hometown of Omaha last fall.  The film is having a full national release  the fall of 2010.  Look for it at a theater near you in September or October, perhaps later.

Check out my most recent post about the film, Fackler, and the relationship between he and star Martin Landau.

 

Nik Fackler, The Film Dude, sstablishes himself a major new cinema figure with “Lovely, Still”

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

After what must seem an eternity, Omaha’s resident Film Dude, writer-director Nik Fackler, finally has the satisfaction of his first feature being theatrically screened. An advance one-week Omaha engagement of his Lovely, Still opens the new Marcus Midtown Cinema, Nov. 6-12.

The film’s box office legs won’t be known until its 2010 national release. Screenings for New York, L.A. and foreign press will give Lovely the qualifying runs it needs for Academy Awards consideration next year. It’d be a stretch for such a small film to net any nominations but the lead performances by Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn are so full and finely honed they’re Oscar-worthy by any standard.

Both artists strip themselves emotionally bare in scenes utilizing all their Method gifts. Their work is: dynamic, never dull; natural, unforced. Their behaviors appropriate for the romantic, comedic, dramatic or just Being There moments.

Nods for writing, direction, cinematography, editing and music would be unlikely but not out-of-line for this gorgeous-looking, powerfully-rendered, well-modulated movie that hits few false notes. The film pops with energy and emotion despite a precious storyline of senior citizens rediscovering first love.

The local creative class is well represented by Tim Kasher’s “additional writing,” James Devney’s strong portrayal of Buck, a lush score by composers Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott and dreamy tunes by Conor Oberst and other Saddle Creek artists.

It’s at least as impressive a feature debut as Alexander Payne’s Citizen Ruth.

An indication of how much Landau believes in Lovely and how proud he is of his gutsy star-turn in what Fackler calls “a showcase role that’s very challenging” is the actor’s appearances at select screenings. That includes this Friday in Omaha, when he and Fackler do Q & As following the 6:15 and 9:15 p.m. shows at Midtown.

Fackler’s at ease with the film that’s emerged. “I am very content, although it has changed a lot,” he said, “but I welcome all changes. Film is an ever changing beast. You must embrace the artistic transformation. To not allow it, is to limit it.” Much hype attended the making of the 25-year-old’s debut feature, shot in his hometown in late 2007. It was the first movie-movie with a real budget and name stars made entirely in Nebraska since Payne’s About Schmidt in 2001.

Circumstances caused the film that generated serious buzz a couple years ago and then again at the Toronto Film Festival’s Discovery Program in 2008 to fall off the radar. Lovely producers turned down a distribution offer. They continue negotiations seeking the right release strategy-deal. Self-release is an option.

It’s been a long wait for Fackler to see his vision on screen – six years since writing it, five years since almost first making it in 2005, two years since completing principal photography and one year since reshoots and reediting.

“This has been the longest I’ve like worked on a single project for forever,” he said. “It’s really been a marathon.”

Anticipation is great, not just among the Nebraska film community that worked the pic. Whenever stars the caliber of Landau and Burstyn throw their weight behind a project as they’ve done with Lovely the industry takes note. That a 20-something self-taught filmmaker with only micro-budget shorts and music videos to his name landed Oscar-winning icons certainly got people’s attention. As did hanging his script’s sentimental story about two old people falling in love at Christmas on a subversive hook that turns this idyll into something dark, real, sad and bittersweet. Throw in some magic realism and you have a Tim Burtonesque holiday fable.

The two stars would never have gotten involved with a newcomer on an obscure indie project unless they believed in the script and its author-director. At the time Fackler lacked a single credit on his IMDB page. Who was this kid? In separate meetings with the artists he realized he was being sized up.

“It was really intimidating,” Fackler said of meeting Landau in a Studio City, Calif. cafe. “I was just super freaked out. I don’t know why. I’m usually never that way. But it was like I was about to meet with this legend actor to talk about the script and for him to kind of like feel me out — to see it he can trust me as a director, because I’m a young guy. We’re from such different generations.”

The two hit it off. Lovely producer Lars Knudson of New York said Fackler “aced” a similar test with Burstyn in Manhattan: “It’s a lot of pressure for a (then) 23-year-old to meet with someone like Ellen, who’s worked with the biggest and best directors in the world, but Nik blew her away. I think she called him a Renaissance Man.” Knudson said “it’s really impressive” Fackler won over two artists known for being ultra-selective. “They’re very critical. They’ve done this for so many years that they will only do something if they really believe it’s going to be good.”

Lovely producer Dana Altman of Omaha said the respect Fackler gave the actors earned him theirs.

Anyone reading the screenplay could see its potential. Besides A-list stars other top-notch pros signed on: director of photography Sean Kirby (Police Beat), production designer Stephen Altman (Gosford Park Oscar nominee) and editor Douglas Crise (Babel Oscar nominee).

But the history of films long on promise and short on execution is long. As Dana Altman said, any film is the collective effort of a team and Lovely’s team melded. On location Fackler expressed pleasure with how the crew  – a mix from L.A. and Omaha – meshed. “Everyone’s on the same wavelength,” he said. Still, it was his first feature. DP Sean Kirby said, “Anytime you do something for the first time, like direct a feature film, there’s a learning curve, but I think he’s learned very quickly.” Fackler admitted to making “a bunch of mistakes” he “won’t make again.”

The subject matter made the film rife with traps. Take its tone. Handled badly, it could play as treacle or maudlin. Instead, it reads poignant and tragic, and that’s to everyone’s credit who worked on the film.

Then there’s Fackler’s penchant for going on fantastical jags in his work, routine in videos but risky in features. His loose approach, such as ditching the shot list to improvise, combined with the total creative freedom producers granted, meant he could play to his heart’s content, within reason. That can lead to self-indulgent filmmaking. Indeed, he fought and won the right to shoot trippy dream sequences that ended up on the cutting room floor. But some experimental lighting techniques to express tangled memories do make an effective motif in the final cut.

Following the mostly positive Toronto showing, the team reassembled for Omaha reshoots and New York pick ups. His leads supported the fixes and coverage.

“Martin and Ellen were behind it, they weren’t annoyed by it, they thought all the reshoots were going to make the film better,” said Fackler. “It wasn’t something that felt forced or anything like that. Everyone was on the same page.”

The young artist and his venerable stars established an early rapport built on trust. “We became friends,” he said. He readily accepted ideas from them that helped ripen the script and gave its young creator deeper insights into their characters.

“What’s great about Nik, especially at his age, is he’s willing to collaborate with people. It’s still his vision, but if it makes it better he’ll change it, he’s not afraid,” said Knudson, who said the script owes much to the input of Landau and Burstyn. “He’s very sort of ego-less.”

It’s all in line with Fackler’s predilection for creating a relaxed set where spot-on discipline coexists amid a way-cool, laidback sensibility that invites suggestions. On location for Lovely he exhibited the same playful, informal vibe he does on his videos: whether going “yeah, yeah” to indicate he likes something or pulling on a can of Moen between takes or doing a private, Joe Cocker dance watching scenes or saying to his DP setting up a shot, “Feelin’ good then? Then let’s kick ass!”

Fackler’s totally of his Generation Y culture, just don’t mistake his nonchalance for slacker mentality. He’s all about the work. He carved a career out-of-thin-air directing videos for Saddle Creek recording artists. His shorts netted the attention and backing of Altman. He cobbled together casts, crews and sets, often doing every job himself, before Lovely. He hung in there six years waiting for this moment, working at his family’s business, Shirley’s Diner, to pay the bills.

“If there’s ever a roadblock you can always get around it. It’s just a matter of taking the time…and not giving up. I wanted the roadblocks. I was like, Bring ‘em on, because I had a lot of ambition and I still do. I  guess it’s just something that I always thought anything is possible. It’s like the naive child in me never left me. I love it. I try to get everyone else around me to feel the same way.”

It was in an L.A. editing room where the jumble of material he shot for Lovely finally came into focus.

“The film from script to screen went through a lot,” he said. “I tried every possible edit. That’s why we ended up editing two months more than we thought we were. But luckily, you know, everyone — producers and investors – were supportive of that process, They didn’t put that much pressure on me because they saw that the film was pretty good, they liked it, and so they allowed us to do it. I ended up throwing the dreams out all together because they weren’t working, and using the experimental lighting scenes because they ended up looking so good.

“I have no regret cutting things I shot. I love the film I have. I love cutting stuff. My philosophy while editing was to not be attached to anything. Once I lived by that rule, everything came free. What matters is making the best film possible, always.”

That mature-beyond-his-years attitude drew Altman to be his mentor. Altman, whose North Sea Films produced Lovely with Knudson and Jay Van Hoy’s Parts and Labor, credits Fackler for hanging in there and doing what’s best for the project, saying: “it’s taken a great deal of patience. Poor Nik, he really does want to see this get released.” Whatever happens, Fackler’s satisfied with what he’s wrought.

“I like to take children’s themes that anyone from any age can understand and then put them in these like really harsh realities of what life can be like. Lovely, Still is very much written to evoke some kind of feeling. It takes place during Christmas time and it deals with family and love. It’s multi-layered. For some people that may be a happy feeling and for others it may be depressing. Art is trying to create a new feeling you’ve never felt before. You watch a film and you leave the film feeling a new way. You may not have a name for the feeling, but it’s new.

“That’s all I can hope for.”

He recently collaborated with cult comic strip-graphic novel artist Tony Millionaire on a script adaptation of Millionaire’s Uncle Gabby. “I can’t wait to bring existentialism and poetry to the children’s film genre,” said Fackler. ”I’m also excited to work with puppetry. It will be like playing with toys! ALL DAY LONG!”

Altman, Knudson and Co. have informal first-look rights on Fackler projects.The same producers who’ve had his back on Lovely look forward to a long association. “Like Dana (Altman), we want to continue working with Nik and we want to create a family sort of, so he feels protected, so he can make the movies he wants to make for the rest of his career,” said Knudson. Radical, man.

Power Players, Vicki Quaites-Ferris and Other Omaha African-American Community Leaders Try Improvement Through Self-Empowered Networking

July 19, 2010 1 comment

Here is part two of “my” two-part cover story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) on the African-American Empowerment Network.  I qualify the ownership of the story in quotation marks because this installment was cut even more severely than the first. again without my having any input into the editing process.  It’s all part for the course for how editors and publishers treat the work of freelancers in the Omaha market, some being more sensitive and inclusive to the writer having a part in the editing phase than others.  I do not read my published work, and so I cannot say with any certainty that the piece was damaged or mistakes were made in the winnowing, but I am comfortable saying that what was submitted as a 4,000 word story and then  having ended up in print at 2,000 words was a compromised piece of work.  When the writer has not made that kind of cut himself or herself, than the work is essentially no longer theirs but is the handiwork of the editors.  I will soon post my submitted versions of both installments and let you the reader decide which covered the subject more thoroughly.  I use the word thorough for a reason, and that’s because my assignment was to research and write a comprehensive story on the Network, and that’s exactly what I did and submitted.  Now mind you, like with any project, I only submitted the story (broken into two parts) after much self-editing.  But when 7,500 or 8,000 words are then reduced by others down to 4,500 words, well, I can only say that the printed work must bear only a slight resemblance to the original. 

Power Players, Vicki Quaites-Ferris and Other Omaha African-American Community Leaders Try Improvement Through Self-Empowered Networking

© by Leo Adam Biga

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

African-American Empowerment Network leaders know the nonprofit must have partners to transform North Omaha.

It has reached out to philanthropists, CEOs, social service agency executive directors, pastors, neighborhood association leaders, current or ex-gang members, school administrators, law enforcement officials, city planning professionals, local, county and state elected officials.

The Network’s taken a systematic approach to build community consensus around sustainable solutions. North Omaha Contractors Alliance president Preston Love Jr. began as a critic but now champions the Network’s methodical style in gaining broad-based input and support.

“My compliment to them is even bigger than most because they stayed by their guns. I highly commend them because they did it the right way in spite of people like myself … They developed a process which has involved every level, from leadership on down to grassroots, for people to participate. That is the key to me.”

For Empowerment Network facilitator Willie Barney, it’s all about making connections.

“When we started there were not enough forums and venues for people to come together and share ideas and solutions in an environment where you felt comfortable no matter who you were,” he said. “ …. Now we’re to a point where we’re working with residents at planning meetings, trying to get as many people as we can involved to tell us what is their vision for the targeted areas — what does it look like in north Omaha, what does it look like for African-Americans in the city, what would they like to see. ”

He refers to North Omaha Village Zone meetings at North High that invite community members to weigh in on developing plans for the: 24th and Lake, 16th and Cuming, 30th and Parker/Lake and Adams Park, Malcolm X and Miami Heights neighborhoods. Some 100 residents attended a May 27th meeting.

A homeowner who lives in the Adams Park area said she’s interested in how development will affect her home’s resale value and improve quality of life.

“I’m very concerned about my investment, so anything that’s going on we want to know because it will eventually impact us,” said Thalia McElroy, who was there with her husband Greg.

Greg McElroy said he appreciates residents having a say in plans at the front end rather than the back end.

Wallace Stokes, who just moved here from Waterloo, Iowa with his small construction business, likes what’s he’s seen and heard. “They’re trying to empower the neighborhood and create jobs and also make it better for everybody else. All of that’s what I believe in.”

Bankers Trust vice president Kraig Williams has lived and worked all over America. “I can honestly say I’ve never seen this happen before. I think there is a sincere invitation for people to experience this and to be a part of it, and the invitation is actually coming from the Empowerment Network. This appears to be something that’s got the appropriate amount of focus. City government’s there, a lot of the commercial companies are involved as well.”

While confident the Network “will continue to push forward for change,” Williams said sustainability depends on the “other parties at the table” and how the economy affects their budgets and bottom lines.

A segment missing from the leadership is age 30-and-unders. That’s why Dennis Anderson and others created the Emerging Leaders Empowerment Network. “We want to be heard at the table as well,” said Anderson, who has his own real estate business. “We have our own ideas and our own solutions we want to bring forward.” He said ideas generated by Emerging Leaders are presented to the larger Network. “Now we are being heard. They have been extremely supportive of us,” he said.

What makes the Network different beyond its covenant calling for African-Americans to harness change through self-empowerment?

“I don’t see any other kind of a way and I don’t see any other time that this has happened,” said Family Housing Advisory Services director Teresa Hunter, co-chair of the Network’s housing development covenant.

“There has not been the kind of movement like this in our community in a very long time. There have been attempts at it, and I have been a part of those attempts to bring community together, but the structure currently in place is a structure that has not been there before,” said Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray, chair of the violence intervention-prevention strategy.

Davis Companies CEO Dick Davis, who heads the economics covenant and a newly formed Economic Strategy Taskforce, said the Network represents a fresh approach to economic development. “The principles we set up are a market-driven merit-based economic model as opposed to the social justice, social equity models Omaha has been doing.”

Proposed development projects up for review before the Taskforce or its eight sub-taskforces, he said, are held to a rigorous set of “expectations and outcomes” to select sustainable initiatives.

He said Taskforce members, who include elected and appointed public officials, are working to change public policies to “open up more contract, procurement opportunities” for African-Americans. Buttressing the Taskforce’s and the Network’s economic models, said Davis, “are substantial amounts of dollars I’m committing.” He’s living the “do my part” mantra of the Empowerment covenant by, among other things, constructing a new headquarters building for the Davis Cos. in NoDo, investing $10,000 in seed money in each of 10 small black-owned businesses over a decade’s time. He’s on his third one. His Chambers-Davis Scholarship Program and Foundation for Human Development are some of his other philanthropic efforts.

Davis uses his own generosity as calling card and challenge.

“I go to white folks and black folks and say, ‘OK, here’s how I’m stepping up, tell me how you’re going to step up? How you going to do your part?’ That doesn’t mean necessarily just by money, it’s by expertise, it’s by commitment, it’s by whatever the case may be. But once you step up I want you to be accountable for it, I don’t want you to say it’s somebody else’s fault.”

The idea is that as others put up personal stakes, assume vested interests and make commitments, African-Americans gain leverage in the marketplace.

For Davis, the promise of the Network is its transformational potential. “If I’m going to dedicate the rest of my life to see if we can develop benefits for African-Americans in Omaha …. what I want to see is a cultural change, a value change, a behavioral change of African-Americans’ psyche toward economics.”

He will at least keep people talking. “One of my gifts is I can bring a group of people together that in most cases don’t talk to each other. The social justice advocates don’t talk to the pro business advocates, Republicans don’t talk to Democrats, white folks don’t talk to black folks, and we don’t get anything done.” If the Network’s done nothing else, he said, it’s brought diverse people together. “It’s called shared responsibility, shared accountability — that’s what makes it feel different.”

“A strength of the Network is that disagreements unfold in private, behind closed doors, not for public display,” said Rev. Jeremiah McGhee, co-chair of the faith covenant. Where the confrontational outcry of passionate citizens tends to “fizzle out,” he said the Network’s moderate, conciliatory approach is built for “the long haul. We’re not just a flash in the pan. We’re being very deliberate about this.”

Network members say a confluence of new leadership, including Gray, Davis and Black, seemed to make the time right for a concerted effort to improve the African-American Omaha.

“It was a formation, kind of a like a call to the troops to come together,” said Empowerment operations director Vicki Quaites-Ferris, who came from the Mayor’s Office

The Network’s been slow to put itself in the media spotlight because it prefers a behind-the-scenes role and because it’s sensitive to past disappointments.

“There’s always been a hesitation,” said Willie Barney. “We see so many groups come before the camera and make grand announcements about what they’re going to do and how they’re going to do it and for whatever reason we don’t see them again, and the community gets really tired of that.”

Preston Love Jr. wants African-Americans involved from planning to financing, bonding and insurance, through construction, ownership, management and staffing.

Leo Louis takes issue with something else. “If the idea is to empower the community then the community should be growing,” he said, “not the Network. What I’m seeing happening is the Network growing and the community falling further and further down with rising drop out, STD, homicide rates. Yes, there’s more people getting involved, more marketing, more funds going towards the Network and organizations affiliated with the Network, but the community’s not getting any better.”

Tangible change is envisioned in Network designated neighborhood-village strategy areas. The plan is to apply the strategic covenants within defined boundaries and chart the results for potential replication elsewhere. One strategic target area includes Carter’s Highlander Association, the Urban League, Salem Baptist Church and the Charles Drew Health Center. The strategy there started small, with prayer walks, block parties, neighborhood cleanups. It’s continued through discussions with neighborhood associations. Brick-and-mortar projects are on tap.

“We’ve received some financial support to take the strategy to the next level,” said Barney. “We’re really focused on housing development, working with residents to look at housing needs. We’re partnering with Habitat for Humanity, NCDC, OEDC, Holy Name, Family Housing Advisory Services. Our goal is that you’ll be able to drive through this 15-block area and begin to see physical transformation. That’s where we’re headed.”

The Network also works with Alliance Building Communities and the Nebraska Investment Finance Authority. Some major housing developments are ready to launch.

Another target area includes 24th and Lake. The Network’s plans for redevelopment there jive closely with those of a key partner, the North Omaha Development Project.

As the Network matures, its profile increases. Barney doesn’t care if people recognize the Network as a change agent so long as they participate. “They may not know what to call it but they know there’s something positive going on,” he said. “They know we get things done. The message is spreading. We’ve had a lot of opportunities to go and present.

There’s definitely more interest. We can tell by the volume of calls we get and the number of visitors to our web site (empoweromaha.com).”

In terms of accountability, Barney said, “the leaders hold the leaders accountable and we invite the community in every second Saturday to an open meeting. They can come in, look at what’s going on. There’s nothing hidden, it’s up on the (video) screen. They have the chance to redirect, ask questions. It’s an open environment.” McGhee said the leadership “is really holding our feet to the fire” for transparency and responsibility.

Where could it go wrong?

Preston Love cautions if the Network becomes “the gatekeeper” for major funds “that gives them power that, if wrongly used,” he said, “could work against the community.”

Carter said letting politics get in the way could sabotage efforts. McGhee said public “bickering” could turn people off. He said the leadership has talked about what-if scenarios, such as a scandal, and he said “there’s no question” anyone embroiled in “something counter-productive like that would need to step down.”

Former Omaha minister Rev. Larry Menyweather-Woods worries about history repeating itself and a community’s hopes being dashed should the effort fade away. “You’d go back to square one,” he said. He wonders what might happen if things go off course and the majority power base “turns against you.” “When all hell breaks loose,” he said, “who from the Network will go to the very powers they’ve made relationships with and say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, this isn’t right?’” He suggests only a pastor has “nerve enough to do that.”

And that may be the Network’s saving grace — that pastors and churches and congregations are part of this communal mission.

“The history of African-Americans has been founded on faith and the church, so it’s the primary thing and everything else kind of grows out of that,” said Pastor Bachus. “Faith is that hub and the covenants and the efforts really are spokes out of that hub, and that’s the thing that holds it together.”

‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ Movie for the Ages from Book for All Time

July 18, 2010 3 comments

Screenshot of To Kill a Mockingbird(an America...

Screenshot of To Kill a Mockingbird(an American movie issued in 1962) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Like a lot of people, To Kill a Mockingbird is one one of my favorite books and movies.  Has there ever been a more truthful evocation of childhood and the South?  When Bruce Crawford organized a revival screening of the film a couple years ago I leapt at the chance to write about it and the following article is the result. It was originally published in the City Weekly. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first printing of the masterpiece novel by Harper Lee.  The film is fast creeping up on its own 50th anniversary.  The book to film adaptation is arguably the best screen treatment of a great novel in cinema history.  That transition from one medium to another is often not a happy or satisfying one.  Owing to my quite foggy memory of childhood things,  I must admit that I cannot be entirely certain I have read Lee’s novel, but then again it was already standard fare in schools and so my unreliable recollection that I did read it in high school is probably accurate. I really should get a copy of the book, sit down with it, and indulge in that precisely drawn world of Lee’s.  I am sure I will be as carried away by it now as I still I am by the film, which I have seen in its entirety a few dozen times, never tiring of it, always moved by it, and whenever I find it playing on TV I cannot help but watch awhile.  It is that mesmerizing to me. And I know I am hardly alone in its effect.

For the article I got the chance to interview Mary Badham, who plays Scout in the film.  At the end of my article’s posting, you’ll find a Q & A I did with her.  Around this same time I also had the opportunity to interview Robert Duvall, who so memorably plays Boo Radley.  However, I spoke to Duvall for an entirely different project, and I never brought up Mockingbird with him, although I wish I did.

 

‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ Movie for the Ages from Book for All Time

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the City Weekly

 

Great movies are rarely made from great books. If you buy that conventional wisdom than an exception is the 1962 movie masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee’s best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel became an award-winning film acclaimed for how faithfully and lovingly it brought her work to the screen. Lee publicly praised the adaptation.

Gregory Peck, with whom Lee maintained a friendship. won the Academy Award as Best Actor for his starring turn as idealistic small town Southern lawyer Atticus Finch. Atticus is a widower with two precocious children — Scout and Jem. Atticus was based in part on Lee’s own father, an attorney and newspaper editor. Peck’s understated performance forever fixed the Mount Rushmoresque actor as the epitome of high character and strong conviction in movie fans’ minds.

Omaha impresario and film historian Bruce Crawford will celebrate Mockingbird on Friday, Nov. 14 at the Joslyn Art Museum with a 7 p.m. screening and an appearance by Mary Badham, the then-child actress who played Scout. She’s the rambunctious young tomboy through whose eyes and words the story unfolds. Actress Kim Stanley provided the voice of the adult Scout, who narrates the tale with ironic, bemused detachment.

Badham earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination in her film debut yet largely retired from screen acting after only two more roles. She remained close to Peck until his death a few years ago. The Richmond, Vir. area resident often travels to Mockingbird revivals. There’s always a big crowd. The universal appeal, Crawford said, lies in the pic tapping childhood feelings we all identify with.

“The crossover appeal of this film is unlike that of but a very few pictures,” he said. That pull can be attributed in part to the book, which, Crawford said, “has an absolutely enormous following in literary circles. It’s like required reading in public schools across the United States. Then, on top of that, the film was an instant classic when it came out and has done nothing but even grow larger in status the last 46 years. It’s become one of the most beloved films of all time.”

American Film Institute pollsconsistently rank Mockingbird as a stand-the-test-of- time classic. Crawford said seldom does an enormously popular book turn into an equally popular film. “It’s like Gone with the Wind in that,” he added.

Lee’s elegiac narrative, set in the 1930s Alabama she grew up in, has a kind of nostalgic, fairy tale quality the film enhances at every turn. It starts with the memorable opening credit sequence. An overhead camera peers with warm curiosity at a young girl sorting through an assortment of trinkets spilled from a cigar box, each an artifact of childhood discovery and reverie. As she hums, she draws with a crayon on paper. Soon, the film’s title is revealed.

The camera, now in closeup, pans from one small object to another, all in harmony with the wistful, lyrical music score. It makes an idyllic scene of childhood bliss. The girl then draws a crude mockingbird on paper and without warning rips it apart, presaging the abrupt, ugly turn of events to envelop the children in the story. It’s a warning that tranquil beauty can be stolen, violated, interrupted.

Dream-like imagery and music emphasize this is the remembered past of a woman seeing these events through the prism of impressionable, preadolescent memories. The film captures the sense of wonder and danger children’s imaginations find in the most ordinary things — the creak and clang of an old clapboard house in the wind, shadows lurking in the twilight, a tree mysteriously adorned with gifts.

Like another great movie from that era, The Night of the HunterMockingbird gives heightened, elemental expression to the world of children in peril. The by-turns chiaroscuro, melancholy, sublime, ethereal landscape reflects Scout’s deepest feelings-longings. It is naturalism and expressionism raised to high art.

The film tenderly, authentically presents the relationship between Scout and her older brother Jem, her champion, and the bond they share with their father. The motherless children are raised by Atticus the best he knows how, with help from housekeeper Calpurnia and nearby matron Miss Maudie. A sense of loss and loneliness but moreover, love, infuses the household.

 

 

 

 

A mythic, largely unseen presence is Boo Radley, a recluse the kids fear, yet feel connected to. He leaves tokens for them in the knot of a tree and performs other small kindnesses they misinterpret as menace. In the naivete and cruelty of youth, Scout and Jem make him the embodiment of the bogeyman.

The figure looming largest in the children’s lives is Atticus, a seemingly meek, ineffectual man whose gentle, principled virtues Scout and Jem begin to admire. His unpopular stand against injustice and bigotry quells, at least for a time, violence. His strength and resolve impress even his boy and girl.

Trouble brews when Atticus defends Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman in an era of lynchings. The case makes the family targets. The children witness Atticus’s noble if futile defense and come to appreciate his goodness and the esteem in which he’s held. In their/our eyes he’s a hero.

In his summation Atticus appeals to the all-male, all-white jury: “Now gentlemen, in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal. I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and of our jury system. That’s no ideal to me. That is a living, working reality. Now I am confident that you gentlemen will review without passion the evidence that you have heard, come to a decision, and restore this man to his family. In the name of God, do your duty. In the name of God, believe Tom Robinson.”

The film’s theme of compassion is expressed in some moving moments. Atticus says to Scout, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… ’till you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

When a school chum Scout’s invited for dinner drenches his meal in syrup, her mocking comments embarrass him, prompting Calpurnia to scold her for being rude. The lesson: respect people’s differences.

Before Atticus will even consider getting a rifle for Jem he relates a story his own father told him about never killing a mockingbird. It’s a father instructing his son to never harm or injure a living thing, especially those that are innocent and give beauty. In the context of the plot, the children, Boo Radley and Tom Robinson are the symbolic mockingbirds. Atticus delivers this lesson to his son:

“I remember when my daddy gave me that gun…He said that sooner or later he supposed the temptation to go after birds would be too much, and that I could shoot all the blue jays I wanted, if I could hit ’em, but to remember it was a sin to kill a mockingbird. Well, I reckon because mockingbirds don’t do anything but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat people’s gardens, don’t nest in the corncrib, they don’t do one thing but just sing their hearts out for us.”

Among many famous scenes, Scout’s innocence and decency shame grown men bent on malice to heed their better natures. In another, Atticus tells Jem he can’t protect him from every ugly thing. When evil does catch up to the children their savior is an unlikely friend, someone who’s been watching over them all along, like a guardian angel. Once safely returned to the bosom of home and family, they find refuge again in their quiet, unassuming hero, who comforts and reassures them.

 

 

To Kill a Mockingbird Themes

 

Only the most sensitive treatment could capture the rich, delicate rhythms and potent themes of Lee’s novel and this film succeeds by striking a well-modulated balance between bittersweet sentimentality and searing psychological drama.

Although the book was a smash, it took courage byUniversal to greenlight the project developed by producer Alan J. Pakula and director Robert Mulligan. Creative partners in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, Pakula and Mulligan had made Fear Strikes Out but the young filmmakers were still far from being a power duo. After Fear Mulligan helmed a few more studio hits without Pakula but nothing that suggested the depth Mockingbird would demand. His less than inspiring work might have given any studio pause in taking on the book, whose powerful indictment of prejudice and impassioned call for tolerance came at a time of racial tension. Yes, the civil rights movement was in full flower but so was resistance to it in many quarters.

Efforts to ban the book from schools — on the grounds its portrayal of racism and rape are harmful — have cropped up periodically during its lifetime.

The socially conscious filmmakers helped their cause by signing Peck, who was made to play Atticus Finch, and by enlisting Horton Foote, a playwright from the Tennesse Williams school of Southern Gothic drama, who was made to adapt Lee’s book. Foote’s Oscar-winning script is not only true to Lee’s work but elevates it to cinematic poetry with the aid of Mulligan’s insightful direction, Pakula’s sensitive input, Russell Harlan’s moody photography, Elmer Bernstein’s poignant score and Henry Bumstead and Alexander Golitzen’s evocative, Oscar-winning art direction.

Pakula-Mulligan went on to make four more pictures together, including Love with the Proper Stranger and Baby, the Rain Must Fall with Steve McQueen and The Stalking Moon with Peck. The two split when Pakula left to pursue his own career as a director. Pakula soon established himself with Klute and All the President’s Men. Mulligan’s career continued in fine form, including his direction of two more coming-of-age classics — Summer of ‘42 and The Man in the Moon.

Mockingbird was Lee’s first and only novel. Not long after completing the book she accompanied childhood chum Truman Capote (the character of Dill in Mockingbird is based on him) to Holcomb, Kan. for his initial research on what would become his nonfiction novel masterwork, In Cold Blood. Lee, mostly retired from public life these days, is said to divide her time between New York and Alabama.

The part of Atticus Finch came to Peck at the height of his middle-aged superstardom. He’d proven himself in every major genre. And while he acted on screen another 30-plus years, the film/role represented the peak of his career. It was the kind of unqualified success that could hardly be repeated, certainly not topped. He didn’t seem to mind, either. He gracefully aged on screen, playing a wide variety of parts. But his definitive interpretation of Atticus Finch would always define him as a man of conscience. It became his signature role.

Peck was among the last of a breed of personalities whose ability to project noble character traits infused their performances. Like Spencer Tracy, Henry Fonda, John Wayne and Charlton Heston, Peck embodied the stalwart man of integrity.

“Those types of characterizations just don’t really exist anymore. That’s what draws people to these characters and to the performances of these men because their like will never be seen again, and we know it” said Crawford.

 

 

Mary Badham then

 

 

A Q & A with Mary Badham, the Actress Who Played Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

Actress Mary Badham recently spoke by phone with City Weekly correspondent Leo Adam Biga about her role of a lifetime as Scout in the 1982 film classic To Kill a Mockingbird. She grew up in Birmingham, Ala., near the hometown of Harper Lee, upon whose noted novel the film is based. Badham spoke with Biga from her home near Richmond, Virginia.

LAB:
To Kill a Mockingbird is such a touchstone film for so many folks.”

MB:Mockingbird is one of the great films I think because it talks about so many things that are still pertinent today. So many of life’s lessons are included in the story of Mockingbird, whether you want to talk about family matters or social issues or racial issues or legal issues, it’s all there. There’s many topics of discussion.”

LAB: “Had you read the book prior to getting cast in the film?”

MB: “No, had not read the book.

LAB: “So was reading it a mandatory part of your preparation?”

MB: “No, not at all. I don’t even know that I got a full script.”

LAB: “When did you first read the book then?”

MB: “Ah, that was not till much later I’m embarrassed to say. Not until after I had my daughter. And how it all started was professor Inge from our local college asked me to come speak to his English lit class. We met for lunch and almost the first words out of his mouth were, ‘So what was your favorite chapter in the book?’ He knew by the look on my face that I hadn’t read the book. He said, ‘Young lady, your first assignment is you go home and read the book before you come to my class.’ In defense of myself, I didn’t want to read the book. Because I had everything I wanted out of the story up there on the screen. You know how sometimes you see a film and then you read the book and it messes up that whole warm and fuzzy feeling you may have had about something? But it was really great for me because it filled in a lot of these gaps I had with the story. It just gave me a much fuller love and appreciation for it. And it’s so beautifully written. It’s just so perfect.

“It’s a little book. It’s a quick one-night read, and a lot of people want to put it down for that, because it’s simple…but to me its one of the greatest pieces of literature ever written, and it’s borne out by the way it’s read. It’s the second most-read book next to the Bible. That’s saying something.”

LAB: “I know that you and Peck, whom you always called Atticus, enjoyed a warm relationship that lasted until death. On the shoot did he do things to foster your father-daughter relationship on screen?”

MB: “Oh, absolutely. I’d go over there and play with his kids on the weekends. We would have meals together and do things together. So, yeah, they encouraged that bonding. I had such a strong relationship with my own father, and I missed him dreadfully because Daddy had to stay at home to take care of things… My mom came out. But I missed that male link of family and so Atticus really filled the bill. He was just amazing. What a great father. I mean, he was one of the best I think. Not that he was perfect. But he was so well read and so patient, I think you would have to say. And just full of laughter…

“He and PhillipAlford (Jem) used to play chess together. They had such a beautiful relationship, and that stayed till the very end. They just got along so well together and Phillip would always know how to make him laugh. Phillip’s such an entertainer. He’s got a brilliant, quick sense of humor and Atticus really appreciated that. He just adored Phillip. So we really became a family.

“It was nothing for me to pick up the phone and he’d be on the other end, ‘What ya doin’ kiddo?,’ which was marvelous because I lost my parents so early. My mom died three weeks after I graduated from high school and my died died two years after I got married. And I didn’t have grandparents — they died before I was born. I felt totally cut off. So, you know. Atticus really came through psychologically. He really was my male role model. He and Brock Peters (Tom Robinson).

“It was marvelous because those guys were so intelligent and loving and outgoing, and supportive of anything I wanted to do. And sometimes life was not easy growing up and when you’re worried about what’s going to happen next in life, sometimes just hearing those voices on the other end of the line calling to check on me was
just so uplifting. That was just amazingly supportive”

 

 

AMPAS 50th Anniversary Screening Of "To Kill A Mocking Bird"

Mary Badham today

 

 

LAB: “I understand you two would visit each other as circumstances allowed.”

MB: “Whenever he’d be nearby or if I was out there or whatever, then we would see other. And usually when you make a film, you know, it’s like, ‘Oh, we gotta get together afterwards’ and stuff, and it never happens. But with this cast and crew we did keep up with each other through the years. Paul Fix (the judge), I stayed really tight with right up until he passed. Collin Wilcox (Mayella Ewell) — we stayed in touch up until recently. I would see William (Windom), who played the prosecuting attorney, at various events and things. He’s gone now. So is Alan Pakula, our producer. Absolutely one of the most loving, dear, intelligent human beings I’ve ever met.”

LAB: “Most everyone’s gone except for you, Phillip, Robert Duvall. Bob Mulligan…”

MB: “To lose these guys so early has just about killed me because I feel like my support pillars are gone. I really relied on them – just knowing they were there and that I could pick up the phone and talk to them or they could call me and check on me. That’s a real shot in the arm in your day.”

LAB: Pakula became a great director in his own right. I’m curious about his and Mulligan’s collaboration. They were quite a team. I assume Pakula was a very hands-on, creative producer who worked in close tandem with Mulligan on the set?”

MB: “I think so.”

LAB: “So how did you come to play Scout in the first place?”

MB: “It happened because my mom had been an actress with the local Town and Gown Theatre (in Birmingham, Ala.) She had done some acting in England. That’s where my mom was from. She was the leading lady for a lot of years in the Town and Gown. So when the movie talent scout issued this cattle call our little theater was on the list. They were looking for children. Jimmy Hatcher, who ran the theater, naturally called my mom and said, ‘Bring her down.’ Then mom had to go to Daddy and get permission and he said, ‘No.’ And she said, ‘Now, Henry, what are the chances the child’s going to get the part anyway?’ Oh, well…”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Mary Badham’s late brother, John Badham, acted at the Town and Gown. He became a successful film director. Phillip Alford acted in three shows there before cast as Jem. The theater’s where Patricia Neal got her acting start.

LAB: “Lo and behold you did get the part.”

MB: “Daddy was horrified and it was everything Alan Pakula and Buddy Boatwright, the talent scout, could do to try and convince him that they were not going to ruin his daughter.”

LAB: “Everything you’ve said suggests Mockingbird being a very warm set.”

MB: “It was. I remember a lot of laughter, a lot of joking around. I remember five months of having a blast. I didn’t want it to end. I had not had any trouble with my lines until like the last day, and then it was just like, ‘Oh, God, I’m going to say goodbye to all these people.’ I was so upset I could not spit my lines out for anything. My mother finally said, ‘Do you know what the freeway is like at 5 o’clock? These people have got to go home.’ I was like, ‘OK, OK.’ So I got out there and did it. But it broke my heart. I thought I’d never see these people again.”

LAB: You and Phillip were newcomers. Did the crew take a kids-gloves approach?”

MB: “Yes, we had time to get used to the cameras and the crew and the lights and getting set up. They started off very slowly with us. The camera and crew would be across the street and then they’d move up a little closer, and then a little closer still, and then they were right there. Everything was kind of good that way.”

LAB:
“How did director Bob Mulligan work with you two?”

MB: “Very gentle, very tender. Instead of standing there and looking down on us he would squat and talk to us…right down on our level. He didn’t tell us really how to do the scenes. It was more, ‘OK, you’re going to start from here and we need you to move here…’ He let us do the scene and then he would tweak it, so that he would get the most natural response possible, and I think that’s brilliant. We were never allowed to talk to an actor out of costume (on set). They were just there the day we had to work with them and then they were that person they were playing. Bob did these things to get the most out of us nonactors.”

LAB:
“You and Phillip were thrust into this strange world of lights-cameras.”

MB:
“Now, I was used to having a camera stuck in my face from the time I was born because I was my father’s first little girl. He’d had all these ratty boys and then he finally got his dream with me when he was 60 years old. That was back in the days when flash cameras had the light bulbs that would pop and the home movie cameras needed a bank of lights. So, yeah, I grew up with all of that. Phillip and I grew up four blocks from one another. But we would never have met
because I was in private school — he was in public school. He was 13. I was only 9.”

LAB: “There’s such truth in all the performances.”

MB: “I think our backgrounds helped in that a lot, because Atticus (Peck) was from a small town in Calif. (La Jolla) that looked very much like that little village (in Mockingbird). He knew that period well. And for Phillip and I nothing much had changed in Birmingham, Ala. from the 1930s to the 1960s. All the same social rules were in place. Women did not go out of the house unless their hair was done and they had their hats and gloves on. Servants and children were to be seen and not heart. Black people still rode on the back of the bus. And there were lynchings on certain roads you knew you couldn’t go down. There were still colored and white drinking fountains when I was growing up. So all of that was just totally normal for us. There’s no way you could have explained that to a child from Los Angeles. They wouldn’t have known how to react to all that stuff. My next door neighbor (during the shoot in Calif.) was this black man with a beautiful blond bombshell wife and two gorgeous kids, and down the road was an Oriental family, and we visited — went to dinner at their house. We could never do that in Alabama. It just would not happen.”

Bob Gibson, the Master of the Mound remains his own man years removed from the diamond (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

July 18, 2010 4 comments

The original "birds on the bat" logo.

Image via Wikipedia

Omaha’s bevy of black sports legends has only recently begun to get their due here. With the inception of the Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame a few years ago, more deserving recognition has been accorded these many standouts from the past, some of whom are legends with a small “l” and some of whom are full-blown legends with a capital “L.”  As a journalist I’ve done my part bringing to light the stories of some of these individuals.  The following story is about someone who is a Legend by any standard, Bob Gibson. This is the third Gibson story I’ve posted to this blog site, and in some ways it’s my favorite.  When you’re reading it, keep in mind it was written and published 13 years ago.  The piece appeared in the New Horizons and I’m republishing it here to coincide with the newest crop of inductees in the Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame.  Gibson was fittingly inducted in that Hall’s inaugural class, as he is arguably the greatest sports legend, bar none, ever to come out of Nebraska.

 

 

 

Bob Gibson, the Master of the Mound remains his own man years removed from the diamond (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

©by Leo Adam Biga

Orignally published in the New Horizons

 

Bob Gibson.  Merely mentioning the Hall of Fame pitcher’s name makes veteran big league baseball fans nostalgic for the gritty style of play that characterized his era.  An era before arbitration, Astro-Turf, indoor stadiums and the Designated Hitter.  Before the brushback was taboo and going the distance a rarity.

No one personified that brand of ball better than Gibson, whose gladiator approach to the game was hewn on the playing fields of Omaha and became the stuff of legend in a spectacular career (1959-1975) with the St. Louis Cardinals.  A baseball purist, Gibson disdains changes made to the game that promote more offense.  He favors raising the mound and expanding the strike zone.  Then again, he’s an ex-pitcher.

Gibson was an iron man among iron men – completing more than half his career starts.  The superb all-around athlete, who starred in baseball and basketball at Tech High and Creighton University, fielded his position with great skill, ran the bases well and hit better than many middle infielders.  He had a gruff efficiency and gutsy intensity that, combined with his tremendous fastball, wicked slider and expert control, made him a winner.

Even the best hitters never got comfortable facing him.  He rarely spoke or showed emotion on the mound and aggressively backed batters off the plate by throwing inside.  As a result, a mystique built-up around him that gave him an extra added edge.  A mystique that’s stuck ever since.

Now 61, and decades removed from reigning as baseball’s ultimate competitor, premier power pitcher and most intimidating presence, he still possesses a strong, stoic, stubborn bearing that commands respect.  One can only imagine what it felt like up to bat with him bearing down on you.

As hard as he was on the field, he could be hell to deal with off it too, particularly with reporters after a loss.  This rather shy man has closely, sometimes brusquely, guarded his privacy.  The last few years, though, have seen him soften some and open up more.  In his 1994 autobiography “Stranger to the Game” he candidly reviewed his life and career.

More recently, he’s promoted the Bob Gibson All-Star Classic – a charitable golf tournament teeing off June 14 at the Quarry Oaks course near Mahoney State Park.  Golfers have shelled out big bucks to play a round with Gibson and fellow sports idols Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Sandy Koufax, Whitey Ford, Lou Brock and Oscar Robertson as well as Nebraska’s own Bob Boozer, Ron Boone and Gale Sayers and many others.  Proceeds will benefit two causes dear to Gibson – the American Lung Association of Nebraska and BAT – the Baseball Assistance Team.

When Gibson announced the event many were surprised to learn he still resides here.  He and his wife Wendy and their son Christopher, 12, live in a spacious home in Bellevue’s Fontenelle Hills.

His return to the public arena comes, appropriately enough, in the 50th anniversary season of the late Jackie Robinson’s breaking of Major League Baseball’s color barrier.   Growing up in Omaha’s Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects, Gibson idolized Robinson.  “Oh, man, he was a hero,” he told the New Horizons.  “When Jackie broke in, I was just a kid.  He means even more now than he did then, because I understand more about what he did” and endured.  When Gibson was at the peak of his career, he met Robinson at a Washington, D.C. fundraiser, and recalls feeling a deep sense of “respect” for the man who paved the way for him and other African-Americans in professional athletics.

In a recent interview at an Omaha eatery Gibson displayed the same pointedness as his book.  On a visit to his home he revealed a charming Midwestern modesty around the recreation room’s museum-quality display of plaques and trophies celebrating his storied baseball feats.

His most cherished prize is the 1968 National League Most Valuable Player Award.  “That’s special,” he said.  “Winning it was quite an honor because pitchers don’t usually win the MVP.   Some pitchers have won it since I did, but I don’t know that a pitcher will ever win it again.  There’s been some controversy whether pitchers should be eligible for the MVP or should be limited to the Cy Young.”  For his unparalleled dominance in ‘68  – the Year of the Pitcher – he added the Cy Young to the MVP in a season in which he posted 22 wins, 13 shutouts and the lowest ERA (1.12) in modern baseball history.  He won the ‘70 Cy Young too.

 

 

 

 

Despite his accolades, his clutch World Series performances (twice leading the Cardinals to the title) and his gaudy career marks of 251 wins, 56 shutouts and 3,117 strikeouts, he’s been able to leave the game and the glory behind.  He said looking back at his playing days is almost like watching movie images of someone else.  Of someone he used to be.

“That was another life,” he said.  “I am proud of what I’ve done, but I spend very little time thinking about yesteryear.  I don’t live in the past that much.  That’s just not me.   I pretty much live in the present, and, you know, I have a long way to go, hopefully, from this point on.”

Since ending his playing days in ‘75, Gibson’s been a baseball nomad, serving as pitching coach for the New York Mets in ‘81 and for the Atlanta Braves from ‘82 to ‘84, each time under Joe Torre, the current Yankee manager who is a close friend and former Cardinals teammate.  He’s also worked as a baseball commentator for ABC and ESPN.  After being away from the game awhile, he was brought back by the Cardinals in ‘95 as bullpen coach.  Since ‘96 he’s served as a special instructor for the club during spring training, working four to six weeks with its talented young pitching corps, including former Creighton star Alan Benes, who’s credited Gibson with speeding his development.

Who does he like among today’s crop of pitchers?  “There’s a lot of guys I like.  Randy Johnson.  Roger Clemens.  The Cardinals have a few good young guys.  And of course, Atlanta’s got three of the best.”

Could he have succeeded in today’s game?  “I’d like to think so,” he said confidently.

He also performs PR functions for the club.  “I go back several times to St. Louis when they have special events.  You go up to the owners’ box and you have a couple cocktails and shake hands and be very pleasant…and grit your teeth,” he said.  “Not really.  Years ago it would have been very tough for me, but now that I’ve been so removed from the game and I’ve got more mellow as I’ve gotten older, the easier the schmoozing becomes.”

His notorious frankness helps explain why he’s not been interested in managing.  He admits he would have trouble keeping his cool with reporters second-guessing his every move.  “Why should I have to find excuses for something that probably doesn’t need an excuse?  I don’t think I could handle that very well I’m afraid.  No, I don’t want to be a manager. I think the door would be closed to me anyway because of the way I am – blunt, yes,  definitely.  I don’t know any other way.”

Still, he added, “You never say never.  I said I wasn’t going to coach before too, and I did.”  He doesn’t rule out a return to the broadcast booth or to a full-time coaching position, adding:  “These are all hypothetical things. Until you’re really offered a job and sit down and discuss it with somebody, you can surmise anything you want. But you never know.”

He feels his outspokenness off the field and fierceness on it cost him opportunities in and out of baseball:  “I guess there’s probably some negative things that have happened as a result of that, but that really doesn’t concern me that much.”

He believes he’s been misunderstood by the press, which has often portrayed him as a surly, angry man.  “

When I performed, anger had nothing to do with it.  I went out there to win.  It was strictly business with me.  If you’re going to have all these ideas about me being this ogre, then that’s your problem.  I don’t think I need to go up and explain everything to you.  Now, if you want to bother to sit down and talk with me and find out for yourself, then fine…”

Those close to him do care to set the record straight, though.  Rodney Wead, a close friend of 52 years, feels Gibson’s occasional wariness and curtness stem, in part, from an innate reserve.

“He’s shy.  And therefore he protects himself by being sometimes abrupt, but it’s only that he’s always so focused,” said Wead, a former Omaha social services director who’s now president and CEO of Grace Hill Neighborhood Services in St. Louis.

 

Bob Gibson

 

 

Indeed, Gibson attributes much of his pitching success to his fabled powers of concentration, which allowed him “to focus and block out everything else going on around me.”  It’s a quality others have noted in him outside sports.

“Mentally, he’s so disciplined,” said Countryside Village owner Larry Myers, a former business partner.  “He has this ability to focus on the task at hand and devote his complete energy to that task.”

If Gibson is sometimes standoffish, Wead said, it’s understandable:  “He’s been hurt so many times, man.  We’ve had some real, almost teary moments together when he’s reflected on some of the stuff he wished could of happened in Omaha and St. Louis.”  Wead refers to Gibson’s frustration upon retiring as a player and finding few employment-investment opportunities open to him.  Gibson is sure race was a factor.  And while he went on to various career-business ventures, he saw former teammates find permanent niches within the game when he didn’t.  He also waited in vain for a long-promised Anheuser-Busch beer distributorship from former Cardinals owner, the late August Busch.  He doesn’t dwell on the disappointments in interviews, but devotes pages to them in his book.

Gibson’s long been outspoken about racial injustice.  When he first joined the Cardinals at its spring training facility in St. Petersburg, Fla., black and white teammates slept and ate separately.  A three-week stay with the Cardinals’ Columbus, Ga. farm team felt like “a lifetime,” he said, adding, “I’ve tried to erase that, but I remember it like it was yesterday.”  He, along with black teammates Bill White and the late Curt Flood, staged a mini-Civil Rights movement within the organization – and conditions improved.

He’s dismayed the media now singles out baseball for a lack of blacks in managerial posts when the game merely mirrors society as a whole.  “Baseball has made a lot more strides than most facets of our lives,” he said.  “Have things changed in baseball?  Yes.  Have things changed everywhere else?  Yes.  Does there need to be a lot more improvement?  Yes.  Some of the problems we faced when Jackie Robinson broke in and when I broke in 10 years later don’t exist, but then a lot of them still do.”

He’s somewhat heartened by acting baseball commissioner Bud Selig’s recent pledge to hire more minorities in administrative roles.  “I’m always encouraged by some statements like that, yeah.  I’d like to wait and see what happens. Saying it and doing it is two different things.”

He’s also encouraged by golfer Tiger Woods’ recent Masters’ victory.“What’s really great about him being black is that it seems to me white America is always looking for something that black Americans can’t do, and that’s just one other thing they can scratch off their list.”  Gibson’s All-Star Classic will be breaking down barriers too by bringing a racially mixed field into the exclusive circle of power and influence golf represents.

Some have questioned why he’s chosen now to return to the limelight.  “It’s not to get back in the public eye,” Gibson said of the golf classic.  “The reason I’m doing this is to raise money for the American Lung Association and BAT.”

Efforts to battle lung disease have personal meaning for Gibson, who’s a lifelong asthma sufferer.  A past Lung Association board member, he often speaks before groups of young asthma patients “to convince them that you can participate in sports even though you have asthma…I think it’s helpful to have somebody there that went through the same thing and, being an ex-baseball player, you get their attention.”

He serves on the board of directors of BAT – the tourney’s other beneficiary.  The organization assists former big league and minor league players, managers, front office professionals and umpires who are in financial distress. “Unfortunately, most people think all ex-players are multimillionaires,” he said.  “Most are not.  Through BAT we try to do what we can to help people of the baseball family.”

 

 

 

He hopes the All-Star Classic raises half-a-million dollars and gives the state “something it’s never seen before” – a showcase of major sports figures equal to any Hall of Fame gathering.  Gibson said he came up with the idea over drinks one night with his brother Fred and a friend.  From there, it was just a matter of calling “the guys” – as he refers to legends like Mays.  Gibson downplays his own legendary status, but is flattered to be included among the game’s immortals.

What’s amazing is that baseball wasn’t his best sport through high school and college – basketball was.  His coach at Tech, Neal Mosser, recalls Gibson with awe:  “He was unbelievable,” said Mosser.  “He would have played pro ball today very easily.  He could shoot, fake, run, jump and do everything the pros do today.  He was way ahead of his time.”

Gibson was a sports phenom, excelling in baseball, basketball, football and track for area youth recreation teams.  He enjoyed his greatest success with the Y Monarchs, coached by his late brother Josh, whom Mosser said “was a father-figure” to Gibson.  Josh drilled his younger brother relentlessly and made him the supreme competitor he is.  After a stellar career playing hardball and hoops at Creighton, Gibson joined the Harlem Globetrotters for one season, but an NBA tryout never materialized.

No overnight success on the pro diamond, Gibson’s early seasons, including stints with the Omaha Cardinals, were learning years.  His breakthrough came in ‘63, when he went 18-9.  He only got better with time.

Gibson acknowledges it’s been difficult adjusting to life without the competitive outlet sports provided.  “I’ll never find anything to test that again,” he said, “but as you get older you’re not nearly as competitive.  I guess you find some other ways to do it, but I haven’t found that yet.”

What he has found is a variety of hobbies that he applies the same concentrated effort and perfectionist’s zeal to that he did pitching.  One large room in his home is dominated by an elaborate, fully-operational model train layout he designed himself.  He built the layout’s intricately detailed houses, buildings, et all, in his own well-outfitted workshop, whose power saw and lathe he makes use of completing frequent home improvement projects.  He’s made several additions to his home, including a sun room, sky lights, spa and wine cellar.

“I’m probably more proud of that,” he said, referring to his handiwork, “than my career in baseball.  If I hadn’t been in baseball, I think I would of probably ended up in the construction business.”

The emotional-physical-financial investment Gibson’s made in his home is evidence of his deep attachment to Nebraska. Even at the height of his pro career he remained here.  His in-state business interests have included radio station KOWH, the Community Bank of Nebraska and Bob Gibson’s Spirits and Sustenance, a restaurant he was a partner in from
1979 to 1989.  Nebraska, simply, is home.  “I don’t know that you can find any nicer people,” he said, “and besides my family’s been here.  Usually when you move there’s some type of occupation that takes you away.  I almost moved to St. Louis, but there were so many (racial) problems back when I was playing…that I never did.”

His loyalty hasn’t gone unnoticed.  “He didn’t get big-headed and go away and hide somewhere,” said Jerry Parks, a Tech teammate who today is Omaha’s Parks, Recreation and Public Property Director.  “What I admire most about him is that he’s very loyal to people he likes, and that’s priceless for me,” said Rodney Wead.   “He’s helped a lot of charitable causes very quietly…He’s certainly given back to Omaha over the years,” said Larry Myers.

Jerry Mosser may have summed it up best:  “He’s just a true-blue guy.”

Because Gibson’s such a private man, his holding a celebrity golf tournament caught many who know him off-guard.  “I was as surprised as anyone,” said Wead, “but so pleased – he has so much to offer.”  Gibson himself said:  “I have never done anything like this before.  If I don’t embarrass myself too badly, I’ll be fine.”

If anything, Gibson will rise to the occasion and show grace under fire.  Just like he used to on the mound – when he’d rear back and uncork a high hard one.  Like he still does in his dreams.  “Oh, I dream about it (baseball) all the time,” he said.  “It drives me crazy.  I guess I’m going to do that the rest of my life.”

Thanks for the memories, Bob.  And the sweet dreams.

Don Benning: Man of Steel (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

July 17, 2010 5 comments

This is another installment from the series I wrote about Omaha’s Black Sports Legends. That series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) in 2004-2005. The subject of this article is Don Benning, who like Marion Hudson, broke barriers left and right. Most of his groundbreaking accomplishments came at Omaha University, now known as the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he was head wrestling coach, an assistant football coach, and a professor. To find out more about Benning’s time as UNO wrestling coach read my story, UNO Wrestling Dynasty Built on a Tide of Social Change, on this same blog site.  You can also find the complete Out to Win series on this blog.

Image result for don benning omaha uno

Don Benning: Man of Steel (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com) as part of my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

 

Wrestling is a proving ground. In an ultimate test of will and endurance, the wrestler first battles himself and then his opponent until one is left standing with arms raised overhead in victory. In a life filled with mettle-testing experiences both inside and outside athletics, Don Benning has made the sport he became identified with a personal metaphor for grappling with the challenges a proud, strong black man like himself faces in a racially intolerant society.

A multi-sport athlete at North High School and then-Omaha University (now UNO), the inscrutable Benning brought the same confidence and discipline he displayed as a competitor on the mat and the field to his short but legendary coaching tenure at UNO and he’s applied those same qualities to his 42-year education career, most of it spent with the Omaha Public Schools. Along the way, this man of iron and integrity, who at 68 is as solid as his bedrock principles, made history.

At UNO, he forged new ground as America’s first black head coach of a major team sport at a mostly white university. He guided his 1969-70 squad to a national NAIA team championship, perhaps the first major team title won by a Nebraska college or university. His indomitable will led a diverse mix of student-athletes to success while his strong character steered them, in the face of racism, to a higher ground.

When, in 1963, UNO president Milo Bail gave the 26-year-old Benning, then a graduate fellow, the chance to he took the reins over the school’s fledgling wrestling program, the rookie coach knew full well he would be closely watched.

“Because of the uniqueness of the situation and the circumstances,” he said, “I knew if I failed I was not going to be judged by being Don Benning, it was going to be because I was African-American.”

Besides serving as head wrestling coach and as an assistant football staffer, he was hired as the school’s first full-time black faculty member, which in itself was enough to shake the rafters at the staid institution.

“Those old stereotypes were out there — Why give African-Americans a chance when they don’t really have the ability to achieve in higher education? I was very aware those pressures were on me,” he said, “and given those challenges I could not perform in an average manner — I had to perform at the highest level to pass all the scrutiny I would be having in a very visible situation.”

Benning’s life prepared him for proving himself and dealing with adversity.

“The fact of the matter is,” he said, “minorities have more difficult roads to travel to achieve the American Dream than the majority in our society. We’ve never experienced a level playing field. It’s always been crooked, up hill, down hill. To progress forward and to reach one’s best you have to know what the barriers or pitfalls are and how to navigate them. That adds to the difficulty of reaping the full benefits of our society but the absolute key is recognizing that and saying, ‘I’m not going to allow that to deter me from getting where I want to get.’ That was already a motivating factor for me from the day I got the job. I knew good enough wasn’t good enough  — that I had to be better.”

Shortly after assuming his UNO posts his Pullman Porter father and domestic worker mother died only weeks apart. He dealt with those losses with his usual stoicism. As he likes to say, “Adversity makes you stronger.”

Toughing it out and never giving an inch has been a way of life for Benning since growing up the youngest of five siblings in the poor, working-class 16th and Fort Street area. He said, “Being the only black family in a predominantly white northeast Omaha neighborhood — where kids said nigger this or that or the other — it translated into a lot of fights, and I used to do that daily. In most cases we were friends…but if you said THAT word, well, that just meant we gotta fight.”

 

Don Benning

 

Despite their scant formal education, he said his parents taught him “some valuable lessons scholars aren’t able to teach.” Times were hard. Money and possessions, scarce. Then, as Benning began to shine in the classroom and on the field (he starred in football, wrestling and baseball), he saw a way out of the ghetto. Between his work at Kellom Community Center, where he later coached, and his growing academic-athletic success, Benning blossomed.

“It got me more involved, it expanded my horizons and it made me realize there were other things I wanted,” he said.

But even after earning high grades and all-city athletic honors, he still found doors closed to him. In grade school, a teacher informed him the color of his skin was enough to deny him a service club award for academic achievement. Despite his athletic prowess Nebraska and other major colleges spurned him.

At UNO, where he was an oft-injured football player and unbeaten senior wrestler, he languished on the scrubs until “knocking the snot” out of a star gridder in practice, prompting a belated promotion to the varsity. For a road game versus New Mexico A&M he and two black mates had to stay in a blighted area of El Paso, Texas — due to segregation laws in host Las Cruces, NM — while the rest of the squad stayed in plush El Paso quarters. Terming the incident “dehumanizing,” an irate Benning said his coaches “didn’t seem to fight on our behalf while we were asked to give everything for the team and the university.”

Upon earning his secondary education degree from UNO in 1958 he was dismayed to find OPS refusing blacks. He was set to leave for Chicago when Bail surprised him with a graduate fellowship (1959 to 1961). After working at the North Branch YMCA from ‘61 to ‘63, he rejoined UNO full-time. Still, he met racism when whites automatically assumed he was a student or manager, rather than a coach, even though his suit-and-tie and no-nonsense manner should have been dead giveaways. It was all part of being black in America.

To those who know the sanguine, seemingly unflappable Benning, it may be hard to believe he ever wrestled with doubts, but he did.

“I really had to have, and I didn’t know if I had it at that particular time, a maturity level to deal with these issues that belied my chronological age.”

Before being named UNO’s head coach, he’d only been a youth coach and grad assistant. Plus, he felt the enormous symbolic weight attending the historic spot he found himself in.

“You have to understand in the early 1960s, when I was first in these positions, there wasn’t a push nationally for diversity or participation in society,” he said. “The push for change came in 1964 with the Civil Rights Act, when organizations were forced to look at things differently. As conservative a community as Omaha was and still is it made my hiring more unusual. I was on the fast track…

“On the academic side or the athletic side, the bottom line was I had to get the job done. I was walking in water that hadn’t been walked in before. I could not afford not to be successful. Being black and young, there was tremendous pressure…not to mention the fact I needed to win.”

Win his teams did. In eight seasons at the helm Benning’s UNO wrestling teams compiled an 87-24-4 dual mark, including a dominating 55-3-2 record his last four years. Competing at the NAIA level, UNO won one national team title and finished second twice and third once, crowning several individual national champions. But what really set UNO apart is that it more than held its own with bigger schools, once even routing the University of Iowa in its own tournament. Soon, the Indians, as UNO was nicknamed, became known as such a tough draw that big-name programs avoided matching them, less they get embarrassed by the small school.

The real story behind the wrestling dynasty Benning built is that he did it amid the 1960s social revolution and despite meager resources on campus and hostile receptions away from home. Benning used the bad training facilities at UNO and the booing his teams got on the road as motivational points.

 

 

His diverse teams reflected the times in that they were comprised, like the ranks of Vietnam War draftees, of poor white, black and Hispanic kids. Most of the white athletes, like Bernie Hospodka, had little or no contact with blacks before joining the squad. The African-American athletes, empowered by the Black Power movement, educated their white teammates to inequality. Along the way, things happened — such as slights and slurs directed at Benning and his black athletes, including a dummy of UNO wrestler Mel Washington hung in effigy in North Carolina — that forged a common bond among this disparate group of men committed to making diversity work in the pressure-cooker arena of competition.

“We went through a lot of difficult times and into a lot of hostile environments together and Don was the perfect guy for the situation,” said Hospodka, the 1970 NAIA titlist at 190 pounds. “He was always controlled, always dignified, always right, but he always got his point across. He’s the most mentally tough person you’d ever want to meet. He’s one of a kind. We’re all grateful we got to wrestle for Don. He pushed us very hard. He made us all better. We would go to war with him anytime.”

Brothers Roy and Mel Washington, winners of five individual national titles, said Benning was a demanding “disciplinarian” whom, Mel said, “made champions not only on the mat but out there in the public eye, too. He was more than a coach, he was a role model, a brother, a father figure.” Curlee Alexander, 115-pound NAIA titlist in 1969 and a wildly successful Omaha prep wrestling coach, said the more naysayers “expected Don to fail, the more determined he was to excel. By his look, you could just tell he meant business. He had that kind of presence about him.”

Away from the mat, the white and black athletes may have gone their separate ways but where wrestling was concerned they were brothers rallying around their perceived identity as outcasts from the poor little school with the black coach.

“It’s tough enough to develop a team to such a high skill level that they win a national championship if you have no other factors in the equation,” Benning said, “but if you have in the equation prejudice and discrimination that you and the team have to face then that makes it even more difficult. But those things turned into a rallying point for the team.

“The white and black athletes came to understand they had more commonalities than differences. It was a sociological lesson for everyone. The key was how to get the athletes to share a common vision and goal. We were able to do that. The athletes that wrestled for me are still friends today. They learned about relationships and what the real important values are in life.”

His wrestlers still have the highest regard for him and what they shared.

“I don’t think I could have done what I did with anyone else,” Hospodka said. “Because of the things we went through together I’m convinced I’m a better human being. There’s a bond there I will never forget.” Mel Washington said, “I can’t tell you how much this man has done for me. I call him the legend.” The late Roy Washington, who changed his name to Dhafir Muhammad, said, “I still call coach for advice.” Alexander credits Benning with keeping him in school and inspiring his own coaching/teaching path.

After establishing himself as a leader Benning was courted by big-time schools to head their wrestling and football programs. Instead, he left the profession in 1971, at age 34, to pursue an educational administration career. Why leave coaching so young? Family and service. At the time he and wife Marcidene had begun a family — today they are parents to five grown children and two grandkids — and when coaching duties caused him to miss a daughter’s birthday, he began having second thoughts about the 24/7 grind athletics demands.

Besides, he said, he was driven to address “the inequities that existed in the school system. I thought I could make a difference in changing policies and perhaps making things better for all students, specifically minority students. My ultimate goal was to be superintendent.”

 

 

Working to affect change from within, Benning feels he “changed attitudes” by showing how “excellence could be achieved through diversity.” During his OPS tenure, he operated, just like at Omaha University, “in a fish bowl.” Making his situation precarious was the fact he straddled two worlds — the majority culture that viewed him variously as a token or a threat and the minority culture that saw him as a beacon of hope.

But even among the black community, Benning said, there was a militant segment that distrusted one of their own working for The Man.

“You really weren’t looked upon too kindly if you were viewed as part of the system,” he said. “On the other side of it, working in an overwhelmingly majority white situation presented its own particular set of challenges.”

What got him through it all was his own core faith in himself. “Evidently, some people would say I’m a confident individual. A few might say I’m arrogant. I would say I’m highly confident. I can’t overemphasize the fact you have to have a strong belief in self and you also have to realize that a lot of times a leader has to stand alone. There are issues and problems that set him or her apart from the crowd and you can’t hide from it. You either handle it or you fail and you’re out.”

Benning handled it with such aplomb that he: brought UNO to national prominence, laying the foundation for its four-decade run of excellence on the mat; became a distinguished assistant professor; and built an impressive resume as an OPS administrator, first as assistant principal at Central High School, then as director of the Department of Human-Community Relations and finally as assistant superintendent.

During his 26-year OPS career he spearheaded Omaha’s smooth desegregation plan, formed the nationally recognized Adopt-a-School business partnership and advocated for greater racial equity within the schools through such initiatives as the Minority Intern Program and the Pacesetter Academy, an after school program for at-risk kids. Driving him was the responsibility he felt to himself, and by extension, fellow blacks, to maximize his and others’ abilities.

 

 

 

 

“I had a vision and a mission for myself and I set about developing a plan so I could reach my goal, and that was basically to be the best I could be. As a coach and educator what I have really enjoyed is helping people grow and reach their potential to be the best they can be. That’s my goal, that’s my mission, and I try to hold to it.”

His OPS career ended prematurely when, in 1997, he retired after being snubbed for the district’s superintendency and being asked by current schools CEO John Mackiel to reapply for the assistant superintendent’s post he’d held since 1979. Benning called it “an affront” to his exemplary record and longtime service.

About his decision to leave OPS, he said, “I could have continued as assistant superintendent, but I chose not to because who I am and what I am is not negotiable.” A critic of neighborhood schools, he did not bend on a practice he deems detrimental to the quality of education for minorities. “I compromised on a lot of things but not on those issues. The thing I’ve tried not to do, and I don’t think I have, is negotiate away my integrity, my beliefs, my values.”

Sticking to his guns has exacted a toll. “I’ve battled against the odds all my life to achieve the successes I have and there’s been some huge prices to pay for those successes.”

 

photo

Curlee Alexander

 

His unwavering stances have sometimes made him an unpopular figure. His staunch loyalty to his hometown has meant turning down offers to coach and run school districts elsewhere. His refusal to undermine his principles has found him traveling a hard, bitter, lonely road, but it’s a path whose direction is true to his heart.

“I found out long ago there were things I would do that didn’t please every one and in those types of experiences I had to kind of stand alone or submit. I developed a strong inner being where I somewhat turned inward for strength. I kind of said to myself, I just want to do what I know to be right and if people don’t like it, well, that’s the way it is. I was ready to deal with the consequences. That’s the personality I developed from a very young age.”

Those who’ve worked with Benning see a man of character and conviction. Former OPS superintendent Norbert Schuerman described him as “proud, determined, disciplined, opinionated, committed, confident, political,” adding, “Don kept himself very well informed on major issues and because he was not bashful in expressing his views, he was very helpful in sensitizing others to race relations. His integrity and his standing in the community helped minimize possible major conflicts.”

OPS Program Director Kenneth Butts said, “He’s a very principled man. He’s very demanding. He’s very much about doing what is right rather than what is politically expedient. He cares. He’s all about equity and folks being treated fairly.”

After the flap with OPS Benning left the job on his own terms rather than play the stooge, saying, “The Omaha Public Schools situation was a major disappointment to me…To use a boxing analogy, it staggered me, but it didn’t knock me down and it didn’t knock me out. Having been an athlete and a coach and won and lost a whole lot in my life I would be hypocritical if I let disappointment in life defeat me and to change who I am. I quickly moved on.”

Indeed, the same year he left OPS he joined the faculty at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he is coordinator of urban education and senior lecturer in educational administration in its Teachers College. In his current position he helps prepare a new generation of educators to deal with the needs of an ever more diverse school and community population.

Even with the progress he’s seen blacks make, he’s acutely aware of how far America has to go in healing its racial divide.

“This still isn’t a color-blind society. I don’t say that bitterly — that’s just a fact of life. But until we resolve the race issue, it will not allow us to be the best we can be as individuals and as a country,” he said.

As his own trailblazing cross-cultural path has proven, the American ideal of epluribus unum — “out of many, one” — can be realized. He’s shown the way.

“As far as being a pioneer, I never set out to be a part of history. I feel very privileged and honored having accomplished things no one else had accomplished. So, I can’t help but feel that maybe I’ve made a difference in some people’s lives and helped foster inclusiveness in our society rather than exclusiveness. Hopefully, I haven’t given up the notion I still can be a positive force in trying to make things better.”

 

Dana College Legend Marion Hudson, the greatest athlete you’ve never heard of before (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

July 14, 2010 1 comment

 

 

Dana College in Blair, Neb. unexpectedly closed its doors this month, bringing an end to a small but proud institution. One chapter in the school’s history concerns an almost mythic-like figure named Marion Hudson.  The following article tells the remarkable story of this gifted, multi-sport athlete who seemingly came out of nowhere to leave his mark behind at Dana.  It was the early 1950s and he was a black student-athlete of legendary ability on Omaha‘s north side. Circumstances prevented him from ever demonstrating his talents in sanctioned high school competition, but the word got out and when all white Dana was looking to integrate its campus school officials asked around who might be a good candidate and they were referred to Hudson.  He went there and immediately made an impact as a student-athlete.  As you’ll read, his athletic exploits read like something out of fiction, but they were quite real.  The reason you’ve never heard of Hudson is he never tried out for the Olympics in track and field and he never turned pro in football, levels of competition many felt he was capable of.  Hudson’s life after college revolved around work and family, and then a series of health problems began breaking down his body.  When I met him at the nursing home he resided in he was but a shell of his former self physically, but he still retained a fighting spirit and a sense of humor.  He’s since passed.

 

  

Marion Hudson

 

My story was part of a series I wrote on Omaha’s Black Sports Legends entitled Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness.  It appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) during 2004-2005.  I hope to turn the series into a book.  Dana College and Marion Hudson are both gone now, but they’ve left behind a rich legacy, and this is my small tribute to them.

In the coming days I will be adding more stories from the series on this site, including profiles of legends Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Gale Sayers, Ron Boone, and Johnny Rodgers, and profiles of other great athletes who, like Marion Hudson, you may not have heard of but deserve your attention.

 

Dana College Legend Marion Hudson, Tte greatest athlete you’ve never heard of before (From my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com) as part of my series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness

 

You may think you know a lot about Omaha’s rich inner city athletic heritage. Sure, you know Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Gale Sayers, Ron Boone, Marlin Briscoe, Johnny Rodgers, Mike McGee, Ahman Green. But chances are you’ve never even heard of Marion Hudson, which doesn’t change the fact he’s arguably the greatest athlete to ever come out of Omaha or, for that matter, Nebraska, and consequently among the finest athletes in American history.

Outside the small circle of survivors who competed with him or watched his athletic brilliance unfold in sport after sport, this little-known giant from the 1950s is rarely mentioned. He remains obscure today because he competed for a tiny private school, Dana College near Blair, Neb., and never went pro. But, as you will see, he should be known alongside those others, both for the unique circumstances that brought him there and for his possessing such phenomenal all-around skills that some of his football and track records still stand 50 years later.

Choose any measure or cliche of athletic prowess and it can be accurately applied to Hudson. He could run like the wind. He was as strong as a bull. He could swing a bat with power. Throw a ball a mile. Jump out of the gym. “Yeah, they called me the Boy with Springs in His Legs,” he said from the Sorensen Rehabilitation and Assisted Living Facility in north Omaha he now calls home. Words are a struggle. What’s left of his body contorts from the strain, his gnarled fingers twitching and his wide face screwing up in a grimace. His once strapping body ravaged by the affects of diabetes and a series of strokes.

Hudson navigates his power wheelchair in the center’s dining hall to greet a rare visitor. His legs above his knees were amputated years ago and his left side is partially paralyzed. He wears a T-shirt and his sweat pants are knotted at the nubs of his stumps. An ever-present cap reads Pilgrim Baptist Church, where he was married and still worships today. He flashes the winning smile that made him the big man on campus at Dana long ago, and where he’s been recently rediscovered. In 2003, Dana hosted a Marion Hudson Day and dedicated a scholarship in his name. Friends take him up to the school to catch an occasional athletic event.

There, he is a symbol for possibilities. Before he enrolled in 1952, the school never had a black student. Like his boyhood hero, Jackie Robinson, Hudson endured indignities in breaking down barriers. He couldn’t stay or eat with the team on road trips. He absorbed name calling. His character and achievement set an example. Within a year of his arrival, more blacks followed. A quiet man, he let his performances on the field, the cinder track and the court speak loudest for him.

He dominated whatever sport was in season. But it was in track and field he showed the full range of his abilities. For proof of his extraordinary gifts, one only has to look at the numbers. A versatile competitor in college, Hudson would routinely enter as many as seven or eight individual events in a single meet. There was the javelin, the discus and shot put, the 120 high hurdles, the 220 low hurdles, the 100 and 220-yard dashes, the broad jump, hop-step-and-jump and high jump and the 880-yard relay. On average, he’d win four or five, placing highly in others, often going up against big school foes. At his last college meet, he won seven events and placed second in another. He was among the nation’s leaders in his specialities. All the more remarkable considering he had a bad throwing hand, a collapsed lung and chronic asthma. It was difficult for him to recover from one event to the next.

 

 

But, as usual, Hudson found a way. “He was built so good, he was able to compensate,” said Rodney Wead, a former Omaha social services director who grew up with Hudson and competed with him at Central High School and at Dana, where Wead, a year younger, followed him. “I can’t tell you the number of times he would run a 9-point something 100-yard-dash and come back and jump 23-8 or 24-feet and then run over and throw the javelin 200-feet and then anchor our relay team.”

“He could do so many things,” said Richard Nared, a cousin and former fine athlete himself at Central High. Don Benning, the UNO wrestling coaching legend who played one season in the same backfield with Hudson at Dana, said, “He had tremendous speed and strength. He could do a lot of things really well. He was ahead of his time in terms of his ability in track. He was a great all-around athlete.” Benning said any conversation about Omaha’s athletic greats must include Hudson.

The Dana community has even come to refer to Hudson as “our own Jim Thorpe,” a comparison not without merit.

Nebraska (R) Congressman Tom Osborne’s superb athletic career at Hastings College roughly coincided with Hudson’s Dana glory years. In a fax sent to Hudson on the eve of his special day at Dana, Osborne described him as “one of the best athletes in Nebraska’s history.” Wead said Osborne has told him Hudson “was probably the most gifted individual in track and field he had ever seen.”

The points Hudson earned all by himself outpaced entire teams and accounted for most of Dana’s totals, helping the Vikings become a track powerhouse. He was a champion at major events like the Kansas Relays. He once outscored the combined Big 7 at the Drake Relays. His career personal record marks in his three best events — 9.9 in the 100-yard-dash, 24-6 in the broad jump, 46-2 1/4 in the hop-step-and- jump and 208-8 1/2 in the javelin — ranked near the top in the country, regardless of division. His broad jump and javelin bests were near 1952 Olympic-winning marks. His school long jump and javelin records have yet to be broken.

But, as usual with Hudson, there’s a story behind these numbers that puts in perspective what he did and offers tantalizing speculation about how much more he may have achieved. For example, Hudson never competed in organized track and field before college. He can’t recall using starting blocks early in his college sprinting career. He taught himself how to high jump. The javelin he threw was an awkward, unstable wood model that wobbled.

“Of all his events, I think the javelin was his best,” Wead said. “If only there’d been a coach to teach him how to really throw it. The good javelin throwers hold the javelin behind them as they approach their mark and they use a crossover step for momentum and balance in their release. Well, he would hold it out front and kind of juggle it as he was running, and then he’d almost come to a complete stop before throwing it. Can you imagine if someone taught him the proper footwork and mechanics, how much farther he would have thrown that darn thing?”

Hudson said his most enduring memory from his track days is the 202-foot missile he launched to win the 1954 Drake Relays.

“I threw it, and it sang. It vibrated as it left my hand. Yeah, any time I got a good one off, it would whistle in the air,” he said, breaking into a big smile and laugh.

How he even came to throw the javelin is a tale befitting his legend. The story goes that Hudson was walking across the track infield, where a teammate, Lynn Farrens, let loose some javelin tosses. His interest peaked, Hudson asked if he could give it a try. Using an unorthodox grip, Hudson let one fly far beyond Farrens’ marks. His teammates recount a similar Paul Bunyan moment in the long jump. Hudson was just messing around in the pit at practice one day when he uncorked a series of jumps that landed clear outside the pit, some 24 feet from the take-off board.

Observers feel Hudson may have had a shot at the Olympics as a decathlete, but the opportunity never presented itself. He did not fare well one of the few times he competed in the decathlon — finishing 10th at the 1955 Kansas Relays. Wead said Hudson was at a distinct disadvantage due to his asthma and impaired lung.

 

Pioneer Memorial (front facade), Dana College

Dana College Pioneer Memorial

 

On the gridiron, Hudson was an explosive runner who, despite missing much of his junior year due to injury and playing in a Split-T formation offense that spread the ball around, he still racked up 2,383 rushing yards, on an eye-popping 7.78 yards per carry, and 30 touchdowns for his career. His rushing average has never been approached. He broke off dozens of long runs from scrimmage, displaying a combination of speed and power rarely found then.

“All I needed was a crack in the line, and I was gone,” Hudson said.

Nared, who made the pilgrimage up to Dana to see his cuz play, said, “They didn’t even see him coming because he’d either run by you or he’d run over you. He was awesome. They couldn’t really touch him. He had the speed of a Marshal Faulk. The moves of a Gale Sayers. The power of a Walter Payton. They hated to see him come through the line.” Hudson was, by all accounts, also a dangerous receiver and kick returner and played a mean defensive back.

He was a star from the start for Dana, showcasing his big play capabilities right away with a 75-yard touchdown reception versus Tarkio and an 87-yard scoring scamper against Iowa Central his freshman season. He also had a flair for the dramatic — tearing free for that 87-yarder on the first play from scrimmage. “The very first time I took a handoff, I squeezed between the line and I took off running and 100 yards later I was in the end zone. I remember that just like it was yesterday,” he said. The very next year he burned Iowa Central on another 87-yard scoring jaunt, this time to open the second half in wet and muddy conditions. “People from Dana still talk about that run,” said Wead, who has served on the school’s board of trustees.

Nared said Hudson developed a following from Omaha. “People would come to see Marion play. Even the older guys. They all knew about him. They knew he was a tremendous athlete. You’d have 60-70 cars full of people come up and see him play on a Friday night. They wanted to see something different, and they saw it.” “Yeah, they’d come out to see Hudson run,” Marion confirmed with pride. “He was so awesome in college he would literally have crowds of people follow him,” recalled Wead, who ran track with him. “They knew he was coming. Sometimes it was hard for him to get his jumps together for all the fans milling about. They loved to watch him throw the javelin. Then or now it’s rare to see a black javelin thrower. And here was this handsome, strong black man throwing it 200-odd feet.”

In basketball, Hudson played a different game from the rest. His was an air-born artist of swooping, soaring drives and slam dunks in an era of set shooters and backdoor cutters. The 6-0 Hudson, able to dunk from a standing jump under the basket, was a solid contributor, averaging about 9 points a game for the Vikings, although he did go-off some nights, like the career-high 31 he had versus Luther College. “Everything I threw up at the basket that game went in,” he said.

Multi-sport phenom Jim Thorpe was often a point of comparison for Marion Hudson and his athletic versatility

 

Like any bigger-than-life figure, Hudson’s legend began in childhood. A Floridian by birth, he did part of his early growing up in Omaha, where his family moved just prior to the start of World War II. The packing houses drew them and other blacks who migrated here from the deep south. The newcomer quickly earned a rep as a great natural athlete. He competed for the High Y Monarchs, a select North Omaha YMCA-based basketball team coached by Josh Gibson, an older brother of pitching great Bob Gibson. He ran roughshod over older players in the infamous Cold Bowl, an annual no-holds-barred football contest at Burdette Field. He outran and outkicked everybody in soccer, a sport once hugely popular in the inner city. In softball, he swatted balls so far they broke windows in the school across the way.

Whatever the action was, he was in the thick of it. “He was always exceptional. Always gifted,” Wead said. “Every time the guys would see Marion coming, they wanted him for their team,” Nared said. “Whatever team got him, they would always win.” Like any great athlete, Hudson worked at it. He mastered any sport he attempted and developed his own innovative training methods. As Wead recalled, obstacles, like fences, became hurdles Hudson cleared with ease.

At the cramped old Y Hudson would sky “higher than the rim on dunks and almost bump his head on the ceiling,” Nared said. Hudson’s hops were so explosive that when jumping center, Nared said, “the refs would blow their whistles and have them re-jump, telling him, ‘You’re jumping too soon.’ You know what Marion would say ‘Throw the ball higher.’ And he’d go up and get it again.”

Hudson improvised homemade pole vaults from sticks or branches for negotiating taller structures. He built himself up physically by shoveling loads of coal and lugging blocks of ice. He’s credited with introducing weight training at Dana, where dumbbells and barbells became the rage

“Marion was a good 195-pounds. All muscle. Quite dangerous and intimidating if you were in his way,” Wead said.

Just before starting high school, Hudson left with his family for Alaska, where his father was stationed with the Navy Air Corps during the war. Living in Kodiak, Hudson played some prep hoops and, in true mythic tradition, once had a run-in with a bear. He was delivering newspapers on his bicycle when, he said, “I came around a bend and there HE stood. I scared him. I took off down the hill and he was running behind me. But I made it back to the car. I got there, and there were bears all around it. Sniffing at it. I scared them, too.”

The family moved back here in 1951, just in time for his senior year at Central, but too late for him to compete athletically. Already a legend in The Hood for his remarkable running, jumping, throwing skills in area youth leagues and pickup games, he sat on the sidelines the entire term. Well, not quite. Football coach Frank Smagacz let him practice with the team even though he was ineligible to play. The coach knew he had a gem who loved the game. By virtue of never officially competing at the prep level in Nebraska, Hudson never had a chance to earn a letter, much less add his name to any state high school boys record books.

Still, his athletic and academic props were enough that when Dana College sought to integrate its student ranks, officials put out feelers for a suitable candidate and Hudson was recommended by Central coaches and faculty. This was 1952, only a few years since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball and still years before the Freedom Fighter marches of Martin Luther King.

Dana students raised the funds to establish the scholarship Hudson received. The rest is history. His record-breaking athletic feats stand out, but he was more than just a jock. “He’s a bright and able guy,” Wead said. “He was a good biologist. He put his skills to work after college. He had a great baritone and toured with the Dana chorus.” Then there was how he dealt with the burden of his pioneering role.

Hudson has always said he felt welcomed and supported by his mostly white teammates, Wead said, “He had his buddies protecting him.” As black student-athletes, Wead and Hudson avoided trouble by staying away from Blair, where racial epithets were known to fly. Hudson was denied service and rooms on road trips to Kansas and Texas. As his rep grew, he was a targeted athlete. “They tried to hurt him a few times with dirty shots. Once, he lay there on the field for awhile and then he finally got up. It was scary,” Nared said. “I limped off,” Hudson said.

Wead said Hudson weathered the discrimination the same way he’s responded to the devastation of his body: “It was hard, but he handled it with grace.”

Beyond the glory, Hudson’s post-Dana life has been bittersweet. He lived in Minnesota after college, working for Honeywell 3M. Hard times forced him to change jobs. He went through two marriages. By the ‘70s, he moved back to Omaha, where he met and married Ella, with whom he raised a family, including foster children. He lent his singing voice to various choirs. He moved from job to job. His health problems then surfaced. “I began to see things happen to his body when he was in his early 40s,” Wead said. Complications from asthma and diabetes debilitated him and after the strokes and amputations he was placed in the professional care setting. “Hudson’s had a tough life. He just didn’t get a good shot in life. He’s kind of become a forgotten guy,” Wead said.

That ignoble fate prompted retired Scribner, Neb. schoolteacher Alex Meyer, a former track athlete who grew up idolizing Hudson, to befriend his idol. Meyer convinced Dana to hold its Marion Hudson Day, which Hudson attended with his family. Meyer visits Hudson often and takes him back to Dana for events. “Marion needed some attention. He deserves it. I was concerned that one of the great legends of Nebraska was wasting away with hardly anybody coming to see him,” Meyer said. “He did some superhuman things. He inspired me. I just try to keep Marion and others focused on his accomplishments. It’s my magnificent obsession.”

The humble Hudson called the new found attention “very nice. It seems like everything I went through was all worthwhile now.” His only regrets are not giving pro football a try. He has no doubt he could have played at the next level.

If nothing else, Hudson’s tale reveals how the story of Omaha’s inner city athletic greats is bigger than you imagined and remains incomplete without his legacy being included with that of his more famous counterparts. Hail, hail Marion Hudson.

Blacks of Distinction I


African American History

Image via Wikipedia

This set of profiles is from my large collection of African-American subjects.  Read on and you will meet a gallery of compelling individuals who each made a difference in his or her own way.  These figures represent a variety of endeavors and expertise, but what they all share in common is a passion for what they do.  Along the way, they learned some hard lessons, and their individual and collective wisdom should give us all food for thought.  The oldest of these subjects, Marcus Mac McGee, passed away shortly after these profiles appeared about 9 or 10 years ago.  The story, which is really five stories in one, originally appeared in the New Horizons.

 

Blacks of Distinction

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

 

Frank Peak, Still An Activist After All These Years

Addressing the needs of underserved people became a lifetime vocation for Frank Peak only after he joined the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s.

Today, as administrator of community outreach service for the Creighton University Medical Center Partnership in Health and co-administrator of the Omaha Urban Area Health Education Center, he carries on the mission of the Panthers to help empower African-Americans.

The Omaha native returned home after a six-year (1962-1968) hitch in the U.S. Navy as a photographer’s mate 2nd class, duty that saw him hop from ship to ship in the South China Sea and from one hot zone to another in Vietnam, variously photographing or processing images of military life and wartime action.

The North High grad came back with marketable skills but couldn’t get a job in the media here. He went into the service in the first place, he said, to escape the limited horizons that blacks like himself and his peers faced at home.

“There weren’t a lot of opportunities for blacks in the city of Omaha.”

In the Navy he found what he believed to be a future career path when he was sent to photography school in Pensacola, Florida and excelled. It was a good fit, he said, as he’d always been a shutterbug. “I had always liked photography and I always took pictures with little Brownies and stuff.”

His duty entailed working as a military photojournalist and photo lab technician. Many of the pictures he took or processed were reproduced in civilian and military publications worldwide. In 1965 he prepared the production stills for an NBC television news documentary on the 25th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. He said the network even offered him a job, but he had to turn it down, as he’d already reenlisted. Despite that lost opportunity, he counts his Navy experience as one of the best periods of his life. Not only did he learn to become an expert photographer but he got to travel all over the Far East, much of the time with his younger brother, William, who followed him into the service.

The service is also where Peak became politicized as a strong, proud black man engaged in the struggle for equality.

“Back in the ‘60s there was such a lot of turmoil related to the war, related to the whole race struggle. You know, Malcolm, Martin…It all tied together. There were a lot of riots going on at a lot of the bases and on the ships. There was both bonding and animosity then between whites and blacks. It was a challenging time. ”

A buddy he was stationed with overseas helped Peak gain a deeper understanding of the black experience.

“I had a close friend, Bennie, who was a Navy photographer, too. He was from Savannah, Georgia and he really began to educate me. He was the one that really initiated me into the black experience. That’s when the term black was radical. Coming from Omaha, I was isolated from a lot of things he’d been involved in down South. Interestingly, I ended up a member of the Black Panther party and he ended up a member of the Black Muslims.”

After Peak got out of the Navy and came back to find doors still closed to him, despite the obvious skills he’d gained, he was disillusioned.

For example, he said the Omaha World-Herald wouldn’t even look at his portfolio when he applied there. For years, he said the local daily had only one black photographer on staff and made it clear they weren’t interested in hiring another.

Frustrated with the obstacles he and his fellow African-Americans faced, he was ripe for recruitment into the Black Panthers, a controversial organization that several of his activist friends joined. But he didn’t join right away. He was working as a photo technician when something happened that changed his mind. A black girl named Vivian Strong died from shots fired by a white Omaha police officer. The tragedy, which many in the black community saw as a racially motivated killing, touched off several nights of rioting on the north side.

“I got involved with the Black Panther party after that,” Peak said.

The Panther platform was an expression of the black power movement that sought, Peak said, “self-determination and liberation” for African-Americans. “It was about building capacity into the black community. It was working to end police violence in the black community. It was organizing breakfast programs for our children. Tutoring kids. Holding rallies, organizing protests and standing up for our rights.”

What made the Panthers dangerous in the minds of many authorities were the party’s incendiary language, paramilitary appearance — some members openly brandished firearms — and militant attitude.

“Our premise was we wanted our rights by any means necessary,” said Peak, a philosophy he feels was misconstrued by law enforcement as a subversive plot to undermine and overthrow the government. “What we meant by that was we wanted our education, we wanted to be a part of the political process, we wanted to be a part of determining our own destiny. We even asked, as part of our platform, to have a plebiscite, where blacks would vote to directly determine, for themselves, their own fate.”

Instead, the leadership of the Panthers and other radical black power groups were “crushed” and “dismantled” in a systematic crackdown led by the FBI. In Omaha, Peak was among those arrested and questioned when two local Panthers, Ed Poindexter and David Rice, were implicated and later convicted in the 1970 killing of Omaha police officer Larry Minard. The pair’s guilt or innocence has long been disputed. Appeals for new trials or new evidentiary hearings continue to this today. Peak was friends with both men and he believes they’re wrongfully imprisoned. “I don’t believe they got a fair trial,” he said. Ironically, it was his cousin, Duane Peak, who allegedly acted at the men’s behest in making the 911 call that lured Minard to the house where a suitcase bomb detonated. Doubt’s been cast on whether Duane Peak made the call or not and on the veracity of his court testimony.

Frank Peak traces “the roots” of his advocacy career to his time with the Panthers, when he helped set up “a liberation” school and breakfast program for kids. He said the Panther mission has been “very much diversified” in the work being done today by former party members in the political, social, health, education and human service fields. “The struggle goes on.”

He and other young blacks here were inspired to affect change from within by mentors. “Theodore Johnson put together community health programs. Dr. Earl Persons got us involved in the black political caucus. Jessie Allen got us involved as delegates to the Democratic party. He really brought us around and politicized us to mainstream politics. Dan Goodwin and Ernie Chambers had a great influence on us, too. They made sure we were accountable. They had high standards for us.” There was also Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown, reporter/activist Charlie Washington and others. Peak’s education continued at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he earned a bachelor’s in journalism and psychology and a master’s in public administration. Lively discussions about black aspirations unfolded at UNO, the Urban League, Panther headquarters, Charlie Hall’s Fair Deal Cafe and Dan Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barbershop.

Frank Peak

The spirit of those ideals lives on in his post-Panthers work, ranging from substance abuse counseling to community health advocacy to he and his wife, Lyris Crowdy Peak, an Omaha Head Start administrator, serving as adoptive and foster parents. He sees today’s drug and gang culture as a major threat. He rues that standards once seen as sacrosanct have “gone out the window” in this age of relativism.

“The only way change is going to occur is if people make it happen,” he said. “If you wait around for somebody else to make it happen, it might not…So, we all have a responsibility to make a contribution and I’m trying to make one.”

He enjoys being a liaison between Creighton and the community in support of health initiatives, screenings and services aimed at minorities. “We just finished glaucoma screenings in south Omaha and we put together the first African-American prostate cancer campaign in north Omaha. We sponsor programs like My Sister’s Keeper, a breast cancer survivors program focused on African-American women.” He said in addition to assessment and treatment, Creighton also provides follow-up services and referrals for those lacking the access, the means, the insurance or the primary care provider to have their health care needs met.

“I’m somebody who believes in what he does. People ask me, Do you like your job? I say, Well, if you get paid for doing something you’d do for free, how could you not like it? That’s my philosophy. To think maybe in some small way you’ve been a part of growing a greater society, then that’s all the reward I need.”

Charles Hall’s Fair Deal

As landmarks go, the Fair Deal Cafe doesn’t look like much. The drab exterior is distressed by age and weather. Inside, it is a plain throwback to classic diners with its formica-topped tables, tile floor, glass-encased dessert counter and tin-stamped ceiling. Like the decor, the prices seem left over from another era, with most meals costing well under $6. What it lacks in ambience, it makes up for in the quality of its food, which has been praised in newspapers from Denver to Chicago.

Owner and chef Charles Hall has made The Fair Deal the main course in Omaha for authentic soul food since the early 1950s, dishing-up delicious down home fare with a liberal dose of Southern seasoning and Midwest hospitality. Known near and far, the Fair Deal has seen some high old times in its day.

Located at 2118 No. 24th Street, the cafe is where Hall met his second wife, Audentria (Dennie), his partner at home and in business for 40 years. She died in 1997. The couple shared kitchen duties (“She bringing up breakfast and me bringing up dinner,” is how Hall puts it.) until she fell ill in 1996. These days, without his beloved wife around “looking over my shoulder and telling me what to do,” the place seems awfully empty to Hall. “It’s nothing like it used to be,” he said. In its prime, it was open dawn to midnight six days a week, and celebrities (from Bill Cosby to Ella Fitzgerald to Jesse Jackson) often passed through. When still open Sundays, it was THE meeting place for the after-church crowd. Today, it is only open for lunch and breakfast.

The place, virtually unchanged since it opened sometime in the 1940s (nobody is exactly sure when), is one of those hole-in-the-wall joints steeped in history and character. During the Civil Rights struggle it was commonly referred to as “the black city hall” for the melting pot of activists, politicos and dignitaries gathered there to hash-out issues over steaming plates of food. While not quite the bustling crossroads or nerve center it once was, a faithful crowd of blue and white collar diners still enjoy good eats and robust conversation there.

 

 

Fair Deal Cafe

Running the place is more of “a chore” now for Hall, whose step-grandson Troy helps out. After years of talking about selling the place, Hall is finally preparing to turn it over to new blood, although he expects to stay on awhile to break-in the new, as of now unannounced, owners. “I’m so happy,” he said. “I’ve been trying so hard and so long to sell it. I’m going to help the new owners ease into it as much as I can and teach them what I have been doing, because I want them to make it.” What will Hall do with all his new spare time? “I don’t know, but I look forward to sitting on my butt for a few months.” After years of rising at 4:30 a.m. to get a head-start on preparing grits, rice and potatoes for the cafe’s popular breakfast offerings, he can finally sleep past dawn.

The 80-year-old Hall is justifiably proud of the legacy he will leave behind. The secret to his and the cafe’s success, he said, is really no secret at all — just “hard work.” No short-cuts are taken in preparing its genuine comfort food, whose made-from-scratch favorites include greens, beans, black-eyed peas, corn bread, chops, chitlins, sirloin tips, ham-hocks, pig’s feet, ox tails and candied sweet potatoes.

In the cafe’s halcyon days, Charles and Dennie did it all together, with nary a cross word uttered between them. What was their magic? “I can’t put my finger on it except to say it was very evident we were in love,” he said. “We worked together over 40 years and we never argued. We were partners and friends and mates and lovers.” There was a time when the cafe was one of countless black-owned businesses in the district. “North 24th Street had every type of business anybody would need. Every block was jammed,” Hall recalls. After the civil unrest of the late ‘60s, many entrepreneurs pulled up stakes. But the Halls remained. “I had a going business, and just to close the doors and watch it crumble to dust didn’t seem like a reasonable idea. My wife and I managed to eke out a living. We never did get rich, but we stayed and fought the battle.” They also gave back to the community, hiring many young people as wait staff and lending money for their college studies.

Besides his service in the U.S. Army during World War II, when he was an officer in the Medical Administrative Corps assigned to China, India, Burma, Japan and the Philippines, Hall has remained a home body. Born in Horatio, Arkansas in 1920, he moved with his family to Omaha at age 4 and grew up just blocks from the cafe. “Almost all my life I have lived within a four or mile radius of this area. I didn’t plan it that way. But, in retrospect, it just felt right. It’s home,” he said. After working as a butcher, he got a job at the cafe, little knowing the owners would move away six months later to leave him with the place to run. He fell in love with both Dennie and the joint, and the rest is history. “I guess it was meant to be.”

Deadeye Marcus Mac McGee

When Marcus “Mac” McGee of Omaha thinks about what it means to have lived 100 years, he ponders a good long while. After all, considering a lifespan covering the entire 20th century means contemplating a whole lot of history, and that takes some doing. It is an especially daunting task for McGee, who, in his prime, buried three wives, raised five daughters, prospered as the owner of his own barbershop, served as the state’s first black barbershop inspector, earned people’s trust as a pillar of the north Omaha community and commanded respect as an expert marksman. Yes, it has been quite a journey so far for this descendant of African-American slaves and white slave owners.

A recent visitor to McGee’s room at the Maple Crest Care Center in Benson remarked how 100 years is a long time. “It sure is,” McGee said in his sweet-as-molasses voice, his small bright face beaming at the thought of all the high times he has seen. In a life full of rich happenings, McGee’s memories return again and again to the first and last of his loves — shooting and barbering. For decades, he avidly hunted small game and shot trap. In his late 80s he could still hit 100 out of 100 targets on the range. Yes, there was a time when McGee could shoot with anyone. He won more than his share of prizes at area trapshooting meets — from hams and turkeys to trophies to cold hard cash. As his reputation began to spread, he found fewer and fewer challengers willing to take him on. “I would break that target so easy. I’d tear it up every time. I’d whip them fellas down to the bricks. They wouldn’t tackle me. Oh, man, I was tough,” he said.

As owner and operator of the now defunct Tuxedo Barbershop on North 24th Street, he ran an Old School establishment where no fancy hair styles were welcome. Just a neat, clean cut from sparkling clippers and a smooth, close shave from well-honed straight-edge razors. “The best times for me was when I got that shop there. I got the business going really good. It was quite a shop. We had three chairs in there. New linoleum on the floor. There were two other barbers with me. We had a lot of customers. Sometimes we’d have 10-15 people outside the door waiting for us to come in. I enjoyed that. I enjoyed working on them — and I worked on them too. I’d give them good haircuts. I was quite a barber. Yes, sir, we used to lay some hair on the floor.”

McGee’s Tuxedo Barbershop was located in the Jewell Building

A fussy sort who has always taken great pains with his appearance, he made his own hunting vests, fashioned his own shells and watched what he ate. “I was particular about a lot of things,” he said. Unlike many Maple-Crest residents, who are disabled and disheveled, McGee walks on his own two feet and remains well-groomed and nattily-attired at all times. He entrusts his own smartly-trimmed hair to a barbering protege. Last September, McGee cut a dashing figure for a 100th birthday party held in his honor at Clair Memorial United Methodist Church. A crowd of family and friends, including dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, gathered to pay tribute to this man of small stature but big deeds. Too bad he could not share it all with his wife of 53 years, LaVerne, who died in 1996.

Born and raised along the Mississippi-Louisiana border, McGee’s family of ten escaped the worst of Jim Crow intolerance as landowners under the auspices of his white grandmother Kizzie McGee, the daughter of the former plantation’s owner. McGee’s people hacked out a largely self-sufficient life down on the delta. It was there he learned to shoot and to cut hair. He left school early to help provide for the family’s needs, variously bagging wild game for the dinner table and cutting people’s hair for spare change. Just out of his teens, he followed the path of many Southern blacks and ventured north, where conditions were more hospitable and jobs more plentiful. During his wanderings he picked up money cutting heads of railroad gang crewmen and field laborers he encountered out on the open road.

He made his way to Omaha in the early 1920s, finding work in an Omaha packing plant before opening his Tuxedo shop in the historic Jewel Building. People often came to him for advice and loans. He ran the shop some 50 years before closing it in the late 1970s. He wasn’t done cutting heads though. He barbered another decade at the shop of a man he once employed before injuries suffered in an auto accident finally forced him to put down his clippers at age 88. “I loved to work. I don’t know why people retire.” As much as he regrets not working anymore, he pines even more for the chance to shoot again. “I miss everything about shooting.” He said he even dreams about being back on the hunt or on the range. Naturally, he never misses. “I always take the target. Yeah, man, I was one tough shooter.”

Proud, Poised Mary Dean Pearson

A life of distinction does not happen overnight. In the case of Omaha executive, educator, child advocate, community leader, wife and mother Mary Dean Pearson, the road to success began just outside Marion, La., where she grew up as one of nine brothers and sisters in a fiercely independent black family during the post World War II era — a period when the South was still segregated. From as far back as she can remember, Pearson (then Hunt) knew exactly what was expected of her and her siblings– great things. “I grew up in the South during the Crow era and my father instilled in all of his children a very profound sense of obligation to improve on what we were born into. To make it better. Whether that was our immediate economic circumstances or social status or whatever,” she said.

Despite the fact her parents, Ed and Rosa Hunt, never got very far in school they were high achievers. He was a respected landowner and entrepreneur and, together with Rosa, set rigorously high standards for their children. Even the daughters were expected to do chores, to complete high school and, unusual for the time, to attend college. “My father was a very driven, very aggressive man who believed it was our right and our duty to do well everyday. And to do only well. The consequences were quite severe if you didn’t do well. He also instilled a work ethic, which is probably unparalleled, in all of us,” said Pearson, a former Omaha Public Schools teacher and past director of the Nebraska Department of Social Services who, since 1995, has been president and CEO of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Omaha, Inc.

“I was his workhorse from time to time. I call him the father of women’s lib because he never hesitated to say, ‘Baby, do this,’ even if it was a heavy job traditionally reserved for men. I really credit him with helping me understand that anything that needed to be done, I perhaps had the capability of doing it, and so I just approached everything with that can-do sensibility. I got that from him, no doubt.”

Where her father cracked the whip, her mother applied the salve. “My mother was a gentle soul who was the one always to seek peace and to seek a solution. I think my attempt to become a peacemaker and facilitator was my desire to be more like her. She created an absolutely wonderful balance for our family. They were a dynamite team.” For Pearson, the lessons her parents taught her are bedrock values that never go out of style: “Honesty, integrity, loyalty, perseverance.”

Pearson and her siblings did not let their parents down, either. They became professionals and small business owners. She graduated with a liberal arts degree from Grambling State University, hoping for a career in law. Her plans were put on hold, however, after marrying her old beau Tom Harvey, who got a teaching contract in Omaha, where the young couple moved in the late 1960s. She tried finding work here to earn enough money for law school but found doors closed to her because of her color. Then, she joined the National Teacher Corps, a federal teaching training program pairing liberal arts majors with students in inner city schools. She soon found she could make a difference in young lives and abandoned law for education. “I discovered there were some young folks in this world who were absolutely starving for intellectual challenge, and I enjoyed providing that to them.”

As part of the program she earned a master’s degree in education at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where former College of Education dean Paul Kennedy became the strong new mentor figure in her life. “If I ever thought I was going to slack off once I had left my father, I was wrong. Paul Kennedy saw my soul and demanded the very best from me.” After earning her teaching degree at UNO, she embarked on a 20-year education career that included serving as an OPS classroom teacher, assistant principal and principal. She treasures her experiences as an educator and holds the role of educator in the highest esteem.

“As a classroom teacher you can actually see you have touched someone. The satisfaction is immediate. As an administrator, the obligation is to give every child, every learner, the maximum opportunity for success. It is to say, ‘All children can learn.’” She is “proudest” of how successful some of her former students are. “They are carrying on the lessons they were taught to make our society a better one as teachers, lawyers, doctors, ministers.”

By 1986 Pearson was ready for some new challenges. Starting with her term as executive director of Girls Incorporated through her stewardship of the state’s social services agency (at then Gov. Ben Nelson’s request) and up to her current post as head of the Boys and Girls Clubs, she has focused on programs for disadvantaged youths that “improve their life chances.” While Pearson can one day see herself exploring new challenges outside the social service arena, she would miss impacting children. “Of all the groups present in our society, children are the one one group who need an advocate more than any other.”

Mildred Lee , Standing Her Ground

When brazen drug dealers threatened over-running her north Omaha neighborhood in the early 1990s, Mildred Lee reacted like most residents — at first. With an open-air drug market operating 24-hours a day within yards of her well-maintained property, she saw children wading through discarded drug paraphernalia and strewn garbage. She saw neighbors growing fearful. She saw things heading toward a violent end. That’s when she made it her crusade to pick-up debris and to let the pushers and addicts know by her defiant demeanor she wanted them out. She hoped they would all just go away. They didn’t.

As the criminal activity increased, Lee considered moving, but the idea of being run out of her own house infuriated her. A dedicated walker, she refused letting some punks stop her hikes. “I thought, ‘If I live in the neighborhood, I’m going to walk in the neighborhood.’ They attempted to intimidate me, but I wasn’t afraid of them. I just didn’t back off.” As months passed and she realized others on her block were too afraid to do anything, this widow, mother and grandmother decided to act. “I was disgusted. I could see that nobody else was going to do it, so I thought, ‘I’ll just do it myself.’”

Fed up, she called a friend, Rev. J.D. Williams, who had worked with local law enforcement to rid his own district of bad apples. He set-up a meeting with Omaha Police Department officials, who informed Lee they were aware of the problem but were waiting for residents to come forward to ask what could be done to reclaim the area.

What happened next was a transforming experience for Lee, who went from bystander to activist in a matter of weeks. It just so happened her coming forward coincided with the city’s first Weed and Seed program, a federally-funded initiative to weed out undesirables and to seed areas with positive activities. Several things happened next. First, the Fairfax Neighborhood Association was formed and Lee was elected its president. The association acted as a watchdog and liaison with law enforcement.

Then the Mayor’s Office proposed a Take Our Neighborhood Back rally to showcase residents’ solidarity against crime. The Mad Dads lent their support to the event, which saw a parade of citizens chanting and holding anti-drug slogans outside known drug dens and a convoy of trucks displaying caskets as a dramatic reminder that drugs kill. Police on horseback added symbolic fanfare. A brigade of citizens armed with rakes, shovels and brooms swept up litter in the area and others hauled away old appliances and assorted other junk from residents’ homes and deposited the items in dumpsters. As a reminder to  criminals that police were ever-vigilant, a mobile command unit was stationed on-site around the clock. No parking and no loitering signs were posted on streets. Finally, sting operations conducted by police and FBI resulted in dozens of arrests.

Under Lee’s leadership, the Fairfax Association launched a latchkey program for school-age children at New Life Presbyterian Church, painted houses for elderly residents, converted a vacant lot into a mini-park and hosted Neighborhood Night Out block parties among other good works. Recognized as the driving force behind it all, Lee was asked to serve on the city’s Weed and Seed steering committee and her ideas were sought by public and private leaders. Not bad for someone who had never been a community activist before. She never had time. She was always too busy working (as an employment interviewer with the Nebraska Job Service) and, after her husband died from a massive heart attack at age 36, raising their four children alone.

As Lee became a focal point for taking back her neighborhood, she began fielding inquiries from residents of other areas facing similar problems. She shared her experiences in talks before vcommunity groups and received a slew of honors for her community betterment efforts, including the 1999 Spirit of Women award. With her work here now finished, Lee is preparing to move down South to start a new life with her new husband. The legacy she leaves behind is a community now brimming with active neighborhood associations, many modeled after Fairfax.

“One of the reasons we’ve gotten attention is we’re the neighborhood that stood up first,” she said. The whole experience, she said, has been empowering for her. “It brought to light a lot of things I didn’t know I could do. I never thought of being a leader before. But when you’re put in a certain position, you do what you have to do.” The message she imparts with audiences today is that we can all make a difference, if we care enough to try. “Most people are afraid. They don’t want anything to do with it. But they don’t realize you’ve already got something to do with it if drug dealers are in your neighborhood. You’ve just got to take charge. You can’t just sit back and wait for somebody else to do it.” She said doing good works gets to be contagious. “When other people see all you’re doing, then they want to start doing more too.”

Black Women in Music

July 11, 2010 10 comments

Label of a Commodore Records 78 record by Bill...

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I got the idea for this story in bits and pieces over years, as I learned tidbits about several black women of a certain age who have accomplished themselves in music, whether jazz, blues, gospel, or classical, whether as singers, musicians, directors, and composers.  All the women have ties to Omaha, my hometown.  I got to meet all but one of the charming ladies profiled here and it was my pleasure to learn their stories and tell them in this piece for the New Horizons.  Only one of them achieved anything like a national reputation, but as I hope I make clear in the article they all distinguished themselves in their shared passion for making music.

Black Women in Music

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

Jeanne Rogers
“Music is my life. I can’t live without music.” Omaha jazz singer/pianist Jeanne Rogers recites the words as a solemn oath. As early as age 4, she said, her fascination with music began. This only child lived in her birthplace of Houston, Texas then. She’d go with her mother Matilda to Baptist church services, where young Jean was enthralled by the organist working the pedals and stops. Once, after a service, Jean recalls “noodling around” on the church piano when her mom asked, “‘What are you doing, baby?’ ‘I’m playing what the choir was singing.’ So, she tells my daddy, ‘Robert, the baby needs a piano.’ They let me pick out my piano. I still have it. All my kids learned to play on it. I just can’t get rid of it,” said Rogers, who proudly proclaims “four of my five kids are in music.”

Blessed with the ability to play by ear, she took to music easily. “I’d hear things and I’d want to play ‘em and I’d play ‘em,” she said. She took to singing too, as her alto voice “matured itself.” After moving with her family to Omaha during World War II, she indulged her passion at school (Lake Elementary) and church (Zion Baptist) and via lessons from Florentine Pinkston and Cecil Berryman. At Central High she found an ally in music teacher Elsie Howe Swanson, who “validated that talent I had. Mrs Swanson let me do my thing and I was like on Cloud Nine,” she said. Growing up, Rogers was expected by the family matriarchs to devote herself to sacred or classical music, but she far preferred the forbidden sounds of jazz or blues wafting through the neighborhood on summer nights. “Secular was my thing,” she said. When her mother or aunt weren’t around, she’d secretly jam.

Kelly: Singer, whose mom has Alzheimer's, comes home to Omaha for 'the long goodbye'

The family lived near the Dreamland Ballroom, a North 24th Street landmark whose doors and windows were opened on hot nights to cool off the joint in an era before AC. She said the music from inside “permeated the whole area. I would listen to the music coming out and, oh, I thought that was the nicest music. Mama couldn’t stop me from listening to what the bands were playing. That’s the kind of music I wanted to play. I wanted to play with a band. I was told, ‘Oh, no, you can’t do that. Nothing but trash is up in that ballroom. There’s no need your going to college if that’s all you want to play.’ But, hey, I finally ended up doing what I wanted to do. And playing music in the nightclubs paid my way through college.”

Do-gooders’ “hoity-toity,” attitude rubbed her the wrong way, especially when she “found out folks in church were doing the same thing folks in the street were.”

Rogers, who became a mother quite young, bit at the first chance to live out her music dream. When someone told her local bandleader Cliff Dudley was looking for a singer she auditioned and won the job. “That’s how I got into the singing,” she said. “I was scared to death.” She sang standard ballads of the day and would “do a little blues.” Later, when the band’s pianist dropped out, she took over for him. “And that’s how I got started playing with the band.” Her fellow musicians included a young Luigi Waites on drums. The group played all over town. She later formed her own jazz trio. She’d started college at then-Omaha University, but when the chance to tour came up, she left school and put her kids in her mother’s care.

The reality of life on the road didn’t live up to the glamour she’d imagined. “That’s a drag,” she said of living out of suitcases. Besides, she added, “I missed my kids.” Letters from home let her know how much she was missed and that her mother couldn’t handle the kids anymore. “She needed me,” Rogers said. “I mean, there were five kids, three of them hard-headed boys. So I came back home.”

The Jewell Building once housed the Dreamland Ballroom

She resumed college, resigned to getting an education degree. “All I wanted to do was play the piano in the band. But I ended up doing what I had to do,” she said.

To support her studies she still played gigs at local clubs. And she nurtured her kids’ and their friends’ love of music by opening up the family home to anyone who wanted to play, turning it into a kind of informal music studio/academy.

“My house on Bristol Street was the house where everybody’s kids came to play music,” she said. Her twin boys Ronnie and Donnie Beck practiced with their bands upstairs while younger brother Keith Rogers’ band jammed downstairs. Their sister, singer Carol Rogers, imitated soul songstresses. Some youths who made music there went on to fine careers, including the late guitarist Billy Rogers (no relation). Ronnie played with Tower of Power and still works as a drummer-singer with top artists. Donnie left Omaha with drummer Buddy Miles and now works as a studio musician and sideman. Keith is a veteran music producer. His twin sister Carol performed with Preston Love and Sergio Mendes, among other greats.

Jeanne plays with her children when they come to town. In 2000 she went to Calif. to cut her one and only CD, “The Late Show,” which her son Ronnie produced. He pushed her hard on the project, but she likes the results. “My son’s a nitpicker and a stickler, but that’s what gets the job done.” One of the kids who was always at her place, Vaughn Chatman, is an attorney and the founder of the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame, which Rogers and her three sons are inductees in.

She still plays a concert now and then but mostly for Sunday services at Church of the Resurrection, adding a piano jazz beat to traditional hymns. “I like it because it’s a come-as-you-are church. It’s a nice place to be.” She also volunteers at Solomon Girls Center and sometimes gives piano lessons.

She may not have wanted it, but she ended up a teacher and principal (Druid Hill) in the Omaha Public Schools. “It turned out to be one of the most rewarding things I’ve done,” she said. She used music to reach students. “The kids loved it because I would play the blues for them when they were doing their math lessons and stuff. Other kids would come by the door and my kids would say, ‘Bet you wish you were in here.’” Whether at home, in the classroom, at the altar or on a nightclub bandstand, she makes music part of her life.

Audience responding to Creighton Gospel Choir performance

Nola Jeanpierre

Nola Jeanpierre and Claudette Valentine
So intertwined are the lives of singer/actress Nola (Pierce) Jeanpierre and her “Auntie,” music director, pianist and piano teacher Claudette Valentine, that while not a musical partnership per se, their work is often inseparable. Some of dramatic soprano Jeanpierre’s earliest music memories involve her aunt, who’s accompanied her niece at recitals and concerts for half a century. They’ve worked together in community theater productions, including Omaha Community Playhouse and Center Stage Theatre shows. The Omaha music legends performed last month at the Cathedral Flower Festival. Their most solemn pairing occurs Sundays at New Life Presbyterian Church, where Valentine leads a choir that includes Nola as well as Nola’s sister Johnice Orduna, daughter Carole and grandkids Elyssia and Emil.

These sisters of the spirit draw on music, like their faith, as a wellspring for life. “It’s powerful,” said Valentine, an adjunct piano instructor at Creighton University, whose gospel choir she also directs. “It’s almost an ecstasy. There’s a warmth when the music touches you. It’s strength. When you’re feeling really down it can lift you right back up. The music can comfort you,” as it did when her brother recently passed. The belief described by her favorite hymn, “My Father Watches Over Me,” guides her in all she does. Jeanpierre views music in the same light. “It is so healing,’ she said. “It’s the one communication that breaks all barriers.”

Valentine’s life in music began at home, where as a 4-year-old she duplicated any tune she heard on the family piano, from hymns, chants and anthems at Zion Baptist Church to ragtime numbers a neighbor played. Her folks recognized her gift and signed her up for lessons. From a young age she’s played for and directed church choirs, first at Zion, then Calvin Memorial Presbyterian and lately New Life Presbyterian. A prodigy advanced well beyond her years, she performed at community events and school programs at Long Elementary and Tech High. After graduating Tech at 16 she was recruited to Drake University, where she obtained her BA and master’s. At 22 she opened her own studio. Always honing her craft, she earned a doctorate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and studied at the Peabody Conservatory (Baltimore, MD). She’s attended national piano festivals and conferences. “I’ve never stopped studying,” she said. “The teaching of piano has changed so much since I hung up that first shingle, so I try to keep on track.”

For 50 years now she’s kept a schedule her niece describes as “sun up to sun down working. She is tireless,” said Nola. “A joke in the family is — What is Auntie going to get into now?” Valentine’s work is her passion. “The choral music — it’s a spiritual thing. It just hits me where I live,” she said. “The piano teaching, now that’s my first love. When the babies come to me and they don’t know anything about the piano and they go away from me and they’re playing for choirs, conducting, appearing on Broadway, in Europe, that’s my life, that’s my legacy.”

Former student Kevyn Morrow, a New York and London musical theater actor, wowed audiences last year guest starring in Ragtime at the Playhouse. Another old student, Douglas Corbin, is a top ballet accompanist and music teacher back East.

When directing Creighton’s gospel choir she said “it does my heart good” watching its white members “grow” as she “introduces them to how black people really live and what they’re really like.” She complements its student ranks with Nola, Johnice, Carole and other relatives, whose soaring voices provide a “nucleus” she draws on. Whatever Valentine takes on, Nola knows family is sure to be dragged in. “We know we’re going to have to do something,” she said, laughing. “Anything you ask of family, we’re there.” Their most personal collaboration is for a heritage program that pays tribute to the strong matriarchs in their family. Through dramatic recitation, song and music Valentine, Jeanpierre and family recount the stories of ancestors Easter, Queenie I and Queenie II, to tell a story of perseverance from slavery to reconstruction to civil rights.

Jeanpierre’s musical roots are in church, “the foundation” of her life. She and her sisters sang in choirs, for school programs and as the Pierce Trio at Show Wagon competitions. Courtesy her aunt, she was “introduced to classical music…all types of music” and trained on the piano. She did musical theater shows as a kid, once playing Bloody Mary in South Pacific, a part she reprised as an adult at the Playhouse. As a teen she left Omaha for Calif. to live with her father, who encouraged her love of opera. “He realized my talent,” she said. As a young woman she trained with Professor LeRoy Brandt, sang jazz with producer/arranger Quincy Jones and flutist Paul Horn and opera with the San Francisco Opera chorus and placed in the NY Metropolitan Opera auditions. She studied with Met coaches.

Since coming back to Omaha, she’s appeared in many stage shows here and in summer stock at the New London Barn Playhouse in New Hampshire, where she broke ground by insisting on playing nontraditional roles. She’s sung with Opera Omaha, performed cantatas, oratorios, solos, “anything you can imagine,” in churches and concert halls. “Among my favorite things to do is to sing spirituals in church,” she said. She’s directed choirs, cantored at St. Cecilia’s Cathedral and even sung for three kings. Her “lovely old voice” is widely praised. So why she isn’t famous?. Her attention to faith and family and good works has kept her from pursuing a larger career. “The voice is always in demand, but there’s always someone in need of something and that side of me wants to go do that. I love assisting people. I want to be of help,” said Jeanpierre, who counsels folks in need. “There’s a tear of helping a community and singing for that community. Sometimes they’re combined. God puts you where you need to be the most.”

Her refuge is her faith. “It carries you through every single situation. When I think I can’t go another step or something’s not going my way, I can hear Auntie Claudette’s” stirring rendition of “‘My Heavenly Father Watches Over Me’ in the back of my mind, and that’ll get me up and get me moving. Music is a celebration.”

Richetta Wilson
When Omaha jazz vocalist Richetta (Lewis) Wilson sings, she can’t help but sound a little like icons Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Dianah Washington and Nancy Wilson, as she worked and forged friendships with these legends when they performed here. Once a featured artist in Omaha’s finest clubs, Richetta naturally drew on the impeccable phrasing and posh stage craft of divas she admired. “I had a little bit of all of ‘em in me because I dealt with all of ‘em,” she said from her showplace of a home. With sophisticated ladies as models, it’s no wonder the petite Wilson has been the epitome of art and class among Omaha song stylists for half-a-century.

“Those were all my favorite people. I loved ‘em,” she said. She “especially” cherishes how she was able “to get to know” them as human beings. She got particularly “close” to Dianah and Ella. “Practically all of ‘em stayed at my house. We’d cook. We had a lot of fun together. Dianah Washington was my idol. From 10 years old I always wanted to sing like her. I did every tune she did. She put so much feeling in her tunes. She was a great person. Ella was a dream. I did her hair. We’d go to work together. She was a honey. I really enjoyed her.”

Getting schooled by old souls was nothing new for Wilson, whose father, Richard Lewis, mother Camille, and uncles and grandpa, all played professionally. Early on her dad saw his little girl’s talent and hunger to perform. She was so enamored with his life in music she’d “wait up on him” to come home from the Trocadero Club, where he played with Cliff Dudley’s band, pumping him for all the details.

“I had to know everything that went on,” she said. “He always sang ‘Laura’ to me because I loved to hear him sing that. When I got to be about 12 he let me go to rehearsals with him down to the Trocadero. I’d be wide-eyed.”

He bought her a baby grand piano for her 7th birthday and saw to it she and her four siblings learned their chops. “He dearly loved music. He instilled it in all of us,” she said, adding that a brother, Victor Lewis, has enjoyed a long career as a jazz drummer-composer. “Everybody had to play.” She balked, declaring, “‘All I want to do is sing.’ She later appreciated the training ”because that’s how you learn to phrase and get your chords down and everything.”

At home she imitated Dianah, crooning into a lamp while her brothers made believe brooms were horns or saxes. Her dad eased her into show biz by having her sing at American Legion halls. “That’s when I took off,” she said. “I told him, ‘This is what I want to do, Daddy. I want to sing.’ I threw my lamp away and picked up the real mike.” When he felt she was ready, he had her audition for bandleader Dudley. Shy Richetta was coaxed to sing “Tenderly.” She recalls finishing the tune and Dudley turning to her dad to declare, “’She’s hired.’ That got me on the circuit,” she said.

Dudley became her mentor. “He made me sing some of everything. I couldn’t just do jazz. I did country western, all the show tunes…so I have a rep where I can do a little bit of everything,” she said. “He was a heck of an arranger. He was my foundation, I’ll put it that way. He was stern…I cried a lot, but he taught me everything I know. It was worth it. It got me good jobs and sent me on my way.” She was 17 when she joined Dudley and 19 when she hooked up with Preston Love’s territory band, touring the South on a big yellow bus with a pot belly stove in it. She was the  group’s only female. Before her dad let her go he made pianist Roy Givens “promise he’d take care of me.” Givens kept his word.

Life on the road with a 17-piece orchestra was “an experience” she said. They played Jim Crow venues where the band had to enter through the back door and the crowd on the dance floor was separated by a rope — whites on one side, blacks on the other. The band slept on the bus. She got teased by the guys. Nine months away from home with all those crazy cats was enough for her.

She performed many more times with Love and Givens. She regarded them and players like Sonny Firmature and Buddy Graves “my musical family.” With her real family she sang in a trio that had her dad on sax and her mom on piano.

In her heyday she performed at swank local night spots — The Colony Club, Angelo’s, the Carnation Ballroom, Mickey’s, the M & M, the Blue Room — and the best hotels. She headlined a Joslyn jazz festival. Her “great following” went wherever she did. She took gigs in Denver, San Francisco and once had an extended, nine-month engagement at a hip Kansas City club. By then she was married with kids. It meant a weekly routine of getting her house in order before hopping a Wednesday charter for K.C, performing through the weekend there, then flying back to Omaha Sunday night to begin the cycle all over again. Her late husband, Richard Wilson, generally didn’t like her going on the road.

“I was amazed he let me do it that long,” she said. “I had many opportunities to go and do a whole lot more than I did. He said, ‘We’ve got four daughters here and I don’t think you’re going to be going away leaving girls.’ So, I made myself happy with working around here. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve done and all the people I’ve had the opportunity to meet and the good times we’ve had.”

She only plays the rare gig anymore. There’s still nothing better than blending her sweet voice with the sound of a full, swinging orchestra. She last did that in 2005 at Harrah’s Casino, singing a duet with Omaha native Eugene Booker McDaniels on his classic “Feel Like Making Love” at the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame awards dinner. She was inducted for her lifetime as a consummate jazz interpreter.

Much of the old gang’s gone now, but she still performs from time to time with Buddy Graves at Touch of Class Lounge. She sings at her annual birthday bash, too. She and her brother Victor Lewis jammed at a recent Jazz on the Green.

“I’ve had an adventurous life with all the things I’ve done,” she said. “It’s hard to kind of believe. But I wouldn’t trade it for nothing in the world.”

Ruth Norman
In a career spanning 60 years, Omaha native Ruth Norman has made a name for herself as an organist, pianist, composer, music educator and choral director. She left Nebraska decades ago to pursue a life in music, settling back East, where she got her master’s at Eastman School of Music (Rochester, NY), but she credits her early start here for her later success. Her introduction to music began at home.

“All the females in my family played the piano quite well,” she said by phone from her adopted hometown of Bethesda, MD. “I grew up playing the piano. I was always at the piano, always. I didn’t know what else to do but that.” Except for tennis, her second passion. Her grandmother, aunts and cousins all played piano, but her “dominating” grandma set the tone. She made sure Ruth took lessons — from instructors Edrose Willis Graham and Frances Baetens. But it was an inner stirring that drove young Ruth. “I’ve always just been led to do it,” she said. “It is deep within me.” Her many compositions, from “The Rapture” to “Introspection,” speak to music’s profound pull on her and her interest in “metaphysics.”

Despite being black in an era of overt racial bias, she said, “I grew up with every advantage to grow into music. I was always given the opportunity to play. I often played for classes at Lothrop Elementary and Central High. I played at Central’s Road Show…Baetens would drag me all over Nebraska and parts of Iowa playing programs here and there. I did a lot of concertizing from age 10 or 12. I loved it.”

Ruth Norman is featured in the above anthology

Some might say she’s followed an unusual path for an African American by concentrating on classical music. “I always played classical music and I always played sacred music (at Claire Chapel Methodist Church). Jazz and blues and gospel were not even on my menu,” she said. “I did not have that exposure at all.” That’s not to say she couldn’t play or appreciate those styles. Summers home from her studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln found her playing “cocktail-lounge music for some of the better hotels in Omaha (among them, the Fontenelle) as I’ve done here in the D.C. area. I don’t consider myself a cool, swinging jazz player, but I found I could always play something like ‘Blue Moon’ or ‘I’m in the Mood for Love’ or ‘Night and Day’ without any trouble because I could play ‘em by ear.” A diverse repertoire, she said, served her well. “The way you can survive as a musician is to prove you can do several things. If you’re going to write music it’s to your advantage to play and hear different things…different rhythms. Playing by ear gives you help and freedom in playing and writing classical music.”

It was at UNL, where she got her BA, she began composing. “It was just sort of a natural process,” she said. “I thoroughly enjoy composing and I’ve written for many mediums — choral, chamber, piano and organ works.” Much of her work’s published in anthologies of black composers. She’s also recorded pieces. In a career that’s “been a whole mix of things,” she’s always conducted choirs and played organ at churches. “The organ is very rewarding. There’s an inner feeling you can get from playing the organ you don’t get from playing the piano,” she said. “An ethereal expression deep within. I thoroughly enjoy that. I don’t mean a Hammond or Wurlitzer organ. I mean the actual pipe organ.” She’s played some of the best.

It was during her academic career, including a stint teaching music at a string of black colleges (Spelman, Morehouse, Bowie State, Texas Southern), she developed an interest in researching the works of black classical composers. “Annoyed” that blacks were relegated in many quarters to certain strands of music she said, “I decided I would set the record straight. I realized black composers had lived in many parts of the world and written in every style of music. They didn’t do just blues, jazz and gospel.” Her studies, funded by National Endowment for the Arts grants, found “a lot of classical composers we thought were white were black or mixed race. That led me to a wide avenue of music and many adventures” in Latin America and beyond. She’s given much of her life to sharing her findings via piano lecture recitals and interviews/performances on radio (Pipedreams) and television.

Her career’s been about taking the path less traveled. It’s why she left home. “I’ve always liked a challenge and I felt one was never challenged enough in Omaha. The worst thing you can do is stay where everyone thinks you’re wonderful. You get so comfortable. I don’t believe in limiting myself or patting myself on the back. I knew I belonged in the East. That’s what made me stay here (after Eastman). If you’re going to be in the field of performing you have to drive yourself alone,” she said. “You can’t just loaf through. You have to have that self-motivation as I did. You have to be honest with yourself, you have to be willing to criticize yourself, you have to realize I could have done better and I will do better.”

These days her playing’s curtailed as the result of injuring a hand in a fall. “To find yourself in a situation in which your playing ability has been hampered is devastating at first,” she said, “but I don’t let myself focus on that. I’m a very positive person. I do a lot of meditation and prayer. Independence is a state of mind. Besides, I never was one to sit still.” Norman was inducted in the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame in 2005. She’s been honored by a concert of her works at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC, where she’s served as Artist-in-Residence at the Sumner School.

NOTE: Fellow Central grad Cherie Curry, a distinguished pianist and piano teacher, also traces her musical start to Omaha’s north side. She played for church (Zion Baptist) and in concert (an all Chopin recital at Joslyn). After graduating Omaha University she pursued advanced studies at San Jose State University, where she taught many years. Her concert/recital career took her all over the U.S. and Europe, where she also studied. In 1976 she performed the Aaron Copland Sonata before the iconic composer himself at a concert in San Jose, where she resides.

Mt. Nebo Missionary Baptist Church

Veola Dryver
Veola (Seay) Dryver of Omaha was a girl of 8 when she said she received the call to serve the Lord through music, something she’s done for 70 years. “I knew God had called me. It’s sort of a wonder way that He does, but you know it’s His voice. It’s like a whisper. And sometimes it’s really loud.” She attended Mt. Nebo Baptist Church at the time. She sang in the choir, but insists she had no real knack for music. She trusted God would show her the way. “I didn’t know anything about music,” she said. “I asked Him, ‘Are You sure this is what You want me to be?’ He told me, ‘I looked for a man and I found none.’ I was reading my Bible when I turned to the first chapter of Jeremiah and that’s exactly what this passage said.”

It was all the confirmation she needed. “There are those who are called into the ministry and there are other ones that are gifted. They are special chosen, ” she said. For years she kept the calling a secret, even from her parents. “Most people, if they have this kind of a gift, they’re afraid to tell it,” she said, “because people won’t believe them and they’re jeered at.”

She was 15 before she revealed her calling. By then she was showing promise at church, although her family was too poor to send her for lessons and “everybody except my father,” she said, “thought I would never make a musician.” Veola would not be dissuaded. She said unlike her demure mother, “who always believed women should be sort of docile, I was not. It just didn’t suit me.”

Then fate or divine inspiration struck again. “Eulah Billingsley, a very sincere, very religious person — what we called a Christian that knew God — said the Lord had led her into forming a youth choir for the church…and to appoint me as the minister of music. I just burst into tears because I hadn’t told anybody that secret.” Dryver “had a lot of studying to do and music lessons to take, much under the guidance of “a marvelous teacher named Florentine Pinkston. She was a beautiful person…very strict and austere.”

Despite some training, she credits the Lord for her directing prowess. “I never have taken directing lessons. I just knew.” Being a female music minister in the Baptist church was unheard of then, but she pressed on anyway. “So many people were saying women don’t teach music, women don’t direct…but they all accepted me.” Further setting her apart was a dynamic directing style, gesticulating hands keeping beat and bringing voices in. She was minister of music at Mt. Nebo for years and enjoyed a long tenure at Trinity United Methodist Church. Over time she’s directed youths and adults at many churches of varied faiths. She even directed a choir of doctors and nurses at Immanuel Hospital. “Music is music,” she said.

Her son Michael Dryver, a noted Omaha music minister, director and teacher in his own right, considers his mother “a pioneer” for the “total” way she integrated the arts into sacred rites and overall church development. “She’s very creative. She’s also a visual artist. She pioneered liturgical dance in Omaha…she had dances that were actually part of the worship services. There was a spirit of music ministry she brought to this community, especially to north Omaha, that was unseen before.”

Mother and son collaborated on productions of Ahmal and the Night Visitors and The Messiah and she sung in the Voices of Omaha when he directed it. His mother and father, the late Herman Dryver, provided artistic and technical support, respectively, for many concerts/recitals he directed. She was a lead teacher for the Wee World fine arts program at her son’s Omaha School of Music.

Years earlier she directed large events herself. She was music director for several state Baptist conventions and once, for a national ministerial congress Martin Luther King, Jr. attended. The late ‘50s gathering marked MLK’s lone visit here. She befriended the young Southern minister and led a choir of some 1,000 voices.

Dryver, who attended then-Grace College and Omaha University, has done her share of preaching, too. “I do preach,” she said, “but the radio is my pulpit. I have a program on KCRO (660AM) called In His Image.” Airing Saturdays at 12:15 p.m., the program has her deliver an inspirational scriptural message each week under the guise of her radio handle — Teacher Mary D. Before that, she hosted a weekly Sunday television show called Soul Searching on KETV Ch. 7, for which she interviewed clergy and other religious figures from Omaha and other communities. Her charisma made her “an Oprah Winfrey” in her own time.

Aside from her media-ministerial work, she’s best known as a private piano-music theory instructor. She’s taught countless youths at her home, many of whom have gone onto music careers, such as singer Yolonda Johnson, who enjoys a concert opera career in New York. Old students often check in on her. “I live for that,” she said. “It’s just wonderful, I tell you.” Her impact is everlasting. “Well, my mother, she’s my mother, but she’s mother to a lot of children,” Michael said. “She’s inspired lots of people. Lots of women pastors have been inspired and encouraged by her leadership,” including his sister Rosalind Dryver-Scott, pastor at Menomonie (Wis.) United Methodist Church. Many music ministers, Michael among them, followed her path, which she calls “a blessing.”

As immersed as the family was in church and music, her children were bound to carry on. “We all loved music and we all loved God,” Veola said. “We lived in the church. I think that was our advantage.” For her, music and faith are inseparable. “I’ve always been very fascinated with it. It’s just been an exciting journey and an exciting call,” she said. “It’s a healer, it’s a testament and it’s a witness. Music has an effect upon people. You really can control an entire audience through music. I believe music is the one gift God has given to mankind we enjoy on Earth that we will take back to heaven with us. We won’t be barbers, butchers and businessmen in heaven, but we will sing.” A vision has showed her a million heavenly voices raised in song. “I look forward to being part of that number,” she said. Amen.

Click Westin, back in the screenwriting game again at age 83

July 11, 2010 5 comments

Every once in a while, and not nearly as often as I’d like, someone will give me a lead on a story. That’s what led me to Click Westin.  The one-time Writer’s Guild of America member wrote for episodic television and had one screenplay produced as a feature.  He also owned and operated his own L.A, advertising agency that did work for national clients. He seemingly had it all but then his battle with the bottle cost him his Hollywood career  and very nearly everything else. Long story short, he cleaned up his act and in his decades-long sobriety he’s been an active AA sponsor and speaker in his hometown of Omaha, where he headed the advertising for his brother Dick Westin’s successful international food business.  Now, in his 80s, Click is back writing screenplays.  He recently had one optioned.  My story about this engaging man who licked a serious problem originally appeared in the New Horizons.  Since it’s publication a year ago or so the irrepressible Click has begun writing songs at a furious clip, even getting Nashville producers to take notice.  Go Click! He’s an example of how older individuals often make the most fascinating subjects if for no other reason than the sheer expanse of life experience they represent.

Click Westin, back in the screenwriting game again at age 83

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

 

More than 40 years after writing a screenplay that became the low budget feature film The Nashville Rebel (1966) with country music star Waylon Jennings in the lead, Omahan Clifton “Click” Westin may have a new script made into a motion picture.

At 83, Westin’s original crime thriller Center Cut has been optioned by Steve Lustgarten’s LEO Films. That’s no guarantee it will ever get made. Even if it does we’re not talking Oscar-caliber work here. But it is another mark of progress on his comeback trail in an industry famously cruel to artists his age and with his baggage.

That comeback, make it recovery, is both personal and professional and is a long time in the making. His reaching the point of despair with alcoholism interrupted his screenwriting career in the 1960s. He’s worked his recovery program for half-a-century. He claims 40 years of sobriety under his belt. But he only surrendered to the unmanageability of his disease after hitting bottom and having lost everything, his home, his first marriage, his family, his savings, his career.

After piecing his life back together on the West Coast with the help of a pistol-packing woman named Wilma, whom he married and is still with today, he began doing consulting work back in Omaha for his brother Dick, owner of Westin Foods, and before long Click and Wilma settled here. He’s been here ever since as Westin’s vice president of advertising and as a speaker at area AA confabs.

But there was a time when Click once did enjoy a Hollywood career. Nothing major mind you, but he was a working hack and card-carrying member of the Writers Guild of America. As he likes to say he paid his dues and learned his craft in the sink-or-swim crucible of studio staff scriptwriting with producer-syndicator Ziv Television in the 1950s. He churned out script after script for such half-hour episodic action-adventure series as Boston Blackie and The Cisco Kid

“It was kind of disappointing if you were looking for glamour because it was an office set up. You had a desk. The studios were outside the door, where they were shooting, but you never got over there. Your quota was to write two half-hour scripts a week,” he said.

As soon as you’d get an assignment, he said, “you start dreaming up something and you put in on paper. You learn your trade no matter what the writing assignment is. If you were a staff writer I’m not sure you even got credit for what you wrote. You never did see the result of what you wrote. You just had to turn in those assignments every week.”

He’s written about everything a writer can at one time or another, with the exception of a novel. “A writer’s a writer,” he likes to say. If Westin has a niche, it’s terse, hard-boiled dialogue and one-liner jokes, which is how he ended up contributing material on a freelance basis to such popular programs as The Steve Allen Show, You Asked for It and This is Your Life. He’s always been able to write fast, a vital commodity in advertising and TV.

Along the way, he came into contact with big names, including Robert Taylor, Hugh O’Brian, Hal Roach, Bill Dozier, Ralph Edwards, Debbie Reynolds, Lawrence Welk.

 

Boston Blackie

 

The first stars he met predated his Hollywood career. It was 1948 and he was a World War II veteran studying journalism at then-Omaha University on the G.I. Bill when he went out to the West Coast to visit an Army Air Corps buddy who attended the University of Southern California. Westin got invited along with his pal’s fraternity brothers to serve as extras on the MGM musical Easter Parade. He got to visit with stars Judy Garland and Fred Astaire, whose path he’d cross again.

“My only scene is in the finale when everyone is walking down the boardwalk and I tip my hat to Fred Astaire and Judy Garland. That was the extent of it,” Click said in his clipped, just-the-facts delivery.

He said you can spot him at the end of the classic picture ”just for a moment. You gotta be alert. There’s really a lovely young lady on my arm.” To get costumed and made-up for the scene, he said, “we went in a tent and got our clothes changed. She had on this beautiful period dress with a hoop skirt and all, but underneath she’d rolled up her jeans,” giving lie to the carefully constructed illusion.

The whole Hollywood, big-studio moviemaking apparatus was an eye-opener for him. “I was just out of the service, still a kid. I was very impressed,” he said. Still, he had enough moxie to stand out, which is likely why he got selected to tip his bowler hat to the two stars. That and his six-foot-height and athletic good looks. It wasn’t the only time during the sound stage shoot he displayed his boldness.

“Onto the set came Peter Lawford and Liz Taylor. She wanted to climb up to the camera tower, and I was standing next to the tower so I took her up and on the way I thought, Why not?, and I said, ‘Listen, the boys at the fraternity are having a party tonight, I just wondered if…’  And she said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I’m busy.’ I thought, Well, I gave it a shot.”

If nothing else, the experience gave him a glimpse into a world he’d never seen before and some good anecdotes to share. “When I got the check from MGM I didn’t cash it, I brought it back to the Dundee Dell, where us college kids hung out, and waved it around.”

He swears that early behind-the-scenes exposure to the world of movies didn’t influence his decision to try his luck out there just a few years later. But that’s just like Click, who deflects or downplays things, unless they touch on addiction or on events like the Great Depression, when he learned what it meant to survive.

During the depths of the Depression his father Clifton, a native Omahan who also went by “Click,” lost his regular sales job. He gathered up the family, including a very young “Click Jr.,” and they hit the road to scrounge up a living.

The Cisco Kid

 

It turns out Click’s old man was highly resourceful. Among other things, he was a pool shark who once toured with the great early 20th century straight pool champion, Ralph Greenleaf. The elder Westin would sometimes appear in town pool halls as The Masked Marvel, taking on all comers in promotional stunts sponsored by the Coca-Cola Company. The sport was huge then.

Unfortunately, Click said his father was also an alcoholic.

When hard times hit, the sharpie was married with kids in the Nebraska Panhandle, stranded without a job, and so he did what he had to do to provide for his family.

“Dad acquired an old Graham-Paige automobile, he cut off the back and rigged a structure onto it to make almost sort of a covered wagon out of it, and we headed south. A good place to go during the Depression. He showed a great deal of foresight,” said Click.

Not unlike the Oakies displaced by the Dust Bowl, the family packed up what they had in their makeshift “prairie schooner” and headed for greener pastures in Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico. “We were just itinerant. We would pick up bottles and containers out of the trash in every town we’d stop, we would clean ‘em and redeem ‘em for change. Mom would make soap over an open fire and we’d sell soap door to door. My dad fixed pool tables and hustled pool. Anything to make a buck.”

These self-made gypsies would stay put awhile in select spots. They stayed in New Mexico long enough for Click’s dad to operate a roughneck pool hall where he ran a poker game in back. There were some wild and woolly times — drinking, shouting, fisticuffs, knives, guns. Click heard first-hand tales from old cowboys of epic cattle drives, scraps with Indians, riding with outlaws and Pony Express exploits. For someone with a vivid imagination like Click it was a golden time. The hardships of growing up without a home or its creature comforts didn’t resonate then, the excitement did. To him, it was just one big fat adventure.

“Well, lifestyles don’t affect children, they don’t know the difference, it’s the way life is, but in looking back of course it was quite severe, quite tough,” he said.

But also quite a rich life experience. By the time he started school it’s safe to say Click had lived and seen more than any of his boyhood chums. All that moving around though meant never being in one school more than a few months. “I probably attended as near as I could figure out 30 grade schools,” he said.

The family subsisted this way for almost two years before coming to Omaha. The hopskotching didn’t end entirely then either. “Here in Omaha whenever the rent was due we moved,” he said of his parents’ attempts to stay one step ahead of creditors. Click’s dad eventually did well with his own insulation business

At Benson Click proved a bright student. His kid brother Dick was a sports hero and entrepreneurial whiz who’s now in the Benson and Nebraska athletic halls of fame and the Omaha Business Hall of Fame. Click’s talents lay elsewhere. Blessed with a creative mind, he exhibited a way with words, writing for the school paper and penning O. Henry-like short stories. But entry into the military at age 18 put a hold on his storyteller ambitions. All the eligible males from his class of ‘44 enlisted.

His World War II service saw him man a ball turret aboard B-24s assigned submarine patrol duty in the Caribbean. His group never saw action.

Like many returning vets, he was eager to make up for lost time. He wanted to be the next Fitzgerald or Hemingway. He got his first taste of being a professional wordsmith composing verses for a Kansas City greeting card company. In Omaha, he filed articles and press releases for Northern Natural Gas Company and created on-air promotional spots and bits at WOW Radio, a then regional broadcasting giant. He and a popular performer, Johnny Carson, hit it off, and were drinking buddies at local watering holes, where they discussed taking Hollywood by storm. Before long, Carson left to pursue the dream. Westin soon followed, young wife in tow.

Westin never did complete all the required credit hours for his degree, but he did find a career. Show business agreed with his temperament as a cocksure promoter and curiosity seeker. WOW became his early training ground.

“I contributed to writing the noon day show called The Farm Hour. It was an audience participation show. It had a full band and a full cast, it had skits. It was a big deal at the time.”

Even though he didn’t know a soul on the West Coast except for Carson and a few war comrades, Westin leaped at the chance when NBC offered a spot in promotions in L.A. Then came his trial-by-fire at Ziv and writing for all those TV programmers. He also wrote for a TV series called Squad Car. “I did a ton of those.” he said. In addition to his small screen credits, he did uncredited script doctor work on all kinds of feature films. He’d rarely be given the entire script, usually just a small section to tweak a page here or a page there, to punch up some stiff dialogue with a dose of humor or a bit of color. One of the many pics he doctored was the 1959 WWII drama Up Periscope with James Garner and Edmond O’Brien.

He was not picky about the writing gigs he got. There was no pretense about him. He was very business-minded about writing. “You’d do assignments as they’d come along,” he said. Sometimes, he said, he was hired purely as insurance, his material never utilized. He didn’t care as long as he got paid. Some writers threw a hissy fit if one word of theirs got altered, he said, “but not me. I was never much interested in what they did with whatever I wrote. I would be today but writing then paid the rent and when an assignment was through I was looking for the next assignment, not what the hell happened to it or shaking hands with some tight ass star. That didn’t put bread on the table. I wasn’t interested in that. Really, I looked at writing very pragmatically. I wrote for a buck, not for artsy-craftsy or for posterity. I just wrote for a dollar, that was my living. Once you sell it you don’t own it. It’s like selling a house, you get paid for it and you move on.”

But his real bread-and-butter came as a broadcast advertising copywriter, producer and director. He did so many commercials, perhaps thousands, he said, “I don’t remember them all. They are not difficult for me to do. That would be my forte if I really got down to it. I’m as good at that as anyone. I can’t say that about any of the rest of what I do.” He worked for ad agencies and owned his own agencies. National accounts he handled included Alka-Seltzer, Chevrolet and Mattel. “’You can tell its Mattel, it’s swell.’ That was our biggie,’” he said.

He fondly recalls a 30-second spot for sup-hose he wrote and directed.

“The establishing shot was a steel frame building under construction. We moved up the scaffolding, a whistle blew, a couple guys in hard hats sat down and opened their lunch pails, their legs dangling from 60 feet above. They start to take a bite and they freeze and we follow their look to an I-beam suspended by a cable, where we see this beautiful pair of legs walk all the way out, turn around and walk back. The only dialogue was, ‘Men always notice women who wear sup-hose.’ That was one of my favorites because the visual told the entire story. That’s kind of rare.”

He produced live promos for L.A. area Dodge dealers featuring Lawrence Welk and his orchestra from the Santa Monica Pier. He wrote and produced many industrial films. One, The Invisible Circle, is still used by the California Highway Patrol.

He prided himself on being a jack-of-all-trades and mediums, perfectly capable going from writing to directing.

“You do what the assignments call for and if you have common sense you can see if it isn’t going anywhere or if it is. You don’t have to be a genius, you just have to have common sense when someone’s not coming across or overacting.”

In the late ‘50s he partnered with a young UCLA Film School grad, Richard Rush, in producing some major TV spots. Their experimental application of subliminal perception techniques, a process called PreCon, attracted much attention, including some unwanted queries by a United States Congressional committee concerned about precognition’s mind-control or brainwashing implications.

Click prepared an adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher that called for inserting subliminal shock images. Hal Roach Studios purchased but never produced the property. Rush went with the project and the partners amicably split. Rush went on to be an acclaimed feature filmmaker. His Getting Straight and The Stunt Man won many admirers among cineastes here and abroad.

By the end of the ‘50s and the advent of the ‘60s Westin was years into his active addiction. For a time, he continued as a functioning drunk, maintaining a modicum of professional success despite falling apart on the inside. His disease, he said, accounted in part for his many career moves. Sometime before he hit bottom he created a syndicated show, Star Route, TV’s first book or scripted country music series. Rod Cameron hosted and guest stars included the Who’s-Who of country western stars — Johnny Cash, Rex Allen, Tex Ritter, Loretta Lynn, Glen Campbell.

That led to other countrified projects, including a syndicated radio series, Turning Point, and his feature script Morgan’s Corner being made as Nashville Rebel. Star Route and Turning Point were cast in Nashville and produced in Canada.

When Westin conceived Nashville Rebel he intended producing it himself but he couldn’t raise all the financing. That’s when he sold the script for some $6,000. He ended up getting “story by” rather than “screenplay by” credit even though he swears not a word of his manuscript was changed other than the title. Also, his surname is misspelled in the credits as “Weston.” None of it, he decided, was worth going to arbitration over. Now the film’s being rereleased on DVD and he’s eager to finally view it. That’s right, he’s never seen the film. Ask why he didn’t attend the premiere and he replies: “I was probably drunk.”

He said there are many months, even entire years from his worst acting out days he cannot recall. “A lot of what I’m telling you,” he said to this reporter, “it comes back in flashes. I can’t tell you what led up to it or what followed it. It’s gone.”

He tried AA a few times but whatever spells of sobriety he managed never stuck. He fell so far off the wagon his earnings for several years didn’t even register with the Social Security Administration. He describes these lost periods as “blackouts.” He was so far gone that all he lived for was his next drink or binge or drunk.

“If you’re a drunk your best friend is the guy you met five minutes ago on the bar stool next to you. There’s only a couple of subjects I’ve encountered in any saloon anywhere — girls, sports and politics. What else is there to talk about?”

The more the addiction’s fed, he said, “then naturally it progresses.”

He finally bottomed out when he awoke on a curb outside the L.A. County Jail, “kicked out” for the umpteenth time after drying out on another drunk and disorderly arrest. “I was spending life on the installment plan. I must have been in six to eight jails —  L.A., Pasadena, Hollywood…I remember my first one. Boy, that was traumatic. Whew! Oh, God, I didn’t want anybody to know. After that it got common. Anybody I could call for bail I would.”

That last time he was alone and broke. “I had the change in my pockets — that was the total amount of all my assets. I didn’t even have enough money to afford bus fare to go back out to the Valley…the last place I remembered I left my car. I was without a car, without a family, without two homes.” He was divorced by then, his three kids living with their mom. It was the end of the line. No where to go but up.

He said the AA meetings he went to then were full of desperate people just like himself who’d burned every bridge and lost every possession.

“It would be strange today but not when I came up. It was different then. If you had a watch you weren’t eligible in my day, you hadn’t hit bottom. You wouldn’t walk into a meeting, you’d crawl in. There were DTs and convulsions quite frequently. You’d stick a wallet in their teeth and go on with the meeting. They were really tongue-chewing, babbling, falling-down drunks. That’s not the case today. My God, they drive their own cars to meetings. I lost my car.”

He still recalls walking into an L.A. bar called the Admiral’s Dinghy, where he’d arranged to meet a striking Eurasian woman named Wilma whom he’d become smitten with upon their initial meeting some days before.

“I came in a little late and I said, ‘I’m an alcoholic, I’ve got to go back to AA. Will you come with me?’ She’d never heard of it. She put down her drink, put on her white gloves, slipped off the bar stool and said, ‘Sure,’ and she never had another drink. I did, I continued for close to another year.”

As Click made him way back to sobriety Wilma was there for him. She’s a strong woman with a life history that, he said, “reads like fiction.” He said the L.A. native left home at 13, ran drugs in Mexico, worked her way up to being one of the first female quality control managers at a U.S. manufacturing plant and became a courier running skim money for the Mob and a hostess for mafia gambling parties. “That’s just scratching the surface,” he said. “Wilma is the most remarkable lady on the face of the Earth. She is something.”

His friend, playwright Sumner Arthur Long (Never Too Late), was writing a feature script about her life when he died. Click may one day take up the project.

Click’s turnaround meant learning a new, healthier way of thinking and behaving. Kicking an obsession, any obsession, is difficult. “It wasn’t easy to shake the addiction, of course,” he said. Starting over from scratch, as he did, was humbling, but people in the business and out of it, like his brother Dick, were there for him. “It shouldn’t have been that easy for me.” Estranging yourself from family and friends and then making amends is a painful but necessary process. He’s done it.

 

 

 

Richard Rush's primary photo

Richard Rush

 

Until recently the only scripts he’d written since Nashville Rebel were slide shows, power points and commercials. But a few years ago he began getting the bug again to write a dramatic script. Then he got intentional about it by attending a pricey screenwriting colony in Superior, Neb. conducted by noted script guru Lew Hunter. Charged with writing 30 pages, Westin completed the entire 117-page script for Get Grey, one of five scripts he’s written the last couple years.

Hunter, another Nebraskan with success writing for TV and film, also served as an executive and producer at all three major networks and taught screenwriting at UCLA. Until the workshop he’d never met or heard of Westin, and vice versa, but the two old pros are now like a pair of long lost colleagues. They talk frequently. It’s rare either can find anyone else of their generation who’s been on the inside of TV/film culture as they have. Hunter can certainly attest, as Westin can, to the dysfunctional lifestyle that culture breeds.

Westin said his problem-drinking began before he ever got to L.A., triggered by the ritualistic rounds he and other media types made at Omaha bars. He likes to say “I was suddenly struck drunk” to make the point it takes years of abuse to become one. Once out in L.A. the social imbibing only increased. He got into a pattern of medicating himself with alcohol. Better to be numb than to feel anything. He and his old WOW mate, Johnny Carson, would go at it. “There was a bar catty corner across the street from CBS on Fairfax (Blvd.) and we would get together a few times a week and have a couple of drinks, oh, for a long time,” said Westin, who added Carson was one way on stage and another way off it. “There were two Johnny Carsons — the one on television and the one in private life, a very shy, inward man who didn’t have much to say. He wasn’t a turned-on individual at all.”

While environment and heredity undoubtedly contributed to Westin’s own drinking habit, he said nothing excuses it. “That’s a cop out.” He also doesn’t ascribe to any book or regimen that offers a cure. “There is no cure. You can arrest the disease, but as far as a cure, give an alcoholic who has experienced a great deal of abstinence a drink and see what happens.” Relapse. He knows, he’s been there.

Part of the stability he’s found in life has coincided with moving back here in the 1970s. He’d commuted for a time between L.A. and Omaha. Then, after his brother purchased Roberts Dairy (since sold), Click came back to run one of its operations in Sioux City. Later, Click took over its Dairy Distributors home delivery division. Not much of a businessman, he brought in Wilma to help run things.

One day, he witnessed just how much she had his back when a disturbed driver who’d been fired wielded a knife in the office.

“Wilma had a .38 in her desk drawer. She pulled it out with the toe of her shoe, she reached down, held it in her lap just calmly and pointed it right at the sucker spinning around there. I thought, My God if he turns and takes one step towards her we’re all going to be in the paper in the morning. She just sat there and said, ‘That’s enough.’ That’s all it took. She meant business. Oh, there’s only one Wilma. They call her the Dragon Lady.”

The couple lived in Omaha together several years but Wilma’s now in Hawaii, where she has her own business. Click commutes to visit her but wants her to move back.

In Omaha Westin’s started seven 12-step meetings and a transitional facility, Beacon House. He’s cut back on his AA speaking but always honors a request. He volunteers much of his time sponsoring addicts. His experience guides others.

“I sponsor a lot of people in AA and I have found where people are concerned there’s work, there’s family and there’s AA, and to me that’s not much of a life. I mean, it’s a life like everybody else has I guess but usually I insist they develop an outside passion. I don’t care what it is, golf or bird watching or music or whatever.

I always have some kind of a passion going outside what I’m doing. For example, I learned how to play a keyboard from scratch. Now I’m not a musician but I like to play songs. I did that for a long time. Then it was photography. I used to buy barn pictures. That got too expensive and so I cut that out.”

Other than writing golf may be his oldest passion. The Omaha Field Club member enjoys treating guests to lunch there, holding court with his rich reservoir of stories. On nice weather days a round of 18 holes is never far from his mind. When traveling to warm climes, as he often does, he tries working in a few rounds.

Ideas for movies come to him regularly now. On a “meditation drive” along Highway 6 in western Iowa the sight of livestock got him thinking about a modern-day cattle rustling scheme, which he developed into the feature script Center Cut. “I stick to very basic themes that are universal and can be adapted,” he said.

So, after all these years Click’s back in the game as a screenwriter again. Well, sort of. “It’s not the same. Now it’s more or less, oh, a hobby,” he said. “I remember the desperation of, Will this sell?, because the rent’s due. That is a whole different story. Now, I don’t give a damn if they buy it or not. My rent’s paid.”

Still, he’s grateful for what a comfortable position he is in that he can write at his leisure. He’s also keenly aware he’s been given a gift and a reprieve by having come out of his blackout with his mind and body intact. “Totally. I’ve gone to way too many funerals of people I knew then. I’m on borrowed time every day,” he said.

All of which explains his philosophy of living these days.

“If you want to do it, do it, because this ain’t no dress rehearsal. I’m in the third act and hopefully it’ll be a long act but I might not be around tomorrow. When you’re 83 things wear out. Nothing that I know of, but there’s parts that probably have about had it.”

His wit’s clearly not one of them.

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