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
“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.
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 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.”
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.”
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 (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.
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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.
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.
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.
- How They Write a Script: Walter Hill (gointothestory.com)
- “Screenwriters find work is dwindling” (gointothestory.com)
- Bond Screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz Passes Away at Age 68 (cinematical.com)
For years I only knew Ron Hull through the prism of television. He was an affable, erudite executive and sometime host on the PBS affiliate in my state, Nebraska Educational Television. I knew that he was a friend of Dick Cavett‘s and over the years I prevailed upon Hull more than once for his help in contacting Cavett for various projects I was working on. But it wasn’t until a couple years ago I finally met Hull, who proved as amiable and generous in person as he was by phone. I long wanted to profile him but had never quite gotten around to it. Then a couple things happened: In the course of interviewing Cavett, the former talk-show host mentioned some things about his longtime friend Hull that peaked my interest even more; and then I read a local newspaper story about Hull that hinted at some colorful origins I wanted to flesh out in more detail. That’s exactly what I do in the following profile, which originally appeared in the New Horizons. By the way, this blog site also contains some of the articles I’ve written about Cavett and at least one of those pieces references Hull.
Ron Hull’s Magical Mystery Journey Through Life, History and Public Television
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
Only recently has Nebraska Educational Television pioneer Ron Hull, 77, come to appreciate the remarkable arc of his life, one that’s literally gone from bastard child of a bordello to chairing the board room.
“I went from that situation to this situation. It’s incredible when you think about it,” Hull said from his NET office in Lincoln.
His journey’s taken him around the world, introduced him to legends, given him access to inner circles of power and allowed him to indulge his love for the arts, the humanities and history. Perhaps none of it would have happened if not for the kindly madam, Dora DuFran, whose house of ill repute he began life in.
He’s come a long way from that dubious start in a Rapid City, S.D. den of inequity. He never knew his real parents. His adoptive parents, who got him as an infant, gave him a good home in town. His father was a mechanic and his mother, a former country school teacher, a realtor. His dad opened his own garage and used car lot. His folks made extra money buying old properties and renovating them for resell.
“There was never any doubt about how much they thought about me. I couldn’t have had better parents,” Hull said. “Coming out of the Depression my parents had nothing except each other and lots of integrity. But they really worked hard. They were very industrious people and they gave me every opportunity. I’m very lucky.”
From such modest roots, he’s forged a substantial public television career here and in the nation’s capitol. The Nebraska Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame inductee helped build the statewide NET network, considered one of the best in the PBS chain, and once wielded major influence in Washington, D.C.
In the course of his work he’s developed friendships with notables from the worlds of stage, screen, literature, media and politics. Talk show host Dick Cavett is a pal.
His much-traveled life has taken him from the Black Hills to Hollywood to New York City and back to the Midwest. Except when he worked back east as an executive with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and with the Public Broadcasting System, Nebraska is where he’s made his home since 1955. There have also been extended stays as a guest lecturer in international broadcasting in Taiwan and as a television advisor to the government of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War.
The Lincoln, Neb. resident is still very much a citizen of the world. He’s as likely to be visiting favorite haunts in Manhattan or Los Angeles or off on some adventure in Asia, Europe or Africa as he is to be at home. He has friends all over the world.
After 52 years in public TV he’s still in the game. He serves as a special advisor at NET, where keeps a hand in programming, archiving, fundraising and just about anything he cares to involve himself in. He also teaches international broadcasting at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he’s a professor emeritus.
History, though, remains a top priority for the man who helped initiate The American Experience, the acclaimed documentary series that remains a PBS staple. He pushed for the series while director of the CPB Program Fund, a $42 million annual kitty he controlled and doled out to producers from 1982 to 1988.
His D.C. stint taught him the vagaries of power and politics. Producers seeking funding for their projects schmoozed him. He had to separate what was real from what wasn’t. “Every morning I’d get out of bed the first thing I’d say to myself was, ‘It’s the money they like.’ That really kept me on a pretty even keel.” The CPB board he reported to was comprised of Presidential appointees who displayed their partisan colors. As conservative Republicans exerted more influence, he left.
Back home he’s nurtured NET’s film production unit, whose Oregon Trail, Willa Cather, Standing Bear and Monkey Trial documentaries have aired nationally. He’s the founder and director of the Nebraska Video Heritage Library, an archive of thousands of programs that touch on life in the state over the past half-century. Among these gems are interviews with Nebraska writers John G. Neihardt, Mari Sandoz and Wright Morris, actress Sandy Dennis and entertainer Dick Cavett as well as coverage of legislative sessions, political campaign debates, et cetera. Hull’s enlisted Cavett’s interviewing-vocal talents for many NET and UNL projects.
The history bug first bit when Hull produced the NET series, Your Nebraska History, which led to an association with Sandoz, whom he convinced to do several shows. He’s headed the Sandoz Society. He’s served on the board of the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial in Red Cloud. Then there’s his decades-long work with the Neihardt Center in Bancroft. He emcees the annual Neihardt Days. Neihardt was another key figure in the early life of NET, he said, as the poet’s appearances lent credence to public TV as a prime cultural source. Hull also led the Lewis & Clark Bicentennial Commemoration committee for seven years.
Hull’s made it his mission as a broadcaster to satisfy what he says is a basic human desire for people “to know who they are” and “where they come from.” He often refers to something Cather noted. “She said, ‘The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.’” These questions and concepts have taken on personal import for Hull ever since learning at age 15 that he’s adopted.
“I discovered it by accident…I found a birth announcement in my grandmother’s house. Of course she disavowed that. I’m sure she was so embarrassed. I have to hand it to all the relatives. Nobody ever talked. Nobody ever told me. Not my grandparents. Not my aunt who lived nearby. Nobody. They had to of known.”
He didn’t broach the subject with his folks right away.
“I didn’t have the nerve to ask my parents,” he said. “It was about a year later I went down to the courthouse to check the birth records because I knew I was born in Pennington County. I took my best friend. We said were on a school assignment and had to see our birth records.
“They looked up my friend’s. ‘Yep, here you are,’ the clerk said. Then my turn came. ‘You’re not here.’ I said, ‘Well, I have to be. I know I was born in this county. If I was born in this county and I’m not listed here, why not?’ The clerk said, ‘Well, I’m sure this isn’t your case, but illegitimate children aren’t listed in the county of their birth, those records are at the state capitol in Pierre.’”
The disclosure, Hall said, was “a big clue.” As those records were under seal, his search was stymied for a long time. Unable to keep silent anymore, he confronted his mother. She admitted the truth. “She told me as much as she could. She didn’t know much,” he said. “She had a friend, Mrs. Benjamin, who ran the social agency and she told her they’d like to adopt. She liked my mother” and an arrangement was reached to contact the Halls should a child come available.
From the time of these revelations Hull’s life’s been all about seeking answers. His search intensified over time. In 2002 he obtained a court order to unseal his birth records. The discovery of his true identity and the unusual circumstances that led to his adoption made his journey from townie to sophisticate all the more unlikely.
The brothel he entered the world in was owned and operated by one of the American West’s best-known madams, Dora DuFran. “She’s a colorful character. I’ve done a lot of research into her,” he said. DuFran got her start in the sex trade in Deadwood, S.D., that infamous frontier outpost of wild and woolly goings on.
A late 19th century immigrant from England, DuFran settled in Nebraska before making her way north to Deadwood, a gold rush town she cleaned up in. She expanded to run stables of sporting girls at brothels in Sturgis, Rapid City and Belle Fourche. Like many a successful madam she cultivated strong allies in the form of her gambling magnate husband, Joseph DuFran, and local authorities, whose ranks no doubt included regular customers.
It was in Deadwood DuFran befriended Calamity Jane, a former scout under William F. Cody, aka Buffalo Bill, whose Wild West Show she performed in. Renowned for her horsemanship, shooting and rowdy ways, Calamity knew iconic gunman-turned-lawman Wild Bill Hickok. A young Calamity once worked for DuFran and when down- and-out near the end of her life DuFran took her in. Hull’s link to the notorious DuFran and her historical cohorts is more than passing. Among other things she was a midwife and, yes, it turns out she delivered Hull. On his birth certificate the word physician is crossed out. Written over it is “midwife” and “Dora DuFran.”
“And I only know this because my mother told me,” Hull said, “but Dora DuFran carried me herself down to the Alex Johnson Hotel where the social office was and gave me to Mrs. Benjamin. Mrs. Benjamin called my mother up and said, ‘Come and get him,’ and that was me. So, anyway, I owe Dora DuFran a lot.”
As a teen Hull worked as a bell hop summers at the Alex Johnson. He didn’t know then his connection to it. “I always wondered what brought me to apply there, but I never figured it out,” he said.
DuFran’s Rapid City house also served as a popular speakeasy during Prohibition. Upon her death in 1934 the Black Hills Pioneer referred to her as “a noted social worker.” Her grave in Mount Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood, which Hull’s visited, is near Calamity’s and Wild Bill’s plots. DuFran’s grave features four urns, each adorned with grinning imps in recognition of her four houses of pleasure. She authored a 1932 book entitled Low Down on Calamity Jane that contained her recollections of “the untamed woman of the wild, wild west.”
What Hull’s learned about DuFran, he likes.
“She was that proverbial madam,” he said, referring to her reputed heart of gold. “The sheriff, the police — everybody loved her. She’d be down at the railroad station on Thanksgiving bringing hoboes and bums back to her place to feed them Thanksgiving dinner. She was a midwife, she was a lot of things. And I was born in Dora DuFran’s house of prostitution in Rapid City. She had nine girls working for her at one time. It was a thriving business.”
This “back story” of unwanted pregnancy, abandonment and adoption has given Hull an inkling as to why he’s felt compelled to continually prove himself and why he’s rushed off to faraway places in search of some larger meaning.
“I can tell you one thing, I’m very sympathetic to anybody that’s adopted because if they’re like me you eternally wonder why somebody didn’t want you,” he said. “You could couch it another way. You can intellectualize it. She couldn’t take care of you, she couldn’t afford you, look how lucky you are…You can do all that, but the bottom line is — why didn’t they want me? And it hurts.
“It’s just something every adopted kid has to deal with…On the positive side, it’s a very powerful motivation to measure up. Am I going to be good enough? You always feel like you have to prove yourself. I decided I’d show ‘em.”
He feels strongly enough about giving lost children a home that he and his wife Naomi adopted their first child, Kevin. The couple added three children “the hard way.” Their son Brandon and his wife Linda continued the family tradition of adopting by flying off to China to bring home a baby girl, Eliza.
Hull continues trying to piece together his own pedigree. He knows the name of his birth mother, Jeanne May Ramsey, but doesn’t know if she worked as a prostitute at DuFran’s house or if she went there for help as “a girl in trouble.” He’s learned the name of his biological father, Paul Vaughn. Again, he’s unsure if he was a john or boyfriend or one night stand. He’s found his given name at birth was Theodore Vaughn Ramsey. Once adopted, his parents named him Kenneth, which he was called for a year or so, before they changed his name to Ronald.
However, he’s been unable to track down any more about his birth parents. “I have had no luck finding either parent,” he said. “I’ve really searched.” He just knows they weren’t married, which explains why his birth certificate has a box checked ‘No’ under the heading ‘Legitimate.’ He said the law changed at some point to remove “the stigma” of illegitimacy on birth records.
The intrigue of his own roots reminds Hull of life’s rich tapestry and how his work as a producer, director and programmer has tried to capture that richness.
He’s found a niche for himself in television, where he’s nurtured a lifelong love for the humanities, yet he fell into the field by happenstance. Still everything he did as a young man prepared him for his career.
Growing up in Rapid City his passion for the arts made him an odd duck. “I had certain proclivities for music,” he said. “I took piano. I loved theater.” He loved to read. His parents, meanwhile, “were not cultured people. They loved to dance, they loved to play cards. They had a lot of friends. They were very social. But I had the tickets to the concert series, to the Broadway theater league, they didn’t. All those things, from the time I was in the 7th grade, they saw to it I had them. You just have to say I was cut out of a different piece of cloth, and they knew that.”
He was delighted to move with his parents to North Hollywood, Calif. for his junior year of high school. “They always saw that as the end of the rainbow,” he said. “While I was perfectly happy out there my parents weren’t. It was just too hard for them to sever all the friendships, ties and everything. They realized they’d made a mistake.” He moved back with his folks for his senior year in Rapid City. It wasn’t long before he returned to Calif. — this time to study theater at the then-College of the Pacific. He gained valuable experience on stage in high school and college.
Hull once again went home, this time to please his strong Methodist parents by completing his theater studies at Dakota Wesleyan, a church-affiliated school in Mitchell, S.D. He and Naomi met there. Upon graduating Hull heeded the call many young people feel — to make it in the Big Apple. The military draft was hanging over his head and he, Naomi and friends opted to try their luck in New York.
“I just knew we had to get Manhattan under our belt. I knew an educated person had to have an appreciation for New York City — that’s the Acropolis of our culture. We all got jobs. Our intent was to see every play on Broadway and if we really saved our money — the Starlight Roof at the Waldorf Astoria.”
He also hoped to break into the New York theater world. “Yeah, that was always in the back of my head,” he said. Then, just as he feared, he got drafted. He wound up at Fort Sill, Okla., assigned to Special Services. He worked as a recreation equipment clerk — “…the most boring job in the world,” he recalled.
One day a sergeant came by and changed his life forever. A check of Hull’s file showed his theater background, which was enough for the young private to be offered a new job producing a TV show on Fort Sill for the post’s commander. Sensing a golden opportunity, Hull fibbed when he told the sergeant he knew something about TV when, in fact, “I didn’t know anything.”
Given only days to prepare a script, he went right to the base library to learn the basics. He spoke to a director at a local station to learn what cameras do. Before he knew it he was lining up members of the 89th Army Band to play music and signing up the wife of a major to sing in the studio. That just left interviews with soldiers coming back from or going off to Korea.
Producing-directing-writing-emceeing all came naturally to the then-22 year-old, which he chalks up to the fact that “I had a lot of experience in plays by then in summer theater.” He did 95 weekly TV shows before his hitch was over, enough experience to convince him he wanted a career in television.
“I thought, This is pretty good for me because, you know, television combines any aspect of life you want. I mean, there’s music, drama, culture, news, public affairs, documentary. It’s the whole thing.”
He used the GI Bill to study television at what’s now known as Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications, where he earned a master’s degree. He’s since been invited back to speak as one of its distinguished alums. Naomi was with him at SU, working in the speech department. “That was a wonderful time in Syracuse. We loved it,” he said.
Hull assumed he would go into commercial broadcasting but while at SU he heard about this newfangled educational television “where you might do something, like Pollyanna, to improve people’s lives, and that really attracted me. Everybody said, ‘Well, you don’t want to go into that because you don’t make any money.’ They were certainly right about that,” he said, smiling.
He hit the road in search of a job, traversing the Midwest and South on a Greyhound Bus. “California was my goal — that golden green place out there,” he said. Except he didn’t go there. Instead, he stopped in Denver, Amarillo, Oklahoma City, Memphis, Atlanta and Chicago, leaving his resume everywhere he went, getting interviews here and there. Mostly he applied at commercial stations. Then he heard about an opening at the fledgling educational station in Lincoln, Neb.
“By this time I’d been on the road for about two weeks,” he said. “I was exhausted from the bus, from everything.”
He interviewed with Jack McBride, the father of NET and the man Hull considers his best friend. The final interview was with the university’s crusty old PR man, George Round. Hull, who had other offers, was noncommittal. Finally, Hull said, an impatient Round bluntly asked, Listen, do you want the job or not? Well, yeah, OK, Hull replied. “And I took the job,” he said. “I didn’t plan to stay here.” But Hull fell in love with Nebraska and its people. He’s remained loyal to his adopted state. He’s always returned to live here, even after extended stays abroad and back East.
“I don’t know if this place has claimed me but I certainly have claimed this place. It’s just who I am, you know. It’s where I established my family. It’s the values of the Midwest I revere. I think the people out here know how to work really hard and are basically honest. You can trust them.”
Among the first people he and Naomi met here were the parents of Dick Cavett. The Hulls, Cavetts and some other couples formed a social-cultural club called the CAs or Critics Anonymous, whose motto was, We criticize everything. A young Dick joined in on some of the activities. Hull and Cavett became close.
Upon accepting the state’s 2000 Sower Award for Humanities, Hull articulated the symbiosis he feels with Nebraskans. “We’re talking about relationships when we talk about the humanities,” he said “To me, relationships are the essence of our lives, the relationships that we have with each other…how fortunate I am, how thankful I am to have the privilege of being a part of you…in this state.”
In a real sense Hull feels he’s a steward for the state’s culture and history, not surprising when you realize he was there nearly from the start of what became NET. He arrived in October 1955. KUON had gone on the air only the previous November — the ninth public TV station to transmit. It was a humble launch.
“There’s nothing like starting at the beginning,” he said. “There were four of us. I was a producer-director, I wrote the continuity…You did everything. We were completely live. We had to be because we had no videotape, we had no network. We shared a studio with KOLN Channel 10. Our signal’s radius was maybe 35 miles.”
Live TV offered a visceral, ephemeral, enervating experience unlike any other.
“I really miss the live shows,” he said. “It makes such a demand on the people in front of the camera and behind the camera that you get a level of energy going all around. Every nerve ending is alive. It’s electrical. You can sense it, you can feel it. We used to say, ‘Poof in the night.’ You can’t replicate those experiences.”
On the down side, he said, “we made some terrible gaffes. You’ve got to be grateful there’s nobody to play those back.” A memorable one he recalled came when, “while introducing a travel film ‘live,’ our host, smiling into the camera, said, ‘Today we visit Hawaii — those lovely islands of beautiful beaches and flat sandy women.’”
Hull said video-digital technology not only eliminates the possibility of most mistakes, it “serves the viewer in the long run” by affording repeats. But he said live TV “was a little more honest” than today’s canned version.
He recalled an example of spontaneity that could never happen now.
“I was directing an interview with (Neb. Gov.) Frank Morrison, a big, lanky wonderful man. I’m sitting at the counsel (control booth) and the phone rang. ‘Hello.’ The voice at the other end said, ‘Ron, this is Maxine.’ ‘Oh, yes, Mrs. Morrison.’ ‘Tell Frank to sit up!’ ‘Yes, Ma’am.’ So I told the floor manager, ‘Make a big sign saying, Frank, sit up! — Maxine. I can still him going, Ohhhh…rolling his eyes and sitting up. Well, that’s live, interactive. It’s a different level of communication.”
“To me, one of the important things about public broadcasting is never to lose that local connection with local Nebraska people,” Hull said. “They own the station. So you’ve got to be in communication with them at every level you can be by listening to what they say and providing the things you think are useful to them and their lives. And we’ve always run this place based upon that.”
Legislative support for NET “has been wonderful,” he said. “They’ve provided us state-of-the-art equipment — millions of dollars worth. They believe in it.” Despite budget-staff cuts, NET boasts fine facilities, adequate resources and top talent.
Even as the Internet threatens TV’s hold on mass communication, the medium still reaches huge audiences and affords the possibility of informed public commerce.
“We’re trying and I think we’re getting closer and closer to make public broadcasting the central meeting place, the town hall where the issues are debated, where people have a say. I don’t detract from what commercial television does but we are the last vestige of local programming and documentaries.”
Where commercial TV once considered news-public affairs a higher calling, distinct from entertainment, he said it’s now part of the profit line along with situation comedies and reality shows. Networks and local stations don’t produce documentaries the way “they used to,” he said. “Those are expensive and nobody spends that money anymore. But you look at our schedule and we spend 600,000 bucks on Willa Cather: The Road is All documentary. That takes two years to produce but what you get is something that is worth people’s time to watch.”
Hull’s belief in the public service potential of TV remains undiminished.
“Television affects how people think. It goes right into their heads,” he said. “It is a terribly, terribly powerful instrument of persuasion that has the potential to be used for the good of the common man. I always identified with that from the beginning. The measure’s always been — Is this going to enhance somebody’s life?”
That doesn’t mean skirting hard realities or controversial subjects, he said, “because you have to show the other side of things and people have to be able to make up their own mind about things. But basically I have believed from the beginning we have an opportunity to make people’s lives better, to give people a perspective on the world and their place in it they can’t get any other way.”
He points to NOVA, Frontline, The News Hours, American Experience, American Masters and Great Performances as TV at its best. “To me, those series are the most thought-provoking, serious programs available to the American public.” Hull is proud, too, of public TV’s noyed work in children’s programming, led by Sesame Street, and how PBS has carried fare its commercial counterparts do not, such as American Playhouse, Meeting of the Minds, Steambath and Anyone for Tennyson?
New York producer Bill Perry had pitched his concept for Tennyson — mini-dramas bringing to life history’s great poets and their poems — to no avail until he approached Hull. “I liked the idea,” Hull said and the two put the series together at NET, enlisting such “brilliant actors” as Henry Fonda, Jack Lemmon, Claire Bloom, Irene Worth, Ruby Dee and Vincent Price. Hull became close friends with the show’s “first-class director,” the late Marshall Jamison. Hull, who calls the show “my favorite,” said it may have had a small audience but it made a big impact.
“I’ve never ever believed in measuring our success by the number of people who watch,” he said. “Rather you measure your success by what effect you had on people. It’s really hard to measure, but I prefer to believe there are people out there who learned from these programs.”
Similarly, he believes the programming he did in Vietnam made a difference. His experience trying “to win the hearts and minds” of its people gave him a new outlook on public service. Desiring an overseas adventure he parlayed state department contacts to get assigned a foreign service post as a TV advisor to South Vietnam. He was there in ‘66-67 and periodically the next few years to oversee construction and operation of stations in Saigon and outlying cities. Programming centered on public health and education — from potable water to immunizations.
The war raged around Saigon and casualties did not exclude those in the TV ranks.
“During the (1968) Tet Offensive all of our American engineers working at the Hue station were marched off and shot. I wasn’t in-country at the time,” he said.
He arrived in Vietnam a supporter of U.S. policy there but left convinced America “had made one of the major blunders in our country’s history.” He found distasteful the role that he and other Westerners played as outsiders looking in.
At the fancy Caravel Hotel in Saigon he and other noncombatants from the Free World bent their elbows at the rooftop Romeo and Juliet Bar. A frequent drinking companion was correspondent Peter Arnett. “We would look down at those streets to the Saigon River, the area beyond all controlled by the VC (Viet Cong). We would watch planes fly in and see the tracers any night of the week. The flares lit up the countryside. And we’re sitting there — who the hell are we? — drinking our little wine…I’m not proud of that,” he said. “But that’s the position we were in.
“Everybody who was there has to deal with the fact they were part of that war — I don’t care who you were or what your job was.”
Hull returned to Vietnam in 1999, in part to see the fruits of his labors there. Before going he was advised by foreign service veterans not to expect too much in the way of visible, tangible progress from the project he’d led.
He went to the very station in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, he’d officed in decades earlier. He met with the station manager, a reserved man in a military uniform. The man answered Hull’s questions without any elaboration. Anxious to know more, Hull confided, “I was here teaching your people how to run this station in 1971-72. Where were you?” Hull said the manager “looked at me and said, ‘I was in Tay Ninh Province in the People’s Revolutionary Army. Mr. Hull, you and I were not on the same side.’ And then I knew where he was coming from. I said, ‘I knew what your people wanted. They wanted one Vietnam, one country. I am really happy you have your country.’ With that, his defenses went down. He showed me everything.”
What Hull saw impressed him. “My gosh, they had the news in French, Vietmanese, English. There was a ballet going on in one studio and the news being set up in another studio. The place was vibrant, alive and kicking, fabulous. I walked out of there with a happy heart. They’ve taken what we did and they’ve thrived.”
Asia is one of his favorite regions of the world. He occasionally visits China, where he stays with friends. On his last trip there he traveled via the Trans-Mongolian Railway from China to Russia, where he continued his trek on the Trans-Siberian Railway into Moscow. “It’s a fabulous trip. The cultures are fascinating,” he said. He continued on to Copenhagen to visit more friends. “I love travel,” he said.
An annual international broadcasting convention he attends takes him to exotic places. The next is set for Johannesburg, South Africa. He’s anxious to go — ever curious, ever eager to seek out new experiences.
“One of the secrets to having a good career is having a good time,” he said. “I always tell my kids, ‘If you’re not having a good time, you’re doing something wrong.’ It’s how I’ve lived. That’s the only way you stay healthy…”
Still, never far from his thoughts are nagging questions that may never find answers.
“I did find my niche in life, although I am forever this insecure, why-did-they-throw-me-away person who is still searching for Shangrila.”
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Alzheimer’s scares me. I suspect it does many people. I cannot hardly think of anything more devastating or tragic than having your mind slip away or watching helplessly as a loved one’s mind fades into confusion, and ultimately oblivion. All of which is to say I was a bit queasy when I got the assignment to profile a woman with Alzheimer’s, or more accurately to profile a family and their odyssey with the afflicted loved one in their care. But I was struck by the love this family has for each other and for their beloved Lorraine, who was variously a wife, mother, grandmother to them. The way they rallied behind her is a testament to the family. Of course, not all families are as close or loving, and not all Alzheimer’s victims are fortunate to have such attentive support. If you’re in the mood for a sentimental story that is based in fact, than this might be your cup of tea. The piece originally appeared in the New Horizons.
I’ll Be Seeing You, An Alzheimer’s Story
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places, and in all the old familar faces…
Blessed with the voice of an angel, the former Lorraine Clines of Omaha enchanted 1930s-1940s audiences with her lilting renditions of romantic ballads as the pert, pretty front singer for local bands. Billed as Laurie Clines, she was also featured on WOW radio’s “Supreme Serenade,” whose host, Lyle DeMoss, made her one of his “discoveries.”
From an early age, she used her fine singing voice to help her poor Irish Catholic family get by during the Great Depression — winning cash prizes in talent contests as a child and, after turning professional in her teens, earning steady paychecks singing with, among others, the Bobby Vann and Chuck Hall orchestras at area clubs and ballrooms. After the war, she gave up her performing career to marry Joe Miklas, an Army veteran, semi-pro baseball player and Falstaff Brewery laborer. The couple raised seven children and boast 17 grandchildren.
The memories and meanings bound up in such a rich past took on added poignancy at a recent Miklas family gathering during which Lorraine, a victim of Alzheimer’s Disease since 1990, sang, in a frail but charming voice, some standards she helped popularize in the big band era. Her family used the occasion to preserve her voice on tape, thus ensuring they will have a record of her singing in her senior years to complement the sound of her voice on platters she cut years before. While even advanced Alzheimer’s patients retain the ability to hum or sing, Lorraine has clung to music with an unusual ardor that reflects her deep feeling for it and the significant role this joyous activity has played in her and her family’s life.
“There was always music in the house — singing, records, dancing,” daughter Kathy Miklas said. “When we were little we each learned two songs Mom recorded, “Playmate” and “Little Sir Echo,” and we all learned how to dance to “Ball and the Jack.” At their mother’s insistence, the Miklas kids took piano lessons and at their father’s urging, they played ball. “We really were lucky Dad loved sports and Mom loved music. It was a great combination. They made sure we did both. It was a nice foundation to have,” daughter Theresa Ryan said, adding the family participated in neighborhood talent shows and competed in softball leagues as the Miklas team.
Even though she went from headliner to homemaker, Lorraine never stopped making music. She harmonized doing chores at home. She sang lullabies to her kids. She broke into tunes on holidays and birthdays. Away from home, she taught music at St. Adalberts Elementary School, vocalized in the church choir, led singalongs on family road trips and performed for her children’s weddings. Ryan said she and her siblings knew that whenever Mama made music, she was in a merry mood.
“You would get a yes if you asked her a favor while she was singing. You knew that was a good time.” Even now, despite the ravages of Alzheimer’s, music continues to hold a special place in Lorraine’s mind and heart. In a reflective moment one September Sunday afternoon Lorraine commented, ‘We gotta get all the music we can.” And then, as if remembering how music enriched life for her and her family despite scant material comforts, she said, “We haven’t had a lot of other things, but we sure have had a lot of music.” Accompanied on piano by Carolyn Wright, Lorraine found most of the words, with some prodding from husband Joe, to ballads like “I’ll Walk Alone” and “Girl of My Dreams.” When she got around to singing the bittersweet “I’ll Be Seeing You,” which is about being true to an absent loved one, Joe broke down in tears — the lyrics hitting too close to home.
“Not having her around” is the worst agony for Joe, who loses a little more of his wife each year. “It’s hard to live alone,” said Joe, breaking down with emotion. As he has seen Lorraine slip further and further away into the fog that is Alzheimer’s, he has had to content himself with memories of “the good old days.” He said, simply, “We had some good times.” A son, Joe Miklas, Jr., said the cruel reality of the degenerative disease is that it feels like losing a loved one, only the afflicted is not dead but stranded in a dementia that makes them increasingly unreachable. unknowable, unrecognizable. They are present, yet removed, their essence obscured in a vague shadowland of the mind. “Physically, she’s there, but she’s not Mom anymore. We’ve lost our mother and yet she’s still here.” Kathy Miklas describes the experience as akin to “a slow grieving process.”
Bill Miklas, the youngest among his siblings, is convinced his mother is, on some level, aware of the prison her impaired brain has confined her to, although she is unable to articulate her predicament. Evidence of that came only last year when, Kathy Miklas said, her mother confided to her, “‘I think something’s wrong with me, but I don’t know what it is. It makes me feel bad that people are having to do things for me that I used to have to do for them.’”
The sad thing, Bill said, is “this disease has forced her to be isolated, not only from those around her, but from herself. She has to live within her world. She has to travel this journey, for however long, by herself. It must be very frustrating to her to realize when she talks she’s not making sense. She can see the reactions on our faces, but her pride won’t allow her to show she’s debilitated. It’s hard for her to look me in the face and say, ‘I don’t remember your name.’ Yet even as debilitating as this disease can be…she still likes to sit and talk, and she’s still a happy person.”
As Alzheimer’s evolves, its victim presents changing deficiencies, behaviors and needs. Mirroring the patient’s own journey are the changing emotions and demands felt by family members. Just as no two sufferers are alike, the experience for each family is individual. Every step of the way, the Miklas clan has made Lorraine’s plight a family affair. “Everybody just kind of took their part in it and did what had to be done,” said Ryan. “I don’t know what I would have done without them,” Joe said of his family’s pitching-in. Not everyone always sees eye-to-eye on how to handle things, but the Miklas’s remain united in their commitment to do right by Mom. And, no matter what, they’ve stuck together, through thick and thin, in illness and in health. “We’ve kind of become our own support group,” Joe, Jr. said. “We don’t always agree, but we always communicate, which is the key.”
Married 54 years, Joe and Lorraine hail from a generation for whom the vow “for better and for worse” has real import. That’s why when she was stricken with Alzheimer’s he put his life on hold to become her primary care giver at the couple’s home, where she continued living up until about a year ago. Lorraine’s first symptoms were shrugged off as routine forgetfulness, but as her memory deficits and confused states grew more frequent and pronounced, her family could no longer ignore what was going on. It all began with Lorraine making repeat phone calls to family members without knowing who she was dialing and not remembering she made the exact same call just minutes before.
Ryan said, “At first, we laughed it off among ourselves. It was like, ‘Oh, did Mom call again to ask who’s making the turkey for Thanksgiving? I told her 10 times.’ And then, we got a little upset with her. We’d say, ‘Mom, would you pay attention. You’re just not listening.’ There were other signs. Normally a precise, productive person who kept on top of her large family’s many goings-on, she could no longer keep track of things. She let the house and herself go. She grew disorganized. And she seemed to just shut down. “I think one of the things we first started noticing is that she just wasn’t doing as many things as she was doing before,” Kathy said. “One of the striking differences was she’d always been very organized and efficient” but not anymore.
Concerned, Kathy convinced her mother to be evaluated by the University of Nebraska Medical Center geriatric team. “When the doctors said she didn’t have any physical reason for this — that it’s probably Alzheimer’s — I was totally shocked,” she said. The entire family was. Lorraine went on living at home with Joe. “I think our family…was in denial,” Bill said. “We didn’t want to mention Alzheimer’s in front of Mom. I think a lot of us thought there was a mixed diagnosis. That, you know, it’s not really Alzheimer’s — Mom just forgets things. It’s not that big a deal.” From denial, the family gradually accepted Lorraine’s fate, the diminished capacity that accompanies it and the demands her care requires.
To get to that point, however, the Miklas children first had to come to terms with how their mother’s condition was affecting their father. “We were all kind of going on with our lives,” Ryan said, “but I don’t think we were focused too much on the disease because Dad was there to do the day to day caring.” As the disease progressed and Lorraine grew more unmanageable, the job of caring for her 24/7 consumed Joe’s life. He halted his active recreational life to attend to her needs. “Dad started to give up a lot of the things he likes to do,” Ryan said. It got so that it was dangerous leaving her alone, even for brief periods, and no longer possible for anyone untrained like Joe, now 79, to always be on call. Overwhelmed by it all, he could no longer hack it alone, and that’s when the family began the long, winding odyssey to find the right care giving situation.
Kathy, a private practice speech-language pathologist, steeped herself in Alzheimer’s — from possible causes to drug therapies to support services to care providers. “I felt like I could deal with it better if I understood it. So, I started talking to the Alzheimer’s Association and reading lots of stuff. As a family, we shared information about what Alzheimer’s is and what goes on with it. I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to do something or to have something because we didn’t know about it.”
Family members also attended conferences to glean more understanding — from health professionals and family care givers alike — about what to expect from Alzheimer’s and what adjustments the family could make to ease things for themselves and for Lorraine. For further insight about her condition and how to manage it, they consulted one of the world’s preeminent Alzheimer’s experts, Dr. Patricio Reyes, director of the Center for Aging, Alzheimer’s Disease and Neurodegenerative Disorders at Creighton University Medical Center. “We just lived and made adaptations and accommodations as needed,” Kathy said. “We knew not to ask Mom to do certain things because she wouldn’t remember them and we reminded her to do things she maybe still remembered how to do.”
The family explored several care giving options: first, enrolling her in a respite day care program; next, arranging for a home health nurse to come each morning to assist with her personal needs; and, then, when respite/home care was no longer sufficient to accommodate her unfolding illness, they sought more intensive aid.
“In November, we decided it was not a good idea for Dad to have to constantly be on duty all the time,” Kathy said. “We could see his health deteriorating from the stress…so we started looking at nursing homes.” Lorraine was placed in one, but the family found its medically-based approach and strictly-regulated environment stifling for their mobile, verbal, social mother, who felt uneasy in such a restrictive setting.
According to Kathy, the site “just wasn’t set-up to handle somebody like Mom. They had everybody get up at seven, eat breakfast at eight and go to bed by seven-thirty. Well, having been a singer — Mom never gets up at seven and she’s used to going to bed at about one o’clock in the morning. Plus, they had her heavily medicated. One night, they called and said, ‘Your mom is having a behavior episode we can’t manage.’ Well, I got there and she was having ice cream with a nurse. She was fine. Mom was very frustrated because in her mind this was her house and at night she got terrified. She would ask, ‘Why are all these people in my house?’ After a month of that place, we decided it wasn’t working out.”
Searching for the best care facility for a love one means weighing many complex issues and making many difficult decisions, not the least of which are financial. Although the nursing home was unsatisfactory, it did have the advantage of being Medicaid certified. As the Miklas’s looked around for an alternative, they discovered most quality care centers do not accept Medicaid patients, are cost prohibitive on a private pay basis and, even if the family could afford to pay privately, they would face a two or three-year waiting list.
“We were struggling with what we were going to do,” Kathy said. That’s when they found new hope and the right fit in Betty’s House, a residential assisted care facility, where Lorraine resides today. Where, at the large, institutional nursing home, Lorraine was anxious and irritable, the family has seen “a dramatic difference” in her mood at Betty’s House, Kathy said, adding: “It’s been a godsend. It’s small and home-like, not like a nursing home. The lady who runs it, Mary Jo Wilson, cared for her own Alzheimer’s-sticken mother for 10 years. She knows how to do Alzheimer’s. She knows what you say, when you argue, when you don’t argue, what’s important, what’s not important and she teaches her staff…that you give residents praise and tell them how happy you are they’re there, and I really think that positive feedback is part of the reason Mom’s been so calm and so happy the past few months. She’s doing well.”
And, relieved from the pressure of daily care giving, Joe Miklas began doing better, too. “Now, he can relax,” Kathy said.
Joe is just relieved Lorraine is situated where she seems at peace. “She’s safe. She seems to be happy,” he said. “They’re very good out there. The owner does a hands-on job. She’s always around, supervising things. She’s got some good help. It makes a lot of difference. I try to make it out there every other day if I can. Lorraine talks about coming home, and I’m not sure whether she has this (he gestured to mean their home) in mind or what. I thought she considered that (Betty’s House) her home. It’s hard to know.”
He does know she’s content whenever she breaks into song, as she did upon overhearing a conversation he had with another visitor to Betty’s House. “We got to talking about music when Lorraine suddenly sang ‘When Irish Eyes Are Smiling’ and she just took it up right from there.” Anything Irish elicits a response from her, said Kathy. “She’s always been passionate about her heritage. St. Patrick’s Day was a big day at our house. She’d sing Irish songs. Even now, when you mention something about being Irish, she’ll go into her version of an Irish brogue” and maybe start up a song.
Music remains a vital conduit to the past. “Still, in spite of all the things she can’t do, if you put a microphone in front of her, she turns into Laurie Clines, the singer,” Kathy said. “Her body moves as a singer. Her voice changes and her intonation, her breath and her rhythm become that of the singer again.” This transformation was evident the night son Tim Miklas appeared with his band, the Pharomoans, at Harvey’s Casino. “I went down into the crowd where Mom was and we sang “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” together. That was pretty special,” Tim said.
Family and faith have defined Lorraine’s and Joe’s lives. Growing up within blocks of each other in south Omaha, each lost their father at a young age and each began working early on to support their family during tough times. They attended the same school and church, St. Adalberts, but didn’t start dating until after the war.
“I thought she was the prettiest girl in school,” Joe said, “but I didn’t think I had a chance to get a date with her, so I just kind of put it out of my mind.” After marrying and starting their own family, the pair made sure all their kids attended parochial school, scraping together the tuition from his modest Falstaff salary, and even saved enough for family vacations. “Family was very big to her and she passed that on,” Theresa Ryan said. “I think they both wanted that family environment and worked very hard to achieve it.” Bill Miklas added, “One of their man ambitions was to raise a great family, and I think they did a wonderful job.”
Through the process of Lorraine’s sickness, the Miklas’s, always close to begin with, have drawn ever closer. If there’s anything they’ve learned about dealing with a loved who has Alzheimer’s it is, Tim Miklas said, “to try to maintain the courage to go on and make sure that person is still a member of your family. Maintain your relationship with that person as much as possible. At some level, some of the things get through to them.” Whatever the family occasion, Joe knows his wife still “wants to be part of it, that’s for sure.”
Kathy Miklas advises others to “really value the time and the experiences you have with your loved one because you don’t know what it’s going to be like three months or six months from now. Like many people with Alzheimer’s, physically Mom’s going to last a lot longer than she is mentally.” Another piece of advice she has is: “Give people choices. Give people dignity and the ability to have some control over their lives. For example, giving my mother the choice of when gets dressed eliminated a lot of arguments.”
In the end, this Alzheimer’s story is about the enduring love of a man and a woman and of a resilient family. “Theirs was a very subtle love,” Bill Miklas said of his parents. “It was something you always felt. The same with the faith they lived. It was a constant. There was never a question — never a doubt. It was a very stable reality. I think Mom taught us a lot about faith and about commitment — to ourselves and to our family. She taught us not to focus on what you don’t have but to enjoy what you do have and to find the value in that. Somehow, if I can take that to my family than that will be Mom’s greatest legacy.”
I’ll see you in the morning sun and when the sky is grey. I’ll be looking at the moon, but I’ll be seeing you…
- ‘Memory Show’ a sweet, painful portrait of Alzheimer’s toll (boston.com)
- Caring for a Loved One With Alzheimer’s: New Insight on Memory Care (health.usnews.com)
- Test may catch Alzheimer’s in earliest stage (abclocal.go.com)
- Maria Shriver Raises Awareness of Alzheimer’s Disease (psychologytoday.com)
- Progress made on blood test screening for Alzheimer’s (ctv.ca)
- Half of All Alzheimer Cases Might Be Preventable (newser.com)
Sometimes a writer can shed light on a little understood facet of society or humanity, and through the prism of a story perhaps bring some new clarity and insight to the subject. That’s the task I set for myself with this story about a community of contemplative nuns who after a very long presence in my hometown of Omaha left for another city. Few people had even heard of much less knew anything about the Contemplative Sisters of the Good Shepherd. Their neighbors could only imagine what went on behind their semi-cloistered compound. In truth, the sisters for some time now have led rather community-oriented if not public lives thanks to relaxed restrictions. When I heard they were leaving the campus they occupied not far from where I lived and once attended church and school, I decided to explore for myself who these women were, how they lived, and what they did. In doing the piece I met an extraordinary woman, Sister Cecelia Porter, whose formidable spirit and gentle soul impressed me, and if I did my job right will impress you, too. The story originally appeared in the New Horizons and I am glad to share its bittersweet tale here.
Mary Euphrasia Pelletier
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
With the departure of the Contemplative Sisters of the Good Shepherd in November, Omaha lost an exceptional group of older women dedicated to a regimen of prayerful meditation, hard labor and good will. Due to advanced age, ill health and depleted ranks, this once large Catholic community of nuns has moved to the Good Shepherd provincial colony in St. Paul, Minn. While the sisters are gone, the legacy of their amazing grace endures.
The Contemplative Sisters of the Good Shepherd (CGS) is an international congregation founded in 19th century France by St. Mary Euphrasia Pelletier. The contemplatives, a branch of the Good Shepherd order serving marginalized women and children, maintained a presence in Omaha much of the past century. Originally called Sister Magdalens and, later, Sisters of the Cross, their first home here was on South 40th Street. They moved in 1969 to the former Poor Clare Sisters convent at 29th and Hamilton. When the huge old building became untenable a new convent was erected at 3321 Fontenelle Blvd.. Occupied in 1989, the new site was home to the contemplatives until last November. It is now for sale.
Consistent with the good shepherd mission, the sisters pray for the poor, the sick, the dispossessed or anyone else needing spiritual intercession. They accept prayer requests by phone and mail. All who call on them find refuge in their gentle house of hearts. From the quiet of their tree-shaded Omaha sanctuary, complete with chapel and dining hall, the sisters provided solace and support to countless petitioners. It is a mission they continue today from their bucolic St. Paul retreat.
Despite being an enclosed community, the sisters lead lives fully engaged with, not removed from, the world. Indeed, since Vatican II eased restrictions on religious orders in the 1960s, the sisters have enjoyed greater freedom. No longer a classically cloistered community bound by strict monastic codes of silence and isolation, the sisters have used the more relaxed rules to extend their grace to ever more souls. That has meant getting involved in the lives of persons pleading for help, including “adopting” families in distress and distributing food to the hungry.
Sister Barbara Beasley, RGS, an apostolic Good Shepherd leader in St. Paul, said, “If the contemplatives are really doing their job, which is all about spirituality, then they are connected with everything that’s going on. And that’s exactly the truth about these women. The proof of their contemplative life is that they are not turned inwards on themselves. They are the least turned-in people you can imagine. Their interests are outward. Before news of a crisis hits the paper they already know it because somebody has called up asking them to pray about it. They’re truly centered people. They know what they’re about. They know their calling is to pray for ministries, to pray for needs, to pray for everything. They are alert and responsive to what’s happening.” She said while there is no plan to do so, a small group of contemplatives could one day again be assigned here.
The oldest and longest professed member of the former Omaha community, 89-year-old Sister Cecelia Porter, CGS, finds people from all walks of life confiding in them. “They tell us many things. They talk on the phone for hours, especially people living alone. You’d be surprised who it is too. You can be rich and still be lonely. Sometimes it’s hard to listen. We have one sister, Edith (Hesser), who listens and listens and listens to every kind of problem under the sun and everyone just loves her for that,” she said. “One talent God has given me is to pray with others, and to pray with them in a way that they feel they are included in the making of the prayer. If I know your problems I can pray for you so deeply. I can pray almost out of your own hope. People tell me they feel encouraged and helped by that.”
A measure of the impact the sisters made here was the stream of friends and patrons stopping by the convent to say farewell and thanks in the days prior to the move. Denise Maryanski of Papillion spoke for many in describing the sisters’ amazing grace. “Nothing I do in my life, even raising four children, would be as hard as the work they’ve done and the dedication they’ve shown in their life,” she said. “These women are totally pure in spirit. It is perfection. They are as close to being saints on earth as anyone we have met. They just don’t seem to have ugly days. They deal with whatever they’re handed and they deal with it with this joyful spirit and heart. When you’re with them, you just smile. You can’t help it. Even in their darkest hours, dealing with life-threatening illnesses, the joy is still there. They accept the challenges God gives them. You never hear them say, ‘Why me?’ When life looks really ugly to me I think, ‘What would Sister Clare (Filipowicz) do? What would Sister Edith do?’ They’ve enriched our life and been an inspiration.”
As divorced Catholics-turned-Episcopalians, Denise Maryanski and her husband Tony cherish the unconditional love extended them and trace the success of their home construction business to the prayers granted them. “You don’t have to show your Catholic badge at the door. They’re not at all judgmental,” she said. “We know they’ve taken care of us too. Stressful things have happened in our family and in our business over the last two years and all we had to do was pick up the phone and say we were having some issue in our lives and they were right there praying for us. We attribute all our blessings to them.”
There is no limit to what the sisters pray for. “We consider ourselves responsible for the entire world, prayerwise, and we are very thoughtful to that,” Sister Porter said. “That’s one thing about contemplation — it widens the mind so much. We make our prayer fruitful by having an intention, a motive and a thought in mind. It can be a disaster, a tragedy or an accident or it can be people looking for better jobs or better marriages or better health. All of it is a matter for prayer. Whether we know the people or not, we put some spiritual power in their lives that wouldn’t otherwise be there. You never know for sure what your prayer does, but people do call and say, ‘Thanks, it happened.’”
Even with the world as their focus, there are special prayer causes. For example, Sister Porter prays for governmental leaders. And, as a group, they pray for their fellow religious. Sister Eileen Schiltz, RGS, an Omaha counselor who often attended Sunday mass with the contemplatives, said, “At mass they always remember all of our Good Shepherd sisters and ministers all over the world.”
For years, Rev. Lee Lubbers, SJ, of Creighton University, took turns with other Jesuits saying mass at the convent and has relied on the sisters’ mediation for various Jesuit-related endeavors. “It was important for me to count on their prayers for the non-profit educational satellite network (SCOLA) I started in 1981. I kind of count them as the founders of that whole operation, which has become a big network worldwide. I keep them praying for every development. I count on their support constantly,” he said. Typical of the sisters’ caring, he added, was their desire to visit SCOLA and minister to its staff, which they did every year. For him and others the sisters represented a comforting presence where “the important things in the universe were in touch at least, someplace, all the time.”
Rev. Lee Lubbers
In her work counseling abused women and children, Sister Schiltz often calls and asks the contemplatives to pray for her clients and senses a genuine interest in their plight. “I have never been let down. They always ask how the woman or child they’re praying for is doing.” She said the sisters have even taken under their wing children whose parents are imprisoned or deceased — sharing mass and meals with them. She said the sisters have not only provided a prayer-line, but a lifeline to those in need. “I wish I could find a donor for an 800 number so people could call them up in St. Paul and still have their prayers answered in Omaha.”
In a culture like ours, where tangible results are held sacred, something as ephemeral as prayer may seem like wishful fancy to a cynic. For Sister Porter, it is an article of faith. “You can’t see it. You can’t prove anything. The only thing you can live by is faith. But the things we can’t see are so real. Look at your radio or TV. Their reception is based on signals and waves. You can’t see those things, but do you doubt they exist? Or oxygen. You can’t see it, but by golly if you didn’t have it you sure would miss it. Just like those things, you’ve got to have faith your prayers will be heard. I believe with all my heart it can and does happen.”
In a loud, hectic world muddled with distractions, finding the time and space for quiet reflection can be a challenge. It is all a matter of intent and focus. Likewise, being contemplative is more than taking a vow or mouthing words. It means embodying one’s faith and spirit through expressions, thoughts and deeds. “Your entire life has to have a contemplative stance in order to produce any real contemplative fruit, because your mind does not snap like that from one thing to another, usually,” Sister Porter explained, snapping her fingers for emphasis. “You can wear the habit and say all kinds of prayers and do all this stuff and not change your character one bit. To me, it’s more of a thing of opinions and dispositions and actions and priorities. You have to have the depth to know you don’t live here just to wear a habit. It’s how deep you think. How deep you live.”
Sister Schiltz feels these women remind us what our spiritual life can be. “I think they’re a symbol. We need those symbols of contemplative life more than ever now because we’re so rushed and hurried. A lot of people long for that because the world is so chaotic. The contemplatives show it can be done. But it’s hard to live. It’s a gift that God calls you to. Some choose to answer it and some don’t. Maybe we can’t do it ourselves, but it’s something we can strive for in our own way.”
Ultimately, a contemplative life is a calling. Sister Porter heeded the call as a young woman. “I didn’t resist it. I was looking forward to more of the deep mystery of spiritual life.” But the story of how she came to follow her calling, like the stories of her fellow nuns, is probably not what you would expect. Born Thelma Porter in 1910 Portland, she grew up in Seattle. Her family, she said, practiced no particular faith and were in fact hostile to Catholicism. Her mother died when she was young and her stern father raised her and her two brothers alone. Despite her father’s opposition, she had Catholic schoolgirl friends and came under the influence of local Good Shepherd nuns, whose flowing white habits made them appear “angels.”
At 16, she left home to fend for herself. She only completed a couple years of high school before going to work. By 19, she decided to become a Catholic. Even though she admits she had a rather naive idea of the commitment she was making, she decided to not only take up the forbidden faith but become a nun as well. When she told her father, he disowned her. In her youthful arrogance, she defiantly turned away from him too. They never saw each other again. She also became alienated from her brothers and extended family. The separation hurt.
“As years went by I knew I hadn’t done the right thing. I could have handled it differently. It caused me much suffering and much bitterness. I felt it was my own fault. I was pretty unhappy about that part of my life.”
It was only as she matured she came to terms with what happened. By then, however, her father was dead, the bad feelings between them left unresolved. Amidst the sweeping changes of Vatican II, when many religious reexamined their vows and dropped out, Sister Porter too had an awakening that helped her overcome the doubt and acrimony and rededicate herself to her vocation.
“At that time I rethought my whole life and I came to the conclusion this life has got to be a better one if I live it right because I feel drawn to it. It must be what I’m meant to do.I dropped all the bitterness I had about my family. I realized you can’t undo what you’ve done when you’re young, no matter how much you regret it. The Lord sent me so much satisfaction with my life as soon as I let that go.”
She flourished amid the new freedom Vatican II and modern feminism ushered in. “I just really sort of blossomed in so many ways. I made a lot of new friends. I began to paint. I began to do things and go places. I got elected to the order’s leadership council and went to Europe. I met Good Shepherd sisters aiding women all over the world. It gave me an experience of belonging to the entire world. It also made me realize so many women are not treated equally and are just used in so many ways.”
She believes the ensuing large exodus from religious life was not all bad, but instead a necessary, if painful, purge. “The truth is it needed to be done. There were lots of people in religion because mama wanted a priest and papa wanted a nun. If you kept the routine, that’s all that was required, really. It wasn’t a deep spiritual thing like it should have been.” She speaks from personal experience, having come to religious life with starry-eyed ideals that were soon dispelled. “I didn’t know how to be a Catholic much less how to be a nun. The reason I became a nun was because I thought, erroneously, living a contemplative life would be a religious equivalent to a studious life. That I would write and read and meditate and be untouchable by other things. It was a rather romantic, mystical notion. I never realized we had to work, we had to eat, we had to pay bills. I was the bookkeeper the last 30 years, so I’m very conscious there’s more to life than prayer.”
Besides her faith, music has been her refuge. A trained pianist and organist, she accompanied the sisters’ singing of the psalms since entering the order in 1936. She spent the first 30-some years of religious life in Denver and after the convent there closed in 1969 she moved to Omaha, where she remained active right up until the community’s departure. Her vocation has been both rewarding and trying. As she can attest, a contemplative cannot be an idler. It is a life of rigorous devotion and discipline. Little time is wasted. Scant thought given to personal needs. Orders must be obeyed. Sacrifices made. Slackers need not apply. An unbending routine of required daily prayers and assigned chores fill the hours. The routine used to be even tougher. Rising well before dawn, sisters followed a taxing prayer and work schedule. Until just a few weeks before their move, the Omaha sisters supported themselves working as seamstresses for clothing and fabric manufacturers and making altar breads for churches.
“Because we’re considered a relaxed community now, our day starts at 6 a.m. But when we were younger we got up at 4:30. In the old days the thinking went if you had any spare time you were not doing something worthwhile. You were supposed to be doing some kind of labor at all times. You were expected to just keep going, even if you were sick, until you couldn’t go another step. The harder you were on yourself, the better. That was the way religious life was. And, boy, it was hard,” Sister Porter said. “But after Vatican II we began to live more like the world lives. We didn’t have to work quite so hard. Our life was divided between work and prayer and leisure, but leisure was the thing that always suffered. Personally, as far this new thinking is concerned, I’m right with it. Why treat your body like that? And the fact I’m here at my age, and in good health, tells me it works.”
She feels past hardships likely contributed to the health crisis that beset several members of her community last fall. With the weakest unable to work (some were transferred months earlier to the St. Paul infirmary), the aging nuns, their ranks already depleted by illness or death, lacked the necessary vigor and numbers to maintain the Omaha facility. It was the final straw that broke the convent’s back.
“Four of them could hardly walk they were so old and tired. They were to the end of their strength. They simply couldn’t go on anymore. It’s just my opinion, but their life was probably too hard when they were younger. We were going to hang on here another two years, but things fell apart so fast we had to act.”
Leaving Omaha has been a strain on the sisters, all of whom are in their 70s and 80s and own deep-rooted ties to the area. Of their relocation, Sister Porter said, “You have no idea of the trauma it really was. I’m only now beginning to be quite accepting of what’s happened. I just need to forget it. I think I will. I always know I’ll have a lot of friends there who love me.” And there is the camaraderie among her sisters of the cloth. “The loyalty among us is something you can’t believe.”
The people they served so faithfully through the years remain close to their hearts. She said she and her fellow sisters appreciate the outpouring of support Omahans showed through donations of time, talent and treasure, whether landscaping the convent’s grounds or supplying the religious enclave with food or helping maintain financial records. More often than not, she said, these Good Samaritans became dear friends. She firmly believes such relationships marked the Holy Spirit in action.
“God has blessed us in so many ways with so many friends. Everything we ever needed seemed to show up before too long. Food and books and just about everything you can think of. In that way we got to know so many people. All of those people came to us by God sending them,” she said. “Somehow, our friendships with others seem to be founded more on deeper things in life. It often begins with us praying for them, and somehow the bonds just develop into something very personal.”
John Hoich was introduced to the sisters 11 years when, as owner of his own landscape and lawn sprinkler business, he gave them a bid on a sprinkler system. Hoich, a single lapsed Catholic at the time, soon found his life transformed.
“When the sisters got done with me I told them I’d knock the sprinkler system down to cost if they prayed for me. I installed the system at cost and, boy, did they ever keep their end of the bargain. They pretty much adopted me at that point and I just fell in love with them. I started bringing trees out and planting them. I donated money. Every time I’d come they’d sit me down and feed me. They constantly ministered to me too. They prayed for me. They prayed I’d get married to a Catholic woman and have a family, and three years ago I married Denise and two years ago we had healthy twin boys. I really believe Denise came into my life and my business grew due because of them. They’re powerful, powerful ladies.”
The sisters got to know Hoich’s wife and boys and even attended a pig roast he held on an acreage he owns. Along the way, Hoich, orphaned at a young age and raised in foster homes, gained a renewed appreciation for his faith and for the goodness of others. “They reminded me to keep my priorities straight. To keep God first, family second and business third,” he said, “They taught me the spirit of giving and caring. They walk and talk their belief, yet they’re down to earth.”
Friends like Hoich say the sisters may be gone but will not be forgotten. Letters and phone calls have already been exchanged. Visits have been made or are being planned. “We’ll keep in touch. This chain will not be broken. It is that much an integral part of our lives. They are our extended family,” Denise Maryanski said.
As for Sister Porter, she’ll be turning 90 soon but far prefers embracing the here and now to wallowing in the past. “Time doesn’t hang heavy on my hands and I don’t look back. I’ve had so much in front of me all my life I’ve never had a minute when I didn’t have something to do and there’s still a lot of things I want to do.” In February she goes to Atlanta for meetings of her order. In July she’s taking a month’s sabbatical in her birthplace of Portland. She is content with where her chosen path has taken her. “I made sacrifices for this life. I could have had a better education. I could have married and had a family. But I think I’ve done something extra special. My life has been worth something.”
- Lord, hear our prayer: Benedictine sisters cope with tragedy (beliefnet.com)
- Nuns embrace technology to help the needy (telegraph.co.uk)
- Janet Haag: What Is Prayer? A Conversation with Sister Joan Chittister (huffingtonpost.com)
- Omaha Address by Cuban Archbishop Jaime Ortega Sounds Hopeful Message that Repression in Cuba is Lifting (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Where Hope Lives, Hope Center for Kids in North Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Two Year Anniversary of ContemplativeChristians.com (contemplativechristians.com)