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Whatsoever You Do to the Least of My Brothers, that You Do Unto Me: Mike Saklar and the Siena/Francis House Provide Tender Mercies to the Homeless

August 1, 2010 2 comments

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Before I did the following story on Mike Saklar, I only knew him from media reports about the Siena/Francis House homeless facility he ran then and continues running today.  Even in sound bites he comes off as a thoughtful, highly competent man deeply committed to his work.  When I finally met him a couple years ago to interview him and spend some time around the shelter and residential treatment program there, I found he was all those things and more.  This is quite an extensive profile of him and his work, and yet this was one of those occasions when I never heard word one back from him or anyone else for that matter at the Siena/Francis House about my story. That lack of feedback is in itself not that unusual per se, but for a story of this length it definitely is. So, if you happen upon this Mr. Saklar or perhaps one of your colleagues or supporters do, shoot me a comment or two, just so I have the satisfaction of knowing that at least somebody there read it.

 

 

Mike Saklar

 

 

Whatsoever You Do to the Least of My Brothers, that You Do Unto Me:                                                                        Mike Saklar and the Siena/Francis House Provide Tender Mercies to the Homeless  

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

The plight of the homeless tends to make news seasonally, during winter and summer, and then fades away the rest of the year. Out of sight, out of mind. Trouble is, even when the homeless stand in plain view you likely don’t see them. That’s because society makes them invisible, untouchable.

If you take a good look, though, the homeless are easy to spot downtown. They’re fixtures in the Gene Leahy Mall, hanging out, panhandling, lining up for free lunches. They camp out at the W. Dale Clark Library, reading, dozing, drying out, coming down. These discarded, dispossessed figures occupy a limbo, killing time between some indeterminate goal or destination — perhaps a ride, a meal, a roof over their head or their next fix.

They’re an inconvenient reminder the fabric of America is torn, its safety net not catching everyone who suffers a fall.

The homeless often habituate Omaha’s east corridor, where several nonprofits serve the population. The state’s largest homeless shelter, the Siena/Francis House, is situated on the fringes of NoDo or North Downtown. This multiplex at 17th and Nicholas St. is an oasis for the lost and the misbegotten.

Siena/Francis executive director Mike Saklar has never been homeless himself but he’s seen the lives of street people wrecked by neglect and transformed by support. After 28 years in the Omaha City Planning Department, where he began working with area homeless programs, he now focuses on breaking the cycle of homelessness. That’s the mission of Siena/Francis, which he’s directed since 2002.

It wasn’t like the job was a long-held dream. But being there doing this work makes sense given his background and the choices he’s made. Siena/Francis men’s shelter manager James Hayes said he believes Saklar “has been in training for this job since day one. All of his experiences in life up to the day he took this job prepared him in some way or another to be one of the most sincere, compassionate, hard working, help-anyone-in-any-way-he-can individuals I have ever met.”

Saklar confirmed he’s “experienced different things during my life” that have helped him connect with the poor and to value them as human beings. Giving to the less fortunate is a practice his elders modeled. His father was a traveling salesman, his mom a stay-at-home matriarch.

“My extended family’s always been big in helping others,” he said. “My grandfather was director of one of Omaha’s early homeless shelters in the 1930s. My parents and grandparents helped and befriended many people, often opening their homes to them. I open my home to a select few who I know well. I do bring some homeless to dinner on Christmas and Thanksgiving.”

He came into contact with more homeless working at Peony Park, near where he grew up. The amusement park’s owners, the Malecs, used to hire what were called ‘bums” then. They worked the grounds and the gardens.

Though a teen at the time, Saklar did a man’s job at the amusement park, sometimes working alongside the transients.

“I put in 10-12 hour days. It was a lot of hard work. I did everything from operating rides to putting out a couple thousand pounds of charcoal in these great big pits, preparing barbecue sauce from scratch in these giant vats, to cutting up chickens, washing them, cooking them, making potato salad for 2,500 people, to working as a bus boy for the bartenders at night. I’d bring up the ice and the beer from the basement, pop the popcorn, clean up afterwards. I did all that.

“It was really a life experience…meeting lots of people.”

Doing manual labor, being around diverse people set the tone for his adult life. “I love different cultures and I know a lot of people from a lot of different cultures,” he said. A person he got “particularly close to” at Peony Park was a homeless man who worked there. Saklar said, “When I was about 13-years-old I had my first homeless friend, Joel Craig. I liked him. We got to be talking friends. We talked a lot. I don’t remember how he got to be homeless.”

Saklar lost touch with Craig. Years passed before they were reunited. By then it was the ‘70s and Saklar was an Omaha Community Development trainee with the City. His job — relocating east Omaha residents to make way for progress. Eppley Airfield expansion meant displacing hundreds of families. In the process of notifying  homeowners he came upon Craig living in a tiny but tidy bungalow that had to go.

“He had somehow put his life together a little bit, still at a very low level, but he’d married and he and his wife lived together in this house,” Saklar recalled. “I thought it was so cool to run into him again later and to be able to help them get another house. I helped them move.”

Living conditions in east Omaha then, he said, were akin to Appalachia with its crushing poverty, only minus the coal dust and hills. The small shotgun houses were substandard. Being exposed to such hardships opened Saklar’s eyes.

“This was two minutes from downtown and they didn’t have sewers. Some of them still had outhouses, dirt floors. I was in houses where there were five kids sleeping on a dirt floor in the basement. With the jet liners rumbling over your head every 15 or 20 minutes you couldn’t talk or hear. It would just vibrate like heck. Some homes were heated just by wood space heaters. Residents chopped the lumber.

“It was really a backwards community, and it was very very poor. I was amazed. It would have been the most blighted, poorest census tract in Douglas County by far, maybe one of the poorest in the state per capita.”

Despite the disruption to people’s lives and the rupture to communities that went with razing people’s homes to make way for public works projects, Saklar believes dislocated residents came out ahead in the long run.

“It was a great experience because you’re not just kicking people off this land — you’re working with them and helping them to better themselves, and with all the federal laws you’re providing relocation assistance in order to help them buy a decent home,” he said.

Before he ever got into city planning Saklar embarked on a path that made him empathetic to people living on the margins. After graduating Westside High School in the late ‘60s he enrolled at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He paid his own way and when his funds ran dry he dropped out. No sooner did he leave school then Uncle Sam drafted him into the U.S. Army. The Vietnam War was escalating. Seeing action was a real possibility.

He ended up in airborne training and made the cut as a paratrooper in the famed 82nd Airborne division. In ‘69 he shipped overseas to Korea, via Japan. He couldn’t wait for his chance at combat duty in ‘Nam. As fate had it, he never got the call.

“I was very disappointed. If you go through airborne training and then to the 82nd Airborne you’re ready to go anywhere and to do whatever you have to do.”

Instead, he tested into an operations intelligence specialist post with the 7th infantry division’s command in Seoul. He rated top secret clearance. The work was interesting but what most fascinated him was the Korean culture. “I liked to walk around and peruse through the markets, see the action, right.”

Everything the naive 21-year-old saw made an impression. He came across situations that would inform his later work with Omaha’s homeless. South Korea was still reeling from the war that ended 16 years before and, thus, unchecked diseases, shortages of basic goods and other hardships were rampant.

“When I was overseas I ran into leper camps, really terrible situations, lots of homeless people, and I think maybe that helped create something inside me, right.”

The resiliency and ingenuity of the Korean people struck Saklar. After meeting his wife there and visiting several times over the years he remains impressed today.

“I admire the work ethic of the Korean culture. It doesn’t seem to matter if a person’s job is street sweeper, teacher, businessman or doctor, they will do their very best and do it in a very professional way. I don’t know how to explain this. Koreans are very respectful of others, and if you walk around, say, in Seoul, the capital city, you will be hard-pressed to find trash blowing around. It is a very clean city. Korea offers a lot to admire. The culture goes back some 5,500 years. I love Korean history, architecture, anthropology, geography, sociology, et cetera.”

He said Koreans well-deserve their reputation for being driven to achieve, especially in the classroom. “They are way too smart.”

During his overseas tour Saklar met a bright Korean national attached to his unit, Han Chil Song, who let the curious American know his sister, Chong, worked in a Seoul tailor shop. “She measured me up for a number of suits,” said Saklar. “For some reason, I kept going back to purchase some very nice and very inexpensive suits.” Love bloomed. The pair married. Her brother died tragically.

 

 

 

 

Saklar learned the harrowing story of how Chong’s family escaped North Korea after the Communists came to power and implemented a purge that targeted figures like Chong’s banker father. Chong was not yet born. The family made it to Seoul, South Korea, where they survived the war.

“I think it was rough going,” said Saklar. “I mean, that whole country was devastated and destroyed. I was just there, and the mountains surrounding Seoul  still don’t have any trees on them yet. They’re just bare. The trees were blasted out or people cut them down to survive. It’s unbelievable.”

Saklar became a father shortly before his Army release. In the States his small family settled in Omaha, where his Greek-American clan embraced his Korean wife and Amerasian son. “I think it was pretty exciting for all of them, especially since we had a child.” His Korean wife and biracial kids — he and Chong have three grown children — have been subject to some prejudice, he said, but mostly welcomed.

Back home, Saklar returned to school on the G.I. Bill but with a family to support he needed a job. He tried driving a taxi, working construction — “whatever I could do just to make ends meet,” he said. He began his own roofing business. “I was struggling. I went to Nebraska Job Service and I saw an opening for this new city department (Omaha Community Development), and I was the last person they hired, at the lowest ranking of all the staff.”

Acquisition/relocation work transitioned to developing affordable housing in largely African-American northeast Omaha neighborhoods. All of it was an education.

“There’s lots of things I was exposed to — a myriad of housing programs. I was active working to get housing built for first-time home buyers all the way down to the homeless shelters. I just learned on the way.”

His professional interest in the homeless began in the mid-’80s, when laws emptied mental health institutions, dumping countless people into the streets without a system to assist them or the communities they inhabited. He became Omaha’s point person for developing plans and capturing funds to deal with homelessness. He assembled the land the Siena/Francis, the Open Door Mission and the Campus of Hope occupy today. He secured a building and funds for the Stephen Center.

“Omaha City Planning became a leader in the nation,” he said. “I developed almost every homeless strategic plan since the very first one starting in 1987. And so I just got really interested in it. I got really good at bringing in money. I brought in like tens of millions of dollars worth of (community block) grants. In about 1995 some homeless agencies came and asked me to take the leadership in trying to create community partnerships with all the programs. Up until then it was all turf wars — fighting over the money and philosophical differences on strategy. It was terrible.”

The resulting Metro Area Continuum of Care for the Homeless, a collaborative network of 100 homeless providers that coordinates and maximizes resources to prevent and eliminate homelessness, has been recognized nationally.

“It was all just creative juices flowing, without any knowledge of really how to do it. Just learn as you go and do it with openness and honesty,” Saklar said of the process that launched MACCH in ‘96. “It just evolved, as everything does. I got to meet the directors of probably a hundred programs or more, becoming their friend and colleague and guiding them — they sought my advice and I sought theirs. We were just finding ways to do this. Programs flourished. Collaborative efforts formed.

“It’s become so good we’ve became a model for other communities. I find myself in Washington, D.C. or Charlotte (N.C.) at seminars showing them our strategy — this is how we did it. I get calls from all over the country for advice.”

Overcoming old turf battles in Omaha, he said, “involved bringing all the agencies and programs together. We tried to create some values within this system, to get the agencies to recognize they’re all just a piece of the puzzle and they have to respect each other’s philosophies on how to deal with homeless people. I could use the money as the carrot or as the stick of no funding if you don’t hop on board and get on this program. I did that quite effectively I believe. I made people that wouldn’t even talk to each other become partners, and jointly funded them.”

While the homeless problem in big cities overwhelmed those communities, Omaha’s situation was more manageable. Still, many service gaps existed. Saklar’s seen much improvement. “Omaha’s made huge strides,” he said. “Omaha’s been very, very good in dealing with the homeless.” He’s one reason why. The plaques on his office wall honoring his service attest to it. In 2001 MACCH was singled out among hundreds of programs nationwide by Innovations in American Government. “It said Omaha was doing the right thing and on its way,” he said of the award.

Omaha city planner James Thele, a colleague of Saklar’s, said “what makes Mike effective is he’s a very caring person. He’s also a very practical person. He understands budgets and money. He understands that things take time. He’s also adept at building concensus to move forward with new projects.” Thele said Saklar “has the ability to create a vision of how to address homelessness from a continuum standpoint based on the needs of the individual.”

Saklar was drawn to the work of Siena/Francis before ever working there. The shelter was begun by two nuns in ‘75. It was on Cuming Street then. From the start he liked that it accepted whomever came to its doors. No discrimination. Saklar’s own life is all about embracing diversity and making multiculturalism a way of life.

“The thing about Siena/Francis House was it had unconditional acceptance,” said Saklar. “It’s the only program that’s not a religion, that’s not a church itself or that doesn’t have restrictions. The other shelters at that time wouldn’t let you in if you had even alcohol on your breath. And so for the active addict, the active alcoholic, the Siena/Francis House was the only place they could stay.”

“So there’s this huge unattended need,” he said of active users unmet at other agencies. “When I was a city official,” he said, “there’d be huge arguments almost always against Siena/Francis House — that they were just enabling this lifestyle.”

The way Saklar and Siena/Francis staff see it, however, an addict can’t get sober until basic human needs for food, clothing, shelter and security are met. Then the process of recovery can begin. Siena/Francis operates the state’s largest residential chemical addiction program in its Miracles Recovery Treatment Center. He said his agency serves the vast majority of this area’s chronic homeless.

Everything about Siena/Francis appealed to him and so when the opportunity to head it up came he accepted. “This place is a hidden jewel and I knew that when I was at city hall,” he said. “I loved city hall, l loved my colleagues, what I was doing. I was at age 55 and I could retire but I thought, I would love to do something else, I could have another career. This job opened up and I took it.”

Administrative duties aside, Saklar goes out of his way to engage homeless “guests.” Some wind up staffers like James Hayes.

“I’ve found that not only does he handle the very important decisions and planning that goes into keeping the Siena Francis House above water but also he is always concerned with each individual homeless person he comes in contact with,” said Hayes. “And, believe me, there are many of our guests he knows personally and has helped in a number of ways.”

Women’s shelter guest manager Patricia Cunningham was once a resident there. “Mike was and is a very big part of my recovery,” she said. “He showed me how honesty and integrity could and did change my life.” Saklar leads a large weekly AA meeting on campus, where he’s warmly greeted by staff and guests. “I like being a mentor,” said Saklar. “That’s one of the best things I have going here. I’m able to mentor people who are very dysfunctional, have lots of issues and problems, and maybe offer some advice. Every day I talk to people.”

Spend any time with Saklar making the rounds and you’ll witness this. Usually he greets guests with, “How we doing?” One March morning he came across a client in the treatment program and stopped to speak with him.

“Are you doing good?” asked Saklar. “Yeah, I just got back from Metro,” the man reported. “You going to college?” Saklar inquired. “Yeah,” the man said, “I just have to follow those same (12) steps here…” “Right, exactly, good,” Saklar said. “OK, well, just keep moving forward — you’re just doing a remarkable job here. I’m glad to have you as a friend.” “I’m glad to be your friend,” the man replied.

Later, Saklar told a visitor, “I’m so glad to see this guy succeeding in the program. You wouldn’t even have recognized him a few months ago — he was a hardcore street person.” It’s miracles like these and the sobriety anniversaries and treatment center graduations celebrated there that keep Saklar motivated. “It just shows that treament, especially in this facility, works. It works very well and we can all accomplish the goals if we just put our minds to it,” he said.

That same March day Saklar got a report from Miracles program director Bill Keck that three ex-homeless addicts are still making it on the outside.

“They live in the Gold Manor Apartments up by Immanuel Hospital — they were all hardcore street people and they all graduated (from treatment) about the same time and they’re all doing well. All employed. Haven’t abused or used drugs or alcohol for a number of years,” said Saklar, “and I’m talking about some long-term addicts that if you saw them on the street and you saw them today you wouldn’t even think they’re the same person. Those are the good things.

“My greatest pleasure is when I run into a formerly homeless person who is housed, employed, reunited with family and, basically, doing very well. Or them sending me pictures of their children that were born here, showing me they’re doing OK. I’ve had a lot of parents hug me and tell me I saved their son’s life. This whole issue of homelessness — it is often a matter of life or death.”

Positive feedback is vital in an arena that has more casualties than victories.

“Otherwise, you do get totally burned out. You still do to some degree,” he said. “The discouraging times come when homeless guests with whom I am working give up or leave, or something or someone interferes with progress. This happens a lot. Maybe someone who was dealing with an addiction was doing real well and then a brother comes and messes up his life. Things like that.

“The heartbreaking situations come in many forms. Obviously, a lot of homeless people whom I befriended have died — in the neighborhood of 100 in the seven years I’ve been at Siena/Francis House. I watched a lot of them waste away due to their alcoholism or cancer or other illness. We always hold memorial services for the homeless who die. I didn’t know when I took this job I would be doing that.”

Saklar is someone the homeless go to when they lose a loved one.

“Not too long ago I had to write a eulogy for a father whose two young sons and ex-wife had been murdered. He didn’t know what to say and came to me for help. I knew the children and mother had been homeless at times. I sat in the back of the funeral home and watched. He did a very good job under trying circumstances.”

Then there are the unsettling reminders of how homelessness can touch people who look just like us. Call these there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I moments.

 

 

 

 

“I had two recent experiences that were very depressing to me,” said Saklar. “First, my 16-month-old granddaughter was visiting. I spent a Sunday bouncing her on my lap, looking into her big blue eyes. Then, when I arrived at work the next day I immediately ran into a 16-month-old girl whose mother had just checked into the Siena House. She had big, beautiful, blue eyes. She was unkempt, her clothes dirty and torn. I held her and tried to be happy but it tore me up inside.

“The same thing happened with my other granddaughter, who’s 11. We baby-sit every Wednesday. One Thursday morning I arrived at work to be introduced to an 11-year-old homeless girl and her mother. That bothered the heck out of me.”

Stereotypes abound about the homeless. We’re taught to avert our eyes from THEM or to avoid THEM because they’re unclean, dangerous, crazy derelicts. The truth is, something’s happened to bring them to this point. Every single one has a story of how they got there. Saklar said the chronic homeless account for most of Omaha’s down-and-outs. Others are pushed into desperate straits by a job loss, an illness, an addiction, an abusive relationship, before getting back on their feet.

“Most homeless do have an addiction or a mental illness, or both. Most have criminal histories. Most are not job-ready or housing-ready,” said Saklar. “Most have had disasterous lives since childhood. Too many are illiterate. Never got beyond fifth grade. It’s very unbelievable the number of people who never learned to read and write. Beyond that, they are all very unique individuals.”

Pass through downtown and you’ll glimpse some of these vagabonds and nomads. Some lug their possessions in bags, others in grocery carts. Weather allowing, men mill about the Siena/Francis compound. Most stay inside, protected from the elements, under the supervision of professionals who care. Were it not for safe environments like this the homeless would resort to dumpster diving, begging, stealing, loitering on corners, in alleys, in stairwells, in parks, living in shanties. Street life is no life at all. It’s a survival-of-the-fittest grind.

The current economic crisis with its high unemployment is spiking pantry and homeless shelter usage. Human service directors like Saklar worry the slump will impact the donations they depend on.

“Our budget this year is going to be $1.8 million but that’s counting a lot of grants for things, like a $200,000 (matching) grant from Kiewit for the new day services program. When I first came here the previous year’s budget was $600,000. I’d never run a business in my life. This is a business — you’ve got cash flow, you’ve got bills, you’ve got salaries, you’ve got employment laws just like every place you work.”

What he found when he arrived, he said, were “a lot of cash flow problems. I’m here a little over a year and I borrowed $60,000 to keep the doors open. We had a little line of credit and I used it.” He acknowledges that first year or two “was a challenge personally trying to learn all this and figure out what I got myself into.”

With time, it’s all worked out. “We turned all that around nicely as far as the fundraising,” he said. Siena holds an annual walk/run that raises money for the agency’s programs. And where before Siena rarely sent out solicitation letters asking for help it sends out several a year now. “I changed that. I had to — we would never have survived. There’s a lot of competition out there.”

Even though the agency’s financially stable today he said it never fails that “by October we’re always in the red.” He said, “Last year we were like $300,000 in the hole but amazingly in this business 50 percent of all our donations come in that fourth quarter. Every year it happens. You have to have faith.”

 

 

 

 

“In 2008, he said, “probably 83 to 85 percent of all our funding support just came from people in the community responding to our fundraising letters, probably six percent came from government” and the rest from foundations, corporations, etc.

Siena/Francis does much with little. Last year it provided 126,000 nights of shelter and 330,000 meals. “We probably average 350 (guests) a night,” said Saklar. “In addition to the mental health and addictions treatment one of the major efforts we have is the employment training program. We’ve got about 105 men and women in employment training. They help us run the programs and operate the facilities. We only have 26 salaried employees — everybody else is in employment training. It enables us to operate 24 hours-a-day, seven days-a-week.”

Saklar said the needs are great and more services required. He pulled out blueprints to reveal the expanded campus and services he has in mind. “This is going to be the centerpiece,” he said, indicating a rendering of a bright, airy building. “This is a human resource center or empowerment center — everybody has a different name for it — but it’s going to be a multipurpose facility with a healthcare center, strictly for the homeless, a dental clinic, respite care. It will provide every service a homeless person would need right out of this facility.”

This master collaborator envisions a one-stop campus where every appropriate service provider will have a presence. “One agency can’t do everything. I want Salvation Army involved, Heartland Family Services, all the mental health programs, Douglas County, Social Security, everybody. They can just do it right here.” Currently, homeless often must shuttle to off-site provider offices around town.

His vision doesn’t end there. “We’re going to build permanant supportive housing units,” he said, giving qualifying homeless a place to call their own. What would it mean to a homeless individual to have his/her own home? “When I walk over to our men’s shelter at night I see people sandwiched on the mats we spread out all over the floor. These people lying around, their self-esteem is so low — they think this is all they deserve. Then I think of the pride of knowing you have your own little apartment. What a huge lift up it’d be for these people.”

The plans also include “an employment-based center, where guests will do day labor. Perhaps an on-site manufacturer will put homeless people to work.

The price tag for the proposed 21-acre social service campus: $36 million. That includes an estimated $10 million in on-site improvements already completed.

He feels urgency to get it done but is pragmatic enough to be patient. “It needs to happen today,” he said. “This has been on the books for a long time. I think this is going to become a very worthwhile campus. It’s all part of the big picture.” Realistically, he thinks the campus could be completed in four years. He’s looking at funding avenues to realize the dream.

One nagging worry is potential opposition to a homeless campus in trendy NoDo, especially once the ballpark’s built. NoDo’s once hard streets are undergoing urban renewal, as warehouses, junk yards, manufacturing plants, bars and flop houses give way to gentrified new digs by Creighton University, the City and commercial developers. Fancy brick and mortar facades don’t change the fact homelessness exists. It’s a reality not going away anytime soon. Turning a blind eye won’t solve it. Moving shelters elsewhere only isolates the homeless from helping agencies.

Saklar’s advocated to keep services downtown, where, historically, the homeless congregate. “Somebody might want to come and take this place out. I know it could happen, and so I’m doing everything I can to solidify this agency-this campus,” he said. He’s weighed in on the NoDo development plan and he’s active in the Jefferson Square Business Association, assuring stakeholders a homeless campus can be a good neighbor. The more entrenched his homeless oasis, he figures, “the more impractical, more expensive” it is to remove.

“But you always have that danger,” he said. “So I’ve taken steps to ensure this is the appropriate place. One of those steps is working with Mayor (Mike) Fahey. He sees value in what we’re trying to do here. He’s been supportive from day one.”

City hall and Saklar work well together. He has strong allies there. It’s how the new day shelter Siena/Francis runs got built. Lameduck Fahey sings Saklar’s praises. “Mike has served Omaha’s homeless population with great distinction,” he said. “Under Mike’s leadership, the Siena/Francis House and the City of Omaha have developed an outstanding partnership through the establishment of a permanent homeless day shelter. Mike has gone the extra mile to help those in need.”

Is Saklar concerned what stance the next mayor may take? “No, because I think I’ve got relationships with everybody that’s running,” he said. “I think we’ll be fine.” He noted that the designs call for “a beautiful campus with green boundaries, landscaping, elevations that isolate it without having to erect fences.”

Once hired, Saklar gave himself 10 years on the job. Seven years in, he’s intent on  reaching certain goals before he’s ready to call it quits. It may be three years, it may be more, “nothing’s set in stone.”

“Siena/Francis House needs to concentrate on getting better. We’ll get everything in place and then this agency needs to prove it can effectively deal with homelessness. I want to complete the vision I have,” he said. “I want everything operating at full capacity, doing what it’s supposed to be doing.” Then, and only then, he said, might he feel comfortable to “slowly maybe slip away…”

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South Omaha’s Jim Ramirez: A Man of the People

August 1, 2010 5 comments

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Image via Wikipedia

The name Jim Ramirez was vaguely familiar to me.  I knew he was a highly respected figure in Omaha.  I finally caught up with him a couple years ago for this profile.  As this blog site will reflect between now and the end of the year, I have begin doing more and more writing and reporting on Omaha’s Latino and Hispanic community, and I will be posting more and more of these stories here. Ramirez has one of those pull-up-from-the-bootstraps life stories that rightly serves as an inspirational example to others.  My story originally appeared in the New Horizons.

South Omaha’s Jim Ramirez: A Man of the People

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

Moving from the kill floor of a packing house to the halls of academia, Jim Ramirez appreciates just how far he’s journeyed. Along the way he’s learned some hard and valuable lessons. That life’s not fair. That self-empowerment means taking control of your own destiny. That no one can put a limit on your capabilities but yourself. That giving back to your community is its own best reward.

For 40 years he’s used his experience to give people the tools they need for success. As a Latino, his focus is on kids from his culture, one he has deep ties to. A former Nebraska Hispanic Man of the Year and grand marshall of Omaha’s Cinco de Mayo parade, Ramirez supports his people as advocate, facilitator, community board member and bridge builder – bringing diverse people together to address problems and realize dreams.

 

 

 

 

When he was young Hispanics had little say politically or otherwise. “We did not have a voice, just as I didn’t have a voice. As I got more education I got more of a voice,” he said. He’s glad Hispanics showed up in force at recent public hearings in Fremont, Neb. to express opposition to punitive measures the city considered enacting against illegal immigrants and their employers. As Hispanics become better informed and educated, he said, the more they’re heard.

“I believe that education is power and power is money.”

This son of Mexican immigrants grew up in an era when kids with Spanish surnames were expected to fill the same blue collar jobs their folks worked. His dad Mike gutted cattle at Nebraska Beef. His mom Josephine sliced bacon at Armour. Aunts and uncles worked as packers, too.

His family was among thousands that supplied the army of workers employed by Omaha’s once immense packing industry, which formed at the turn of the last century alongside the giant livestock yards that operated in South Omaha.

The packing plants, led by the Big Four of Armour, Swift, Wilson and Cudahy and many smaller meat processors and food manufacturers, thrived for generations, offering Hispanics and blacks some of the best paying jobs then open to minorities.

With that background Ramirez “didn’t give it a thought” that as the oldest of four children he would follow his parents in the hole. “I didn’t know any better,” he said. That’s just the way it was then. Never mind the fact he was a bright student. If you went to South High, as he did, you were generally not considered college material, regardless of your abilities or aspirations. You were defined, as the school nickname reads, a Packer. Societal-educational norms deemed you unsuited for anything else, denying opportunities and crushing hopes.

“In those days counselors didn’t counsel us to go here or there or to prepare for this or that,” he said. “If you were from South Omaha and particularly if you were Mexican (or black) you were going to end up in the packing house, which is where I ended up. Or on the railroad.”

He put in 14 years on the kill floor at Nebraska Beef. He began washing carcasses for a $1.59 an hour.

“After being skinned and split we washed ‘em off. Then they were wrapped in a shroud and pinned — that’s how they get their shape,” he said.

He would likely have remained there if not for mentors who encouraged him to attend college. His first aborted try at higher ed came at the urging of his South High Spanish instructor Alice Giiter. She saw enough potential in him to recommend he apply at Northwestern near Chicago. It was too much of a stretch in his mind.

“When I graduated the best I could do to satisfy Miss Giiter was enroll full-time at then-Omaha University,” he said. “By then I had decided I wanted to be a coach and an elementary teacher.”

Coaching was a natural fit for Ramirez, who though small in size was a top athlete. “That was my life,” he said. He played competitive basketball into his 30s and fastpitch softball well beyond that. The Nebraska Machine fastpitch softball squad he played shortstop on and managed was dominant. Its star pitcher was Ramirez’s son Jim Jr., who was good enough to be invited to train with the U.S. national team in Colorado Springs, Colo. for the Pan Am Games.

Ramirez coached CYO ball for several parishes. He also officiated hoops and football contests, working everything from the Pee Wee leagues to state college games. “I loved it,” he said.

Strangely, he never played organized sports at South. He explained few Hispanics and blacks went out for school teams then — discouraged by quotas and attitudes that made clear they were unwanted. Today, the predominantly Latino Packer soccer team is “the glory of the school.”

Back then, however, discrimination was wide-spread and often overt. After one semester at the university he said a clearly biased education professor dissuaded him with an insult: “Ramirez, I think you ought to change your major — there aren’t too many of YOU people in teaching.” The comment would merit suspension or dismissal today and prompt a complaint by Ramirez. But he was a teenager then and the older educator represented an authority figure he deferred to.

“Young and dumb. What the hell did I know about institutional racism at the time,” Ramirez said. “So I didn’t go back the next semester.”

Instead he returned to the kill floor. He didn’t tell anyone what had happened. “Nobody knew. It was something I just carried inside of me for years,” he said.

He’d never stepped foot inside the plant his father worked in until the day he started there. Everything about the place was an eye-opener. The harsh conditions. The rough-edged men. Their smoking, drinking, fighting, carousing. A more than mile-long stretch of Q Street featured bars, pool halls and gambling joints. As a boy he shined shoes inside Joe’s Pool Hall. Whorehouses were nearby. All in service of the livestock and packing trade.

“Oh, God, those were some wild days. The packing houses were thriving. It was very colorful and culturally diverse,” he said.

He learned every job on the kill floor, eventually becoming foreman. That meant the young Ramirez supervised his father and other grizzled men twice his age and size. His most harrowing job was as a knocker, which entailed swinging a 5-pound sledgehammer between the eyes of cows.

“Every now and then you’d hit a cow and think it was dead and then it’d get up and start running all over the kill floor, guys scattering because they’re all carrying razor-sharp knives, and here’s this crazy, half-dazed cow on the loose,” he said. “To this day I can’t kill a fly or a mouse.”

The worst job was his dad’s — gutter.

“Sometimes we’d kill old cows and some of them had cancerous stomachs and you’d go and rip open the front of the belly and, whoosh, your face would be full of puss,” he said. “That happened probably once or twice a week. You didn’t know what you were getting into when you opened that beef.”

In truth, every job on the kill floor was a nightmare.

“I wish I had a nickel for every cut I got I on my hands and on my legs from working there. It was dangerous. It was brutal. This was before OHSA in a small, non-union plant. Very primitive. Drive the cows in, hit ‘em in the head, hang ‘em up by the hind legs, rip their throat till they die. Ihen lay ‘em on the ground, rip ‘em open, skin ‘em, hang ‘em up again and gut ‘em. You’re walking in blood ankle deep.”

He hadn’t intended on working there long but, he said, “I stayed and stayed and stayed and stayed,” and before he knew it years had passed.

“Once you start getting that nice paycheck,” he said, “it’s hard to say, ‘Well, I’d rather go to college.’” Still, some did try. “As a UNO counselor I ran into many South Omaha kids that didn’t survive because of the lack of preparation. It was always Plan B for them to go to college…” They’d invariably drop-out.

The prospect of being at Nebraska Beef until he was a broken down old man got him thinking about his future.

“I was beginning to learn a little something. I would look at Dad and say to myself, I don’t want to be here when I get his age. Because he was up in age already.”

He finally went back to school at the insistence of social worker Alyce Wilson, who ran a southside community center called the Woodson Center. After getting on at Nebraska Beef he worked part-time at the center, where he was able to fulfill his desire to work with kids in athletics. Wilson suggested a field of study she thought he’d be a natural at — social work. He couldn’t grasp what that entailed until  informing him she was a social worker. Sociology became his major and for six years he worked for the Boys Club — first in North Omaha and then in South O.

The more Ramirez studied the more he saw injustice around him and the more he wanted to make a difference.

“I started to see the world through clear glasses instead of the rose-colored glasses I grew up on. My eyes were really opened to racism and how it still exists to this day, only more subtly.”

 

 

 

 

It took years of night classes but he got his bachelor’s degree in sociology in ‘71, whereupon he entered the education field. He added a masters in guidance and counseling from UNO in ‘74 and his Ph.D. from UNL in adult and continuing education in ‘84, all achieved while attending night school. He believes he was the first Omaha Hispanic to earn a doctorate. His folks lived to see him do it. “We had a big bash at Our Lady of Guadalupe Hall. The whole community celebrated,” he said.

Along the way he dedicated his life to being an advocate for minority students — bound and determined to ensure Hispanic kids get a fair shake.

“I was motivated by what the system had done to me — telling me I couldn’t be because of what I was. I thought this is bullshit because some of our kids want to be doctors or lawyers or engineers or whatever but they’re steered this other way where there’s no chance. I just told myself that as long as I’m alive I’m never going to let that happen to another young student.”

His careers as a Boys Clubs unit director, as a University of Nebraska at Omaha instructor/counselor and, later, as a Omaha Public Schools human/community relations specialist put him in contact with thousands of students over the years.

Although now semi-retired from the district, he continues looking out for the interests of minority students today at age 74. He’s an advisor, a resource, a friend and a liaison for many. He’s launched both a minority student support group at UNO and a minority student recognition program at OPS.

 

Below: The document pictured below is a statement of purpose issued by the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Mexican-American Affairs that jim Ramirez served on.

 

 As OPS Minority Activities Committee chair he’s still involved in the district’s recognition program. He’s pleased that Hispanic students’ standardized test scores are on the rise in OPS and he enjoys feting high achieving kids and their parents.

“The leadership I see in our youth is astounding,” he said.

In stark contrast to when he was a teen, South High now has a Latino Leaders student organization and a Spanish liaison. He’s a South High Hall of Fame inductee.

He’s assisted scores of undocumented immigrant families navigate the educational system by helping register their children in school. A decade ago Ramirez and others began lobbying the Nebraska Legislature to allow undocumented students to qualify for in-state tuition in the University of Nebraska system.

He once brought bus loads of students to Lincoln to tell their stories. Maria Olvera was among them. The Central High grad was an honors student but her lack of a social security number nearly denied her the chance at a college education. It took Ramirez’s intervention to get her into UNO and to stay there when her nonresidency status was discovered. She had to be reclassified a foreign student despite having lived in Nebraska for several years. Financially, it’s a struggle.

It was only in 2006 the law changed to make illegals, who still can’t receive federal financial aid, eligible for instate tuition; few such students could afford the much higher nonresident rates. Ramirez supports a dormant bill in Congress, the Dream Act, that would make such students legal permanent residents after two years in college. Minus such protections he fears many will lose any hope of college.

Ramirez is widely known as someone people in the community can call 24/7 about immigration questions/issues. If he doesn’t know the answer he’ll know who does.

Aware how vital it is that students of color have counselors and teachers who look like them, something he never had in public school, he helped found a minority intern program at UNO to increase the number of minority educators.

“Five of my former students at UNO became interns with OPS and have done well,” he said like a proud papa. “I brought them all on board.”

For 20-plus years he’s actively recruited new Hispanic teachers where they’re most plentiful — in the Southwest. Each spring he makes a circuit through Texas and New Mexico at teacher fairs to try and lure new education grads here.

“I’ve gotten probably about 15 teachers out of there to come to Omaha,” he said. “It’s very competitive because they don’t want to leave the Sun Belt. They’re very close to their families and we don’t pay worth a damn.”

He said districts in other states not only pay higher starting salaries they offer singing bonuses. “We don’t offer anything like that. So it’s hard,” he said. “I consider myself a good salesman to Hispanic teachers because I sell them on the opportunity to move up and become an administrator.”

This fall three of his recruits are in new administrative posts in OPS: Robert Aranda, Bryan Middle School principal; Ruben Cano, Norris Middle School assistant principal; and Rony Ortega, South High School assistant principal. Ortega is just one of many Latino staffers at the school today.

“We’ve come a long ways from when I graduated from South,” Ramirez said. “We couldn’t become janitors.” Much less teachers or principals.

Ramirez looks to fill gaps impacting Hispanic student achievement. Some years ago he and the former Chicano Awareness Center — now called the Latino Center of the Midlands — approached South High about having volunteer Hispanic counselors there. Ramirez was among the first. “Sometimes the traditional counselors overlook our kids for whatever reason,” he said. After resistance, the school provided a room, a phone and access to students.

“We sent out letters inviting parents and their kids to meet with us because we wanted to work with their sons and daughters to prepare them for college or to improve their status academically,” he said. “That grew and grew and grew and was institutionalized by the Chicano Awareness Center and the district. Some of us were housed in the center.”

Eventually paid counselors were put in place, with the center sponsoring tours of area universities as a way of acclimating or orienting kids to college life. Hispanic college students now host those visits.

“And today there are Hispanic counselors at South, Central and Bryan,” he said.

His impassioned concern for fair treatment landed him on the City of Omaha’s Human Relations Board under Mayor Gene Leahy, who was a friend. He’s remained involved with the board through several administrations. He counts as friends a number of past mayors as well as current Mayor Mike Fahey.

He still has the ear of decision-makers as a University of Nebraska President’s Advisory Committee member and as an OPS consultant. In his self-described  “watchdog” role he monitors how the university and the district address minority student needs and talks to chancellors, superintendents, lawmakers and other movers-and-shakers about policies and legislation affecting minority students.

All the while, as he’ sgone from just plain Ramirez to Mr. Ramirez to Dr. Ramirez, he’s kept in mind what happened to him as a student back in the ‘50s. “God, if they’re doing that to me,” he said he thought, there’s no telling what they’re doing to others. “And they’re still doing it,” he said. Most kids attending inner city schools today, particularly Hispanics and blacks, come from blue collar backgrounds where college is not a first choice.

That’s why, he said, “as I moved up the ladder in terms of contacts with chancellors-principals I made sure that they knew what my concerns were — the way our kids are treated in our high schools and, now, middle schools.”

“I’ve been blessed to be in a position to say to the presidents of UNO-UNL, ‘There’s something wrong here. You don’t have enough minority faculty. You don’t do enough to recruit students of color.’ And they pretty much listen,” he said.

From its inception in 1972 he’s also served on an advisory committee for UNO’s minority scholarship Goodrich Program, which has produced more than 1,150 graduates, including some of Omaha’s most distinguished Hispanic leaders. He asks pointed questions of program officials to make sure students are being well served. It’s all part of holding institutions and programs accountable.

“Do you recruit the same at South High School as you do at North or Central? How many Hispanic applicants did you get? How many did you interview? How many did you accept? Those are the kinds of questions I’ve been asking for 30 years in looking after my kids,” he said.

From Ramirez’s POV the Goodrich Program came about as “a result of UNO beginning to smell the coffee” in terms of reaching out to more “nontraditional students of color who are in financial need and academically maybe not as strong. It has just been a tremendous program because of the support parcels that are in it with faculty, with counseling and with study groups. It has produced some of our best Hispanic graduates.”

Little escapes his attention. For example, a recently announced UNL scholarship program targeting minority graduates of North High has him asking, “How about those kids in South Omaha? So sometime in the next few months I’ll get to talk to Jim Milliken (UNL president) and Harvey Perlman (UNL chancellor) and say, ‘Is this experimental at North High and are you going to expand it to South High?’” He always looks out for his constituency.

None of this would have happened if he hadn’t stepped outside the traditional role prescribed for him. He feels fate had a hand in his refusal to be limited or confined by some preconceived idea of what he should or could be.

“It’s a blessing in that respect because if I had stayed in the packing house I would never had been in a position to talk to Harvey Perlman or Jim Milliken or John Christensen (UNO chancellor). As an advisor on an advisory committee I have a little clout because I’ll call a damned press conference in a heartbeat to address something that is just wrong. I haven’t, because fortunately the universities have taken care of that issue.”

In a sense, every day’s been a blessing since suffering life-threatening injuries in a car accident as a teen. He broke his back and a leg. He skull was fractured. He was given the last rites. Seen in this light, even the kill floor was a gift.

He often draws on his own experience as a packing house worker who beat the odds and defied the stereotypes to find a way out.

“All of us counselors at UNO taught a one-credit class called Academics and Career Development. It’s a required course for anyone who enrolls at the university and checks the little box marked ‘undeclared.’ I taught probably three or four sessions. One of the first things I told students is, ‘What I don’t want you to do is break my record. I don’t want you take longer than 18 years to get a degree.’ Their eyes opened up then. And to this day kids will see me and they’ll say, ‘I remember what you told the first day of school.’ That sticks in their mind.”

He emphasized with students then and still does today that if he could make it through college, they can, too. He lets them know he overcame every supposed strike against him. That despite being from a blue collar immigrant family and working a full-time job and raising a family he managed getting three degrees while taking night classes. That’s why he doesn’t brook any excuses.

“That’s how I push my personal experience into this,” he said. “By telling them, ‘You’re 30-some years old now and you’re not one foot in the grave. There’s still time for you to salvage something.’ I remember a new widow from over in Iowa that took one of my evening classes. She started taking courses at UNO to try to survive with an education. She never got anything lower than an A. She graduated in engineering and is now with a big engineering firm in town.”

Ramirez, who divorced in 1979, is the father of three grown children.

He said older, nontraditional students “were my best students because they were taking care of business. There was not all this craziness in their mind about partying and doing stuff like that.” Ramirez may be an extreme example but he was the prototypical serious older student who kept his nose to the grindstone.

There’s another side of Ramirez though — one that loves mariachi music and Latino culture-art. In 1990 he co-founded the South Omaha Arts Institute or Casa de la Cultura, a nonprofit that began with a youth mariachi band, Estrellitas de Omaha, he helped support under the direction of Rosemary Flores. The Institute is home to music and dance touring groups and conducts classes in various arts disciplines.

 

 

 

 

In 1993 Ramirez assisted Magdalena Garcia in launching El Museo Latino in the Livestock Exchange Building. He still serves on the board of the museum, now housed in the old Polish Home. One of only 11 Latino museums in the U.S., it displays touring art exhibits, hosts lectures and classes and presents performances by its own “CHOMARI” Ballet Folklorico Mexicano troupe and by visiting artists.

By shepherding these two organizations Ramirez has helped enrich the dynamic new South Omaha that’s emerged the last two decades. This largely immigrant-led revitalization of the South 24th Street business district has turned “a ghost town into a thriving Little Mexico,” he said. Improvements go well beyond that festive strip to encompass Metropolitan Community College’s south campus, the renovated South YMCA, the new South Omaha Branch Library and the under construction Kroc Center and South High stadium projects.

Ramirez is enjoying this renaissance and not even recent open heart surgery can prevent him from keeping a hand in things. He could have left Omaha long ago but he’s committed to making his hometown a better place.

“I’ve been offered jobs everywhere because of my education, but I have stayed here. I never got too far from my roots.”

Even if he ever does retire he’ll always be the underdog’s champion.

“I’ve told people over and over and over that as long as I’m pumping blood if I see an inequity with our students I’ll act. I won’t fade away into the sunset.”

There’s no time to rest when you’re a man of the people.

Catherine Ferguson’s exploration takes her to Verdi’s “Aida” and beyond

August 1, 2010 2 comments

Nymphaea lotus.

Image via Wikipedia

Opera Omaha has a history of drawing attention for its innovative programming and collaborations. In recent years, the company has caused a splash by commissioning renowned artists outside the opera world to design sets and costumes for productions of classic operas.  First, the company had internationally acclaimed ceramicist Jun Kaneko, who lives and works in Omaha, design for Madama Butterfly.  Then, the company had noted sculptor and installation artist Catherine Ferguson of Omaha design for Aida.  I missed out on an opportunity to write about Kaneko and his Butterfly, and so when the chance came to profile Ferguson and her work on Aida, I leapt at it, and the following article is the result.  The article is another example of my plugging into an artist’s passion and expressing that to a general readership.  This is the first time the story’s been republished since its original appearance in the New Horizons a couple years ago.

 

Catherine Ferguson’s exploration takes her to Verdi’s “Aida” and beyond

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

 

The boundless limits of Omahan Catherine Ferguson’s art may be traced to a childhood that fostered her ever inquisitive nature.

When Opera Omaha commissioned the noted installation artist and sculptor to design the sets and costumes for its new production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida she did what she always does for a project — search out every source to inform it.

That meant close studies of the Egyptian collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, viewing a King Tut exhibit, reading books, watching productions of Aida and listening to the opera over and over and over again. Her research led her to the primary motif for her designs — a recurring hieroglyph of the blue lotus, actually blue water lily. It’s found in a pillar or column called the djed and in all manner of Egyptian artifacts, from pottery to jewelry to tombs.

“Once you start looking at Egyptian artifacts you find the lotus almost everywhere in different forms,” she said. “It’s just embedded in lots of place. Very stylized.”

The blue lily holds a yellow golden center remindful of the sun, which ties into the myth of an Egyptian King transfigured into a sun god, Ra. She found another deity, Ptah, also associated with the flower. Ferguson said the opening of the lily’s bud during the day, its closing at night and its reopening at dawn symbolized for Egyptians the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Regeneration. It all fit the structure of Aida, whose first two acts chart the ascendance of the King and future sun god, while the last two acts, what Ferguson calls Verdi’s “lunar acts,” reflect the veil of conflict and tragedy that befall the central characters.

“I thought, well, this is the perfect imagery I’ve been searching for,” she said. With such “ubiquitous” symbols at her disposal, she said, “I just went with it. Amazingly, we don’t know of any other Aida that used the lotus as its central design motif.”

Designing Aida meant many meetings with stage director Sam Helfrich, a collaboration that tested each artist, as it was his first time working with a nontraditional opera designer and Ferguson’s first time designing an opera. Ferguson, a self-described “moderate opera fan,” was somewhat familiar with Aida, having seen previous productions. The “huge challenge and responsibility” of undertaking the design for “this iconic piece,” as she calls it, was both daunting and exhilarating. Two years steeping herself in all things Egyptian and interpreting Verdi’s masterwork is just the kind of pursuit she enjoys.

Catherine Ferguson’s Aida designs for Opera Omaha production

That same sense of wonder is what’s compelled her to travel down the Amazon, visit Mexican ruins, tour the great sites in the Western European capitals, document the gardens of Italy, Japan and China, explore grottoes and immerse herself in the prehistoric earthen effigy mounds of the Midwest. The mounds’ animal-shapes, which she variously describes as “subtle” and “beautiful,” appear in several of her sculptures. “I have a very strong affinity for them,” she said. The elongated Oropendola bird nests she saw in South America show up in her work. The gardens and grottoes she photographed informed her own installations, as they are all “places that capture you for the moment and separate you from all the busyness that’s going on” outside.

She attributes this unquenchable thirst for experiential quests that feed her art to the environment she grew up in, which she said nurtured a desire for “constant exploration” and “lots of freedom to do that.” Born and raised in Sioux City, Iowa, Catherine and her older brother enjoyed an Arcadian youth in the 1950s. Their mother was a housewife trained as a teacher and their father a traveling typewriter salesman who later opened his own typewriter and accessories store.

“Growing up we lived in a neighborhood on the west side of Sioux City — only a couple blocks from open, uncultivated, untilled wild spaces,” she said. “There was a big hill called Mayflower Hill covered with these little purple mayflowers, and with the long prairie grasses on it. We would take cardboard boxes up there and slide down that hill — that’s how long those grasses were. It was fabulous.

“There was a wild plum thicket with bittersweet vine growing all over it. Over the years kids had tunneled into this thicket. There were chambers in the thicket where people played. Every season we were up there for something else. In the summer we were there playing. In the fall there was all the bittersweet to pick. And in the winter we took our sleds up there…We were outside all the time. That was a very wonderful place.”

Ferguson said the thickets and chambers of her youthful idylls “show up in my work a lot.” Her sprawling, multi-layered, organic installations, some filling entire rooms, are sacred sanctuaries filled with symbolic elements. The works often contain hidden, recessed spaces viewers come upon as they walk through them. Natural and synthesized sounds and light sources add more texture. She’s collaborated with composer-electroacoustic musician Mario Verandi on five installations.

Her sculptures, too, express elemental-spiritual dimensions. The sculptures are in a variety of materials. The visceral experience of her works encourages exploration and discovery. Her environments and objects evoke communion with spirit and nature, heaven and earth, themes consistent with an interest of hers — alchemy.

Much of her art is about transformation or transcendence and the interplay of the real with the ethereal in arriving at some purity or truth or harmony, which is a description of alchemy. Creativity, too.

“That stuff is fascinating,” she said. “Alchemy is what artists do all the time. You’re taking scraps of stuff that don’t have any meaning by themselves particularly but then you kind of wash away and get rid of the extra bits…You’re always looking for the core — and that’s what the alchemists were doing. They were looking for the Philosopher’s Stone at the heart, whatever that was.”

She likes how installations break down the elitist barriers of art that imply, she said, that “only certain people can understand it, only certain people can see it. That it’s in museums — it’s walled off.” She also likes the fact installations invite people to literally enter the work itself and, thus, respond to it in ways that are self-reflexive. As she told Joel Geyer in the NET documentary Is it Art?:

“I think with installation work…you’re not learning so much about the artist as possibly about yourself. It’s almost like having a script written but you’re the viewer. You’re also the actor, and it becomes your scene to develop once you’re in there. That’s what I’m shooting for in my work. What more do you want from art than to make you more conscious of yourself and your relationship to others? What more could one ask for? That, in itself, is beautiful.”

Seeking answers to universal questions became a habit instilled in her by the nuns who taught her at the former Rosary College, now Dominican College, in Chicago and by the Jesuits at Creighton University. These educators demanded rigorous analysis and independent thought in the pursuit of shaping the whole person.

“The nuns encouraged us to develop our minds and to express our unique selves.  We didn’t use the term feminist but they had the same philosophy about the role of women in society as the feminists espoused later,” she said.

She majored in English and minored in journalism. Art was the furthest thing from her mind. Well, not exactly. While studying in Chicago she became a habitual visitor to the Art Institute. “I’d take the L downtown and just walk around in awe. It was kind of a self-education in art,” she said. When she moved to Omaha to attend Creighton “she was really interested” in art but at that time the school lacked an art department. “I know I would have taken art courses if they had.” She continued her self-education at the Joslyn Art Museum.

Still, she said, “I was not even expecting to ever get into the art world.” There were creative aspects to her early jobs. “My first job was working for WNAX radio station up in Yankton (S.D.),” she said. “It was fun. I was writing commercials…”

She was then engaged to her husband, Terry Ferguson, who was studying at Georgetown Law School in Washington, D.C. Eager to join him, she moved to D.C., where she lived and worked in the mid-1960s. She did public relations for the U.S. Army Map Service, then engaged in satellite mapping of the moon and, she suspects, America’s Cold War enemies. She joined the federal Office of Economic Opportunity in downtown D.C. which put her near some of the capitol city’s finest art venues, including the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Phillips Collection.

“My work site was in between the two, so on my lunch hour I’d walk to one or the other,” she said. “Then on the weekends we’d often go to the Museum of National Art. We spent a lot of time there.”

By 1967 she and Terry moved back to Omaha, where he worked as a staff lawyer with the Legal Aid Society. He later served with the prestigious Kutak Rock Law Firm and as a senior attorney with Peter Kiewit Sons Inc. before joining the Fraser Stryker Law Firm. He’s also an adjunct professor in the Creighton Law School.

She was pregnant with their first son, George Ferguson, now a filmmaker who occasionally collaborates with his mother on her installations. The couple’s other son, Adrian Ferguson, is an Omaha architect who sometimes assists his mother in setting-up her installations.

While she was more and more inclined toward art, she said her emerging artistic sensibility “wasn’t really an epiphany moment” but more a matter of “backing into it.” She was a young housewife and new mother and to occupy herself she began taking art workshops. One in sculpture. Another in batik.

“The batik seemed at the time the easiest to deal with,” she said, “in that I could work right in my kitchen and I could get everything I needed at the Hinky Dinky. The paraffin and the dye. Old sheets I had at home.”

A phone call in the late ‘60s changed her life.

“One day Ree Schonlau called me and said, ‘I want to get together a group of people to start a craftsmen coop.’”

Schonlau was a potter and then-new University of Nebraska at Omaha art graduate with a vision for establishing what became the Craftsmen Guild in the historic warehouse district south of downtown. The once thriving wholesale produce market was in decline, its early 20th century brick buildings mostly abandoned. Where most people saw decay the Mercer family, who owned property there, and a few other visionaries like Schonlau saw potential.

Ferguson fell in with these bohemian pioneers to help transform the area into an arts-cultural haven known as the Old Market. The Craftsmen Guild, along with the Omaha Magic Theatre and the French Cafe, presaged all that’s followed.

The building Schonlau eyed, at 511 South 11th Street, now houses La Buvette amidst a string of eateries, shops and galleries. Then, however, the Market was mostly vacant. Schonlau, Ferguson, et all, joined forces to turn the vision into reality. They were young, energetic, idealistic. Together they transformed the Greenberg Produce Co. into an arts studio, complete with kilns for firing pottery.

“It was all cold lockers. The windows were all bricked up. We did a lot of manual labor and then other labor was hired,” Ferguson said. “We had a patron, Tom Davis, who helped us with part of that.”

This was the start of a most successful career by a contemporary Nebraska artist. Ferguson’s earned critical accolades and prized commissions. She cleaned up at the recent Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards. Her work’s widely collected and exhibited. Several of her sculptures adorn prominent public sites, including Totem in front of the W. Dale Clark Library and Sky Fin on the south side of the Qwest Center. Her installations have been showcased at the Joslyn, the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art and the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery.

Her life as an artist all began with that small coterie of fellow travelers similarly afflicted with the curse or the gift of feeling compelled to make art.

“It was a real good, exciting time,” Ferguson said. “That was my first studio outside the home. It was the first time I ever worked around other artists. Everybody else had a degree in art. They were very encouraging. It was a lot fun. I treasure most the opportunity that time gave me to meet other artists and have a studio in an unconventional milieu, a milieu conducive to experimenting. My studios have all been in locations that had some ‘grittiness’ and that has been helpful to me.”

Her spacious, airy, utilitarian studio the past 25 years is a brick building at 26th and Leavenworth Street, the former Warner Auto Shop. Windows in the renovated space let in lots of natural light. Drawings and mockups for her Aida designs are displayed amid work tables, plants and sculptures. The studio’s situated in an area slowly emerging as an artists’ community.

Ferguson honed her art and deepened her knowledge by attending workshops, reading art books and viewing exhibitions. She said she sought out workshops to cultivate “particular skills I wanted. They were very helpful. They all seemed to come at a good time. I spent some time in Iowa City one summer. The workshop was taught by a man who worked for Jack Lenor Larsen, a fabric designer. The instructor realized that a lot of his artist friends in New York were starting to work with fabric and that interested him and he talked about it a lot.”

Screen-printed fabrics were among the early forms-materials she worked in. She said the young lions of American art at the time, artists like Claes Oldenberg and Robert Rauschenberg, “were all bringing in materials that were nontraditional. Oldenburg’s soft sculptures particularly influenced me.”

This period, Ferguson said, is when she “really started thinking about the difference between craft and art. Certainly that was the time when there was this opening, this shift when the line between craft and art became less distinct. I think the difference, if there is one anymore, is the intention of the maker. A craftsman is very interested in how an object functions and its beauty, and an artist is generally more interested in other qualities such as an idea they want to convey. It’s tricky to distinguish between them these days.”

One of her early works, from the ‘70s, was a meat counter, all sewn in vinyls, with a light inside illuminating various cuts. Hanging above the counter was a stylized profile drawing of a woman that pulled apart in sections, ala a puzzle.

“It was a very feminist statement about fragmentation, about being pulled in lots of different directions and having lots of different roles,” she said.

For a long time Ferguson was reluctant to call herself an artist. When she finally felt comfortable, she said, “it was liberating…empowering.” Despite all her success she still battles doubts and insecurities, sometimes even telling herself, “I’m not going to do this anymore.” She said. “It’s only at the point when I can honestly say to myself, ‘You really don’t have to do this anymore,’ that I can then do it again.” She said these anxiety jags “happen less frequently now. Maybe I finally surrendered. Maybe I kind of expect to be doing this forever.”

As she and her art evolved Ferguson fixed on new directions. Some things remain constant.“ I’m a kinesthetic-type person,” she said. “I like materials. I do like form. I like large forms. I like the interaction of the human body to an object or form.” She loves dance and often draws on dance rhythms-movements in her work.

Catherine Ferguson’s sculpture garden at the Millard South Library

Her penchant for searching out new stimuli and connecting the dots to arrive at new insights has never left her. Every project elicits new creative responses.

“When I’m in a project I’m in a kind of heightened state of alertness — a receptive state,” she said, “and the physical world is more exciting to me.”

Ideas come to her “out of the blue,” sometimes in dreams, “because you’re alert and you’re in a different state,” she said. “You just see things you would normally drive right past. That I think is actually the crux of what keeps me making art.”

She admits she gets bored without some new subject to investigate or thread to unravel. Much of her work in the ‘90s was concept-laden and she’s now actively working to get away from that kind of over-intellectualizing.

“I am actually consciously trying to be unconscious.”

An example of her attempt to be more spontaneous, more instinctual is the set of torso drawings she did during a Bemis Center residency a couple years ago. “I had no idea what I was going to do. I just stepped up to the paper and started drawing. I didn’t think about it. I just jumped in. I’d like to work more and more that way.”

Speculating on the appeal of this approach, she said, “Perhaps after working as a concept-based artist it seems more risky to work intuitively without a preconception, and for that reason the possibility is more and more intriguing.”

That said, she acknowledges “it’ll be hard to suppress” her “research-bent.”

Just as Ferguson’s become a major artist, her old colleague, Ree Schonlau, made her own mark as founder of the Bemis artists colony — now the Bemis Center — in the Old Market, where artists from around the U.S. and the world come for residencies. Among those to do a residency there was the Japanese ceramic master, Jun Kaneko, whom Schonlau married. The couple have converted several buildings in and around the Market into studio, exhibition and storage spaces for his world-renowned work. Their much-anticipated Kaneko Museum is on the way.

Catherine Ferguson sculpture  outside the W. Dale Clark Library

Ferguson has remained friends with Schonlau.

“Ree and I have a good connection, not only because of our studio history in the ‘70’s but because her daughters Susan and Troia and my son George have known each other from age 6 from playing in the studios. All these children of Craftsmen’s Guild members went to Central High School and remain good friends today.”

Kaneko is someone she’s gotten to know well over the years. Around the time she got the Aida commission Kaneko was receiving plaudits for his design of Opera Omaha’s Madama Butterfly.

“I’d had many conversations with Jun during his process. He said many times, ‘I never thought it would be this much work.’ So I knew it was lot of work.”

When Aida was offered her, she was taken aback, especially when told Opera Omaha wanted a nontraditional interpretation of a classic work for which, she said, “people have such expectations. People who’ve never seen Aida feel like they’ve seen Aida. It definitely gave me pause and left me without speech,” she said. “I asked for a month to think it over. It was a huge decision to make.”

She consulted a good friend she attended high school with, Denes Striny, who’s made a career as an opera singer, voice coach and director. “I said, ‘Denes, would I be crazy taking on a new and minimal Aida?’ He said, ‘I definitely think you should do it. You can do it.’ He was very encouraging.”

Emboldened, she signed on. Sure enough, Aida stretched her in ways she never imagined. “I haven’t worked this hard for this big a period of time. Two years. Most of my other projects maybe were six months. There were moments when I thought, ‘Huh?’ I mean, I was just terrified. There still are doubts,” she said.

To inspire her designs she listened to recordings of Aida while working. She won’t know for sure how her sets and costumes will be perceived until the April production. “The proof is in the work,” she said.

Perhaps the most taxing aspect of the entire process was the costuming.

“The costumes have so much concept embedded in them. They have to tell so much. They are really storytellers in themselves,” she said. “I had no idea they would take up so much labor trying to differentiate them so that the audience would know who belongs to what group, whether the Egyptians or the Ethiopians, and what their status is within that group.

“I wanted the costumes to have definite shapes you could read from a distance and to be fairly sculptural, too. I tried to keep them simple but not so simple they weren’t interesting.”

Building costumes that met all those demands yet weren’t overly stiff, unwieldy and costly proved a fine line. Selecting the right colors and fabrics took a long time. She made trips to New York to look at fabric swatches but ended up getting the fabrics from a little shop right here in Omaha.

She’s pleased with the finished costumes.

“They’re gorgeous,” she said.

Designing the sets proved more comfortable for Ferguson, who’s used to working on a large scale and using different materials. Even though she’d never worked on an opera, her installations are a kind of “theater.” As she did with the costumes she incorporated hieroglyphic imagery into the temples and columns she designed.

The process entailed many discussions with stage director Sam Helfrich about the story, the characters and how the designs might best express them. The artists didn’t always agree. Whenever their interpretations conflicted she knew, bottomline, “it was his call.” Although she’s cooperated on projects with other artists before her work with Helfrich was something new. “It’s been a true collaboration where there’s been a lot of back and forth and creating things together. My creating things and then his reacting to them.”

Attending to all the details meant traveling to Salt Lake City to see the costume mock-ups, Portland, Ore. to see the sets under construction and New York City to meet with Helfrich and lighting director Robert Weirzel.

The indoor floral show Nature’s Inspiration at Lauritzen Gardens through May 11 keys off Ferguson’s Aida designs. A faux Nile is adorned with tropical plant life and her blue water lily artwork. Adding to the anticipation about Aida, she’s made presentations on her designs. She’s anxious for all the build-up to end and for her sets-costumes to finally breath on stage, in performance, before live audiences.

Aida’s
been so time-consuming it forced Ferguson to put many projects on hold. Now that the opera’s being mounted she can resume attending to them.

“I have requests for sculpture commissions and I am eager to do more drawings. Before Aida, I had started working on some smaller sculptures using wax and excelsior that were cast in bronze and I want to explore that medium more. I’ll be working with the torso theme again and drawing but with more color. Aida rekindled my enthusiasm for color.”

Someone she’s bound to work with again is Les Bruning, an Omaha sculptor and foundrer who’s fabricated or cast most of her metal sculptures. “He’s been a mentor and a tremendous resource for me,” she said. “He’s the most generously spirited artist I know.”

Once all the Aida hoopla’s done, she’ll be back working in the quiet solitude she’s accustomed to. Away from the spotlight, she’ll follow her muse wherever it leads.

 

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