Archive for August 2, 2010

Part II: After Decades of Walking Behind to Freedom, Omaha’s African-American Community Tries Picking Up the Pace Through Self-Empowered Networking

August 2, 2010 2 comments

Prominent figures of the African-American Civi...

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The Empowerment Network in Omaha is a catalytic force for positive change in North Omaha not seen before in terms of the scale and scope of its vision and reach. This is Part II of a two-part Reader cover story series I did several years ago about the Network.. This long version shared here was not published. The shorter published version is also available on my blog if you care to see it.

Cover Photo

Part II: After Decades of Walking Behind to Freedom, Omaha’s African-American Community Tries Picking Up the Pace Through Self-Empowered Networking

©by Leo Adam Biga

All along, African-American Empowerment Network leaders have known that in order to transform north Omaha, the nonprofit must partner.

A measure of just how wide the Network’s cast its reach since forming three-and-a-half years ago is its established ties with: philanthropists, CEOs, social service agency executive directors, pastors, neighborhood association leaders, current or ex-gang members, school administrators, law enforcement officials, city planning professionals, local, county and state elected officials.

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

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

“What looks like the easy road now was the hard road. It’s harder to work a game plan than it is to just go ahead and shoot from the hip. They had some real strategic things they felt they needed to do before they sought press or went public. All of that made sense but for those of us who are activists there’s stress in that because we wanted things to happen right away. As this thing has evolved there has been tremendous credibility built within and outside the organization and the results are now beginning to show themselves.”

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

“When we started there were not enough forums and venues for people to come together and share ideas and solutions in an an environment where you felt comfortable no matter who you were,” he said. “If we take it down to our core, we’re about connecting people, connecting organizations, then identifying where the strengths are and where the gaps are, and then building on the strengths and filling in the gaps.

“It’s encouraging we have so many more partnerships now, almost to the point where it’s overwhelming. We get calls, e-mails, people stop in quite often just saying they want to help, they want to be a part of something. We’ve launched a lot of activities, helped launch organizations, started initiatives. Now we’re to a point where we’re working with residents at planning meetings, trying to get as many people as we can involved to tell us what is their vision for the targeted areas — what does it look like in north Omaha, what does it look like for African-Americans in the city, what would they like to see. ”

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

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

“I’m very concerned about my investment, so anything that’s going on we want to know because it will eventually impact us,” said Thalia McElroy, who was there with her husband Greg. “It’s totally positive,” she said of the Network’s community-building focus. “They’re trying to make an effort to level the playing field. You know, when your community doesn’t even have a movie theater, that’s ridiculous. I’m hoping the redevelopment will get more more diversity as far as recreation activities and shopping.”

Greg McElroy said he appreciates how the development process is allowing residents to have a say in helping shape plans at the front end rather than the back end.

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

Bankers Trust vice president Kraig Williams has lived and worked all over America. He said he’s impressed with how the Network coalesces community participation:

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

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

Gannie Clark adds a cautionary note by saying. “The plight we have as black people is bigger than the Empowerment Network. It’s not about any one entity, it’s about people coming together so that the city can move forward, it’s about what is the city going to do to revitalize this part of town, it’s about us as people getting representation.”

“People are passionate about it, they want to see things done,” Barney said. “As this whole thing transitions, more and more individuals in the neighborhoods are getting engaged in what is it going to take to rebuild north Omaha, and that’s really encouraging. I think people need to see their ideas being respected, they want to be a part of what’s going on, they want to be at the table when decisions are made, they want to be active, they don’t want to just go along for the ride.”




Barney’s aware the community’s trust has been hard won. “I think at one point people were kind of like, What is it? Is this going to be a top down deal? I think people who have actually sat down at the table have realized their ideas count as much as anybody else.” He’s aware, too, of perceptions the Network is elitist, composed of middle-aged, highly-educated, high-earning managers, directors, owners, but insists there’s participation by a broad range of ages, education levels and socio-economic groups.

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

The larger Network revolves around a self-empowerment covenant that challenges people to do their part to improve themselves and their community. There are targeted areas for improvement, each with its own strategy.

So what makes the Network different beyond its covenant calling for African-Americans to harness change through self-empowerment? What do residents and neighborhoods stand to gain and how does the organization interact with them? Who’s holding the Network accountable? Where could this feel-good train get derailed?

These are important questions for a community that’s heard much talk these past 40 years but seen meager action. Stakeholders want to know why this time around should be any different and what mechanisms the Network has in place to ensure it will outlast what were previously mercy missions?

For one, it appears this initiative is an unprecedented collective of black leaders working and speaking as one to address comprehensive change.

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

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

Davis Companies CEO Dick Davis, who heads the economics covenant and a newly formed Economic Strategy Taskforce, said the Network represents a departure from past initiatives programmatically and philosophically in its approach to economic development. “The principles we set up are a market-driven merit-based economic model as opposed to the social justice, social equity models Omaha has been doing.” This new business-like approach he said requires experienced business people like himself out front and behind the scenes to analyze, guide, refer, partner, support.

Proposed development projects up for review before the Taskforce or its eight sub-taskforces, he said, are held to a rigorous set of “expectations and outcomes” to select sustainable initiatives. He said the economics have to be there for a project to work, whether it’s a grocery store, a radio station or anything else.

The goal isn’t just to vet and endorse projects or programs, he said, but to improve the landscape for African-American commerce and progress.

He said Taskforce members, who include elected and appointed public officials, are working to change public policies to “open up more contract, procurement opportunities” for African-Americans. He added that members are also woking with institutions of higher learning to enroll more black students and with lending institutions and venture capitalists to create more accessible lines of credit and capital.

Buttressing the Taskforce’s and the Network’s economic models, said Davis, “are substantial amounts of dollars I’m committing.” He’s living the “do my part” mantra of the Empowerment covenant by, among other things, constructing a new headquarters building for the Davis Cos. in NoDo, investing $10,000 in seed money in each of 10 small black-owned businesses over a decade’s time. He’s on his third one now. His Chambers-Davis Scholarship Program and Foundation for Human Development are some of his other philanthropic efforts.

Davis uses his own generosity as calling card and challenge.

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

Dick Davis

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

The economic initiatives add up to a new construct for building financial capacity in north Omaha. The empowerment aspect posits blacks having primary input in economic decision-making. Owing to exclusionary practices, Davis said, blacks “have always had more of a secondary input, meaning we could be part of the decision but the authority and the money were outside our input. What we’re saying is, let’s figure out what we can do within our resources. We have less than a handful of folks that are significant business people with a million dollars or more that could be invested. That’s horrible. The good news is we have at least 24 African-Americans that hold 28 positions of authority either as a public appointed or elected official or senior executive…There’s enough (critical) mass there…related to time, influence, authority and money.”

Urban League of Nebraska president and Network education-youth development co-chair Thomas Warren said a primary reason “why this initiative is different than past efforts” is the number of “individuals involved who are in decision-making roles within their respective organizations, agencies and institutions. They have influence over viable programs and ideas generated through the network and our discussions in getting these initiatives implemented.”

For Davis, the promise of the Network is its transformational potential. “If I’m going to dedicate the rest of my life to see if we can develop benefits for African-Americans in Omaha what I want to see is not another project, not another job, not another business. But what I want to see is a cultural change, a value change, a behavioral change of African-Americans’ psyche toward economics.”

He said a Network-sponsored 2009 economic summit brought segments together who normally do not cross paths, much less collaborate: “…at the last summit we did something that never happened in terms of black folks interacting with white folks. We have black leaders heading black banks and we have white leaders heading white banks. When will be able to have a black leader heading that one thing, whatever that thing is, for all the people? What I would like to see for keeping me motivated and inspired is an African-American heading the corporate community just because he’s the most qualified, capable, competent person.”

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

Thomas H Warren, Sr, MSWarren said, “Everyone realizes that in order to build capacity with limited resources you have to collaborate. There are very strong-willed individuals who speak candidly with one another.” Despite disagreements, in the end I believe there’s true consensus in terms of the strategy and the approach we take. This is not an ivory tower operation, this is a front line grassroots mobilization. The individuals involved are reputable, they’re credible, they have the highest level of integrity and they recognize the need for things to change. It’s a mindset more-so than anything else that in my opinion has led to this initiative being so far successful.”                   


Apostle Vanessa Ward, whose gang intervention, community gardening and block party activities through her Afresh Anointing Church mesh with the Network, said, “This is the first time I’ve seen Omaha reach a place with this kind of solidarity.”

It may also be the most cohesive united front Black Omaha’s presented in a long time.

“A strength of the Network is that disagreements unfold in private, behind closed doors, not for public display,” said Rev. Jeremiah McGhee, co-chair of the faith covenant. “We’re only human, we’re going to disagree but we work hard at not airing our differences in public. If it happens it’s a fluke. The Network only speaks after a consensus is reached, so that it’s message is delivered with one voice.”

He said where past coalitions have been reactive to violent crime or allegations of police brutality, the Network takes a more considered, strategic approach to a multitude of persistent issues. Where the confrontational outcry of passionate citizens tends to “fizzle out,” he said the Network’s moderate, conciliatory approach is built for “the long haul. We’re not just a flash in the pan. We’re being very deliberate about this.”

That echoes the observations of Warren, who said, “We’ve been very methodical and incremental in terms of how these issues are identified and how strategies are developed to address these issues. It’s a very comprehensive strategy. I think we have a level of commitment from individuals who will stay the course.”

McGhee noted that past overarching responses like the Network’s have tended to be church-led and therefore limited by the skill sets of its pastors. “The difference is we’ve got our best and brightest, the experts, the professionals,” leading the Network, he said.

Salem Baptist Church Pastor Selwyn Bachus, the faith covenant co-chair, said, “I would say one of the identifiable, unique elements of the Empowerment Network is it brings to the forefront leaders who have expertise, exposure and experience in our covenants…and those leaders are willing to work together. It’s unique. I’ve lived in four different cities for fairly significant periods of time and have never seen the community unified in such a way. It’s a collaborative effort that allows us to do what we do even more effectively.”

As McGhee said, “We’ve got a lot of people who’ve come together. It’s a large group that’s pretty deep in its reach.”

Innovations By Design president and chief consultant Tawanna Black, the advocacy-social justice co-chair, said the organization’s careful to be inclusive, That includes collaborating with agencies who’ve been there doing the work. The overriding message, she said, “Is that we’re not here to replace you, we’re here to help you, we’re here to build your capacity, we’re here to inform the community about what you do so that you’re able to truly serve those you exist to serve. When you do that then there’s no need to have a tug of war.”

Warren said “the key is to connect services to clients” and a big part of what the Network does is communicating what services are available and linking people to them.

Then there’s what Warren and others describe as a new African-American leadership class that’s emerged on the political, financial, community, corporate scene who either lead the Network directly or are positioned to indirectly further its aims. Warren, Black, Davis and Gray are among this influential cadre. Network members say this confluence of new leadership seemed to make the time right for a concerted effort to improve the state of African-American Omaha.

It was a formation, kind of a like a call to the troops to come together,” said Empowerment operations director Vicki Quaites-Ferris, who came from the Mayor’s Office. “Kind of an uprising of new leadership and new voices and younger voices, and that really was something that was near and dear to my heart.”

Adding a certain momentum and basis was a 2007 Omaha World-Herald series that delineated the stark realities for thousands of African-American residents whose impoverished living conditions rank among the most severe in America. Black Omaha has an almost nonexistent entrepreneurial base. With historically little visible or string-pulling presence in political and corporate circles, the community’s languished in a malaise that began more then four decades ago and has only become more engrained.

In 2009 a Pew Partnership for Civic Change assessment both confirmed the morass and recommended remedies that coalesced with Network strategic plans. Taken together, it was an indictment of a shameful status quo and a call to action.

“We don’t want to be known for having one of the highest rates of black poverty, we don’t want to have one of the highest  gaps between black poverty and white affluence, we don’t want to be known as the worst place for STDs, we don’t want to have those things at the same time we’re in the Wall St. journal for having one of the best economic trends in the country,” said Black. “I think all those things put together make it a prime time for this to work and maybe the only time for it to work.”

Pastor Bachus believes “the dose of reality” these failings represent “awakened something in us.” With the context of this new sense of urgency, he said, “many of us have realized we’re at a crisis point, we’re at a crossroads, and if not now, never. There’s extreme possibilities for greatness in our community, but we have to do it now.”

McGhee said there’s a symbiosis between what the Network does and the work black churches do. After all, many church ministries and programs address the same issues as the Network, making churches natural partners for implementing strategies and engaging the community in shared covenant goals. He said the Network’s broad focus and many collaborations can help church projects build capacity but also relieve some of the burden. “We don’t have to be everything to everybody anymore,” he said. At the same time, he said the Network’s a unifying and stimulating force for getting churches to work together on things like safe night outs for youths.

McGhee said it helps that Network leaders Willie Barney and John Ewing are “people of faith” who set their egos aside. “Personality has a a lot to do with building coalitions and acceptance in the community and they’ve got a good reputation, they don’t offend people, they know how to facilitate.”

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

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

A skeptical public must be convinced this time is different. “They’ve heard the great ideas before, they’ve heard the talk before, and they see things in the community as a whole remain the same if not worse than what they were before,” said Highlander Neighborhood Association president Kristina Carter. “I’ve talked to neighbors trying to get them involved and I’ve been told to my face, ‘It’s not going to do any good.’ Everybody thinks it’s a great thing but we’ve had great things before and people are waiting to see if this is not just more of the same.”

Getting neighborhoods and residents on board has taken time. At the start, Barney said, “We didn’t do as good of a job as reaching out as we could have.”

Quaites-Ferris said it’s been a challenge getting past the point of people asking, “Are you really here to stay?” Her answer: We’ve been around three years and we’re just beginning, so we are around and we’re going to stay around.”

Barney said, “They’re seeing there’s consistency to it, that we’re not going away.” He also senses people are impatient to see visible progress.

Carter speaks for many when she says, “As a resident I should be able to see with my eyes physical change taking place. That’s what people I’ve spoken to are waiting to see.”

Preston Love Jr. said any commercial development that occurs should “involve north Omaha in the process from top to bottom or we’re missing the point of what development really is.” He wants African-Americans involved from planning to financing, bonding and insurance on through construction, ownership, management and staffing.

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

Leo Louis


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

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

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

Teresa Hunter said enabling a new wave of homeowners is about creating “a community that people are moving to instead of away from.”

The goal, Barney said, is to “remove obstacles and create more pathways” for African-Americans to not only achieve home ownership but to start and grow businesses, become employable, continue in school. It’s about people reaching their potential. Some  key stakeholders, such as Salem, have big projects in the works.

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

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

Quaites-Ferris said public feedback suggests the Network is winning hearts and minds by doing more “than just talking and strategizing, but by putting plans together and implementing those plans.”

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

Where could it go wrong?

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

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

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

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

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


Part I: After Decades of Walking Behind to Freedom, Omaha’s African-American Community Tries Picking Up the Pace Through Self-Empowered Networking

August 2, 2010 Leave a comment

Civil Rights March on Washington, leaders marc...

Image via Wikipedia

The Empowerment Network in Omaha is a catalytic force for positive change in North Omaha not seen before in terms of the scale and scope of its vision and reach. This is Part I of a two-part Reader cover story series I did several years ago about the Network.. This long version shared here was not published. The shorter published version is also available on my blog if you care to see it.


Part I: After Decades of Walking Behind to Freedom, Omaha’s African-American Community Tries Picking Up the Pace Through Self-Empowered Networking

©by Leo Adam Biga

Mark it down. 2007 may be when northeast Omaha’s depressed African-American community reached its limit. A demographic bound by race, history, circumstance and geography seemingly exhaled a collective sigh of exasperation to exclaim, Enough already. Longstanding discontent over inequities in income, housing, education, economic development and opportunity solidified into resolve by a people to take matters into their own hands.

Going on four years ago, a coalition of local blacks reached consensus to intentionally rebuild the community from within. As catalyst for this call to action, they formed the African-American Empowerment Network. The nonprofit community leadership organization uses advocacy, mobilization, engagement, collaboration and coordination as tools for enacting change.

The effort is inspired by a national movement of black empowerment laid-out by author and television/radio talk show host Tavis Smiley in his best selling 2006 book, The Covenant with Black America,. Borrowing from Smiley and other sources, Omaha’s Empowerment Network targeted 13 strategic covenant areas for improvement.

The disparities dogging segments of Omaha’s black community are long in the making. Efforts by the Network and partners to address these woes are the latest attempted remedies. In the 1940s and ‘50‘s the De Porres Club pressed the cause for civil rights. In the ‘60s the Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties or 4CL, took up the banner. Well into the ‘70s federally funded programs and agencies spurred by the Great Society and its War on Poverty operated here. At various times the Urban League of Nebraska and the Omaha Chapter of the NAACP have led on social justice and community betterment issues. Other well-meaning efforts and groups have sprung up.

When the last in a series of major civil disturbances in the late ‘60s badly damaged the old North 24th St. business-entertainment hub, many business owners abandoned the area for good. Relatively few new businesses have opened since.

Northeast Omaha’s chronic gun violence has contributed to the perception of an unsafe environment in which to do business or raise families, exacerbating deeply entrenched negative attitudes about the area. While the rest of the city has thrived, North O has lagged behind. Stagnation has further isolated it and inhibited new development there.

This once self-sufficient area is regarded as a mission district dependent on government assistance, social services and philanthropy. Even as African-Americans try empowering themselves, limited capital, combined with enormous needs gone unmet or underserved, makes outside investment necessary. The difference this time is that the black community is taking the lead, in collaboration with the larger community, to transform northeast Omaha. Blacks are doing much of the visioning, crafting and implementing of plans. Rather than change imposed from without, it’s organically generated from within, a model not seen before here.

Innovations By Design president and chief consultant Tawanna Black, co-chair of the Network’s advocacy and justice strategy, said where some cities improved conditions for African-Americans via a black political or corporate base, Omaha did not. “In the absence of African-Americans in powerful political or economic positions to drive this,’ she said, “small changes have occurred but nothing major. The network really flips that theory on its head and says, Why are we waiting for the power to be given, let’s own the power that’s within. It’s an empowerment thing. It means more than just a name on a piece of paper. It’s really what it’s all about — empowering people to take control of themselves. A process committed to that is completely new in this community.”

For some, it’s a manifesto for long overdue self-determination.

“There’s been a lot of psychological damage done to us as a people. Historically we just allow things to happen to us and what we have to do is starting taking control of our own destiny and that means also having skin in the game,” said Omaha City Councilman and Network violence intervention-prevention chair Ben Gray.


  • Willie Barney
  •  Vicki Quaites-Ferris
  •  Jami Anders-Kemp



Empower Omaha drafted a rising-tide-lifts-all-ships community covenant identifying quality of life indicators needing attention. Copies of the covenant went to north side businesses and churches. It can be glimpsed inside beauty and barber shops, stores, offices. Pastors distribute it to congregations, sometimes preaching on it.

Through monthly community meetings, periodic summits and activities like prayer walks, neighborhood cleanups, block parties and surveys the Network interfaces with residents, inviting them to share concerns and ideas. The organization works closely with neighborhood associations in forming a North Omaha Neighborhood Alliance.

“We keep the community engaged, we listen to the community, we write down what they say. I think that’s how we get the buy-in from the community,” said director of operations Vicki Quaites-Ferris. “Most things implemented actually come as a result of listening to the community. That’s why it’s so important to keep the community engaged because at some point the community may say, We’ve got to turn it around and now focus on this.”

Highlander Neighborhood Association president Kristina Carter said the Network’s “an integral part” of neighborhood cleanups. “There are a lot of (neighborhood) associations but alone they don’t have the capacity to have an impact and I think that’s what this Alliance is poised to do. It gives the area a single voice, it puts some teeth to it.

Network strategies encompass neighborhoods, housing, employment, education, family,  faith, crime, et cetera. The strategies come from community leaders, residents and best practices in other cities. Not a direct service provider, the Network partners with others to support or facilitate programs and to link efforts in order to build synergy and capacity.

The backdrop for all this empowerment is profound want. The Network was already in place before a 2007 Omaha World-Herald series revealed black Omaha poverty rates as among the nation’s worst. What was already known is that many youths underachieve in school. Only half graduate. On top of that is an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, a preponderance of single parent homes and little economic development or opportunity.

Newly detailed were the area’s high joblessness rates and low household income levels. Northeast Omaha also suffers from a distressed infrastructure, Vacant lots, condemned structures and unkempt rental properties abound. There’s a paucity of black-owned businesses. The area’s endured a net population loss. Freeway construction disrupted, some say severed, a tight community. As restrictive housing practices waned, upwardly mobile blacks moved west. Others left the state for better prospects and larger, more progressive African-American communities elsewhere.

Network leaders say the series shone a light on conditions heretofore ignored. The result? Broad-based engagement from initiatives like the Chamber’s North Omaha Development Project and the privately funded Building Bright Futures. Many feel the city needs to make an It-stops-here pledge. “Omaha has yet to really stand up the way we do to other things and say we will not accept having the highest black poverty again,” said Black. “We haven’t done that. We’ve done some projects, we’ve announced some nice things, but we have not said we will not be here again.” Rev. Jeremiah McGhee doubts the larger community yet appreciates a revitalized north Omaha is good for all of Omaha, saying, “I don’t think they’re quite getting it.”

Combatting gun violence is one issue Omaha’s managed a united front on. The Network has endorsements from Mayor Jim Suttle, Omaha Police Chief Alex Hayes and some 100 public-private partners for the Omaha 360 anti-violence coalition. Asking hard questions about the violence problem spurred the development of the Empowerment Network in the first place. Why is this happening when Omaha as a whole prospers and some black communities thrive by comparison? Connecting the dots, it became clear the despair is rooted in certain realities: an entrenched gang and drug culture; fractured family units; a lack of positive role models for young people; barriers to educational, job, home ownership and business opportunities; a sense that nobody cares.


Cover Photo


Douglas County Treasurer and Network chair John Ewing knows it from his former career as an Omaha cop and the Empowerment prayer walks and community meetings he joins. He said residents openly “complain about the violence, the lack of economic opportunities, the fact they feel abandoned, neglected, overlooked, forgotten. All this leads to a sense of hopelessness. That’s when people become demoralized, when they feel like they don’t matter to anybody else, when they see all the nice things Omaha’s doing but don’t feel they can participate in those things.”

Illegal gun and drug activity, violence, high drop-out and jobless rates, unskilled workers making minimum wages with no real future are all symptomatic of systemic, cyclical problems having gone unchecked or received piecemeal attention.

Making matters worse, northeast Omaha’s lost some 11,000 households over time. A diminished tax, voter, consumer base has deluded what little clout it had to hold the public and private sectors accountable for the economic and social ills.

“There’s been a lot of benign neglect thats gone on in north Omaha by the majority community and I don’t hesitate in saying that because it’s a fact,” said Gray. “But what we’ve got to do now is rather than point fingers and place blame put together the necessary mechanism to fix it. We’ve got so much work to do and we’ve got so many areas that we’re operating in.”

“Oh, mercy,” Black said in response to the task. One way or another, she said, “economics feed into all this. If you have money you have health insurance and you get screened, if you have money you can afford education to get a better job. It all ties back to that, and so we’re aiming to see measurable changes. Getting unemployment rates down and household income up to what it is in the rest of the city. Moving more folks off public assistance and public housing into being able to sustain their own families and afford market rate housing. Getting more people out of GED classrooms into college classrooms. Getting people into workforce development programs.”

She acknowledges the goals describe “a long-term process.”

Davis Companies CEO Dick Davis spearheads the economic covenant and the recently formed Economic Strategy Taskforce, an offshoot whose targeted outcomes speak to economic viability. He said the taskforce’s and covenant’s ambitious goals include preparing every African-American for a sustainable living wage job; moving persons from unemployment or underemployment to full employment and from jobs to careers; encouraging entrepreneurship by increasing access to credit and capital.

The Network endorses a from-birth-to-career strategy similar to Bright Futures.

Davis has been doing his part for years, from starting-up black businesses to providing college scholarships to black students. Entities like the African-American Academic Achievement Council, 100 Black Men, 100 Black Women, the Omaha Economic Development Corporation, the Urban League of Nebraska, along with black churches, have done their part, too. Pockets of progress have appeared in some new home construction, a few business parks, a refurbished section of North 24th St. and new quarters for anchors Salem Baptist Church, the Urban League and Charles Drew Health Center. But nothing of real scale has been attempted.

Overall, northeast Omaha appears stuck in the same quagmire of decline and disenfranchisement that befell it in the late 1960s, A recent Pew Partnership for Civic Change report found that of 33,000 metro businesses, only 200 are black-owned — most single owner-operator endeavors.

It was in this bleak context the Network formed. Family Housing Advisory Services director Teresa Hunter, co-chair of the Network’s housing development covenant, said underpinning the effort was the shared “thought that we need to make a change, we need to do something.” From the start, she said, it’s been about avoiding duplication and instead building capacity for existing programs and services and filling gaps.






We work within the framework of what’s already going on, trying to make it cooperative. We identify issues and who’s already addressing them and what’s missing. Why are people still falling through the cracks — what else do we need to do?” No one entity, she said, holds the whole answer. “We take who does this well and who does that well and we put them all together.”

Where most Network players are native Omahans like Hunter, the driving force is a transplant, Willie Barney, who until recently made his living as a strategic consultant. The Iowa native worked in media marketing for Lee Enterprises and moved here for an Omaha World-Herald post. He worked on Salem Baptist Church’s administrative team when he galvanized efforts to create the Network. He served as the Network’s unpaid president and facilitator, then as a consultant, and is now its second paid staff member.

What began as a loose association testing the waters is now an established, structured player in broad, multi-faceted initiatives that have gotten buy-ins from public and private stakeholders both within and outside the African-American community.

“In evolving over time we’ve stayed true to our mission,” said Barney. “We said we want to be positive and pro-active and to build partnerships…with the entire city. Those are some core values we have. Our goal is to bring individuals and organizations together to help facilitate positive, measurable change…It has to be bottom-up and top-down for it to be anywhere close to being successful — individuals, families, leaders at all levels working together collaboratively.

“We were asked early on, How are you going to look at jobs, violence, housing, education all at the same time? And our answer is, How can we not when only 50 percent of our kids graduate high school, certain census tracts have 30 to 50 percent unemployment and 38 percent home ownership and a majority of homicides occur in the same concentrated area. If anybody thinks you can only focus on one of those areas and get anything done…” he said incredulously. “It has to be comprehensive. There’s not one organization or segment that’s going to solve what we’re in right now.”

Recently, however, the Network’s consolidated things. Barney said, “The more we went forward we realized we would spread ourselves too thin trying to have initiatives and groups in every one of the 13 covenant areas, so we really started focusing on seven core areas: faith and community engagement; education and youth development; violence intervention and prevention; housing and neighborhood development; jobs, jobs training and business development; health and healthy families; arts, culture and media.”

Evidence of the Network’s wide reach was seen during its annual Harmony Week (May 21-29), when dozens of organizations and thousands of people across the Metro participated in expressions of unity and community engagement.

Black said turf wars “have been removed by a higher agenda. Everyone at the table realizes this agenda can’t happen through just one of the organizations or churches, it can’t happen with folks who want just one neighborhood or one part of the community or one business discipline. And yet everyone realizes there are opportunities for each of our organizations to play a significant role in this. It really takes all of us being at the table, title-less, organization-less, to make this happen. That’s huge.

Barney officed the first two-plus years wherever he and his laptop were, although the Network’s regularly convened at three main sites: the Family Housing Advisory Services building.; North High School; and the former In Play, now Tip Top Ballroom. In 2009 the organization opened an office in the historic Jewell Building, right in the heart of North O, across from the Omaha Star.


John Ewing

Ben Gray



After a low key start that shunned media attention the Network’s boosted its presence via an expanded web site, a Facebook page and Revive! Omaha Magazine, which Barney’s SMB Enterprises LLC publishes. A TV spot features Network leaders reciting, like a creed, the Empowerment credo:

“We can change Omaha. It’s time to rebuild the village. Family by family, block by block, school by school, church by church, business by business. Each person doing their part. Working together, let’s transform Omaha. Do your part. Live the covenant…”

After a slow start, an Adopt-a-Block initiative for pastors to lead their houses of worship in nurturing neighborhoods has taken off, with some 70-plus pastors attending training compared to 15 last year.

Barney said in line with moving from “a grassroots movement into a formal organization,” the Network hired its first full-time staffer in Quaites-Ferris. The former deputy assistant under former Mayor Mike Fahey said, “My role is to make sure all operations and covenants are remaining as active as can be.” She said some covenants are more active and self-sufficient then others.” In terms of collaboration, she said, “it’s not always about partners coming to us but sometimes it’s about us going to them and seeing how can we partner together.”

Three-and-a-half years in now, the Network has a track record.

Said Barney, “There’s a lot of powerful signals. I think people are beginning to see there’s more strength and we can get more done if we just simply sit down and talk. We may not agree on everything but we can talk through those differences and keep a common goal in mind of trying to help our kids and employ parents in sustainable jobs. That’s really what we’re all trying to do. We may have different ways of getting there but if we can sit down and talk we’ll have a better chance.”

He said whatever course the Network adopts, it relies on others to carry it out.

“At the end of the day it’s ENCAP, the Urban League, Omaha Economic Development Corporation that are doing the work. But I think because we’re here we’ve helped facilitate potentially more partnerships than would have happened before.”

Malcolm X Memorial Foundation president Sharif Liwaru said he feels the Network’s facilitator rather than direct service provider role “is still hard for people to grasp.” Barney acknowledges as much. While Liwaru and community activist Leo Louis feel the Network effectively engages established organizations and leaders, they advocate more outreach be done to new, more loosely organized groups as well as to youths.

“We’re doing more to really make sure it is an inclusive process,” said Barney. “If they don’t come, we’ll go to them, and we’re not perfect, we make mistakes, but we keep pushing forward.”

The Network doesn’t pretend to work with every organization. It puts time and money where it can make the most difference. Barney said many early initiatives were pilots that explored what works and what doesn’t. “Now,” he said, “we have a better feel for what truly makes a difference and for what organizations are committed and actually have the resources and infrastructure to implement programs.”

He can list many Network accomplishments, but the work being done with young people is closest to his heart.

Mid-2008 the Network noted workforce development gaps for at-risk young persons and launched a life skills and jobs program. No one wanted a summer like 2007, when there were 31 reported shootings in 31 days during one stretch. Program participants included kids failing in school and drop outs , ex and active gang members among their ranks. Barney and Ben Gray contacted employers to secure 150 paid internships. The program was repeated last summer, with enrollees split between returning and new participants. Barney said many “transitioned back into school, some went on to get GEDs and others got offers for full time work.” 2009 saw hundreds more jobs created by federal stimulus funds and private donors. The Urban League facilitated.

Minus any federal funds in 2010, the number of summer jobs provided at-risk youth this year will be closer to 500, rather than the 800 created last year.

“In a lot of instances we basically have to start from scratch — we have to teach people how to fill out an application, how to successfully interview, how to do some things we take for granted,” said Gray. “This is a big job because you’ve got to change attitudes as well as change behavior. Neither is easy, but you’ve got to get it done because the only other choice is to build more jails and at the end of the day that’s costing us three to four times as much money as to provide jobs and job training and proper schooling.”


Black Male Summit  9 10 2013


Barney said feedback from community forums identified unemployment as an underlining cause of violence. The program’s one of several Network initiatives aimed at curbing violence, with Omaha 360 and Enough is Enough being the latest and largest.

“We launched a formal violence prevention collaboration where we have community groups, faith groups, law enforcement, the Urban League, employment agencies, health organizations, housing organizations meeting every week to focus on youth violence and how we can reduce it,” said Barney. “It’s not just telling folks, Don’t do this, now we’re providing options.”

Impact One Community Connection, formerly New World Youth Development, was formed to do gang intervention-prevention. The Network also collaborates with ENCAP, the Eastern Nebraska Community Action Partnership (formerly GOACA).

Barney said a Stop the Violence summit that tapped young people’s input included former and current gang members. Those sessions morphed into regular youth forums. “People have been sitting down with gang members and not just telling them stuff but listening to what’s on their mind. Why didn’t you stay in school? What are the supports you need? What do you think of attempts to rebuild the community and what issues do you see going on from your perspective?”

Teresa Hunter said she, Barney and others were impressed “a group of youths wanted to continue meeting and talking about the issues and the remedies. They wanted to keep coming back and to make a change.”

In turn, said Barney, participants “were amazed somebody cared enough to spend all that time one-on-one with them and to help them get a job. They will flat out tell you no one has ever given them these opportunities before. Even some of the kids on the street that everybody totally discounts and that people said there’s no way you’re going to reach, well, we reached them.”

Building trust with this population, said Barney, is key. “They’ve been hurt so many times, people have given up on them, people have ruined their trust.” Recruiting them, he said, was largely the work of the late Roy Davenport and of Gray. Both brought long gang intervention experience. “That’s kind of the bridge that was built,” said Barney. “The Network has been able to tap into those who’ve been doing the work of trying to get people to leave gangs, giving us a link to that segment, and giving the intervention workers the support, resources and organization they lacked before.”


8th Annual State of African Americans and State of North Omaha 2014 Photo from Jason Fischer


The Network’s aligned itself with the Omaha Police Department, particularly the Northeast Precinct, and North Omaha Weed & Seed to do Safe Night Outs and other efforts for improving police-community relations. Ben Gray and the police report progress in residents providing information and tips that lead to arrests.

Gray, who leads an emergency response team, said street work is where it’s at in reaching past or present gangbangers.

“You got to meet them where they are. If you are not willing to get out in those blocks, in those neighborhoods, in those houses where they live, you are not going to reach those young people. You gotta be at the hospitals, you gotta be at the funerals, you gotta be constantly talking about not retaliating…about going in a different direction. That’s very time consuming, painstaking, difficult work and there are no set hours. We have ex-gang members employed through Impact One. They monitor the streets on a regular basis.”

Gray lauds the Network for “putting it’s neck on the line” to even do this outreach, saying it’s a microcosm for how a wounded community can heal. “We have people that have been disappointed so much they’re not willing to necessarily buy-in until they have seen some stability in you going down the road getting a few things accomplished, and then you’ll hopefully get that groundswell of people that will come on board with you.”

“That’s how it clicks there, it’s grassroots, it’s organization, it’s strategic planning, it’s building relationships,” said Barney. “The summer program crystalized for many of us what’s possible.”

Barney said the Network “has the opportunity to really make a tremendous difference. Some of it will be over time, some of it will be dramatic,” such as the 36 percent reduction in gun violence in July-August 2008. “Now we can’t take direct credit for that but police will tell you that has never happened before at that level. Some folks went from being on the street to being in the life skills program to having a stipend to do voter registration work to being fully employed. So the possibilities are there for reaching the kids. Now it’s having all the support services lined up so we can link them together.”

For Kristina Carter, the Network is a vehicle for change and a conduit for action.

“I love what they’re doing with getting the-powers-that-be to listen to the community and for voices to be heard and not just patronized. The Empowerment Network can be that central point, strategic center of command where you can branch out to all the different organizations that service this community. That’s what it represents to me.”

Leo Louis and Sharif Liwaru say there are grassroots segments of the community that fall outside the Network’s structure that need to be engaged more.

“We’re doing as much as we can pushing it in that direction,” said Barney. “But I’m sure there are people in the community who still feel it’s not open enough or they feel they don’t have a voice. I would ask anyone who feels that way to contact me directly. We’ll sit down and we’ll meet and we’ll listen and try the best we can to make adjustments.”

Barney said it’s important to remember rebuilding north Omaha will be a process. Embedded problems will not suddenly vanish.

“We are building a long-term foundation. We’re getting more and more people engaged, more people are stepping forward. That doesn’t meant the violence is going to stop today or next week. I keep saying to folks, ‘It did not happen overnight and it will not be solved overnight’. That message rarely gets printed or becomes a sound bite. We’re not getting our minds around how big this is — the depth of this, and how long it’s been going. It’s painful just to say this is going to be a long term situation. To be successful this has to be a citywide effort.

“At the end of the day what’s kept everybody together is that it’s bigger than us individually and bigger than us as an organization or a church or a business. It’s about young people that need to graduate, it’s about mothers and fathers taking care of their kids, it’s about people being able to start a business, it’s about economic redevelopment. And it’s not about waiting on someone else to do it for us…”

Guardedly optimistic, he said, “We’ve seen some things slowly move in the right direction.” He’s encouraged by the positive alliances and community spirit built but he knows residents are eager to touch brick-and-mortar change.

Geraldine Wesley with Long School Neighborhood Association embraces the Network “getting people’s hopes up to empower” North O, adding, “If they carry out all the things they intend to do, it would be good.” She’s cautiously expectant. “Well, right now it’s just ideas, there’s nothing concrete as far as I know. I am waiting for the results. It’s going to be a long process, I know that. I hope I’ll live to see it.”

Marguerita Washington: The woman behind the Star that never sets

August 2, 2010 2 comments

My interest in Omaha‘s African-American newspaper of record, the Omaha Star, goes back a ways. The woman who founded it and rose to national prominence with it, the late Mildred Brown, I never had the pleasure of meeting.  By the time I began writing and reporting on the black community here she was gone and her niece, Marguerita Washington, was in charge.  I didn’t meet Washington though until a few years later. First, I got to know the Star’s longtime advertising director, the late Preston Love Sr., who was a jazz and blues musician and band leader.  Preston is someone I wrote about quite a lot and he served as a valuable source for me about historic black Omaha. Visiting the Star’s offices to meet with Preston only increased my interest in the Star and I eventually had several stories of mine reprinted in its pages., and it was during that time that I wrote this short piece about Marguerita and her aunt Mildred for the New Horizons.

The Omaha Star is less than generous when it comes to contributing writers like myself, as they seem to view a contributed story as a community service rather than a professional service like any other that requires compensation.  Because my sole living depends on my writing, I usually managed to work out some form of compensation for my work, although not in monetary terms. For example, I received a complementary subscription to the paper for a couple years and once I was paid in the form of a homemade sweet potato pie.


comunidad, fallecimiento, QEPD, QDEP, marguerita washington


Marguerita Washington: The woman behind the Star that never sets

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

When Mildred Brown, the loquacious, living-out-loud founder/publisher/editor of the Omaha Star, died in 1989, the city’s only black newspaper was left to niece Marguerita Washington, a woman as circumspect as her aunt was flamboyant. Even with their differences, the women enjoyed a close relationship. The matriarchal Brown mentored her niece, who was like a daughter to her.

A Kansas City, Mo. native, Washington lived with Brown for a time. Long before passing at age 76, Brown laid out how her niece would succeed her at the Star to carry on the cause of civil rights in its pages. There was even talk of them being partners. Washington loved the paper and its mission, but had other plans, namely to be an educator. When she achieved her dream as a special education teacher and, later, an administrator with the Omaha Public Schools, Brown was “disappointed at first, but she adjusted,” her niece recalled.

But, as usual, Brown got the final say when her will bequeathed ownership of the paper to her niece. For a time, Washington tried doing dual careers, but “it got to be pretty rough, so I took early retirement” from OPS.

All along, Washington said, she’d been groomed to take over the Star.

“When I lived with her, not a day went by she didn’t talk to me about the paper and what happened, how it happened, why it happened. And I don’t care how late I came in on Friday nights, I had to be out there in the front office to take care of the newsboys and girls. She wanted me to study journalism. That wasn’t my thing. But she made me take some journalism classes. In fact, we took some together (at UNO). That was interesting. I remember one time she was giving a presentation and the instructor cut her off because she was too long-winded.”

Washington said her aunt went to school “for the fun of it and also to try and make a point with me. The point being I should be interested in journalism. She wanted me to be prepared because, she said, ‘you never know what might happen.’ She was a very wise lady. She did what she felt she had to do.” Once the Star fell into her hands, the once reluctant Washington embraced the responsibility of taking over a weekly that has continuously published since 1938.

Journalism is something you get attached to. It gets in your blood. On a newspaper you never know from one minute to the next what story’s going to break. Sometimes, nothing happens for awhile. Other times, you’re almost tripping over yourself trying to keep up with everything,” she said. “It’s a learning process.”

She knew the burden she accepted after assuming the reigns as publisher/editor.

“It was a challenge. It’s still a challenge. My goal was to keep the paper basically the same, but to to add to it as the times or the issues dictated. In doing so, this will keep Millie’s legacy alive and the paper will continue for as long as possible.”

Through the crusading Star, Brown made herself a national figure in an era when it was rare for any woman, white or black, to own a paper. The strong stands she took against racism in the Star and on the many community-civic organization boards she served on, brought her and her views to the attention of civil rights leaders and presidents. Wherever she went and whomever she met, Brown worked on behalf of freedom and justice for her people.

The famous declaration of principles in the Star’s mast head — “Dedicated to the service of the people that no good cause shall lack a champion and that evil shall not go unopposed” — was a motto identified with Brown. She, like the paper she used as her mouthpiece, was seen as a champion of the underdog.

As a teen Washington got to see that advocacy in action when she tagged along with her aunt at protests and demonstrations aimed at overturning discrimination in the schools, at workplaces and in public places. “I was right there.” Brown and her paper ardently supported the work of the Urban League, the NAACP, black churches and social action groups such as the DePorres Club and the 4CL.

Advocacy journalism is still at the core of the Star’s mandate under Washington. While she may lack her aunt’s flair, she’s maintained the Star as a mirror for black concerns and, in her own quiet way, made it “a sounding board” for ordinary folks.

“I’m interested in the heartbeat of the community. What’s on the citizens’ minds? What do they feel? What are they interested in? What do they plan to do about it? The main thing I’m proud of is this paper has really become the people’s paper. We have many guest local columnists. Those in the community who have something to say and who can write — mind you I say who can write — they have space to express themselves. Because a paper is not just one person’s idea of what should be. It should be a total thing. It should be a community thing. I think a paper can function a lot better if you have a lot of different opinions…a diversity of voices.”

The Star’s regular columnists include Nebraska State Sen. Ernie Chambers, corporate VP Mike Jones and community activist Matthew Stelly.

While Brown’s garish style made her a public figure that sometimes overwhelmed the paper’s feats, Washington’s demure manner has kept her in the shadows to let the Star shine on its own merits. Two distinct approaches for two distinct women. But there’s no doubt Mildred Brown is a hard act to follow.

Known for wearing gaudy dresses and corsages, making the rounds of business meetings in a chauffeur-driven limousine and talking the ear off anyone if it meant a prospective ad sale, Brown was a force of nature. Her charm was such that despite being perpetually late for everything and reportedly overstating some claims, like the paper’s circulation, she was forgiven all. Selling was her gift. Selling herself was a large part of making the paper a success and outlasting every single competing black newspaper that went head-to-head with it.

Whether it was to close you on buying an ad or to shame you into doing the right thing, Brown was persistent in having her way.

“She was one of those people, whatever she wanted, she eventually got it, one way or the other,” said Washington, who as a teen accompanied her aunt on sales calls. “She loved to talk. And I think sometimes people would go ahead and buy just to get rid of her. But she didn’t care. And she would work on these people to be repeat customers, and usually got ‘em. She could sell the San Francisco bridge”

Even all these years later, the legacy of Brown looms large over the offices of the Star, 2216 North 24th Street, where an entire room is dedicated to her, including dozens of plaques on the walls that represent just a fraction of the 150 or so honors she received in her lifetime. The apartment she resided in in the rear of the circa-1923 brick building is much like it was at the time of Brown’s death. Washington uses the apartment as her personal office, where she and her Lhasa Apso dog, Carman, greet visitors.

Something else that hasn’t changed is the struggle for equality. While Washington sees progress, she’s alarmed by the education-achievement gaps between whites and blacks and decries how slow the redevelopment of north Omaha is proceeding.

“We understand the struggle is far from over. We’ve changed our techniques in writing about it or talking about it, but we’re still working toward the motto we have that if one person is down, then we’re all down,” she said.

That lesson is among many principles Brown taught her.

“She truly believed we should give each other a helping hand in any way we can. Somebody might be down, but you can help to pull them up. And if you don’t, then you’re a part of the problem. Another value I got from her is we all have to work together. We can’t pull apart. Once the link is broken, you can’t accomplish anything. She was also very strong on education. She believed there’s no limit to learning. I believe that also. And there’s always a better way to do something.”

“Education,” she said, “and journalism are really very similar. The only thing is, in education, you’ve got the classroom. In journalism, you’ve got the world.”

In her 101 years, ex-vaudeville dancer Maude Wangberg has lived a whirl of splendor

August 2, 2010 2 comments

English: Photograph of Sophie Tucker

Image via Wikipedia

With the passage of time the chances of meeting an ex-vaudeville performer diminish.  A few years ago I got the chance to meet a veteran of the vaudeville stage, and while she was never a star or a household name, she shared with me and I shared with readers her experience in one of the great American forms of entertainment.  Like most people around today, I never got to witness a vaudeville show.  My only reference for it is movie and book depictions of it. But after meeting and profiling Maude Wangberg, who was part of a vaudeville dance act, I feel a bit closer to that enchanting chapter of the American popular stage.  My story appeared in the New Horizons when Maude was 101.  I don’t know if she’s still living. but I’m glad I got to her when I did, and when her recall was still quite sharp.


In her 101 years, ex-vaudeville dancer Maude Wangberg has lived a whirl of splendor

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons


Vaudeville once ruled the American live entertainment scene. For mere peanuts, an entire family could enjoy a show in an ornate theater on whose stage artists of all kinds took turns performing their well-honed acts. Acrobats, jugglers, comedians, singers, dancers, magicians, orators, trained animals and precocious kids filled the bill. Everything from gymnastics to pratfalls to pirouettes were seen. Everything from hot jazz licks to Shakespearean soliloquies to operatic arias to punch lines were heard. House musicians in the orchestra pit cued the action on stage.

From the late 19th century through the 1910s, vaudeville was king. With the advent of motion pictures and radio, two mediums that stole many of vaudeville’s best talents, this American art form went the way of variety and burlesque. Vaudeville hung on until the 1930s before finally succumbing to the movies. Vaudeville’s wide-ranging impact extended to the slapstick-screwball-sketch comedy routines and variety show formats that ex-vaudevillians brought to radio, film and television.

Omaha’s own Maude Wangberg, age 101, is proud to count herself a veteran of vaudeville, a distinction few can claim today, as most of its artists are long gone now. If not for acting on a whim and studying dance as a girl Maude might have become a nun. Two of her classmates at Mount St. Mary, the forerunner to today’s Mercy High School, did. Maude grew up in a strict Catholic home at a time when a girl’s options were pretty much limited to marriage and motherhood, religious vocation, nursing, teaching or secretarial work. She chose dancing.

Still cutting the trim figure of a dancer, the New Cassel Retirement Center resident defied convention to become a show girl in a vaudeville act called The Whirl of Splendor. The show took its name from the revolving stage that performers made entrances and exits on. She was part of an all-girl dance act that closed the show. In between dance numbers singers performed. Preceding Maude and the other chorines a couple did an adagio. Sharing the bill with The Whirl were all manner of acts. Presented by New York City-based producer Meyer Golden, the popular show toured widely. Maude performed with the act from 1925 to 1930, a stretch that saw her mature into a woman.

The Whirl followed the vaudeville circuit, playing Orpheum Theatres in and around New York, across Canada, down the west coast, the middle of America and then back east, but mostly playing the big Loews Theatres along the East Coast. The act appeared at all the top vaudeville sites. Maude and company sometimes shared the bill with established stars like Sophie Tucker or legends-to-be like Edgar Bergen.

Touring meant a hectic schedule spent in hotels, theatres and rehearsal halls, on trains and two shows a day or more on stage, seven days a week. “You played every place of any size. The bigger the city the more performances you had to do,” she said. Some audiences were livelier than others. “In Pennsylvania we played a lot of smaller places like Redding because the big steel mills were working then and the young men employed there had to have entertainment,” she said. “They would stomp their feet and whistle. It was fun then.”




Young men, naturally, have a thing for pretty young girls in skimpy outfits, but she said there were never any problems with “stage door Johnnies, as they used to call them, but somehow or other we met a lot of them. In Providence, R.I. we met a lot of fellas from Brown University. They came down to the hotel — a whole bunch of ‘em. They were nice. I mean, they didn’t get rough or rowdy or anything. I guess they wanted to say they’d been with show girls.”

Advances were common from not only fans but other performers on the bill. If Maude were ever singled out for special attention from stage struck paramours it’s no wonder because her classical-training earned her featured parts in two of the troupe’s dance numbers. Of the six chorines, she shined brightest.

“I always had a little special part. See, I had more training than the other girls did and I had much better training too. I had ballet, tap and toe dancing where they just had ballroom. I was a better dancer alright. You could tell the difference.”

She well recalls the dance numbers she performed in.

“The first act we clanked hand-held cymbals as we danced around in little Grecian costumes. The costume was a pink cotton under thing with a filmy deal over it. Real short. I would dance around and take a big leap off the stage,” she said. “The second act was an Italian folk dance. I had the lead along with another girl who did some turns. I was dressed as a boy. I had black velvet shorts on and a big red sash around my waist with long streamers and a red bandana on my head with streamers too. We had tambourines. I was supposed to kind of romance her and then she would spurn me and I would dance off and then do this Italian folk dance.

“Then the last one was a jazz number. Our costumes were one-piece silver tops and shorts with fringe all over. We danced to Black Bottom, a real popular tune that was THE song then. That ended the act.”

Although a lifetime ago now, once Maude gets to reminiscing it seems like only yesterday she cavorted on stage at New York’s Palace Theatre or the Hippodrome, two of vaudeville’s finest venues. Those years gave her the time of her life.

“It was just a lot of fun. I liked it. I just liked being on the stage and wearing a costume and, oh, hearing the applause and everything. It’s just very enticing when you hear your music come on. You’re ready. You get keyed up. You know what’s coming exactly because you’ve been rehearsed and rehearsed. It’s nice to get out there and see a big audience in front of you and to wait for the applause, and then when you get the applause you enjoy that,” she said.

There were other benefits too.

“I loved traveling and seeing all those different places,” she said. “I loved New York. We were there during the Prohibition Era and there were speakeasies on almost every corner. We were in Washington, D.C. when the cherry blossoms were in bloom. New Orleans, I think that’s the most interesting city in the United States. I love the French Quarter. I used to stroll through there all the time. Just a wonderful place. Sorry about the flood. I would name San Francisco second (most interesting) because of the Wharf district…Chinatown..and all they have there.”

Dancing opened up a world of splendor to Maude, who learned under the tutelage of a petite, attractive Omaha woman named Adelaide Fogg. An intimate of hoofers Fred and Adelle Astaire, the Omaha brother-sister act that became the toast of Broadway before Fred achieved fame in Hollywood, Fogg might have been a star herself if she’d desired it. “She could have been in any New York show she wanted to be in,” Maude said. “She was that good.”

In a century of living Maude’s pretty much seen and done it all. Show biz accounted for a brief period in her life, but no matter how short her time in vaudeville it provided fond memories and linked her to a great tradition of which she’s one of the few survivors. Hers is the classic tale of a starry-eyed girl who ran away from the stodgy Midwest to see the bright lights of the big city and to dance amid the footlights and spot lights of the stage. She gleefully recalls how it is a gal from a convent school ended up a chorus girl.

Fogg’s dance studio was in the ballroom of the ritzy Blackstone Hotel. She had a reputation as “the leading dancing teacher here,” according to Maude. “She went to New York every summer to get the latest dancing steps for her classes.” Maude was about 15 when she heard about Fogg from some neighbor girls who studied with her and she pestered her mother to let her join the dance school too.

“I insisted on it. Even though I started kind of late — most kids start in grade school — I enjoyed it. It was just a lot of fun. I danced and danced. I practiced at home too. I got so that I took two private lessons a week.”

She proved a natural. “I don’t really know, it’s just that I loved moving around like that and learning new things. It wasn’t that hard to conquer the steps.” The by-then dance crazy young lady sought out dancing wherever she could find it.

“I never missed any dancers that came. I saw Anna Pavlova (great Russian ballerina) dance The Dying Swan at the Brandeis Theatre. That was really something.”

Never dreaming she’d one day be on stage, she “went every chance I got” to Saturday matinee vaudeville shows at the Orpheum and Gaiety Theatres. Maude attended Duschene College for a time but the pull of dance made her leave.

Saturday nights were reserved for Peony Park, where she and her future husband, John Wangberg, “would dance the night away” to the swing tunes of a live orchestra in the ballroom. But weekdays meant practice. Lots of practice. It wasn’t long before Maude was a star pupil of Fogg’s. She even conducted classes in Omaha when Fogg was away teaching in outstate Nebraska and in Iowa. At her mentor’s urging, Maude left home at age 20 to pursue a dancing career back East. Her father disapproved, suggesting she’d only come running back home disappointed, but her mother encouraged her. It was the chance of a lifetime.

“When Adelaide Fogg’s dancing master in New York wanted to form a dancing act he asked her to bring any of her dancers that would be interested to New York for him to see,” Maude said. “She asked several of us to go with her. Her mother always went with her in those days. They rented an apartment with two bedrooms. We girls had one bedroom, with all four of us jammed up in it, and she and her mother had the other bedroom. You could see the Hudson River from there.”

Of the four girls from Omaha who went East, only Maude stayed, the others either getting married or soon tiring of The Life. Maude stuck with it. There were lots of good times. She and her roommate for most of those years in vaudeville, Edie, became fast friends. There were also some tough times. Maude and Edie and the rest of the girls did a lot of growing up far from home and family.

“You were on your own. Well, see, I was a convent girl and the other girls were just out of high school. Totally unsophisticated — that’s what we were. Totally new to everything. That’s the way it was.”

Maude finally got “sick” of the $55 a week road grind and retired from the stage at 25. She resettled in Omaha, taking up with her old beau, John Wangberg, an RKO Pictures salesman. Much happened in between the time Maude went from girl next door to show girl and much more happened after she hung up her dancing shoes.

The former Maude Fodrea was born in Grand Island, Neb. on May 16, 1905 to Pennington Parker Fodrea and Blanche Watson. She was the youngest of three sisters. Her parents met and married in Grand Island. When her father, a manager with the Burlington Northern Railroad got a promotion, the family moved to Chicago. Blanche returned home to Grand Island to have her babies. When Maude was about 5, the family moved back to Grand Island after her father lost his job and her mother suffered a nervous breakdown. After her mother recovered, the family moved to Omaha, where her father got work, first as a reporter with the Omaha Bee, and then as advertising-sales manager for the Iten Biscuit Company.

Maude grew up near downtown, in a home at 2869 California Street long since gone in the wake of Creighton University campus expansion. She’s seen Omaha’s skyline rise and fall and rise again, just as she’s seen the city’s boundaries expand ever westward. She witnessed one mark to its landscape she’d rather forget — the devastation left behind by the 1913 Easter Sunday tornado.

“Oh, yes. My family and I were out in Benson visiting my grandmother. Towards the middle of Sunday afternoon there was such a strange light in the sky and then it got real dark after awhile,” she said. “So my father and mother decided it just wasn’t safe to go out. No, it just didn’t look right. There was something wrong. So we stayed there all night and then the next morning we left. The streetcars were running. Nothing moving but them. No automobiles. No people. It was just very quiet. Just dead silence. On our way home we saw clothes hanging up in trees and trees down and, oh, things like that. We didn’t know if anything happened to our house or not. But everything was OK in that section of Omaha. There wasn’t anything bothered at all. That’s about all I remember of it. It was soon forgotten.”


Aftermath of 1913 Easter tornado




Streetcar lines once crisscrossed Omaha and that’s how Maude, her family and her friends got around town. “We took the streetcar every place — downtown, to high school and back. It was a nice ride, you know. I think it was a nickel.”

One of her streetcar rides brought her smack dab in the middle of a violent mob. It was September 28, 1919, a day of infamy in Omaha history. Only a few days before a black man named William Brown was arrested and charged with the rape of a white woman. Serious questions were raised even then about his guilt, but racist fervor made for a tense situation. An attempt to lynch Brown the day of his arrest failed. Calm seemed to prevail but on the 28th passions reignited and an angry crowd bent on vigil ante justice gathered outside the Douglas County Courthouse in the afternoon. Word spread that Brown would be taken by force and hanged.

Maude, then a 14-year-old schoolgirl, was in a group of girls who heard news of the trouble and she and the others went downtown “out of curiosity.” What they found scared and sickened them. Brown, protected by a cordon of police far too small for the growing crowd, fled under guard to the balcony level of the courthouse, which people began laying siege to.

“My sister and I and another girl and her sister went down on the streetcar to the courthouse and we stood across the street. There was just a mob of people all over,” she said. “The man who was going to be lynched was up there on the steps higher up where you could see part of him. It just was awful, that’s all I can say. It was terrible and you wished that it wouldn’t be. It was just an eerie feeling. It was very unpleasant. We stayed awhile just looking and wandering around and then we went home. We never saw the actual lynching. We didn’t want to really. I remember that very, very well. I won’t forget it.”

As night fell some in the crowd armed themselves with guns and shots rang out. Blacks were beaten. Lives lost. A pitched battle between the mob and police ensued. In the process, the courthouse was riddled with bullets and set ablaze. Brown and other prisoners were forced to the roof to escape the smoke, flames, gunfire and ropes. Late that night Brown was captured by the mob, killed and his lifeless body strung to a telephone pole, a fate the mayor nearly met earlier. A race riot followed. The violence made news across America. The woman who accused Brown of the crime recanted her story.

A mix of memories — good and bad — abound for Maude. Like sharing the bill with a young Milton Berle, whose mother traveled with him and “would go down into the audience when it was time for his act and start the laughing. We could tell her laugh standing back there in the wings.” Watching performers from the wings Maude and the other girls sometimes got “silly” and caused a ruckus, whereupon a flustered stage manager would shoo them away. It was a kind of game.

Her last year on tour she got to perform at home, on the Orpheum stage. Friends and family saw her strut her stuff there and feted her at a banquet her dad put on.

Twice, Maude was offered chances at stardom and twice she declined, once to lead a Paris revue and again to head a new vaudeville act. The prospect of Paris came soon after arriving in New York, she said, and “it scared me to death.” She wasn’t ready for such an opportunity so early in her career. Besides she said, “I didn’t have any ambitions, so I didn’t really envision myself as a big dancer all by myself. I never really thought about that.” The chance to be a vaudeville headliner came after she already decided she’d had enough. “I don’t know what came over me, but I kept telling myself, You don’t want to do this anymore — you need to go home.” So home she went. On the very next train.

Like many a star-struck girl she fancied a fling at Hollywood but never could work up the courage to go try her luck there.

Following her abrupt departure from the stage she opened her own dance school at the Elks Club. Just as Adelaide Fogg did for her, Maude did for young girls. Hard times came with the Great Depression. “My father lost a lot of his money. Things were just pretty sad for awhile there around home,” she said. Given this reversal of fortune, Maude and John opted for a small wedding. His job took them to Kansas City. He rose through the RKO ranks to become regional manager. When his job required relocating to the South, the couple lived out of hotels in various cities and states. They returned to Kansas City, visiting their folks in Omaha on weekends.

With John on the road a lot, a “lonely” Maude began adoption proceedings for their only child, Lorraine. It was 1946. When little Lorraine was old enough, Maude gave her ballet lessons. Lorraine Boyd became a Creighton University grad and is now a reporter with The Daily Record in Omaha.

In Kansas City Maude volunteered for several Catholic causes and groups and played lots of bridge. “I was active. I really enjoyed Kansas City. I call that my home,” said Maude, who has a big framed poster of the night-time K.C. skyline above her bed. Except for that stint down South, she lived there until 1988, when she and John moved back here to be near their daughter. After nearly 60 years of marriage, Maude lost John in the early 1990s.

Today, she keeps active working crossword puzzles (in ink), reading, watching TV and going to mass. If there’s a ballet on she might give it a look but not so much anymore as her favorite artists, like Mikhail Baryshnikov, no longer perform. Yet her love for dance is always near and it doesn’t take much prodding for her to recall her days on stage. Even though Maude claims her passion for it’s all in the past, her daughter says her octogenarian mother is “always up for dancing at parties,” where she’ll demonstrate a few steps to anyone interested. At 101 she’s still gotta dance!

Men of Science

August 2, 2010 Leave a comment

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Once in a while I have an idea for a story that entails my doing a set of short profiles of individuals sharing some common characteristic.  In the case of this story, I profiled four senior men of science, all medical professionals and researchers of one kind or another in Omaha, Neb. I really enjoyed the challenge of trying to capture the essence of these men and their work in relatively few words.  The story originally appeared in the New Horizons, and I suspect you will be as impressed as I was by some of their groundbreaking and lifesaving activities and findings.

Men of Science

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

The Man Who Would Slow Aging
Denham Harman, professor emeritus and world-renowned researcher at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, humbly chalks up his work uncovering the mysteries of aging to a series of chance occurrences. Born in San Francisco and raised in Berkeley, Calif., he displayed an inquisitive mind early on, developing a passion for building model airplanes and setting his sights on studying aeronautical engineering. But then one day in the 1930s his father bumped into an oil executive at a Bay area tennis club where Harman’s brothers played and landed Denham a job as a lab assistant with Shell Development Co. “This was in the midst of the Depression — there were no jobs,” Harman said from the cubbyhole office he still works in every day at age 86. This chance encounter affording an opportunity he dare not refuse set him on a new course — “I got shifted, so to speak, and I was very lucky” — that within two decades found him posing a radical theory of aging now accepted by the scientific community.

While working for Shell he earned his undergraduate and doctoral degrees in chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, which, just happened to be one of the top chemistry schools in the nation. After working on lubricating oils he was transferred to the reaction kinetics department where, he said, “just by chance our primary concern was free radical reactions, which in those days was a very unusual focus. There was not that much known.” His research helped Shell gain 35 patents, including one for the Shell No-Pest strip. Then, in 1945, his wife Helen unwittingly planted the seed for Harman’s breakthrough postulation when she showed him a magazine article —Tomorrow You May Be Younger — about aging research in Russia. It got him so hooked on the idea of aging as a biochemical process he made the rash decision, at 33, to halt his career as an industrial chemist to enter medical school. When Cal-Berkeley flatly turned him down, telling him, ironically, “You’re too old,” he went to Stanford. Why change careers in mid-stream? “I just thought here’s a field that’s real interesting and which I know nothing about,” he said. Besides, the question of aging still dogged him enough he sought a broader knowledge base with which to tackle the enigma.

During a 1950s stint at Donner Laboratory in Berkeley where, he said, “I didn’t have anything to do but think, I figured it was a great time to look at this problem. So, I asked myself the question man has asked for a long, long time and still asks: What causes aging? What causes that transition? Everyone goes through it. We’re all familiar with it. We more or less accept it. There’s a lot of theories that try to account for that but no one theory is accepted. I looked at the problem from the premise there’s a single basic cause. Mother Nature uses the same things over and over again and this is what you would expect. Also, it was obvious genetics and environment were involved. So, what could cause this to take place? I thought of everything I could think of, but it just didn’t jive. I began to think maybe I had wasted my time getting on about aging — that maybe I didn’t know enough.”

Then, in one of those moments when a burst of inspiration arrives only after much deliberation, it came to him. He recalls, “I was sitting at my desk reading at the Donner Lab when all of a sudden it flashed in my mind — free radicals. I don’t know where it came from, but there it was. I looked at that problem and everything fitted — the chemistry-biology fitted.” The trouble is, initially almost no one else agreed with what he dubbed “the free-radical theory of aging.” He was all alone, out on a limb and his many detractors “were trying to chop it off,” he said. By the time he joined the UNMC staff in 1958, he was engaged in animal tests to support his theory. What kept him at it in the face of doubtful colleagues was, he said, his view the aging process is “a very important problem — it’s the thing that kills us” — and his belief that the theory is correct. That’s the reason I’m still at this problem. It works. Otherwise, as a chemist, I wouldn’t waste my time if it didn’t.”

So, what are free radicals and how do they impact aging? Free radicals are molecules with an unpaired electron. These lone wolf electrons create havoc in cells, setting off damaging chain reactions that account, he said, for the effects we experience as aging. Free radical production is stimulated by oxygen, which provides the energy we need to survive, and by environmental sources, but over time free radical reactions increase to a threshold the body cannot tolerate and we die. Harman contends an increase in antioxidant — vitamin E, vitamin C, beta carotene — consumption decreases free radical reactions, thereby slowing the aging process. “You’re putting in a preservative, in effect, that counteracts the deleterious effects.” The benefits of antioxidants — from increased life expectancy and reduced incidence of disease — have been shown in studies of rodents and birds. His efforts to promote antioxidant use — he’s long followed a daily regimen himself — has succeeded. “Americans spend around $4 or $5 billion a year on supplements, most of which are antioxidants, and even though I can’t prove it,” he said, “I’m sure a lot of those people will live longer then they would otherwise.”

Harman, whose research was long supported by a patroness, the late Mrs. Leon Millard, has in recent years seen funding dry up, a frustrating turn of events he ascribes to changing research priorities. Of more concern, he said, is the scant work being done on life prolongation and disease prevention using his theory’s tenets. “A great deal can be done, but we’re not doing it, and that’s disturbing.” As for himself, he continues writing articles, making presentations and giving interviews that lay out his ideas. Retirement doesn’t enter his mind. “I think you’re much better doing something,” he said. While he suspects his own life span may have been shortened due to recent health problems, he said time remains his main asset. “It’s what I have most of, but these are things you can’t predict.”

An Uncommon Man’s Search for Cancer’s Hereditary Links
As just one example of the uncommon life he’s led, Henry Lynch grew up a school drop-out and street fighter in a rough section of 1930s New York but persevered to become a medical doctor and noted cancer researcher. “I didn’t pick fights but, boy, the neighborhood I lived in it was a very common occurrence to meet bullies, and you had to defend yourself,” said Lynch, chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine and president of the Hereditary Cancer Institute at Creighton University. Even though he never attended high school — a result of his wartime service and working to support his family — he cultivated his naturally brilliant mind by reading “voraciously,” saying, “I did it on my own. I spent every free moment I had looking up things in the library. I had no doubt in my intellectual abilities.” Or in his physical prowess, which he put to use as a stevedore, farm hand and prizefighter.

Henry Lynch

Still a hulk of a man at 75, Lynch enlisted in the Navy as an under-age, but over-sized 16 year-old seaman in 1944. Serving as a gunner on freighters and transports, his tour of duty took him from the North Atlantic to the Mediterranean to the South Pacific. He boxed during his two-year hitch and once back stateside he resumed fighting as an amateur before turning pro. “I loved to fight,” he said, adding he boxed under assumed names in a 20-bout pro heavyweight career in order to retain amateur status in a hoped-for bid to play college football.

At first, it was as much his desire to play football at the University of Oklahoma under legendary coach Bud Wilkinson as it was his need to feed his hungry mind that led this then street-wise New York tough to enroll in college there in the late 1940s. By the time his failed tryout with the powerhouse Sooners ended his gridiron dreams, he was “consumed with studying.” He continued his studies at the University of Colorado and at Denver University and the University of Texas in Galveston. Trained in genetics, Lynch was serving an internal medicine residency at UNMC in 1961 when the course of his professional career changed. “I was called to see a family with multiple cases of colon cancer, but with no polyps. That was something I thought was quite unique. I studied that family. I went into great detail…not just studying the immediate relatives but extending it as far as I could to grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins,” he said. “And I collected pathology extensively and wrote up all the clinical histories so I could put together and really understand how this could be a syndrome, and ultimately it emerged as one.” For his pioneering work, the syndrome was named after him. That first case history led him to track more families with colorectal and other cancers and it “influenced my whole decision to become a medical oncologist,” he said. It was also the start of a massive hereditary cancer data base he manages at Creighton, whose staff he joined in 1967.

Like any new idea, Lynch’s assertion some cancers have a hereditary basis was dismissed those early years. “People thought I was crazy. They kind of laughed or said I must be dealing with a chance situation or with an environmental factor,” he recalls, adding he often paid for fact-gathering trips out of his own pocket in lieu of grant support. His faith in his findings did not waver, he said, because “with a background in genetics I saw what we call a segregated model in the way cancers were moving through families and I knew it had to be hereditary. Finally, it wasn’t until the late 1960s that people began taking me seriously.” Today, Lynch is an acknowledged leader in his field, the author of 12 books and hundreds medical journal articles and a keynote speaker at medical conferences around the world. Despite his lofty status, he still goes out in the field recording case histories. He said getting good data “is not just a matter of the history, it’s winning confidence from the family members and gaining rapport. You’ve got to really care and they can tell right away whether you care or not. And I care. I really do. I care about them not just as research subjects but as human beings and they appreciate that.”

He and his colleagues not only track but identify pathological genes that cause disease and they apply preventive methodologies, including prophylactic surgeries, that remove or reduce the risk of cancer in patients. Genetic engineering, he said, will one day allow physicians to manipulate mutant genes. “If we can figure out the chemistry we might be able to design drugs that are the antithesis to what that gene is making, so we can block it and we can cure cancer and other diseases. That’s on the horizon. No question about it.” Where does Lynch draw the line in genetic intervention? “I don’t think we can foresee specific boundaries to this at this moment,” he said. “But if used prudently with the cardinal feature being the interest of our patients and following the orthodoxy of do-no-harm, then I think it’s fair to progress and to use all the tools God gave us to help humanity.”

Still actively engaged in work at an age when most of his peers are retired, Lynch can’t imagine quitting his passion. “Well, I will never retire. I just love my work. Besides, I don’t have any hobbies. I don’t know what I would do. My whole life is in this direction and I see a whole lot of problems there and some of them we can  solve,” said Lynch, who has a wife, Jane, and three grown children. “It’s a joy knowing maybe I can help people.”

The King of Calcium
When Creighton University endocrinology expert Robert Heaney discusses the benefits of good nutrition in fighting the onset or progression of disease, he has a knack for making what could be a dry recitation of facts into an engaging discussion. For example, listen to his explanation of why our calorie-rich modern diets are actually nutritionally poor in comparison with our forbearers: Hunter-gatherers, he said, enjoyed an amazingly varied diet by foraging off the land and its bounty of nutritionally-rich nuts, roots, leaves and berries, whereas since the agricultural revolution our diets have been dominated by cultivated seed plant-derived foods — cereals, breads, legumes, wheat, rice, corn, millet — that provide high energy but low nutrition. “One of the issues modern nutrition is confronting,” he said, “is the role it may play in the chronic diseases that affect human kind today — cancer, degenerative cardiovascular disease and dementia. Does nutrition play a role there? Nobody knows. But there’s some evidence it does.”

Muddying the works, said Heaney, an Omaha native and Creighton grad who, with wife Barbara, has seven grown children, is the often spurious nutrition claims promoted by quacks and charlatans. “A lot of this stuff is just made up by people who don’t know anything about what they’re talking about,” he said. “I’m not going to sit here like a crank and say, It’s all nutrition — if you just ate right you wouldn’t have any problems. That’s not true. But I am convinced there is a role nutrition does play. The field I’ve worked in, osteoporosis, is an example.”  He said the high incidence of osteoporosis today is likely due to diets low in calcium and vitamin D, two essentials for keeping bones healthy and strong into old age. “If your calcium intake is low,” said Heaney, the author of the book Calcium and Common Sense, “you are constantly withdrawing calcium from your bone bank in order to meet the needs your body has today. The problem is that as that goes on day-after-day, year-after-year, 24-7, that revs up bone remodeling and leads to structural weaknesses. So…much of the damage associated with osteoporosis is due to this high level of remodeling, which makes the bone more fragile.” While some progress is being made in assessing who is at risk for osteoporosis, he said identification is complicated by the fact “we’re immersed in a society in which everybody has low calcium intake but not everybody gets osteoporosis because some are more sensitive to low calcium and others are more resistant.” He said factors that impact the equation are starting to be “worked out. For example, African-Americans have a bony apparatus that tends to protect them against low calcium intake whereas whites will tear down their skeleton much more readily.”

Robert Heaney

Research by Heaney and others clearly makes the case for calcium and vitamin D in reducing bone fracture rates in older patients. He said where he used to be asked by science writers if calcium is vital or not, “I don’t get those questions anymore. There’s a high awareness of the importance of calcium and I suspect that’s due to the media. What the general public doesn’t know is how much calcium they need and what amounts are contained in the foods they eat.”

According to Heaney, calcium is also a marker for a nutrition-poor diet. “We did a study at Creighton of 300 or 400 volunteers that found those who had low calcium intakes — meaning less than 70 percent of the recommended daily intake — tended to get less than 70 percent of the recommended intake of four other key nutrients. So, a low calcium intake tends to translate to having a poor overall diet low in lots of other nutrients.” He said the preferred way to get patients to increase calcium is through diet. “The best way to get the nutrients we need is from eating other organisms. We don’t know enough to put it all into pills. So, we stress food. If I can get you to eat calcium-rich foods then I know I’ll have a much better chance of your getting all the nutrients you need because dairy foods are such good sources of so many of these nutrients. We recommend fortified foods as a second or third line of defense and only recommend supplements as a last resort.” He is quick to note calcium is not the only nutrient crucial in osteoporosis and nutrition is not the only factor impacting the disease.

Even at 75 Heaney is still at the top of his game, evidence of which came with his being honored as the 2003 recipient of the E.V. McCollum Award from the American Society for Clinical Nutrition for his creative work as a clinical investigator in generating and testing new concepts in nutrition. For him, research is a never-ending exploration, journey and challenge. “It’s all those things. It’s always a question of why and how. Those are the interesting questions,” he said, adding he’s had a curiosity for how things work since he was a kid taking clocks apart. He said he “doesn’t waste a lot of time pondering” retirement, adding he’s too busy anyway between his research, writing and speaking commitments. Besides, the grant funds he secures for CU’s osteoporosis research center are what keep it open. “The day I stop, the work stops. That’s why I’m happy to keep doing it.”

High Flying, Straight Shooting Doc
University of Nebraska Medical Center otolaryngology physician-professor and  retired Air Force veteran Anthony Yonkers has applied his healing arts in a wide variety of settings. He’s served as flight surgeon aboard jets, provided medical advice to Stratcom leaders running nuclear scenarios in its underground command post, taught medical students and resident physicians in training, conducted research into new head-neck procedures and performed countless operations that improved patients’ lives. The Muskegon, Mich. native and University of Michigan grad came to Omaha in 1968 as an active duty Air Force major assigned to Erhling Bergquist Hospital at Offutt Air Force Base. As an ex-serviceman, Yonkers is widely respected in his role as an attending clinician at Omaha’s V.A. Medical Center.

While never an Air Force pilot, he learned to fly in the Offutt AeroClub and even got to take the stick of T-38 trainers on flights he accompanied. These days, he pilots his own single-engine Mooney to medical conferences, family get-togethers and relief efforts undertaken by the Order of St. Lazarus, a humanitarian organization he is active in that provides medical care to leper colonies around the world. He and his wife Mary have four grown children.

When Yonkers neared the end of his Air Force active duty in the late ‘60s, he was set to go back to Michigan when a position opened in the new Department of Otolaryngology at UNMC, where he’d volunteered. “I was only going to stay a year or two to see how this brand new department worked out…and lo and behold I’m still here 35 years later,” said Yonkers, who continued as a reservist, rising to the rank of brigadier general, until 1998. “It’s been kind of exciting to see the department develop as we’ve added more staff and areas of concentration,” including a center treating patients with head and neck cancers, a prosthetic division building radiation shielding devices to help save tissue and molding false ears and noses and a sleep institute addressing patients’ chronic sleep disorders.

Yonkers and his UNMC colleagues participate in studies looking at everything from sinus infections to breathing disturbances to cleft lip and palette repairs to the treatment of papillomas of the voice box. He said new insights into treating medical conditions often arise from clinical experiences that prompt questions that in turn spur quests for answers through “studies of what best proven methods or accepted techniques work best in a given set of circumstances.”

For Yonkers, one of the most pleasing aspects of his work comes in his role as a teacher. “It’s fun in that you’re seeing young people develop. You’re taking a medical student with maybe one year of general surgery training and in four years you’re turning him or her into a specialist that can go anywhere in the country and hold their own. That makes you feel good.” He said practicing medicine gives him great satisfaction. “It’s a fascinating area. It’s an opportunity to work with people and to do something to alleviate their discomfort and to make their lives better. It’s very satisfying.” At 65, his passion for his work remains undiminished. “That’s the reason I’m still here and not retired,” he said. While he knows there may come a time when it’s prudent to lay down his scalpel, he believes older docs like himself offer what cannot be taught or replaced. “Through the years you build a feel or sixth sense for things and it takes awhile to accumulate those assets and nuances. That kind of knowledge is hard to measure and is lost in a forced retirement.”

The Bone Hunter: Paleontologist Michael Voorhies Uncovers Dinosaur Fossils

August 2, 2010 5 comments

An article in the local daily about paleontologist Michael Voorhies got me excited about interviewing and profiling him, and after a simple inquiry I made arrangements for New Horizons editor Jeff Reinhardt and I to visit the scientist at his home dig — the very cool Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park in Nebraska.  It was a fun field trip and I thoroughly enjoyed capturing this engaging man’s magnificent obsession for bone hunting. This was another of those occasions when I never heard a peep from Voorhies after my article appeared in print.  Perhaps now that it is getting a second life courtesy this online posting, I might hear something back from him.




The Bone Hunter: Paleontologist Michael Voorhies Uncovers Dinosaur Fossils

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons


There’s a perfect symmetry to bone hunter Michael Voorhies’ life.

The most significant fossil finds by this professional paleontologist have come in his native Nebraska. He found his first dinosaur bone as a child in northeast Nebraska. Soon after graduating from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln he discovered a prehistoric frieze of two dueling mammoths in the state’s far western Little Badlands. Within his first decade in the field he identified a volcanic ashfall fossil bed on an Antelope County farm near his childhood home that led to the establishment of Nebraska’s most unusual state park.

The ancient remains of Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park are open to the public even as the area remains an active excavation site. This retired UNL curator of vertebrate paleontology now spends his summers there with his geologist wife Jane. They make their “bone camp” in a primitive cabin by a creek. She plays the harpsichord and cooks gourmet meals. They have a ball.

His parents still live in his hometown of Orchard, Neb. — a virtual stone’s throw away from Ashfall, where his life and career as a bone hunter have come full circle.

“I eventually ended up pretty much where I started,” he said.

Voorhies could be doing most anything in retirement. But he prefers scratching and digging around in the ground with his ever-present trowel, using a fine paint brush to clean the silty ash and sand away from whatever remnant he extracts. Holding a freshly unearthed object with relic-like care close to his thick-lensed glasses, he inspects it, hoping for a treasure rich in scientific discovery.

Whether sifting through dirt turns up a treasure or not, it still connects the seeker to a long lost age, even a bit of eternity. It also yields a measure of posterity.

“Every time you swipe through the dirt and you find a bone you know for sure you’re the first person in the history of the universe to see it, and that’s pretty good,” he said.

Bones represent pieces, no matter how small, of an epic tale.

“They all tell some kind of a story,” Voorhies said.

He derives the same joy of discovery from bone hunting today as he did as a boy along streams near Orchard, where his father was a dairyman and the paternal grandfather he idolized was a pharmacist. After one of these youthful tramps that his grandpa sometimes joined him on, Voorhies would empty his pockets of arrowheads, agates, bird shells and plants.

Once, at age 9, he came home with the remains of a tooth he suspected must be very old. He found it scouring the banks of Verdigre Creek. His favorite teacher at school, Mrs. Carlson, sent a letter along with the incisor to Lloyd Tanner, a paleontologist at Morrill Hall, the state natural history museum in Lincoln, asking if he could identify it for her eager student. In his reply Tanner confirmed the tooth belonged to a giant Ice Age camel that lived about two million years ago.

“That really made my day when I got a letter back saying this little hunk of stuff turned out to be something important,” Voorhies remembered.

Tanner sent the fossil back suggesting it’d make a fine specimen for the museum’s collection. Voorhies donated it and a part of him was forever hooked on the ancient wonders contained in the ground, although, he said, “it wasn’t until I got to college I realized you could be a professional paleontologist. This, to me, was some kind of hobby but here were folks making a living doing this.”

It turns out Nebraska’s fertile ground for fossils.

“Almost any of these little creeks in this area carry a load of gravel that has scattered pieces of petrified bones, wood and teeth and so forth,” he said. “If you have any outdoor experience in this part of the state you’re going to find fossils.”

The Nebraska Panhandle is especially abundant in fossils.

He credits both Mrs. Carlson, whom he recalls as “a superb science teacher,” and Tanner for inclining him towards the work he does now.

“I was not a junior scientist. My interest was mostly being outside. If I hadn’t had the teacher I had growing up in Orchard, if she hadn’t nurtured that interest in natural history I had, I think there’s a good chance I could have ended up pushing pills some place and been perfectly happy at that. She encouraged curiosity and creativity in kids. And I’m forever grateful to Lloyd Tanner for taking the time to answer a little kid’s question.”

When a child visiting Ashfall asks him a question, even one he’s often heard before, he responds knowing his answer can impact an impressionable young mind.

In that way his life has of coming full circle, Voorhies ended up working for the very man, Tanner, who certified his first dinosaur find.

Many more significant finds followed. Voorhies was a fresh UNL grad the summer of 1962, working in a field party at the Trailside Museum at Fort Robinson State Park, when two workmen laying electrical lines on the Tom Moody ranch near Crawford, Neb. came in with a large fossil they’d uncovered. They’d placed their find in the only available container — a feedsack — and presented it to Voorhies.

The fossil’s size readily identified it as belonging to a mammoth, the largest dinosaur to roam prehistoric Nebraska. Voorhies and the team went to the site where the hind leg bone laid undisturbed for thousands of years and they spent much time excavating before confirming a once-in-a-lifetime find.

“We had no idea what we were getting into until we dug back into the bank. We dug forward to where we hoped the skull would be and, Wow!, there it was — the back of the skull. I remember there was a moment at which we were disappointed because we found the tip of a tusk and it was going the wrong way. ‘Oh, damn, the tusk has broken off and gone back the wrong way..’ But within a few more days it was apparent there was a second elephant — and that tusk tip was actually from” the second until-then-obscured mammoth.


Univ of NE State Museum

“So it gradually dawned on us this was a very unusual fossil.”

It took six weeks of digging before the intact skeletons of two fully grown adult male Columbian mammoths frozen in a death embrace emerged; their intertwined bodies evidence of a fight that ended when their tusks became interlocked and the beasts fell, unable to dislodge their ivory appendages or lift their 10-ton bodies.

He said tests run on the tusks indicate the elephants engaged each other “in a testosterone rage. That’s when they’re the most dangerous. Basically, two 10-ton trucks meeting head on.” It was, he said, “the old story” — a fight over sex. What caused these two battling elephants to be fatally entangled, he said, was the fact each had one long sharp tusk and one stump, allowing the spear-like thrusters to get caught up — one’s tusk lodged in the eye socket of the other elephant.

It remains the single most impressive fossil find Voorhies has ever seen.

“This is the only case we know of in the world where you find these elephants locked in combat,” he said.

The mammoths were dressed in a plaster jacket and removed from the ground without breaking a single bone. The fossils were then brought to Morrill Hall, where they remained until a couple years ago, when funds were finally secured for Voorhies and a crew to prepare the mammoths for display at Trailside.

In hindsight he would have left sediment on the bones for the added information it provided. But being green and afire with the heat of discovery, he “was after the trinket — the bones,” he said, not the sediment. He knows better now.

Nine years after the mammoths discovery Mike and Jane were on one of their cherished hikes near Orchard when he spotted something that changed his life.

A baby rhino skull exposed by erosion proved to be the marker for an ancient fossil bed. What used to be an active water hole for dinosaurs became a dead zone when volcanic ash descended there, killing off the natural habitat and the many animals that utilized it. The find led to Ashfall State Park outside Royal, Neb.

Several features distinguish this spot, he said, none more than its rhino, three-toed horse and other skeletons preserved in perfect three-dimensional condition within the very earth that became their burial ground. The sculptural bones jut out of the gray ash like headstones in a dinosaur graveyard. It’s a striking, eerie, solemn, magisterial sight. The tableaux-like remains are protected from the elements in a rough-hewn mausoleum called the Rhino Barn.

“Probably the most unique thing about Ashfall is that we’ve left the fossil bed in the ground so people can get close to it,” he said. “This is the only place in the world that has skeletons of large animals in the round. Their rib cages are still bulging up just like a live animal and that’s really what makes this place unique.”

Ashfall’s distinctive enough that the PBS series Nova featured it.

“What Ashfall has contributed is much more specific knowledge about one particular place and the details of the anatomy of these prehistoric animals. Most fossils are very incomplete. We knew for instance we had rhinos (in ancient Nebraska) but we didn’t really realize this particular species had very short legs. It was built like a hippopotamus. You have to have whole skeletons to figure things like that out. One of the nice things about Ashfall is that it took the guess work out of it for many of these species.”


Dr. Michael Voorhies

Dr. Michael Voorhies 

From Mysteries in the Dust, NET Television,


Voorhies is a storyteller at heart and he likes nothing more than adding to the evolving narrative of prehistoric times.

“One of the pleasures of paleontology is being able to sort of time travel in your imagination and try to imagine what things looked like when they were alive,” he said. “And if you have really good evidence like we do at Ashfall you don’t have to speculate so much The natural body line has been fleshed out. You can see the sag of the belly…”

The more scientists have to work with the more they discern. “We have such excellent materials in the horses and the rhinos we can tell the sexes easily because the males have big tusks and the females have small tusks,” he said. “Many of the females have babies right next to them, some in nursing positions.”

Many of the skeletal remains include stomach contents, complete with undigested seeds and stems of prairie grasses. “Their last meal,” Voorhies said. Thus, scientists theorize most every critter in the ash bed was a grass-eating animal.

Diversity ruled.

“One of the fascinating things to me is how rich the wildlife was here 12 million years ago,” he said. “I think we’re up to something like 70 different species of wild animals that we have evidence were using this water hole. The biggest ones were the elephants and then you work down to rhinos, three-toed horses, various kinds of meat-eating animals — bear dogs, bone crushing dogs and saber-toothed cats — right down to mice, squirrels, shrews, frogs, toads, salamanders, bats and birds. Just all kinds of things.

“Also, we have several new species of animals found here that have never been found anywhere else on Earth, including a type of bird very closely related to the Crowned Cranes of Africa.”

Ashfall might have been lost to the ages if not for what Voorhies calls “a stroke of blind luck.” At the time he discovered the site in 1971 he and Jane were professors at the University of Georgia, where they met. That summer, as was their habit, the couple came to Nebraska to do some bone hunting. They lived like gypsies.

“Every summer we came out here and continued to explore the fossil beds in this area. We visited, oh, probably 60 or 80 farms during the summers of ‘69-’70-’71. We didn’t have a child then so we lived out of the back of our station wagon and sort of went from camp ground to camp ground. I spent my days very pleasantly hiking around country like this,” he said, gesturing to the park’s rolling hills and valleys.

“To me, one of the great joys of paleontology is being out in the environment…”


Univ of NE State Museum

In later years the couple’s daughter, Harmony, joined them on their treks, developing “a love of the outdoors” in the process, according to her father.

In the early ‘70s, unencumbered by grants or institutions directing his work, he said, “I was pretty much my own boss and so I did basically what I wanted to do — explore the geology and paleontology in northeast Nebraska, which is my home. We found probably a hundred fossil sites in this part of the state and made friends with a lot of land owners up here who encouraged our work.”

Bone hunters, like game hunters, enlist the cooperation of farmers and ranchers to pursue their passion.

“The fella that owned the farm here, Melvin Colson, gave permission to search the grounds. I spent two or three days looking around this 360-acre farm, starting in the obvious places. There’s a high cliff on the other side of the valley which has a nice sandstone bed and there are petrified bones in it,” he said. “So I was perfectly happy. Some of them were worth collecting and some of them were not.

“I made my little map. There was a volcanic ash bed right where there should be at the bottom of this sandstone cliff. I made my notes. Then I wandered over on the other side of the valley. It looked like there was a gully cutting back into Mr. Colson’s corn field. It looked mostly like black dirt, not very old, but once I got in the gully it turned out it was a very nice slice through the bed rock and lo and behold here was the volcanic ash just in the right spot. It was 10 feet thick.”

Immediately he speculated the ash had drifted into what was once a water hole.

“Then there was this little skull that took my eye. Wow! In my business we mostly find broken specimens. Teeth, leg bones, basically the dog’s dinner. A lot of bones have been extensively chewed on by scavengers or trampled on by larger animals. It’s very rare to see the skull with everything perfect. But there it was — a little baby rhino just basically grinning out of the wall.”

Fate led Voorhies to it.

“If I had happened to not walk up the little ravine I happened to walk up that day I’m sure I never would have seen the fossil, so little of the bone was exposed,” he said. “It just happened that erosion had clipped the edge of this very large bed. Most fossil beds, by the time you find them, have mostly or partly been washed away. But Ashfall was exceptional in that the whole time capsule was right there. Nothing has been destroyed by the weather. We were extremely lucky.

“If I had visited that same spot a few years later these fragile fossils would have been destroyed by the weather. So it’s one of those cases of being there in the right place at the exact right time.”





None of that was apparent then. Even after examination all Voorhies saw exposed was that lone skull. Nothing else suggested the treasure trove buried beneath his feet. It took excavations over decades, some funded by the National Geographic Society, before the full extent of Ashfall was revealed.

“There was no sort of eureka moment for me,” Voorhies said. “It wasn’t actually until years later it became evident this was a very large bone bed.”

Mining Ashfall for fossils continues. “We have a lot more to find out here,” said Voorhies, who added the site will remain active as long as the park remains self-supporting through the admission fees and gift shop revenues it collects.

The fact he made the discovery is ironic as his eyesight’s impaired.

“I’m not an exceptionally good fossil hunter,” he said, “but I’m persistent. And like my grandfather used to say, ‘Even a blind nag gets an acorn now and then.’”

A single fossil that leads to a bone bed that draws sightseers from all over the U.S. and the globe is not an every day occurrence. An article Voorhies wrote for National Geographic Magazine brought much attention to the site. Benefactors provided funding to develop Ashfall State Park.

This tourist stop that attracts 25,000 visitors a year owes its very existence to chance. Voorhies said even if a fossil ends up exposed by natural erosion or human construction, the two agencies that bring fossils to the surface, “you sort of have to have a trained eye to appreciate what you’re looking at.” His expert eye just happened to notice the rhino skull.

Still, he said, “I don’t think anyone would have walked away from this baby rhino — it looked too much like a head. But many fossils really don’t look like anything at all. Most dinosaur bones, for instance, look basically like pieces of junk until they’re very carefully cleaned off and glued back together.”

The site’s fossils are so well preserved thanks to the blanket of ash entombing them. Its low acid, alkaline levels did not chemically damage the bones.

“A neighboring farm lady used the ash to press wildflowers,” Voorhies said. “Normally wildflowers lose their color in a few weeks but she was able to keep them fresh looking for years.”

The white volcanic ash, Voorhies said, “is extremely fine grain. It feels like talcum powder.” A natural abrasive composed of many tiny glass particles, the ash was long commercially mined from a central Nebraska site by the Cudahy packing company in Omaha, said Voorhies, where it was shipped by the railroad car full, combined with soap, and sold as Old Dutch Cleanser.

When the ash fell millions of years ago the animals that inhaled it could not expel the abrasive substance from their lungs and they died a slow, agonizing death. The smallest animals perished first. The last to die were the rhinos. The same ash that killed the animals served as a preservative that allowed modern man to discover the remains and extrapolate what transpired.

Where did the ash originate from?

“We’ve never had a volcano in Nebraska,” Voorhies said, “but the eruptions in the Rocky Mountains and farther west” send ash clouds into the jet stream and the prevailing winds carry the fallout over thousands of square miles. Nebraska included. “Even Mount St. Helen’s in 1980 deposited a little bit of ash here. Not enough to make a layer. The fossil record in Nebraska is studded with layers of fallout, which are exceptionally interesting to geologists and paleontologists because they can be dated very precisely with the radioactivity clocks. So that’s why the ashfall here we know is 11.83 million years old,” he said. “Pretty much the whole record of evolution here in the Great Plains is calibrated by its ash beds.”

The ash bed that includes Ashfall can be traced throughout northern Nebraska, across Wyoming, to a large crater in southwestern Idaho. “So the known extent of this ash bed is a thousand miles,” he added. “Obviously, it’s been eroded away in some places but throughout the Niobrara River Valley wherever the streams cut down to the right level you always find the ash bed.”

Ashfall accumulated so much fallout due to it having been flatlands — part of an African-like savanna. The fallout’s thickest in the water hole depression, where the powdery ash drifted, like snow,. It’s here the most skeletons are found.

“Before this depression with the water hole in it filled to the brim with ash thousands of animals died by breathing in the dust,” he said. “So the critters are actually found at the bottom of the ash bed. The whole thing probably took several months from the time the ash first fell until the animals were dead and the carcass bed was covered with volcanic dust.”

The enclosed Rhino Barn with the intact skeletons is the star attraction at Ashfall, but many other fossil beds exist there.

“There’s a layer of sandstone under the volcanic ash which actually in many ways is more rich in fossils than the ash bed itself,” Voorhies said. “It would be the accumulated bones, teeth, jaws, skeletons of animals that had used the water hole probably for many centuries before the ash came.”

The tan or yellow sandstone layer provides a sharp contrast to the grayish-white ash, alternating stripes that mark the millenia and encase the past.

Visit Ashfall this summer and you’ll likely see Voorhies examining fossil finds in a trench being dug by strong bodies wielding shovels along one side of the Barn; the open ground’s striated layers of ash and sandstone clearly visible. The trench, whose manual labor is provided by college students working internships on-site, is part of a planned expansion. When completed by Memorial Day 2009 the fossil excavation/exhibition area will be eight times larger than today.

Fossils are harvested all the time from the trench. Some qualify as what Voorhies calls “significant finds,” albeit small in size. “There’s something new every day.”

Students pitch in more than strong backs — they train sharp eyes on digs.

“Some of the really critical discoveries at Ashfall are made by students,” Voorhies said. “They have good observational skills. They see things through fresh eyes. Some develop a knack for it — like they’re almost born with it.”

Voorhies speaks with admiration about the bone hunters — past and present — whose “natural eye” have led to discovery after discovery.

“Some of my colleagues down at the museum are almost phenomenal as to what they can find,” he said. “I would walk over something and then my buddy would reach over in my footpath and say, ‘You missed this.’ It’s always kind of a joke.”

No joke are the “legendary folks” who preceded him in the field. State museum founder E. H. Barbour was a bone hunter in pre-mechanized times when hauling a heavy elephant fossil out of Devil’s Gulch in western Nebraska required a team of horses.

“Yeah, there was sort of a heroic breed of really pioneer paleontologists that worked in the fossil beds in the old days. Now it’s basically just a couple of clowns in a pickup truck,” Voorhies said, smiling.

He said “a guy who truly did have a sixth sense for fossils” was Morris Skinner, a Museum of Natural History (New York) paleontologist for half-a-century. “As a high school student he found a fossil rhino bone bed on a ranch near his hometown of Ainsworth.”

Sound familiar?

“He collected just magnificent fossils. Even in his later days he still had an amazing eye for fossils,” he said. “He was a mentor to a whole generation of Nebraska paleontologists like me. He took us out and showed us. He was an expert at reading the rocks, at reading geology. He taught me how to take the anatomy of a hillside by using a simple instrument — a hand level.

“Levels are what we use when we’re out prospecting. It’s very important in paleontology to know exactly the level where a fossil comes from. If you’ve not recorded exactly the level of each fossil you bring in then they’re totally useless. Making maps is really a basic part of our job.”


The baby rhino skull that led to Mike Voorhies’ discovery of Ashfall

The baby rhino skull that led to Mike Voorhies’ discovery of Ashfall 

From Mysteries in the Dust, NET Television,


Besides the dramatic image they make, an advantage to leaving the bones in the ground at Ashfall, he said, is that “in 30 years somebody a lot smarter than me is going to be able to get much more information on those skeletons with new technologies. If we simply took all those bones out of the ground and brought them back to the museum that contextual information would all be lost.” As accurately as he assembled the mammoths at Trailside to replicate what they looked like in the ground, he said, “it’s not like seeing the real thing — the way Mother Nature left it. It’s really not pristine.”

Nebraska remains prime ground for fossils, which people often bring Voorhies for study. Inside the Ashfall visitors center is a lab where the public’s finds are examined alongside those of the paleontologists’. A case out front contains donated fossils. A couple from Basset recently brought in parts of a rare leaf-eating animal’s skeleton. Students will reconstruct the skeleton this summer.

He said the public in Nebraska “has been just outstanding” in supporting paleontologists’ work in the state. “I’m very proud of our state’s tradition of being at the cutting edge in this science.” He suspects the fact that fossils “are so common here” accounts for Nebraskans’ generosity.

Just as not all fossils hold the same interest for him, not all fossil beds spark the same excitement.

“I suppose I have a weakness for mass death. I like bone beds where you have lots and lots of animals, lots of death and destruction, and trying to figure out what happened. To me, it’s the intellectual challenge of trying to reconstruct the past.
The biggest one I ever worked on myself is either the Lisco Camel Quarries or the Broadwater Horse Quarries, both of which cover several square miles.”

By comparison, the Ashfall bone bed covers a couple acres.

“One of my favorite fossil beds we call the mouse mine. It’s hundreds of thousands of petrified bones, mostly small animals. Mice, frogs, weasels, otters, beavers. This is an Ice Age pond deposit just crammed with bones.”

The more diverse a fossil bed the better.

“I do like variety. I guess I would get pretty bored if I were working a site that only had one species.”

He calls what he does “a safari with a shovel” and he’s only too glad his prey lay dormant in the ground for him to hunt down. “It’s a good thing I don’t have to go after them with a gun,” he said, “because I couldn’t hit anything.” He hopes to turn out a book on Ashfall in the next couple years.

How apt that this bone hunter’s fossil odyssey, which began with a letter, then peaked with an article, may now culminate in a book.


Omaha’s Grand Old Lady, The Orpheum Theater

August 2, 2010 3 comments

Most cities of any size that have at least some semblance of sensitivity for historic preservation still have an Orpheum Theater. My hometown of Omaha, Neb. is one such city, although the Orpheum here came perilously close to being razed at one point. Omaha’s track record for historic preservation is rather spotty, although it’s gotten somewhat better over time. I wrote the following article shortly after the local Orpheum was renovated for the second or third time and had come under new management.  I will soon post a second piece I did around this same time, for another publication, that takes a different angle at the Orpheum and its opulent place among the city’s entertainment venues.  For the first half of my life I only knew the Orpheum by catching occasional glimpses of its exterior during downtown shopping excursions with my mom or dad. Mainly though I heard about it through reminiscences by my mother and aunts, who frequented the theater as girls and young women, when it was still a movie palace.  They made it sound so grand and special that I was always enthralled by their descriptions. I was actually well into my 20s before I first stepped foot inside.  Right out of college my first job, albeit it a part-time gig, was as a gofer for a now defunct arts presentation group, whose programs were held at the Orpheum.  I was supposed to be doing PR work but all I ever seemed to do, much to my frustration, was to fetch coffee for the haute woman in charge, or pick up poster orders or transport visiting artists, et cetera.  But there were perks, particularly getting to see a string of world class performances, including Marcel Marceau, Twyla Tharpe, and the Guthrie Theatre.  I’ve gone on to catch dozens of programs there — touring Broadway shows, operas, ballets, movies, you name it. I try to convey some of that wide-eyed excitement in my story, which originally appeared in the New Horizons.

Omaha’s Grand Old Lady, The Orpheum Theater

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (


More stars than there are in the heavens.

That’s how the great lion of Hollywood movie studios, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, described the galaxy of stars under contact to MGM during cinema’s Golden Age. Omaha may be far removed from the bright lights of Tinseltown but for 75 years now one enchanted place — the Orpheum Theater — has been a magnet for some of the brightest stars of the big screen, Broadway, the concert circuit and the recording industry.

This grand old lady, fresh from a $10 million facelift applied last summer, opened in 1927 to a varied program featuring comedian Phil Silvers, violinist Babe Egan and her Hollywood Redheads and the silent film, The Fighting Eagle, starring matinee idol Rod La Rocque. From the start, the opulent Orpheum has seduced us with its eclectic attractions and extravagant motifs. The French Renaissance Revival style theater is a monument to Old World craftsmanship in such decorative flourishes as gold leaf glazings, marble finishes, velvet coverings, framed mirrors, crystal chandeliers and ornate Venetian brocatelle and damask-adorned chairs. The grand foyer is dominated by a circular French Travertine marble stairway that winds its way to the mezzanine and balcony levels.

The City of Omaha-owned theater, saved from an uncertain future in the early 1970s before undergoing a major overhaul, is now under the purview of the Omaha Performing Arts Society, a non-profit headed by Omaha World-Herald publisher John Gottschalk. The society, which will also manage the Omaha Performing Arts Center to be built across from the Gene Leahy Mall, has signed a 50-year lease with the city for the Orpheum’s use and will share, with the city, in any operating losses the next 10 years. Money for this most recent renovation came from private donations culled together by Heritage Services, a fundraising organization headed by Walter Scott, Jr. and other corporate heavyweights. These new developments are the latest efforts to reinvent the Orpheum over the past 107 years.

The present theater is actually forged from the facade and foundation of an earlier building on the very same spot. What began as the Creighton Theater in 1895 became the Creighton Orpheum Theater when it joined the famed Orpheum Theater Circuit in 1898. The original Orpheum operated until 1925. Then, when Orpheum officials decided a grander edifice was needed to support a growing Omaha, $2 million was spent extensively enlarging, altering and gentrifying the site.

Matching the Orpheum’s lavish decor, is a rich lineage of legendary performers who have appeared there, including many identifiable by only one name. From Crosby to Sinatra, crooners have made fans swoon and sway there. From Ella to Leontyne, divas have held court there. From Channing to Goulet, luminaries from the Great White Way have made grand entrances there. From Lucy and Dezi to Hope and Benny to Cosby and Carlin, comedians have made audiences titter with laughter. Magicians, from Blackstone to Henning to Copperfield, have bedazzled patrons with their wizardry. Classical musicians, from Stern to Pehrlman, have moved crowds with their sublime playing. Big band leaders, from Kaye and Kayser to Dorsey and James, have got the place jumping.

The Orpheum has been the home to the symphony, opera and ballet, the place where Broadway touring productions play and the eclectic venue-of-choice for everything from school graduations to Berkshire Hathaway stockholder meetings to movie premieres to appearances by top orchestras, renowned repertory theater companies and elite dance troupes.

The plush theater has been adaptable to changing tastes, beginning as a vaudeville house, evolving into a movie palace and lately functioning as a performing arts hall. During the Depression and war years theaters like the Orpheum were great escapes for people just wanting a break from the real world or just to find relief from extreme weather. In the vaudeville era several shows played daily, from noon to midnight.

When movies lit up the marquee, a typical program included a line of girls, a pit band, a newsreel and a first-run feature film. The theater’s Wurlitzer organ was a staple for sing-a-longs and silent movie accompaniment. When the big band craze hit, live music moved from the pit to the stage. If a hot band packed the house, it became the main attraction. If a big movie drew long lines at the box office, it took center stage. Trying a little something of everything, the Orpheum even ran closed circuit TV broadcasts of championship fights.

In its heyday its flamboyant manager, Bill Miskell, was known as “a show doctor” and “master of ballyhoo” whose advice could help a sick act get well and turn a sow’s ear into silk. Under Miskell, the Orpheum ran grandiose promotions — like the time the lobby was dressed as a railroad station for the 1939 world premiere of Cecil B. De Mille’s epic Union Pacific. In 1953, it became the first Midwest theater to project a Cinemascope picture — the religious extravaganza The Robe. From the 1950s through the ‘60s, the theater operated almost solely as a movie house.

Ruth Fox, a veteran usher and backstage volunteer, said the theater has a one-of-a-kind appeal. “It’s elegant. It commands dressing up. It makes you feel like putting on a long gown. What could be more regal?” Patron Mark Brown said, “I’m amazed by the splendor of the grand architecture and the acoustics. I don’t think it can be matched today.” Al Brown, a former on-site Orpheum manager, calls it “the crown jewel of the Midwest. It’s majestic.”

Former Omaha Public Events Manager Terry Forsberg, goes even further by describing it as “the cathedral of the performing arts as far as Omaha is concerned.” Indeed, the sheer grandeur of the place sets it apart.

Impresario Dick Walter, presenter of hundreds of shows there over the years, said, “Visually and mentally, you have to be moved when you see the size of the lobby and the theater. It takes your breath away a little. It’s like going into any of those grand palaces in London or Vienna or Berlin. And there’s an aura when you walk in the same space that so many scores of great performers of the past performed in. It’s the implicit tradition and the magic of the theater with its history. I don’t want to sound religious, but it’s semi-sacred.”

The Orpheum evokes many memories. Omaha musician Preston Love recalls getting his groove on there to the swinging sounds of jazz greats Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, all idols for the then-aspiring sideman. “All the big names who toured theaters played the Orpheum,” he said. “Suffice to say…the Orpheum was top stuff, man. It was unbelievable.” He saw Count Basie there in ‘43, and three weeks later he auditioned for and won a seat in the band and ended up playing the Orpheum with Basie in ‘45 and ‘46, as family and friends cheered this favorite son’s every lick on the saxophone. He noted that a rolling stage utilized then carried featured acts to the lip of the stage. If it was a band, like Basie’s, those jamming cats really cut loose when they made it out front. “Boy, you started rolling down in front and that band would just be on fire,” Love said.


Duke Ellington In Minsk : News Photo

Duke Ellington



Dick Walter has a long relationship with the theater, first as a child lapping-up the antics of vintage comedy teams like Olsen and Johnson, than as a young man spellbound by big name entertainers and later as a presenter of performing arts programs, including everything from Camelot to The National Chinese Opera Theater. “When I was going to Omaha University I enjoyed cutting the Friday afternoon class to go down and see the first show of that week’s vaudeville show,” Walter said. Among the performers he caught then was the magician The Great Blackstone.

Decades later, in a “remarkable” bit of fate, Walter found himself presenting the famed illusionist’s son, Harry Blackstone, Jr., a great illusionist in his own right, in performance at the Orpheum. From the 1970s through the ‘90s, this local showman brought a diverse array of acts to the Orpheum, including scores of Broadway road shows. “Although I made a lot of money and I had great pleasure in presenting big-time musicals with big-time stars, I also enjoyed bringing the off-beat. I had some successes I certainly didn’t deserve and I had some failures I certainly didn’t deserve. Fortunately, I guessed right most of the time.” Although officially retired, he still dabbles in show business by presenting his long-running travel film series at Joslyn Art Museum and bringing occasional shows, such as “A Celebration of World Dance” and the Russian State Chorus, to Joslyn this fall.

As Walter can attest, show business is a series of highs and lows. For all the standing ovations and packed houses, he can’t forget the times when things went a cropper. “The biggest glitch ever was when I was presenting Hello Dolly with Carol Channing,” he said. “We had played a week when about a half-hour before the Saturday matinee show the entire electrical system went out. The emergency system came on, but it was too dim to do a show. It was a sold-out house, all of which had to be refunded. Miss Channing was really upset because she had never missed a performance. I said, ‘What are you worried about? This performance is missing you — you’re not missing it.’”



Carol Channing In Stage Musical 'hello Dolly!'. Stock Photo

Carol Channing



With Channing mollified and the power restored, the second show went on without a hitch. In his many dealings with stars, Walter has found most to be generous. However, as “they’re pestered a lot,” he said, “all of the big people build a wall around them. They have no private life. Now, when you brought some of them in a few times, the wall broke down and the next thing you knew you were out eating dinner together after the show. A lot of them were wonderful with people coming up to them for autographs…and they should be — that’s part of their job. On the other hand, if people were a little pushy, they didn’t like that.” Among his favorites, he said, were comic musician Victor Borge, conductor Arthur Fielder, band leader Fred Waring and actor Hans Conried. “These people were special.”

Regarding Waring, Walter recalls, “The last time I had him was his ‘Eighth Annual Farewell Tour.’ I used to kid him about that. He just kept going on as long as he could. That last time we had him he gave a wonderful show and, when he came off, he was literally so exhausted he just fell into my wife’s arms backstage, catching his breath. But seconds later he was back on stage thanking everyone. That’s show business. That makes a performer.” When it came to Conried, who headlined a straight dramatic play for Walter, the actor so enjoyed a repast at the Bohemian Cafe that whenever he hit the road again “he’d drive up, give me a ring and say, ‘Let’s go to the Bohemian.’ He thought this was heaven.”

Ruth Fox recalls going as a little girl with her mother to the Orpheum and being awe-struck by the great hall. “I was so impressed with the mirrors and the chandeliers.” she said. “Oh, that was something to behold.” A lifelong theater-lover, Fox began ushering and working backstage at the Orpheum in the 1970s. “I started to usher for the symphony, the opera, Broadway touring productions and whatever else came.” It’s something she continues today. She enjoys being around theater people and the hubbub surrounding them.

“I find it thrilling.” As an opera guild member, she joins other ladies running a backstage concession for cast and crew. “We fix homemade food. Matzo balls, deviled eggs. You name it, we have it. We have a real thing going. We spend time with the performers. We take care of their needs…and they’re so nice to us. Once in a while you get a stinker, but most are wonderful.” She takes great pride in her role as an usher, too. “We, who usher, really are ambassadors to the city. There are so many people who come from out of town who have never been to the Orpheum before. It’s their introduction, you might say, to Omaha…and we have to make a good impression.”

Despite the theater’s prominence, its future was once uncertain. By the end of the ‘60’s it languished amidst a dying downtown. Ownership changed hands — from the Orpheum Circuit to several movie theater chains. As business declined, the theater fell into disrepair and, following an April 29, 1971 screening of Disney’s The Barefoot Executive that played to a nearly empty house, the place closed. At first, there was no guarantee the theater would not follow the fate of another prominent building in Omaha, the old post office, and be razed. Its prospects improved when the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben bought the theater and donated it to the city, which agreed to steward it.

The city formed the Omaha Performing Arts Society Corp. (no relation to the current management group) for raising revenue bonds to underwrite a renovation. Local barons of commerce contributed more dollars. Everything was on the fast-track to preservation until the city learned it had inherited a $1,000 a month lease for use of the lobby from the City National Bank Building, which the Orpheum abuts. With the rental issue gumming-up the works, the theater — then lacking any protective historic status — became a white elephant and, some say, a likely candidate for the wrecking ball. It was saved when the Omaha Symphony bought out the lease and deeded the lobby to the city.

A multi-million dollar renovation ensued — removing years of grime, repairing damage caused by a leaky roof and restoring deteriorated plaster and paint — before the Orpheum reopened as Omaha’s performing arts center in 1975, with Red Skelton headlining a glitzy gala. Later, it was designated an Omaha landmark and a National Register of Historic Places site. Over the next 27 years, the theater thrived but not without complaints about acoustics, amenities and overbookings. The theater also operated at a loss for many years.

Two men who know every inch of the theater and have spent more time there than perhaps anyone else are Al and Jeff Brown, a father and son who have made managing the Orpheum a family enterprise. Al, a tattooed Korean war vet, was on-site manager there from 1974 to 1996, during which time he saw the theater enjoy a renaissance.  When Al retired, his son Jeff, who worked at the Orpheum as a stagehand like his dad before him, followed in his footsteps to assume responsibility for the day-to-day operation and maintenance of this heavily-used old building in need of faithful attention.

The hours on the job can be so long that Jeff, like Al did, sometimes sleeps overnight on a cot in the office. Jeff feels the work done to the theater this past summer, which tackled some longstanding problems, will be appreciated by performers and patrons alike. “The big thing is to keep both of them happy,” he said. “I feel with this renovation we’re going to better realize that goal because of the areas we’ve addressed…improved seating, enlarged and added dressing rooms, added women’s restrooms, a new heating-air conditioning system. Before, we did the best we could with what we had, but now it’s going to be much more user-friendly.” Keeping show people happy, whether local arts matrons or visiting world-class artists, means making sure everything behind-the-scenes “has to be the way they want it,” Al said. “Touring performers come into town and they’re tired. It’s a drag. Anything you can do to alleviate some of that, they appreciate it.”

He said temperamental stars become pussycats if a manager and crew are prepared and have gone the extra mile. Echoing his father, Jeff added. “If you do your homework before the show and you make sure that everything is clean and you have everything they ask for, they’re very pleasant to work with.” Something Jeff learned from his old man is “treating every show the same — it doesn’t matter whether it’s a school graduation or a dance recital or a big Broadway show. We do whatever we can to make sure they have the best show they can have.”

Jeff said the theater’s new management structure bodes well for the facility. “I feel it’s better because our budget isn’t affected by what happens at Rosenblatt or at the Auditorium. We’re our own separate entity now. We’re on our own and we know we have to make it on our own. It will be a challenge, but I think it will be good.”

The Orpheum, saddled with recent annual operating losses in the half-million dollar range, will more aggressively seek and promote high stature events and market the theater as a destination place. An Orpheum web site is in the works. It also means Orpheum performance seasons — complete with public subscriptions — may be in the offing. It’s all been tried before. But the performing arts society may be in a better position to pull it off than financially-strapped city government.

Terry Forsberg said, “Now that you have a private group and the financial backing of the business community, it can be done. The question will be how much of a profit they will have to show in order to keep it operating.” According to John Gottschalk, “The Orpheum will have an endowment, but we’re certainly in no position to absorb half-million dollar losses every year. So, we’ll need to operate effectively and efficiently. The best way to end the…losses is to have a diversity of performances and to have bigger houses more frequently…and we will be heavily employed to make sure this place is full and active.”

Everyone, it seems, holds the Orpheum in high esteem. For Gottschalk, its rich legacy makes it a vital touchstone. “In the first place, it’s an incredibly old symbol,” he said. “There’s been an Orpheum Theater here since the turn of the century. Its longevity is what makes it such an integral part of the fabric of the community.”

Showman Walter said “it’s great to be part of this theater and it’s wonderful heritage.” Omaha Performing Arts Society president Joan Squires calls it a real treasure for the city.” Theatergoer Marjorie Schuck describes it as “a very big asset for Omaha culturally,” adding, “It’s a highlight coming to the Orpheum…it’s been here a long time, it’s still here, it’s still going, and we expect it to continue.”

Perhaps thinking of the effect the planned downtown performing arts center may have on the Orpheum, volunteer Ruth Fox said, “I just pray they will not tear it down or change it.”

Pray not, indeed, for that would be too much to bear. As a program for the Orpheum’s 1927 opening noted, the theater “is a continuation not only of a place of amusement, but also a veritable civic institution.”


Nancy Duncan: Storyteller

August 2, 2010 1 comment

Woman reading

Image by National Media Museum via Flickr

I wrote several articles about the late storyteller Nancy Duncan. Eventually they will all find their way onto this site.  There is one other currently on the blog.  That piece is entitled “Her Final Story,” and was written when a quite weak Duncan faced her final days with terminal cancer.  From the time she was diagnosed with cancer and on through the many rounds of treatments and surgeries she endured over years, she used storytelling as a means of coping with and making sense of her experience.  The story offered here was written when she was a breast cancer survivor and still full of energy. Through it all though, she never lost her warmth or spirit or her passion, and that is what I always tried to convey about her when I profiled her.  The other thing she inspired me to do was to try and find the right words to describe the art of storytelling and to explain why it was and remains a primal form of communication that we all need for our nourishment.  My search for those words made me a better writer.  Being around Nancy made me a better person.

Nancy Duncan: Storyteller

©by Leo Adam Biga

This article originally appeared in the New Horizons


WANTED:  Storyteller.  Must possess engaging personality, commanding voice, malleable face and ability to relate well with people of all ages.  Active imagination a plus. Large repertoire of stories advised.  Previous storytelling experience preferred, but not required.  Some traveling involved. Hours and fees negotiable.

No, the ad is not real, but the description is true enough.  For proof, just catch Omaha storyteller Nancy Duncan in action. That is if you can find her before she hits the road again with her bag full of tales.  A seasoned performer, Duncan inhabits a story in such a way that it spills out in animated spasms of sound, expression, posture and gesture.  She is as quiet as a whisper or as loud as a shout. As still as a mountain or as antsy as a mouse.  Her rubber face bends.  Her supple body contorts.  Her attentive eyes dart.  Her sonic voice booms.  She is whatever the story calls for:  firebrand pioneer, wily coyote, grizzled witch, fearsome wind, bubbling brook, puff of smoke or, more and more, simply herself.

Duncan left a successful theater career behind to join the professional storyteller ranks in 1987.  Since devoting herself full time to spinning yarns, she has developed a kind of fervor for her calling only true converts possess.  For her, storytelling is more than a trade, it is a way of being and a means of sorting out the world.  As she will tell you, this ancient oral tradition still has the power to hold us enthralled amid today’s digital revolution.  Using only the force of her voice and her charisma, she tells stories that variously amuse, inform, heal and enlighten.  Since beginning a battle with breast cancer in March, Duncan, 63, has made storytelling part of her therapeutic regimen and survival strategy.

While she did not discover storytelling as a personal artistic medium until the mid-1980s, she says, “I’ve been a storyteller all my life.  I was a huge liar as a kid.”  From the very start, the former Nancy Kimmel was immersed in stories told by her father, Harley, and maternal grandmother, Emma.  “My grandmother shared a bedroom with me from the time I was 5 until I was 16.  She was great.  She’d smoke a pipe and tell stories.  She loved the B’rer Rabbitt stories and could do them with a great dialect.  And my father was a great storyteller.  He liked to perform the story.”

When she moved with her family from the suburbs of Illinois to the backwoods of Georgia (Buford), she found a ripe landscape for her fertile imagination and boundless energy.  She and her playmates organized “safaris” where they roughed-it like natives in the wild.  Their only close-call came when moonshiners ran them off.  As an imaginative child, she wore different identities like so many hats.  “I was a leopard woman for a whole summer.  My friend and I made ourselves leopard suits and claws.  We would hide in bushes and jump out and scare our friends,” she recalled.  She was a fine athlete too, whether scaling hills or playing hoops.  Despite her dramatic gifts, when forced to choose between acting in school plays or competing on the school team, she opted for the court over the stage.

With the intent of curbing Nancy’s rambunctious ways and turning her into a proper young lady, her mother sent her to private art and elocution lessons.  But Nancy chafed at any attempts to make her a debutante.  She would much rather have been tomboying it outdoors with friends.  By the time she graduated high school her father had fallen ill and she reluctantly left home to attend Agnes Scott College, a private women’s school in Atlanta.  Not long after completing her first year there, her father died.  She missed his stories.  After grieving, she blossomed in college, majoring in English and minoring in art and theater.  She then embarked on being a writer, even completing a fellowship at the famed University of Iowa Writers Workshop, before turning her attention to the theater and earning a master of fine arts degree in Iowa City.

It was there she fell in love with one Harry Duncan, a renowned fine book printer and instructor 20 years her senior.  She learned typography from him.  She also fell in love with him.  And he with her.  Student and teacher married in 1960. Despite skepticism from family and friends about their marriage surviving such an age difference, the union worked.  The couple enjoyed 37 years as husband and wife and raised three children together.  Harry died in 1997 from the effects of leukemia and colon cancer.



Harry Duncan



What made the relationship click?  “The secret of our marriage and our lives is that we both found ways to do what we loved to do and would have done anyway if we didn’t have to work.  It had to do with living our dream and not letting anything get in the way of that.  Harry was a master printer, poet, editor, designer.  He was devoted to his work.  We sometimes had to drag him away to go on a vacation.”

After leaving academia behind, Nancy taught theater and directed stage productions at a small Iowa Quaker School. Then, in 1973, she joined the Omaha Community Playhouse staff as associate director.  She left the Playhouse in 1976 to serve as artistic director and later as executive director of the Omaha Children’s Theater (now the Omaha Theater Co. for Young People), which she helped grow into one of the nation’s largest and most respected arts organizations of its kind.  Burned-out by the demands of keeping a theater afloat, she turned to storytelling, a medium she had dabbled with a few years, as her new vocation.

Drawing on her theater background, her early storytelling was character-based and performance-driven.  Her large catalog of stories — some original and some borrowed — include the collections Why the Chicken Crossed the RoadGood Old Crunchy Stories and Nebraska ‘49, which chronicles the true-life adventures of pioneer women.  Her most popular incarnation, Baba Yaga, is a grouch of a witch with a golden heart.  The old hag has become a sensation with school-age audiences, although some fundamentalist Christian groups concerned about the character have boycotted Duncan and even banned her from performing.

Since becoming a storyteller Duncan has often worked as an artist-in-residence in schools via the Nebraska Arts Council. She is currently one of only 225 artists participating in the national arts residency initiative of the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation.  Her telling takes her on wide-ranging tours across the country (she recently returned from performing at the National Storytelling Conference in Kingsport, Tenn.).  In 1999 the National Storytelling Network presented her with a Leadership Award for her work promoting the art in the North-Central region.  She is also a board member with OOPS, the Omaha Organization for Professional Storytelling, a storytelling instructor at various colleges and universities the coordinator of the annual Nebraska Storytelling Festival.

She has seen the 15-year-old Nebraska festival grow amid a general storytelling revival in America inspired by the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tenn.  Duncan said there is a demand for these public storytelling forums because people hunger to hear stories.  “We all love stories.  We seem to be wired to the narrative form.  It used to be everybody told stories.  Today, people miss the stories in their lives.  It may be they grew up when we didn’t have all these machines do our work and we didn’t have television sap up our time and instead we gathered on our big front porches in the evening to tell stories.  Some people never had it in their lives and miss it because they know television is not giving them the stories they want to hear.  They want to be present in the story — to recognize themselves — because stories celebrate who we are.  They validate us.  It’s like identity maintenance.”

As a creative artist, she naturally feels compelled to explore and express in her work whatever is going on in her life. Lately, that has meant examining her cancer. At a recent telling before a group of prospective medical students she struck up a quick rapport with the audience through her open, honest demeanor and her disarmingly whimsical humor.  More than a creative outlet, her cancer stories function both as a coping mechanism for herself and as a forum for others about the risks of the disease and the forbearance of patients like herself.  In a recent interview at her handsome, sun-drenched home in central Omaha, Duncan described how her experience with cancer is changing her.

“Breast cancer is transformational.  I can feel already changes happening in me because of this, and it’s all based in community.  There’s a huge community of people out there who’ve had cancer and because they’ve lived through this they have a relationship other people don’t have,” said Duncan, who, once she was diagnosed, informed friends around the world about her illness and, in turn, received supportive messages about their survival or the survival of their friends and loved ones.  “That’s a pretty amazing group of people.”  Duncan plans on joining a cancer support group as soon as her summer touring season ends.  “I plan to get in one because I believe in efficacy within your own community — of people healing themselves and healing each other through their communications.”


Image result for nancy duncan story

    Image result for nancy duncan story


According to Duncan, confronting problems through stories can be curative:  “It’s a very healing process because as we turn our own experiences, including very negative ones, into stories and share those with other people, they share back and their comments shape the way we feel about our lives and a community is created. As we story, we heal the situation or solve the problem.  It’s very healthy.”

She feels sharing the details of her story, including the mastectomy she underwent March 21 and the loss of hair she has endured during chemotherapy treatments, is her way of fighting the sense of denial and defeat still accorded subjects like cancer.  “We need not to hide the fact this is happening.  If we hide the fact we have cancer in order to be normal again we’re denying who we are.  We’re also making it easier for others to get it because we’re doing nothing to prevent it.  That’s why I have decided I’m not going to wear a wig and I’m not going to wear a prosthesis.  Part of who I am is going to be a person who’s had breast cancer and who wants to tell stories about it.  I hope my actions draw attention to the fact there is breast cancer in the world and that we need to do something to cure it.  Moreover, we need to prevent it.  Hiding it, to me, says the opposite.  That it doesn’t exist.  Instead, we need to let women know, You have a job to do.”

She said her anecdotal research reveals many women still do not do not know how to self-examine themselves or are afraid to.  Why?  “They don’t want to know.  It’s maddening.  They’re cutting their own throat.”  She admits she has become something of a militant in the war on cancer.  “There is an epidemic of cancer.   Over and over again I keep hear people saying, ‘Well, we don’t know what causes it.’  I don’t believe that.  I think we do know — we’re just denying that too — and so we’re writing death sentences for ourselves and for our children.  It makes me kind of fiery.”  Her decision to go wigless and to refuse surgical and/or cosmetic measures takes some people aback.  “It’s threatening.  That’s problematic for me because I don’t want to knock anybody’s choices.  Women have the right to make their own choices.  But at the same time I think denial is a dangerous habit of women.  Too often, we deny the depth of what’s happening in our lives and ignore ways to change things for the better.”

In the process of describing her journey with cancer, her mission is to get people to look at the illness in a new way and thereby keep it from being a taboo subject shrouded in fear and morbidity.  It is why she uses humor to discuss it and to defuse certain attitudes about it.  “I want my stories to be very funny.  When you have cancer there are all sorts of tricks your body plays on you.  Losing a breast is tragic, but it’s also very funny.  For example, without having any breast on my right side I realized that anything I tried eating that missed my mouth had a straight shot to the floor.  Before, it didn’t.  I always wondered before why there were more crumbs under my husband’s chair than mine.  Guys have been keeping that a secret for a long time,” she said with her big wide smile and full-throttle laugh.

“And being able to wash your hair with a washrag is really wonderful,” she added, her hand sweeping back the few brown wisps on her head.  “I’m not sure I’m ever going to let my hair grow long again.  Also, the whole notion it might come back in red is very appealing to me.  These are just little ways of looking at things that make them fun, rather than threatening.

She said storytelling is a perfect means for the teller and audience to explore together personal issues that are universally identifiable.  Unlike a lecture where the speaker imparts a rigid message to a passive audience, storytelling is an organic, communal, interactive form of communication.  And unlike reading from a text, storytelling springs from the recesses of the teller.  Said Duncan, “If you’re holding up a book and reading from it you are not present in the same way you are telling a story.  You’re just processing words and your personality doesn’t come through in the same way it does in storytelling, where who the teller is and how they feel at any moment is in what they’re telling.  You can’t separate the teller from the story.  That’s why there’s such a wide variety of tellers.”  Storytelling works best, she said, when a spellbinding teller invites rapt listeners to shape the story to their own ends.  It then becomes an individual and shared experience in one.

“You don’t tell stories into the wind.  You tell stories to people,” she said. “Because storytelling is a live process, a story is not frozen.  It’s like jazz — it’s still living and being shaped — and the storyteller navigates the story with the audience and changes it depending on what they get back from that audience.  The audience makes the story in their minds.  They create all the pictures to go with the words, and they get those pictures from their own lives.  So, by the end of the evening you have as many different versions of the story as you do people in the room because each person has co-made their own part of the story.  And when that happens, it’s very powerful and bonding.  It’s like going on a journey together to a different place.  It’s sometimes deliciously entertaining and funny.  It’s sometimes spiritually intriguing and challenging.  It’s sometimes moving and bereft with all the memories that get brought to the story.”

When a teller connects with an audience, she said, it is hypnotic.  “There are certain stories that take you so deep into an emotion or an event that they are trance-inducing.  The audience goes off with you.  You can see it in the way the story flows across their faces.  Their eyes lock-in and their jaws go slack.  It’s as though they are dreaming.”

Duncan said the more emotionally honest a story, the more resonance it carries. For a residency in a Fremont alternative school last year she asked a group of wary students to listen to personal stories told by adult mentors.  To their surprise, she said, “the kids were wiped out by the stories.”  Students then had to tell the stories back and find a personal link to their own lives.  “This time, the adults were in tears.  The kids and adults realized they had a real human connection.  They wanted to know each other better,” she said.

This Pied Piper for storytelling has encouraged several other tellers.  Among them is her daughter, Lucy, a professional storyteller in her own right, and granddaughters, Louise and Beatrice, with whom Nancy regularly swaps tales.  “My grandkids are always asking for stories.  They’re steeped already in the personal stories and in the more fanciful stories.  I have a story I’m working on now that is all about them and their relationship with me.  It’s kind of a grandmother story.” Duncan hopes many of the stories she values will be taken-up by her grandkids and told by them.

“My goal is that one of them will be telling those stories at a festival somewhere.  I’m trying to pass that love of story onto them.”  She feels senior citizens have an obligation to be storytellers, but finds too many isolated from this traditional familial-societal role.  “It’s a great loss to our society when seniors are separated and devalued.  They have a responsibility to pass on knowledge and they have a need to be validated,” she said.  Whether told at a fireside, a bedside or a festival, she said stories tap a deep well of shared human experience.  “Storytelling is the best-kept secret in the world.  It’s not just for children.  It’s for anyone.  We all have valuable stories to share.”

So far, Duncan has not allowed her illness to limit her busy, independent lifestyle.  She said friends and family urge her to take it easy.

“They keep saying, ‘You need to slow down, to stop, to rest’  I haven’t quite accepted that yet.  I tend to listen more to what the holistic medicine people say, which is — do what you want to do…do what makes you happy.”  At a recent telling about her cancer, she said, “Now, this story…doesn’t have an ending.  Not yet.  I don’t know if I’ll truly know the meaning of this experience.  But I have learned many things.  One of them is, you cannot lose something without getting something else back.  You don’t get back the same thing you lost, but you get back something that might be better.  For example, I may not be a grandmother with a great shelf of busom, but there are other kinds of shelves.  There’s the comforting shelf of story.”

Last days and halcyon times of the Omaha Stockyards remembered

August 2, 2010 1 comment

The maze of livestock pens and walkways at the...

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In 1999 the Omaha Stockyards was in its final throes.  An industry that helped build a city was being unceremoniously shown the way out of town, its messy, malodorous business no longer desired in an urban setting.  I had long been fascinated with the stockyards, going all the way back to my childhood, when my parents would take me and my brothers to visit my dad’s parents in South Omaha, my grandparents’ home located only a few blocks from the vast network of pens and chutes and alleys and from the massive packing plants that surrounded them.  My paternal grandfather, Adam Biga, worked as a meat cutter at one of those plants for something like half a century.  My dad took me on a couple visits to the yards, where I believe he and his brothers may have worked odd jobs summers as youths or where they certainly hung around.   I can remember at least one school field trip there.  I didn’t have a reason to visit there again until years later, when I filed the following story for the New Horizons.  I really enjoyed steeping myself in the history of the place and interviewing a cross-section of folks associated with it.  In the near future I will post an even more extensive piece I did on the stockyards and its history for another publication.  My intent with both stories was to bring that history alive and to express just how strongly the people who worked in the yards felt about it all, including their sadness over the impending move.

The story also makes the point that as vital as the yards and plants were to Omaha, the city seemed rather cavalier about their demise.  It turns out that once the stockyards and Big Four plants did leave and their properties were redeveloped, some markers were erected.  But it seems as though something more significant, such as a museum, would commemorate this epic history.


Last days and halcyon times of the Omaha Stockyards

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons


By the turn of the 21st century the historic Omaha stockyards will be gone from the site it’s operated at for 114 years, leaving an uncertain future for one of Omaha’s oldest active businesses.  The move, prompted by a city-sponsored redevelopment project, will mark the end of a once mighty enterprise built on brains, brawn, guts and ambition.  After surviving ownership changes, world wars and wild economic swings, the stockyards will finally succumb to changing times and attitudes.

A throwback to an earlier era, the stockyards was a male-dominated arena where high finance met Midwestern hospitality.  Where a man’s word was his bond and an honest day’s work his measure.  Its departure will close a rich, muscular chapter in Omaha’s working life — one whose like may not be seen again.  One where men moved a constant flow of animals through a maze of tracks, chutes, alleys and pens spanning 200-plus acres.

“This was a huge, huge operation.  A big mammoth place.  At one time we employed 350 to 400 people.  We stretched from the railroad yards at about 26th Street clear up to 36th Street.  We were beyond ‘L’ Street to the north and beyond Gomez Avenue to the south.  We ran crews 24 hours-a-day, seven days-a-week.  There was always something going on.  At times you never thought you had enough help with all the pens and animals to maintain,” said Carl Hatcher, a 43-year veteran at the yards and current manager of the Omaha Livestock Market.

The stockyards teemed with activity its first 100 years.  In 1955 Omaha overtook Chicago as the nation’s largest livestock market and meatpacking center, a position it held until 1973.

Today, the stockyards is but a shell of its former self.  With receipts in steady decline for three decades, it’s systematically shrunk operations to the present 15 acres, dramatically scaled back the market schedule and severely downsized the workforce.  Abandoned pens and dilapidated buildings stand as forlorn reminders of its former greatness.

“We’re not the big yards we used to be,” Hatcher, 60, said.  “It’s not a thriving business the way it used to be.  The only way we’ve been able to keep in business is to reduce the facility in proportion to the reduced demand in the industry.” Those, like Hatcher, who recall the glory years know there can never be a return to the daily spectacle along “L” Street when livestock-laden trucks arriving from points near and far lined-up in a procession running from 36th to 60th, waiting to unload their mooing, squealing, bleating cargo.

“It was a sight to see,” said the City of Omaha’s official historian, Jean Dunbar, who saw the epic lines of trucks with his own eyes.

James Rosse, 95, a former editor with the Daily Journal Stockman and past executive with Livestock Conservation Inc., recalls a banner 1944 pig crop brought a convoy of hog-filled trucks extending to 72nd Street. The congestion got so bad that stockmen often doubled as traffic cops to keep trucks moving smoothly on and off the “L” Street viaduct.  Truckers at the end of the line waited hours before unloading.

“We would on occasion send out coffee and sandwiches to the truckers,” recalls Harold Norman, 77, retired secretary-treasurer of the stockyards.  To try and avert logjams, he said, stalled trucks were pushed to the side.  The addition of chutes speeded up the delivery process.

While trucks replaced trains as the dominant mode of transporting livestock by the 1940s, large numbers of animals continued being shipped by rail through the ‘60s.  The stockyards even operated its own railway to handle incoming and outgoing loads.

“It was a continuous thing of livestock coming in here one day, being sold and then moving out,” Hatcher said from his office in the Livestock Exchange Building, the grand South Omaha landmark that’s long been the headquarters and hub for the livestock industry here.  “Whenever you’ve got thousands and thousands of head of livestock being moved, it’s a real challenge to do that on an orderly basis.  You never had a time, even in the wee hours of the morning, that there wasn’t some livestock either arriving or being delivered out of here.  It was amazing.”

“We were essentially a hotel for livestock — a place to bed, feed and water,” said Norman, adding the company had no stake in animal sales or purchases, but instead made money from yardage fees and office rentals.

More than a hotel, the yards constituted THE central market for livestock producers and buyers in the region.  During its peak years, anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 head of cattle, 40,000 to 60,000 head of hogs and 10,000 to 20,000 head of sheep arrived weekly via rail and truck.  In a single year as many as six million head of livestock were received, with an estimated value of more than half-a-billion dollars.  By comparison, a good week’s receipts today total 1,000 cattle and 3,000 hogs.

With such a huge volume of activity, crews had to work effiiciently unloading unruly animals, flogging them down chutes and herding them through alleys into open pens.  Once stock was yarded, the real business of the marketplace commenced.  Commission men representing producers negotiated with buyers to obtain the fairest price on cattle, hogs, sheep.  Once a sale was made, the animals were driven to a scalehouse, weighed, and held in pens until the buyer led them off to slaughter or feed.

Somehow, it all worked like a well-oiled machine.  And the next day, the process began all over again.  It still works the same way today, only on a much smaller scale.

The bustling market was a melting pot of diverse interests and types.  A central gathering point where rural and urban America merged.  Where rich cattlemen in gabardine splendor and dapper bankers in double-breasted finery rubbed shoulders with overall-clad farmers and blood, mud, manure-stained laborers.  The massive Exchange Building was an oasis where one could eat a good meal, down a few drinks, buy a cigar, get a haircut, send a telegram and dance the night away in its ballroom.

“I’d like to live those days over again,” Rosse said, “because that was exciting.  There was always something new.”

For all the market’s staggering numbers and feats, one item bears special notice:  Then, as now, livestock deals were made verbally, without a written contract, and sealed with a handshake.

“Millions of dollars changed hands there just on a handshake,” Hatcher said.  “It’s not done in other businesses, where you gotta have contracts and a lawyer standing over each shoulder to make sure all the Is are dotted and Ts are crossed.”

“I can’t believe it yet,” said Rosse, who was also struck by the frank manner buyers and sellers transacted business.  “The way they talked to each other, you’d think they’d never speak to each other again.  They were rather a rough bunch.  They didn’t spend much time at it.  It was either yes or no, and away they’d go.  It was a tough business, and yet they were pals again when they weren’t working.  There was a lot of camaraderie.”

If the stockyards supplied the fuel for this powerful industrial machine, then its engine resided in the many meatpacking plants surrounding it.  Between the plants’ smokestacks and the waste-ridden yards, an acrid odor formed that carried for miles.  The yards, which earned the wrath of neighbors who daily lived with the stench, formed a Stink Committee to handle complaints and find solutions.  “The Smell of Money,” as Omaha historian Jean Dunbar describes it, was a small price to pay as the industry employed thousands and provided thousands more customers for area businesses (bars, eateries, stores) catering to the stock-packing trade.

Said Hatcher, “A lot of businesses sprang up around here and thrived and survived on the people who worked at the market and the packing houses.”  Johnny’s Cafe, the noted steakhouse just east of the yards, benefited from the traffic streaming through. “There was just a huge concentration of people moving in and out of the ag business around here.  We served meals around the clock to the truckers, the cattlemen, the bankers, the commission men…anybody that had anything to do with the livestock industry,” said Jack Kawa, Johnny’s proprietor and a son of its  founder, the late Frank Kawa.

After selling livestock at market many producers spent their profits in South Omaha — on lavish meals or shopping sprees.  “It was kind of a culmination and celebration of feeding cattle or hogs for six or nine months,” Kawa said.  He adds these hearty men lived hard and played hard and concedes the restaurant’s heavy, masculine, western decor and emphasis on beef reflected their tastes.

The combined purchasing power of the stockmen and packers, as well as their customers, pumped countless millions into the South Omaha economy.  Indeed, the community owes its very existence to the stockyards.  What was farm and scrub land sprouted into the city of South Omaha soon after the yards opened in 1884.  An envious Omaha coveted its neighbor to the south and after much resistance finally annexed it in 1916.

If Chicago could rightly be called the city of broad shoulders, then surely Omaha was its husky little brother.  Early Omaha survived as an outfitting haven for Western pioneers and settlers. The growing city continued drawing industry here because of its direct river access and central location.  The event that opened Omaha to serious expansion was the transcontinental railroad’s coming through in the late 1860s.  With Omaha established as a major rail center, it fast became a convenient gateway for transporting goods and services east and west.

It wasn’t long before a group of Omaha businessmen, led by the formidable William A. Paxton, saw the potential for forming a stockyards that could provide a central market for western livestock producers and eastern packers.  At the time, Chicago was the nearest market for western producers, but with further westward expansion it became burdensome to ship cattle so far east.

Paxton, an ex-mule skinner, cattle ranch operator and bridge builder,  defended his stake in the venture from powerful interests that prized it too.

“He definitely was a guy who played hard ball.  He was a very hard-driving guy.  He was truly one of the ground-floor men,” said University of Nebraska at Omaha history professor Harl Dalstrom.

The stockyards deal swung on Paxton securing the backing of Wyoming cattle baron Alexander Swan, who craved a central market for his own vast herds.  Together with such local powerbrokers as John A. McShane and John A. Creighton, these men formed what became known as the Syndicate.  They bought 2,000 acres south of early Omaha, setting aside 200 for the stockyards and the rest for the community they envisioned developing around it.  The Union Stockyards Company opened in 1884 and, just as expected, a full-fledged city soon emerged.

“South Omaha grew up all of a sudden…in less than a generation.  It was a boom town,” said historian Jean Dunbar.   “It did not create the instant rich men that oil or mining towns produced.  South Omaha’s boom produced a lot of good jobs for a lot of immigrants.  It was an immigrant community.  A mosaic of Czechs, Poles, Irish and others.  For them, it was an opportunity to find a new life.  It was hard, dangerous work that took a strong, remarkable breed of men, just like the men it took to farm on the dusty, desert-like Great Plains.”

At first the yards served as little more than a feeding station for stock in-transit to Chicago, and would have remained so without meatpackers  opening plants.  To entice the packers the Syndicate gave away money, land, buildings and shares of stock in the company, and one by one they came, led by the Big Four — Cudahy, Swift, Armour and Wilson.

“The owners of the stockyards paid off these big packers and offered them inducements to do business here,” Dunbar said.  “These were big, powerful men of tremendous personality.  Of course they were acting in their self-interest, but they also risked great sums of their own personal fortune to make Omaha a great city and Nebraska a great state.”

With the packers in place, the yards flourished.  “The stockyards were only the catalyst.  The packing houses were the key. They’re the ones that employed people by the thousands.  The one’s the dog, the other’s the tail,” Dunbar said.

But after four generations of nearly unbroken success, the tide slowly turned and the frontier empire that rose up from nothing diminished in size and importance.  There are many reasons for the decline, but it really all boils down to economics.  It goes back to the mid-1960s, when a shift occurred away from central markets like Omaha’s to a more diffuse, direct marketing system.  When the Big Four found their massive multi-story plants too costly to modernize, they closed them and built smaller ones in rural areas closer to producers and feeders.

Large producers soon realized they had no need to ship to a central market, much less consign livestock to an agent, since packer-buyers were eagerly knocking on their door.  Instead, producers sold directly to buyers, who also found it a more economical way of doing business.  Thus, the traditional role played by a central market like Omaha’s — of bringing together producers and buyers in a competitive arena, became obsolete for most large producers.  The need for a middle man had vanished except for the smallest farmers or ranchers.

A concurrent trend found livestock being raised by fewer and fewer hands, as small farmers-ranchers were bought out or went belly up, leaving production in the hands of relatively few mega-producers who dealt directly with packers. Consequently, the stockyards lost much of its customer-base, causing receipts and profits to dwindle, forcing cutbacks, et cetera.

Another factor accounting for the decline was that as the local livestock industry shrunk, it lost the economic-political clout it once wielded.  The stockyards also lost any leverage it might have still had when, in 1989, the Minneapolis-based United Marketing Services purchased the livestock operation from Canal Capital Corp. of New York.  The deal let Canal retain ownership of all the stockyards’ property and structures, leaving United a tenant subject to the whims of its landlord.  Prior to that the stockyards or its parent company always owned the property and buildings it occupied.

Making matters worse, as the stockyards consolidated on fewer and fewer acres, Canal let abandoned grounds and facilities fall into disrepair.  The blighted areas gave the stockyards a black eye as the public assumed it owned the problem, when Canal actually held title to the land, including buildings the city deemed “unsafe and dangerous” and had begun condemnation procedures on.

“I think we’re taking the rap for their (Canal’s) bad management.  Any of the property we’ve vacated has become an eyesore.  It looks bad for the city.  It looks bad for our livestock operation.  We would dearly love to have it cleaned up and made presentable,” Hatcher said.

A face-lift can’t save the stockyards now, however.  Bowing to pressure, the financially-ailing Canal entered negotiations two years ago with the city for the sale of 57 acres, including all of the stockyards.  Last November, Mayor Hal Daub unveiled the city’s plans for an office park at the site — minus the stockyards.  Metro Community College plans expanding there and is viewed as a magnet for attracting further development.

Hatcher and his bosses tried convincing city officials to allow the stockyards to remain on-site, even on half its present acreage, but officials wouldn’t budge, leaving the company with a December 31, 1999 deadline to leave.  In September, the city completed its purchase of the site.  Plans call for all traces of the stockyards to be razed, except for the Exchange Building, which is slated for renovation.

Meanwhile, Hatcher is looking for new office space for himself and his staff, as the Exchange Building must be vacated by March 31, and is searching for a new site the stockyards may relocate on.  United is commited to keeping a livestock market in the area, but will only relocate if a new site “makes economic sense,” Hatcher said.  The city is legally obligated to help pay the costs of any relocation.

Hatcher is unhappy with the stockyards’ rather ignoble fate, but he realizes why it came about.  In part, it’s a sign of the times.  As Omaha has moved further from its frontier roots and traditional ag-industrial base, the stockyards is viewed as an unwelcome remnant of the past in what is a politically-correct, environmentally-conscious age.  Neighbors and public officials no longer want livestock, or the unpleasant trappings they bring, confined in the middle of a modern city whose mayor is “re-imaging” it as clean, new age, high-tech — not grimy, old world, blue collar.

“People are not tolerant that way anymore,” Hatcher said.  “Manure being spilled on the streets is not tolerated today.  The smells are not tolerated.  The packing houses are not as welcome as they used to be.  People don’t depend on them for their livelihood.  A lot of the people in the city administration, on the city council and in the community don’t think the stockyards and packing houses pay a living wage.  They don’t feel we’re the type of industry they want in their glorious city.  And I feel sorry for them and feel doubly sorry for us and for our customers that depend on us.”

For Harold Norman, the stockyards ex-secretary-treasurer, it’s “a feeling of rejection, because the company was held in high repute for many, many years and now it seems like we don’t have any friends anymore.  Over the years there were people who opposed us but we were big enough that we could stand our own with them, but today…”

“The negative influences created by the livestock market were not desirable to retain in the future,” said Bob Peters, Omaha’s Acting City Planning Director.  “There is a great deal of respect and sympathy for the livestock market and its employees…and a great deal of warm and wonderful memories of the past heydays of the marketplace, however there is a realization that time has passed the market by.”

Hatcher disagrees.  “The stockyards is still a viable, profitable business,” he said.  “We paid all our bills.  We paid our taxes.  We had all our permits and licenses.  We were not asking anyone to subsidize our business.  But the city has told us they don’t want us here anymore.  To see this all come to an end and to think…there will be no legacy…no more ongoing central market here in Omaha, yeah, that saddens me.”

He will miss the yards, but most of all the people.  “I love the people and this business.  It’s been my life.  There are still some young people in the industry who would like to see this particular operation continue.  There’s still a lot of producers out there that would like to see us continue because they have no other choice to market their livestock.  This location is ideal for our customers in Nebraska and Iowa.”

According to James Rosse, “The city fathers have never appreciated what the stockyards meant to them or to the larger agribusiness economy.  This was a livestock center of national and international importance, but they’re trying now to eliminate that picture of Omaha.”

However, Peters insists the city does recognize the stockyards’ significance.  He adds the use of federal funds for the planned redevelopment requires the city to conduct an historic recordation of the stockyards so “the historical and cultural importance of that site is not lost and will be perpetuated forever in a series of documents, drawings, photographs and essays that deal with its development and its relationship to the development of the city and the region.”  The materials will be filed with the Library of Congress.

With the stockyards’ days numbered, perhaps it’s time some thought be given to erecting a permanent display commemorating the enormous commerce it generated and the vital impact it made.  Norman has tried unsuccessfully to launch such a display.  The city has no plans for one.

“It’s obvious this is a big part of our history and I think it needs to be preserved and interpreted to subsequent generations as effectively as we can,” UNO’s Dalstrom said.  Dunbar agrees, suggesting “a Magic City museum could tell the history of a great era in South Omaha.”

Absent any reminder, Omaha may re-cast itself as an ultra modern city but at the expense of sanitizing its rough-and-tumble roots right into oblivion.  With the stockyards demise, more than its mere physical presence will be lost.  Lost too will be a direct link to Omaha’s frontier heritage.  It will join Jobbers Canyon as a casualty to ‘progress,’ leaving one less trace of the burly, brawling, booming industrial center Omaha has been and still is.

Ironically, “stockyards” will likely be part of any name chosen for the office park replacing it.  The question is:  Will future generations know the rich story behind the name?

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