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Lucile’s Old Market, Mother Hubbard magnificent obsession: From one eccentric to another – Mary Thompson on her late mother Lucile Schaaf

November 28, 2010 2 comments

For better or worse, the following story for the New Horizons is a reflection of what I do as a writer when allowed the opportunity to tell a story at length.  I don’t claim that there’s anything special about my work, but if it is distinguished by anything, it is my interest in tapping into stories of passion and magnificent obsession, which is very much how I think of the subject of this piece – the late Lucile Schaaf.  I then take that interest and try to express it to the best of my ability.  I always wanted to tell this particular story, that is Lucile’s story.  I never met the woman, but I heard tales about her and then I got to know one of her daughters, Mary Thompson, who is quoted extensively in the piece.  I earlier profiled Mary in a story you can find on this blog entitled, Extremities.  Mary’s mother, Lucile, the profile subject of the story below, was a kind of patron saint of the Old Market, the historic district in Omaha, Neb. that has been transformed from the former wholesale produce center to the cultural hub of the city.  To get to the heart of a story like hers requires some space, and New Horizons editor Jeff Reinhardt is about the only one left around here that accords me the space I need to tell a story like this at the length I believe I need to communicate its layers and nuances. The Old Market was made by people like Lucile, eccentric visionaries who did their own thing and followed their own muse.  There are many more Old Market stories I would like to tell.  Writing this piece also only confirmed my very intentional niche as a journalist who tells the stories of people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions.  Like I said at the top, for better or worse it is my brand as a writer and it is what keeps me doing what I do.

My story about Lucile’s daughter, Mary Thompson, who is much quoted here, can be found on this blog.  It’s entitled, “Extremities.”

 

Lucile looking out a window of her Old Market residence

 

Lucile’s Old Market, Mother Hubbard magnificent obsession: From one eccentric to another – Mary Thompson on her late mother, Lucile Schaaf

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

As once upon a time stories go, the late Lucile Ann Schaaf’s saga is a fractured fairy tale that like the pint-sized woman embodied herself, is made up of quirky twists and turns that leave you scratching your head or smiling.

When she passed away in 2009 at age 91, Schaaf was variously remembered as a mother, grandmother, entrepreneur, collector, preservationist, Christmas fanatic, and someone for whom the color orange was a personal brand.

After her marriage ended in divorce, Lucile, her children grown and flown the coop by then, asserted her independence and curiosity in a series of enterprising and creative adventures. Earlier in life, the former Lucile Duda exhibited an adventurous streak when, fresh out of Central High School, she left home to attend Scripps College, a women’s school in Claremont, Calif, where she studied art and architecture at a time when women pursuing higher education was a rarity.

Given the moxie it took to leave home for the west coast, it’s not surprising that years later she thought nothing of journeying all around the Midwest in search of architectural remnants from buildings and homes under the wrecking ball. Lucile developed a network of contacts in the demolition and salvage field that tipped her off to projects that might contain objects of interest. Whenever she got a lead on something, whether furniture or ornamental design elements, she set out to acquire it. Daughter Mary Thompson often accompanied Lucile on these treasure hunting jaunts.

“Mother became acquainted with a gentleman called Rock the Wrecker. I worked for him for many years driving a pickup and hauling all kinds of stuff. I would go to sites and I would help salvage and bring stuff back for Mother, and Mother and I would go on trips to demolition sites to gather materials. I carried wrecking tools behind the seat in my truck. Mom and I would take off and drive down to Kansas or over in Iowa or up to South Dakota if Rock would call to say, ‘We’ve got something, come get it,” said Thompson.

“We went to Des Moines (Iowa) one time time to get some marble clocks. It was rush hour and there were fire engines all over the place and when we finally got to the building it was on fire, but we got our stuff. Another time we drove to Coffeyville Kansas and we picked up an 18-foot chandelier, put it in the back of my El Camino and drove it back home.”

Then there was the time Lucile got it in her head that she had to have a double decker bus for sale two thousand miles away. This was in January. So, Thompson and her mother flew to High Point, N.C. and the intrepid duo drove the bus back to Omaha in the dead of winter.

“The whole trip was hilarious because we had all kinds of problems and everything else,” Thompson said of the experience as if were a big lark. “It was 20 below zero when we pulled into Omaha, wearing our snow mobile suits.”

But why a double decker bus?

“We used it for tours around the city,” said Thompson. “We’d take ladies groups, school groups. My kids were going to Jackson Elementary School at the time and anytime there was something the school needed to go to everybody from Jackson went in the double decker bus. They thought that was pretty nifty, and it was.”

 

Mary Thompson holds her 15-year-old cat Mollie in the second-floor office space of her home. Thompson is a reformed hoarder who appeared on TLC’s show “Hoarding: Buried Alive”. Photo by Rebecca S. Gratz/World-Herald News Service

 

Lucile’s daughter, Mary Thompson

 

The bus and tours were examples of Lucile and Mary, who closely resembles her mother, doing something just for the fun of it, no matter how impractical.

“That’s exactly right,” said Thompson,

Whatever Lucile thought up, her family fell right in line.

“We never questioned her or anything she did,” said Thompson. “It seemed, ‘Well, Mom did it, it must be right.’”

Thompson inherited Lucile’s sense of adventure and compulsion for collecting things. But where Mary’s collected most everything at one time or another, Lucile’s stockpiling was more focused on assembling stores of antique architectural details and Christmas decorations.

Said Thompson, “Her collecting was like anything, once you start, you can’t stop. You find a coin you’re really intrigued with and so you think, I’ll start collecting more coins like this, and pretty soon you’ve got an entire collection. If it’s a gorgeous stained glass window, well there’s another one, and so you get yourself to the point where pretty soon you’ve got a fabulous collection.”

For Lucile it meant acquiring everything from stained glass windows to bannisters to fancy doors to fireplace surrounds to built in wall units, and just about anything in between that caught her eye or captured her fancy.

“It just became more and more and more and more,” said Thompson. “People brought it to her too.”

The operating principle Lucile came to live by, said Thompson, is that “if it’s something that still has some life in it, it’s good, let’s not destroy it, let’s not put in the landfill. So she started acquiring all this stuff and saving it. It just goes back to the old adage that one person’s trash is somebody else’s treasure. That’s the fun of it ”

“Work with what you have” was one of Lucile’s favorite sayings.

In this sense, said Thompson, Lucile’s emphasis on recycling things and preservation was well ahead of the curve.

Lucile’s obsessive collecting accumulated so many objects that she turned her passionate hobby into a business. Needing a place to store everything, she bought an abandoned Danish Lutheran church near downtown Omaha and converted it into an antique shop that she called Steeple Studios.

According to Thompson, “At one time Mother had the largest collection of antique architectural details between Chicago and San Francisco and people came from all over the country because they knew she had all this stuff.”

Lucile brought her business acumen and appreciation for history to the Old Market, where she became one of the pioneering merchants and denizens of that then fledgling enclave. In the late 1960s she was one of the early shop owners and one of the few residents in the former wholesale produce district that most city leaders and developers viewed as a wasteland.

Jeff Jorgensen and Joe Montello, whose Tannenbaum Christmas Shop in the Old Market occupies the same bay Lucile did business in at the southwest corner of 10th and Howard, got to know her as a benevolent landlord and neighbor. Montello had worked for her at The Place. They respected her as an Old Market original.

“She was definitely one of the first people who saw the potential of the Old Market,” said Jorgensen, adding that she recognized the area as not only a burgeoning commercial center and cultural-arts oasis but as a historic district in need of preservation. “I think what motivated her was finding new value in old things. It’s what made her such a natural to be an Old Market pioneer.”

Lucile put her money where her mouth was as owner-operator of The Place, a gift shop that expressed her eclectic tastes. She later had the Christmas Shop, a one-stop decorations and collectibles store, and The T Room sandwich shop. Lucile laid the brick walkway in front of her Howard Street bays. She was also active in the Old Market Business Association.

“I always thought she was pleased to see a Christmas shop continue here within her domain,” said Jorgensen. I think the fact that Joe worked for her and was involved here meant a lot to her too.”

She purchased adjoining buildings between the southwest corners of 10th and Howard and 10th and Jackson and converted them into her personal residence. What once housed Frank’e Cafe, the Pickwick Bar, Pioneer Uniform, a flophouse and a whorehouse, among other enterprises, became this lovable eccentric’s home. A walled-in courtyard or secret garden was created in back to offer a tranquil, private sanctuary amidst the Market’s hustle and bustle.

Schaaf was a recognizable figure in the Market or wherever she went because of her penchant for dressing entirely in orange, no matter the occasion. It’s hard to find a color photo of Lucile that doesn’t picture here in her flaming shade of choice.

There is an orange room in the Old Market residence. At one time Lucile had it entirely done over in her favorite color, complete with decorations and clothes, beautiful things, plain things, but in all instances orange things.

Antique dealer Vic Chickinelli hired her once and when he went out one day he came back to find she had painted the walls and shelving a bright orange. If Chickinelli asked her, as many did, Why orange?, her comeback would have probably been what she always said when people questioned her about it:

“Is there any other color?”

“She decided that that was the color of her life,” is how Thompson explains it.

So identified was Lucile with the color that she came to be known affectionally as the Orange Lady. At her Old Market shops she not only greeted you in full orange regalia, from head to foot, but took to wearing a clock around her waist set to ten minutes to four, or tea time, a reference to the tea party in Alice in Wonderland, a story she loved. She also loved throwing tea parties.

 

 

All in all, she fit right in with the other free spirits, artists and bohemians populating the Old Market.

“It was a good place for her,” said fellow Old Market pioneer Roger Durand, a designer and architect who opened a head shop there. “She was a real character, she was a real original, and she was a very colorful personality. Back in the early days it really took an adventuresome spirit to try and establish anything down there. It was an uphill struggle.”

For 30-some years Lucile’s 10th and Howard building was as much a warehouse for her collection of salvaged architectural remnants as it was a residence. Her dream was to incorporate these myriad details into the decor.

Working with an old-school master craftsman, Walt the Carpenter, the project made progress but then Walt took a bad fall, breaking his leg, and then her arthritis began slowing her down. However, she remained active enough to teach a water aerobics class at the YMCA.

Another daughter, the late Stephanie Schaaf, took it upon herself to fulfill Lucile’s dream. She hired a team of craftsmen to install, in some cases repurposing, hundreds of items — ranging from chandeliers to doors to stained glass windows to wrought iron gates — throughout the 7,300 square foot structure.

A kindred spirit of Lucile’s, Omaha architectural recycler Frank Horejsi, also described as an “urban miner,” said he liked what Lucile was doing with the place and he assisted Stefanie with getting the project done.

“If they had problems, I was kind of a go-to guy. It’s neat to see that old historic stuff incorporated. It’s a neat place.”

The result is a mosaic of a home of mixed and matched elements:

• Griffons from the original First National Bank Building adorn the exterior sides of Lucile’s place facing 10th Street and Jackson Street

• Crown molding from the old Cornhusker Hotel gilds the foyer

• Skylights from the Packers National Bank bathe the foyer in natural light

• Mahogany walls and stained glass cabinets from the City National Bank appoint the dining room

• Murphy bed doors from the Morris Hotel serve as ceiling panels above the dining room

• The great room, where receptions or dinner parties are held today, utilizes office doors from the City National Bank as wall panels, some with the names of the executives who toiled away behind them

• Telephone booth walls from the City National cover the ceiling

• The solid oak fireplace and leaded glass window in the sunroom hail from the Wilcox house in Council Bluffs

• Massive cabinets come from a physician’s home in Norfolk, Neb.

• French doors come from an opera house in Carroll, Iowa

And so it goes, on and on.

 

 

Roger Durand said the home is an expression of “the architectural odds and ends she found unusual uses for, and in aggregate they create sort of a world of Lucile.”

Before she moved there, the space was long abandoned, its insides an empty shell.

“What people sometimes don’t comprehend is that there was nothing here, it was a blank canvas, and it was my mom’s vision in putting things together and making it a whole unit that brought it to life,” Thompson said with admiration.

Almost everything in Lucile’s Old Market retreat originated elsewhere, salvaged off-site and brought there, like pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle. Only Lucile knew how they were supposed to fit together.

“She could find things and just know exactly where she was going to put the pieces in,” said granddaughter Amy Waskel, whose mother, Stefanie, became Lucile’s caregiver and legacy keeper.

Not everything Lucile collected at the Old Market place was used. There was so much inventory left over that an estate sale was held over two weekends.

 

 

The Old Market residence was not Lucile’s first salvage project. Thompson said her mother built a cabin near Merritt’s Beach using almost entirely recycled materials. There was apparently a recycle streak in the family’s DNA because Thompson said her grandparents built a farmhouse out of reclaimed materials long before that.

“The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree,” is how Thompson puts it. “Mom had the ability to visualize something not for what it was but for what it could be, and I feel I’m blessed with that also because if you look at my house you see how I intertwined everything into it.”

Mary’s Little Italy area home and another she owns next door overbrim with the surplus of her own collecting habit. Her affliction for acquiring and holding onto things was portrayed earlier this year on TLC’s “Hoarding: Buried Alive” reality television series.

There is a like-mother-like daughter pattern at play in the family. Other ways Mary takes after her mother is with a flair for entertaining and a wardrobe fixation, not with a certain color per se, but with hats. Mary’s fondness for hats grew to a collection of hundreds. So identified is Mary with her crowns of glory that she’s known as the Hat Lady. Until “Hoarding” she was perhaps best known as the Tax Lady for all the returns she filed for people as an IRS agent and AARP volunteer.

Mary doesn’t mind being known as a hoarder now that she’s taken steps to declutter her life with the help of professionals, friends and family, including a “Stuff” sale at the Bancroft Street Market in September.

For a long time, said Mary, her mother’s Old Market residence was overrun with artifacts that sat unboxed and uncovered, subject to the effects of not just dust but of the many critters, mostly cats and dogs, she kept. Mary’s also a cat lover.

“Stuff had been heaped in piles for so long,” Thompson said of her mother’s place.

Lucile was renowned for how elaborately she decorated her previous home in the Gold Coast neighborhood, but for the longest time the Old Market residence was more a storage and work space then a living space — more potential than realization, awaiting the day when Lucile’s vision for it would be complete.

“It wasn’t a pretty house like she was used to,” said Waskel. “Moving in here she just got down and dirty. That’s why finishing it was so important and that’s why it’s fun showing it off now and why it’s going to be fun decorating it for the holidays.”

Even though Lucile’s gone now, Waskel said she and other family members feel her presence watching over them, noting their every move. “She knows we’re not going to do it as well as she did. The joke within the family is that she’s going to be sitting there going, ‘You should do this.’ She was a perfectionist.”

Despite never decorating the place for Christmas, Lucile’s main floor bedroom was trussed up for the holidays once she became bed-ridden in 2004, and even then she liked calling the shots.

“We would decorate her room for her,” said Waskel. “We would put up a little Christmas tree for her and she enjoyed that because she enjoyed telling people how to do it and it never being right — well, not to her standards.”

An incongruity about Lucile was that she could be a stickler about everything being just so, yet she could live like an Old Mother Hubbard surrounded by artifacts strewn loosely everywhere. Her Gold Coast home was impressive, said Mary, yet Lucile shared the place with her cats and even a pet rooster. Things only got more unkempt in the Old Market.

Waskel said Nebraska Educational Television did a story on her grandmother as an example of “how not to save your antiques — like this is what you don’t do. We have a lot of damage to wood. Some of the stuff is just so far gone. The whole back area was just full of wood and dust and dirt. A lot of it was junk.”

She said it took countless man hours to clean up the mess.

“We had to finish everything,” said Waskel, who helped Stefanie in completing Lucile’s dream. “And we’re still working on it.”

Waskel, who as event coordinator at what is now called Lucile’s Old Market is tasked with booking events there and maintaining the cavernous space, has a new appreciation for all that her grandmother and mother did.

“I’m here everyday and there’s not nearly the work to do that my mom did or that my grandmother did and I still feel overwhelmed and go, How the hell did they do it?”

Lucile’s is still in the family, only now as a singular rental showplace that hosts weddings, dinners and all manner of private parties and receptions. Tours are available by appointment. Old Market Gallery Walks generally include a stop there. And it’s a featured spot on the December 11 Holiday Lights Tour

 

 

The woman for whom the building is named never saw the project completed as her eyesight declined severely in old age. Due to her diminished vision she became somewhat reclusive near the end of her life. For a long time though she was a public figure whose passions grew into magnificent obsessions enjoyed by thousands.

First, there was her fixation with Christmas displays. For the first half of her life she contented herself with the usual yuletide garnishes. But when she moved into the big home at 38th and Dewey Avenue it’s like a switch went on and she felt inspired  to trim the multi-story edifice from top to bottom, complete with fully dressed trees, wreaths, garland, candy canes, stockings, Santas and lights.

It all started with a Christmas tea organized by Lucile.

Mary Thompson remembers how what began as a small, semi-private affair for mothers and daughters grew into a public extravaganza:

“My older sister’s class was invited and we made little cut-out white bread finger sandwiches with butter and powdered sugar over them, and Mom had us stand in a receiving line to meet everybody. It became a Christmas tradition. Every year a little more was added. Pretty soon it got so that during the month of December Mom had the house decorated from top to bottom, and every year it got bigger and better.

“We invited people from church and school. Others heard about it and came. We would all dress up. The last Christmas tea we had became an open house and we probably had about a thousand people. People came from all around.”

The Christmas House became a destination stop, complete with tours.

By the time Lucile stopped putting on the Christmas tea in the 1970s, she and her soiree and decorations had become so well known, said Thompson, that “people that wanted to get a hold of Mother would address mail to the ‘Christmas House, Omaha, Neb.‘ and it actually came to the house.”

Lucile didn’t stop at decorating her home. She also took charge of decorating the sanctuary at First Presbyterian Church and the big Xmas tree at the old Union Station (Durham Museum). Then there was the Christmas Shop. It’s why Lucile was known as the Christmas Lady.

“The whole situation became such a passion for Mom,” said Thompson. “This was her outlet.”

Whether people knew her as the Orange Lady or the Christmas Lady, Jeff Jorgensen said “she enjoyed both of those roles very much. She made an impression on lots of people she came into contact with. She really wasn’t eccentric at all but if you thought she was I think that probably made her very happy.” On reflection, Jorgensen added, “Maybe she was a little.” Or as Joe Montello once described her: “She wasn’t afraid to be unique in her own way.”

The phrase “let your freak flag fly” refers to the uninhibited Luciles of the world.

The decorum at the fancy tea parties was sometimes shattered by a silly or peculiar happening, like the time Lucile’s pet rooster, Lucky, turned party crasher.

“One time this woman was sitting on the couch with her coffee and cake and there comes Lucky out of the kitchen. It looks around and comes over and takes that cake right off the lady’s plate,” said Thompson.

Another time, a visitor got more than she bargained for on a tour.

“When my two kids and I were living at Mother’s home our rooms were up on the third floor, and since the bedrooms were all decorated we slept in the 7-by-12 walk-in closets,” said Thompson. “This one time I put the kids to bed and Mother phoned from downstairs that these people were on their way up. So I stepped into my closet, closed the door and sat on a chair waiting for the tour to come through. I’m sitting in there when this woman opens the door — and the look on her face was priceless. I just said, ‘Hello,’ and she stepped backward, closing the door behind her. I could hardly wait for them to leave so I could run downstairs and tell Mother.”

They had a good laugh over that one.

Faux pause aside, Thompson said Lucile had a lot of Martha Stewart in her.

“She was a gracious, grand hostess, and she set a beautiful table. She was a fabulous cook. My sister and I learned all these culinary skills from our mother. These are things we did automatically and we didn’t even think about it.”

Lucile never got to play grand hostess at her Old Market residence, but she approved of opening it up to parties and took vicarious pleasure in the first events held there a few years ago. And even though by the end she couldn’t see much besides light, she helped guide her daughter Stefanie and her granddaughter Amy in finishing out the place. All concerned are satisfied the interior is a close approximation of what Lucile intended.

Until opened as a rental space, the building’s street-level windows were boarded up, peaking the curiosity of passersby, who could only make out tantalizing tidbits. Some peepers climbed the gates for a glimpse inside a second floor window.

Thompson said some naturally mistook the residence for an antique shop. Only family, friends and area merchants and residents knew the truth. Now that it’s a much-in-demand rental space, the reputation and history behind it, and the story of the woman who made it possible, Lucile Schaaf, are becoming more widely known. Yet Amy Waskel said most first-time visitors remark “we had no idea this was here.”

“The whole thing just started with, ‘I’ve got these things, I’ve got this place, I’ve got this box, I’ve got all these things inside it, let’s put it together. It was thinking outside the box,” said Thompson, “and look at what she’s got, she’s got a box of fabulous things and wonderful memories. I’m hoping one day it’s a museum. I think more people could enjoy it if we could do more with it. But it’s an old building and it needs a lot of things done to it.”

Old and imperfect as it is, Jorgensen said, “it’s perfect for the Old Market. I mean, it’s adaptive reuse, it’s work-with-what-you-have, it’s an example of finding new faces for old places. That’s what she did. She found new life for a building and an area that needed a new reason to exist. Lucile had that vision for what it could be.”

The Mercer family of Omaha, headed by Samuel Mercer, led early efforts in transforming the former City Market into the Old Market. Mercer Management, which Sam’s son, Mark, heads, is still the primary property owner and developer there. Mark said his father felt that he and Lucile “shared a desire to see the Old Market buildings restored and reanimated by local individual businesses. He always had a cordial and friendly relation with her.”

Artist and arts administrator Ree Kaneko, who first got to know Lucile during the Old Market’s emergence in the late ’60s-early ’70s, said, “the Lady in Orange was a wonderful soul.”

Jorgensen said not having Lucile around is “a major loss.” But her world lives on at Lucile’s Old Market, 510 South 10th Street. To book an event or arrange a tour, call 341-3100 or visit http://www.lucilesoldmarket.com.

Finding Forefathers: Lincoln Motion Picture Company Film Festival gives nod to past and offers glimpse of future

November 20, 2010 2 comments

Poster: The Realization of a Negro's Ambition ...

Image via Wikipedia

I am always on the lookout for a good film story.  This one came to me out of left field, and I am grateful did.  My hometown of Omaha, Neb. is slow to pick up trends, which makes sense since it sits smack dab in the middle of the country.  While indigenous indie filmmaking caught on just about everywhere else 15 or 20 years ago, it’s only in the last decade really that the city has had anything like a filmmaking scene, and it’s still a small, sporadic community of filmmakers compared with, say, Austin, Texas.  What’s lagged even more behind is the development of an African-American film community here, although events in the last three years indicate that might finally be changing.  For Love of Amy and Wigger are two features shot here in 2008 and 2010, respectively. John Beasley is planning a film on the life of Marlin Briscoe.  Robert Franklin is a documentary filmmaker with a new project near completion about the 1919  lynching of Will Brown.  Vikki White is a promising new filmmaker.  And then the story that came my way recently announced a new film festival whose title is drawn from the nation’s first black filmmaking enterprise, the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, which got its start in Omaha, of all places, in the silent era. Brothers Noble and George Johnson were the founders and operators behind Lincoln, whose run was short but historic.  Videographer Jim Nelson of Omaha was inspired by the example of the Johnsons and has launched a film festival showing the wares of aspiring filmmakers he mentors.  My story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) previewed the fest ,which unreeled Nov. 19.  He and I and the filmmakers showing their work hope it’s the start of something big.

 

Finding Forefathers: Lincoln Motion Picture Company Film Festival gives nod to past and offers glimpse of future

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The first annual Lincoln Motion Picture Company Film Festival, Nov. 19, is inspired by a historic Nebraska-based business that scholars call the nation’s first African-American film production company.

Brothers Noble and George Johnson founded the company in 1916 in Omaha and later opened a Los Angeles office. They produced five pictures. Their work actually predated that of the great black film pioneer Oscar Micheaux, who had contact with the Johnsons before launching his own film endeavors.

When Omaha television and video production veteran Jim Nelson learned of the Johnsons’ legacy, it hit him like a revelation. As an African-American videographer, he’s a rarity in the local industry. From the time the Lincoln company folded in 1921 until recently, black filmmaking largely lay dormant here. Discovering that black Omaha filmmakers made and owned their own images nearly a century ago moved Nelson.

“I thought, damn, I do come from someplace. It gives me a connection. You always hear about standing on the shoulders of giants, well, now I know whose they are,” says Nelson, who began his career at now defunct Omaha black owned and operated radio station KOWH.

 

The Texas native came to Omaha in the 1960s when his Air Force father transferred to Offutt Air Force Base. Except for leaving Nebraska a few times to try his fortunes elsewhere, the University of Nebraska at Omaha graduate has been based here, yet he somehow never heard about the Johnsons and their Lincoln efforts until a few years ago. He feels the story is not as widely celebrated in these parts as it should be.

“I say to people,’ Do you know the significance of this?'”

He says he’s sure many in Omaha’s African-American community don’t know this history, which he sees as part of a larger problem of not enough being done to promote achievements by black Nebraskans.

“The idea is there are people who grew up here who made contributions,” he says. “It’s about valuing not only what you have or had but using that value to help you grow,” he says. “People need to feel they are worth something.”

Nelson’s nonprofit Video Kool Skool and Sable Accent Media Experience are training grounds for minority youths and adults to learn the necessary skills to tell their stories in images. The programs, along with his for-profit Jim Nelson Media Services, are based at the Omaha Business & Technology Center, 2505 North 24th Street., where he has ample studio and production space.

With a bow to the Lincoln Company’s heritage, Nelson hit upon the idea of a showcase for aspiring black filmmakers. Making himself and his facilities available, he worked with newbies on five short films, all featuring aspects of the black experience. The collaborative projects include one Nelson directed, Rockin’ the Deuce Four, an appreciation of the jazz scene that once flourished in and around North 24th Street.

“This is about a community that has not had its story told on any regular basis,” he says. “Now there’s a platform (the festival). I want to catch these new voices when they’re small. They have to be encouraged, they have to be nurtured, they have to know there’s a place where, even on a part time basis, they can pursue it.

“What’s my role? Well this has always been a dream of mine because I never had a mentor. I didn’t get it, I wasn’t supposed to get it, I was supposed to help others get it. I find myself being more a catalyst I guess for those who really want to do it.”

In this “each one, teach one” capacity he worked with three adults — all students of his at Metro Community College, where he’s an adjunct broadcast media instructor. Their work comprises the festival.

Danye Echtinaw, an Army reservist who served a tour in Iraq, says her film If the Hair Ain’t Tight, Ain’t Nothin’ Right expresses “a very adamant attitude of reaffirmation” about black women” and their “crown of glory.” Eris Lamont Mackey, who made an anti-gang film that placed at the NAACP’s national ACT-SO competition, reflects on the importance of families sharing meals and conversations together in Left at the Table. Lisa Washington, who attended Grambling State University, examines African-American icons in The Beginning of a Positive Image.

Nelson doesn’t pretend there’s a budding Spike Lee or Kasi Lemmons in the queue…yet. He views the event and his mentoring as “a spark to ignite others.” He feels as more participate, it’s only a matter of time before a significant filmmaker emerges.

“The participation of minorities in the industry has always been a struggle. With today’s technology, the opportunity to make films is there,” he says. “There’s a wealth of stories, but we need storytellers. Just seeing yourself in that position is empowering. Once you learn to do it, it can’t be taken away. It’s just a matter of getting the tools to do it.”

The fest unreels from 6 to 8:30 p.m. at the Omaha Public Schools‘ TAC Building auditorium, 3015 Cuming Street. Admission is $10. Call 614-8202 for ticket locations.

The Two Wars of Ben Kuroki, Honors Keep Rolling in for Nebraskan Who Defied Prejudice to Become a War Hero

November 4, 2010 3 comments

First and Front Streets, San Francisco, Califo...

First and Front Streets, San Francisco, California. Exclusion Order posted to direct Japanese Americans living in the first San Francisco section to evacuate. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am reposting this article because the person profiled in it is due to receive yet another major honor this Saturday, Nov. 6 (2010).

Ben Kuroki, who grew up in Hershey, Neb., was one of 10 children and did not experience discrimination until he and his brother tried to join the Army right after the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor.  Ben was Nisei – an American born of Japanese parents. Kuroki had to fight like hell for the right to fight for his own country.

Finally allowed to become a gunner on a B-24 and flew his first mission in December of 1942.  Life expectancy for a bomb crew member was ten missions.  Kuroki flew 58 missions — and became the only American during WWII to fly for four separate Air Forces — and the only Japanese American to fly over Japan in combat in WWII.

As Kuroki friend Scott Stewart reports, on Nov. 10 in Washington D.C. Kuroki will receive the prestigious Audie Murphy Award — named after the most decorated American veteran in WWII. The American Veterans Center’s will present the award to Ben Kuroki at their annual conference gala.

Kuroki received little official recognition for his war efforts during his time in the service, but since 2005 the flood gates opened and the honors started flowing.

*Distinguished Service Medal — the Army’s third highest award in 2005 at a ceremony in Lincoln followed by the Nebraska Press Association’s highest honor, the President’s Award and the University of Nebraska honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters.

*Black Tie State Dinner at the White House with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2006

*2007, Lincoln hosted the world premier showing of the PBS documentary on the Kuroki war story Most Honorable Son.

*Presidential Citation from President George W. Bush in May 2008

*Smithsonian dedicated a permanent display on Ben war record, May 2008

At his acceptance speech on Saturday Kuroki will say “words are inadequate to thank my friends who went to bat for me and bestowed incredible honors decades later. Without their support, my war record would not have amounted to a hill of beans. Their dedication is the real story of Americanism and democracy at its very best. I now feel fully vindicated in my fight against surreal odds and ugly discrimination.

The article below is one of several I wrote about Kuroki around the time the documentary about him, Most Honorable Son, was premiering on PBS.  I am glad to share the article with first time or repeat visitors to this site.

 

 

 

 

The Two Wars of Ben Kuroki, Honors Keep Rolling in for Nebraskan Who Defied Prejudice to Become a War Hero

After Pearl Harbor, Ben Kuroki wanted to fight for his country. But as a Japanese-American, he first had to fight against the prejudice and fear of his fellow Americans. The young sergeant from Hershey, Neb., proved equal to the task.

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Nebraska Life Magazine

 

“I had to fight like hell just for the right to fight for my own country,” said Hershey, Neb., native Ben Kuroki. During World War II, he became one of only a handful of Japanese-Americans to see air combat, and was America’s only Nisei (child of Japanese immigrant parents) to see duty over mainland Japan.

For Kuroki, just being in the U.S. Army Air Corps was an anomaly. At the outset of war, Japanese-American servicemenwere kicked out. Young men wanting to enlist encountered roadblocks. Those who enlisted later were mustered out or denied combat assignments. But Kuroki was desperate to prove his loyalty to America, and persisted in the face of racism and red tape. As an aerial gunner, he logged 58 combined missions, 30 on B-24s over Europe (including the legendary Ploesti raid) and 28 more on B-29s over the Pacific.

Between his European and Pacific tours, the war department put Kuroki on a speaking tour. He visited internment campswhere many of his fellow Japanese-Americans were being held. He spoke to civic groups, and one of his speeches is said to have turned the tide of West Coast opinion about Japanese-Americans.

Few have faced as much to risk their life for an ungrateful nation. Even now, the 90-year-old retired newspaper editor asks, “Why the hell did I do it? I mean, why did I go to that extent? I was just young. I had no family – no children or wife or anything like that. I was all gung-ho to prove my loyalty.”

A new documentary film about Kuroki, “Most Honorable Son,” premiered in Lincoln in August and will be broadcast on PBS in September. For filmmaker Bill Kubota, who grew up hearing his father tell of Kuroki’s visit to the camp at which he was interned, Kuroki’s story is unique.

“It’s very rare you find one person that can carry a lot of different themes of the war with their own personal experience,” Kubota said. “He saw so many different things… It’s a remarkable story no matter who it is, but throw in the fact he’s basically the first Japanese-American war hero and you have even more of a story. He’s more than a footnote in Japanese-American history. One that needs to be better understood and more heard from. It’s a unique, different story that not only Asian Americans can relate to, but all Americans. That’s why I like this story.”

For years after the war he kept silent about his exploits. The humble Kuroki, like most of his generation, did not want a fuss made about events long past. He married, raised a family and worked as a newspaper publisher-editor, first with the York (Neb.) Republican and then the Williamston (Mich.) Enterprise. He later moved to Calif. where he worked as an editor with the Ventura Star-Free Press.

His story resurfaced with WWII 50th anniversary observances in the 1990s. At the invitation of the Nebraska State Historical Society he cut the ribbon for a new war exhibit. On the anniversary of Pearl Harbor he was the subject of a glowing New York Times editorial. More recently, he’s been feted with honors by the Nebraska Press Association and his alma mater, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. As a result of all the new-found attention Kuroki and Shige have been invited guests to the White House on several occasions, most recently in May.

 

 

 

One key to what Kuroki calls his “all guts no brains” loyalty is his upbringing. His parents “pounded it into their children to never bring shame to yourself or your family,” he says in the film. “I hated the fact I was born Japanese. I wanted to try and avenge what they (Japan) had done for causing what we considered shame.”

From his home in Camarillo, Calif., where he lives with his wife, Shige, Kuroki added, “But I think in the long run I have to thank my Nebraska upbringing, my Nebraska roots for playing a real credible role in giving me a solid foundation for patriotism. It really was a way of life. Freedom was always something really I had the best of.”

Kuroki came from a poor family of 10 children. His parents emigrated from Japan with scant schooling and speaking no English. His father, Sam, arrived in San Francisco and worked his way west on Union Pacific section crews. The sight of fertile Nebraska land was enough to make the former sash salesman stay and become a farmer.

A small Japanese enclave formed in western Nebraska. Times were hard during the Great Depression and the years of drought, but Ben enjoyed a bucolic American youth, playing sports, hunting with friends and trucking potatoes down south and returning with fresh citrus.

Though accepted by the white majority, the newcomers were always aware they were different. “But at the same time,” Kuroki said, “I never encountered racial prejudice until after Pearl Harbor.”

On December 7, 1941, he was in a North Platte church basement for a meeting of the Japanese American Citizens League, a patriotic group fighting for equality at a time of heightened tensions with Japan. Mike Masaoka from the JACL national office was chairing the meeting when two men entered the hall and, without explanation, said something to Masaoka and led him out.

“Just like that, he was gone. We were just baffled,” Kuroki said, “so we just sort of scattered and by the time we got outside the church someone had a radio and said, ‘My God, Pearl Harbor has been bombed by the Japanese.’ That was a helluva experience for us the way we found out… It really was a traumatic day.”

They soon learned that Masaoka had been arrested by the FBI and jailed in North Platte. “I guess all suspects, so to speak, were taken into custody,” Kuroki said. Masaoka was soon released, but his arrest presaged the restrictive measures soon imposed on all Japanese-Americans. As part of the crackdown, their assets – including bank accounts – were frozen. As hysteria built on the West Coast, Executive Order 9066 forced the evacuation and relocation of individuals and entire families. Homes and jobs were lost, lives disrupted. As the Kurokis lived in the Midwest, they were spared internment.

Soon after Pearl Harbor, Kuroki and his younger brother Fred were surprised when their father urged them to volunteer for the armed services. As Kuroki recalls in the film, their father said, “This is your country, go ahead and fight for it.”

 

 

 

 

They went to the induction center in North Platte. They passed all the tests but kept waiting for their names to be called. “We knew we were getting the runaround then because all our friends in Hershey were going in right and left,” Kuroki said. The brothers left in frustration. “It was about two weeks later I heard this radio broadcast that the Air Corps was taking enlistments in Grand Island and so I immediately got on the phone and asked the recruiting sergeant if our nationality was any problem, and he said, ‘Hell, no, I get two bucks for everybody I sign up. C’mon down.’ So we drove 150 miles and gave our pledge of allegiance.”

The Omaha World-Herald ran a picture of the two brothers taking their loyalty oaths.

While on the train to Sheppard Field, Texas, for recruit training, the brothers got a taste of things to come. Kuroki recalled how “some smart aleck said, ‘What the hell are those damn Japs doing in the Army?’ That was the first shocker.”

Things were tense in the barracks as well. “I’ll never forget this one loudmouth yelled out, ‘I’m going to kill myself some goddamned Japs.’ I didn’t know whether he was talking about me or the enemy and I just felt like I wanted to crawl in a damn hole and hide.”

But at least the brothers had each other’s back. Then, without warning, Fred was transferred to a ditch-digging engineers outfit.

“My God, I feared for my life then,” Kuroki said.

As Kuroki learned, it was the rare Japanese-American who got in or stuck with the Air Corps – almost all served in the segregated 442nd Infantry Regiment that earned distinction. The brothers corresponded a few times during the war. Fred ended up seeing action in the Battle of the Bulge.

From Sheppard Field, Kuroki went to a clerical school in Fort Logan, Colo., and then to Barksdale Field (La.) where the 93rd Bomber Group, made up of B-24s, was being formed. As a clerk, he got stuck on KP several days and nights.

“I knew damn well they were giving me the shaft,” he said. “But I wasn’t about to complain because I was afraid if I did, the same thing would happen to me that happened to my brother – that I’d get kicked out of the Air Corps in a hurry.”

He took extra precautions. “I wouldn’t dare go near one (a B-24 bomber) because I was afraid somebody would think I’m going to do sabotage. That’s the way it was for me for a whole year. I walked on egg shells worried if I made one wrong move, if I was right or wrong, that would be the end of my career,” he said.

Then his worst fear came to pass. Orders were cut for him to transfer out, which would ground him before he ever got over enemy skies. That’s when he made the first of his pleas for a chance to serve his country in combat. He got a reprieve and went with his unit down to Fort Myers, Fla. – the last stop before England. But after three months training, he once again faced a transfer.

“I figured if I didn’t go with them then I’d be doing KP for the rest of my Army life,” he said. “And so I went in and begged with tears in my eyes to my squadron adjutant, Lt. Charles Brannan, and he said, ‘Kuroki, you’re going with us, and that’s that.’ All these decades later I’m forever grateful… because if it wasn’t for him I probably would never have gotten overseas.”

He made it to England – the great Allied staging area for the war in Europe – but he was still a long ways from getting to fly. He was still a clerk. But after the first bombing missions suffered heavy losses, there were many openings on bomber crews for gunners. Not leaving it to chance, he took his cause directly to his officers.

“I begged them for a chance to become an aerial gunner and they sent me to a two-week English gunnery school. I didn’t even fire a round of ammunition.”

In late ’42, Kuroki got word his outfit was headed to North Africa… and he was going with it. It took beseeching the 93rd’s commander, Ted Timberlake, whose unit came to be called The Flying Circus, before Kuroki got the final go-ahead. He was delighted, even though he had “practically no training.” As he would later tell an audience, “I really learned to shoot the hard way – in combat.”

Training or not, he finally felt the embrace of brother airmen around him.

“Once I got into flying missions with a regular crew and I was with my own guys, the whole world changed,” he said. “On my first mission I was just terrified by the enemy gunfire but I suddenly found peace. I mean, for the first time I felt like I belonged. And by God we flew together as a family after that. It was just unbelievable, the rapport. Of course we all knew we’re risking our lives together and fighting to save each others’ lives.”

One of his crewmates dubbed Kuroki “The Most Honorable Son.” It became the nickname of their B-24.

At the same time, Kuroki was reading accounts of extremists calling for all Japanese-Americans to be confined to concentration camps. Some nativists even suggested Japanese-Americans should be deported to Japan after the war.

But by then, Kuroki’s own battles were more with the enemy than with the military apparatus. His first action came on missions targeting the shipping lines of the “Desert Fox,” Erwin Rommel, whose Panzer tank divisions had caused havoc in North Africa. Kuroki was on missions that hit multiple locations in North Africa and Italy.

Kuroki and his crewmates made it through more than a dozen missions without incident. Then, on a return flight in ’43, their plane ran out of fuel and made an emergency landing in Spanish Morocco. Armed Arab horsemen converged on them. They feared for their lives, but Spanish cavalry rode to their rescue. The Spanish held the crew more as reluctant guests than as prisoners. But Kuroki tried to escape.

“I just had to prove my loyalty,” he says in the film. He was caught.

What ensued next was a limbo of bureaucratic haggling over what to do with the captured airmen. They were taken to Spain, where they were told they might sit out the rest of the war. For a time, it was welcome news for the crew, who stayed in luxurious quarters. But soon they felt they were missing out on the most momentous events of their lifetime.

Finally, the way was cleared for them to rejoin the 93rd, which soon moved to England for missions over Europe. Of all those bombing runs, the August 1, 1943 raid on Ploesti, Rumania, is forever burned in Kuroki’s memory. In a daylight mission, 177 B-24s came in at treetop level against heavily-fortified oil refineries deep in enemy territory. Nearly a third of the bombers failed to return. Hundreds of American lives were lost.

The legend of Kuroki grew when he reached the 25-mission rotation limit and volunteered to fly five more. His closest call came on his 30th trip, over Munster, when flak shattered the top of his plexiglass turret just as he ducked.

On an official leave home in early 1944, Kuroki was put to work winning hearts and minds. At a Santa Monica, Calif., rest/rehab center, he gave interviews and met celebrities. Stories about him appeared in Time magazine and the New York Times.

Then he was invited to speak at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club. In preparation for the talk, Sgt. Bob Evans asked him to outline his experiences on paper, which Evans translated into the moving speech Kuroki gave. “He did a terrific job,” Kuroki said.

But before making the speech, Kuroki tried getting out of it. He was intimidated by the prospect of speaking before white dignitaries, and feared a hostile reception. A newspaper headline announced his appearance as “Jap to Address S.F. Club,” and the story ran next to others condemning Japanese atrocities during the Bataan Death March. Even the officer escorting Kuroki worried how the audience would react. Kuroki was the first Japanese-American to return to the West Coast since the mass evacuation.

“I realized I had a helluva responsibility,” Kuroki said.

 

 

 

 

 

Kuroki’s speech was broadcast on radio throughout California, and received wide news coverage.

“I learned more about democracy, for one thing, than you’ll find in all the books, because I saw it in action,” Kuroki told the audience. “When you live with men under combat conditions for 15 months you begin to understand what brotherhood, equality, tolerance and unselfishness really mean. They’re no longer just words…”

He went on to recount how a crewmate caught a piece of flak in his head on a mission. The co-pilot came back to give him a morphine injection, but Kuroki waved him off, remembering training that taught morphine could be fatal to head injuries at high altitude. The wounded airman recovered.

“What difference did it make” what a man’s ancestry was? “We had a job to do and we did it with a kind of comradeship that was the finest thing…”

He described his “nearly continuous struggle” to be assigned a flight crew. How he “wanted to get into combat more than anything in the world, so I kept after it.” How he was “waging two battles – one against the Axis and one against intolerance of my fellow Americans.” The prejudice he felt in basic training was so bad, he said, “I would rather go through my bombing missions again than face” it.

Reports refer to men crying and to a standing ovation that lasted 10 minutes. Kuroki confirmed this. Even his escort was in tears.

The reaction stunned Kuroki. He didn’t realize what it all meant until a letter from Club doyen Monroe Deutsch, University of California at Berkeley vice president, reached him overseas and reported what a difference the address made in tempering anti-Japanese sentiment.

Filmmaker Bill Kubota’s research convinces him that the address brought the matter “back to the forefront around the time it needed to be.” It helped people realize that “this is an issue they should think about and deal with.” Kubota said the speech is little known to most Japanese-American scholars because the JA community was prevented from hearing the talk; vital evidence for its profound effect is in Kuroki’s own files, not in public archives.

Before Kuroki went back overseas he appeared at internment camps in Idaho, where his visits drew mixed responses – enthusiasm from idealistic young Nisei wanting his autograph, but hostility from bitter older factions.

Kuroki’s ardent American patriotism and virulent anti-Japan rhetoric elicited “hissing and booing from some of those dissidents,” he said. “Some started calling me dirty names. This one leader called me a bullshitter. It got pretty bad. I didn’t take it too well. I figured I’d risked my life for the good of Japanese-Americans.”

Among the young Nisei who idolized Kuroki was Kubota’s father, a teenager who was impressed with the dashing, highly-decorated aerial gunner.

“My dad regards him as a hero, which is how pre-draft age Japanese-Americans saw him,” Kubota said. Because of the personal tie, the film “means more to me because it means more to my father than I had earlier realized.”

Liked or not, Kuroki said of his public relations work that he “felt very much used and I wasn’t cut out for that sort of thing. I got my belly full of it. I wanted to quit.”

Once back overseas, his bid for Pacific air duty was soon stalled. When Monroe Deutsch learned that a regulation stood in Kuroki’s way, he and others pressured top military brass to make an exception. Secretary of War Henry Stimson wrote a letter granting permission.

“They certainly were unusual people to go to bat for me at that time when war hysteria was so bad,” Kuroki said.

Even with his clearance, Kuroki still encountered resistance. Twice federal agents tried to keep him from going on flights – once at Kearney (Neb.) Air Base, and then again at Murtha Field (Calif.), where the agents carried sidearms. Each time he had to dig in his barracks bag to produce the Stimson letter.

“My pilot and bombardier were so damn mad because by this time they figured we were just getting harassed for nothing,” he said.

His B-29 crew flew out of Tinian Island, where their bomber was parked next to Enola Gay, the B-29 that would soon drop the first atomic bomb. Meanwhile, the fire bombings of Japanese cities left a horrible imprint.

 

 

 

 

While on Tinian, Kuroki could move safely about only in daylight, and then only flanked by crewmates, as “trigger-happy” sentries were liable to shoot anyone resembling the enemy. And after completing 58 missions unscathed, Kuroki was nearly murdered by a fellow American. When a drunken G.I. called Kuroki “a dirty Jap,” Kuroki started for him, but was waylaid by a knife to the head. The severe cut landed him in the hospital for the war’s duration.

“Just a fraction of an inch deeper and I wouldn’t be here talking today,” he said. “And it probably would never have happened if he hadn’t called me a Jap.”

As he says in the film, “That’s what my whole war was about – I didn’t want to be called a Jap.” Not “after all I had been through… the insults and all the things that hurt all the way back even in recruiting days.”

The irony that a fellow American, not the enemy, came closest to killing him was a bitter pill. Yet Kuroki has no regrets about serving his country. As Kubota said, “I think he knows what he did is the right thing and he’s proud he did it.”

“My parents were very proud, especially my father,” said Kuroki, who earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses during the war. “I know my dad was always bragging about me.” Kuroki presented his parents with a portrait of himself by Joseph Cummings Chase, whom the Smithsonian commissioned to do a separate portrait. When he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal in 2005, Kuroki accepted it in his father’s honor.

Outside of Audie Murphy, Kuroki may have ended the war as the best known enlisted man to have served. Newspapers-magazine told his story during the war and a 1946 book, Boy From Nebraska, by Ralph Martin, told his story in-depth. When the war ended, Kuroki’s battles were finally over. He shipped home.

“For three or four months I did what I considered my ‘59th mission’ – I spoke to various groups under the auspices of the East and West Association, which was financed by (Nobel Prize-winning author) Pearl Buck. I spoke to high schools and Rotary clubs and that sort of thing and I got my fill of that. So I came home to relax and to forget about things.”

Kuroki didn’t know what he was going to do next, only that “I didn’t want to go back to farming. I was just kind of kicking around. Then I got inspired to go see Cal (former O’Neill, Neb., newspaperman Carroll Stewart) and that was the beginning of a new chapter in my life.”

Stewart, who as an Army PR man met Kuroki during the war, inspired Kuroki to study journalism at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. After a brief stint with a newspaper, Kuroki bought the York Republican, a legal newspaper with a loyal following but hindered by ancient equipment.

He was held in such high esteem that Stewart joined veteran Nebraska newspapermen Emil Reutzel and Jim Cornwell to help Kuroki produce a 48-page first edition called “Operation Democracy.” The man from whom Kuroki purchased the newspaper said he’d never seen competitors band together to aid a rival like that.

“Considering Ben’s triumphs over wartime odds,” Stewart said, the newspapermen put competition aside and “gathered round to aid him.” What also drew people to Kuroki and still does, Stewart said, was “his humility, eagerness and commitment. Kuroki was sincere and modestly consistent to a fault. He placed everyone’s interests above his own.”

Years later, those same men, led by Stewart, spearheaded the push to get Kuroki the Distinguished Service Medal. Stewart also published a booklet, The Most Honorable Son. Kuroki nixed efforts to nominate him for the Medal of Honor, saying, “I didn’t deserve it.”

“That’s the miracle of the thing,” Kuroki said. “Those same people are still going to bat for me and pulling off all these things. It’s really heartwarming. That’s what makes this country so great. Where in the world would that sort of thing happen?”

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