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A Shameless Plug: Lit Coach Erin Reel Highlights this Site, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, aka Leo Adam Biga’s Blog, Among Her Picks for Blogs That Work

March 31, 2011 3 comments

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A Shameless Plug: Lit Coach Erin Reel Highlights this Site, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, aka Leo Adam Biga’s Blog, Among Her Picks for Blogs That Work

©by Erin Reel from her blog site, The Lit Coach’s Guide to the Writer’s Life (http://thelitcoach.blogspot.com/)

The best blogs serve a purpose greater than sharing miscellaneous tid bits about the blogger’s day – they educate, inform, inspire, humor, enlighten – they share a unique perspective.

Today’s Blog That Works spotlight shines on Leo Adam Biga, Omaha‘s most prolific award-winning cultural journalist. Biga’s eclectic body of work spans from Omaha filmmaker Alexander Payne (SidewaysAbout Schmidt) tofashion and film making to Warren Buffett and just about everything in between. Rather than collect his published pieces in files, unexposed to new readers, Biga collected his published work and archived them on his blog. Why? To gain new readers and showcase his body of work to prospective clients.

Here’s what Biga had to say:

“My blog is primarily intended as a showcase of my cultural journalism. I want the visitor to the site to experience it the way they would a gallery featuring my work. This exhibition or sampling quickly reveals my brand — “I write stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions” — as well as the scope of my work within that brand, which is quite broad and eclectic. The home page features 10 of my stories, each in their entirety, and those front page stories, which change every few days or weeks, consistently reflect the wide range of interests, subjects, and themes found on the blog. The blog is set up so that whether the visitor is on the home page or clicks on to any page featuring an individual story the entire inventory or index of stories on the blog is always accessible, organized by tags, categories, et cetera. Visitors can also search the site by using key words.

The blog is not monetized. So why do I repurpose my work in this way? Well, every writer likes to have his or her work read, therefore on one level I do it in order to find a new, perhaps larger audience for the stories. The blog is an excellent way for me to have an expanded Web presence. In addition to it, I have a LinkedIn site, a Google site, and a Facebook site, among others, most of them linked to each other. I also use the blog as a portfolio I refer contacts and prospective clients to.” 

And Leo tells me showcasing his body of work blog style has allowed those interested in hiring Biga for new writing gigs has allowed them to get a good feel for his writing. He’s received more offers to write than if he hadn’t set up the blog as his massive online writing brochure.

Leo goes on to say, “The real satisfaction I suppose comes in having a public gallery of my work, even if it only is a small sampling of it, that I can refer or direct people to or that people can discover all on their own. In fact, it appears as if the vast majority of visitors to my site end up there by virtue of Web searches they do and their finding links to my blog as part of the search results that come up. Because I have so many stories out there on so many different topics my blog shows up as part of an endless variety of searches. It’s also kind of fun to have people I wrote about, in some cases years ago, find stories I did about them and contact me, reliving old times or bringing me up to date with what they’re doing today. ”

Check out Leo’s blog. There really is something for every reader.

Tyler Owen: Man of MAHA

March 20, 2011 8 comments

Superchunk @ MAHA

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UPDATE: The 2011 MAHA Music Festival lineup has just been announced and the headliners for the August 13 event are major indie artists: Guided by Voices; Matisyahu; and Cursive. The subject of my story below, Tyler Owen, is one of the founders and driving forces of this emerging Omaha festival.

One of the best parts of my job is getting to meet people who are making things happen in my community, the proverbial movers and shakers we all read about but rarely ever encounter.  Well, as a cultural journalist in my hometown of Omaha, Neb. I consistently get the chance to meet all manner of individuals who are making a difference here and elsewhere.  My assignments interviewing and profiling these figures allows me the opportunity and privilege of sharing their stories and activities with not only the Omaha community but with the larger community that the Web makes possible.  The following story is about one of Omaha’s young professionals, Tyler Owen, now making his mark on the scene in business, the arts, community service, and leadership. As Omaha’s Old Guard begins to fade away Owen and others from his generation are poised to take over the reins, much as he’s done in his own family’s business.  I look forward to Owen and his peers in the 30 and 40-something age group to continue the growth and momentum that’s helped Omaha come out of its shell the last decade to become one of the great urban success stories in America.  My story appears in the March issue of Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/March-2011/Tyler-Owen-Cover-Story/).

 

Tyler Owen: Man of MAHA

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/March-2011/Tyler-Owen-Cover-Story)

 

Tyler Owen hails from an Omaha legacy family who has made a fortune in the steel industry and who spreads their wealth around. The Owen Foundation funds higher education, cultural programs, social agencies and the Henry Doorly Zoo. While he may not have a big red S” printed across his chest, this fourth generation homegrown entrepreneur/philanthropist has already staked his claim as (okay, not METROPOLIS’ but MAHA’s) “man of steel”.

As a young professional, Tyler Owen carries on his family’s legacy of giving back. He’s also staked out his own territory as a volunteer with various creative and community endeavors close to his heart.

BREAKING THE MOLD

He doesn’t fit the mold of a steel executive. For starters, he’s a one-time actor and a lifelong rocker. Growing up, the Westside High graduate spent far more time practicing the piano and playing the guitar than he did grooming to be a titan of industry.  He fronted his own garage band, The Bottom Line.

After graduating from the University of Colorado he pursued acting and music careers on the west coast. He parlayed his good looks, easy charm and modest talent into screen extra gigs– his credits include a minor speaking part in a Murder She Wrote– and releases of original recordings with his group, The Eye. He headed his own small record label. Along the way he wrote an unpublished novel and learned to fly.

Throughout this period of finding himself his family encouraged him.

“My parents were incredibly supportive,” he said. “They were like, ‘You’ve gotta go do whatever you want to do and you’ve got to come back to this (the family business) on your terms– not stay here on our terms.’ It’s great because I don’t have a single ounce of resentment about being in the business. If anything, it was worth leaving and maturing to the point where I accepted it, rather than being thrust [into] it.”

UP FROM THE ROOTS

Tyler and his wife Lisa returned to Omaha for good in 2001 to start a family. Following tradition, he began at the bottom of Paxton & Vierling Steel, a steel processor, in order to learn the operation from the ground up.

Today, the 38 year-old is the fourth generation of his family at Owen Industries, of which the Carter Lake, Iowa-based P & V is one of several divisions. He heads day to day operations at Lincoln Structural Solutions, a Lincoln, Neb. supplier of nuclear grade construction materials. Playing to his creative strengths, he handles marketing and branding for Owen Industries. P & V’s “iron is in our blood” tag is his.

As businessman, husband and father of four, Owen’s not so much abandoned his free-spirited ways as settled down to focus on a few key passions.

In 2009 he helped found the local MAHA Music Festival, a one-day phantasmagorical immersion in rock. The free, nonprofit event takes place at the Lewis & Clark Landing on the downtown riverfront. The fest’s expressed aim is “community building.” MAHA 2011 is set for August 13th.

He served two terms on the City of Omaha’s Human Rights and Relations Board. His tenure coincided with the public flap over the police auditor office. He fought hard to retain the auditor but in the end the post was eliminated by the city.

The self-described “bibliophile” is in his fifth year on the Omaha Public Library Foundation Board, a period that’s included the resignation of library director Rivkah Sass, the hiring of her successor, Gary Wasdin, and staving off budget cuts.

Owen’s steeped in the local philanthropic community through his and his family’s long involvement in Ak-Sar-Ben, which he calls “a great organization.” He and Lisa have also helped organize major fundraisers for the Omaha Boys and Girls Club.

The example of being a good steward has always been there as expectation and obligation. Whether donating time or money, he learned it’s the right thing to do.

THE SPIRIT OF OMAHA

“There seems to be an overwhelming sense of giving back in this community and of our being greater than the sum of our parts. There’s this kind of bonding together into making something bigger,” Owen said. “I think that comes back to an Omaha thing. I don’t think people in Omaha suffer a lot of grandiose, inflated egos, so there is this spirit of– let’s actually create something, rather than bluster about something.”

The Omaha work ethic of getting things done is one his family’s exemplified. Now that he’s in a position to lead, he finds few things as satisfying as giving back.

“I think any time you serve something outside of yourself it’s a satisfying experience. People may quibble with where donor dollars go, but in the end,” he said, “it’s not important how you give, it’s only important that you give.”

An advantage Omaha offers, he said, is that it’s still small enough for an individual or an organization or a small group of philanthropists to make a big difference. “One person can change the world from here,” he said.

Social media is only helping Owen (and others like him who want to make a difference) in their efforts to communicate and collaborate. “People are more connected and more aware of what other people are doing,” he said, “and so that offers more opportunities for overlap.”

THE SOCIAL NETWORK

MAHA’s an example of a few kindred spirits joining forces to launch an event that depends on social media for its traction. Owen, together with Tre Brashear, Mike App and Mike Toohey, made MAHA happen after years of kicking around the idea.

Owen’s smart enough to pull in some veteran live music promoters, including Jeff Davis the first two years (and now Marc Leibowitz) to lend their expertise. “I’m surrounded by incredibly bright guys,” he said. A team of volunteers stages and manages the event, with sponsors underwriting and promoting it.

All that help and experience, he said, has helped MAHA go off without any major hitches. Attendance grew from year one to year two. The goal is to evolve it into a multi-day fest with various arts offerings. Festival planning goes on all year.

MULIT-DIMENSIONAL

For Owen, there’s no conflict jumping from his music thing (he still writes, plays and releases his own music and he’s reunited with his band from high school) to his corporate thing.

“I’m pretty balanced between left and right brain, so I have this ability to switch back and forth. I don’t really see them separately.”

Whether rocking in his basement or strategizing a P & V campaign or designing MAHA T-shirts or playing with his kids, he’s feeding that same seeking spirit that drives him. “Life is about taking advantage of opportunity,” he said.

Tyler Owen may not follow his old mantra of “you’ve got to try everything once,” but he’s still burning to make his mark on the world.

UNO wrestling dynasty built on tide of social change

March 17, 2011 9 comments

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In my view, one of the most underreported stories coming out of Omaha the last 50 years was what Don Benning achieved as a young black man at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.  At a time and in a place when blacks were denied opportunity, he was given a chance as an educator and a coach and he made the most of the situation.  The following story, a version of which appeared in a March 2010 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com), charted his accomplishments on the 40th anniversary of making some history that has not gotten the attention it deserves.  He made history at then-Omaha University as the nation’s first black coach of a major team sport at a predominantly white institution of higher education.  I believe he was also the first black coach to lead a team at a predominantly white high education institution to a national championship. He laid the groundwork for the UNO wrestling dynasty that followed some years later under the leadership of Mike Denney, who always credited Don with getting the whole thing started.

In leading his team to the 1970 NAIA national title, when they roundly beat teams from from larger schools, he gathered around him a diverse group of student-athletes at a time when this was not the norm. A team coached by a young black man and comprised of whites, blacks and Latinos traveled to some inhospitable places where race baiting occured but he and his student-athletes never lost their cool. They let their actions speak for them.

One of the pleasures in doing this story was getting to know Don Benning, a man of high character who took me into his confidence.  I shall always be grateful.

 

UNO wrestling dynasty built on tide of social change
©by Leo Adam Biga
Version of story published in a March 2010 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

As the March 12-13 Division II national wrestling championships get underway at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, it’s good to remember wrestling, not hockey, is the school’s true marquee sport

Host UNO has been a dominant fixture on the D-II wrestling scene for decades. Its No. 1-ranked team is the defending national champs and is expected to finish on top again under Mike Denney, the coach for five of UNO’s six national wrestling titles. The first came 40 years ago amid currents of change.

Every dynasty has a beginning and a narrative. UNO’s is rooted in historic firsts that intersect racial-social-political happenings. The events helped give a school with little going for it much-needed cachet and established a tradition of excellence unbroken now since the mid-1960s.

It all began with then-Omaha University president Milo Bail hiring the school’s first African-American associate professor, Don Benning. The UNO grad had competed in football and wrestling for the OU Indians and was an assistant football coach there when Bail selected him to lead the fledgling wrestling program in 1963. The hire made Benning the first black head coach of a varsity sport (in the modern era) at a predominantly white college or university in America. It was a bold move for a nondescript, white-bread, then-municipal university in a racially divided city not known for progressive stances. It was especially audacious given that Benning was but 26 and had never held a head coaching position before.

Ebony Magazine celebrated the achievement in a March 1964 spread headlined, “Coach Cracks Color Barrier.” Benning had been on the job only a year. By 1970 he led UNO to its first wrestling national title. He developed a powerful program in part by recruiting top black wrestlers. None ever had a black coach before.

Omaha photographer Rudy Smith was a black activist at UNO then. He said what Benning and his wrestlers did “was an extension of the civil rights activity of the ’60s. Don’s team addressed inequality, racism, injustice on the college campus. He recruited people accustomed to challenges and obstacles. They were fearless. Their success was a source of pride because it proved blacks could achieve. It opened the door for other advancements at UNO by blacks. It was a monumental step and milestone in the history of UNO.”

Indeed, a few years after Benning’s arrival, UNO became the site of more black inroads. The first of these sawMarlin Briscoe star at quarterback there, which overturned the myth blacks could not master the cerebral position. Briscoe went on to be the first black starting QB in the NFL. Benning said he played a hand in persuading UNO football coach Al Caniglia to start Briscoe. Benning publicly supported efforts to create a black studies program at UNO at a time when black history and culture were marginalized. The campaign succeeded. UNO established one of the nation’s first departments of Black Studies. It continues today.

Once given his opportunity, Benning capitalized on it. From 1966 to 1971 his racially and ethnically diverse teams went 65-6-4 in duals, developing a reputation for taking on all comers and holding their own. Five of his wrestlers won a combined eight individual national championships. A dozen earned All-America status.

That championship season one of Benning’s two graduate assistant coaches was fellow African-American Curlee Alexander. The Omaha native was a four-time All-American and one-time national champ under Benning. He went on to be one of the winningest wrestling coaches in Nebraska prep history at Tech and North.

Benning’s best wrestlers were working-class kids like he and Alexander had been:

Wendell Hakanson, Omaha Home for Boys graduateRoy and

Mel Washington, black brothers from New York by way of cracker GeorgiaBruce “Mouse” Strauss, a “character” and mensch from back East

Paul and Tony Martinez, Latino south Omaha brothers who saw combat in Vietnam

Louie Rotella Jr., son of a prep wrestling legend and popular Italian bakery family

Gary Kipfmiller, a gentle giant who died young

Bernie Hospokda, Dennis Cozad, Rich Emsick, products of south Omaha’s Eastern European enclaves.

Jordan Smith and Landy Waller, prized black recruits from Iowa

 

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Half the starters were recent high school grads and half nontraditional students in their 20s; some, married with kids. Everyone worked a job.

 

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The team’s multicultural makeup was “pretty unique” then, said Benning. In most cases he said his wrestlers had “never had any meaningful relationships” with people of other races before and yet “they bonded tight as family.” He feels the way his diverse team came together in a time of racial tension deserves analysis. “It’s tough enough to develop to such a high skill level that you win a national championship with no other factors in the equation. But if you have in the equation prejudice and discrimination that you and the team have to face then that makes it even more difficult. But those things turned into a rallying point for the team. The kids came to understand they had more commonalities than differences. It was a social laboratory for life.”

“We were a mixed bag, and from the outside you would think we would have a lot of issues because of cultural differences, but we really didn’t,” said Hospodka, a Czech- American who never knew a black until UNO.  “We were a real, real tight group. We had a lot of fun, we played hard, we teased each other. Probably some of it today would be considered inappropriate. But we were so close that we treated each other like brothers. We pushed buttons nobody else better push.”

“We didn’t have no problems. It was a big family,” said Mel Washington, who with his late brother Roy, a black Muslim who changed his name to Dhafir Muhammad, became the most decorated wrestlers in UNO history up to then. “You looked around the wrestling room and you had your Italian, your whites, your blacks, Chicanos, Jew, we all got together. If everybody would have looked at our wrestling team and seen this one big family the world would have been a better place.”

If there was one thing beyond wrestling they shared in common, said Hospodka, it was coming from hardscrabble backgrounds.

“Some of the kids came from situations where you had to be pretty tough to survive,” said Benning, who came up that way himself in a North O neighborhood where his was the only black family.

The Washington brothers were among 11 siblings in a sharecropping tribe that moved to Rochester, N.Y. The pair toughened themselves working the fields, doing odd-jobs and “street wrestling.”

Dhafir was the team’s acknowledged leader. Mel also a standout football lineman, wasn’t far behind. Benning said Dhafir’s teammates would “follow him to the end of the Earth.” “If he said we’re all running a mile, we all ran a mile,” said Hospodka.

Having a strong black man as coach meant the world to Mel and Dhafir. “Something I always wanted to do was wrestle for a black coach. It was about time for me to wrestle for my own race,” said Mel. The brothers had seen the Ebony profile on Benning, whom they regarded as “a living legend” before they ever got to UNO. Hospodka said Benning’s race was never an issue with him or other whites on the team.

Mel and Dhafir set the unrelenting pace in the tiny, cramped wrestling room that Benning sealed to create sauna-like conditions. Practicing in rubber suits disallowed today Hospodka said a thermostat once recorded the temperature inside at 110 degrees and climbing. Guys struggled for air. The intense workouts tested physical and mental toughness. Endurance. Nobody gave an inch. Tempers flared.

Gary Kipfmiller staked out a corner no one dared invade. Except for Benning, then a rock solid 205 pounds, who made the passive Kipfmiller, tipping the scales at 350-plus, a special project.  “I rode him unmercifully,” said Benning. “He’d whine like a baby and I’d go, ‘Then do something about i!.” Benning said he sometimes feared that in a fit of anger Kipfmiller would drop all his weight on him and crush him.

Washington and Hospodka went at it with ferocity. Any bad blood was left in the room.

“As we were a team on the mat, off the mat we watched out for each other. Even though we were at each other’s throats on the wrestling mat, whatever happened on the outside, we were there. If somebody needed something, we were there,” said Paul Martinez, who grew up with his brother Tony, the team’s student trainer-manager, in the South O projects. The competition and camaraderie helped heal psychological wounds Paul carried from Vietnam, where he was an Army infantry platoon leader.

An emotional Martinez told Benning at a mini-reunion in January, “You were like a platoon leader for us — you guided us and protected us. Coming from a broken family, I not only looked at you as a coach but as a father.” Benning’s eyes moistened.

Joining them there were other integral members of UNO’s 1970 NAIA championship team, including Washington and Hospodka. The squad capped a perfect 14-0 dual season by winning the tough Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference tournament in Gunnison, Colo. and the nationals in Superior, Wis. It was the first national championship won by a scholarship team at the school and the first in any major sport by a Nebraska college or university.

Another milestone was that Benning became the first black coach to win an integrated national championship in wrestling and one of the first to do so in any sport at any level. He earned NAIA national coach of the year honors in 1969.

University of Washington scholar John C. Walter devotes a chapter to Benning’s historymaker legacy in a soon-to-be-published book, Better Than the Best. Walter said Benning’s “career and situation was a unique one” The mere fact Benning got the opportunity he did, said Walter, “was extraordinary,” not to mention that the mostly white student-athletes he taught and coached accepted him without incident. Somewhere else, he said, things might have been different.

“He was working in a state not known for civil rights, that’s for sure,” said Walter. “But Don was fortunate he was at a place that had a president who acted as a catalyst. It was a most unusual confluence. I think the reason why it happened is the president realized here’s a man with great abilities regardless of the color of his skin, and for me that is profound. UNO was willing to recognize and assist a young black man trying hard to distinguish himself and make a name for his university. That’s very important.”

Walter said it was the coach’s discipline and determination to achieve against all odds that prepared him to succeed.

Benning’s legacy can only be fully appreciated in the context of the time and place in which he and his student-athletes competed. For example, he was set to leave his hometown after being denied a teaching post with the Omaha Public Schools, part of endemic exclusionary practices here that restricted blacks from obtaining certain jobs and living in many neighborhoods. He only stayed when Bail chose him to break the color line, though they never talked about it in those terms.

“It always puzzled me why he did that knowing the climate at the university and in K-12 education and in the community pointed in a different direction. Segregation was a way of life here in Omaha. It took a tremendous amount of intestinal fortitude of doing what’s right, of being ready to step out on that limb when no other schools or institutions would touch African-Americans,” said Benning. He can only surmise Bail “thought that was the right thing to do and that I was the right person to do it.”

In assuming the burden of being the first, Benning took the flak that came with it.

“I flat out couldn’t fail because I would be failing my people. African-American history would show that had I failed it would have set things back. I was very aware of Jackie Robinson and what he endured. That was in my mind a lot. He had to take a lot and not say anything about it. It was no different for me.  I had tremendous pressure on me because of being African-American. A lot of things I held to myself.”

Washington said though Benning hid what he had to contend with, some of it was blatant, such as snubs or slights on and off the mat. His white wrestlers recall many instances on the road when they or the team’s white trainer or equipment manager would be addressed as “coach” or be given the bill at a restaurant when it should have been obvious the well-dressed, no-nonsense Benning was in charge.

Hospodka said at restaurants “they just assumed the black guy couldn’t pay. They hesitated to serve us or they ignored us or they hoped we would go away.”

Washington could relate, saying, “I had a feeling what he was going through — the prejudice. They looked down on him. That’s why I put out even more for him because I wanted to see him on top. A lot of people would have said the heck with this, but he’s a man who stood there and took the heat and took it in stride.”

“He did it in a quiet way. He always thought his character and actions would speak for him. He went about his business in a dignified way,” said Hospodka.

UNO wrestlers didn’t escape ugliness. At the 1971 nationals in Boone, N.C., Washington was the object of a hate crime — an effigy hung in the stands. Its intended effect backfired. Said Washington, “That didn’t bother me. You know why? I was used to it. That just made me want to go out there more and really show ’em up.” He did, too.

“We were booed a lot when we were on the road,” Hospodka said. “Don always said that was the highest form of flattery. We thrived on it, it didn’t bother us, we never took it personal, we just went out and did our thing. You might say it (the booing) was because we were beating the snot out of them. I couldn’t help think having a black coach and four or five black wrestlers had something to do with it.”

Hospodka said wherever UNO went the team was a walking social statement.  “When you went into a lot of small towns in the ’60s with four or five black wrestlers and a black coach you stuck out. It’s like, Why are these people together?” “There were some places that were awfully uncomfortable, like in the Carolinas,” said Benning. “You know there were places where they’d never seen an African-American.”

At least not a black authority figure with a group of white men answering to him.

The worst scene came at the Naval Academy, where the cold reception UNO got while holed up three days there was nothing compared to the boos, hisses, catcalls and pennies hurled at them during the dual. In a wild display of unsportsmanlike conduct Benning said thousands of Midshipmen left the stands to surround the mat for the crucial final match, which Kipfmiller won by decision to give UNO a tie.

The white wrestling infrastructure also went out of its way to make Benning and his team unwelcome.

“I think there were times when they seeded other wrestlers ahead of our wrestlers, one, because we were good and, two, because they didn’t look at it strictly from a wrestling standpoint, I think there was a little of the good old boy network there to try and make our road as tough as possible,” said Hospodka. “I think race played into that. It was a lot of subtle things. Maybe it wasn’t so subtle. Don probably saw it more because of the bureaucracy he had to deal with.”

“Some individuals weren’t too happy with me being an African-American,” said Benning. “I served on a selection committee that looked at different places to host the national tournament,. UNO hosted it in ’69, which was really very unusual, it broke a barrier, they’d never had a national championship where the host school had an African-American coach. That was pretty strange for them.”

He said the committee chairman exhibited outright disdain for him. Benning believes the ’71 championship site was awarded to Boone rather than Omaha, where the nationals were a big success, as a way to put him in his place. “The committee came up with Appalachian State, which just started wrestling. I swear to this day the only reason that happened was because of me and my team,” he said.

He and his wrestlers believe officials had it in for them. “There was one national tournament where there’s no question we just flat out got cheated,” said Benning. “It was criminal. I’m talking about the difference between winning the whole thing and second.” Refs’ judgements at the ’69 tourney in Omaha cost UNO vital points. “It was really hard to take,” said Benning. UNO had three individual champs to zero for Adams State, but came up short, 98-84. One or two disputed calls swung the balance.

 

 

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Despite all the obstacles, Benning and his “kids” succeeded in putting UNO on the map. The small, white institution best known for its Bootstrapper program went from obscurity to prominence by making athletics the vehicle for social action. In a decade defined by what Benning termed “a social revolution,” the placid campus was the last place to expect a historic color line being broken.

The UNO program came of age with its dynamic black coach and mixed team when African-American unrest flared into riots across the country, including Omaha. A north side riot occurred that championship season. UNO’s black wrestlers, who could not find accommodations near the UNO campus, lived in the epicenter of the storm. Black Panthers were neighbors. Mel Washington, his brother Dhafir and other teammates watched North 24th St. burn. Though sympathetic to the outrage, they navigated a delicate line to steer clear of trouble but still prove their blackness.

A uniformed police cadet then, Washington said he was threatened once by the Panthers, who called him “a pig” and set off a cherry bomb outside the apartment he shared with his wife and daughter.

“I found those guys and said, ‘Anybody ever do that to my family again, and you or I won’t be living,’ and from then on I didn’t have no more problems. See, not only was I getting it from whites, but from blacks, too.”

Benning, too, found himself walking a tightrope of “too black or not black enough.”   After black U.S. Olympians raised gloved fists in protest of the national anthem, UNO’s black wrestlers wanted to follow suit. Benning considered it, but balked. In ’69 Roy Washington converted to Islam. He told Benning his allegiance to Black Muslim leader Honorable Elijah Muhammad superseded any team allegiance. Benning released him from the squad. Roy’s brother Mel earlier rejected the separatist dogma the Black Muslims preached. Their differences caused no riff.

Dhafir (Roy) rejoined the team in December after agreeing to abide by the rules. He won the 150-pound title en route to UNO capturing the team title over Adams, 86-58. Hospodka said Dharfir still expressed his beliefs, but with “no animosity, just pride that black-is-beautiful. Dharfir’s finals opponent, James Tannehill, was a black man married to a white woman. Hospodka said it was all the reason Dharfir needed to tell Tannehill, “God told me to punish you.” He delivered good on his vow.

It was also an era when UNO carried the “West Dodge High” label. Its academic and athletic facilities left much to be desired. “The university didn’t have that many things to feel proud of,” said Benning. Wrestling’s success lifted a campus suffering an inferiority complex to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Wrestling was one area where UNO could best NU, whose NCAA wrestling program paled by comparison.

“Coach Benning and his wrestling teams elevated UNO right to the top, shoulder-to-shoulder with its big brother’s football team down the road,” said UNO grad Mary Jochim, part of a wrestling spirit club in 69-’70. “They gave everyone at the school a big boost of pride. The rafters would shake at those matches.”

“You’d have to say it was the coming-together of several factors that brought about a genuine excitement about wrestling at UNO in the late 1960s,” said former UNO Sports Information Director Gary Anderson. He was sports editor of the school paper, The Gateway, that championship season. “There were some outstanding athletes who were enthusiastic and colorful to watch, a very good coach, and UNO won a lot of matches. UNO had the market cornered. Creighton had no team and Nebraska’s team wasn’t as dominant as UNO. It created a perfect storm.”

Benning said, “It was more important we had the best wrestling team in the state than winning the national championship. Everybody took pride in being No. 1.” Anderson said small schools like UNO “could compete more evenly” then with big schools in non-revenue producing sports like wrestling, which weren’t fully funded. He said as UNO “wrestled and defeated ‘name’ schools it added luster to the team’s mystique.

NU was among the NCAA schools UNO beat during Benning’s tenure, along with Wyoming, Arizona, Wisconsin, Kansas and Cornell. UNO tied a strong Navy team at the Naval Academy in what Hospodka called “the most hostile environment I ever wrestled in.” UNO crowned the most champions at the Iowa Invitational, where if team points had been kept UNO would have outdistanced the big school field.

“We didn’t care who you were — if you were Division I or NAIA or NCAA, it just didn’t matter to us,” said Hospodka, who pinned his way to the 190-pound title in 1970. The confidence to go head-to-head with anybody was something Benning looked for in his wrestlers and constantly reinforced.

Said Hospodka,”Don always felt like we could compete against anybody. He knew he had talent in the room. He didn’t think we had to take a back seat to anybody when it came to our abilities. He had a confidence about him that was contagious.”

The sport’s bible, Amateur Wrestling News, proclaimed UNO one of the best teams in the nation, regardless of division. UNO’s five-years of dominance, resulting in one national championship, two runner-up finishes, a third-place finish and an eighth place showing, regularly made the front page of the Omaha World-Herald sports section.

The grapplers also wrestled with an aggression and a flair that made for crowd-pleasing action. Benning said his guys were “exceptional on their feet and exceptional pinners.” It wasn’t unusual for UNO to record four or five falls per dual. Washington said it was UNO’s version of “showtime.” He and his teammates competed against each other for the most stylish or quickest pin.

Hospodka said “the bitter disappointment” of the team title being snatched away in ’69 fueled UNO’s championship run the next season, when UNO won its 14 duals by an average score of 32-6. It works out to taking 8 of every 10 matches. UNO posted three shut outs and allowed single digits in seven other duals. No one scored more than 14 points on them all year. The team won every tournament it competed in.

 

 

 

 

Everything fell into place. “Nobody at our level came even close to competing with us,” said Hospodka. “The only close match we had was Athletes in Action, and those were all ex-Big 8 wrestlers training for the World Games or the Olympics. They were loaded and we still managed to pull out a victory (19-14).” At nationals, he said, “we never had a doubt. We had a very solid lineup the whole way, everybody was at the top of their game. We wrapped up the title before the finals even started.” Afterwards, Benning told the Gateway, “It was the greatest team effort I have ever been acquainted with and certainly the greatest I’ve ever seen.”

Muhammad won his third individual national title and Hospodka his only one. Five Mavs earned All-America status.

The foundation for it all, Hospodka said, was laid in a wrestling room a fraction the size of today’s UNO practice facility. “I’ve been in bigger living rooms,” he said. But it was the work the team put in there that made the difference. “It was a tough room, and if you could handle the room then matches were a breeze. The easy part of your week was when you got to wrestle somebody else. There were very few people I wrestled that I felt would survive our wrestling room.”

“It was great competition,” said Jordan Smith. “One thing I learned after my first practice was that I was no longer the toughest guy in the room. There were some recruits who came into that room and practiced with us for a few days and we never saw them again. I was part of something that really was special. It was a phenomenal feeling.”

This band of brothers is well represented in the Maverick Wrestling and UNO Halls of Fame. The championship team was inducted by UNO and by the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference. Benning, Mel Washington, Dhafir Muhammad and Curlee Alexander are in the Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame. But when UNO went from NAIA to NCAA Division II in ’73 it seemed the athletic department didn’t value the past. Tony Martinez said he rescued the team’s numerous plaques and trophies from a campus dumpster. Years later he reluctantly returned them to the school, where some can be viewed in the Sapp Fieldhouse lobby.

UNO’s current Hall of Fame coach, Mike Denney, knows the program owes much to what Benning and his wrestlers did. The two go way back.

Benning left coaching in ’71 for an educational administration career with OPS. Mike Palmisano inherited the program for eight years, but it regressed.

When Denney took over in ’79 he said “my thing was to try to find a way to get back to the level Don had them at and carry on the tradition he built.” Denney plans having Benning back as grand marshall for the March of All-Americans at this weekend’s finals. “I have great respect for him.” Benning admires what Denney’s done with the program, which has risen to even greater heights. “He’s done an outstanding job”

As for the old coach, he feels the real testament to what he achieved is how close his diverse team remains. They don’t get together like they once did. When they do, the bonds forged in sweat and blood reduce them to tears. Their ranks are thinned due to death and relocation. They’re fathers and grandfathers now, yet they still have each other’s backs. Benning’s boys still follow his lead. Hospokda said he often asks himself, “What would Don want me to do?”

At a recent reunion Washington told Benning, “I’m telling you now in front of everyone — thank you for bringing the family together.”

 
 
 
 

Letting 1,000 Flowers Bloom: The Black Scholar’s Robert Chrisman Looks Back at a Life in the Maelstrom

March 8, 2011 8 comments

Six years ago a formidable figure in arts and letters, Robert Chrisman, chaired the Department of Black Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The mere fact he was heading up this department was symbolic and surprising. Squarely in the vanguard of the modern black intelligentsia scene that has its base on the coasts and in the South, yet here he was staking out ground in the Midwest.  The mere fact that black studies took root at UNO, a predominantly white university in a city where outsiders are sometimes amazed to learn there is a sizable black population, is a story in itself. It neither happened overnight, nor without struggle. He came to UNO at a time when the university was on a progressive track but left after only a couple years when it became clear to him his ambitions for the academic unit would not be realized under the then administration. Since his departure the department had a number of interim chairs before new leadership in the chancellor’s office and in the College of Arts and Sciences set the stage for UNO Black Studies to hire perhaps its most dynamic chair yet, Omowale Akintunde (see my stories about Akintunde and his work as a filmmaker on this blog). But back to Chrisman. I happened to meet up with him when he was in a particularly reflective mood.  The interview and resulting story happened a few years after 9/11 and a few years before Obama, just as America was going Red and retrenching from some of its liberal leanings.  He has the perspective and voice of both a poet and an academic in distilling the meaning of events, trends, and attitudes.  My story originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) and was generously republished by Chrisman in The Black Scholar, the noted journal of black studies for which he serves as editor-in-chief and publisher.  It was a privilege to have my story appear in a publication that has published works by Pulitzer winners and major literary figures.

 

 

Robert Chrisman

 

Letting 1,000 Flowers Bloom: The Black Scholar’s Robert Chrisman Looks Back at a Life in the Maelstrom

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com) and republished with permission by The Black Scholar (www.theblackscholar.org)

America was at a crossroads in the late 1960s. Using nonviolent resistance actions, the civil rights movement spurred legal changes that finally made African Americans equal citizens under the law. If not in practice. Meanwhile the rising black power movement used militant tactics and rhetoric to demand equal rights — now.

The conciliatory old guard clashed with the confrontational new order. The assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy seemed to wipe away the progress made. Anger spewed. Voices shouted. People marched. Riots erupted. Activists and intellectuals of all ideologies debated Black America’s course. Would peaceful means ever overcome racism? Or, would it take a by-any-means-necessary doctrine? What did being black in America mean and what did the new “freedom” promise?

Amid this tumult, a politically-tinged journal called The Black Scholar emerged to give expression to the diverse voices of the time. Its young co-founder and editor, Robert Chrisman, was already a leading intellectual, educator and poet. Today he’s the chair of the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) Department of Black Studies. The well-connected Chrisman is on intimate terms with artists and political figures. His work appears in top scholarly-literary publications and he edits anthologies and collections. Now in its 36th year of publication, The Black Scholar is still edited by Chrisman, who contributes an introduction each issue and an occasional essay in others, and it remains a vital meditation on the black experience. Among the literati whose work has appeared in its pages are Maya Angelou and Alice Walker.

From its inception, Chrisman said, the journal’s been about uniting the intellectuals in the street. “We were aware there were a lot of street activists-intellectuals as well as academicians who had different sets of training, information and skills,” he said. “And the idea was to have a journal where they could meet. By combining the information and initiative you might have effective social programs. That was part of the goal.”

 

‘The Black Scholar’, The Black World Foundation, Sausalito, California, 1972. Muhammad Ahmad was a founder of the Revolutionary Action Movement, Ron Karenga was the founder of the US Organization, and Johnny Spain was a member of the Black Panther Party and one of the political prisoners known collectively as the San Quentin Six.

 

 

Another goal was to take on the core issues and topics impacting African Americans and thereby chart and broker the national dialogue in the black community.

“We were aware there was a tremendous national debate going on within the black community and also within the contra-white community and Third World community on the forward movement not only of black people in the United States but also globally and, for that matter, of white people. And so we felt we wanted to register the ongoing debates of the times with emphasis upon social justice, economic justice, racism and sexism.

“And then, finally, we wanted to create an interdisciplinary approach to look at black culture and European-Western culture. Because one of the traditions of the imperialist university is to create specialization and balkanization in intellectuals, rather than synthesis and synergy. We felt it would be contrary to black interests to be specialists, but instead to be generalists. And so we encouraged and supported the interdisciplinary essay. We also felt critique was important. You know, a long recitation of a batch of facts and a few timid conclusions doesn’t really advance the cause of people much. But if you can take an energetic, sinewy idea and then wrap it and weave it with information and build a persuasive argument, then you have, I think, made a contribution.”

No matter the topic or the era, the Scholar’s writing and discourse remain lively and diverse. In the ’60s, it often reflected a call for radical change. In the 1970s, there were forums on the exigencies of Black Nationalism versus Marxism. In the ’80s, a celebration of new black literary voices. In the ’90s, the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill imbroglio. The most recent editions offer rumination on the Brown versus Board of Education decision and a discussion on the state of black politics.

“From the start, we believed every contributor should have her own style,” Chrisman said. “We felt the black studies and new black power movement was yet to build its own language, its own terminology, its own style. So, we said, ‘let a thousand flowers bloom. Let’s have a lot of different styles.’”

But Chrisman makes clear not everything’s dialectically up for grabs. “Sometimes, there aren’t two sides to a question. Period. Some things are not right. Waging genocidal war is not a subject of debate.”

The Meaning of Things

In an essay refuting David Horowitz’s treatise against reparations for African Americans, Chrisman and Ernest Allen, Jr. articulate how “the legacy of slavery continues to inform institutional as well as individual behavior in the U.S. to this day.” He said the great open wound of racism won’t be healed until America confronts its shameful part in the Diaspora and the slave trade. Reparations are a start. Until things are made right, blacks are at a social-economic disadvantage that fosters a kind of psychic trauma and crisis of confidence. In the shadow of slavery, there is a struggle for development and empowerment and identity, he said.

“Blacks produce some of the most powerful culture in the U.S. and in the world. We don’t control enough of it. We don’t profit enough from it. We don’t plow back enough to nurture our children,” he said. “Part of that, I think, is an issue of consciousness. The idea that if you’re on your own as a black person, you aren’t going to make it and another black person can’t help you. That’s kind of like going up to bat with two strikes. You choke up. You get afraid. Richard Wright has a folk verse he quotes, ‘Must I shoot the white man dead to kill the nigger in his head?’ And you could turn that around to say, ‘Must I shoot the black man dead to kill the white man in his head?’ The difference is that the white man has more power (at his disposal) to deal with this black demon that’s obsessing him.”

In the eyes of Chrisman, who came of age as an artist and intellectual reading Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Robert Hayden, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Vladimir Lenin, Karl Marx, Che Guevara, Pablo Neruda, Mao Tse-tung and the Beat Generation, the struggle continues.

“The same conditions exist now as existed then, sadly. In 1965 the Voting Rights Act was passed precisely to protect people from the rip off of their votes that occurred in Florida in 2000 and in Ohio in 2004. Furthermore, with full cognizance, not a single U.S. senator had the courage to even support the challenge that the Congressional Black Caucus made [to the 2000 Presidential electoral process].”Raging at the system only does so much and only lasts so long. In looking at these things, one makes a distinction between anger and ideology,” he said.

“There were a number of people in the 1960s who were tremendously angry, and rightfully so. Once the anger was assuaged … then people became much much status quo. A kind of paretic example is Nikki Giovanni, who in the late ’60s was one of those murder mouth poets. ‘Nigguh can you kill. Nigguh can you kill. Nigguh can you kill a honky …’ At the end of the ’70s, she gets an Essence award on television and she sings God Bless America. On the other hand, you take a fellow like Ray Charles, who always maintained a musical resistance, which was blues. And so when Ray Charles decides to sing — ‘Oh beautiful, for spacious skies …’ — all of the irony of black persecution, black endurance, black faith in America runs through that song like a piece of iron. ‘God shed His grace on thee’ speaks then both to God’s blessing of America and to, Please, God — look out for this nation.”

Chrisman said being a minority in America doesn’t have to mean defeat or disenfranchisement. “I think we are the franchise. Black people, people with a just cause and just issues are the franchise. It’s the alienated, confused, hostile Americans that vote against their own interests [that are disenfranchised],” he said. “Frederick Douglass put it another way: ‘The man who is right is a majority.’”

Just as it did then, Chrisman’s own penetrating work coalesces a deep appreciation for African American history, sociology art and culture with a keen understanding of the contemporary black scene to create provocative essays and poems. Back when he and Nathan Hare began The Black Scholar in ’69, Chrisman was based on the west coast. It’s where he grew up, attended school, taught and helped run the nation’s first black studies department at San Francisco State College. “There was a lot of ferment, so it was a good place to be,” he said. He immersed himself in that maelstrom of ideas and causes to form his own philosophy and identity.

“The main voices were my contemporaries. A Stokley Carmichael speech or a Huey Newton rally. A Richard Wright story or a James Baldwin essay. Leaflets. Demonstrations. This was all education on the spot. I mean, they were not always in harmony with each other, but one got a tremendous education just from observing the civil rights and black power movements because, for one thing, many of the activists were very well educated and very bright and very well read,” Chrisman explained. “So you were constantly getting not only the power of their ideas and so on, but reading behind them or, sometimes, reading ahead of them. And not simply black activists, either. There was the hippy movement, the Haight Ashbury scene, the SDS [Students for a Democratic Society]. You name it.”

When he arrived at San Francisco State in 1968, he walked into a firestorm of controversy over students’ demands for a college black studies department.

“The situation was very tense in terms of continued negotiations between students and administrators for a black studies program,” Chrisman said. “Then in November of 1968, everybody went out on strike to get the black studies program. The students called the strike. Black teachers supported the strike. In January of 1969 the AFL-CIO, American Federation of Teachers, Local 1352, went out also. I was active in the strike all that time as one of the vice presidents of the teachers union. And I don’t think the strike was actually settled until March or April. It’s still one of the longest, if not the longest, in the history of American universities.”

 

 

 

 

The protesters achieved their desired result when a black studies program was added. But at a price. “I was reinstated, but on a non-tenured track — as punishment or discipline for demonstrating against the administration. Nathan (Hare) was fired,” Chrisman said. “Out of all that, Nathan and I developed an idea for The Black Scholar. Volume One, Number One came out November of 1969. So, we were persistent.”

Voicing a Generation

Chrisman didn’t know it then, but the example he set and the ideas he spread inspired UNO student activists in their own fight to get a black studies department. Rudy Smith, now an Omaha World-Herald photojournalist, led the fight as an NAACP Youth Council leader and UNO student senate member.“We knew The Black Scholar. It was written by people in touch with things. We read it. We discussed it,” Smith said. “They sowed the seeds for our focus as a black people in a white society. It kept us sane. He has to take some of the credit for the existence of UNO’s black studies program.” Formed in 1971, it was one of the first such programs.

The poet and academics’ long, distinguished journey in black arts and letters led him to UNO in 2001. Soon after coming, concerns were raised that the program, long a target of cuts, was in danger of being downsized or eliminated. Chrisman and community leaders, including then-Omaha NAACP president Rev. Everett Reynolds, sought and received assurances from Chancellor Nancy Belck about UNO’s commitment to black studies, and the department has been left relatively unscathed.

Chrisman said the opposition black studies still faces in some quarters is an argument for its purpose and need. “A major function of black studies is to provide a critique of Western and American white society — for all kinds of reasons. One is to apprise people of the reality of the society in the hope that constructive ways will be developed to improve it. Some people say racism doesn’t exist anymore. Well, of course it exists,” he said. “What was struck down were the dejure forms of racism, but not defacto racism.” As an example, he points to America’s public schools, where segregation is illegal but still in place as whites flee to the more prosperous suburbs while poor, urban neighborhoods and schools languish.

“If you look at the expansion of Omaha, you have this huge flow of capital heading west and you have this huge sucking sound in the east, which is the black, Hispanic working-class community that gets nothing. This is a form of structural racism and its consequences, and the ruling class refuses to see it.”

 

 

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He said integration by itself is not the answer.

“People sometimes confuse integration with equality. Equality is always desirable, but it’s not always achieved with integration.” He said a black studies perspective provides a new way of viewing things. “A function of black studies has always been cultural enrichment, not only for blacks, but also for whites, which is why some of our black studies are required. It also gives people practical information about the nature of black people and institutions. It can be almost like a think-tank of information about the characteristics of a black population that can be put to use by policy makers.”

A new black power movement is unlikely in the current climate of fear and apathy. Chrisman said the public is baffled and brainwashed by the conglomerate media and its choreographed reporting of information that promulgates multi-national global capitalist ideologies. Then there’s the Bush administration’s hard line against detractors.

“This is the most intimidated I’ve seen the American people since the ’50s. People are afraid of being called leftist or disloyal in wartime,” Chrisman said. “Hegemony’s been surrendered to the white establishment. If a movement develops, it will have to be a different movement … and on its own terms. What people need to do is organize at the local level on fundamental local issues and, if necessary, have a coalition or interest group or party which can act as issues come up.”

 

CSI: UNO/Forensic Services Unit

March 6, 2011 1 comment

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation

Image via Wikipedia

Here is a pair of stories I did for the spring 2011 issue of UNO Magazine (http://unoalumni.org/unomag), the official magazine of the University of Nebraska at Omaha, which is my alma mater (class of 1982). The stories fall in line with this particular issue’s focus on UNO alums and faculty working in various aspects of crime, safety, and justice.  In the first piece I look at how a UNO faculty member provided expertise and technology to assist a local crime lab technician with valuable measurements in testing evidence from a crime scene.  In the second piece I profile a UNO alum working as a crime scene technician back East and her finding a real niche for herself in the field, one that’s become glamorized by television portrayals in recent years.

CSI: UNO

He may not have any super powers, but Dana Richter-Egger does have a super spectrometer. And with a call for help from the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office in 2006, he joined the league of Omaha crime fighters.

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in UNO Magazine (http://unoalumni.org/unomag)

By day, Richter-Egger is more about busting complex math and chemical equations than he is about busting bad guys. He’s an assistant professor of chemistry at UNO and director of its Math-Science Learning Center.

Four years ago, though, Christine Gabig, a forensic scientist in the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, asked for help that only he could provide. Specifically, Gabig needed assistance determining whether glass fragments found at the scene of a crime matched shards found in a suspect’s car.

The crime occurred on Dec. 5, 2005. An Omaha Police Department undercover officer was in an unmarked vehicle on a north-side street when a car pulled up parallel to his. The driver then pointed a shotgun at the officer through an open window. The officer ducked for cover, firing several rounds through his own open driver-side window at the fleeing car.

A suspect in the case emerged when a man sought medical treatment at a hospital for gunshot and glass wounds. DNA linked him to the car with shattered windows but prosecutors needed evidence that definitively put him at the scene as the driver.

Gabig did initial tests on the glass fragments in her lab, but they were inconclusive.

“I knew I needed more detailed analysis,” she says, “and I immediately thought of Dana and ICP-MS.”

The Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer, that is.

A sophisticated trace element analyzer that enables sensitive measurements in many fields, the ICP-MS is housed in Durham’s Advanced Instrumentation Laboratories. It was purchased in 2004 in part with a $100,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

UNO’s general chemistry students use it to measure area lead contamination levels and to perform drinking water analysis. Gabig, a UNL graduate, learned of the ICP-MS while taking a quantitative chemical analysis course at UNO taught by Egger.

The complex machine could help her answer a seemingly simple question — whether the glass fragments came from the same source.

Help in the Haystack

“ICP-MS really provides the best detection limits,” Richter-Egger says. “It’s going to find the smallest needle in the haystack relative to other techniques available. That provides the ability to look at and compare a great many more elements. It’s like being able to identify more points on a finger print to look for the match.”

The more data points tested, the stronger the case.

Gabig’s experience studying under Richter-Egger made her comfortable with the prospect of collaborating with the professor.

“I really respected his knowledge and I thought the (math-chemistry) program was fantastic,” she says. “I learned so much that was directly applicable to what I was doing here at the sheriff’s office. Also, I made contact with these great chemists who can help me.”

Further bolstering her confidence, she says, was the knowledge that ICP-MS results are “fully accepted in the courts.” The methods were based on standard procedures provided by the American Society for Testing Materials.

“That went a long ways to helping me feel good about what we were going to do,” Richter-Egger says. “After all, there’s somebody on the other end of this thing that is going to be in court and we’ve got to be sure we do our diligence and do a good job.

“Whatever the data is I want to make sure it is the highest quality possible so that when that evidence is presented it is accurate and that it helps to lead to the right decision in the courtroom. That weighed pretty heavily on my mind as we were considering this.”

Case Closed

In their research, Gabig and Richter-Egger discovered that manufactured glass in vehicles can be pinpointed to within 100 feet of a production line. That information, says Richter-Egger, meant that “if we could find there’s not any difference between these two glasses then that says a lot about the likelihood they actually came from the same window.”

The glass first was dissolved in acid and added to a controlled solution. The ICP-MS then required precise calibration. The instrument evaporated water in an ultra high vacuum and applied electric fields to separate atoms by mass. The device provided a spreadsheet readout of the elemental differentiation.
Richter-Egger says it’s a process whereby “electronics, engineering and chemistry meet.” After crunching the numbers and consulting UNO statisticians, he and Gabig went back and forth over the data, questioning each other and crosschecking information.

In her report, Gabig concluded that glass fragments from the suspect’s car and the scene “likely came from the same source” based on ICP-MS test results and statistical analysis that showed a high probability of a match.

In the end, the suspect took a deal, pleading to one felony assault count and one terroristic threat charge. Since the case did not go to trial, Gabig did not testify.

The forensic scientist and the professor collaborated on a slide presentation for a UNO chemistry department seminar. Gabig has also used the presentation to educate law enforcement agencies about trace evidence analysis.

Might UNO and CSI work together on another case?

“I could envision this happening again,” Gabig says. “Making use of data analysis at the university is a big benefit.”

Learn more about the Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer, including animations, athttp://water.unomaha.edu

Hot on the Trail of Cold Cases

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in UNO Magazine (http://unoalumni.org/unomag)

Forensic Services Unit

It’s not every girl who grows up dreaming of becoming a “bloodstain pattern specialist.”

And while that might not have been Angela (Harbison) Moore’s girlhood fantasy, it became just that while attending classes at UNO, graduating in 2001 with a degree in chemistry.

Today Moore works as a forensic technician for the Newport News (Va.) Police Department conducting crime scene evidence analysis. It’s a career choice the former Goodrich Scholar says was inspired by work she did with UNO chemistry department faculty.

“We were doing a lot of neat stuff in Dr. Richard Lomneth’s bio chemistry lab that was applicable to forensic science,” Moore says. “It really piqued my interest. It was a turning point.”

Dr. Frederic Laquer also was influential. “He taught me how to be a true chemist, how to document things, and to this day I still think of him every time I do all the little things properly,” Moore says. “It’s a great batch of professors at UNO. They’re very rigorous.”

Moore later began forensic science graduate studies at George Washington University, but with her Air Force husband stationed at Offutt Air Force Base she transferred to Nebraska Wesleyan. While in grad school she worked as a chemist at UNO, preparing solutions for use by students in the Durham Science Center labs.

In 2007 Moore joined the CSI team in Newport News, where she’s a bloodstain pattern specialist. The unpredictability of when crime happens means her schedule is forever fluid.

“You can literally be at a scene and be called to another scene,” she says. It’s a job that demands “intense curiosity and attention to detail” and the ability to multitask.

Her work entails doing bloodstain analysis at crime scenes and in the lab, writing reports, assisting with autopsies, and testifying in court. She works the cold case unit. She also teaches college courses and makes presentations.

“I like to get into a lot of things,” she says. “I always try to challenge myself to be the best I can be in life.” Next year she will attend the National Forensic Science Academy in Tennessee. “I’m pretty excited about that.”

Nothing is more satisfying then when her work helps solve a case. She says her bloodstain pattern analysis led to a man being charged with murder years after the incident. In another instance she extracted DNA evidence that helped convict a serial rapist.

Some cases linger with her.

“Once they go to court there’s resolution and I feel better about them,” she says. “The child ones are really hard to deal with sometimes. But at the same time I feel like we’re helping people out.

“When I’m at a scene with a deceased person I feel it’s the shell of a person left over. Their spirit is someplace else. The body is to be utilized as another piece of evidence that can speak for that person.”

Omaha arts-culture scene all grown up and looking fabulous

March 6, 2011 22 comments

I was asked by Metro Magazine to write a 20-year retrospective piece on the Omaha arts-culture scene and the story that follows is the result.  The story is my take and the take of a few others on the city’s creative community, which by almost any measure has experienced a maturation and flat-out growth that has drawn attention near and far, including a widely read and circulated piece (“Omaha Culture Club”) by Kurt Andersen in the New York Times a few years ago.  Yeah, Omaha has indeed grown up a lot in the space of a generation and today is much more the cosmopolitan metropolis of its aspirations than it was 20 years ago.  I anticipate that growth to continue too. Omaha is still a city without much of an image outside Nebraska, particularly on the coasts, but it is increasingly getting known for its sophisticated, even world-class arts-cultural offerings among the cognoscente.  If you’re still doubtful and skeptical about that, then simply check out some websites devoted to Omaha or better yet the next time you’re traveling cross country don’t simply fly over or drive over without giving the place a second thought, stop here and stay awhile and see for yourself just what Omaha has to offer.

 

Omaha arts-culture scene all grown up and looking fabulous

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com)

 

Twenty years ago Omahans grumbled about there not being enough to do here. For a city searching for an image in a flyover state straining to retain its best and brightest and attract new talent, it sounded an alarm.

Seemingly, Omaha arts-culture plateaued. Major players retrenched while smaller, newer ones tried finding their way. It appeared Omaha collectively lacked the vision or confidence to enhance its horizons. The status quo went stale.

Then, whether by design or coincidence, Omaha enjoyed a renaissance in the space of a single generation. This flowering shows no signs of slowing down.

“Over the last 20 years Omaha has grown up a lot and the arts have grown up with it,” said Todd Simon, an Omaha Steaks International executive and a major arts funder. “There’s certainly a lot more variety and a lot more choices for our community. Any night of the week you can open up the newspaper or go on the Web and you can find something of interest to you. Whether it’s music, art, film, live theater, there is something for everyone every night of the week in Omaha now.

“If you’re bored here it’s because you’re not breathing. If you can’t find something to do in Omaha right now, shame on you.”

Saddle Creek Records executive Jason Kulbel was among those bemoaning the lack of options. No more.

“Simply put, there’s more to do now,” he said. “There’s so many different things to pick and choose from. Whatever interests you, whatever your thing is, it’s here now. It’s really cool.”

He champions the live indie music scene now having more venues and he embraces the festivals that have cropped up, from MAHA to Playing with Fire to the newly announced Red Sky Music Festival.

Kulbel and SCR colleague Robb Nansel have added to the mix with their block-long North Downtown complex. It includes their company headquarters, the Slowdown bar-live music showplace and the Film Streams art cinema. Together with the new TD Ameritrade ballpark, Qwest Center Omaha, the Hot Shops Art Center and the Mastercraft art studios, anchors are in place for a dynamic arts-culture magnet akin to the Old Market.

From the opening of the downtown riverfront as a scenic cultural public space to the addition of major new venues like the Qwest and the Holland Performing Arts Center to the launching of new music, film and lit feasts to the opening of new presenting organizations, Omaha’s experienced a boon. Major concerts, athletic events and exhibits that bypassed Omaha now come here.

Artists like world-renowned Jun Kaneko put Omaha on the map as never before. The indie music scene broke big thanks to artists recording on the Saddle Creek label. Alexander Payne immortalized his hometown by filming three critically acclaimed feature films here. The Great Plains Theatre Conference brought Broadway luminaries in force.

The Old Market solidified itself as a destination thanks to an array of restaurants, shops, galleries, theaters and creative spaces. The Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, the Blue Barn Theatre and the Omaha Farmers Market became anchors there. Omaha Fashion Week and the Kaneko added new depth.

 

hollandcenter1-dl_jpg_610x343_crop_upscale_q85

 

 

Omaha Performing Arts president Joan Squires said she’s seen “a huge change” since arriving eight-plus years ago from Phoenix to head the organization, which programs the Holland and the Orpheum Theater.

“The first time I drove in from the airport the Qwest Center didn’t exist, the Holland wasn’t here, a lot of the small groups weren’t around. If you were looking for things to do and it wasn’t the Orpheum or a few other places, it was limited. Now on any given night the breadth of what you can do is exciting. There’s a synergy about it that’s reaching all segments of the audience.”

Omaha native Rachel Jacobson left New York to launch Film Streams, one of several attractions that’s taken things to a new level.

Growing up here, she said, “there was a lot of good stuff to do but nothing really bringing people to town or being talked about in the national and international press, other than Chip Davis. Today, the Omaha arts community is strong, it’s alive, it’s visceral, it’s something we’re known for worldwide. Musicians continue to move here from other cities to make their home here because of Saddle Creek Records. Visual artists move here because of the Bemis and Jun and Ree Kaneko. New galleries are opening up all the time.

“It has really blown up in the best way.”

 

 

Established organizations have shown new life. Joslyn Art Museum built a huge addition designed by noted architect Sir Norman Foster. It’s since added a pair of sculpture gardens. The Durham Museum underwent a refurbishment and gained Smithsonian affiliation. The Omaha Children’s Museum found a new home and completed extensive renovations. The Omaha Community Playhouse redid its theater and lobby spaces. The Henry Doorly Zoo built the Lied Jungle, the Desert Dome, the Lozier IMAX Theater and other new attractions.

The Bemis expanded its gallery exhibition schedule and educational programming as well as added the Underground and the Okada. Now it’s poised for new growth.

Old venues received serious makeovers. An Orpheum renovation allowed the largest touring Broadway shows to come. The city spent millions in renovating Rosenblatt Stadium, in turn helping it become a national icon.

Existing organizations found new digs.The Omaha Symphony made the Holland its home. The Emmy Gifford Children’s Theater moved into the old Astro (Paramount) movie house, renamed The Rose, and became the Omaha Theater Company.

Popular events drew ever larger crowds, such as Jazz on the Green, the Cathedral Flower Festival, the Summer Arts Festival and the CWS.

Midtown Crossing Jazz on the Green

Photos Courtesy of Omaha Performing Arts

 

Even with all the new options, it didn’t appear as if Omaha reached a saturation point. Using the Holland and Orpheum as examples, Joan Squires said the presence of these two venues has only increased patronage.

“When you open a major facility and you bring in new arts offerings the community continues to lift up,” she said. “It broadens and really makes more things possible. In the last five years we’ve reached 1.7 million people. We’ve seen nights where both buildings sold out and there’s a lot of arts going on at other facilities all at the same time, and there’s an audience for everybody.

“We’ve got a growing and thriving arts community. I think it’s very encouraging.”

Funder Dick Holland describes the arts as “an economic engine” and “a big part of the community.”

Great Plains Theatre Conference artistic director Kevin Lawler, a Blue Barn founder, has seen a more adventurous scene develop.

“There are several new generations of artists making work in all genres and receiving support and interest from their peers and others,” he said. “This heralds the beginning of a new, vibrant era for arts and culture here. That small group of philanthropic leaders who have been supporting the arts in Omaha for years have enabled enough fertilization for this new blossoming to begin.

“When we began the Blue Barn there were almost no theaters willing to take on new, challenging work as a regular part of their seasons. Now, there are a number of groups that follow this path.”

Lawler notes there “is a new generation of artists staying in Omaha to make work because they feel there is enough energy in the community to support and respond to their work. I feel this trend reflected not only in theater, but all the arts.

“There are stages to the cultural life of a city. Omaha is in a blossoming stage. It is a rare and exciting time to be here.”

The linchpin behind this growth is private support. “Omaha has an exceptionally generous philanthropic community that understands the value of investing in its cultural institutions,” said Bemis director Mark Masuoka, adding that funders here appreciate the fact the arts “improve quality of life.”

He said the Bemis is close to reaching its $2.5 million capital building campaign goal “thanks to several generous gifts from local foundations and individuals.”

What losses there were sparked new opportunities. After years of struggle the Great Plains Black History Museum rebounded. When Ballet Omaha folded Omaha Performing Arts brought in top dance troupes and Ballet Nebraska soon formed. The Omaha Magic Theatre closed only to birth new ventures. The Indian Hills Theater was razed but Omaha movie houses multiplied. The Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts arose after its namesake’s tragic death.

The recession impacted large and small organizations alike.

Todd Simon said, “Many not-for-profits have struggled and I think they’ll continue to struggle in these economic times, but I also think there is a dedicated group of supporters in our community who will step up to fill the gaps.” These lean times, he said, encouraged “many organizations to get smarter in how they use resources and how they collaborate with each other, where they leverage the talent and the resources they have. I think that trend will continue.”

Dick Holland said few cities can boast Omaha’s philanthropic might. He favors a public-private coalition to undergird and concentrate arts funding.

By any measure, it’s been an era of net growth for the creative community and leaders see more progress ahead thanks to a spirit of innovation and support.

“A strong legacy of investing in the arts here has been established and I believe it will continue to proliferate,” said Rachel Jacobson. “We’ll see new initiatives develop, especially arts in education and social-community development arts projects. There are a lot of high-energy, incredibly innovative people who have a huge heart for this city and will make a strong commitment.

“Just in the last month I’ve heard about wonderful projects in the works. I’m excited for the next 20 years.”

Magazine and mission founded on spirit of giving: Metro Magazine publisher Andy Hoig celebrates philanthropy

March 6, 2011 2 comments

Omaha Downtown

Image by herzogbr via Flickr

As a contributing writer to newspapers and magazines for going on 25 years I’ve had about every kind of assignment imaginable.  However, there’s always room for a new first.  The following story is just such a case. Metro Magazine publisher Andy Hoig asked me to write a story about her publication, which is celebrating 20 years in print.  I’ve been a regular contributor to the mag for a couple years and I appreciated her thinking of me for a project that meant a lot to her.  As a freelancer I don’t usually get to know very well the publishers and editors and staffers at the various pubs I contribute to because I essentially work out of my home and the vast majority of my contact  with these clients is by email and phone.  It’s the same with Metro, though in working on this assignment I do feel I got to know Andy and her team a bit better.  Of course, there’s something to be said too for keeping a professional distance in these matters. In preparing the story below I felt like a distant third cousin writing a family history I was only dimly aware of before, and that is I think how it should be.  I now feel more invested in that family, an apt word for Metro because it was actually started by Andy’s father, veteran newspaperman Bob Hoig.  I first met Andy while working for her father’s Midlands Business Journal and for what was originally called the Omaha Metro Update, later known as the Metro Monthly.  And so, you see, I’ve always been a part of the family, though there was a 20-year interruption in our relationship while I went off to pursue other freelance options and Andy grew the publication in wonderful new directions.  We’re together again and I value the reunion.

Magazine and mission founded on spirit of giving: Metro Magazine publisher Andy Hoig celebrates philanthropy

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in the January/February issue of Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com)

 

2011 finds the intrepid creatives behind metroMagazine releasing a collective sigh of relief after the tumultuous events of last year.

What was to have been a celebratory milestone marking the magazine’s 20th anniversary became a time to regroup and express gratitude. A January 7, 2010 middle-of-the-night fire destroyed the offices of ALH Publications along with three neighboring businesses in the Boardwalk mall. No one was hurt.

Ironically, a magazine whose niche is chronicling the charitable scene suddenly found itself in need. With the community rallying behind it, Metro continued publishing without interruption. After 10 months in temporary digs Metro has a new home and a rededication to fulfill its mission to “inform, educate and inspire.”

The night of the fire was one of the coldest on record. Publisher Andy Hoig and creative vice president Rob Kilmer arrived to survey the smoldering devastation as firefighters pumped water. Hoig saw everything she had built up being lost.

“I was crying,” said Hoig. “It wasn’t really crying for me. Fire is such a powerful thing and when you’re watching it burn your stuff there’s an emotional connection.

“I just remember laughing and saying, ‘You know, this would be a really respectful way to end this if I wanted to. I’ve been doing this for 20 years, maybe this is a sign.’ Well, within 24 hours I knew this was not one of the reasons this happened, because people just started coming out of the woodwork.”

The outpouring of support began while the fire still raged and news reports  leaked out.

“It wasn’t an hour after the fire started I started getting text messages,” said Hoig. “I got phone calls and emails. People genuinely wanted to help.”

Detailing how the giving community addresses myriad needs is what Hoig does for a living. Being on the other end things of took some getting used to.

“It was something I didn’t really know how to handle at first,” she said. “I’m used to being the one who says, How can we help? Now I was on the flip side of having people reach out to me. I actually learned that by receiving gracefully is a gift you actually give people. By not receiving we’re denying the person who’s giving to us.”

The expressions of concern gave her a new perspective on the value of her work.

“You know, you do what you do and you do it every day, and you get so far into it you don’t see outside of it. I often times wondered, Does anybody really even care about this?”

A tangible demonstration of how much metroMagazine matters came at a Feb. 22 Omaha Community Playhouse event that raised funds to assist Metro.

“Some friends of the magazine put on this event,” Hoig said, “and all these people showed up because they actually cared about what the publication’s doing. I remember mentioning that I thought about discontinuing it and people were like, ‘No, you cant do that,’ and I was like, OK, so we have been doing something here.

“It’s funny how it takes a catastrophe to affirm what you’re doing has made a difference. Out of this whole situation that was the biggest gift I could have ever received.”

Veteran Omaha charitable professional Ellen Wright was there. She said the event was a show of appreciation.

“When you pick up the Metro you know you’re going to be reading about the nonprofits in the community and the community leadership,” she said. “It’s become THE source, THE number one place you go. It’s an opportunity for nonprofits to talk about what they do. It gives people a chance to read about agencies and their missions. It lets people see how rich the community is with volunteer and charitable opportunities to give your time and treasure to. It fills an important niche. It’s something we didn’t have before.”

Hoig said, “The vision has always been to inspire people to make a difference, whether you look at something and say, ‘I want to be a part of that,’ or, ‘That looks like fun,’ or reading stories about people who are doing inspirational things.

“I look at the magazine as having this ripple effect. I want people to have an emotional experience reading it and when they’re done to kind of sit back and self reflect. It’s really about who’s getting involved, how are people getting involved, and how can you get involved.”

Hal and Mary Daub are big fans. The couple consider Metro a lifeline to happenings.

“My wife and I like the current events nature of it,” said Hal. “It keeps us up to speed on what’s going on. It gives us a great deal of pride every time we finish reading it about how much is going on in our community we want to be sure to catch up to. It always portrays Omaha in such a positive way — the volunteers, the organizations. We love the volunteerism of this town. The magazine captures all that.”

Wright said the way the philanthropic community responded to Metro’s setback was an expression of how much it would be missed if gone.

“I think the fire shook us that this precious little jewel could have been lost, but Andy wasn’t going to let that happen. People recognized how she’s extended herself to so many and how she’s filled a huge gap for us and how we are so incredibly fortunate to have this vehicle.”

Methodist Hospital Foundation president and CEO Cynthia Peacock said Metro “is a champion of collaborative community betterment. They are to be applauded for their continued commitment.”

As Wright sees it, Metro reflects Omaha’s famous generosity.

“People in Omaha care so greatly. I feel philanthropy makes this city, makes this state function. Business and philanthropy are intertwined, and Andy’s been able to mirror that. Her motivation is sincere. She wants not only to do good but she sees the importance of these agencies.”

Although there’s always been a philanthropic focus, it took Hoig some time before she felt invested in the giving culture herself.

“Eventually over the years it became a passion,” she said. “I myself personally started getting involved. The business got more involved.”

What many don’t know is that Metro was launched by her father, Midlands Business Journal publisher Bob Hoig. Originally a tabloid-format newspaper, it began as the Metro Update in 1990 and became the Metro Monthly. Andy got her start as a Metro photographer and later learned layout and other production skills.

By the mid-‘90s the paper struggled enough that Bob was about to shut it down. That’s when he got his first glimmer of his daughter’s ambition and grit.

“She asked if I would consider letting her take it over. My answer was, ‘Sure, I’ll sell it to you for a dollar.’ But I required she sign a small piece of paper I drew up on the spot agreeing to refund subscribers any money coming to them if the Metro later folded. She was to take over full legal ownership.”

What happened next both surprised and pleased him.

“Andy had practically no business experience at the time and I doubted she could make a go of the Metro. I hadn’t counted on her determination and her putting in whatever time and energy it would take to succeed as an entrepreneur.”

He added, “Andy gave new life and direction” to the enterprise by focusing on “charities and causes she believes in” and by transforming the newsprint tabloid into a glossy magazine.

As she matured as a publisher, Andy branded Metro as not just a magazine but a resource. She launched the Big Event Book, a comprehensive annual directory of nonprofits, and the Big Event, an awards recognition gala for area charities. More innovations followed: The Spirit of Omaha website; the weekly INSIDER e-newsletter; and the FACES – Omaha’s Model Search.

The Journeys series features in-depth profiles of inspired doers and givers.

“There has been growth. It’s been a trial and error evolution,” she said. “Part of it is reaching out to different demographics. We have an incredible YP (young professionals) community here that looks to get involved and that has been contributing to our growth.”

The event book and web site offer links and referrals to guide people’s giving and volunteering.

“We should not underestimate Metro’s potential as a connector — making a difference in the lives of nonprofits, donors and beneficiaries of the generous, caring community we call home,” said Methodist Foundation’s Cynthia Peacock.

Community volunteer Cheryl Wild said Metro’s coverage of fundraisers, particularly small grassroots ones, draws crucial interest and support: “I attribute so much of my success with events to the great coverage.”

The full-color magazine’s look and feel get ever more sophisticated.

“I think Andy’s really intuitive and I dare say a little bit cosmopolitan,” said Data Media Solutions CEO and president Jeff Wilke. “She gets the fact that if she’s not changing she’s probably going to be left behind and she’s always looking for the next opportunity to make sure she’s evolving with her clients.”

Hoig also surrounds herself with dedicated staffers and interns and a stable of top freelance writers and photographers.

“One of the things I’ve discovered about myself, especially this past year, is that I love creating and visioning,” she said. “Then I’ve got great people that take that vision and make it a reality. Starting the creation process is what I absolutely love to do and I look forward to the day when that’s what I do all day long, and that day will come. I want to get Metro to a place where it is rock solid and running on its own so I can go make a global impact someplace.”

On the fire’s one-year anniversary the Metro team uncorked a bottle of champagne that survived the blaze, raising glasses to a trying but growth-filled period and toasting the start of the mag’s next 20 years. Having experienced first-hand the Spirit of Omaha, the Metro family is poised to take things to a whole new level.

More than Buddy: Billy McGuigan expands on Buddy Holly shtick to collaborate with his brothers and band in Beatles tribute


Photograph of The Beatles as they arrive in Ne...

Image via Wikipedia

Billy McGuigan is an example of someone who always had talent to burn but for the longest time had little to show for it as a minor community theater performer and as a struggling garage band front man.  But when his big break presented itself, he was prepared to take the opportunity and run with it, and a decade later he’s running to ever greater heights.  His niche has been to parlay the continuing fascination with and popularity of rock icons Buddy Holly and The Beatles into successful shows he produces and stars in.  I have been reading about Billy and his shows for years now and I finally had the chance to meet and interview him for the following story, though I have yet to see him perform.  I will make sure to do that this year, as I want to write about him again. There’s more to his story than I was able to fit into the space allotted me and I look forward to going deeper next time.  But the story posted here, which I did for Omaha Magazine, will still give you a sense for this young man and his passion and for the concerted journey he’s on to pay forward the musical legacy his later father left he and his brothers.

 

More than Buddy: Billy McGuigan expands on Buddy Holly shtick to collaborate with his brothers and band in Beatles tribute

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Omaha Magazine (omahapublications.com/magazines/omaha-magazine)

 

After years of performing as Buddy Hollly, Billy McGuigan proves he’s no one-show wonder with his act paying tribute to the Beatles.

Undertaking a Beatles tribute show is no small order. Besides the task of replicating the sound of the most popular band of all time, there’s the matter of mastering the Beatles’ catalog – all 230 songs worth.

“It took us six months,” says Billy McGuigan, creator of Yesterday and Today, a Beatles tribute show he performs with two of his brothers. Yesterday and Today completed a triumphant third year at the Omaha Community Playhouse in January to prove the show’s staying power.

Yesterday and Today consists mainly of the band fielding requests from the audience and performing them.  McGuigan and the band don’t wear wigs or attempt accents. He doesn’t want anything getting in the way of pure music immersion.

And thanks to their comprehensive preparation, the band is ready for any request that comes their way. Those who know McGuigan know he’d never settle for anything less.

“What I find remarkable about Billy is not only his talent and ability to sing and play just about anything,” says Playhouse music director Jim Boggess, “but his single-minded dedication to be true to whatever music he is playing. He will not rest until it is right.”

That same dedication, preparation and passion is what made Rave On, McGuigan’s renowned Buddy Holly act, the success it was, and Rave On paved the way for McGuigan’s Beatles’ tribute.

It’s no coincidence the Beatles were also favorites of McGuigan’s father, Bill, who passed on a musical legacy to his three sons.

Growing up a military brat, home was wherever his U.S. Air Force-indentured father got stationed, Having a dad who played guitar and dug the Beatles immersed Billy in all things Fab Four, especially Paul McCartney.

“All we did was sit and listen to music,” McGuigan said. “I remember  McCartney’s ‘Tug of War’ came out and my dad going, ‘OK, you gotta listen to this. This is your first new McCartney album.’ He stuck headphones on me. I hear those songs now and l’m just like, ‘Ahhh, yeah.’ I mean, that was music for me. It was always there.”

The elder McGuigan died of leukemia in 1996.

“It was awful,” Billy said. “I was just starting out in life and we had that moment where we’d become friends. He was proud of what I was doing.”

Before the untimely death, the bonding forged through music continued in Omaha, where the family moved in 1990. McGuigan didn’t set out to pay forward his father’s music bequest, but he has. After dabbling in theater and fronting his own band, he found his niche with Rave On.

Replicating that success with Yesterday and Today meant getting his siblings to sign on, which took some doing. It meant leaving regular jobs for the uncertainty of show biz and being away from wives for weeks. Then there was McGuigan’s ambitious idea of learning the entire Beatles’ canon. Every time a new player joins the band it’s a crash course all over again, he says.

What distinguishes the show from similar acts is that McGuigan fields audience requests and asks folks to explain why the songs are special to them. Then his improv skills take over. McGuigan and his brothers also share their connection to the music and often reference their father on stage.

“Completely, because what we found out is it’s really a tribute to him,” says Billy. “This is the music he taught us. We would sit around and play these songs all the time. He created it. This is the inheritance we got.”

McGuigan’s road to becoming a rock star came after some less successful efforts at finding his voice. Colleen Quinn, general manager of Funny Bone, is McGuigan’s manager and business partner. She’s witnessed his progression from early days, which included attempts at improv comedy, bartending and fronting a cover band.

It was through Buddy Holly, Quinn says, that McGuigan finally found his niche.

“Billy connects with all people. That’s what makes him a charismatic presence,” she says. “He thoroughly loves performing Buddy and Beatles songs and it shows. He relishes hearing people’s requests and reasons for loving the music as he does.”

The Buddy role came after serendipity intervened for McGuigan while vacationing in London, where he and his wife caught a West End production of The Buddy Holly Story. He saw his future on stage.

“I thought,  If I ever got the chance to do that I think that’s something I could do because he sings, he plays guitar and he gets to be a rock star. Thinking, never in a million years…”

Only a couple months later, he got a call from Boggess asking him to be their Buddy. He didn’t need to think twice.

But first there was the matter of an audition. McGuigan invited Boggess and artistic director Carl Beck to catch his band at a Benson biker bar. He recalled that night:

“So there we were, 10 people, all in leather, and then Carl and Jim and the band. We started playing ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ and they (the Playhouse duo) left probably half way through, and I was like, This was my shot and I just lost this gig. I called Jim the next day and he said, ‘No, you got the job, you’re the right guy, we knew it right away.’”

Life hasn’t been the same since.

“Everything at that point changed,” said McGuigan, “and I don’t know why. It was like something clicked in me, and I’m going to take this role seriously — I’m not going to pull the typical Billy. I learned the script two days after I got it, learned all the music, went and got guitar lessons, which I’d never done before. I went to the gym before rehearsals even started. I lost 40 pounds. I was fit.”

He steeped himself in Buddy ephemera, reading books, studying films. Watching one documentary, The Real Buddy Holly Story, became a daily ritual.

“…that’s what I absorbed, that’s where my Buddy came from — that and whatever I could bring to it.”

He next appears in Rave On on Feb. 3-4, at Harrah’s casino. A summer amphitheater gig is in the works and the Beatles show returns to the Playhouse in December.

McGuigan is looking to hand-off Rave On to someone else so he can focus more on Yesterday and Today. He expects to direct The Buddy Holly Story sometime and to one day maybe take a leading role in a show like Jesus Christ Superstar.

Beyond that, it’s more touring. Quinn hints McGuigan may even be bound for Europe and Australia.

For now, McGuigan’s says the Beatles show has given him the time of his life.

“Every aspect of that show turns me on. When it works, there’s nothing like it. The music is great, it’s what I’ve always wanted to sing. Then you look over and there are your brothers, and then there’s your friends who have gone on this journey with you, and you have an audience getting (into it). How can it get better than that?”

Charles Fairbanks, aka the One-Eyed Cat, makes Lucha Libre a way of life and a favorite film subject


Rey Mysterio on WWE Wrestle Mania Revenge Tour...

Image via Wikipedia

When I read about filmmaker Charles Fairbanks for the first time last year I was immediately taken by his story: how a rural Nebraska student-athlete turned artist become enamored with and immersed in the world of Mexican professional wrestling known as Lucha Libre, which he’s made the subject of some of his short films.  Then when I delved further into his story, by exploring his website and watching some of his work, I knew I had to write about him. We met last summer, when his disarmingly sweet personality and thoughtful responses made me immediately like him.  The following story I wrote about Fairbanks and his work appeared just before this year’s Omaha Film Festival, where one of his Lucha Libre films, Irma, was shown. Fairbanks is a serious artist whose work may or may not ever find a wide audience but is certainly deserving of it.  I plan to follow his career and to see much more of his work as time goes by.

Charles Fairbanks, aka the One-Eyed Cat, makes Lucha Libre a way of life and a favorite film subject

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

In the space of a few years Charles Fairbanks has gone from conventional prep and collegiate wrestler to one of the few gringo performers of Lucha Libre, Mexico’s equivalent of WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment).

Amid a world of masked figures with exotic alter egos, Fairbanks performs as the One-Eyed Cat. It’s not what you’d expect from this cerebral, soft-spoken, fair-skinned rural Nebraska native. Then again, Fairbanks is an adventurous artist and art educator, which explains why he’s devoted much of the last nine years to Lucha Libre’s high-flying acrobatics and soap opera melodramatics.

Fairbanks, whose pretty boy face and chiseled body are in stark contrast to Jack Black in Nacho Libre, is a photographer and short filmmaker who loves wrestling. Naturally, then, he combines his passions as self-expression. He’s gone so far as affixing a video camera to his mask to record the action.

“Oh, I look silly,” he says of his third eye. “Other wrestlers laugh out loud but they’re always very welcoming. I make sure to establish a relationship before I walk in with a camera on my head.”

His documentary short Irma, an Omaha Film Festival selection, lyrically profiles Irma Gonzalez, a hobbled but still strong, proud former wrestling superstar and singer-songwriter who befriended him at Bull’s Gym on the outskirts of Mexico City.

Last fall Irma won the Best Short prize at the Coopenhagen International Documentary Film Festival. It’s shown at festivals worldwide, as have other works by Fairbanks, some of which, like Pioneers, have nothing to do with wrestling.

Intense curiosity brought him to Mexico in the first place. Oddly, he’d just abandoned organized wrestling. He was a state champion grappler at Lexington (Neb.) High, where his artistic side also flourished. His mat talent and academic promise earned a scholarship to Stanford University, where he wrestled two years before quitting the team.

He was touring Mexico on a rite-of-passage mission of self-discovery and enlightenment when he saw his first Lucha Libre match. He soon started shooting and practicing. He made still images that first trip and has since used video to capture stories.

“I just fell in love with this spectacle,” he says.

Bull’s Gym, located on an upper floor of a hilltop building, is his main dojo, sanctuary and set. It overlooks a cinematic backdrop.

“There’s something powerful for me in looking out at the miles of humble cinderblock housing spread out and up the ridges around Mexico City,” he says. “That view is very beautiful. With all the pollution the sunsets are very colorful. The airport is nearby and so you see the airplanes taking off.

“For me all of this magnifies and modulates the gym’s energy, which is really pretty fervent. There’s often boxing and wrestling going on at the same time in the same room. With all the activity, the ambient noise is really a roar.”

Lucha Libre has a near mystical hold on him now but he admits he originally regarded it as a lovely though bastard version of the wrestling he grew up with.

“At the time, as most competitive wrestlers in the U.S., I denied the connection,” he says. “I said, This is totally different. Now I’ve gotten to the point where I can accept the real links between competitive wrestling and show wrestling.”

Fairbanks, a Stanford art grad with a master of fine arts degree from the University of Michigan, takes an analytical view of these kindred martial arts.

“There is a lot of overlap but at the same time I think they have very different philosophies embedded in them.”

Asking if Lucha Libre is fake misses the point. The visceral, in-the-moment experience is the only reality that matters.

“In my experience of Lucha Libre the matches themselves are not staged — you don’t know who’s going to win. You still maybe want to win, but it’s not just up to you,” he says. “You can’t just go for a pin. You really have to try to entertain. It’s very much like a dance. There’s a certain repertoire of moves my opponent and I know how to do together, and if I start to do one move you recognize this move and you actually respond in a certain way to help me do it more spectacularly.

“And then there are variations, where you’re doing something defensive that’s changing me, so it’s not my move anymore. As we go through this back and forth we establish these sort of rhythms.”

The unfolding dance, he says, is also “an improvised drama” marked by “waves of tension” and “a building of energies. One wrestler is dominating but then the tides turn and the other wrestler comes back. It’s not something scripted but you feel your way through.” The improvisation, he adds, extends to the referee, who “plays his part,” and to the crowd, “who play their part.”

Reared in the no-frills tradition of amateur wrestling, he says “it’s been really hard to learn this completely different way of thinking or feeling reality. I’m the first to say I haven’t mastered Lucha Libre. I’m not trying to make it big as a wrestler in Mexico. I’m trying to learn about wrestling.” He’s also a practitioner of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

He’s learned about Lucha Libre’s  “built-in codes of honor” and “certain ways people present themselves publicly or don’t.” The wrestlers aren’t supposed to reveal their identity outside the ring. He’s made himself an exception.

“I feel OK transgressing this because I’m already marked as Other.”

Irma Gonzalez

In his Flexing Muscles some native wrestlers half-kiddingly harangue this outsider.It’s very important to me they’re calling me gringo and saying, ‘Go back to your damned country,” he says, as it makes overt his interloper status. As deep as he’s tasted Mexican culture he knows he remains a visitor and observer.

“I’m really conscious of my differences from most of the people there in terms of nationality and economics,” he says.

He’s acutely aware too of his privileged “ability to come in and do this and then leave and go back to the States and make art out of this experience,” adding, “With my movies in a certain sense I try to build in the story of my being there and my relationship to the subjects.” He’s struck by how generous his subjects are in opening their lives and homes to him even as they struggle getting by.

Stranger or not, he engages the culture head-on.

“I do try to immerse myself very much in that world I’m living in, but without losing who I am. I never try to pretend to be Mexican. I try to get as close as I can and I try to understand, but from my point of view.”

Despite the obvious differences between Fairbanks and his fellow performers, he feels a reciprocal kinship, adding, “there’s a certain kind of camaraderie I feel with wrestlers anywhere.” Wherever he’s traveled, including Europe and Asia, he’s wrestled.

Fairbanks has seen much of Mexico but is largely centered in Mexico City and Chiapas, where he teaches filmmaking. He says, “I love to stay with families, I love to have local people to learn from and to interact with.”

Moments of zen-like meditation and magic realism lend his work poetic sensibility and cultural sensitivity. Irma‘s tough title character sings a ranchero in the ring while her circus performer granddaughters romp. In Pioneers Fairbanks lays hands over his father’s ailing back in a shamanistic healing ceremony. Enigmatic stuff.

“I like to make movies that invite more questions,” says Fairbanks, who participated in Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School and cut his chops working with veteran filmmakers in Brussels, Belgium. “I like to have the films be a process of discovery for the viewers — to not tell the viewers how to see this world — but also a sense of discovery for me as I’m making the films.”

Authenticity is his goal.

“For me it’s important I’m making movies in Mexico that convey a part of experience not covered by our news media.”

As for the future, he says, “I have very specific stories I want to tell in Mexico and in other countries, some related to wrestling, other types of wrestling, some not at all related to wrestling.”

Irma‘s Omaha Film Festival screening is 6 p.m. on March 3 at the Great Escape  Theatre as part of the Striking a Chord block of Nebraska documentary shorts.

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