Archive

Archive for September 6, 2011

Nancy Oberst: Pied Piper of Liberty Elementary School

September 6, 2011 3 comments

Nancy Oberst is one of those high energy, positive vibe individuals you can’t help but feel better for meeting or knowing, and that’s why it was a distinct pleasure working on two stories about her and her then work as principal at Liberty Elementary School in Omaha. This article for Medium Magazine appeared only months after the school was launched downtown in a former bus barn and still months away from moving into its then under construction dedicated school building down the street. The other piece about Nancy and Liberty appeared shortly after the new school building was complete and Nancy, her staff, and students finally took possession of a building they could call their own. The same enthusiasm and dedication I found the first time was evident when I caught up with her that second time. Nancy’s no longer at Liberty but the school she helped form and lead is still going strong. She and her husband Matt are living in the Washington D.C. area now, but their connection to this place remains strong, just as it does for their famous son, indie rock and Saddle Creek Records star Conor Oberst.

 

 

Nancy Oberst, ©photo by Marlon Wright

 

 

 

Nancy Oberst: Pied Piper of Liberty Elementary School

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Medium Magazine

 

Inner city public schools face a litany of challenges that cry out for dynamic, caring leaders willing to defy the low expectations set for their at-risk students. While Liberty Elementary School in downtown Omaha is better off than many of its counterparts, principal Nancy Oberst finds many issues to tackle there in her ebullient, high-energy, never-say-die style.

“Always looking for an angle” to give her fledgling, first-year school’s 400 largely disadvantaged students “a leg up,” she variously charms, prods, lobbies and cajoles “to level the playing field for our kids.”

“She is an advocate for her children like no one I’ve ever seen. I mean, if she wants something she thinks is best for the kids, she will get it. She is a woman of vision. She just really knows what she wants and she goes after it,” says Linda Daly, a Liberty reading-ESL specialist who followed Oberst from nearby Jackson Academy.

The 49-year-old Oberst is intent on making Liberty and the adjacent Drake Court, an historic apartment complex newly restored and occupied, the linchpin of an emerging 20th Street corridor some are dubbing Children’s Row. Liberty, the Omaha Children’s Museum, the YMCA and the Omaha Theater Company for Young People occupy a four-block strip from Leavenworth to Farnam. “We’re not only part of a new school,” Oberst says, “we’re part of a new community. That’s a big draw for us and a positive spin for the neighborhood. There’s a ripple effect going on with Liberty and Drake Court in terms of adding some stability to the area.”

For Oberst and staff, Liberty is not an assignment, but a mission. Temporarily housed in a renovated former bus barn while awaiting completion of a new three-story building down the street, Liberty serves a racially diverse, working-class student body drawn from downtown’s south side, an area once home to Italian immigrants and now a haven for Latino emigres.

An honor roll listing on a school bulletin board reveals Liberty’s ethnic flavor. Aside from Anglo names like Ruth, Sarah, Adam, Christa, Jenny and Tyler, most names, like Cesar, Wambli, Parisian, Andres, Misael, Juan, Indira, Jesus, Ebony, Shaquia, Dancingmoon, Hynalem and Hoa, reflect the large Latino presence and smaller black, Native American, African, Asian contingents. Oberst, the embodiment of Lady Liberty that stirs this melting pot, says, “There’s a beauty and a richness about a very urban group of kids.”

Alley-Poyner Architects-designed the open floor adaptation for the school’s warehouse setting, whose massive skylight and tall banks of windows bathe the place in golden light and whose cavernous spaces resonate with the sound of youthful voices. As many newly arrived students do not speak English, Liberty makes language arts and literacy its overriding emphasis, piloting the federally-funded Guided Reading program and employing ESL specialists in every classroom. Most staffers and paraprofessionals, like Legna Colon, are bilingual. Liberty also holds adult English classes. Children and families requiring extra support find in Oberst and Liberty a champion and resource center, respectively, attuned to their needs.

 

 

The old bus barn that served as Liberty’s first home

 

 

“Despite all the charges we have the one thing we are focusing on here is reading,” Oberst says, “because we believe reading is the key. If you can learn to read, math and science isn’t going to be that tough for you. We’re allowed to take the monies we get and buy supplemental books and resources that we feel as a school are going to make the difference with our kids, all the while knowing the goal is to catch up and be where everyone else is. I guess we feel a sense of urgency about what we’re doing. The needs are great.”

She knows the territory well from canvassing the neighborhood last summer, visiting many families’ homes, and from growing up in a working-class Omaha family herself. “We need to help children where the gap is wide and is getting wider. That’s why families come here (from Mexico, El Salvador) — to have a piece of the pie — and to invest in something for the future. That really is what America has been about. We want kids to feel their life is like everyone else’s and that there’s nothing that should get in the way. That’s really what public education promises.” Like the school’s namesake.

Getting past the barriers that cultural-language differences can pose is a matter of building trust. That’s why Oberst routinely has teams of educators make home visits and ensures that all school correspondence is printed in English and Spanish. She also sets a welcoming tone by insisting staff greet parents, holding informal coffees with moms and dads, inviting families to come to events at school — from community forums to special celebrations, like Cinco De Mayo — and encouraging staff to attend kids’ outside activities and even having kids over to their homes.

“It boils down to — How do you make people comfortable? Language is the key,” she says. “To engage people on their own terms and their own turf shows goodwill, respect and a real personalness. It heightens parents’ knowledge that we care and we want them to participate. We want parents to know they are valuable in this.”

Oberst, who takes predawn power walks to stay fit, is seemingly always on the move at Liberty. She hustles greeting the early-bird arrivals at first light and seeing-off the last stragglers at night. She’s outside, even in bad weather, supervising dismissal. She pops inside classrooms to casually survey things or to do formal observations. She’s a whirling-dervish presence at breakfast and lunchtime, seating kids, intervening in conflicts, confiscating contraband and picking up spills.

Displaying a warm paternal demeanor with kids, she makes a point of talking to them about their schoolwork and family. A daily ritual finds kids gathered around a mounted aerial photo of the Liberty hood, which Oberst turns into a lesson by having students identify their homes and area landmarks. Wherever she goes, whether eating with the kitchen staff or chatting-up teachers in the faculty lounge or sitting-in on meetings with the construction gang, she works her mojo as a cool schoolmarm for the new millennium who is down with today’s Generation Z hip-hopese. After all, one of her and husband Matt’s three sons is indie-rock musician Conor Oberst (known as Bright Eyes), who admires his mom’s compassion.

“She loves those kids so much. She wants to take care of them. She spent a good portion of her childhood not having very much, so she understands what it means to not have everything you need,” Conor explains. “Over the years there’s been kids she’s had special relationships with that she’s taken under her wing and had hang out with our family. She obviously has a great heart. She inspires me.”

Complicating the task of connecting with kids is the high mobility of families in the Liberty district — a mixed use ward of commercial-residential rental properties — that results in high student turnover. “Because we realize we’re not going to have them very long, we have to figure out ways to make kids feel welcome, comfortable and engaged,” she says. “We have to stay focused and be able, for however many days we have them, to make an impact.”

Oberst, who taught special ed before joining the administration ranks, makes clear just how much of a gap her students must overcome. “We don’t think many of our children have Internet access or even a computer or books in their home. For a lot of our kids we are their medical provider because families can’t afford a physician or lack health coverage. We’ve paid rent and utility bills and we’ve bought food for families in real desperate need.” Like at Jackson, Oberst has formed an emergency supplies cache to provide indigent families with everything from food and clothes to personal hygiene items. Liberty also acts as a referral center by directing families to social relief agencies.

Whatever obstacles kids face, Oberst refuses to lower student achievement goals because she feels that would send the wrong message.

“We can’t make excuses. We can’t say, Oh, this must be the reason why they can’t achieve. All that does is put people down and not encourage them to be what they can be. All of us have to believe in high expectations for kids” she says. “We need to always stay focused on what our real mission is and that is to make our kids competitive — to win as many awards as other kids. Recently, we took six children to the city-wide spelling bee and our children did very well. Two of them made it to the state competition. It’s all about where we think we can be. That we can have kids as competitive and that read as well as other kids. Our counselors tell them, ‘So what if English is not your first language? Don’t say you can’t, honey, look at what you can do — you’re speaking two languages. That’s even better…you’re even brighter.’”

 

Liberty Facade

The new Liberty

 

 

Attitude is everything with Oberst, who according to staffer Linda Daly infuses a “we-will-get-it-done” mantra at the school.

“She has such a positive outlook,” Daly says. “If you doubt you can do something she asks you to do, she’ll say, ‘Of course you can do that.’ Like anything else, there’s been growing pains, but Nancy will make it happen here, plain and simple.”

Oberst’s infectious enthusiasm, combined with her talent for networking, promoting and relationship-building, has brought in many benefactors, partners and extras for the school in terms of dollars, programs, in-kind services, supplies and opportunities. Her track record for eliciting support and for launching new schools in inner city environs, as she did at Jackson, is what led Omaha Public Schools Superintendent John Mackiel to tab her for Liberty.

“Her expertise in working with children and families of diverse backgrounds and educational needs, her experience in starting up new schools and her passion and love for creating school-community partnerships is what made her an excellent candidate,” Mackiel says. Then there is the long-stated desire of Oberst, who enjoys the process of “creating a school culture” from the ground up, “to be in an urban setting. That’s where I want to be. I’m a sort of in-the-trenches person.”

Typical of her pro activeness, she turned what could have been a negative at Liberty, namely the lack of a gym and stage, into a positive by forging ties with the YMCA and the Omaha Theater Company for Young People that allows students to access those facilities for recreation and drama.

With Liberty located amid a rough business district trafficked by street denizens and in what has become a major construction zone between the ongoing Drake Court renovation and work on the new school, safety issues have surfaced. She has largely quelled those concerns by working with the southeast Omaha police precinct and neighborhood associations to increase cop and adult safety patrols. As the new school begins taking shape, she intends on making the construction site an educational experience by leading groups of kids, in hard hats, to view the progress of Liberty’s future home.

Demographically-speaking, the future is now at Liberty, where diversity is not a buzz word but a simple reality. A tour is a multicultural immersion into an American microcosm — with brown, black, yellow and white faces commingling, colorful folk art hanging and Spanish and English phrases given life through singing, speaking and printing. Oberst embraces the heady brew of this ethnic stew. “I think it makes us all more worldly, more global, more able to really perceive the world as it is,” she says, “and to me that adds such richness and weaves such broader thought. We become bigger people. And I think that’s why diversity is a great experience for children to have. They learn to appreciate the differences in people.”

The next big thing for Liberty is the March 2004 opening of its new 600-plus student capacity building. In the neat symmetry of an old neighborhood reinventing itself, the warehouse Liberty occupies could see reuse as an arts-media center, the Drake Court may spur area renewal and the school should be an anchor of hope and a catalyst for change.

Oberst envisions attracting more students of middle-class parents, including those working downtown, thus bringing more economic diversity to the mix. “There’s a lot of excitement about the new building,” she says. “It will be more convenient than what we have here, but I think convenience is overrated, personally. It’s sort of fun to problem-solve.”

Always one to jones for challenges, she expects more as more students-in-need enroll. Despite “the great needs,” she says, “there’s also great joy” at Liberty. “Everyone just kind of gets pulled in.” Like the staffer who paid for a Statue of Liberty replica mounted on a pedestal outside the main offices. A fitting symbol for a school providing opportunity and for a headmistress embodying Lady Liberty herself.

 
Advertisements

Buffalo Bill’s Coming Out Party Courtesy Author-Balladeer Bobby Bridger

September 6, 2011 3 comments

Bobby Bridger has been performing his epic ballads about the American West for decades now, but it’s only in the last few years he’s cemented his status as a serious historian and interpreter of that subject matter with his book, Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull: Inventing the Wild West. His fresh take on the controversial William F. Cody, aka Buffalo Bill, and the real life adventures and PR machinations that went into making him and his Wild West show worldwide sensations makes clear that more than a century before the Internet Cody imprinted his legend into the collective consciousness and we’re still impacted by it it today in popular culture depictions of the West.

His other books include  A Ballad of the West, Bridger, and his latest, Where the Tall Grass Grows, Becoming Indigenous and the Mythological Legacy of the American West.

 

 

 

 

Buffalo Bill’s Coming Out Party Courtesy Author-Balladeer Bobby Bridger  

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Bullwhacker, pony express rider, cavalry scout, buffalo hunter. Actor, impresario, hotelier, town-builder. Dreamer, schemer, dodger, master of ballyhoo. Devoted son, doting brother, grieving father, absent husband. These were the many faces of William Frederick Cody, a.k.a. Buffalo Bill, the man behind the legendary Wild West Show. An expert at reinventing himself, he straddled the frontier and the stage, using his real-life adventures as the basis for his theatrics.

Early on, Cody developed an acute sense of the gallant visage he struck — with flowing, shoulder-length hair sweeping out from under his wide-brimmed hat and fine physique pressed into his buckskin and tan regalia – and spent the rest of his life polishing that image. A showman at heart, he brandished his trick riding and crack shooting long before performing in arenas or under tents, often pitting his talents against others in wagered contests. By the time he launched his Wild West in Nebraska in 1883, he was already famous as Buffalo Bill owing to purple-prose dime novels and stilted melodramas extolling his bravery as a warrior, his expertise as a horseman and his skill with a rifle. Realizing the potential of Buffalo Bill as a brand name, he systematically exploited his image in the nascent media-show business realm.

A man both of his times and ahead of his times, Buffalo Bill is the mercurial subject of a new book —  Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull: Inventing the Wild West, published last fall by the University of Texas Press – by singer, composer and playwright Bobby Bridger. A Cody aficionado, Bridger splits his time between Houston, TX and Cody, Wyo, the town founded by William F. himself and the home of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, where Bridger is poet-balladeer in residence.

For 40 years now Bridger has steeped himself in Western lore, carving a niche as a folkloric interpreter of the mountain men, settlers, Plains Indians and Westerners whose lives he chronicles in expressive song and verse. Based on years of research, Bridger’s three-part epic A Ballad of the West is an ambitious and visionary consideration of American frontier history and myth. Bridger has recorded Ballad of the West on CD and performs its sections – Seekers of theFleeceLakota and Pahaska -in one-man shows. Pahaska, the Lakota name – meaning Long Hair – given Cody by the Sioux, is an ode to Buffalo Bill that is equal parts concert, drama and poetry recitation.

Bridger, outfitted in buckskins and beads, a Martin guitar slung over one shoulder, and salty hair flowing out from under his Stetson, will perform Pahaska, unplugged, in a 7 p.m. show on February 23 at the Omaha Healing Arts Center, 1216 Howard Street, as part of a promotional tour for his book.

That Bridger has made Cody such a major focus of his work is no surprise given how  Buffalo Bill represented the virtues of the Plainsman in his own time and still symbolizes the Westerner of our collective imagination today. Generous to a fault, a gullible speculator and a glad-handed, two-fisted, hail fellow-well met imbiber, Cody earned millions from the Wild West he created and headlined in but died in debt and despair after years of failed business enterprises and declining health. His only son died young. His acrimonious marriage to a woman he rarely saw ended in divorce. In a life full of improbable feats and reversals of fortune, he became both legend and myth in his own time, thanks largely to his own image-making machinery.

 

 

Bobby Bridger

 

 

An example of just how complex a man he was and of how controversial he remains is his relationship with Indians. Growing up fast on the Iowa and Kansas prairie – he saw his father killed at 11 and his mother die before he was 17 – he was a childhood playmate of Indians only to become their sworn blood enemy as a young adult in the service of his country.

“Much like in the Civil War (when Cody scouted for the Seventh Kansas Cavalry), Cody found himself in the Indian Wars fighting (as a scout) against men he had known since boyhood. Men who were his dear friends and often his blood brothers,” Bridger said.

With the Indian uprisings quelled, Cody befriended Indians, then being displaced on reservations, by employing them in his Wild West, where he portrayed them as fierce, wild natives now tamed.

The apparent hypocrisy of Cody’s treatment of Indians, at once benevolent and stereotypical, can be explained, Bridger said, not only by Cody’s commercial instincts but by his sincere desire to heal a divided America. Cody and the Indians shared a warrior’s code he said, regarding each other as brothers under the skin. In programs and promotions for the Wild West, Cody went to great lengths in describing how “former enemies, now friends” had “buried the hatchet” and co-existed harmoniously as a single troupe.

In the Wild West, Bridger said, Cody wasn’t so much “exploiting” as “reconciling Indians” to their rightful place as Native Americans and co-creators of the Wild West. He said Cody, whose advocacy for Indians was by all accounts enlightened, saw himself in the role of protector and preserver of their culture otherwise being “dismantled” back on the reservation. Indeed, Cody enlisted into the Wild West many of the religious, political, social and military elders of the Lakota and Oglala Sioux, including Sitting Bull and Red Cloud, who were seen by U.S. government officials and Christian crusaders as mere troublemakers but treated by Cody as wise and dignified leaders of tribal nations.

Part rodeo, history lesson and carnival, Cody’s Wild West was inspired by a failed Western exposition mounted by renowned painter George Catlin and by the major circuses of the era. Besides being a rollicking, rip-snorting good time that attracted hordes of paying customers, the Wild West was conceived by Cody, Bridger said, as a kind of living history exposition meant to immortalize the most popular or colorful facets of the Old West even as they were fading into history.

For Cody, it was not a show.

“He was insulted when someone called it a show,” Bridger said. “He considered himself a meticulous historical reenactor. What Cody was doing was essentially bringing dripping wet from the battlefield the participants and then restaging it in an arena before thousands of people. And what he was doing in that role, as my poem Winter on the Boards, Summer in the Saddle says, was literally presenting living mythology and parading it before people because he knew it was vanishing.

“And I think that motivation came from the fact that he saw with the explosion and astonishing success of the dime novels that people came to view him as the person responsible for destroying the Native cultures and buffalo herds, and I think he could not bear to be remembered that way and that had a great deal to do with the creation of the Wild West.”

 

 

 

 

By the end, Cody’s Wild West, which went through many incarnations, was more sideshow spectacular than exhibition, even touring its last few years with circuses, and a weary, besotted Cody was more caricature than hero. But that was long after the Wild West’s heyday, when the widely touring extravaganza played before monarchs, heads of state and countless throngs of commoners, young and old alike, who thrilled to breathtaking demonstrations of horsemanship and marksmanship most had only read or dreamt about.

At its peak the Wild West, which played 30 years, was an enormous production numbering 600 cast and crew members, hundreds of horses and dozens of buffalo. Among the featured attractions were live, full-scale reenactments of: an attack on the Deadwood Stage; a bison hunt; a train robbery; famous battles; and a raid on a burning cabin. Special features were added on certain tours, such as a restaging of Custer’s Last Stand. Other staples included trick riding and shooting displays.

Much of Bridger’s book and ballad examine the amazing journey that Cody took in transforming himself from dashing Plainsman to consummate Performer. As Bridger said, “You have to understand his life from another point of view to understand this” compulsion he had to perform.

“Every major transition in his early life had to do with horses, whether he was learning fancy riding as a boy or serving as a Pony Express Rider or breaking ground as a scout. He literally rode horses onto the public stage. And when he entered the theater with its proscenium stage, where he couldn’t have a horse, he promptly went to the arena. He had to show people what a good rider he was. He was a show-off. He loved it. He absolutely loved it.”

In a life intersecting virtually every American epoch of the 19th century – from the great trek made by settlers to the tragic Plains Indian Wars to the laying of the transcontinental railroad to the Civil War to the near extermination of buffalo and Native Americans to the gentrification of the West – Cody was an active participant in both the building of an empire and the vanishing of a frontier.

In his book Bridger suggests Cody shared a destiny with the Indians, whose way of life was lost as America emerged from the wilderness, but who found a friend in Cody and a refuge in his Wild West. When considering how Cody was present at the convergence of so many transforming events, one wonders if a higher power might not have been at work. “

 

 

 

 

He was there, as a boy, at the very confluence of one of the largest migrations the world has ever known,” said Bridger, referring to the young Cody’s interaction with pioneers on the Plains. “He was perched right on the fence between, if you will, the frontier or the unknown and what was then known as civilization or Western European culture. And so he spent his entire life in between those great forces, right at the edge of it, and basically surfed it right to the pinnacle.”

Cody was also influenced by the trailblazers he crossed paths with.

“Sitting at the feet of Jim Bridger, Kit Carson and Wild Bill Hickcock, Cody learned first-hand about flamboyant costumes and about exaggerations based on truth,” Bridger said. “All those things became his personality. He just absorbed all of that. So, what you had in him was a repository of everything from the fur trade forward.”

Perhaps more than any other figure, Cody embodied the quintessential Man of the West. By his early 20s he’d participated in every conceivable aspect of frontier life  – from trapping and hunting to prospecting for gold to escorting bullwhacker and wagon trains to being a Pony Express Rider to driving a stage to fighting Indians. He was the real thing. The genuine article. A bona fide Knight of the Plains. If he’d stopped there, his place in history would have been secure. But, seeing an opportunity to make a dollar from his derring-do, Cody embarked on a path that blurred the lines between reality and fiction.

His destiny was cast in July of 1876 when, mere weeks after Custer and his Seventh Cavalry met disaster at Little Big Horn, he led a squad of soldiers and scouts in a retaliatory charge on a band of Cheyenne. When, in a close-quarters skirmish he killed Yellow Hand and proclaimed he’d taken “the first scalp for Custer,” a rallying cry was born for a nation galvanized by the high drama on the Plains. Cody parlayed that fame via dime novels and dramatic plays embroidering his exploits and, later, via Wild West shows recreating and further embellishing his by then already brocaded deeds.

Along the way, Cody imprinted on the world the very conventions of the West dramatists have used ever since to portray it. In the process, he elevated himself from legend into myth, fashioning the West of the Imagination as a time and place of romantic dimensions and mythic proportions.

Whenever a figure becomes as inflated as Cody, detractors are sure to follow. Debunking Buffalo Bill became a popular pastime around the Jazz Age and picked up steam again in the 1960s and ‘70s, when works like Arthur Kopit’s play Indians and Robert Altman’s film Buffalo Bill and the Indians depicted him as a vain, right-wing opportunist and racist who, like that era’s John Wayne, was discounted as a stooge of the military-industrial complex in fighting an unjust guerrilla war.

While Cody’s role in the Indian Wars is undeniable, Bridger said any comparison with The Duke is wrong.

“The difference here is that Buffalo Bill was a legitimate hero who became the first star whereas John Wayne was a star who became a kind of illegitimate hero.” When Bridger first began examining Cody’s life he was prepared “not to like him. I was a product of the ‘60s and really viewed him very much in the Kopit vein — as a handsome, perhaps not-so-smart matinee idol and drunken blow hard who made up all this stuff and was manipulated by the government and military to do their bidding.”

Needless to say, Bridger’s opinion changed over time. “Now, having been seriously involved in researching his life since 1970, I have this great respect for him, and the more I dig into William F. Cody’s life the more I like him.”

If you accept Bridger’s notion that Cody became the world’s first true superstar, then it seems silly he should be denigrated, as he is by revisionists, for indulging his celebrity and always being on-stage. After all, what star has not reveled in his or her own fame?

If Cody can be criticized for anything, and the sins attributed to him are legion, from helping extinguish Plains Indians cultures to wiping-out the once vast bison herds to exploiting Native Americans in his Wild West, it is how he allowed his image to ultimately consume him. You could say his run-away ego set the model for how future self-absorbed icons should act, which is to say he embraced excess in his life, in his work and in his mythology. But in defense of Cody it cannot be emphasized enough that the kind of fame he achieved was a new phenomenon for his era and he responded to it without the benefit of any real precedent to call on. All in all, he did as well as anyone in that position could do.

“Before him, people were either famous or infamous and the famous were royalty and the infamous were mass murderers and military leaders and whatever,” Bridger said. “He was the first person to make a living being famous. That whole system of celebrity was created with him.”

Ned Buntline

 

 

Cody’s genius for self-promotion was also something new. He shamelessly courted attention with the press and admirers, always exploring new venues, adding new attractions and looking for new angles to cash in on. Near the end, his instincts betrayed him when, hoping to make a splash in the new medium of motion pictures, he produced a silent film in the Pine Ridge area that had Lakotas reenact the Wounded Knee Massacre.

“That’s an indication of how desperate he’d become to deal with his financial problems and to reinvent himself once more,” Bridger said. On the whole, he said, Cody was a visionary. “He gave everyone in modern show business a template for how to do it. If he didn’t do anything but just that, for everyone from Tom Mix forward, he’d be an important figure.”

Cynics, Bridger said, discount the charitable acts attributed to Cody, whether giving away free Wild West tickets to orphans, bootblacks and newsies or making time for old cronies and drinking buddies at his North Platte, Neb. ranch, by asserting he only did these things so they would “sing Buffalo Bill’s praises.” Bridger said this sniping is misguided. “Yes, he was a showman and, yes, he was very calculated about his promotions, but he was also an orphan boy who loved kids and understood their needs. He was always giving back. That’s the way I prefer to see him.” A famous soft-touch, Cody was also forever sinking money into cockeyed ventures, from hotels to mines, that cost him dearly.

The reason debunkers have a field day with Cody, Bridger said, is his contradictory nature. “You know, it’s funny, but you can say just about anything about him and answer, Yes, he was.” Upon Cody’s death in 1917, newspaperman Gene Fowler wrote: “Indiscreet, prodigal, as temperamental as a diva, pompous yet somehow naive, vain but generous…Cody lived with the world at his feet and died with it on his shoulders. He was subject to suspicious whims and distorted perspectives, yet the sharpers who swindled him the oftenest he trusted the most.”

Bridger sees a reappraisal underway.

“Since 1995 there’s been an average of two books a year coming out on Cody and all of them present a very positive perspective.” Even Lakota philosopher Vine DeLoria has kind things to say about him, noting how Cody sheltered Indian “chiefs from undue pressure and persecution by the government” by retaining them in the Wild West and how, “instead of degrading the Indians and classifying them as primitive savages, Cody elevated them to a status of equality.”

In the end, Bridger contends, Cody will be vindicated. “He will eventually be recognized for the wonderful things he gave us. He gave us our romantic template for a very long time, and it was a good one. As my friend Paul Fees of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center says, ‘We’re beginning to pull the man out of the myth.’”

Bridger will sign copies of his book at 2 p.m. on February 23 at the Barnes and Noble in Oak View Mall.

To find out more about Bridger and his work, check out his web site at www.bbridger.com.

The life and times of scientist, soldier and Zionist Sol Bloom

September 6, 2011 2 comments

I love proving the enduring truth that everyone has a story, especially when it comes to older individuals. It’s all too easy to dismiss an old man like Sol Bloom if you only choose to look at his wrinkled features and his stooped posture and don’t take the time or interest to learn something about the life he’s lived. Sol’s lived an unusually full blooded life that, among other things, saw him work as a scientist, soldier, and Zionist in the independence of Palestine. He’s a wonderful racanteur and writer who related his story to me in a series of interviews he gave me at his home and through several written reminiscences he shared. My profile of Sol, who was still going strong when I wrote the piece about three years ago, appeared in the Jewish Press.

 

 

 

The life and times of scientist, soldier and Zionist Sol Bloom

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Jewish Press

The Omaha resident is equally sure a higher power saved him from almost certain death on at least three occasions; once, when scratched from an armed patrol whose entire ranks were decimated by an Arab ambush in the Judean Valley.Sol Bloom doesn’t believe in accidents. It’s why he’s sure he was destined to make his way to Palestine as a young, idealistic Zionist 62 years ago. Inflamed with passion to help secure a Jewish state, he left America for service in the Haganah militia.

He’s convinced something beyond mere circumstance has guided his five-decade career as a dairy nutritionist, leading him to work with fellow Jews in a field where Jews are a rarity. He’ll tell you his parents’ brave immigrant journey from Romania and a cousin’s pioneer efforts settling Palestine inspired him to beat his own adventurous path — to Israel, Puerto Rico, Nigeria, Zambia and the Philippines.

For Bloom, rhyme and reason attend everything.

The scientist in him methodically studies things to identify patterns and processes. The believer in him finds the hand of fate or God behind incidents he can’t ascribe to mere chance. He’s always been curious about the grand design at work. An ever inquisitive hunger drives his lifelong search for order, meaning and variation. He appreciates life’s richness. It’s no coincidence then he’s sought out foreign posts and immersed himself in indigenous cultures.

At age 84 he still savors life’s simple wonders, whether a Brahms symphony, a good book, a bountiful crop, a cow producing milk from rough silage, his family, his daily prayers, his research, his travels, his memories. A good batch of fu-fu.

Far from an unexamined life, Bloom’s charted his times in voluminous journals. Both the good and bad. He writes-talks with pride about his parents making a comfortable life for the family in America. He grew up in West New York and Palisade, N.J., a pair of bedroom communities outside New York City.

His reminiscences refer to a “dominant” and “disciplinarian” father pushing him and his two brothers. Despite little formal education Sam Bloom kept a complete set of Harvard classics and a Webster’s unabridged dictionary at home. On Sundays Papa Bloom held court in bed, where he regaled the boys with the florid prose of advertisements. He instilled a love of learning in Sol, Norman and Jack.

The patriarch also made sure his sons were exposed to, as Sol puts it, “the finer things.” He made them take music lessons — Sol plays the fiddle — and attend Jewish school. He took the family to Central Park for band concerts, Second Avenue for vaudeville shows and Yiddish theater productions, Coney Island for the amusement park rides and the Catskills for Borscht Belt retreats.

It was at Esther Manor near Monticello, N.Y., where the family vacationed summers, that Sol, the city boy, got his first exposure to farming. The hotel owner kept dairy cows out back to supply guests with fresh milk and Bloom made it a habit to help bring the herd in from pasture. He didn’t know it then but fattening calves and boosting milk cows’ production would take up a large part of his adult life.

Sol sees divine intervention in the Bloom boys coming from such humble roots to achieve professional heights. Besides his own exploits as an animal nutritionist, Norman became a biochemist and Jack a rabbi and psychologist.

He candidly describes a history of mental illness in his family. His late older brother Norman descended into schizophrenia, believing he was the second coming of Christ. Bloom said his younger brother Jack sought psychiatric help for a time. Their mother received electric shock treatments. Bloom himself has had problems. Jesse now struggles with his own brainstorms.The stories of old times roll off Bloom’s tongue. The words precise and poetic. The recall uncanny. He expresses disappointment, not regret, about his failed first marriage, ended when his oldest children were already grown. He acknowledges a weakness for the flesh led him to take a mistress in Nigeria and that the romantic in him led to a love affair in Manila with a woman who became his second wife, Erlinda. He and Elinda share a home together in Millard with their son Jesse.

Then there’s Bloom’s once sturdy body, now severely stooped, wracked by various maladies. It doesn’t stop the former competitive swimmer from taking daily laps in the Jewish Community Center pool.

No hint of judgment or bitterness in Bloom. He accepts what life gives, both the sweet and the sour. He awakes each morning eager to meet the day, ready to make some new connection or association or insight. Whether it’s a laboratory with four walls or the larger lab of living, he approaches life as a much anticipated experiment. Discovery always just around the corner.

His brother Norman would get in manic, obsessive moods trying to prove God’s existence in numerical coincidences. He caught the attention of the late astronomer and popular science writer, Carl Sagan, whose book Broca’s Brain devotes an entire section to Norman’s belief that he was a messenger of God.

Sol isn’t his brother but when considering certain matters, such as the proposition Jews are God’s chosen people, he assumes a slightly messianic manner himself.

Speaking as a scientist, he told a guest at his home: “I don’t know if God actually exists.” However, Bloom suggests Jews’ disproportionate impact on everything from world religion to art to politics to moral tenets is a testament to some divine plan.

“So when I go back to the fact that a good part of the western world goes by Isaac’s basis” for righteous living, “and what the Jews presented to humanity, maybe even though I’m a scientist there’s something in there that is not just completely random,” he said. “The eternal thread of Jewish survival over 3,000 years is a strong thread. That thread’s metaphorically wrapped itself around historical periods and around the throats of Egyptian, Persian, Asyrian, Greek and Roman empires and left them all lifeless — as the Jews moved on small but strong to the present day. It’s a very thin fiber, but it’s so.

“If little people like we have been able to maintain these basic moral foundations to the whole world and still exist when all these empires have gone down, then even though I’m a scientist and I have to go by hypotheses, I don’t think it’s just random. I’ll leave it at that.”

Sol Bloom just leave it at that?  Impossible. Invariably, one theory begets another.

“When I lived in the Philippines (1970-’81) Manilla already was a city of 7-8 million. In Israel maybe you had at that time 2 1/2 million. And how many times did you read about that big city of Manilla in the newspaper? Maybe when there’s a typhoon or maybe when they found all those shoes in Imelda’s closet. But how many times was there something to do with that tiny fragment of humanity in Israel?

“Today, you have 6 to 7 billion people on the face of the earth while the whole population of Jews in the world is about 16 million. It works out to be about .018 percent of the total population. And yet there’s always something going on about them. Mexico City alone has 16 million. How often do you hear about Mexico City? But you will hear about the Jews being in this, doing that — out of all proportion to their numbers. That tiny fleck of humanity in six billion.

“Why for such a long time are we always hearing something about them? Isn’t that interesting?”

He’s confident the weight of evidence demonstrates Jews hold a special, even anointed place in the scheme of things. “That’s one of the things that sort of helps me maintain my faith,” he said.

All this musing leads Bloom to his own variation on the law of attraction.

For Sol, it’s more than coincidence he and Silver found each other. “Random, or as we say in my Yiddish, betokhn (faith)? Isn’t that interesting?”“The first (formal) agricultural experience in my life was with a Jew. I started at 21 with my father’s cousin, Ephraim Katz, in Palestine. And now at this point, 60 years later, I’m working with a fellow by the name of Steven Silver, who owns International Nutrition in Omaha. He’s from the same tribe as I am. Now, imagine this, OK? How many Jews are in American agriculture? Not many. How many are in the professional feed milling business? Even fewer. How many Jews do you find in the feed business in the north central area — Minnesota, Wisconsin, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri? One. Do you follow me?”

Like Bloom’s parents, Katz, the pioneer in the family, was a Romanian emigre. Unlike them Katz felt the call to Palestine strongly enough that he became a settler there, raising a family and farming. Katz, an academic by training but a man of the soil by inclination, appealed to Bloom’s sense of wanderlust and earthiness. Tales of Katz’s contributions to the aspiring nation state fed Bloom’s imagination.

“My cousin in Palestine is growing wheat and has oranges and pears and apples. He’s growing oil seed crops for the factories in Haifa,” is what Bloom recalls thinking about this man he admired. “I mean, at that time Ephraim Katz was the leading light of our entire family. He was the one doing it.

“When he was in Bucharest, Romania he was a professor of English. Because he was a Jew he was still considered an alien and he couldn’t have citizenship, so he left and farmed in Israel, in the northern part of Haifa, near the port. He planted crops. He had wheat, sorghum, citrus.”

There were hardships and tragedies, too.

“In 1929 there were bad riots by the Arabs and they burnt his wheat and cut down all his citrus. His first wife, Sabena, died from typhus. He went into depression.”

The neighborhood where Katz’s place was located was named for Sabena. But Katz and his farm and the settlement that grew up around it survived. He remarried and raised a second family there.

Letters from Katz to Bloom’s father “about all of these adventures in Palestine” were much anticipated. When his father read the letters aloud it sparked in the “impressionable” Sol a burning desire to emulate Cousin Katz and thereby break from the prescribed roles many Jews filled then. Sol’s aptitude for science already had him thinking about medicine. Katz’s example gave him a new motivation.

“Since I was already a socialist — I was going to a Jewish socialist school — I thought, I’m going to break this Jewish commitment to being a merchant. I am going into agriculture. I am going to bring right out from the earth. So that was my raison detre.”

The promise of helping forge a new nation enthralled Bloom. “I was struck by the idealism of these people in Palestine struggling building a new frontier.”

However, at the urging of his parents, who feared for his safety in conflict-strewn Palestine, Bloom enrolled at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. He was still a premed major. America was at war by then and in ‘43 his draft number came up. He wound up in the 99th Infantry Division but when the unit began preparations to join the fight in Europe his poor eyesight and flat feet got him transferred to guard duty at a stateside disciplinary barracks. As it turned out, the 99th’s ranks were decimated in the Battle of the Bulge.

Providential? Sol believes so. “Perhaps something else was meant for me,” he said.

After the war he worked as a counselor at a summer camp, where he met Helen, a nice Jewish girl from the East Bronx. He once again set his sights on Palestine when he learned he could study agriculture at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem under the GI Bill of Rights. He went first in 1946 and Helen followed six months later.

Cousin Katz greeted Bloom in Haifa. For Sol, it meant finally meeting the hero whose spirited example led him to make the long voyage. Katz took Sol to the rural compound of houses he’d built and to the fields he’d planted.

“He brought in new ways, new machinery, new breeds from America and he built this pioneer-type house of rough-hewn blocks and iron bars on the windows,” said Bloom, “and that’s where Helen and I were married in 1947.”

The kibbutz Sol and Helen were assigned, Gvat, “was a completely communal settlement. You never saw any money,” he said. “It had begun in 1925 with Jews from Poland and Russia. There were about 400 members and about 300 ‘illegals’ from displaced persons camps (in war-ravaged Europe). Bloom began training at the kibbutz ahead of Helen’s arrival. He worked the corn and wheat fields and the vegetable gardens. He helped harvest the fruit crops. Mucking out the poultry house and cattle pens convinced him cows were preferable to hens.

“The first silage I made was on the kibbutz — a combination of cow pee and citrus rinds-peels. It was a pit silo, layered with silage we packed down with a tractor. If you want it to ferment properly you have to extrude all the oxygen,” he said. “I fed it out (to cattle) and I’m telling you it was nice stuff, but the flies…” Oi vay!

The fertile country impressed Bloom.

“I remember the secretariat showing me the place. They were in a valley with the richest soil in all of Israel,” akin to Iowa’s rich black earth, Bloom said. “When they got there in ‘25 there were some swamps, a few cows. The settlers erected tents. If you ever want to know what Palestine looked like before the Jews started coming back in, get Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad, and you’ll understand the transformation that came about. It’s completely described there. Dismal, desolate.

 

 

 

 

“By the time I got there they’d built concrete barracks with manicured lawns. It was a mixed farm of dairy, poultry, a vegetable garden, a fruit orchard, a vineyard, forage crops for cattle and sheep, eucalyptus and field crops — sorghum, wheat, corn. They’d done all that in 20 years. It was a lovely place.”

Even then, he said, the region “produced beautiful oranges exported to Europe.”

Bloom reveled in the daily routine of kibbutz life.

“You got up about 5:30. You got your coffee and milk. I would go to work in the vegetable garden. Then about 8 o’clock you’d come into the communal dining hall, with its big bowls of porridge, and there’d be sour cream, yogurt, cottage cheese, vegetables, thick baked bread. You had a choice of a hard egg or a soft egg.

“After breakfast I’d go back and work. I was called in Hebrew a bakbok — cork. In other words, you’re used wherever you’re needed. I’d come back for lunch — a cold fruit soup made from harvested plums, apples, grapes. It’s hot in the summertime, so we would rest until about 1:30. When the heat would break we’d go back and finish our work. About 4:30 you’d shower and change your clothes. You had a set of khakis to work in and a set of khakis for the evening.

“We stopped working about noon on Friday for the Sabbath, whose observance lasted till Sunday morning. You had two weeks vacation.”

The enterprise of reclaiming an ancestral homeland moved Sol, who witnessed the settlement’s first high school graduation ceremony. He liked being part of a glorious historic tide. He couldn’t help but get caught up in what he called “that sense of purpose of destiny — of recreating something that had been hibernating for 1,800 years.”

“There was something completely mystical about it,” he said. “The land I was working on, the plums I was harvesting, they were planted by Jews, tended by Jews, plucked by Jews. The Jews had been persecuted, separated, driven from place to place for 1,900 years and here they’d gone back to the same place from which they were driven. Here they were graduating their first set of kids back on the lands where ancient Israelis had plowed and enjoyed the fruits of that land. Back in the land of Joshua and the prophets and all the greats of Israel,

“These pilgrims’ kids were training to begin life there again. You have to have a pretty strong memory in order to do that. To have lived a year in that type of community among these people who had settled, built the place, who knew why they were there, what they were doing and where they were going” was everything Bloom had hoped for and more.

He left before Israel’s formation in mid-‘48 but was there when the United Nations declared Palestine would be partitioned to allow a Jewish state amid Arab neighbors. “This was the first time in history a group made the decision that Jews, after being dispersed all over the world in ghettos, would have a place of their own,” he said. Photos he snapped then picture jubilant crowds in Jerusalem. He and Helen joined the celebration. “We danced, we sang, we drank. It was something very uplifting, something quite marvelous.”

Israel’s independence was not won without a fight and Bloom volunteered to do his share there, too. He and other Americans studying abroad joined the Haganah. Unlike most of the green recruits, who lacked any military experience, Bloom was a U.S. Army veteran familiar with weapons. But he’d never seen combat. Outside Jerusalem he went through training with fellow enlisters under the command of Haganah officers. They made simulated night patrols in the hilly terrain.

 

 

 

 

His training complete, he went on recon missions to gauge the location-strength of guerrilla Arab units. Assigned to a unit guarding the perimeter of a Jewish enclave, he wrote, “we kept guard during cold nights and moved weapons secretly by taxi cab.” He and his mates quartered in residents’ homes, staying out of sight of British peacekeepers and hostile Arab forces by day and manning rooftops at night.

He was selected for a strike force of 35 soldiers tasked with engaging the Arab Legion laying siege to the Jewish settlement of Ramat Rachel. At the last minute, he said, an officer scratched him from the operation due to his marital status. A bachelor friend and fellow American, Moshe Pearlstein, replaced him. Moshe and his comrades were cut down in an ambush. There were no survivors. Bloom’s journal commented:

“I will always remember how formidable — yes, how heroic — the ‘35’ appeared in all their battle gear as they assembled on the edge of Beit Hakarem. They were the Yishuv’s best…” Their loss, he wrote, “was a terrible blow to the Haganah…The sweet soul Moshe became, as far as I know, one of the first Americans to fall in the war of independence for Israel. His sacrifice has given me a long and eventful life.”

His life was spared another time there when a bus he and Helen were on took sniper fire. Only the vehicle’s side armor plating shielded him from the rounds.

With the couple’s parents pressing for their return they came back to the U.S. While studying at Iowa State University Bloom met Israeli emissaries who were visiting American ag colleges “to talk enthusiastic ideas to young Jewish fellows like me” he said. It was a recruitment tour designed to attract Zionists in serving the newly formed Jewish nation. Bloom was ripe for the picking. “I knew one thing — I wanted to study a profession that I could go back to use in Israel.”

He asked the visitors, “What should l study to help the State? Should I become a veterinarian?” “We need nutritionists,” he was told. That’s all he needed to hear. Besides, he said, “I liked very much working with cattle when I was on the kibbutz.” From ‘50 to ‘55 he earned his bachelor’s degree from Iowa State, his master’s from Penn State and his Ph.D. from ISU. All in dairy applications.

His scientific inquiries in that period proved fruitful. At PSU, he said, “the first feed grade antibiotics were in use. I worked with oromycin — I got beautiful gains. I got the sense of how powerful biological (compounds) are.” Of how 20 grams “of this yellow powder in a ton of feed” could increase milk production. Magic dust. He went back to ISU, he said, “where this line of study was more advanced. I worked with very good people. The work I did gave off papers in three different fields. I was elected to Sigma Xi, a scientific honorary society. I won the Borden Award.”

Longing to apply his expertise in Israel he was frustrated when no position was immediately available. Thus, in ‘56 he followed his nose for adventure to Puerto Rico, where he worked on dairy cattle feeding trials and introduced high molasses rations for swine. When a post finally opened in Israel the next year to conduct a Ford Foundation study at a research station, the Suez Canal crisis erupted. The U.S. government issued stiff warnings to Americans to avoid travel there but a little war wasn’t going to stop Bloom  “I went anyway,” he said. “They (the American consulate) called me in and slapped my wrists.”

These were heady times for Bloom.

“It was exciting. In the Suez campaign all the agronomists had gone into the Sinai Peninsula and had just come back, so the first seminars I heard were all about their findings in that area. When I did my research the agronomists there wanted us to use more pasture. We didn’t have that much. Security was a problem.”

The study compared cows feeding in pastures to those feeding off silage in enclosures. The herds “were then hit by foot and mouth disease,” he said, “which cut off some of the work I did over there.”

He was just happy to be back in a flourishing, independent Israel. He was, in many ways, home again.

“There’s a deep Jewish cultural connection,” he said. Not to mention “the beauty of living as part of the majority. There’s a certain sweetness, a certain pleasure in that that even today with our liberal (tolerant) attitudes you don’t quite have here (in the U.S.).”

He and Erlinda traveled to Israel in 2003. He hadn’t been there since 1962 and he marveled at how a once dreary stretch of road outside Tel Aviv “was green all the way to Jerusalem. That is my road. It’s built by Jews.” The whole country’s transformation from dusty outpost to verdant oasis satisfied him. “Israel’s a beautiful place, and it means so much,” he said. “There’s a personal connection.”

 

His much-traveled life-career has taken intriguing turns outside Israel. For example, in 1964 he was hired by the Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia. He said it marked “the only time in my life I worked in the medical profession. I worked with many oncologists and cardiologists in helping them design their studies. In the building there were about 30 prima donna medical and biological researchers and I learned how to get things done” in terms of landing research grants.

He did well but was frustrated. “My marriage was on the brink of breaking down,” he said, “and I was looking to get back into my field. The only opportunity I had to get back was in Nigeria as a swine nutritionist” with the U.S. Agency for International Development in 1967. He introduced adaptive feeding-breeding techniques for the swine industry, advised the government and Peace Corps, lectured, conducted feeding trials and penned extension bulletins for livestock producers. Helen did not accompany him.

Nigeria was in the throes of a civil war, making difficult living conditions even harder. Bloom was largely untouched by the conflict. “The only way USAID people felt this war was in the many checkpoints on the roads, the frequent searches of our vehicles and the presence of troops in training,” he wrote.

A memorable experience was leading a convoy of trucks loaded with 15 tons of seed corn across Nigeria to impoverished Biafran farmers. Despite bad roads, devastated villages, chaotic assundry delays, the delivery was made.

Bloom spent four conflicted years there. The affair he carried on with his housekeeper, Rose, came in the wake of “the powerful loneliness” he felt so many miles from home. “Combined with my own mental anxieties,” he wrote, “it endangered my ability to function, and so it was to the journal I turned to record daily activities to maintain sanity and stability.” To numb the pain there was plenty of Star Beer and dancing under the starlight to the sound of talking drums.

In 1970 the USAID sent him to Zambia to advise/study the local swine industry. He wrote, “Mind you, you find Jews almost anywhere in the world, but I didn’t expect to find any in Zambia.” But he did in the Shapiro family, who adopted him. “I have found Jews in the most exotic places,” he wrote in his African memoirs.He took an extended R & R in Spain, where the bull fights both intrigued and repulsed him. Like most in the crowd he rooted for “the majestic creature.”

 

 

That same year he began his longest overseas idyll, in the Philippines, where he stayed through 1981. He went in the employ of the USAID but eventually became a free agent. He was a nutrition consultant for swine operations and feed mills, he created and marketed his own Rose-N-Bloom brand livestock feeds with another American expatriate and worked for the American Soybean Association and corporate giants Cynamid and Monsanto.

He became close with an American ranch family, the Murrays. Bloom loved riding out on their high grass tropical range. Pastures gave way to jungle. The ranch was accessible only by boat or plane. Getting the steers to market was a big operation.

The Philippines is also where Bloom met and married Erlinda, “my Oriental package.” They started a family together there.

“I came back from the Philippines in ‘81 — to Richmond, Ind. Erlinda had a cousin living-working there. God took me to a place, the Midwest, with corn, soy, cattle, pigs, where I could begin my work again,” he said,

Over the next dozen years his work necessitated more moves. Vigortone Ag Products in Marion, Ohio. Dawes Laboratories in Chicago. At Dawes he developed vitamin-mineral fortifiers for animal industry species. Omaha-based I.M.S. Inc. brought him to Omaha in 1989 as its senior nutritionist.

He stayed here after hooking up with Steve Silver’s Omaha-based International Nutrition in 1990. Meeting up with another Jew in the goy ag field only confirmed Bloom’s belief that far from “purely chance” it was “supposed to happen.” At least he chooses to believe so. The very thought, he said, “is a comfort to me.”

Silver said Bloom brought “a wealth of experience. He worked in helping develop products for use in our overseas markets.” Though mostly retired now, Bloom said,  “I’m still working a little bit. “I’m doing something on the co-product or residue from ethanol production and how to make it more amenable for pigs and poultry and so forth and so on. It’s interesting”

Away from work Bloom enjoys “the little pleasures of the day.” Listening to his beloved Brahms. Praying/socializing at the synagogue. Doing mind exercises.

When reviewing his life, he said, “Sometimes I think, Did I do all these things? It’s hard to imagine.”


%d bloggers like this: