Archive for March, 2012

The Great Migration comes home: Deep South exiles living in Omaha participated in the movement author Isabel Wilkerson writes about in her book, “The Warmth of Other Suns”

March 31, 2012 9 comments

No story is an island.  That’s never been more true than with the vast story told by Isabel Wilkerson in her book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, a meticulous chronicle of the successive waves of African-Americans who migrated from the South to the North and West during the first three quarters of the 20th century.  These migrants went everywhere, including my hometown of Omaha, Neb., where the black population surged in the 1910s and ’20s and occasionally peaked again over the next few decades as blacks left the South for the meatpacking and railroad jobs once plentiful here.  By the early ’70s the migration largely came to a halt and in Omaha at least a kind of reverse migration began that’s still going on today as many blacks left here for better opportunities elsewhere and, ironically enough, they often left for the New South, where cities like Atlanta and Birmingham offered far more employment and cultural opportunities for blacks than Omaha.  But the following article is not so much about that as it is about how Omaha once was a secondary but important receiving center for blacks from the South.  I attempt to balance Wilkerson’s work with the lived experience of a couple men who came here from Evergreen, Ala. – Rich Nared and Rev. Frank Likely.   So while Omaha did not get nearly the influx of black migrants that Chicago or Detroit or a lot of other cities did, it got it’s share to sufficiently alter the cultural and socio-economic landscape here and really that’s beside the point anyway, because the migration’s greatest effects were on the people who participated in this great upheaval from one environment and way of life to another.  The piece will appear soon in The Reader as a sort of preview of Wilkerson’s April 12 talk at Countryside Community United Church of Christ in Omaha, a faith community with a long history of social justice work.

NOTE: Rich or more properly Richard Nared has seved as a source, reference, referral, and liaison for me on several stories.  He hails from a big family, he’s highly personable, and he’s a longtime track coach (he was a high school track star), all of which gives him instant entree with a lot of people, which in turn makes him an invaluable resource for someone like me.  On this blog you’ll find several stories that deal with various elements and experiences of his family, including one – The Ties that Bind, One Family’s Celebration of Native Omaha Days – about the reunion his family holds during the city’s biennial black heritage celebration.  Mr. Nared is is also related to a bona fide celebrity, actress Gabrielle Union, and you can read about the mega reunion she sometimes comes back here for in my piece – A Famil Thing, Bryant-Fisher Reunion.  For that matter, you’ll find numerous stories about Native Omaha Days and other aspects of African-American culture here, past and present.

A sharecropper in the Deep South



The Great Migration comes home: Deep South exiles living in Omaha participated in the movement Author Isabel Wilkerson writes about in her book, “The Warmth of Other Suns”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in The Reader (


The 20th century migration African-Americans made from the South to the North and West expanded black enclaves across the nation. While Omaha didn’t experience a huge influx like Chicago or Los Angeles, it was enough to alter the cultural and socio-economic landscape.

This epoch movement went little examined outside scholarly circles and literary works until Isabel Wilkerson‘s 2010 nonfiction book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist will discuss her book in an April 12 talk at Countryside Community  United Church of Christ, 8787 Pacific Street.

The 7 p.m. program is free.  A free-will donation of $10 is suggested.

Rich Nared and his uncle Rev. Frank Likely migrated here separately from their shared hometown of Evergreen, Ala. The many branches of their large extended family includes the Olivers, Unions, Holts, Butlers, Turners and Ammons, all of whom are a presence in Omaha.

Unorganized, with no discernible leader, the Great Migration played out over generations on backroads and rail lines, by auto, truck, bus and any means necessary. From the 1910s through the 1960s millions pulled up stakes for their chance at self-determination.

A family relation, Clinton Nared, says families like his came North  for “a new freedom” and “a better life.” Different lines of the family settled in different parts of the North and over the generations spread all over the country.

The sheer numbers of those migrating meant a demographic shift whose profound consequences persist. Many receiving cities, says Wilkerson, did not make proper provisions for the new population, with blacks relegated to poor, overcrowded districts abutting immigrants. Limited available employment led to tensions, further flamed by racism. Blacks were refused housing and denied jobs. Outright discrimination, protests, strikes, riots and other acts of violence further isolated blacks.

“That in and of itself is a tragedy because much of this happened as a result of a complete misunderstanding of who the people were,” says Wilkerson. “The people who had arrived in these cities came from different parts of the world but they were all people of the land who had made this great leap of faith that life might be better far from home. They landed in these big, forbidding, anonymous cities where their labor was wanted but there wasn’t clarity as what to do with the people. All of them were struggling, trying to make a way in this alien place.

“One group was pitted against the other as if they were direct competition to one another and what one got the other one was losing. We are still living with that to this day.”

Likely and Nared  did well here. Each married and raised children in designated black northeast neighborhoods. Despite segregation and discrimination, they thrived compared to the conditions they left behind.

They estimate hundreds of relatives and friends ventured North. It’s not by accident or coincidence so many residents of a small, backroads Ala. town uprooted themselves from their sharecropping life for an unfamiliar Midwestern city. Transplants would return with news of better jobs and more opportunities. Expatriates not only extolled the North’s virtues, they often made a show of their improved fortunes.

Likely recalls former Evergreen resident Aaron Samuels coming back in style to tout Omaha’s “booming packing houses.” He was hooked.

“This guy was down there bragging and I decided I would go with him to make some of that big money.”

Likely got on at the Cudahy packing plant. Before long he, too, returned South, strutting his own success, encouraging others to follow.

“I looked successful and I was successful. dressing nice and driving a nice car. I had money in my pocket. Some of them rode back out here with me. Quite a few of them. They just liked what they seen of me.”

Until the ’70s blacks traveling to the South “had to be very careful,” Likely says, to mind lingering Jim Crow attitudes and practices.

He says the motivation to migrate was not to chase some promised land but to pursue a better life. Down South families like his could never get ahead, always in debt to owners. He recalls earning 35 cents an hour as a farm hand and a few dollars for picking 350 pounds of cotton versus making ten times that laboring in Omaha.

Wilkerson says the economic imperative is what drove most black migrants: “They saw themselves as making a decision for themselves and their families. Ultimately this was about a search for freedom. For the first time in their lives these people were the master of their own fate.”

The South’s cruelty and treachery were added motivations to flee. The man Nared’s named after, Richard “Bud” Nared, began the family’s exodus when he fled for his life. As his nephew tells it, Bud’s mother was riding home in a mule-pulled wagon from the local general store when several white men stopped and harassed her, tearing her blouse. When she got home, Bud extracted the men’s names, grabbed his Winchester and tracked them down, shooting and killing two of them. Under imminent threat of lynching Bud’s family and friends hid him in the woods before secreting him out at night. He went to Omaha, where Evergreen natives preceded him.

“Most of us came here because we had to. We had to leave the South in the middle of the night,” says Rich Nared.

Likely says some met their end or went missing. “I known ’em to get beat up, I known ’em to get killed, and some we don’t know what happened to ’em. Disappeared. Nobody’s seen ’em since. Had an uncle who left. Don’t know where he went.”

Wilkerson often encounters such stories. “I hear that all the time – that some act of violence or threat of violence propelled somebody in the family North,” she says.

Likely himself had reason to fear for his safety. He says he once got into an altercation with a white store owner and rather than be hit with a stick the man brandished Likely clanged a can of beans off his head. When the owner came looking for him, firing a pistol in the direction of his home, Likely got a shotgun and sprayed a buckshot warning towards the man, who fled. Another time, Likely was in his car headed to a dance when he came upon a group of Klansmen barricading the highway. The mob tried pulling him from the vehicle but Lively managed to navigate a ditch and outrace his pursuers to Bruton, Ala., where he was arrested and jailed.

When the North beckoned, he went.

“I was tired of the South. I heard about up North you didn’t have to tolerate the white people as we done there. I had enough of that. I would have been dead now anyway because I just wouldn’t take it.”

The prospect of escaping Jim Crow constraints and Ku Klux Klan dangers and making decent living wages proved a powerful lure. Exiled Bud Nared persuaded family to join him North. Rich Nared came with his family at Bud’s urging.

“He sent for us,” Nared says. “He’s the reason we came up here.”

It’s much the same pattern immigrant families followed.

Picking up and moving was harder for some than others. Strong attachment to family and land is why many stayed put. White bosses could make leaving difficult. Then there was the fear of the unknown.

Other migration patterns saw blacks recruited to fill wartime work shortages. The Omaha Public Schools brought black teachers from the South through a federal program offering new hires graduate studies.

Nared was 4 when he arrived but the South was never far for him and his brothers as they spent every summer in Ala. with their grandparents.

“I loved the South,” says Nared, who walked behind his grandfather as he plowed. “I’m a country boy at heart.”

He’s proudly kept his country ways, too.

Likely notes some blacks who migrated here later returned home for good. Many adult children relocated to the South, where, he says, “They’re doing better than we are. It’s changed a lot.”

The Evergreen exiles are holding a July reunion in Ala. God willing, Nared and Likely will do their elder best to educate the young’uns about what once was.

Wilkerson’s talk is part of an annual lecture series by Countryside’s Center for Faith Studies.

Omaha Legends: Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce Business Hall of Fame Inductees Cut Across a Wide Swath of Endeavors

March 28, 2012 3 comments

Every city of any size has its movers and shakers and star performers in the world of commerce. One function of a chamber of commerce is to recognize its local impact players. It’s no different in my city, Omaha, or with the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, which has a Business Hall of Fame for just this purpose.  The following story, to appear in the April issue of Metro Magazine, provides mini-profiles of the latest crop of hall inductees, whose diverse cross-section of endeavors proves there are all manner of ways to make a difference in the commerce of a city.  Most of those being honored are not well known outside of Omaha, but both couples being inducted this year are: Paul and Lori Hogan have created a mega national and international business in their heavily franchised Home Instead Senior Care, complete with a line of books and videos, all of which taken together have helped them nearly corner the market on nonmedical home services for seniors; Jun and Ree Kaneko are, outside of Warren Buffett and Alexander Payne, Omaha’s superstar residents for his much-in-demand sculpture and opera design work and for her artist residency administration expertise and, as a couple, for their much admired community art and creativity projects, including the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts and the KANEKO Open Space for Your Mind complex.









Omaha Legends: Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce Business Hall of Fame Inductees Cut Across a Wide Swath of Endeavors

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to be published in Metro Magazine

The latest Omaha Chamber of Commerce Business Hall of Fame inductees include a publisher, a PR maven, a businessman-turned-politician, two couples following their passion and “a cotton-picker from Texas” who turned sundries into gold. An April 24 Holland Performing Arts Center gala honors these legends.

Bob Hoig

Bob Hoig

Bob Hoig was bumming around New York City when he wound up in the Daily News building. He had no intention of being a journalist, but he needed a job, so he applied. The next thing he knew he was a copy boy. Thus began a 56-year and counting journalism career that’s wend its way from New York to Miami to Nebraska, where the Kansas-Colorado native had roots.

After reporting stints with United Press International and the Omaha World-Herald and editing the Douglas County Gazette, he formed the Midlands Business Journal in 1975 with Rapid Printing owner Zane Randall.

“I felt this market needed a niche paper that looked into small business success stories. That’s something nobody was doing at the time. All this came in the face of many prophecies of doom,” says Hoig, who went solo when Randall bowed out.

Hoig had confidence in his own abilities. “I’ve always been a good salesman and I think I’m a good enough writer and editor that I had the components you need to start a successful paper,” he says. Besides, he knows how to balance a ledger.

The veteran publisher has had hit and miss publications and he’s always learned from his successes and failures.

Satisfaction, he says, comes from “producing a good product that will survive, employ people and not be a burden on anyone,” adding. “I find this work very ennobling because it keeps me alive, involved and thinking.”



Linda Lovgren




Linda Lovgren

When Linda Lovgren left an ad agency to launch her own Lovgren Marketing Group in 1978 she says, “It never occurred to me I could fail. I just kind of looked at it as this is the next step in what I’m going to do, and if it works out that is spectacular, and if it doesn’t there will be another door opening.”

Going in business for herself, she says, was “a defining moment. It takes time to grow a business, to grow relationships, and one connection leads to another connection. It’s this large linkage you begin to build.”

With few women entrepreneurs around, her mentors were all men, among them then-Chamber president Bob Bell. She went on to be the Chamber’s first female president in 2003. She advises aspiring entrepreneurs find the right balance between work and family, just as she did as a new wife and mother.

The Iowa native’s long given back to her adopted Nebraska, volunteering with the State Fair board, Nebraska Kidney Foundation, Mid-America Boy Scouts of America and Habitat for Humanity,

She says she derives satisfaction from meeting the needs of clients, staff and family and “knowing you have accomplished something that has made a difference for all of those people.”



 Mike Fahey
Mike Fahey
CenturyLink Center Omaha



Mike Fahey

Heeding his older brother’s advice, Mike Fahey made “the most important” decision of his life when he moved here in 1971 to complete his education at Creighton University. It set him on a path to become an entrepreneur and two-term Mayor.

“It taught me you should never stop trying to improve yourself,” he says.

His next turning point was starting his own business, Land Title Company. “That certainly changed my entire life. It put me on the road to success. No longer was I working for a paycheck per se, I was really trying to build a business. There’s a lot of risk in that but I had confidence in my abilities. It taught me right away you’re only as strong as the people you have around you and I was very fortunate to get myself surrounded by some really good people.”

He regards growing his business his biggest success. “It brought me the greatest joy and with that it brought success. Creating jobs for other people was very rewarding as well.”

He says he applied a maxim from business to the mayor’s office: “Surround yourself with smart people, give them all the authority they need to do their jobs, and then hold them accountable for their outcomes. You get better results.”

He’s proud to have moved Omaha forward with signature projects like the CenturyLink Center and Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge. Today he chairs the Omaha Community Foundation and sits on several boards. “Community service is a great way to pay back a city that’s been extremely good to me and my family,”



Paul and Lori Hogan
Home Instead Center for Successful Aging



Paul and Lori Hogan

A confluence of events led Paul and Lori Hogan to conceive Home Instead Senior Care. As he learned the franchise model working for Merry Maids he noticed his failing grandmother rebound with the help of family caregivers.

“I saw that you didn’t have to be doctor or a nurse to really have a huge impact on   someone’s health, particularly a senior,” says Paul. “That experience helped me see the opportunity that existed. Back when we started there were just two options for seniors needing support, a nursing home or your daughter’s home. Now there’s a whole proliferation of options. We’re one of them. Preparation and opportunity met, and we took the risk.”

Lori says having a passion for what they consider their mission is part of their success. Another is filling “a real need” among seniors. Quality caregivers and franchisees are critical, too.

Paul credits mentors Tom Guy and Dallen Peterson of Merry Maids with helping make Home Instead a reality. But

The company’s success has allowed the Hogans to pay forward their good fortune through the Home Instead Senior Care Foundation, the Center for Successful Aging and various resources for family caregivers. “When you are given much, much is expected,” says Lori, “and we really feel it is important to give back to our community and we’re so grateful we’re able to do that.”



Jun and Ree Kaneko
Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts



Jun and Ree Kaneko

The former Ree Schonlau was an Old Market pioneer when artist Jun Kaneko came at her invitation. Among the few who saw potential for the old wholesale produce district, she established the Craftsmen Guild and Alternative Worksite, Artist-in-Industry Program. Jun shared her vision and the couple formed the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, whose artist residency program is world-renowned.

More recently they opened KANEKO, a complex of creativity spaces.

Together, they’ve helped grow and put the Omaha arts community on the map. She’s one of America’s leading art residency advocates and experts. He found a nurturing place for his art in Omaha, where he’s developed his studio. Omaha is where he first made his popular dangos and began designing for operas.

They appreciate this community making their endeavors possible. “We’ve had patrons who are very inspiring and supportive, that believe in us and stand behind what we’re trying to do even though they know it’s a tough row and maybe a little avant garde,” she says. “Jun feels extremely fortunate, as I do, to be able to have realized those dreams here.”

She says there’s also pride in being recognized “as catalysts” for attracting commerce and attention to Omaha and for spurring the dynamic cultural renaissance the city’s enjoying. “Any mature city’s going to have the arts involved in it and now we have enough. I’m really pleased to see what’s happening. The cultural in-fill has finally caught up with those of us who were out here hanging on.”

Their multi-phase KANEKO project is a gift. Says Jun, “I always wanted to return something to this country. Lots of people helped me to be what I am now, so I feel I need to contribute something back. The best thing we know is creative activity” and thus their “open space for the mind.” He expects the organization and its mission “will keep progressing.”



A typical Pamida store
Witherspoon Mansion



D.J. Witherspoon

The son of a Texas migrant worker, D.J. Witherspoon was a teacher and coach in the Longhorn State before moving to Omaha in the Dust Bowl years and founding Gibson Products Company with his father-in-law. Witherspoon’s purchase of Marks Distributing Company introduced him to his future business partner, Nebraska native Lee Wegener, and together the two men formed Pamida, a chain of discount general merchandise stores serving rural America.

Pamida was a play on his three sons names: Patrick, Michael and David.

The company’s strategic expansion went viral in the 1960s and ’70s. Witherspoon, the cotton-picker from Texas, and Wegener, the corn-picker from Nebraska, followed a proven formula of acquiring existing businesses in underserved locales and converting them into Pamida stores. Known as an inspirational leader, Witherspoon engendered loyalty among his employees, many from rural backgrounds like his own.

Witherspoon, the company’s majority stock holder, sold Pamida to its workers through an employee stock option plan in 1981. He retired as chairman and enjoyed a life of conspicuous consumption and philanthropy.

Reservations for the 6 p.m. gala dinner and 7:30 p.m. induction ceremony are due April 17 by registering online at

Making the case for a Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame

March 27, 2012 23 comments

When I wrote this piece several years ago the Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame was a concept, not a reality, but I am happy to report that much of its vision has been realized.  The men behind the hall, Ernie Britt and Robert Faulkner, know better than most that the state has produced and been a proving ground for an impressive gallery of accomplished black athletes for the better part of a century but that little formal recognition existed commemorating their accomplishments.  Britt and Faulkner thought the time long overdue to organize a hall that gives these high achievers a permanent place of honor, particularly when many African-American youths today do not know about these greats and could draw inspiration from them.  The founders also wanted to make the hall a vehicle for honoring top black prep athletes of today and for showcasing their talents.  The hall’s early inductees include figures whose names are familiar to anyone, anywhere with more than a passing knowledge of sports history: Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Gale Sayers, Ron Boone, Marlin Briscoe, Johnny Rodgers.  They are all Omaha natives.  But the hall is open to any black athlete, male or female, who made their mark in Nebraska, even if they just went to school here or played professionally here.  Thus, this expanded pool of honorees encompasses figures like Bob Brown, Paul Silas, Charlie Green, Nate Archibald, Mike Rozier, Will Shields, and Tommy Frazier. There have been several induction classes by now and I must admit that each year there’s someone I didn’t know about before or had forgotten about, and that’s why the organization and its recogniton is so important – it educates the public about individuals deserving our attention. Britt and Faulkner, by the way, are inducted members of the hall themselves: the former as an athlete and the latter as a coach.



Making the case for a Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (


Robert Faulkner feels it’s a shameful thing African American visitors to Omaha, much less area residents, can barely point to a single venue where local black achievements hold a place of honor. As the native Omahan is quick to note, the black community here can claim many accomplished individuals as its own. These figures encompass the breadth of human endeavor. But perhaps none are more impressive than the athletic greats who excelled in and out of Omaha’s inner city.

“What do you have for some of the greatest athletes that have ever walked the playing fields or the courts? Where can you see them up on a pedestal? There is nothing,” Faulkner said. “You’re talking about some of the greatest athletes in the world right from here,” said his lifelong friend Ernie Britt III, who rattled off the names Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Gale Sayers, Ron Boone, Marlon Briscoe, Johnny Rodgers and Ahman Green as a sampling of Omaha’s black athletic progeny.

The distinguished list grows larger when you include area coaches (Don Benning at UNO) and talents who came to coach (Willis Reed at Creighton) or compete (Mike Rozier at Nebraska, Nate Archibald with the Kansas City/Omaha Kings, etc.).

All of this is why Faulkner and Britt recently formed the Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame (NBSHF). The grassroots non-profit is a hall of fame in name only thus far, but that doesn’t stop these former athletes from sharing their vision for the real thing — a brick-and-mortar hall where folks can learn a history otherwise absent.

“It’s about remembering and promoting legacy and culture,” Faulkner said. “Our kids need to realize there are people they can look up to. There are people we looked up to. And these heroes…can live on. In our community pur kids don’t have those kinds of heroes because they’re never promoted anymore. They’re forgotten about. None of their exploits outside athletics is publicized. If they didn’t reach the highest levels in sport, then even their athletic exploits fade.”

He and Britt maintain there’s a serious disconnect between today’s black youths and the local athletic legends that could serve as role models. They sense even young athletes don’t know the greats who preceded them.

“Right now you walk into any school or onto any playground and go up to the finest athlete and throw out those names to him or her, and they don’t know what you’re talking about,” Faulkner said. “They don’t know who Bob Boozer is, and that’s the best basketball player ever from here. An all-state and all-American, an Olympic gold medalist, a first-round draft choice, an NBA champion.” They don’t even know who Johnny Rodgers is, and he’s a Heisman Trophy winner.

“They don’t know because there’s no center or vehicle or forum where kids can be exposed to this history. That’s what we don’t have and trying to develop the Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame is one of the things we need to do so our kids can see the legacy of people who did all these things.”

Faulkner, an Omaha Public Schools specialist, said his 35-year career as an educator/coach of high risk youth has taught him “our kids right now need people they can look up to. We have to really show them there is something to work for and to word toward and to work beyond. So exposing them to things our people have achieved is something our culture needs. You’re supposed to know heritage, you’re supposed to know legacy, you’re supposed to have heroes. You’re supposed to honor the people who paved the way in order to keep your culture going.”

Aside from heroes they might be introduced to, he said visitors to a hall might well see a family member, friend or old schoolmate, coach or teacher feted there. Other than small displays at the Durham Western Heritage Museum and at the now closed Great Plains Black History Museum, he said, “there hasn’t been anything in terms of trying to get that exposure out there.” The Durham’s in the midst of a permanent gallery reorganization that is to include an Omaha Sports Hall of Fame.

Strapped for resources, the NBSHF’s still more concept than reality. During its first public event, a metro all-star high school basketball game at North High on June 10, Congressman and former Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne spoke at halftime and four area students received athlete of the year awards. Proceeds went to a fund the group hopes to tap for the hall’s future home.

“Getting a building is very, very important because if you don’t have a place of enshrinement you don’t have a hall of fame,” Faulkner said. “So we need a place to enshrine names” and display plaques and memorabilia. Until a permanent site is secured, he and Britt say the North Omaha Boys & Girls Club has agreed to provide temporary space. No date’s set for when the hall’s first displays will go up there.

The two men are future hall enshrinees themselves. As head football, basketball and track coach at Dominican, later, Father Flanagan High Schools, Faulkner consistently produced winning teams. Britt was an all-state football and basketball player and a gold medalist sprinter at Omaha Tech High.

Once a home for the hall’s found, Faulkner wants to honor men/women who’ve succeeded in and out of athletics, people like Boozer, Rodgers, Mike Green, Dick Davis, Larry Station, Paul Bryant, Maurtice Ivy. “I think it would be very good for the entire Omaha community to see these fantastic success stories,” he said. Realizing this “will be an uphill battle, he concedes, “but the fact is we’re going to keep trying because we know it’s important.” “We’re going to make it,” Britt said.

The pair plan to produce a booklet that lets potential donors see the vision for the hall on paper. A website is also planned. New fundraisers are in the works. Tax deductible gifts or memorabilia donations can be made by phone 250-0383 or by mail to Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame, P.O. Box 19417, Omaha, Neb., 68119.

UPDATE: The hall does indeed have a website now.  Check it out at  The organization still lacks a permanent brick-and-mortar home, though it does have a dedicated space displayin inductees’ plaques at the North Omaha Boys & Girls Club.

Garry Gernandt’s Unexpected Swing Vote Wins Approval of Equal Employment Protection for LGBTs in Omaha; A Lifetime Serving Diverse Constituents Led Him to ‘We’re All in the Human Race’ Decision

March 27, 2012 4 comments

Omaha and progressive are usually not synonomous terms but a recent vote by the city council enacting equal employment protection and redress to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender residents from workplace discrimination marked a step forward in this rather conservative enclave that prefers playing it safe on controversial issues like this.  Most surprising to some was that the swing vote on the 4-3 decision approving the ordinance advanced by councilman Ben Gray was cast by Garry Gernandt, who up until the March 13 final deliberation had opposed the measure.  This piece tries to give some insight into what may have made the enigmatic military veteran and ex-cop keep an open mind and ultimately change his mind and his vote.  In an interview he says he didn’t do it so much to make Omaha a more progressive and welcoming and therefore attractive place to live and work in.  Instead, he keeps coming back to the point that it was simply the right thing to do because discrimiation in the workplace is wrong and “we’re all in the human race.”



Garry Gernandt



Garry Gernandt’s Unexpected Swing Vote Wins Approval of Equal Employment Protection for LGBTs in Omaha; A Lifetime Serving Diverse Constituents Led Him to ‘We’re All  in the Human Race’ Decision

©by Leo Adam Biga

Origianlly appeared in The Reader (


After weeks of public testimony and closed door meetings on the hotly contested equal employment ordinance giving legal protection to gay and transgender residents, the Omaha City Council decided the issue March 13.

Three-term District 4 (South Omaha) representative Garry Gernandt surprised many when he reversed his position and cast the swing vote in favor. The Democrat had resisted the proposal, even broaching an amendment limiting protections to city employees, Then he withdrew the amendment and voted yes. The ordinance passed 4-3, straight down party lines. Mayor Jim Suttle signed it into law March 15. The new law took affect March 28.

As his turn to vote came Gernandt says he employed a favorite mental exercise to sort through the “dust storm of emotions” and arguments on both sides.

“I’ve trained myself to do a collage of things that go across my mind on very sensitive issues, and that’s what was happening on this one. Everything going across my mind all came back to the fact we’re all still part of the human race. That was pretty much the reasoning behind it.”

He insists “there was no arm twisting” from Suttle or party officials. “I’m telling you the bottom line on my vote on this thing is that we’re all in the human race. You don’t have to like the GLBT lifestyle, but what was before us was discrimination in the workplace based upon sexual identity and orientation.” He says giving citizens the right to file complaints with Omaha‘s Human Rights and Relations Department to seek redress for getting fired or suffering other workplace discrimination or being refused service due to their orientation “was just the right thing to do.”

“Let’s just realize that and move on,” he says, adding, “I’m sure I probably ticked off some people, and I have to live with that.”

Gernandt’s vote makes sense in the context of his life serving people. A moderate coalition-builder who shuns the spotlight, he grew up in the cultural melting pot of South O and saw yet more diversity as a U.S. Marine and career Omaha Police officer, retiring as a sergeant in 2000. He says while growing up in the 20th and Vinton Streets area his broad-minded parents encouraged him to sample the different ethnicities surrounding them.

“I think experiencing the diversity opened every corpuscle in my existence so that I became like a sponge and just soaked all these things up. I stayed open and learned.”

He says he followed the same mantra during his military and police careers, where he practiced his people and communication skills with a broad range of folks.

“I like people, I like being around people, I like helping people,” says Gernandt, who’s seen the immigrant base of South O change from European to Latin American and African.

For his first Council campaign he pledged to do a better job than incumbent Paul Koneck responding to constituent complaints and returning phone calls. “A couple very simple things I got very well-attuned to doing in the military and on the police department, where you thrive on information. You’ve got to pay attention, you’ve got to listen to people, you’ve got to get back in touch with them if they call you.



Decades of work with the Deer Park Neighborhood Association and 11 years on the Council have reinforced for him that politics is “the art of compromise.”

“If you’ve got a problem I try to get the solutions at the table and get the best possible result. If you’ve got arguing factions then let’s talk it out at a round table and see if we can come to some middle ground that everybody can live with.”

When District 2 City Councilman Ben Gray first floated the anti-bias ordinance in 2010 the debate turned ugly in the legislative chamber. Gernandt rejected it as too “thermal” to support then but he did promise to reconsider the matter should new data surface the next time.

Gernandt was turned off by the rancor two years ago.

“Both the proponents and the opponents came into the chamber barrels loaded, and in my opinion when you are that angry you should not be asking for something as far as major change,” he says.

Gernandt, often an ally of Gray’s, knew his colleague would bring the ordinance back and when he did the tenor of the deliberation was far different.

“Seventeen months went by and this thing came back to us in a more plausible, palatable way, very little emotion. Facts on both sides I think were eloquently stated. There may have been a little bit of fiction in there as well,” he says, referring to survey results purportedly showing broad support and scriptural passages offered as admonition against it.

“So I think the approach was a 180 degree turnaround from what it was.”

What turned him off this time were heavy-handed tactics by fundamentalist Christians denouncing the ordinance on moral grounds. For Gernandt this wasn’t about morality, it was about fairness, quality of life and equal protection. Period.

He expects the next hot button issue the Council will wrestle with is the police auditor. He’s opposed to it, but he’s willing to hear differing viewpoints and perhaps be swayed by another mental montage if and when it comes to a vote.

Linda Lovgren’s sterling career earns her Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce Business Hall of Fame induction

March 26, 2012 6 comments

Wherever one lives there are those high achievers whose professional work and community service connote on them the epitome of respect, and that’s certainly the case with the subject of this profile, Linda Lovgren, a marketing-public relations expert known for her keen strategic thinking and execution.  I can attest to her not only being extremely professional but eminently approachable as well.   She’s just what you’d expect from a Midwest entrepreneur, too, with her legendary work ethic and unassilable integrity combined with that down-to-earth humility that makes her rather uncomfortable talking about herself.  Of course, she makes her living polishing the image of others and so naturally she prefers deflecting attention away from herself to her clients.  But it’s easy to see why clients would develop an easy rapport with her and place their trust in her.  Yes, she’s as salt-of-the-earth as they come.  But don’t assume that means she’s unsophisticated.  Her blue plate client roster is proof she’s fully engaged in 21st century   marketing-public relations techniques.


Linda Lovgren’s sterling career earns her Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce Business Hall of Fame induction

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons


“I’ve kind of always been a carpe diem or seize the day sort of person,” says new Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce Business Hall of Fame inductee Linda Lovgren.

The highly respected public relations maven began her Lovgren Marketing Group in 1978 at the age of 30. It was an era when relatively few women, especially women that young, went in business for themselves. Growing up and working on her family’s far northwest Iowa farm taught the former Linda Hoeppner the independence and conviction necessary for being an entrepreneur. Her parents were both teachers but they left that field to run a farm and later formed another business. With that enterprising model as an example, Lovgren made the leap from working for others to working for herself only eight years after graduating college.

“It never occurred to me I could fail,” she says.

She’s keenly aware of the glass ceiling many women report encountering in the corporate world, then and now, but she didn’t experience it herself.

“I felt like when I started my business I had an equal opportunity to go after new business or to make people aware of what I was doing and to integrate into the community,” she says. “Now those aren’t things you do overnight, it takes time to grow a business, to grow relationships, and one connection leads to another connection. It’s this large linkage you begin to build.”

With businesswomen scarce then, her mentors were the opposite sex.

“As I discovered there weren’t very many women in business and so that made it a little bit tougher, and so a lot of my business mentors have been men.”

She says former Chamber president Bob Bell was a big help at the start.

“I went down to get a Chamber membership and I met Bob and told him what I was going to do and he said, ‘Well. let’s see what we can get you involved in that would be good.’ He kind of started to help connect me in various ways.”

Those connections not only aided her in getting established but forged a strong relationship with the Chamber that culminated in her serving as its first female chairman in 2003.

Several other prominent men have taken her under their wing.

Hal Daub was clearly one of them,” says Lovgren, who’s been active in Republican party politics. “I got to know Hal when he was running for Congress and he hired me to do marketing work with him and we became very good, lifelong friends. In fact, when he was running for reelection in 1980 I had young children at home and one night we needed to have a meeting but I couldn’t leave because my husband had some obligation and I had kids to put to bed. So the meeting came to my house and Hal put my kids to bed. He read them the stories while his staff and I worked on the campaign. We always chuckle about that a little bit.

“Roy Smith, another Omaha icon, was a great mentor. I met him through the Chamber and Hal. Mike McCarthy of the McCarthy Group has been a great business advisor to me over the years.”

The late Bob Reilly, an Omaha PR-advertising legend, proved an invaluable resource as well.

“When I first started in business I realized I knew a lot about advertising and public relations but I didn’t know a lot about running the business. I didn’t know the business management practices for billing and managing. I called up Bob, who had been a partner in Holland, Dreves, Reilly and was teaching at UNO at the time, and I said, ‘Can I hire you to consult with me and help me through this startup phase?’ We talked things over at what turned out to be a long lunch and we developed a long friendship and great relationship.”

For someone as forward-thinking and confident as Lovgren, making a go of it on her own was a strategic move to advance her career. She entered the adventure with a come-what-may attitude that prepared her for whatever happened.

“As I look back on it now I just kind of looked at it as this is the next step in what I’m going to do, and if it works out that is spectacular, and it has been, and if it doesn’t work out, there will be another door opening.

Besides, when she and her husband moved to Omaha after college she tasted the disappointment of not finding the dream job she had her sights set on, yet she landed on her feet anyway and soon found the pathway to her career.

“I really had wanted a job in an advertising agency,” she says. “I had gone around and knocked on all the doors and dropped off my resume and nothing happened.”

She considered working in television, whether in front of or behind the camera. She acted in theater productions and did public speaking throughout high school and college. She studied broadcast journalism as part of her communications program at Indiana University, where she interned at the school’s TV station.

“I really wanted to work in that creative field of writing and production.”

Among other things, she was the IU station’s weather girl. “I knew nothing about the weather,” she admits. “It was all about the performance,” And about a pretty face and nice figure. Thus, she says, “my first job interview in Omaha was to do the weather on KMTV. But Carol Scott got the job.” With her TV and advertising aspirations foiled, Lovgren moved onto the next best thing.

“I went to work for KRCB Radio in Council Bluffs. I was doing the writing for all the direct accounts and doing a lot of voice-over production. If the news person got sick I did the news. It was a small family station at the time. This was before it was acquired by the Mitchell Broadcasting Company.”

Linda Lovgren briefs the media at a CSO press conference in 2010 at Spring Lake Park.

Linda Lovgren briefs the media at a CSO press conference in 2010 at Spring Lake Park.

Her big break finally came when veteran ad man Howard Winslow offered her a position with his Winslow Advertising agency.

“His clients included Sears, McDonalds, Shavers Food Marts and a number of retail stores. As creative director I was the writer-producer of all the spots we did. I really was well-suited for that. I enjoyed working with the clients.”

In seven years with Winslow she says “I got a broad education from him. That was a good foundation.” He was the first in that string of male mentors who aided her professional development.

Branching out on her own after working for Winslow was “a defining moment” in her personal and professional life, she says. Making it an even greater challenge was the fact she had a 16-month old child at home, with her second child on the way. Going it alone while pregnant was a big decision. She knew being a mother, wife and owner-operator would severely test her and the family.

She got the idea to go in business for herself when, she says, “some of the clients I had been working with came to me and said, ‘We know in a few months you’re going to take some time off but we would really like to continue to work with you.’

So I thought about that for awhile and decided I was going to start the company.”

She says she and her husband, Robert W. Lovgren, then a fresh from college Mutual of Omaha manager and now longtime executive with the company, discussed the pros and cons. “We talked about all of this and he said, “I know you really well and I know you’re not going to be happy unless you try because you’ll always look back and say, Should I have done this?’ So I had great support from him to start with.”


She concedes there were sacrifices and struggles being a working mom but she wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

“I know I was a happier person because I was working, which means my children were probably happier kids. It meant that when we spent family time together we spent very focused, productive family time together, and so that’s a positive. It was just a matter of figuring out how to make all the pieces fit.”

Finding the right balance, she says, was key. That was no easy thing either for this self-described “workaholic.” Having a driven nature is characteristic of virtually every successful entrepreneur and she’s no different. Her hectic schedule as a new business owner and mother was all she could handle.

“I had childcare in the mornings, so that”s when I’d see my clients and do my work  outside of the house. Then I’d come home in the afternoons and do naps and activities with the kids, fix dinner at night and put the kids to bed. We would do that as a family. And then I’d resume work again.

“I’ve always been a late night person which probably was a good thing in this case.

I would always enjoy that peaceful time in the evening to work and think about the strategies for my clients and do creative things.

She says young entrepreneurs need “to think about how they want to use their time and what kind of balance do they want in their life. As their business grows and if they have a family then the pressures on priorities start to grow as well. There were times when I don’t think I did the best of job balancing those priorities but now when I talk to my kids who are adults and have children of their own they say, ‘Boy, Mom, we didn’t realize it then, but we’re kind of wondering how that all worked out.’ And it did, too, because they both have great families.”

A favorite way she maintains balance is by enjoying the great outdoors, particularly her sport of choice, fly fishing.

“I grew up on the Minnesota-Iowa border and my mom and my dad and my brother and my grandmother loved to fish. I learned to spin fish for bullheads and crappies and bass when I was growing up.”

She says she hadn’t fished for maybe 20 years when she and her husband were off on one of their backpacking, hiking, camping trips in Estes Park, Colorado and she noticed a promotion for a fly fishing instructional.

“I thought, That looks really interesting, I’m going to go do that, so I went on this Sunday night four-hour excursion to learn how to fly fish and that was it. I have taken to it you might say like a fish to water. I love it. Part of the reason I love it is it’s physical and what I do day to day isn’t very physical.

“I also enjoy the peace and quiet and just the serene atmosphere. It’s just you and the fish. It’s an opportunity to think about things that aren’t day to day work. It’s just kind of that emotional release and, of course, catching a fish is a lot of fun. It has skill and it has art. But most of all it has an emotional attachment with the people I’m around when I fly fish.”

The sport took on deeper meaning for her when it became part of her own and other women’s ongoing healing as breast cancer survivors.

“About three years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer and I was home recovering from a minor surgery reading a fly fishing magazine and there was  something about an organization called Casting for Recovery. It’s a program that does fly fishing retreats for breast cancer survivors because the therapy of the fly fishing is good for the muscles in the arms and chest area. I contacted them and got together a group of friends and we had our first retreat in Nebraska last September.

Fourteen women. We went out to Valentine and fished on the Snake River.”

She emphasizes she was “very lucky” in her own bout with cancer because the doctors caught it early.”

Life throws curves at her like it does at everyone else sand she says it helps to cultivate positive attitudes and friends.

“I guess you could say I always had confidence but it didn’t mean I always got what I wanted and I think that’s really an important lesson to learn, too – that sometimes even though you think you’re the best or you’ve done it the best you aren’t going to win all the time, and in a way those are good growing experiences, too. I’ve never regretted and I’ve never looked back.

“I surround myself with a very eclectic group of people that I like to be around. They’re all energetic, they’re all achievers in their own way. Some are professionals, some are stay-at-home moms. Some of them are my fly fish pals. They all like to get out and do things. They’re all looking forward to what’s the next adventure we can have. They’re also people that are very loyal to each other. If you need help and you call them, they’re there.”

It helped that she knew what she wanted when she launched Lovgren Marketing. Thirty four years later she still looks forward to coming to the office every day. Her hunger has never left and it’s reflected in the can-do attitude she brings to the image enhancement, branding, message control and media liaison work she does.

“Get there, do what you can, do it with enthusiasm, and if things don’t go the way you want, pick up the pieces and find out how to put them back on track. That’s what I love about it, and no two days are ever the same.

“What keeps me going every day is that I really love what I do and I enjoy the  relationships I build with clients.”

One of her firm’s big ongoing projects is the Clean Solutions for Omaha or CSO Program that includes sewer separation in northeast Omaha. Lovgren Marketing has been recognized for its work on the project with multiple awards from the Public Relations Society of America – Nebraska Chapter.

“When the city’s CSO project came along we were selected to do the public involvement work on it, so for the last six-plus years we’ve been doing public education in all sorts of fashions: marketing materials, media management and training, speaking to civic groups, working with schools and doing presentations to students about the environmental reasons for the project and how it will affect them into the future.

“It will be 15 years before the project’s implementation is finished and many years beyond that before we finish paying for it. I’ve gotten to meet people from literally every corner of this city, from the Mormon Bridge to Bellevue, from the Missouri River to Elkhorn, and I really get energized by talking to other people and finding out what they’re thinking and why they’re thinking it.”

She says public involvement projects like this are a new niche for her firm.

“When we started out we were primarily a retail advertising organization. We worked for restaurants, a clothing store, an appliance store, a car dealer, a bank and for Countryside village shopping center. Krug’s Men’s and Boys Clothing was our original client. We were very active in political campaigns for two and a half decades. About seven years ago we started doing a lot of work with municipal organizations.”

Lovgren Marketing Group led the advocacy campaign for the Omaha Convention Center and Arena bond issue.

Her company also does its share of earned media and event marketing. “We’ve done things like the ground breaking and ribbon cutting for Pay Pal and Gallup and the CenturyLink Center.”

As communications has evolved so has her business.

“The public relations field today is not just about news conferences and news releases,” she says. “It involves Facebook and Twitter and all the social media activities that are available now to help people get their messages out and to help manage messages. So staying up with technology, understanding how that technology can impact a client, those are all important.

“As time has gone on our business has changed dramatically. Twenty years ago we didn’t have personal computers. We do probably three times as much business with one person because of the computers and the Internet and the ability to communicate and get more information quickly. We can design more quickly and certainly make design changes more efficiently, and that’s good for the client.”

Technology can only take you so far though. Her profession, she says, is still about

“thinking and strategy to come up with the best product you can.” She feels her staff of five have some built-in advantages, including “the ability to connect our clients to the right people to get their business done. Because we are experienced and mature we have a lot of network and connection throughout the community, so we’re able to help people find the right places to get information effectively to market their products or services.”

She brings a wealth of experience and a considerable tool box to the table.

“I think I’m really good at sitting down with a client and saying, ‘What do you want to achieve?’ and then figuring out very useful strategic ways for them to meet their goals through marketing and public relations. And obviously one of the skill sets in that industry is having some creativity, being able to brainstorm with the client what creative ideas might help get that message to the public, what’s going to connect their product or service to their target audience.

“Over the years I think I’ve really honed a skill set that helps me get through all of the discussion and figure out what really is the underlying strategy for doing that.”

She’s quick to add, “i don’t do this on my own. In fact, sometimes I look at the organizational chart and I think I’m on the bottom of it. There are very talented people on our staff who do design and writing and PR and keep the organization functioning as a whole. We’ve had amazing talented people work here who I have enjoyed a lot. It’s a very collaborative kind of business. It’s like a family. Everyone has a task to do but as a whole we are so much better doing it together.”

What keeps her hungry for more after all these years is essentially the same thing that’s always motivated her.

“I think the thing I love the most is getting to the end of the day and knowing we helped a client or clients take one more step toward their success. You got the meeting you needed or got the ad finished and it looks great. Whatever that is it just makes you feel good when you go home.”





Lovgren Marketing team


An indication of the mark she’s made locally is that she’s among very few women in the Omaha Chamber Business Hall of Fame. This year’s unusual in that she’s one of three women inductees, along with Ree Kaneko (Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts and KANEKO) and Lori Hogan (Home Instead Senior Care). The other 2012 inductees are Land Title Company founder and former Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey, Midlands Business Journal founder and publisher Bob Hoig and the late co-founder of Pamida, D.J. “Tex” Witherspoon.

Lovgren feels Omaha abounds with many “capable” women professionals and that it’s only a matter of time before more of them fill top management and executive roles in corporations and other organizations. She points out that many of the most accomplished women are, like her, Kaneko and Hogan, owners of their own businesses. Women CEOs are harder to find.

“It will come,” she says.

A chapter in her life that once again found her in a male-dominated field was her involvement with the GOP. “I worked very hard in party politics from 1976 to 1980.”

She was state party vice chairman before becoming interim chair. “It’s a huge responsibility. I enjoyed it tremendously, and I learned a lot. I certainly met people all over the state. It was a great time.”

While working on the state committee to elect Ronald Reagan she went on a campaign junket the then-candidate made across Nebraska.  She flew on the press plane and then got to sit next to Reagan in his limo on the way to a speech he was making in Grand Island. ”

“I spent 15 minutes talking to him. That was very exciting.”

At the 1980 national GOP convention in Detroit she was part of a team that put together a daily newspaper delivered to delegates. She was on the convention floor and attended various parties. “It was a lot of fun,” she says.

“I did stay involved in party politics for a long time after that in other ways,” she adds, but today she’s more calculated in her political deliberations.

“I’m very interested in politics and where it leads because it has an impact on us every day in terms of the policy that’s made. I think it’s very important for people to pay attention to the candidates and the issues surrounding us.”

Just as politics can be topsy turvy, her life and career have had ups and downs but she tries keeping an even keel through it all. She buys into the conventional wisdom that one learns more from failures than successes.

“I do agree with that, and sometimes they aren’t big failures either. You know, in our business we have great clients but sometimes they merge with someone else or they sell their company or the relationship just doesn’t work and you move on and they move on. I never look at those as failures in the sense that a lot of people might. I look at them and say, What opportunity does that present for me to build a better company and to build better relationships with the clients we do have? So I think you learn from everything you do.”



Some of Lovgren Marketing’s projects

Little Steps, Big Impact
Omaha Storm Chasers
City of Omaha Public Works
CSO (Clean Solutions for Omaha)
National Strategic Research Institute
YPO US Capital




As a matriarch in her field, she feels she has something to offer young people coming into the profession and embraces sharing her knowledge base with them.

“I take every meeting that I can get with them. Not only young women but young men, too. I enjoy talking with them because they come with new ideas and fresh perspectives. I think it’s important for them to understand what they want to do, what they want to be, and if I can help them sort that out I’m happy to do it. I haven’t done it all right but I’ve done enough things right.”

She says part of the satisfaction she takes from her career is when a former employee goes on to success of their own and tells her they couldn’t have done it without her. “That tells me I made a difference for somebody,” she says, “and that’s what we all hope to do in our life.”

For Lovgren, whose give back has included volunteering with the State Fair Board, Nebraska Kidney Foundation, Mid-America Boy Scouts of America and Habitat for Humanity, “the prize in the end is not one thing,” adding, “The prize is – Did I accomplish what I wanted to accomplish for the people who surround me and work hard for the company, for my family who have come along for this whole effort, for the clients we work for? It’s really more about knowing you have accomplished something that has made a difference for all of those people.”

From reporter to teacher: Carol Kloss McClellan enjoys new challenge as inner city public high school instructor

March 25, 2012 4 comments

When I discovered that an Omaha television news reporter had left that field to teach at an inner city public high school I just had to catch up with the former reporter and get the story of what led her to make the transition and what it’s been like for her.  The long time reporter who made the move is Carol Kloss McClellan and I tell her story here.  She teaches creative writing at Omaha South High Magnet School.  Some of her students participated in a school poetry slam competition and are gearing up for Omaha’s Louder Than a Bomb festival in mid-April.  Over the winter Louder Than a Bomb co-founder Kevin Coval and some of the slam poets featured in the documentary by the same name dropped in on Carol’s creative writing class and she and her students were pretty stoked by the whole experience.  Watch for my future post about the Louder Than a Bomb festival.

From reporter to teacher:

Carol Kloss McClellan enjoys new challenge as inner city public high school instructor

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in El Perico


Leaving the life of a television news reporter for a public high school teaching job is not something second-year South High Magnet English and creative writing instructor Carol Kloss McClellan entered lightly in 2010.

After all, she distinguished herself as an investigative news reporter at KETV, winning Nebraska Broadcasters, Associated Press and Edward R. Murrow awards. But as she reached middle-age and TV news gathering became less satisfying she felt called to leave one challenging field for another.

“It had been on my mind for a long time. I took a lot of education courses as a (University of Michigan) undergrad,” says the Detroit native. She recalls seeing a TV news colleague make the transition from reporting to teaching and thinking, “That looks like something I would really enjoy.” But years went by without acting on the impulse. Meanwhile, a newsroom romance with then-KETV photographer now-attorney Mike McClellan led to marriage and a family. When the couple’s two daughters entered their late teens she finally got serious about switching careers. She enrolled in the College of Saint Mary‘s Fast Track-to-Teaching program, earning her master’s degree and teaching certificate.

Beyond her studies and student teaching, she felt the same skill set that helped her succeed in TV news would make her effective in the classroom. Cultivating sources and researching-writing-reporting stories is not so different than preparing-delivering lesson plans. Besides, she says, “I’m a people person, I’m a communicator, all those kinds of things. And I’m a mom, so I’ve got all that experience, too.”

Louder Than a Bomb’s Kevin Coval visited Carol’s class



Abandoning the new biz wasn’t as hard as you might imagine.

“It got to the point where it just wasn’t as much fun anymore. I left on very good terms and I had a wonderful job, but the opportunities to do some of the really good stories we used to be able to sink our teeth into, when we had the resources to sit on something if we needed to, were drying up.

“It used to be could travel to get a story. My photographer-producer Cathy Beeler and I were like a little team. Some of the stuff we would get into was so much fun. Those opportunities just weren’t there anymore. And then when I went back to general assignment I was like, OK, I need a new challenge. I just couldn’t go out on another snow storm story or another shooting and knock on some victim’s family front door. I had to move on.”

Does she miss the buzz of the newsroom and the thrill of breaking stories?

“I honestly don’t. I mean, I miss people I worked with. But I see a lot of them still. I enjoyed it but my life is so full right now there’s not hardly room to miss anything. And its just a whole new world.”

Carol, South principal Cara Riggs, and poetry slam students, ©photo KVNO News



That world is even tougher than the one she left behind.

“It’s hard, it’s really hard, it’s so demanding,” she says of teaching. “There’s so much to it with the lesson plans and classroom management and this whole new grading system. It’s never ending.”

The virtual audience she had as a TV reporter has been replaced by a live one subject to the distractions that come with raging hormones and identity issues.

“Most of the kids are great and want to be here, but standing up in front of the class it can feel like you’re a standup comedian having to deal with a couple of hecklers.  It’s like you’re trying to serve the majority of kids who really want to get a good education and then you’ve got a couple of kids causing a ruckus.”

She’s had to learn how to handle disruptive students within the constraints of a public school setting.

“Your heart just goes out and you have to learn to let some things go and that’s I think the hardest thing for a new teacher – to figure out what to let go of. You can only do so much, you’ve got to make the best of it and move on. It’s just this constant balancing act.”

She admits “tears” of self-doubt her first year when she often wondered, “I don’t know if I can do this. Here I am a woman in my mid-50s reinventing myself and coming from an environment where I know the game and I’m a pro to having to start all over again.” But she’s sure she made the right choice, saying, unequivocally, “I have no regrets.”

The very challenge, she says, “is what keeps you alive, so even though it’s a hard thing, it’s a good thing,” adding, “Some days are better than others as you’re trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t work, and it’s not what you expect, and that’s what makes it exciting, too.”

Moments like her creative writing students jamming at a December poetry slam to enthusiastic cheers of students and faculty “are what keep you coming back,” she says.

Indigenous music celebrated in Omaha Conservatory of Music Nebraska Roots concert

March 25, 2012 1 comment

An arts organization with a great reputation for quality that deserves more recognition and support is the Omaha Conservatory of Music.  The following story previewed a recent concert by the conservatory celebrating music of the Omaha Nation that brought students from area high schools together with students from St. Augustine Mission School on the Winnebago Reservation and Omaha Indian elders.



Maria Newman



Indigenous music celebrated in Omaha Conservatory of Music Nebraska Roots concert

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in The Reader (


Indigenous themes take center stage for a March 24 Omaha Conservatory of Music concert that culminates the school’s Nebraska Roots: Native American Music of the Omaha Indian Tribe curriculum. The program is also the conservatory’s annual Winter Festival Orchestra showcase.

Various ensembles featuring conservatory students and youth players from  schools near and far will perform along with Omaha Indian tribal elders and students from St. Augustine Mission School on the Winnebago (Neb.) Reservation. Premiering are two pieces for orchestral strings written by OCM faculty member Danny Sarba that he adapted from Native tunes. One is the “Flag Song.” The other is “The Appreciation Song.”

A featured presentation is the Winter Festival Orchestra performing a movement from the OCM-commissioned and Pulitzer Prize and Grawemeyer Award nominated “La pert de la Terre” by noted violinist and composer Maria Newman. A member of a Hollywood dynasty of film composers, she drew on Native peace pipe melodies for her new work.

“She’s a stunning composer and she’s credited a pretty stunning work,” says OCM executive director Ruth Meints.



David Barg



Guest conductor is David Barg, whom Meints describes as “an internationally known conductor” with “unorthodox methods” for getting the best out of young players.

The 7 p.m. program at Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall is free and open to the public.

Meints says the diverse concert expresses the nonprofit’s mission to build artistic communities through education and performance. “We’re always trying to do collaborative things that build community,” she says. “It should be a pretty full program. It’s kind of like all worlds are colliding.”

The concert caps a year’s exploration of “the first music of Nebraska.” Tribal elders Calvin Harlan and Pierre Merrick came to the conservatory, located in new digs at the Westside Community Center, to demonstrate the traditional way Omaha Indian music is performed. It’s all part of OCM’s effort to archive the music. A drum circle led by Harlan and Merrick was recorded at the OCM studio. The March concert will also be professionally recorded. CDs containing the recordings will eventually be produced with a book of the transcribed music.

The idea to study, perform and record indigenous music has its roots in a 1893 book that Meints, a music educator, stumbled upon years ago. A Study of Omaha Indian Music by ethno-musicologist Alice Fletcher is a compilation of Omaha Indian chants and ceremonial music she recorded and transcribed. With Omaha Indian music a largely oral tradition and few Native speakers left, Meints thought the time right to celebrate and perpetuate traditional Native material and make it the focus of cross-cultural exchange.

She says elders have shared with students stories about the meanings behind the songs and students have performed for them selections from the new compositions by Sarba. Sarba spent time on the res and in Omaha recording-transcribing the elders’ music much as Fletcher did more than a century ago.

Conservatory teacher Cody Jorgensen is doing an outreach program with St. Augustine Mission students, including 2nd and 4th graders coming to sing for the concert.

Newman, a guest artist at the OCM summer institute, responded strongly when Meints asked her to conceive a piece echoing Native sounds. Her “La perte de la Terra” premiered at last year’s institute and has since been performed widely across the U.S.. Fletcher’s book became Newman’s inspiration. “I found that absolutely fascinating,” she says. “Just as Bela Bartok did with Romanian and Hungarian folk music and all the vernacular music of those peoples, Alice Fletcher did with Omaha Indian Nation music. Our country has for so many years been obsessed with European music, so I think what she did was really significant.”

Until working on the commission Newman says her exposure to Indian music was “in a cliche manner” informed by her own family’s Hollywood pedigree.

“We here in Hollywood have often been bombarded with real cliches of cowboys and Indians and that sort of thing, and so I was petrified to tell you the truth when I received this commission that I was going to offend somehow with my composition. I had not studied Indian music to the extent that I could understand what was going on with the small variations in tonality, intonation, musical contour. All of those things became so much more apparent when I began to study the Alice Fletcher book.

“I really worked hard to try to figure out how to use the pentatonic or five-note scale used by the Indian nations. I didn’t want to take one of those chants Alice Fletcher had on paper and arrange it. What I wanted to do was write something completely original. I was desperately trying to run away from cliche. I sought to create something that was somehow infused rhythmically and harmonically with the essence of those materials.”

Newman says “La perte de la Terra” translates literally as “A Part of the Earth” but that to French Indians it means “Lost Pieces of the Earth,” which expresses more closely what she means to evoke.

“I have a really great respect for our Native American cultures. A lot of blood was given by the Native American people in the white man taking over this continent. The blood they shed went into what made our country. Things like the Lewis and Clark Expedition and Louisiana Purchase also formed the country. These lost pieces of the earth came together as a puzzle and connected so that we could now hopefully join our nations and become one great nation.”

For more on the conservatory, visit

Jose and Linda Garcia find new outlet for their magnificent obsession in the Mexican American Historical Society of the Midlands

March 25, 2012 2 comments

Jose Francisco Garcia and his wife Linda Garcia are two of the most intellectually curious people I know.  They are quintessential searchers always open to discovery and they love nothing more than sharing what they learn with others.  Their great passion is preserving and presenting Mexican history and culture and they do this in a variety of ways, including their work through the Mexican American Historical Society of the Midlands, which replaced their Las Artes Cutlural Center. Linda is a librarian, storyteller, and artist.   Jose is a photographer.  Both are amateur historians.  This story appeared on the eve of  the organization’s opening a couple years ago and gives a glimpse of the couple’s far ranging interests and of their historical society’s diverse programming.

Jose and Linda Garcia find new outlet for their magnificent obsession in the Mexican American Historical Society of the Midlands

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in El Perico


Jose and Linda Garcia spend every day immersed in Mexican-American heritage. After devoting years to their Las Artes Cultural Center, the couple recently closed it. Their magnificent obsession with Latino art and history is now expressed through the Mexican American Historical Society of the Midlands.

He’s executive director and she’s secretary of the new nonprofit in the Mercado building, 4913 South 25th Street. The Garcias bring passion and expertise, along with a collection of photographs, art objects and books, to carry-out the mission of building awareness of Mexican American achievement. Behind-the-scenes, preservation will be a major focus. Publicly, the community will be invited to exhibitions, lectures, art classes, film screenings and other cultural events.

Unlike Las Artes, which the Garcias ran alone as a labor of love, the society has a formal board, its operations and programs funded by grants and donations. A $10,000 Futuro Latino Fund grant and a $5,000 South Omaha turnback tax grant have helped get the new organization up and running.

Why start over again with a new institution?

She said it’s an opportunity to employ their collection as a teaching tool on a new level, reaching more folks. Besides, she said, “somebody’s gotta do it.”

Linda, a storyteller and artist, is a retired children’s librarian. Jose is a Union Pacific retiree.

Linda Garcia, ©photo by Jose Garcia
Jose Francisco Garcia



“The reason we have a collection is we use it,” she said. “Anything we do, whether design an exhibit or give a talk, we do a lot of research. We go out there and dig.”

Her hunger to learn more about her cultural heritage and to disseminate it was inspired by her first visit to Mexico. The then-College of St. Mary senior was exposed to many facets of her people’s art and history not taught in school. This identity discovery was part of her immersion in the Chicano movement.

“What was awakened was the art, the literature, the becoming who you are as a Chicano,” she said. “I’m not really Mexican, I’m an American, but the combination made me a Chicano, which means I seek knowledge. But it’s not enough to stop there, you must transmit it to other people and share it. It’s not enough to collect and learn and keep it all to ourselves. That’s the reason for this place.”

Jose, originally from Kansas City, Mo., served three years in the U.S. Army, including one long year spent near Saigon during the height of the Vietnam War. Back home, he went from job to job, always snapping pictures on the side.

He moved to Omaha in the 1970s. It was some time before he and Linda got together, each drawn to the other’s curiosity and drive.

“Aesthetic quality is what she’s taught me,” Jose said of Linda. His digital pics documenting South Omaha are posted on

“One thing I really learned from Jose,” said Linda, “is to speak out and not be this timid girl. I saw the respect people would give him because he would ask for what he wanted, and now I’ve learned to ask for what I want. We really blend. I’m the artist, he’s more the corporate type. We like to spend time together.”

“We’ve learned to become old souls together,” said Jose.

“We want to leave a legacy,” she said, “but it’s more than that, it’s trying to teach the community they also have a legacy and they also have a responsibility to carry their family traditions and to know how to take care of photographs and keepsakes. We want them to know what they have is really valuable, even if only to family or forbearers.”

It’s all about self-determination, said Jose.

The historical society goes public with these upcoming events

September 15, Mexican Independence Day, 10 p.m. greeting, 11 p.m. El Grito de Dolores

September 16-19, Bicentennial of Mexican Independence, exhibit/lecture, 6 p.m.

October 1, Grand opening, Las Americas South O City Center, 6 p.m. reception, 7 p.m. program

A website will soon launch.

After October 1, the facility will be open 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Tuesday-Friday; 10 a.m.-2 p.m., Saturday. Admission is free. Donations accepted. Memberships available.

The historical society number is 884-1910.

UPDATE:  The organization does have a website,

African presence in Spanish America explored in three presentations

March 25, 2012 2 comments

Jose Francisco Garcia and his wife Linda Garcia are two of the most intellectually curious people I know.  They are quintessential searchers always open to discovery and they love nothing more than sharing what they learn with others.  Their great passion is preserving and presenting Mexican history and culture and they do this in a variety of ways, including their work through the Mexican American Historical Society of the Midlands, which replaced their Las Artes Cutlural Center. Linda is a librarian, storyteller, and artist.   Jose is a photographer.  Both are amateur historians. One of Jose’s many projects is the subject of this story – a series of presentations last winter that saw him and Walter Brooks examine the African Presence in Spanish America.  Look for a story I did about Jose and Linda and their magnificent obsession to be posted here soon.





African presence in Spanish America explored in three presentations

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in El Perico

A collaborative public education series by the Mexican American Historical Society of the Midlands and the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation will examine the African Presence in Spanish America.

Three presentations are scheduled:

Saturday, Feb. 25, 2 p.m., Malcolm X Memorial Foundation, 3448 Evans St.

Tuesday, Feb. 28, 6 p.m., W. Dale Clark Library, 215 So. 15th St.

Wednesday, Feb. 29, 6 p.m., Mexican American Historical Society of the Midlands, 4925 So. 25th St.

Historical Society curator Jose Francisco Garcia, the series co-organizer and facilitator with Malcolm X administrative director Walter Brooks, says the power-point programs “will emphasize the growing understanding of history between Spanish, African and indigenous peoples over the past five centuries,” adding, “we will highlight how Africans significantly enriched the cultural life, language, cuisine, music and dance in Mexico, Peru and Colombia.”

Garcia says the Feb. 26 program will discuss how the slave trade brought many Africans to the Spanish Americas. In North America, runaway slaves, some using the underground railroad, entered Mexico, where an anti-slavery attitude prevailed. Runaway slave settlements in Mexico were called palenques.

Much of Garcia’s research focuses on Mexico, whose African presence is well detailed. In the early 17th century runaway slave-turned-freedom fighter Gasper Yanga led a revolt that resulted in the Spanish establishing a free city in Veracruz that still bears his name. Other black enclaves remain in Southern Mexico.

Early blacks in Mexico were not all slaves. Some were explorers, others were hired laborers. An independence movement leader, Jose María Morelos y Pavon, was mulatto, as was Mexico’s second president, Vicente Guerrero, who officially abolished slavery in 1822.

Whether Africans fled or migrated to Mexico, they contributed to the cultural milieu and its maze of influences. That infusion continued through the generations until it’s become so pervasive it’s been obscured.

“Costa Chico, a territory in the southern part of Mexico, is where the majority of pure African, runaway slaves settled,” says Garcia. “It’s where the population is a little more African in appearance than anywhere else in Mexico. But they all have Spanish names and they all speak Spanish and they know very little about their African ancestry – until they play their music and sing their songs and eat their food. And that’s not only true of them but of Mexicans too. Half of the cuss words in Mexico come from Africa.”

Garcia and Brooks, longtime community activists who are also 2nd district trustees with the Nebraska State Historical Society, will contrast African settlements and influences in other nations with the immersive African-Latino remix found in many U.S. urban centers, most notably Miami.

The Feb. 28 program will explore “the cultural implications of how the African presence has impacted music, language and overall affected the arts, the food, the culture and the traditions of these societies,” he says. The Feb. 29 program, he says, “will look at where these populations are now and what is happening to provide them with a sense of identity and how contemporary culture is facing the reality the African presence in Spanish America is formidable.”

Garcia says the truth is no Spanish society is untouched by the African imprint, thus no discussion of Spanish culture, history or heritage can be considered without acknowledging this vibrant strain.

“The African presence is the third root,” he says. “Those who know history know that Spanish society and culture have been developed from three roots – the indigenous, the Spanish and the African. This created the mestizo, the bastards, the half-bloods, the Cimarrons, the mulattos, all those peoples that were a mixture of all of these three roots.”

His interest in the subject was sparked in exploring his own Chicano roots.

“As I was trying to get my feel on history, on my identity, the African presence just kept coming up. We’re part of the effects of world history, and to this very day we’re marrying that effect, that mescal, that mix..”

The results of the cross-cultural immersions can be seen in sport.

“I’m a great baseball fan, so I’m aware of the Spanish influence in baseball. When Sammy Sosa broke on the scene, I asked, ‘Who is this guy who looks black but has a Spanish name and speaks Spanish?’ Only he speaks a different Spanish.”

Sosa’s homeland, the Dominican Republic, much like all the Caribbean nations, including Cuba, boast an Afro-Latino lineage that permeate the culture.

Garcia says the sheer demographics of the America’s point to African and Spanish heritage groups as the dominant populations, if not economically, than culturally and socially. Black and brown people, he suggests, have shared interests and agendas that if solidified could wield political power.

Ultimately, he says, “I’m doing this to help people understand that just because you’re Mexican doesn’t mean you’re not an African-Mexican, just because you’re a Colombian doesn’t mean you’re not an African-Colombian. It’s so complex. Just because you’ve learned to call us Latinos doesn’t mean that’s right.” He wants people to appreciate their similarities and differences in this intertwined web.

“There will always be something that will set every culture aside and make it unique and make it characteristically human. The problem comes when you shut your eyes from these differences and you make believe a fantasy world exists.”

Admission is $5 for students and $3 for seniors at the Historical Society and the Malcolm X Center and free with a donated food item at the library.


Grassroots Leadership Development Program provides opportunities for students

March 25, 2012 9 comments


Here’s a story about a long-standing program in Omaha that exposes Latinos to leadership development opportunities.  The several week Grassroots Leadership Development Program designed by the United States Leadership Institute based in Chicago is implemented by organizations across the nation.  In Omaha’s it was offered for many years by a local entrepreneur and philanthropist, Robert Campos, who more or less paid for it out of his own pocket.  More recently it’s been offered under the auspices of the Omaha Public Schools, though funding comes from grants and donations.  Where the program in Omaha used to serve people of all ages it’s now focused on seniors from the district’s seven high schools.  Students who display leadership potential are recommended for the program by educators.  Participants who successfully complete the nine-week program, which introduces them to local, county, and school district government leaders, attend a recognition dinner in their honor and go to Chicago for the USHLI Conference, where they get to meet program graduates from around the country and listen to inspirational stories by presenters.  Program facilitators encourage students to go onto college and most do.  Co-faciliator Sagrario “Charo” Rangel is held in high regard by the students.  Look for a profile I did on her to be posted here soon.


Grassroots Leadership Development Program provides opportunities for students

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in El Perico


Students completing the Grassroots Leadership Development Program through the Omaha Public Schools were rewarded with an all expense paid trip to Chicago to attend the Feb. 16-19 United States Hispanic Leadership Institute Conference.

Seventy seven senior graduates from all seven OPS high schools attended the conference at the downtown Sheraton. Adult chaperones accompanied the students, who represented South (31),  Bryan  (21) Burke (15), Central (7). Benson (1), North (1) and Northwest (1).

At the conference students met peer graduates from other states and heard motivational speakers share personal stories about overcoming obstacles.

Sagrario “Charo” Rangle, an OPS Educational Accountability Office administrator and co-facilitator of the program with Toni Hernandez, says Omaha had, as usual, one of the larger contingents at the annual event.

The USHLI program got its start in Omaha in 1986 under local entrepreneur Robert Campos, who ran it for two decades before turning it over to OPS four years ago. Rangel says OPS does not sponsor the program. Instead, its support comes from Futuro Latino Fund grants and various corporate and civic donations.

Several local Latino leaders are graduates, including Cristina Castro-Matukewicz (Wells Fargo), Maria Vazquez (Metropolitan Community College) and Paco Fuentes (South Omaha Boys & Girls Club). Rangel is herself a graduate. Some of the earliest graduates are parents of today’s students.


Omaha Grassroots Leadership Development Program students on the way to the USHLI conference in Chicago




Rangel says some 320 students have graduated the program since 2009. Participants are shown the inner workings of city, county and school government in  the hope they will pursue higher education and community service. Participants attend nine three-hour fall sessions that introduce them to elected and appointed officials, such as Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle and OPS Superintendent John Mackiel. Students ask leaders about their roles. Leaders hear youth concerns.

Rangel says, “The Grassroots Leadership Development Program is specifically for seniors that want to learn more about civic engagement and city-county-school government.” She says students come away empowered they have “a voice” in the system. She says some students use the program as a networking resource and arrange to shadow local leaders or invite officials to speak to their class or community group. Others make presentations at elementary and middle schools to encourage children to excel in the classroom. Many volunteer at local agencies.

The goal, she says, is to let students know they can be leaders in their school, neighborhood, community or workplace.

Students who demonstrate leadership potential are nominated for the program. To participate, students must be in good academic standing but they don’t necessarily need a high GPA. In fact, Rangel says,”it’s those students on the margins I think we’re most surprised by because they are leaders in their own right. It’s just that maybe one time along the way they may have gotten off the path, and so this is great way to get them back on track. We’ve had several students like that who said, ‘This is the shot in the arm I needed.'”

The program is also a resource for students and families in preparing for college.

Rangel says, “We visit with students about the importance of going on to college, we work with parents on financial aid, we give the students all kinds of information about scholarship opportunities and we have workshops to help them complete the forms. We also monitor students’ grades, attendance, behavior. We want to make sure these are students that recognize the importance of this wonderful opportunity.

“We do whatever we can to give them a leg up.”

A January recognition dinner is followed by the February conference, which Rangel says energizes students.

“They come back extremely inspired and motivated to do more in their education and to help others. The conference itself is all about servant leadership, and so they get to know it’s not just about them – it’s about service to others.”

Rafael Guiterrez, a 2012 legacy graduate whose older brother Gabriel preceded him in the program, says the experience “inspired me to take my education to the next level.” The South High senior plans studying criminal justice at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He doesn’t want to stop at a bachelor’s degree but is eying a masters and a doctorate. A volunteer at the Intercultural Senior Center and a mentor at South, he says he’s learned that when it comes to doing things in his community he can “take the lead” rather than waiting for someone else to.

Alejandra Aguilar, a sophomore at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, graduated in 2010 but remains active as a Grassroots volunteer. “That’s just a way of us giving back to our community,” says Aguilar. “We’re the future and as Latinos we need to have our voice be heard, and to do that we need to go to college and be successful.” The dual political science-Latin American Studies major and Next Generation Leadership scholarship awardee has her sights set on a career in law. “One of the major things I learned is to never give up. Sometimes we don’t want to but we settle for less. I learned there’s nothing you can’t do if you want to do it.”

For Rangel, the satisfaction comes in seeing graduates like these paying it forward.

“We have a good following of students who come back year to year to help us. Not only are they learning these skills but they are putting them into place when they go onto college. They become mentors, they get involved in student organizations. That’s pretty cool to see. That makes it all worth it.”

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