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From the Archives: Nancy Duncan’s journey to storytelling took circuitous route

April 1, 2012 1 comment

Unforgettable Nancy Duncan.  The late actress, theater director, administrator, and professional storyteller was not someone you could easily dismiss or forget or walk away from unaffected.  Her positive energy, whether her bright eyes, smile and laugh or her sunny outlook on life, swept over you like a cool breeze on a warm day.  She made you feel good.  Her intelligence and truth challenged you to listen and think.  Her generous spirit reminded you of the gratitude you ought to demonstrate.  Her humility reminded you that the world does not revolve around yourself.  Later, when she got sick, I witnessed her courage in the face of a life and death struggle.  Even then, she was still giving and sharing, using her battle with cancer to teach and maybe preach a little about how absurd and precious life is.  You’ll find a number of stories on this blog that I did about Nancy and her  passion for storytelling over the years.

NOTES: I don’t go into it in the following story, but Nancy’s husband Harry Duncan was one of the world’s most highly respected fine book press printers.  His Cummington Press earned he and the books he printed many awards and much praise.

The children’s theater Nancy led changed names from the Emmy Gifford Children’s Theatre to the Omaha Theater Company for Young People and its home changed from 35th and Center to 20th and Farnam in The Rose, a performing arts for children and families space.

Also, this story doesn’t discuss the long-running storytelling festival in Nebraska Nancy helped found and run and it barely alludes to her becoming a much-in-demand and beloved storyteller at festivals around the country.  Some of my other Nancy Duncan stories do explore these facets of her work.

 

Image result for nancy duncan story

Nancy Duncan

 

 

From the Archives: Nancy Duncan’s journey to storytelling took circuitous route 

©by by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Omaha Metro Update

Omaha actress-storyteller Nancy Duncan has always been an independent sort. Born In Indiana, she grew up a tomboy in Illinois suburbs and Georgia backwoods and chafed at her mother’s attempts to make her a debutante. Even after she became a successful performer years later Duncan couldn’t win her approval.

“My mother was a real Anglophile. She was never pleased with my theater work because she wanted me to do glamorous characters, and Baba Yaga was the antithesis of glamour,” Duncan said with her diaphram-rattlng laugh. Baba Yaga is a witch Duncan adapted from Russian literature to create the character she is most closely identified with. “She wanted me to do parts where I wore beautiful clothes but if there was a lizard part in a play I wanted it. It’s always frustrated me I couldn’t play Caliban,” she said, referring to the deformed, half-human slave of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

The former executive director of the Emmy Gifford Children’s Theatre is now a full-time performer doing precisely what she wants and loving every minute of it. Duncan appears as Baba Yaga & Friends, the name of her theatrical enterprise, before school and community audiences across the nation. Much of her performing is done under the auspices of state arts council touring programs, including those in Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri. She recently joined the Mid-America Arts Alliance roster of artists touring Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas.

She spoke recently about her life in the theater at the home she and her husband Harry Duncan share in mid-town Omaha. Curled up cross-legged on a sofa, she was every inch the storyteller  and actress with her attentive eyes, animated body movements and expressive hands and voice. She was still excited about a summer sojourn in the United Kingdom. Inspired by the stories of Scotland’s Duncan Williamson, she studied with him and his big family. She said she had written him asking “permission to tell his stories and to absorb th econtext the stories came out of and to get some feeling of what they meant to him and why he told them.”

She got permission, too, returning, she said, “with five more of his books – five you can’t get in the States. I’m well-armed for the next couple years to tell these great stories, and they are wonderful. They’re all stories of the supernatural. And really some of them are very scary,” she said in a hushed voice. “There are real confrontations with the devil.”

Duncan enjoys staying at people’s homes when touring. “Usually that turns out to be a really fun situation and I learn a lot and make friends, and I like to do that. For a storyteller, it’s a nice give and take situation. And I gather a lot of stories that way, too.”

Sponsors booking her may choose from her large repertoire of one-woman shows, whose stories and telling differ greatly. As Baba yaga she is a 600-year-old witch with the disposition to match her warts and fright wig. For “Good Old Crunchy Stories” Duncan appears as herself, yarning folk, fairy and other tales from a variety of cultures. Many stories are borrowed from literary sources. Others are taken directly from families’ history and lore, preserved by the oral tradition. Some are meant for children, others for adults.

An adult show is “Nebraska ’49,” in which she tells the stories of actual pioneer women in their own words, drawing from their diary accounts a portrait of the 1849 transcontinental migration. The trek by wagon train was arduous, often tragic.

“It’s the untold story about what women had to go through on that journey,” said Duncan. “It’s not the glamorized depiction of Little House on the Prairie. Liza (Wilcox) doesn’t want to go. There are things about it she loves but she goes into detail about a lot of the hardships. Liza’s son gets killed in Ash Hollow. The death of her son is just devestating and it was caused by an accident, which is how most deaths on the wagon train occurred. They weren’t caused by run-ins with Indians.”

 

 

 

 

A new show called “Why the Chicken Crossed the Road” is a humorous children’s hour with characters taken from David Macauley’s book of the same name. It’s one show were laying an egg is part of the fun. Like most of her performances “Why the Chicken” contains simple morals and truths about who we are  and “how we live,” she said.

Like our chicken natures.

“At the very beginning I ask the kids if they’ve been called chicken, and most of them have. Then I say, ‘Are you a chicken?’ And they say, ‘No.’ At the end I tell them, ‘I hope you go home and find a way to celebrate the chicken in yourself’ because essentially that’s what the show is – a celebration of my chicken nature, which is the opposite of Baba Yaga, who is, you know, Aaargh…”

Baba Yaga has been a sensation since Duncan first played her in 1981 at the Emmy Gifford. She said kids deluged the theater with letters and phone calls wanting to talk to Baba Yaga. Some even sent breath mints. Although the old hag is still a hit Duncan said Baba Yaga often elitcs disruptive opposition from some Bible-thumpers.

“Fundamentalists picket me all the time because Baba Yaga is a witch and they don’t want their kids exposed to Satanism and witchcraft,” she said sarcastically. “They don’t want their kids to hear fairy tales either. They only want them to hear Bible stories. Not too long ago in Lee County, Iowa the sheriff had to meet me at the county line and escort me to the school. I was flanked by two policemen to protect me from these five crazies.”

Such incidents are not confined to rural areas. Duncan said a Des Moines school turned down her doing residency there “because of flak over Baba Yaga. Just crazy.”

She expects similar protests against her new “Spooky Stories” show populated with witches, wraiths and pranksters.

To needle her adversaries Duncan’s promotional brochure bills “Why the Chicken” with this zinger: “If you are not brave enough to book Baba Yaga and risk losing a few pin feathers, this is the show for you.” She said, “It’s not only me who’s chicken, but the sponsor,” and laughed up a storm.

Duncan does leave audiences spellbound – but with stagecraft, not witchcraft. “In traditional storytelling circles they talk about this sort of hypnotic effect you have on your audience. You look out and see people staring with these slack faces, mouths hanging open and eyes frozen, like they’re daydreaming. It’s kind of nice to see kids or adults totally transported,” she said of the experience of holding a crowd in rapture.

Her charmed audiences range from those at elementary and secondary schools to colleges and universities to libraries, community centers and festivals. She is doing more adult work than ever but whatever their age she always prefers “a captive audience. I don’t like situations where people come and go and eat. I like to be where an audience makes the commitment to come and be there for a while. My goal is to transform it into a give and take situation where they become partners in the telling. It’s the same in the theater. You want to get that audience in cahoots with you. Every audience is different because they listen differently. That give and take transforms your telling.”

photo This former movie theater was the home of the children’s theater when Nancy led it.  It’s now an auction house.

 

 

She said when she and an audience really connect “it becomes a mystical experience and is very moving. Something is happening, both of you are changed because of it, and that’s really, really exciting. That’s what I’m always seeking. It doesn’t always happen.”

Duncan said storytellers are “very much in touch with their audience all the time. It’s like having a good conversation with somebody. It’s not a lecture, you’re there listening and giving back.”

A good audience response, she noted, “may be a special kind of silence or the way they laugh. It’s all in the little things they pick up on. There are certain places where they can’t avoid laughing unless they’e asleep. But there are other many more things they’ll get if they’re really with you. Beyond that, if they give themselves to you, then you discover new things in the performance and telling.”

That happened last October at a Philadelphia area high school. “I was doing a show about self-esteem, and that’s a great theme for that age level. They really went with it and I discovered a bunch of stuff that I didn’t even realize was either moving or funny.”

Duncan first developed an appreciation for storytelling on the lap and at the feet of her grandmother. “She shared a bedroom with me from the time I was 5 until she died when I was 16. My two brothers and I spent a lot of time with her. She was great. She’d smoke a pipe and tell stories. She loved the B’rer Rabbit stories and could do them with a great dialect. And my father was a great storyteller. He liked to perform the story.” She said her father’s animated telling was more like her own than her grandma’s.

As a girl Duncan indulged in rich fantasy play, assuming different identities like so many hats. “I was a leopard woman for a whole summer. My friend and I made leopard suits and claws. We would hide in bushes and jump out and scare our friends.”

When the family moved from Illinois to north Georgia Duncan found a fertile place for her imagination to run wild in the woods near their home. She and her playmates learned the outdoors on “safaris,” she said. “We built little houses and became primitive people living there as long as we could. Our mothers never really had to babysit us – they had a hard time getting us home. It was a safe place. Now, I don’t know whether children could do that.”

The only close call was when moonshiners ran the girls off.

By high school she had years of private art and elocution lessons behind her but she was still a tomboy at heart. When forced to choose between playing basketball and acting, for example, she opted for sport. She played four years.

Her thespian days began at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, a private women’s school. “I was always frustrated there. I wanted to go away to college but I didn’t because my father was ill. He died after my first year.”

Still, she said, she enjoyed school and did very well majoring in English and minoring in art and theater. The 1958 graduate was an aspiring writer and earned a full tuition fellowship to the prestigious Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. She “hated” the experience. Intimidated by more aggressive students and kowtowing to her advisers she finished the workshop without doing much writing. She then focused on theater and soon met  Harry Duncan, who taught journalism and hand printed fine press books at the university. He taught her typography. Student and teacher fell in love and married in 1960.

After earning an MFA in theater she taught at a Quaker school in Iowa. “That was a wonderful laboratory in experimental theater because I did six plays a year for about eight years – productions which I could not do in Omaha.” One was a German language version of Mother Courage.

By the early ’70s she and Harry were raising a family of three children and Nancy was getting restless. To her rescue came the news that Harry had accepted an offer to teach and operate a small press at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, which is how they both ended up here.

“I was thrilled because Omaha is a big enough city where we could be two totally independent people. In a university town like Iowa City you’re always a faculty wife, and I didn’t want to be a faculty wife anymore.”

She went through a period questioning whether the theater was her true calling, taking classes at UNO with the notion of pursuing a medical career.

“But I realized I’d invested eight years training myself to be in the theater and it was ridiculous to start all over again when my children were teenagers and needed to be home. So I recommitted myself to theater.”

Her start here came as associate director of the Omaha Community Playhouse (1973-’76), where she staged experimental work. Then the Children’s Theatre entered her life through its founder and namesake – Emmy Gifford – whom she met at a Playhouse awards night.

“We sat on the stage afterwards and talked and we got to know each other that evening. Emmy designed shows for me, too, so we got to be really good friends. She kept asking me to come to the Children’s Theatre but they didn’t even have a building at the time and I didn’t want to start all over again.”

Gifford and two other friends on the Children’s Theatre board kept after Duncan until she said yes, but only if certain conditions were met. Namely, Duncan wanted the amateur organization to become a professional theater that would commit to hiring a multiracial staff and to do color blind casting. She also asked for support of the modern dance company she had started. To her surprise, they said yes on all counts. “It was an amazing commitment that I think very few places would make,” she said.

By the time she joined the theater it had moved to its present site at 35th and Center Streets. But major hurdles remained. “It was very hard work  because there were only two of us and we had a budget of $24,000. It was just a mess the first three years.”

When she left in 1986 to go it alone as a professional storyteller the Gifford had “transitioned,” she said, “into a professional theater with a budget of $550,000.” The turning point came in the form of three large CETA grants. “Without that money we wouldn’t have been able to make that transition.” Another key was getting the Omaha Public Schools to sanction class trips to the theater. “Once we got OPS approval it just snowballed.”

The theater board also kept its promises, giving many minorities and dancers opportunities lacking elsewhere. Along the way the Gifford became a success story on the burgeoning children’s theater scene nationally. Today, it’s the fourth largest children’s theater in the U.S. and Duncan is proud of that.

As it grew, however, she had less time for performing and the artistic side. Instead, she found herself saddled with fundraising and marketing duties. “I really burned out on the fundraising. I think that was the part of it I came to hate most. I hated seeing people as dollar bills.”

After deciding to leave she found it hard to let go. “I thought I would have some say in what decisions were made and when I realized that, no, nobody wanted to listen to what I had to say that was really painful. Now I realize it’s absolutely essential that people who take over reject everything that went before because they have to find their own way.”

She feels her messy exit served her well. “If it had been a comfortable, easy departure I don’t think I would have been spurred ahead to do my own stuff as much as I have.” Life as a freelance artist “was kind of scary that first year,” she said, “because my income dropped about a third. That whole business of starting out and adventuring into something new is pretty scary but after the first year it’s really grown. I’m pretty well booked up for this coming school year.” She just returned from a storytelling festival in Wyoming.

But the lean days are not so far removed that she can’t appreciate what an Alex P. Keaton clone said at a Wisconsin grade school she played that first year: “A sixth grader asked, ‘Nancy, would you be able to do what you do if you were not heavily subsidized by your husband’ she recalled with a whoop. “I said, ‘No,’ and I told the teacher he should get an A-plus for ‘heavily subsidized.’ I still don’t have to, you know, pay my rent because my husband does that,” she said with a wink.

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From the Archives: Minister makes no concession to retirement, plans busy travel, filmmaking schedule


I have had the opportunity to meet and interview many men and women of God and most of them exhibit a humility, gratitude, and generosity that I can best understand and articulate as grace. They cultivate the attitudes and take the actions of mercy and love that all of us are called to do, no matter what our faith tradition or even if we do not claim a faith that has a name or creed.  The best ministers are open-minded and compassionate and committed to what they believe and do. They’re also unafraid to ask questions and to rattle the status quo now and then, even to challenge their own beliefs from time to time.  The retired Rev. Richard Linde is such a man.   I wrote this profile of him more than 20 years ago and in one way or another this piece has always stuck with me, not because of my writing, which is pedestrian at best, but because of the man and his unconditional embrace of life.  I liked the fact. too, he was both a minister and a filmmaker and while his work making travel films didn’t have anything to do with the church or religion or spirituality per se it was still another expression of his love for humanity and the wonders of creation.

I was also impressed by Linde having studied at Princeton and Harvard, where he earned a business degree of all things, and having earned a doctorate as well.  Again, like any good minister, he has always been a searcher and seeker in pursuit of knowledge.

NOTE: In preparing to post this I discovered that Rev. Linde now lives in Colorado and that he has authored a couple books: The Christ of Every Road, a fitting title for a man who has traversed so many paths: and Chaplain Richard Linde, We Also Fought, the chronicle of his own experience as a young navy chaplain during World War II counseling sailors readying for the planned invasion of Japan, casualties from the Pacific Theater, and submariners returned from torpedoing Japanese ships.   I have no doubt that he followed his plans after leaving Countryside to make the film about the United Church of Christ and to do more traveling. I also have no doubt he’s still as active and engaged as his physical abilities allow and that he’ll remain a seeker in some way, shape, or form until his final breath.

 

 

BEN_4794
Countryside Community Church altar, ©photo Ben Semisch

 

 

From the Archives: Minister makes no concession to retirement, plans busy travel, filmmaking schedule

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Omaha Metro Update

 

Retirement is a state of mind.

Take the Rev. Richard Linde for example. Although the 60-something Protestant minister is fast approaching his August 1 retirement date the veteran globe-trotter isn’t planning to slow down much. Sitting idle just isn’t his style.

Besides, Linde has better things to do, like chasing rainbows and memories half-way around the world.

Soon after stepping down from his 17-year post as senior minister at Countryside Community Church in west Omaha Linde will slip into his worn, but comfortable shoes as a traveling man and go off to meet old and new horizons.

Much of the United Church of Christ minister’s life has been a search to balance his fiercely independent and inquisitive nature with organized religion. His many travels mirror his quest to somehow square knowledge with faith. His guide, he said, has been God. “A lot of my life has been serving God as I feel God directs me, not as the church directs me to go.”

While long ago coming to peace with himself, he’s still a restless spirit and has many miles to go before retreating from life. “I’ve never been a person who hangs around the house and I don’t think I ever will be. I don’t want to be. I don’t want to play shuffleboard in Forida either,” he said. “I have some other things I want to do. I’m probably going to work nine months out of the year and my wife and I still like to travel.”

Linde concedes he may cut back his work schedule to 40 or 50 hours a week during “retirement.”

He will combine work and travel when he begins filming a documentary September 1 for the national United Church of Christ, a project that may take two years.

It may surprise some of Linde’s acquaintances that for 25 of his 45 years in the ministry he made travel films as both a hobby and second profession. Indulging his love for travel, he photographed the diverse cultures of the Middle East, Czechoslovakia, Jamaica, Iceland, Luxembourg, Monaco and other parts of the world. He lectured widely with his films and sold several to television.

While Linde hasn’t made a film for more than 10 years the United Church Board of Homeland Ministries knows they have a filmmaker in the fold. With his newly commissioned film they want him to retrace the church’s early Congregational roots in Europe and migration to America. The denomination is the result of a 1961 merger between the Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church. Linde will document the historic route taken by church followers, including Pilgrims, by shooting overseas and in the States.

“We’re talking about staying in England, then in Switzerland, and coming to New England and Pennsylvania and later going across the Plains with the great migration to the West. And I’m hoping to end up in Hawaii because the Congregational story there is interesting. Author James Michener, in his story of Hawaii, downplays the part of the missionaries. I think his emphasis is wrong,” said Linde, who wishes to set the record straight as he sees it.

Hawaii has special meaning for Linde, who was stationed at Pearl Harbor while a Navy chaplian in the Second World War. At age 20 he was one of the youngest chaplains in the Pacific. Anxious to be part of the war effort before it ended, he left seminary college to enlist in the chaplain corps and was assigned to Pearl’s submarine base in 1945.

 
Pearl Harbor submarine base chapel

 

 

“The Royal Hawaiian Hotel was the rest and recuperation annex for the sub base and I became the chaplain of the hotel, holding my services in the Bamboo Room,” he said, laughing at the incongruity of it all. “It was neat duty. I had a lot of interesting counseling there. The officers and (enlisted) men were very, very tense. A lot of fighting would go on among themselves. There was blood and teeth through the Royal Hawaiian from sailors fighting.”

On a lighter note, he said big band leader Ray Anthony and his orchestra often gigged there. “Some of his instrumentalists would play for my service the next morning. They would be so tired from playing most of the night that I’d tell them, ‘Oh, c’mon guys, play a little faster,’ and they’s just go, ‘plunk, plunk, plunk,’ he recalled with glee.

Linde also traveled all over the Pacific on the sub fleet flagship tender, the USS Holland (AS-3), where he saw firsthand how superstitious sailors coped with fear. “The submariners were very individualistic. On most subs they had a Buddha (effigy) and before they would fire a torpedo they would rub the stomach of the Buddha for good luck. But the guys, surprisingly, were quite religious. At that time there was only one chaplain for every 1,000 sailors – there was a lot of counseling.”

royal-hawaiian-hotelPhoto: Royal Hawaiian Hotel

 

Although Linde never saw combat he said he was scared plenty of times.

The veteran returned to Hawaii with wife Randi three years ago. It was the first time he’d been back since the war. And at his wife’s urging they stayed at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel he’d been “bragging about all these years.” To his dismay the place had changed and the Bamboo Room was only a distant memory. He realized how much time had passed when, after regaling the desk clerk with his stories, the young man said, ‘I wasn’t even thought of then.”

Linde, who never preached in the base chapel because he was too “young and junior an officer,” found he’d gained stature with time. “When I went back I asked to go onto the base and they asked me to preach. All the ranking officers of the fleet were there lined  up in front me,” he said proudly.

It’s doubtful whether Linde’s hoped-for return to another exotic port of call from his Pacific past – Shanghai, China – will prove as inviting given ongoing tensions between the U.S. and China. “I want to go back to Shanghai, live there a month or so and do some writing about the way it was then and the way it is now.” Then was 1946, when Linde was the only chaplain for 15,000 U.S. Navy personnel in Shanghai, which even then was a large cosmopolitan city and sea port.

“I loved Shanghai. The Bund (its waterfront), the Palace Hotel, the famous clubs. Like so many of the major cities in China it was built by western nations. I was on the edge of the Bund, where the ships were in the Whangpoo River. They would tie up there and the sailors would come ashore.

“I had my services in the Majestic Theater, which was very large, the size of the Orpheum (Theater in Omaha) I suppose. I would get written up in some Shanghain papers for things I would say. You see, there were some very conflicting things going on there,” he said, alluding to the city’s weird melding of sophistication and feudalism. “For example, they had just started to invoke the old Chinese custom of, when there is theft, cutting off the thief’s right hand, and thievery went way, way down.”

Crime, including a thriving black market, was rampant. So were anti-American feelings. Adding fury to the maelstrom were growing tensions between the country’s Nationalist and Communist factions.

“I remember one time I pulled up to the Park Hotel, where I lived, and ran up and ran right back down. In the little time I was up there all three of the locks of my jeep were stolen. I never did know whether they were thumbing their noses at the U.S. Navy or they just didn’t have time to steal the jeep. I was part of practically the last group to get out before the Communists took over.”

 

 

Seven V-boats with submarine tender Holland.

USS Holland (AS-3)

 

 

After his discharge Linde finished his theological training, which began at Princeton, by getting his degree from Drew Theological Seminary in Madison, New Jersey. He also worked as youth director at a Los Angeles church for a time.

Still unsure of the ministry as his life’s work, he applied to the Harvard Business School. “The amazing thing was that I got accepted. That was a great surprise to me and I thought it was too good to pass up. I used my GI Bill to go there.” His Harvard years marked a turning point in his personal and professional life and a crucible of faith.

“The people that went there worked so hard, and I knew I’d be just like the rest of them if I went into business. I wouldn’t have any time then for religion. I decided my real emphasis, my real interest in life was religous faith. I decided to go with the church rather than do religious work as a sideline, which I had been thinking of.”

He did earn an MBA degree. But more importantly it ws while his back East that he met his wife of 40 years now. She was a Wellesley girl.

“I met her the night she had signed a contract to teach school in Turkey. She was leaving in two months and when she left she was wearing my (engagement) ring. We had a furious correspondence writing to each other every day. After about 10 months we met in Geneva, Switzerland. I came from Boston and she came from Izmir, Turkey. We were married in the Cathedral of Saint Peter, where John Calvin, the famous Medieval reformer, preached.”

Linde and his wife led a tour group to Geneva four or five years ago. When informed of the cathedral’s significance to the couple some group members had the sextant open the closed chapel where the Lindes took their vows. “We stood at the altar where we had been married and all the women had tears and the flashbulbs popped.”

He has been leading tours for many years, including recent excursions to England and Holland. He’ll lead a Scandinavian trip this summer.

Summers have long been Linde’s time to travel. Taking advantage of the month off he had each summer he used his vacations to “moonlight” as a filmmaker. He began tinkering with movie cameras in the 1950s while preaching in his native Ohio. It wasn’t long before he turned his 16 millimeter Bolex on the international sights he visited each summer.

The self-taught filmmaker became serious about his hobby when he discovered his low-budget productions were not only engaging but marketable. He sold eight of his films to national syndicated television networks.

“I guess I have a good eye for what a good picture is and what good action is,” he said. “I was showing one of my films in New York City to the Jamaican Trade Board and their officials said, ‘That’s the best film that’s ever been made on Jamaica. If you ever want to go again and update Jamaica you see us.’ So one summer I didn’t have anything else to do and they gave Randi and me plane tickets, reservations at the best hotels and a car.”

He said sponsors, such as national trade boards or airlines, usually paid his and Randi’s ways overseas. While he sometimes used local cinematographers on location he mostly handled the camera himself. He also scripted the movies after compiling and editing the footage. “It usually takes me two summers to make a film.”

Linde retained an agent to book himself and his film on the national lecture- travel film circuit. There were enough engagements that he had written into his ministirial contracts permission to travel on the road as needed. He spoke and presented the travelogues at universities and art centers nationwide. In 25 years he missed only one engagement – due to a raging snowstorm.

“I never ended up with any profit. The money went right back into the next film. It was something fun for me to do.”

A lecture stop 20 years ago introduced him to Omaha. “Impresario Dick Walter brought me here to lecture at Joslyn Art Museum for one of his travel film series. That’s when I first saw this beautiful city and became interested in living here. Before Dick Walter brought me out here I was like other people who thought this was someplace you fly over on your way to someplace else.”

After taking the Countryside Community Church position in 1973 Linde continued making films and lecturing for a time. He quit filming because new, more expensive technology overtook his grassroots methods. He sounds a little wistful talking about those halcyon days when he and his films were featured attractions. Perhaps that’s why he jumped at the chance to lead this United Church in Christ faith community. He thrived on all the travel then (and still does) because it relieved stress. “From a health standpoint I think it was really the making of my job. I could go an airplane and fly to Denver or Miami or Los Angeles. I’ve been blessed with a lot of energy in my life, so I can fly someplace, give a lecture and come back on the red-eye express and still be at my office the next morning. I was able for years and years to do that. And I considered it fun. I liked the plane ride, the people applauding and the whole thing. For me, it was a lot more interesting than puttering around the house.”

He also credits his wife for helping smooth his comings and goings. “Fortunately I have a wife who understands the necessity of my being away from home a great deal. Usually I am at home for dinner but if I’m not some evening it’s not a crisis.”

Although he said his film career really didn’t “have much to do with the church, that’s one reason I’ve liked what I’ve been doing because I’ve been involved in a lot interesting, different things.” His openness to new, eclectic experiences is consistent with the liberal underpinnings of his church.

“One reason I’m in the United Church of Christ is that there’s an enormous freedom. We call it autonomy. You really don’t have a hiearchy over you telling you what to do. It’s mostly a relationship between the people here at Countryside and the staff. That’s very important to me because I didn’t want to be a churchman as much as I wanted to serve people. Counseling has been important to people over the years and I decided just before I came here to go back to school and get a doctorate in counseling (from Butler Univrsity) so I could be a professional rather than just a gifted amatuer.”

He said his search for knowledge has helped resolve personal crises of faith. “I’ve gone through two maybe three periods of intense questioning of everything I believed, and I think I’ve come out with a much stronger faith each time.”

Early on he chafed at his fundamentalist upbringing. “Pretty much what I grew up on was, ‘Well, you have to take it on faith. Just believe.’ I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to know why. That’s partly why I went to get a doctorate – I wanted to know why.”

Jamaica

 

 

Despite straying from the fundamentalist teachings he was reared on in Ohio Linde said his early years “did give me a strong impetus toward religious faith.” He added, “My mother particuarly was very religious. She read Bible stories to me.” Even as a child Linde challenged prevailing wisdom: “I always thought I knew more than the Sunday school teachers, which I probably did.”

When as a young man he told his mother of his plans to enter the ministry, he said, “she was disappointed,” adding, “She wanted me to be a good Christian boy but she wasn’t quite sure about my going into the ministry. I was surprised by that but I went anyhow.”

“I’ve really wrestled with my faith and I’ve come out with answers that, to me, are satisfactory. But they’re not the answers I had when I was a little boy in Sunday school.”

Linde feels many of Countryside’s 2,000 members are, like himself, questioners who demand answers. Others, he said, are from conservative backgrounds. He welcomes them all. Whie\le describing his church as liberal, he adds, “It doesn’t mean we don’t beleieve in anything. It means we will accept people of many different variations of faith. We don’t stuff people into one little box and say, ‘This is what you have to believe.’ This is one reason why people join Countryside. In our denomination we’re one of the largest and fastest growing churches in the U.S.”

To appeal to what he calles “a very young congregation on the sunny side of 40,” Linde has adapted his preaching style.

“I was brought up in the era when you weren’t supposed to use any personal references or illustrations and preaching was pretty stuffy. Years ago I rebelled against that. Using Jesus as a model I’ve used more illustrations and stories, trying to show what life is like and what it can be like and sometimes what it isn’t like. The fact is I’ve tried to preach like I make movies – a series of sequences and images, without trying to explain what it means.”

In general, he said “churches are learning what people really need. There is an ethical, a values and a religious hunger. Whether you want to admit it or not, there is something deep down inside of each person that does want values. People will come to a place where you don’t try to pound it into them but where it’s openly discussed.”

He said people are just as receptive to men of the cloth today as in years past. He feels his role is as vital as ever and perhaps more so not only because times are hard but because he views his vocation differently than before.

“My own perception has changed. When I first started out I was embarassed to be a minister. I’m not anymore. I think what I’m doing is very important. The reason, for instance, I’ve been in the church doing counseling is that I think what the church, what religious faith has to offer is more important than what a secular counselor has. Just adding the element of faith to psychological knowledge is a plus.”

A new building on Countryside’s campus will help the church further address people’s needs. He said the Family Life Center, set for an Easter completion, will offer “counseling, therapy and enrichment” to families.

Overall, Linde said the church’s mission is “essentially to improve the quality of life in our community and city and world.” An example of  its world outreach is Countryside aiding 18 children and their families in Amaititlan, Guatemala, where the Lindes visited recently. “My wife and I want to go back to Guatemala and go to language school. During our winter it’s their springtime and just beautiful down there.”

After all the trails he and his wife have followed, it’s not surpising then that the couple’s three grown sons have heeded their parents’ wanderlust ways and tranplanted themselves about the globe. One lives in Vail, Colo., another in New York City and the third in Taiwan.

Linde is not the type to dwell on his own many traveled roads because he’s always on the verge of some new journey. He confided, “I haven’t talked about myself this long in a long time.” But with his Countryside career about to draw to a close he thought the time right to reflect.

“We have an outstanding church here and I hope it will continue. I followed a good minister here (the Rev. Bob Alward) and we’ve continued to grow, the church has prospered in the 17 years I’ve been here, and I just hope the fella who follows me can continue what’s been done. Having the church prosper is very important to me.”

Blacks of Distinction II

April 1, 2012 13 comments

Omaha’s African-American community is replete with doers, past and present, and every once in a while a local newspaper has me write profiles of some of these leaders, who range from community activists and small business owners to educators to administrators and executives.  The following four individuals all made a difference here and though at least one has now passed on and another has retired and still another has moved out of the area, their impact remains.  You’ll find a separate post on this blog titled Blacks of Distinction that profiles four different individuals.  You’ll also find in the African American Culture category more than 100 stories about various facets and figures of the Omaha black community.

Blacks of Distinction II

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

Edmae Swain: A Pioneering Educator

Edmae Swain helped change the face of public education locally when, in 1964, she became the first African-American female principal in the Omaha Public Schools. Upon arriving in Omaha from St. Louis at the end of World War II, she got a job with OPS as a substitute teacher, the only option then available to black educators in Omaha’s segregated public schools. She subbed at Howard Kennedy School, one of a few all-black schools serving the near northside. In 1947 she was among the first blacks hired as a regular teacher. She was assigned to Long School. She remained there until OPS Superintendent Paul Miller appointed her principal of Lake School. Years before, Eugene Skinner became the first black administrator here. Until her hiring, there hadn’t been another. Progress seemed to had passed over Omaha.

That’s why news of her appointment, coming as it did the same year the Civil Rights Act was passed, made headlines as far away as Kansas City and her native St. Louis and touched off a celebration at the home she and her husband, Howard Swain, Sr., shared with their son, Howard, Jr. In the context of the fight for equal rights, hers was a victory for Omaha’s black community and the wider freedom struggle.

“Yes it was,” Swain said. “It’s certainly one of the positive results of the struggle,” said retired Omaha educator Edwardene Armstrong, a teacher under Swain at Lake.

Recently, in the comfortable Immanuel Village suite that Edmae and Howard, Sr., now reside in, the 88-year-old Swain paged through a scrapbook containing the congratulatory telegrams and letters she received 41 years ago. For her, the most meaningful message came from the man that showed confidence in her — Paul Miller. A controversial figure, he had only a brief tenure as superintendent here, she said, because “he was too progressive for Omaha.” In his letter to her, he alluded to the pressure Swain felt in assuming the mantle for her race:

“I am glad to know you are nervous because this is your recognition of the fact that it is a big step from the classroom to the principal’s office…” I am confident “you will make this step cautiously yet firmly and with resolution to serve.”

Swain recalls having “butterflies” in her stomach a long time after getting that long overdue, high-profile post. She didn’t want to do anything that could reflect badly on her or her people. “More was expected of me. Therefore, there were things I just couldn’t do and places I couldn’t go after I became principal. I felt like I was in a bubble. All eyes were on me,” she said. Failure, she added, was not an option. “I knew I had to do it. I had to succeed for myself and all black Americans. I had to do well to make it possible for anyone that came after me.”

Despite the pressure, she made the transition with her characteristic grace and reserve. Friend and fellow educator Thelma Costen said that Swain, as always, carried herself “in a dignified manner. She was very firm and maintained excellent discipline. Everything was done in a positive manner.” Edwardene Armstrong said Swain handled the situation well. “Whatever pressures there were, it didn’t show. Edmae Swain is kind of a born leader. Her organizational skills are among her great assets. She was more than capable” when the opportunity came.

A few years later, Swain once again made history. When named principal at predominantly white Jackson School, she became the first black educator assigned to an Omaha public school outside the near northside. “I don’t know if she thinks of herself as a pioneer, but she really is,” said Costen. As before, Swain took on the job with professionalism. For Swain, it wasn’t so much about making history as breaking down another barrier. About time, too. It was another steep challenge, but faced with those circumstances, she said, “You do what you have to do.”

Any misgivings Swain had about how she’d be accepted at Jackson were soon eased by the support parents showed her. She was relieved. “They really embraced me. They had a wonderful PTA. A husband and wife were presidents and they saw to it parents participated in everything. They were all very cooperative. Anything I thought I needed, they would get it for me. I couldn’t ask for anything more.” The reception, she noted, “could have been far different,” particularly as her appointment coincided with the school district’s court-ordered desegregation plan  — a hot-button issue that incited violence in other communities.

When she got to Jackson hers was the only black face with the exception of a lone female student. “I said to her, ‘Well, there’s two of us here now. We’ve integrated the building.’” Even with forced busing, few blacks ended up going to school there. It remained that way, she said, until she retired from education in 1977. It was another case of “talking about integration” but not doing much about it.

Inequality, discrimination and segregation are evils that Swain, who’s active in the NAACP, Urban League, Zion Baptist Church and National Baptist Convention, fought against. She participated in civil rights demonstrations. Once, while a teacher at Long School, she called her principal to say, “’I won’t be coming in. The activists are having a walk-in at city hall and I have to march with the group.’ When I got to school, my principal complimented me for doing what I felt was the thing to do.”

A recipient of the NAACP’s Freedom Fighter Award, Swain led a sheltered life as a girl growing up in the black neighborhood of St. Louis known as The Ville. Her parents later explained to her they purposely kept her away from the prejudice blacks encountered outside the hood. It was only a matter of time, however, before Swain ran into racism. She got her first brush with Jim Crow on a train trip down south. At a railroad station, she saw a sign reading, For Whites Only. And on the train itself she found strictly segregated dining cars and waiting rooms.

“That was really when I first knew there was something different about us.”

With little formal schooling of their own, Swain’s hog carrier father and homemaker mother worked hard to ensure Edmae and her sister got an education that prepared them to move ahead. “They had no formal education but they knew the advantages of our getting an education, and they saw to it we went to museums and libraries and places they thought would be helpful.” Even as a girl, Edmae was enamored with the idea of being a teacher, making sure she always assumed the role when she and her friends played school. It wasn’t long before she graduated from Stowe Teachers College in St. Louis and began her 44-year education career.

Like any former educator, she enjoys the successes of her former students, many of whom have gone on to fine professional careers, including a judge and an attorney she stays in contact with. “It makes me feel good knowing what I did wasn’t in vain. Maybe I gave them something to strive for.”

She’s seen many changes in the education system and decries today’s loss of discipline at school and in the home. She feels things were better when a village really did raise a child. Even though she virulently opposes segregation, she said the black schools model of the past did have the advantage of students being taught by committed staff who looked and sounded like the kids. “There was a strength in that,” she said. Besides making sure her students left school every day “knowing something new,” she included black history lessons not in the standard curriculum.

It turns out Swain’s still a trailblazer all these years later. When she and her husband moved into Immanuel Village a few years ago, they became the community’s first black residents. One other black couple has followed them since. Another example of how the struggle for equality continues. Her deep faith tells her “all things are possible with God” and that “we shall overcome some day.”

 

 

 

Erline Patrick: A Professional Woman with a Social Conscience
For a newcomer, Erline Patrick has made her presence felt since coming to work at Creighton University in 2001 after years in public school administration and senior government management service. Community involvement is the hallmark of her accomplished, far-ranging life and career that’s featured challenging jobs in many locations. Her local activities reflect her interests in education, theater, music, women’s issues and multi-cultural diversity. In only a short time, this stunning African-American woman has touched many lives here. Soon, though, she’ll be leaving for an as-yet unknown new challenge. This time it’s Phoenix, where her husband, Omaha Housing Authority director Alphonso Patrick, has taken a new post. Public service runs in this couple’s blood, and where service calls, they go.

As interim associate dean of faculty affairs and development in the Creighton School of Medicine, Erline Patrick provides administrative support to the school’s faculty, oversees recruitment of minority medical professionals and prepares grants that funnel millions of dollars towards the institution’s research efforts. Yet, somehow she finds time to volunteer. Her many good works here include: serving on the boards of the Jesuit Middle School and the John Beasley Theater & Workshop and as a Governor-appointed member of the Women’s Health Initiative Advisory Council; performing as cantor at St. Cecilia’s Cathedral; and mentoring folks on campus and in the community. She offers advice. She puts people together. She contributes funds. She sends care packages. She frets. She prays.

All this comes naturally to Patrick, a big sister, mother, grandmother and wife whose heart has never really left the roles of teacher and principal she filled back east. She talks wistfully about “how much I’ve missed working with young people,” but still makes a point of “mentoring young people. It’s very dear to me.”

She began teaching in her native, then-segregated Charlotte, N.C. and, later, in Lancaster, Penn. and Hartford, Conn. She eventually headed schools in Charlotte and Hartford, turning around a troubled urban high school with her characteristic high expectations and down home ways. Like any good leader, she makes people want to please her. She exudes warm Southern charm and displays genuine hospitality. She holds fast to old school values. She shares wise counsel with a mix of managerial authority and motherly concern. She is at once a professional to admire and a friend to confide in. A real mensch.

“It’s very important to me to be able to empower people. To help people reach their potential. To feel that I’m making a difference,” she said. “Most of my adult life I’ve been in management and leadership positions. I guess I must be a kind of born leader. I’ll be quiet and not stand out in a crowd — until somebody needs to take over…then I’ll do whatever needs to be done.”

A stickler for getting things right, she demands much from those she leads. “Today, there isn’t nearly the strive for a superior product there once was. I will not accept a shoddy product. I still hold myself to that standard, and anywhere I work will be held to that standard. And I may not be liked for it, but that’s just the way I am. I try not to be a tyrant about it.” She feels enough isn’t expected of today’s youth. “It’s appalling to hear some of our young people talk and to read their writing. A lot of that ‘dumbing down’ has been driven by television and by less structured home environments. The standards just aren’t as high.”

Aiming high was embedded in her by her mother and teachers. Her parents had little formal education. They’d been farmers and sharecroppers. Once moved to the city (Charlotte, N.C.), her father worked factories and construction and cut hair on weekends. Her mother was a domestic for well-to-do whites. “Mama was the matriarch and really guided us. She encouraged us all to go to college.” Erline and three of her four siblings ended up with college degrees.

A star in and out of the classroom, Erline was into everything at school. Her precocious talents as a singer, orator and writer included penning a song for the Decca Records label. For a time, her fine, church-honed singing voice earned her “a little bit of money singing with big bands in Charlotte. I was quite a little shapely, attractive young thing. I had a lot of admirers. But Mama trusted me. Besides, I knew how to take care of myself and the guys knew not to bother me.” Her torch singer days ended with a scholarship to Talladega College in Alabama, where she acted in theater productions and sang in the choir. Her knack for science led her to major in biology. Instead of once hoped for careers in drama or medicine, she chose teaching. With her versatility, she could have done anything. As a professor told her — Take what you have, and make what you want. That credo, she said, “has helped me tremendously. It motivates me to feel that all things are possible.”

Always in search of new horizons, she no sooner began teaching then she started work on her master’s degree in urban education. Then came her 6th Year Degree in administration and supervision. She earned two National Science Foundation grants, including one from Columbia University. She was later a National Education Policy Fellow at George Washington University. It wasn’t long after she earned her Ph.D in educational administration that she left the field for the private sector. And then Washington politics called her, first as a U.S. Senate staff member and then as a senior manager with the Small Business Administration. She made the grade wherever she went. “One of my strengths is that I’m a quick study. Wherever I’ve gone, there’s been a steep learning curve that I’ve mastered,” she said. She credits coming so far so fast to her faith. “How else could I be where I am today? So many miracles have happened in my life. I just don’t know what I would do without the Lord and that strength,” she said.

What appealed to her about The Beltway? “I wanted to learn about the legislative system and how it worked. It was new. It was exciting. And one of my goals was to work for then-Vice President George Bush. Then, in that serendipitous way my life has about it, he was elected President and I got a Presidential Appointment. It’s purely political. Somebody recommends you to the President’s chief-of-staff. At the time, I was in the Senate with Lowell Weiker. He lost the election. So, I was looking for the next thing to do when, before I knew it, I had an interview for a position in the Small Business Administration.” She got the job.

Then she was hired to manage the Minority Small Business and Capital Ownership Development Program, which oversees billions in federal procurements. “It was a huge responsibility,” she said. She took an unusual route to this senior-most management level. “I won the position competitively over many other candidates. I never took a civil service test. It was the first time it had ever been done in the agency.” She paid a price for being viewed as an interloper, “I really thought that if you do a job well, you’ll be admired. But you’re not. It’s just the opposite. It’s almost as if they’re waiting for you to falter. I think a part of it has to do with race and gender. It’s the white male patriarchal thing. Even now, I can be sitting in a board room and I’ll say something everybody agrees with, but until it comes out of the mouth of a white male, no attention is paid to it. It’s also a function of being an outsider, and that’s been the story of my post-education career. It doesn’t matter what you bring to the table. If you’re from the outside and if you rise quickly through the ranks, you’re the target of viciousness.”

Later, she fought against such attitudes as head of the SBA’s Office of Equal Employment Opportunity and Civil Rights Compliance. Creighton’s been a different story. “To their credit, Dr. Dan Wilson (former School of Medicine dean) and Father John Schlegel (CU president) saw the strength of my being an outside. I’ve gained so much here. I’ve made so many friends. And I think I’ve brought about needed change.” Now, as she readies to relocate again, she wants to indulge her artistic side. “I want to do a little more now that satisfies my soul. I don’t think I’ve used the talent enough God gave me.” In Omaha, she’s shown glimpses of that talent. Her contralto, mezzo soprano voice graces St. Cecilia’s masses, where she sings an occasional spiritual, and Creighton functions. She was Mama in The Beasley Theater’s staging of A Raisin in the Sun, a part she played in college.

“She’s an incredible talent,” said theater namesake, John Beasley. “She’s done an amazing job for us. She’s a woman full of knowledge. She’s even kept me in check at times. ‘Now, John…’ she’ll say. “That’s why I have respect for her. And she has a tremendous heart. She’s very thoughtful of others. I think she’s just a treasure. We’ll miss her, but she’s assured us she will come back to work at the theater.”

Until then, look out, Phoenix. A whirlwind named Erline is coming your way.

 

 

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Al Goodwin: Community Development Catalyst
North Omaha economic development catalyst Al Goodwin grew up in a near northside teeming with commerce. This self-described “product of the area” is proud of his roots. In the 1950s, it was a tight, self-sufficient, well-maintained district where residents could get any good or service imaginable from the rows of businesses operating up and down North 24th Street. Day and night, the streets flowed with a tide of folks shopping, running errands, taking in movies, dining out, catching live music acts, feeding their soul, hailing a cab or jumping a streetcar.

Of course, this enclave was enforced by defacto segregation that told blacks to “stay in their place.” In this apartheid system, blacks did for themselves because they had to and, in the process, created a thriving, cohesive environment built on strong families and institutions,. By the time Goodwin graduated from Omaha University in the late-’60s, the community was hemorrhaging from riots that destroyed properties and scared off many merchants and residents. By the ’70s, the once bustling North 24th strip was a tattered eyesore of boarded-up, abandoned buildings and weed-choked vacant lots. Then, like a stake in the heart, the North Freeway’s construction severed the community — uprooting hundreds of families and razing many fine homes. Finally, in the face of attitudes and practices that denied blacks fair housing, good jobs and equal rights, young and middle-aged blacks left Omaha in droves to pursue better opportunities elsewhere.

Ever since the riots and the later youth gang epidemic that surfaced in the ‘80s, the area’s real and perceived crime problems have cast a shadow of fear and doubt over the community that’s kept both potential business investors and home owners away. Today, the near northside lacks many basic goods and services and its old housing stock and sewer system is in need of repair. Recently, however, signs of a turnaround have been cropping up in a series of housing, commercial and public developments. Al Goodwin is behind some of these and plans to be part of more.

He’s remained through it all, devoting his entire professional life to reviving the community he regards as home. As president of the Omaha Economic Development Corporation (OEDC), which he’s headed since founding the non-profit 401C3 in 1977, he leads Omaha’s oldest and perhaps largest entity dedicated to inner city revitalization. His work has won him respect as a key architect for change.

“I’ve always had a deep interest in and genuine love for my community,” he said. “You have to enjoy what you do for a living, and I thoroughly enjoy having a vision to make things better and pulling together the resources to do what needs to be done and which others are not willing to step up and do.”

Unlike organizations that mainly give lip service to affecting positive change, Goodwin can point to brick and mortar evidence of progress in the various multi-family housing, commercial and renovation projects his company’s engineered. OEDC’s renovation of the historic Jewell Building, home of the Dreamland Ballroom, preserved a piece of North 24th Street’s rich legacy. It’s where OEDC offices at. The largest of its projects, Kellom Heights, is a seven-phased, mixed-use residential and commercial development completed during the 1990s. Bounded by Cuming on the north, Hamilton on the south, 24th Street on the east and the North Freeway on the west, the 40-acre project features 378 living units and a retail/office strip center. Associated businesses, notably a State Farm service center, have been drawn to the area by the renewed economic activity there.

Today, Kellom Heights is a bright flower blooming in a once depressed area. Despite it and other hopeful signs like it, the near northside is still dismissed by many outsiders as a ghetto. Few investors — then or now — have the vision to see beyond the blight. Yet, Goodwin’s somehow succeeded in selling enough people on the dream that OEDC has pumped $40 million of reinvestment into the area, not to mention the many homes, businesses, services and jobs generated. He said this success stems from its strong board, strategic planning and rigorous standards.
Goodwin, a math and economics major in college, can crunch the numbers with the best in making the case for north Omaha investment. He can dangle tax credits in front of investors. He can appeal to people’s social conscience.

“When we first started, there were many professionals that advised us not to do redevelopment in the area,” he said. “‘How are you going to attract people into the area?’ they asked. But in spite of those comments we put together a public-private community-based partnership that raised and leveraged more than $19 million to complete the (Kellom) development over a 10-year period.”

“Above industry” occupancy rates in Kellom’s living-retail-office spaces have more than justified the investments made in the project. “That’s certainly an example of what can be done,” he said. Another example is the now under construction Long School Marketplace that’s building a new 63,500 square-foot commercial center at 24th and Hamilton. Future plans envision going “further north” with commercial-residential efforts designed to “bring the population back into the area” as well as provide “assistance to residents who want to improve their own property.”

He said the monies invested in such projects come back in the form of an increased tax and spending base. “We take unused properties that were off the tax rolls and make them into revenue generating properties. It makes economic sense.” Besides, he said “there are unique business opportunities in north Omaha’s underserved market. In a four or five square mile area, there’s only one grocery store and no dry cleaning establishment. Basic, fundamental kinds of services are absent,” he said. Few are willing to take the plunge, however, due to the area’s bad rap. Despite perceptions to the contrary, he said North O boasts a strong work force, plentiful disposable income, stable institutions and safe neighborhoods. “One of the things we want to do is change the perception by making investments here and by attracting national and regional retailers into the area,” he said.

He feels the only way to rebuild the inner city is with investment and the only way to achieve long-term growth is if the area gains economic parity with the rest of Omaha. More homes, businesses and amenities will create more commerce. In addition to the new market potential the area holds, he said it’s well-positioned by its close proximity to the airport, freeway, convention center-arena, riverfront and Creighton University. With Creighton and the riverfront booming, Goodwin wants north Omaha to share in the growth and not be isolated from it.

“Any development taking place near there should and must include north Omaha. We can’t have a thriving area adjacent to a declining one. It certainly is to the advantage of those entities that have made investments nearby to see north Omaha revitalized, not deteriorated. And we want to be part of the planning and implementation process — not left out or behind. All the development taking place ought to be seamless. There should be connectivity. That way you get a bigger multiplier effect for all. As they say, all ships rise together. Omaha is small enough and our problems manageable enough that we can do this very successfully and without it taking masses amounts of money to make any significant change. And while I’ve seen some progress, there’s much more that needs to be done.”

Goodwin, a player in the emerging riverfront scene and Creighton expansion, said, “I think we’ve got to be careful that, unintentionally or otherwise, artificial barriers are not put in place that would turn their back on north Omaha.” He feels people of color should no longer have to settle for leftovers when it comes to opportunity. He hopes one day the words of Martin Luther King are fully realized and all people can “sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” His beliefs are a product of his formative years. Of the Civil Rights Movement and parents who stressed he and his siblings make a difference in the struggle for equal rights. “If ever you want to be remembered for anything, you should be remembered for making a difference. If I can look back at my life and career and say that I’ve made a positive difference, then I think I’ve accomplished a lot,” he said.

District 2 Omaha City Councilman Frank Brown said Goodwin already has. “He’s left his mark — no doubt. He’s improved areas the private sector would not touch. And hopefully that drive and energy will stick around. My only worry is that when Al Goodwin retires, who’s out there to replace him?” Goodwin is hopeful. “There are people with dreams and vision that are making things happen to capitalize on the area’s rich heritage of jazz and sports,” he said, referring to recent streetscape improvements along North 24th, the completed jazz park, the soon-to-open Love Cultural Arts and Jazz Center and reports of a new sports museum. “This can serve as a linchpin to attact people back into the neighborhood.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dan Goodwin: A Strong Man True to His Beliefs
©by Leo Adam Biga

Dan Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barbershop, a classic six-chair operation at 3116 No. 24th Street, is where it all comes down. Old-school owner Dan Goodwin has been cutting heads there for half-a-century. He’s been listening to the pulse of his people all that time, using the airy environs as a lively forum for free expression.

Like any barbershop, his place is where customers come to relax, get a cut or shave and say what’s on their mind. Goodwin likes good conversation. He invites an open exchange of ideas. He isn’t afraid of folks voicing strong viewpoints.

In the 1960s he took on a brash young man by the name of Ernie Chambers as a barber. Soon, the Spencer Street became a forum for Chambers and his advocacy of black concerns and criticism of white racism. Anyone wanting to know the current black thought came to hear Ernie or others sound off. Along with the Fair Deal Cafe and a few other north side spots, it’s where young blacks met to air grievances, address problems, float ideas and formulate strategies and tactics in the civil rights struggle and black power movement.

“A lot of people came down to this barbershop to hear him speak to the problems. To be honest, a lot of people feared him because he spoke out so strong. He’s tough. Even now, he asks no quarters and he gives no quarters. He says what he wants to say and he’ll say it the way he wants to say it,” Goodwin said.

“A lot of people came to talk to me to discuss issues and it was a place where others would meet when they wanted to talk and just speak freely about what was on their mind. It was like a gathering place,” Chambers said.

The shop is immortalized thanks to Chambers being filmed there for segments of the 1967 Oscar-nominated documentary A Time for Burning, which focused on white Omaha’s staunch resistance to the kind of black independence he embodied.

He remained a part-time barber there even after becoming a state senator. His barber chair not only served as lectern and pulpit but as an extension of his public office and a conduit for his District 11 constituents. This was all made possible by Goodwin welcoming a vital ideological discourse and debate in his shop.

“Definitely,” Chambers said.

As outspoken as Goodwin is himself, he said he couldn’t very well deny the floor to someone else who believes in the credo — “I have to tell it like it is.”

Chambers found in Goodwin a kindred spirit. “I liked the kind of person he was. We got along very well. He’s true to his beliefs. He rented me a chair and I stayed there for years and years.” In him, Goodwin found “a young man who could articulate like nobody I’ve ever known. He always had answers. He did his homework. He knew what he was doing and saying. People were really impressed with him. And we communicated real good. We were really seeing things so much alike.” Not that they didn’t disagree. “Oh, we used to argue nose to nose.”

Even though Chambers long ago left his barber chair to focus full-time on his duties in the Nebraska Legislature, the two men remain close. “We talk all the time,” Goodwin said. “He’s a great influence. I’m just impressed with his brilliance. So, it’s friendship and mutual respect.”

He loathes the possibility of Chambers being forced out of office by term limits. “It’ll be a big void. Nobody’s more committed. His whole life is what he does in the legislature. I mean, everyday he’s working on something involving the people.”

Goodwin isn’t loud or rash when offering his own considered opinions. He listens intently to what others say. But, make no mistake, he’s The Man in the shop. He commands respect by virtue of the dues he’s paid as a small businessman, community activist, role model and mentor.

In the ‘60s he hit the streets protesting injustice as a member of the 4CL (Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties). Unlike other organizations here that were reluctant “to confront” the system, the 4CL “believed in going out and demonstrating. It was an action group,” he said. “We integrated different places and we petitioned for jobs and open housing. We marched on city hall. We did things like this that brought about some changes. We were considered troublemakers and that’s what it takes to get the changes.”

Now in his sixth decade in business at essentially the same location (his shop was originally housed in a building directly north of his present site), Goodwin has seen it all along North 24th Street. He’s been there for the high times and the low times. For the promenade of people and cars that once made this strip the hub and spot to see and be seen. For the riots that torched or trashed much of the business district. For the inevitable decline that brought a great community down and emptied out most of the buildings (his is the only one on the west side of his block). And for the revival now underway in north Omaha.

He’s never left the area, he said, “because this is where I feel comfortable.”

Chambers admires Goodwin and applauds him for remaining in the heart of the community, where he and his shop provide stability and continuity. “And especially when he continues to grow personally and intellectually. It lets people know that not everybody who could go someplace else is going to do that. This is home and this is where we stay.  People do need to see that, especially the young ones. When they can see people (like Goodwin) who are in a position where they don’t have to hang around, but they choose to, that lets them know there’s something of value in our community and a benefit to staying here.”

One of 14 children, Goodwin’s bedrock values come from his late parents, Joseph and Martha. As their bible-inspired names suggest, he said, “they were “strong believers. They were the best examples of living right I ever saw in my life. If we were seeing more of that today, we wouldn’t have the kind of problems we have.”

As he looks around at the way society’s changed with its relaxation of morals and standards in things like language, clothes, drugs, music, sex and violence, he said: “I feel a lot of frustration. There used to be rules. Nobody was perfect, but at least we knew right from wrong. There were certain lines you wouldn’t cross. Now, there’s no line. The message now is, Whatever you want to do, it’s OK. It’s out there. It’s a whole different culture, the drug culture. I don’t blame kids. I blame my generation. We allowed the rule book to get thrown out. And I’m not a fool or anything. I’m not even into religion. I’m into right. I’ll believe in right till I die.”

It hurts him to see his community still embroiled in the quest for equality.

“I think this community like all communities in the inner city in America has big problems and the problems are even bigger now than they have been. Schools are in trouble. The job situation is bad. Drugs. There are so many things plaguing us now. It’s really interfered with what we called The Struggle. A lot of our young people are not even enlightened about the things we did struggle to try to change. I don’t feel real good about it sometimes, but you can’t put up your hands. You just do what you can and keep pushing.”

His own social-political consciousness was formed, in part, by his experiences in the U.S. Navy. He left Tech High at age 17 to enlist. “I was like a kid on an adventure. I never considered making it a career,” he said. “It was a good experience. But I went through a lot in the military. I went through boot camp with only one other black in my company. In the tent I was in in the Philippines, I was the only black. I’d hear things. I didn’t start nothin’, but I wouldn’t take nothin’. Every time I had a fight, they thought they could just say anything — the ‘n’ word, you name it — and I didn’t take it. But, you know what, it wasn’t that I was tough. I was dealing with cowards and they weren’t looking for much of a reaction. I must admit sometimes after I finished off one of those people, the other Caucasians would say, ‘Man, he had it coming.’”

Once back home he confronted racism all over again. “Racism’s everywhere,” he said. But as a service veteran he was outraged when an Omaha Public Schools official discouraged him from completing his high school education. And he was angry at the way his people were denied opportunities, mistreated in public places and brutalized by police. His activism began as soon as he graduated barber school and opened his own shop. Being his own boss and his own man is everything to him.

“See, I could work for anybody, but I have to be treated like everybody else. If you’re going to make it a double standard, I couldn’t take it.”

Always one to improve himself, Goodwin began weight training at 40, jogging in his 50s and competitive power lifting at 68. A world-class competitor in the masters division, the ripped 73-year-old holds many state and national records. He’s traveled as far away as India and South Africa to compete. “I’m having a lot of fun. I’m really enjoying it.” The same with barbering. “I don’t even consider retiring. I’m doing what I like. I’m doing what takes care of me. It’s mine.”

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