Archive for June, 2012

Nurturing One Lost Soul at a Time, Teela Mickles Returns Citizens Back to Society

June 29, 2012 4 comments

Returning citizens.  It’s a term used to describe men and women exiting the prison system to restart their lives on the outside.  America’s propensity to incarcerate large numbers of offenders results in a huge prison population and this means a constant turnover of individuals going into and coming out of confinement.  Many are repeat offenders.  Keeping folks from going back inside is a major focus theses days of national, state, and local programs because the expense of imprisonment is so high and penal facilities are so overcrowded and then there’s the social cost of people who leave prison and are unable to function as productive citizens in the free world.  The fallout of incarceration and the criminalized underclass has far reaching effects.  It impacts families and jobs.  There are emotional, psychological, physical, and economic consequences that can last generations.  The emphasis today is on preparing folks getting ready to leave prision to cope with the real world and providing them programs and services once they’re out to help them find their way in that world.  A place to live.  A job.  Counseling.  A support network.  Some of these efforts are by large organizations and others are by small ones like Compassion in Action in Omaha, whose founder-director Teela Mickles is the subject of this profile.  She’s one dedicated lady fighting the good fight.  You’ll also find on this blog a story I wrote about a larger returning citizen effort, the Transformation Project, and profiles of individuals who’ve come out of prison to lead transformed lives, including Morris Jackson, Servando Perales, and Aisha Okudi.



Teela Mickles



Nurturing One Lost Soul at a Time, Teela Mickles Returns Citizens Back to Society

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons


Teela Mickles is a self-described “goodie two-shoes” who’s never so much as gotten a jaywalking ticket, yet much of her life is devoted to assisting current and former prison inmates. Her work with our throwaway society‘s discarded is done as a certified Assemblies of God minister and as founder/director of her own community nonprofit, Compassion in Action, which offers pre-release and reentry services/programs.

This one-woman band prepares individuals transitioning from prison back into society. CIA operates two transitional homes in northeast Omaha, one for women and one for men. Volunteers interface with clients and their families, some as pen pals, others “adopting” inmates’ kids while mom or dad is away in prison. She works with an array of professionals in carrying out her missionary work.

She also does a program, Sister to Sister, that steers at-risk girls away from bad choices by exposing them to positive life skills and education/career opportunities. Additionally, she hosts a public access television show, Living the Life, and writes a column in Go-Ahead Entertainment Magazine.

Her work with offenders extends from pre-sentencing to sentencing to incarceration to pre-release to reentry to reestablishment. She attends court hearings, writes letters of support and advocates for inmates who “consistently work” her program. She lets the parole board know she has a place for parolees once they’re out. Once an individual is released, she works with parole and probation officers to ensure her program supports their mandates and that participants comply. Along the way, she hooks up participants with clothing, housing, transportation, jobs, et cetera.

Above all, she remembers she’s dealing with human beings, not statistics. It’s why she and others in the field now call clients “returning citizens” rather than ex-cons.

“We became weary of tagging them with the life-long stigma of ex-felons or ex-offenders,” she said. “That just drags out their sentence, which they have completed during their incarceration. ‘Returning citizens’ puts things into perspective with regard to the importance of community support and acceptance.”

Just getting the public to think about people with records and mug shots as parents with kids who need care, she said, is hard to do. So is finding volunteers to get involved in the lives of kids whose parents are locked up or piecing their lives together on the outside. Too often, she said, society is judgmental about people who’ve run afoul of the law, discounting or dehumanizing them.

Teela’s holistic approach is all about “embracing the person, rebuilding the family and breaking the cycle.”

Although never in trouble with the law, she knows something about overcoming hard times. Personal trials she endured led to a conversion that brought the healing and insight necessary to do the prison ministry she’s followed ever since.

Spend any time with her and you fall under the spell of her serene demeanor, her colorful turns-of-phrase, her devotion, her deep knowledge and her abundant compassion, which is more than a title but a genuine expression of her heart.

Little in her early years suggested the path she’d follow, except she always exhibited energy and empathy to serve others. She developed a strong sense of self in the 1950s and ’60s amongst her close, proud, large extended African-American family, the Bryant-Fishers, whose annual reunion in Omaha is attended by hundreds of relatives from around the nation. A famous “cuz” who comes in for the gathering is actress Gabrielle Union, whom Teela’s had interact with Sister to Sister participants.

Growing up in South Omaha, North Omaha, and the hills outside Council Bluffs, Teela was raised Catholic. She was a good student often showing off her fine singing voice in school and church. As a young woman she sang in nightclubs. She still occasionally sings at special events. She married early and became a mother of five children, all, like her, musically inclined. She was busy in church, school, community — serving as a Girl Scout, Cub Scout, Brownie leader, room mother, liturgical director. She seemed a contented stay-at-home-mom in a stable, happy relationship.





Behind closed doors though she suffered in “a turbulent marriage” marked by “a lot of violence and abuse.” Despite the dysfunction, she said, “I was determined to stay, to stick with it, because that’s all I knew how to do.” Co-dependency prevents domestic violence victims from fleeing. She finally summoned the courage to leave when her oldest daughter revealed her father, Teela’s husband, violated her.

“I took my five kids and never went back to that house, and was homeless for almost three months behind that.”

That wrenching break with the safe and familiar came in 1982. Her children then were ages 12 and under. Adrift, with five hungry mouths to support, her marriage over, Teela didn’t know where to turn for help.

“Because of that situation I didn’t trust anyone — mother, father, sister, brother. I trusted no one with my children. I didn’t trust me because I hadn’t a clue what had been going on, so that was on me. I felt empty and pointless. I felt like such a failure. I figured I failed my husband, I failed my children. I became a topic of gossip among my close family, so I felt like I was a bad daughter, bad sister, bad everything. I had these little kids, they’re looking at me going, What are we supposed to do? I had no clue. I was a single parent, I had never worked outside the home except for six months prior to my leaving. This whole thing was brand new.”

Scary, too. Faith became the pathway for rebuilding her tattered self.

“Even though I was a very religious person, I did not have a personal connection with God to where I felt like I could really live a life free of all this pain. I had this burn inside of me to find this God. It was a quest and the Lord did surround me with a lot of different individuals who would become significant in leading me down that path.”

She found solace and direction at Trinity Hope Four Square Gospel Church, where she attended a Pentecostal revival service and felt the call.

“I did become born again after nine months. That changed everything. The experience was a total transformation mentally, spiritually, physically, and God really impressed upon me I did count, my life did matter.”

That epiphany is the core of the empowering, faith-based message and curriculum she delivers to those coming out of prison. Not unlike a 12-step recovery program, she tends to broken people by giving them the tools and principles for rebuilding themselves and their lives in healthy ways,

Her own crucible came in 1983, when her life went from chaos to clarity. “My born again experience gave me such a peace. I had an understanding and an awareness I was not alone.” Doors began opening her to new opportunities. She got a job with a realty company, managing rental properties, including Section 8 housing. When a five-bedroom unit became available she and her kids moved in. Then, as if by providence, she landed a better job at a company seeking a black Christian woman.

The church she belonged to at the time sponsored a small choir that visited prisons to proclaim the Good News. As Teela always did, no matter what congregation her family attended, she enlisted her kids to perform.

“I have very gifted, talented children. My kids sang, they danced, they were the bomb.”

And so she took lead of the choir and of a youth group she formed to bring scripturally-based music to inmates at the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women near York, Neb, and the Youth Rehabilitation & Treatment Center in Geneva, Neb. More visits to more venues followed.

“We went to different substance abuse rehabilitation centers, we went to different churches, we just kind of toured and shared the songs, shared the testimony. That’s how that door opened,” she said.

At the invitation of corrections authorities she began conducting monthly chapel services for the captive audiences in York and Geneva. These are hardened characters. She didn’t pretend she knew their life but she was sure she had something to offer because of the hell she’d been through and the healing she’d found.

“I had enough pain and enough gain that they complemented one another. I was raw enough that I didn’t make any assumptions of what I was stepping into. I knew that God was able to heal and that He’s open for everybody, and I knew that most people didn’t know that. I didn’t and I was a goodie-two-shoes, so how could someone that had a rough life know that?

“I’ve never done drugs or alcohol, I don’t even have a traffic citation, I just had a bad marriage but I’m acquainted with pain and the kind of pain you can’t get relief for from a person. I was still in a process of healing myself and it was amazing how the Lord knitted us together. They (clients) think I bless them but they’ll never know what a blessing they are to me. And that’s how ministry works.”


Embracing the person, rebuilding the family and breaking the cycle.




Teela feels her ability to relate to ex-offenders lies in her “sensitivity to the value of each person and helping them understand they are valuable in spite of what took place to have them go there. Their issues started before they got in prison.”

Nebraska Department of Corrections Deputy Director of Programs and Community Services Larry Wayne was warden at the York facility when he first met Teela. He’s impressed by how she helps inmates improve decision-making, problem-solving, conflict-management skills from a faith-based approach. “What drives her is her faith,” he said. “You can’t really know Teela unless you know that aspect of her and how she’s motivated.”

Though she mainly works with women she also assists men. She’s visited the Douglas County Corrections center, the Nebraska State Penitentiary, the Lincoln Correctional Center and the Tecumseh Correctional Institution. She said in all the countless visits she’s made to prisons and jails she’s never been afraid, even when the lone female among a large group of male inmates and guards. Her fearlessness, she said, is a direct result of her faith and of the compassion she has about this population.

“I believe when God calls you He prepares you. I didn’t have any preconceived ideas. Once I saw the people they were just people. In fact, my heart just broke because it was almost like, there’s another side to this story. The person that would act the worst, all hateful and mean and I-dare-you-to-touch-me or I-dare-you-to-get-over or I-dare-you-to-make-me-feel-anything, is the one I would hurt the most for because it’s obvious they hurt the most and had built up all these walls. What he or she was attempting to portray was not who they really were.”

The dignity she shows inmates is returned.

‘The men have always offered me the upmost respect. I have felt more respect and more protection walking across the (prison) yard then walking in some churches. When a man looks at me a certain way another man will check them, ‘No, you don’t look at her that way and you don’t think whatever it is you’re thinking.’ There’s just this aura of respect I’ve always received. I’ve never had any fear.” Besides, she said, “I present myself as untouchable in terms of any game playing. I say, ‘I’m here because I care and my care is for real, so don’t play with it,’ they haven’t.”

Invariably, she said, individuals caught up in the penal system carry a hurt they’ve buried deep inside. Behind bars or on the outside survival dictates they show no weakness. Part of her job though is breaking that wall down so clients can feel again.” That healing, she said, has “gotta be personal, it’s gotta be on their terms.”

“We’re constantly after validation — validate to motivate to educate. Most people want to educate first — but what’s your motivation to be educated? Well, if you see yourself as a valuable person, your goals and behavior and objectives might be totally different. That’s always the goal we’re going after.

“I don’t tell anybody what they have to do, I just present options and I turn a light on, and if they’re open to explore that light they will. If they’re scared and it’s just way too much truth for them to digest they’ll back off, but always with respect.”

She said “once a person begins grasping the root causes” of why they act out in harmful ways, “they can create their own options.”


A discussion on violence prevention was held Saturday at Creighton University.


She used to spend more time in prisons before she inadvertently crossed the line.

“Aa woman I visited in prison gave me a mother’s prayer card for her son, who was in another prison, and I mailed it to him. I didn’t know it was wrong. You would have thought I busted the system. They shut me down, I couldn’t go in any correctional facility. My heart was so hurt because the last thing I would do is break any rules.”

This happened before Teela formed CIA. The inspiration for it came after her banishment, when she received a flood of cards and letters from inmates saying how much they missed her. “All of a sudden I’d been taken away from them,” she said. The correspondence had a similar refrain — individuals got out of prison only to reoffend and wind up back inside. The recidivism alarmed and saddened her.

One woman’s letter particularly touched Teela. “I had already walked her out of prison and helped her get some clothes and connect with her kids, I thought she was doing OK, only to find out she’s back in prison for the fourth time. She wrote, ‘I’m sick of this and this and this, I believe I’m institutionalized.’ That’s when I broke at my job and started crying. I thought, I can’t help these ladies, I’m not doing enough.”

It was obvious something more was needed to sustain people on the outside. Right then in her cubicle the concept and name for Compassion in Action came to her. On a yellow legal pad she outlined CIA’s mission based on the woman’s laments.

“It dawned on me that we have to work with them before they get out — there’s too much pressure, not enough time. We have to connect with their kids. We have to get volunteer families to work with the children while mom’s incarcerated, let the kids know they are being brought into an environment of safety and education and help build some bridges prior to mom getting out. The women need practical things, like maybe job skills, education, a place to live, transportation. They need all these things in place before they get out.”

Her new ministry got its start via a U.S. Department of Education Urban Community Service grant administered by the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s family support program to provide parent education to women in prison. She conducted six to eight-week classes that met twice a week, with some 20-30 women per class.

“We had some really good results,” said Teela, who designed the curriculum.

Around this time she got downsized at her job and she used her severance pay and an education grant to continue working in prisons and to better inform herself about the population she served. “I had to learn and understand more than I did,” she said. “I got a chemical dependency counseling associate’s degree from Metro (Community College). I was 47 and it was my first time in college. I had a fun time and I graduated with honors. It’s easy to do when you know what you want to be when you grow up.”

Practicums at the Santa Monica and New Creations transitional living programs gave her “a glimpse” of what CIA would evolve to.




File:House Silhouette (black).png



When the parent education grant funding ended she continued teaching classes with support from churches. But shorter inmate stays and tighter prison security meant less access, rendering the program impractical. Her curtailed prison privileges didn’t help.

But “a bigger vision” awaited. It began to be realized in 2000 when she obtained a former Uta Halee residence on Florence Blvd. to serve as CIA’s All the Way Transitional Home for Women. She recruited volunteers and matched them with clients according to volunteers’ interests and the women’s needs.

Last year she obtained a house for CIA’s first men’s transitional living program. In 2005 her work with men expanded when CIA became a partner with the Nebraska Department of Corrections providing services for the federally-mandated Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative.

She insists CIA homes are not half-way houses but “places for transition for residents to get themselves prepared for independent living.” That includes making residents employable. “I network with ENCAP (Eastern Nebraska Community Action Partnership). They have a program for former felons to prepare them for employment,” said Teela.

She said CIA’s sterling reputation has traditionally gotten clients “right in the door” for jobs “but in this horrible economy,” when folks with degrees compete for the same entry level jobs as people with records, “it’s not working now.” She said the ladies currently in residence at All the Way “are frustrated they can’t find work. They’re way behind on their resident fees. It’s a financial strain on us as well.”

Much groundwork is laid with clients before they ever get out of prison.

“We work with them three to six to nine months prior to their release,” said Teela. “We’re able to determine how best to serve them, to connect with family members they want us to connect with, and to prepare a support team tailored to their development and interests. For example, if they’re in for a drug-related crime then we know we have to get a team together to address that piece.”

She said renewing family ties can be a sensitive thing because of abuse that occurred. That’s why reconciliation can take time and the focus must first be on recovery.

Education is another emphasis. “The GED program is offered in prison but most people don’t take advantage of it,” she said.

It’s a mixed bag in terms of how CIA participants do once they’re out of prison.

“For the most part I’ve learned not to have expectations,” said Teela. “There have been times when I thought, OK, we did this this and this and therefore this result should happen, and it didn’t happen. and it made me feel like I failed and it made me try to figure out what was missing, as if it depended upon me.” Now, she’s come to realize her job “is to plant seeds and treat everyone with respect and unconditional love, but it’s not up to me to fix them.”

That changed expectation, she said, “has helped.” It’s more realistic because in the end people do what they want to do. “You can present the same opportunities to people and some individuals will not only misuse and abuse that but they will end up back in prison,” she said. “No matter what we do, no matter what we provide, it depends on their willingness to make it happen.”

She does have her success stories and she said they all share something in common.

“Everyone that’s succeeded has a real, genuine, personal relationship with God,” noted Teela. “Their gifts and their plans had to be spiritually connected, because they tried everything else and it didn’t work. Once they recognize this is the part that makes it happen and they stick with it, they succeed.”

That was the case with All the Way’s first resident, Andrea. “We worked with her prior to her sentence, during her sentence, then when her sentence was complete she was here,” said Teela. “She had a plan, she stuck with her plan. She got a job at Creighton Medical Center. Now she’s living and working in Kansas City, and having a house built.” In another case, Teela recruited and trained a family to adopt Tracie and her three sons. While Tracie was incarcerated the family took her boys to visit her and the family did various activities with the youths. The family remained engaged with her and the boys until she was free and reunited with her sons. “In that match,” said Teela, “we crossed everything — racial, cultural, religious, socioeconomic barriers.” As Teela likes to say the adoptive family got to see the other side of the story — that “Tracie’s a great mom, she was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Tracie’s earned a college degree while working as CIA’s program manager. She’s now pursuing a master’s in health and human services.

Lataunya is another shining example. “She had such little belief in herself and she accomplished so much. She got a great job, she got her own car and a three-bedroom apartment, then her own home. She was pardoned by the mayor, and now she’s trying to work as a professional in the field. An amazing woman,” said Teela.

Two men recently helped by CIA are doing well on their own. Allen manages a store at the Westroads Mall and Pierre is working and raising his three sons, who stayed with him at the men’s transitional home. It’s not often residents have their children with them in transitional homes but exceptions are made if circumstances warrant it.

The impact her work makes isn’t always readily apparent. Like the revelation a female physician made to her.

“Twenty years ago this woman was a 14-year-old troubled youth in Geneva who had been in and out of foster care. She remembered me coming there and the ministry I shared. She stated her ‘relationship with God and sports’ turned her life around. So here she was 20 years later, my doctor! You can’t imagine how I felt at that moment.”

For a long time Teela felt she was doing her work in isolation but recent developments have encouraged her she’s not alone. “One of the exciting things happening now is the community finally is becoming more involved in the reentry piece,” she said. A driving force, as she sees it, is the federal reentry initiative. “It opened the door to invite the community in so that law enforcement and corrections were introduced to the other side of the story.”

In line with her own work, she said the new emphasis is on “trying to keep people out of prison by trying to accommodate their reentry needs.” It only makes sense, she said, because “it’s too expensive to keep people housed in prison when you can spend less money preparing them to become a taxpayer and a contributing member of the community. Agencies are being forced to consider this population as individuals rather than as a number or a label and so there’s a lot of community awareness. The community’s connecting to the fact these are people. Prior to that it was cuff ‘em and stuff ‘em. Now they’re being asked to hug-a-thug.”

The shift took some doing. “It went from one dynamic to the other and it was an education for everyone. Now everybody’s on the same page. There’s better communication between the state, county and city agencies, plus the different community groups.” Now, entities and organizations that had little to do with each other before are working together and CIA is playing its part.

She and others are working on putting more “faces in places” — having more community members visit prisons to educate inmates on things they can do to better prepare themselves for life on the outside, whether getting a GED or working a recovery program. She said in lieu of specific options many inmates cop the attitude, “I don’t see the point, I’m just going to do my time and get out of here.”

Teela trains others to serve this population. “I avail myself as a resource person or consultant in the area of pre-release, reentry and transition. We’re on the front lines with the background we have. We’ve been doing this for so long.” Society’s focus on these issues, she said, can’t come soon enough given “the prison population is growing and getting younger and the situations are becoming more difficult.”

Metro College community liaison Tommy Wilson is leading community Table Talks on reentry services and she said Mickles is one of the first persons she called to participate. “I’m very impressed with what Teela does and she does so much with so little. Teela knows where the gaps are, she’s been there, she knows what needs to be done with this reentry piece. She brings a lot of valuable resources to the community,” said Wilson, who’s accompanied Teela behind bars, where she said her reputation precedes her. “Everybody knows Miss Teela does this or Miss Teela does that — she can tell them how to get some housing or some transportation.”

Larry Wayne said Teela’s “integrity” earns her credibility inside the walls and on the street, because she’s earned the trust of people who’ve been let down before. “She’s walked a mile in their shoes, not in prison necessarily, but she’s faced up to challenges that look a lot like what they’re struggling with.” He said ex-offenders respond to her “unconditional love” and her “being there for them. They know she will follow through with them. She has a proven track record and that carries a lot.”

Networking is vital to what she does and that means attending many meetings. She also makes several presentations a year. Then there’s this Church Lady’s weekly bible study, worshiping at Sunday services — she’s an equal opportunity church-goer who explores different places and styles of worship — and monthly Christian Business Women’s Association luncheons. She estimates she works 60 hours a week. No two days are alike. Her son Mark helps her run CIA’s behind-the-scenes operations. Her other children have helped, too. But beyond a part-time office staffer and a small corps of volunteers it’s Teela’s baby. Volunteers and funds are harder to come by these days, she said. The needs are many. But Teela just keeps on trucking along.

“Somehow we make it,” she said.

She looks forward to a day when there’s more community awareness of the population she serves and their needs. She’s sure if basic values of self-worth and respect for others were more widely taught at an early age her caseload would be cut to a fraction because fewer would end up imprisoned. That’d be just fine with Miss Teela.

Rescuer curriculum gives students new perspective on the Holocaust

June 29, 2012 3 comments

When it comes to history we can never get complacent or assume there’s nothing more we need to know about a subject.  When that subject is the Holocaust and the setting is a high school the importance of educating students about this chapter of human history should compel teachers to do all they can to make what happened real and relevant to their own lives. By whatever means possible students should be thrust into what-if scenarios that encourage them to think critically about what they would have done if they found themselves in the very circumstances that gave rise to the horror.  Because, as history has shown, genocide happened before and after the Holocaust.  It could happen again.  Trying to understand what it means to be stripped of all human rights and marked for death is one step to ensuring atrocities don’t recur.  Exercises that put yourself in the position of the persecuted or the onlooker take it from the abstract to the concrete. If you had been in Nazi Europe to witness the unfolding terror that threatened co-workers, neighbors, friends or strangers, what would you have done?  That’s what teachers and students at Omaha Westside High School considered as part of a Holocaust curriculum new at the time I reported on it in 2002.  This blog contains many more Holocaust-related stories I’ve written over the years, including profiles of survivors and rescuers.



Rescuer curriculum gives students new perspective on the Holocaust

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Jewish Press


This past spring, about 45 Westside High School seniors in two Advanced Placement European History classes participated in a new Holocaust studies unit. The program got its first trial run anywhere at the District 66 school.

The curriculum program was developed by the local Hidden Heroes of the Holocaust Foundation. Using the materials, Westside instructors Bill Hayes and Gina Gangel first had students immerse themselves in the events that gave rise to Hitler, Nazism and the persecution of Jews.

Then, in a new twist to the school’s traditional approach to the Holocaust, the instructors followed the lead of the foundation’s adjunct curriculum and broke their classes into small groups to research documented rescue efforts from the Shoah. This was in preparation for each group devising and discussing a hypothetical rescue plan of their own. Students based their plans on accounts in books and on the Internet.

The idea behind placing students in the context of witnesses was to offer a deeper understanding of the peril faced by Jews. As Jews and other minorities desperately sought safe harbor there were moral choices involved for onlookers, risks incurred by those who interceded as rescuers and obstacles to doing good in a culture of hate or indifference.

A visitor to Hayes’ classroom in April found his students demonstrating a keen interest in the Holocaust materials and a facile grasp of the situation and its moral implications. The students were smart, attentive and engaged as they grappled with some of the more troubling questions raised by events far removed from their own experience. In the end, students confronted both the nobler and baser aspects of humankind and came away with conclusions to some questions and a sense that answers may never be found to some others.

An early session featured small group discussions in which students explored the ramifications of being a rescuer and the nuts-and-bolts of actual rescue operations, and a later session found students presenting their plans for the assembled class. Through it all, Hayes acted as monitor, catalyst, advisor, provocateur — providing context at various points and challenging some assumptions at other junctures.

The students’ plans ranged widely in scope, methodology and feasibility: one, closely modeled after successful operations in Hungary, featured the use of safe passes and safe houses and back room negotiations with government-military officials in an effort to keep refugees unharmed; another proposed a multi-national military strike force to lead raids on trains and camps to free Jews; a third plan imagined a group of sympathizers warning Jews of the Nazis’ intentions and providing the means for their escape; a fourth scheme depended on a vast international monetary network to undermine German interests and to fund Jewish resistance and escape efforts. As far-fetched as some plans were, they revealed students had done their homework and understood some of the difficulties posed by any rescue effort and some of the measures actually employed in rescuing Jews.

Hayes reminded the class of the harsh realities at work during the Holocaust, including the fact that governments washed their collective hands of the Jews’ predicament and took no extraordinary means to aid them. He also drew a parallel to the moral imperatives at work then to the dilemmas posed by the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He asked: “Is it realistic to think we can do something to help people who are suffering? Are we being realistic, historically? Could we adapt rescue efforts of the past to modern times? Will it work? Is there a risk? Is it worth the risk?” To which a boy responded, “There’s always an inherent risk in any plan.” Then, an earnest girl spoke up and said, “I think we should never limit our possibilities to try to save people. There’s always room for compromise.”

Westside senior Carrie Jenkins, a well-spoken, fresh-faced young woman with eyes full of curiosity, felt the process of projecting one’s self into the treacherous waters tread by Holocaust rescuers and their charges, helped shed light on some of the problems and hazards faced by these heroes.

“It makes you realize the absolute risks that were involved. When you’re trying to devise a plan you realize it’s not easy to find money, to find other resources and to figure out how you’re going to get refugees out, where they’re going to go and who’s going to help them. It’s extremely challenging,” she said. “It’s given me a new insight into how difficult it must have been for those few who did accept the challenge.”

Chris Gerdes, a studious-looking young man, said, “It took a lot of guts and a lot of heart for any of these rescuers to attempt what they did. They realized the risks and they realized what was on the line — even their lives — when they tried to help Jews. The rescuers usually had a strong religious background or a strong belief in humanity and, so, in the end they thought it was all worth it.”

Given the threats rescuers faced, Jenkins said, “I think it’s amazing there were so many people willing to risk their lives and their families’ lives.”



Westside High School



But, as students discovered in their research, relatively few individuals, and even fewer governments and organizations, actually did anything to try and halt the Final Solution, much less aid individual Jews and other persecuted individuals.

“When you take it as a percentage of the population, not many helped,” said sober Ian Peterson. “It just makes you wonder. There were probably people who were afraid of resisting and others who didn’t think there was anything to resist and others who didn’t really care. If you were selfish in the least bit you wouldn’t do anything because if you started to act as a Jewish sympathizer you’d get brandished in society and the Gestapo would come to your house. It was just incredible pressure. It would be like in this country if you went around burning the flag. It’d be really hard.”

The price of being a nonconformist and outcast is something that resonates strongly with teenagers, whose lives revolve around fitting-in. Simply put, said Pat Gaule, being a subject of the Nazi regime meant “you had peer pressure.” Jenkins added that anyone daring to express pro-Jewish or anti-Nazi sentiments meant “you got basically black-marked” or worse. The tall, thoughtful Gaule said the small numbers of rescuers and resistance fighters can be explained, if not excused, by human nature.

“I think there’s initially a natural want to deny that anything bad is going on or an assumption that it’s not as bad as some say it is. When I was doing research on the rescuers I found it took them witnessing a Nazi raid on a Jewish ghetto or a roundup of Jews onto trains en route to the concentration camps — or something equally horrific or violent — to make them want to get involved. I think, naturally, there’s that hesitation to not do anything and sometimes it just took something to push them over the edge.”

Doug Sherrets, the bright-eyed editor of the school paper, feels the impulse for self-preservation prevailed.

“Well, you’re going to take care of yourself, first, and I think that shows up most with Switzerland and all the ill-gotten money from Germany it squirreled away in bank accounts,” he said. “They saw this huge powerhouse in Nazi Germany that seemed like it was going to take over a large part of Europe and be there for a very long time. The Swiss said, Fine, we’re going to do whatever it takes for you not to invade us. They looked after themselves and not at where the money being diverted to Swiss bank accounts was coming from, which was right off the backs and teeth and hard work of the Jewish people.”

When a student suggested rank-and-file Europeans may not have known what ultimate dark fate lay behind the oppression and deportation of their Jewish neighbors, a visibly upset Jenkins used an analogy to point out the absurdity of that rationalization.

“Okay, say if every black person in Omaha suddenly disappeared…wouldn’t you think something was going on? I mean, if all of the Jewish or black people in your town are gone, wouldn’t you think the worst? How could you not know?”

Before her antagonist could reply, instructor Bill Hayes poked his head in the group to suggest students review a section of the book Hitler’s Willing Executioners for some added perspective on just how prevalent looking-the-other-way was among the countless millions who witnessed the atrocities unfolding around them and yet did nothing about it.

For Jenkins, who is part German, it was a harsh discovery to find that few Germans interceded on behalf of their victimized countrymen and in fact most implicitly or complicity condoned the horror. “I have a German background and learning about this is just very hard,” she said. In response, a sympathetic classmate told her, “It doesn’t mean your people are bad. This kind of thing happens all over the world.”

A new perspective on the Holocaust, a close identification with rescuers and victims and a jumping-off point for historical-political-moral discussions is just what designers of the curriculum had in mind.

Curriculum author Christina Micek said she wants students using the materials “to get a personal connection to history” and has therefore created lesson plans allowing for discussion and inquiry. She said when dealing with the Holocaust, students should be encouraged to ask questions, search out answers and apply the lessons of the past to their own lives.

“I really want students to feel they’re historians…I want them to take a personal interest in the subject and to analyze the events and to be able to identify some of the moral issues of the Holocaust and to discuss them in an educated manner.”

Westside’s Hayes feels Micek’s goals were largely met.

“I thought it was real useful. I think for the final project the kids had to think a lot and read a lot and study a lot in order to get where they did with their rescue plans. Every kid had a chance to look at several different examples of rescuers. Traditionally, in our two-week unit on the Holocaust we’ve looked at what the Nazis did and at the Jews who were killed and that was the extent of it.

“We never looked at it from the rescuers’ standpoint and we never dealt with the idea that the average person could really do something. And I think that’s the real value in this unit. I think it gives a message to kids that you don’t have to just stand by — there is something you can do. There may be some risk, but there is something you can do.” He said it is likely the rescuer curriculum will remain a part of Westside’s history units.

Micek, a 3rd grade teacher at Springlake Academy in Omaha and a Holocaust Studies graduate student with the Spertus Institute, wrote the curriculum program with the input of Swiss historian Theo Tschuy, author of the definitive book about Lutz and his heroic work in Hungary, Dangerous Diplomacy: The Story of Carl Lutz, Rescuer of 62,000 Hungarian Jews (2000, Eerdmans Publishing Co.).

The program includes a teacher’s guide, grade appropriate lesson plans, reading assignments, discussion activities and classroom resources, including extensive links to selected Holocaust web sites. The foundation eventually wants to make the Lutz curriculum available, at no cost, to schools in Nebraska and across the nation. The program is designed for three levels — the sixth grade, the eighth grade and high school. The foundation hopes to pilot the 6th and 8th grade curriculum programs next school year. In addition to the current curriculum package, plans call for making an interactive CD-ROM, as well as Tschuy’s book, available to schools. Hidden Heroes has contracted Redstone Communications in Omaha to develop the materials.

The materials field tested at Westside are the first in a proposed series of school-age programs from the Foundation, whose mission is building awareness about an often overlooked chapter of the Holocaust — the rescuers, that small, disparate, courageous band of deliverers whose actions saved thousands from genocide.

The mostly Christian rescuers came from every station in life. They hid refugees and exiles wherever they could, often moving their charges from place to place as sanctuaries became unsafe. As a means of protecting those in their safekeeping, custodians provided new, non-Jewish identities. While not everyone in hiding survived, many did and behind each story of survival is a story of rescue. And while not every rescuer acted selflessly, the heroes that did — and there are more than commonly thought — offer proof that even lone individuals can make a difference against overwhelming odds. The Foundation’s mission is telling these heroic stories for the lessons they impart.

“Educating young people is our number one concern,” said Foundation board member Ellen Wright. “Our youths’ heroes today are athletes and entertainers, which is an interesting commentary on our times. What we want to do is add to that plate of heroes by taking a look at rescuers” whose good works can serve as models for how ordinary people can stand up to injustice and intolerance.

“If we can get even a few children interested enough that they will feel committed to ensuring the Holocaust doesn’t happen again, then we have taught a new generation,” said fellow board member Deenie Meyerson. Hidden Heroes’ next curriculum projects are to focus on: the late Portuguese diplomat Aristides de Sousa Mendes, who while stationed in France during WWII signed thousands of visas that spared the lives of recipients; and the extensive humanitarian network in Belgium that successfully hid more than 4,000 children.

According to Tom Carman, head of the department of social studies in the Westside Community Schools, the rescue curriculum is an attractive addition to the district’s standard Holocaust studies.

“The material allows us to look beyond Oscar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg, whose rescue efforts some people view as an aberration, in showing there were a number of people, granted not enough, who did some positive things at that time. Lutz and others said, This is wrong, and did something about it, unlike most people who took a much safer route and either feigned ignorance or looked the other way. It gives examples of people who acted correctly and that teaches there are options out there.”

Carman said the lesson plans prepared by Micek, who collaborated with Westside educators in refining the materials for the district, are “done very well” and are “really complete.” District 66 superintendent Ken Bird said it’s rare for a non-profit to offer “a value-added” educational program that “so nicely augments our curriculum as this one does.”

While students agree they can never fully apprehend what it means to be a rescuer, they say being assigned the task of imagining themselves in their shoes and working-out solutions to life or death dilemmas afforded them a new perspective on what these roles meant. Where, in the past, students said they examined the Holocaust from a dry, abstract distance, this new exercise put them right in the mix of things and, so, made it more intimate and direct and lent it more flesh-and-blood immediacy.

“It’s always been from a textbook perspective,” said Carrie Jenkins, “where you’re reading historians’ views and everybody has different statistics and reasons and explanations. With this class, we started there by gathering data, but then we moved past that into trying to create something out of that. It’s definitely a different perspective.”

Gaule said, “In a textbook, it’s going to say this percentage of people died and this percentage of people were saved, but in this way we get to quantify the morality. Like, it may seem that a few thousand people saved here and there was not very much, but in reality, as we found out, it took a tremendous amount of work and determination and moral values to stand-up for Jews who were being subjected to tyranny.”

For Ian Peterson, the curriculum “sort of completes the perspective I’ve gained. Now, we’ve seen it from a lot of different angles and it sort of comes together as a more complete whole. It makes a little more sense.” Doug Sherrets said, “It’s always good to observe history from a bunch of different angles. Personally, I really hadn’t heard a lot about the rescuers prior to taking this unit. Outside of Schindler’s List, I really didn’t know much at all.

“It’s been said that you should always learn from the past and from the Holocaust we should learn not to make those mistakes again. It should make governments think more about getting involved. I now understand if more governments would have got involved there would have been a greater chance of stopping the damage from being so great.”

In the end, students concluded that putting one’s self on the line for another expresses the best in humanity.

“I think that represents like the highest point of human willingness to give everything you have,” said Peterson. “I mean, that’s like the ultimate good you could do in your life.” That sentiment prompted Carrie Jenkins to posit, “Compared to that, what value does anything else have?” Peterson added, “I know. It makes charity seem pointless when there are people that did so much and risked so much.”

Finding the Essence of Omaha in All the Right Places Leads You to Obvious and Obscure Sites

June 28, 2012 5 comments

Whether you’re a Omaha resident who lives here year-round or part of the year, a native returning home, or a visitor here for the first or tenth time, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of some places to see and things to do in the metro.  I prepared the following list for the Omaha World-Herald a few years ago.  At least one of the attractions is now defunct (Project Omaha) and if I were making a new list today I would include some additional sites (including the House of Loom and TD Ameritrade Park).  The point is, it’s by no means a comprehensive list but more of a sampler of, as the headline says, some of the obvious and not so obvious sites to check out.


Mormon Trail Center



Finding the Essence of Omaha in all the Right Places Leads You to Obvious and Obscure Sites

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Omaha World-Herald

Loves Jazz & Arts Center



Loves Jazz & Arts Center
2510 No. 24th St., 502-5291
Steep yourself in Omaha’s rich African-American heritage through photographs, videos and other art/historical materials at this gem of a cultural center in the heart of the black community. See displays on the music and civil rights legacy of black Omaha. Catch lectures, panel discussions, poetry slams, live music jams, film screenings and other educational-entertainment programs.

Project Omaha
South High School
4519 So. 24th St., 557-3640
Reminiscent of a visit to grandma’s attic, this one-of-a-kind museum in a public school setting uses artifacts along with student-made videos, books, games and other resources to explore Omaha history, including the stockyards. The collection’s size and depth will impress. Note the Brandeis department store Xmas window mockup. Call 557-3640 for a visit or a guided tour of historic city sites.



Jewell Building





The Jewell Building
Omaha Economic Development Corp. offices
2221 No. 24th St.
This National Register of Historic Places and Omaha Landmark designee was home to the famed Dreamland Ballroom, hosting scores of jazz/blues performing legends and overflow dance crowds. Now the offices for the Omaha Economic Development Corp., the restored Georgian Revival building features a large photographic display of those halcyon Dreamland nights of Basie, Ellington and more. A North O shrine.



Nebraska Jewish Historical Society



The Nebraska Jewish Historical Society
Jewish Community Center
333 So. 132nd St., By appointment at 334-6441
Photographs and archival documents depict Jewish life in Omaha from the turn of the last century through today. Special collections highlight the Jewish American experience of local merchants, war veterans and figures of national prominence, including Henry Monsky and Rose Blumkin. Print/video interviews reveal an Omaha Jewish community that was once much larger but that remains vibrant.

Cathedral Cultural Center and the St. Cecilia Institute
St. Cecilia Cathedral campus
3900 Webster St., 551-4888
The history of Omaha’s Catholic archdiocese and its cornerstone edifice, St. Cecilia Cathedral, is revealed in artifacts, photos and interpretive panels. The life and work of Thomas Kimball, architect of the Spanish Renaissance worship site, is well-chronicled. The center, located just east of the church in midtown, presents temporary art exhibits, lectures, receptions and other programs. Free admission.



Cathederal Cultural Center



El Museo Latino
4701 1/2 So. 25th St., 731-1137
National touring art exhibits complement a Latino Presence in Omaha section with photographs-narratives drawn from local community founders and elders. Listen to these pioneers’ oral history interviews in Spanish or English. Learn how the current Latino immigrant wave echoes earlier migrations in transforming Omaha. The El Museo Latino building was the former Polish Home and the original South High.

Durham Museum
801 So. 10th St., 444-5071
The former Union Station is a beautifully appointed, restored Art Deco railroad terminal now home to interactive Omaha history displays and major touring shows. The Smithsonian affiliate and National Register of Historic Places site exhibits train cars and engines and a model layout of downtown’s U.P. yards. Enjoy lectures, discussions and films. The Durham also holds the Bostwick-Frohart collection’s 8 X 10 view camera photos of early 20th century Omaha.



Durham Museum



Sokol South Omaha
2021 U St., 731-1065
Omaha’s ethnic enclaves celebrate their own and the Czech community is no different. Aside from the classic gymnastics program that’s part of any Sokol facility, this site maintains a museum featuring photographs and other memorabilia related to the nearby Brown Park neighborhood as well as local Sokol history, Czech traditions and leading Omaha Czechs. Tours by appointment at 731-1065.

Joslyn Castle
3902 Davenport St., 595-2199
Built on a 5.5 acre estate this ornate Gold Coast home of George and Sarah Joslyn reflects the grandeur of early Omaha. The John McDonald-designed 35-room Scottish Baronial castle, now being restored in all its splendor, features exquisite mosaic tiles, in-laid woodwork, a ballroom and a conservatory. A splendid backdrop for teas, receptions and dinners, the mansion’s an Omaha Landmark and National Register of Historic Places site. For tours and rentals, call 595-2199.

Joslyn Art Museum
24th and Dodge, 342-3300
Sarah Joslyn’s magnificent memorial to her entrepreneur husband, George, opened in 1931. Designed by John and Alan McDonald, with a 1994 Norman Foster addition, the stunning Art Deco temple showcases a comprehensive permanent collection. Enjoy exhibits, lectures, concerts, films and tours. The new sculpture garden provides a major new attraction. The pavilion atrium is a popular gathering spot.




Joslyn Castle

Joslyn Art Museum



Douglas County Historical Society
Metropolitan Community College Fort Omaha campus
30th and Fort
Library/Archives Center
Discover a vast repository of history pertaining to the city of Omaha and to Douglas County through archived newspapers, clipping files, maps, plats, atlases, documents, diaries, letters, books, artifacts, photographs and audio visual materials. Located in Building 11A on the historic MCC Fort Omaha campus. Call 451-1013 to schedule research visits.

General Crook House Museum
The restored 1879 Italianate quarters for Indian Wars campaigner Gen. George Crook includes Victorian era decorative arts, costumes and furnishings. Classes and a reference collection on the history/appreciation of antiques are available. Tea aficionado Mona Christensen hosts proper teas. Call 455-9990 to arrange tours or private functions. Located in Building 11B on the historic MCC Fort Omaha campus.

Gen. Crook House



Orsi’s Italian Bakery
621 Pacific St., 345-3438
It’s a bakery/pizzeria not a gallery but walls of family and neighborhood photos depict Omaha’s Little Italy section through the years, including Santa Lucia festivities, Mason School graduation classes and local Italian-American sports icons. Orsi’s is an anchor business in the trendy nouveau residential urban community emerging in this historic district south of the Old Market.

Omaha Central High School
124 North 20th St., 557-3300
Omaha’s oldest all-grades public school dates back to 1859 but the stately National Register of Historic Places building on Capitol Hill was completed in four phases from 1900 to 1912. John Latenser’s Renaissance Revival design included an open courtyard. This school known for academic rigor boasts many distinguished grads. Exterior markers note the school-site’s rich history. Call 557-3300 to arrange viewing interior displays.

The Omaha Star
2216 No. 24th St., 346-4041
Since 1938 the Omaha Star newspaper has carried the collective voice of the local African American community in calling for equal rights and decrying bias. A beacon of hope on North 24th Street, the Star was a mission for its late founder and publisher, Mildred Brown. The apartment she kept in back has been preserved just as she left it. The National Register of Historic Places building is undergoing restoration.

Boys Town Hall of History
132nd and Dodge, 498-1300
The story of this fabled American institution is told in audio, video, artifact displays. Learn how Rev. Edward Flanagan’s original home for boys grew into a childcare leader at satellite campuses across the nation. See how the school’s band, choir and athletic teams helped put Boys Town on the map. View the Oscar Spencer Tracy won portraying Flanagan in the 1938 movie, Boys Town. Marvel at the many notables who’ve visited the Omaha campus.

Orsi’s Italian Bakery
Omaha Central High School
The Omaha Star
Boys Town Hall of History



W. Dale Clark Library
215 So. 15th St., 444-4800
Omaha history can be found in hundreds of books and videos as well as in decades-worth of local newspapers on microfilm. Inquire about Omaha history talks.

Omaha Community Playhouse
6915 Cass St., 553-0800
The Omaha Community Playhouse represents a significant portion of local live theater history. The original site at 40th and Davenport is where legends Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire got their starts on stage. At the height of their stardom they returned for benefit performances of The Country Girl that raised money to construct the current Playhouse, which contains a collage of famed players who’ve trod the boards there.

Livestock Exchange Building
4920 So. 20th St.
For nearly a century the Omaha Stockyards and Big Four meatpacking plants ruled the roost. The hub for the booming livestock market was the 11-story Livestock Exchange Building, an example of Romanesque and Northern Italian Renaissance Revival design. The stockyards are gone but the National Register of Historic Places structure lives on as an apartment-office site. The grand ballroom still in use today. Historical monuments outside the building describe its lively past.

Ford Birthsite and Gardens
32nd And Woolworth Ave.
Markers and descriptive panels commemorate the birthsite of the 38th President of the United States, Gerald R. Ford, who was born Leslie King on July 14, 1913 in a Victorian style home at 3202 Woolworth Avenue in Omaha. The surrounding gardens in honor of former First Lady Betty Ford make the spot a popular choice for weddings, receptions and other events.

Gerald R. Ford Conservation Center
1326 So. 32nd St., By appointment at 595-1180
In addition to dedicated laboratories for examining, evaluating and conserving historical and art materials, the facility features a small exhibition on President Gerald R. Ford. The center’s state-of-the-art facilities include a microscopy laboratory and a digital imaging laboratory. There’s also a library of reference works on conservation and collections care.

Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame
Boys & Girls Clubs of Omaha, North Unit
2610 Hamilton St.,  North BGCOO 342-2300, NBSHF 884-1884
Until a permanent structure is built a wall of descriptive plaques honor Hall of Fame inductees, whose ranks rival that of any state athletic hall in the country. We’re talking history-makers in Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Gale Sayers, Ron Boone, Marlon Briscoe, Don Benning, Johnny Rodgers and many more. Looking at the names and achievements arrayed before you a story of staggering dimensions emerges.

Malcolm X Memorial Birthsite
3448 Pinkney St., 1-800-645-9287
The struggle to build a brick-and-mortar memorial to the slain activist is symbolized by the stark 10 acres of land the Malcolm X Foundation has been trying to develop for decades at his birthsite. Only a simple sign marks the spot. Paving stones lead to nowhere. A fence encloses an empty lot. Dreams for a visitors center, museum and plaza remain deferred. A most forlorn National Register of Historic Places site.

Prospect Hill Cemetery
3230 Parker St., 556-6057
Omaha’s oldest cemetery was founded in 1858 and is the internment site for many early city leaders, their familiar names still adorning streets and structures today. Some notorious figures also lie there. Often referred to as Omaha’s pioneer burial ground, Prospect Hill remains an active cemetery as well as a historic site open for visitation daily. A state historical marker describes its rich heritage. Free admission.

Gerald R. Ford Birthsite and Gardens
Prospect Hill Cemetery
Malcolm X Memorial Foundation



Mormon Trail Center at Historic Winter Quarters
3215 State St., 453-9372
A heroic, tragic chapter of the Mormon Migration played out in what’s now north Omaha when thousands of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints spent the winter of 1846-1847 in an encampment. 325 died there. An audio-visual display details the struggles encountered in reaching this Winter Quarters, the camps’s harsh conditions and the arduous journey to the Salt Lake Valley. View a pioneer cabin, pull a handcart and visit the Mormon Pioneer Cemetery. Free admission.

Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Headquarters and Visitor Center
601 Riverfront Dr., 661-1804
Learn about the historic Corps of Discovery expedition led by famed explorers Lewis and Clark, including information about sites along the trail. A National Parks Service ranger can answer questions and help you plan a site trip. The Riverfront Books store offers an array of educational materials for sale that can enhance your experience on the trail.

Union Pacific Railroad Museum
200 Pearl St., Council Bluffs, (712) 329-8307
Artifacts, photos and interpretive panels chart the development of the transcontinental railroad and its role in helping pioneers settle the West. View displays about the heyday of passenger travel and innovations made by the nation’s largest railroad, Union Pacific, which is headquartered in Omaha. The museum’s housed in the Bluffs’ historic, newly restored Carnegie Library.

Historic General Dodge House
605 3rd St., (712) 322-2406
This restored 1869 Victorian home was the residence of Civil War veteran and railroad builder Gen. Grenville M. Dodge, a military, political, financial wheel whose counsel was sought by presidents. The 14-room, 3-story mansion commands a terrace view of the Missouri Valley. Note the exquisite woodwork and “modern” conveniences unusual for the period. The home is used for a variety of receptions and other events.

Western Historic Trails Center
3434 Richard Downing Ave., Council Bluffs, (712) 366-4900
Discover the history of four historic western trails — Lewis & Clark, Oregon, Mormon and California — through exhibits, sculptures, photographs and films at this State Historical Society of Iowa center designed and built by the National Park Service and local partners.



Union Pacific Railroad Museum

Omaha’s Northwest Radial Highway’s small box businesses fight the good fight by being themselves

June 27, 2012 5 comments

The Omaha World-Herald assigned me to do a story a few years ago about some of the small box businesses hanging on and fighting the good fight along a section of the Northwest Radial Hwy in North Omaha.  It’s a less than scenic strip for much of its length and most of the businesses found there, including the ones profiled here, are diamond-in-the-rough eccentrics in the way that small entrepreneurial endeavors tend to be.  I feature a shoe repair store, a bartending school, a barber-beauty shop, a photography studio, a one-chair barber shop, and a barbecue joint.  In most cases, it’s the people who run these businesses that make them interesting, and I trust you’ll find that to be true when you read these bits.


Omaha’s Northwest Radial Highway’s small box businesses fight the good fight by being themselves

©by Leo Adam Biga

A truncated version of this story appeared in the Omaha World-Herald


Traverse the winding arterial Northwest Radial Highway too fast and you may miss the small businesses dotting the landscape. Their tan or red brick facades bespeak nostalgia. Their intimate spaces reminders of an era before our supersized, homogenized franchise culture. Their personal, friendly, relaxed, pull-up-a-chair-and-let’s-talk customer service far removed from the get-em-in-and-get-em-out mode prevailing in many larger operations today.

A strip of the Radial extending from the eastern edge of the Benson business district to where the “highway” connects with Saddle Creek Road features a hodgepodge of classic Mom-and-Pop service providers. These small box businesses are the antithesis of big box stores. A shoe repairman, an old-style barber, a bartender’s school and floral shop in one, a photography studio, a beauty parlor.

Interspersed with these are service stations, a car wash, a print shop, a photo shop, a vacuum cleaner store, a heating-air conditioning business, another beauty salon, a tattoo parlor, a barbecue joint and a bar and grill called Nifty.

Then there’s the hybrid Quiktrip, a national convenience mart with country store service amid a gleaming, corporate layout of vast food and beverage choices, gourmet lattes included, and eight self-pump gas units. It’s not on the Radial per se but its footprint fronts both the Radial and Saddle Creek, mid-town thoroughfares linking the O’s four quadrants. Store manager John Shonka said serving people on the go means giving them what they want quickly. “If you’re not a one-stop shop then they’re going to one-stop shop somewhere else. Obviously, they don’t like to wait. Customer service and having everything they want conveniently and affordably and at their fingertips is what they’re looking for.”


Across the street, Dee N Dee Full Service Gas is a humble alternative. Its shacks and machines dispense, by comparison, meager snacks, beverages, supplies. The lack of amenities and choices is made up for by an attendant who pumps your gas, checks under your hood, puts air in your tires and washes your windows. Service. 

The small entrepreneurs hang on against all odds. They do things their way. They keep their own hours. Their quirks and tastes come with the services they render. It’s part of their charm. It’s makes them irreplaceable. As Benson Shoe Repair owner John Schu said, “It’s the little guys that make the big guys go. If you take the little guys out, I guarantee you the big guys are right behind them.”

Benson Shoe Repair, 5725 NW Radial Hwy
Schu’s place is aged like the leather goods he mends. His sewing, nailing, finishing machines are older than his 45 years. The building he rents has been a shoe repair store its entire 74-year history. The original owner built the single-story brick shop as an extension of his house. Schu’s father, Mike Koory, took over the business in the 1970s. The younger Schu learned the craft from his pops.

When Schu went off to sew his wild oats as a young man, first in California and later in Texas, he never got far from the shoe repair trade, furthering his expertise by apprenticing under older craftsmen. After some hard times this rambler came home, rejoining his father in Benson, where Schu grew up and still lives today.

His dad retired recently, leaving Schu to carry on the tradition alone. He respects the legacy he’s part of.

“I’ve been honored to be around a lot of different tradesmen. I fell in love with this and because I fell in love with it I got pretty good at it and I trained with different professionals.”

Stiff competition in Texas, where he lived 16 years, forced him to step up his game. “You can’t half-step it there,” the T-shirt and jeans-clad Schu said.

He doesn’t think too highly of the work done by the few shoe repairmen still practicing in Omaha today.

“Most of them, their work isn’t what it should be just because they’ve never really been trained by old guys,” he said. “The old guys are gone. Those old guys, man, they’re the ones that knew it and passed it down. If you weren’t blessed enough to hang out with them when you were growing up then you missed out on a lot of stuff. That’s the way it works in my trade.”

He said his love for what he does motivates him to get better.

“I enjoy getting up and going to my job every morning. And if you love what you’re doing you’ll always keep trying to learn, and that’s where it’s at. I don’t think there’s anybody in this town that’s as good a shoe repairman but I’m still learning.”

He points with pride to marquee customers, notably Husker legend Johnny Rodgers, whose framed-signed image adorns shop walls right next to photos of less well-known customers on fishing trips, graduations, weddings.

Doing a job right is Schu’s reward.

“I enjoy when I can make someone’s day. That’s when my day gets made. It should always be about the customer. Sometimes they need you for real because maybe there’s nobody else in this town qualified to fix that, and it may be something their great-grandfather’s left them that’s very sentimental to them.”

Two of his biggest customer segments are bikers and preachers. He does alterations to bikers’ vests and jackets, applying patches, zippers. Ministers’ patent leather shoes get a workout stepping for Christ. Schu can’t help cracking a joke: “We’re all in the same business — saving souls (soles).”

He disdains the shoddy footwear produced these days. Quality still exists but it costs a pretty penny. That’s why his expertise isn’t cheap.

“I buy the best thread — nylon, not cotton — because when I repair it I want it to last a lifetime. It’s expensive. I’m a craftsman and a professional, and you’ve got to pay for that, too.”

“See that?” he said, holding up a man’s dress shoe whose repaired bottom had the seamless “like factory new” appearance he strives to get. “That has love in it.”

He said he expects to be at this “until I die. I’ve got a pretty good business here. You can make a living — you ain’t going to become rich.”


Midwest Bartender’s School/Jo-Be Floral Sales, 4957 NW Radial Hwy
With its faux brick facade, distressed lawn and garden implements and handmade sign out front, the place doesn’t look like much. Inside, it’s not much either. Clutter, dust and grime collect everywhere. A narrow corridor, past the flowers and junk, leads you to the fully-outfitted mock bar, where nattily-dressed owner/instructor Bill Bade operates his “School of Drink.” When he opened 34 years ago, he said, his was the state’s only bartending school.

Bade didn’t enter the field after a long career behind a bar as you’d expect, but only eight months into it. Why a school?

“There was a need for it,” he said, “I looked at myself and I didn’t know anything. I was like any other bartender. I’d free pour. I’d give them what they wanted. Put me in some of whatever it was. I didn’t have any idea what a bartender should do.”

He did his homework.

“Before I even opened the school I did over six months research. I had to put the whole school in first and then the state sent five inspectors to OK it or not,” he said. “One of the five said, ‘Eh, why you gotta have a bartending school? You put a little dab of this and a little dab of that.’ And the other four, in unison almost, said, ‘That’s why we need a bartending school.’ And so they approved it.”

Being first meant Bade had the field to himself. Then competition arrived.

“There have been five different major chain outfits that have come over the 34 years,” he said, “and all five of them left with their tail between their legs. They can’t compete with the way I teach. I don’t mean to pat my own back but I devised a thing where I teach by word association fully.”

He tried rote memorization but found students “were losing too much.” “If you don’t use it within a two or three-week period you don’t have it anymore,” he said. “With the word association when you hear the name of the drink the name tells you.” Therefore, a Black Russian is Kahlua and vodka — Kahlua’s a dark, coffee-flavored Mexican liqueur; Russians are known to fancy vodka. Thus, a White Russian is Kahlua and vodka with cream floated on top.

“That’s the way I teach,” said Bade, who first made his living as a barber and beauty operator. His wife of 57 years runs a beauty parlor from home. Their family pitches in with the flower sales on Valentine’s Day.

Bade’s students study his training manual and watch his videos but they largely learn by doing — mixing (fake) drinks and running the bar.

“You can’t ever learn to be a bartender by watching,” he said. “You have to have hands-on experience.”

He does the watching. “They call me Eagle Eye because I see everything,” he said.

He estimates he’s graduated 25,000 bartenders. Most, he said, earn $40,000-plus annually.

As the sole owner, his days are his own.

“It’s like being retired. I do what I want to when I want to. I don’t have anybody to answer to. I enjoy it. I’m going to die here.”

What’s the deal with the flowers? He originally sold them, he said, to help pay his wife’s medical bills. The flowers “took off like wildfire” and he’s kept on selling them. He said folks who only see his floral sign “don’t even know the school’s here. Once in a while they’ll walk in and go, ‘Man, I didn’t know you had a bar in here.’”

Bade hears his share of jokes in his trade. He said a Reader’s Digest editor called once asking if he knew any bartending gags. He complied with a clean one that made it in print. He hears tales, too, usually of his students’ relationship woes. He’s heard it all. After 77 years, the ex-Army paratrooper’s lived it all, too.

“I’m a priest. I give advice, mostly about marriages and girlfriends. You have to.”

Felicia’s Beauty & Barber, 4802 NW Radial Hwy
You don’t just get your hair done by Felicia James, you get your soul cleansed. A self-described “very spiritual person,” James is on a mission of faith and self-discovery that she’s sure is responsible for her salon’s very existence. After years running a hairdressing business out of her home she felt the urge to move one day. She packed, without a new site in mind, but within short order found the former pharmacy building she’s in now. It needed an overhaul.

“It was awful,” she said. But she felt called there so strongly she bought it. Its location — fast off where the Radial and Fontenelle Blvd. merge — was “perfect.” It makes for a diverse clientele. “We do everybody. All ethnicities. It works,” she said.

She spent some $30,000 addressing the floors, plumbing, lighting, painting, you name it. She did much of the work herself alongside friends and family.

Today it’s a chic salon of warm-hued, calming yellows and reds, a white and black tile floor, African-inspired artwork tastefully arranged about, a photo collage of her large family on one wall and a large candy/snacks display up front. Religious and inspirational messages displayed here and there.

“To me, your surroundings should be a reflection of who you are. It all started with a picture,” she said.

She acquired a small painting of a black hairdresser doing a woman’s hair. She pined for a similar, larger work. On her last day doing hair from home a client gave her a big, jazzy, expressionistic rendering of a colorful, this-joint-is-jumping black beauty shop with the words, “You’re Next, Sugar,” at the bottom.

Once in her shop James hung the picture, only later realizing the resemblance.

“I was like, ‘Oh, my God, is it possible?’ I actually started crying. The set-up in the picture was almost identical to the shop. The floor pattern. Even the colors of the walls. You see the yellows? It’s right there,” she said to a visitor. “It’s like the vision was already there and I didn’t see it. It’s almost like the law of attraction.”

She feels her shop is a gift from on high, one of many she ascribes to being reborn.

“I have a story. I’m walking by faith. You know, life is a journey and when things have tested you you learn to appreciate things and people and who you are. My life could have been so much different but He chose to put me here. I’m so grateful for this but I’ll be the first to tell you I did not want this, I’m accepting it.
I would have been happy just being that housewife with those kids and a dog.”

She married young and moved to Houston. Things didn’t work out, except for her son, who still lives there. Missing her family, she moved back home a few years ago. She’s back to making people feel beautiful.

“I’ve done it my entire life. It’s something I love to do. I like to make people feel good about themselves on the outside. But I’ve learned to make them feel good on the inside, too, by the things I say. I’ve learned to be an encourager.”

She’s poured out her life lessons in a testimony she shares with customers. Its Biblical passages remind what really matters — “time, health and relationships.”

The fuchsia T-shirt she sometimes wears under her black smock spells out “LOVE” in silver letters. “God’s love. It’s all about love,” she said.

In her station she keeps a gift-wrapped cardboard box atop a stack of plastic bins. There’s a slit in the box. “I write down the things that I want and I stick them in there,” she said, “and they’ve been coming to pass.” Her wish box may soon contain a vision for the building’s empty second story. “I haven’t decided what I’m going to do but I’m going to eventually build it up somehow, someday.” Amen.

Paparazzi By Appointment, 4871 NW Radial Hwy
Lumir Photography Studio was a Radial fixture for decades. The late Lumir Malimanek was known for the sublime way he lit subjects, including nudes. In 2004 his widow and assistant, Bernadette, sold the building housing the studio to a young professional photography couple, Laura and Gustave von Roenn.

“It was like the perfect studio space we were looking for,” Laura said.

The von Roenns were not the only ones bidding on the building but Laura said Bernadette “chose us” over the others. “I think she said we reminded her of them back in the day when they bought the building. Very sweet.” Even though they never met Lumir the couple feel a kinship. They wish to one day host an exhibit of Lumir’s work in the art gallery they’ve created there as a homage to him.

Two new gallery spaces are among the $80,000 in renovations the von Roenns made to the building, which they said was in ruinous condition. Other improvements included the addition of built-in wood benches, the installation of new wood floors and the removal of a drop ceiling to reveal an original tin ceiling. Their distinctive tin logo of slinky, silhouetted male and female paparazzi with cameras in hand, adorn the front and sides of the 1926 brick building.

The building’s extensive work, much of it done by the couple, took many months. The result is a showplace with walls featuring photographs and paintings. Ironically, the pair seldom photograph at their studio, using it instead as an office, production facility and conference space. Their commercial picture-taking is done on location.

They make their living in photography but neither majored in it at school. Her degree’s in marketing and his in anthropology. Their movie-movie meeting presaged their future careers. She was scouting subjects for a Creighton University photography class when she spotted Gustave reading a book on campus. After chatting him up she took his picture. It turned out he was an amateur shutterbug. They had a chemistry but after the shoot they went their separate ways. Fast forward a few years later to the two Creighton grads meeting by chance and embarking on a personal and professional collaboration.

Their first paying gig was a friend’s wedding. Gustave said, “We bought an arsenal of equipment, gearing up like this is going to start something.” It did. Their photos were a hit and they soon established themselves as wedding photographers. He said, “It wasn’t a stretch of the imagination for us to say, ‘Hey, why don’t we try it?’” They did, joining the ranks of today’s young creative class.

They still do wedding jobs. But as they’ve honed their craft their assignments have grown to include corporate and publication work.

“We’ve always kind of seen ourselves as more documentarians. We land new clients that force us to do new things all the time and that’s the neat part of the business,” Gustave said. “We’re never doing the same thing.”

Their interest in art led them to create a gallery hosting shows by local and national artists.

They live near their studio. They love the older neighborhoods the Radial intersects. They said the area’s turning over to include more young professionals drawn by the urban lifestyle and large stock of affordable homes.

“We hope to stay here awhile, especially with everything that’s happening in the Benson area. We’d like to see more of the economic development this way,” Laura said. They’re also hedging their bets. “We’re still testing whether or not this occupation is relatively recession proof,” Gustave said.  To survive, he added, they’ll need to be “resourceful” and to “diversify.” Just how they like it.

Bob Beck’s Barbery
, 5101 NW Radial Hwy
Not much changes in the barber business and that’s just fine with Bob Beck. “That’s the nice thing about the business,” he said. “You don’t know exactly how much you’re going to make every day but at the end of the month it’s all going to balance out about the same. So you really know where you’re at all the time.”

The barbershop banter tends to center on perennial subjects — sports, politics, war, women, the high cost of living, taxes.

He bought out the tidy, spare, itty-bitty barbershop’s previous owner, Al Thompson. He shared the shop with Thompson a couple years. It was a barbershop for decades before then, too. Beck’s had it to himself 24 years now. He did some touchups but otherwise the shop’s unchanged from when he got it. He’s considering some new countertops and a paint job but not much beyond that.

“You can only go so far with some of these retired guys. You can’t get too foo-foo. You’ve got to keep a certain amount of masculinity about the place,” he said.

Most of his customers are regulars whose hair he’s been cutting for years. “I don’t even ask them what they want, I just cut their hair. I give the same haircuts I gave 40 years ago.” His multi-generational business means he cuts the hair of children whose fathers’ hair he’s cut since they were young. “You establish relationships with these guys. You know their kids. You know everything about them. You get invited to graduations and weddings and all kinds of things,” he said.

He sometimes hears more than he should.

“Oh, yeah, you’re kind of like a bartender, you hear all the problems. Eh, it’s part of the trade, I guess.”

It’s such an intimate space that regulars there surely know the tragedy that befell Beck and his wife Jennifer when their daughter Katie died of cancer. This reticent man probably kept his anguish inside but he proudly points to a photo of her up on a wall that pictures a beaming Katie and her fellow junior women’s curl team members celebrating the world championship they won.

Pushing 60, Beck plans to give it another 10 years.

“I could probably retire before then but what are you going to do? I’ll stick it out until I know I don’t want to cut hair anymore and then walk out the door.”

Besides, he said, “It’s a good little place. It’s been good to me. I can’t complain.”

Being his own boss means anytime he and Jennifer want to scratch the itch they can hop on the Honda motorcycle he parks in front of the shop and roar off on one of their road trips. “We’re motorcycle fanatics,” he said. “We enjoy it. We’re doing the four corners of the United States on the bike. We’ve been to San Diego, up to Maine and Canada and in the Pacific Northwest, on up into Victoria on Vancouver Island. So we’ve got one left — going down to Key West.”

Hartland Bar-B-Que, 5402 NW Radial Hwy
They aren’t kidding when they say you can taste the smoke at Hartland Bar-B-Que, a popular new eatery on a site that used to be a donut shop. You can certainly smell the hickory aroma for blocks, too. Owners Tim Hart and Yvette Lanouette go against the grain in Nebraska with barbecue that derives its flavor, not from the application of sauce, but from a secret dry rub and long smoking process.

Business has been brisk since the joint opened last November. Unlike most startup restaurants Hartland already had a following due to a catering business Tim ran out of his home and a monthly gig where he’d set up shop at nearby Louis Market.

Things are going so well, said Tim’s sister, Charlene Howell, who works there with another brother, that Hartland plans expanding this summer. The smoker will be enclosed and a cooler added. There’s talk of adding a second site.

Her family grew up in Benson and many members still live there, herself included. She feels the historic district’s recent resurgence makes the area a good place to do business in. “I think my brother timed it very well,” she said.

North Omaha synergy harkens new arts-culture district for the city

June 26, 2012 19 comments

There’s a magazine published in Omaha called Revive!  It’s put out by a couple, Willie and Yolanda Barney, as a very intentional positive framing of the best of what is now and what is to come in North Omaha, by which they and most folks here mean northeast Omaha, which is the traditional heart of the city’s African-American community.  That heart has been hurting for decades due to disinvestment and crushing poverty and it’s only in the last few years and looking forward now that there’s come to be a concerted focus on finally revitalizing that area in a profound way.  Progress is being made in some sectors but there’s a long way to go yet before a fundamental, sweeping change comes to fruition and all boats are lifted with the tide.  The following story is about the stirrings of change in a historic hub, North 24th Street, that long ago fell on hard times and is looked at today as a cornerstone for the planned rebirth.  An arts-culture district is to arise in what was once the epicenter of a vibrant live music and entertainment scene with all the trimmings – dance halls, clubs, restaurants, stores, movie theaters, you name it.  It isn’t much to look at or partake in yet, but it could very well be in short order.  The potential is there.  Some of the pieces are already in place.  More are on the way.  It’s my hope that in a decade’s time the rebirth will no longer be a fond desire or enticing plan but a reality.  My story will soon be appearing in The Reader (

This is what much of the district looks like now



North Omaha synergy harkens new arts-culture district for the city

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in The Reader (


The days when North 24th Street jumped with folks out on the town, strolling the main drag, hitting one live music spot after another, are decades past.

Aside from biennial homecoming activities, North 24th is a drive-through artery on the way to somewhere else. Few souls trod its walkways. If people do stop it’s for Sunday sanctification, a haircut, a fill-up or some social service business.

There’s little else to see or do. Food options are mostly confined to the fast variety and dingy bars pass for nightclubs. Vacant tracts of land abound.

But a welling synergy of activity promises to once again bring people in numbers to the “Deuce-Four” for entertainment. It’s the fledgling start of the arts-culture district designated in the city-approved North Omaha Village Revitalization Plan.

A couple pieces are in place. One is under construction. Others are on the drawing boards. The revival isn’t in full swing yet, but there’s enough happening to give a glimpse of what could be.

The existing pivot points are the Loves Jazz & Arts Center, Union for Contemporary Art and Great Plains Black History Museum. An emerging player is the as yet unnamed fulfillment of the two-year long Theaster Gates Town Hall Project in the former Carver Savings & Loan Association building.

John Beasley is eying property in the area for a new theater. Other envisioned digs include a movie theater, large music venues and artist live-work spaces.

Historic anchors with strong community orientation have their own roles to play. The Omaha Star newspaper is a conduit for community happenings. The Omaha Economic Development Corporation and the Empowerment Network, housed in the Jewell Building where the Dreamland Ballroom held sway, are driving redevelopment efforts and sponsoring events.

Seasonal attractions are part of the scene, too. The North Omaha Summer Arts Festival is in year two, though most of its events happen on North 30th. The expanded Juneteenth celebration centered last month’s activities on 24th, where the Dreamland Plaza hosted outdoor concerts. Last year’s Christmas in the Village drew hundreds to venues up and down the street.

The LJAC at 2510 No. 24th is by far the area’s most established attraction. The gallery, live music and rental spot has come into its own after a rough patch. Executive director Tim Clark sees the makings of a destination district about him. “The stars are aligning with all that’s going on with the Union, the Bemis, the black museum and the Loves Center. I think people are ready for it.”

Loves Jazz & Arts Center




The center, whose membership has risen from 8 to 300-plus in two years under Clark, is seeing more visitors to national traveling exhibits, including the current Selma to Montgomery. Special programs, from a gospel play-soul food buffet to a fashion show, draw well. Events like a recent Family Day and Arts-Culture Expo found new audiences. Its Jazz After Five series owns a loyal following.

The idea is that as more stay-and-play venues open around the center and offer  activities people will make a night of it by sampling the attractions, thereby dropping more traffic and dollars into a community starved for commerce.

“We’re trudging along and as we ramp up hopefully it’ll catch on,” says operations director Janet Ashley. “We’re all in this together, we’re very supportive of each other.”

Returning the area to a walking neighborhood is partly about overcoming perceptions, say Ashley and Clark, that the area is unsafe, which they insist it’s not.

“Being able to walk from one location to another is hugely important to the sense of vitality of the neighborhood.,” says Hesse McGraw, chief curator of the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, a partner in the Gates project.  “The idea that you could come to a Jazz After Five at Loves Jazz and then walk to a opening at the Carver and then walk to an open studio or something at the Union, that’s a pretty dynamic thing.”

As events multiply and more patrons discover the area’s diamonds in the rough, not unlike North Downtown a few years ago or the Old Market a few decades ago, a critical mass of sit-down restaurants and retail outlets may join the party.

Around the corner from Loves Jazz a combined storefront eatery and art space is taking shape. Chicago-based artist and planner Theaster Gates, along with Rebuild Foundation of St. Louis, Mo, and the Bemis, is bringing new life to adjoining sites at 2416-18 Lake St. to house a Big Mama’s sandwich shop, three artist studios and a gallery.

For Patricia Barron, whose Big Mama’s Kitchen & Catering on No. 45th St. is one of northeast Omaha’s few destination spots, contributing to any revival is personal. Her father Elmer “Basie” Givens was a band leader when 24th jammed day and night with music and action.

“I can remember when 24th St. was just flowing with activity and so I’d like to see that restored, the arts, the music, theaters, stores, because this is my birth city and I love Omaha. We’re very excited. It’s been dormant for too long.”

Carver Building (right) and adjoining building to house the Theaster Gates project with a sandwich shop, artist studios and gallery
Theaster Gates



McGraw says the art side of the site aims to be a launching pad for North O artists of color and a catalyst for more activity. He describes “an emerging excitement about a set of possibilities burgeoning in the neighborhood,” adding, “I think there’s an interest from the city’s perspective in imagining what could happen on that block west of Loves Jazz, where the city owns a lot of property.”

He says the area’s potential as a lively arts haven could be enhanced by a North Omaha Arts Alliance. Deborah Teamer Bunting, Heritage Arts Manager with the Nebraska Arts Council, is working with the Empowerment Network on formalizing the alliance by year’s end. She says shared resources could help joint funding and marketing efforts.

Clark, who’s hosting informal meetings with his arts neighbors, also sees the benefits of “this coalition” working together moving forward.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see the stirrings of a vibrant arts community,” says McGraw.

“I think the synergies are there and all these activities would be stronger in concert with one another.”

Bunting says it’s already “one of Omaha’s best kept secrets” and “its own unique community building on some of the history of North Omaha.”

A block south The Union is poised to be a destination. It hosts artist-in-residence studios and community projects, such as the North Omaha Tool Library formed by Kjell Peterson, at its 2417 Burdette St. site.

It seeks funds for the adaptive reuse of the adjacent Fair Deal Cafe as a gallery, lecture space and art library. The Fair Deal was THE Omaha soul food joint. So much social-political discussion happened there it was called the “black city hall.”


Brigitte McQueen



“We’re hyperaware of the fact that building has so much significance to this community and anything we do over there will be so respectful of that,” says Union founder-executive director McQueen. “I’m hoping people will be excited to see it used again and returned to a state of glory.”

This summer The Union is planting communal gardens and erecting an elaborate gazebo, all part of finishing out its multiuse campus.

“There will be seating, no gates, no fences, no nothing. It really is meant to be of the community,” McQueen says of the gardens-gazebo. “It’s creating an oasis that will always keep on the property and not build over that land.”

Urban agriculture is one of The Union’s many missions..”If we’re sustaining people visually and emotionally with the arts,” she says, “then we also need to be giving them an opportunity to grow food that sustains them in a better way.”



The Union for Contemporary Art



McQueen saw the area’s potential synergy May 31-June 1. That’s when a Great Plains Theater Conference play staged in the Union parking lot, with the Burdette building’s west wall as painted backdrop, drew hundreds, including area residents and workers. The sounds of traffic whooshing by and kids playing hoops across the street added “perfect” ambience to the urban-set play The Crowd Youre in With.

The Union and GPTC plan more collaborations.

Conference producing artistic director Kevin Lawler says, “The arts are one of the most live giving, healing, growth enhancing, healthy activities for a community, and this is a part of the city that has not had enough energy from the arts. So I want to work with groups like the Union to help to change that.” A youth theater program is in the works.

Additionally, the Union is developing an art-based after school program and a North Omaha murals project involving area youth.

“I think once kids and their parents start coming to the building that will help us get established,” says McQueen.

As more has been happening there, she says, the curiosity factor already has neighbors, including kids playing hoops at the Bryant Center courts, “coming over and asking questions…oh, so many questions,” says McQueen. “They’re excited to hear we’re doing art stuff over here.”

The Bryant Center Association operates organized leagues at its open basketball courts as well as programs for seniors and youths at neighboring St. Benedict the Moor Church. Funds are sought for a proposed anger management and life skills program. The focus is on giving kids positive, structured diversions along with mentoring, tutoring and counseling.


Bryant Center



Jean Cain, who helps runs things at the Bryant, has noted the Union’s activities and sees potential collaboration with McQueen’s programs.

“I’m very grateful for her, I really and truly am. I do want to make that acquaintance because I do think there’s a partnership or a marriage that could be an ongoing thing.”

The Union is new enough and the Carver opening far enough away that even most Bryant volunteers and area residents don’t know about the organizations yet. That will take time. The Theaster Gates site will feature a glass front entrance and a Big Mama’s outlet to make a transparent and enticing “invitation” for the community to come check it out, says McGraw, He says it’s all part of a “radical hospitality that makes spaces welcoming by reaching out in a charismatic and gregarious way. It’s this idea of having a thrown open front door, a place where there’s no expectations about who belongs there – there’s too few places like that.”

The black museum has a different challenge. It’s a well-known quantity that goes back to the mid-1970s but until monies are found to renovate its condemned home at 2213 Lake St. and/or to build a new one, it operates as a mobile presenting organization. It recently brought three Negro Leagues Baseball Museum exhibits to the metro, including two at Conestoga Magnet School not far from the 24th hub.

A mile or so southwest of the hub the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation has recently staked itself as an anchor with year-round programming at its new center.

Tim Clark and Brigitte McQueen say organizations like theirs are seeds that can grow roots that blossom into perennial attractions. But for that capacity building to take place resources are needed for more professional staff, among other things.

For all these disparate parts to form an effective, concerted North O mosaic or cohort that engages the general public, Clark says they must find sustainable support. He suggests a much larger pool of money than is presently available through funding mechanisms like the North Omaha Cultural Arts Committee is necessary to support the arts-culture district’s growth.

The catalyst effect Gates hopes to have with his project, which the Bemis is providing full financial support to for three years, can work the other way, too.

“There are new initiatives that are about to get off the ground in North Omaha that are really going to begin to change the game,” says McGraw, “and I think Theaster and Rebuild Foundation have a real interest in being part of those efforts. I think there are extremely exciting things on the horizon.”

A Brief History of Omaha’s Black, Urban, Inner-City Hoops Scene (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

June 25, 2012 1 comment

The pursuit of my Holy Grail of interviews began with this story, an installment in a lengthy series I write in the mid-2000s for The Reader ( on Omaha’s Black Sports Legends. We called the series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, and in it I tried to lay out just what it was that made possible the Golden Age of athletic excellence that saw so many outstanding athletes come out of Omaha’s small African-American community.  You’ll find virtually every installment from the series on this blog.  Eventually I’ll have it all up here.  Well, back to my frustrated pursuit of an interview for this story.  His name is Mike McGee and the legend around him began when he played for Omaha North High in the mid-1970s.  He put up really big numbers as a junior.  But no one could have predicted the crazy numbers he achieved his senior season as a do-everything wing man, when he averaged about 38 points and 15 rebounds a game in the state’s largest class competition. He was simply unstoppable.  Heavily recruited, he went to Michigan and became not only that storied basketball program’s all-time leading scorer but the elite Big Ten’s career scoring leader as well.  He played with the Magic and Kareem’s Lakers, winning two titlse, and had a decent NBA journeyman career.  By the time I wanted to talk with him for this story he had cut most ties with friends and family in Omaha and was coaching overseas.  I managed to get his number and even exchanged messages with him but we never did hook up for an interview.  He’s been in China of late.  Oh, well, maybe someday.  He’s just one of many top players from Omaha’s inner city I profile here.  The talent ran rather dry in recent years but there’s a hoops revival underway led by top recruit Akoy Agau (I profile him on the blog).  You’ll also find on this site full-blown profiles I did of two old-school hoops legends from Omaha – the late Bob Boozer and Ron Boone.  Baseball Hall of Famer Bob Gibson was a helluva basketball player in his day as well and I have a few profiles of Gibby on the site.

Mike McGee



A Brief History of Omaha’s Black, Urban, Inner-City Hoops Scene (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (


In what is a rite of passage in the inner city, driveways, playgrounds and gyms serve as avenues and repositories for hoop dreams that get realized just often enough to energize each new generation’s hard court aspirations.

The hold basketball’s taken over urban America in recent decades is a function both of the sport’s simplicity and expressiveness. Only a ball and a bucket are needed, after all, for players to create signature moves on the floor and in the air that separate them, their game and their persona from the pack.

Not surprisingly, the hip-hop scene grew out of streetball culture, where trash talking equals rap, where a sweet crossover dribble or slam resembles dance and where stylin’ gets you props from the crowd or your crew. Every level of organized basketball today is influenced by the urban roots of its most gifted and creative participants — African-Americans. Blacks have given the game its flavor and flash.

Omaha is no different. Whether getting schooled on cement, asphalt, gravel, dirt or wood, black players emerging from the urban core have defined Omaha’s hoops legacy. Bob Gibson and Bob Boozer set the standard. John Nared, Bill King, Fred Hare, Joe Williams and Ron Boone followed in their footsteps. From the late ‘60s to the early ‘80s, a new crop of players made noise, including Dennis Forrest, John C. Johnson, Mike McGee, Lee Johnson, Daryl Stovall, Ron Kellogg, Kerry Trotter, Cedric Hunter, Michael Johnson, Maurtice Ivy and Jessica Haynes. Then, in the early to mid-90s, Andre Woolridge, Erick Strickland, Terrance Badgett, Curtis Marshall, Alvin Mitchell, Will Perkins and company made their mark. Now, it’s Creighton recruit Josh Dotzler’s turn. The floor leader for Bellevue West’s back-to-back Nebraska Class A state championship teams, Dotzler will, barring injury, do something most of his predecesors did — play Division I ball. Coming up, he heard comparisons to them. It’s always been that way. Older players carry reps. Young bloods pattern their game after them and a lucky few are labeled heir apparents.

A handful of local inner city players have made it all the way to the NBA. The most successful was Boozer, one of two natives, along with McGee, to win a ring. Only one hometowner– nine-year veteran Erick Strickland — is still active in the league (as a reserve with the Bucks). Although he didn’t grow up in the inner city, the former Bellevue West and University of Nebraska standout ventured there for pick-up games. Other Omaha inner city products have played overseas. Andre Woolridge, the ex-Benson great who left NU to star at Iowa, still does, in Israel. It’s one of many stops he’s made in a far-flung, star-crossed career.

Kellogg and Trotter did the overseas thing before him. Lee Johnson followed a big time career abroad by assuming the general manager’s job for a team in France.

Being a superstar in The Hood doesn’t always translate to organized ball. Stories abound of playground phenoms who, for one reason another, didn’t make it at the high school or college level. Some still got pro tryouts, like Taugi Glass, but their potential and dreams never quite meshed with reality.

In this sampling of the Omaha inner city hoops landscape over the last 50 years, you’ll meet some of the players who’ve helped elevate the game here and discover the roots of what made each a legend in his own time.

Until Dotzler, Andre Woolridge was among the last Omaha prepsters coveted by elite roundball programs. Closely tied to Omaha’s inner city athletic heritage and pedigree, Woolridge hooped it up at favorite North O haunts. Two of his youth coaches, Lonnie McIntosh and Ernie Boone, were good players in their day.

Perhaps the greatest shaper of Woolridge the athlete was his father, Frank Sanders, a former athlete himself who designed a busy regimen for his son. “He always had me into something,” Woolridge said. “In the summer, there was no sleeping till noon. It was get up and go take tennis lessons or go play ball.”

Woolridge dabbled in many sports, but basketball soon became his game. “I started young. In the second or third grade I wasn’t that good, and then all of a sudden it just started coming. I picked things up fast. Playing at the boys club you always had to play against older guys, bigger guys, stronger guys, and I just took off from there.” It was in the 7th or 8th grade, he said, the talk around the neighborhood began — ‘This kid is going to be good.’” He listened and dreamed.

Faced with more mature competition, he had to push himself if he wanted to hang. Some of those pushing him became his models.

“I looked up to a lot of streetball players. Guys like Taugi Glass, Melvin Chinn, Willie Brand and James ‘Snook’ Hadden. I took different things from street guys’ games and put them into mine. I wanted to jump like Taugi Glass. I wanted to handle the ball like Melvin Chinn. I wanted to have the offensive ability of Willie Brand…Streetball, you know, that’s where I come from.”

HOF inductee









Kerry Trottter







Fred Hare






Then there were top-notch players from a generation before him whose games he tried emulating. Dennis Forrest, a former Central High and UNO great drafted by the Denver Nuggets, worked at the boys club and would go one-on-one with Woolridge. “He would torture me every day, for years, until I got bigger and more athletic. He could shoot the ball,” Woolridge said. After John C. Johnson led Central to consecutive state titles in ‘74 and ‘75, he stamped himself an all-time Creighton great. After failing to make the NBA he became a legend in area recreational leagues, where Woolridge watched and learned.

“There were great games at the boys club on Sundays. I wasn’t old enough or good enough to play yet, but I would watch Kerry Trotter, John C. Johnson, Lee Johnson, Mike McGee…all in the same gym…and knowing these guys were making money off the game was an inspiration for me to get out of the ghetto and out of the hood and do something.”

As he got older, he played against some of his idols. He even beat one, John C. Johnson, while only a 7th grader. Johnson knew “he had the gift.” He was special.

Of all the players to come out of the inner city, McGee, is the most magical for a certain era of fans. As a North High senior, he shattered the single season Class A scoring record with an average of 38.1 points a game in 1976-1977. No one’s come close since. He went on to break scoring records at Michigan, where he totalled 2,439 points in 114 games, and played five years as a reserve on the prodigious Laker teams of the ‘80s starring Magic and Kareem, winning two championships. Before MJ, everybody in Omaha “wanted to be like Mike,” Woolridge said. “He was such a superstar. I wanted a piece of his game  — that sweet jump shot.” Ron Kellogg, who enjoyed fame at Northwest High and Kansas, said. “Growing up, he’s who I used to go watch play all the time. He was a set shooter and I couldn’t believe how he could get his shot off, but he had such a quick release and he moved so well without the ball. He was just a thrill to watch. Incredible.” Kerry Trotter, who made a name for himself at Creighton Prep and Marquette, said, “Mike McGee was the guy. So, I know, for me he was kind of the standard. That’s who I wanted to be like in regards to being the next guy.” These days, McGee coaches internationally, most recently in South Korea.

Like McGee before him, Woolridge worked and worked on his skills. “I would go to the basketball court and be there all day long. I mean, literally, all day. Ten hours. Some of us would hop in a car and travel from court to court,” he said. “I was a student of the game.” By the time he got to Benson High, he was a player.

“I could just score. I could put it in the basket any way. I could shoot the 3. I was quick enough to get to the hole. I had great anticipation.” He started as a freshman, scoring 17 his first game, and the rest is history. He went on to break the career Class A scoring record in Nebraska (1911 points) and led his Bunnies to the state title, capping his brilliant prep run with a dominating 50-point performance in the 1992 finals. “It’s storybook. It’s sweet. We got the win. I got the record. The first championship for Benson in I don’t know how many years.”

 Andre Woolridge will be inducted into the Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame.
 Andre Woolridge



The wooing of Woolridge by colleges began his freshman year and intensified after his sophmore year. The McDonalds and Converse All-American considered Iowa but settled on Nebraska. Things didn’t go as planned in Lincoln. Some say he was under-used. Others that he was mis-used. On a team of scorers, nobody wanted to distribute the ball. Whether it was the coach or the system, he wasn’t happy. He began looking at other options during the season, waiting until the end to leave NU for Iowa. “I don’t blame anybody,” he said. “I think it was something I had to go through to become the person I am now.”

He got hate mail. He used the criticism as motivation. “I knew I had a whole redshirt year to work on whatever they said I couldn’t do or whatever type of player they said I wouldn’t be, and I took that with me every day.” Going to Iowa, he said, was for the best. “It was good to get away on my own and to find myself. It was like another storybook.” As a Hawkeye, the consumate court general dished 575 assists and scored 1,525 points in 97 games.

Despite fine numbers and decent showings at pro camps, he went undrafted by the NBA. “It was a shocking blow. Devastating. It’s still a mystery to me and to a lot of people,” he said. He did get tryouts, initially with Golden State, and with 10 to 15 clubs since, but it’s always “you’re too short” or “we have too many players at your position.” So, he took the foreign route and has enjoyed a vagabound career playing for teams in France, Italy, Turkey, Greece and Israel. There was a stint in the National Basketball Development League. When he’s actually paid, the money’s good, but he’s been burned enough to now demand a big chunk of his salary upfront. He still harbors NBA hopes, but at 31 he’s resigned to his fate.

“I’ve had the best of the game and I’ve had the worst of the game,” he said.

Ron Kellogg got his start playing ball in an area of North O called “Vietnam” for all the gang violence and desolation there. He competed at the boys club and in the tough Kellom league. But he didn’t really begin honing his game until his family moved from the ghetto to northwest Omaha, where the white next door neighbors erected a hoop in the dirt backyard. Only the basket was set 12-feet high. Taking aim at that higher-than-regulation cup is how the left-handed Kellogg developed his trademark rainbow shot launched to deadly accurate effect from the corner and top of the key. If he wasn’t going one-on-one with friend Mike Cimino, Kellogg was hooping it alone. “That’s where I spent most of my time,” he said. “I mean, every day I was outside for hours back there shooting.”

He credits three mentors with his early development: his father Ron Kellogg, Sr.; longtime youth coach Tom Ivy — the father of Maurtice Ivy; and his late grandfather Leonard Hawkins. Early on, he was identified with a talented group of players emerging in the state that included Kerry Trotter, Dave Hoppen, James Moore and Vic Lazzaretti. “We were competing from the 6th grade on, so it started early for us,” Kellogg said. They were joined by outstaters Bill Jackman and Mike Martz to make up what arguably became the best senior class (1982) in Nebraska prep history. They anchored the first Valentinos select team to crash Las Vegas. All played Division I ball.

But if one stood out from the rest, Trotter said, it was Kellogg. “He was definitely the best athlete of the bunch.” Kellogg was a fine sprinter and had what his coach at Northwest, Dick Koch, described as “great leg strength and balance.”

Even though forbidden, high schools hotly recruited the players. “That’s when I knew I probably had a chance to do something,” Kellogg said.

Ron Boone



Kellogg got the reins his first year with the varsity at Northwest, where he said coach Dick Koch told him, “‘The ball is yours. This is your team.’ I was surprised. I was like, Wow! Really?’ His prep debut — a 28-point effort versus Ryan — was a sign of things to come. The thing he’s best remembered for — his marksmanship — set him apart. “He’s the best shooter I’ve ever seen. He could pull up on a dime and take that 16 to 20-foot shot. That’s where he did a lot of his damage,” said Koch. He got his initial national exposure at national invitational camps and with the Valentinos team. After the recruiting pitches began, the Parade All-American visited cadillac programs, strutting his stuff in pick up games versus top returning players.

“This is where they see what type of player you are,” he said. “When I performed well, that gave me the confidence I could play with anybody.”

Kansas proved a good fit. He ended up playing for a Hall of Fame coach in Larry Brown. He helped lead KU back to glory. He hooped two seasons with Danny Manning. More importantly, he met his wife, Latrice, a Kansas native, and the mother of their three kids. Under Brown, Kellogg learned “not only the game, but the game of life.” After two years on the bench, his turning point as a Jayhawk came in the 1984 Big Eight tournament finals against Oklahoma. The little-used soph was inserted in the lineup with about a minute left and KU trailing. “I came in and I took a shot right away and missed. Coach Brown called a time out and I got the hardest slap on my leg. It stung. I can still feel it. That woke me up. He told me what was at stake: ‘You can take this chance or you can blow it, but you can win this game.’ And in that time out I got my focus on and I ended up hitting the winning shot. That jump-started my career and put us back on the map.”

In Lawrence, Kellogg was joined by South High product Cedric Hunter, who ran the KU offense to perfection. Danny Manning is remembered as the big wheel for KU, but Kellogg was a key spoke. He twice made first team All-Big 8 and the league all-defensive team. He drained a remarkable 56 percent of his field goal tries his junior and senior years and an impressve 82.8 percent of his free throws for his career. He finished with 1,508 points, 416 rebounds and 272 assists in 130 games, averaging 17.6 and 15.9 points per game as a junior and senior, respectively.

The highlight of his collegiate days came in the 1986 Final Four at Dallas’ Reunion Arena. He scored 22 points in KU’s semifinal loss to Duke. “Playing in the Final Four was a special moment that I’ll cherish the rest of my life. It’s a big event. It’s seen around the world. You better be prepared, too, because it can be a once in a lifetime opportunity. Besides Cedric and myself, I don’t know of any other Nebraskans who’ve played in the Final Four.”


Ron Kellogg

HOF inductee

Kellogg was taken by the Atlanta Hawks in the 2nd round of the NBA draft, only to be traded to the L.A. Lakers in a package deal for his childhood idol, Mike McGee. An injury in pre-season camp prevented him from performing near his best. He was the last man cut from the roster. “From there,” he said, “I went on a rollercoaster. I played in the CBA (with the Topeka Sizzlers and Omaha Racers) and then I went overseas and played in Belgium,” where he hooked up and kicked it with his old mate, Kerry Trotter. “After a stint in Finland, I decided to settle down.”

Kerry Trotter managed what few Americans do — he played 11 years with the same European club — Briane — located just outside Brussels, Belgium. “Absolutely, it’s very unique. I had opportunities to play other places, but I liked Brussels very much. I learned to speak French and to appreciate French wines. I have dual citizenship,” he said. Cultivating a cosmopolitan life on the continent is quite a feat given Trotter and his siblings were raised in the projects by their single mother. Her insistence that they get good grades as a prerequisite for playing ball paid off when Kerry and his twin brother Kirk got scholarships to Creighton Prep. The school’s Jesuit connections led to Trotter attending Marquette.

Like Kellogg, Trotter came up on the northside’s proving grounds. “Back in the day, the Bryant Center had a league. It was legendary. Ron and I played on a summer league team there and we went like 20-0 for two summers. Man, we were just crushing people. It was great,” he said. He said he and Kellogg were well aware of the greats who came before them and were honored to be mentioned in the same breath. “We were fortunate to keep the bar raised high.”

Coming out parties for rising stars usually begin in high school, but Trotter said a grade school select team enabled he and Kellogg to showcase their talents against other hot shots in Phoenix. “We saw we could compete with them,” Trotter said. By the time they played on the Valentinos team, they were turning coaches’ and players’ heads. “They were looking at us like, ‘Nebraska? Who are these kids?’

In high school, the pair were friends and rivals. “We took it personal,” Kellogg said. “Those two really went at it,” Koch recalled. “Boy, they competed against each other. Neither one liked to lose.” Their contests were events. “Our games had to be played at the Civic so damn many people wanted to see us hoop,” Trotter said.

A combination of power and finesse, Trotter worked for what he got. “I was either in the gym all the time or at the park. I just really wanted to be that good. I had a great basketball work ethic and IQ. Growing up in the projects playing streetball and then going to a program like Creighton Prep, where it was a system, I was able to blend that together and, man, I was just knocking ‘em out. I was a player who could fill up the stat sheet — rebound, score, assist, steal.” A rare four-year starter, he was above all else a gamer. “I wanted to win a state title at Creighton Prep, because that’s what they do. I wanted to be part of that history.” He got his wish in ‘81 when his clutch free throws sealed the deal versus Benson in the finals.

The McDonalds and Parade All-American followed his heart, to Marquette, where he was a solid all-around player, posting 1,221 points, 569 boards, 369 assists and 158 steals in 116 career games. Undrafted by the NBA, Trotter found a comfortable fit for his game and his life in Belgium. He brought family members overseas to enjoy the fruits of his labors. Having his mom there, he said, was “my pay back.”


Alexander Payne talks cinema with kindred spirit Jane Fonda at Film Streams Feature Event in Omaha

June 24, 2012 9 comments

One of the world’s leading writer-directors and a legendary actress he admires from America’s last golden age of film may just be made for each other, artistically speaking that is, which makes the “tete-a-tete” they will engage in July 22 at the Film Streams Feature Event in Omaha all the more interesting.  The filmmaker is Alexander Payne and the leading lady is Jane Fonda and they will undoubtedly spend a fair amount of time discussing American cinema from the late 1960s through the late 1970s, a period that Payne adores and that saw Fonda do her best work.  There’s also the Fonda Family legacy to be considered, one with deep resonance to Nebraska because her famous father, the late stage and screen star Henry Fonda, was born and raised in Nebraska and began acting at the Omaha Community Playhouse.  That’s where Jane and her brother Peter made their stage debuts.  When the lone picture she made with her father, On Golden Pond, premiered she accompanied the movie to Omaha for a red carpet extravaganza at the Orpheum Theatre.  Now she’s back 30 years later to talk shop with a native Nebraska filmmaker. Full circle.

I have a companion story on the blog that gives details about the Jane Fonda repertory series at Film Streams to run from late June through August 30.  She also selected two favorite films that will be getting screened, her father’s personal favorite among his own films, 12 Angry Men, and the great Preston Sturges social satire, Sullivan’s Travels, which is also one of the most scathing looks ever at the corrupt Hollywood ethos.  Film Streams is also screening Peace, Love & Misunderstanding, which features Jane’s most recent film acting performance.



CANNES FILM FESTIVAL COVERAGE- Jane Fonda on the Red Carpet for Red Step., Image Amplified (1)
Red Step
Jane Fonda & Alexander Payne
CANNES FILM FESTIVAL COVERAGE- Jane Fonda on the Red Carpet for Red Step., Image Amplified



Alexander Payne talks cinema with kindred spirit Jane Fonda at Film Streams Feature Event in Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

To appear in the July issue of Metro Magazine


When Omaha’s own Alexander Payne talks cinema with Jane Fonda at the July Film Streams Feature Event he won’t be at a loss for material.

He’ll converse with an intelligent artist he admires and whose best work came in his favorite decade of American movies, the ’70s. Then there’s all the noted directors and actors she’s worked with and the legacy of her famous father and brother to discuss.

It’s apropos that a renowned filmmaker from Omaha will review Fonda’s own legendary career before an audience of Nebraskans since her family is so tied to this place. Her adored father Henry remains an enduring native son. The loyalty the late stage and screen star showed to the state is not lost on Jane or Peter, who are adopted Nebraskans.

The threesome’s cinema paths rarely crossed. Just as Henry’s career waned, Jane’s and Peter’s took off. But there was a golden moment when they all converged. As the Old Hollywood studio system died out a brash new group of creatives crashed the gates to usher in the New Hollywood in the late 1960s. In that emerging space of permissiveness and artistic freedom depictions of sex and violence reached new extremes, more humanistic stories came in vogue, locations gained favor over sound stages and stylistic devices, like flash cuts, took hold. Amid this liberated landscape the Fondas made films that forever changed things.

Jane paradoxically struck a blow for both misogyny and feminism in Roger Vadim’s sexually bold adaptation of the adult comic strip Barbarella. Henry went rouge playing completely against type as a sadistic killer in the Sergio Leone Western Once Upon a Time in the West. Peter became a counterculture hero in the hippie, Harley, drug-fueled road picture classic Easy Rider.

Then, in a dramatic career transformation, Jane went from frothy sex symbol to first-rate dramatic actress of social conviction, winning Oscars for her risk-taking work in Klute and Coming Home. Later, she found the project that became her ailing father’s cinema swan song and their only film together, On Golden Pond. Fast forward a generation and Peter channeled his father in his Oscar-nominated lead role in Ulee’s Gold.

While the Fondas contributed to the unrestrained new cinema a young Alexander Payne cut his teeth on ’70s films as an audience member at the Dundee and Indian Hills Theatres. As Payne acknowledged in accepting his Oscar for The Descendants last February, his mother Peggy was his most devoted filmgoing companion.

He was an intellectually precocious youth with a preternatural appetite for adult art fare. He made his own short films with an 8 mm camera his restauranteur father, George, received as a bonus from Kraft Foods for customer loyalty.

Payne, a Creighton Prep graduate, considered studying journalism but fixed on history and Spanish literature at Stanford University. He didn’t formally study film until he entered UCLA, where his thesis project, The Passion of Martin, played festivals and netted him a production deal from Universal Studios.

By the time he made features in his hometown in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, repeatedly shooting in the same Dundee neighborhood where he and Henry Fonda grew up, Jane was already retired from movies.

For Citizen Ruth Payne cast a strong, socially committed woman not unlike Fonda in Laura Dern to play the title character of Ruth Stoops. Interested in making uncompromising films akin to those he fell in love with during the ’70s, Payne unflinchingly took on the abortion debate in the picture.

His next movie, Election, placed Reese Witherspoon in the kind of catty vixen part a young Jane would have been just right for.

Payne’s subsequent male-dominated films co-star women in roles that put men in their place. In About Schmidt Connie Ray is a trailer park wife sympathetic to Jack Nicholson recently losing his wife until he makes a pass at her and she throws him out. One can imagine Fonda in that part. In Sideways Sandra Oh is the cool wine pourer babe who goes ballistic when she discovers Thomas Haden Church has been lying to her and Virginia Madsen is the cool Earth Mother who sees past Paul Giamatti’s shortcomings. Fonda’s played similar characters.

As a good woman wronged in The Descendants Judy Greer finds the right balance of tenderness and rage Fonda delivered as Cat Ballou, Bree Daniels (Klute), Lillian Hellman (Julia) and Kimberly Wells (The China Syndrome).

No doubt Payne would have loved to work with Fonda in her prime. Who knows, now that she’s acting again perhaps they’ll be a part for her in one of his future projects. Just not his next one, Nebraska, a road movie that follows an embittered Nebraskan (Bruce Dern) living in Montana hell-bent on claiming a sweepstakes prize his estranged son (Will Forte) knows doesn’t exist. The son is sure his father will come to his senses long before they reach their destination of Lincoln, Neb. The journey revisits the old man’s dispiriting past and en route the sympathetic son decides to give his fool of a father the gift of saving face.

Payne’s angling to shoot the project in Nebraska this fall. He and casting director John Jackson are hard at work trying to find authentic Nebraska types as extras.

From Omaha to Paris to Omaha, with Love, Anne-Marie Kenny’s Journey in Song and Spirit

June 21, 2012 3 comments

I am drawn to stories of people whose lives are clearly journeys of transformation and discovery and stepping outside comfort zones in pursuit of dreams.  Anne-Marie Kenny’s life story is one such journey.  I tell it here in short form but you can find on this blog a much more extensive profile of her I did.  She’s a cabaret singer and an entrepreneur and a generous soul.

Anne-Marie Kenny



From Omaha to Paris to Omaha, with Love, Anne-Marie Kenny’s Journey in Song and Spirit

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine


Before becoming a world citizen, Anne-Marie Kenny made a coming of age trip to Paris, alone, at 21.

“I just knew I needed to spread my wings,” said Kenny, a native Omahan who eventually made her second homes in Paris and Prague. where she forged careers as a cabaret singer and entrepreneur. After years away this once expatriate returned to Omaha in 2001. Her hometown’s now the base of her performing, vocal instruction and corporate consulting work.

She became a Francophile studying French at Mercy High. The City of Lights symbolized romantic possibilities. She recalled, “I was on the train from Marseilles to Paris when an elderly woman asked, ‘What will you do in Paris?’ and for some reason I said, ‘I’m a singer, I’m going to sing.’ That’s the first time I admitted that to myself.”

She and her three older sisters had performed locally as a four-part harmony group. They studied piano. Not all was idyllic,. Their attorney-father drowned when they were young, leaving their mother to raise and support them. To help make ends meet the girls took jobs. Anne-Marie worked at St. James Orphanage.

“I think life might have been a little bit harder had we not had music,” said Kenny. “Music was our outlet.”

Once in Paris she found work as an au pair. Her pluck led her to an Argentine guitarist and the two became street performers on the Champs Elysees.

“I was determined,” she said.

The duo was quickly discovered, landing a gig on a popular radio variety show.

Returning to Omaha, she studied voice and honed her chops at M’s Pub and V Mertz. She then met her late husband, Bozell & Jacobs ad man John Bull. All the while she pined for Paris. Bull did, too, and the couple moved there. She studied voice with Janine Reiss and at the Juilliard and Peabody conservatories and Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris. Kenny soon made a name for herself as a cabaret artist at posh spots in Paris and the South of France.

Her repertoire includes American, French and Italian tunes. She’s done some recording. She’s also worked in musical theater and has appeared in three feature films shot on the Riviera. She and John shared an apartment on the Seine’s Ile Saint-Louis. She appreciates France’s “very high regard for artists.”

Life took a turn when a poem-song she wrote for newly elected Czech president Vaclav Havel earned an invitation to perform it at Praugue’s famed Reduta Jazz Club. Caught up in the new free market opportunities there, she put her music career aside to form an employment agency serving international companies. The same engaging presence that works a room wins over clients as well.

Just as business boomed John fell ill and died in 1998. She’s since sold the business and made Omaha home again. She operates her vocal performance studio at her brick ranch dwelling, aka, cultural salon. She said, “I am as passionate about teaching as I am about performing now. It’s so much fun seeing people go from having a good natural voice to being able to technically do things they never thought they could do.” She teaches the Bel Canto method.

Her community work includes leading the Siena Francis House Singers, whose ranks are composed of the homeless and in-treatment residents.

Europe is still her playground. She was back last October. Recent U.S. performing gigs included the Sarasota Yacht Club in Florida and the Omaha Community Playhouse. This summer she’s doing a concert for Alliance Francaise d’Omaha.

On the entrepreneurial side. she’s an intercultural relations consultant. “To put kind of a credential on my experience,” she earned a master’s degree in organizational leadership, with a concentration on cultural studies, from the College of St. Mary. She led the start-up of the college’s Center for Transcultural Leaning.

Whether doing art or business, she said, “I’m being creative in both. “They’re both very risk taking and they’re not marching to the conventional beat.” For her, home is where the heart is. “I am so glad now to be back in Omaha. I’m here because I want to be here. I think Omaha has so much going for it. I feel I can flourish here.”

Vic’s Corn Popper Owners Do More Than Make Snacks: They Mentor Young People

June 21, 2012 2 comments

Some Nebraska food brands have loyal followings no matter where their devoted customers live or visit.  If you’re from here and you grew up with Runza meat-cabbage pockets and burgers or Valentino’s pizza or Dorothy Lynch salad dressing or Lithuanian Bakery tortes or Bohemian Cafe kolaches or Omaha Steaks, and you find yourself far away from here but craving that taste of Omaha, well then nothing is going to satisfy you except an overnight fix or order of that very product.  The same goes for Vic’s popcorn.  This is a short profile from a few years ago of the couple that created the brand and the demand for this scrumptious gourmet snacking staple.


Vic’s Corn Popper Owners Do More Than Make Snacks: They Mentor Young People

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in B2B Magazine


Once a teacher always a teacher. The axiom applies to Vic Larson and wife Ruth, retired educators whose Mom and Pop retail food company, Vic’s Corn Popper, integrates lessons from their lives and teaching careers.

Since Vic’s 1980 start the nurturing couple, who raised three children of their own, has employed scores of youths. For many, it’s their first job. The Larsons expect much from their teen brigade, whom they regard as ”our kids,” and get loyal high achievers in return.

“They’re the neatest kids,” said Larson. “Our philosophy, like in teaching, is that people will produce at the level you accept. If you accept mediocrity, that’s what you’ll usually get. But if you have high standards people will produce at that level. We have a high standard and we expect them to work to that. That’s why we give them the keys to the stores. They’re in charge.”

Larson said it’s not unusual for someone to start at 16 and stay until graduation. Even after moving onto college, he said, many Vic’s veterans come back to work summers or holidays. Some continue even after starting careers and families. He and Ruth are adamant high school students in their employ enjoy being kids.

“They’re kids, we want ‘em to have fun. We want ‘em to participate in school activities, go to games on Friday nights, go to prom, go to homecoming, and so we really push that. Instead of working 20-30 hours a week, they work 12 to 15 hours.”

The bonds run deep. “We get invited to their graduations, their weddings,” Ruth said. “We look at them as individuals not just as our Friday night crew or whatever,” she said. “They have their own needs, their own problems, their own families. You take each of those kids separately and think, ‘What does he need for guidance compared to this one, who maybe doesn’t need that.’ As a teacher you do that.” It’s the same with customers. “We make connections,” she said.

“We really work with our employees about treating people with dignity and respect,” added Vic. “You treat them as valuable people. You look ‘em in the eye and you get to know who they are, what they like, especially repeat customers. You want to make them feel like they are somebody special.”

Vic and Ruth say they’ve created a work culture based on “integrity and initiative.” The managers they hire instill a culture of “doing what’s right,” as Larson puts it. These principles were modeled by the couple’s own hard-working parents. His were educators. Hers, farmers. Like any good teachers, the Larsons view the youth in their charge as human resources they must prepare for the future.

“They have to deal with money, they have to make and package a quality product, they have to scrub the floors. I mean, they have to do it all,” he said. “We want to create a positive work environment so that they feel good about their job and they’ll go out and hopefully have good work experience in whatever they do. We want our kids to become good workers for others. That’s our goal.”

The Larsons communicate their business values and entrepreneurial guidelines not only with employees but with students at area elementary schools, high schools and colleges.

He said he tells students, “If you ever want to start a business it better be something you like. I also get into what we look for in hiring — we want good citizens because good citizens become good workers. With older students I get into budgeting and what it really costs to run a business.”

What began as a way for the couple to earn extra income became a passion.

Larson worked in the OPS vocational ed office at the time. The ex-industrial arts teacher supplemented his sparse teaching pay working summers for engineers and home builders. Having a business of his own was his real desire.

Ruth, who’d left teaching to focus on the kids, wanted to work again but not in the classroom. Taking a cue from the Korn Popper store he frequented growing up in his native Lincoln, Neb. he conceived a niche gourmet popcorn store featuring hybrid white corn. The brand long ago expanded into flavored varieties.

Korn Popper helped the Larsons launch the first Vic’s store in mid-town Omaha. Vic’s soon caught on. More sites followed, including the downtown Brandeis food court. In ‘84 the couple sold most of it to investors, remaining part-owners. Vic’s went national. The couple got out in ‘85. But the hunger to guide the business bearing his name compelled Larson to buy the Harvey Oaks store in ‘91. He’s since added the Oak View Mall store and reacquired the Brandeis site. A new addition is a production-distribution center set-up to handle Vic’s growing Internet orders.

What began as a moonlighting venture is a well-established family enterprise and mentoring outlet for the couple. It shows what’s possible with hard work and imagination, a message Larson tries conveying to kids. “I want to really engage them in that, to spark some interest in them. I always ask, ‘What do you really like to do?  You’ll never get anywhere if you don’t have any plans or goals.’ We try to get ‘em thinking about what they want to do when they get out of school.”

The couple’s children have all worked at Vic’s. The grandkids are too young to work there just yet but Ruth said they’re already “staking out” which stores they want to run one day. The kernel doesn’t pop far from the kettle.

Cousins Bruce and Todd Simon Continue the Omaha Steaks Tradition

June 21, 2012 1 comment

The name Omaha obviously doesn’t pop up in national media stories, online blogs, movies and television shows or songs the way, say, Chicago or L.A. or New York does, though it appears more often than you’d think.  But it’s appearance is still rare enough that it’s a cause, if not for celebration exactly, than consideration.  Aside from Warren Buffett and Alexander Payne, you’d be hard-pressed to immediately identify any contemporary figure from Omaha unless of course you’re from here yourself.  Other than the College World Series and perhaps the Henry Doorly Zoo you’d likely come up empty thinking of events or placces that Omaha is known for unless again you’re a native or a resident or a frequent visitor.  For better or worse the city’s image, if it has one at all in the minds of the general public, is forever fixed as a vaguely Western, agricultural, meatpacking center, which is to say it’s associated with corn and beef.  One locally-based company with a national and international reach has rather perfectly combined product with perception – Omaha Steaks.  It’s a brand that gives people what they expect, sort of the way the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers brand does.  The following piece I wrote four years ago or so for B2B Magazine profiles the two men, first cousins Bruce and Todd Simon, who now run the multi-generational family business that’s grown to meet customers where they are, whether through physical stores, mail order catalogues, or electronic social media.


Cousins Bruce and Todd Simon Continue the Omaha Steaks Tradition

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in B2B Magazine


First cousins Bruce and Todd Simon are the fifth generation in family-owned Omaha Steaks. Their knack for brokering deals, managing people and anticipating the next big thing has the company’s annual sales nearing a half-billion dollars.

Each apprenticed under his dad and after working together 20 years each holds fast to cherished lessons passed down from above.

For 91 years the company’s found innovative ways to market fine meat and other foods to residential and commercial customers around the nation and the world. Along the way the Omaha Steaks name has become such an icon synonymous with quality beef that its hometown enjoys crossover brand recognition.

Bruce is president/COO and Todd is senior vice president, but their bond supersedes titles or labels. They’re family. Two in a long line to lead the business.

“You know what we have? We have an entire company of people who we trust — that we feel like we’re family with,” Bruce said. “That blood bond is really a family bond and it traverses not only the Simon family, it includes our executive committee, all the way down. There are guys I know in the plant that were there the day I started and I feel the same bond with them as I do to my cousin Todd. We all feel a responsibility to each other to make this place successful.”

“Well, I think it starts with the fact we’re a family business that allows us to really take those kind of family values into the whole business,” Todd said. “And it shows in the benefits we provide for our team in terms of family leave benefits or vacation benefits or day care. Scholarships.”

Legacy is never far removed from the Simons’ thoughts, as their fathers still take an active part in the company. Bruce’s father, Alan Simon, is chairman of the board/CEO. Todd’s dad, Fred Simon, is executive vice president. The cousins’ late uncle, Steve Simon, served as senior VP and GM.

“My dad was and is pretty much the operational guy. He’s the guy who ran the meatpacking plant and who was the bean counter,” Bruce said. “And Todd’s dad was the real marketing guy and Steve (Simon) was the sales guy.”

The three brothers — Alan, Fred and Steve — learned the business from their father Lester Simon, who in turn learned it from his father B.A. Simon. It all began when B.A. and his father J.J. Simon, both butchers, left Latvia for America in 1898 to escape religious persecution. With the meat business in their blood, J.J. and B.A. settled in Omaha, a meatpacking center, and worked in several area markets. In 1917 father and son opened their own meat shop, Table Supply Meat Company, downtown. Their niche was to process and sell beef to restaurants and grocers.

Table Supply responded to the growing food service sector by supplying meat to Union Pacific Railroad for its large dining car services as well as restaurants. Cruise lines, airlines, hotels and resorts became major customers. Lester Simon first took Table Supply retail via mail order ads. Then came a mail order catalog. Shipping-packaging advances improved efficiency, helping widen the company’s reach.

By 1966 all this growth warranted an expansion in the form of a new plant and headquarters on South 96th Street. With the new facilities came a new name, Omaha Steaks International.

The 1970s saw Omaha Steaks take new steps in customer convenience by adding inbound and outbound call centers and a mail order industry-first toll-free customer service line. An automated order entry system was installed in 1987.

The first of its retail stores opened in 1976. Visioning the online explosion to follow, Omaha Steaks helped pioneer electronic marketing back in became the banner web site for the company’s fastest growing business segment. A new web site, promotes the company’s convenience meals brand, A La Zing, which offers a line of complete frozen prepared meals.

Omaha Steaks underwent another expansion phase in the ‘80 and ‘90s, consolidating administration and marketing in two new multi-story glass and steel buildings whose sleek interiors abound with examples from the Simons’ extensive art collections. Todd’s an elected member of the Board of United States Artists and board president of the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts.

Todd and Bruce help oversee a company with two million-plus customers and 2,000 employees. Guiding the pair in family-business dealings are the principles they picked up from their elders. By living those principles they fulfill their obligation.

“Our parents taught us to do the right thing. That’s really the only responsibility we have — just do the right thing. Do it all the time. Try to produce every single box of product perfectly. Try to satisfy every single customer perfectly,” Bruce said. “It’s all about being honest. Everybody in our family has been impeccably honest. We don’t take advantage of people. We sleep good.

“I mean, if you’ve got building blocks and you set them up properly you’re going to have a very strong building. And that’s what we have and it’s because of every single block…and the values that J.J., B.A., Lester, Alan, Fred, Steve and now Todd and I hold dear. It’s our whole corporate culture.”

Todd said, “I think in a lot of ways we’ve both sort of followed in our fathers’ footsteps. Bruce is very strong operationally, purchasing, finance…All the sort of back-office stuff is his forte. And mine is the out-front stuff — the marketing, sales. Managing the customer service aspect of that, motivating the front-line people to be people-people. I think Bruce and I really complement each other well. When we both come up with ideas I’ll see one side of the picture and he’ll see the other side. And since we’re both open too each other’s perspective on it, it really helps us balance it out.”

With two father-son teams comprising the ownership-executive ranks, the potential exists for family disputes that upset the company’s inner workings. The Simons diffuse those bombs with open dialogue and transparent dealings.

“For as long as I can remember the way we operate as a family is we get our ideas out,” Todd said. “We don’t bulldoze over each other. We’re all forceful about our ideas and our opinions, and we’ll raise our voices and we’ll do whatever we need to do to get our point across. But we basically come to consensus and we don’t leave the room unless everyone’s comfortable with the direction we’re moving in.”

“Right,” Bruce said. “We don’t fight about things. If there’s a reason to do something we discuss it and we figure it out. Because, hell, we’re all on the same page. What’s good for one is good for all.”

Vision is important in any organization and each year Omaha Steaks holds an off-site brainstorm session with its top managers. Ideas and initiatives fly. “A lot of times those come not from me or Bruce but from the people out there in the trenches dealing with our customers every day,” Todd said. In the end, Bruce said, “Todd and I decide with our fathers where we’re going” as a company.

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