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Gender equity in sports has come a long way, baby; Title IX activists-advocates who fought for change see much progress and the need for more

June 11, 2012 5 comments

Title IX.   This often contentious  1972 federal education act is getting more attention then usual these days because the media is taking a reflective look back on the impact it’s had over its 40 year lifespan.  I’m doing the same with this article, which will soon appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com).  Because I reside in Omaha, Neb. and The Reader is an Omaha news weekly my story looks at the implications of Title IX and the context that brought it into being from a local perspective, though I certainly address the nationwide effect the legislation’s had.  The real interest for me in doing this story was to try and impress upong readers of a certain age that what is easily taken for granted today in terms of the ubiquitious presence of girls and women’s athletics obscures the fact that things were quite different not so very long ago.  Younger readers may be surprised to learn that schools, colleges, and universities had to be compelled to cease discrimination on the basis of sex and to give females the same opportunties as males.  What seems natural and common sense today wasn’t viewed in that light just a few decades ago.  I end my story with a rhetorical question asked by one of my sources, former coach and athletic director Don Leahy, who said, “Why was it ever different?”  My story attempts in a small way to explain why and to describe what the journey for women trying to gain equal opportunity in sports looked like.

 Illustration of athletes and sport silhouettes : Free Stock Photo

 

 

Gender equity in sports has come a long way, baby;

Title IX activists-advocates who fought for change see much Progress and the need for more

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Participants in girls and women’s sports today should be forgiven if they take for granted the bounty of athletic scholarships, competitive opportunities, training facilities and playing venues afforded them.

After all, they’ve never known anything else.

Their predecessors from two generations ago or more, however, faced a much leaner landscape. One where athletic scholarships were unheard of or totaled hundreds, not thousands of dollars. A handful of games once comprised a season. Facilities-venues were shared, borrowed or makeshift.

Until 1972 federal Title IX legislation banned discrimination on the basis of sex, educational institutions offered nothing resembling today’s well-funded athletic programs for females. Schools devoted a fraction of the resources, if anything at all, to girls and women’s sports that they earmarked for boys and men’s sports.

Second class citizen treatment prevailed.

Nebraska women’s basketball coach Connie Yori made her mark at Creighton University, where she played and coached at some 11 different “home” sites because the program didn’t have its own dedicated facility.

“We were gypsies in some ways. We just had to figure out places to play,” she says, adding, “That wasn’t that long ago either.”

Connie Yori, ©huskers.com

 

 

The gulf between then and are now is vast.

“I mean everything was different,” she says. “The way we traveled – the coaches and student athletes were driving the vans to the games. We as coaches had to regularly clean the facilities we practiced in. That was the norm, there wasn’t anyone else to do it. There’s countless examples. Opportunities to play, scholarship money, modes of travel, recruiting budgets, operations budgets, staff salaries, you name it, it’s escalated. But college men’s athletics has escalated too, so it’s not just the women.

“When I played college basketball there would maybe be 50 to 100 fans in the stands and now I’m coaching games where there’s sell-outs and ticket scalping is going on, and who would have thought that?”

Creighton, Nebraska and UNO have their own women’s hoops and volleyball facilities.

“That’s just kind of what’s happened across the board in women’s athletics in that institutions are more committed to equity, and as well they should be,” says Yori.

Gaps remain. Salaries for women coaches lag behind those for men. And where men routinely coach female athletes, it’s rare that women coach male athletes.

Still, things are far advanced from when women’s athletics got dismissed or marginalized and the very notion of female student-athletes was anathema to all but a few enlightened administrators and athletics officials.

In that proto-feminist era the so-called “weaker sex” was discouraged from athletics. Girls and women were considered too delicate to play certain, read: male, sports. Besides, it wasn’t feminine or ladylike to compete. Schools routinely said they could not justify women’s programs because they’d never pay for themselves. Consequently, the idea of giving females the same chances as males was met with paternalistic, patronizing objections. This despite the fact virtually all men’s programs lose money and only survive thanks to donations and to subsidies from student fees and revenue producing major sports.

Former Creighton softball coach Mary Higgins bought the rationale until realizing the contradiction

“I just remember thinking, ‘Well of course we don’t have women’s athletics, we can’t make any money, no one will come.’ And then it was like the light went on – ‘Well, wait a minute, the baseball team doesn’t make any money, they don’t have any people in the stands, then how come they have it and we don’t?'”

Mary Higgins

 

 

When people like Higgins began questioning tired old assumptions and asking for their fair share of amenities there was push back, including from men’s coaches protecting their turf.

“Well, you start with the fact that people don’t like change, period,” says former University of Nebraska at Omaha chancellor Del Weber.

With institutional support virtually nonexistent at the collegiate level, the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women evolved into the main national governing-sanctioning body. Meanwhile, the NCAA actively ignored, then opposed inroads made by women. When school presidents and NCAA officials saw the hand writing on the wall and, some argue, the profits to be made from championship events, women’s athletics fell under the NCAA’s aegis in the early 1980s.

The real impetus for change may simply have been demographic. As women became the majority population, more entered college. Today, women account for the majority enrollment at Creighton and UNO.

Where the benefits of athletic competition (improved self-esteem,  leadership skills development, higher graduation rates, et cetera) were once anecdotal, they eventually became measurable.

As far as defining moments, says Higgins, “the linchpin for our programs to grow was getting scholarships. Once we had scholarships we could go get the players.” That’s when the real gains occurred.

“The AIAW got things launched and then I think we got more sophisticated with the NCAA and a lot more money became available. It was a positive thing for growth but that was a painful transition.”

UNO associate athletic director Connie Claussen began women’s athletics there in 1969 as volunteer softball coach. She soon added volleyball and basketball. “I didn’t ask anyone, I just did it,” she recalls. All three sports shared the same set of uniforms. The teams practiced and played in a quonset hut. The equipment room was the trunk of her car. There was no budget, only donations scrounged from sympathetic boosters. Similar limitations applied at Creighton. Nebraska enjoyed a decided facilities advantage. For a time small schools could hang with big schools as everyone started from scratch and had no scholarships available.

 Connie Claussen

 

 

Even after Title IX passed, says Claussen “it took several years for it really to have an effect on most athletic programs,” and then only with some prodding. In the case of UNO the Chancellor’s and Mayor’s Commissions on the Status of Women brought pressure. Even the U.S. Office of Civil Rights got involved at the behest of parents Mary Ellen Drickey and Howard Rudloff.

“What sticks out in my mind is that in our old gym they had hours set aside for when the women could come in,” says Higgins. “You think about that now and it just sounds ludicrous but that’s just what it was. The women could come in I believe Sunday and Wednesday nights because God forbid they sweat or show any effort.”

Peru State College basketball coach Maurtice Ivy excelled at the high school, collegiate and pro levels but when she was learning the game as a youth in the 1970s there was no exposure to girls or women’s hoops.

“I didn’t really see women playing, and so the person I watched play and I kind of emulated my game after was Dr. J.”

Mauritce Ivy getting her Husker jersey retired, ©huskers.com

 

 

As an Omaha youth Ivy and other inner city girls developed their skills as Hawkettes, the state’s first select basketball team run by the late Forrest Roper. Richard Nared’s Midwest Striders track program impacted generations of girls, including Ivy and her younger sister Mallery, who set several state records. The sisters’ father was among the first local coaches to offer girls the opportunity to play football.

Fastpitch whiz Ron Osborn organized a statewide club softball association as a forum for girls to play in and as a showcase to convince schools they should start their own softball teams.

Today, girls club teams are everywhere.

Grassroots pioneers worked independently of Title IX to bring about change. Ivy thinks of them and graduates like herself as “soldiers” in the women’s athletics movement.

But there’s no mistaking Title IX, whose enforcement has been upheld in countless legal findings, is the bedrock equal opportunity protection upon which girls and women’s athletics rests. By compelling schools receiving federal assistance to uphold gender equity it’s propelled the explosion of women going to college and the exponential growth of girls and women’s athletics. It’s meant a dramatic increase in the infrastructures supporting female student-athletes and a proportionate increase in the number of participants.

“You went from nothing to everything,” is how former UNO and Creighton athletic director and now UNO associate athletic director Don Leahy describes its impact.

Don Leahy

 

 

“To me, it standardized and normalized athletics,” says Higgins. “Now it’s just expected.”

Institutions found not complying with Title IX are forced to take corrective action under penalty of court-ordered monetary damages.

Nebraska’s been a battleground for some notable Title IX actions, including a 1995 lawsuit brought by Naomi Friston against the Minden Public School District for scheduling girls games at off times compared to boys’ games. Creighton University graduate Kristen Galles, who successfully represented the Friston case, is now one of the nation’s leading Title IX and gender equity attorneys.

Some school districts, colleges, universities and states were more progressive than others early on. For example, where Iowa embraced girls high school athletics decades before Title IX neighboring Nebraska dragged its feet.

Yori, an Iowa girls athletics legend, says, “I feel like I grew up in almost the perfect place during my era to be a female athlete because Iowa was ahead of its time in regards to the support of girls athletics.” She says the late Iowa Girls Athletics Association president, E. Wayne Cooley, “found ways to place girl athletes on a pedestal.”

Not so much in Nebraska.

“When I crossed the river from Iowa to Nebraska during the early 1980s,” Yori says, “I saw a really different climate for girls athletics here. There was definitely a difference in the commitment level. I mean, there just weren’t opportunities. It’s been great to see how much progress we’ve made in Nebraska and now the two states are on level playing fields in my mind.”

At the collegiate level some Nebraska institutions did take the lead, including John F. Kennedy College in Wahoo and Midland University in Fremont, both of which built dominant women’s athletic programs in the ’70s. Recently retired Midland basketball coach Joanne Bracker was an inaugural member of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

Under Claussen UNO won the 1975 AIAW Women’s College World Series, one of several national titles won by UNO women’s teams. Claussen and CU’s Higgins helped grow college softball, serving on AIAW and NCAA committees and leading their respective schools in hosting more than a dozen CWS championships, which Higgins says was “huge” in legitimizing women’s sports here and beyond.

The late Omaha Softball Association guru Carl Kelly and College World Series Inc. chairman Jack Diesing Sr., along with corporate donors, helped sponsor the women’s tournament.

The start of the 1980s saw NU women’s sports emerge. The volleyball program began its run of excellence under Terry Pettit. Gary Pepin’s track program shined with superstar Merlene Ottey. Angela Beck’s basketball program reached new heights with Maurtice Ivy. NU softball began making noise.

 

 

By the early ’90s, a full complement of women’s sports was in place wherever you looked, whether big public schools like NU, smaller private schools like CU or then-Division II UNO.

None of it would have happened without activists pressing the cause of female student athletes. Along the way Title IX and its supporters met resistance, including court challenges.

“I think there’s a lot of women and men who made a huge difference for the young women of this generation,” says Yori. “Connie Claussen and Mary Higgins were very much advocates for change. There were a lot of battles fought – in offices, in meeting rooms, and even legally in courtrooms. There were people that got fired for voicing their opinions and became the sacrificial lambs because of that. There were a lot of people who didn’t want change and didn’t want to give women the opportunity they are now being given.

“You know, we still need to fight for it, but there’s not such a gap as there was.”

Higgins says the trailblazers of modern women’s athletics were “people who just had a burning passion to make this happen. It consumed me,  I know it consumed my colleagues. It’s like, ‘We’ll do whatever it takes. We’ll figure it out, we’ll find a way.”

Parents played roles, too, as coaches, administrators, boosters.

“I do think dads and their concern for their daughters had a major impact, and that was absolutely the case at Creighton,” says Higgins. “It wasn’t Title IX telling Creighton they had to do it. Title IX was happening at the same time but our then-assistant athletic director, the late Dan Offenburger, kind of led the charge. He coached our very first softball team. He didn’t have time to do it, we didn’t have any money, we didn’t even have a shoestring. But he got it going because it was the right thing to do. Plus, he had three daughters and he was motivated to create opportunities for them.

“I’m sure there are stories like that all over.”

As near as UNO, where Don Leahy says he supported women’s athletics not only because “I thought it had to be done” but because “I had a daughter who played sports.” There were also a wife and mother to answer to at home.

Leahy says the coaches he worked with at UNO and Creighton “fought diligently for their programs but at the same time they maintained a common sense that made it possible for this thing to develop. We talked and we gradually worked through these things and I think that made a big difference.”

“This stuff did not come easy,” says Del Weber, who approved the early road map for women’s athletics at UNO laid out by Leahy and Claussen and the gender equity program that they and former athletic director Bob Danenhauer devised.

Ramping up meant serious dollars. Leahy says when it became clear accommodating women’s athletics was a new reality “the first thing that came up was – how are we going to pay for this?”

Bruce Rasmussen

 

 

Current Creighton athletic director Bruce Rasmussen, who coached CU’s women’s basketball team, recalls, “We didn’t have enough resources to properly compete just with our mens’ programs and now we had the burden of essentially doubling our athletic department. It was, ‘How do we balance what we can do with what we should do?’ And there was a lot of stress across the country. Women’s athletics completely changed the dynamics of universities and how were they going to support a full athletic department. So there was a lot of tension and trauma going on.”

“And funding it is not just a matter of we’re going to give them x number of dollars,” says Rasmussen, “but it’s facilities, it’s staffing, it’s scholarships, recruiting, traveling, equipment…”

At Creighton as anywhere, says Rasmussen, “we’re asked to provide not only an athletic program but also to be fiscally responsible as a department and as a program. So when it comes to asking for more money, especially when you’re running at a deficit, there’s certainly friction. I think factions of the faculty felt every dollar that went to athletics was a dollar out of their pocket.”

By the ’90s, girls and women’s sports were a given. By the 2000s, they’re as much a part of the culture as boys and men’s sports. Some professional women’s sports leagues flourish. Icons have even emerged: Pat Summit, Lisa Leslie, Florence Griffith-Joyner, the Williams sisters, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Brittney Griner.

“To turn that around was a seismic shift,” says Higgins.

“In a short time things really have come a long way,” says Claussen, who hastens to add, “But it took a long time to get” the opportunity.

Once spare media coverage has increased to the point that it’s commonplace if still a trickle of what males get.

“Hopefully we’ll continue getting more and more and that’s where the NCAA plays a big part in getting those television contracts,” says Claussen. “All that’s going to help increase the interest.”

The sustainability of athletic programs is an increasingly difficult proposition for schools struggling to keep pace with peers in a competitive arena of ever rising costs.

“At some point women’s athletics has to generate enough money to pay for itself because until it does we’re not going to get where we need to be,” says Rasmussen. “In men’s basketball we wouldn’t have the budget or spend the money on salaries we do if weren’t generating that, and we’ve got to move to the point where on the women’s side we’re generating realistic revenues. And the key to that is having generations of females who played sports, understand the value of sports and are willing to make a commitment to those sports.

“We don’t exist as an athletic department without people making a commitment to us.”

Creighton’s state-of-the-art athletic center and arena for volleyball and women’s basketball resulted from multi-million dollar gifts by donors Wayne and Eileen Ryan and David Sokol. Rasmussen says having coached women’s sports helps him effectively make the case for them when he asks for support.

In 1986 Claussen inaugurated the UNO Women’s Walk, now the Claussen-Leahy Run/Walk, which has raised $4 million-plus for women’s athletics.

NU’s men’s and women programs have some of the best facilities in the U.S. thanks to mega donations.

The strong sisterhood of girls and women’s sports that exists today is built on decades of sacrifice and perseverance. Ivy wants her athletes to know the history. It’s why she says she tells them about “who paved some of the way and the different struggles people had to endure so that we can have.” Yori does the same with her players because she wants them to know “where we come from as a sport.”

“There were groundbreakers and pioneers before us who made a huge impact on the opportunities young people have today,” Yori says. “Women of previous generations were not given opportunities and so it’s neat to see when they are given opportunities how much they can take advantage of that.”

“Why was it ever different?” asked Leahy.  Why indeed.

From the Archives: Warren Francke – A passion for journalism, teaching and life

June 11, 2012 3 comments

When I studied journalism at the University of Nebraska at Omaha there were three professors in my major area of concentration who stood out:  the late Bob Reilly for his warm personality and engaging storytelling; the late Todd Simon for his brilliant analytical mind; and Warren Francke for his passion in teaching us about the rich history of the Fourth Estate.  I was an odd bird of a student because my rampant insecurities kept me from really ever getting to know any of my fellow J students.  The only prof I got somewhat close to was Reilly, which was no great feat because he was welcoming to all.  Simon probably most stimulated my sensibilities, though his intellect intimidated me.  Francke is someone I wanted to know better and sought more affirmation from, but I don’t think I gave him much to work with.  After graduating college and pursuing my career I remained friendly with Reilly, who became a mentor of mine.  I doubt if I would have stuck it out as a freelancer those early years without his encouragement.  After college I never had any contact again with Simon, who just passed away in early 2012.  Francke is someone I likely would not have encountered again if not for the fact that he and I both became contributing writers to the same alternative news weekly, The Reader.  He’s a fine writer and human being and I am proud to call him a colleague.  Like his good departed friend and colleague Bob Reilly, he too has had encouraging words for him that I greatly appreciate.  When I did the following New Horizons profile on Francke about a dozen years ago he was just as I remembered him from UNO – a vital presence excited by his craft as teacher and journalist.  I can happily report that he is still that vital presence today.  I hope to have his energy and engagement 20 years from now.

 

Warren Francke, ©UNO Criss Library

 

From the Archives: Warren Francke – A passion for journalism, teaching and life

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

When University of Nebraska at Omaha communications professor Warren Francke gets a certain misty, far-off gaze in his eyes, chances are he’s lost in another Rocky Mountain reverie.  As a veteran Colorado summer dweller, he can’t help but daydream about hiking where the wild flowers bloom or waking to the warm golden glow of the morning sun glinting off snowy peaks or filling his lungs with the cool crisp ether of pure mountain air or sitting under a canopy of stars from atop a tall ridge at night.

Perhaps he even conjures his long-awaited rendezvous with a bear on some remote mountain trail.

He’s been hooked on Colorado’s high country life since the early 1970s, when summers first found him hauling his family out west, into the Estes Park region of the Rockies, where they grew enchanted by the languid pace and natural beauty of those rarefied heights and eventually extended their two-week vacations there into months-long visits.

Francke and his late wife of 31 years, Sue, adored life in those far upper reaches.  When she died of a heart attack in 1991 he, son Chris, and daughter Cara scattered her ashes in a place she loved.  Now, he shares the towering landscapes with his second wife, Carol, who suffered the loss of a longtime spouse.  After meeting and surviving what Francke calls “the human comedy that is dating after 30 years,” he and Carol married in 1994.              After years renting in the Estes Park area the Francke family finally have a cabin of their own — in the Tahosa Valley, a half-mile north of the town of Allenspark. Situated at 8,500 feet elevation, on a lot dotted with tall ponderosa pines and small aspens, the cabin looks out on Mt. Meeker to the west and the lush valley below.  The couple drive their jeep to secluded spots and make cross-country jaunts on foot to favorite hideaways.

When not sampling the great outdoors he reads books (preferring mystery novels), writes features for the Estes Park Trail-Gazette and pens articles for various professional journals and reference volumes.

Since joining the UNO faculty in 1966, he’s always remained a working journalist.  You may remember him best as a a reporter-columnist with the Omaha Sun Newspapers in the 1960s and 1970s and as that curmudgeon media critic Watching the Watchdogs on WOWT-TV in the 1980s.  These days you can find Francke-penned theater reviews in the Council Bluffs Nonpareil.   At UNO he teaches Literary Journalism and  History of Mass Communication courses as well as a graduate seminar.  He feels writing and teaching give him the best of both worlds.

“I love to write.  It helps my teaching and it helps fill some creative need I have.  For my entire 34 years of teaching I’ve had the good fortune to also do the kind of journalism I enjoy most.  I haven’t had to do the routine, mundane, grinding work of daily journalism.  I do stories I like to do and I teach classes I enjoy teaching,” he said from his modest Fairacres home, his two faithful old dogs (“the ancient ones”) lolling nearby on the floor.

“As I approach retirement it’s a source of great enjoyment to me to find that I enjoy writing as much or more than ever.  If I had had to give up writing to be a teacher I don’t know that I would have, but I didn’t have to.  There’s an enormous variety to teaching, especially if you mix it with journalism, and when you get good results it’s wonderful.”

A past Excellence in Teaching Award winner at UNO, he’s seen many former students achieve high success, including Omaha World-Herald executive editor Larry King and Merrill Lynch executive vice president for communications Paul Critchlow.  Among his most memorable years as an instructor came in 1975, when, as part of UNO’s Overseas Program, he taught seven months at Ramstein Air Force Base in West Germany.  His wife and children were there for the duration and together they toured the festive wine country and traveled to prime European getaways.  “We had a great time.  We bought a Volkswagon and ran all over Europe,” he said.

 

UNO Arts & Sciences building

 

 

Last fall Francke, 62, took a sabbatical from UNO to hole up in his cabin and begin writing the centennial history of Omaha’s Dundee Presbyterian Church, where he worships.  He will take a leave of absence next fall and head for his cabin to complete the project, one he’s excited about because it combines his thirst for history with his love for a good yarn.  It also means returning to his mountain retreat in time to hear the trumpeting echo of mating elk.

His research into old newspaper clippings, church bulletins and meeting notes is uncovering a rich tapestry of church history that coincides with Dundee’s growth and the founding of nearby Omaha University as well as early links with the Buffett and Fonda families.

“You’re talking about a church being formed at the turn-of-the-century in a little village called Dundee, fifteen years before it was annexed by Omaha. You read what you think might be dry records of meetings of church elders, trustees and ladies aid members, but as you learn to know these people you can’t help but have an enormous admiration for them,” he said.  “You become so immersed in the life of this church and of these people that when you turn a page and you find someone — who’s been a real pillar and force for good — has died, you feel a personal loss.

“You really come to share the experience of building a church with them.  These people become great heroes and heroines to you.  It’s very rewarding to bring the lives of these people back to life, so the people in the church now can know who came before them and what they did.  It provides a wonderful way to understand the story of a church and a neighborhood.”

Serving the greater good has been a sort of family inheritance.  His late father, Ted, hailed from a German Lutheran family that produced an unbroken line of ministers dating back to the 1600s.  His father studied for the ministry but was never ordained.  If his father hadn’t broken tradition, Francke himself might have been a preacher.  He thought about it.  As things turned out he’s followed a similar calling as a writer — giving voice to
people and their stories — and as a teacher — helping young people find their way.  “Sure, teaching is a form of ministry to me.  There’s a real common ground there,” he said.

His zeal for a finely-crafted story or well-turned phrase shines through whenever he reads aloud his students’ work.  Then, his eyes grow wide and voice gains inflection as if the Holy Spirit itself has moved him.  “My students turn in stories from life experiences that are so powerful.”

Estes Park

 

 

In that way things have of coming full circle, Francke led a church-centered life as a youth, then, in the contrary ‘60s, drifted away from organized religion — exploring Zen Buddhism — before eventually returning to the fold and even being ordained an elder.  Ancestral currents run deep.

Born and raised in Council Bluffs, Francke and his sister Rhoda grew up in a hilltop home above the Missouri River.      Their father was a study in contrasts.  The former top athlete was a physically-imposing man who worked as a manual laborer, even doing custodial work at the church the family attended, yet delighted in displaying his classical education by reciting Shakespeare.  A bound set of the Bard’s works (which the son inherited) was kept in the family’s home, along with antique ancestral bibles dating back to the 17th century.  During some hard times his parents sold the bibles to raise much-needed cash.

While Francke’s late mother Lydia, who hailed from hearty Iowa farm stock, never got past the 8th grade she was an avid reader who encouraged her children’s education.

“She was remarkably good at always taking us to the library and to Joslyn Art Museum,” Francke said.  “I had a library card as early as you could get one.  I read all the Paul Bunyan books.  I read every book by John R. Tunis, who wrote a wonderful series about sports.”

His introduction to journalism came by way of a neighboring family, the Zimmermans, whose father, Reid, and oldest son, Earl, worked as aWorld-Herald  editor and reporter, respectively.  Francke often joined his boyhood chum, Ken Zimmerman, on weekend visits with the boy’s father to the Herald offices in downtown Omaha.

“While Ken’s dad was reading galley proofs or doing something else in his office, we’d run around the World-Herald, sliding down the brass pole in the press room or visiting different parts of that plant. Having newspaper people as neighbors did have great significance in my life.  I got the idea a newspaper was an interesting place to work.”

He succumbed to the reporting bug at Abraham Lincoln High School, parlaying his interest in athletics (He collected autographs of sports idols, including Iowa’s own fireball pitching phenom Bob Feller.) as sports editor for the school paper, Echoes.  Even as a novice newsman he got a kick out of being thrust into the action and reporting about it.

“I loved it.  That experience epitomized the enjoyment of journalism, which is being in the middle of things people are interested in and then writing about them and participating in them. It’s the fact that you have the opportunity to experience a rich array of life and then get to make use of that experience by articulating it.”

With his reporting appetite whetted, he applied and was hired as a copy boy (copy messenger) at the World-Herald  in the spring of 1954.

“It was an easy step from being sports editor in high school to going to work for the World-Herald within a couple weeks after I graduated.  By that next fall I was doing something I had already done  — covering prep sports.  All it really boiled down to at age 17 or 18 is somebody paying you to go to the games you went to all the time anyway.”

 

Dundee Presbyterian Church, ©The Bouncing Czech

 

 

The paper’s many strong personalities made an impression on him.  Quiet but firm Don Lee, the venerable sports editor, was “always after you to ‘trim it down, trim it down.’” He recalls Fred Ware, “the fire-breathing managing editor,” was always “railing against somebody like Lou Gerdes, the distinguished city editor, shouting, ‘That damn Gerdes,’ and as a copy boy I’d just say, ‘Yes, Mr. Ware,’ and stand there.  I can remember one morning it was pretty quiet in the newsroom when suddenly there was a horrendous clap of thunder outside and without even looking up Ralph Smith, who worked on the rewrite desk, said, ‘Good morning, Mr. Ware.’”

Despite his boss’s intimidating presence, Francke said, “There isn’t any question who the main influence on my writing was — it was Fred Ware.  He talked about making a story sing.  He wrote a style-book for the World-Herald and along with Strunk’s Elements of Style  with the introduction by E.B. White and its emphasis on strong verbs and all that kind of thing, Ware’s emphasis on making a story sing had a profound influence on me.  I took it seriously.  Some of the best things I’ve written are influenced by a real strong sense of the flow and rhythm of language.  If I could make a story a work of poetry I did.  I think Ware started that in me.”

A gentler influence was the late, beloved sports writer Wally Provost.

“The writer at the World-Herald who was my hero was Wally Provost.  Wally did everything I think a writer should do.  He was a wonderful, graceful writer, but he also had a conscience and a sense of justice.  Wally was the first person at the paper, as far as I know, to write seriously about racial injustice.  His was a very effective, quiet voice on issues that mattered.”

In 1958 Francke left the paper to be a full-time staffer at his hometown daily, the Nonpareil.  As a roving, Tom Allan-like reporter he covered all aspects of Southwest Iowa life.  By the time he joined the staff of Omaha’s weekly Sun Newspapers  in 1964, he was dabbling in the freer, livelier New Journalism, whose open literary narrative approach was a bold departure from the rigid, classic journalistic form.  Provost, a devotee of the old-school, ribbed him about the new style’s descriptive excesses.

“I can remember running into Wally and him teasing me by saying, ‘Well, are you going to write about what kind of tie I’m wearing?’”

But for Francke, whose work grew out of his deep love for and intensive study of literature and drama (he has a master’s degree in English from UNO), the new wave of writing was no laughing matter.

“There’s no question I tried to change journalism.  When Tom Wolfe and the New Journalists came along I was already doing the things they were talking about and I was enjoying doing that.  I had the freedom at the Sun  to do it.  That’s why working there was such a terrific experience.  I couldn’t have done that at the World-Herald, which traditionally has not been a place where a writer could work with creative freedom.  The Sun was a place where I could experiment.  My students every week write things better than I have written, but I attempted at least to be out on the edge.”

Even today he tries not settling for humdrum work.  “I’m very unsatisfied when I write what I consider a routine review.”

 Omaha Community Playhouse

 

 

He credits a friend, noted Omaha author and former UNO colleague Robert T. Reilly, for pushing him.  “There’s no question working alongside Bob Reilly was important to me.”  Another key figure for him was the late Ralph Wardle, former UNO English chairman.  “A great writer and teacher.”

Francke’s 1968 Sun profile on his celebrated Omaha U. classmate, Peter Fonda, displays how he pushed the envelope then. Fonda, who’d been banished to his famous father’s hometown by older sister Jane to get his head straight, had become a youth movie icon via his starring role in the Roger Corman exploitation biker flick, The Wild Angels (Easy Rider was yet to come).  Francke’s piece reflects on the unrebel-like Fonda he knew.  A
sweet awkward guy haunted by a messy childhood and distant father.  Smitten by first love (with Carol Robinson).  Desperate to find acceptance.

Francke cleverly frames Fonda’s college life in dramatic, playwright terms, an apt approach for describing someone whose life was an open book and who hailed from one of America’s preeminent acting families:  “Act I, Scene I — Freshman girl hears the son of Henry Fonda is a classmate.  She asks a circle of respected elders, fraternity men all…‘What’s Peter Fonda really like? ‘A real phony.’

“Scene II — A girl named Judy dates Peter and writes an English 112 composition about a boy who will always walk alone.

“Scene III — Peter and Carol walk together down Administration Building halls.  They’re going to class…they’re not holding hands.

“Act II, Scene I — Christmas 1958.  Peter takes Carol to New York.  Lauren Bacall throws a cocktail party.  Carol meets Jane and Henry.

“Scene II — Sorority leaders call Carol aside.  They’ve heard bad reports about her and Peter.

“Scene III — It’s spring…on the campus.  Peter’s there…Sad, grieving.  What’s wrong?  Carol did him wrong.  ‘Oh, well,’ he sighed.  ‘I guess it can’t be April forever.’”

Francke knew Fonda as a fellow contributor to the student paper, The Gateway, and to the literary publication Francke edited, The Grain of Sand.  They also shared a mutual interest in the burgeoning Cool Scene, with its rebellious Beat writers and anti-Establishment musical icons.  The pair weren’t above playing their affected rebel image to the hilt — like the time they convinced a KMTV news crew they were radical campus beatniks.

“We didn’t really cut it as bona fide beatniks.  We were both full-time students. I held a night reporting job at the Nonpareil.  But we’d both read Jack Kerouac.  We could talk the talk.  We ended up on the 10 p.m. news.”

Once Fonda left Omaha for eventual success on Broadway and in Hollywood, Francke lost touch with him.  He’s always had it in the back of his mind to “drive up to his ranch in Montana someday” to kick over old times.

Speaking of old times, Francke misses the vital alternative forum for ideas the Sun  offered under publisher Stan Lipsey, managing editor Paul Williams and owner Warren Buffett.  With the paper’s folding in 1983, he said Omaha lost “a second voice” it has yet to replace.

“Our constitution is based on the idea of letting truth and falsehood fight it out in the free marketplace of ideas.  The marketplace is not so free when you just have one major voice.  The Sun  took on the important, controversial issues that were being ignored and did a first-class, quality job that won them many national awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting on Boys Town’s finances.  None of the alternative publications that followed have had quite the strength of the Sun.”

The paper stopped publishing when, as Francke puts it, “it could no longer compete with certain advertising and business practices of the World-Herald,” which led to a lawsuit settled out of court.

Francke’s fervent but well-reasoned opinions on media and culture are the culmination of his many years as a journalism professional, student, teacher and observer.  He holds a Ph.D. in mass communication from the University of Minnesota. His scholarly work on various facets of the media have earned him a national reputation.  He recently contributed a biographical overview on James Gordon Bennett, a key early journalist, to Oxford University Press for a mammoth reference work it is publishing.

Watchdogs was Francke’s last major public forum for wading in on media topics.  He credits then WOWT news director Steve Murphy with allowing him free reign.  “There was no one else in the country doing media coverage and media criticism on television like I was, where I was not only free to criticize the station I was reporting on but to praise people on the other stations.  I criticized the World-Herald more than any other entity, but I often said how much better it covered something than television.”

He fears his Herald bashing caused a backlash in terms of lost opportunities for him and his students:  “Their top management deeply resented my criticism.  It created a lot of tension. There’s a certain price to pay for…taking on the biggest power in town.”  While Watchdogs ended its run in 1990, it was not due to any chilling effect.  Instead, he simply felt he’d said enough after more than 300 commentaries.

The ever feisty Francke has hardly kept silent.  He bemoans what he perceives to be the World-Herald editorial page’s move from “a moderate conservative position” to “The Right,” and categorizes its treatment of the President as “malice.”  He is still asked to comment on current media events, as when KFAB sought his appraisal of Barbara Walters’ Monica interview, which he said regrettably only “satisfied our low curiosity.”  He looked with dismay at “the sanctifying” of Joe DiMaggio upon his passing, noting the hype still paled next to how Princess Di’s legend grew “beyond all reasonable bounds.”

But where he used to crave always being “in the mix” of news events — putting his wry spin on things, he no longer minds “being away from the battle for months at a time” in that “other world” that is his mountain sanctuary.  Yes, it’s a sure sign his Colorado conversion is complete.

“We lead such a simple life out there.  When we go back in the summer for the first church service and the choir begins to sing, ‘There’s Something By the Mountain,’ I have a very hard time not getting teary-eyed because these things come to combine in a tapestry of meaning about the experiences you’ve had there and the way in the mountains you feel closer to the grandeur of creation.”

Despite the strong pull Colorado exerts, he has no intention of taking up year-round residence there. “No.  I like life in Omaha.  I don’t like missing the opening of the theater season in the fall.  I would miss not being here for UNO and Nebraska football.  I would miss my friends.”

Eddith Buis, A Life Immersed in Art

June 11, 2012 5 comments

Art.  I know it when I see it.  Well, sometimes.  It’s true, I’ve never studied art history but I’ve looked at a fair amount of art in my lifetime.  I worked at a fine art museum for a spell.  I make it to a few exhibitions every year.  I feel more comfortable or knowledgable when it comes to film, photography, theater, music, and literature than I do when it comes to paintings, drawings, and sculpture but because of my lack of formal art studies I don’t feel I’m qualified to be a critic and so I don’t write reviews.  As a journalist though I cover a lot of artists of one kind of another and I do feel it’s part of my job to interpret, where I feel capable of doing so that is, their work.  The following profile of artist and public art advocate and organizer Eddith Buis of Omaha contains little interpretation because I don’t know her work very well and besides I was far more interested in describing her and her full on immersion in a life of art than I was attempting to explain her work.  I hope you agree I’ve introduced you to a personality and spirit that’s well worth your time and interest.  I know she was worth mine.

 
Eddith Buis

 

 

Eddith Buis, A Life Immersed in Art

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

 

Eddith Buis is immersed in art.

Nearly every facet of life and work for this 64-year-old Omahan, who resembles Andy Warhol, gives expression to her creative impulses. She’s perhaps best known for leading the popular J. Doe public project that placed symbolic figurative sculptures all around Omaha in 2001. An inveterate reader from early childhood, Buis is a self-described seeker in search of personal growth. Her desire to reach her potential is expressed in her humanistic art, in her Unitarian faith and in her adherence to certain Eastern philosophies and practices that promote harmony.

Born in North Platte, Neb., she grew up there and in Hastings, before her family moved to Omaha when she was 7. She attended Franklin Elementary School, where her father, a failed lawyer and sporting goods store owner, worked as an insurance underwriter. Nearly every summer found her visiting the farm of an uncle and aunt in Lorimar, Iowa, where she’d bring two suitcases — one filled with clothes and the other with books, including the latest Nancy Drew novels.

The 1958 Central High graduate married, for the first time, early in life. She began college at then-Omaha University with a dream of becoming a novelist but soon dropped out to have children. She was a mother of three youngsters before she resumed college and then, her life changed forever after discovering a latent talent for drawing. “I’d never taken an art course in my life. I remember taking this first class in drawing. It was in the fall, and the teacher had us go outside, where he had us drawing trees. The world became three-dimensional for me when I was drawing. I had the feeling when I looked at things I could draw them. My life just went like that,” she said, snapping her fingers to indicate the dramatic turn it took. “It was the luckiest thing in the world I switched to art. It just made my life.”

She went on to teach art for 23 years in the Omaha Public Schools, the last eight at an alternative high school where she also staged dramatic productions. She’s since gone on to teach at Joslyn Art Museum and Metropolitan Community College, where she continues to instruct in an adjunct capacity, and to direct a number of projects that have brought art to diverse sites in and around the city. In her own art, she’s worked in oil, watercolor, drawing and sculpture. Recently, she’s collaborated with sculptor C. Kelly Lohr. But she considers herself “a draftsman” first and foremost. Until its recent closing, she showed her work as a cooperative member of the Old Market’s 13th Street Gallery.

Her signature public art project to date remains J. Doe, which scattered 100-plus life-size sculptures, by a like number of local artists, at a variety of sites across the city. Using the same precast mold of an anonymous, androgynous, feature-less John Doe-like figure as their base, artists added an amazing variety of colors, materials, themes, ideas and visions onto their blank slates. Some of the works have found a permanent home in the outdoor cityscape. Others reside in private collections.

Buis not only served as project director, but as one of its artists. Her two J. Does reflect many of her own concerns and beliefs. Jung’s Doe — Journey Toward Wholeness is an erect orange figure that’s been split and its halves joined by a spiral. “The concept came to me complete as a dream,” said Buis, who often works from dreams. “The warm orange color represents everyone…the tribe…or our connectedness. The spiral symbolizes the life path we all tread, hopefully learning our lessons so we can become whole. This Doe is still on its journey, incomplete.”

Machu Picchu Memory is a whole Doe whose body is covered in iridescent rainforest colors, jagged arterial lines and exotic animals. “Several years ago, I ‘saw’ and drew these lines, colors and animals while meditating at Macchu Picchu (an ancient Inca fortress city in the Peruvian Alps). The next day, we found a huge rock inscribed with nearly the same line configuration. Who knows the meaning?”

Glory of the West, by Patsy  Smith, from Buis’ J. Doe Project

 

 

The success of J. Doe launched subsequent public art projects Buis has overseen at such high-trafficked locales as the Gene Leahy Mall, the Lauritzen Gardens, Fontenelle Forest and the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Trail along Omaha’s riverfront.

“Bringing art to Omaha” is her credo. “I’m a teacher first. I’m not one of those artists that works in a closet. I collaborate all the time. I push other artists. I want their work seen and sold, too.” Once she quit teaching full-time, she kept a promise she made while serving on Omaha’s Commission for Public Art. “I vowed that if I found an occasion to bring public art to Omaha, I would. We’d gone too long without public art.” Besides, she said, she possessed the requisite qualities to run a public art project. “I had the time. I had the energy. I’m indefatigable. I truly am a workaholic. Plus, I know the artists. I know who’s good and I know who’s dependable. And I have the organizing capabilities I learned as a teacher.”

Perhaps her greatest contribution to Omaha culture is the three-story Arts & Crafts style home she resides in in Omaha’s Field Club neighborhood. It’s art-filled interior and exterior is the focal point for her seemingly boundless creativity. The former OPS art teacher has lovingly restored the 1908 red brick Pasadena Bungalow residence, a stately, studied place with its rich dark woodwork, fine cabinetry and built-in bookcases. Designed by noted early 20th century Omaha architect John MacDonald (whose credits include the Joslyn Castle), the house was built by bridge-builder J. W. Towle. Buis said, “He really built it right. He poured the foundation for the basement walls. The walls are steel mesh with plaster over them and it’s like breaking through a fortress when you try to put in a doorway or something. He started a lumber yard so he could choose the wood for his house.”

Buis, who occupies a ground floor apartment and rents out the rest, is proud to be the caretaker of what she considers “a landmark” estate. “I like the idea of saving a place that possibly would have disappeared if we hadn’t bought it, because it was on its way down. It was in terrible condition,” said Buis, who bought the structure in 1983 with her former husband. “When we divorced in 1987, the restoration wasn’t finished. I finished it and I’ve been running it on my own ever since. I lived here 14 years before I broke even. It’s a very expensive property to keep up.”

The petite, precise Buis enjoys the home for the “grace of it. It’s comfortable. It isn’t fancy or foo-foo. It’s pretty tailored and that’s the way I am too. I like things fairly simple. It’s the kind of home you feel you can put your feet up in.”

Over the years, she’s softened some of its hard, masculine edges by introducing softer, rounded corners, but she’s careful not to “do anything that would destroy the physical beauty of it.”

The house is impressive all right, but the real show piece is the extensive landscaped grounds. There, Omaha’s most vocal advocate for public art has installed a sculpture garden featuring works, many for sell, by herself and other area artists. The property is also home to her stand-alone artist’s studio and to a series of cozy gardens and patios whose tranquil spaces and healing motifs reflect the daily meditation rituals she follows to keep herself and her home in balance.

Buis’ Pacific Street address directly north of the Field Club Golf Course is part home, gallery, garden and meditative retreat. In this serene sanctuary carved out of the sturdy urban landscape, her muse feels free to run wild. Dreams, it turns out, supply the inspiration for her art. “I work mostly from dreams. I listen to my dreams. Most of my prints are straight off dreams, and I usually figure them out once I draw them,” said Buis, whose sculptures go from dream to drawing to maquette. “Before I decided to quit teaching, I started chafing, because I really wanted to do more art. Then, I had a dream, which I did up in art as a print calledNancy Drew Drives Off. That dream told me I needed to drive off on my own and start anew. So, I quit (OPS) in 1997.”

 

 

Print by Eddith Buis

 

 

Nancy Drew Drives Off is part of a dream-inspired car series that, like other series she’s created, whimsically and ironically explore human relationships and roles, often times from a strong feminist slant. Another series, entitled Suits, includes a work in which a man trudging along in his gray flannel office attire has stopped to look up, as if suddenly realizing there may be more to life than the rat race, his precious suit and ever-present briefcase. Dropping out of the ranks of elementary school teaching is one of several breaks that Buis herself has made with convention in pursuit of achieving self-actualization.

During a “a burn-out” leave from OPS she studied other cultures for an interpretive materials project for the Omaha Children’s Museum. “I investigated Indian, African, Mayan and Egyptian cultures. I just had a ball. I got to sit around and read and write. For an Omaha Healing Arts commission, I actually ended up going to Peru, which I really wanted to study. It was more of spiritual journey for me,” she said.

Finding out about other peoples, places, traditions and beliefs, she added, sates her huge appetite to sample it all and to take from these things what she wants. “I couldn’t possibly stop with just our culture,” is how she puts it.

Buis feels her curiosity about the world “goes along with being a Unitarian. It’s a kind of do-it-yourself religion. I discovered it when I was 18. I’d given up on Christianity.” She was attending UNO at the time, when a professor there sparked her interest in trying Unitarianism.

“I went to church the next Sunday and I never left. There were all these bright people around me. I thought, This is where I want to be. It turns out that it’s hard. It’s a liberal religion and there aren’t any answers. You are not handed anything. We use quotations from the great minds of the ages. One time, it might be Albert Einstein. Another time, Victor Frankel. Sometimes, Christ. And you make your own decisions. My particular decision is I really watch my karma. I try not to ever lie and I try to be good to people because I really do believe you make in this life who you are by how you live and by how you act. This is why I give my time away so much. I’ve chosen art as a way to make a difference. I think it’s my purpose.”

The stimulation she gets from her faith, she said, is “my inspiration.”

Her embrace of Feng Shui, an ancient Chinese practice using placement to achieve harmony with the environment, is another example of her ongoing quest for knowledge. “I saw these books about it. I got interested, and I started reading.”

Originating some 7,000 years ago, Feng Shui is rooted in the Chinese reverence for nature and belief in the oneness of all things. It’s predicated on the assumption that the key to harmonious living is in striking a balance of nature in daily life, as expressed in Yin-Yang, Chi, and the elements of wood, fire, earth, metal and water.

“With Feng Shui, there are ancient Chinese rules on how to make energy move through your life in order to keep your life radiant and positive,” she said. She even studied its principles with an instructor, she said, because of negative vibes she felt in her abode. “I wanted to heal my house. We had ghosts. I wanted to make it easier to live in. It was really a weight on me.” Buis believes the repositioning of objects in the house, which is replete with art work, combined with chanting and shaman drumming, eventually “healed the house” and “got rid of all the ghosts.” She said, “It’s a very healing place to be and I know that’s because of…clearing out what needed to move on.”

Although she follows some Feng Shui tenets, Buis doesn’t pretend to follow all of its many rules. “Feng Shui is very rule-driven and that’s not the way I run my life,” she said. “It has to be like religion, where I take what I want and I walk on.”

Still, she bristles at the suggestion the practice is frivolous. “I don’t see it as a New Age thing. “For me, it’s in combination with what I already understand of the world.” It’s also part of a whole regimen she does to stay healthy. “The other thing I do every day that goes along with Feng Shui is a Tibetan exercise called Chi Kung. It’s a moving meditation. Feng Shui and Chi Kung are more for health and well-being, and I’m very healthy. I feel very positive. I very seldom hit a depression. And I know what that feels like because as a young housewife with kids to raise and bills to pay I suffered depression. Now, I know, it honed me for what I needed to learn”

Meditation works for her the way prayer does for others. “I meditate to find answers. It keeps me radiant…settled…centered. I think the wisdom’s within us. It’s whether or not we listen to it and act on it. I see all life experiences as lessons. What I’m learning more and more now is to be the kind of person I can be.” For the well-read Buis, who drops references to such thinkers as Nietzsche and Jung, meditation also feeds her imagination. “It makes me much more intuitive and it makes me pay attention to my ability to make intuitive decisions. Whether it’s reading or Feng Shui or Chi Kung or shaman drumming, it all goes together.”

After some unhappy pairings, the twice-divorced Buis has eschewed romantic relationships the past decade and, instead, has poured her energies into making art, organizing art displays and befriending a diverse cadre of artists, male and female and young and old alike. “I feel like, in a sense, I’m married to a higher ideal. I want to make things beautiful for people. I have a lot to share.” Her home has become an artists colony where she entertains some of Omaha’s brightest talents in literature, poetry, theater and art. All of it — from the people she interacts with to the historic home she maintains to the artworks she creates to the exhibits she mounts — flow out of her yearning and searching.

“I am totally a searcher,” she said. “I read a lot. I think a lot. I like to be around people that are thinking and talking about life.” It’s no accident then that her work challenges viewers to think. “I feel strongly that I have to do things that have meaning…about the human condition. It’s not enough to be pretty for me.”

 

 

Bench art by Eddith Buis and Timothy Schaffert

 

 

That’s why she takes issue with the realistic prairie-nature art First National Bank spent top dollars in acquiring for its downtown Tower headquarters. “That is so retro…so old. People will travel thousands of miles to see good art. Nobody is going to come to Omaha to see the First National Bank art.” She’s upset First National did not consult the Commission for Public Art and did not give any commissions to local artists. In response, a bank spokesman said First National did work with other art consultants and did consider Omaha artists as part of the process, although none were selected. While Buis admits she’d like “a say in Omaha’s public art,” she said that even if she doesn’t have a voice, “there are plenty of people in Omaha that really know good art.” She just wants art patrons to be accountable.

If she sounds picky, it’s only because she’ so passionate. “As Matisse said, art is my religion.” Her travels, whether to the art centers of Europe or America, always include time for seeing art. She’s been to New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Paris, Rome. She’s looking forward to see the new Guggenheim museum in Spain.

There’s still the occasional bump in the road. The 3,200-hours she devoted to J. Doe “just about killed me,” she said. This past summer was tough. A major commission fell through. The 13th Street Gallery closed. The Wind and Water exhibit at the Gene Leahy Mall was plagued by vandalism. Her house was damaged by raccoons and infested with flea mites. Her car was stolen, her camera nabbed and her purse snatched. Adding insult to injury, a dog attacked her.

“I’m doing my darndest to pull ahead of all that and just look at it philosophically. The only thing I can think of is there were more life lessons I needed to learn.”

On the heels of so much happening, she’s thinking of taking a year or two off to heal her spirit. “I want to investigate. I want to explore social issues. I want to read and study and dream. If I’m too busy, I don’t dream and if I don’t dream, I don’t get art. I don’t know what’s next, but I want to reinvent myself. I believe I have a big sculpture project in me. I’m at an age now where, if not now, then when?”

She remains hopeful. “My life is incredibly rich. It’s the power of being able to bring beauty to people…to be of service. I’ve got a lot of love for people. I’ve got granddaughters that hug me. I have people in my life that really care about me.”

Then there’s her perfect dream. She stands amidst an Omaha oasis for art that people from near and far have come to see. “I would like to see a downtown sculpture garden. I want that for the city. That’s my dream.”

 

  • “Nancy Drew Drives Off,” a linoleum cut with watercolor by Eddith Buis.

 

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