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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 1990.Omahasteaks.com became the banner web site for the company’s fastest growing business segment. A new web site, alazing.com. 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.

 

Kat Moser of Nouvelle Eve, A Life by Her Own Design

June 20, 2012 3 comments

Men are generally credited with shaping Omaha’s Old Market arts-culture hub but women have more than made their mark on the National Historic District, including Ree Kaneko, Catherine Ferguson, Vera Mercer, Lucile Schaaf, and Susan Clement Toberer.  Another is Kat Moser, whose high-end Nouvelle Eve contemporary women’s clothing store has been a bastion of cutting-edge fashion for many years.  She and her husband Jim Moser also had the Jackson Artworks gallery for a couple decades before closing it in 2010.  She’s one of those persons who integrates her appreciation for art and design and beauty in every aspect of her life, from her work to her home to her clothes, et cetera.  Moser’s own keen sense of style has helped make the Old Market a destination place for discerning people.  I did this profile on her for Encounter Magazine in 2007, when she still had the art gallery, though it had recently suffered major damage in a storm.

Kat Moser, A Life by Her Own Design

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Encounter Magazine

 

A visit to the Old Market condo of Nouvelle Eve and Jackson Artworks owner Kat Moser and her husband Jim Moser reveals the couple’s sophisticated aesthetic. The street level entry opens onto a grand space with a soaring second-story loft. The 3,400 square-foot dwelling is rich in contemporary art and sleek furnishings.

Some of the art is by the Mosers themselves. She makes infrared photographs of female nudes in ethereal nature settings. He makes abstract metal sculptures. Also displayed are pieces by such artists as Jun Kaneko and Littleton Alston.

Painted white walls and ceilings are “the canvas” for the many black, gray and glass design accents and earth-fire-water elements adorning the posh home’s 9-rooms. Exposed wood beams, brick work and cement blocks lend a rough-hewn, historic, urban charm that expresses the building’s 19th century character and contrasts with the modern updates throughout.

Reminiscent of Moser’s ethereal imagery is the filtered sunlight that banks of windows and skylights let in. A sweeping living room fireplace serves as a welcome hearth to gather round. A small, southern exposure room up front has a built-in ledge that Moser grows plants in. Adjoining it is a sauna/steamroom.

The second-story kitchen, which overlooks the living room, is a spacious area of stainless steel appliances and glass-fronted cabinets. An atrium off the kitchen is where Moser, a yoga practitioner, begins her day. The large skylight above basks the room and its many plants in the glow of natural light. The atrium leads to the roof-top deck, where, weather-allowing, the Mosers spend time lounging in patio sofas and cooking on the built-in electric grill, complete with bright, tiled-counter.

A den, master bedroom, guest bedroom, office and bathroom complete the condo, which she calls her and Jim’s “sanctuary.” The pair enjoy quiet evenings reading.

Moser is a Sioux City, Iowa native whose fashion sense made her aspire to a New York career. She lives a NY chic lifestyle, only in Omaha.

 

 

 

 

“It’s right here for me. I really don’t have to go anywhere. I can have everything I want and probably much easier and more economically than if we moved to New York and tried to do the same thing,” she said.

First with Nouvelle Eve in ‘73, and then Jackson Artworks in ‘95, she’s made herself a major player in the Old Market’s vital cultural scene. The Mosers bought their building in ‘85 and after two years renovating it, moved in. Twenty years as Market dwellers make them newcomers in some circles but pioneers to the historic district’s newer residents. The couple welcome the growing downtown community.

Just as she likes it, the condo is situated right in the heart of things. A block away is her own high end women’s apparel store and literally next door to her home is Jackson, now one of the Market’s longest-lived galleries.

She didn’t intend to be an entrepreneur. Trained in textile/clothing merchandising at Iowa State University, she worked as a buyer with Dayton-Hudson, whose first independent boutique she ran, and Nebraska Clothing. Jim, an attorney by training and the owner of Omaha Standard, is the one who encouraged her to go in business for herself. She made the shop, which visiting celebs like Laura Dern and Sheryl Crow buy from, an edgy, contemporary place where lingerie is right out front.

“I’ve been really blessed with really great teachers,” she said. “And I’ve always had this wonderful guidance from people. My ability was just to listen, which is really important. I’ve always been very intuitive.”

Her intuition, she said, told her the Market “is where I wanted to be, and I was OK to…develop my business knowing I wasn’t going to make a huge killing, but this would give me time to show my skills and to really get my feet on the ground and then go with it. It just felt really good there. I liked the Mercers’ concept of bringing a little bit of Paris — my other favorite place in the world — to Omaha. Creatively, it was very exciting to me to be involved in that.”

“Vera (Mercer, the wife of Old Market visionary Mark Mercer) was a really big inspiration to me then,” she said. “I can remember seeing her in the Market photographing. I loved what she represented.”

The Mercers’ caution in leasing to tenants meant a long wait for the Mosers. “It took us almost a year to negotiate our lease, “ she said, “which involved going to the French Cafe for many, many dinners and then going to their apartment. It was a big process. It was very intensive those early years. I mean, they were picking their neighbors and they wanted only people who had the same concept they did.”

Fashion and art are Moser’s lifelong calling.

“It was always there. I really feel blessed that I never had that feeling of, Oh my God, what am I going to do? I always knew exactly what I wanted to do,” she said. “I don’t know where it came from. I never had to question it. I’m 61 in July and I still loving going to work every day.”

Since a May 5 storm-related roof collapse at Jackson, she’s had more than the usual hectic summer. She can’t afford to stop or look back while repairs continue. She’s trying to get it ready for a grand reopening while planning Nouvelle Eve’s 35th anniversary next year. That’s on top of the renovation slated for her and Jim’s condo. Like the new woman of her shop’s name, Moser is always reinventing herself.

The man behind the voice of Husker football at Memorial Stadium

June 20, 2012 3 comments

There are many voices of University of Nebraska football.  Head Coach bo Pelini. Husker Sports Network play-by-play man Greg Sharpe.  Not to be forgotten though is Husker football’s Memorial Stadium public address announcer Patrick Combs, who lends his own signature personality to the goings-on inside that cathedral of college football without ever detracting from it.  I did the piece a few years ago about Combs and his dream role as “The Voice of Husker Football.”

Patrick Combs working the PA system, ©(JACOB HANNAH/Lincoln Journal Star)

 

 

The man behind the voice of Husker football at Memorial Stadium

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine

 

Patrick Combs, 41, lives a dream each Husker game day as the in-stadium announcer for Nebraska football. He grew up cheering Big Red at Memorial Stadium, where he and his late father, Lincoln, Neb. car dealer Woody Combs, bonded on Saturdays.

From age 13 on, he said, “it’s safe to say my dream was to be the Voice of the Huskers. I always thought how cool it would be someday to be that booming voice…”

When not living his dream he’s director of business development for NRG Media, a Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based company with 83 radio stations in seven states. Combs works out of the Omaha office, home to Waitt Radio Network. He loves radio, but despite a resonant voice he didn’t seek a career in broadcasting, it sought him.

Growing up he and his family were into horses. His father, whom Combs said “had a great voice,” announced area equestrian events, including those a young Pat rode in. Whenever his dad couldn’t do an event, Combs filled in. People would invariably tell him, “You should be an announcer.” Instead, he attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln intent on going into law or politics. He interned for then-Governor Bob Kerrey.

He ended up going to work for his dad. Recruited away by another dealer, he made general manager at 24. In 1993, he led a group of young American professionals to Taiwan for an international business summit and found a new calling.

“It was a life-changing month for me,” Combs said. “I realized very quickly how fortunate we are in this country with the freedoms we have and the abilties we have to be entrepeneurial. I came back idealistic and energized…and I decided to channel that by running for political office to try to make a difference.”

He entered the ‘94 U.S. Congressional race against Neb. Republican incumbant Doug Bereuter. Combs, a Democrat, was a 27-year-old unknown. But in a GOP-heavy state he managed 40 percent of the vote by campaigning every day and raising an unheard of $250,000 for his upstart bid. He failed to gain the same seat again in ‘96.

By then soured on selling cars and being denied a political career, he answered opportunity when KLIN in Lincoln asked him to co-host a talk show. The gig got in his blood and he learned the biz, laying the foundation for his 13-year radio career.

Life was good. He married, became a father of two, saw his career flourish at Waitt, which merged with NRG, and indulged his “passion” for riding Harleys. But two things were missing. The man he calls “my biggest idol and mentor” — his dad — died in 2001. And his dream job as Voice of Husker Nation seemed unattainable.

“I’d pretty much written off that job,” he said. Enter fate. In 2003 the job came open and Combs won it after auditioning, including calling that year’s Spring Game.

Going on his fifth year as the P.A. man, he said, “I’m still like a little kid in a candy store. I love it.” Though few know the name behind the voice, he said, “that’s OK. I’m just thrilled to be there. I’m humbled every day I walk into the stadium and to be part of such a storied program. There’s pressure to do a good job and I try very hard to do a good job. I do not want to let the fans down.” That’s why he preps hours before each contest. Calling a good game, he said, comes down “to being a facilitator of information and adding to the environment of the game.”

From the booth Combs imagines his dad, who got him started announcing, hearing him in the stands.

“I know he would be so proud his son is the Voice of the Huskers.”

Dream Police


Like a lot of folks I have a wary attitude when it comes to the police and I’d rather only see them when I need them but I must say that the few encounters I’ve had with them have been positive. They obviously do an important and often thankless job and it’s certainly one I wouldn’t want to do myself.  The following Omaha Magazine feature from the mid-2000s profiles some distinguished Omaha Police Department officers at the time.  Some of them have since moved onto new positions.  I recall being impressed by these law enforcement professionals as individuals and as a group.

 

 

police officer law enforcement picture and wallpaper

 

 

Dream Police

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine

 

Devotion. Desire. Duty. The men and women in uniform with the Omaha Police Department share these qualities in performing their public service mission. Each has his or her own story of what led them into law enforcement and what keeps them there. Some followed family legacies, others became the first in their family to carry the shield. Some worked different careers before coming to OPD, others joined right out of high school or college.

However they arrived at taking the oath to protect and to serve, they all regard their work in blue as a calling they can’t imagine their lives without.

Five OPD officers who’ve distinguished themselves on the job recently shared their stories. At a time when the department is still responding to last year’s sudden, massive wave of retired veterans, these five represent the current and future leadership of OPD. They are Omaha’s Dream Police.

Sgt. Anna SewellSgt. Anna Sewell

Dayton, Ohio native Sgt. Anna Sewell grew up an only child to a single mother who served as a volunteer neighborhood assistant officer with the Dayton police. Sewell cherished the close bonds of her small, cohesive family, whose ties she found the equivalent of in law enforcement.

“It was just something I was raised around and always knew,” she said. “Were there other options? I’m sure there were. Did I ever consider them? No.”

After high school she signed up for the law enforcement end of the Air Force. “I figured I would join the military and go see the world, and boy did I ever,” said Sewell, whose service career continues as a reservist.

The globe-trotter finally settled at Offutt Air Force Base. After giving the business world a whirl she applied with OPD, she said, “as a challenge to myself.” She passed with flying colors and joined the force in 1999. Being a cop felt right.

“We are in so many ways just like the military,” she said. “We have that brotherhood, that sense of family — territory I’m familiar with.”

About the time she entered the Omaha Police Training Academy she began accelerated studies at Bellevue University, where she made the Dean’s list and Who’s Who among college students. She graduated in 2000 with a bachelor’s in human resource management. Already the first in her family with a high school diploma she became the first with a college degree. She’s since earned a master’s in management and is now working on a second master’s in business.

The single Sewell is also an entrepreneur with her own security company.

“I’m basically breaking a whole lot of new ground in my family. In my mom’s eyes I am the example for my cousins to follow, which is fine.”

The Internal Affairs investigator reached the rank of sergeant in only six years. She learned of her promotion while in Iraq as a volunteer reserve medic.

The biracial Sewell said while her ethnicity has never been a barrier she feels she must work harder to stay competitive.

“As a minority I have to put my ethnicity and gender aside so that when you line me up I’m standing toe-to-toe right alongside everyone else,” she said. “You always have to prove yourself as a female in a predominantly male work field. It’s up to me to make sure I’m at the top of my game, that I’m not perceived as weak.”

She’s sampled many aspects of the department to prepare for her dream job. “Somewhere in my future there’s an office up on this floor that has lots of windows,” she said from the administrative suite. “It may not be top dog but it might not be too far. I’m thinking deputy chief.”

Officer Dawn Chizek
It’s easy for 24-year veteran Dawn Chizek to relate to the troubled kids she encounters as Millard South High School’s School Resource Officer (SRO). She grew up in a “pretty dysfunctional family.”

“I think the best police officers are people who’ve been a little on both sides. Empathy is probably one of the necessary requirements as a police officer. You’ve got to be able to put yourself in that situation and help effectively deal with that person and their need at that moment,” she said.

“I tell kids all the time, whatever that situation is they’re in, no matter how shitty it is, they can use it as an excuse to fail or as a reason to succeed. That’s my mantra, it truly is. It’s definitely about personal choice.”

Chizek’s hard times influenced her interest in being a cop. Why? “I think I saw a lot of injustice and unfairness in what I was dealt,” she said. Being a cop meant she could “go out and kick butt, take names and save the world.”

The Bellevue East High School grad attended the University of Nebraska at Omaha and applied with OPD. She made the grade and joined the force at 19.

“All the studies say I should been a high school drop out, but I wanted more. I wanted better than the surroundings and the situation I was thrust into,” she said.

Proving herself was another thing.

“It was not easy,” she said. “You talk about three strikes against you, try being a blond, female 19-year-old recruit in 1984. But they didn’t know my story. I was much older than my years. I had a lot of real life experience.”

She jumped at the chance to be Millard South’s SRO, a job she calls “the most rewarding and fulfilling” of her career.

“This is where I live, this is where my kids go to school. I want to work in my community, where I have a stake in what happens. I want to have an impact where it means the most,” said Chizek, who’s married with two children.

Officially there to dismantle barriers between youth and police, she said she can be kids’ best buddy, but “if they cross the line they know dang well I’m going to hold them accountable. I do make arrests. Just like in the real world we spend 90 percent of our time dealing with 10 percent of the population.”

“I take very seriously my role here. I am very much in tune with what’s going on out in the community because the kids talk to me and tell me what goes on on the weekends, and what happens on the weekends carries over to school.”

 

 

 

 

Capt. Mark Martinez
Police work is a family inheritance for Mark Martinez. His father Al retired after 33 years with OPD. An uncle was a cop. His brothers Al and John are cops. Four cousins as well. Yet he said it was not a foregone conclusion he would be, too.

“I really didn’t know until I went to UNO and decided to study criminal justice,” he said.

He acknowledges this lineage in blue gave him a valuable perspective.

“My father was always community-oriented, civic-minded, always a contributor. So I think I had an idea I wanted to be a public servant, which is much more than arresting bad guys,” he said. “That attracted me.”

The South High grad only entered law enforcement after getting his degree at UNO. He was a Douglas County Sheriff’s Office crime lab technician before joining OPD in 1984. That same year he and wife Cindy got married. They have four children. “She’s the rock,” he said.

He terms his present duty as Southeast Precinct Captain “a dream job. I grew up in this precinct. I have family and friends here.” He said his “passion and ownership for the area” allows him to “get more done. I know the importance of building a relationship between the police and the community. It’s critical.”

Being a Latino in a predominantly Latino district helps.

“I think it goes a long way when the captain has a Spanish surname. I think it’s good for the people of our community. It’s good for our youth. I think I have the advantage of being able to reach out and do some things to build that bridge. I think we’re doing that.”

Martinez is proud of being a trailblazer.

“When I first came on I think the highest ranking Latino was a sergeant. I really felt the need to set some goals and to try to achieve those goals and one of them was to get promoted,” he said.

As the department’s first Latino captain consider that mission accomplished. Along the way he earned a master’s degreee. The Omaha Public School board member emphasizes school-police cooperation.

Retirement was an option last year but he stayed on for a reason.

“There’s at least one other goal I want to achieve here,” he said. “I applied to be chief and I didn’t make the final cut but I’m still in line for promotion to deputy chief. We’ll see what happens.”

 

 

Officer Jonathan Gorden
Following the footsteps of a father (Michael Gorden) who logged 30 years with OPD, Jonathan Gorden felt the pull of police duty.

“Needless to say I grew up around the badge,” he said. “It was in my blood and it never left me.”

The 24-year-old just passed his first anniversary on the job.

“If you’re signing up for the gunfights, chases and wild and crazy things, this isn’t that,” he said. “I found out real quick you’re going to make a reputation for yourself more with a pen and paper than you are anything else. No investigation, no arrest is worth anything unless you know how to write a good report. It’s absolutely crucial to every part of the judicial system.”

The Creighton Prep-Creighton University grad draws on his education every day.

He tested the waters in the business world but a cop’s life called to him. “I just knew in my heart it was something I had to try. Until I did try it I would never be satisfied.”

His dad’s experiences told him “it’s not a normal 9-to-5. It’s a lifestyle. You’re a cop 24 hours a day and you’re held to a higher standard by your employer, by your city, and because of that you have to hold yourself to a higher standard. It takes a complete commitment from your family” he said.

Every day on the job he learns something.

“The biggest thing as a young officer is learning to be patient,” he said. “I’ve picked up from the veteran officers you have to let people vent a little bit. Emotions are usually pretty high and by just listening it does wonders.”

He can attest that rookies are scrutinized.

“You’re not immediately accepted into your crew and the job,” he said. “You’re definitely watched. Little by little, day by day, your skin gets a little bit thicker, you get a little more comfortable. It is a powerful bond being with ordinary men and women doing an extraordinary job. We’re trusting each other with our lives and that’s something you hold very dearly.”

Commendations are nice, he said, but the real rewards come from proving one’s self in the line of duty.

“Having your crew believe you’re capable really builds confidence,” he said.

Gorden has designs on one day teaching at the academy like his dad. He’s also “intrigued by” the detective bureau.

Lt. Tim Carmody
Going from a broken home to successful husband, father and commander of OPD’s Emergency Response Unit, Tim Carmody is proof one can overcome challenges.

“Even those negative environments can have a positive effect if you focus in the right direction,” he said.

He feels his background gives him insights into people and their issues. Said Carmody, “It helps me understand things.”

His path to law enforcement came via retail loss prevention work, which saw him identify and apprehend shoplifters for discount chain stores.

“I’ve always felt like serving people. I don’t like people being victimized.”

He studied criminal justice at UNO and Bellevue University. He first wore the badge at 22 as a deputy sheriff with the Sarpy County Sheriff’s Office. He joined OPD in 1988. It’s where he feels he’s meant to serve.

“I know the city, I’m a home grown kid. I love serving this community. I believe in this place. It’s a passion for me.”

His OPD career has been everything and more he thought it could be.

“I’ve been blessed with some of the best jobs this department has to offer.”

Today, as Emergency Response Unit commander, he oversees the SWAT, bomb response, canine explosives detection and Homeland Security teams. Much of his work involves collaborating with other agencies and disciplines. Cooperation is key. That goes for police-community relations as well.

“We can’t do this alone as a department,” he said. “Neighborhood associations, precinct committees — they are the key role players that help us understand what’s going on and what needs to be done.”

In the wake of so many OPD senior officers retiring he’s preparing young officers for future leadership roles. “I’m trying to mentor and lead people more,” he said, “and to share that knowledge to help them grow faster.” He enjoys teaching, which he’s also done away from work as a Boy Scouts Master and lay leader at his church. Faith and family are the anchors of his life.

“Spending time with my family and friends has a tremendous value in renergizing my batteries,” he said, “and in just staying grounded. It makes a huge difference.”

He needed that support after the Von Maur shooting last year. His command post was called to the scene and in the melee, he said, “everything’s on auto-pilot — you’re just functioning. Then, when I finally took a breath it all hit me, the reality of it all, and the people that died that day.”

“Those are the things that you’ll never forget.”

He calls the special fraternity he’s a part of “very fulfilling and rewarding. There’s nothing that compares to it.”


George Eisenberg’s love for Omaha’s Old Market never grows old

June 19, 2012 4 comments

One of the biggest champions of Omaha’s Old Market and the history of the place has died.  George Eisenberg devoted much of his life to the historic warehouse district.  As boys and young men he and his brother Hymie worked alongside their father, Benjamin, manning a fruit and vegetable stand when the area was home to the Omaha Wholesale Produce Market.  Later, the brothers revolutionized the family business to become niche suppliers of potatoes and onions to major food processors, operating out of offices in the commercial center.  When the wholesale district declined and largely disbanded altogether the area was transformed into an arts-culture haven and George, who never left and owned substantial property there, became a landlord and an active Old Market Association member.  In his later years he was advocate and amateur historian for the Old Market and proudly led an effort to get decorative street lamps installed and other improvements made. He contributed some anecdotes to a section I wrote on the history of the Old Market for a recent book, Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores published by the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society.  An excerpt with that section can be found on this blog.  George was one of the last of the go-to sources who personally worked in the Omaha City Market.  He enjoyed reliving that history and as he saw it educating the public about a way of commerce and life that is largely no more.  His enthusiasm for the subject will be missed.  I did the following short profile of George about five years ago for Omaha Magazine and now as fate would have it I will soon be writing an in-memoriam piece about him for the same publication.  That rememberance will join one I wrote about another Old Market legend who died recently, Joe Vitale.  You can find the Vitale story on this blog.

George Eisenberg’s love for Omaha‘s Old Market never grows old

@by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine

 

Old Market icon George Eisenberg has more than the usual attachment to the historic warehouse district that once was the area’s nexus for produce dealers, buyers and transporters. His late father Benjamin was a peddler in what used to be called the City Market. As boys Eisenberg and his brother Hymie worked alongside their dad in the leased open air sidewalk stalls whose overhead metal canopies still adorn many of the 19th century-era buildings preserved there. Once home to wholesellers and outfitters, the brick structures now house the Old Market’s mix of condos, restaurants, shops, artist studios and galleries.

After serving in the U.S. Army in World War II Eisenberg rejoined his father, delivering items by truck, and by the early ‘60s he’d modernized and expanded the enterprise and bought out papa. In 1972 his brother Hymie partnered with him. Innovations gave the company such a competitive advantage that the brothers were dubbed “the potato and onion kings of the United States” supplying millions of pounds a week to commercial customers across America and into Canada. They made their fortune and retired in 1983. Hymie died in ‘91.

The 83-year-old is proud to be a peddler’s son. He’s also proud of his continuing relationship with the district. He’s a property owner and an active volunteer with the Old Market Business Association and Downtown Omaha Inc.. Eisenberg secured the authentic lamp posts that lend such a distinctive design element to the 10th Street Bridge. He played a key role, too, in making the 11th and Jackson Street parking garage a reality. Downtown Omaha Inc. honored him with its 2007 Economic Development Award.

He’s a model landlord for the tasteful restoration he’s done and solid tenants he’s brought to his 414-418 South 10th Street buildings, properties originally owned by his father for wholesale storage, distribution and offices.

Generous with advice, he’s given counsel to many Old Market entrepreneurs, including Nouvelle Eve/Jackson Artworks owner Kat Moser.

As much as he’s involved in the “new” Old Market’s destination place identity and as much as he supports the emerging SoMa and NoDo developments, he enjoys looking back to the Market’s past. Back when ethnic blue collar produce vendors pitched their wares in the ancient tradition of the open air market. When pockets took the place of cash registers and vendors took a break from 14-hour days by reclining on bales of hay or overturned crates. It was a boisterous, press-the-flesh carnival of men, women and children using sing-song chants to hawk fresh fruits, vegetables, flowers and plants. Shoppers hailed from all walks of life.

A chorus of Eisenberg shouting, “Get your watermelon — red, ripe and sweet watermelon,” blended with the pitch, dicker and banter of hundreds of merchants-customers. Accents were common among the mostly Jewish, Italian and Syrian vendors. “English was the primary language spoken,” he said, but many foreign-born merchants, like his Russian immigrant father, “conversed among themselves in their native tongues. Every ethnic group was represented in one way or another.”

All those peddlers packed in a small space shouting to get customers’ attention created quite a racket. “Our advertisement was our voice,” he said. “It was noisy, yeah.” But that noise was sweet “music.”” Besides, he said, the ruckus and color “were part of the charm of the market.”

Hawking’s not for wallflowers. “If you’re shy you don’t belong in marketing,” he said. Things only quieted down, he said, after a warning from the market master, whose job was to collect monthly fees from vendors and mediate disputes among them. Once gone, the din began again. It was a special time and place.

“It was fun,” Eisenberg said. “There was excitement.”

He said his father steeped him in the market’s history. Ben Eisenberg got into the trade through his father-in-law Solomon Silverman, whose daughter Elsie became Ben’s wife and George and Hymie’s mother. Just as Silverman began as a door-to-door peddler with a horse and wagon, Ben followed suit. Just as Solomon leased stalls in the market, so did Ben. In the early 1900s, Eisenberg learned, a bidding process divvied up the stalls. Some locations were better than others. Getting outbid caused sore feelings and fistfights broke out. The bidding system was disbanded, he said, and exisiting stalls grandfathered in. Ben had four choice spots at the northeast corner of 11th and Jackson as well as his own wholesale house.

In an era before “Thanks for shopping…come again,” he said many vendors lacked good customer relation skills. His dad, though, had a gift with people.

“My dad was a really good salesman and he separated himself from everybody else because he was very polite, businesslike, and his word was his bond. If my dad said, ‘You got it,’ you didn’t need a contract — that’s it.” Eisenberg said.

He said his father “bought and sold in big quantities,” a practice Eisenberg continued. Many of Ben’s grocery-supermarket customers were former peddlers like himself. “My dad knew all the peddlers, so when he got in the wholesale business all the peddlers came to do business with dad. They knew he was going to give them the right price and not insult them.”

Like his father before him, Eisenberg served as vice president of the Omaha Wholesale Fruit Dealers Association, a predecessor of the Old Market Business Association. In some ways he’s still hawking, still looking after the best interests of his beloved Old Market. “I love business. I love marketing. I welcome anybody who wants to hang up their shingle and start their business.” He embraces the growing community there. “That’s the district’s salvation — it’s a neighborhood now.”

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