Archive for July 6, 2012

George Payne and the Virginia Cafe: Restauranter Family Legacy of Filmmaker Alexander Payne

July 6, 2012 6 comments

NOTE: The primary source of this story, George Payne, the father of filmmaker Alexander Payne, died May 27, 2014. I’m reposting this in Mr. Payne’s memory.

As many of you know the filmmaker Alexander Payne is a Greek American with a fairly unpronouncable given name and he regards his heritage as much more than an aside.  It’s a core aspect of his life.  Hisv ery Greek family ran a popular, long gone eatery in downtown Omaha and some years ago I sat down with his father George to recall the life and times of their Virginia Cafe. Alexander, who has some fairly distinct childhood memories of the place, lent a few tidbits as well. Perhaps Payne’s most public display or acknoweldgment of his family and heritage came when he accepted the Oscar for Beast Adapted Screenplay last February and used the occasion to thank his date, who happend to be his mother Peggy, for enabling his early cinephile stirrings, even saying “I love you” in Greek before the worldwide audience.  If you happen to be a Payne fan then this blog is for you.  I’ve covered him for 15 years and counting and you’ll find the fruit of that work here.

George Payne and the Virginia Cafe: Restauranter Family Legacy of Filmmaker Alexander Payne

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (


It’s nearly 40 years since Alexander Payne‘s family owned and operated the Virginia Cafe, a restaurant that for generations held a niche in the city’s downtown dining market. Recently, the filmmaker’s father, George Payne, shared  some history and memories of the place and the family with The Reader.

George’s immigrant father, Nicholas (Papadopoulos) Payne, was founder and proprietor of the Virginia. Nick, as the patriarch was called, came to America in 1910, learning the confectionery trade from an uncle, John Birbilis, who helped Nick and brother Peter open the Palace of Sweets in Council Bluffs. In 1920 Nick, with cousin Fred Schizas and two other partners, bought the Calumet, a large, busy, around-the-clock food joint at 1413 Douglas Street that dated back to 1893. They remodeled it, renamed it the Virginia and kept it one of Omaha’s few 24-7 operations, George said. The other partners eventually dropped out.

According to George the Virginia served strictly American fare — steaks, chops, sandwiches, salads, a full breakfast line, daily lunch and dinner specials and traditional holiday favorites. The cafe housed its own bakery, had its own butcher and stocked a freezer with eight kinds of ice cream.

At its peak, he said, the popular cafe kept a payroll of 85 employees on three different shifts and served up to 3,000 diners a day.

George joined his father in the family business in the early ’50s. An Omaha Central High, Dartmouth and Northwestern University grad, George is a World War II vet who worked on the war production board in Washington D.C., where he met his wife, Peggy. He and Peggy settled in Omaha, where the youngest of their three sons, Alexander, fell in love with movies.

The future filmmaker was only 9 when a fire destroyed the Virginia but he has fond memories of the cafe.

“People loved that place,” Alexander Payne said by phone. “There was no key to the front door. They didn’t need one — they never closed. I used to like to go back to the kitchen and watch the chefs work. I remember all the wait staff and cashiers were so nice to me because, of course, I was the owner’s son. Our family ritual was dinner there every Thursday night.”

The Paynes ordered right off the menu.

While no Greek food was on the menu, the restaurant embodied Nick Payne’s classic immigrant made-good success story. Like many newcomers he went out of his way to be a super patriot. He sold millions of dollars worth of government Liberty Bonds during the Second World War, said George Payne, who added his father landed “quite a coup” when he inked a contract to feed all area military enlistees. From WWII through Vietnam, the Virginia served “last meals” to wide-eyed recruits en route to basic training.

“Those are the kinds of things that are a little unique from the Virginia,” the dapper George Payne said. There’s more. The cafe played a part in a tense chapter of Omaha history when a 1935 streetcar strike erupted in violence. George was 20 then and working part-time in the restaurant. Martial law was declared and more than 1,000 National Guard troops sent in to restore order. “That was serious stuff,” George recalled. The Virginia, located right on the streetcar line, was near the conflict between strikers and strikebreakers. The soldiers’ presence quelled the rioting. The cafe was commandeered into serving three meals a day to the troops.

“They came in and took over our business,” said George, who remembers the first guardsmen tromping in with their boots and packs and hanging their rifles on coat hooks attached to the fine mahogany wainscoting, which sent his father into a fit. From that point on the soldiers stacked their weapons safely out of harm’s way.

The Virginia was justly proud of its decor. Its glorious neon signage, plate glass windows, decorative tile-fronted exterior and rich mahogany interior with white table cloth covered tables and booths were straight out of an Edward Hopper painting. Distinctive murals of the American landscape and fine renderings of all 50 state seals adorned the lounge and dining room and the massive cross-section of a redwood tree was mounted in the party room.

“There wasn’t a restaurant in town that had that kind of atmosphere at all,” George said. “It was very well done. My dad had vision.”

This eclectic design reflected the diverse customers the Virginia catered to  — professionals, office workerspoliticos, housewives, clerks, stock boys, cabbies, crack-of-dawn delivery men, night owls and bar crawlers.

Up front, right at the door greeting customers, was Nick, trademark cigar in hand, dressed impeccably in a suit and tie and kibitzing with the line of people that formed at lunchtime. If anyone tired of the wait and started to leave George said Nick would coax them to stay with, “‘Don’t go. You know you’ll be back in five minutes. Where you going to go?’ He had a way with people.”

The cafe enjoyed a brisk trade before it went up in flames in 1969. Neither Nick nor George were there when the fire broke out on a Sunday night. They were awakened with the news and came down to see a burned out shell. After two full days of being hosed down, George said, the building collapsed in on itself. It was a total loss. George salvaged a few mementos and artifacts. There was talk of reopening at another spot but the family opted to walk away. The site of the Virginia was sold to the city, which built the W. Dale Clark Library there.

“I really didn’t quite know what I was going to do…” George said. He wound up with the Sheraton Hotels group and then the U.S. Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration — posts that took him around the world.

Nick Payne left a rich legacy that George has carried on. The elder Payne helped found the Omaha Restaurant Association, which his son presided over as president, as he did the Nebraska Restaurant Association. In 1956 American Restaurant Association Magazine inducted Nick into its Hall of Fame. The father was heavily involved with St. John Greek Orthodox Church. Nick Payne died in 1989. George Payne, now 92, has continued, with Peggy, his father’s support. The family, who’s made periodic trips to their ancestral homeland, retains close ties to Greece, where Alexander Payne intends to one day shoot a film.



Age is Just a Number and Retirement a Foreign Concept to Six Working Seniors in Omaha

Age is Just a Number and Retirement a Foreign Concept to Six Working Seniors in Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons


During their lifetimes Americans devote far more hours to their work then to any other of their pursuits, including family life. More than the livelihood it provides, work helps shape individual identity, sets an agenda for daily commerce and affords personal growth opportunities. Given the vital role gainful employment plays, it’s not surprising then that as more Americans live longer, healthier lives, the prospect of outright retirement holds less interest for seniors who feel lost without the sense of engagement, structure and accomplishment a job provides.

Working seniors may account for a minority of the labor force but can be found toiling away at a wide range of careers and vocations — from the professional ranks to the blue collar rolls to everything in between. Omaha’s senior work force is a diverse one. It includes such well-known figures as investor Warren Buffett, world-renowned medical researcher Denham Harman, satellite communications guru Lee Lubbers, respected photojournalist Don Doll, noted jazz musician Preston Love, PR man Bill Ramsey, Henry Doorly Zoo Director Lee Simmons and Girls and Boys Town Director Rev. Val Peter. Of course, most local seniors still working are, like the individuals profiled in this story, average folks doing what they love, including band leader Ed Svoboda, school registrar Theresa Derr, maintenance man Otto Link, senior center manager Sophiae Foster, attorney Monte Taylor and receptionist Fornetta Elmore. Whatever their age or position, they agree working is a major factor in maintaining their vitality and staying full, contributing members of society.

Ed Svoboda and his Red Raven Orchestra



A Working Life in Music
Anecdotically, at least, it seems many musicians, especially those outside the drug-hazed rock and jazz worlds, live to ripe old ages. Maybe it’s something to do with that old saying about music feeding the soul. If true, then 90-year-old professional polka musician Ed Svoboda Sr., is living proof of music’s health benefits. He’s been making music — first on the mouth harp, then the accordion and finally the drums — virtually his entire life and has been leading his own band for most of the past 65 years. Even today, the crusty old Czech, featured on drums, headlines with his Red Raven Orchestra, in which his son Ed Jr. performs, in regular, rousing gigs at Bluffs Run Casino, Sokol Hall and the Corrigan Senior Center as well as playing the annual Czech festival in Wilber, Neb. Remarkably, Svoboda’s exploits with his band amount to only a sideline for him, as he puts in 40-plus hours a week as a full-time furniture repairman and refurnisher with Honey Man Rental and, in his spare time, sharpens lawn mower and snowblower blades. For Svoboda, a father and grandfather whose wife of 48 years died of cancer, there’s no doubt getting up and going to work every day is a far better tonic than simply rattling around an empty house all day long. No being put out to pasture for him, thank you. If he retired to some senior complex, he said, it would surely be his end.

“I’ve been amongst people all my life and if you put me in a corner someplace you just might as well bury me because I ain’t gonna last. I wouldn’t last a month just sitting around here all alone. That’s the God’s truth. I’ve gotta move. I’ve gotta have something else going besides that thing there,” he said, gesturing derisively at the living room TV set in his home in south Omaha’s Brown Park neighborhood, where he grew up the son of an emigrant accordion-player-turned architect.

Svoboda, whose previous careers included working as a scale operator at the Swift & Co. meat packing plant for 35 years and as a press mechanic for Malnove Inc, never lost sight of his dream of being a professional musician. “That’s what I wanted all my life.” Holding onto that dream despite many struggles made attaining it all the more precious. During the Great Depression he scrounged up work wherever he could find it before finally scraping together enough dough to buy a top-of-the-line button accordion, his instrument of choice for many years until a bandsaw accident injured his fingers so badly that it forever-after obliged him to play drums. Then, in what could have been a crushing blow, Svoboda’s first band weathered a dismal public debut when nobody showed up for a dance they were booked to play in Milligan, Neb. He found out later a member of a rival band playing to a packed house across the street hid their playbills, leaving the boys from Omaha staring at an empty hall and, because they were contracted on a commission basis, high and dry. To get money to buy gas for the trip home, Svoboda wrangled the band a paying gig in a local beer joint. From that rough start, Svoboda never looked back, with his popular band plying the Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, South Dakota polka circuit and appearing as a regular featured act on polka radio shows. In 1974, he was enshrined in the Sokol Omaha Polka Hall of Fame.

Besides entertaining people the thing that Svoboda, who watches what he eats in addition to doing what he loves, enjoys most about a life in polka is its celebration of his proud Bohemian heritage. “I love the heritage. It’ll go to the grave with me. That and the music. That’s been my life since I was a little kid.” It goes without saying the, that he has no designs on stopping now.




Omaha Westside High School




A Woman’s Work is Never Done
Other than the 15-year hiatus she took while raising her three boys, Theresa “Rose” Derr has been doing the 9-to-5 routine as an administrative staff member in area schools since graduating high school in 1936. Now 84, Derr is in her 26th year as registrar at Westside High School, where her three accomplished sons attended, and she has no intention of leaving anytime soon. “Not even an option” she said one morning in her Westside office. “Personally, I still feel capable and I still have a desire to do it. I like what I’m doing. I really do. I think it’s something worthwhile. Working in the schools is the only type of work I’ve done, and it’s very rewarding.”

When her retired friends press her to step down, take it easy and do what she wants, a perplexed Derr tries explaining to them, “’I am doing what I want to do. Why can’t you understand that?’ I talk to a lot of gals who are retired and they seem perfectly happy and well-adjusted, but I don’t want to do the things they’re doing. They just don’t appeal to me. I’m not a golfer. I don’t play bridge. I don’t join ladies’ aids. So…I work. I have known people that counted the days until they were 65 and could quit, not that they did anything so great after they retired. So, what’s so great about it? It’s just never appealed to me to not be doing something. This way I have an agenda and I have a purpose in the morning. It never occurs to me, What am I going to do today? It sounds kind of trite, but if you can still contribute something, do it. As long as I am and my boss feels I am, I will.”

Recently, Derr, who’s long enjoyed good health, missed an extended period of work for the first time due to a medical condition. She said no one from the administrative offices at District 66 or Westside even hinted this might be the time for her to move on. “They were very cooperative. While I was gone, they just pitched in and they just assumed I would be coming back and so I just never did anything about it otherwise. I’m sure there’ll be a time when it’ll be prudent to step aside. I’ve always made it very clear that I’ll go when they feel it’s time for me to retire. I’m not sensitive about it. But at this point it seems to be mutual — they’re perfectly willing to keep me and I’m perfectly willing to be here.”

If anything, her time off only emboldened her desire to keep working. “When I was home those few weeks daytime television was the biggest deterrent to retirement I ever saw.” She said in addition to the support her colleagues show in her continuing her career, her three sons do as well. “The boys are really great about it. They want me to quit when I feel like I want to quit. I think they realize there would be a problem if I ever did. I think it’s good for them to know I’m independent and I don’t just sit around worrying or moping. I don’t want to be one of those. There probably will be a time when I will be a concern to them, but I’m not going to bargain for it any sooner than I have to.”

Like her late husband, Derr is a Lincoln native. Her German emigrant parents settled there by way of Winnipeg, Canada. Derr recalls her “very traditional” mother always engaged in some work. “Maybe that’s where I got my work ethic — from my mom. She never did just sit. She had to be doing something. You know, they did that then. They didn’t waste a minute.” She and her husband, who also worked well past normal retirement age, waited 10 years before starting a family and then made their kids their priority. Their rearing efforts paid off, too, as one son is a microbiologist and two others are attorneys, including one with the FBI and another, Jay Derr, recently appointed as a judge to the Omaha district court.

Devotion to work, she said, is a Derr trait. “It’s just my life, that’s what it is.” A positive attitude helps. “You’ve just got to think young. I don’t think age makes any difference. I can work right next to a 23-year-old and out-produce them. Whatever you can do, do.” And with that, her office rings and she answers, “This is Mrs. Derr, can I help?” and another workday begins.



All in a Life’s Work
At 86, Otto Link may be in the running for the title of oldest maintenance man in the Western Hemisphere. He works five days a week on what he calls “the housekeeping gang” at Methodist Hospital, where his regularly assigned projects include washing windows and cleaning elevator tracks, which sounds simple enough until you realize he means the full 10-stories worth of windows and elevators in the crosswalk wing connecting Methodist and Children’s Hospitals. He’s proud of the hard, physical labor he performs at such an advanced age but takes the attention he gets in stride because he’s from the old-school. “I know I’m the oldest person on our crew by far,” he said. “I get comments from guys that are 30 and 40 years old like. ‘Slow down, you make us look bad.’ They do ask me, ‘Are you ever going to retire?’ ‘Well,’ I tell them, ‘I already did twice’” and it didn’t take either time.

For 29 years the South Dakota born and raised Link was a parochial school teacher at a string of Lutheran schools in North Dakota, Ohio, Texas and Nebraska. After he retired from teaching, he became a Douglas County juvenile probation officer for a time before switching careers and working as a state rehabilitation services counselor for disabled individuals. When he left the latter post, he was already 70 — well-past traditional retirement age — but he soon got anxious puttering around the house, and that’s when, in 1986, after years of office work he opted to join the Methodist cleaning crew. “I wanted a job that was physical because I’d had enough of these sedentary jobs,” he explained. That he’s still at it 17 years later is amazing but understandable when you realize he lost his wife of 55 years in 1995, leaving him alone in the south-central Omaha home they shared. “Me and an empty house don’t get along so well,” he said. “I need something to do. You can only read so much and only watch so much TV before you get a little silly in the head.”

Besides, he said, he’s heard enough stories of folks who didn’t fare well after retiring that he prefers staying active as long as he can. It’s a I’d-rather-go-out-on-my-feet-than-lying-down attitude. “My wife was manager of a Walgreens liquor store for umpteen years and she got to know a lot of businessmen who’d stop in and get their booze before going home, and she used to tell me, Mr. So-and-So retired to take it easy, and over-and-over she’d tell me the guy who just retired had passed away. So, I kind of got the philosophy I really didn’t care what I did as long as it was physical. My wife encouraged me about that.”

Link, who has five grown children, 11 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, said his kids often suggest he resign and move into a retirement home. “But I’m not ready for that yet. I’m going to stick it out as long as I can. As long as I’m able to and my employer is satisfied with my performance, I probably will keep working.” And why not? On his most recent work evaluation, he said, his supervisor gave him high marks “right down the line” and told him — “You’re doing a wonderful job.” Link doesn’t take his exceptional staying power for granted, either. “I appreciate it. I know it’s a blessing,” said Link, a devout Lutheran. His advice for staying young? “Stay active as long as you can, try to be happy and read some good jokes.”

Entrance to St. Mary Magdalene Senior Center



Doing Good Works
Sophiae Foster is cleaning up the debris from the breakfast she’s just served her regular crowd at the St. Magdalene Senior Center in the basement of Omaha’s old downtown Catholic church. It’s about 9:30 now and a few of “her flock,” as she calls them, linger at tables, one reading the paper, another poring over a book, one doing a crossword puzzle and some chatting over coffee. Foster, 77, has been managing the ENOA-sponsored center for 28 years now and she plans on working there three more years, although she suspects if and when she does retire at age 80 “to stay home and rest” after a lifetime of serving people she probably won’t stay retired very long. “I don’t think I’d last very long” sitting idle, she said. “I might go back to work, but it won’t be nothin’ I have to go to every day. But I can’t see myself sitting at home feeling sorry for myself either.”

She’s kept working this long, despite double-bypass and knee replacement surgery, because “I just like it,” she said. “I really enjoy it. That’s the truth. My friends — they all don’t work and they tell me I don’t need to work. Yeah, I could live on what income I have, but I feel if I can still work, why not?” She’s also grown attached to the people who make the center and the two hot meals and convivial conversations served there at breakfast and lunchtime part of their daily ritual. Most are single widows or widowers. “Some are homeless” she said. “They need some help. Sometimes we get clothes in here for them. We could use more men’s clothes.” Regardless of their circumstances, the people who come find a place where they feel safe and cared for. “Yeah, we get along fine. We enjoy each other. The same ones who come every day — I know them by name. I miss ‘em when they don’t come. I’ve got one little old man, John, who hasn’t been here for about five days and I need to check on him. I’m kind of concerned about him,” she said one cold winter morning. “They grow on you.”

Her concern for others is an extension of her deep Pentecostal faith in action. For example, she helped her late evangelical husband start and run the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ in north Omaha, she worked as a nurse aide in the nursery at Children’s Hospital — “I loved it” — and she helped raise two of her great-grandchildren, both of whom are now back living with their biological mothers.

Her relationship with the senior center, which she launched in 1974, has come a long way since it’s rough start. “When I started, it was just a job I needed. I thought I couldn’t make it. We had drunks walk in off the street. It was scary. But I thank God for my husband. He said, ‘If you want the job you’ve got to stop being a crybaby and you’ve just got to do it.’ I did. I worked it out so the men set their bottles on my desk when they came in and picked them up when they left. I got along with them real good. We don’t have the problem of alcoholics anymore. Now, it’s kind of like a family. It’s a part of me. It gets me up and keeps me moving.”

She Works Hard for Her Money
She won’t reveal her real age other than to say she’s over 65, but Fornetta Elmore is entitled to some fudging after the fortitude she’s shown overcoming tragedy and the adaptability she’s displayed learning yet another career deep into her Golden Years. First, Elmore’s only child, a daughter, died at 20 after supposedly routine surgery. “It’s something, frankly speaking, I don’t really believe I’ve ever recovered from,” she said. “But you accept it and you go on.” Then, when her husband of 49 years was stricken with leukemia in 1978, she cared for him up until his death in 1995. After losing the two people most dear to her, the usually up-and-at-em Elmore felt herself slipping into a malaise. “I was trying to move on from my husband’s death and I felt being home alone wasn’t the place to be.” That’s when she heeded the advice of a friend, who knew Elmore had thrived in the world of work, to explore the ENOA senior employment program. In no time at all, Elmore was hired by Nebraska Workforce Development, where she is a receptionist today.

Having a job to come to every day is important to Elmore, but even more important to her is how she is valued by her employers, who don’t view her cavalierly as some token, window-dressing senior symbol, an attitude she detests. “I think some people have the wrong conception about us seniors — that we’re too old and stumbling to be able to do a job. I don’t think they give seniors the benefit of the doubt,” she said. “I’m lucky to have marvelous supervisors whose attitude is about me is, ‘Let’s do something with her.’ I don’t feel like, Oh, they’re doing me a favor. I feel like I’m earning my keep. I have something to do every day I come to work.”
She’s also overturned some senior stereotypes by learning, among other things, computer, typing, filing and receptionist skills. “Being the kind of person I am, I’m always ready to advance, especially if someone is willing to teach me.”

On the job Elmore is easy interacting with diverse colleagues and clients because that’s her nature and that’s what she’s used to from her days as a Kilpatricks and Younkers department store clerk and as proptietor, with her husband, of Elmore’s Flowers, a florist shop the couple ran out of their home. “I can mix with anybody. I enjoy being around people of all different ages and education levels.”

She rejects any thought of retiring. “Oh, heavens no. When you retire, that’s it, you’re dead. And when you’re dead, you’re a long time dead. You have to stay active and alive. You have to keep your mind open and enjoy life. Besides, I feel there’s a lot I can still contribute. I’ve put forth my best effort and I hope to continue to. And now I better get back to work,” she said, excusing herself.



A Work in Progress
The law has long intrigued Monte Taylor, 71, who for all but the two heady years he worked as Sen. Roman Hruska’s legal counsel on a Senate subcommittee in  Camelot-era Washington, D.C., has spent his entire 49-year career practicing law in Omaha. That experience in the nation’s capital sparked a second career in politics for Taylor, who went on to serve as Douglas Country Election Commissioner and as an Omaha City Councilman before losing a bid for the 2nd District Congressional seat. Today, he continues his general law practice — as head of the firm Taylor, Peters & Drew — at an age when many peers are retired. Why? Because it still excites him. “I think the biggest fascination is that one is always learning,” he said. “It’s such a broad field. There are never any clear-cut issues. Most of the things we deal with are gray. They’re never black or white. So, it requires you to be constantly going to the books and learning something new. I do really enjoy the new challenges it presents every day. I plan to just keep plugging away as long as I enjoy it.” In that sense, Taylor is following the example of the dapper senior lawyers he was mentored by when first starting out. “I was very impressed by them. They were good lawyers of high character.”

Without his work, Taylor fears he’d be lost. “In my case, it fills a real need. I have no particular hobbies. If I’m stuck at home, I get very restless. So, for my own emotional and physical well-being, it (working) is very satisfying.” In his view, work is also a great escape. “In this business I’m working with people trying to help them solve problems. It takes my mind off any perceived problems I may have. My own theory is that part of the problem with retirement and old age is that if one gets too absorbed with their own problems and has too much idle time on their hands, then the more little problems become bigger problems. I just know I have a healthier attitude when I am working.”

He regrets that as a younger man he often put work ahead of family. Taylor, who has three grown children from his first marriage, which ended in divorce, is married to a woman with three grown children of her own. “Through the years, I got too absorbed in the law and I wasn’t the family man I should have been.” Balance in life, the devout Catholic said, is a virtue he’s learned as he’s grown older and wiser. “You have spiritual needs as well as emotional, physical and professional needs. Getting that all rounded out to make the pieces go together is key.”

In that way life has of coming full circle, Taylor has turned into the kind of distinguished older lawyer he was schooled-by many years ago. Like they were, he is a man of character whose abiding love for the law keeps him involved. “The brain is like a muscle. You either use it or lose it, and this (work) forces you to use it.”

Masterful: Omaha Liberty Elementary School’s Luisa Palomo displays talent for teaching and connecting

July 6, 2012 5 comments

You don’t think of a master teacher as someone in her 30s but that’s exactly what Luisa Palomo of Omaha is.  The kindergarten instructor at Liberty Elementary School has mastered the art and craft that is teaching and she is deservedly being recognized for it.  The following two stories I did on her, in 2010 and 2012, appeared in El Percio newspaper shortly after she earned major education prizes in those respective years.  The school she teaches at, Liberty Elementary, is one I am quite fond of.  You’ll find several more articles by me about Liberty on this blog.

Masterful: Omaha Liberty Elementary School’s Luisa Palomo displays talent for teaching and connecting

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared  in El Perico (


Liberty Elementary School kindergarten instructor Luisa Maldonado Palomo has reached the top of her field as a 2010 Alice Buffet Outstanding Teacher Award-winner.

The Gering, Neb. native is the grade leader at her Omaha school. She heads outreach efforts to parents, many of them undocumented, through the Liberty Community Council. She’s a liaison with partners assisting Liberty kids and families. The school engages community through parenting and computer classes, food and clothes pantries, and, starting in the fall, a health clinic.

Colleagues admire her dedication working with the school’s many constituents.

“She truly reaches the whole child —  behaviorally, academically, socially, emotionally — and then steps beyond that and reaches the family too,” said Liberty Principal Carri Hutcherson. “We can count on her to do a lot of the family components we have at Liberty because she gets it, she has a heart for it, the passion, the drive, the focus, all those great things it takes. She’s an expert practitioner on so many levels.”

But there was a time when Palomo questioned whether she wanted to be a classroom teacher. While a Creighton University education major she participated in Encuentro Dominicano, a semester-long study abroad in the impoverished Dominican Republic. She described this immersion as a “huge, life-changing experience” for reawakening a call to service inherited from her father, Matt Palomo.

“My dad has spent his whole life doing for others,” she said. “He comes from a migrant worker family. He gave up a college scholarship to work so he could help support his nine brothers and sisters. From the age of 15 he’s been involved with the Boy Scouts as a scout leader. He just celebrated his 45th year with the Boy Scouts of America.

“He’s always worked with underprivileged youth, Hispanic or Caucasian, in our small town. He’s such a role model for so many young boys who’ve gone through that program. He has such a sense of what’s right and wrong and he’s instilled that in my brother and sister and I.”

In the Dominican Republic Luisa felt connected to people, their lives and their needs.

“You work, take classes and live with families,” she said. “You learn the philosophy and the why of what’s going on. You really learn to form relationships with people, which isn’t something that always comes naturally to Americans. Here, it’s always more individualistic and what do I need to do for myself, whereas in a lot of other countries people think about what do I need to do for my community and my family.”

The communal culture was akin to what she knew back in Gering. When she returned to the States she sought to replicate the bonds she’d forged.  “I came back wanting that,” she said. Unable to find it in her first teaching practicums, she became disillusioned.

“I was ready to quit education and my advisor was like, ‘Nope, there’s this new school in a warehouse and Nancy Oberst is the principal and you’ll meet her and love her, give it a shot before you quit.’ So I went there and loved it and stayed there. Nancy and I just clicked and she hired me to teach kindergarten.”

Liberty opened in 2002 in a former bus warehouse at 20th and Leavenworth. In 2004 it moved into a newly constructed building at 2021 St. Mary’s Avenue. Oberst was someone Palomo aspired to be like.

“She’s so dynamic and such a good model,” said Palomo. “She has such a vision for how a school should be — it shouldn’t be an 8:30 to 4 o’clock building. Instead it should be a community space where it’s open all the time and families come for all kinds of different services, and that really is the center of the community.”

Oberst and many of Liberty’s original teachers have moved on. Palomo’s stayed. “We have a core group of parents who have been with us from the old building and they know I’m one of the few teachers who have been here all eight years,” she said. “They’ve seen what I do. They know Miss Palomo is the one who spent the night in the ER when Jose broke his arm and started a fund raiser when Emiliano’s house burned down. They know me and they trust me and they let me into their homes.

“They know I’m coming from a good place.”

She said one Liberty family’s “adopted” her and her fiance. The family’s four children will  be in the couple’s fall wedding.

Hutcherson said Liberty is “the hub” for its downtown neighborhood and educators like Palomo empower parents “to feel they’re not just visitors but participants.” Whether helping a family get their home’s utilities turned back on or translating for them, she said Palomo and other staff “step out of the walls of this building to get it done.” For two-plus years Palomo mentored a girl separated from her parents.

“It’s that whole reaching out and meeting our families where they’re at,” said Palomo.

Liberty’s holistic, family-centered, “do what’s best for the child” approach is just what she was looking for and now she can’t imagine being anywhere else.

“I really love it here. We’re not just a teacher in the classroom. We do so much to really bring our community into our school so our families can come to us for all these different activities and for help with different needs. It’s one of those things where we let them into our lives and they let us into theirs, and we’re both better for it.”

She’s proud to be “a strong Hispanic” for kids who may not know another college graduate that looks like them.

Palomo recently earned her master’s in educational administration from UNO. Sooner or later, she’ll be a principal. Hutcherson said when that day comes “it’ll be a great loss to Liberty but a great gain for the district.”

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Liberty’s Luisa Palomo Named Nebraska Teacher of the Year

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

In only two years Liberty Elementary School kindergarten instructor Luisa Palomo, 30, has won Nebraska’s top teacher recognition honors. In 2010 she was named an Alice Buffett Outstanding Teacher, an award given top Omaha Public Schools educators, and last November she was selected Nebraska Teacher of the Year.

The Gering, Neb. native applied for the state honor at the prodding of OPS colleagues. She completed the required essays and interviews but held out little hope of winning.

“I felt there’s no way they’re going to choose me because to be quite honest I am young and I’ve only taught for a short amount of time compared to a lot of other teachers of the year. And while I’m passionate about early childhood education I know it’s not on the forefront of everybody’s brain when they think about education.”

She was motivated to put her name in the running because the winner gains a stage and she wanted a platform on education.

“By getting this award you get so much more of an audience,” she says. “By having this title behind my name now finally people will listen to me. I kind of applied for the award thinking this – that I would have a title that would give me a foot in the door.”

As expected, she’s in high demand as a speaker and she says she’s eager to present on “topics I feel really passionate about.”

“What I want the media and the public to know is that there’s so many good things happening in education. The media’s focus on bad news stories is really not an accurate reflection of what’s happening in schools, so I kind of want to put that message out there.

“What I’ll be talking to teachers about is a shift in how we run our schools. Instead of it having to be a traditional 9-to-3, nine months out of the year model, we really need to shift that mentality to what is best for kids. For some kids the traditional school year works beautifully, but for other kids, like the ones I work with in my downtown school, it’s so much more beneficial to them to have an extended day where they’re able to come in early and stay late and have educational opportunities, and to attend summer school through the first week of July.”

She advocates that schools adjust to meet students where they are.

“There doesn’t need to be a one size fits all model for education. Instead it’s what works for the kids you’re serving. It may mean doing what Liberty does, which is coordinate with all these community services to offer Our Completely Kids program. It opens our building at 7 in the morning and closes it at 6 at night.

“Liberty employs this full service community school model where it says if families trust the school, bring in the services. Why send families across town? Why not have a doctor in your school? Liberty allows any of us as teachers to accompany our families through so much of their lives, and we’re better for it and our families are better for it and the children are better for it. Our kids are better adjusted and they’re more connected to school.

“There’s so many different ways to meet the needs of our kids, we just have to be open to accepting it.”

She bristles at the notion a teacher’s duties stop when the last school bell rings.

“I hear some teachers say, ‘But my job is not to be a social worker,’ but really it is because your job is to look out for what’s best for children.”

For Palomo, teaching is about making lives better.

“All kids have a path and the teachers they have in the classroom determine where that path is. There’s so much literature that talks about the effectiveness of quality teachers. If I’m able to reach these kids and get them to love learning I’m changing the outcome of their path. To be a transformational leader is understanding your job is so much more than teaching phonics or number recognition.”

She approaches the school day as a “very purposeful” adventure in which she “guides and encourages” the learning process. “I never talk at our children but with our children and kind of explore with our kids as they learn. It’s a balance of what’s developmentally appropriate and what’s engaging for our kids.”

During 2012 she’ll be meeting fellow teachers of the year at national education events. The first was in Dallas, Texas in late Jan. Upcoming events are in Washington D.C., Huntsville, Ala. and New York-New Jersey. She says she enjoys the prospect of making “connections with people all around the country that I’ll be able call on when I have questions or when I need support.”

She’s already getting to know past Nebraska Teachers of the Year, who work as a cohort on education initiatives. “It’s expected as a teacher of the year you’re continually giving back to the education community,” she says. That’s fine with Palomo since she sees her calling as a service mission. The recognition only confirms that. “This award really makes me think that not only did I choose the right career but I must be doing things right.” She also sees it as validation that quality education happens in inner city schools.

She intends on being an administrator one day but for now is content where she is.

“I want to be in the classroom for a chunk of my career before I move on. I feel like I learn so much every year by being in the foxholes. I work with parents, students, teachers on a daily basis, and it’s very real. I’m not tied up in administrative duties or policy, I’m working with who I want to have the most effect on.”

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