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Salvation Army Kroc Center and Omaha Conservatory of Music partner to give kids new opportunities

January 28, 2013 1 comment

Nonprofit organizations that share similar missions can find greater efficiencies and impact more people when they partner, sometimes even reaching new audiences and delivering new services in the process.  That’s what’s happened with the partnership between the Omaha Conservatory of Music and the Salvation Army Kroc Center that’s expanding music education and performance opportunities for youth thanks to agency one lending its expert instructors to students at agency two.  My Metro Magazine story about this collaboration follows.

Salvation Army Kroc Center and Omaha Conservatory of Music partner to give kids new opportunities

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Metro Magazine

 

A perfect fit

Last fall a meant-to-be match became reality when the Omaha Conservatory of Music began offering music classes at the Salvation Army Kroc Center in South Omaha. OCM provides top-notch instructors and instruments and the Kroc eager students and first-rate facilities.

OCM’s been looking to do more outreach with underserved populations and the Kroc Center’s been seeking to expand its music offerings. So why not bring the Conservatory’s resources to the Kroc?

“It was kind of a perfect fit because the Salvation Army needed a music piece to offer the community and the Omaha Conservatory of Music had expertise in that.

It made sense,” says Mike Cassling, a Kroc advisory board member who brokered this marriage with OCM board member Betiana Simon. The pair got the two organizations talking and before long a full-fledged program was designed and launched for youth ages 3 to 18. Cassling, CEO of Cequence Health Group, helped fund the program.

“We didn’t have the instructors in house for the music, and music is something the Army loves, so it seemed like it would be a good fit if they could provide instructors and we could provide students,” says Major Catherine Thielke, the Kroc’s officer for program development.

The classes are free to Kroc Center members and $10 for nonmembers.

“Parents are loving the fact this is available to their children and that it’s not breaking their pocket,” says Kroc Center arts and education manager Gina Ponce, who adds that music is a vital part of Hispanic culture and having affordable classes right in heart of the community is a welcome addition.

OCM executive director Ruth Meints says there’s good congruence between the center’s community focus and the conservatory’s mission of building artistic community through education and performance.

Thielke agrees, saying, “The Salvation Army’s mission and purpose here at the Kroc Center is to inspire people to discover their God-given talents and to develop those talents. We saw that the Conservatory was helping kids start very young in finding their giftedness in music.”

Music adds enrichment

“I’m a huge proponent that the arts, which music is a part of, are a wonderful way to increase self-esteem, well-being and self-worth,” says Kroc arts and education coordinator Felicia Webster. “The classes are just perfect to introduce young people to music and to help them feel good about themselves.”

Where the Salvation Army has a long tradition of brass band music, it’s lacked much in the way of woods and strings.

“We’re about finding out what children’s spark is, and that expands much broader than a brass band and into the strings and other types of instruments,” says Thielke. “We’re just very excited to be partnering with the Conservatory and we’re really glad Mike and Betiana saw what benefit this would have to both groups.”

“They’re very visionary people who helped it become a reality,” adds OCM’s Meints.

Classes strike a chord and fill gap in music education 

The classes have proven more popular than anyone imagined. Ever since the first round began in early September sessions have filled, new spots have been created and waiting lists have formed.

Meints says there’s been “overwhelming response” and she adds “it’s great to see so many people get involved right away.” She expects enrollment for the next round of classes in January to increase.

In January a new guitar class will complement the brass, cello/bass, percussion, violin/viola, woodwinds and voice beat-boxing classes.

“In the Hispanic community the instruments that are very prominent for mariachi are violin, trumpet and guitar and so that will be a very neat addition,” says Meints.

More classes may be in the offing.

At the conclusion of each six-week class a concert’s held featuring student performers from both organizations. The first concert, on Oct. 27, was packed.

Meints says the individualized instruction offered youth helps them grow faster musically. Some Kroc students are already showing great potential and may be eligible for OCM scholarships, according the Meints, who’s excited about nurturing  this previously untapped talent.

Officials with both organizations say the classes for very young children fill a vital need because music education doesn’t start until middle school. Studies show getting kids started early in music can improve cognitive development and academic performance, says Meints. She and Thielke emphasize that the Sprouts class promotes family interaction by requiring parental-guardian participation.

For details and to register, visit http://www.omahakroc.org or call 402-905-3579.

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Bob Hoig’s unintended entree into journalism leads to career six decades strong

January 25, 2013 7 comments

I can’t speak for my colleagues but for this journalist anyway it’s fun to write about other journalists, particularly if the person has enjoyed a rich career in the field we share.  The subject of this New Horizons profile, Bob Hoig, has definitely seen a thing or two in a 56 year career that progressed from copy boy to reporter to editor to publisher.  He’s best known today as publisher of the Midlands Business Journal but he had some intriguing newspapering adventures before he launched that publication in 1975.  I’ve had the pleasure of profiling many fascinating folks in the field, including Don Chapman, Warren Francke, Bill Ramsey, Howard Rosenberg, John Hlavacek, Rudy Smith, Don Doll, and Howard Silber.  You can fnd my stories about them on this blog.  I now add Bob Hoig to the list.

 

 

 

Bob Hoig

 

 

Bob Hoig’s unintended entree into journalism leads to career six decades strong

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

 

Midlands Business Journal publisher Bob Hoig has often wondered how his life might have turned out had his curiosity not gotten the better of him one fateful day in 1957.

He was a young man recently arrived in New York City after years pining to go there, He was born in rural Kansas and grew up in Pueblo and Colorado Springs, Colorado but he sensed he was meant for bigger things.

“I just had wanted to be there. It was a city that always intrigued me. It had a mystique. I fancied myself a poet at the time. My reading preferences in literature have always tended toward writers who had a lot to say about New York City. That would include F. Scott Fitzgerald. John O’Hara, who was a real favorite of mine, and Ernest Hemingway.”

Hoig actually met the iconic Hemingway in an old German bar in New York.

Rich in words but poor in dollars, Hoig’s Big Apple sojourn was beginning to seem more folly than destiny. Then something happened that changed the course of his life.

“I was out of work, I didn’t have a lot of money, and I was walking down 42nd Street, just past 3rd Avenue, towards 2nd and the East River and the United Nations Building, when my peripheral vision caught the lobby of a building. Inside the lobby was a giant globe of the Earth, roughly 8 or 10 feet high, revolving around. I was just interested, so I walked in. I didn’t know what was going on there.

“There were a lot of brass gauges like you might think of as nautical or aeronautical. There was a guard by the elevator and I said, ‘What building is this? and he said, ‘Why, it’s the New York Daily News.’ Well, I needed a job and so I just asked, ‘Are they hiring?’ He said, ‘It beats me, why don’t you go up and talk to personnel?’ So I did that and the next thing I knew I’d been hired, with no particular qualifications, as a copy boy.”

That mere chance encounter turned into a career 56 years old and counting. He was a reporter for the Miami News, the UPI and the Omaha World-Herald and the managing editor of the Omaha Sun Newspapers and the Douglas County Gazette before founding the MBJ. He still can’t get over how his life in the Fourth Estate began in such an off-handed way.

“I had very little college, one year at the University of Colorado before I dropped out and I had no particular reference to journalism at all.”

He briefly worked in accounting. He’d sold shoes in the basement of Ben Simon department store. But he was restless for something more adventurous. Then he struck out for New York. He was nearly flat broke when he got on with the big city newspaper despite a lick of experience. He was 24, clueless about the world he was about to enter, but soon found himself in a “rich stew” of people and places that spurred him on.

All these years later he recalls the job of Daily News copy boy “a supreme experience,” adding, “The main thing that made it a great experience is that it offered many avenues toward advancing in he trade of journalism.” Being in the newspaper game in New York put one right in the mix of things in the most exciting metropolis in the world. And if one showed a spark of initiative and promise, as he did, opportunities availed themselves.

“That set me up for everything that came after. I was ambitious and ambitious people in New York are always rewarded. I was just ready to do anything. I guess I displayed a little bit of panache in the way I approached things and I was soon made assistant head copy boy. I know that’s not much of a title but it opened doors. It meant I handed out the other copy boys’ assignments, which gave me the pick of the best for myself. That included going to to Yankee Stadium and sitting in the press box just above the dugout when legends like Yogi Berra, Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle were trouping out to the plate and back.

“It was not totally glorious because after two innings I had to take the photographer’s film and get out of the stadium, race to the subway and rush the photos back to the Daily News office in time to make the Bulldog edition.”

His entree to the Who’s-Who of New York sports figures didn’t end there.

“That experience had parallels in every sport,” he says. “I was on the sidelines for the New York Giant games on Sunday when Kyle Rote, Roosevelt Grier, Frank Gifford and other legends of Giant football were playing. I got to charge up and down the sidelines with the photographer (until the end of the first quarter when Hoig had to high-tail it back to the office with the film). I got to go to the races at Belmont. Once again, that same drill – after the Daily Double I had to rush the film back to the office.”

It was a fertile training ground, especially for anyone with aspirations.

Hoig says, “That was a great way to get into it and build up a little bit of knowledge and sophistication to life in Manhattan. The main way it helped breaking into the     newspaper business as a writer was that I got to work on Sunday features. What it amounted to was working with some of the legends of New York city journalism and having the benefit of them critiquing my work and being a little bit patient with me. They weren’t totally patient with the copy boys if they showed no spunk but if you did they would work with you. And I got to have bylines in the paper as a result.”

For a journalist, getting a byline is like your name appearing on a theater marquee. It’s your chance to puff out your chest and bask in the spotlight. Hoig took full advantage.

“There was a lot of glory in that kind of byline, for this reason: the stories appeared in the zoned editions of the Sunday edition and for instance my work would appear in the Manhattan Bronx section but there was also a Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, so forth. And the good thing about that was those sections wrapped around the whole newspaper, so on Sunday if you were lucky enough to get a front page byline in the Manhattan Bronx section there your name was staring up from every New York newsstand. So you can bet that any girlfriend I was wining and dining at the time I made sure we walked past that Sunday stand and I’d say, ‘Oh look…'”

The ethos of the times found Hoig following the newspaper pack to the bars, where drinking and swapping stories through the night was routine.

He positively subscribes to the sentiment that if you can make it in New York you can make it anywhere. “Yeah, it’s true because it tees you up. For one thing you’re used to some of the more dire circumstances. A lot of them required you to have your wits about you and to sort of be as much as actor as a reporter.”

Working at the News offered other advantages, too.

“The News was a totally Irish dominated newspaper. it was quite a place to be in my day by the way because some of the absolute legends of the New York scene were actually there then. For instance, Ed Sullivan still had a desk. He was just breaking into television. He’d been a columnist for years. If I had a tip I would try to feed it to his column. Paul Gallico was not only a top sports editor he was famous around the desk for getting knocked out by Jack Dempsey. He was also a great short story writer who won the O’Henry Award. Harry Nichols was a big-time city editor. A tough, no-nonsense kind of guy. He was a legend.”

Hoig also got his feet wet in live TV.

“The News not long before had started a television station, WPIX, which was also in the building, and I got the chance to write the most basic kind of copy for the news scripts – death, weather, anything very routine. That opened the door to some other sophistications that the average kid working in Grand Island or Kearney wouldn’t find at the introductory level.”

He was only in New York about two years when he left for Neb., where he had family. He’d spent time visiting relatives in the state as a youth. “The Hoigs got out here about 1895 around Beatrice and Wymore. My dad had deep roots with the old Cooper Foundation theaters. I returned to Lincoln, Neb. on the advice of one of the ‘lobster’ city editors of the New York Daily News. That’s the editor who comes on at midnight and works until 8 in the morning. He became a friend of mine.”

Hoig was itching to do crime reporting but as a copy boy it would have taken him longer than he cared to wait before he got his opportunity to cover that beat.

“My friend felt I had enough talent that I needed to get out and get right into the mainstream of what i was interested in, which was crime writing. Now you could go that route with the Daily News but they rarely if ever hired from the outside and you had to work up from a copy boy through junior assistant and that kind of thing, and the waiting period could be fantastic. For instance, Jimmy Cannon, who’s a legend in sportswriting, was a copy boy for seven years on the Daily News. The man who at the time was the travel editor had been a copy boy for 13 years.

“There were all kinds of names in New York City who had followed that route. This editor thought I would benefit by getting out and getting a job. It worked out that I did get a chance to work in Lincoln covering police and fire in the period when Charles Starkweather had been brought to trial and was being executed. At the time it was the Lincoln Journal-Star, but I worked for the Journal, which was the afternoon paper.”

Hoig wound up in Omaha, first on the United Press International desk and then as an Omaha World-Herald newsroom staffer, but not by way of Lincoln as you might expect, rather by way of Miami and Chicago of all places. His wanderlust called again.

“That was kind of a circuitous route,” he notes. “After I cut my teeth on police reporting, doing a lot of it in Lincoln, I felt the same lure to Miami that I did to New York. I went to Miami and after being rejected at the Miami Herald by the then-assistant managing editor, Harold “Al” Neuharth, who went on found USA Today, I wound up working for in my opinion the greatest newspaper in all of Florida and the South at the time as a young crime reporter, the old Miami News. It was a real blood and guts paper. It was edited again by a legend in newspapering down there.

“It was a great place to be and right off the bat they assigned me to the sheriff’s office and so many good stories would come out of there.”

Organized crime was well entrenched in the city, as was rampant police corruption, and one assignment required him to “go up to a known Mafia family head and ask, ‘How do you feel about your son being shot-gunned to death?’ When you’re in a crazy situation like that you gotta just quick think and get out. ”

He enjoyed being in the thick of the action of a cosmopolitan city built on tourism and graft. It was a vital place and time where the news never quit.

“I had a chance to really move along there,” says Hoig. “I cultivated a friend who was probably my closest colleague on the Miami News. He was an old-timer who had worked on the war desk during World War II in New York for United Press. I loved the job at the Miami News but I didn’t like Florida and neither did my then-wife, and at that time she was my new wife. We didn’t like the heat, so we decided to go north.

“When Bill Tucker, this friend of mine, heard we were going north he said, ‘Well, I hate to see you leave but as long as you’re going I’ll give you a reference to the man who’s the division news manager for United Press International in Chicago. I interviewed with him, I was hired and I had (incidentally) some Neb. roots but they just happened to send me to Omaha. That’s how I wound up in Omaha.”

UPI was still a player among wire services in the 1960s.

“We were totally rivals with the Associated Press. We had more radio and TV clients in Neb. than AP did. AP was ahead of us in newspapers. But we shared all the biggies, like we were both in the World-Herald, the Lincoln Journal-Star, and their editors played that very cleverly because they would pit us against each other in a competitive way.”

His highlight with UPI came with a bit of newspaper bravado.

“I was sitting in the United Press Bureau one night in the mid-‘60s when a report came in about a shooting in Big Springs. An armed robber had come in the bank, lined up four people on the floor and shot them. Three of them died and one of them survived. So this gunman was on the loose and nobody knows who it was.

‘We got a tip authorities were searching for a Kansas farm boy, Duane Earl Pope. We found out his father had been cruel to him. Duane had recently graduated from McPherson College, where he was a football star. I thought, Who could issue an appeal I could write that would lead Duane to surrender. His father? No. His coach? Maybe. His college president? Yeah. When Pope finally was captured they learned he’d heard that appeal in a hotel room in Las Vegas. He made arrangements to fly back and surrender to the FBI in Kansas City, That was the biggest coup I ever staged and I think there is a classic role in journalism for that sort of thing.”

 

 

 

Duane Earl Pope in custody after turning himself into authorities

 

 

He left the Omaha Bureau of UPI after roughly seven years to join the World-Herald. He explains, “I had what seemed like a much better offer at that time from the World-Herald to become a crime and corruption reporter. That was 1969.

“The biggest story I covered up to that point was a banking scandal in Sheldon, Iowa. A spinster named Bernice Geiger was the trusted bookkeeper for the local bank owned by her aging parents and she had embezzled $2 million. So I went up there and every day just as I was getting ready to leave something major developed in the story. All of a sudden reporters from Time, Newsweek, the New York papers and all over the country came flooding in to cover this story.

“It had so many angles that you could write a book about it. It had such human interest, including a possible love angle. A young con man came in and there was suspicion that he helped her spend the money. It turned out she blew the money on the Chicago Commodities Exchange, which is a weird place for a spinster to blow money.”

In 1971 he was the Herald’s nominee for a Pulitzer Prize for a series he did about serial sexualpaths that led to a state law being changed to tighten lax security procedures at the then-Nebraska State Hospital. To get the story Hoig says he “went down to Lincoln and asked a lot of questions.” He explains, “That story was precipitated by a particularly bad actor who was an inmate down there. Staff just let inmates like him wander the grounds. There was no particular supervision and this guy every now and then would just wander off and do his thing. What got him caught is he wandered off to Omaha, where he raped a couple women, and so that set in motion the Herald’s interest in it.”

He remained with the Herald until 1972.

His path to launching the Midlands Business Journal actually began at the end of a brief turn he took as editor of the Douglas County Gazette. “By that time I’d had my fill of crime and corruption and looking under every rock to expose something sinister or wrong or some crime,” he says. “I didn’t want to do that anymore.”

When a Herald column mentioned he was leaving the Gazette, he recalls, “that morning my phone was ringing at a quarter to eight and it was the owner of Rapid Printing, the late Zane Randall, saying, ‘If you’re out of work, come and talk to me.’ So I did and he hired me as general manager of a bunch of suburban shoppers he either owned or printed. I talked Zane into letting me take a shot at founding a business newspaper with somewhat of a unique concept.”

Few people thought the business journal could work.

“This came in the face of many prophecies of doom from people like Jim Ivey at the Herald, so it wasn’t an assured thing. But what I wanted to do was produce a product that would localize and bring close to the community stories of businesses and with a particular angle of success stories. I’ve always been a good salesman and I think I’m a good enough writer and editor that I had the two components you need to start a successful paper, and that’s why I thought it would be successful.

“It was something nobody was doing at the time and that’s what I staked my guess it could be successful on. Zane was backing me in a sense. He didn’t put any money into it but he printed the paper for us and he let us use his composing room and typesetting and so forth. So it was a relatively painless way to try something that worked.”

Hoig and Randall drew up a contract to be half-and-half partners of MBJ at the start but as time went on the enigmatic Randall wanted out.

“Zane was the kind of guy who would just take a chance on anything and he backed newspapers and mailing operations that failed. He had a lot of failures out there with little probes into different aspects of journalism. Of course, he sold (Rapid) out to the Herald for a reputed seven or eight million bucks, so when he scored he scored big. His inclination to back anything is what helped me out in the long run.

“But we were about a year into the MBJ when several relatives he had working for him told him to get out of it.’ I tried to point out to him that we were in the process of being successful and for our humble niche in the community we were being very successful. The ad sales were almost good enough to meet the goals and the subscription sales were renewing at a fantastic 90 percent rate. That usually doesn’t happen.

“Based on all that I said to him, ‘Look ahead one more year and this thing is going to be doing really well.’ I couldn’t talk him out of it, and he said, ‘No, we’re closing it down. I said, ‘Well, how about you name a figure and if I can possibly meet it I’ll sign a note and pay it off? and that’s the way that one went.”

 

 

 

Thirty-eight years later MBJ is still going strong. He attributes its enduring success to his ‘nose for news,” his business sense and his numbers crunching ability.

“I can spot stories or I can cook them up.”

“I know accounting and I keep the books and so every day I know what my cash position is to the penny. Every month I reconcile the bank statements and I do my general ledger entries. I’ve never graduated from that routine and that’s one way to keep your hands on your business and know what’s going on.”

Meeting unforgettable characters and public figures has also come with the territory. A bigger-than-life politico he had occasion to know was the late South Omaha kingpin Gene Mahoney. Hoig recalls a memorable encounter.

“I was walking on South 13th Street when Mahoney in this old beater of a car pulls up and says, ‘Where you going?’ ‘Back to work,’ and he said, ‘Hop in.’ So I got in and asked, ‘Where we going?’ and he said, ‘We’re going on the Polish sausage run.’ He had his car loaded with Polish sausage and other things and good old politician Mahoney was swinging by everybody in South Omaha that he’d found out was either sick or laid off or injured. He was just a master politician that way.

“He was such a powerbroker. I think I’m the last guy to know how great he was. As a powerbroker, maybe not as an individual. He had some sides to him that I don’t think I’d recommend. But as a guy who just controlled everything…”

Once, when Omaha Federation of Labor AFL-CIO president Terry Moore launched into a favorite theme about Mahoney being “all washed up” Hoig set the record straight. “I said, Terry, think about it, where is Mahoney right now? His best friend has just been elected to the U.S. Senate, Ed Zorinsky. His handpicked apparatchik is in the legislature, Bernice Labedz. She’s keeping him totally informed about everything. He’s got a job that has more perks and power than any job in the state as Games and Parks commissioner. He can airplane people out to any lodge, so as a position to collect IOUs you can’t beat that. Plus, he’s got a say in a certain amount of projects that get built.”

Hoig, who closely follows politics and doesn’t exactly pull punches when critiquing politicians, admired Mahoney’s savvy when it came to patronage and influence.

“As a former legislator and someone who’d been across political parties – he switched back and forth from Democrat to Republican to Democrat again – he could talk to anyone. He was a master at doling out favors. He’d get together with Peter Kiewit and Walter Scott on what were their desires and what needed to be done and all of a sudden things got built.”

Hoig has anecdotes about all the big names he’s met, including corporate tycoons Peter Kiewit and V.J. Skutt, then presidential candidate Richard Nixon, then-vice president Lyndon Johnson, not to mention Neb. politicians whose wrath he’s earned. His life is as full as any of theirs though. He toiled for others the first third of his career before striking out on his own and becoming a successful entrepreneur. Besides MBJ he publishes the Lincoln Business Journal and the Omaha Book of Lists. MBJ was the Chamber’s 2002 Golden Spike Award honoree. He’s been recognized by the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce (2004) and the Omaha Kiwanis Club (2006) as Entrepreneur of the Year.

“As a unit success our biggest success is our 40 Under 40 program with the Chamber. That, of course, isn’t a paper but it’s a yearly program we started in 2002 during the depths of another bubble recession and it made it’s way through. It’s forged on identifying and honoring 40 professional businessmen and women under the age of 40.”

He’s also the father of three adult children. Long divorced, he’s well into his second marriage with an old friend, Martha, who’s every bit as bit as active as he is. He’s a veteran tennis player and swimmer. He used to ski. Since taking up skiing late in life Martha’s become quite the devotee and continues to enjoy the sport despite some mishaps on the slopes. She’s also an artist with her own downtown studio. Bob says her streaks of “daring-do” and whimsy have led her to stand on her head atop the Olympic Tower in New York and to ride a motorcycle with him. She’s also his faithful flying companion. He only took up flying a decade ago but it’s his main hobby today.

He’s not conceding anything to age as he continues coming to the office every day and living it up away from the office. He says he enjoys “keeping everything in balance now,’”adding, “I like the idea of having the balance. The work, the great relationship with my wife, the flying and the writing – I’m really starting to ramp up my own fiction writing.”

At 80, he still plays tennis and swims. He only gave up skiing three years ago. He works out a few days a week at the gym.

His boundless curiosity invariably leads him to some new passion he takes up with vigor and once he hit upon flying it’s become his main fascination and outlet.

 

 

 

Hoig pilots a Cessna very much like this one

 

 

“Almost every decade of my life I’ve turned a corner into something that fascinates me,” he says. “When I was 68 my son and I were in my den playing flight simulator and I was like, ‘This is really interesting and fun, I think I’ll take a (flying) lesson.’ So I went out to get a lesson and just from the first landing of feeling like a big bird, sailing slowly, slowly, now a little faster, and then, whoosh. It just captivated me and that’s all I could think about for a year other than my work.”

He got his private pilot’s license in 2000 and purchased his own Cessna SkyLane in 2003. He earned his instrument rating in 2005. He’s logged 1,700 hours in the air.

He’s proud of his blue and white Cessna he personally selected from the plant. “It’s a beauty. It’s a good one for traveling and my wife and I travel a lot. Any vacation, we fly. That has really kept my spirits and kept me thinking.”

He and Martha love seeing the sights.

“We do travel an awful lot. The most routine trip we make is every year we fly the plane to New York and go to the U.S. Open tennis tournament. That’s in late August-early September. Of late we’ve taken to flying into New England or to upstate New York. In 2011 I flew it up to a place called Plattsburgh, New York just across the lake from Burlington, Vermont. It’s way up there. That was good.

“A couple times a year we fly it up to a place called Rosemary Beach in the Florida Panhandle. Three years ago I flew it all the way down into the Florida Keys, beyond Key Largo. I’ve flown it a lot to my hometown of Colorado Springs.”

He has the chops to fly into airports large and small.

“I really made it my business to learn GPS and that has helped us fly into big airports and feel comfortable doing it in rain, in clouds, and so on.”

Between changeable weather systems and heavy air traffic, he says, “You have to keep your wits about you.”

Sometimes he and Martha just light out on a whim.

“We’ve gotten up on a Saturday morning with no idea of what we’re going to do that day and one of us will say, ‘Hey, it’s a nice day, why don’t we go to Kansas City?, so you jump in the plane and you’re in Kansas City for lunch.”

The couple also travel to Europe with great regularity. They never do tours. Instead they simply “follow the wind,” he says.

Martha, who is a breast cancer survivor, has also been a key cog in his publishing empire as vice-president in charge of marketing. His sister Cindy is vice-president of advertising. And his daughter Andrea once worked for him as well before branching off on her own. Much to his surprise and delight Andrea’s followed his footsteps. She began working for him as a photographer and in 1996 she purchased a fledgling publication he started, Metro Monthly, and she’s since transformed it into Metro Magazine, whose niche is covering the area’s philanthropic scene.

Seeing her blossom into a peer entrepreneur and publisher, he says, gives him “great satisfaction,” adding, “She’s done a terrific job with the magazine that I told her in the beginning, ‘Just forget it, it won’t go,’ so she proved me wrong on that.”

 

 

 

Hoig with his daughter Andrea holding their Faces on the Barroom Floor caricatures

 

 

It’s sometimes hard for him to reconcile the rebellious girl who worked for him with the mature woman who is a colleague today.

“When she was a teenager we just didn’t mix at all. We didn’t get along. In the course of maybe working around me a little bit and getting into journalism it turns out of my three children she’s more like the apple that fell closest to the tree. She seems to have an instinctive ability in journalism for some of the things I think are very important. She’s unusually good at detail. She gets along very well with people and unlike me she has a very kind heart. She just empathizes with everybody and for the niche that she’s in that’s really the way to be anyway, but she is like that.”

They’re very different people though. “She is liberal where I’m conservative,” he says. “She doesn’t even read my editorials.” But his admiration for her is complete. “I’m very proud of what she’s accomplished, She’s come so far from where I thought.”

Last fall father and daughter were honored as Faces on the Barroom Floor at the Omaha Press Club.

Over time he’s learned some lessons from her, too, such as giving up control.

“I was the typical entrepreneur in feeling that if I didn’t do it it couldn’t be done right. Everything really important I felt I had to do myself. It’s hard enough to grow a really      small business like ours without giving it total attention and I probably lost a lot of good people over the years by not turning enough over to them. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten better at delegating responsibility. I’ve started to turn more over to our editor and to our advertising director and that’s been good.”

As he’s taken more time out for himself, his wife, his family and his passions, he’s found his later years to be the best of his life. He’s far from retired though.

“There’s a saying I heard long ago that work ennobles a person and I find this work very ennobling because it keeps me alive, it keeps me involved and it keeps me thinking. It also keeps people employed.”

 
 

Saving one kid at a time is Beto’s life work

January 24, 2013 1 comment

He goes by Beto.  Though middle-aged now Alberto “Beto” Gonzales can relate to the hard circumstances youths face at home and in the barrio because he faced difficulties at home and on the streets when he was their age.  He knows what’s behind kids skipping school or getting in trouble at school because he did the same thing to cover his pain when he was a teen.  He can talk straight to gang members because he ran with gangs back in the day.  He knows what addiction looks and feels like because he’s a recovering addict himself.  His work for the Chicano Awareness Center, the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Midlands, and other organizations has netted him many honors, including a recent Martin Luther King Jr. Legacy Award from Creighton University.  Beto is a South Omaha legend for the dedication he shows to saving one kid at a time.  My profile of him for El Perico tells something about the personal journey of transformation he followed to turn his life around to become a guiding light for others.

Here is a link to a more recent story I did about Beto-https://leoadambiga.com/category/alberto-beto-gonzales/

 

 An Omaha man on the front line of gang prevention is now the subject of a book.

Alberto “Beto” Gonzales

 

 

Saving one kid at a time is Beto’s life work

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in El Perico

 

Alberto “Beto” Gonzales believes working one-on-one with youths is the best way to reach them. His work as a mentor and gang prevention-intervention specialist has earned him much recognition, most recently the Martin Luther King Jr. Legacy Award from Creighton University.

Gonzales grew up in the South Omaha barrio he serves today as a Boys and Girls Clubs of the Midlands counselor. He does outreach with truants, many of whom come from dysfunctional homes. He knows their stories well. He grew up in a troubled home himself and acted out through gangs, alcohol and drugs. He skipped school. He only turned things around through faith and caring individuals.

“I was just an angry kid,” says Gonzales, who witnessed his father verbally abuse his mother. Betro’s internalized turmoil sometimes exploded.

“At 17 I almost went to prison for 30 years for assault and battery with the intent to commit murder. Then I got hooked on some real heavy drugs.”

“My mother prayed over me all the time and I think it’s her prayers that really helped me get out of this. I just decided to give my life to the Lord. ”

When he’d finally had enough he completed his education at South High at 20.

The Chicano Awareness Center changed his life’s course. A social worker there saw potential in him he didn’t see in himself. Then he was introduced to a nun, Sister Joyce Englert, who worked as a chemical dependency counselor.

“She heard me out,” he says. “I talked to her about my drug addiction, how I couldn’t keep a relationship and all kinds of crap going on. What’s cool about that is she asked me if I would go talk to kids about the dangers of drugs and alcohol even though she knew I was an abuser. She said, ‘I think it’s important kids hear your story.’ I found myself crying right along with the kids as I shared it.

“She told me I had a passion for this and asked what I thought about becoming a counselor. Well, I’ve done a lot crazy, dangerous things in my life but the most frightening and hardest thing was to tell the truth that I couldn’t read or write that well.”

Sister Joyce didn’t let him make excuses.

“With her help I got a chemical dependency associates degree from Metropolitan Community College, which led me into working in the schools with adolescents dealing with addiction issues, and I loved it, I just loved it.”

He also got sober. He has 33 years in recovery now.

 

Beto reaching out to kids, ©d2center.org

 

 

Then he responded to a new challenge.

“When the gangs started surfacing I changed my career to working with gang kids,” he says. “That’s been my passion.”

He worked for the center until 2003, when he joined the Boys and Girls Clubs.

Having walked in the shoes of his clients, he commands respect. He uses his story of transformation to inspire.

“I had a faith my mother blessed me with, then I met a woman of faith in Sister Joyce who gave me my direction, and my job now is to give kids faith, to give them hope.”

He says it comes down to being there, whether attending court hearings, visiting probation officers, providing rides, helping out with money or just listening.

“It really takes a lot of consistency in staying on top of them. All that small stuff really means a lot to a kid who’s not getting it from the people that are supposed to be doing it for them, like mom and dad.

“Gangs ain’t never going to go away. The only thing we can do as a society is to find the monies to hire the people that can do the job of saving one life at a time. That’s what Jesus did. He then trained his disciples to go out and share his word, his knowledge, and they saved one life at a time. That’s all I’ve been doing, and I’ve lost some and I’ve won some.”

His job today doesn’t allow him to work the streets the way he used to with the hardcore kids.

“I’m not out there like I used to be.”

However, kids in his Noble Youth group are court-referred hard cases he gets to open up about the trauma, often abuse, they’ve endured. Talking about it is where change begins.

In a high burn-out field Gonzales is still at it, he says, because “I love what I do.” It hasn’t been easy. His first marriage ended over his job. Then tragedy struck home.

“There was a time in South Omaha when we were losing kids right and left and one of the kids killed was my cousin Rodolfo. It’s painful to see other people suffer but when it’s in your own family it’s a different story. Rodolfo was a good kid, I loved him, but he was deep in some stuff. When he got killed I lost it. That was a struggle. I told my employer, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ I took a sabbatical, I just had to get away. I did a lot of meditation and praying and it only made me stronger.”

He’s not wavered since.

“I’ve got my faith and I’ve learned you’ve got to hand everything over to God, Don’t try to handle it yourself because you will crumble.”

 

Alberto Gonzales and Theresa Barron-McKeagney. Gonzales, the South Omaha Gang Intervention Specialist for OPD, is the subject of McKeagney’s new book.
CREDIT KARA SCHWEISS

 

Finding her voice: Tunette Powell comes out of the dark and into the spotlight

January 24, 2013 7 comments

Remember the name Tunette Powell.  She’s come far already in her 26 years and she’s surely going places that will take her even beyond the personal transformation and accomplishment she’s achieved thus far.  My profile of her in The Reader (www.thereader.com) introduces you to someone you will hear about in the future because, as my story details, she is a survivor and a dynamo who’s recently found her voice as a speaker and as a writer and it’s a powerful voice infused with passion and hope.  I wouldn’t be surprised if she becomes a best selling author and major inspirational speaker, which is her goal by the way.  It’s well within her reach based on the national championship persuasive speech she made last year and the new memoir she’s written, The Other Woman, about life as the daughter of acrack addict father.  Her speech and book are critiques of the criminalization of addiction.  Her memoir is also her coming out of a dark place and into the light of her own recovery.

 

Finding her voice: Tunette Powell comes out of the dark and into the spotlight

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

When she dreamed of rap stardom back in her hometown of San Antonio, Texas Tunette Powell went by Short Stack. Today, Tunette will do. After years of search and struggle and a need for attention she fed with men, the 26-year-old Bellevue Neb. resident is more comfortable than she’s ever been in her own skin and with her real identity.

Recently married and the mother of two young children, Powell was not feeling Neb., where her military husband got stationed. Even though she did well in school she counted the days at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Then came her catharsis. In early 2011 she was on a three-way call with her brother and recovering addict father when she hung up, broke down crying and started writing.

Words flowed as if some Higher Power were writing-her-hand. An experienced journalist and blogger, it wasn’t unusual for Powell to get in a zone writing or even to tackle difficult subject matter but this was different. What poured out of her was intensely personal. For the first she found herself telling in detail her story of being a crack addict’s daughter. She relived emotional pain she’d largely stuffed from early childhood on – of her father’s repeated relapses and arrests.

“With each of his relapses I’d get hurt all over again,” she says.

Over the next year or so she kept working on her story, which is also her father’s story, and it evolved into a full-scale memoir. She ended up interviewing her father, mother and grandmother, who all reside in Texas, to fill in the gaps. When the Speech Communication major was recruited onto the UNO forensics team in mid-2011 she borrowed from her memoir to write a persuasive speech critiquing the criminalization of addiction and advocating for substance abuse rehabilitation.

“Now is the time to separate the war on drugs from the war on addiction. Today you’ve heard the problems, impacts and solutions of criminalizing addictions. Bruce Callis is 50 years old now. And he is still struggling with his addiction. While you all are sitting out there listening to this, I’m living it. Bruce Callis is my father and for my entire life, I have watched our misguided system destroy him.”

She brought a searing passion and gritty street savvy to the staid format that set her apart. It made her feel out of place but it also made competitors and judges take notice. Last April she became UNO’s first forensics national champion when she won for her “It’s Not the Addict, it’s the Drug: Redefining America’s War on Drugs” presentation at America’s oldest speech competition on the campus of Emerson College in Boston. She beat out competitors with years more experience than her.

 

 

 

 

 

Now her new memoir, The Other Woman, whose title borrows her father’s term for his drug of choice, has been published by WriteLife.com. She’s also a blogger with the Omaha World-Herald social networking site for moms, Momaha, a program director with the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Midlands and a sought-after motivational speaker, which she hopes to make her life’s work.

None of it seemed possible five years ago. Her mindset then was expressed in a rap she wrote about her father that featured the rhyme, “It’s gotta be a nightmare, it’s gotta be a dream.” But she was still acting out, still afraid to face the truth of what she carried inside.

“Five years ago I wasn’t with my husband yet. I was hanging with people that were OK with me just being where I was, kind of in a slump. I was in a relationship with someone that was already in a relationship. I was working at the San Antonio Express-News as an editorial assistant.

“Then I went two years to the University of Missouri. But college was nothing to me.  I never went to class, I just threw it all away. I was forced to move back to San Antonio. I enrolled in a community college but I never went.”

It wasn’t until she landed in the metro and reluctantly started at UNO she began to find herself again.

“I told myself I wasn’t going to be the student that stood out, I wasn’t going to be the student that got involved in anything, I was just going to fly under the radar and get my degree.”

Instead, she became a star by making the Dean’s List, winning that prestigious national title and being named Most Outstanding Speech Student.

UNO instructors encouraged the same potential they saw in her that high school teachers and San Antonio Express colleagues earlier noticed. She wrote obits, features and a blog for the paper while still in her teens. Then she lost her way. Though she settled down after marrying and having kids, the confidence and joy she once had was gone. Then she unexpectedly tapped something inside her.

“When I moved here I felt the most alone I ever felt in my life. I didn’t want to come to Omaha, I didn’t want to go to UNO. But I decided to just enroll, and it changed my life. Academically, I found I’m a lot smarter than I thought I was. I didn’t know I loved learning. I didn’t know there’s so much passion in me. And I learned I’m a survivor. I thought I was always a very weak person. But I’ve had to go through so many things. Being molested as a kid. Having two ‘C’ sections. Financial struggles.”

Not to mention the havoc her dad caused. He was behind bars most of her formative years. When he went on binges to get his fix he’d disappear for days at a time. One Christmas he sold all the presents under the tree so he could get high. She played caregiver and enabler to him. She endured it all.

“I didn’t see that I just kept getting back up. I’m a lot stronger then I gave myself credit for.”

UNO’s Rita Shaughnessy and Abbie Syrek pushed and nurtured her when she didn’t trust herself.

“I did see the talent in Tunette and in chatting with her I discovered that what she really wanted to be was a motivational speaker. My advice to her was to become a Speech Communication major, and if she wanted to someday go out there on the speaker circuit, she needed to author a book. She’s done both of those things and more. She’s doing everything right,” says Shaughnessy, who teaches Public Speaking Fundamentals.

“Tunette is a dynamo. She’s intelligent and industrious and passionate and driven, but add poetic to that and you’ve got something very special. I knew it when she gave her first speech. She’s using all that’s happened to her in her life to shed light on serious matters, and others will benefit. It doesn’t get much better than that.”

Forensics coach Abbie Syrek says, “When I first saw her speak, my jaw dropped.

She was spectacular. My soul was so moved that I thought, I have to have this woman on the forensics team. So I approached her after class and she told me she was a senior who was married with two young kids. If there are three strikes against recruiting a student those are the three. I thought, Well, she’ll be the one that got away…’

“I told my husband if I had her four years she would be a national champion. But Tunette didn’t need four years, she only needed eight months. It’s all heart and hard work.”

And a rare talent.

“She wrote by far the best first draft I’ve ever read from any of my students. She has such a natural grasp for writing. I hear thousands of speeches a year and there are very few that stick with you or that can stir your soul,” says Syrek, who convinced Powell to join the team.

 

 

 

 

 

Powell’s expressive presentation style lends added power to her message.

“It’s poetic, it has a cadence to it, it has emotion to it,” says Syrek. “There’s something about the way she looks at you that brings you in and captivates you. I watch speeches for a living and I might go as far as to say Tunette Powell could very well be the most naturally gifted speaker I’ve ever seen, and I mean it.”

That she possessed such a powerful gift surprised Powell, who says, “I didn’t know I had that.” She’s grateful others recognized that ability in her, saying. “I needed somebody to believe in me just a little bit.”

To climb as high as she did in so short a time as a public speaker is even more impressive given where she started.

“I was intimidated,” she says. “Forensics is a different world. Predominantly white. Even the other black people spoke the same way the white people did. I stuck out like a sore thumb, and I didn’t think I could be successful because of that. My voice is a little raspy when I speak loud and my topic was different and the way it was written was different.”

The way she dressed was different too. She wore casual, thrown-together worn clothes in contrast to her speaking peers’ expensive new outfits.

Syrek says Powell struggled learning the conventions of forensics but after assuring her her self-doubts were misplaced the novice began excelling.

“I had to stand certain ways and do certain things. It was so much for me, it was the most challenging thing ever. I wanted to quit after my first tournament. But my coaches just kept telling me, ‘You need to continue because you’re going to change the program,’ which I took to mean that God placed me here to open the minds of people. I learned I really shouldn’t put myself in a box.”

As Powell advanced through state and national competitions Syrek says something unheard of happened: competitors gave the newcomer standing ovations that undoubtedly influenced judges. Syrek say’s this knack for engaging and touching audiences stems in part from the conviction with which she speaks.

“She made her father’s story matter to everybody and a lot of that was in the writing, in the way she set it up. It was very dramatic. And she was writing from life experience.”

Drawing on her own past, Powell taps personal feelings and incidents that deeply resonate with others.

“When I think about what I’ve been through I can reach people that others who haven’t been through the same thing can’t.”

Writing’s become her creative and therapeutic outlet.

“It’s in everything I do. I just bleed writing, I cant explain it. I feel it’s so healing, it’s medicine to me, it’s done so much for me, it keeps me going.”

She hardly believes what’s happened since last April. Winning the speech competition. Graduating UNO. Hired to write her Momaha blog. Getting her memoir published. Taking the job with the Omaha Boys and Girls Clubs

“It’s huge.”

Along the way, she’s discovered what she wants to do with the rest of her life – motivational speaking. “That’s what I’m going to do, that’s my calling – writing and speaking. It comes to me very easily. It’s a burdensome joy, it takes everything out of me, but once I’m done I need to do it again. My body replenishes itself and the thoughts come.”

She sees a through-line from her writing to her Christian faith.

“The book was the most spiritual thing I’ve ever done. I kid you not, it was one of these things where if I didn’t pray I couldn’t write. When I turned 22 I rededicated my life back to Christ. I started doing the right things. Like my dad wakes up every day and he has to choose to do the right thing, I have to wake up and choose to do the right thing. I’m a high self-monitor because I have to be. If I see myself looking for certain things or acting a certain way I pull myself back.”

She says it took the crucible of writing her book and finding her voice before “I finally started to see this is my purpose in life.” Her father, who’s on parole and strung together five months of sobriety until a New Year’s relapse, is her biggest supporter. “He always reminds me, ‘You’re a born storyteller, you have to do this.’ I think that’s what kept me going.”

He works in a culinary program and eyes opening his own bakery one day. Tunette wants to help him achieve it. Despite everything he did to her and the family she loves him,

“Me and my dad, we’ve got the closest relationship. I speak to my dad every day. It’s been heartbreaking for me because I am so close to him, so even when he had his recent relapse I was the one calling my grandma every hr to see if he came in, I was the one on the phone with his girlfriend, listening to her as she talked about how she’s tired of my dad and all this.

“I’m trying to still be there for my family and not show that I’m so hurt. I love my dad so much but I’m the one who could be hurt the most because I’m the one who’s put so much in.”

 

 

 

 

 

As she worked on her book her father fleshed out things she didn’t know before, including  just how unfaithful he was to her mother in the throes of his using. “It was so hard to hear that part,” she says.

“There’s some scenes in the book I couldn’t have written without him because I was not there and he allowed me to interview him, so I played reporter.”

She says she was saddened to learn his father and step-father were both raging alcoholics. She suspects some of what she had him dredge up and some of what she’s written about will sadden him, but in the end, she says, “I think he’s grown from this process. I could see him healing. I think when he reads the book it will make him really strong.”

Just as it’s brought her healing and strength. She can hardly believe where she’s come to. Things looked so bleak only a few years ago and now she’s on her way.

“My favorite quotation is, ‘Attitude is the thing that can change the color of any room.’ I mean, that’s just what I live by.”

She envisions a time, not long from now, when she and her father will present together.

“I think of my dad as a poor man’s Aristotle. Anything I need – a bible verse, a quote, a statistic – Ii call my dad and he’s got it. He has so much knowledge, he has so much to give the world. God let him go through so much so he’ll be able to reach people others can’t reach. He can really get on people’s level and really talk to them. He says he knows his calling is teaching.”

Her father even provided the tag line that ends her award-winning speech:

“The irony here is that we live in a society where we are told to recycle. We recycle paper, aluminum, and old electronics. But why don’t we ever consider recycling the most precious thing on earth – the human life.”

There’s a book release party for Powell’s memoir The Other Woman on Saturday, from 6 to 8 p.m., at the UNO Art Gallery in the Weber Fine Arts building.

Visit Powell’s website at http://www.tunettepowell.com. Her Momaha blog can be found at http://www.omaha.com/section/moms. Her book is available wherever books are sold.

Two Old Market Fixtures Celebrate Milestones

January 18, 2013 3 comments

The Old Market in Omaha is a both major attraction and a laidback state of mind that’s made up of the places and personalities, past and present, expressed there.  Two of this historic arts and culture district’s longest sustained restaurants, M’s Pub and Vivace, share the same owners and executive chef, and in 2013 these each of these eateries celebrates a milestone anniversary.  M’s Pub is 40 years old and Vivace 20 years old.  Owners Ann Mellen and Ron Samuelson discuss their successful enterprises in the following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) and along with Old Market pioneer Roger duRand they look back at the force of nature who started M’s, Mary Vogel, and who personified the visionaries and characters that have made the Market the singular destination and experience that it is.

 

Two Old Market Fixtures Celebrate Milestones

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Signature Old Market spot M’s Pub celebrates 40 years in business this year. It’s a milestone for any independently owned restaurant. But reaching four decades takes on added meaning because when M’s opened in 1973 (a planned 1972 opening was delayed), the fledgling Market’s survival looked unsure.

The Market though went from counter culture social experiment to mixed use success story. M’s owners Ann Mellen and Ron Samuelson doubly appreciate a thriving Market as their highly reviewed eatery is a fixture along with a second respected restaurant they own there, Vivace, which marks its 20th anniversary this fall. The establishments are emblems of the district’s sustainability and growth.

The well-connected woman who founded “M’s” and was its namesake, the late Mary Vogel, wanted to be part of the emerging Market scene. She commissioned architect John Morford from the Omaha firm headed by Cedric Hartman, who designed the French Cafe, to transform the former Sortino Fruit Company warehouse into a sophisticated, cozy environs inspired by her favorite dining-drinking nooks from around the globe, particularly the pubs of England and Washington DC. Some argue M’s is more bistro than pub but whatever it is M’s owns a reputation for quality food, superior service and laid-back charm that’s both cosmopolitan chic and homespun Midwest.

The small space is dominated by a three-sided green marble topped bar, exposed white brick work, a high ceiling, large mirrors, which make the room seem bigger, and picture windows that provide a glimpse of 11th Street on the east and peer into Nouvelle Eve on the south. The open kitchen is about the size and shape of a train’s dining car and overflows with activity, though the culinary action mostly happens in the downstairs prep rooms.

“It’s just a great open plan,” says Samuelson. “Timeless. And that’s why we don’t change anything about it because we see a lot of fads come and go and as tempting as you might be to say, ‘Well, it seems like that’s what everybody’s doing today – maybe we should try that,’ it’s not going to work here.”

 

 

 

 

M’s is indelibly of the Old Market. Like its neighbor shops it resides in a historic, 19th century building that exudes character earned with age. It adheres to tradition. It pays attention to detail. Its personality can’t be replicated or franchised.

“I don’t think we could take our sign and throw it in a place out west or anywhere else really,” Samuelson says. “I just don’t think it would transfer.”

The affable, attentive, knowledgable wait staff wear crisp white and black uniforms with none of the attendant starch.

Samuelson says, “We’ve worked really hard for a really long time to position ourselves as a place where you can come sit by side with the table that has a $150 bottle of wine and a couple steaks and you can have a beer and a Greek sandwich and not be treated any differently by the waiter. A lot of our people have been around here for a really long time. We have people that we trust.”

When Vogel sold M’s in 1979 to Mellen’s parents Floyd and Kate Mellen she stayed on as hostess and matriarch. Ann Mellen began working there around then and she soon grew fond of this force of nature.

“She would sit at the bar every day after lunch and count how many drinks we sold,” Mellen says of Vogel. “She was a trip. A very energetic lady, very world traveled, very knowledgable, very opinionated. But very helpful – when things went wrong here she knew who to call.

“She had a passion for this place. She knew exactly what she wanted it to be and she did it right. She totally designed M’s after her favorite places all over the world. She was like the mother of M’s pub. It was her baby.”

Market pioneer Roger duRand writes:

“Mary Vogel was a dame, A socialite with a heart of brass (polished). Mary was equal parts Mayflower pedigree, finishing school gloss and ribald cocktail raconteur. When she courageously cast her lot with the Old Market demimonde of 1972, she found a welcoming environment among the artists and adventurers. Her vision of a tearoom for ‘ladies who lunch’ that doubled as a bistro for ‘lads who lust’ became the elegant and reliably satisfying M’s Pub that remains little changed from its first days.”

Samuelson, who went to work there in 1986 after restaurant experience in Omaha, Texas and Colorado and then quickly partnered with Mellen, admired Vogel’s “indomitable spirit,” adding, “I think she was way ahead of her time. I think that’s probably why she got along with the Mercers so well. They needed people like that to incubate ideas and to establish a core of anchor businesses.”

Mellen’s parents, who’d never operated a restaurant before, bought it with the intent of their restauranteur son Joe running it  but when he passed Ann stepped in to lend her folks a hand. Her passion for the business bloomed.

“I liked working for myself basically,” says Mellen, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism grad who worked as a reporter and advertising copywriter before M’s.  “Then I came here and never left.”

She and Samuelson pride themselves on being hands-on owners. One or the other  or both are at their restaurants most days. A tunnel connects the two sites.

Though an institution today, M’s first decade was a struggle.

“Times were hard,” she says. “The Old Market was a totally different place then.

The Omaha (homeless) mission was just up the street. A lot of people were afraid of the Old Market. But even then it had a family, neighborhood feeling and I liked that a lot.”

“It gets under your skin,” Samuelson says of the Market.

By the early ’80s, Mellen determined the Market was here to stay.

“It just got busier and busier and we saw more tourists coming to the area. You could just tell it was an exciting, upcoming area.”

She and Samuelson, both Omaha natives, make a good team.

“We’re a good fit personality-wise and professionally,” he says. “We share the same passion for the Old Market and the same visions and goals for M’s and Vivace. It’s rare we have a disagreement about and when we do we do it respectfully.”

“I don’t want to seem like an old married couple but a lot of people think we’re married. We’re not,” says Mellen.

She does all the books. An acknowledged foodie, he deals more with the culinary side. Both partners enjoy engaging with people.

“We feel the same way about how to treat people – our clientele as well as our employees,” he says.

 

 

Arrivaderci Vivace

 

 

The fierce devotion of M’s regulars is appreciated but it can be too much.

“Somebody who’s been coming here for awhile may have an opinion about what you’re doing and if you don’t take their advice you can ruffle some feathers that way,” says Samuelson. “We listen to people a lot and we always end up making decisions based on the good of the whole, which I think is responsible ownership.”

He says that with M’s “in good hands” he and Mellen decided to launch Vivace in 1993 ” to fill a gap we saw in the landscape of the restaurant scene in Omaha for Mediterranean-influenced Italian food. We wanted to fill a niche for the community but also complement what we do at M’s.” He’s proud of its pasta and pizza.

Vivace’s larger space is perhaps warmer than M’s but not as intimate.

Executive chef Bobby Mekiney is in charge of both kitchens. “He’s young and kind of bridges the generation gap for us in a lot of ways,” says Samuelson. “He’s as talented a guy as we’ve ever had here. He makes it work.”

Samuelson’s proud that M’s Pub and Vivace express the same “meticulously adhered-to, single-minded vision of passionate, locally-owned” venues that make the Market “a community treasure.”

For hours and menus, visit http://www.mspubomaha.com and http://www.vivaceomaha.com.

When New Horizons dawned for African-Americans seeking homes in Omaha

January 17, 2013 11 comments

The following story  explores one of the first intentional interracial housing developments in Omaha and perhaps anywhere in the Midwest or the nation as a whole.  The suburban New Horizons addition was created in the 1960s as a sanctuary free of the red lining practices and restrictive housing covenants that relegated blacks to specific, designated, and confining areas to live.  Blacks found no barriers to build or rent or move into New Horizons, where their neighbors might be black or white. This social action or experiment largely worked, too, though decades later the neighborhood has lost the diversity it once had and is now mostly white.  This story is very personal to me. You see, my late life partner, Joslen Johnson Shaw, grew up in New Horizons.  She was African American,  Her parents, George and Juanita Johnson, built there in 1969 and were among the first residents in the neighborhood, black or white. The Johnsons were barrier breakers in more ways than this.  They didn’t let racism or discrimination stand in the way of their aspirations.  Before moving to New Horizons Joslen accoompanied her folks to open houses and saw with her own eyes as realtors and homeowners shunned and ignored them.  As Joslen’s mother, Juanita, put it, “It was if we were invisible.”  My primary source for the story is Juanita, who still lives in New Horizons.  Joslen and I bought a home of our own in New Horizons several years ago.  It’s just around the corner from Juanita’s place.  I’m sitting in my office in that home as I type and post this.  The other main source is Joslen’s brother, Marty.  I wrote the story for them and in memory of Joslen and her late father, George.

 

 

Image result for When New Horizons dawned for African Americans in Omaha www.thereader

 

 

When New Horizons dawned for African-Americans seeking homes in Omaha

For The Reader (www.thereader.com)

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

It took the civil rights movement to bring segregation in the United States into sharp relief. The South was the epicenter of the racial equality battle but American-style apartheid as well as attempts to dismantle it were everywhere, including Nebraska.

Omaha prides itself on hospitality yet African Americans here could not always live or or work or play or attend school where they wanted through the 1960s. In response to housing and work discrimination, for example, protest marches, sit-ins and other advocacy efforts organized.

With homeowners, realtors and banks discouraging blacks from white neighborhoods, it took extraordinary measures for blacks to integrate some sections of the city. One remedy was the creation of a new subdivision, appropriately named New Horizons, located on the then-western outskirts of the city, just off 108th Street between Dodge and Blondo and just north of Old Mill. The backs of the western-most homes abut 108th Street and the easternmost residences face 105th Street. Homes also extend from Nicholas Street on the north to Burt Street on the south. The interracial developers designed the new addition as an integrated neighborhood open to all. By all accounts their vision was fulfilled.

Situated in what was then-countryside New Horizons was established in 1965 and the first houses were built soon after on the tiered land. Corn fields stretched south, west and east of this built-from-the-ground-up neighborhood only a stone’s throw away from small working farms and stables. The two major east-west thoroughfares in the area, Dodge and Blondo, were two lanes each then.

 

 

10761 Izard St, Omaha, NE 68114

New Horizons neighborhood

 

 

This story chronicles the experiences of some past and present residents of this mixed race community, including what precipitated their moving there. They don’t necessarily view New Horizons as having been a social action or social experiment but that’s exactly what it was. It was revolutionary for the time, especially by Omaha standards, where even hometown icon and Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Bob Gibson was frustrated in his attempts to move into the neighborhood of his choice. If he couldn’t find satisfaction, then every day people like George and Juanita Johnson stood little chance.

In the mid-1960s the Johnsons were a college-educated, two-income married couple on an upwardly mobile track, but neither their names nor their positions gave them any influence to change that era’s prevailing discrimination. He was a Benson High art teacher. She was a North High math instructor and guidance counselor. They’d recently started a family and next sought buying a new, larger home near a park and good schools.

The North Omaha residents had built a house at 38th and Bedford but having outgrown it they set their sights on moving to wherever they could find their dream home. As African Americans, however, their aspirational pursuits, like those of countless other persons of color, were blocked.

It was a time when blacks were routinely subjected to unfair housing practices, some subtle, others blatant, that effectively confined them to living in a small geographic area. Regardless of means, if you were black in Omaha then you had little choice but to live, as the Johnsons did, in the area bounded by Cuming Street on the south, Ames Avenue on the north, 40th Street on the west and 16th Street on the east. The northeast inner city became the black “ghetto.” Getting out of it required a migration not alike that of blacks migrating from the Deep South.

In many ways Omaha’s de facto segregation was as pernicious and long lasting as any on the books in the South, resulting in a divided city that clearly demarcated the Near Northside as Black Omaha. Red lining real estate tactics, discriminatory banking practices, restrictive housing covenants and unfair hiring standards made it difficult if not impossible for blacks to live and work in many parts of their own city, denied and discouraged simply due to the color of their skin.

Though blacks live everywhere in the metro today, Omaha’s geographic segregation persists – with most blacks in Omaha still residing in North Omaha – in part due to the lasting imprint of the housing discrimination that once ruled the day.

Better opportunities in education, employment and housing slowly emerged in response to equal rights pleas, marches, mandates, laws and court rulings.

“Things were just beginning to open up with schools and jobs and activities in Omaha but you had to look for them. You know, you would see pictures in the paper of things happening, of activities that should have been open to everyone, but because of restrictive housing they really weren’t,” says Juanita Johnson.

She says an entire apparatus or conspiracy of bigoted hearts kept white areas off limits to blacks. Realtors and others acted as overseers in steering blacks to all black enclaves or to undesirable neighborhoods deemed ready for integration.

“We contacted some realtors and they showed us some places north. They told us we could be blockbusters and open up some new neighborhoods,” Johnson recalls. “The realtors decided which areas were going to integrate and which areas weren’t. They would watch the housing trends and determine, ‘We’ll let this block go now.” But the neighborhoods they were offering to us didn’t show much potential, they didn’t look like they were going to stay good working neighborhoods, they didn’t look like they were stable. There were several for rent signs on properties.”

 

 

 

Juanita Johnson today

 

 

She’s sure some realtors she and her late husband George dealt with were merely “going through the motions” to placate them.  “They just showed us places that we would not have been interested in anyway – houses that were too small for what we wanted. We didn’t want a place that would have other houses six feet on either side. We wanted to find a house or build a house on a good-sized lot that had room for yard and play space for kids.”

Even though the Johnsons were eager and prepared to buy, it was as if their money was no good and their wishes didn’t matter. The more they looked for a home and were turned away the more incredulous they grew.

“We went to several open houses and at some of them it was as if we were invisible,” Johnson says. “I mean, they would greet people in front of us, they would greet people that were coming in behind us and it was just as if we weren’t there. I really can’t say there was anything (racial) said, it was more or less as if we were invisible walking through the places. We just thought they were stupid to behave in this way and we laughed at them.”

The Johnsons experienced the same frustration in their desire for a better life that the fictional Younger family encountered in Lorraine Hansberry‘s A Raisin in the Sun. Though the Youngers meet much resistance in the story, they eventually fulfill their goal of moving out of the inner city tenement they rent into a suburban home of their own. That play’s powerful dramatization, later adapted to the screen, made quite an impact on blacks facing the same issues in real life.

“I think that helped to motivate a lot of us in that it appeared to be possible and that this could happen to us as individuals,” says Johnson.

But there were societal-cultural roadblocks to achieving that dream. Being shunned, ignored and disrespected the way the Johnsons and so many of their black peers were elicited hard feelings in some, discouraged others and in the case of the Johnsons, motivated them even more.

The fact that we had been looking for a place and were just tired of running into barriers,” Johnson says, is what made the prospect of building a home in New Horizons “so attractive.” She says New Horizons represented a balancing-the-scales effort at “an integrated community of middle to upscale housing that was out far enough from the main part of the city that people wouldn’t say we were living in the ghetto – that we were in a suburban house just like anyone else.”

Moving to a racially blended suburb also promised a diversity fast disappearing in northeast Omaha, where white flight left the area predominantly African American. The suburbs also meant access to better performing schools.

“We wanted to be in a situation where we could have the best for our children, the best opportunities, and we wanted them to be exposed to the cultural advantages I knew other children were being exposed to,” she says. “We wanted our kids to have the opportunities to participate in whatever they were really interested in doing and not be kept out or let in because they were black. We knew we wanted an opportunity for the kids to have a really integrated education.”

 

Juanita, Joslen and George Johnson a few years before moving to New Horizons

 

 

Enter New Horizons. Its late developers were prominent Omaha veterinarian, Dr. A.B. Pittman, architect Golden Zenon and architect-civil engineer J.Z. Jizba. Pittman and Zenon were African American and Jizba was white.

For Pittman, New Horizons was an expression of a commitment to helping his own people realize their dreams and to bridging the divide between people of different races and creeds. He was president of the Omaha branches of the National Urban League and the National Council of Christians and Jews.

“My father was always concerned about getting people better housing,” says his daughter Antoinette “Toni” Pittman. “He was on the board of the Urban League Housing Foundation (now Family Housing Advisory Services), the Omaha Planning Board and the Omaha Housing Authority. Even before New Horizons he was involved in a housing development around 27th and Hamilton that the North Freeway took out. He was just concerned with people bettering themselves. He just did it, he didn’t talk about it.”

Pittman struck a personal blow for equal housing by buying a home at 97th and Dodge. In order to avoid potential obstacles or opposition he had a proxy buy it for him and then hand over the deed, explains his daughter, who grew up there. She says hers was the only black family there and fortunately they met no resistance.

 

Dr. A.B. Pittman

 

 

The Johnsons were friends with the Pittmans through the northeast Omaha Episcopal church they both attended, St. Philip’s.

“Probably George and A.B. and Zinnon had been talking about this and it just seemed it was available at the right time and we were in the right position to make that decision and build there. We were looking at getting settled before any more time went by,” says Johnson.

The Johnsons moved into their newly built split-level home in the spring of 1969. Their late daughter, Joslen Johnson Shaw, was 9 at the time and their son Marty 4.

She says finally getting into the house they’d so long sought brought a mix of feelings, including relief.

“We were just real anxious to get settled in what we knew was going to be our permanent home.”

Another black family there with the same surname, though no relation, felt the same sense of accomplishment.

“I remember the day we moved in there my father standing in front of the house and being so proud,” says Glenda Johnson Moore, whose parents Walter and Bernice Johnson had weathered the same frustrations George and Juanita did in seeking a new home. “Who would have ever thought my father would have moved in that neighborhood? That was unheard of. It was great. I mean, it was a big thing.”

It was enough of a newsworthy event that the Omaha World-Herald did a story.

For the most part, New Horizons lived up to its promise, with a nearly 50-50 split of blacks and whites at the start. A Hispanic family also became early residents there.

“It worked out fine,” says Juanita Johnson, who adds that the neighborhood association and occasional neighborhood picnics enjoyed nearly even black and white participation. Her best friends there were black and white. She suspects most if not all the whites who moved into New Horizons were not looking to make any kind of social statement about diversity.

“I think they were people that really didn’t care, they were just looking for housing.”

That was true of Corinne Murphy and her late husband William, who built their home in 1970 directly north of George and Juanita’s. Though the Murphys knew about the open integration policy it didn’t factor one way or the other in their decision. “We were just looking for a place where they were building houses and this happened to be one of the places they were building them,” says Corrine. “I just liked the neighborhood. It had a nice park. There weren’t too many people yet.”

She says the idea of living in a racially mixed neighborhood “didn’t bother us” and that, if anything, she admired her new black neighbors, most of whom were professionals. “They were a lot smarter and better off than I was. They all had good paying jobs and were well educated. I got along with them all.”

She says her five kids became fast friends with the black kids in the neighborhood.

“Marty Johnson and my son Rory were very good friends. There was a time when they were walking home from school and kids were picking on Marty and my Rory just got right in the middle of that argument with those kids and made sure he got home OK. Yeah, they were best friends, they really liked each other. They still do.”

Marty says neither the white kids he befriended there nor their parents ever betrayed any hint of racism.

“I was always up at their houses playing and their parents were always very friendly and welcoming to me, and they’d always come down and play at our house.”

Whatever sport was in season, he says, neighborhood kids would join in playing it, older kids, young kids, black kids, white kids.

“Looking back on it now somebody driving by having no idea what this neighborhood was about would probably be really surprised to see all these kids of different colors playing together. It was probably very unique. I look back at it and I think, ‘Oh wow,’ it was probably pretty groundbreaking.”

Lee Valley, an adjacent neighborhood built around the same time as New Horizons, stood in sharp contrast because it lacked any diversity. The Horizons kids would occasionally challenge the Valley kids to a game of football or baseball and the marked difference in their makeup was hard to ignore.

“We were this totally mixed group of kids playing these white kids,” Marty says.

The area school Marty and Joslen attended, Edison, was all white until the Johnson siblings and some of their fellow black Horizons neighbors attended there. Marty says he never ran into racism in the neighborhood but did at school.

Glenda Johnson Moore also had a hard time adjusting to otherwise all white schools but her Horizons experience wasn’t all peaches and cream.

“The people that lived across the street from us were extremely racist,” she says. “We were called names. It got better eventually but you felt it, you absolutely you felt it. It was uncomfortable for a long time.”

Overall, she’s grateful to have grown up there.

“I’m glad I had the diversity. It’s made me a stronger person, it’s made me who I am today. I can communicate to anybody. It was a good place, it was a good thing.”

Juanita Johnson says she wanted her kids to have the enrichment that comes from diverse experiences because her “progressive” parents wanted the same for her. Her father Saybert Hanger was one of the area’s first black attorneys and a federal meat inspector. Her mother Ione Hanger was an elementary school teacher in the Omaha Public Schools and later taught at Creighton University. Johnson says her parents wanted full opportunities for all kids “and I was fortunate enough that they pushed and encouraged me to break barriers.”

At Omaha Central High, circa 1945, Juanita was the only black student on the year book and school newspaper staffs. She received her master’s from Creighton University at a time when few blacks attended there. At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s  International House she resided with students from around the world and she attended interracial camps that attracted students from the four corners.

Similarly, her husband cultivated black and white friends growing up in Marshalltown, Iowa and he integrated Wayne State (Neb.) College.

It’s not coincidental both Marty and Joslen involved themselves in activities, including her showing horses, that meant interacting mainly with whites. Joslen integrated Brownell-Talbot School. Many of their friends were white. Each ended up with a white life partner.

Marty says, “I think my well-rounded life is because my parents were always exposing me to different things. They really were pioneers in a lot of different things. This was the pattern of their life –  breaking barriers. If there was a barrier they certainly eliminated it. They were groundbreaking and cool and somewhat courageous, too.”

His mother says all of it was meant to foster a time when “I didn’t want my children to have to look at the things they were doing as being barrier breakers. If they wanted to try out for something they could just go ahead and try and either be good enough to be accepted that every other child was accepted or refused because they weren’t good enough, but not because of their color.”

Juanita and George were also intentional about keeping their family’s ties to Omaha’s traditional African American community alive. For example, they continued attending their home parish, St. Philips, whose congregation was entirely black. Marty took music lessons from an instructor in northeast Omaha. Joslen was active in Jack and Jill, a social club designed to reconnect young blacks dispersed when their families moved from the Near Northside.

Marty says he appreciates “all that my parents exposed us to and always giving us opportunities. I feel very fortunate they made the choices they made. It’s pretty amazing to me how forward thinking they were.”

Juanita Johnson still lives in New Horizons and her next door neighbor is still Corinne Murphy. The neighborhood is not nearly as diverse as it once was and the homes show their age, but it’s held its own. Many old-line black residents have moved or died off and few new blacks have moved in. Johnson attributes the paucity of blacks there to the fact they have so many more options today. That was the whole point of New Horizons anyway – freedom to live where you want.

Now the metro’s replete with diverse neighborhoods just like New Horizons used to be and may be again.

 

Biga Talks Alexander Payne and Signs Copies of New Book at Omaha Press Club

January 14, 2013 Leave a comment

AP Front Cover w border

Biga Talks Alexander Payne and Signs Copies of New Book at Omaha Press Club

As a freelance journalist most readily identified with the alternative, even fringe publications I contribute to, it’s rare to get an establishment media platform of any kind.  That all changes this week when I gig as featured speaker for the Omaha Professional Development Series at the Omaha Press Club.

My topic, of course, will be the many years I’ve spent covering Alexander Payne.  He’s the subject of my new book: “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter’s Perspective.”

I promise you’ll come away knowing far more about the Oscar-winner, his methodology, and his place both in world cinema and in the pantheon of Nebraska film greats than you did before.  You’ll also get behind-the-scenes observations and insights I’ve gleaned from visiting his sets and interviewing his collaborators, including what I glimpsed on the set of his new film, “Nebraska.”

Join me-

 

Thur. Jan. 17

5:30 to 7 pm

Omaha Press Club

1620 Dodge St., 22nd floor, old First National Bank Building

 

A no-host bar with hors d’oeuvres will open at 5:30 p.m.  My presentation begins at 6 p.m., followed by open discussion and a book signing at 6:30.  The cost is $10 for members and their guests, $15 for nonmembers and $5 for students.  RSVP to 402-345-8008.

Whether you’re a fan of my blog or a Facebook friend or a media colleague or you’re just interested in everything about Alexander Payne, I invite you to join me for an evening of socializing and cinema chat.  Hope to see you there.


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