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Father Ken Vavrina’s new book “Crossing Bridges” charts his life serving others

October 29, 2015 4 comments

For a man whose vocation as a priest is a half-century long and counting, it may come as a surprise that Father Ken Vavrina had no notion of entering that life until, at age 18, a voice instructed him to attend seminary school.  It was a classic calling from on high that he didn’t particularly want or appreciate.  He had his life planned out, after all, and it didn’t include the priesthood.  He resisted the very thought of it.  He rationalized why it wasn’t right for him.  He wished the admonition would go away.  But it just wouldn’t.  He couldn’t ignore it.  He couldn’t shake it.  Deep inside he knew the truth and rightness of it even though it seemed like a strange imposition.  In the end, of course, he obeyed and followed the path ordained for him.  His rich life serving others has seen him minister to Native Americans on reservations, African-Americans in Omaha’s inner city, occupying protestors at Wounded Knee, lepers in Yemen. the poor, hungry and homeless in Calcutta, India and war refugees in Liberia.  He worked for Mother Teresa and for Catholic Relief Services.  He’s been active in Omaha Together One Community.  There have been many other stops as well, including Italy, Cuba, New York City and rural Nebraska.  He has crossed many cultural and geographic bridges to engage people where they are at and to respond to their needs for food, water, medicine, shelter, education, counseling.  Everywhere he’s gone he’s gained far more from those he served than he’s given them and as a result he’s grown personally and spiritually.  He has attained great humility and gratitude.  His simple life of service to others has much to teach us and that’s why he commissioned me to help him write the new book, Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden.  It was a privilege to share his remarkable life and story in book form.  Here is an article I’ve written about him and his many travels.  It is the cover story in the November 2015 issue of the New Horizons.  I hope, as he does, that this story as well as the book we did together that this story is drawn from inspires you to cross your own bridges into different cultures and experiences. Many blessings await.

The book is available at http://www.upliftingpublishing.com/ as well as on Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com and for Kindle. The Bookworm is exclusively carrying “Crossing Bridges” among local bookstores.

Vavrina Teresa cover (for Leo)

Father Ken with Mother Teresa

Father Ken Vavrina’s new book “Crossing Bridges” charts his life serving others

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in the November 2015 issue of the New Horizons
NOTE:
My profile of Father Ken Vavrina contains excerpts and photos from the new book I did with him, Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden.

 

A Life of Service
Retired Catholic priest Father Kenneth Vavrina, 80, has never made an enemy in his epic travels serving people and opposing injustice.

“I have never met a stranger. Everyone I meet is my friend,” declares Vavrina, who’s lived and worked in some of the world’s poorest places and most trying circumstances.

It’s no accident he ended up going abroad as a missionary because from childhood he burned with curiosity about what’s on the other side of things – hills, horizons, fences, bridges. His life’s been all about crossing bridges, both the literal and figurative kind. Thus, the title of his new book, Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden, his personal chronicle of repeatedly venturing across borders ministering to people. His willingness to go where people are in need, whether near or far, and no matter how unfamiliar or forbidding the location, has been his life’s recurring theme.

For most of his 50-plus years as a priest he’s helped underserved populations, some in outstate Neb., some in Omaha, and for a long time in developing nations overseas. Whether pastoring in a parish or doing missionary work in the field, he’s never looked back, only forward, led by his insistent conscience, open heart and boy-like sense of wanderlust. That conscience has put him at odds with his religious superiors in the Omaha Catholic Archdiocese on those occasions when he’s publicly disagreed with Church positions on social issues. His tendency to speak his mind and to criticize the Catholic hierarchy he’s sworn to obey has led to official reprimands and suspensions.

But no one questions his dedication to the priesthood. Always putting his faith in action, he shepherds people wherever he lays his head. He lived five years in a mud hut minus indoor plumbing and electricity tending to lepers in Yemen. He became well acquainted with the slums of Calcutta, India while working there. He spent nights in the African bush escorting supplies. He spent two nights in a trench under fire. The archdiocesan priest served Native Americans on reservations and African-Americans in Omaha’s poorest neighborhoods. He befriended members of the American Indian Movement, Black Panthers and various activists, organizers, elected officials and civic leaders.

His work abroad put him on intimate terms with Blessed Mother Teresa, now in line for sainthood. and made him a friend of convenience of deposed Liberia, Africa dictator Charles Taylor, now imprisoned for war crimes. As a Catholic Relief Services program director he served earthquake victims in Italy, the poorest of the poor in India, Bangladesh and Nepal and refugees of civil war in Liberia.

He found himself in some tight spots and compromising positions along the way. He ran supplies to embattled activists during the Siege at Wounded Knee. He was arrested and jailed in Yemen before being expelled from the country. He faced-off with trigger-happy rebels leading supply missions via truck, train and ship in Liberia and dealt with warlords who had no respect for human life.

If his book has a message it’s that anyone can make a difference, whether right at home or half way around the globe, if you’re intentional and humble enough to let go and let God.

“There is nothing remarkable about me…yet I have been blessed to lead a most fulfilling life…The nature of my work has taken me to some fascinating places around the world and introduced me to the full spectrum of humanity, good and bad.

“Stripping away the encumbrances of things and titles is truly liberating because then it is just you and the person beside you or in front of you. There is nothing more to hide behind. That is when two human hearts truly connect.”

Even though he’s retired and no longer puts himself in harm’s way, he remains quite active. He comforts and anoints the sick, he administers communion, he celebrates Mass and he volunteers at St. Benedict the Moor. Occasional bouts of the malaria he picked up overseas are reminders of his years abroad. So is the frozen shoulder he inherited after a botched surgery in Mexico. His shaved head is also an emblem from extended stays in hot climates, where to keep cool he took to buzz cuts he maintains to this day. Then there’s his simple, vegan diet that mirrors the way he ate in Third World nations.

This tough old goat recently survived a bout with cancer. A malignant tumor in his bladder was surgically removed and after recouping in the hospital he returned home. The cancer’s not reappeared but he has battled a postoperative bladder infection and gout. Ask him how he’s doing and he might volunteer, “I’m not getting around too well these days” but he usually leaves it at, “I’m OK.” He lives at the John Vianney independent living community for retired clergy and lay seniors. He’s more spry than many residents. It’s safe to say he’s visited places they’ve never ventured to.

Father Ken #1 (for Leo)

Father Ken today

Roots
Born in Bruno and raised in Clarkson, Neb., both Czech communities in Neb.’s Bohemian Alps, Vavrina and his older brother Ron were raised by their public school teacher mother after their father died in an accident when they were small. The boys and their mother moved in with their paternal grandparents and an uncle, Joe, who owned a local farm implement business and car dealership. The uncle took the family on road trip vacations. Once, on the way back from Calif. by way of the American southwest, Vavrina engaged in an exchange with his mother that profoundly influenced him.

“I remember my mom telling me, “On the other side of that bridge is Mexico,” and right then and there I vowed, ‘One day I’m going to cross that bridge'”

“I never crossed that particular bridge but I did cross a lot of bridges to a lot of different lifestyles and countries and cultures and it was a great, great, great blessing. You learn so much in working with people who are different.”

One key lesson he learned is that despite our many differences, we’re all the same.

Even though he grew up around very little diversity, he was taught to accept all people, regardless of race or ethnicity. He feels that lesson helped him acclimate to foreign cultures and to living and working with people of color whose ways differed from his.

As a fatherless child of the Great Depression and with rationing on due to the Second World War, Vavrina knew something about hardship but it was mostly a good life. Growing up, he went hunting and fishing with his uncle, whose shop he worked in. He played organized basketball and baseball for an early mentor, coach Milo Blecha.

“All in all, I had a wonderful childhood in Clarkson,” he writes. “It was a simple life. The Church was dominant. There was a Catholic church and a Presbyterian church. Father Kubesh was the pastor at Saints Cyril and Methodius Catholic Church. When he was not saying Mass, Father Kubesh always had a cigar in his mouth. I served Mass as an altar boy. Little did I imagine that he would counsel me when I embarked on studying for the priesthood.”

All through high school Vavrina dated the same girl. His family wasn’t particularly religious and he never even entertained the possibility of the priesthood until he felt the calling at 18. Out of nowhere, he says, the thought, really more like an admonition, formed in his head.


“I was driving a pickup truck on a Saturday morning, about four miles east of Clarkson, when something happened that is still crystal clear to me. I distinctly heard a voice say, ‘Why don’t you go to the seminary?’ Just like that, out of the blue. I thought, This is crazy.

“Was it God’s voice?

“Being a priest is a calling, and I guess maybe it was the call that I felt then and there. If you want to give it a name or try to explain it, then God called me to serve at that moment. He planted the seed of that idea in my head, and He placed the spark of that desire in my heart.”

The very idea threw Vavrina for a loop. After all, he had prospects. He expected to marry his sweetheart and to either go into the family business or study law at Creighton University. The priesthood didn’t jibe with any of that.

He says when he told Father Kubesh about what happened the priest’s first reaction was, “Huh?” For a long time Vavrina didn’t tell anyone else but when it became evident it wasn’t some passing fancy he let his friends and family know. No one, not even himself, could be sure yet how serious his conviction was, which is why he only pledged to give it one year at Conception Seminary College in northwest Missouri.

He told his uncle, I’ll give it a shot.” And so he did. One year turned into two, two years turned into three, and so on, and though his studies were demanding he found he enjoyed academics.

He finished up at St. Paul Seminary at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. and was ordained in 1962.

Blank bookcover with clipping path

Blank bookcover with clipping path

Calling all cultures
His introduction to new cultures began with his very first assignment, as associate pastor for the Winnebago and Macy reservations in far northern Nebraska. Vavrina was struck by the people’s warmth and sincerity and by the disproportionate numbers living in poverty and afflicted with alcoholism. He disapproved of efforts by the Church to try and strip children of their Native American ways, even sending kids off to live with white families in the summer.

His next assignment brought him to Sacred Heart parish in predominantly black northeast Omaha. He arrived at the height of racial tension during the late 1960s civil rights struggle. He served on an inner city ministerial team that tried getting a handle on black issues. When riots erupted he was there on the street trying to calm a volatile situation. The more he learned about the inequalities facing that community, the more sympathetic he became to both the civil rights and Black Power movements, so much so, he says, people took to calling him “the blackest cat in the alley.”

He was an ally of Nebraska state Sen. Ernie Chambers, activist Charlie Washington and Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown. He befriended Black Panthers David Rice and Ed Poindexter (Mondo we Langa), both convicted in the homemade bomb death of Omaha police officer Larry Minard. The two men have always maintained their innocence..

Vavrina welcomed changes ushered in by Vatican II to make the Church more accessible. He criticized what he saw as ultra-conservative and misguided stands on social issues. For example, he opposed official Catholic positions excluding divorced and gay Catholics and forbidding priests from marrying and barring women being ordained. He began a long tradition of writing letters to the editor to express his views. He’s never stopped advocating for these things.

He next served at north downtown Holy Family parish, where his good friend, kindred spirit and fellow “troublemaker” Jack McCaslin pastored. McCaslin spouted progressive views from the pulpit and became a peace activist protesting the military-industrial complex, which resulted in him being arrested many times. The two liberals were a good fit for Holy Family’s open-minded congregation.

Then, in 1973, Vavrina’s life intersected with history. Lorelei Decora, an enrolled member of the Winnebago tribe, Thunder Bird Clan, called to ask him to deliver medical supplies to her and fellow American Indian Movement activists at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. A group of Indians agitating for change occupied the town. Authorities surrounded them. The siege carried huge symbolic implications given its location was the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre. Vavrina knew Decora when she was precocious child. Now she was a militant teen prevailing on him to ride into an armed standoff. He never hesitated. He and a friend Joe Yellow Thunder, an Oglala Sioux, rounded up supplies from doctors at St. Joseph Hospital. They drove to the siege and Father Ken talked his way inside past encamped U.S, marshals.

He met with AIM leader and cofounder Dennis Banks, whom he knew from before.


“Then I saw Lorelei and I looked her in the eye and asked, ‘What are you doing here?’ She said with great conviction, ‘I came to die.’ They really thought they would all be killed. They were fully committed…On his walkie-talkie Banks reached the authorities and told them, ‘Let this guy stay here. He’s objective. He’ll let you know what’s going on.’ The authorities went along…that’s how I came to spend two nights at the compound. We bivouacked in a ravine where the Indians had carved out trenches. We used straw and blankets over our coats, plus body heat, to keep warm at night. It was not much below freezing, and there was little snow on the ground, which made the camp bearable.

“At night the shooting would commence…the tracers going overhead, the Indians huddled for cover, and several of the occupiers sick with cold and flu symptoms.

“Once back home, Joe and I attempted to make a second medicine supply run up there. We drove all the way to the rim but were turned back by the marshals because the violence had started up again and had actually escalated. When the siege finally ended that spring, there were many arrests and a whole slew of charges filed against the protesters.”

By the late-’70s Vavrina was serving a northeast Neb. parish and feeling restless. He’d given his all to combatting racism and advocating for equal rights but was disappointed more transformational change didn’t occur. He saw many priests abandon their vows and the Church regress into conservatism after the promise of Vatican II reforms. More than anything though, he felt too removed from the world of want. It bothered him he’d never really put himself on the line by giving up things for a greater good or surrendering his ego to a life of servitude.


“I felt I was out of the mainstream, away from the action. Plus, I knew the civil rights movement was…not going to reach what I thought it could achieve…So I decided I was going overseas. I wanted to be where I could do the greatest good. I always felt drawn to the missions…I just felt a need to experience voluntary poverty and to become nothing in a foreign land.

“…an experience in Thailand changed the whole trajectory of my missions plan. I was walking the streets of Bangkok…on the edge of downtown…Then I made a wrong turn and suddenly found myself in the slums of Bangkok…everywhere I looked was human want and suffering at a scale I was unprepared for.

“I was shocked and appalled by the conditions people lived in. I realized there were slums all over the world and these people needed help. What was I doing about it? The experience really hit me in the face and marked an abrupt change in my thinking. I looked at my relative affluence and comfortable existence, and I suddenly saw the hypocrisy in my life. I resolved then and there, I was going to change, and I was going to move away from the privilege I enjoy, and I would work with the poor.”

A reinforcing influence was Mother Teresa, whom he admired for leaving behind her own privilege and possessions to tend to the poor and sick and dying. He resolved to offer himself in service to her work.
The nun, he writes, “was a great inspiration..” Nothing could shake his conviction to go follow a radically different path and calling.

His going away had nothing to do with escaping the past but everything to do with following a new course and passion. By that time he’s already worked 15 years in the archdiocese and “loved every minute of it.” He was finishing up a master’s degree in counseling at Creighton University. “Everything was good. No nagging doubts. But I just felt compelled to do more,” he writes.

He asked and received permission from the diocese to work overseas for one year and that single year, he describes, turned into 19 “incredible years helping the poorest of the poor.”

Yemen
He no sooner found Mother Teresa in Italy than she asked him to go to Yemen, an Arab country in southwest Asia, to work with residents of the leper village City of Light.

“I simply replied, ‘Sure,’” Vavrina notes in his book.

In Yemen he witnessed the fear and superstition that’s caused lepers to be treated as outcasts everywhere. In that community he worked alongside Missionaries of Charity as well as lepers.


“My primary job was to scrape dead skin off patients using a knife or blade. It was done very crudely. Lepers, whether they are active or negative cases, have a problem of rotting skin. That putrid skin has to be removed for the affected area to heal and to prevent infection…I would then clean the skin.

“I would also keep track of the lepers and where they were with their treatment and the medicines they needed.”

CB Interior Chapter 8 III SMALL SIZE with album and front cover 08_14_15

He embraced the spartan lifestyle and shopping at the local souk. He found time to hike up Mount Kilimanjaro. He also saw harsh things. An alleged rapist was stoned to death and the body displayed at the gate of the market. Girls were compelled to enter arranged marriages, forbidden from getting an education or job, and generally treated as property. Yemen is also where he contracted malaria and endured the first sweats and fevers that accompany it.

Yet, he says, Yemen was the place he found the most contentment. Then, without warning, his world turned upside down when he found himself the target of Yemeni authorities. They took him in for seemingly routine questioning that turned into several nights of pointed interrogation. He was released, but under house arrest, only to be detained again, this time in an overcrowded communal jail cell.

He was incarcerated nearly two weeks before the U.S. embassy arranged his release. No formal charges were brought against him. The police insinuated proselytizing, which he flatly denied, though he sensed they actually suspected him of spying. They couldn’t believe a healthy, middle-aged American male would choose to work with lepers.

His release was conditional on him immediately leaving the country. The expulsion hurt his soul.


“Being kicked out of the country, and for nothing mind you, other than blind suspicion, was not the way I imagined myself departing. I was disappointed. I truly believe that if I had been left to do my work in peace, I would still be there because I enjoyed every minute of working with the lepers. There is so much need in a place like Yemen, and while I could help only a few people, I did help them. It was taxing but fulfilling work.”

India
He traveled to Italy, where Catholic Relief Services hired him to manage a program rebuilding an earthquake ravaged area. Then CRS sent him to supervise aid programs in India. After nine months in Cochin he was transferred to Calcutta. Everywhere he set foot, hunger prevailed, with millions barely getting by on a bare subsistence level and life a daily survival test.

Besides supplying food, the programs taught farmers better agricultural practices and enlisted women in the micro loan program Grameen Bank. In all, he directed $38 million in aid annually.

The generous spirit of people to share what little they have with others impressed him. Seeing so many precariously straddle life and death, with many mothers and children not making it, opened his eyes. So did the sheer scale of want there.


“I will never forget my first night in Calcutta. I said to the driver, ‘What are in these sacks we keep passing by?’ ‘Those are people.’ Hundreds upon thousands of people made their beds and homes alongside the road. It was a scale of homelessness I could not fathom. That was my introduction to Calcutta.

“I was scared of Calcutta. Of the push and pull and crunch of the staggering numbers of people. Of the absurd overcrowding in the neighborhoods and streets. Of the overwhelming, mind-numbing, heartbreaking, soul-hurting poverty. That mass of needy humanity makes for a powerful, sobering, jarring reality that assaults all the senses…

“…only God knows the true size of the population…I often say to religious and lay people alike, ‘Go to Calcutta and walk the streets for six days and it will change your life forever” Walk the streets there for one day and even one hour, and it will change you. I know it did me.”

Vavrina was reunited there with Mother Teresa.

“I spent a lot of time working with Mother, Whenever she had a problem she would come into the office. If there was a natural disaster where her Sisters worked we would always help with food or whatever they needed.”

Vavrina Teresa inside (for Leo)

CB Interior Chapter 9 IV SMALL SIZE with album and front cover 08_14_15

He witnessed people’s adoration of Mother Teresa wherever she went. There was enough mutual respect between this American priest and Macedonian nun that they could speak candidly and laugh freely in each other’s company. He criticized her refusal to let her Sisters do the type of development work his programs did. He disapproved of how tough she was with her Sisters, whom she demanded live in poverty and restrict themselves to providing comfort care to the sick and dying.

He writes, “I disagreed with Mother and I told her so. I knew the value of development work. Our CRS programs in India were proof of its effectiveness…she listened to me, not necessarily agreeing with me at all…and then went right ahead and did her own thing anyway…I cried the day I left Calcutta in 1991. I loved Calcutta. Mother Teresa had tears in her eyes as well. We had become very good friends. She was the real deal…hands on…not afraid to get her hands dirty.”

Years later he read with dismay and sadness how she experienced the Dark Night of the Soul – suffering an inconsolable crisis of faith.


“I knew her well and yet I never detected any indication, any sign that she was burdened with this internal struggle. Not once in all the time I spent with her did she betray a hint of this. She seemed in all outward appearances to be quite happy and jovial,” he writes. “However, I did know that she was very intense about her faith and her work. In her mind and heart she was never able to do enough. She never felt she did enough to please God, and so there was this constant, gnawing void she felt that she could never fully fill or reconcile.”

Even all these years later Vavrina says his experience in India is never far from his thoughts.

Liberia
CRS next sent him to Liberia, Africa, where a simmering civil war boiled over. His job was getting supplies to people who’d fled their villages. That meant dealing with the most powerful rebel warlord, Charles Taylor, whose forces controlled key roads and regions.

The program Vavrina operated there dispersed $42 million in aid each year, most of it in food and medicine. As in India, goods arrived by ship in port for storage in warehouses before being trucked to destinations in-country. Vavrina often rode in the front truck of convoys that passed through rebel-occupied territories where boys brandishing automatic weapons manned checkpoints. There were many tense confrontations.

On three occasions Vavrina got Taylor to release a freight train to carry supplies to a large refugee contingent in dire need of food and medicine in the jungle. Taylor provided a general and soldiers for safe passage but Vavrina went along on the first run to ensure the supplies reached their intended recipients.

Everywhere Vavrina ran aid overseas he contended with corruption to one extent or another. Loss through pilfering and paying out bribes to get goods through were part of the price or tax for conducting commerce. Though he hated it, he dealt with the devil in the person of Taylor in order to get done what needed doing. Grim reminders of the carnage that Taylor inflamed and instigated were never lost on Vavrina and on at least once occasion it hit close to home.

CB Interior Chapter 13 XI SMALL SIZE with album and front cover 08_14_15


“Not for a moment did I ever forget who I was really talking to…I never forgot that he was a ruthless dictator. He was a pathological liar too. He could look you dead in the eye and tell you an out-and-out untruth, and I swear he was convinced he was telling the truth. A real paranoid egomaniac. But in war you cannot always choose your friends.

“Hundreds of thousands of innocent people died in Liberia during those civil wars. There were many atrocities. One in particular touched me personally. On October 20, 1992, five American nuns, all of whom I knew and considered friends, were killed. I had visited them at their convent two days before this tragedy. May they rest in peace.”

The killings were condemned worldwide.

His most treacherous undertaking involved a cargo ship, The Sea Friend, he commissioned to offload supplies in the port at Greenville. Only rebels arrived there first. To make matters worse the ship sprung a leak coming into dock. Thus, it became a test of nerves and a race against time to see if the supplies could be salvaged from falling prey to the sea and/or the clutches of rebels. When all seemed lost and the life of Vavrina and his companions became endangered, a helicopter answered their distress call and rescued them from the ugly situation.

Back home
Hs work in Liberia was left unfinished by the country’s growing instability and by his more frequent malaria attacks, which forced him back home to the States. At the request of CRS he settled in New York City doing speaking and fundraising up and down the East Coast. Then he went to work for the Catholic Medical Mission Board, who sent him to Cuba to safeguard millions of dollars in medical supplies for clinics in an era when America’s Cuba embargo was still officially in effect.

During his visit Vavrina met then-Archbishop of Havana, Jamie Ortega, now a cardinal. Vavrina supported then and applauds now America normalizing relations with Cuba.

He also appreciates the progressive stances Pope Francis has taken in extending a more welcoming hand by the Church to divorced and gay Catholics and in encouraging the Church to be more intentional about serving the poor and disenfranchised. The pope’s call for clergy to be good pastors and shepherds who work directly work with people in need is what Vavrina did and continues doing.

“This is exactly what the Holy Father is saying. They need to get out of the office and stop doing just administration and reach out to people who are being neglected. A shepherd reaches out to the lost sheep. Jesus talks about that all the time,” Vavrina says.

As soon as Vavrina ended his missions work overseas he intended coming back to work in Omaha’s inner city but he kept getting sidetracked. Then he got assigned to serve two rural Neb. parishes. Finally, he got the call to pastor St. Richard’s in North Omaha, where he was sent to heal a congregation traumatized by the pedophile conviction of their former pastor, Father Dan Herek.

Vavrina writes, “Those wounds did not heal overnight. I knew going in I would be inheriting a parish still feeling raw and upset by the scandal. Initially my role was to help people deal with the anger and frustration and confusion they felt. Those strong emotions were shared by adults and youths alike.”

During his time at St. Richard’s he immersed himself in the social action group, Omaha Together One Community.

Facing declining church membership and school enrollment, the archdiocese decided to close St. Richard’s, whereupon Vavrina was assigned the parish he’d long wanted to serve – St. Benedict the Moor. As the metro’s historic African-American Catholic parish, St. Benedict’s has been a refuge to black Catholics for generations. Vavrina led an effort to restore the parish’s adjacent outdoor recreation complex, the Bryant Center, which has become a community anchor for youth sports and educational activities in a high needs neighborhood. He also initiated an adopt a family program to assist single mothers and their children. Several parishes ended up participating.

Poverty and unemployment have long plagued sections of northeast Omaha. Those problems have been compounded by disproportionately high teenage pregnancy, school dropout, incarceration and gun violence rates. Vavrina saw too many young people being lost to the streets through drugs, gangs or prostitution. Many of these ills played out within a block or two of the rectory he lived in and the church he said Mass in. He’s encouraged by new initiatives to support young people and to revitalize the area.

Wherever he pastored he forged close relationships. “One of the benefits of being a pastor is that the parish adopts you as one of their own, and the people there become like a family to you,” he writes.

At St. Ben’s that sense of family was especially strong, so much so that when he announced one Sunday at Mass that the archbishop was compelling him to retired there was a hue and cry from parishioners. He implored his flock not to make too big a fuss and they mostly complied. No, he wasn’t ready to retire, but he obeyed and stepped aside. Retirement gave him time to reflect on his life for the book he ended up publishing through his own Uplifting Publishing and Concierge Marketing Publishing Services in Omaha.

Father Ken #3 (for Leo)

Father Ken enjoying our book

“I’ve had a wonderful life, oh my,” he says.

Now that that wonderful life has been distilled into a book, he hopes his journey is instructive and perhaps inspiring to others.

“I wrote the book hoping it was going to encourage people to cross bridges and to reach out to people who otherwise they would not reach out to. That’s exactly what Pope Francis is talking about.”

Besides, he says, crossing bridges can be the source of much joy. The life story his book lays out is evidence of it.

“That story just says how great a life I have had,” he says.


“It is my prayer that the travels and experiences I describe in these pages serve as guideposts to help you navigate your own wanderings and crossings.

“A bridge of some sort is always before you…never be afraid to open your heart and speak your mind. We are all called to be witnesses. We are all called to testify. To make the crossing, all that is required is a willing and trusting spirit. Go ahead, make your way over to the other side. God is with you every step of the way. Take His hand and follow. Many riches await.”

Order the book at http://www.upliftingpublishing.com.

A WASP’s racial tightrope resulted in enduring book partially set in 1960s Omaha

October 28, 2015 5 comments

White people don’t know shit about black people.

That’s an oversimplification and generalization to be sure but it largely holds true today that many whites don’t know a whole lot about blacks outside of surface cultural things that fail to really get to the heart of the black experience or what it means to be black in America.  That was certainly even more true 50 years ago or so when the events described in the 1970 book The Education of a WASP went down.  The book’s author, the late Lois Mark Stalvey, was a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant and thus WASP Omaha homemaker in the late 1950s-early 1960s when she felt compelled to do something about the inequality confronting blacks that she increasingly became aware of during the civil rights movement.  Her path to a dawning social consciousness was aided by African-Americans in Omaha and Philadelphia, where she moved, including some prominent players on the local social justice scene.  Ernie Chambers was one of her educators.  The late Dr. Claude Organ was another.  Stalvey talked to and learned from socially active blacks.  She got involved in The Cause through various organizations and initiatives.  She even put herself and her family on the line by advocating for open housing, education, and hiring practices.

Her book made waves for baring the depths of her white prejudice and privilege and giving intimate view and voice to the struggles and challenges of blacks who helped her evolve as a human being and citizen.  Those experiences forever changed her and her outlook on the world.  She wrote followup books, she remained socially aware and active.  She taught multicultural and diversity college courses.  She kept learning and teaching others about our racialized society up until her death in 2004.  Her Education of a WASP has been and continues being used in ethnic stiudies courses around the country.

WASP 1.JPG

A WASP’s racial tightrope resulted in enduring book partially set in 1960s Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in the November 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid


Of people whose eyes are oddly made,


And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,


You’ve got to be carefully taught.

When a liberal, white middle-class couple with young kids moved to Omaha from Chicago in the late 1950s they entered this city’s weirdly segregated reality, not uncommon in almost every American city. It was not as public or overtly violent as the segregation in the former Confederate states of the South, but it was no less impactful on the African-American communities in Northern states. Homemaker Lois Mark Stalvey was a former advertising copywriter who once owned her own agency. Her husband Bennett Stalvey was a Fairmont Foods Mad Man.

The Omaha they settled into abided by a de facto segregation that saw blacks confined to two delineated areas. The largest sector, the Near North Side, was bounded by Cuming on the south and Ames on the north and 16th on the east and 40th on the west. Large public housing projects were home to thousands of families. In South Omaha blacks were concentrated in and around projects near the packing plants. Blacks here could generally enter any public place – a glaring exception being the outdoor pool at Peony Park until protestors forced ownership’s hand – but were sometimes required to sit in separate sections or limited to drive-thru service and they most definitely faced closed housing opportunities and discriminatory hiring practices.

This now deceased couple encountered a country club racist culture that upheld a system designed to keep whites and blacks apart. Neither was good at taking things lying down or letting injustices pass unnoticed. But she was the more assertive and opinionated of the two. Indeed, son Ben Stalvey recalls her as “a force of nature” who “rarely takes no for an answer.”

“She was stubborn to accept the accepted norm in those days and that piqued her curiosity and she took it from there,” he says. “She had grown up in her own little bubble (in Milwaukee) and I think when she discovered racial prejudice and injustice her attitude was more like, What do you mean I can’t do that or what do you mean I have to think that way? It was more just a matter of, “Hell, no.”

Though only in Omaha a few years, Stalvey made her mark on the struggle for equality then raging in the civil rights movement.

The well-intentioned wife and mother entered the fray naive about her own white privilege and prejudice and the lengths to which the establishment would go to oppose desegregation and parity. Her headstrong efforts to do the right thing led to rude awakenings and harsh consequences. Intolerance, she learned here and in Philadelphia, where the Stalveys moved after her husband lost his job due to her activism, is insidious. All of which she wrote about in her much discussed 1970 book, The Education of a WASP.

The title refers to the self-discovery journey she made going from ignorance to enlightenment. Blacks who befriended her in Omaha and in Philadelphia schooled her on the discrimination they faced and on what was realistic for changing the status quo.

Among her primary instructors was the late black civic leader and noted physician Dr. Claude Organ and his wife Elizabeth “Betty” Organ and a young Ernie Chambers before his state senator career. In WASP Stalvey only sparingly used actual names. The Organs became the Bensons and Chambers became Marcus Garvey Moses.

A Marshall, Texas native and graduate of Xavier University in New Orleans, Claude Organ was accepted by the University of Texas Medical School but refused admittance when officials discovered he was black. The state of Texas paid the tuition difference between UT and any school a denied black attended. Organ ended up at Creighton University and the state of Texas paid the extra $2,000 to $3,000 a year the private Jesuit school cost, recalls Betty Organ.

His civil rights work here began with the interracial social action group the De Porres Club led by Father John Markoe. Organ became Urban League of Nebraska president and later advised the Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties (4CL). He was on the Catholic Interracial Council board and Mayor’s Biracial Committee.

“He built a lot of bridges,” son Paul Organ says.

Betty Organ got involved, too, supporting “any group that had something to do with making Omaha a better place to live,” she says.

So when Stalvey was introduced to the Organs by a black friend and determined to made them her guides in navigating the troubled racial waters, she couldn’t have found a better pair.

Stalvey met Chambers through Claude Organ.

Chambers says “This woman detected I was somebody who might have some things to offer that would help give her what she called her education. And when I became convinced she was genuine I was very open with her in terms of what I would talk to her about.”

Though it may not seem so now, Chambers says the book’s title was provocative for the time. WASP stands for White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, which defined Stalvey’s background, but racism was rampant across ethnic and religious lines in White America.

“WASP was a term that not everybody to whom it applied embraced. So by using that title she caught people’s attention.”

Ernie Chambers educating Pastor William Youngdahl in “A Time for Burning”

But he admired the “substance” behind the sensation. He admired, too, that the vitally curious Stalvey asked lots of questions.

“I never got the impression as used to happen when I was interviewed by white people that she was ‘studying’ me like a scientist in a lab would study insects. She genuinely was trying to make herself a better person and I think she succeeded.”

This ever apt pupil threw herself into The Cause. Her son Noah Stalvey says, “I can remember meetings at the house. She had a lot of the movers and shakers of the day meeting there. Her goal was to raise us in an environment of tolerance.”

“At times it was lively,” says Ben Stalvey. “There wasn’t much disagreement. We knew what was going on, we heard about things. We met a lot of people and we’d play with their kids.”

All par for the course at the family home in Omaha’s Rockbrook neighborhood. “It wasn’t until well into my teen years I realized my parents were fighting the battle,” Noah says. “I just thought that’s what all parents do.”

His mother headed the progressive Omaha Panel for American Women that advocated racial-religious understanding. The diverse panelists were all moms and the Organ and Stalvey kids sometimes accompanied their mothers to these community forums. Paul Organ believes the panelists wielded their greatest influence at home.

“On the surface all the men in the business community were against it.
Behind the scenes women were having these luncheons and meetings and I think in many homes around Omaha attitudes were changed over dinner after women came back from these events and shared the issues with their husbands. To me it was very interesting the women and the moms kind of bonded together because they all realized how it was affecting their children.”

Betty Organ agrees. “I don’t think the men were really impressed with what we were doing until they found out its repercussions concerning their children and the attitudes their children developed as they grew.”

Stalvey’s efforts were not only public but private. She personally tried opening doors for the aspirational Organs and their seven children to integrate her white bread suburban neighborhood. She felt the northeast Omaha bungalow the Organs occupied inadequate for a family of nine and certainly not befitting the family of a surgeon.
Racial segregation denied the successful professional and Creighton University instructor the opportunity for living anywhere outside what was widely accepted as Black Omaha – the area in North Omaha defined by realtors and other interests as the Near North Side ghetto.

“She had seen us when we lived in that small house on Paxton Boulevard,” Betty Organ says. “She had thought that was appalling that we should be living that many people in a small house like that.”

Picture

Cover of the book “Ahead of Their Time: The Story of the Omaha DePorres Club”

Despite the initial reluctance of the Organs, Stalvey’s efforts to find them a home in her neighborhood put her self-educating journey on a collision course with Omaha’s segregation and is central to the books’s storyline. Organ appreciated Stalvey going out on a limb.

Stalvey and others were also behind efforts to open doors for black educators at white schools, for employers to practice fair hiring and for realtors to abide by open housing laws. Stalvey found like-minded advocates in social worker-early childhood development champion Evie Zysman and the late social cause maven Susie Buffett. They were intent on getting the Organs accepted into mainstream circles.

“We were entertained by Lois’ friends and the Zysmans and these others that were around. We went to a lot of places that we would not have ordinarily gone because these people were determined they were going to get us into something,” Betty Organ says. “It was very revealing and heartwarming that she wanted to do something. She wanted to change things and it did happen.”

Only the change happened either more gradually than Stalvey wanted or in ways she didn’t expect.

Despite her liberal leanings Claude Organ remained wary of Stalvey.

“He felt she was as committed as she could be,” his widow says, “but he just didn’t think she knew what the implications of her involvement would be. He wasn’t exactly sure about how sincere Lois was. He thought she was trying to find her way and I think she more or less did find her way. It was a very difficult time for all of us, that’s all I can say.”

Ernie Chambers says Stalvey’s willingness to examine and question things most white Americans accepted or avoided was rare.

“At the time she wrote this book it was not a popular thing. There were not a lot of white people willing to step forward, identify themselves and not come with the traditional either very paternalistic my-best-friend-is-a-Negro type of thing or out-and-out racist attitude.”

The two forged a deep connection borne of mutual respect.

“She was surprised I knew what I knew, had read as widely as I had, and as we talked she realized it was not just a book kind of knowledge. In Omaha for a black man to stand up was considered remarkable.

“We exchanged a large number of letters about all kinds of issues.”

Chambers still fights the good fight here. Though he and Claude Organ had different approaches, they became close allies.

Betty Organ says “nobody else was like” Chambers back then. “He was really a moving power to get people to do things they didn’t want to do. My husband used to go to him as a barber and then they got to be very good friends. Ernie really worked with my husband and anything he wanted to accomplish he was ready to be there at bat for him. He was wonderful to us.”

Stalvey’s attempts to infiltrate the Organs into Rockbrook were rebuffed by realtors and residents – exactly what Claude Organ warned would happen. He also warned her family might face reprisals.

Betty Organ says, “My husband told her, ‘You know this can have great repercussions because they don’t want us and you can be sure that because they don’t want us they’re going to red line us wherever we go in Omaha trying to get a place that they know of.'”

Bennett Stalvey was demoted by Fairmont, who disliked his wife’s activities, and sent to a dead-end job in Philadelphia. The Organs regretted it came to that.

“It was not exactly the thing we wanted to happen with Ben,” Betty Organ says. “That was just the most ugly, un-Godly, un-Christian thing anybody could have done.”

 

Photos of the late Dr. Claude Organ

Man in jacket and tie standing in front of a car with a stack of books resting on the car. Courtesy The Organ Family  Man in green surgical scrubs and head covering standing in an operating room. Courtesy The Organ Family  Man in white medical coat seated at a desk. Courtesy The Organ Family

 

While that drama played out, Claude Organ secretly bought property and secured a loan through white doctor friends so he could build a home where he wanted without interference. The family broke ground on their home on Good Friday in 1964. The kids started school that fall at St. Philip Neri and the brick house was completed that same fall.

“We had the house built before they (opponents) knew it,” Betty Organ says.

Their spacious new home was in Florence, where blacks were scarce. Sure enough, they encountered push-back. A hate crime occurred one evening when Betty was home alone with the kids.

“Somebody came knocking on my door. This man was frantically saying, ‘Lady, lady, you know your house is one fire?’ and I opened the door and I said, ‘What?’ and he went, ‘Look,’ and pointed to something burning near the house. I looked out there, and it was a cross burning right in front of the house next to the garage. When the man saw what it was, too, he said, ‘Oh, lady, I’m so sorry.’ It later turned out somebody had too much to drink at a bar called the Alpine Inn about a mile down the road from us and did this thing.

“I just couldn’t believe it. It left a scorch there on the front of the house.”

Paul Organ was 9 or 10 then.

“I have memories of a fire and the fire truck coming up,” he says. “I remember something burning on the yard and my mom being upset. I remember when my dad got home from the hospital he was very upset but it wasn’t until years later I came to appreciate how serious it was. That was probably the most dramatic, powerful incident.”

20150804_142655

The former Organ home in Florence where a cross was burned.

But not the last.

As the only black family in St. Philip Neri Catholic parish the Organs seriously tested boundaries.

“Some of the kids there were very ugly at first,” Betty Organ recalls. “They bullied our kids. It was a real tough time for all of us because they just didn’t want to accept the fact we were doing this Catholic thing.”

You’ve got to be taught


To hate and fear,


You’ve got to be taught
 From year to year,


It’s got to be drummed 
In your dear little ear


You’ve got to be carefully taught.

Daughter Sandra Organ says, “There were some tensions there. Dad would talk about how to handle these kind of things and to take the high road. But if they used the ‘n’ word we had an opportunity to retaliate because you defend your honor as a black person.

“An older neighbor man didn’t particularly like black people. But his grandson was thrilled to have these five boys to play with, so he became like an extra person in the family. The boy’s family was very kind to us and they kind of brought the grandfather around.”

Betty Organ says things improved with parishioners, too. “It got to the point where they got to know the family and they got to know us and they kind of came around after a few years.”

Sandra says when her brother David suffered severe burns in an accident and sat-out school “the neighborhood really rallied around my mom and provided help for her and tutoring for David.”

Stalvey came from Philadelphia to visit the Organs at their new home.

“When she saw the house we built she was just thrilled to death to see it,” Betty Organ says.

In Philadelphia the Stalveys lived in the racially mixed West Mount Airy neighborhood and enrolled their kids in predominantly African-American inner city public schools.

Ben Stalvey says, “I think it was a conscious effort on my parents part to expose us to multiple ways of living.”

His mother began writing pieces for the Philadelphia Bulletin that she expanded into WASP.

“Mom always had her writing time,” Ben Stalvey notes. “She had her library and that was her writing room and when she in the writing room we were not to disturb her and so yes I remember her spending hours and hours in there. She’d always come out at the end of the school day to greet us and often times she’d go back in there until dinner.”

In the wake of WASP she became a prominent face and voice of white guilt – interviewed by national news outlets, appearing on national talk shows and doing signings and readings. Meanwhile, her husband played a key role developing and implementing affirmative action plans.

Noah Stalvey says any negative feedback he felt from his parents’ activism was confined to name-calling.

“I can remember vaguely being called an ‘n’ lover and that was mostly in grade school. My mother would be on TV or something and one of the kids who didn’t feel the way we did – their parents probably used the word – used it on us at school.”

He says the work his parents did came into focus after reading WASP.

“I first read it when I was in early high school. It kind of put together pieces for me. I began to understand what they were doing and why they were doing it and it made total sense to me. You know, why wouldn’t you fight for people who were being mistreated. Why wouldn’t you go out of your way to try and rectify a wrong? It just made sense they were doing what they could to fix problems prevalent in society.”

Betty Organ thought WASP did a “pretty good” job laying out “what it was all about” and was relieved their real identities were not used.

“That was probably a good thing at the time because my husband didn’t want our names involved as the persons who educated the WASP.”

After all, she says, he had a career and family to think about. Dr. Claude Organ went on to chair Creighton’s surgery department by 1971, becoming the first African-American to do so at a predominately white medical school. He developed the school’s surgical residency program and later took positions at the University of Oklahoma and University of California–Davis, where he also served as the first African-American editor of Archives of Surgery, the largest surgical journal in the English-speaking world.

 

Claude and Betty Organ

Image of a woman and men dressed in formal attire. Courtesy The Organ Family

 

Sandra Organ says there was some queasiness about how Stalvey “tried to stand in our shoes because you can never really know what that’s like.” However, she adds, “At least she was pricking people’s awareness and that was a wise thing.”

Paul Organ appreciates how “brutally honest” Stalvey was about her own naivety and how embarrassed she was in numerous situations.” He says, “I think at the time that’s probably why the book had such an effect because Lois was very self-revealing.”

Stalvey followed WASP with the book Getting Ready, which chronicled her family’s experiences with urban black education inequities.

At the end of WASP she expresses both hope that progress is possible – she saw landmark civil rights legislation enacted – and despair over the slow pace of change. She implied the only real change happens in people’s hearts and minds, one person at a time. She equated the racial divide in America to walls whose millions of stones must be removed one by one. And she stated unequivocally that America would never realize its potential or promise until there was racial harmony.

Forty-five years since WASP came out Omaha no longer has an apparatus to restrict minorities in housing, education, employment and recreation – just hardened hearts and minds. Today, blacks live, work, attend school and play where they desire. Yet geographic-economic segregation persists and there are disproportionate numbers living in poverty. lacking upwardly mobile job skills, not finishing school, heading single-parent homes and having criminal histories in a justice system that effectively mass incarcerates black males. Many blacks have been denied the real estate boom that’s come to define wealth for most of white America. Thus, some of the same conditions Stalvey described still exist and similar efforts to promote equality continue.

Stalvey went on to teach writing and diversity before passing away in 2004. She remained a staunch advocate of multiculturalism. When WASP was reissued in 1989 her new foreword expressed regret that racism was still prevalent. And just as she concluded her book the first time, she repeated the need for our individual and collective education to continue and her indebtedness to those who educated her.

Noah Stalvey says her enduring legacy may not be so much what she wrote but what she taught her children and how its been passed down.

“It does have a ripple effect and we now carry this message to our kids and our kids are raised to believe there is no difference regardless of sexual preference or heritage or skin color.”

Ben Stalvey says his mother firmly believed children are not born with prejudice and intolerance but learn these things.

“There’s a song my mother used to quote which I still like that’s about intolerance – ‘You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught’ – from the musical South Pacific.

“The way we were raised we were purposely not taught,” Ben Stalvey says. “I wish my mother was still around to see my own grandchildren. My daughter has two kids and her partner is half African-American and half Filipino. I think back to the very end of WASP where she talks about her hopes and dreams for America of everyone being a blended heritage and that has actually come to pass in my grandchildren.”

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,


Before you are six or seven or eight,


To hate all the people your relatives hate,


You’ve got to be carefully taught!

____________________________________________________________________________

Stalvey’s personal chronicle of social awareness a primer for racial studies

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the November 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)
With America in the throes of the 1960s civil rights movement, few whites publicly conceded their own prejudice, much less tried seeing things from a black point of view. Lois Mark Stalvey was that exception as she shared her journey from naivety to social consciousness in her 1970 book The Education of a WASP.

Her intensely personal chronicle of becoming a socially aware being and engaged citizen has lived on as a resource in ethnic studies programs.

Stalvey’s odyssey was fueled by curiosity that turned to indignation and then activism as she discovered the extent to which blacks faced discrimination. Her education and evolution occurred in Omaha and Philadelphia. She got herself up to speed on the issues and conditions impacting blacks by joining organizations focused on equal rights and enlisting the insights of local black leaders. Her Omaha educators included Dr. Claude Organ and his wife Elizabeth “Betty” Organ (Paul and Joan Benson in the book) and Ernie Chambers (Marcus Garvey Moses).

She joined the local Urban League and led the Omaha chapter of the Panel of American Women. She didn’t stop at rhetoric either. She took unpopular stands in support of open housing and hiring practices. She attempted and failed to get the Organs integrated into her Rockbrook neighborhood. Pushing for diversity and inclusion got her blackballed and cost her husband Bennett Stalvey his job.

After leaving Omaha for Philly she and her husband could have sat out the fight for diversity and equality on the sidelines but they elected to be active participants. Instead of living in suburbia as they did here they moved into a mixed race neighborhood and sent their kids to predominantly black urban inner city schools. Stalvey surrounded herself with more black guides who opened her eyes to inequities in the public schools and to real estate maneuvers like block busting designed to keep certain neighborhoods white.

Behind the scenes, her husband helped implement some of the nation’s first affirmative action plans.

Trained as a writer, Stalvey used her gifts to chart her awakening amid the civil rights movement. Since WASP’s publication the book’s been a standard selection among works that about whites grappling with their own racism and with the challenges black Americans confront. It’s been used as reading material in multicultural, ethnic studies and history courses at many colleges and universities.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln associate professor of History and Ethnic Studies Patrick Jones has utilized it in two courses.

“In both courses students had a very positive response to the book,” he says. “The book’s local connections to Omaha literally bring the topic of racial identity formation and race relations ‘home’ to students. This local dynamic often means a more forceful impact on Neb. students, regardless of their own identity or background.

“In addition, the book effectively underscores the ways that white racial identity is socially constructed. Students come away with a much stronger understanding of what many call ‘whiteness’ and ‘white privilege” This is particularly important for white students, who often view race as something outside of themselves and only relating to black and brown people. Instead, this book challenges them to reckon with the various ways their own history, experience, socialization, acculturation and identity are racially constructed.”

Associate Professor of History and Ethnic Studies Profile Image

Patrick Jones

Jones says the book’s account of “white racial identity formation” offers a useful perspective.

“As Dr. King, James Baldwin and others have long asserted, the real problem of race in America is not a problem with black people or other people of color, but rather a problem rooted in the reality of white supremacy, which is primarily a fiction of the white mind. If we are to combat and overcome the legacy and ongoing reality of white supremacy, then we need to better understand the creation and perpetuation of white supremacy, white racial identity and white privilege, and this book helps do that.

“What makes whiteness and white racial identity such an elusive subject for many to grasp is its invisibility – the way it is rendered normative in American society. Critical to a deeper understanding of how race works in the U.S. is rendering whiteness and white supremacy visible.”

Stalvey laid it all right out in the open through the prism of her experience. She continued delineating her ongoing education in subsequent books and articles she wrote and in courses she taught.

Interestingly, WASP was among several popular media examinations of Omaha’s race problem then. A 1963 Look magazine piece discussed racial divisions and remedies here. A 1964 Ebony profile focused on Don Benning breaking the faculty-coaching color barrier at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The 1966 film A Time for Burning featured Ernie Chambers serving a similar role as he did with Stalvey, only this time educating a white pastor and members of Augustana Lutheran Church struggling to do interracial fellowship. The documentary prompted a CBS News special.

Those reports were far from the only local race issues to make national news. Most recently, Omaha’s disproportionately high black poverty and gun violence rates have received wide attention.

Pot Liquor Love: Chicken is King at Time Out Foods

October 28, 2015 4 comments

If you have a hankering for fried chicken in Omaha, two words are all you need to know – Time Out.  The North Omaha joint is famous for its signature item.  So much so that nearly everybody calls the place Time Out Chicken despite the fact it’s official name is Time Out Foods.  I grew up in North O but a few miles from this place and even though my work eventually took me in and out of that community on a regular basis I somehow went 55 of my first 57  years without having once tried it.  That’s all changed the last couple years and so I felt prepared to write this piece for Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/) about the place and its popular dish.  Of course, to ensure my taste buds were sufficiently up to date on the fried chicken i went again to sample it and I interviewed Time Out owner Steve Mercer for his insights on how and why this fast food eatery and its secret recipe has captured the local market.

Follow my Pot Liquor Love food blogging at leoadambiga.com and on Facebook at My Inside Stories. And since food and movies are such a good pair, remember to follow my Hot Movie Takes on the same two social media platforms.

 

Time Out Sign

 

Pot Liquor Love:

Chicken is King at Time Out Foods

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in the Nov.-Dec. 2015 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

 

The name of a long-lived North Omaha black-owned and operated business reads Time Out Foods. “But Time Out Chicken is what everybody tags us as,” says owner Steve Mercer, He’s even bought that Google domain. “That’s the name the people gave us.”

With a sign proclaiming “Omaha’s Best Fried Chicken,” it’s no surprise what’s the signature dish at this 3518 North 30th Street landmark.

Credit for this grassroots branding, he says, goes to its fans.

“We didn’t just create this ourselves. It’s the people that buy it all the time that make it signature. They’re responsible for it.”

He says business keeps growing.

“Everything seems to be flowing and going. It’s been taking off.”

So much so he’s considering expanding and adding new locations.

“I feel like this is just the beginning of something else to happen. This is a good ride.”

The timing’s good with North O revitalization underway after years of stagnation.

“There’s so much more (positive) going on in North Omaha than there ever has been before. It benefits the area when they start putting more stuff in. There’s more people coming around spending money. There’s more traffic.”

Though chicken is clearly what keeps folks coming back, it was not the house staple when his parents bought the place in 1972. The Swanson Corporation famous for TV dinners opened Time Out in 1969 to develop a black-owned fast food franchise. Local sports legends Bob Boozer and Bob Gibson lent celebrity status. Only it struggled amid North O decline. Mercer’s parents saw opportunity and secured a loan to buy it. It was a slow go for a decade when, at 22, Mercer, who worked there since age 12, bought the business in 1982. He devised the chicken recipe that’s made it a hit.

Adding a drive-thru further boosted sales.

He won’t share the savory spicy recipe for his lip-smacking, mouth-watering chicken, but does reveal the battered bird is deep fried in peanut oil. Whatever the secret ingredients, he notes “all the customers say it makes them have a craving for it.” Regulars dining there one September morning variously raved about the moist, tender meat and crispy, never-greasy crust. They all admitted to a hankering that keeps them coming back for more.

Living in Atlanta, Georgia hasn’t dulled Omaha native Cheryl Berry-Neal’s craving. “Time Out is a must stop when we come to town,” she says. Ex-pats in for Native Omaha Days flood the joint for its familiar comfort food. Lines form year-round with the after-church crowd getting their down-home fix on in their Sunday finest. It daily draws a racial-social class mix reflective of those urban, inner-city environs.

Chicken’s the star but cheeseburgers and other hot sandwiches are plenty popular, too. The classic crinkle-style fries have their devotees. So do the pies supplied by an outside vendor.

Three generations of family work there, including Steve’s mother Jean.

“That’s what makes it work. We’ve been doing this for 40 (plus) years and we enjoy doing it,” says Mercer, a hands-on owner. “I’m here because I love being here. It’s my second home.”

More and more, he views Time Out as a community anchor.

“That’s what it is. I can’t let the community or anybody else down. We have to do whatever it takes to keep it going because anything else would just not be right. Failure’s not an option.”

Visit http://www.timeoutfoods.com.

 

Beto’s way: Gang intervention specialist tries a little tenderness

October 28, 2015 1 comment

Alberto “Beto” Gonzales could have easily stayed in The Life of drugging, fighting, abusing, and manipulating that used to be his M.O. as a gangbanger, but he found the courage to change and that transformation has led him to help countless others stop the madness, get clean, and go straight.  For years now he’s worked as a gang intervention specialist, a position he holds today as a civilian employee with the Omaha Police Department.  He’s much respected for his work in the South Omaha community, whose barrios he grew up in.  There were many harsh experiences he initiated.  He did things he regrets and has made amends for.  But he’s done all he can to move on and to be a productive citizen and he’s been exceedingly successful at that.  This profile for Omaha Magazine ((http://omahamagazine.com/) is my second opportunity to tell his story and I’m glad to have had the chance to share his life and work with readers.

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

 

Beto’s way: Gang intervention specialist tries a little tenderness

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in the Nov.-Dec. 2015 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

 

Omaha Police Department gang intervention specialist Alberto “Beto” Gonzales grew up in a South Omaha “monster barrio” as an outsider fresh from the Texas-Mexican border.

Working out of the South Omaha Precinct and South Omaha Boys & Girls Club, he knows first-hand the suffering that propels at-risk kids to join gangs. He grew up in a dysfunctional home with an alcoholic father. By 13 he was a substance abusing, drug dealing, gang-banging illiterate and runaway. For a decade he conned and intimidated people. “The beast” inside ran roughshod over anyone, even family. He ruined relationships with his rage and alcohol-drug use.

“A lot of people got hurt behind me being that hurt kid that felt hopeless,” he says.

Charged with assault and battery with intent to commit murder, he faced 30 years in prison. Shown leniency, he used that second chance to heal and transform. He got sober, learned to read and found the power of forgiveness and love, dedicating himself to helping others.

He credits the late Sister Joyce Englert at the Chicano Awareness Center (now Latino Center of the Midlands) with setting him straight.

“She took me literally by the hand and coached me. There were days where I just didn’t feel like I could do it and I tossed up a storm with her. But she never gave up on me. Sister Joyce was no joke. She was incredible.”

At her urging he became a counselor.

Beto, who’s spoken about gangs to high-ranking U.S. lawmakers and law enforcement officials. is the subject of a book by Theresa Barron-McKeagney, University of Nebraska at Omaha associate dean in the College of Public Affairs and Community Service, His message to those dealing with people in crisis is “patience – you can’t give up on them, you have to have that energy, that willingness to sacrifice to work with them.” He says he’s living proof “no matter what challenges you have you can make it – all you gotta do is find what your purpose is in life and go for it.”

This former menace to society “never ever could have imagined” working for OPD. “They took a risk in hiring me because of all the baggage I carried. They’re watching me. I’m under the microscope. But all the officers make me feel welcome. It’s a good fit.”

sur de omaha, Latino Center of the Midlands, Mi Rincóncito en el Cielo, Alberto

His street cred enables him to go where OPD can’t.

“If they do walk into some of the places I walk in it’s a shut down – nobody’s talking.”

He has people’s trust, including prisoners and ex-cons.

“They feel safe opening up to me, they know I’m there for them, I’m not going to give up on them. Whatever it is, we try to work it out. You can’t measure this, all you do is continue your relationship with someone and if you build that trust that relationship will be there forever. I’ve been in a lot of these men’s and women’s lives for years.

“Sometimes I don’t see them for four or five years but they know they can always come back.”

Not everyone’s cut out for this work.

“The burn-out is real/.”

Not everyone wants recovery. Relapse and recidivism is high.

But Beto’s a firm believer in second-chances.

“Somebody gave me a chance.”

Intervention and prevention is “my passion,” says Beto, who can spot a troubled child or adult in an instant.

“If we don’t get to a kid in time, if he doesn’t find a mentor, if he doesn’t get in to some kind of sport activity, if his mom and dad don’t do some kind of healing, that’s a lost child.”

He often tells his own story at assemblies. It’s still cathartic at age 57.

“I share it all the time with hundreds of kids and believe me every time I share it I can feel that pain in my heart. It’s still there. There’s no getting ready of it. It’s a part of who you are, the fabric of your soul.”

He can only do so much. “There’s a lot of kids out there hurting I can’t get to. The other frustrating part is when we lose kids to murder or prison. I’m just so focused on trying to save one life at a time, one family at a time.” As a society he feels, “we better wake up and invest in more counselors – we’ve got to educate, educate, educate.”

Happily married with kids, he has serenity he never had before.

“I wish everybody had that.”

He’s made peace with the fact his job never really ends.

“Even when I retire, people are going to be knocking on my door. I already know that.”

The challenge is as near as a neighboring three-generation gang family he’s counseled. They all respect him except for a teen boy.

“I asked him, ‘Why do you hate me, man?’ He just shrugged his shoulders. ‘How many times did you feel like killing me?’ He finally looked me in the eye and said, ‘Every time I see you, I want to kill you.’
‘What keeps you from killing me?’ ‘Because my nephews love you, my auntie loves you, my uncle loves you, so I’m just going to leave you alone.’ Fourteen years old. He’s just another Beto.”

He holds out hope. “Anybody can change, anybody, I don’t care what condition you’re in, as long as you want to find that peace in yourself.”

HOMETOWN HERO TERENCE CRAWFORD ON VERGE OF GREATNESS AND BECOMING BOXING’S NEXT SUPERSTAR

October 23, 2015 3 comments

HOMETOWN HERO TERENCE CRAWFORD ON VERGE OF GREATNESS –

AND BECOMING BOXING’S NEXT SUPERSTAR

©by Leo Adam Biga

The Reader June 26, 2014

From a past Reader cover story I did on Bud.

When hometown hero and reigning WBO world junior welterweight champion Terence Crawford takes care of business as expected against challenger Dierry Jean Saturday night (Oct. 24) at the CenturyLink, everything then opens up for him. The scuttlebutt is that he would fight Manny Pacquiao or, should he come out of retirement, Floyd Mayweather, in which case Terence would be fighting for the chance to be boxing’s next great superstar. TopRank has already indicated they are looking to hand off the baton of King of Boxing to the right candidate and they are clearly grooming Terence to be that guy.

Anyone who knows Terence understands that he has been preparing for this nearly all his life. Nothing fazes him because he’s come through a lot to get here and ever since getting shot in the head back in 2008 he’s made boxing, outside of family, his singular focus. And now that he’s already gotten this far there is no one and nothing that he will let stand in his way, not if he has anything to say or do about it.

In a way, he really doesn’t have anything left to prove, other than showing that he truly belongs among the pantheon of contemporary and perhaps even all-time boxing greats. Only time will tell there. But it does appear he will get his opportunity to make his mark and knowing him he will take full advantage of it.

I have written before how Terence is in a long line of outstanding athletes to come out of North Omaha to do great things at high levels. In terms of boxers from here, he stands alone, with nobody really even close. Among all athletes from North O, I argue that he is the most accomplished in his sport since Bob Gibson dominated for the St. Louis Cardinals in the late 1960s-early 1970s. A case could be made for Gale Sayers as well. In terms of the most beloved, Bud’s only close competition is Bob Boozer, Johnny Rodgers and Ahman Green, and maybe Maurtice Ivy.

It has been fascinating to see how in such a short period of time, ever since he won his first title as a lightweight in 2014 and subsequently defended that title twice in Omaha before huge crowds, he has won over such a large cross-section of folks. He has single-handedly resurrected the sport of boxing here and put this town on the national and international boxing map, thus giving this place one more thing to take pride in. And at 28 he may be the best known living Nebraskan now outside of Warren Buffett and Alexander Payne.

Omaha has gotten behind him and his passion for his hometown and for his North O community in a way that I don’t think anyone could have predicted. It’s very heartwarming to see, He already had a strong team around him in his Team Crawford crew of managers, coaches and trainers and now a whole team of advisers has come on board to help guide him and protect his earnings and to help him realize his vision for the B&B Boxing Academy. At Wednesday’s meet-up down at the gym, there was an incredibly diverse mix of people present – B&B members, neighborhood residents, family, friends, movers and shakers and media, of course. Lots and lots of media.

The Omaha World-Herald has reported about Terence’s heart for community and others and those are threads I’ve been writing about for some time. I have helped frame the B&B Boxing Academy story and I traveled with Terence and his close friend and former teacher, Jamie Fox Nollette to Uganda and Rwanda, Africa to see first-hand his curiosity about and concern for people in need in the Motherland. I hope to follow more of his journey as time goes by.

Read my extensive reporting and writing about Terence at-

https://leoadambiga.com/tag/terence-crawford/

I will be covering his fight against Jean and so look for my impressions about that fight and many more things about Terence and his ever evolving story in future posts and articles.

Los Dias de Los Muertos festival offers three weeks of exhibits and events

October 16, 2015 2 comments

Omaha has some well known arts couples: Ree and Jun Kaneko, Janet Farber and Michael Krainak, Mary and Gary Day. Then there’s Linda and Jose Garcia. Linda’s the artist and Jose’s the adminstrator. She’s also a curator and storyteller. He’s also a historian and photographer. Together, they pour considerable passion and expertise into an annual Los Dias de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) exhibition and celebration that features a little of everything – art, music, dance, theater, storytelling, workshops. It’s all reflective of their multidisciplinary approach to art and culture. They organize and present it through their Mexican American Historical Society of the Midlands. This is my El Perico story about their fifth annual Day of the Dead festival, which for the first time is at the Spanish Renaissance-inspired St. Cecilia Cathedral and adjacent Cultural Center and hosted by Cathedral Arts Project. It’s a great marriage of place, theme, art and architecture. And a great couple with a deep love for community deserves your support.

The free fest runs Oct 17 through Nov. 7.

Los Dias de Los Muertos festival offers three weeks of exhibits and events

©by Leo Adam Biga

A version of this story appeared in El Perico

The Mexican American Historical Society of the Midlands will present a free October 17 through November 7 Day of the Dead festival curated by Omaha artist Linda Garcia and her history-buff husband Jose Garcia.

The fifth annual Los Dias de Los Muertos exhibition and celebration is being held for the first time at St. Cecilia Cathedral and its adjacent Cultural Center. The Cathedral Arts Project is hosting the festival.

The Garcias have asked dozens of artists to variously employ visual and performing mediums to express sentiments and symbols associated with this traditional Mexican remembrance of the departed.

Ofrenda installations, artworks, lectures, workshops, storytelling, poetry readings, live theater monologues, music and dance performances will all lend their Day of the Dead interpretations.

The exhibition, featuring works by dozens of area artists, will be on display in the Center’s Sunderland Gallery throughout the duration of the festival.

For the 6 to 9 p.m. opening reception on Saturday, Oct. 17 patrons may follow a luminaria path between the Cathedral, where the ofrendas are installed, to the Cultural Center, where the exhibit stands.

The theme for this year’s festival is the marigold – the traditional flower utilized in Day of the Dead observances. The marigold is called Cempoalxóchitl in the indigenous Uto-Aztecan dialect and it is often incorporated into the ofrendas or stages that people create. Thus, this year’s festival is titled “El Teatro Cempoalxóchitl – the Marigold Theater” as a homage to its historic place and dramatic use.

“The focus is concentrated on the use of the marigold as setting the stage to remember and honor departed loved ones – family, friends, acquaintances, ancestors,” Linda Garcia says.

Thus, ofrenda installations at the Cathedral will incorporate the marigold, which Jose Garcia says “is a symbol of man’s brief period on Earth.” He adds, “For thousands of years it’s been used to represent the essence of memories critical in sustaining a path of remembrance between the soul and the living.”

He says inside the Cathedral, at its Nash Chapel. a community ofrenda-altar will “present an opportunity for parishioners of St. Cecilia’s to place copies of photographs in memory of the departed. These private tributes and offerings represent both the ancient traditions and modern customs that chronicle the perpetual relationship between faith, family and history.”

“Los Dias de Los Muertos traditions serve as a meaningful reminder of the connections between the living and the departed,” he says. “It is this relationship that represents a transcultural fusion of indigenous customs and the Catholic faith. Each, an expression of belief in the immortal nature of the soul.”

A pair of lectures beginning at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 18 at the Cultural Center will discuss the origins and meanings of flowers and other objects in Meso-American art and the parallels between how Egyptians and Mexicans raise remembrance after death to high art.

In keeping with the theatrical trappings of ofrendas, a program of Verbal Ofrendas: Theater Monologues directed by Scott Working will present original works by playwrights read by actors. The monologues, accompanied by musician Michael Murphy, will take place at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 24 and at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 1 in the Cathedral’s Our Lady of Nebraska Chapel.

Internationally renowned storyteller and mime Antonio Rocha will perform at 7 p.m. on Saturday , Oct. 24 in the chapel. A 10 a.m. sugar skull workshop will be held at the Center that same Saturday.

Poets will take center stage at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 25 at the Center.

The Saturday, Nov. 7 finale and closing reception from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Cathedral will be highlighted by a performance from the Mexican Dance Academy of Nebraska

Linda Garcia says the complexities of how different peoples have dealt with death across eras and cultures has led her to design a festival that is both multicultural and multimedia in nature.

“Each year we add new artists,” she says. “Jose and I have seen the transformation of the artists and the public in dealing with a very difficult subject – death. The event has created a safe place to speak about our departed. It introduces and perpetuates family histories, traditions, memories and stories.”

“As part of its commitment to multicultural arts events, Cathedral Arts Project is pleased to welcome this celebration of Dia de Los Muertes to St. Cecilia Cathedral,” founder and executive director Brother William Woeger says.

According to Jose Garcia, “I believe Los Dias de los Muertos as practiced in the United States is becoming a cultural standard because of grassroots efforts such as ours.” He says having the festival at the Cathedral campus is only natural given its central location, prominence in the community, arts heritage and Spanish influences.

“We are bringing into play a highly organized arts project that is home grown. We are freely able to interpret traditional and popular art and culture in a venue of veneration – a sacred place.” It’s a good fit, too, he says, given that the Cathedral is replete with Spanish colonial icons “created during the time when Spain and the Church ruled Mexico.”

Brother Woeger adds, “Given the Cathedral’s Spanish Renaissance architecture, this venue should provide a beautiful compliment to this celebration.”

Woeger says the Cathedral has Hispanic membership but more importantly it is “the mother church for the Archdiocese, which has a very significant Hispanic population.”

Guided tours are available throughout the festival.

St. Cecilia Cathedral is located at 701 North 40th Street, between Burt and Webster, The Cultural Center is at 3900 Webster Street.

For exhibition days and hours and other festival details, visit http://www.LosDiosdeLosMuertosOmaha.org or call 402-651-9918.

BLUE TANGO PROJECT IN CONCERT TONIGHT – BUENOS AIRES AND TANGO INSPIRED LATIN RHYTHMS FUSED WITH JAZZ AND BLUES

October 16, 2015 1 comment

Catch Blue Tango Project in concert TONIGHT, Friday, Oct. 16, at 7 pm, at
Joslyn Castle, 3902 Davenport St.

Enjoy this mash-up fusion of Latin rhythms, jazz and blues at their only Omaha performance–

Argentine Latin Grammy nominee singer-songwriter-acoustic guartist María Volonté and acclaimed California harmonica player Kevin Carrel Footer bring their Blue Tango Project to the Joslyn Castle in Omaha.

It is one of only two Midwest stops on the Blue Tango tour.

Hailing from the colorful and gritty La Boca neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Blue

Tango Project is a ground-breaking exploration of the emotional and musical crossroads where tango and the blues embrace.

Volonte has been dubbed “Tango’s shimmering star!” (Global Rhythm). A member of the Tango Hall of Fame, she’s gathered a fervent international following which keeps her touring constantly. She’s conquered the world of tango with numerous award-winning CDs. This musical innovator’s current projects explore the fusion of
Argentine music with other Latin American rhythms, jazz and the blues.

Kevin Carrel Footer (KCF) is an artist deeply inspired by the intense passions of tango and Buenos Aires. In words, images and music, he explores those twin passions in unexpected ways. He is the author of the book “A Tango before I Die” (2013). His photographs have been published in international magazines and graced the covers of award-winning CDs.

These two artists innovative fusion of tango with the blues, their genre-bending compositions and passionate live performances have thrilled audiences on three continents. Their latest CD “Blue Tango” (2014) captures the raw intensity of their live shows.

Enjoy old and new world rhythms in the beauty of Omaha’s only Scottsh Baronial castle. Let the multicultural vibes run free! The Castle is located at 3902 Davenport Street.

For more info, visit http://www.bluetangoproject.com/

Tickets are available at http://joslyncastle.com/. Cost is $20 for general admission; $15 for seniors, students, & military.

Joslyn Castle's photo.

Leo Adam Biga’s Journey in the Pipeline; Following The Champ, Terence “Bud” Crawford in Africa

October 14, 2015 2 comments

Leo Adam Biga’s Journey in the Pipeline; Following The Champ, Terence “Bud” Crawford, in Africa

This is the first time i’ve posted the stories I wrote about my travels to Africa with boxing champ Terence “Bud’ Crawford just as they appeared in Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/). The publisher and editor generously allotted several pages to this rather epic spread highlighting various facets of the two-week trip to Uganda and Rwanda.

NOTE: As originally presented for publication in metroMAGAZINE/mQUARTERLY August 2015 edition.

©by Leo Adam Biga

BTW: My blog features many other stories I’ve written about Crawford.

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The Champ looks to impact more youth at his B&B Boxing Academy; Building campaign for Terence Crawford’s gym has goal of $1.2 million for repairs, renovations, expansion

October 14, 2015 3 comments

Here is some of my latest writing on Omaha’s own two-time world boxing champion, Terence “Bud” Crawford, this time centered around the $1.2 million buidling campaign to make much needed repairs and renovations and to do much needed expansion to his B&B Boxing Academy. The Champ and his friends have a beauiful vision in mind for the academy. See the renderings for the new and improved facility below and read about the heart Crawford has for his community and the role he sees his center playing in being a positive force for youth and young adults. And meet some of the members who train at B&B.

 

The Champ looks to impact more youth at his B&B Boxing Academy

Building campaign for Terence Crawford’s gym has goal of $1.2 million for repairs, renovations, expansion

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

Two-time world boxing champion Terence “Bud” Crawford is putting Omaha on the map with the title bouts he brings here, but he also hopes to steer attention to his B&B Boxing Academy.

The fight world’s focus will once again be on Omaha when Crawford defends his WBO junior welterweight title October 24 at the CenturyLink Center. The Champ wants people to know his roots extend far beyond the fights he has in Omaha to include his nonprofit gym serving youth and young adults in his hometown.

Located at 3034 Sprague Street in a former cold storage warehouse in the very neighborhood he grew up in, B&B is a nonprofit, community-based athletic center with a mission of building body, mind and character. Experienced coaches help members reach goals inside and outside the ring. Positive, structured activities teach confidence, discipline and healthy habits for a lifetime. Crawford started the gym with co-manager Brian “BoMac” McIntyre as a safe haven from the negative street influences that compete for young people’s attention. When Crawford isn’t away training, he and McIntyre are there at B&B, rubbing shoulders with the mix of amateur fighters who frequent it.

But the building housing the gym is in need of total renovation. Antiquated electrical, heating and plumbing fixtures need replacing. There’s no locker room. The single bathroom is shared by males and females. Because the roof leaks, the only thing keeping the Champ and others dry are tarps affixed to the ceiling. The walls leak, too.

Meanwhile, the gym’s reached physical capacity. On warm summer nights the place overflows with members going through their paces – running, working the bags, shadow boxing, sparring. To accommodate the overflow, the doors and fences are opened and the parking lot emptied to create a makeshift outdoor training site. If the numbers keep growing as expected members will need to train in shifts.All of this is prompting friends of the B&B to support a building campaign with a goal of $1.2 million to address the structural needs.

Omaha entrepreneur Willy Theisen is among those supporters.

“Terence and his gym have a true positive impact and he’s committed to B&B,” Theisen said. “He and Brian and the other coaches there do a great job of building champions but I think we must do better as far as the facility goes. We come from a very generous community that gives back and that pays ahead and I think we can get this thing done. A newly renovated building will help Terence and B&B have an even greater impact on the neighborhood and community.”

Currently B&B is only using a fraction of the available space. The vision is to convert the entire warehouse into a spacious, state-of-the-art gym that can also host community events. It is a huge undertaking.

The newly outfitted gym will add a second ring, more punching bags, new exercise equipment, a dedicated fitness-weight training room, meeting-activity spaces and offices. The renovations will also include boys and girls locker rooms and showers, and a community outreach kitchen that can be used for serving meals to the kids as well as hosting special events.

Friends of B&B such as Theisen, along with B&B Advisory Committee members Jamie Nollette Kenneth Patry, Jay R. Lerner, Jason Caskey and Garth Glissman, invite people to help build a gym and give youth a fighting a chance.

For donation inquiries, contact campaign manager Jamie Nollette at jnollette@pipelineworldwide.org or (623) 824-3273.

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Tiffany White-Welchen delivers memorable performance in “Lady Day”

October 14, 2015 5 comments

Tiffany White-Welchen delivers memorable performance in “Lady Day” –

 

“WHITE-WELCHEN PERFORMANCE MAKES THIS A MUST SEE.” Betsie Freeman, Omaha World Herald.
“TIFFANY’S PERFORMANCE IS TRULY REMARKABLE.” Loyal Fairman, The Nonpareil
“LADY DAY DELIVERS RAW EMOTION…INCREDIBLE PERFORMANCE” Betsie Freeman, Omaha World Herald.
“A HEART-WRENCHING PLAY WITH INCREDIBLE MUSIC…” Loyal Fairman, The Nonpareil

 

Tiffany White-Welchen, LMHP, LPC, NCC

 

Let me add to the rave reviews Tiffany White Welchen has received for her portrayal of Billie Holiday in the Performing Artists Repertory Theatre production of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.” Choose whatever words of praise you wish to describe her performance – bravura, tour de force, scintillating, lights out, brilliant, mesmerizing, moving, multi-layered, multi-textured – and they all apply to what she does in this show. While the play is an often dark, despairing look at the low down ebb of Holiday’s final days, it is also funny, profane, provocative and ironic, just like the great jazz singer herself. Holiday went through some hard, harsh things but she probably didn’t think of her own life as tragic the way we do from the outside looking in. White-Welchen intimated as much in an interview she gave me. Holiday lived a raucous life and she did it on her own terms. While she made some bad choices and had some real dirt done to her, she wasn’t about regret.

White-Welchen sees similarities between her life and Holiday’s – from their shared experience growing up around lots of men to navigating life as an African-American woman to encountering discrimination.

“Most people see this beautiful, elegant woman on stage with a sleek ponytail and gardenias in her hair when actually she could curse like a sailor and hang with the guys like nobody’s business. That’s a parallel with my own life. I have three brothers and I’m very much a Tom boy. However, I’m pretty girly at the same time. It’s pretty awesome to be able to take those sides of me and kind of magnify them with a Billie Holiday twist, of course.

“I appreciate how she had to overcome so many difficult things that were happening to African-Americans at that time. There were times she couldn’t appear on-stage with Artie Shaw’s band until it was time for her to do her numbers. She’d get off the bus, perform, and then go right back on the bus when everybody else got to stay on the bandstand. And there were times she was supposed to sing with the band and venues said, ‘No, we’re not going to allow an African-American in our establishment,’ and the band would have another singer fill in for her.

“I really admire the fact she was able to get over such adversity.”

In the play White-Welchen courageously goes to some raw, naked places emotionally. She deserves credit for being willing to expose herself that way.

Performing the song “Strange Fruit” that deals directly with the lynching horrors blacks faced in the South is a harrowing thing for White-Welchen.

“I was really surprised one night when I started crying really hard during that particular song. Singing it gave me a chance to relate to what my grandmother and my great great granmother must have gone through and it makes me think about some deep-seated issues that have happened to me as African-American woman and about the lessons my mother taught me and about some of ugly parts of life I have to accept. I try to capture all that in that one song.

“I asked Mr. C (director Gordon Cantiello) to allow me to sing the very beginning of it acapella because I wanted people to get a sense of what was really going on at the time, to feel what it was like to go through those times, and to feel my pain as Billie Holiday.”

White-Welchen said she has come to realize that the deep cross-currents of Holiday’s life with social events of that time make the play a valuable and moving instructional tool.

“I didn’t realize I was teaching a history lesson on stage until I saw and felt the interaction from the audience.”

Having the responsibility to express all the potent themes and colors of the play while remaining true to Holiday and all her brilliance and dysfunction is a tall task for a performer who never leaves the stage except for intermission.

“I had never done a one-woman show before. It is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. The greatest challenge for me is to clear my mind of any issue or anything going on in my life and to forget all the hats I wear and to get up on stage and just perform. So I have to forget that I’m a mom, that I’m the director of a department. I have to forget about my mother in the audience, I have to forget about anything that bothered me during the day, because if I take that on stage with me it will distract me.

“I’m able to bring all those things with me on stage in other shows where I’m not on all the time, but not with this one because I’m up there by myself the whole time. I have to concentrate my energy so that I hold the character and the audience and never release them.”

Credit also goes to director Gordon Cantiello for pulling those depths out of her. These two artists have a long working history and the trust they’ve built allows White-Welchen to invest all of herself in this demanding role. She knows Cantiello will support her when she goes out on a limb. White-Welchen told me there are moments, lines and lyrics that are particularly difficult for her to deliver because they trigger her own personal losses and heartaches but she muddles through anyway to serve the play.

“There is a moment in the show where Billie talks about losing her father and I’m very much a daddy’s girl, so when I get to that part of the show there’s times I can emotionally go there and other times that I can’t. I think it’s because I don’t want to think about that my own father isn’t here anymore. He was my greatest fan, he came to every show. My mom is at every show and I know how much she misses him.

“In that scene Billie talks about singing at a bar in Harlem and getting a call telling her her father’s dead and she went back on stage and sang. When she tells that part it’s very emotional for me.”

Informing her portrayal of the troubled Holiday is White-Welchen’s expertise and experience as a mental health therapist.

“When people talk to me about their issues you can barely hear them, their voice changes, the pain is so hard it’s hard to come up with the words as they tell me their most horrifying stories. What I try to do in the show is to express how much my pain is, not by crying or shouting but by being silent or speaking in a faint voice.”

She said the experience of portraying such pain has affected the way she deals with clients.
“I guess it’s given me a level of sensitivity that I may not have had before. When you are in this field for so long you kind of become callous to it and I think by playing her I’m a lot more sensitive now and I’ve talked to staff about making sure that when people tell their story we’re not re-traumatizing them. So my level of sensitivity and empathy have definitely been enhanced by playing Billie Holiday.”

Cantiello is glad to have someone as perceptive and seasoned as White-Welchen in the role.

“I couldn’t ask for a better performer, actress, singer than Tiffany,” Cantiello said. “As a behavioral therapist, she brings a lot of understanding and compassion to the role. For me, understanding the amount of suffering Billie Holiday had to endure in her lifetime brought me to tears. I just knew Tiffany would be perfect for the part and she’s certainlly proved to be.”

Omaha has many outstanding vocal and theatrical talents and White-Welchen is among the very best because she’s the total package. This is a showcase part and she’s completely up to its challenges and opportunities. She does justice to all the Holiday signature tunes but her renditions of “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit” are worth the price of admission alone.

Kudos as well to music director Ric Swanson for the tight numbers and his piano accompaniment.

Helping draw us in is the intimate, immersive performing space that’s just right for the one set production.

“The venue is perfect for immersive cabaret style theatre,” Cantiello said. “It gives the audience a chance to be a part of the story. Our new theater at the Crossroads is that type of space. A perfect space for ‘Lady Day.'”

The limited run of “Lady Day” is soon coming to an end and so act now and reserve your seats for one or more of these remaining performances:
Friday, October 23 at 7pm
Saturday, October 24 at 7pm

Tickets can be purchased by calling 402-706-0778. All tickets are $35 for all shows.

The theater is located in the Target wing at Crossroads Mall. Park in the Northeast parking garage on the lower level and enter the Northeast entrance. Enter the lobby and make a right. Look for the PART signs.

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