Archive for the ‘Aging’ Category

Creative couple: Bob and Connie Spittler and their shared creative life 60 years in the making

December 23, 2015 3 comments

A lot of you know me as a frequent and longtime contributor with The Reader, for whom I’ve written more than a thousand stories since 1996, including hundreds of cover pieces. Beyond The Reader, I am fortunate to own extended relationships with several other publications.  I was a major contributor to the Jewish Press for well over a decade.  My tenures with Omaha Magazine and Metro Magazine are both more than a decade old now.  But perhaps my longest-lived contributor relationship has been with the New Horizons, a monthly newspaper published by the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging.  Editor Jeff Reinhardt and I are committed to positive depictions of aging that illustrate in words and images the active, engaged lifestyles of people of a certain age.  Older adult living doesn’t need to follow any of the outdated prescriptions that once had folks at retirement age slowing down to a crawl and more or less retreating from life.  That’s not at all how the people we profile approach the second or third acts of their lives.  No, our subjects are out doing things, working, creating, traveling, making a difference.  My latest profile subjects for the Horizons, Bob and Connie Spittler, are perfect examples.  They are in their 80s and still living the active, creative lives that have always driven their personal and professional pursuits.  He makes still and moving images.  He pilots planes.  She writes essays, short stories and books.  They travel.  They enjoy nature.  Sometimes they combine their images and words together in book projects.  Bob and Connie are the cover subjects in the January 2016 issue.  They join a growing list of folks I’ve profiled for the Horizons who embody such precepts of health aging as keeping your mind occupied, doing what you enjoy, following youe passion, cultivating new interests and discovering new things.  The Spittlers are also in a long line of dynamic older couples I’ve profiled – Jose and Linda Garcia, Vic Gutman and Roberta Wilhelm, Josie Metal-Corbin and David Corbin, Ben and Freddie Gray.  You can find many of my Horizons stories on my blog, Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories at

NOTE: ©Photos by Jeff Reinhardt, New Horizons Editor, unless otherwise indicated.



Spittlers looking at each other (Leo)

Bob and Connie Spittler outside their Brook Hollow home



Creative couple: Bob and Connie Spittler and their shared creative life 60 years in the making

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in the January 2016 issue of the New Horizons

Once a creative, always a creative.

That’s how 80-something-year-olds Bob and Connie Spittler have rolled producing creative projects alone or together for six decades. Their work spans television commercials, industrial films, slideshows and books.

Bob, a photographer and filmmaker, these days experiments making art photos. Connie, a veteran scriptwriter, is now an accomplished essayist, short story writer and novelist. Her new novel, the tongue-in-cheek titled The Erotica Book Club for Nice Ladies, has found a receptive enough audience she’s writing a sequel. The book is published by Omaha author-publisher Kira Gale and her River Junction Press.

This past summer Bob and Connie hit the highway for a five-state book tour. Their stops included signings at the American Library Association Conference in San Francisco and the Tattered Cover in Denver. Following an intimate reading at a Berkeley, Calif. couple’s home she and Bob stayed the night. It harkened back to the RV road trips they made with their four kids.

On social media she termed the tour “an author’s dream.” It was especially gratifying given Bob endured a heart angioplasty and stent earlier in 2015.

Connie was also an invited panelist at an Austin, Texas literary event.

“All in all, an unforgettable year of healing, friendship, interesting places and great people,” she wrote in a card to family and friends.

Sharing a love for the outdoors, the Soittlers have applied their respective talents to splendid nature books. The Desert Eternal celebrates the ecosystem surrounding the home they shared in the foothills of the Catalina Mountains in Arizona, where they “retired” after years running their own Omaha film production biz

“When we want down to Tucson we weren’t going to be working together. We were just going to do our own thing,” she says. “We’ve always been able to kind of follow what we want to do. So I started writing literary things and he was out taking pictures. I had a lumpectomy and the day I came home I’m looking out at the Catalina Mountains and I thought, you know it’s strange Bob and I both think we’re doing our own thing when we’re doing the same thing, we’re just each doing it in our own way. We were both doing the desert.

“We lived between two washes the coyotes and other wildlife came through. I had seven weeks of radiation and I had the idea of putting our work together. I downloaded all my essays on the desert and every morning before radiation I’d go into his office and together we’d look through his photo archive for images he’d taken that matched the words I’d written. Well, by the time we got to the end we had 114 photos – enough for a book. Bob formatted it. It came back (from the printer) the day my radiation finished. It was just this cycle.”

Another of their books, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, documents the wild-in-the-city sanctuary around the southwest Omaha home they’ve lived in since 2010, when they returned from their Arizona idyll. Their home in the gated Sleepy Hollow neighborhood abuts four interconnected ponds that serve as habitat for feathered and furry creatures. The inspiration the couple finds in that natural splendor gets expressed in her words and his images.

“Words and images are perfect for each other,” Connie says by way of explaining what makes her and Bob such an intuitive match.

The couple met at Creighton University in the early 1950s. They studied communications and worked on campus radio, television, theater productions together. He was from the big city. She was from a small town, But they hit it off and haven’t stopped collaborating since.



Spittlers' office (Leo)

The couple’s original office, ©Bob Spittler


Her writerly roots
The former Connie Kostel grew up in South Dakota. This avid reader practically devoured her entire hometown library.

Connie developed an affection for great women writers. “I love Emily Dickinson. Her poems are short and kind of pithy. She always has one thought in there that just kind of sticks with you.” Other favorites include Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, Jane Austen.

“I like a lot of classics.”

Terry Tempest Williams is a contemporary favorite.

Success in school got her thinking she might pursue writing.

“I think it was in the sixth grade I won an essay competition. It had to be on the topic of how we increased production on our family flax farm. Well, there were some farm kids in my grade but I don’t think anybody grew flax. My father was a funeral director. But I got the encyclopedia and I found out some facts about flax and I wrote an essay and I won. I think I got $25 or something. i mean it was like, Wow, I think I should be a writer. That sparked my interest.”

She attended the Benedictine liberal arts Mount Marty College in Yankton, S.D., a then-junior college for girls.

“I got a scholarship there. I was interested in writing and I was going to have to transfer anyway and I began to see radio and TV as one way maybe I could make a living writing rather than writing short stories and novels and so forth. So I decided to do that. My parents researched it out and found Creighton University for me, It had one of the few programs with television, radio and advertising,”

His Army detour
Meanwhile, Bob graduated from Omaha Creighton Prep before getting drafted into the U.S. Army. In between, he earned his private pilot’s license, the start of a lifelong affair with flying that’s seen him own and pilot several planes he’s utilized for both work and pleasure. Prior to the Army he began fooling around with a camera – a Brownie.

He recently put together a small book for his family about his wartime stint in Korea. He had no designs on doing anything with photography when he began documenting that experience.

“Everybody bought a camera over there and I bought an Argus C3. I just got interested in taking pictures for something to do. I learned how to use it and I just took a lot of pictures. I didn’t think it was going anywhere. It was just a hobby, you know.”

But those early photos show a keen eye for composition. He was, in short, a natural. The book he did years later, titled My Korea 1952 to 1953, gives a personal glimpse of life in the service amidst that unfamiliar culture and forbidding environment.

The Army assigned Spittler to intelligence work.

“My specialty was artillery but I was put in what they called G2 Air (part of Corps Intelligence). I went to a school in Japan. Back in Korea I coordinated the Air Force with the artillery in the CORPS front.”

Spittler relied on wall maps and tele-typed intel to schedule flights by Air Force photo-reconnaissance planes. “When I first arrived P-51 Mustangs were the planes used. Then after about six months they shifted to the F-80 Shooting Star,” he writes. “In winter a little pot-bellied kerosene stove warmed our tent. At night it had to be turned off and lighting it on a cold morning, below zero, was painful, It took 10 minutes before it even thought about giving heat.”

The closest he came to action was when a Greek mortar platoon on the other side of a river running past the American camp fired shells into a nearby hill, causing the GIs to scramble for cover.

Though he didn’t pilot any aircraft there he did find ways to feed his flying fix.

He writes, “Since my job was using radio contact with reconnaissance flights every day I became ‘talking friendly’ with some of the pilots. One of them agreed to give me a jet ride…”



Bob at fireplace (Leo)

Bob Spittler



That ride was contingent on Spittler making his way some distance to where the sound-breaking aircraft were based. “Come hell or high water I wasn’t going to pass up that offer,” he writes. With no jeep available, he hitchhiked his way southwest of Seoul and got his coveted ride in a T-33. From 33,000 feet he sighted the “double bend’ of the Imjin River pilots used as a rendezvous landmark – something he’d heard them often reference in radio chatter.

At Spittler’s urging the pilot did some loops. Aware his guest was a flier himself the pilot let Spittler put the jet into a roll. But before he could complete the pull out the pilot took over when Spittler began losing control in the grip of extreme G-forces he’d never felt before. An adrenalin rush to remember.



Click to preview My Korea 1952 to 1953 photo book



Kindred spirits
After a year in-country Bob eagerly resumed the civilian life he’d put on hold. What he did to amuse himself in the Army. photography, became a passion. When he and Connie met at Creighton they soon realized they shared some interests and ambitions. They were friends first and dated off and on. She was entranced by the romance of this tall, strapping veteran who took her up in his Piper Cub. He was drawn to her petite beauty and unabashed intelligence and independence.

Besides their mutual attraction, they enjoyed working in theater productions. They even appeared in a few plays together. Connie’s passion for theater extended to teaching dramatic play at Joslyn Art Museum. She also enacted the female lead, Lizzie, in an Omaha Community Playhouse production of The Rainmaker.

The pair benefited from instructors at Creighton, including two Jesuit priests who were mass communications pioneers. Before commercial television went on the air in Omaha, Rev. Roswell Williams trained production employees of WOW-TV with equipment he set up at the school. He founded campus radio station KOCU to prepare students for broadcasting careers. He implemented an early closed circuit television systems used to teach classes.



Connie Spittler works the board as Rex Allen gets ready to shoot a scene in the 28-minute film on the story of Ak-Sar-Ben. Published Nov. 16, 1968. (Richard Janda/The World-Herald). Editor’s note: Turns out Connie Spittler, the woman in the photo, has a blog. You can find out more about the story behind this photo here. Also, how awesome is that cigarette behind her ear?

Connie Spittler works the board as Rex Allen gets ready to shoot a scene in the 28-minute film on the story of Ak-Sar-Ben. Published Nov. 16, 1968. (Richard Janda/The World-Herald).




“He was the person that brought television to Creighton University,” Connie says. “He was interested in it in students learning about it.”

Rev. Lee Lubbers was an art professor whose kinetic sculptures experimental, film offings and international satellite network, SCOLA, made him an “avant garde” figure.

“It was so unusual to have him be here and do what he did,” Connie says. “He stirred things up for sure.”

Right out of college she and Bob worked in local media. He directed commercials and shows at WOW-TV. She was a continuity director, advertising scriptwriter and director at fledgling KETV. She also worked in advertising at radio station KFAB.

Bob’s father was an attorney and there was an expectation he would follow suit but he had other plans.

“My father wanted me to be a lawyer and I just kept fighting that,” he recalls. “The gratifying thing about that is that after about 10 years of being in business he said, ‘I’m really kind of glad you didn’t go into it.'”

Bob calls those early days of live TV “fun.”

“I did little 10 second spots for Safeway. They’d just give me the copy and have me go shoot a banana or something. Well, one night I hung them up in the air and swung them and moved the camera and they were flying all over the place and Safeway just loved it.

“But it changed so much with (video )tape coming in. You can always look back and say, ‘Boy, what we could have done if we’d had that.'”



Spittlers at fireplace B & W (Leo)



Taking the plunge
Bob and Connie then threw caution aside to launch a film production company from their basement. Don Chapman joined them to form Chapman-Spittler Productions. While leaving the stability of a network affiliate to build a business from scratch might have been a scary proposition for some, it fit Bob to a tee.

“To be honest with you I’m not a team player and I’m not a leader. I’m kind of a loner,” he says. “I could see corporate-wise I wouldn’t get anywhere. I had ideas and things I wanted to do myself. When I did get something done it was always off by myself and I figured out that was the way I wanted it.”

The fact that Bob and Connie brought separate skill sets to the table helped make them work together.

“We didn’t do the same things, that was part of it, so we weren’t competing with each other,” she says. “One other very important thing she did – she kept the books,” Bob notes.

It was unusual for a married couple to work together in the communications field then. Connie was also a rarity as a woman in the male-dominated media-advertising worlds.

She’s long identified as a feminist.

“I was a working woman in the ’50. We were just women that wanted to be able to work, to be able to make a living wage, that wanted to have a family and kids if we chose to but not that we had to.”

There were a few occasions when her gender proved an issue.

“Northern Natural Gas was interviewing for a position and they said there’s no way we can accept a female for this because this job entails going to a lot of parties that get too rowdy, so we’re sorry. When I was at KETV we were doing a documentary about SAC (Strategic Air Command) in-air refueling missions. I wanted to go up so I could write about it, but base officials said we can’t send up a woman, so I couldn’t do that. The station did send up a male director and he came back and told me about it and I wrote the script

“Otherwise, I don’t think I did experience discrimination.”



Cub silouette (Leo)

Bob’s beloved Piper Cub, ©Bob Spittler



She wasn’t taking any chances though when she broke into the field.

“I was one of the first people hired before KETV went on the air. My job was as an administrative assistant to work with New York (ABC). That was one place where I didn’t know if there’d be any problem with my being a woman so instead of signing letters Connie Kostel (this was before she was married), I signed them Con Kostel, so they wouldn’t know what sex I was. I didn’t have any problems.”

Connie will never forget the time she wrote a promo for a Hollywood actor on tour promoting his new ABC Western series.

“I directed him in the promo. When I got home Bob said, ‘How’d it go with the guy from Hollywood?’ I said, ‘He’s nice looking but he’s a loser, He had the personality of a peach pit. I just didn’t get anything from him at all.'”

She was referring to James Garner, whose Maverick became a hit.

In retrospect, she chalks up his lethargy to being exhausted after a long tour. “Thank heavens I didn’t want to be a talent scout.”






The salad days
She says when she and Bob had their own business she was put “in charge of some really big sales meetings” by clients who entrusted her with writing-producing multi-screen slide shows. These elaborate productions cost tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars and often involved name narrators, such as Herschel Bernardi and Rex Allen.

She wrote-produced a 9-screen, 14-projector show for Leo A. Daly having never produced even a single-screen slide show.

“Inspired in the late ’60’s by our plane trips to the Montreal World Fair and the San Antonio HemisFair, Bob and I were both excited by multi-screen shows.”

Once, Connie was asked to produce show in three days to be shown in a tent in Saudi Arabia.

“I always wondered about the extension cord,” she quips.

Bob says Connie was accepted as an equal by the old boys network they operated in. “I never saw any signs of any rejection.” Besides, he adds, “she got along real well with people” and “she was good.”

For her part, Connie felt right at home doing projects for Eli Lilly, Mutual of Omaha, Union Pacific, ConAgra, Ak-Sar-Ben, the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce and many other clients.

“I loved it, I absolutely loved it. And the thing I loved about the writing I did was that each one was a different subject. I’d go visit a big company like Leo A. Daly and they’d introduce me to their top people to interview. I’d be given all these research books and reports to read. It was like a continuing education. Working on the Daly account I learned a lot about architecture.

“Almost anything turned out to be really interesting once I talked to the people who worked there who were excited about their work.”

Their projects played international film festivals and earned industry awards. Bob worked with Galen Lillethorup at Bozell and Jacobs to produce the ‘The Great Big Rollin’ Railroad’ commercials for Union Pacific, which won the prestigious Clio for B & J. Bob recalls the North Platte, Neb. shoot as “fun,” adding, “We got a lot of attention out of it and we did get other business from it.” A few years later, Spittler Productions received their own Clio recognition for an Omaha Chamber project. Assignments took them all over the U.S. Bob would often do the flying.

“Bob either shot, scouted or landed for business purposes and I traveled to locations to research, write and produce sales meetings in every state in the U.S. with the exception of Alaska, Hawaii, Maine and Rhode Island,” Connie says.

One time when Bob let someone else do the flying he and a Native American guide caught a helicopter that deposited them atop a Wyoming mesa so he could capture a train moving across the wilderness valley.

“I sat up there with my Arriflex and that old Indian and waited for that train to come and neither of us could understand the other,” he recalls.

Connie once wrote liner notes for a City of London Mozart Symphonia produced by Chip Davis and recorded in Henry Wood Hall, London. Davis recommended her to Decca Records in London to write liner notes for a Mormon Tabernacle Choir album.

At its peak Chapman-Spittler Productions did such high profile projects the partners opened a Hollywood office. Spittler worked with big names Gordon McCrae and John Cameron Swayze.

The Nebraskans made their office a Marina del Rey yacht, the Farida, supposedly once owned by King Farouk and named after his wife.

“On one occasion I flew a Moviola (editing machine) out there and we edited one of the Union Pacific commercials on the boat over in Catalina,” Bob remembers.

An InterNorth commercial was edited there as well.

Connie adds, “I used the yacht as a wonderful place to write scripts.”

“Ours was 40-foot. We were able to sleep on it. I took the boat out a lot. When we left, that’s where it stayed,” Bob says. “Our boat was right next to Frank Sinatra’s boat off the Marina del Rey Hotel. His was a converted PT-boat.”

Bob also did his share of flying up and down the Calif. coast. Connie wedded her words to his images to tell stories.

One of Bob and Connie’s favorite projects was working with Beech Aircraft. Using aerial photography Bob shot in several states, they produced a film on the pressurized Baron and later a film on the King Air for the Beechcraft National Conference in Dallas, Texas

The variety of the projects engaged her.

“Curiosity is my favorite thing,” she acknowledges.

A hungry mind is another attribute she shares with her mate, as Bob’s a tinkerer when it comes to mechanical and electronic things.

“Bob is curious, too,” she says. “He’s always trying to think of something to invent. Years ago he went out and brought home one of the first PCs – a TRS 80. He wanted to play around with it. Then he pushed me into playing around with it and then he made all the kids learn it so they could do their college applications on the computer. So he dragged the whole family into the computer generation.”

The way Bob remembers it, “When I brought that first computer home we had it for a week and I was still trying to figure out how to turn the damn thing on and my son was programming it. He taught me. But that was neat. I’m way behind now on technology,” though he has digital devices to share and store his work.



Connie Spittler at table (Leo)

Connie Spittler



Reinventing themselves
Bob and Connie’s collaborations continued all through the years they worked with Don Chapman. When that partnership dissolved the couple went right on working together.

“We were complementary I suppose in many ways,” she says. “When we had the business I wrote and produced, he shot and edited, so it just worked.”

By now, Connie’s written most everything there is to write. Being open to new writing avenues has brought rewarding opportunities.

“You have to be open to writing about other things just to keep your mind going. I received a phone call in Tucson one day and this person said, ‘We heard about you and we wondered if you’d come read your cowboy poetry at our trail ride?’ I’d never written any cowboy poetry but it sounded so much fun. I said, ‘Let me think about that.’ Well, I like cowboys and nature and all these things, so I agreed to do it. Bob and I ended up making this little book Cowboys & Wild, Wild Things.”

When she got around trying her hand at fiction writing, it fit like a glove.

“I was writing my first fiction piece and Bob said to me, ‘Do you know for the first time since we’ve come down here every time you come out of your office you’re smiling?’ Before, my projects were all kind of heavy, fact-laden subjects. I mean, there was creativity but it was mostly how do you take this subject and make it interesting. With the novel, I could make it anything I want.”

She hit her fiction stride with the books Powerball 33 and Lincoln & the Gettysburg Address.

A project that brought her much attention is the Wise Women Videos series she wrote about individuals who embody or advocate positive aging attributes. The videos have been widely screened. For a time they served as the basis for a cottage industry that found her teaching and speaking about mind, body, spirit matters.

For the series, she says, “I found interesting women I thought other people should listen to. None of them were famous. They were just women introduced to me or once people knew I was doing the series they would say, Oh, you should talk to this person or that person.”

As the series made its way into women’s festivals and organizations she got lots of feedback.

“When I would get letters from cancer groups or prisons or abused women groups I thought good grief, how wonderful that can happen, that they can ‘meet’ these women through these videos.”

The series is archived in Harvard University’s Library on the History of Women in America.

She’s given her share of writing presentations and talks – “I love to attend book clubs to discuss my books” – but a class on memoir she taught in Tucson took the cake.

“The class was inspired by one of my Wise Women Videos and began with each student telling a story about their first decade in life. Then each time we met the women chose one important memory to tell the group about the next decade. The assignment was to write that story for family, friends or themselves. An interesting thing happened: When the class sessions reached the end of their decades and the class was finished the women were so connected from the experience they continued to meet independently for years afterward.”


Spittlers on deck (Leo)

Bob and Connie on their deck



Connie’s own essays and short stories are published in many anthologies. She achieved a mark of distinction when an essay of hers, “Lint and Light,” inspired by the work and concepts of the late Neb. artist and inventor Reinhold Marxhausen, was published in The Art of Living – A Practical Guide to Being Alive. The international anthology’s editor sent an email letting Connie know the names of the other authors featured in the book. She was stunned to find herself in the company of the Dalai Lama, Mikhail Gorbachev, Deepak Chopra, Desmond Tutu, Jean Boland, Sir Richard Branson and other luminaries.

“I almost fell off the chair. When that happened I was like, I wonder if I should quit writing because I don’t think I’ll ever top that.”

Bob says he always knew Connie was destined for big things. “It didn’t surprise me a bit.”

Much of her work lives on thanks to reissues and requests.

“It’s interesting how you do something and it isn’t necessarily gone,” she says. “Some of those things have a long life. I always say a book lasts as long as the paper lasts.”

Now with the Web her work has longer staying power than ever.

Meanwhile, one of Bob’s photographs just sold in excess of a thousand dollars at a gallery in Bisbee, Arizona.

Living in Tucson Connie says she was spoiled by the “absolutely wonderful writers community” there. She and some fellow women writers created their own salon to talk about art, music, theater and literature. “The one rule was you couldn’t gossip – it was just intellectual, interesting talk,” she says. “One night the subject of erotica came up. The next day I went to a bookstore and I said to this young female clerk, ‘Do you have a place for erotica here?’ And she said, ‘Oh erotica, yes, let me get my friend, she loves erotica, too!’ and they both took me off to the section and told me all their favorite books. I didn’t get any of their favorites, but I did get this one, Erotica: Women’s Writing from Sappho to Margaret Atwood.”

Connie found writers published in its pages she never expected.

“When I opened this book the first thing I saw was Emily Dickinson, then Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, all these well-known, respected authors. Their work is considered erotica for their time because it was romantic reading with sensual undertones. It’s in your mind, not graphic. I thought it so interesting that that could be erotica. It occurred to me a book club about erotica could be fun.”

Only Connie’s resulting book is not erotica at all but “a cozy mystery.”

“A librarian who gave it 5 stars said, ‘You would not be embarrassed to discuss this book with your mother.'” In the back Connie offers a list of erotica titles for those interested in checking out the real thing.

She’s delighted the book’s being published in the Czech Republic.

“My dad was a hundred percent Czech. I asked the publisher if I could add my maiden name and change the dedication to dedicate it to my dad and my grandmother and Czech ancestors and they said, ‘We’d love that.’ My dad’s been gone a long time and he didn’t have any sons and he always said to me, ‘That’s the end of my line,’ so now I thought it will live on – at least in the Czech Republic.”





Words to live by
Closer to home, Connie’s developed a following for the Christmas Card essays she pens. Her sage observations and sublime wordings are much anticipated. This year’s riffs on the fox that visits their property.

“Sometimes in the late evening he trots along the grasslands and pond. Bob, watching TV down in the family room, has spotted the scurrying fox several times – always unexpected and too quick for his camera lens. I haven’t seen this wild urban creature yet since I’m in bed during the usual prowling gorse. Still, imagining his billowing tail flying by int he dark adds a flurry of magic to the winter night…

“As our dancing, prancing fox moves in and out of focus and time, I think of the surprising people, pets, events and moments that visit our lives. They come and go with reminders to be grateful for unexpected things that happen along the way…fleeting or lingering…illusive…intriguing.

“This season our message comes from the fox, a wish for wisdom, longevity and beautiful surprises. Do keep a look out. You never know who you’ll meet or what you’ll see.”

Finally, as one half of a 57-year partnership, Connie proffers some advice about the benefits of passion-filled living.

“One beautiful thing about writing is that by picking up pencil and paper, or using computer, iPad, you can write anywhere. I’ve written on a beach, by a pool, a yacht and in an RV. I always encourage anyone interested in writing to sit down and go to it. It doesn’t cost any money to try and studies show the creativity of writing keeps the mind alert. And it’s a feeling of accomplishment, if you finish a piece or even if you finish a good day writing.”

The same holds true for filmmaking and photography. And for delighting in the wonders of wild foxes running free.

Follow the couple at

Moving right along: Educators, dancers, advocates, activists Josie Metal-Corbin and David E. Corbin not slowing down in retirement

July 3, 2015 2 comments

For all of us there are people in our lives, even if tangentially, who we admire for the way they, well, live.  Josie Metal-Corbin and David E. Corbin are two of those people for me.  This married couple just knows how to do life right.  At least that’s the distinct impression I get whenever I’m around them, which is rarely and then only for brief visits, but my instincts about people are good and all evidence suggests my perception about them is right on.  There’s a joyous spirit to them and their pursuits, both personal and professional, that largely remains elusive to those of us, like me, who fall on the depressive, anxious side of the spectrum.  Oh, I’m sure they have their dark, down moments and struggles like anyone else but I suspect they are far more positive than negative in the balance of things.  I also know for a fact they intentionally, consistently keep themselves healthy in mind, body, spirit by virtue of their degreed disciplines, specializations, and passions having to do with physical education, recreation, healthy aging, and dance.  They are active people and in retirement they’re still moving right along, just as the headline for my New Horizons profile about them says.


 Cover Photo

Moving right along: Educators, dancers, advocates, activists Josie Metal-Corbin and David E. Corbin still on the move in retirement

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in the New Horizons


Josie Metal-Corbin and David E. Corbin are aware not everyone is as fortunate as they are in following their passion work. Their magnificent obsession happens to be health, physical education, dance and, more broadly speaking, the humanities.

They were already married and established in their respective fields when they joined the University of Nebraska at Omaha staff in 1980, where the next four decades they pursued their professional lives. Today, they look back fondly on distinguished educational careers that often intersected with one another.

A soon to be retired dance educator and choreographer, Josie led UNO’s award-winning resident dance troupe, The Moving Company, whose concerts explore myriad subjects in diverse spaces. David’s an emeritus professor of health education and public health who led many community health initiatives and is now an environmental activist.

Besides their mutual interest in health education and recreation, they share in common a passion for performance – she’s a dancer and he’s a musician – along with art, activism and advocacy. In addition to being each other’s favorite dance partner, he’s often accompanied, on guitar, performances she’s danced in or directed-choreographed. He’s even danced with The Moving Company himself.

The two actually met over dance – at a Brigham Young University social ballroom dance workshop in Provo, Utah. He came to the workshop from Saskatchewan, Canada, where he was teaching at the University of Regina and she traveled there from back East, where she was teaching at Robert Morris University in her native Pittsburgh.

They both actively promote healthy aging through activities like dance and Tai Chi and they use their expertise to support progressive, humanist causes.

Married 38 years and residing in the same Dundee house they’ve always lived in, they are parents to a daughter, Quinn Corbin. She describes her folks as “an incredibly inspiring couple,” adding, “They always follow their passion and work incredibly hard while still taking the time to meditate every day as well as view life through a positive yet realistic lens. They both care for so many others and are heavily involved in the community.”

Her parents are friends, colleagues and collaborators with a large circle of fellow creatives and concerned citizens.



©photo vt David Conway



Putting down roots

These Omaha transplants were both teaching in Pittsburgh when they accepted offers from UNO. He was completing his Ph.D. and she was following him wherever he landed. He weighed options in Boston and Indiana when jobs serendipitously opened for each at UNO.

Before Omaha David Corbin never lived anywhere longer than eight years. His educator parents moved the family from Ohio to New Mexico when he was young and he came into his adolescence in that sun-swept and desert land, living on a ranch in a small Sandia Mountains town. His folks taught at a two-room schoolhouse. He attended a school 18 miles from home. He often rode into town on one of the family’s horses. Before his senior year his parents accepted positions at an American school on a U.S, military base, Fort Buchanan, in Puerto Rico. That’s where he graduated and after getting his teaching degree in the States at the University of New Mexico he returned to Puerto Rico to make his living as a teacher and musician.

Music’s been a big part of his life since age 12. As a young man his father played bass in touring bands. When David got struck by the folk and rock explosion, his father gave him his first guitar lessons. David headed up a band during high school in New Mexico. A popular song then, “El Matador,” by the Kingston Trio was naturally adopted as the fight song for his school, nicknamed the Matadors. David’s group performed the tune before basketball games.

His band’s gigs extended to ski resorts.

“We didn’t get paid. We got room and board and free lift tickets. We didn’t care,” he recalls of those free-spirited adventures.

He led a band all through college at UNM.

“After college I became solo in Puerto Rico. i worked on cruise ships and I was teaching by day and playing by night in bars.”

A tee-totaler, he never imbibed at those night spots, but he was burning the candle at both ends.

“Looking back, I wonder why in the world was I doing that. After working a full school day I’d get home at 4 p.m,, take a nap, go to work at 10 to sing and play guitar, get off at 2 a.m. and then have to be back at school at 7:30.”

Even though his parents were educators, he says it was really his older brother Charles “Chuck” Corbin, a noted fitness-wellness educator and author, who influenced him to pursue a physical education track.

After Puerto Rico, David’s roaming began again. He studied at the University of Oslo (Norway), he taught in Fort Worth, Texas, he earned his master’s from the University of Ohio, he taught in Maryland, he lectured in Canada, he attended an intensive course on human sexuality at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University,

Josie, meanwhile, rarely left Penn. before he came into her life.

Her father was a coal miner turned hobo hell-bent on being a lumberjack before contracting tuberculosis. He then learned the craft of fine motor watchmaking and clockmaking. Her father and mother raised the family in an undeveloped Pittsburgh suburb that was more like the country. The eldest of three, Josie led adventures in “these great woods behind our house.”

But it was work, not play, combined with a self-sufficient attitude that was most impressed upon Josie by her folks.

“Work, work and work. We were the Metal girls and we could do anything – this was the philosophy. We went hunting and fishing, we skinned rabbits, we chopped off cement from bricks so my father could salvage brick.”

Running parallel to that blue collar, tomboy lifestyle were the dance lessons she took from age 3 on.

“This Metal girl had an unbelievable opportunity. The Carnegie Museum of Art had this wonderful program called the Tam O’Shanters. Kids from the public schools were selected to come every Saturday for free. I did that from third grade through high school, by which time we were going to the Carnegie Mellon Institute of Art. So I had free art lessons, I saw different exhibitions. It introduced me to this whole other world. It was really amazing.”

That experience is so ingrained in her, she says, “when I go to museums or older institutions to get a drink from the old brass fountains it just all floods back.”

“One of the highlights of my life came when the Durham Museum (Omaha) asked me to be a scholar in residence,” she says.

Fine art and higher ed were not part of her parents’ experience and she appreciates that these things became a vital part of her life.

“I was first generation college,” she says. “I went to Slippery Rock Sate College  (Penn.). I actually played soccer on a sheep field there. I was always in dance, Dance then was part of physical education. Now you go to study dance. Then I went to the University of Pittsburgh (for her masters). I taught three years in the public schools – health and physical education – and did dance and choreography. Then I went to Robert Morris, where I founded Orchesis (the greek word for dance).”

UNO’s company was originally called Orchesis after a nationwide modern dance  movement and honorary society.

Metal-Corbin stretched herself while at Robert Morris.

“Not only did I found the dance company, I joined folk dancers from Duquesne University as an itinerant grad school teacher for Penn State University. I coached varsity basketball for women, I was the softball director, I was the cheerleader sponsor. I did a million things there.”




Sculpture by Jamie Burmeister; ©photo by Quinn M. Corbin



Dance as life

Once at UNO she contributed to The Moving Company’s long legacy.

“I’ve been involved in the work of carrying on a tradition of modern dance at UNO that goes back to 1935. We’re in our 80th year of continued existence, which makes us one of the oldest modern dance university companies on the planet.”

There have been four directors – Ruth Diamond Levinson, Aileene Lockhart, Vera Lundhahl and Josie Metal-Corbin.

Bringing dance to people and places that don’t often see it is one of Josie’s passions. She’s done that as a Nebraska Arts Council Artist in Schools and Communities and via the Moving Company, whose mission, she says, is community oriented. “We were doing community engagement before it became the byword of institutions.”

Indoors or outdoors, kids to seniors, she’s made dance accessible everywhere, for everyone.

“We invite the community. When i came to UNO I wanted to see the dancers and the audience reflect north, south, east and west Omaha. I worked for a very long time to get diversity of audience and performers and today we are diverse in age, religion, language, race. you name it That is I think my biggest accomplishment.”

She’s been intentional doing outreach work with the Omaha International Folk Dancers and the African Culture Connection. She’s worked with a local ballroom dance group. She formed Reach for It, a dance class for people with Parkinson’s disease.

Her interest in dance as cultural rite, symbol and storytelling device found full expression in a native Bosnian dance-inspired piece she choreographed. The performance was accompanied by authentic music and projected images of the Bosnian-Serb War. Among the dancers and musicians were Bosnian refugees living in Omaha.

“I love collaborations, I thrive on collaborations, I always have from day one in my teaching career. You see, dance is very ecumenical. Dance is physics, dance is force, gravity, weight, flow and time, so connecting it to science in any way is a natural connection. We’ve done the water cycle dance, the spider dance…There’s an easy connection to math with patterns and forms and shapes. There’s most definitely a connection to fine art, to music, to language arts.”

She says “dance is very universal” but American culture doesn’t readily see its broad integration until someone like her choreographs a site specific work where you least expect it.

“A recent book I published a chapter in is about site specific dance. I illustrate how you can have dance on bridges, in the middle of water, on mountaintops. There’s vertical dancing now where people are hooked up on rigs and they do the mountain or climbing wall.”

Some of her favorite site specific work has intersected with some of the area’s most sublime spots.

“The first meaningful site specific piece I did here was with artist Catherine Ferguson, storyteller Nancy Duncan and musician Michael Fitzsimmons. We did it in a Joslyn Art Museum gallery with words, music and dance within a Catherine Ferguson installation of slate and rope. Then we did something through the galleries at the Sheldon Art Museum in Lincoln with works by artist Jamie Burmeister.”

She recalls another Joslyn performance that brought nontraditional dancers together for a piece that took some improvising.

“In 2005 The Moving Company was commissioned to respond to an exhibition, Renaissance to Rococo. I wanted the dance performed in the galleries among the works of art but was denied permission due to security issues. Our performance was relegated to the Witherspoon Concert Hall. I was disappointed but richly rewarded with the premiere of a piece I made for five physical education majors. They were future teacher candidates learning ways of integrating dance, language arts and sign language into the physical education setting.

“A quarterback, a coach, an assistant at Boys Town and two K-12 physical education majors made their dancing debut, much to the amazement of their peers. Although the site was a traditional stage to our Moving Company dancers, it was a very unexplored place to these newcomers. In this new environment they learned to navigate space, time, effort and relationships on a stage versus on a playing field.”

A few years earlier she assembled dancers at UNO to serve as models for sculptor John Lajba and his commission to create what became the “The Road to Omaha” bronze sculpture for the College World Series.

“Lajba and a photographer came to the UNO Dance Lab and worked with dancers as they performed combinations of running, jumping and lifting. Lajba used photos of the dancers as departure points for maquettes and ultimately some dancers sat for wax casts.”

Then there’s her work for the great outdoors.

“Two times we did a dance on the Glacier Creek Preserve,” she notes.

Northwest of Omaha, this topographically diverse nature preserve is dedicated to the study and appreciation of the tall grass prairie and associated ecosystems of Eastern Nebraska.

“The first prairie dance was based on a poem. It came out of an environmental presentation I did at Kaneko. Then when the preserve’s barn was dedicated we performed in the loft. David played music for it.”

She describes how a public byway became a medium for dance.

“Last year we did a dance along the full length of the Bob Kerresy Pedestrian Bridge. The theme was the fragility of U.S. waterways and our performance was synched with performances by dancers across the nation at 3 o’clock on April 6 to bring attention to the issue.”


Now that she’s retired, she’s pleased the university “is going to carry on the dance company” with an interim director.

Metal-Corbin says while she’s stepping out of the field, she’ll always remain a part of dance.

“I don’t want to say that I’m through. I am a dancer, I’ll be dancing in my kitchen, I’ll be on the highways and byways dancing, but it’s not going to be these huge events. I am setting boundaries. There are other people that can do this now. I’ve done it and it takes a lot of energy. I now want to take my energy and put it somewhere else.

“I’m not fading away. I am leaping and stepping out and landing – I don’t know where. We will see what kind of a landing it will be. I’m OCD, and so it’s unlike me not to know what the next step is.”

There are still bound to be those whimsical moments, at home or in public, when the mood strikes and she, and sometimes David, too, trip the light fantastic, not giving a hang what people think.

“Once while visiting a shop in Quebec City,” Josie recalls. “I became engaged in conversation with the hat maker at a millenary store concerning the art of modern dance. She was intrigued I was a dancer-choreographer. Before I knew it, she suggested a ‘trade.’ She asked me to create a dance within the store, and in turn, I would receive a discount on the beautiful hat I had been admiring and trying on. She locked the front door and for a few minutes I improvised dancing through the aisles and around the displays.

“She got her dance and I walked out with the hat.”

Quinn Corbin grew up expecting the unexpected with her parents.

“At times them dancing in the aisles of the supermarket or singing loudly on the street corners in New York City was embarrassing but I’ve always pretty much embraced it as have my friends.”

Retired or not, Josie’s spontaneity to break out in dance will never go away as long as she can still move.

Always a teacher, always of service

Even when she stopped concert dancing more than a decade ago, teaching still brought out the performer in her.

“When I’m teaching I also am performing. Every teacher who is a good educator is looking for a performance level. So every time I go into that classroom or studio I humbly feel I have a captive audience and I’m pulling out all the tricks in the book to engage people. Even though I stopped performing in formal concert at age 56 I was still directing, choreographing and teaching.”

She says the passion she expresses for her work is contagious.

“My (teacher) evaluations have always said, ‘She’s energetic, she’s enthusiastic,’ and the truth is it’s a quid pro quo. I get my energy because there’s people there, so they reflect things back to me. Or if they don’t, I have a genre to get them to move or to respond.”

Her ability to connect with students and to be a leader in her profession earned her National Scholar-Artist recognition from the National Dance Association in 2012, one of many awards recognizing her work in the studio and in the classroom.

All in all, she’s content with how her career evolved.

“I have worked very hard to create a body of work on the academic side and on the artistic side that’s been very rewarding. I’ve had the chance to work with so many different people I’ve given to but that in turn have given back. That quid pro quo is what I always try to do.”



©photo by Josie Metal-Corbin



Alone and together

David has his own recognized body of work separate from Josie. They respect that they are their own persons, professionally and otherwise.

“We’re two independent people,” Josie says. “We don’t speak for each other and people have honored that because I think we’ve kind of insisted on it. I’m not Mrs, Corbin. I have a hyphenated last name. I have my own professional title. He has his own professional title. David has his teaching, his writing and all these other initiatives that retirement allowed him to expand.”

He confirms he’s a man of varied interests, saying, “I have many passions. Certainly teaching and advocacy are among them. But I also enjoy music, nature, travel and reading.” Writing, too. He’s authored or co-authored many books in his field, including a pair of high school textbooks he worked on shortly after retiring. His brother Charles, whom he considers a mentor, was a co-author on those projects.

An earlier book the brothers did, Homemade Play Equipment, landed David on The Late Show with David Letterman Show. He’d sent a copy to the show. Years passed when a staffer called to request a video of what he’d demonstrate if he were a guest. Thus, he ended up showing Dave reuses of bicycle inner tubes, milk jugs, panty hose and other throwaways as resistance and strength training tools. Corbin utilizes some in an exercise program he conducts at deFreese Manor. He even gives Green Fitness workshops that emphasize getting in shape using fun, repurposed, low environmental impact devices.

He’s traveled extensively for his work, once serving as a consultant in Romania. He and Josie taught a stress management workshop in China. She says she’s grateful for the support he’s shown her to go after certain professional opportunities.

The couple have merged their interests and expertise to do many projects together. For years he’s taught, with Josie assisting, exercise classes and workshops for older adults, many of them for the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging (ENOA). The pair ended up writing a book together, Reach for It, that grew out of their shared interest and experience in getting older adults moving to improve their health. David says, “The subtitle of that book is A Handbook of Health, Exercise and Dance Activities for Older Adults. I was teaching healthy aspects of aging at UNO at the time. Part of it was at that time there were no decent textbooks around, so it was kind of meant to be background information on aging, plus activities that people could do.”

David says introducing exercise to older adults may meet with resistance at first but once people participate they’re hooked.

“We were giving a workshop for ENOA and it was pretty obvious the group was very reticent to get involved. Some people had canes.

We actually had a parachute canopy (a tool to stimulate perceptual, cognitive and motor skills) and we said, ‘OK, we’re going to try this,’ and finally everyone was up. Then we got the activity going and one person took his cane, threw it down, and started dancing. We felt like Oral Roberts or someone,” he’s says, laughing at the memory. “So it turned completely around. It went from people rolling their eyes and I don’t want any part of it to active joyful engagement and movement.”



©photo by Quinn M. Corbin


Performance of “Thriller” at the Durham Museum; ©photo by Debra S. Kaplan



Parkinson’s program

Josie borrowed the book’s title for a dance program at UNO she started for persons with Parkinson’s.

“There are inherent therapeutic benefits of dance no matter whether you’re ill or you’re well,” she says. “The joy of movement, being with other people in a community of learners, sharing in the rhythm and the music – that’s the therapeutic part of it. You have a chance to be creative, sometimes to do problem solving. You’re moving in the kinesthetic domain, so if you’re under stress your body gets a chance to get rid of some of the stress products.”

She says the Parkinson’s program’s been well-received.

“It’s a very sound program. It’s based on one I studied in New York that is worldwide. At Reach for It we do 10-week sessions. This last semester we had speech, language and hearing students come – that’s really important because with Parkinson’s you have to exercise your voice as well as your body. We let in free the caretakers or drivers of the persons with Parkinson’s. So we have usually a nice circle of maybe 20 people at the UNO Dance Lab.. We always have live music.

“We’re in our fifth year. The Nebraska chapter of the American Parkinson Disease Association and The Moving Company are the sponsors. We just got a grant to carry it forward, which I feel good about because I’m leaving and at least the funding’s in place. The person leading them now is Danielle Laurion, who is a dance therapist and a choreographer.”

David says the benefits of dance for Parkinson’s are well documented.

“Part of the philosophy behind it is that the rhythm of the music helps with the tremors and things like that. Music is part of it and rhythm is part of it. People will usually report they have an after-effect, too – they feel better for a couple of hours.”

“When you’re losing some of your physical movements in your flow, to get it back even for a short while is reassuring,” Josie says. “It’s well known in the Parkinson’s community that dance is beneficial. This is all about the healing powers of dance. Participants are moving in all ranges of motion and the thing is they’re with other people. You have a community of learners and these people want to have music and dance in their life. Instead of going to play bingo maybe or going to a book club, they’re going to a dance class.”

Last year she directed an impromptu private performance in the backyard of a longtime Moving Company supporter battling a terminal illness. Josie says the patron’s daughter shared that her mother seemed like her old self for the first time in awhile during the dance.

David says whatever your age, the best advice he can offer is “keep moving and exercising” and “emphasize what you can do and not what you can’t do.” After a 23-year gap, he did Bike Ride Across Nebraska last year and found it much tougher this time. But he did it.



©Cover photo by Bill Sitzmann



Public health

With that same can-do attitude he’s taken on public health issues and affected change. He helped get the smoking ban in Omaha and statewide. He helped get funding from the Master Tobacco Settlement to establish new public health departments in Neb. so that for the first every county’s covered by a local or district public health department.

“Both of these were collaborative initiatives, but I am proud to have played a role in each of them.”

His mission to connect people with public health issues is ongoing.

“I am still educating about the relationships between public health and climate change. If you ask people whether or not they support public health or taking steps to reduce the consequences of climate change you get somewhat tepid support. If you ask people if they support clean air and water and safe and healthy foods, you get very high support. Good public health programs and slowing or mitigating the consequences of climate change are essential to clean air and water and safe and healthy foods.”

He wishes Obamacare had gone much further.

“It baffles me the U.S. is one of only a few so-called developed countries that does not have universal health care. I think we should.”

He’s not shy expressing his views in public forums.

“I’ve certainly been active in writing letters to editors and op-eds for as long as I can remember. I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in kind of major things. Sometimes they’re little. For example, I’m trying to get something going for a plastic bag ban here in Omaha, not because it’s the biggest issue in the world but it’s a way to get people talking about recycling in general – to get the argument going.

“The average person uses 500 single-use plastic bags a year and most of them get used for less than 20 minutes and then they’re tossed. We did a trash day at Prospect Hill Cemetery. I put all the trash on display – there were over 70 plastic bags. Of all the times I’ve been in the newspaper more people remember me for picking up trash. I still pick up the trash every day when I walk.”

He even produced videos about the evils of plastic bag proliferation. In one, he does a dance he choreographed himself.

He’s focused on environmental issues these days. He’s on the Sierra Club board. He’s president of Nebraskans for Solar. He’s on the Public Health Association of Nebraska board. He’s also a self-appointed watchdog at all Omaha Public Power District open board meetings.

“I think we’ve been pretty successful in getting them to have more wind power and less coal,” he says of his and other activists’ pressure on OPPD. “I follow a lot of the legislation.”

Environmental events he attended in 2014 included Earth Day Omaha, the People’s Climate March and the Harvest the Hope Concert in opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline.



©photo by Josie Metal-Corbin



©photo by Josie Metal-Corbin



Happy trails

Just like Josie, he’s never at a loss for what to do. She says upon announcing her retirement “the first thing people said was, ‘Oh, you and David will get to spend more time together.'” She’s quick to point out, “We don’t need more time – we have good time. We’ve managed to figure out our own space. We’re not a couple that has to do everything together. But we do a lot together. We travel. We’ve done a lot of very good trips together.” They celebrate wedding anniversaries trekking to exotic locales.

“For our 30th we did Argentina and Patagonia,” she says. “In Buenos Aires we took tango lessons at an Armenian social club late at night. Then we took a little plane down to Patagonia and stayed on this sheep ranch. To me, it was what the creation of Earth must have looked like because we were on the water, no lights. Beautiful.”

“For our 35th we went to Iceland,” she says. “It was the best. Beautiful.

Little hamlets, horses, black and white sheep on the hillsides, no telephone poles, geothermic.”

David marveled at Iceland’s “one hundred percent renewable energy.”

They both like that Iceland’s tech savvy enough to have wi-fi in the most remote regions yet protects its pristine, lush, green environment.

On another trip they enjoyed the vistas of Vancouver, British Columbia, at one point staying in a tree house with all the amenities. They got around by sea-plane, kayak, tandem bicycle, hiking, bus, car and ferry.

In 1998 she made her New York City dance debut and has also performed in Lisbon, Portugal, Paris, France and Italy. In 2001 she led a large group of Moving Company dancers to Cesena, Italy to compete in the international Dance Grand Prix Italia. The UNO team won second place in Theatre Dance. David made the trip, too.

For their own personal travels, the couple often do self-guided tours she extensively researches, though their itineraries leave plenty of room for unexpected discoveries and adventures. Like taking tango in the wee hours of the night or suddenly dancing when the spirit moves them, wherever they happen to be.

A miniature sculpture by artist Jamie Burmeister, who was a graduate student of David’s, captures the effervescent couple in, what else, a dance pose that reflects their embrace of life.

“Their commitment to making the world a better place through their activities really inspires me,” says Burmeister, who simply titled the piece, “David and Josie.”

When it comes to living and relating, the couple answer a resounding yes to the question: May I have this dance? Their life is a living metaphor for the symbiotic give and take and affirmation that is dance.






©photo by Quinn M. Corbin


Alexander Payne’s new film “Nebraska” features senior cast and aging themes in story sure to resonate with many viewers

November 30, 2013 2 comments

This is my sixth published story on Alexander Payne’s new film Nebraska and it takes a somewhat unique slant on the movie’s senior cast and aging themes.  The angle I take was predicated by the publication I wrote the piece for, the New Horizons, a monthly newspaper published by the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging.  If you’ve seen the film or even clips of it, then you already know it prominently features several older actors and deals with some of the challenges that accompany aging.  In the piece Bruce Dern and some of his senior co-stars comment on how they are still working at the top of their craft even in their 70s and 80s.  Indeed, Dern believes he delivered his finest performance in “Nebraska.”  Will Forte talks about what it was like collaborating with such a veteran cast.  They all talk about what it was like working with Payne.  You can find my other Nebraska stories on this blog.

In case you’re new to this blog or to my work, then you should know that I am the author of the book, Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, a collection of my journalism about the filmmaker over a 15-year period.  A new edition of the book will be coming out in 2014 with all my Nebraska coverage.


Alexander Payne‘s new film ‘Nebraska” features senior Ccst and aging Ttemes in story sure to resonate with many viewers

© by Leo Adam Biga

Excerpt from an article that originally appeared in the New Horizons


Oscar-winning native son Alexander Payne famously feels affection for his home state, so much so he’s made four of his six feature films here, even titling his new movie starring Bruce Dern and Will Forte, Nebraska.

Payne, the writer-director of Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways and The Descendants, has with Nebraska forever burnished the name of this place in cinema history.

The film stands apart from most flicks today. For starters, it’s black and white. Next, it captures elements of this Great Plains state never before seen on the big screen. Largely filmed in northeast Neb., the movie shows the rolling landscapes, prosaic farmsteads, played-out small towns and crusty denizens of this starkly beautiful rural region

The Nebraska Gothic picture plays like a funny, tragic and sad still life evocation of people and places rubbed raw by weather and misfortune.

But what really makes Nebraska a singular work is the preponderance of older folks in the picture and the various aging themes that permeate its storyline. Several senior-aged actors are featured in the nostalgia-laced story starting with Dern as protagonist Woody Grant, June Squibb as his piss-and-vinegar wife, Stacy Keach as his arch nemesis, Angela McEwan as his old flame, Mary Louise Wilson as his chatty sister-in-law Martha and Rance Howard as one of his brothers.

Payne’s casting director, John Jackson, is impressed by what these actors of a certain age bring to the table.

Jackson says, “They are pros. They are inspirational to me. Their desire to create, passion to succeed, pursuit of challenges to themselves as performers – I want that as I age. I can only hope to be as fully functional as Mr. Dern, Mary Louise Wilson, June Squibb and Stacy Keach.”

The movie’s fanciful tale revolves around Dern’s character of Woody, an unrepentant lech and cantankerous cuss who’s lost some bearings in old age. He’s seemingly unaffected by anything but hides a deep well of hurt, longing and regret. Like many males of his Depression-era generation he’s doesn’t reveal much in the way of feelings.

Much to the exasperation of his wife and two adult sons, he’s stuck in his ways and bad habits and refuses to change. He’s also facing some challenges that come with advancing years. For example, he’s no longer able to drive and he walks with a halting gait. He appears depressed, confused and cut off from others.

When we first meet Woody he’s running away from home, intent on walking the 900 miles from his home in Billings, Mt. to Lincoln, Neb. to claim a sweepstakes prize he believes he’s won. Even when returned home no one can convince Woody he’s got it wrong. More than once, he lights out to tramp alongside busy roads, in all kinds of weather, his son David coming to his rescue.

Realizing his old man is still bound and determined to go and afraid his father will be a hazard if he sets out again on his own David reluctantly agrees to take him to Lincoln, convinced Woody will come to his senses before they get too far. But things happen. The father-son road trip turns into a retracing of Woody’s old haunts in his native Neb, Along the way the son learns some hard truths about his father’s past that help explain the way he is and what’s behind this crazy Don Quixote quest to redeem a prize.





Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging experts say they don’t know of a senior who’s gone so far as to show up at a sweepstakes office expecting to collect their winnings. ENOA Care Management Program coordinator Diane Stanton says some seniors do mistake marketing pieces for actual checks and bring them to their bank thinking they can cash them. “That will happen unfortunately,” she says.

Legitimate sweepstakes are one thing, but there are scams that prey on the trusting nature and sometimes naivete of seniors.

“We encourage our seniors to never give out personal information on the phone,” says Stanton, adding that one should never have to divulge private details or send money as a condition for receiving a prize. “The Better Business Bureau has a Senior Line, 877-637-3334, that we strongly encourage our seniors to keep by their phone and to call anytime they suspect they’re being scammed.”

Stanton says the free service hotline frequently updates the newest scams to avoid.

Whether Woody’s gullible or addled or simply wants to believe he’s won, it becomes apparent what he’s really seeking is redemption. He wants to leave his boys something to salvage his misbegotten life. In an act of unconditional love and forgiveness David poignantly grants him a valedictory moment at the end. Woody’s problems are still with him but he and his son have become closer and the lines of communication opened. We’re left with the feeling that should something happen to Woody or his wife, David will be there for them.

Experts say adult children need to discuss with aging parents those limitations affecting quality of life and what role they’ll play in terms of support and caregiving.

ENOA Information and Assistance Program coordinator Gloria Erickson says her office fields a variety of calls each week from adult children inquiring about everything from financial assistance to home care to senior housing to transportation for their aging parents.

If an adult child feels his or her parent is a potential risk driving, a good course of action is to seek professional consultation.

“The first thing you need to do is talk to their doctor and get the doctor’s perspective and opinion on where they are physically and cognitively in regards to driving,” says Stanton. “That’s the first step. And then talking about the need for one of the driver assessments.”

Stanton says Immanuel Hospital and AARP offer assessments or evaluations to help determine if seniors are still able to drive safely. AARP also offers a self-test seniors can take online.

Assessments or not, an adult child may still need to have a conversation with an aging parent about surrendering their keys.

“Those heart to heart discussions are tough,” says Erickson because it means the parent may be giving up some of their independence. “Family dynamics have a lot to do too with how things go.”

ENOA Community Services division program coordinator Karen Kelly says whatever aspect of daily living a senior may need assistance with, it’s always best to give them options.

She says among the changes adult children should look out for in their aging parents are increased memory loss, growing social isolation, worsening sleep issues and increasing difficulty taking stairs and keeping up their home.

As adult children notice changes in their parents, she says they need to address what can they “do to help and step in to fill in those gaps” and to determine when to “start looking outside the family for help.”

Erickson says it’s vital family members know “you don’t have to do it alone.” ENOA offers direct services and refers callers to other resource providers as needed.

Alexander Payne says he was better prepared to tell the story of Nebraska in 2012 than in 2003 when he acquired the script by Bob Nelson because his own life caught up with the film’s themes. His father George was placed in a nursing home and his mother Peggy endured a health scare. Payne’s attended to it all.

“I was able to make it quite personal in certain details related to David taking care of his older folk,” he says. “I’m at that age and everyone I know of my generation at that age have parents that are getting on and need a little special attention. We love them to death and they drive us crazy, and how we take care of them and accommodate them and all those things, and how far do we extend ourselves to be dutiful and at what point do we cut it off, all those questions.

“It wound up being because of the time in my life when I was making it quite personal and I think that helps the film. It always helps a film if you can put some of yourself in there.”

Not every senior needs special assistance. Indeed, most get along just fine on their own and still work, recreate, make love and learn. Take the older actors who populate Nebraska. Angela McEwan, who plays Peg Nagy, the editor of the newspaper in Woody’s fictional hometown of Hawthorne, Neb., says she and her fellow actors of a certain age are busy professionals who haven’t lost a beat. In fact, she says, “We’re at the top of our game.”

Casting director John Jackson saw both Mary Louise Wilson and Stacy Keach on stage in New York during the casting process of Nebraska and was inspired by their vitality.

“Both were terrific. Mary Louise was doing what was essentially a two-person show. That is a tremendous amount of energy to put out each week, each night. Mr. Keach was on Broadway. Big theater. Long run. Lead role. Wow. Good on them. They’ve set the bar high, both for themselves and others. That’s what I want for myself as I age. More. Better.”





In the film these actors vividly play characters their own age who still stir with passion and energy. McEwan’s character was once in love with Woody. Near the end she gives a wistful look that suggests she still yearns for what might have been. Wilson plays a chattering busybody. Keach portrays an intimidating man set on getting what he feels he’s owed.

The film overturns aging myths by demonstrating that even well into our Golden Years we can remain not only physically active but cognitively sharp and emotionally full. A positive spin on aging is encouraged by ENOA experts who say it’s healthier to think in terms of assets or what can be done versus deficits or what can’t be done.

Forte, best known for his long stint on Saturday Night Live, was moved by how engaged his veteran co-stars were.

“It was just a delight and an honor to get to work with these people,” he says. “They’re just such amazing actors. I learned a lot from them because I think at times I could be over-thinking stuff and it just reminded me, Oh, don’t try to act too much, just be real. Like Bruce (Dern) would always say, ‘Just be truthful,’ and that always sounded like acting mumbo jumbo to me coming in but for some reason the way he would explain it and describe it it made sense.

“There’s such an honesty that comes from these performances that it really taught me a lot to watch them.”

Forte got close to Dern, who in real life is old enough to be his grandfather, during the two months they worked on the shoot.

“It was very similar to our characters in the movie – we really got to spend a lot of time together and by the end of it we were incredibly close. It just feels like we’re family now. I learned so much from him. He was good to me. He was such a good teacher and friend. Nurturing, encouraging, patient. I can’t say enough about him, and that’s just personally.

“Professionally, to get to watch what that man does in this movie…I don’t know what I will do in the future but it will be one of the highlights of my life to get to see such a special performance from that close up. It’s something I will always remember.”

Forte says he was already a fan of Dern’s work before the project.

“I have watched so many Bruce Dern movies and he is the kind of person who I will rewind scenes to watch because he’s so interesting. The performance he gives in this movie is mesmerizing. We’ve done a lot of screenings of this movie and I’ve seen it quite a few times now and I’m just always seeing new things I never saw before. He continues to amaze me with different subtleties. It is such a privilege to get to be in this movie with him.”





This wasn’t the first time Payne’s worked with older actors. Jack Nicholson was in his late 60s when he played the title character in the filmmaker’s About Schmidt.  June Squibb, the actress who appears as Dern’s wife in Nebraska, was in her 70s when she played Nicholson’s wife in Schmidt. Robert Forster was 70 when he essayed his small but telling part in The Descendants. Just like Forte finds it educational working with veterans, Payne does too.

“I’ve adored working with the ‘old pros’ — Nicholson, Dern, Keach and Forster. They are the best actors to work with,” says Payne. ‘They know what they’re doing and they know how to study the director to see what movie he or she’s trying to make. Plus, I have much to learn from them about what it is to have a life in movies. After all, I don’t get to work with and learn from older directors, but I do get to have the actors. ”






Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

(The new edition encompasses the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s work from the mid-1990s through Nebraska in 2013 and his new film Downsizing releasing in 2017 )

Now available  at Barnes & Noble and other fine booktores nationwide as well as on Amazon and for Kindle. In Nebraska, you can find it at all Barnes & Noble stores, The Bookworm and Our Bookstore in Omaha, Indigo Bridge Books in Lincoln and in select gift shops statewide. You can also order signed copies through the author’s blog or via or by emailing leo32158@cox,net. 

For more information. visit–



Brenda Allen’s real life country music drama took her from Nebraska to Vietnam to Vegas

June 1, 2013 5 comments

Brenda Allen is a good old broad.  That’s a compliment by the way.  She just says it like it is, take it or leave it.  She’s funny, brash, the life-of-the-party and yet more than a little acquainted with tragedy.  Her career as a country singer-guitarist took some unexpected turns, like taking her to Vietnam and Vegas.  Her path and the forks in the road she came to along the way make her life story compelling.  I tell that story in the following article for the New Horizons.



Brenda #1 (reduced)

Brenda Allen




Brenda’s real life country music drama took her from Vietnam to Vegas

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons


NOTE: This Web version contains bonus material not found in the print version

Brenda Allen is not your typical crooner come open mic nights at the southwest Omaha bar, Lauter Tun. Unlike the amateurs and wannabes who struggle carrying a tune, she’s a pro who can style a song to fit her voice and mood or any crowd and occasion. A real cut-up, she invariably does comedy bits as part of her act. Her brazen, earthy manner comes through loud and clear.

“I’m a straight shooter…full of piss and vinegar,” she likes to say.

The singer-guitarist, who was born Brenda Allacher, has decades of paying gigs behind her. She’s performed at major venues and appeared alongside bone fide legends, including the late Johnny Cash, who became a friend and champion.

Though long ago retired from her music career she simply can’t give up taking the stage, putting an audience in the palm of her hand and lapping up the laughs and applause. That’s why she often heads to the nearest night spot to present selections from her vast repertoire of country and rockabilly sounds.

A natural comedienne with a bold, often risque sense of humor, Allen is a no-holds-barred personality with plenty of stories to share from her eventful life. She sometimes catches audiences off guard with not only her humorous anecdotes but her unexpected true tales of love and loss, fear and regret, addiction and recovery.

She was in her early 30s when she had to leave the successful band she helped found, The Taylor Sisters, to address her alcoholism. She now has 39 years of sobriety that she maintains one day at a time.

The Taylor Sisters headlined at the famed Golden Nugget in Las Vegas when things came to a head for Allen, who upon getting herself clean and sober began a crusade against substance abuse.

“I left the show in ’73 because I was an alcoholic. I needed help,” she says. “I was told I had less than three months to live from cirrhosis of the liver. I had a good connection up there (she signals to heaven) because I’m the only one alive out of the original Taylor Sisters. He let me stay around because I talk about (the dangers) of alcohol and drugs. I started going into schools and doling shows like that. Then I went to nightclubs and said, ‘All you drunks, if you want to meet me tomorrow morning I’ll take you into detox.’ I talked about it even in nightclubs.”

Her use of alcohol to medicate feelings, she says, got worse after taking part in a three-and-a-half month tour of Vietnam the Taylor Sisters made during the height of the war in 1969. Servicemen called her “Crazy Legs” for the way she’d kick her legs up and fling her shoes into the crowd.

The members of the all-girl band were not really sisters but the things they experienced over there bonded them like blood siblings.

Allen is still haunted by all that happened. She survived a rocket attack that killed a U.A. Army nurse. Once, she got left behind by the convoy she was traveling in and had to catch up to it in the dead of night. After one show she talked her way out of a possible rape. Three U.S. army doctors died in an attack only hours after she met them. One time a mysterious U.S. Army colonel spirited her away, blindfolded, to a secret POW camp manned by a black-op Special Forces unit.

She can’t shake the fact mere boys were put in harm’s way for so dubious a cause. She fears their lives were lost in a conflict that had more to do with boosting the military industrial complex than defending freedom.

“To sacrifice a generation of young men for prosperity is sick,” she says.



Allacher @ Park



She’ll never forget being around scared, lonely young men who saw in her and her fellow entertainers their girlfriends, sisters, mothers.

“They were looking at you, longing for you. We let them know America loved them and we were there to entertain them. We sat and drank with them just like we were one of the boys.”

Back home, Allen felt compelled to share these experiences with the press but she says nobody showed any interest. Then The Taylor Sisters hit it big at the Golden Nugget and between her busy career and wanting to forget what she saw at war she suppressed the trauma. Her drinking got out of hand. Not long after she left the group the other original Sisters died – one of cancer, the other by suicide, Just like that  two of her closest friends were gone. She’s never married and has no children.

A man she dearly loved, Hollywood makeup artist Jerry P. Soucie, died in a 1989 motorcycle accident.

Life’s thrown more challenges at Allen. She was in a bad auto accident that cost her part of a foot. She was an identity theft victim.

After going on the wagon for good Allen returned to performing, sometimes with bands led by Johnny Ray Gomez and Pat Hamilton.

Increasingly, the entertainer felt a need to educate the public about the overlooked military and civilian roles American women played in Vietnam. She performed for veterans groups. Vets who saw her perform in Nam would call out “Crazy Legs” at her shows and she’d hold mini-reunions with them afterwards. She made a point to tell each vet, “Welcome home, soldier.” She advocated for a national memorial dedicated to the women who served. She was on a committee that pressed for the Congressional Medal of Freedom be given veteran USO entertainer Martha Raye.

A native of Lincoln, Neb., Allen grew up in nearby Martell, where her mother was the town switchboard operator. She sang at church and school from childhood. When her older brother went into the service he left his ukulele behind and she learned to play it. She soon switched to guitar. The advent of rock ‘n’ roll changed her life while a student at Lincoln High.

“That was the beginning of it all – The Memphis Five, Elvis, rock n roll. In 1958 we were rocking and rolling and the black sound was coming in and I loved it. I was the only one that played guitar in my school and the guys invited me to be in a rock ‘n’ roll band – The August Heat Wave. I was the only girl in the band. All the girls at school were mad at me.”

Her parents were not thrilled with her new passion.

“You know all the young girls found their libido after watching Elvis. My parents didn’t approve. My mother shut the TV off when Elvis was on. My dad said, ‘Why don’t you sing at church?’ I said, ‘They don’t applaud.”

She enjoyed every opportunity she could find to make music for people.

“I’d sit out on my front porch at night singing and playing and kids from the neighborhood would come. I loved doing that. I’d make money, too. I’d put a tin cup out there and say, ‘If you want to hear a song it’ll cost you a nickel.'”

The pretty, vivacious, saucy Allen attracted admirers. One was Charles Starkweather, just another neighborhood kid before he went on a killing spree that made him infamous. Allen was close friends with his sister Lavita.

“Charlie was nice looking but he had bright flaming red hair and he was bow legged and he spoke with a lisp, He was slow. Kids made fun of him,” recalls Allen. “Lavita loved him dearly. Charlie called up one day and said, ‘I’m Lavita’s brother.’ He’d been listening to me from his car. My father saw that and came out and said, ‘I don’t know who you are but I don’t want you here.’ I felt bad.”


Charles Starkweather



Her last encounter with Starkweather gave her a chilling insight into what may have contributed to his homicidal rage.

“Lavita invited me to a slumber party and said to bring the guitar. There were about 10 of us girls. Her father came home and said hello and then here came Charlie. He sat down and listened to me playing guitar and asked if I would show him some stuff. I said sure. I gave him the guitar, showed him chords, and his father came in and said, ‘What are you doing in here you little shit?’ He was drunk. The dad took Charlie and threw him out the back door.”

Allen says she later learned that Starkweather didn’t returned home and the sister suspected her troubled brother was “with that girl” – meaning Caril Ann Fugate, his accomplice in the killing spree. Allen says she remembers asking Lavita, “What do you think of her?” and Lavita answering, “She’s nothing but trouble. He acts different with her.” Allen says, “The next few days they found the bodies. It was a very scary thing because Charlie was killing people he knew.”

Tragic as it was, Allen would not be distracted from her goal of being a professional musician. Her first major public show happened by accident but whetted her appetite for more big stages.

“I went to the (Nebraska) state fair and Jimmy Wakely (a popular singing cowboy) was appearing in the open auditorium.  I snuck backstage and got his autograph. I was sitting back there singing with a band I knew from high school who were backing Wakely. We did “The Bible Tells Me So’ – a big Dale Evans song back then. Somebody tapped me on the shoulder and it was Wakely, and he said, ‘I want to have you be my special guest.”

Before she knew it she found herself being introduced before a crowd of a couple thousand folks. She was 15.

“I didn’t have time to be scared. He screwed up on the ending of it and he said, ‘Hey, you messed that up,’ and I shot back, ‘You’re the pro.’ Later, he took me aside to tell me, ‘Take up country music.’ Well, I loved Teresa Brewer, Patti Page, people like that. I said, ‘What’s country music?’ and he said, ‘Listen to Hank Williams.’ And he said there was only one big female name in country then – Kitty Wells.”


 Allen followed his advice and transformed herself into a country artist.

She also got a taste of show biz’s seamier side.

“He (Wakely) did make a play for me by the way and I downplayed it with, ‘Mr. Wakely, you always rode off in the sunset by yourself.’ A year later Channel 10 in Lincoln had a Multiple Sclerosis telethon I performed on and Mr. Wakely was there and he said, ‘How old are you now?’ I said, ‘Mr. Wakey, I’m 16, I’m still jail bait, and he kind of laughed and said, ‘Here’s a dime, call me when you turn 21.'”

Allen began making a name for herself as a solo entertainer and as one half of the duet, The Country Misses. She decided to go to Springfield, Mo. to audition for the Ozark Jubilee made famous by Red Foley on his ABC-broadcast show. It was there that an elephant doing its business brought she and a country icon together.

“I did my audition and they said I could stay and see the rest of the show. This was about 45 minutes before show time. My girlfriend and I were looking at three guys sitting in front of us. They weren’t regulars on the show.”

One in particular caught Brenda’s eye.

“I said, ‘God, he’s good looking,’ and my girlfriend said, ‘All three of them are good looking. Yeah, I wonder who that is?’ In the meantime the Jubilee’s version of a Hee Haw couple, Uncle Cyp and Aunt Sap Brasfield, were rehearsing.”

A live elephant was part of the act. The animal did some tricks. Then the elephant decided to pee.

“It sprayed 20 rows out. All the performers were in their costumes already. Everybody got hit. We were soaked,” Allen recalls with a hearty laugh. “I dived and my girlfriend dived under the seats and I saw these long legs go running over top and I said, ‘Is he done yet?’ And this male voice said, ‘No, you better stay down there,’ and he went on by me. Finally I peeked up and they were putting saw dust all over the place, wiping seats down and I heard that same voice say, ‘Well, how high is the water, mama?’ I said, ‘It’s two feet high and rising.’ It was Johnny Cash.

“I popped up and said, ‘Are you staying across the street?’ ‘Yeah,” he said. ‘We’re staying there, too, you want me to bring you a shirt?’ ‘Hell, yes,’ he said and he gave me the key to his room and I got him a clean shirt.”

The old theater lacked dressing rooms and so anyone drenched had to make do with what they had on or what they’d brought.



What Johnny Cash looked like around the time he befriended Brenda



That unlikely meeting was the beginning of an enduring friendship with The Man in Black. At the time Cash was married to his first wife Vivian and the woman he made his second wife, June Carter, was not yet in his life.

“That’s what started it,” Allen says of her long association with Cash. “We sat and played guitars that night and talked about country music. He was a perfect gentleman. I told him I was looking to join a band and he said, ‘Why not get your own band together?’ Back in Lincoln I wrote him a letter and I got a letter back. We had exchanged pictures. I gave him a picture of myself with my Fender Telecaster and I got his first song book. He wrote, ‘Love & kisses.’ Trust me, he wouldn’t have written that after June (Carter).

“Without me even knowing it he sent my picture to Fender. That’s the kind of guy he was. Fender offered me a contract to model.”

She never signed the contract. Instead, she worked hard on her music and at 18 landed her next big break when she met Marty Martin, who gained fame as Boxcar Willie.

“I was his first girl singer. Because of my age I couldn’t be in nightclubs. He and his wife looked after me. We toured the Midwest in a big car. I learned a lot from Marty. He was a honey. He was a very, very good teacher for me. But I got bored because they wanted me to be the prim Miss So-and-So. I’m not geared that way. I’m a ham.”

Fate intervened again when she got a call from an agent saying Cash was coming to Lincoln and needed an opening act. She promptly pitched The Marty Martin Show Featuring Brenda Allen. It was the early 1960s. They got the gig.

“We opened in Lincoln for him at Pershing Auditorium and in Omaha at the Civic Auditorium. I played the Omaha Music Hall with a lot country acts.”

“Wonderful,” is how she describes sharing the stage with Cash. She says he flattered her by saying, ‘You’ve got a damn good voice.'” She says Cash and his lead guitar player Luther Perkins “sat me down and said, ‘Brenda, stick with country music, you’re going to make it.'” She did, too.

She says it was sometime in the early ’60s that June Carter “started entering the picture and I started noticing things about John from when I first him.” Cash battled drug addictions at various points in his life.

When Allen turned 21 she began playing Lincoln lounges-clubs, When not performing she modeled and worked the switchboard at Hovland-Swanson clothing store. She says s strict policy forbid employees from moonlighting. One night, she says, the owner showed up where she was performing. His guest was newly hired University of Nebraska football coach, Bob Devaney. She says the owner fired her on the spot, saying, “You sing better than you sound on the switchboard.” She adds that the married Devaney took an immediate liking to her and pursued her through the years.

Now that she was on her own, she focused on perfecting her comedy and country act that was equal parts innocent and naughty.

“For instance, I’d start up and say, ‘OK, fellas, hang on because I’m going to take you for a ride. Hey, hey good looking, what you got cooking…’ And then I’d still be playing guitar and I’d say, ‘Move that chair,’ and I’d sit down on their laps and say, ‘Oh my goodness. I think he’s got a flashlight in his pocket.’ ”

With suggestive lyrics like, “I’ve been to Nagasaki, Hiroshima too, the things I did to them, sugar, I can do to you, I’m a Fujiyama Mama…” she made quite an impression.

How far she went depended on the crowd.

“Then I’d start doing my version of Johnny Cash.”

Allen had an established solo career going when she met fellow musician Joann Paugh backstage at a show. Paugh wanted to start an all-girl band. Allen resisted. “But she kept bugging me and bugging me,” recalls Allen, The dye was cast after Paugh introduced her to Helen Taylor, a formidable guitarist herself. “We drew straws to see who would play bass and rhythm guitar,” says Allen. Helen got bass and Brenda rhythm.

Things moved fast for the group. They began performing as the Taylor Sisters before Helen’s husband took over as manager and changed the name to Helen Taylor and the Taylor Sisters. “It pissed me off,” says Allen.

The band played with Cash a few times, even opening a 1964 Wichita, Kansas show with June Carter, Minnie Pearl, the Statler Brothers and Lefty Frizzell.

“I’d say we were in damn good company.”



Brenda #2 (reduced)



Then the call came that changed their lives.

The Taylor Sisters had toured with Sheb Wooley and the entertainer called Brenda to say, “They need you in Vietnam,’ to which she responded, “What’s Vietnam?” He thought the Taylor Sisters would go over well with the boys. She says the decision to go was easy “once we heard what was going on over there and how bad it was.”

Instead of going with the USO (United Service Organizations), the group went independently though the Johnny Robinson talent agency, who hooked them up with an agency in Saigon, who signed them over to the Korean Entertainment Corporation.

Brenda and Co. arrived in Saigon the first week in April. The humidity, heat and stench are what first struck her.

Until they returned home in July they were kept busy.

“We did three-four shows in a day within a 150-mile radius every four or five days,” says Allen.

They traveled by jeep, truck, boat and helicopter. A military escort was assigned but she says those they were often drunk or stoned by the end of the show. Drinking and drugging were prevalent wherever they went. Brenda imbibed a lot herself.

The women were given strict orders to not venture out at night alone but that didn’t always prevent them from going off on their own, especially with an enlisted man they liked. “We always made sure the others knew where we were,” Allen says. Not every GI could be trusted, she discovered.

“One night we were tear gassed. We came off the stage and we were separated

The guy who grabbed me ended taking me out to a hangar and I said, ‘What are we doing here?’ ‘This is where you’re going to meet the rest of the group,” he said. ‘No it isn’t, I’m supposed to go to the major’s tent.’ The guy said, ‘We can wait a little bit.’ ‘No we can’t.’ Then he admitted, ‘I’m so lonesome.’ ‘That’s too bad,’ I said, ‘then you need to get a break. If you have the idea of what I think you’re thinking and you rape me here now the girls are going to miss me and the Army’s going to find you and throw the book at you, and I don’t want to see that happen. Look, I came here to get paid a little bit of money. I didn’t have to be here to make you feel better. Americans do care about you. And you want to rape me?’ He started to cry.

“I said, ‘I’m sorry but you’ve got problems, you need to go to your commanding officer. He took me to hs CO. I explained what happened and the major said, ‘You’re going to lose a stripe over this soldier.’ I was a little bit more careful from then on.”

Her suspicions were aroused another time but her instincts told her she’d be safe and she was. The experience sounds like something out of a movie.

“After an outdoor show in Da Nang a snap-to colonel wearing a green beret came up to me and said, ‘I want to ask you a question.’ ‘What’s that?’ ‘I am in charge of one of our POW camps and we have a North Vietmanese soldier starving himself. He doesn’t want to talk, he’s afraid we’re going to poison him. We want to get some information out of him. Would you be willing to help?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, where is it?’ ‘You can’t see where it is. but it’s about an hour’s drive from here. We’re Special Forces. Please do it.’”

Whether out of curiosity or patriotism, she says, “I agreed to go. I told the girls if I’m not back by six o’clock this is who I went with and I want you to report it. He loaded me up with my guitar in a jeep. We drove for awhile and then he said, ‘I have to blindfold you.’ ‘I’ll have a drink of scotch first,’ I said. He never laid a hand on me.” At the camp she found herself in an officers club, where the colonel barked, ‘“Attention. This young lady was going to help us with our North Vietmanese prisoner but he’s already been put down for the night. She has her guitar here and she’s going to entertain you.” She recalls, “The place went bonkers. They grabbed me and sat me on the bar. I cracked jokes and sang to them for about 45 minutes.”

When it was time for her to leave, she says the soldiers “separated into two lines and saluted her. At the end of the line was the colonel and as he walked her out he removed his green beret and placed it on her head. “He took me back and I never heard a word from him since,” she says. She tried tracking him down but her inquiries with the Army always got the same response: we don’t have anybody by that name. She assumes he was part of some black op, covert unit. She still has his green beret and sometimes dons it for pictures and performances. She also has a vest pinned with medals and decorations given to her by military personnel.



Brenda Cover (reduced)

Brenda wearing the green beret and insignia



In Chu Lai Nebraska National Guard troops had just come back from the bush, she says, when the CO, “Big Daddy” Richardson, asked her, “Brenda, can you and the girls do one more show for the guys from Nebraska?” “Are you kidding?” she replied. Once on stage inside a quonset hut, she recalls, “I said, ‘Hit it girls,’ and we did ‘There is no place like Nebraska.’ The roof went off – the place exploded.”

She says that Chu Lai, a central coastal area manned by the Americal  Division,“was one of our favorite places because we had privacy taking a shower. I remember ‘Big Daddy’ Richardson saying, ‘I’m going to work your butts off, but when you come back at night your favorite food and drink will be sitting in front of you.’ And it was, too. Lobster and blackberry brandy and Cutty Sark scotch. We’d do five and six shows a day for that man. The men, they just wouldn’t let us quit and we weren’t about to leave those boys. The guys were just absolutely beautiful. They called me ‘Crazy Legs’…I’d do wild dancing and kick my legs up. They just went bonkers. We’d come back exhausted.”

An incident in Chu Lai scarred her forever.

“One night, we’d come back from a show and a few of us were in the officers club drinking when there was a loud CLAP and the building just shook. “ It was the start of a prolonged mortar attack. A GI grabbed her and threw her down under the bar. “Aren’t we supposed to go to a bunker?” she asked, “Too late now,” she was told. “We took 16 rounds over a period of four or five hours. We just laid there on the floor and got drunk. I was so scared. Around daylight a young man came running in, shouting, ‘They got a nurse at the 312 Surg-Evac,’ which was like a block away.”

The victim, 1st Lt. army nurse Sharon Ann Lane of Canton, Ohio, was the first Army nurse to die under hostile fire in Southeast Asia and one of 68 American women in all — military and civilian — to die in the conflict. “She was decapitated by shrapnel,” says Allen. The incident shook the singer to her core. “She was 26 and I was 21. What really gets me is – why her and not me? – because she was saving lives. I held her mother in my arms at the dedication of the statue in 1993.”

The Taylor Sisters pushed off to their next stop. The war ground on as usual.

“We just forgot about it, we had to put it behind us…The next day it was a whole new ballgame, a whole new area to perform in.”

It was a sober reminder of what men in combat faced. She couldn’t fathom “seeing their best friends blown apart” and having to keep on fighting. “Holy crap, I still have post traumatic stress. I can’t stand the Fourth of July.”

She says she learned Western performers had a price on their heads. The bigger the star, the higher the bounty. Bob Hope was the biggest target of all though he reduced his exposure to danger by being flown to safety every night.

Another brutal reminder of war’s vagaries came when Brenda and Helen got their picture taken with three U.S. Army docs on the deck of a boat headed for Cua Viet, a base in the demilitarized zone near North and South Vietnam border.

“It was sand and tents and water. It was R & R for the troops.”

The Taylor Sisters did a show on a small stage with a sheet as a backdrop. The all-male audience sat on a sandy beach on the South China Sea.

“Cua Viet was getting hit almost every night. That’s why they got us back down the river right away. We did an afternoon show, they loaded us up, and away we went.”

After the band left the base came under attack that night and suffered major casualties. She was informed the men she got her picture taken with were among those killed.

“They died the day we played for them.”

The Taylor Sisters landed the Golden Nugget slot soon after returning from Nam.

“We had a damn good thing – an all-girl country western show band. We had the comedy, all the girls sang, we all played different instruments. We made history as the only headline act at the Golden Nugget without a recording.”

Years of loss and love, making people happy and getting healthy again followed. Then she found the cause that was so close to her heart. Getting the Vietnam Women’s Memorial approved by Congress and erected on the Washington Mall took years of persistence. “We fought and we fought,” Allen says of the sisterhood that took up the fight. The bronze statue by sculptor Glenna Goodacre depicts women in fatigues caring for a wounded soldier.



The Vietnam Women’s Memorial



Brenda was there for the statue’s dedication. She was there for the 10th anniversary in 2003 and she’s due to be there again for the 20th anniversary in November. She always says a few words and sings a few lyrics at the memorial.

She became a big supporter of the Shirley Lauro play, A Piece of My Heart, that dramatizes the true-life stories of American women in Nam. When the Blue Barn Theater in Omaha produced the play the woman who led the effort for the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, Diane Carlson Evans, attended opening night and ended up inviting the production to be performed in D.C. for the 10-year anniversary.

Brenda’s Vietnam story has been told in newspaper articles, the book Potpourri of War and in a Nebraska Educational Television documentary Not on the Front Line.

For a time she drowned her feelings about what happened in Vietnam in booze. But once she confronted those bittersweet memories the healing began. Of that intense time over there, she says, “I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything.”

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

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons


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

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

Ed Svoboda and his Red Raven Orchestra



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

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

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

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




Omaha Westside High School




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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

Entrance to St. Mary Magdalene Senior Center



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

Customer-first philosophy makes family-owned Kohll’s Pharmacy and Homecare stand out from the crowd

June 18, 2012 3 comments

Not just another family business.  That’s the case with a venerable Omaha pharmacy business that’s been in the Kohll family for generations and maintained its relevancy in an age of mega corporate pharmacy chains by having laser focus on customer needs and anticipating what the next big things are in the field.  In the case of Kohll’s, the business has become a leader in delivering homecare services and products for a population of aging parents and adult caregivers.  My story from a half dozen years ago or so originally appeared in the Jewish Press.

Customer-first philosophy makes family-owned Kohll’s Pharmacy and Homecare stand out from the crowd

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Jewish Press


A peek inside a family-owned Kohll’s Pharmacy and Homecare in Omaha soon reveals this is not the drug store of your mother’s or father’s nostalgia. Sure, pharmacists in white coats still dispense prescription medicines from behind a counter, but mostly gone are the sundry retail items associated with a traditional drug store — greeting cards, stationary, magazines, household goods, candy, alcohol and soft drinks. In their place is an array of home medical equipment and service stations dedicated to meeting the health care needs of clients, particularly seniors or anyone coping with chronic illnesses.

The biggest changes, however, can’t be seen on site, as they encompass a wide range of services that help Kohll’s respond more quickly and comprehensively to individual client needs. For example, health care professionals on staff, such as occupational and respiratory therapists and a dietitian, make home visits to do assessments and devise strategies that foster greater independence. A call/future-orders center tracks what medical supplies clients are low on and gets new shipments out to their homes before they run out. A pharmacy benefits division supplies discounted meds to employees of subscriber-employers. Homecare products may be ordered online or via mail-order. A compounding division prepares custom meds for human and animal patients. An age-management section provides hormone replacement therapy to participating seniors. A contracting unit installs stair glides in people’s homes and renovates residential bathrooms to enhance accessibility and safety.

The company’s come a long way since Louis and Leona Kohll opened the original store in 1948 at 29th and Leavenworth. Back then the store was open 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. every single day of the year. The couple’s sons, Marvin and Jerry, followed them in the business. Founder Louis Kohll died at age 49 following a heart attack he suffered in the store. Marvin was his only partner at the time and Jerry later joined him. Marvin and Jerry later split the business, with Jerry building up a nursing home supply division. Jerry eventually sold his interests to a national company. What made the then-small company a success all those years ago is the same thing that keeps Kohll’s successful now as a much larger organization — customer service. Today, a pair of third generation pharmacist brothers, David and Justin Kohll, Marvin’s two surviving sons, maintain the customer-first policy.

“For me, the satisfaction is taking care of the patients. It’s working with our health care team to come up with a solution and to know that we made a difference. It also helps you to feel good. It’s the thing that gets you to work the next day,” said David, whose oldest brother, Louis, died recently, but not before making his own mark in the business as a pharmacist and manager.

Lessons learned have been passed down from one generation to the next. It all comes down to hard work, fair play and treating people right.

“Our father taught by example,” David said. “His example was the basics like beingpolite, honest, follow through, et cetera. He’s worked hard his whole life.”

Just as Louis Kohll taught his sons Marvin and Jerry the trade, Marvin taught his boys the ins-and-outs. Pharmacists all, they built the foundation for an enterprise that’s gone from a single mom-and-pop store to a multi-faceted, seven-location corporation. Kohll’s stays competitive in an era when national franchises dominate the market and drive most other family-owned independents out of business.

To survive, the family found what Justin calls “a niche” that separates what they do from the pack. With a nursing homes supplies division already in place and the senior health care market ever growing, they gradually hit upon senior homecare as their specialization. As David’s fond of saying, “There’s a lot of opportunities. There’s just so many things out there.”

It’s the one-stop-shopping model applied to health care. But saying you’re one-stop and doing it are two different things.

“Everybody tried to promote they were doing one-stop-shopping, but they really weren’t,” Justin said. “Some companies tried doing it and they quit…now they just do respiratory or they just do power chairs, where we can do it all. We really are truly one-stop. You can come here for everything.”

The store that best epitomizes the company’s one-stop health-orientation is at 127th and Q, where clients can: get prescriptions filled inside or via a drive-thru window; receive vaccinations and blood pressure/cholesterol screenings along with hormone replacement injections; get fitted for wheelchairs, mastectomy bras, compression socks or ostomy bags; select from many other personal care items, such as chairs, scooters, walking aids, raised toilets and bath/shower bars; and even have a lift installed on their van. The store has bays dedicated to not only installations but also repairs of lifts, power chairs, scooters and glides and has even opened a showroom selling vans that come equipped with lifts.

“You can go anywhere in the country and you will not see a facility that looks like this. I guarantee it,” David said. “You might see some who have some wheelchairs or this and that — kind of shoved in the corner, but without real experts doing it. None has anything to this (level of) commitment. Pharmacists generally own their pharmacy and if you’re trying to get everything done right there you’ve got to be really committed to this and you’ve got to like it. You can’t just do it for the business or it’s going to go away.”

It’s about the Kohll family being smart and passionate about what they do.

“We try to pick and choose what we do,” Justin said. “I mean, we could do a lot of things, but we usually pick something we like to do also. You’re going to do a better job if you like it.”



Each Kohll’s pharmacy offers the basics when it comes to prescriptions, vaccinations and screenings, along with a general selection of health care items, but each store also specializes in something. For example, the 127th and Q store specializes in mobility products. It’s also the company’s headquarters, housing the administrative offices, marketing department, call center and future orders center. The Leavenworth store features respiratory/oxygen supplies. The 50th and Dodge site specializes in mastectomy fittings and compression stockings. The 114th and Dodge location handles the compounding side and veterinary needs. And so on.

Instead of extra inventory taking up space at each location, one central supply site contains medical supplies, which makes it easier to track what’s in stock and to send supplies out as needed. Being able to respond to many different needs is what Kohll’s does best, Justin and David say. “Knowing you have something for the patient, knowing that you’ll do a good job, knowing that you’ll get it there in a timely fashion,” said Justin, adding that in most cases patients only think about health care aids when a crisis occurs. “You don’t know unless you need it,” he said. “If you need something, hopefully the physician will send it through here because normally we’ll have it. And, right up front as customers come in they see all the products and maybe that gets them to thinking, ‘Hey, I saw walkers at Kohll’s. My mom needs a walker.’ That’s what we try to do.”

“We try to educate people,” David said. Part of that education, he explained, is providing timely, state-of-the-art answers for people as their health care needs progress. A wheelchair patient may be upgraded to a power chair. If a patient can’t move his or her arms any longer, a lift may be in order. Kohll’s visiting homecare professionals are trained to recognize when a client’s declining health dictates action in the absence of a regular caregiver or adult children. Its future orders callers and delivery drivers are trained to ask questions that reveal the kinds of changes that indicate problems. This way, unhappy outcomes can be avoided.

“A person may be doing pretty good but they may get to the point where they can’t walk very well and instead of somebody recognizing that they just stay in their apartment more and then they can’t walk at all and instead of being in a wheelchair they’re just in bed all the time. And the next thing you know the senior develops a bed sore. It causes the progressive deterioration to go faster,” David said. “What we try to do is ask questions every month, like — Do you have trouble getting up from a chair? If they answer yes to that we ask more questions and begin coming up with solutions. It might be a raised toilet seat or bath bars or a lift.”

It’s also about anticipating future needs.

“Somebody getting their prescriptions and adult diapers from us now are more than likely within a year going to need a walker. We try to be aware of that,” David said.

The goal is helping patients maintain independence in their own homes.

“It could be something as simple as a reacher. Maybe it’s become hard for somebody to bend over and stand up. It can be just basic things to keep people doing what they were doing for as long as possible. To make it so they don’t go into that nursing home or that assisted living facility. To keep them in their own home with their regular neighbors. That’s what we want to do,” David said.

The ongoing education Kohll’s does with clients includes getting folks to see that a homecare product like a stair glide is not a step back but a step forward.

“A lot of times seniors have the mind set — ‘I don’t want a glider to help me get up the stairs because I want my independence.’ They don’t understand that by risking a fall where they fracture a pelvis or an ankle, they’re actually saying, Make me dependent,” David said. “We’re trying to do all we can to show that you can have a much better life if you get one of these things. But don’t get the hospital-looking one, get the red one so people don’t feel sorry for you.”



He said the public should shop around when buying home medical equipment, such as power chairs. It pays to go where there’s good selection and price as well as proven expertise. A Kohll’s advantage is that it knows and stands behind the items, even doing repairs. He said too many people just go where it’s convenient.

“If you all of a sudden end up in the hospital after a fall, you’ve got to get a chair now. You’re more reliant on professionals to get you through it. You don’t have time to do any preparation. The sad part about that is that you might make a mistake and go to a place that doesn’t really know anything about it and get something wrong for you,” David said.

All the emphasis on home health supports doesn’t mean Kohll’s has left behind the core or traditional pharmacy service of filling prescriptions.

“We’d like o be filling prescriptions for everybody in Omaha or anywhere around,” David said. “We don’t want them to go elsewhere because if they get their prescriptions from us then they’ll have more of an awareness of the other things that might benefit them. I don’t want to get away from our base of prescriptions. All three of us (himself, Justin and their father Marvin) were trained as pharmacists. We think it all starts with prescriptions because we’re trusted more than any other profession. The patients know us or they see us or they talk to us the most often. It all starts there and then we can bring them into all these other things.”

The family’s arrived at a democratic way of setting policy and managing operations.

“My father has a say in things if he chooses, but there isn’t and hasn’t been a dictatorship or hierarchy or veto power by any of us,” David said. “Each of us would explore an idea and if it looked successful, it would be presented to each other. We then give suggestions and implement it. We’ve had our disagreements, but we’re so concerned and busy with providing our customers/patients with the best care possible that the disagreements are taken care of within 24 hours,” David said. “We really don’t have time for disagreements. I don’t believe the staff’s felt pulled in different directions by each of us, so it’s not an issue.”

Marvin Kohll said the family avoids internal strife as each member involved in the business establishes “responsibilities” distinct and apart from the others’. Besides, he said, “I was never a real taskmaster to them. I let them pretty well do as they pleased and they responded.” David said that’s still the case.

While David monitors the retail end, Justin runs the compounding side. Marvin’s watched over the money in recent years, taking a less and less active role. Still, David said, his presence is felt. “We always feel he’s working with us.” And if dad sees something amiss, David said, “He’ll rip us about something we can do better.”

“Towards Louis’s last years he mainly oversaw the employer pharmacy benefits

area and pharmacy mail order division,” David said. “Since his passing we have continued where he left off. He did a phenomenal job educating the staff…making it easier for us to carry on. It is difficult because we worked so closely together.”

Marvin’s boys weren’t pushed to go into the family business, but each came to it on his own. From the time they were young they hung around their dad at work after school or on vacation.

“We probably first came down to the pharmacies when we were about 4-5 years old. My brothers and I were only 3 years apart, so we played pretty rough and I think my mother would ship us to the pharmacy when she had enough of us,” David recalled. “At first my father would just try to get us out of his way and assign us to one of the staff. They would usually have us break up empty boxes. Over time we became more useful as clerks, stockers, drivers and then pharmacy helpers. We begin working full-time summers when we were 16 or 17.”

Besides David, Justin and Louis, some other Kohlls have contributed to running and growing the family company. “Two of Jerry Kohll’s kids, Cindy and Alan, joined the company in the early ‘90s.  They contributed significantly, but not as pharmacists,” David said.

What the next generation holds as far as new Kohll blood entering the business, no one knows. Since David and his wife Janet are the parents of five young children the odds are at least one will follow David’s path. Marvin Kohll said one grandchild has expressed interest to him in studying pharmacy, which if it comes to pass would mean a fourth generation of pharmacists in the family. But more than family legacy keeps the company strong 58 years after its start — its single-minded focus.

“We don’t feel a responsibility to the next generation to carry on the family business. The responsibility we have is to our customers/patients to provide excellent care to them,” David said.

Josie’s Dance of Life: Dancer/Choreographer/Educator Josie Metal-Corbin Affirms Life Through Dance

December 18, 2011 2 comments

Dance educator-choreographer Josie Metal-Corbin has retired after 48 years of teaching.  I’m posting here a profile I wrote about her several years ago for The Reader (  I’ll soon be writing a new article about not just her but her and her husband and favorite dance partner, David E. Corbin, a retired health and physical edication educator. The new piece will be for the New Horizons. I invite anyone who’s been inspired by one or both of them to please share with me and our readers your experiences with them. Whether they’ve impacted you through their work as educators, performers, advocates and activists, please share your thoughts, your memories, your anecdotes. You can inbox me with your responses or email them to me at Thank you.

Energy.  That’s what I think of when I consider the subject of this profile, dancer, choreographer, educator Josie Metal-Corbin.  She advocates dance as a natural way of affirming life that is available to nearly all of us if we only choose to take advantage of it.  Her life and work in dance have covered much territory and she isn’t slowing down after six decades dedicated to the art form that she also touts as a superb fitness regimen and social engagement tool.  She’s done much work, and been widely recognized for it, in intergenerational dance.  This story for The Reader ( is from some years ago, and so she’s done much more work since the piece appeared.  If I’m not mistaken I first met her when she called me to suggest a story.  She’d become fast friends with a Bosnian family who had suffered through some of the horrors of the siege on Sarajevo and had resettled in Omaha.  Josie was enamored with the spirit of these people and of the beauty of their culture, particularly their music and dance.  She was working with a group of Bosnian refugees to stage a concert in music and dance that expressed forgiveness, mourning, and thanksgiving.  I ended up doing a cover story about the Bosnian family and the celebratory program, and you can find that story here on this blog.  It’s called, “War and Peace, Bosnian Refugees Purge War’s Horrors in Sing and Dance that Make Plea for Peace.”  Josie’s quoted in the story.




Josie’s Dance of Life: Dancer/Choreographer/Educator Josie Metal-Corbin Affirms Life Through Dance

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (

“Dance is the affirmation of life through movement.”
Martha Graham

For the longest time, University of Pittsburgh grad Josie Metal-Corbin could not concede the obvious: that she is a dancer. This, despite already being a noted performer, choreographer and teacher of modern dance at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where she is a professor in the School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation and director of the college’s resident dance troupe, The Moving Company. In 2000 the 61-year-old artist and educator was honored by the state of Nebraska with one of its prestigious Governor’s Arts Awards for her wide-ranging contributions as an advocate, instructor, performer and choreographer of dance.

It was not until well into her career, while first doing pioneering work integrating elders in modern dance performance, that she fully acknowledged dance as her passion and, not coincidentally, evolved an inclusive dance philosophy unbound by tradition or form or stereotype. A philosophy embracing all ages and abilities.

“It wasn’t until I was in my 40s that I could say the words, ‘I am a dancer.’ Before then, saying that always meant in my head that I’m not good enough, I haven’t had enough formal studies, I haven’t studied with the right people, I’m not a fabulous technical dancer. For years, I bought into that,” she said. “But now that I’m mature and have been through a lot of life experiences, I know I am a dancer, and I can never separate that out of myself. So, whether I’m teaching or performing or choreographing or going out on an errand, it’s all kind of a dance. It’s about the rhythm of what I’m doing. It’s who I am. It’s the heartbeat of my passion.”

When she began introducing modern dance to older adults in the ballroom of Omaha’s Paxton Manor in the early ‘80s she was already sold on the physical, emotional and social benefits of dance for seniors, but doubted how much that age group could contribute to the realm of performance. A defining moment came at a rehearsal for one of her first intergenerational works.

She was agonizing how to get an 83-year-old woman she’d recruited for the piece, Marie Waite, to move from one corner of the stage to the other, short of carrying her when, before her very eyes, “there was Marie quickly running across the stage beside two young dancers, and I said, ‘Ah, so that’s what can be done?’” The more she worked with older dancers, most of whom came from ballet or tap or folk roots, the more she discovered their potential as viable interpretive performers of much grace and nuance.

“I saw very touching, poignant, beautiful, exciting expression in people I never thought of as being expressive dancers,” she said. “I realized then I had to stop putting my biases and stereotypes of what people can and cannot do on others.”

 Josie Metal-Corbin, center, with tambourine, directing choreography


Josie demonstrating a move


For someone who became an activist railing against ageism and an advocate celebrating older adults’ gifts, Metal-Corbin was, strangely enough, afraid to work with seniors at the start. Why? “I never knew my grandparents, so I never really had much contact with elders,” she said. “When my husband David, whom I met at a dance workshop, first suggested I do dance with elders, I said, ‘Well, I could never do dance with THEM. I don’t know what THEY do.’ He encouraged me…but I wasn’t confident enough yet to do it alone, so I took my students along to the Paxton Manor. It became an intergenerational experience. And, I came to see this beautiful expression in their movement, on their faces and in the interaction that took place between the generations.” The benefits, she saw, were many.

“Beyond the physical benefits, there are the social benefits. The real magic is in the interaction. Being able to tell your story to another person. To move with another person. To express yourself in a non-verbal way. The psychological benefits include increasing your self-worth because you’re doing something meaningful. It becomes a real sharing,” she said.

As she saw the “wonderful movement” of older bodies unfurling in space before her, she began recruiting seniors and integrating them into her work. Along the way, she earned a graduate certificate in gerontology from UNO.

Typical of her high-energy crusading style, she made the medium a forum for overturning aging myths. She worked with videographers to create a series of dance videos demonstrating the capabilities of seniors. Excerpts were presented as evidence before a U.S. Senate Special Committee On Aging that opened up funding for elder dance programs. She co-authored with hubby David, a fellow UNO professor, a well-reviewed handbook, Reach for It (now in its 3rd edition) on exercise and dance activities for seniors. She presented tapes, papers and workshops on elder dancing at national and international conferences. She went into the schools as a Nebraska Arts Council Artist in Residence, bringing along older adults to dance with children. She made dozens of intergenerational dance works.

The more she has delved into dance and all its permutations, the more she has come to believe it is a deep, natural expression of life for any of us who can and do choose to heed its rhythmic call.

She said, “Dance is not this special subject in life. Dance is a part of life. It is what we are, and we are the instruments of our dance of life.”

The reticence the normally vivacious Metal-Corbin once felt about her own dance pedigree may have stemmed from the blue-collar work ethic instilled in her as a youth. Growing up in Pittsburgh she toed the line at home and school. Crazy about dance from age 3, her lower middle-class parents — her father was a watchmaker, her mother a homemaker — paid for ballet lessons she attended every weekend. She was serious about dance all right, even forming her own dance studio in the unfinished basement of her family’s home, but a life in the arts seemed unlikely given her background.

“I really didn’t know much about the art world because my family didn’t go to museums or concerts. My dad hunted and fished. We went camping together.”

Then, at about age 12, she was selected to participate in a free youth arts program at the Carnegie Institute of Pittsburgh (now known as the Carnegie Museums), an experience she describes as “life-changing.”

“I got this fabulous opportunity there in the Tam O’Shanters (after the Robert Burns poem) program. I attended drawing classes every Saturday through my senior year in high school. This was part of a life I had never seen before. I had no other link to this world. It was wonderful,” she said. “I would walk through the Greek columns of the Institute’s architectural hall and go past the dinosaur hall and then into the auditorium where we had our art lesson. I remember seeing my first Henry Moore (sculpture). I was really enriched by the whole atmosphere. It’s what really linked me to art.”

Years later, she choreographed several dances based on Moore sculptures.

After graduating high school in 1963, she attended Slippery Rock, earning a bachelor’s degree in health and physical education in 1967. She was so immersed in her studies the decade’s counterculture movement largely passed her by. “

This is almost a joke in my family, but in the ‘60s, when all the disturbances were going on, I was oblivious to it,” she said. “I was in a small rural town getting my teaching degree and dancing. I was doing my thing and not caught up in the times. I am an obsessive-compulsive person and am extremely focused on whatever I am involved in. So, I was not politically active, I never smoked, I never drank, I was not a feminist. I did what I thought I was supposed to do. Besides, my parents would have killed me. I’ve changed since then.”

Her mind expanded in other ways. College was the first time she was exposed to dance “other than through studio dance teachers,” and it was while at Slippery Rock and later while pursuing her master’s degree in choreography at the University of Pittsburgh, that she first saw world-class dancers.

“Slippery Rock was only an hour-an-a-half away from downtown Pittsburgh and our whole modern dance club would drive down to concerts there,” she said. “We were exposed to artists like Merce Cunningham and Alvin Ailey. I saw Martha Graham at the Pitt studio. Alvin Ailey’s company was the most influential on me because I loved the kind of music he used. I loved the earthiness of the dance. That was such a profound experience that when I first started teaching dance his was the first company I took my classes to see.”

She attended evening master classes at Pitt after teaching P.E. and dance all day in the schools, studying with artists from New York and Wales, choreographing musical productions at the Pittsburgh Playhouse and learning modern, jazz, tap and theater dance. Summers found her serving as a dance counselor at a camp in the Blue Ridge Mountains. “I had a very eclectic background,” she said.

Of all the dance forms, modern most moved her. “When I found modern dance I knew this was really the idiom in which I would focus my choreography,” she said. “Why? I loved the expression of it. Barefooted and of the earth. There was something that just touched me deeply. It was a departure from the classical ballet I had had, which was a good foundation. But I loved that in modern dance you could move to poetry or move to people’s voices. You can do that in ballet now, but this was when the dance forms were somewhat isolated.”

After earning her master’s, she channeled her passion into education. Burned out after teaching three years in the public schools, she moved on to Robert Morris College in 1970, a small private business school, where she taught P.E., coached basketball and founded a dance company. “I really blossomed there and made dance more of a priority,” she said.

In 1980 she came to UNO, where modern dance had a rich history under the direction of Vera Lundahl. With UNO as her base the past 27 years, Metal-Corbin has reached out into the community to work with diverse groups, including Bosnian refugees and black gospel singers. She often works with the Omaha Modern Dance Collective and recently organized a collaborative of area dancers and choreographers to perform works by modern dance pioneer Isadora Duncan.

“I love working with groups in the community that give me and the dancers in the Moving Company new knowledge and new experiences. I love the process. That’s why I enjoy teaching so much. It energizes me.”

Her multimedia works — often combining stills or video — accomodate a diversity of dancers, from kids to elders, in venues ranging from concert halls to such unconventional spaces as the zoo. “I try to make dances appropriate to the people and spaces I am working with. My joy is in seeing people discover dance.”

As ever, she is moving in “new directions” again by performing her own solo work and researching what she calls “vernacular dance.” Always pushing the envelope, she made her New York and international dance debuts — both after age 50 — just in the past decade. She finds choreographing for herself liberating. “I have found a new, natural movement vocabulary for myself. I don’t have to worry about framing the dance on other bodies. It’s been very freeing, because I’m making the dance just for me. When I’m dancing, I feed off the energy of the music and the movement. There’s no pain. It’s a definite natural high.” She said mature modern dancers like herself are finding more acceptance and opportunity as performers: “Those of us in our 50s and 60s still have something to say. We’re making a place for ourselves. We’re putting a different face on what it is to be older.”

One of her recent projects, Kitchen Dancing, is a video dance work capturing dance wherever it may be — in homes, in offices, in stores or on street corners. She views the project as the natural culmination of her efforts the past three decades and considers this “found” dance the new emphasis in her work.

“It is meant to capture the dance of life people do rhythmically, spontaneously in their every day living activities,” she said. “It’s in every dimension of life. Just look around, and you’ll see people dancing. It might just be someone swaying or just moving some body part. People want to move. It’s the joy of expression through dance.”

The enchanted life of Florence Taminosian Young, daughter of a whirling dervish

December 10, 2011 1 comment

If there’s such a thing as living an enchanted life than Florence Taminosian Young has managed it. When I profiled her about eight years ago or so she was already well into her 90s and going strong. I believe she’s still among us and still active in more ways than most folks half her age.  Her life has revolved around church, theater, art, business, and family. She’s a keen appreciator of beauty and her buoyant personality is a thing of beauty itself.  On the surface she seems like one of those impossibly idealized and stereotyped grandmothers from the Golden Age of Hollywood, only her life is far richer and more idiosyncratic than any scripted figurehead. Hers has been a rich, varied life and she comes from a family with an exotic, over-the-top past that you wouldn’t expect. More than a sweet old dame, she’s a savvy entrepreneur with an eye for quality and a knack for striking a good deal.  And as you’ll read, she’s one helluva saleswoman, too.
The enchanted life of Florence Taminosian Young, daughter of a whirling dervish
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the New Horizons

Seventy-five years ago a fetching Florence Emelia Young (then Taminosian), took the stage in the Omaha Community Playhouse’s first production, “The Enchanted Cottage.”  For the romantic fantasy the trained dancer landed the minor, non-speaking role of a sprite-like figure, but with her shapely legs, graceful movements, dark bangs and cute dimples she no doubt caught the eye of male admirers in the audience that night in 1924.

The glowing high school student, all of 17, had been urged to try out for the fledgling theater’s inaugural play by her neighbor, Henry Fonda, a quiet young man two years her senior.  Fonda, who practically “lived at the Playhouse,” would later leave Omaha to find stardom.  The star-struck girl appeared in a few more plays there.  She made her mark though not as a performer, but as a devoted theater volunteer and supporter these past 75 years.  Today, she is the benevolent grand dame of the Playhouse.



“I always thought she was a treasure,” said the theater’s former executive director Charles Jones, “because she was really willing to put herself out for the Playhouse.  She was proud of selling season memberships and helping us move forward.  She has this bulldog tenacity, but the most wonderful heart.  She’s a glorious, caring person.”

Another bedrock Omaha institution in Florence’s life has been Dundee Presbyterian Church.  Founded in 1901, she attended Sunday School there beginning in 1910 and was confirmed in 1918.  She has been an integral part of the church’s life and it of hers.  Dundee is where she wed, where her children were baptized, confirmed and married, where her mate of 61 years, Kenny, was eulogized, where she served as choir member, deacon, elder and Sunday School teacher.  In 1991 she was ordained a Stephen Minister.   Young-endowed scholarships are granted each year.

Florence has seen a century of change unfold.  She’s outlived many who have been dear to her.  In 1979 she buried her only son, Bob, after he died of cancer.  Yet, her bright, buoyant spirit remains undimmed.  Whatever has come next, she “took it in stride,” forging a life of infinite variety and enviable richness, one based in family, church and community.  Her passions range from travel to cooking to the arts.  Then, there’s her entrepreneurial side.  She had her own public stenographic business and real estate broker’s license at a time when career women were scarce.  Also a noted restorer of Oriental rugs, she continues plying the craft today.

Even now, this vivacious lady of 92 still works, volunteers and travels.  Additionally, she spends time with her six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.  She is clearly centered on the here and now, not the past.

“I have such a fascinating life,” she says.

She’s still very much the same charming girl who moved with the greatest of ease that night so long ago.  She was recently back at the Playhouse visiting the set of “The Little Foxes,” the current offering in the Fonda-McGuire Series.  Looking radiant in a flowing black gown topped by an aqua blue sequined blouse, her white hair set-off like a pearl, she was every bit a teenager again, primping and preening for a captive audience — in this case a photographer.  A graduate of the Misner School of the Spoken Word and Fine Arts, she glided effortlessly through the set, posing on a staircase and reclining on a chaise lounge.  Ever the trouper, she responded to the photographer’s every request, obviously enjoying the attention, her energy and enthusiasm belying her years.  A picture of health — she takes no medicine and drives a 1986 Cadillac kept “in perfect running shape” — she believes age is just a number anyway.

“It is.  It really is.  I think attitude makes a lot of difference, no matter what your age is,” she says in a ripened voice full of eager anticipation.

Ask her what’s the best thing about being 92, she unhesitatingly quips, “Everybody is so nice to you.”  The worst part, she adds, is “knowing you maybe only have about ten more years left, if that many, and so much to do.  Every year goes so fast.”

Her long life is filled by so many telling incidents that in recounting it the tendency is to telescope events, but that would not do her justice.  Her story, like the intricate rugs she restores, is a tapestry of interwoven threads that form the pattern of a life lived well and fully.  The only way to get a true picture of her is to go back to the beginning.



Born at home in Omaha in 1907, Florence was the first child of John Isaiah Taminosian and the former Ellen Maria Andersson.  A sister and brother completed the family the next few years.  Florence and her siblings grew up in a house (still standing) on Chicago Street in Dundee.

Florence’s parents each emigrated to America.  He from the former Asia Minor Republic of Armenia. She from Sweden.  By all accounts, her father was a charismatic fellow with a history straight out of Ripley’s Believe It or Not.  “He has such a fantastic story,” Florence says.

Buoyed by a published interview he granted to a Mankato, Minn. newspaper in 1910, the dramatic circumstances of his coming over are known.  As he told it then, he was ostracized by his family when he rejected Christianity (his father was a Congregational Church deacon) for Islam and became a dervish or kind of Muslim evangelist.

He escaped to Cairo, Egypt with the aid of a local prince.  While living under the prince’s protection he was ordained an Islamic priest, but after time grew disillusioned with his new calling and yearned for his old life and faith.  But, rebuking Islam invited certain death.  Returning home was out since Armenians were a persecuted minority.  So, he enlisted the aid of Western missionaries, who secreted him out of the region.

Whirling Dervishes

He arrived on U.S. shores in 1893, not knowing English or a single soul.  After a year of struggle he landed the part of “the howling and whirling dervish” in the Barnum & Bailey Circus, traveling to 29 states in two years.  His talent for proselytizing and performing, as well as his knowledge of Oriental rugs, would later be passed on to his daughter Florence.  His circus days ended when, struck by a second religious conversion, he became a street corner preacher with the Volunteers of America, a Christian evangelical organization ala the Salvation Army.  With his dark exotic good looks, wild gestures, musky voice and turban-topped uniform he cut quite a figure.  So much so he was invited to appear at the 1898 Trans-Mississippi International Exposition in Omaha.  Here he stayed, finding more mainstream work with Woodmen of the World Life Insurance Co. and meeting his future wife Ellen.  Later, he began selling Oriental rugs.

Grand Court at the 1898 TransMississippi Exposition

The arrival of Florence’s mother is devoid of storybook intrigue but no less compelling.  Purportedly descended from Swedish royalty, Ellen Maria grew up in privileged surroundings on a country estate, Borstad, near Vadsteima, Sweden.  One of ten children, she attended finishing school and became expert in household maintenance, particularly sewing,  a skill Florence would learn under her watch years later.

In 1903 Ellen Maria ventured alone to America, by ocean liner, and made her way to Mead, Neb., where an uncle lived.  She learned English and moved to Deadwood, S.D., where she worked as a seamstress.  Restless in the small town, Ellen Maria moved to Omaha and soon secured a position in the home of Herman Kountze, one of the city’s leading citizens.

“She was in charge of their upstairs maids and when the family entertained she helped with the serving,” Florence writes in a family history she’s compiling. “She was treated just like one of the family.”

It was at a Kountze soiree, Florence believes, her mother and father met.  Although from vastly differing backgrounds, she guesses the attraction was mutual.  “My father was a very handsome man.  He spoke seven different languages.  He was selling Oriental rugs and I imagine, even at that time, they were highly esteemed.  And he was probably doing well by then.  My mother was a very beautiful, talented lady.  She was always very beautifully dressed.  Everybody loved her.”

Even after becoming a family man and attending to business (he eventually acquired the Dundee Cleaning Co.), Florence’s father still preached on the side.  She saw him speak once to some long forgotten congregation.  By then he was no longer the flamboyant Great Dervish, but rather a sober, chastened man of God.

“He gave a very good sermon.  I think he was a very good speaker.  I was so proud of him as a preacher.”

In her mind, she can still see the occasion when her normally stoic father broke down after bitter news arrived from the Old Country.  “The only time I saw my father cry is when he received notice his mother and father had been dragged to death by the Turks” in another round of atrocities.

The Taminosian home, a two-story wood-frame house, was always open to visitors and a melting of Armenian, Swedish and American culture.

“My mother had a regal quality, and yet our friends were always welcome in our house.  There was always something to eat for them.  On Sundays my mother would cook a big beautiful dinner and she and my father would invite their friends.  I grew up with many different languages being spoken around me.  The men would be in the living room after dinner and my mother and her friends would be in the kitchen.”

Leisure time then was less hurried, more social.  Cheap too.

“It didn’t cost a lot of money to have fun in those days.  As little girls we played jacks, hopscotch, hide and seek, things like that.  When I was older a whole group of us might go dancing to Peony Park.  I’ve always enjoyed dancing.  It was just a lot of good wholesome fun.  It was a lovely time.”

She loved silent pictures, especially romances.  She enjoyed riding with her family in their horse-and-buggy en route to picnics at Carter Lake.  Autos then were still few in number.  The first car she rode in was a Model-T Ford.  Of all the inventions and advances she saw, the most impressive were electrical power coming into her home and the advent of radio.

Summer nights meant sleeping on the second-story porch just outside her bedroom.  Doors were never locked.  She always felt safe.

She received her elementary education at Dundee School, which was not yet built when she started.  Therefore, she attended kindergarten in Dundee Hall and first grade in the Dundee Fire Barn, where, in the middle of class, “the bell would go off and the firemen would slide down the pole.”  She attended Central High School before heeding her mother’s advice  (‘every girl ought to be able to earn her own living if she needed to’) and transferring to Technical High School, where she learned typing and shorthand, two skills she would put to good use.

But the familiar red brick Tech edifice on Cuming Street was still under construction, so Florence and her mates attended classes in converted storefronts along Leavenworth Street for one year before moving to the big new Tech High building.  “It was wonderful.  It was the only school in the city with a swimming pool.”  She swam well too.  Her other extracurricular activities included editing the school paper, dramatics, debate, chorus.  A play she wrote, “The Stovepipe Hole,” was performed on the Tech stage.

Although long closed, Florence keeps her ties to the school alive as coordinator of the annual Tech High Reunion.  She’s helped preserve and display school memorabilia and raise funds for a planned renovation of the building’s massive auditorium.  Her 75th class reunion is next year.

As a young woman she helped out in her family’s cleaning business.  Besides cleaning rugs, her family repaired them.  Her father taught her mother all about Oriental rugs and it was under the tutelage of her mother, a master needleworker who did restoration work for individuals and museums, that Florence and her sister Eleanor became skilled.

“I apprenticed for over 30 years under my mother and I learned to be an Oriental rug expert,” Florence says.  “She wouldn’t even let us touch a rug belonging to a customer.  We had to practice on old ones.”

Along with her expertise, Florence gained a deep appreciation for the rugs, which are traditionally handwoven using the choicest materials.

“They’re the finest you can get.  I have one rug that is 168 knots to a quare inch.  All put in by hand.  It has silk outlining in it.  To me, rugs are like pictures on a wall, only they’re on the floor.”

She continues Oriental rug restoration today, refringing ends, reweaving holes and edging sides frayed from wear, pets or accidents.

“Even now, the Nebraska Furniture Mart sends customers to me who need a rug repair done.  My sister has a big business doing it in Kansas City too.  Neither of us ever advertise.  Work just comes to us.”

Over the years Florence has had clients seek her services out from as far away as New York and California.  She does most of the work at home, which these days is an apartment at Skyline Manor.  For a large piece, she works at the owner’s home.  One local couple had such an enormous rug, she says, “they built a room just for it and set-up a table for me to work on.  Their cat had really injured this rug.  I was there for weeks.”

According to Florence, the best Oriental rugs are made in Iran and before trading with that nation was restricted some years ago she laid in a supply of native yarn that she isn’t sure “anybody else has” in the U.S.

She says the quality of a fine Oriental rug is partly dependent on the area of the country it’s made.  “The quality of the yarn produced is determined by the water the goats drink and the vegetation they eat.”



Her travels over the years took her to the Mideast, where she and Kenny bought many rugs.  Native weavers working at their looms often remarked on how knowledgeable she was about their craft.

“When I was in Iran I put some stitches in a rug they were making and one of the men came way across the room and kissed me on the cheek, saying, ‘You’re an American, and you know how.’  He couldn’t believe it.”

Travel was one of her and Kenny’s greatest shared pleasures.  Everyone who knew them say they were a perfect match.

“He was behind me in everything I did and I was behind him in everything he did.  We admired each other so very much.  He was a caring, intelligent man and it was just a privilege for us to live together.”

The two met in the late 1920s and married in a formal ceremony at her church.  A civil engineer by trade, he had his own firm and worked for Metropolitan Utilities District.   He was later properties manager for the Great Plains Girl Scouts. Knowing her abilities, he encouraged her to find work and, when the opportunity arose, they bought a public stenographic business for her to run.  Under her leadership, it flourished during the Great Depression.

“I built that business up to where I had three offices with a manager in each one.  I also did printing and mimeographing.”

She closed the company to raise her family.  Once the children were grown she re-entered the business world as a real estate broker.  She was a top seller.  She and Kenny also built, sold and rented several homes.  “We never lost a cent either.”  She’s justifiably proud of her professional career.

“I liked business so much.  I felt I had to be absolutely correct in everything I did because I was paving the way for other women.”



It pleases her her granddaughters have followed her path and become business professionals in their own right.  Her daughter, Helen Margaret Bucher, is a school teacher in Iowa.

Motivated by a mutual curiosity about the world, the Youngs began their travels by seeing the U.S.  They eventually made it to all 50 states.  From the time they started going abroad in 1954 until his death 37 years later, they visited every continent but Antarctica and a total of 125 countries.  She’s since added three Caribbean countries.  About their travels, she says:

“Each one was so different, so precious.  It’s been very interesting.  We both enjoyed people so much.  Other people’s customs, ways of living and treasures.  You learn so many things.  When we went to different countries we tried to learn a few of their words, and it made so much difference.  The people knew we wanted to know them better.  What was  nice is Kenny and I traveled before everything became so Americanized.”

When their children were small the Youngs took them along.  “It would be so exciting to see them excited about something and learning about something,” she says.

The highlights of her overseas journeys range from “the wonderful museums in Russia” to India’s Taj Mahal, which “was as perfect as advertised.  We were allowed to go down in the tomb and see its exquisite workmanship.”  Then there were the geysers Down Under, “the wonderful art and food” of Italy.  In Sweden they stayed at the estate her mother grew up in.  In the Mideast they visited a mosque her father sought refuge in.

“You kind of pinched yourself you were actually there sometimes. “

As an engineer, Kenny liked “climbing to the top of most everything — from the Leaning Tower of Pisa to the Great Wall of China.”

They cruised on the QE2.  Soared on the Concorde.  During a memorable tour around the world they had a driver and guide all their own. Florence will never forget their first European jaunt in 1954.  They flew from New York to London, when flying across the Atlantic was still a leap of faith.

“It was a propeller plane and I think I stayed up all night long just to see that propeller kept going.”

Wanting mementos of her adventures, she began collecting rings and dolls from every country she visited.  Her large collection of dolls, each outfitted with authentic native dress and made of indigenous materials, is proudly displayed in her apartment.  The Youngs documented their tours via slides and presented public travelogues.  She’s also lectured extensively on dolls and Oriental rugs, many of which she’s given to family members.

Sharing with others is something she’s always done.  It’s why, even now, she counsels those in need as a Stephen Minister.  “I really truly like people, and if I can help in any way to relieve their problems, I like to.”

Her ministerial work extends to her retirement community.  She calls on a woman at Skyline every Sunday and often finds other residents opening up to her.  “People often tell me their thoughts and problems.”  Ask if she finds the work satisfying, she replies, “Well, you would get a great deal of satisfaction if you helped somebody, wouldn’t you?”

“Florence Young is a devoted, joyful servant of Jesus Christ.  She’s an example to members of all ages of this congregation that one never retires from service to the Lord,” says Rev. William L. Blowers, pastor of Dundee Presbyterian Church.  “She is a remarkable woman.  An inspiration.”

Just as the church is the fabric of her faith, the Playhouse is the link to her love of make-believe.  The continuity of her life will find her celebrating the church’s centennial in 2001 and the theater’s 75th anniversary in the 1999-2000 season.  She’s been there for every step in the theater’s history.

“It’s a real part of my life.  It’s wonderful to know I have been a part of something like this and to have done a few things to help it grow.  It’s really almost a miracle the way it has grown.”

The Medallion Award for outstanding promotional service is named after her and Kenny.  A top seller too for the symphony and opera, she still sells hundreds of Playhouse memberships yearly.  She attends every play.

“I always feel I’m not so much selling, but offering a chance for a wonderful evening.  Some plays produce messages.  Others are just for amusement.  Others bring back memories.  It is a world of imagination, isn’t it?  It’s such fun.”

Gotta Dance, Seniors Make Ballroom Dancing an Integral Part of Staying Young

December 10, 2011 Leave a comment

Dance Gallery for Nebraska Invitational




I don’t dance.  I mean, I’ve tried, and let’s just say it hasn’t taken with me.  At least not in public.  I sometimes do my own version of dancing, either alone or with my partner, in the privacy of our home.  More for the exercise, I must admit, than anything else, though I do enjoy the intimacy of slow dancing when we’re by ourselves.  I appreciate those who can move gracefully and unselfconsciously on the dance floor.  And so it was that I observed with admiration and some envy a group of seniors doing their ballroom dancing thing for the following story I did eight or nine years ago.  Who knows, maybe my dancing years are still ahead of me?


Dance Gallery for Nebraska Invitational
Dance Gallery for Nebraska Invitational




Gotta Dance, Seniors Make Ballroom Dancing an Integral Part of Staying Young 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons


By 9:30 on a fine October night, a downtown dance hall is abuzz with the revelry of senior couples bobbing to the sweet notes of a swinging big band. It is dim inside save for lights strung overhead to cast a warm golden glow over the scene.

Everything — from the bouncy tunes to the jitterbug moves to the elegant couples dressed-to-the-nines — hearkens back to the 1940s, when juke joints like these ruled. The only difference now is these dancers move a tad slower than they did then. No matter, this is one hideaway where numerical age means little as long as you are still young at heart. Here, where time stands still, romantic asides and whispered sweet nothings continue to be shared by gray-haired partners for whom holding hands and sneaking smooches never grows old. In the rich ambience of this jumping night spot, nostalgia reigns supreme.

Elaine McMullin, 84, and Bernie McKernan, 76, are two regulars here. As usual, their dance card is filled. These smartly turned-out partners will sweep the rest of the night away to the melodious strains of the Ron Nadherny Band at the North Omaha Eagles Club, 24th & Douglas, where every Thursday evening ballroom dancing takes center stage courtesy of Joe Mimmick’s 40s Dance Club. A different band plays every week. More than a mere dance venue, this ballroom — along with others like it in the area catering to the senior population — offers a veritable fountain of youth for participants, many of whom arrive lame yet somehow turn spry once the music starts. Yes, some magic is at work in these In-the-Mood places where age is merely a state of mind.

“No matter how you feel, music will bolster your spirit and will really make you feel young again,” said 40s Dance Clubber Gloria Gordon of Omaha. “Sometimes you can hardly walk, but when you get on the dance floor it seems like for some reason you have no problem at all dancing. It is a real tonic. It’s give you kind of a high.”

Retired local school teacher Elaine McMullin, who dances with Bernie McKernan three nights a week, could not agree more. “You forget how old you are,” she said. “You forget how many aches and pains you might have. A lot of nights I’m kind of tired and I think, ‘Oh, I should stay home,’ and then I realize I’d just be alone feeling sorry for myself and I figure I’m a whole lot better off going out, and so I go. It’s certainly an enjoyable way to spend the evening. Plus, it’s good exercise.”

Bill Yambor, 76, can attest to the health benefits of dance. The Omaha resident said he has lost weight, stabilized his blood pressure and increased his energy level through a steady diet of hoofing. “It’s good aerobics and it’s good for the legs too. I’m in good shape,” said the slim Yambor. He goes ballrooming every Wednesday and Thursday afternoon at Bluffs Run Casino and every Thursday night at the Eagles Club. He works in an occasional Tuesday night at the Millard Legion Post 374. He puts in as many as nine hours of dancing a day — rarely sitting out a turn. “If there are 15 dances, I dance every one of them. I don’t miss one. I like them all.” The only concession to age he makes is not dipping his partners anymore.

A typical ballroom program offers a wide variety of musical numbers and dance styles — from swing to the foxtrot to the polka to the rumba to the waltz. “I like to do them all, but personally the waltz is my favorite dance, especially the Viennese Waltz,” said Elaine. “It’s the smooth, even, gliding, free flowing movement I like. And when I dance I like to close my eyes and block out everything except to listen to the beat and to the shuffle of the feet on the floor. You hear the music, you feel the movement and you glide around. It’s like your floating. It’s a wonderful feeling.”



Swept away by the thrill of it all, ballroom dancing enthusiast Jerrie Kraniewski of Omaha said she sometimes feels transported on the dance floor — as if she is “almost in another world.” Bob McEniry, who has been Gloria Gordon’s steady dance mate the past 10 years, said getting caught up in the moment — with the soothing music and the seductive movement — induces a kind of meditative state that triggers memories of old times. “You’ll hear a song and it brings it all back. That’s part of the reverie. It is a form of trance — you’re way off there by yourself. It’s trance dancing.”

For Shirley Sailors, dancing is “the nearest thing to heaven there is.” Shirley and her husband Ken come all the way from their Dunlap, Iowa home to kick up their heels in Omaha. Appropriately, the pair met at a dance. The circumstances of their meeting echo that of many senior ballroom dancing couples. Both had lost a longtime spouse and in the process of getting back into the social swing of things, they found each other. Dancing had been a shared love of Shirley’s and her first husband’s but she was unsure if it “could ever be the same again with someone else.” To her joy, she discovered she “enjoyed it tremendously” with Ken too.

When Omahan Bob McEniry retired a decade ago, the widower didn’t know what to do with himself — until he rediscovered a passion for dancing grown dormant during years spent working and raising a family. “I saw an ad in the paper that said, ‘Dancing,’ with a phone number. I dialed it right away. The fella answering said, ‘We’ve got free dancing every Wednesday afternoon. Why don’t you come over?’ I went over and I’ve been at it ever since. It’s been a fabulous find. It’s just been delightful. It’s brought it all back for me. It’s a great way of staying young.”

That desire to recapture a glint of youthful vitality crops up time and again in conversations with the senior dance crowd. Gloria Gordon loved to dance as a young woman but fell out of practice while married to a man without an ounce of Fred Astaire in him. After being widowed, she struck up a friendship with McEniry and was delighted to find that, like him, “it just came right back to me.”

In the case of Elaine McMullin, she and her husband Jim shared a passion for dance they often entertained until he suffered such severe heart problems that it curtailed his physical activities and effectively ended their arabesques together at night spots like Peony Park, the Music Box and the Charemont. “We both missed it a lot.” After Jim died, she waited a year before she went back dancing. Now, she might as well be a blushing bride of 18 again when circling the ballroom in the arms of Bernie McKernan, her friend and partner these last several years.

Vivacious Elaine is lovely to look at on the dance floor. She sashays with the gentle, effortless ease of a twirling leaf in the wind. Her body is relaxed. Her feet step lively yet gracefully to the beat. There is nothing out of place — from her high wavy set hair to her fabulous dress (she makes her own fancy dance dresses) slit just so to show off her still shapely legs. Where she grabs attention, Bernie, a retired building inspector, complements her with efficient if not flashy leading. Together, they make a pretty picture on the hard wood, their limbs entwined in close embrace one moment and swaying apart the next. They are made for each other.

“Having a good partner is an important part of it,” Elaine said. “When you can move together as well as Bernie and I do, it really makes it good. When he pulls me up close on some of the slow music, which he calls cuddle dancing, our bodies just blend together and we kind of move as one.” As for the dapper Bernie, who took dance lessons as a boy, he deflects any praise for his footwork to Elaine, saying, “After you’ve been dancing awhile the lady gets accustomed to you and things just come naturally. She can feel and anticipate what the next step’s going to be. With her, well, she’s a great dancer. She makes me look good out there.” The pair never practice. Instead, they simply work out their steps on the floor.

Like many older people who suffer the loss of a spouse, Elaine and Bernie sought solace when tragedy struck and they found it in a support group for widows and widowers. Soon after meeting they learned of their mutual fondness for tripping the light fantastic and began making the local ballroom circuit together (Omaha, Millard, Lincoln, Blair and across the border in Minden, Iowa). They have been an exclusive dance floor couple ever since. Besides cutting a rug, they enjoy going out to dinner. Bernie also helps Elaine maintain her large house and yard. For them, though, dancing is the cat’s meow. They plan their weeks around it.

Elaine, who studied dance from age 8 through her teens, said, “I’ve always loved to dance. Now, more than ever, I look forward to it. It is an occasion. It is a dress-up occasion. I plan the next night out what I’m going to wear and the fun I’m going to have and the music I’ll enjoy dancing to. And there’s a lot of camaraderie in places like this. I’ve met so many friends over the years just because of dancing.”

To a man and woman, ballroom fanciers cite companionship and interaction as among the main attractions offered. The 40s Dance Club is rare in actively seeking senior singles. More than a few romances have blossomed in its ballroom. Take Ed and Gratia Setlak, for example, comparative youngsters at ages 55 and 65, respectively. He was divorced and she widowed when they met at a club function a few years ago. Sparks flew on the dance floor. “Right off the bat I sensed an honest openness in Gratia, and that said a lot to me,” Ed recalls. “We danced twice that night. It was about three weeks before we got back together. We started dating and eventually we married.” Dancing defies age in inspiring such interludes. After all, it is an intimate, seductive and sensuous mating ritual. “I love the rhythm. I love being held held by somebody,’ Gratia Setlak said. Beyond the physical closeness it provides, her husband added, “It brings you together emotionally.”



Dancers Vernon and Irene Castle. Gelatin silve...

Image via Wikipedia



Ballroom dancer Ken Sailors said displays of endearment are only natural on the dance floor. “You’ll see dance partners kiss each other on the cheek. It’s a loving you don’t see other places. There’s nothing wrong with showing affection for the lady I love out on the dance floor.” Romance aside, social dancing offers a relaxed and festive setting whose banter and gaiety are infectious. “One of the biggest joys I get at this dance club is seeing the pleasure these people are getting,” Shirley Sailors said during an intermission at a recent 40s Dance Club program.

Bill Yambor and his late wife were crazy about dancing. After her death, he found a steady ballroom partner but she died too. Today, he is an unattached bachelor and equal opportunity dancer. “I don’t want to get hooked up with one partner all the time, so I try to dance with all the ladies. Once in a while I’ll take one out on a date.” He said as long as his “body holds out,” he expects to keep right on punching his dance card. “I’d probably be bored with my life if I didn’t have dancing to do. It’s one thing I really enjoy. It’s a really good pastime. I meet a lot of nice people and make a lot of friends. I’d recommend it to anyone.” Jerrie Kraniewski and her partner Irl C. Andis say they would miss dancing more than life itself. “I’d hate to have to ever give it up,” Jerrie said. “No, we’re not going to give it up as long as we can move,” Irl added.

More than a few ballroom devotees carry on despite artificial knees and hips. Then there is Bernie McKernan who, after an unexplained cardiac event last June in which he collapsed unconscious on a Millard dance floor, now cha chas with a pacemaker in his chest. Bernie recalls little about the incident, but Elaine does. “It sure was scary. I didn’t know what to do. Luckily, a nurse was there and she administered CPR. He was rushed to Methodist Hospital and I spent the evening with him in the emergency room,” she said. All Bernie knows is that he “keeled over on the dance floor and woke up four days later with a pacemaker.” Then, as if to prove his ballroom devotion, he added, “When I came to, I asked the doctor, ‘How soon can we go dancing?’ and he said, ‘In a few days,’ and so we did.”

Asked what could possibly inspire such fierce ardor for this recreation activity, Elaine searched for words and said, “There’s just something about dancing. It really makes you feel good. We both love it.” Or, as Bernie simply puts it, “Well, it’s fun.”

Louise Abrahamson’s legacy of giving finds perfect fit at The Clothesline, the Boys Town thrift store the octogenarian founded and still runs

December 5, 2011 2 comments

Even though I know better, I sometimes find myself making assumptions about people based solely on their appearance.  Pint-sized octogenarian Louise Abrahamson didn’t look like my idea of a dynamo not to be trifled with when I first laid eyes on her but as I soon discovered that’s exactly what she is.  This sweet little old Jewish lady has been running, variously with an iron fist and a velvet glove, a thrift shop at the Catholic run Boys Town for decades now and she shows no signs of slowing down.  This story of a Jew deeply embedded at Boys Town reminded me of the deep relationship that Boys Town founder Father Edward Flanagan enjoyed with Jewish attorney Henry Monsky – a story I wrote about and that you can find on this blog.  While Monsky’s contributions were more advisory, legal, and monetary, Louise’s are more cultural, charitable, and practical.  My story about Louise that follows originally appeared in the Jewish Press.

Louise Abrahamson’s legacy of giving finds perfect fit at The Clothesline, the Boys Town thrift store the ocotgenarian founded and still runs

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Jewish Press


Eighty-nine years ago, Omaha Jewish leader Henry Monsky befriended an Irish Catholic priest with whom he shared a dream of creating a safe haven for troubled youths. The priest found a site, but lacked funds. Monsky, a successful attorney and inveterate do-gooder, lent Rev. Edward Flanagan $90 for the first month’s rent on the original Boys Town building in downtown Omaha. Besides serving, pro bono, as attorney for both the home and the late Fr. Flanagan, Monsky was a member of the Boys Town board of directors from its 1917 inception until his death in 1947. His support of Fr. Flanagan and the youth care program got other civic-business leaders to follow suit. The rest is history. As Boys Town’s approach to serving at-risk children caught on, donations poured in and the organization expanded. Now, it’s become a much replicated national model and the names Fr. Flanagan and Boys Town are synonymous with youth care worldwide.

The role Monsky played in the then-fledging institution’s founding is even portrayed in the 1938 Oscar-winning film Boys Town.

Twenty-six years ago, an Omaha Jewish woman named Louise Abrahamson, a former legal stenographer, small business owner, retailer, grant writer, fundraiser and political advisor, got the idea of starting a thrift shop to outfit children at the home with new clothes and things. At the time, she was a secretary and much more at Boys Town. Struck by how little new arrivals had in the way of clothes or other possessions, she took it upon herself to solicit donations from clothing and sundry manufacturers. Donated goods began arriving at her home and were stored in her garage. She distributed the gifts to Boys Town residents and to other organizations helping families and children. Before long, the operation outgrew her garage and moved to new quarters on campus.

Today, she operates out of a retail store-like setting called The Clothesline. The volume of goods that comes in year-round is enough to keep the store’s neatly dressed shelves, bins and racks filled and to take up floor-to-ceiling sections of a warehouse storage area. At any given time the inventory — a typical shipment contains hundreds or thousands of items — includes everything from apparel to accessories to toiletries to toys. Each box must be unpacked, sorted and labeled. In 2005 alone she collected merchandise worth a combined commercial value of $1.3 million, a record year. And that’s only counting donations of $1,000 or more.

There, she applies her well-practiced people skills and business acumen — “I’ve done a lot of things in my life” — to sweet talk corporations out of in-kind gifts and to ease the transition displaced kids face miles away from home. All her considerable time on the project is given as a volunteer.

More than just a place where children get a new set of duds, The Clothesline is where kids find a friend in Abrahamson they can always confide in.

“She is so wonderful to all these kids. When they come in they get a hug and kiss,” said Betty Rubin, a friend and fellow volunteer at the store. “This is what makes it tick — the warmth of it. I mean, it’s very personal to her.”

“Louise is one of those rare people who flourishes by helping others,” said Fr. Val Peter, recently stepped down as executive director of Girls and Boys Town. “Her joy is in giving to others. She is an expert at human relations. She can talk major manufacturing reps into helping us and she has a way with the kids, too. She is an enormously happy person, and to be that happy you have to work at it.”

“This is my life,” Louise said by way of explaining why, at age 86, she still works at the store four days a week. “I get a lot of pleasure out of this. It’s just kind of a challenge to see if people remember me and send me stuff I ask for for the kids.”

Besides, the need that inspired her to start the store in the first place, is still there. Then, like now, newcomers arrive with few possessions and little trust. If anything, she said, kids today present “a lot more problems than when I first came here. I have just taken it into my heart to care about the kids. Generally, when they come in, I don’t settle for a handshake. I have a hug. I want them to know I truly care what happens to them. That, to me, is what sets the pace for a youngster. Rather than have them feel like a stranger or a truant, I want them to feel welcome,” said the former Louise Miller, an Omaha native and Central High graduate. “That’s why I tell them, ‘We want you here. It’s a great place to be. Make the most of it. If you take advantage of what we offer, we’ll never let you down.’ I love that about Boys Town. I like what we do for children.”

“Louise is a great ambassador for those kids,” Girls and Boys Town Public Relations Director John Melingagio said. “She manages to take some of the fear and anxiety away for them.”

On a typical day at the store, the pint-sized Abrahamson, crisply-attired in a pants and sweater suit and her hair nicely coiffured, is seated at her command center at the front of the shop, her phone, computer and files within easy reach. An adult man saunters in with a teenage boy trying hard to suppress his unease. The man’s a campus family teacher and the youth a newbie in need of threads to replace the banned gang clothes he’s come with.

She greets the teen. “Good morning. How are you?” He says, “What’s up?” “And you are?” “Tavonne,” he tells her. “Where you from?” “Baltimore.” “Baltimore, well you know cold weather then. You just pick out what you want, bring it up here and we’ll check it out. That’s all there is to it,” she explains.

A few minutes later, after trying on some pants, shirts and shoes, Tavonne’s back. Louise asks him, “Did you find what you’re looking for?” “Yeah.” “So now you’re all fixed up with dress clothes, right?” “Yeah.” “That’s good. How long have you been here?” “This is my second day.” “Second day, you’re an old-timer.” He smiles shyly. “Probably by the end of next week you’ll be sworn in as a Boys Towner. We’re glad to have you here.” The boy, warming to her, replies, “Thank you.” She tells him, “We hope you do well. It’s a great place to be. Now, I have these…if you want a watch,” she says, pushing a basket filled with nice men’s watches near him. He fishes through the bunch and finds one he wants. “I like this one.” “It’s yours.” “Thank you, I appreciate it.” “You’re very welcome. I want to wish you a merry Christmas.” “Same to you.” “And I hope things work out for you, dear.” “Thanks.”

It’s this kind of human exchange that keeps Abrahamson coming back day after day. “Yeah, that tells a story,” she said. “We get a lot of new kids in this time of year. Family teachers will come in with new children, most of them with little or no clothes other than what they have on their back. All our clothes are new and appropriate to wear at church and school. The kids pick out what they want.”

She said her empathy for them extends back to her own childhood. “I knew my folks loved me, but they were busy making a living and really didn’t have much time for me. I was lonesome. I needed somebody I thought cared. And I think that’s why I feel a special need to help children,” she said.

It was while working as a secretary in Boys Town’s Youth Care program she saw first hand the want and conceived the idea of a free clothing center. She got it up and running out of her home in no time.

“I’d see these unhappy youngsters come in carrying a grocery sack and I’d say, ‘Where’s your luggage?’ They’d say, ‘This is it.’ My husband and I used to be in retail — we had a shoes and clothing store — and I wondered if I called on our old dealers, would they help and send me what they have. So, those were the first people I wrote to. They were very giving and began sending merchandise to me.”

With the chutzpah all doers possess, she just thought it up and went ahead. “I did this strictly on my own. I didn’t ask anybody’s permission. I just started doing it,” she said. “Once I’d get the merchandise in, I’d open up the boxes and I’d send out a memo and invite the family teachers and the kids to come over my house.”

By then, Louise and her late husband of 58 years, Norman Abrahamson, lived alone. Their two sons, Hugh and Steve, were grown. She credits Norman for her success. “He taught me everything I know. He taught me how to greet people. He taught me how to go for the product. He taught me that being kind is unusual. He was very supportive. He encouraged me. He said, ‘Go for it, honey. You can do it.’ He was there when I asked for advice and when I faltered.” A former Edison Brothers shoe salesman, he opened his own retail men’s apparel and shoe stores, Hugh’s. He later became a real estate builder-developer.


Louise Abrahamson, second from left, and family




Soon, the amount of donations was too much for the couple’s garage. “My husband said, ‘Don’t you think Boys Town would give you a spot?’ So, I went to Fr. Hupp (the late former executive director of Boys Town), who knew I was inviting the teachers and kids over to my house to get clothes, and he said, ‘We’ve got space down in the boiler room (of the Youth Care building). Can you hack that?’ ’Any place would be good,’’ I said. So, we had our stuff delivered there, and this is pretty much the way it started.”

She wore a mask to protect against fumes in the cramped boiler room. It was under Fr. Peter’s watch the operation moved from that dank place to its pleasant environs today — in the building that houses the U.S. postal station on campus.

“When Fr. Peter came aboard, we just went on from there. He and I worked very closely, especially at Christmas-time. The store grew and grew, as did the demand.”

She’s done it almost entirely on her own, too, running things the way she sees fit. “There’s nobody that’s been put here to watch me.”

Generations removed from Henry Monsky helping make the dream of Boys Town a reality, fellow Jew Louise Abrahamson is helping Boys Town fulfill its nonsectarian mission of providing a caring environment to homeless and abused children of all faiths and creeds. She’s familiar with Monsky’s legacy, too, as she helped organize a touring Nebraska Jewish Historical Society exhibit on him in collaboration with Boys Town. Fr. Peter said that if Monsky is the grandfather of Boys Town, then Abrahamson is “the grandmother. She is loved and appreciated here.”

Playing the role of matriarch to kids with severed family relationships appeals to her. “While they’re here, I am like their grandmother,” she said. “A lot of the young people come in and tell me their problems, and I’ll listen very carefully. They’re welcome to come in anytime. They don’t have to make an appointment.”

Louise and her family

Her contact with the children often extends well past their graduation and departure from the home. “Even two or three years later,” she said, “kids can have hard luck. I’ll get a call that says, ‘Louise, so and so is going out on a job interview and doesn’t have a thing to wear.’ And I’ll say, ‘Send ‘em over.’ Now, where else can you go and get that kind of a feeling that you’re needed and wanted?”

The ties go well beyond that. Her desk at the front of the store displays photos sent by former Boys Town students, many pictured with families they’ve begun. She exchanges cards and letters, just like any good grandma does. “I keep in touch with a lot of the children after they leave,” she said.

Just don’t assume her kindly ways and diminutive stature mark her as a pushover.

“Louise is a very pleasantly, disarmingly assertive little old lady,” said Dan Daly, Girls and Boys Town’s Vice President and Director of Youth Care. “You see this pleasant looking, smiling, tiny person and pretty soon she’s got her hand in your right back pocket. That’s how Boys Town was founded. Her and Fr. Peter, made a very, very potent tandem. He knew what kind of talent she has at doing this sort of thing and he was very supportive of her. It’s grown and proliferated because of her personality and her keen business sense.”

So savvy is this nice little old Jewish lady in sizing up people, Daly said, that he and other Boys Town officials would steer family teacher candidates by her desk, so she could observe them. Her assessment factored into new hires. Her counsel was also sought ought off-campus by candidates for mayor, governor and senator. She even wrote a booklet to help prospective candidates weigh bids for public office.

Using her political skills, she routinely contacts corporate giants like Target, Wal-Mart, Dillards, Lands-End, Johnson & Johnson and Colgate, and gets them to donate surplus items. Her personal appeals, scripted herself, are laced with tug-on-your-heart pathos and practical let’s-do-business talk. She tells them, “We have so many young boys and girls who…desperately need clothing…I am asking for your help. If you have any donation department of your discontinued styles, over-stocks, irregulars or out-of-season merchandise, could I ask that you place us on your recipient list? Any merchandise sent can be a tax write-off…Thank you. I hope you will share in Boys Town’s grand mission.”

She doesn’t stop there, either. She follows up with phone calls and letters, always gently reminding potential donors of the need. Her persistence often pays off. “I’m after them all the time. I don’t take no for an answer. I keep pitching, and pitching kindly.” Every donor receives a personal thank you note from her.





Melingagio said the donations she brings in help Boys Town “leverage our dollars. Those in-kind gifts she gets from corporations allow the monies we get to go to things that help the kids get better.”

When she approached Fr. Peter with her concept for the store, he embraced it. “I knew that if we let Louise loose at The Clothesline, that it would become very big,” he said. “The best thing to do is to let Louise do her work. She does it better than anyone else.” He said the store’s proved a winning venture. “Oh, yes, it’s a great idea. We needed it badly. It helps everybody. The best ideas come from people like Louise who have talent and a willingness to make their ideas successful.”

He added there’s never been any thought of taking it out of her hands. “It has been Louise’s baby from the get-go. What we do here is we give people a job and say, You’re in charge of making it a success, and she’s made it a success. We’re all proud of her.” He confirmed there’s also been no talk of what will happen once she’s gone. “We don’t want to think about that. We tell her, Take your vitamins. Stay healthy. We need you for years to come. She’s it.”

Before she came on the scene with her business-like practices, Daly said, the home didn’t have a formal apparatus for processing donated goods: “There was a day when, without Louise, you would have walked in and seen just big piles of stuff, and Louise moved the organization away from that way of handling donations to a very effective, modern way where things are very attractively displayed to the kids and to the adults.”

Daly said Abrahamson is quite adept at “networking with family teachers. She alerts people when new stuff comes in. She’s always pushing the product, so to speak. Louise has her favorites. If she gets something in that she knows one little girl would like, she makes sure that little girl gets the first crack at it.” He said it’s not only the 500-some kids on campus who benefit from the fruits of her labor. Another 200 or so in foster care settings also have dibs on what she collects. When supplies or shipments exceed the Boys Town demand, she places the extra goods with places like The St. Francis House and the Salvation Army.

Her office is also the base for a whole other category of gifts she acquires for children. Daly said she manages to get kids passes to movies, concerts, athletic events, skating rinks and many other activities. She gets donated food for parties. She ensures every Boys Town resident has gifts at Christmas and graduation. “It’s a lot bigger than just The Clothesline,” he said.

Service to others is a lifelong habit. Whether advising politicos such as Kay Orr and Hal Daub, or helping run their campaigns for public office or volunteering with the American Red Cross, the Arthritis Foundation, the March of Dimes, Hadassah, the Special Olympics and the United Way or serving as a member of the credit committee of the Boys Town Federal Credit Union or as president of the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society, she gives her time in many ways.

Then there are the two years she devoted to caring for her son Steve after he was left a paraplegic as the result of an auto accident. He now lives independently. She became a vocal advocate for the rights and abilities of the handicapped. She was also careprovider for her husband after he contracted cancer.

Her good works have been recognized. Under her watch the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society won the Federation’s Achievement Award. She was nominated for  the National Council of Jewish Women’s Humanitarian Award for “her great compassion for the needs of others.”

Nothing slows her down, either. A bad back that laid her up last year only kept her away from the store a few months, during which time she did all her business from home. The flow of merchandise never stopped. But she knows she can’t do it forever. That’s why she’d like to work out a plan for a successor — ideally someone like herself who, as Melingagio put it, “goes the extra mile.”

“I worry what’s going to happen to this place when I no longer can do it,” she said. “My hope is that there is somebody who has pretty much the idea that I have. That they’re caring and want so much for the kids that they know how to express that caring. Because that’s the bottomline. That’s what it’s all about.”

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