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From Japanese-American Internment Camp to Boys Town: Christmas and Other Bittersweet Memories During World War II

November 13, 2018 Leave a comment

From Japanese-American Internment Camp to Boys Town

Christmas and Other Bittersweet Memories During World War II

Story by Leo Adam Biga

Photography provided by Boys Town

Originally appeared in the Nov-Dec 2018 issue of Omaha Magazine 

(http://omahamagazine.com/articles/from-japanese-americaninternmentcamp)

 

Xenophobic fears ran wild after the Empire of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. The U.S. promptly entered World War II, and nearly 120,000 Japanese-Americans were relocated or incarcerated in internment camps across the country.

The Rev. Edward Flanagan, the founder of Boys Town, strived to calm the hysteria in part—while alleviating the trauma falling upon his fellow Americans—by sponsoring approximately 200 Japanese-Americans from internment camps to stay at his rural Nebraska campus for wayward and abandoned youths.

Among them were James and Margaret Takahashi and their three children.

They joined the individuals and families escaping to Boys Town from prison-like internment camps. Flanagan offered dozens of families a place to live and work until the war’s conclusion. Some remained in Nebraska long after the war. Many used Boys Town as a stopover before World War II military service or moving to other American cities and towns, says Boys Town historian Tom Lynch.

Few outsiders knew Boys Town was a safe harbor for Nisei (the Japanese word for North Americans whose parents were immigrants from Japan) who lost their homes, livelihoods, and civil rights in the fear-driven, government-mandated evacuation of Japanese-Americans from the West Coast.

The oldest Takahashi child, Marilyn, was almost 6 when her family was uprooted from their Los Angeles home and way of life. Her gardener father lost his agricultural nursery.

“It was a very disruptive thing,” she recalls. “I was very upset by all of this. I can remember being confused and wondering what was going on and where are we going. I couldn’t understand all of it.”

She and her family joined hundreds of others in a makeshift holding camp at the Santa Anita Assembly Center, surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. Stables at the converted race track doubled as spare barracks. Food riots erupted.

By contrast, at Boys Town, the Takahashis were treated humanely and fairly, as the full citizens they were, with all the comforts and privileges of home.

“We felt welcomed and did not have fears about our environment. The German farmers nearby were friendly and kind,” remembers Marilyn Takahashi Fordney.

 

The Takahashis were provided their own house and garden within the incorporated village of Boys Town’s boundaries. James, father of the family, worked as the grounds supervisor. The children attended school. The family celebrated major holidays—including unforgettable, bittersweet Christmases—in freedom, but still far from home.

None of it might have happened if Maryknoll priest Hugh Lavery, at a Japanese-American Catholic parish in L.A., hadn’t written Flanagan advocating on behalf of his congregation then being relocated in camps. Flanagan recognized the injustice. He also knew the internees included working-age men who could fill his war-depleted employee ranks. He had the heart, the need, the facilities, and the clout to broker their release from the Civil Exclusions Order signed into law by President Franklin

Delano Roosevelt.

Helping identify “good fits for Boys Town” was Patrick Okura, who ended up there himself, Lynch says. “It sort of started a pipeline to help bring people out,” and Flanagan “eventually took people of all different faiths,” not just internees from the Catholic parish that started the effort. “People from that parish went to the camps, and they met other Japanese-Americans, and they started communicating about this opportunity at Boys Town to get out of the camps.”

During her family’s four-month camp confinement, Marilyn’s parents heard that the famous Irish priest in Nebraska needed workers. James sent a letter making the case for himself and his family to come.

“People could leave if they had somewhere to go,” Marilyn says. “Permission didn’t come right away. It took writing back and forth for several months. Then, when we were all about to be moved to Amache [Granada War Relocation Center] in Colorado, the head of our camp sent a telegram to the War Relocation Authority. He received a telegram back with the necessary permission. We were released to Boys Town Sept. 5, 1942.”

Boys Town became legal sponsor for the new arrivals.

“It was very radical helping these people,” Lynch says. “Father thought it was his duty because they were good American citizens who should be treated well. But it wasn’t universally accepted. What made Boys Town unique is that we were way out in the country, so we were our own little bubble. Visitors really wouldn’t see the internees much. The men worked the farm or grounds. The women tended house. The kids were in school. But they were there all throughout the village.”

A similar effort unfolded at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where 100-plus Nisei students continued their college studies after the rude interruption caused by the “evacuation.”

During her Boys Town sojourn, Marilyn first attended a nearby one-room public school. She later attended a school on campus for workers’ children taught by a Polish Franciscan nun. Besides the standard subjects, the kids learned traditional Polish folk dances and crafts.

The Takahashis started their new life in an old farmhouse they later shared with other arrivals. Then Boys Town built a compound of brick houses for the workers and their families. “Single men lived in a dormitory on campus,” Lynch says. “Boys Town didn’t host many single women because Father would find jobs for them in Omaha, where they would stay with families they worked for as domestics.”

From Santa Anita, the Takahashi patriarch was allowed to go to L.A. to retrieve his truck and what stored family belongings he could transport. James drove to Nebraska to meet Margaret and the kids, who went ahead by train.

Marilyn’s initial impression of Flanagan was of Santa Claus with a cleric’s collar: “Father came to meet us at the station. He had this big brown bag of candy. I will always remember that candy. It was so thoughtful of him to give us that special treat.”

According to the Takahashi family’s file in the archives of the Boys Town Hall of History, Margaret said she was taken by Flanagan’s humanity, that she “could feel this warmth. I’ve never felt that from another human being. He was so full of love that it radiated out of him.”

According to Lynch, Flanagan considered the newcomers “part of the family of Boys Town.” They could access the entire campus or go into town freely.

Leaving altogether, though possible, was not a realistic option.

“They could leave at any time, if they really wanted to, but there was nowhere to go [without authorization]. They would have been detained and returned,” he says.

Marilyn’s experience of losing her home and living in a camp was dreadful. Going halfway across the country to live at Boys Town was an adventure. Her fondest memories there involve Christmas.

“Christmas and midnight Mass was very special at Boys Town,” she says. “It was something we looked forward to. I will always remember getting bundled up to face the blizzard-like winds. My father would carry each one of us to the truck. We would head off in the dead of night in that blasted cold to get to the church, which was dark except for the altar lights. The boys would be in a long line in their white and black cassocks, with red bows, each holding a big lit candle. They would begin to sing and come down the main aisle. It was an awesome sight and a special experience. The choir was exceptional. There was always one singer with a high-pitched voice who did a solo. It was amazing.”

Father Flanagan and children during Christmastime

 

Flanagan is part of her holiday memories, she says, as “he always made a point to come to our Christmas plays, and we would always take a photograph with him.” For the resident boy population, Flanagan “played” Santa by visiting their apartments and handing out gifts.

“We were happy at Christmas,” Marilyn says. “In the farmhouse, my father would cut a pine tree and bring it in, and the decorations were handmade and hand-painted cones with popcorn strung. He always did the final placement of things so that it looked perfect. We had wonderful Christmas days even though it was difficult to get toys because many things were not available due to the war.”

She continues: “We built an ice rink and would skate in front of the farmhouse or in front of the brick house. We even made an igloo one time. It got so tall the adults came out to help us close the top with the snow blocks because we were too little to reach it.”

Weather always factored in.

“The summers were extremely hot and the winters so severely cold,” she says. “We had never experienced snow. That was a tremendous adjustment for my parents. But, as children, we delighted in it. We’d run out and eat the snow with jam and build snowmen.”

Marilyn recalls visiting Santa at J.L. Brandeis & Sons department store in downtown Omaha with its fabulous Christmas window displays and North Pole Toy Land.

The Takahashis were content enough in their new life that they arranged for family and friends to join them there. Marilyn and family remained in Omaha for two years after the war (and anti-Japanese hysteria) ended.

“Eventually, my parents decided they couldn’t withstand that cold, and we headed back to California in 1947,” she says.

They endured tragedy at Boys Town when Marilyn’s younger brother contracted measles and encephalitis, falling into a coma that caused severe brain damage. His constant care was a burden for the poor family.

Another motivating factor for the family to leave was the father’s desire to work for himself again.

Leaving Boys Town just shy of age 12 was hard for Marilyn.

“I was heartbroken because I loved the snow and cold and all my friends there,” she says. “I did not want to go to California and live three families to a house and struggle. I knew what was coming. I also had a pet cat I was sad to leave. My pet dog Spunky that Boys Town gave me had passed on.”

Her parents had also bonded with some of the resident boys, and with some adult workers and their families.

“We went by Father Flanagan’s residence to say farewell, and he came out to bless us and to bless the truck we drove to the West Coast,” she says.

As an adult, Marilyn shared her story with archivists just as her parents did earlier.

“We considered ourselves fortunate,” Margaret told interviewer Evelyn Taylor with the California State University Japanese American Digitization Project in 2003. (This article for Omaha Magazine merged excerpts from that oral history with original interviews conducted over the telephone and

e-mail correspondence.)

There are occasions when Marilyn’s internment past comes up in casual conversation. “It is amazing how few people know about this,” she says. “It is now mentioned in history books in schools, but it wasn’t for a long time.”

When she brings up her Boys Town interlude, she says, “It is always a surprise and I am asked many questions.”

The retired medical assistant, educator, and author now runs family foundations supporting youth activities. She credits her many accomplishments to what the wartime years took away and bestowed.

“The internment made me an overachiever. Because I was the eldest and experienced so much, I have become actually the strongest of the siblings,” she says. “Nothing can stop me from reaching my goals.”

Her late parents also felt that the experience strengthened the family’s resilience. Margaret said, “I think from then on we were very strong. I don’t think anything could get us down.”

The kindness shown by Boys Town to relieve their plight made a deep impact.

“We are forever grateful Father Flanagan hired my father to take care of the grounds,” Marilyn says, “because it enabled us to get out of that internment situation.”

She came to view what Flanagan did for her family and others who had been interned as a humanitarian “rescue.”

Then there were the scholastic and life lessons learned.

“A Boys Town education gives you the tools needed to succeed in life,” she says.

Even though discrimination continued after the war, the lessons she learned during the internment and the Boys Town reprieve emboldened her.

“I am grateful that I went through the experience because it made me who I am today,” she adds.

Internees were granted reparations by the U.S. government under the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. Marilyn received $20,000, and she gave it all away.

She divided the reparations money into equal parts for four recipients: two younger siblings who also grew up in poverty (but did not experience the internment camps of World War II), to create the Fordney Foundation (for helping future generations of ballroom dancers), and Boys Town.

Forty-four years after the Takahashis left their safe haven in Nebraska, Marilyn returned to Boys Town in 1991. During the visit, she made her donation to the place that gave her family a temporary home and renewed faith in mankind.

Uchiyamada and Takahashi families with Father Flanagan in March 1944

 

James Takahashi’s Letter to Father Flanagan

Soon after arriving at Santa Anita Assembly Center, James Takahashi learned that Father Flanagan was hiring individuals with certain skills to work at Boys Town.

James hand-wrote an appeal to Flanagan asking to be considered. He provided references. The priest wrote Takahashi back requesting more information, including how many were in his family, and checked his references, all of whom spoke highly of “Jimmy,” as he was called, in letters they sent Flanagan.

Here is the text of the original letter James wrote (references excluded):

Dear Father Flanagan,

Today in camp I heard that you are asking for some Japanese gardeners. I am very interested as I have been a gardener and nurseryman in Los Angeles for the past five years.

Just before the evacuation, I was gardener at St. Mary’s Academy in Los Angeles. I re-landscaped the grounds and put in several lawns.

I am 30 years old of Japanese ancestry but was born and educated in this country. I was converted to the Catholic faith by my wife, who is half Irish and half Japanese.

I studied soil, plants, insect control, and landscape architecture at Los Angeles City College, and am confident that I would be able to handle any gardening problem.

I would be so grateful if you would consider me for this position.

Very sincerely,

James Takahashi

Visit csujad.com for more information about the California State University Japanese-American History Digitization Project.

Visit boystown.org for more information about Boys Town.

This article was printed in the November/December 2018 edition of 60Plus in Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

 

Toshio “James” and Margaret Takahashi with their children at the Boys Town Farm, 1944

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Nebraska Screen Gems – “Boys Town” (1938)

September 24, 2018 Leave a comment

Screening-Discussion of 1938 Movie Classic “Boys Town” on Wednesday, October 10.

The first in the Nebraska Screen Gems class series held Wednesday evenings this fall. 

Offered by Metropolitan Community College Continuing Education. 

 

Join me for our first Screen Gems Made In Nebraska class at MCC’s North Express in the Highlander Accelerator. We’ll be screening and discussing the classic 1938 movie “Boys Town.” It represents the biggest movie event in our state’s history considering the major studio that made it, the mega stars who appeared in it,  the huge crowds that turned out for the world premiere in downtown Omaha, the business it did at the box office and the Oscar that Spencer Tracy won for his portrayal of Father Flanagan. Then there’s the priceless promotion the film gave the boys home.

 

Boys Town

 

MCC Continuing Education - Nebraska's photo.

OCT10

Nebraska Screen Gems – Boys Town

Public

Date: October 10, 2018

Meets: Wednesday from 5:45 PM to 8:45 PM

Location: MCC North Express 311, Highlander Accelerator

Registration Fee: $29.00

 

Register at: https://coned.mccneb.edu/…/ShowSchedule.awp?&…for…‎

 

For the entire Screen Gems Nebraska class series schedule, visit:

https://coned.mccneb.edu/ShowSchedule.awp?&…Title…

 

More information at:

https://www.facebook.com/events/170739783781160/

 

Finding the Essence of Omaha in All the Right Places Leads You to Obvious and Obscure Sites

June 28, 2012 5 comments

Whether you’re a Omaha resident who lives here year-round or part of the year, a native returning home, or a visitor here for the first or tenth time, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of some places to see and things to do in the metro.  I prepared the following list for the Omaha World-Herald a few years ago.  At least one of the attractions is now defunct (Project Omaha) and if I were making a new list today I would include some additional sites (including the House of Loom and TD Ameritrade Park).  The point is, it’s by no means a comprehensive list but more of a sampler of, as the headline says, some of the obvious and not so obvious sites to check out.

 

Mormon Trail Center

 

 

Finding the Essence of Omaha in all the Right Places Leads You to Obvious and Obscure Sites

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Omaha World-Herald

Loves Jazz & Arts Center

 

 

Loves Jazz & Arts Center
2510 No. 24th St., 502-5291
Steep yourself in Omaha’s rich African-American heritage through photographs, videos and other art/historical materials at this gem of a cultural center in the heart of the black community. See displays on the music and civil rights legacy of black Omaha. Catch lectures, panel discussions, poetry slams, live music jams, film screenings and other educational-entertainment programs.


Project Omaha
South High School
4519 So. 24th St., 557-3640
Reminiscent of a visit to grandma’s attic, this one-of-a-kind museum in a public school setting uses artifacts along with student-made videos, books, games and other resources to explore Omaha history, including the stockyards. The collection’s size and depth will impress. Note the Brandeis department store Xmas window mockup. Call 557-3640 for a visit or a guided tour of historic city sites.

 

 

Jewell Building

 

 

 

 

The Jewell Building
Omaha Economic Development Corp. offices
2221 No. 24th St.
This National Register of Historic Places and Omaha Landmark designee was home to the famed Dreamland Ballroom, hosting scores of jazz/blues performing legends and overflow dance crowds. Now the offices for the Omaha Economic Development Corp., the restored Georgian Revival building features a large photographic display of those halcyon Dreamland nights of Basie, Ellington and more. A North O shrine.

 

 

Nebraska Jewish Historical Society


 

 

The Nebraska Jewish Historical Society
Jewish Community Center
333 So. 132nd St., By appointment at 334-6441
Photographs and archival documents depict Jewish life in Omaha from the turn of the last century through today. Special collections highlight the Jewish American experience of local merchants, war veterans and figures of national prominence, including Henry Monsky and Rose Blumkin. Print/video interviews reveal an Omaha Jewish community that was once much larger but that remains vibrant.


Cathedral Cultural Center and the St. Cecilia Institute
St. Cecilia Cathedral campus
3900 Webster St., 551-4888
The history of Omaha’s Catholic archdiocese and its cornerstone edifice, St. Cecilia Cathedral, is revealed in artifacts, photos and interpretive panels. The life and work of Thomas Kimball, architect of the Spanish Renaissance worship site, is well-chronicled. The center, located just east of the church in midtown, presents temporary art exhibits, lectures, receptions and other programs. Free admission.

 

 

photo
Cathederal Cultural Center


 

 

El Museo Latino
4701 1/2 So. 25th St., 731-1137
National touring art exhibits complement a Latino Presence in Omaha section with photographs-narratives drawn from local community founders and elders. Listen to these pioneers’ oral history interviews in Spanish or English. Learn how the current Latino immigrant wave echoes earlier migrations in transforming Omaha. The El Museo Latino building was the former Polish Home and the original South High.


Durham Museum
801 So. 10th St., 444-5071
The former Union Station is a beautifully appointed, restored Art Deco railroad terminal now home to interactive Omaha history displays and major touring shows. The Smithsonian affiliate and National Register of Historic Places site exhibits train cars and engines and a model layout of downtown’s U.P. yards. Enjoy lectures, discussions and films. The Durham also holds the Bostwick-Frohart collection’s 8 X 10 view camera photos of early 20th century Omaha.

 

 

Durham Museum


 

 

Sokol South Omaha
2021 U St., 731-1065
Omaha’s ethnic enclaves celebrate their own and the Czech community is no different. Aside from the classic gymnastics program that’s part of any Sokol facility, this site maintains a museum featuring photographs and other memorabilia related to the nearby Brown Park neighborhood as well as local Sokol history, Czech traditions and leading Omaha Czechs. Tours by appointment at 731-1065.


Joslyn Castle
3902 Davenport St., 595-2199
Built on a 5.5 acre estate this ornate Gold Coast home of George and Sarah Joslyn reflects the grandeur of early Omaha. The John McDonald-designed 35-room Scottish Baronial castle, now being restored in all its splendor, features exquisite mosaic tiles, in-laid woodwork, a ballroom and a conservatory. A splendid backdrop for teas, receptions and dinners, the mansion’s an Omaha Landmark and National Register of Historic Places site. For tours and rentals, call 595-2199.


Joslyn Art Museum
24th and Dodge, 342-3300
Sarah Joslyn’s magnificent memorial to her entrepreneur husband, George, opened in 1931. Designed by John and Alan McDonald, with a 1994 Norman Foster addition, the stunning Art Deco temple showcases a comprehensive permanent collection. Enjoy exhibits, lectures, concerts, films and tours. The new sculpture garden provides a major new attraction. The pavilion atrium is a popular gathering spot.

 

 

joslyn-castle.jpg

Joslyn Castle

Joslyn Art Museum


 

 

Douglas County Historical Society
Metropolitan Community College Fort Omaha campus
30th and Fort
Library/Archives Center
451-1013
Discover a vast repository of history pertaining to the city of Omaha and to Douglas County through archived newspapers, clipping files, maps, plats, atlases, documents, diaries, letters, books, artifacts, photographs and audio visual materials. Located in Building 11A on the historic MCC Fort Omaha campus. Call 451-1013 to schedule research visits.

General Crook House Museum
455-9990
The restored 1879 Italianate quarters for Indian Wars campaigner Gen. George Crook includes Victorian era decorative arts, costumes and furnishings. Classes and a reference collection on the history/appreciation of antiques are available. Tea aficionado Mona Christensen hosts proper teas. Call 455-9990 to arrange tours or private functions. Located in Building 11B on the historic MCC Fort Omaha campus.

Gen. Crook House


 

 

Orsi’s Italian Bakery
621 Pacific St., 345-3438
It’s a bakery/pizzeria not a gallery but walls of family and neighborhood photos depict Omaha’s Little Italy section through the years, including Santa Lucia festivities, Mason School graduation classes and local Italian-American sports icons. Orsi’s is an anchor business in the trendy nouveau residential urban community emerging in this historic district south of the Old Market.


Omaha Central High School
124 North 20th St., 557-3300
Omaha’s oldest all-grades public school dates back to 1859 but the stately National Register of Historic Places building on Capitol Hill was completed in four phases from 1900 to 1912. John Latenser’s Renaissance Revival design included an open courtyard. This school known for academic rigor boasts many distinguished grads. Exterior markers note the school-site’s rich history. Call 557-3300 to arrange viewing interior displays.


The Omaha Star
2216 No. 24th St., 346-4041
Since 1938 the Omaha Star newspaper has carried the collective voice of the local African American community in calling for equal rights and decrying bias. A beacon of hope on North 24th Street, the Star was a mission for its late founder and publisher, Mildred Brown. The apartment she kept in back has been preserved just as she left it. The National Register of Historic Places building is undergoing restoration.


Boys Town Hall of History
132nd and Dodge, 498-1300
The story of this fabled American institution is told in audio, video, artifact displays. Learn how Rev. Edward Flanagan’s original home for boys grew into a childcare leader at satellite campuses across the nation. See how the school’s band, choir and athletic teams helped put Boys Town on the map. View the Oscar Spencer Tracy won portraying Flanagan in the 1938 movie, Boys Town. Marvel at the many notables who’ve visited the Omaha campus.

Orsi’s Italian Bakery
Omaha Central High School
The Omaha Star
Boys Town Hall of History

 

 

W. Dale Clark Library
215 So. 15th St., 444-4800
Omaha history can be found in hundreds of books and videos as well as in decades-worth of local newspapers on microfilm. Inquire about Omaha history talks.

Omaha Community Playhouse
6915 Cass St., 553-0800
The Omaha Community Playhouse represents a significant portion of local live theater history. The original site at 40th and Davenport is where legends Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire got their starts on stage. At the height of their stardom they returned for benefit performances of The Country Girl that raised money to construct the current Playhouse, which contains a collage of famed players who’ve trod the boards there.


Livestock Exchange Building
4920 So. 20th St.
For nearly a century the Omaha Stockyards and Big Four meatpacking plants ruled the roost. The hub for the booming livestock market was the 11-story Livestock Exchange Building, an example of Romanesque and Northern Italian Renaissance Revival design. The stockyards are gone but the National Register of Historic Places structure lives on as an apartment-office site. The grand ballroom still in use today. Historical monuments outside the building describe its lively past.


Ford Birthsite and Gardens
32nd And Woolworth Ave.
Markers and descriptive panels commemorate the birthsite of the 38th President of the United States, Gerald R. Ford, who was born Leslie King on July 14, 1913 in a Victorian style home at 3202 Woolworth Avenue in Omaha. The surrounding gardens in honor of former First Lady Betty Ford make the spot a popular choice for weddings, receptions and other events.

Gerald R. Ford Conservation Center
1326 So. 32nd St., By appointment at 595-1180
In addition to dedicated laboratories for examining, evaluating and conserving historical and art materials, the facility features a small exhibition on President Gerald R. Ford. The center’s state-of-the-art facilities include a microscopy laboratory and a digital imaging laboratory. There’s also a library of reference works on conservation and collections care.

Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame
Boys & Girls Clubs of Omaha, North Unit
2610 Hamilton St.,  North BGCOO 342-2300, NBSHF 884-1884
Until a permanent structure is built a wall of descriptive plaques honor Hall of Fame inductees, whose ranks rival that of any state athletic hall in the country. We’re talking history-makers in Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Gale Sayers, Ron Boone, Marlon Briscoe, Don Benning, Johnny Rodgers and many more. Looking at the names and achievements arrayed before you a story of staggering dimensions emerges.

Malcolm X Memorial Birthsite
3448 Pinkney St., 1-800-645-9287
The struggle to build a brick-and-mortar memorial to the slain activist is symbolized by the stark 10 acres of land the Malcolm X Foundation has been trying to develop for decades at his birthsite. Only a simple sign marks the spot. Paving stones lead to nowhere. A fence encloses an empty lot. Dreams for a visitors center, museum and plaza remain deferred. A most forlorn National Register of Historic Places site.

Prospect Hill Cemetery
3230 Parker St., 556-6057
Omaha’s oldest cemetery was founded in 1858 and is the internment site for many early city leaders, their familiar names still adorning streets and structures today. Some notorious figures also lie there. Often referred to as Omaha’s pioneer burial ground, Prospect Hill remains an active cemetery as well as a historic site open for visitation daily. A state historical marker describes its rich heritage. Free admission.

Gerald R. Ford Birthsite and Gardens
Prospect Hill Cemetery
photo
Malcolm X Memorial Foundation

 

 

Mormon Trail Center at Historic Winter Quarters
3215 State St., 453-9372
A heroic, tragic chapter of the Mormon Migration played out in what’s now north Omaha when thousands of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints spent the winter of 1846-1847 in an encampment. 325 died there. An audio-visual display details the struggles encountered in reaching this Winter Quarters, the camps’s harsh conditions and the arduous journey to the Salt Lake Valley. View a pioneer cabin, pull a handcart and visit the Mormon Pioneer Cemetery. Free admission.

Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Headquarters and Visitor Center
601 Riverfront Dr., 661-1804
Learn about the historic Corps of Discovery expedition led by famed explorers Lewis and Clark, including information about sites along the trail. A National Parks Service ranger can answer questions and help you plan a site trip. The Riverfront Books store offers an array of educational materials for sale that can enhance your experience on the trail.

Union Pacific Railroad Museum
200 Pearl St., Council Bluffs, (712) 329-8307
Artifacts, photos and interpretive panels chart the development of the transcontinental railroad and its role in helping pioneers settle the West. View displays about the heyday of passenger travel and innovations made by the nation’s largest railroad, Union Pacific, which is headquartered in Omaha. The museum’s housed in the Bluffs’ historic, newly restored Carnegie Library.


Historic General Dodge House
605 3rd St., (712) 322-2406
This restored 1869 Victorian home was the residence of Civil War veteran and railroad builder Gen. Grenville M. Dodge, a military, political, financial wheel whose counsel was sought by presidents. The 14-room, 3-story mansion commands a terrace view of the Missouri Valley. Note the exquisite woodwork and “modern” conveniences unusual for the period. The home is used for a variety of receptions and other events.

Western Historic Trails Center
3434 Richard Downing Ave., Council Bluffs, (712) 366-4900
Discover the history of four historic western trails — Lewis & Clark, Oregon, Mormon and California — through exhibits, sculptures, photographs and films at this State Historical Society of Iowa center designed and built by the National Park Service and local partners.

 

 

Union Pacific Railroad Museum

Bill Cosby Speaks His Mind on Education

May 17, 2012 3 comments

This is yet another story, the third by the way, that I wrote after my recent encounters with comedy legend Bill Cosby.  Here, he tells it like he sees it about the state of education in America.  Like many of us he has strong views on the topic and he isn’t afraid he will step on somebody’s toes from the weight of his celebrity when it comes to saying what he believes. Like what he says or not, he has a consistent message on the topic and has the courage of his convictions to keep right on talking even when there’s strong push-back from various quarters to some of what he states about schools, teachers, and parents.  Most of the quotes from Cosby came out of phone interviews I did with him.  The photos below came from a visit to his dressing room before his May 6 show in Omaha, where some visitors from Boys Town gave him another chance to sound-off on education and for me to record his comments and interaction with his guests.  It was a privileged opportunity to glimpse an intimate, off-the-cuff Cosby speaking his heart and his mind on things he cares deeply about.

 

 

©photo by Marlon Wright, mawphotography.net

 

 

Bill Cosby Speaks His Mind on Education

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

By now America’s accustomed to King of Comedy Bill Cosby turning serious about topics he usually mines humor from. Expressing his celebrity opinions he sometimes touches a nerve, as when he asserted “parenting is not going on” in poor inner city black homes during a 2004 NAACP speech.

The Reader got three doses of Cosby opining before his May 6 Omaha concert. In each he revealed different facets of himself. In a phone interview he recalled in his avuncular storyteller way his slacker youth in Philadelphia public housing projects and schools. How it took “a rude awakening” for the high school drop-out to become motivated to learn. A “kickoff” moment convinced him “yes, you can do.”

His transformation began in the U.S. Navy, where he earned his GED. At Temple University a professor encouraged his talent as a comic writer, reading his work aloud in class to appreciative laughter.

“Had it not been for the positive influence of this professor, without him reading that out loud and my hearing the class laugh, who knows, I may be at this age a retired gym teacher, well loved by some of his students.”

Emboldened, Cosby left school short of graduating to pursue his stand-up career, certain, he says, “I was on track with what I wanted to do.” He famously returned to complete his bachelor’s degree and to earn his master’s and Ed.D in education.

He became “a born again, want-to-be-a-teacher.” No wonder then he’s made education a subject for his advocacy and critique. His strong views don’t make him an expert. He doesn’t claim to be one. And, to be fair, The Reader asked him to weigh-in on the topic for a second phone interview. He gladly did, too, only this time going off on a rail.

Two weeks later in his Orpheum Theater dressing room he addressed child rearing and education with a captive audience of fans, friends and media. When he gets on a roll like this he’s equal parts storyteller and lecturer, blustery one moment, nostalgic the next, probing and cajoling, his mischievous inner-child never far away.

To some, he’s a voice of old school wisdom and tough love. To others, an out-of-touch relic. No matter how you feel about his straight talk, it’s clear he’s concerned about education. His words carry weight because he’s fixed in the collective conscience as America’s father from The Cosby Show (1986-1994) and all the family routines he’s done in concerts, on albums, et cetera.

So when Cosby proclaims, as he did to The Reader, “In education, things are broken,” you listen. He believes the brokenness is systemic. “However,” he adds, “there are paradigms and they are not secrets. Paradigms meaning they work, they are accessible, you can look at them, and they don’t cost super extra money. Because it has been proven that to teach and to make interesting to the students all you need is a good teacher and all that teacher needs is a good principal and all that good principal needs is a good superintendent.”

“And they can work on a dirt floor, given students who every year come in perhaps disliking school, perhaps ill-mannered, and still get students to learn,” he says. “These people who can teach –  and I don’t mean the ones who win awards, I mean teachers who can teach, who want to teach – are being held back on purpose by rules in the system. Many of these rules have to do with piling on what’s in the practicum, in the technical aspects of it, not giving the teacher enough time because there are sayings like, ‘If the student fails, then we fail.’

“In my eyes and ears there are too many people who don’t care and they need to go and the people who can work it need to teach…because this United States of America is being talked about in terms of not being what it used to be and that’s an embarrassment.”

Cosby was just getting started.

“Some people can’t teach and don’t know how, they don’t have an inventive bone in their body and they just need to get another job some place, and I won’t embarrass the people by saying what kind of jobs they should have.

“But if you care, if you care about these children and you want to be a teacher and you want to be a principal and you want to be an administrator, a superintendent, then I advise you go to college, get ready to demonstrate, get ready to call out every ill-positioned person…They can’t forever get away with this.

“I am appalled because I feel the grownups who are in charge really don’t understand how they’re ruining our future adults and they at times have not been taught well how to teach.”

 

 

©photo by Marlon Wright, mawphotography.net

 

 

Then he got around to youth not being supervised and supported at home. How many teachers are unprepared to deal with the issues kids present. Some of those same kids end up as truants, dropouts, functional illiterates, even criminals.

“Many times the teacher may represent the only reasonable thing in life this child will see or feel. Without an education we send more kids out to the street alone because many of them don’t have proper parenting at home. Education happens to be, along perhaps with the church and some programs, the difference between a kid committing a crime, hurting someone, and getting the idea that I would like to read, I would like to write, I would like to know how to figure things out, I would like to see more than just the neighborhood I live in.”

A failed education, he says, can be measured in lowered earnings, welfare payouts and the costs to incarcerate criminal offenders.

“It would seem to me taxpayers would be in arms to say, ‘We want better education, we demand better education for our children'” to help youth become productive, contributing citizens.

He admits he doesn’t have “remedies.” He does call for “activism” by parents, educators, private enterprise and public policymakers to give schools the resources they need and replicate what works.

Cut to his dressing room, where Boys Town family teachers Tony and Simone Jones brought nine youths in their charge, including their two sons. “You live with them?” asked Cosby. “Why? You were not drafted to look after these boys. OK, then tell me, why are you living there with them?”

“Because we feel it’s our responsibility to take care of the kids, not only our own youth but youth in society,” Simone said.

“But what made that a responsibility for you? They’re not your children,” he pressed.

Tony said, “Mr. Cosby I’ll answer just very simply: My mom passed when I was 12 years old, and I went to Boys Town to live…” Cosby erupted with, “Oh, really! Now you’re starting to tell me stories, you see what I’m talking about (to the boys), you guys understand me? Huh?” Several boys nodded yes. “The story is coming, huh? What did Boys Town do for him?” Cosby asked. One boy said, “Helped him out, gave him a place to stay.” Another said, “Gave him a second chance.”

“Well, more than a second chance,” Cosby replied. “it took care of him,” a boy offered. “And made him take care of himself…and that’s why he’s living with you now – he’s trying to build you.”

Noting “the hard knock life” these kids come from, he said youth today confront different challenges than what he faced as a kid.

“When I was coming up we didn’t have Omaha, Neb. ranked high in teenage boys murdering each other. Am I making sense? We didn’t have the guns being placed in our neighborhoods. We had guys who made guns…but now we have real guns and good ones too. It’s in the home.”

Where there are caring adults and good opportunities kids make good choices.

“The idea is where are these boys coming from and what places they may have to get to. We’ve got to do more with fellows like these for them to do shadowing…in hospitals, in factories, in businesses, so that these young males begin to understand what they can do.”

Cosby told Tony and Simone he can see “the joy of these boys knowing that you guys care.”

“It’s about showing them the possibilities,” Simone told him.

Cosby knows all about the difference a teacher’s encouragement can make.

Before seeing his guests out, Tony and Simone got a private moment with Cosby. She says, “He pulled us aside and told us, ‘You really need to push children hard to get them to do what they should do. You can’t let them slide. Sometimes you have to make a choice for them.’ We appreciated his words of advice and wisdom.”

Meeting the legend, she says, “was a remarkable experience,” adding, “He was really concerned with our kids and what we do. I know every kid that was there took away something that’s magical that they’ll hold with them for the rest of their lives.”

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.”

Sun reflection: Revisiting the Omaha Sun’s Pulitzer Prize-winning expose of Boys Town

April 28, 2011 11 comments

I remember when the Omaha Sun Newspapers’ investigative report of Boys Town’s finances came out in 1972 my very Catholic mother and my similarly persuaded maternal aunts took it as a low down, dirty attack against “our Boys Town.”  The Father Flanagan established youth care center has always been synonymous with the Catholic Church or at least seen as a Catholic institution, which in fact it has been for its entire life, always with a Catholic priest at its head and traditionally with the local archdiocese and archbishop as its ultimate authority. The story‘s major revelation was that Boys Town still portrayed itself as a poor, humble, perpetually in debt, and on the verge of closing home for boys when in fact it had accumulated a vast fortune through a systematic fundraising apparatus that kept right on churning out teary letters asking for donations — by the tens of million a year –and  taking in millions of dollars above and beyond what it cost to operate the place. Boys Town did not share this bounty with anyone and didn’t want anyone to know about it.  There’s no doubt the story spurred changes at Boys Town, just as there’s no doubt Boys Town is a very different organization today than it was then — now boasting multiple locations around the country and doing business in a very transparent manner.  As for the weekly Sun, which was owned by Warren Buffett at the time, it went out of business a little more than a decade after winning the Pulitzer Prize for the Boys Town investigative report.  The following piece I wrote for The Reader (www.thereader.com) takes a look at that report and, in effect, the story behind the story.

NOTE: Also on this blog see my profile of Stan Lipsey titled “Buffett’s Newspaper Man.”   Lipsey is back in Omaha for the 2011 Berkshire Hathaway shareholders confab and for an exhibition of his photography at KANEKO. He’s also participating in a panel discussion at KANEKO about a life of creativity in business.  For more on KANEKO, see my story titled “Open Minds.”

Of course, Warren Buffett and Berkshire are much in the news these days because of the scandal involving David Sokol, the once heir apparent to Buffett as head of Berkshire.

 

 

AppleMark

Warren Buffett, left, and Stan Lipsey at the Omaha Sun in the 1970s.

 

Sun reflection: Revisiting the Omaha Sun’s Pulitzer Prize-winning expose of Boys Town

©by Leo Adam Biga

As seen in the The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

When readers picked up their March 30, 1972 issue of the weekly Sun Newspaper, they could hardly believe their eyes.

The small but enterprising paper with multiple neighborhood editions had called out a venerable Omaha institution, Boys Town, in crusading journalistic fashion terms. No crime was alleged, but rather the violation of a public trust.

A front page headline asked accusingly, “Whatever happened to Father Flanagan’s dream?” That was followed by the stark declaration, “Boys Town: 700 boys with $209 million.” Thus the Sun set the incredulous tone and exploited the shocking results of a special eight-page report inside provocatively titled, “Boys Town, America’s wealthiest city?”

The subhead, “Give an account of thy stewardship,” was a Biblical admonition for a quasi-Catholic organization that cried poverty in syrupy mass donation appeals each Christmas, while hoarding a fortune no one was supposed to know about or, if they did, question.

Some movers and shakers were prominent characters in the story and in the story behind the story. Sun owner Warren Buffett pointed to the records that revealed Boys Town’s “hidden” assets. Publisher Stan Lipsey supported the investigation. Managing editor Paul Williams masterminded and ran it.

The power behind Boys Town lay with Monsignor Nicholas Wegner and Omaha Archbishop Daniel Sheehan. Aged civic-social leaders comprised a rubber-stamp board.

The Sun’s ambitious owner and brash newspaper took to task an organization grown fat, smug and out of touch with the times and its constituencies. Wegner, who succeeded Boys Town’s iconic founder, was still steeped in Depression-era thinking. During much of Fr. Flanagan’s tenure the home did struggle, but after the 1938 MGM movie Boys Town, donations sharply increased, particularly after fundraising pioneer Ted Miller designed a massive, frighteningly effective direct mail campaign.

Pleas for money continued even as fortunes swelled. Making matters worse, Boys Town did little with its wealth after a 1948 building project. It shelved new initiatives and rejected best practices, effectively standing still, stuck in time.

The Sun implied Boys Town betrayed Flanagan’s mission by staying mired in outdated attitudes and methods. Buffett would later write, “We reported the extraordinary contrast between decreasing services and mounting wealth.”

The story won the Sun seven national awards, including a 1973 Pulitzer Prize for local investigative specialized reporting, the same year the Washington Post’s Watergate series took the Pulitzer for Public Service. The papers earlier swapped in the same categories at the national journalism society, Sigma Delta Chi, awards.

More importantly, the Sun’s probing coverage compelled an organization that after Flanagan’s death in 1948 behaved like an imperious empire, paralyzed in what Williams termed “institutional inertia,” to enact long overdue reforms.

Today’s Boys Town hardly resembles that fossilized institution. Its entire methodology of youth care has been transformed. Boys Town is now recognized as a national leader in parenting and child speech-hearing impairment research and treatment.

The Sun was the liberal, plucky alternative to the conservative, timid Omaha World-Herald. Under Williams, the paper previously won awards for covering Omaha environmental issues and Omaha Transit Company irregularities. Boys Town, however, was a bigger target. While the report did the Sun no harm financially, the paper lost its edge when Williams left a couple years later. In 1980, Buffett sold it to a Chicago publisher. After an anti-trust suit against the World-Herald, the Sun disbanded in 1983.

Nearly 40 years since the story shook Boys Town’s foundation, The Readerspoke to key players who worked on the project.

Doug Smith, the youngest, least experienced member of the reporting team Williams assembled, says the irascible editor was the driving force behind “Project B.”

“Paul wanted that big recognition, he wanted that big prize … and he really went after it.

“I think he knew this was going to be the biggest story of his career, or not. I thought, maybe we all thought — he’s obsessed with this thing. When we got the announcement we won the Pulitzer one of the guys said, ‘Ahab has his whale.’ Paul was a great leader on this project. He did bring it home.”

“The story was really there for the taking by somebody with energy and enterprise, and that’s what Paul Williams had,” says Randy Brown, hired as associate managing editor just as the Sun launched the investigation. “He was the brains.”

As the team dug into the reality behind the carefully cultivated Boys Town facade, it became clear the wary institution was paranoid for a reason.

“I felt the story was really justified,” says Smith.

He and his colleagues knew the heart-tugging letters Boys Town sent out suggesting the boys would go hungry without donations were pure hokum.

“I’d say an unethical appeal considering they were sitting on a lot of money,” he says.

Team member Wes Iversen, the Sun business editor, was dismayed Boys Town made it appear “as though the wolf were at the door when they had a big pile of money they were doing nothing with.”

In the end, Boys Town was its own worst enemy.

“It was a case of they had lost their way, their mission,” says Smith. “It was the story of an American institution that had gone off track.”

When Smith asked Boys Town post office officials how much mail went through to try and gauge the scope of fundraising efforts, a reluctant staffer was quoted saying: “The reason they won’t let me give out the amount of postal receipts is because people will get everything misconstrued.”

It turned out up to 50 million appeal letters went out per year. The volume suggested a cash cow system returning huge revenues.

Boys Town officials repeatedly made ill-advised statements that came back to haunt them. In classic investigative fashion Smith and photographer Len Cook burst in on its secret direct mail apparatus, housed in a downtown building, to find 125 women typing the appeal letters and a flustered fundraising director trying to hush it up.

The Sun quoted the director as saying, “Please don’t mention this in your article. It’s so easy for the public to get the wrong idea. People will think we’re rich.”

Smith recalls Boys Town as remarkably unsavvy then in handling press inquiries. “At that time they were not equipped to handle this kind of assault by journalists,” he says.

Ironically, Flanagan had been a genius at promotion. He invited Hollywood to make two feature films on Boys Town. He cooperated with newsreels, he did national radio broadcasts, he toured the home’s band and football team nationwide, he made speaking appearances across the country and he welcomed celebrities to the campus.

By the early ’‘70s the cautious Wegner isolated Boys Town, making it an island cut-off from the world.

Bulldog reporter Mick Rood interviewed Wegner and caught him in several untruths, including the assertion Boys Town was in debt. Even when confronted by the facts, Wegner and, in a separate interview, Sheehan indicated the fundraising would continue unabated. Business as usual. The arrogant dismissal of serious questions, such as when would enough money be enough, made everything Boys Town said suspect.

“When you as a reporter or newspaper discover that,” says Rood, “that makes you want to dig. It makes you forget for a little while that the poor monsignor was in very poor health, it makes you forget that some people wouldn’t like the story because people don’t need to be deceived like that. That’s the motivation right there.”

For that interview, Rood was armed with sensitive, though public record documents that delineated the true picture of Boys Town’s finances. Buffett had informed the Sun team of a federal tax statement, Form 990, that nonprofits were required to file. He had to file one for his own foundation and it dawned on him Boys Town did, too. It took much wrangling and waiting to pry a copy from the Internal Revenue Service. When all 100 pages arrived the scope of the holdings stunned the team. Boys Town stocks, bonds, properties, though undervalued, gave it a net worth exceeding Omaha’s largest bank, and an endowment surpassing all but a few universities nationwide.

“I didn’t know quite what to think of it because the numbers were enormous,” says Brown. “It was jaw dropping.”

Iversen says it was “a money machine.”

Until those documents were secured, the team had only been able to speculate about Boy’s Town’s riches. With the hard numbers in hand, all was exposed.

“This was the whole kit and caboodle,” says Rood.

The surviving team members readily credit Buffett with giving them the golden egg that pushed the project over the top.

“Without that it would have been a good story, but not a Pulitzer story,” says Lipsey.

CoverOmahaSun2.jpg

Omaha Sun Newspapers newsroom ©Provided by Randy Brown

 

Buffet also helped the Sun analyze the Boys Town treasure chest.

“I worked with Warren compiling the numbers, making sure they added up, getting all the details straight, ready for publication,” says Brown. “And he insisted on double checking everything. We knew we were taking on an institution that’s beloved in the community and he didn’t want any mistakes — not 25 cents in the wrong column.”

Rood says Williams was methodical planning assignments and supervising their execution: “He made very thorough outlines … very detailed things, so we were all well aware of what we were supposed to be doing. It was also a way to make you accountable. I mean, if it was written down there you better have done it. There was no excuse. You had to have made that call you said you were going to make.

“We worked separately most all of the time. We had periodic meetings to compare notes. It was a very disciplined operation — one you wouldn’t expect from such a small paper. He was the best editor I ever worked for, ever will work for, and a good friend.”

Brown says, “everything was reread and reedited,” adding, “It was a grind.”

Iversen recalls months of slogging away, interspersed by occasional euphoria.

“A lot of it is just hard, heavy-duty grunt work,” he says. “At that time we had no easy way to check things. It’s just a lot of legwork, a lot of looking things up in books in libraries and county offices and you name it, running around checking various places and trying to piece things together. At times it could seem like drudgery, at other times when we would get a major insight everybody would say, Ah-ha, now we see where this is headed and we’ve made a breakthrough here.

“It was really heady times.”

Some intrigue did attend the story. Though the stakes were much different from the Post’s Watergate coverage, the Sun had its own Deep Throat in Claude Organ, a reform-minded Boys Town board member. Buffett met with Dr. Organ about the project and the surgeon-educator steered the Sun in the right direction.

“Everything was closely held,” says Rood. “We were more than sworn to secrecy.”

Warren Buffett

During the investigation’s last few weeks Williams took the precaution of the team working out of his home’s basement rec room for fear of losing the story to the Herald. Rood says a defensive Boys Town came to suspect the story was more than the routine historical piece the Sun painted it as. When the report broke, no one at Boys Town was prepared for its all-encompassing depth. The expose laid Boys Town bare.

Much more could have been published, team members say.

The Sun did many follow-ups over the next year and beyond as Boys Town changed its administration and board, opened the campus to consultants, replaced its warehousing of youth with a home-family model and developed new facilities and programs.

In 1974 a desperate Boys Town, still reeling from the fallout from the story, which went national and spawned new stories, hired Omaha PR man Bill Ramsey to help repair its tarnished image. It took time, but things turned around by the late 1970s-early 1980s.

Current Boys Town spokesperson Kara Neuverth says the institution did act on the reported misalignment of net worth and youth services:

“We listened to that feedback regarding some fund raising practices. What I can tell you about this organization today is that we are transparent and we pride ourselves on our experience. For an organization to remain at the forefront it must adjust its practices to stakeholder input, changing times, and new knowledge — just as we did 40 years ago. That is the lesson learned.”

The Sun investigative team scattered to the far winds. The shared Pulitzer opened doors for Rood, Iversen, Brown and Smith. Paul Williams left to teach at Ohio State. He also co-founded IRE, Investigative Reporters and Editors, and wrote a book before his untimely death. Publisher Stan Lipsey went on to head the Buffalo News for Buffett.

The story solidified Buffet’s long-held interest in newspapers — he soon acquired a major share of the Washington Post — and confirmed for him their vital role in a free society. In a letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders he wrote the Sun’s achievement “vividly illustrated that size need not be equated with significance in publishing.”

The Changing Face of Boys Town and its Finances

The following sidebar appears in the print edition of The Reader but not in the Web edition:

©by Leo Adam Biga

In 1972 you had to be a member of the Boys Town inner circle to see its balance sheet. Or, as in the case of the Sun Newspapers, you had to know about a new and therefore obscure tax form filing that required nonprofits to report their financials. Even then, it took the Sun time and expense to obtain the public records, documents and figures Boys Town dearly wanted to suppress.

Today, due in part to the Sun’s disclosures of Boys Town’s worth, the law requires nonprofits to be much more transparent about their assets.  The same information the Sun had to go to some lengths to get 40 years ago, anyone with access to a computer can easily and freely obtain today with a few keystrokes or mouse clicks.

In 2009, Boys Town, which now has a national reach, reported $1 billion in assets, $810 million in the Father Flanagan’s Fund for Needy Children (the institution’s endowment) and $122 million in liabilities for a net worth of $903 million. Five to six percent of the endowment supports annual operations.

Boys Town reports nearly 90 percent of every dollar received is spent on child care.

Charity Navigator awarded it a four-star rating for sound fiscal management. Boys Town’s accountability has earned it recognition as a Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance accredited charity. These are all signs of how the organization does business very differently now compared to when the Sun rattled its cage.

Redemption, A Boys Town Grad Tyrice Ellebb Finds His Way

July 6, 2010 5 comments

Go! Victory

Image via Wikipedia

When I met Tyrice Ellebb about a decade ago he was a young man who had turned his life around in a dramatic way through the aid of many caring individuals and institutions, including Boys Town, but he was also reeling from leaving the powerhouse University of Nebraska at Omaha wrestling program, where he achieved much.  He had personal matters to attend to that in his mind at least took precedence over collegiate athletics, even though he was a key cog for a team poised to win a national title.  He was also a very good football player.  He felt bad about the way things worked out but as my story makes clear the people you may have thought he most disappointed were still in his corner.  I lost contact with Tryice after the story but I understand he did get things together in his life and I know he’s excelled at indoor professional football.  This story originally appeared in the Omaha Weekly, a paper that is no more, and I offer it here as another example of the kind of sports writing I like to do.

 

Redemption, A Boys Town Grad Finds His Way

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Omaha Weekly

 

As the No.1-ranked UNO wrestling team enters the stretch-run in its national championship hunt, the man who should be holding down the heavyweight spot for the Mavericks is no where to be seen. Senior Tyrice Ellebb, projected as a strong title contender, left the team this winter after the latest in a series of personal crises sent him reeling. A sweet, soft-spoken goliath who loves to dance, Ellebb was at his best when he bounced around the mat to the beat of whatever song was in his head. Sadly, he has had his last dance in a UNO uniform.

At only 23, the massive Ellebb (he stands 6’3 and his weight hovers around 300 pounds) has weathered a topsy-turvy life that’s found him both on the side of the angels and the devils. Growing up on Chicago’s south side, he ran with the notorious Gangster Disciples. Looking to escape his hometown’s mean streets, he followed four uncles to the former Boys Town, where he won election as mayor. While he flourished in the nurturing Boys Town setting and, later, in the family-like UNO wrestling program, he also made some bad choices along the way, including fathering three children — all out of wedlock. Still, he applied himself in high school and developed into a standout football player and wrestler — winning two state heavyweight championships (pinning all his opponents as a senior).

Possessing great size, agility and quickness, he was courted by Nebraska and Kansas State as a walk-on gridiron prospect. When he did not qualify academically he signed with Iowa Central Community College, where he twice garnered junior college All-America honors and earned an associate’s degree. At UNO he fought homesickness, endured the death of a dear aunt and worked with teammates and coaches in managing his complicated life. Although an acknowledged leader on and off the mat, Ellebb’s frequent missed practices and late arrivals were distractions. Allowances were made, but it never seemed enough. “We demand a lot here in our program and it was hard for him to get all that together. We tried to be flexible and to give him some leeway, but you can only do so much,” UNO Head Coach Mike Denney said.

 

 

Mike Denney

 

Despite the distractions, Ellebb proved a force to be reckoned with by winning the North Central Conference heavyweight crown and finishing a solid fourth at last year’s NCAA Division II tournament. Heading into this season he was seen as the linchpin of a dominant UNO squad tabbed as odds-on favorites for the team title. After working so hard and overcoming so much, this was going to be his year. Then, last December, it all came crashing down around him and his dreams of glory vanished. His story can be seen as both an object lesson in overcoming the odds and a cautionary tale of taking on too much-too soon.

To understand just how far he came, one must understand that for the longest time this product of a broken home appeared headed for prison or a violent death — the fate of several friends he hung out with as a youth. Even though his mother, Sharon, was a security officer, she almost found out too late his gangbanging was threatening to destroy him the way it already had one of her brothers. There were street fights, drug dealings, gunshots, threats and reprisals. Through it all, Ellebb avoided incarceration, completed school and remained close to his family.

“I was letting the streets get to me. You always had to worry about looking behind your back. Somebody always wanted to take you out because they wanted your name. It’s just crazy. It got to the point where in my head I felt I needed to kill somebody if people bothered me,” he said.

It took the senseless death of a family friend who was like a favorite uncle for him to rethink the gangster life. “Two rival gangs were involved in something stupid and a gun went off and it instantly killed him. That kind of tore me up real bad. That made me understand I didn’t need to be involved in gangs anymore. I needed to get away before they beat me or before I wouldn’t see my next birthday.”

When his mother found out she was losing him to the streets she promptly saw him off on the next train to Boys Town, where other wayward men in the family had found refuge. “I listened to her and I’m glad I made that choice to come here. I accomplished a lot at Boys Town,” he said. There, he came under the influence of teacher-coach Don Bader, who said, “Tyrice had a lot of issues. He needed a lot of work. But he got on the right track. He’s a great kid.” These days, when Ellebb visits his old stomping grounds in Chicago, he finds little changed. “My friends are still doing the same thing. The only thing different is everyone is older. When I go back there I’m like, ‘God, I’m glad I left there.’ I couldn’t picture myself being that way now. When I tell people, ‘I used to be a thug,’ they say, ‘I couldn’t see you that way.’ And I go, ‘Yeah, I know, I changed. I made myself change.’” UNO’s Denney said despite the baggage Ellebb carries, “he has a lot of good in him.”

Prior to his latest troubles Ellebb’s commitment to wrestling waned at various times, but he always rededicated himself. With the birth of his third child last year, however, his passion lagged. Soon, he fell behind in his classes and was declared academically ineligible the first semester. The only action he saw offered a vivid display of his inner turmoil when, for the only time in his wrestling career, he was disqualified after throwing a punch at an opponent who earlier elbowed him.

According to Ellebb, “When that happened, I said to myself, ‘I can’t do this right now. I need to get my head together.’ Coach Denney told me to work through it. He chose for me not to wrestle the following weekend, but sitting out didn’t help. A lot of stuff was going wrong then. It just started piling up so fast.” The final straw was when his beloved grandmother, Anne, who helped raise him, was stricken with cancer. “She’s the backbone of our family. She keeps us together. She’s the only person I can talk to. She’s the one who makes me keep striving to do right. When I found out about my grandmother being sick, it was more than I could handle.”

Overwhelmed, he retreated into a cocoon. “I was struggling with myself. I just stayed away from everyone. I wasn’t talking to anyone. I felt I was going to have a nervous breakdown.” Finally, on December 15, he left Omaha for Chicago to be with his family. His departure caused him to miss some final exams, resulting in two incompletes. By re-enrolling this semester as a full-time student, he unwittingly used up any remaining eligibility. No matter, Ellebb had already decided he could not continue wrestling. “I felt (quitting) this was probably the best thing for me and for the team because I couldn’t wrestle to my potential if my head and heart wasn’t in it,” he said. His decision has caused him anguish. “I hate that I’m not part of the team now and not out there trying to help them win the national championship. If things didn’t fall out like they did and if I didn’t make my load as heavy it was, I’d probably still be part of it.” Perhaps his biggest regret is abandoning the team without formally giving his coaches or teammates an explanation. “They deserve to hear something,” he acknowledges.

During Ellebb’s tailspin Coach Denney said he tried contacting him but could not reach him. “I made attempts to find out what was happening. I even tried to contact some of the people he hangs with, but I could tell he was drifting away from us. I could sense as early as last summer he was struggling again and I tried to be really positive with him. But we just didn’t seem to be able to create enough positive power to hold him. The negative forces just kind of overwhelmed him.”

In gauging how much Ellebb’s absence hurts, Denney said, “Certainly, we miss him. We miss what he could have contributed. We were counting on him. The Lord blessed him with a lot of talent. We went from a senior who, in my mind, was the frontrunner to win a national championship to a redshirt freshman, (Lance Tolstedt). Losing all the experience Tyrice had and all the work and time we put into him is a huge impact on our team.”

To a man, Ellebb’s former teammates say they feel no bitterness. Instead, there is frustration and empathy. For 125-pounder Mack LaRock, Ellebb’s departure “was a big disappointment because we know how much stronger he made our team, but we also realize all the different problems and situations he has in life. He did let us down, but I can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same thing if I was in his shoes. There’s no really hard feelings. Tyrice made his bed and he has to lie in it now.”

Perhaps the most disappointing thing to those who care about Ellebb is that so much effort went into his athletic success that stopping short now seems a waste. Then there is the fact wrestling provided a sometimes uncertain young man a structure and stability he often could not find elsewhere. “Being part of our team gave him a positive force that could really help him, but when he’s away from that he gets into these other forces that aren’t so positive,” Denney said.

As for himself, Ellebb looks forward to making amends with his former UNO comrades and taking care of business with his family. “I have all my priorities in order now and the main ones are being a part of my children’s lives and finishing school. People tell me I’m a good person. I’m just trying to find that person in me and to do what I’m supposed to be doing in life.”

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