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The Silo Crusher: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Trev Alberts

August 27, 2016 2 comments

Full disclosure: When the University of Nebraska at Omaha unceremoniously dropped the school’s highly successful football and wrestling programs five years ago, I took out my disappointment and frustration in some posts that might have read like rants. The posts were not written as a journalist trying to be objective but as a UNO grad, former UNO sports information staffer and lifelong Omaha resident who had grown close to both programs through my work as a journalist. My posts were my personal opinion and presented as such. The only time I wrote anything about those events in my role as a journalist was in a New Horizons cover story I did on Mike Denney in the immediate aftermath of it all. My siding with Denney definitely bled over into the story and I make no apologies for that because it was a passionate and honest response to a traumatic severing. My sympathies were entirely with Denney and I let him have his say, though he was actually quite tame in his comments, even though he was deeply hurt by what happened. I do regret not getting athletic director Trev Alberts and chancellor John Christensen to comment for the story, though I think I tried. If I didn’t, well then that’s my bad. As fate would have it, I was recently assigned to do a piece on the state of UNO athletics five years after those events and this time around the assignment called for me to tell the story from UNO’s point of view, which meant interviewing Alberts and Christensen. I must say that after talking to those two men, particularly Alberts, I have a mcuh better appreciation and understanding of why the deicison to eliminate the two sports was made and just how wrenching it was for them to make. I believe the rationale they lay out today is more telling than what they communicated then, but that may be a function of my not wanting to hear what they said before. I am sharing here the new story that I did for Omaha Magazine  (http://omahamagazine.com/). It’s featured in the Sept/Oct 2016 issue.

 

TrevAlberts1

The Silo Crusher

Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Trev Alberts

August 26, 2016
©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Illustration by Matt Wieczorek
Appearing in the Sept/Oct 2016 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

The story of athletics at the University of Nebraska at Omaha has fluctuated from wild success to heartbreak (and back). All-Americans, post-season runs, and national title traditions collided with mismanagement and sparse spectator attendance.

Then a fresh Maverick joined the fray. Trev Alberts—one of the most decorated defensive players in the history of Huskers football and a former ESPN anchor—took the mantle of UNO’s athletic director in April of 2009.

Tensions bubbled behind the scenes. Chronic budget shortfalls clashed with fractious booster relations. Although new to his administrative role, Alberts knew enough about balance sheets and group dynamics to recognize systemic disarray and dysfunction. “We were in trouble and we needed to find some solutions,” he says.

The current academic year marks five years since Alberts dismantled UNO’s beloved wrestling and football programs. Alberts looks back on his crucial decisions without regrets. But the “solutions” didn’t come easily. In 2011, the former football star had to cut the sport that defined his own athletic career.

He saw that the financial equation for UNO’s splintered athletic programs no longer worked. A struggling Division I hockey program could not prop up the remaining Division II programs. Even with a hefty university subsidy, low athletic revenue painted a bleak picture amidst rising costs.

UNO’s bold response was to transition its entire athletic program to Division I by joining the Summit League in 2011. Because the conference does not accommodate wrestling or football, those two sports had to go.

News broke with awkward timing. Maverick wrestlers had just clinched the Division II national championship for the third straight year. A few hours after their victory, UNO Athletics began reaching out to notify celebratory wrestling coaches of the grim news.

Public rancor ensued. Coaches and student-athletes of the winning programs were left adrift. History, however, has proven the difficult decisions were healthy for the university and its athletics department.

Alberts found a key ally in chancellor John Christensen. The man who had initially recruited Alberts promoted him to vice chancellor in 2014, thus giving athletics a seat at UNO’s executive leadership table. “There needs to be absolute integration and now we have internal partnership, collaboration,” says Christensen.

Five years have passed. Athletics programs are stable. Sport teams no longer operate in silos. Alberts dismantled the barriers to build a strong overall athletic department: “When I got here, it appeared we had 16 different athletic departments,” he says. “There was no leadership. We hated campus. The mindset was the university leadership were out to get us, didn’t support us, didn’t understand us. The athletic department would blame the university; the university would blame the athletic department. 

“Strategically, my job was to get on the same page as part of the university team. I asked John Christensen to define his goals. He said community engagement, academic excellence, and (being) student-centered. I had to explain to staff everything we do is going to try to help the university advance its goals and every decision we make, if it isn’t student-centered and doesn’t support academic excellence and community engagement, we’re going to ask ourselves why are we doing that.”

Since then, the athletic department has made major strides. The hockey team made the 2015 Frozen Four, men’s basketball contended for the 2016 Summit title and saw a 65 percent attendance increase, and other sports have similarly fared well. With added academic support, the cumulative student-athlete grade point average of 3.4 is among the nation’s highest.

Alberts says that cutting the beloved football and wrestling programs meant “a really trying time, but galvanized the department and the university.” He continues,“We came together as a university. This was an institutional decision. It wasn’t John and I in a corner room deciding. We had a lot of people involved.”

Even with unanimous University Board of Regents approval for the athletic department shake-up, emotions ran high among constituents opposed to the cuts. Despite pleas to save wrestling and football, Alberts says, “The data was going to drive the decision-making. We weren’t going to manage the outcome of a good process. We moved to Division I because the market had an expectation about what the experience would be like, and we weren’t able to meet that expectation.” Maintaining the programs, especially football, would have required larger expenditures at the next level and exacerbated the fiscal mess.

Everything was on the table during deliberations: “We looked at trying to stay at Division II and regaining profitability in hockey, we looked at Division III, we looked at having no athletics, and then we looked at Division I. The conclusion was Division I would bring us an opportunity to get at more self-generated revenue through NCAA distributions.”

It was all about athletics better reflecting the “premiere urban metropolitan university” that Christensen says defines UNO. As the strategic repositioning set in, academics flourished, new facilities abounded, and enrollment climbed. Christensen says going to D-I was “a value-add” proposition.

“We looked at our peer doctorate-granting institutions and they were all Division I,” Alberts says. “The real value an athletics department has to a campus is essentially a brand investment. You have alumni come back, you have student engagement. That’s really the role you play. We are the front porch of the university.”

What followed was the rebranding of UNO to associate more with Omaha and embrace what Alberts and Christensen call “the Maverick family.” The rebrand is encapsulated in the construction of Baxter Arena, a D-I sporting facility adjacent to UNO’s midtown campus that also provides a venue for community events.

The past five years were not without tumult. Some longtime donors withdrew financial support in response to UNO cutting wrestling and football. Businessman David Sokol reportedly cut part of his pledged donation in reaction. But donors have since returned in droves.

Van Deeb, another longtime booster and a former UNO football player, was initially an outspoken critic of UNO cutting wrestling and football. “My big disappointment was not that it did happen but the way it happened. Even being on the Maverick athletic board, we had no clue it was coming,” says the Omaha-based entrepreneur.

“But that’s in the past,” says Deeb. “I couldn’t be prouder of where UNO is headed as an athletic department and as a university. I’m 100 percent behind the progressive leadership of Trev Alberts and John Christensen. They’re all about the student-athlete and the future.”

Alberts realizes that some hard feelings linger. “We have people who I don’t think will ever be a part of what we’re doing, and I understand that,” he says.

Regardless, there was enough community buy-in that private donations reached new heights ($45 million) and helped build the showplace Baxter Arena. Alberts cites the construction of Baxter Arena as a tangible result of the move to Division I.

Deeb says Baxter Arena has propelled UNO to another level. “When you’re around campus or at a UNO event there’s a level of excitement I can’t describe,” he says. “It’s a great time to be a Maverick supporter.”

The arena has proven a popular gathering spot for greater Omaha. This past spring, some 100,000 people attended high school graduations there, a realization of the chancellor and Alberts’ desire for greater community engagement.

Although few of UNO’s current students remember what campus was like before the rebrand, that doesn’t mean that Alberts or his team have forgotten. They still recognize the historic importance that the canceled sports provided to the university.

In fact, Alberts joined Van Deeb and several other community leaders on a steering committee seeking to honor one of UNO football’s greatest athletes, Marlin Briscoe. “An Evening with The Magician,” will celebrate the school’s most decorated football player, an Omaha native and civil rights trailblazer, at Baxter Arena on Thursday, Sept. 22.

As a quarterback at UNO (then called Omaha University), the Omaha South High School grad set 22 school records (including 5,114 passing yards and 53 touchdowns during his collegiate career). Briscoe became the first African-American starting quarterback in the NFL during his 1968 season with the Denver Broncos. He played for several franchises during a nine-year NFL career, spending the majority of time in the league as a wide receiver with the Buffalo Bills. He won two Super Bowls with the Miami Dolphins.   

On Friday, Sept. 23, UNO will unveil a life-size statue of Briscoe on campus. Alberts says he envisions that the sculpture might be added to “a champions plaza” whenever the south athletics complex gets built-out. “This is not necessarily a UNO thing; it’s an Omaha thing,” Alberts says. “Marlin is a great person with a great story, and it’s been an honor to get to know him.”

Under Alberts’ leadership, the university does not seek to diminish the importance of those former storied programs. But he has to keep an eye toward the future. “I’m absolutely bullish on where we are today and where we can go,” says the optimistic Alberts. “We’re only scratching the surface. We are an absolute diamond in the rough.”

Visit baxterarena.com for more information.

TrevAlberts1

 

This post falls under the heading: This is why I do what I do

August 15, 2016 Leave a comment

This post falls under the heading:

This is why I do what I do.

 

Received the amazing email message below from Kac Young. She fell under the influence of a dynamic group of radical feminists at Immaculate Heart College in Hollywood, California of all places during the late 1960s. These were provocateurs who challenged all kinds of conformity and many of them were the nuns who taught there. These women were unafraid to challenge the status quo when it came to the Catholic Church, higher education, culture and society. They were known as the Rebel Nuns of Hollywood. They brought cutting edge figures to the campus, including activists and artists. Among the resident artists was Megan Terry, a major figure in the New York and national experimental theater scene then. Kac Young appeared in the original production of Terry’s “The Tommy Allen Show” at the college. Kac found a Reader cover story I did on Megan and Jo Ann Schmidman, who together forged compelling, socially relevant work at their Omaha Magic Theatre. Kac wanted to make sure Megan knew that one of those cheerful subversives at the college, in fact the very woman who brought Megan there, had passed away.

 

 

Megan Terry

 

You can linl to that Reader story at–

The Magical Mystery Tour of Omaha’s Magic Theatre, a Megan Terry and Jo Ann Schmidman Production

I have also included, thanks to Kac, links to some content about the places, the figures and the times she references in her message.

Kac says some very nice things about my writing but you should know she enjoyed quite the career as a television director before changing careers a few years ago. She’s also an author. Check out her website at http://www.kacyoung.com/about-kac-young/ and her LinkedIn page at https://www.linkedin.com/in/kacyoung1.

Kac Young

Here is the message she sent that made my day yesterday and that I think you will enjoy too (that’s Kac on the right).

“Dear Leo: I was in the original play The Tommy Allen Show that Megan Terry wrote and directed at Immaculate Heart College in 1969.  I was searching for her and found your incredible interview with her and Jo Ann Schmidman. I’m now following you and what you write about because you are terrific and there are no accidents. Thank you for a great piece on Megan.  I am writing to you because I want to get in touch with Megan. The beautiful nun who hired her to come to our drama department passed away two summers ago. She was Sr. Ruth Marie Gibbons that we all called “Ruth.” She was one of the leading drama teachers and persons of theatrical merit in the 60’s and 70’s having worked with Joe Papp, The Bread and Puppet Theater and La Mama. She graduated from the then Carnegie –Mellon and was way ahead of her time and vocation. Ruth brought Megan to our campus for the experience of having a radical playwright in residence at Immaculate Heart College which was frequented by The Berrigan Brothers and other anti-war protestors. These are the nuns who rebuked the Vatican and left the church because the powers that be in Rome wanted them to get back in their habits after a two-year experiment without them. The nuns found that being out of the habit made their work in the community more effective and in line with their purpose which was to serve humanity. The uniform habits proved to be a barrier and they wanted to be effective not quaint.  They were a feisty lot and they were smart. They owned the deed to the property at Western and Franklin in Hollywood, where AFI now sits, and were able to subsidize their mission statement with the proceeds from the sale of the College land.  They formed a lay community and have been doing good in the world ever since.

“I wanted Megan to know Ruth died. I thought maybe you could connect me with Megan. Or at least forward my info to her.  It was 47 years ago that we worked together. I became the 4th woman to join the Director’s Guild in 1973 and have three Doctorates to my name and other rabble-rousing credits.  It would be great fun to speak with Megan and let her know what an impact she had on all of us and the theatrical world. She probably already knows that, but it never hurts to tell her again.

“I love your writing Leo and I thank you for anything you might be willing to pass along to Megan on my behalf. Thank you…Your help is much appreciated. Thank you and I’ll be reading what you write from now on.  Thanks a zillion.” -kac

Love and Heartlight

 

The Mary’s Day Parade at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles,1964

The Mary’s Day Parade at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles,1964
Reproduction permission of the Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles

 

The Immaculate Heart College silkscreen room in 1956. Corita Kent is in the middle in the back, standing and pointing.

The Immaculate Heart College silkscreen room in 1956. Corita Kent is in the middle in the back, standing and pointing.
Courtesy of the Corita Art Center

 

Here are some links about the times and the place that was so alive in the 60’s.

http://www.laweekly.com/arts/the-rebel-nuns-of-hollywood-why-they-embraced-the-60s-and-broke-from-catholicism-5726544

http://www.independent.com/news/2008/aug/28/how-group-ex-catholic-nuns-saved-their-famous-mont/

http://www.skylightbooks.com/event/rebel-nuns-immaculate-heart-community-discuss-art-and-legacy-sister-corita

The most famous of them all: Sister Corita Kent.

http://articles.latimes.com/1991-01-28/entertainment/ca-236_1_fine-art

The Trial of the Catonsville Nine was performed first in LA at The Mark Taper Theater and was based on the Berrigan work.  Those were the people who gathered at the college along with Megan Terry, our playwright in residence.

http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/baltimore-city/bs-md-ci-berrigan-legacy-20160501-story.html

Dick Holland, Omaha’s Old Lion of Philanthropy


To commemorate the recent 95th birthday celebrated by one of Omaha’s favorite sons and most popular philanthropists, Dick Holland, I have compiled this set of stories I’ve done either profiling him or some of his passions. He is the proverbial fat cat with a heart of gold. The avuncular Omaha native has been a major player on the local philanthropic scene for a few decades now. He was already a highly successful advertising executive when he heeded Warren Buffett’s advice and invested in Berkshire Hathaway. Holland and his late wife Mary became part of that circle of local investors who could trace their incredible wealth to that fateful decision to ride the Buffett-Berkshire snowball that made millionaires out of dozens of ordinary investors. Unlike some donors who prefer to remain silent, Holland is not shy about expressing his opinions about most anything. This classic liberal makes no bones about where he stands on social issues, and you have to give him credit – he really does put his money where his mouth is. The causes that he and Mary put their energies and dollars behind have helped shape the social, cultural, aesthetic landscape in Omaha.

 

Omaha’s old lion of philanthropy Dick Holland slowing down but still roaring and challenging the status quo

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the December 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Omaha’s philanthropic heavyweights are generally male, old-monied Great White Fathers whose wealth and influence support health, human services, education and the arts.

A veteran of this deep-pocketed fraternity is Richard D. Holland. The Omaha native came from an upper middle class family that produced high achievers. Holland took over his father’s small advertising firm and built it into the metro’s second largest agency but his real fortune came from investing with Warren Buffett.

An entrepreneur from the jump, he ran an ice house that fronted for a bookie operation, he probed rail grain shipments, he sold Fuller brushes door to door, he cut lawns and he did janitorial work.

“I found out kind of early I didn’t want to work for somebody – I wanted to be my own boss,” he says.

He also served a stint in the Chemical Corps during World War II.

“It’s obvious I learned a lot as I went along.”

“There were disappointments in all the things I did,” he says, but it taught him the resilience he finds lacking in many today. He advises young people that “by trying out things regardless of what they are you begin to gain confidence.”

According to the occupational assessment inventory developed by his late star psychologist brother John “Jack” Holland, he’s an investigative, artistic, entrepreneurial type. Those traits, along with some luck, helped him amass wealth.

The Holland Foundation he and his late wife Mary Holland established reported assists of $150 million in 2014.

Like his first generation philanthropic cronies, Holland’s a Great Depression and Second World War product. While they largely operate behind the scenes on capital and building campaigns. Holland’s an outlier who speaks bluntly and publicly about things he’s passionate about. That’s in stark contrast to his peers, who parse words in carefully prepared press releases and sound bites devoid of personality and controversy.

Where others prefer uniformity, Holland, a science geek, favors chaos theory. He’s the rogue who says what’s on his mind not only behind closed doors but in interviews and letters to the editor and lets the chips fall where they may. He’s equally capable being a team player or going his own way. For example, when an organization he helped found and fund, Building Bright Futures, balked at doing lobbying and research he favored, he cut ties with it to form two organizations of his own – Holland Children’s Movement and Holland Children’s Institute – charged with those two priorities, respectively.

This Europhile’s opinionated critiques of what he deems American lapses can come off as the bluster of a crusty, crotchety old man. Like what he says or not, he puts his money where his mouth is.

The ultra progressive Holland is a robust Democratic Party political contributor. He proudly proclaims his liberal leanings and Unitarian beliefs by supporting humanistic public policies and rigorously questioning things. Unlike some fellow travelers, he favors giving the undeserved tools or means for success rather than hand-outs.

This blend of pragmatist and creative studied art at what’s now the University of Nebraska at Omaha and spent his salad days wooing ad clients. His agency devised campaigns for industrial clients, including Valmont, and political candidates.

His philosophy on giving is getting “results,” and “making ideas a reality.” “It’s always great to have ideas but somehow or other somebody has to pay, and pay big in order to get something done.” He does his homework before committing funds. “I’m not throwing money at it.” He says he makes his donations public because “I’ve learned I actually influence a few people. I’m sure if somebody hears I’m into anything big they say, ‘Well, he’s not just playing around.’ I hope it’s true.” He uses the same art of persuasion he practiced as a Mad Man trying to win others over to his way of thinking.

“Some of the great lessons I learned in advertising, like how to talk to people to try and convince them of an idea, have served me well.”

He adamantly endorses America providing free prenatal care and early childhood education for all at-risk families. He says the presence or absence of that care and education is often the difference between success and failure in school and later in life.

“Brain research indicates what happens to a child between 0 and 3 is far more important than anything else that happens to him in his life in terms of growing up and becoming a productive citizen. It’s a truth I’m trying to get across to the rest of society. Hell, yes, I’m trying to influence public opinion. ”

He considers his advocacy for early childhood ed the most important thing he’s ever supported. “Oh, absolutely.”

He envisions a large, central funding apparatus to support another passion, the arts, but rues it iall take someone younger to launch it.

“I see the future not being so much private but much more public,” says the man for whom the Holland Performing Arts Center is named. “I don’t see the enormous private fortunes coming along in Omaha where they can make $100 million gifts.”

Holland points out that some of the biggest local fortunes were made by early Warren Buffett investors like himself and by the heads of dynastic companies. Both groups are dying out and there isn’t necessarily new rich blood replacing them.

Mary and Dick Holland, ©portrait by Debra Jay Groesser

He says the more cosmopolitan Omaha that’s emerged was a long time coming as the city’s economic base transitioned from blue collar industrial to white collar professional and things like the arts became more valued quality of life measures

“We had a helluva time getting over the fact we were a cow town. That was Omaha’s original wealth. We had all the great packing plants. That whole thing just disappeared and a new system or class replaced it.”

Like his peers, Holland’s giving includes many education initiatives. He funded the Robert T. Reilly Professorship of Communications at UNO named in honor of his old advertising partner. Holland monies established the Cardiovascular Research Laboratories at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. He helped found the Nebraska Coalition for Lifesaving Cures. He backed the purchase of a supercomputer at the Peter Kiewit Institute in the Holland Computing Center.

He’s equally bullish in his arts philanthropy. “I suppose it really began in the mid-’80s and really got going in the late ’90s.” His lead donations enabled construction of the Holland Performing Arts Center and renovation of the Orpheum Theatre.

“I was on a symphony committee about building a new home and every time we had a meeting we had great ideas and no money. I got to talking to Sue Morris of Heritage Services because I knew about its work with the Joslyn and so on. That was Bob Dougherty and Walter Scott getting together the fat cats. Bob was after me on it and then it was the SAC museum. Coming home from some meeting he and Walter were talking and they said we ought to set up a permanent organization to take on some of these things important to the city,”

That something became Omaha Performing Arts and Holland says his two giving buddies “are greatly to be complimented because few cities have this.” He recalls a backstage inspection at the Orpheum revealed an antiquated theater ill-equipped to accommodate large touring shows. “It was just dismal. I think that viewing of the Orpheum opened some eyes to the need and things began to move after that.”

The Hollands made the biggest gift and later gave more but he credits others for actually making the Orpheum project happen.

“Without Heritage I don’t think we would have got it done then. Sue (Morris) is a wonderful gatherer. She also understands construction.”

Adapting the Orpheum from a vaudeville and movie house into “a full-blown theater” hosting Broadway shows before record crowds paid off.

“Hell, we have tours coming that take two weeks to load-in with eight over-the-road trailers. Elaborate damn things. That wouldn’t have been possible without that work. We reseated it, too. Cut out one aisle to make a better line-of-sight. We brightened it up. It’s a lovely place. If you had to duplicate it today you better start with $150 to $200 million.

Besides being home to the symphony, the Holland Center hosts dozens of shows a year across the live arts spectrum.

He’s proud of how generously Omaha supports its arts, as most recently evidenced by community giving that made the new Blue Barn Theatre possible. But he bemoans the way funding’s done.

“Our support of the arts leaves everybody gasping at the end of every year over a lack of funds. This to me we don’t see the arts is an economic engine for the whole damn society. Major donors tend to be heads of companies, corporations and generally they’re not artistics in the sense of having great artistic interests. The net is they dismiss the arts – there’s a lack of understanding of value.

“Nobody’s ever nailed down that value but I always think about European cities where they think nothing of putting up millions for operas and symphonies and privately and publicly support them because they recognize a major industry for Vienna or Berlin or Paris is the arts. And it’s not just the performing arts – it’s museums, galleries.”

Dick Holland is pictured in his Omaha home on Oct. 2, 2012.

He feels America must move away from its haphazard support to something more consistent and equitable but he concedes that sea change requires a new mindset.

“At the present time most of the arts struggle. Funding is dispersed, it’s spread around, there’s no leadership of it. That’s one of the reasons why I think a great coalition is needed.”

He says if the city can invest $150 million to build TD Ameritrade Park for the two-week College World Series there’s no reason it can’t invest similarly in arts that serve audiences year-round. It galls him that the public sector leaves the bulk of arts funding to the private sector.

He feels Omaha could capitalize more on its existing amenities and perhaps expand offerings to become a regional destination.

“It almost defies anybody saying the arts don’t amount to much because of all these things going on and the audiences that go there. In the 10 years since the opening of the Holland and the refurbishing of the Orpheum we’ve had millions of people pass through. Those people came from not just Omaha or the outlying districts. We’ve done studies which indicate that maybe 20 or 25 percent and once in a while as high as 40 percent come from beyond. It’s a support for the restaurants, hotels, parking garages-lots, shops and so on.

“I think there’s an enormous amount to be gained by making Omaha a Middle Western city that is well known for its arts.”

For him, it’s part of the calculus that makes a city livable and attractive.

“I think what’s greatly underestimated is why people come to Omaha and want to live here. One of the economic engines is the Med Center. I’ve talked to them about the arts and its effects and one of the things they point out is that when they want to bring in someone to head up a new initiative or an existing section they tell me the key is the wife. The first question she asks is, ‘What are the arts like?’ She’s the key because if she says no it’s no and it doesn’t make much difference how good the offer is. These decisions are made like that.

“The whole cultural scene is a big, big part of a community.”

He’s dismayed America forces presenting organizations to be perpetually on the beg and cuts arts ed in public schools.

“They cut out the arts in the schools at a time when they’re needed most,” he says about a nationwide patern. “They cut out the arts in a town when they have to balance budgets. This is nearsightedness.”

An area he feels Omaha has fallen much shorter in yet is handling its growing poverty population.

“It’s neglected its poor people badly. Omaha’s doing OK economically
but it is has great difficulty educating poor kids. To me that’s the worst thing Omaha does.”

While he applauds the metro’s “highly developed educational system” he says too many children enter school unprepared to learn and too few programs address preparing them. Reading difficulties, for example, get magnified when kids become adults and don’t have the education or skills to get living wage or salaried jobs.

“‘i don’t see this so much as an intellectual problem as a community problem. We have all kinds of government programs designed to grab these people as they fall off the cliff. The failure is to raise them so they can climb cliffs. There’s no question in my mind it’s going to be a major government project. It has to be.”

He insists universal early childhood education is the key to reversing the situation but claims legislators ignore the evidence.

“We are terribly ignorant in this country about early childhood. We just plain are dumb. We don’t understand how kids get educated even though it stares us in the face and we are not willing in many cases to turn around and fix this. The proof is all over the place, all you have to do is look at it. There’s no point sitting around speculating about it. If we do it, it will end the problem. It’s very clear. Hell, we can look at all kind of European education systems – you’ll see the same thing.”

He feels America may have missed an opportunity with Head Start. “If we had continued to develop Head Start we might have got there.”

New models have emerged that show promise. “We have something going on in Neb. headed by Susie Buffett, Educare, that’s a helluva good idea. It’s also expensive. But it is a proven thing now.”

“The Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation is one of the largest in the United States. What they’re attempting to do in education and the schools through Building Bright Futures is just monumental.”

He’s also encouraged by the Buffett Early Childhood Institute and the impact it’s making in raising awareness and standards.

The goal is creating holistic after school and daycare programs that are educational and developmentally based, not just caretakers.

Holland Performing Arts Center

Child Saving Institute

Holland, whose support of the Child Saving Institute is legendary, says, “I just decided to focus on this problem. It’s difficult because it’s costly. Trying to get the kind of money from the state and the nation to really look after these children is just plain expensive.”

He says even as Building Bright Futures, Partnership4Kids and other education efforts have scaled up their impact “is tiny in terms of the need,” “Five thousand-plus kids enter the Omaha Public Schools each year and half of them are probably not ready to learn, which indicates a serious problem,” he says. “Multiply that over some years and these kids are more likely to have problems becoming productive citizens. That describes in Omaha the size of the problem. It’s enormous.”

Mentoring is another thing he supports.

“It’s been shown that even after this bad beginning if we get a hold of a child and mentor him properly we can get him higher up in the education scale.”

Holland wants America do something overarching, like the New Deal or the Marshall Plan or the Great Society, to once again assert leadership that’s inspirational at home and abroad.

“We’re beginning to see we have to make some changes but the changes I’ve seen so far are not nearly as drastic as I think they should be. I’m more and more positive it’s going to take a revolution.”

The old ad man in him tells him “we haven’t really been able to sell the benefits of doing something like this even though it would be far better than the cost of not doing it.”

“We have more than two million people in prison in the United States, leading the world, and not realizing this is our own fault. We think they’re just bad people. They weren’t bad when they were born, I’ll guarantee you.”

He’s concerned the American Empire he came of age in is eroding.

“I’m worried about it terribly. I think our national government and even our state governments are not using their ability to think about the good of the country and to work together to improve it. Hell, everybody and his brother knows about it that pays any attention.”

Compounding the problem, he says, is America’s own policies.

“We have not reformed our immigration policy. We’re getting fewer immigrants as we make stupid requirements to get a person into this country anymore. That’s backwards because immigrants are highly motivated people who work hard to succeed..

“We don’t tax the wealthy or anything like that. We don’t seem to have any ability to take a look at a good country in Europe and realize that those people pay much higher taxes than in the United States but they’re better educated, they’re happier, they have decent transportation systems, they have universal health care.”

He’s not sure the country has the will to do what’s right.

“I used to think of the United States as affinity. In the post-World War II era we dominated the world. One of my great disappointments is that we’re not leading the world, we’re responding to problems.”

Better sooner than later for him that America take action.

“I want it to happen now. What the hell, I’m 94.”

_ _ _

Holland Performing Arts Center

Dick Holland Responds to Far Reaching Needs in Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

When it comes to big time philanthropy in Omaha, a few individuals and organizations stand out. Richard Holland has become synonymous with king-sized generosity through the Holland Foundation he and his late wife Mary started.

If the 88 year-old retired advertising executive is not making some large financial gift he’s being feted for his achievements or contributions. In April he was honored in Washington, D.C. with the Horatio Alger Award “for his personal and professional success despite humble and challenging beginnings.” While his success is indisputable, how much adversity he faced is debatable. Closer to home Holland was presented the Grace Abbott Award by the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation “for his work in creating positive change for children through community.” No one questions his devotion to helping children and families, causes that legendary social worker Grace Abbott of Nebraska championed.

Several area buildings bear the Holland name in recognition of gifts the couple made, including the Holland Performing Arts Center in downtown Omaha and the Child Saving Institute in midtown. Mary was a CSI volunteer and benefactor. Her passion for its mission of improving the lives of at-risk children was shared by Dick once he saw for himself the pains that staff and volunteers go to in “restoring” broken children.

The couple made sharing their wealth, specifically giving back to their hometown, a major priority through the establishment of their foundation in 1997. Since Mary’s death in 2006 Dick, as he goes by, has continued using the foundation’s sizable assets, $60 million today and expected to be much more when he’s gone, to support a wide range of educational, art, health, human service and community projects.

True to his social justice leanings, Holland is a mover and shaker in Building Bright Futures. The birth-through-college education initiative provides an infrastructure of tutoring, mentoring, career advice and scholarship support for disadvantaged youth.

Like many mega donors he prefers deflecting publicity from himself to the organizations he supports. He makes some notable exceptions to that rule, however. For one thing, he vociferously advocates people of means like himself give for the greater good. For another, he believes in speaking his mind about issues he cares about and isn’t afraid to ruffle feathers along the way, even if those feathers belong to a political kingpin.

Just last March Holland took the occasion of accepting the NEBRASKAlander Award from Gov. Dave Heineman to criticize a stance by the conservative Republican leader.  Heineman publicly opposes renewal of government-funded prenatal services for low income immigrant women in America illegally. Holland, who supports the care, used the evening’s platform to editorialize.

“No one should be denied prenatal care in Nebraska,” he bluntly told the black tie audience and the governor. His comments were viewed as ungracious or inappropriate by some and as a strategic use of the bully pulpit by others.

Consistent with his Depression-era roots, Holland is not rigidly bound by the constraints of political correctness and so he doesn’t mince words or tip-toe around controversy when he talks. Neither does he hide his political allegiance.

“I’m a liberal Democrat and I underline that,” said Holland, a Unitarian who also prides himself on his free-thinking ethos.

Dick Holland

He recently sat down for an interview at his home, where he readily shared his frank, colorful, unparsed, unapologetic impressions on the state of America in this prolonged recession. Critics may say someone as rich as Holland can afford to be opinionated because he’s already made his fortune and therefore nothing short of a mismanaged investment portfolio can hurt his standing. Besides, dozens of organizations and institutions rely on his goodwill and they’re not about to object to his pronouncements.

Those who know him understand that Holland’s just being himself when he says it like it is, or at least the way he sees it. Most would concede he’s earned the right to say his piece because unlike some fat cats, he worked for a living. His proverbial ship came in only after he’d launched a highly successful business. It was after that he followed his gut and his head and became an early Berkshire Hathaway investor. The millions he accrued made him a Player, but he first made a name for himself as a partner in one of Omaha’s premier advertising agencies, Holland, Dreves and Reilly, which later merged with a Lincoln agency to become Swanson, Rollheiser, Holland, Inc.

All along the way, from young-man-in-a-hurry to middle-aged entrepreneur to mature tycoon, he’s been speaking his mind, only when you carry the clout and bankroll he does, and make the kind of donations he makes, people are more apt to listen.

The Omaha Central High graduate came from an enterprising family. His father Lewis Holland emigrated to the States from London, by way of Canada, where a summer working the wheat fields convinced him his hands were better suited for illustration than harvesting. Lewis settled in Omaha and rose to advertising director for Orchard and Wilhelm Furniture. He later opened his own ad agency, where Dick eventually joined him and succeeded him.

Before Dick became a bona fide Mad Man in the ad game, he began studies at Omaha University. Then the Second World War intervened and after seeing service in the chemical corps he returned home to finish school, with no plans other than to make it in business and study art. Indeed, he was all set to go to New York when he met Mary. Their courtship kept him here, where he found the ad world fed his creative, intellectual, entrepreneurial instincts. He built Holland, Dreves, Reilly into the second biggest agency in the state, behind only Bozell and Jacobs.

He was certainly a well-connected, self-made man, but by no means rich. That is until he started investing with fellow Central High grad Warren Buffett, who is 10 years his junior. Much like Buffett, he’s careful about where he invests and donates his money. When Holland sees a problem or a need he can help with, he does his homework before committing any funds.

“I’m not throwing money at it,” he said, adding that the best thing about giving is getting “results.” He said, “It’s always great to have ideas but somehow or other somebody has to pay, and pay big, in order to get something done.”

The socially-conscious Holland is keenly aware that in these financially unstable times the gap between the haves and have-nots has only widened, something he finds unforgivable in what is held out to be a land of plenty for all

“What has happened in the United States over the past 40 years has been to make a helluva lot of people poor and less wealthy and to make a few people much richer, and we’ve done that by taxation, by trade policies, by not controlling health insurance costs,” he said. “We increased poverty during this period by at least 35 or 40 percent, but the worst thing that’s happened is the middle class itself, which was coming along after World War II very well, suddenly starting making no gain, particularly when inflation’s  taken into account.”

He said the great promise of the middle class, that repository of the American Dream, has actually lost ground. The prospects of poor folks attaining middle class status and the-home-with-a-white-picket-fence dream that goes along with it seems unreachable for many given the gulf between minimum wage earnings and home mortgage rates

“It’s almost ridiculous,” he said. “We might as well say we’ve screwed ’em. I mean, it’s a really sad thing because this country is supposed to be a liberal democracy. The general idea is to provide an equal opportunity and life for almost everyone you possibly can. It sure as hell isn’t having huge groups of impoverished people going to prison and posing all kinds of social problems. All these things should be brought under control by education. It is not supposed to be a South American republic with wealth at the top and a whole vast lower class at the bottom, and we’re headed in that direction unless we make some serious changes in the way we approach this subject.”

When Holland considers the deregulated environment that led to unchecked corporate greed, the Wall Street bust, the home mortgage collapse and the shrinking safety net for the disadvantaged, he sees a recipe for disaster.

“We began to deregulate everything, thinking that regulations made things worse and deregulation would make everything better, and the truth is there are a lot of things that need to be regulated, including human behavior in the marketplace,” he said. “We just ignored that. In fact, it’s almost like saying our social system is every man for himself, and that’s crazy. It’s not every man for himself, we’re interdependent on one another on everything we do. This whole thing is wrong. We’re beginning to see we have to make some changes, but the changes I’ve seen so far are not nearly as drastic as I think they should be.

“I guess I sound like a doomsday guy, but I really believe unless we correct some of these things the United States risks its future.”

The health care reform debate brought into stark relief for Holland how far apart Americans are on basic remedies to cure social ills.

“Why can’t we get together more on this?” he asked rhetorically. “I have a hunch that part of it is misunderstanding, a growing ignorance among a large body of the populace, not recognizing just exactly what has happened. Talking about health care reform, poor people or middle class people objecting to it don’t seem to understand all the benefits they’re going to gain from it, they’re worried their health care won’t be as good as it was when it’ll be just as good,”

He said health care reform will help the self-employed and small business employees get the coverage they need but couldn’t afford before and will allow persons with preexisting conditions to qualify without being denied. Someone who will benefit from reform is right under his own roof.

“I have a helper who looks after the house. She has a preexisting condition. I pay her insurance, and it’s just over $1,300 a month,” an amount the woman couldn’t possibly afford on her own. “It’s absolutely wrong,” he said.He said the ever rising cost of health care under a present system of excess and waste drains the nation of vital resources that could be applied elsewhere.

“There’s no question in my mind that a nation as wealthy as the United States having to pay 17 percent of its gross national product for health care versus every other advanced country in the world sticking around 10 or 11 is just leaving several hundred billion dollars on the table that should be available for education, which at the primary level is in terrible shape.”Education has become the main focus of Holland’s philanthropy. Years ago he began seeing the adverse effects of inadequate education. He and Mary became involved in two local programs, Winners Circle and All Our Kids, that assist underachieving schools and students in at-risk neighborhoods. The couple saw the difference that extra resources make in getting kids to do better academically.

Dick and Mary Holland portrait by Debra Joy Groesser

He views education as the key to addressing many of the endemic problems impacting America’s inner cities, including Omaha’s. He wasn’t surprised by what a 2007 Omaha World-Herald series revealed in terms of African-American disparity. Blacks here experience some of the worst poverty in the nation and lag far behind the majority population in employment and education. He said he and other local philanthropists, such as Susan Buffett, were already looking into the issue and formulating Building Bright Futures as a means to close ever widening achievement gaps.

“I think one of the things we don’t really understand really well about cause is the effect of abject poverty,” said Holland. “Most people who have a decent life don’t understand that having no money, no transportation, not having an adequate diet or health care or stimulating opportunities for children in a very poor family is a straight line to prison and social problems. Those children, more than half of them, enter kindergarten not ready at all, with limited vocabularies of 400 words when they should have 1,200 to 1,500, and you can just go from there and it just all goes down hill.”

He said those critical of the job teachers do miss the point that too many kids enter school not ready to learn.

“That’s not because a bunch of teachers are dumb, that’s because there’s a bunch of kids that have not been looked after properly from the beginning. You can blame teachers until the cows come home, but I just say to you, How is a teacher going to teach a child who is that far behind? It’s almost impossible, and that’s the first great neglect. If we had been doing that differently, we would avoid an awful lot of this. In fact, we’d avoid most of it.”

When students enter school unprepared to learn, he said, there’s little that can be done.

“After they get into the grades, there again, there’s no family, no money, no reading, no looking after, no stimulation, no going places, and the net result is the child goes from 1st through 4th grade not catching up and instead starting to diminish. By the 7th and 8th grades they find out they can’t hack it and they get awfully damn tired of being regarded as dumb, and the net effect of that is dropping out.

“It’s as plain as the nose on your face this is what goes on and this is what we don’t do anything about. It’s a tragedy and one of the great national disasters.”

Things get more complicated for children who enter the foster care or juvenile justice systems. Teen pregnancy and truancy add more challenges. The entrenched gang activity and gun violence in Omaha, he said, has at its source poverty, broken homes, school drop outs, lack of job skills and few sustainable employment options.

He said the fact the majority of Omaha Public Schools students come from households whose income is so low they qualify for the free/reduced lunch program indicates how widespread the problem is. “When a child has to have a free lunch all you can say is something is terribly wrong,” he said.

To those who would indict an entire school district he points out OPS students attending schools in middle and upper middle class neighborhoods do as well or better than students in the Westside and Millard districts. He said the real disparity exists between students from affluent environments and those from impoverished environments.

“The way I sometimes put it to people is, ‘The kids make the school.’ It’s a funny thing how we don’t understand this. It’s very obvious to me,” he said, that on average children from “reasonable affluence” do better than children from poverty. He said Winners Circle and All Our Kids, two programs under the Building Bright Futures umbrella, are full of success stories, as is another effort he and Bright Futures endorses, Educare. Through these and other programs Bright Futures is very intentional in putting in place the support students need from early childhood on.

“We’re going to have a thousand kids this year in early childhood programs. We have organizations that are working in something like 12 or 14 schools. We’ve got five hundred volunteers of all kinds. And we actually have cases. From the very beginning it’s been shown that if we get a hold of a child, even after this bad beginning, and mentor him properly we can get him higher up in the education scale.  In All Our Kids we have 40 kids in college, 50 that have graduated, several with master’s degrees, and every one of those kids was a kid at risk. So we know what to do if we work hard enough on it. What we have to overcome is the kid who doesn’t think he’s so hot. At home an impoverished child often gets put down, diminishing his ego. We have to overcome that, and that’s one of the things we really try to do.”

Mary Holland recognized there must be a continuum of support in place all through a student’s development. Dick said that’s why she encouraged the merger between Winners Circle, whose focus is on elementary school students, and All Our Kids, whose focus is on junior high and high school students.

Image result for dick holland omaha

“We’re trying to take those kids all the way through the 11th grade, taking them every where and teaching them what college requires, what businesses are like, exposing them to the world,” he said. “Bright Futures is not a five or six year program, it’s a 15-year program. It’s gotta be done like that.”

The idea is to get kids on the right track and keep them there. Getting kids to believe in themselves is a big part of it. “If you don’t have a lot of self-confidence you don’t try things, and we try to overcome that. With some kids it works. Some find out, I’m better than I thought, I can do that.”

The goal is qualifying students for college and their attaining a higher education degree. Towards that end, Bright Futures works with students from 12th grade through college.

“We follow you there,” said Holland. “We’ve set up things in universities to help people. We’re still trying to bring it all together. It’s an effort to refresh, restore, make them understand what they have to achieve in order to do anything in life.”

Enough funding is in place that cost is not an issue for Bright Futures students.

“We have adequate scholarship money for thousands, we don’t even have to worry about that, and yet we don’t have enough people to take them that qualify. Just because you graduate from high school doesn’t mean you’re ready for college. Sometimes I think they (schools) get ‘em out of high school just to get ‘em out of high school.”

Holland has a better appreciation than most for the barriers that make all this difficult in practice. He and Mary mentored some young people through All Our Kids and they experienced first-hand how things that most of us take for granted can be stumbling blocks for others. He recounted the time he and Mary mentored a young single mother. Things started out promisingly enough but then a familiar pattern set in that unraveled the whole scenario. He said the young woman got a job, her employer liked her and her performance, but she stopped coming to work and she got fired. The same thing happened at another job. And then another. Each time, he said, the challenge of affording child care, getting health problems addressed and finding reliable transportation sabotaged both the young mother’s and the Hollands’ best efforts.

“She couldn’t hold a job, and we gave up,” he said. It’s not something he’s proud of, but he’s honest about the frustration these situations can produce. Other mentoring experiences ended more positively but still highlighted the challenges people face.

“You find out an awful lot about how tough this is because they don’t have the same kind of get up and go confidence like my daughters, who think that nothing is beyond them. You try to instill that, and when you see a little bit of it happening it’s worth the price of admission.”

He acknowledges that despite government cutbacks there’s still plenty of public aid to help catch people who fall through the cracks. But he feels strongly that a different emphasis is required — one that helps people become self-sufficient contributors.

“We have all kinds of government programs designed to grab these people as they fall off the cliff. The failure is to raise them so they can climb cliffs. There’s no question in my mind sooner or later it’s going to be a major government project. It has to be.”

Policies also need to change in terms of guaranteeing people a living wage, he said.

“Let me give you an idea of how we look at things,” said Holland. “We had a $2 (hourly) minimum wage in 1975 and that was adequate to get people out of poverty, it really was. But since the ‘80s the minimum wage has not kept pace with the cost of living and inflation. It’s kept people in poverty. The Congress of the United States, Republicans and Democrats alike, failed to really go after that. They failed to understand it.”

He said despite the minimum wage having increased to $7.25 in Nebraska and higher in other states, “it ought to be $10 or $11” to give families a chance of not just getting by but getting ahead. “We’re not looking at this problem the right way, we’re just creating it. There’s a dismissal of the problem by people that don’t have it.”

Similarly, he said early childhood programs must be learning centers not babysitting or recreational centers, that address the entire needs of children.

“We have a fractional help system. Somebody helps them after school, somebody sets up a club, somebody sets up something else over here. Some of those after school things make you feel better, they’re fun to go to, they’ve got cookies, but that doesn’t focus on their actual intellectual needs. There’s a lot of that that goes on.”

Holland calls for systemic change that comprehensively affects lives.

“I’m more and more positive it’s going to take a revolution. We’re going to have to stop what we’re doing and start doing something along the lines I’ve talked about. At various times there’s been various suggestions about poverty, but one thing that will help alleviate poverty a helluva lot is money, there’s no getting around it. If it takes 5 or 10 percent of the gross national product it will be a benefit over time because once you have a little money you begin to be able to do a few things, and then you begin to learn a few things, and your children do the same.”

A model approach in his eyes is Educare’s holistic early childhood education. “We’re (surrogate) parents there, that’s what we are,” he said, “and the people that bring their children there know what’s happening, they know that suddenly the whole world is opening for that child. When those kids enter kindergarten they’re ready, they’ve got these big vocabularies. We know it can be done, but we also know the price.”

To those who might balk at the $12,000-$13,000 annual cost of caring for a child in a state-of-the-art center, he said it’s but a fraction of what it costs to incarcerate someone or to navigate someone through the justice system or the foster care system.

Agree or disagree with him, you can be sure Dick Holland will continue putting his money where his mouth is and where his heart is.

– – –

Omaha is known as an unusually philanthropic community and the following story for Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com) charts how a venerable childcare institution found support for a badly needed new building from a circle of dedicated divers and why these well-heeled individuals contributed to the project. The result is that the drab, old and cramped institutional-looking structure was remade into a gleaming, new and expansive showcase. What a difference a few million dollars can make.

The new, redesigned Child Saving Institute

The Joy of Giving Sets Omaha‘s Child Saving Institute on Solid Ground for the Future

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com)

The Child Saving Institute has a brand spanking new home for its mission of “responding to the cry of a child.” CSI dedicated the new digs at 4545 Dodge St. in March, turning the next chapter in the organization’s 106-year history. The social service agency addresses the needs of at-risk children, youth and families.

The project was made possible by donors who saw the need for a larger, more dynamic, more kidscentric space that better reflected the organization’s expanded services and more comfortably accommodated staff and clients. A $10.7 million campaign secured funds for a complete makeover of the old building, which was stripped to its steel beams, redesigned and enlarged. An endowment was created.

The goal was soon surpassed and by the time the three-year campaign concluded, $12.2 million was raised.

Upon inheriting the former Safeway offices site in 1982 CSI officials knew it was a poor fit for the child care, emergency shelter and adoption programs then constituting the nonprofit’s services. The mostly windowless building was a drab, dreary bunker, its utilitarian interiors devoid of color, light, whimsy, fun.

The two-story structure was sound but lacked such basic amenities as an elevator. The day care and early childhood education classrooms lacked their own restrooms. Limited space forced staff to share offices. Inadequate conference rooms made it difficult for the board of directors and the guild to meet.

The drab, old Child Saving Institute

There were not enough dedicated facilities for counseling/therapeutic sessions. As CSI’s services have broadened to address youth, parenting and family issues, with an emphasis on preventive and early interventive help, more clients come through the doors.

Additionally, the organization’s outdoor playground was cramped and outmoded. Limited parking inconvenienced staff and clients alike.

“We were dissatisfied with the building,” CEO Judy Kay said. “It had at least been 10 years prior even to the decision to build that we knew we needed a different space.” She said CSI once explored new building options but “gave up, because, honestly, we all became so frustrated and we didn’t have the funds to do it.”

Enter philanthropists Dick and Mary Holland. The late Mary Holland was a CSI board member with a passion for the agency and its mission. At his wife’s urging Dick Holland toured the place Mary spoke so glowingly about. Two things happened. His big heart ached when he saw the children craving affection and his bad knees screamed from all the stairs he had to climb.

Holland pestered CSI to install an elevator. One day he and Mary summoned then-CEO Donna Tubach Davis and development director Wanda Gottschalk to a special meeting. “And at that meeting he said, ‘Ladies, it’s time to have an elevator. We’re going to get started on this project,’ and he handed us a very large check. It was for just under $3 million,” Gottschalk recalled.

He wasn’t done giving. After Mary passed CSI remembered her at a board luncheon. Upon accepting a plaque in her memory daughter Amy surprised CSI with a million dollar check from her father.

“I don’t think anybody in the city could hear anything more meaningful to them then to have Dick Holland say I will help you,” said Gottschalk.

Mary and Dick Holland, ©By Debra Joy Groesser

The CSI campus is named after Mary Holland. Dick didn’t want his name anywhere but conceded to the elevator being dubbed, “Dick’s Lift.” RDG Schutte Wilscam Birge’s redesign more than doubled the square footage, opened up the interior to create bright, spacious work areas, added multiple meeting rooms and provided vibrant colors and active play centers. The large lobby is awash in art and light.

CSI can now serve twice the number of children in its day care.

The Hollands’ generous donations launched the building-endowment campaign. A committee of past board presidents set about raising the remaining funds.

“We were very blessed with their help.” Gottschalk said. “These past board presidents obviously also had invested a lot in CSI and cared very deeply about it.”

She said donors become “total advocates” and ambassadors for CSI. As a result, she said, “we were able to raise the $12.2 million with about 30 people.” None of it may have happened, she said, had Holland not taken the trouble to see for himself why his wife was so moved.

“Mary had become an important participant and she got me interested in it,” he said. “Together we began to do whatever we could for the Child Saving Institute. It just became one of the loves of our life. It was a pleasure to work with them and we got all kinds of things done. We saw opportunities to do more things, bigger things, and in a decent environment.”

“He was truly then invested in child saving and what we do here,” Gottschalk said. “The passion that he has for kids just keeps coming through.”

The Hollands’ enthusiasm won over others.

“We got some of our friends interested in it,” he said.

Such links can pay big dividends.

“I think it’s always about the relationships,” Gottschalk said. “It’s a one-on-one relationship. It can be with any one of us on staff. A lot of times those relationships are through board members.”

CSI was delighted when Holland offered to loosen some well-heeled friends’ purse strings. Gottschalk accompanied him. “He’s very powerful. It’s very hard to say no to Dick,” she said. Sometimes the Hollands worked on their own.

“One of the donors asked to meet with just Dick and Mary,” she said. “They walked out of this gentleman’s house with a million dollar check.”

One friend the Hollands turned onto CSI was the late Tom Keogh. The retired architect volunteered there nurturing babies.

“He rocked, he cuddled, he wiped noses. He’d eat with the kids. He was phenomenal,” said CSI Developmental Child Care Director Kathleen Feller.

“It made Tom’s retirement very meaningful,” his wife Rae said.

When a weak immune system dictated Tom avoid the child care area he helped in other ways — filing, stuffing envelopes and serving on the board of directors.

“He also brought with him his architect’s mind,” said Kay, noting that Keogh shared with staff a book he read that urged connecting children to the outdoors. His enthusiasm set in motion a nature playground.

“Tom was very instrumental in helping develop that,” Kay said. “He worked with a young man he had mentored who helped design it.”

The playground became his sweet challenge.

“He solicited in-kind donations from nurseries, irrigation companies sod companies, stone companies,” Rae said.

Playground

Nature Explore Classroom at CSI

He didn’t stop there. “Tom went out and raised a lot of money and contributed himself,” Gottschalk said.

Rae said her husband rarely approached others to support his causes but in the case of CSI he did. “It had to be something that he was truly interested in before he would ask anybody else to contribute,” she said.

That same passion got Rae involved, too. Since Tom’s death she’s continued the family’s support.

She said before donating to an organization it’s vital “you get to know what their beliefs are and how they handle things. There’s no replacement for that personal contact.” CSI won the Keoghs over. “We got to know the staff and the operation,” she said. “We were very impressed by how they treated the children. They’re very careful with the care they give. It’s a very warm environment.”

For her, as it was for Tom, giving’s return on investment is priceless: “It’s very simple,” she said, “I think you gain more than you give. The personal joy I receive in giving is important to me.”

Former CSI board member Charles Heider, who contributed to the building-endowment, was long ago sold on the agency. “I saw the mission and how they were carrying out their good work,” he said. “I was impressed by their good management. It’s a very good organization.” When the building campaign got underway he didn’t hesitate.

“I was quick to respond when they asked if I wanted to be involved financially.”

It’s gratifying for him to see CSI realize its building and endowment goals.

“The satisfaction is that they are obviously moving forward. If they weren’t they wouldn’t have the new building,” he said. “The enthusiasm they have with this new facility is very evident. They built a very attractive building.”

Heider said behind the gleaming facade is a track record of substance and service.

“Buildings by themselves don’t satisfy the mission,” he said. “CSI has a marvelous record of assisting young people. My wife and I have enjoyed giving to it.”

The Paul and Oscar Giger Foundation that Janet Acker and her two siblings administer has long supported CSI.

“We’re just a little foundation,” Acker said. “We can’t support everything. We have to pick and choose and do little projects. We fund a lot of programs that affect kids and music. We’ve given pianos away all over Omaha.”

For CSI’s nature playground the foundation donated an outdoor xylophone in memory of Acker’s late aunt, Ruth Musil Giger. The instrument belonged to Giger, who was a piano/organ instructor. “This was a real match with Aunt Ruth’s interests in music,” Acker said.

Previously the foundation supported CSI’s emergency respite center and adoption program. While the foundation’s support can’t compare to the mega gifts of others, Acker said, “You need a lot of little donors to pull off a big project.”

Gottschalk said CSI depends on contributions from “our bread and butter donors” to help fund daily operations. Donors who give a few hundred dollars or even at the $25 or $10 levels are vital, she said, as major funds are often restricted for certain uses. If CSI’s to remain sustainable, she said, a safety net must secure donations of all sizes, from diverse funding streams, year-round.

Everyone has their own reason for giving. What’s the joy of giving for Dick Holland? “Results,” he said. In CSI he sees an organization helping undo the damage some children suffer and an agency needing a new space to further its mission. “We were in a position to put up enough funds to make some of the ideas a reality,” he said. “It’s always great to have ideas but somehow or other somebody has to pay, and pay big, in order to get something done.”

He said he makes his donations public because “I’ve learned I actually influence a few people. I’m sure if somebody hears I’m into a thing big they say, ‘Well, he’s not just playing around.’ I hope it’s true.”

_ _ _

Like any city of any size Omaha’s had all manner of presenting arts organizations, some small, some large, some financially well-endowed, some financially-strapped.  There have been organizations with sizable staff and there have been one-man bands.  Some have cast a wide net across the performing arts spectrum and others have been more narrowly focused on a particular niche or segment.  Most presenters have come and gone, never to be seen or heard from again, and a few disappear for a time, only to resurface again.  The following story for Metro Magazine  (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/) is about today’s major Omaha Player in this arena, Omaha Performing Arts, the organization that both books and maintains the two principal performing arts venues in the city, the Holland Performing Arts Center and the Orpheum Theatre.  Befitting its well-heeled status, the organization is celebrating 10 years in a big way this fall with an October 16 gala and an October 17 Holland Stages festival.  These will be boffo, bring-the-house-down blow-outs that are as much a recognition of the rich programming that enhances the cultural fabric here as they are opportunities for OPA to say thank you to its patrons for the community to return the gratitude for all the great shows that come here on a year-round basis.

Omaha Performing Arts at 10: Rhapsody

Presenting organization serves as steward of major halls and brings Broadway and other world-class shows to town

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the August-September-October 2015 issue of Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)

What a difference a decade makes.

In that relatively short period the Omaha arts and entertainment scene has blown up thanks to a critical mass of new organizations, venues and events. Together with the treasures already here, this cultural synergy’s transformed Omaha from sleepy flyover spot into dynamic destination place.

Leading the new arrivals is Omaha Performing Arts. The organization books world-class artists at the venerable Orpheum Theater and its state-of-the-art companion, the Holland Performing Arts Center. As the steward of these spaces, OPA’s charged with caring for them and filling their halls with high quality events that appeal to all demographics.

Growing the performing arts scene
Great halls are only truly alive when people inhabit them. OPA schedules year-round offerings that keep its spaces hopping to the tune of 3 million-plus patrons since 2005. All those folks, many from out of town, pump $40 million into the local economy each year.

By bringing the best of performing arts to town, OPA adds to the rich stew of the Blue Barn Theatre, the Rose, the Omaha Community Playhouse, the Great Plains Theatre Conference, the Omaha Symphony, Opera Omaha – all of which are thriving.

OPA president Joan Squires says, “Across the board the arts community has elevated attention and we’re seeing a lot of our colleagues doing well at the same time. So there’s been renewed energy downtown and in our community for people wanting to come to performances and there’s more options to select from than ever before. I do believe we contributed to had a lot to do with that sea change.”

Dick Holland, who with his late wife Mary made the lead gift for the Holland, has no doubt of OPA’s impact. “It’s added enormously to the luster that this is a great city through new events, new opportunities, new shows that bring in a pile of people from out of town.”

That’s on top of popular attractions such as the Old Market, College World Series, Omaha Storm Chasers, Joslyn Art Museum, Durham Museum, Lauritzen Gardens and Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium.

 

Celebrating a decade but looking ahead
OPA board chairman John Gottschalk says the public’s reception to the programming has “vastly” exceeded expectations and quelled any doubts Omaha could sustain two major performing arts centers.

This organization that never rests is pausing long enough this fall to commemorate its boffo first decade run. The October 16 Celebrate 10 Gala will feature Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth in a Holland spectacular. The October 17 Holland Stages will be a free daylong festival highlighted by diverse performing artists at the Holland.

“We’ve had a lot of milestones in a short period of time,” Squires says, “and we really want to use our anniversary to celebrate what everybody has done for the institution and to start looking forward to the next decade. I think it’s something Omaha as a community should really celebrate. It’s an extraordinary story and opportunity for us.”

“For a very young center we’re really advanced in terms of audience, finances, facilities and other ways,” Gottschalk says. “We’re a very healthy arts organization.”

OPA grew out of an initiative Gottschalk, Dick Holland, Walter Scott and others led to renovate the Orpheum and build the Holland. Gottschalk says much effort was made recruiting Squires from the Phoenix Symphony to oversee the Omaha facilities and “she’s done a wonderful job,'” Holland says, “I don’t think we’d have the same success without her. Joan is a perpetual motion machine looking after every single detail you can think of. She’s just plain marvelous.”

Investing in the community
Squires deflects accolades to others.

“The generosity of the donors here has made this possible. We can have all the vision and passion we want but without that support none of this would have happened. Their continued commitment and philanthropy behind all this has been absolutely key.

“The people involved in this organization are highly committed and passionate and that starts with our board of directors. John Gottschalk, who’s been our chairman since inception, certainly Dick Holland, and the entire board have been tremendously committed, generous and great stewards. Their leadership has been everything.”

The public’s done its share, too.

“The response by the Omaha community buying tickets and showing up at performances has been incredible. We can continue to get better and better shows because producers look at our ticket sales and results. Broadway shows come in here and report this is one of the best opening night audiences they have.”

She says the fall anniversary events are “our way to say thank you to everybody who’s a part of this,” adding, “The folks that started this institution made an extraordinary investment and you just have to stand back for a moment and say, ‘Bravo.'”

Getting to this point required a remarkable growth spurt for an organization that began with Squires, an assistant production manager, a desk and a computer in 2002. The Orpheum renovation was underway. The Holland was still in the planning stages. Heritage Services raised more than $100 million in private giving to complete the two projects and to help get OPA up and running.

That level of community buy-in is what attracted Squires to take the job and she continues to be impressed by the ongoing support that feeds her organization and to make enhancements at its venues.

“Omaha is known for the deep roots of its philanthropic community. The leadership behind this project was extraordinary. They were invested in its success.”

Then there’s the fact OPA filled a void left by arts impresarios and presenting organizations no longer around.

“There were no other major presenters in town, so I felt there was an opportunity to bring to the community some of these great art forms and artists that didn’t have a place to perform or anybody to take charge of that. It felt like the puzzle pieces were all here to really make this organization a success. Everybody wanted this to succeed and I felt if we could put this together the right way we really could give Omaha something pretty special.”

She says the support that coalesced around all this “is really about
a commitment to quality of life and making Omaha better for current and future generations.” She adds, “We couldn’t have done this without the partnership of Heritage Services raising the money to get the Holland up and open at the same time we were getting things started here. It’s another key why we were successful from the beginning. That partnership gave us an advantage coming out of the chute.”

Gottschalk says donors made substantial gifts “because they thought it would be good for Omaha and it was, and that’s really been the legacy of the community – we’ve been able to sustain that view – if it’s good for our community, let’s do it.”

 Joan Squires
JoanSquires 175
 Scaling up

The Orpheum renovations have allowed the theater to host the biggest Broadway touring shows (The Lion King, Wicked, Once) whose wildly popular runs make the venue one of America’s best draws. The Holland is home to the Omaha Symphony Orchestra and to a diverse slate of jazz, dance and specials that range from the Omaha Louder Than a Bomb poetry slam to the Hear Nebraska indie music showcase to the Salem Baptist Church holiday concert to Film Streams’ annual Feature event.

The buildings are rich in patron and guest amenities, the latest being the addition of Zinc restaurant just off the Holland courtyard.

Squires spent her first three years putting in place OPA’s infrastructure and branding, including the Ticket Omaha service it operates. She now has a full-time staff of 50 with another 50 part-time staff, plus a volunteer corps of more than 500.

“I’m really delighted with the administrative team here. They are passionate, committed, and talented. They drive so much of this business. We’re lucky to have our volunteer Ambassadors and Presenters. There are hundreds of people involved who are passionate and committed about Omaha Performing Arts.”

With its $18 million operating budget OPA is the state’s largest arts organization. It’s growth, even programmatically, has been gradual.

“You can’t be everything to everybody the day you open the doors,
so you phase it in in stages,” Squires says. “Also by the nature of presenting we’re continuously experimenting in what works or what doesn’t. One of the challenges our very first year is that the Orpheum schedule didn’t allow for much touring Broadway productions. When the symphony moved to the Holland the schedule opened up to allow us to build that Broadway market. That took time and now we’re having tremendous success. This next year is probably going to be our most successful yet. We’re having a wonderful response with subscriptions.”

The mixing and matching OPA does to serve different tastes is always a work in progress but Squires says, “We really have hit our stride in the series we offer. Broadway is one of the biggest draws but we get great responses to our jazz, dance, family and showcase series. New last year was the National Geographic Live Series. The 1200 Club has a following.

“Our mission is to bring in breadth, so we want to really provide a good cross-section to reach lots of segments and to grow audiences.”

The search for new headliners never ends.

“We always have opportunities to bring new shows in but sometimes when they’re touring we may not have availability, so we’re always juggling the schedule. It’s a complex and complicated process to book every year. It’s one of the biggest jigsaw puzzles you can imagine. It takes a lot of coordination to get it all put together.”

Image result for dick Holland omaha, ne
Dick Holland

More than numbers
She says while OPA depends on earned revenue for 75 percent of its budget, ticket sales are not the only barometer for success.

“For some types of performances, a thousand people is just great because that’s what we expected and budgeted.”

The experience people have is more important than anything.

“My favorite thing is to stand in the back of the theater and to watch a performance both for the quality of what’s happening on the stage and for the response of the audience,” she says. “You do all this work behind the scenes, booking the shows, selling the tickets and raising the money to make that happen and then you get the satisfaction of seeing those performances touch people.

“The arts have that capacity to move people in ways I think nothing else does.”

In addition to the performances it books OPA has a growing education and community engagement mission piece that brings school-age students together with visiting artists and recognizes area youth arts.

“It’s a real important initiative for us,” Squires says. “It’s a chance to reach the community in new ways and have them connect to the arts in ways they may not have a chance to otherwise.”

OPA’s implemented anti-bullying and social justice programs around certain shows and organized master classes with top artists. Its Nebraska High School Theater Awards program is going statewide.

She appreciates how OPA is increasingly seen as an arts leader.

“We’re becoming more and more respected nationally because of the success we’ve had, the quality of the programs and the quality of the buildings. Omaha’s on the map for the kind of work we’re doing.
Artist management companies recognize this is an important tour stop. We’ve been asked to be on some national symposiums and organizations, where we didn’t have that seat at the table in the past.”

Mario Garcia Durham, president and CEO of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP), says, “Running a large arts program and arts center is extremely challenging. The best nationally recognized arts organizations have the equally daunting tasks of presenting the very best artists available and truly engaging with their respective communities. These endeavors take years of dedicated commitment and experience. Kudos to Omaha Performing Arts and the Holland Performing Arts Center for their well-deserved success.”

A solid foundation and a bright future
Squires says OPA will continue building on what it’s done.

“There’s always more to do and more money to raise. That never stops. We never rest on our laurels. There’s always new opportunities for people to make a difference by giving to our institution. The philanthropic side, we’re always working. Nothing is ever a given.

“For the future we have set up the planned giving Marquee Society. Those gifts will go into a permanent endowment.”

She feels OPA’s proven itself a worthy recipient of planned gifts.

“We had to attract people in large numbers and financially we had to show we’re responsible by meeting our budget numbers every year, which we have done. If people have confidence in the organization then you can start to talk about the future so they can leave legacies that will continue to sustain these programs and facilities. These legacy gifts will ensure the longer term future of this institution.”

“We’ve started down that road and I think it’s going to be well-supported,” Gottschalk says of the endowment.

With a decade under its belt, Squires says OPA is squarely focused now on “where do we go from here, how do we build on our success and how do we continue to evolve and grow to continue to touch the community.”

Gottschalk says, “I think there’s more growth ahead for us in terms of amenities and facilities and programming.”

For event or ticket info, visit http://www.omahaperformingarts.org or http://www.ticketomaha.com.

“The generosity of the donors here has made this possible. We can have all the vision and passion we want but without that support none of this would have happened. Their continued commitment and philanthropy behind all this has been absolutely key.”

“…I felt there was an opportunity to bring to the community some of these great art forms and artists that didn’t have a place to perform or anybody to take charge of that. It felt like the puzzle pieces were all here to really make this organization a success. Everybody wanted this to succeed and I felt if we could put this together the right way we really could give Omaha something pretty special.”

“My favorite thing is to stand in the back of the theater and to watch a performance both for the quality of what’s happening on the stage and for the response of the audience. You do all this work behind the scenes, booking the shows, selling the tickets and raising the money to make that happen and then you get the satisfaction of seeing those performances touch people.”
-Joan Squires

“For a very young center we’re really advanced in terms of audience, finances, facilities and other ways. We’re a very healthy arts organization.
-John Gottschalk

“It’s added enormously to the luster that this is a great city through new events, new opportunities, new shows that bring in a pile of people from out of town.”
-Dick Holland

Paul Johnsgard: A Birder’s Road Less Traveled


Paul Johnsgard is an unassuming Great Plains genius whose writing, lecturing, illustrating and photographing of birds and the natural world have earned him and his work high distinction. He is also renowned for his wood carvings of waterfowl. His impressive skill set has resulted in him being called a Renaissance Man by some and a rare bird or a bird of a different feather by others. The best way I found into his story was to frame his deep passion for nature as an extension of the imprinting process that goes on with birds. Everything about where he grew up and how he grew up immersed him in nature and reinforced his fascination with birds and wild things until it became embedded or imprinted in him. He is one of the latest in that ever growing gallery of my profile subjects whose life and work epitomize what I highlight in my writing – “stories about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions.” Johnsgard’s regard for birds and the lengths he goes to observe, study, describe, illustrate, photograph than and to represent them in art are all about passion and magnificent obsession.

My profile of Johnsgard is the cover story in the July 2016 New Horizons that should be hitting stands and arrving in mailboxes by the end of June.

As an aside, whenever I do one of my new Horizons profiles I am reminded that the people of a certain age I profile in its pages are consistently the most complex, interesting subjects I write about. These people live rich, full lives marked by intellectual rigor, unbound curiosity, joyful work and play and a sense of adventure. They know themselves well enough by age 60 or 70 or 80 or 90 or whenever I get around to them to be comfortable in their own skin and to not much give a damn what anyone else thinks. They are well past pretense and posturing. They are al about living. They own every inch of their humanity, gifts and warts and all. It’s a refreshing and instructive lesson to live large and love hard.

 

2006 (Esquire image)

Paul Johnsgard in 2006 (Esquire image)

 

Paul Johnsgard: A Birder’s Road Less Traveled

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the July 2016 issue of New Horizons

 

A birder’s beginnings

World-renowned ornithologist Paul Johnsgard, 85, ascribes his passion for birds to something akin to the imprinting process that occurs with the winged creatures he’s made his life’s work.

For the University of Nebraska-Lincoln emeritus professor and author of 82 books, many illustrated with his own drawings and photos, this road-less-traveled life all began as a lad in North Dakota. His earliest memories are of birds and other natural things that captured his imagination while growing up on the edge of prairie country.

“The railroad track went through town and that was probably important because I could walk the railroad track and not get lost, and see birds and flowers,” he recalled. “I was unbelievably lucky I think.”

This Depression-era baby got exposed to the surrounding natural habitats of the Red River and of Lake Lida in Minnesota, where his family summered in a cottage. Those summer idylls gave him free range of unspoiled woods.

He loved the forests, grasslands, flowers, birds. But feather and fowl most fascinated him. Why?

“I don’t know,” he said, pausing a moment. “It’s their sense of freedom – they can fly anywhere and do anything. They have incredible grace. They’re wild. I’m not interested in domestic birds – turkeys and chickens and so on.”

Ah, the wild. From that Arcadian childhood through his adult field work, wild places and things have most captivated him. His appreciation for birds has ever deepened the more he’s observed them. Among other things, he admires their acuity.

Wonderful world of birds

Johnsgard wrote, “I’m absolutely convinced that there is a lot more to what they know and perceive than what humans observe. I honestly think that we are underestimating birds, and certainly other mammals, when we avoid anthropomorphism too rigorously.”

He told the New Horizons, “I even more believe that today. We’re learning things about bird intelligence that were not only unknown but unbelievable just a few years ago, such as their solving fairly complicated problems of putting things together to get at food and things like that that really require some kind of logic. The first person I think that really began to realize that was Irene Pepperberg (Brandeis University professor and Harvard University lecturer), who taught her parrot 300 or 400 words in English and the bird would put them together in not quite sentences but use them in that kind of a logical combination. I think that was one of the first major insights into how smart birds can be. They are remarkably aware of their environment and of any alterations in it, which is a measure of their intelligence.”

He has special admiration for one species – the crane – that has ancient roots and that mates for life. He’s so taken with the Sandhill Crane he’s devoted more words to its study than any other bird.  For decades he’s made a pilgrimage to see and record the annual Sandhill Crane migration in central Nebraska’s Platte River Valley,

“More than any bird I know,” he said, “they are amazingly aware of what’s going on. You don’t want to go anywhere near a crane nest because even if the female’s gone if she sees it has been disturbed she will abandon the nest. The only way you can do it safely is to wait until the nest is hatching – then she will stay there and protect it.”

His favorite bird has varied over time. “I think I was probably first enamored by Wood Ducks, which are so beautiful.  Then I became interested in swans, especially the Trumpeter Swan, and now, of course, cranes. Even though the Whooping Crane is bigger and more beautiful, I think I’m more attracted to the Sandhill Crane. I’ve spent so much time with them. I’ve probably not spent more than 10 hours looking at Whooping Cranes. They’re so rare. The chances of seeing them in Nebraska are remote at best.  But there’s a plethora of Sandhills.”

 

 

Thousands of greater sandhill cranes lift off from their island roosts at dawn along the North Platte River downstream from Oshkosh, Neb.

Thousands of greater sandhill cranes lift off from their island roosts at dawn along the North Platte River downstream from Oshkosh, Neb. (Courtesy/Stephen Jones

 

Sandhill Crane

Photo: usfws

 

 

The great migration

He has a special perch from which to watch the Sandhill Crane migration unfold courtesy of a cabin owned by internationally known wildlife photographer, Tom Mangelsen. The two men go way back. Mangelsen, a Grand Island native who did part of his growing up in Omaha, was a student and field assistant under Johnsgard, who mentored him in the 1970s. These friends and colleagues have collaborated on several projects, including a documentary Mangelsen shot and Johnsgard wrote about the Sandhill Cranes and for a new book A Chorus of Cranes.

Johnsgard is among the ranks who feel the spring migration is one of the greatest shows on Earth. It is a sensory experience to behold between the massive numbers on the ground and in the air and the swell of their trumpeting call.

“It’s a combination of place and sight and sound, all of which are unique,” he said. “To have 50,000 cranes overhead is quite something. Cranes are among the loudest birds in the world, so it just about blows your eardrums out when they’re all screaming. And to have a sunset or a sunrise, as the case may be, and to have this beautiful river flowing in front of you – it just all makes for a unique site in the world. It’s all those things coming together.”

Johnsgard’s prose is usually straightforward but there are times he uses a more literary style if it fits the subject, and he can’t think of anything more deserving than cranes,

“In my book Crane Music there’s a section on the cranes returning to the Platte in the spring that I wrote in the style of a kind of prayer: ‘There’s a season in the heart of Nebraska and there’s a bird in the heart of Nebraska and there’s a place in the heart of Nebraska…’ So those three paragraphs come together and then I wrote – ‘There’s a magical time when the bird and the season and the place all come together.'”

In a CBS Sunday Morning report on the migration Johnsgard described the amplified cacophony made by that many cranes  “as the sounds of a chorus of angels, none of whom could sing on key, but all trying as hard as they can.” The naturalist also described what these majestic birds remind him of. “It’s almost like watching ballet in slow motion, because the wing beats are slow and they move in such an elegant way.”

Johnsgard explained to the New Horizons why the area around Kearney, Nebraska is the epicenter for this mass gathering that goes back before recorded time. An ancestral imperative has  brought the birds yearly through millennia and the presence of humans has not yet disrupted this hard-wired pattern.

“Well, Kearney didn’t do anything to attract it, but the Platte River had become increasingly crowded with vegetation, both upstream and downstream, so all these wonderful sandbars were disappearing and the area around Kearney was one of the last places where the Platte was something like its original form. Lots of bars and islands and not too much disturbance. The birds from the whole upper Platte and even the North Platte were being crowded more and more together and so now you have over 500,000 in an area of no more than 50 miles.

“If it were normal conditions, then in those same 50 miles you might have 40,000 or 50,000.”

The cranes that arrive in March and April, he said, “are not getting as much food as they should be getting, so they’re having to leave the Platte due to food competition before they really have as much fat on them as they should.”

He said conservation measures help by controlling dam water releases and diversions for irrigation, recreation and other uses and therefore keeping steady water levels through the year. The shallow Platte and its surrounding vegetation is a fragile ecosystem that requires monitoring and intervention. The Platte has benefited from a river management agreement between Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska to share the water and maintain enough flow for Whooping Cranes and other  endangered species. The Sandhill Cranes are not endangered.

He expects the compact to be renewed before it expires, but it will require the governors of all three states to re-up. He feels the measures are adequate to protect the cranes and other wildlife that make the migration a wonder of the world.

Even though he’s been going to catch that great display of plumage for years now, it never ceases to enthrall him.

“It just about gives me chills,” he said. “I call it nirvana. It pretty much is like a state of bliss.”

That feeling is shared by many. When Johnsgard took noted nature writer David Quammen out to the Platte for the migration he wasn’t sure what this much-traveled adventurer would make of it since “he’s been everywhere to see the natural world,” said Johnsgard. “I took him out to a blind one late afternoon at the Crane Trust and everything happened perfectly and he said, ‘You know, of all the places I’ve been and all the things I’ve seen this is probably the best time I’ve ever had watching birds.’ He did say there’s a bird sanctuary in India where storks come in in a somewhat similar way but that it’s the only thing that could possibly match what we saw.”

Acclaimed conservationist and chimp expert Jane Goodall has been joining Johnsgard and Mangelsen for crane watching expeditions since about 2000. Even though she’s seen so much of the natural world she told CBS’s Dean Reynolds, “I wasn’t quite prepared for the absolutely unbelievable, glorious spectacle of all these thousands of birds coming in. It’s just unbeatable, and it’s really peaceful.”

 

2007, Spring Creek

2007, Spring Creek

 

A confluence of interest

None of this would have happened for Johnsgard – from hanging out in blinds with celebs to his words reaching general audiences – if not for a string of things that transpired in his youth. His call to be a birder started just as he entered school.

“When I was 5 or 6 I asked Mother for the salt shaker so I could go out and put salt on a Robin’s tail. Do you know that story?” he asked a visitor at his UNL office. “Well, it goes that if you put salt on a bird’s tail it becomes tame, and I wanted to have a tame Robin. I spent a lot of time trying to do that. I wanted to touch them.”

He made his first drawings of birds then, too. But the real origin of his imprinting may be traced to an experience in first grade.

“My first-grade teacher, Hazel Bilstead, had a mounted male Red-winged Blackbird in a glass Victorian bell jar. She lifted the glass and let me touch it and that really captured my attention. I’d never seen anything that beautiful that close. I’ve never forgotten it. I remember it as well as I did that very day. I think that my need to see live birds in detail began at that time. I later dedicated one of my books to Miss Bilstead’s memory.”

His passion got further fed when a camera (Baby Brownie Special) first came into his life at 7 or 8. He’s not been without a camera since. He’s gone through the whole evolution of 35 millimeter models. He shoots digital images today. On one of his office computers alone he estimates he has more than 20,000 archived photographs.

He supports high tech image capture projects like one by the Crane Trust that has camouflaged game cameras programmed to take pictures every half hour or when motion is detected.

“These six weeks or so the birds spend in the Platte Valley are critically important for them to acquire the amount of fat — energy — they need for the rest of their spring and summer activities. So it really is important to get this kind of data,” he told a reporter.

Even though he grew up hunting – it was simply part of the culture he was raised in – he eventually gave up the gun for the camera. “It increasingly bothered me to kill things that I spent hours watching,” he wrote.

The sanctity of nature became more and more impressed upon him the more time he spent in it. Having the sanctuary of those woods near the family lake cottage nourished him.

“I’d wander around there with my dog and chase skunks and get chased by skunks, look for bears. I’d heard there were some. I developed a little wildflower garden from the flowers in the woods and tended it until we finally sold the cottage in 2005. It was still thriving then.”

Many people played a role in nurturing his Thoreau-like rapture.

“My mother’s cousin Bud Morgan was a game warden and by the time I was 12 he realized I really loved birds, so he’d take me along and we’d count ducks and just talk about birds. That really helped a lot actually in directing my studying waterfowl. He taught me how to identify waterfowl.”

Thirsty to know everything he could about birds, Johnsgard practically memorized what books on the subject his town library held. One he used to particularly “delight in” is T.S. Roberts’ two-volume The Birds of Minnesota.

“I thought it remarkable that a little town library carried it because it was an expensive book for the time. It was a wonderful book. Still is.”

As it was readily apparent that young Paul was crazy about birds, his parents and others happily indulged his curiosity by gifting him with books that any birder would be proud to own. As a result, he possess today several first editions of classics,  including Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and  F.H. Kortright’s Ducks, Geese, and Swans of North America. He has a later edition of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America.

He got his first field guide in college.

Until recently brought to his attention, Johnsgard said he didn’t realize how so many early life elements reinforced his interest in nature and birds. That background set him off on his odyssey as naturalist, wildlife biologist, birder, author and more.

 

Johnsgard smiling

 

Renaissance man

Tom Mangelsen (Images of Nature), who knows Johnsgard as well as anyone, said of him, “He’s a wonderful man and really inspirational. Nobody’s done that many books on birds. He’s remarkably prolific and a major intellect. It’s been a long, wonderful journey for me. We are dear friends.”

Mangelsen said Johnsgard likes to tell people that while he was not his best student he is his most famous former pupil. The two also enjoy sharing the fact that Johnsgard accepted him as a graduate student not based on his grades, which were poor, but on the family cabin Mangelsen offered him access to.

As far as Mangelsen’s concerned, Johnsgard is a real “Renaissance Man.” Indeed, in addition to being a scientist, educator, author, illustrator and photographer, Johnsgard’s a highly regarded artist. Several of his drawings and wood bird sculptures are in private collections or museums. For his line drawings he works from photo composites and specimens.

“Having photographs makes it possible to draw them accurately. A photograph though won’t give you much more than just an outline so you really need to be able to look at the thing from the front, from the sides, from the top to get a sense for its shape. So I like to have a specimen if I can. Most of the time I’ve been here I’ve had access to a reasonably good collection of stuffed birds. If that doesn’t do it, I can go over to the state museum and look at things.”

This stickler for details notices when people take artistic license or just don’t get it right.

“When I was in London at the National Gallery there was a painting by Rembrandt of a dead black grouse upside down ready to be plucked. It had the wrong number of primary feathers on the wing, so he wasn’t a birder.”

Johnsgard’s waterfowl carvings are much admired. He is self-taught. “I’ve been at it since I was a Boy Scout,” he said. One of his carvings is in the permanent collection of the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery in Lincoln. “It’s a full-sized Trumpeter Swan preening. Up until then it was by far the biggest carving I’d done. It weighed about 50 pounds.”  He based it on a photo he saw in National Geographic. He didn’t know what to do with the carving when he finished it.

“It was so big that the only place I could put it at home was on top of the damn refrigerator. It was gathering dust up there. Sheldon’s then-director, George Neubert, asked if I could loan him some of my decoys for a folk art show, so I put that thing down there and after it was over he asked me if I’d consider selling it. He told me later he thought it was one of the 10 best acquisitions he got during his time as director.

“Audrey Kauders, director of MONA (Museum of Nebraska Art), has been after me for years to give them a carving. Every time I see her, she says, ‘You promised me a carving.’ I’ve gotta do it.”

He is that rare scientist to have crossed over from academia to the mainstream. Some of that attention has come from the prolific number of nature books he’s written. A book he did with his daughter Karin Johnsgard, Dragons and Unicorns: A Natural History, is an allegorical-metaphorical work that’s never been out of print from St. Martin’s Press. Some of his straight nature books have been popular with the general public. His essays and articles in NebraskalandNebraska Life and Prairie Fire have enjoyed wide readership. Then there’s the public speaking he does and the media interviews he gives.

“Anyone who has made a trip west to see the Sandhill Cranes is familiar with Paul Johnsgard,” said Julie Masters of Omaha. “His books, lectures and interviews on the subject inspire. To experience the cranes through his eyes is a great gift.”

Masters recently developed a friendship with him that’s enriched her appreciation for nature.

“I happened to be on the UNL campus in January and saw him out walking. We struck up a conversation and have been meeting every few weeks to discuss cranes and all sorts of other birds. It is a great privilege to learn about bird behavior from this highly regarded ornithologist ”

 

Johnsgard and Mangelsen B & W

Paul Johnsgard and Tom Mangelsen, ©Sue Cedarholm

 

Reverence for nature

While Johnsgard appreciates having his work recognized and enjoyed, he could do without the fuss or fame, such as a recent Esquire magazine piece he was part of that featured “Men of Style” from different walks of life. He would much rather commune with wild things than reporters. He’s most at home sitting patiently in a blind watching birds or marveling at the array of wildlife drawn to a water hole on the Serengeti or contemplating the flora and fauna of the High Rockies. These are mystical spots and interludes for him.

“If I had a religion, it would be nature,” he said, “I think watching birds is the most spiritually rewarding thing I do.”

He realizes the notion runs counter to science but doesn’t much care, though he’s quick to point out, “I don’t believe in any god per se, but I have a reverence for what I see in nature, I don’t think those things were created by a god, but they’re god-like aspects of the world, Without wild things and wild places in the world it’d be a pretty dreary place, so I have that maybe Eisley (Loren)-like or Neihardt (John)-like idea of the world.”

Reading Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks “mesmerized” Johnsgard, particularly the appearance of Snow Geese in several of Black Elk’s visions. Johnsgard, who was already considering a book on Snow Geese. felt compelled to respond in a new work that counterpointed what he knew about the biology of that bird with Native American views of it.

“I couldn’t sleep, so I started scribbling the outlines of what became Song of the North Wind. I went to the library and found all I could on the beliefs of the Plains Indians and also the Inuit.

I finally decided I had enough to write a book. I went up to the nesting grounds in Western Hudson Bay before I finished it.”

Rhapsodizing about the sacredness of nature is one thing, just don’t preach to Johnsgard about thou shalt dos and do-nots.

“I don’t go to church and I get pretty upset with people who are overly religious. I have been a member of the Unitarian Church. I went mostly for the good music and the important issues they talked about, but I haven’t been back in a long time. I prefer to spend my Sunday doing other things.”

The concept of a Higher Power, he said, is “something so amorphous it’s hard to put into objective words,” adding, “I think for everybody it’s a pretty personal thing.”

Questions big and small still consume Johnsgard, who juggles three book projects at any given time. In June he submitted the page proofs for his latest, The North American Grouse, Their Biology and Behavior. Now that the retired scholar is freed from teaching, he does whatever books come to mind these days but especially on subjects that he fills a void in.

Having reached the point where he doesn’t care about royalties anymore, he puts his work in the public domain via Digital Commons, where anyone can download his books for free.

 

Johnsgard at brick wall (for Leo)

 

As the bird flies 

Not surprising for an octogenarian of arts and letters, his two-room office on the Lincoln campus is crammed with books as well as art and artifacts from his many travels studying birds across North America, Europe, Africa, South America, Australia. His extensive collection extends to his home.

A prized birding site he’s never been to is in the Himalayas, where the Black Necked Crane resides. “It never comes below 8,000 feet. It’s the last crane in the world I haven’t seen. There’s very few in captivity. I did see a pair at the International Crane Foundation. But the ultimate in birding is to go to the Himalayas to see this incredibly rare bird. I don’t think I’ll make it because my heart isn’t up to those altitudes anymore.

“There’s still four species of waterfowl in the world I haven’t seen and I don’t think I ever will. They’re in places like Madagascar and the East Indies – hard to get to and probably not worth the time and expense and effort to try to do it. But it’s still fun to think about what might be special about them.”

Most of his birding adventures are uneventful but he’s had close calls. A harrowing incident occurred in the Andes. “A guide and I were coming down off an 11,000 foot volcano in a jeep I’d rented when it suddenly lost its brakes on a one-way narrow road looking down on a canyon probably 3,000 feet deep. The road was lined with bushes and I thought the only way I could possibly stop was if I drove into the bushes and used them to slow us down. They finally did and we got the jeep stopped. We looked at the brake connection and where there should have been a bolt there was a leather shoe lace somebody used as a temporary measure. We retied the leather and made it down.”

On other excursions, he said, “I’ve been in really life threatening situations where I should have never gone. The worst place was Oaxaca, Mexico.” Drug cartel-fueled killings and kidnappings happen there. “The biologist who was there before me was macheted to death. I was advised to carry a pistol, so I got one at a pawnshop in Lincoln and as soon as I got home I took it back.” Johnsgard never had reason to use it.

During that same trip he realized as his departure drew near he lacked permits for the birds he’d captured. They were supposed to be quarantined, but he didn’t have the time. “So I thought I’d take a chance,” he said. Wishing to avoid a customs snag, he waited till midnight to access a remote border crossing point. When an inquisitive guard asked what he was carrying in back of the van he was driving Johnsgard acknowledged the birds but left out the part about restrictions on import. The guard then asked “What else you got back there?” and Johnsgard replied, “Well, that’s about it and it’s fine if you check back there, but look out for the snake – he might have escaped,” whereupon the guard whisked him through with, “Go on, get out of here.”

Paul Johnsgard – born smuggler.

He delivered his birds back to Lincoln and got a paper out of it.

A splendid place for birding without any drama is the Waterfowl Trust in England, where Johnsgard studied two years in the 1960s. It holds special meaning because he was befriended by its founder, the late Sir Peter Scott, who became a key figure in his life. Scott was the son of legendary British explorer Robert Falcon Scott, whose second Antarctic expedition ended in tragedy when he and his men died on the return trek after reaching the South Pole.

“Peter was 2 years old at the time,” Johnsgard explains. “The last thing Robert Scott wrote to his wife read, ‘Make the boy interested in natural history” So, growing up, it was sort of incumbent on Peter to become a biologist.”

He did. He also became a renowned wildlife artist. “The art work is what made him famous,” Johnsgard said. “He was a wonderful artist.” Just like his father before him, Peter Scott became a national hero. “He was involved in the Dunkirk extraction of  British troops during World War II, Then he put together this great collection of birds. At the time I went to study at the Wildlife Trust it was the best in the world, Every species has its own unique aspects and that’s part of the fun of studying this. When I had 120 species of waterfowl in England it was like opening 120 gift boxes because they’re all a little different and its fun trying to describe how they are different.”

Scott helped start the World Wildlife Fund.

“He was a great symbol to me I guess of what you could do in art and conservation.”

Johnsgard said his time at the Wildfowl Trust “was incredibly important – it gave me the experience to write books and a world view. I met some of the most famous biologists of the day there.” The Nebraska transplant thought enough of his British counterpart that he and his wife named one of their sons after him. “I dedicated one of my books to him as well. He did a painting as a favor to me for one of my big books. I have all of his big books and he inscribed each one with a watercolor on the title page. He was a very kind and wonderful person. I had the highest possible regard for him.”

Scott pursued his interests up until his death at age 79 in 1989.

 

 

A cradle to the grave creative 

Though officially retired, Johnsgard shows no signs of slowing down at 85. He wakes up most days at 4 a.m. and he either reads or writes at home before going to the office. He’s as busy as ever researching and writing about birds and habitats. Before he ever gets around to writing a book he assembles references. Hundreds of them. Once he starts writing, he’s fast. He admits that his work is “a compulsion.”

He feels his rare triple threat skills to not only write but illustrate and photograph books makes his projects more palatable to publishers. He said mastering things comes with repetition. “I think talent is largely what you put into it in terms of practice.”

He’s been producing things since he was small and he fully expects to continue creating until he dies.

His new friend Julie Masters, professor and chair of the Department of Gerontology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, views him as a model for health aging.

“As the population ages, we need people who show us that creativity can and does increase with age,” she said. “Paul Johnsgard is someone who serves as an ideal role model for us all. His passion and enthusiasm for life and the beauty of nature allow those of us who are less learned a glimpse into a world that is made even more awesome through his instruction.”

Johnsgard is just grateful he found his calling and stayed true to the road-less-traveled. “I don’t know anybody I’d trade my life with. I’ve been very lucky.”

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

Girls Inc. makes big statement with addition to renamed North Omaha center


Girls Inc. of Omaha has added to the heavy slate of north side inner city redevelopment  with a major addition that’s prompted the renaming of its North O facility to the Katherine Fletcher Center. Though the center’s longtime home, the former Clifton Hill Elementary School building, remains in use by Girls Inc. and is getting a makeover, the connected 55,000 square foot addition is so big and colorful and adds so much space for expanded programs and new services that it is the eye candy of this story. Here is a sneak peek at my story for the June issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com) about what the addition will mean to this organization and to the at-risk girls it inspires to be “strong, smart and bold.” The $15 million project is another investment in youth, opportunity and community in North O on top of what has already happened there in recent years (NorthStar Foundation, No More Empty Pots, Nelson Mandela School) and what is happening there right now (Union for Contemporary Art getting set to move into the renovated Blue Lion Center, the North 75 Highlander Village under construction, the three new trades training buildings going up on the Metro Fort Omaha campus). But so much more yet is needed.

 

 

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North Omaha Girls Inc. makes big statement with addition

New Katherine Fletcher Center offers expanded facilities, programs

 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in the June 2016 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

A poor inner city North Omaha neighborhood recently gained a $15 million new investment in its at-risk youth.

The Girls Inc. center at 2811 North 45th Street long ago outgrew its digs in the former Clifton Hill Elementary School but somehow made do in cramped, out-dated quarters. Last month the nonprofit dedicated renovations to the old building as well as the addition of an adjoining 55.000 square foot structure whose extra space and new facilities allow expanded programming and invite more community participation. The changes prompted the complex being renamed the Katherine Fletcher Center in honor of the late Omaha educator who broke barriers and fought for civil rights. The addition is among many recently completed and ongoing North O building projects worth hundreds of millions dollars in new development there.

This local after school affiliate of the national Girls Inc. takes a holistic approach to life skills, mentoring, career readiness, education enrichment and health-wellness opportunities it provides girls ages 5 through 18. Members are largely African-American, many from single parent homes. Others are in foster care. Young girls take pre-STEM Operation SMART through the College of Saint Mary. Older girls take the Eureka STEM program through the University of Nebraska at Omaha. There are also healthy cooking classes, aquaponics, arts, crafts, gardening, sports, field trips and an annual excursion outside Nebraska. Girls Inc. also awards secondary and post-secondary scholarships.

The addition emphasizes health and wellness through a gymnasium featuring a regulation size basketball court with overhead track, a fitness room, a health clinic operated by the University of Nebraska Medical Center, a space devoted to yoga, meditation, massage and a media room. Amenities such as the gym and clinic and an outdoor playground are open to the public. The clinic’s goal is to encourage more young women, including expectant and new mothers, to access health care, undergo screenings and get inoculations.

Dedicated teen rooms give older girls their own spaces to hang out or study rather than share space with younger girls as in the older facility. Multi-use spaces there became inadequate to serve the 200 or so girls who daily frequent the center.

“I think we’ll see more teens in our programs because this expansion separates them from the younger girls and provides more opportunities to get drawn into our programs,” says executive director Roberta Wilhelm. “They may start as drop-ins but we foresee them getting involved in the more core programs and becoming consistent members. So, we think we’ll impact more girls and families.”

A big, bright, open indoor commons area, the Girls Hub, is where the brick, circa 1917 historic landmark meets the glass and steel addition.

“The design team showed great respect for how to best join the two buildings and for the importance of this space and for the social aspects of how girls gather and interact,” Wilhelm says.

The impressive, brightly colored, prominently placed new addition – atop a hill with a commanding view – gives the organization a visual equivalent to its “strong, smart and bold” slogan.

“It’s a big statement,” says director of health access Carolyn Green. “It speaks loudly, it brings awareness, it turns heads. People can’t wait to come through and see what is all in here.”

 

Roberta and Mychael

 

Before the open house program director Emily Mwaja referenced the high anticipation. saying, “I’m ready, the girls are ready, we’re ready for everything.”

Girls Inc. member Desyree McGhee, 14, says, “I’m excited for the new building. I feel it’s giving us girls the opportunity for bigger and better things and bringing us together with the community. I just feel like a lot of good things could come from it.” Her grandmother, Cheryl Greer, who lives across the street, appreciates what it does for youth like Desyree and for the neighborhood. “It’s just like home away from home. I have seen her grow. She’s turning into a very mature, respectful young lady. I think Girls Inc. is a wonderful experience for these girls to grow up to be independent, educated adults. The center is a great asset for them and the community.”

McGhee says Girls Inc. empowers her “to not just settle for the bare minimum but to go beyond and follow your dreams. It’s really given me the confidence to thrive in this world. They really want you to go out and leave your mark. I love Girls Inc. That’s my second family.”

Girls Inc. alum Camille Ehlers, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate, says caring adults “pour into you” the expectations and rewards youth need. “It was motivating to me to see how working hard would pay off.” She says she felt called to be strong, smart and bold. “That’s what I can make my life – I can create that.” Mentors nudged her to follow her passion for serving at-risk students, which she does at a South Side of Chicago nonprofit. Denai Fraction, a UNL pre-med grad now taking courses at UNO before medical school, says Girls Inc. nurtured her dream of being a doctor. Both benefited from opportunities that stretched them and their horizons. McGhee is inspired by alums like them and Bernie Sanders National Press Secretary Symone Sanders who prove anything is possible.

Wilhelm says, “Girls Inc. removes barriers to help girls find their natural strengths and talents and when you do that over a period of years with groups of girls you’re helping affect positive change. A lot of the girls are strong and resilient and have chops to get through life and school but if we can remove some barriers they will go so much farther and be able to accomplish so much more. We see ourselves in that business.

“If you help a girl delay pregnancy so she’s not a teen mom, it’s a health outcome, an education outcome, a job outcome, it’s all of those things, they’re all tied together. If you are feeding girls who are hungry that impacts academics and also impacts growing bodies. I do think our holistic model has become more intentional, more focused. We use a lot more partners in the community who bring expertise, We are all partners with parents and families in lifting up girls. The Girls Inc. experience is all these things but the secret sauce is the relationships adult mentors, staff and volunteers cultivate with youth.” Alums come back to engage girls in real talk about college, career and relationships. The shared Girls Inc. expereince creates networking bonds.

She says support doesn’t stop when girls age out. “Even after they graduate they call us for help. We encourage that reaching out. They know there’s someone on the other end of the phone they can trust.”Assistance can mean advice, referrals, funds or most anything.

 

Girls Inc. of Omaha

 

Everyone from alums and members to staff and volunteers feel invested in the bigger, bolder, smarter Girls Inc.

“It’s not just about the million dollar donors,” Wilhelm says. “We all have ownership in this. I always tell the girls, ‘The community invests in you for a reason. They want you to create a better future for yourself, to be a good student, to focus on education, to live healthy, to make good choices. They think you’re worth this investment.'”

She says there’s no better investment than girls.

“Girls make decisions when they grow up for their families for education and health. To the extent you can educate girls to make wise decisions and choices you really do start to see cycle breaking changes. How you educate girls, how you treat girls, how you invest in girls matters over time and we’re a piece of that, so we’re foundational.

The girls graduating college now are maybe going to be living and working in this community and hopefully be a part of the solution to make North O more attractive to retain the best and brightest.”

Visit girlsincomaha.org.

 

Omaha Children’s Museum All Grown Up at 40: Celebrating Four Decades of Letting Children’s Imagination Run Free


In 30-plus years of writing about Omaha arts, entertainment, and culture there are very few attractions I have not done a piece on. In some cases I have written multiple stories related to the same venue. An exception to all this was the Omaha Children’s Museum. Our paths simply hadn’t crossed in all that time, though I do remember going there during my early journalism career. Just can’t remember why. But I sure don’t recall writing about it. With this Metro Magazine story about that venue, which celebrates 40 years in 2016, i can cross another one off the list. The museum got off to a very entrepreneurial but humble start and it seemed to plateau several years ago until a reinvestment was made that’s been the catalyst for a resurgence that has seen attendance steadily rise and programming and exhibits progressively increase. Now the museum is running out of space and looking at options to accommodate its current bursting at the seams activity and expected additional growth. The future looks bright and busy and the musuem is deciding whether to expand at its present downtown site or two look at either retrofitting another site, preferably downtown, or building a new museum from the ground up. My story looks back at the museum’s history, charts its growth, and looks ahead to the future.

Visit the digital edition of the magazine and my story at–

http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/

 

 

Omaha Children’s Museum All Grown Up at 40: Celebrating Four Decades of Letting Children’s Imagination Run Free 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the May-June-July 2016 issue of Metro Magazine–(http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)

 

This summer Omaha Children’s Museum joins select local attractions boasting 40 years in operation. With 300,000 annual visitors and 10,000 memberships, OCM is enjoying its greatest growth phase now.

Founder Karen Levin suggests why OCM’s proving so popular.

“It’s a very different breed. It’s where people come to play. There’s no expectations, there’s no right or wrong. Interactive learning, sharing and socialization is the theme. What you put into the experience you get out of it. It’s a very multifaceted experience.”

The two women most closely identified with the institution, Levin, and current Executive Director Lindy Hoyer, never expected to run a children’s organization.

Levin was bound for a social work career when she visited the Boston Children’s Museum in 1973. Her “visceral response” led her to work there. That experience inspired her to pursue a children’s museum in Omaha after moving here in 1975.

“It changed my life. It ended up defining my life. It became my passion. It is still my passion.”

 

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Karen Levin

 

She cultivated folks who caught her vision and together they opened OCM as a mobile museum in 1976. Levin says the late Evie Zysman, a social worker and early childhood education advocate, led her to key supporters, including Jane Ford. The late Susan Thompson Buffett gave seed money and recommended attorney David Karnes, who legally incorporated OCM and became an ardent supporter with his late wife Liz. Their garage served as its storage unit and their ’74 Oldsmobile station wagon carted exhibits and supplies.

“I also did much of the corporate fundraising as we got started,” recalls Karnes. “We needed to introduce the OCM story and dream to all that would listen and it was a story many loved to hear and eventually supported,”

 

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David Karnes

 

He and other early board members Susan Lebens, Jim Leuschen and John Birge were raising families and they bonded over developing a stimulating environment for their kids as well as kids community-wide.

Karnes was drawn to supporting a place where children could explore, touch, dress up, play in unstructured ways and be “in charge.” The Karnes brought their four daughters, all of whom he says “have a warm spot in their hearts for the museum and know how much it meant to me and Liz and how hard we worked to make it a success.” Those daughters live elsewhere now but “when they return with my grandkids,” he says. “they love to visit OCM.”

 

 

OCM’s old enough now that multiple generations enjoy it. Now remarried, Karnes is a parent again and he says his two new daughters “love the museum and visit often” with he and wife Kristine.

As a new grandparent, Susan Lebens is thrilled to be “back” at the museum.

John Birge, a principal architect with RNG, has fond memories of taking his then-young children to the museum and now that his kids are parents themselves he enjoys taking his grandchildren there.

 

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John Birge

 

“It’s just like de jeu watching my four grandchildren working their way through that whole building and listening them talk about all the experiences and what they like doing there,” Birge says. “It’s one generation later, but it’s the same idea.”

Board chairman Trent Demulling says, “It is the one place I go with my kids I’m never looking at my cellphone because it’s so fun to watch them play. They’re always looking back to see what you’re observing and looking for validation of what they’re doing or of what they’ve built.”

Veteran board member Sandy Parker says, “OCM was the place my boys could explore, get messy, imitate, imagine, inquire, play and just be kids. The boys and I used the museum a lot when they were young. I became president of the Guild  in the early ’90s, went on the Governing Board after that and have been on the board ever since. I’ve chaired the For the Kids Benefit and assisted in a couple of capital campaigns. Back in the day when there wasn’t much money Guild members would volunteer their time helping make and paint exhibits. We brought our kids. We all became friends – the moms and the kids.”

 

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Sandy Parker

 

Birge says the museum’s been “a catalyst for bringing young professionals into community leadership roles,” adding, “We were all together helping build this idea of a museum and we all went on to be very successful in doing cool things in Omaha in nontraditional ways.”

He says everybody involved wanted the museum to be world-class.

“We were a bunch of people who said, ‘We can do this.’ We kept getting great leadership in terms of board members as well as paid staff who were going to make it the biggest and best thing it could be.”

He’s proud OCM’s intertwined in “the fabric of the community.”

His daughter Alexis Boulos carries on family tradition as a volunteer (with the Guild) and engaged parent.

“I not only enjoyed the museum as a child I watched my parents volunteer their time and talents and now it’s so rewarding to give back myself and to watch my kids develop their creativity there.”

Dad and daughter marvel at how robust OCM is today. None of it could have happened without its founder. “Karen Levin was relentless in pushing that vision and she was not going to let go,” Birge says.

Monies that secured OCM’s initial footing came from the Dayton Hudson Foundation, whose grant helped pay for the first programs and exhibits. A  CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) grant paid for staff.

OCM went from itinerant displays in shopping malls, libraries, schools and at events to renting a small, makeshift space in the Omaha-Douglas County “connector” building. Then it moved to larger, repurposed  digs at 18th and St. Mary before occupying its present site, 500 South 20th Street, in the old McFadden Ford auto dealership.

 

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Lindy Hoyer

 

A decade after the museum formed Lindy Hoyer was a recent college graduate looking to apply her theater degree to a stage career when she took a job at OCM. Hired as a secretary, her skills proved better suited to facilitating play with kids in the exhibits area.

“My whole life I’ve been drawn to children and when I got the chance to see children engage and interact at the museum i just knew this is my passion,” says Hoyer, who found OCM a great place to grow herself professionally. “This organization was so young and fledgling that there were lots of new things to do and take charge of.”

After eight years she left for the Lincoln (Neb.) Children’s Museum before retuning in 2002. She found OCM in a state of physical fatigue.

“We had to make really tough decisions. Even though the audience grows up and grows out and there’s a new audience coming in every eight years, you have to keep the exhibits fresh. So often children’s museums get exhibits built and then the resources to replenish those over time never get accumulated and so things get worn down, broken

and over time that shows. The place was suffering desperately from that when I started back in 2002. We did some things to replenish,

but we were starting to get there again.”

Since making upgrades, targeting early childhood audiences and working with community partners to build exhibits OCM’s enjoyed an unbroken rise in attendance. The first of the community themed and sponsored exhibits, Construction Zone, in partnership with Kiewit, was a huge hit. Next came The Big Backyard and a slew of permanent displays by First National Bank. Walker Tire and Auto, Hy Vee. Omaha Steaks and Children’s Hospital & Medical Center.

Community and traveling exhibits, plus educational programs make OCM a thriving, financially stable destination place with huge buy-in.

“It’s nice to be running a nonprofit organization in a community where we can be bold and daring within the context of a strategy and a mission and work that backs that up,” Hoyer says. “We understand our audience and we listen to them and we take what they say seriously.”

Levin admires how far OCM’s come.

“We built a very strong foundation and then it just kind of blossomed. I think the community has always embraced the museum. Everyone owns it. Parents seek it out. It belongs to Omaha.”

She credits the leadership of Hoyer, the board and a staff that is “engaged, active, smart” for creating such a strong operation.

But OCM has challenges. Its landlocked downtown home is woefully short on office, storage and parking space. It also faces millions of dollars in deferred maintenance. Meanwhile, more visitors pour in.

Board chair Trent Demulling says for a recent master planning process “we evaluated what the museum could be and we did not constrain ourselves in dreaming big.” He adds, “Now we have to align that with reality in terms of what funding is available.”

 

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Trent Demulling

 

He and Hoyer say everything’s on the table – from expanding the present facility to finding a larger existing structure to building anew.

“I think management, the board and community leaders really need to think about what is Omaha willing to invest in the Omaha Children’s Museum,” Demulling says, “and what are the things we can get done in order to serve more people to give them an even better experience.”

Until a plan is finalized, OCM will continue stimulating children’s tactile senses and imagination in the same digs it’s occupied since 1989. Meanwhile, OCM celebrates 40 years of congaing minds and bodies.

“It’s an exciting time to be a part of the Omaha Children’s Museum,” says Hoyer. “The next step isn’t determined yet, but I know as long as we stay true to our mission to engage the imagination and spark excitement for learning, it’s going to be the right one. Whatever happens next will benefit generations to come.”

Visit http://www.ocm.org.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

 

 

SELECT OMAHA CHILDREN’S MUSEUM 40TH ANNIVERSARY EVENTS

In February OCM unveiled an interactive 40th anniversary art piece at the main entrance along with a vintage station wagon commemorating the museum’s start as a traveling program. The vehicle has a photo app visitors can use to share pictures on social media.

June 24 – Donor Celebration

This black tie event is for donors, past and present board members and others instrumental in the museum’s history. A cocktail hour will be held at the museum and a formal dinner and program will follow at Founders One Nine down the street hosted by longtime OCM supporters Mike and Susan Lebens.

June 25 – Birthday Celebration

Enjoy birthday cake and special activities throughout the day.

June 26 – Sundae Sunday

Celebrity scoopers will dole out ice cream sundaes to commemorate a popular activity from OCM’s past.

October 15 – ImagiNation

This 10,000 square foot traveling exhibit will feature elements from some of OCM’s most popular displays over its 40 year history.

SELECT OMAHA CHILDREN’S MUSEUM 40TH ANNIVERSARY EVENTS

In February OCM unveiled an interactive 40th anniversary art piece at the main entrance along with a vintage station wagon commemorating the museum’s start as a traveling program. The vehicle has a photo app visitors can use to share pictures on social media.

June 24 – Donor Celebration

This black tie event is for donors, past and present board members and others instrumental in the museum’s history. A cocktail hour will be held at the museum and a formal dinner and program will follow at Founders One Nine down the street hosted by longtime OCM supporters Mike and Susan Lebens.

June 25 – Birthday Celebration

Enjoy birthday cake and special activities throughout the day.

June 26 – Sundae Sunday

Celebrity scoopers will dole out ice cream sundaes to commemorate a popular activity from OCM’s past.

October 15 – ImagiNation

This 10,000 square foot traveling exhibit will feature elements from some of OCM’s most popular displays over its 40 year history.

Nelson Mandela School Adds Another Building Block to North Omaha’s Future

January 24, 2016 1 comment

If you know me or follow my work then you know I have a heart for North Omaha.  I grew up there.  Went to school there.  For a complex set of reasons having to do with how my life unfolded the first 42-plus years and North Omaha’s role in that, I found myself drawn to writing about some of the dynamics there – past and present.  I still do. I am for anything that has the potential to do good there and when I heard about the new Nelson Mandela Elementary School going into the former Blessed Sacrament campus on North 30th Street it certainly caught my attention.  Here is a story i recently did for Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/) that gives a glimpse of the school through the perspective of two key people behind it, Susan Toohey and Dianne Lozier.

 

 

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The Nelson Mandela Way

New School Adds Another Building Block to North Omaha’s Future

Published in Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

North Omaha may be reversing five decades of capital resources leaving the community with little else but social services coming in. Emerging business, housing, and community projects are spearheading a revitalization, and a new school with promise in its name, Nelson Mandela Elementary, is part of this turnaround.

The free, private school in the former Blessed Sacrament church and school on North 30th Street blends old and new. An addition housing the library and cafeteria joins the original structures. The sanctuary is now a gym with stained glass windows. Vintage stone walls and decorative arches create Harry Potteresque features. South African flag-inspired color schemes and Nelson Mandela-themed murals abound.

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The school that started with kindergarten and first grade and will add a grade each year is the vision of Dianne Seeman Lozier. Her husband, Allan Lozier, heads the Lozier store fixture manufacturing company that operates major north Omaha facilities. The couple’s Lozier Foundation supports Omaha Public Schools’ programs.

Their support is personal. They raised two grandsons who struggled to read as children. The odyssey to find effective remedies led Dianne Lozier to new approaches, such as the Spalding Method used at Mandela.

Mandela sets itself apart, too, using Singapore math, playing jazz and classical background music, requiring students to study violin, holding recess every 90 minutes, and having parents agree to volunteer. Mandela “scholars” take College for Kids classes at Metropolitan Community College’s Fort Omaha campus.

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It’s all in response to the high-poverty area the school serves, where low test scores prevail and families can’t always provide the enrichment kids need.

Most Mandela students are from single-parent homes. Sharon Moore loves sending her son, Garrett, to “a new school with new ideas.” Eric and Stacy Rafferty welcome the research-based innovations their boy, William, enjoys and the opportunity to be as involved as they want at school. Moore and the Raffertys report their sons are thriving there.

“Parents are really getting into this groove of being here,” says Principal Susan Toohey. “It’s building a community here and a sense that we are all in this together.”

Community is also important to the Loziers.

“We’re just really connected here,” Dianne Lozier says. “Allan and I have really strong beliefs that the economic inequality in the country and north Omaha is a microcosm of a huge issue. It’s a fairness issue and a belief that, if we want it badly enough, we can make a difference.”

She and Toohey are banking that the school demonstrates its strategies work as core curriculum, not just intervention.

“I’m hoping by the end of the first school year here we’ll be able to compare students’ literacy against other places and show that children have developed stronger reading skills,” Lozier says. “Our longterm goal is that all kids will be grade-level proficient readers by the end of third grade.”

For Toohey, launching and leading a school in a high-needs district is appealing.

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“What an incredible opportunity,” she says. “Rarely do you get a chance to start a school from the ground up and pick everything that’s going to happen there and hire every person that’s going to work there. I knew it was going to be a lot of work, but my heart has always been in urban education.”

In preparation for opening last August, she says, “I spent a year researching educational practices and curricula and developing relationships with people.” Her outreach forged partnerships with Metro, College of Saint Mary, the Omaha Conservatory of Music, The Big Garden, and others.

“We really want to be a model of what makes a school stronger, and I think having the community involved makes it stronger so it’s not working in isolation.”

Dianne Lozier, whose foundation funds the school with the William and Ruth Scott Family Foundation, is a frequent visitor.

NelsonMandelaSchool5“I help out with breakfast,” she explains. “I tie a lot of shoes. I get and give a lot of hugs.”

Lozier says her presence is meant to help “faculty and staff feel a little more supported—because this is hard. Every teacher and para-educator here, even the head of school, would say this is the hardest job they’ve ever had.”

Toohey says the difficulty stems from teaching a “very different curriculum” and “starting a culture from scratch. Families are getting to know us, we’re getting to know the families, and this is a really challenging population of kids. Many have not been in preschool programs that helped them moderate their behavior.”

Despite the challenges, Lozier says, “We have incredible families and kids.”

Drawing on the school’s inspirational namesake, each morning everyone recites “the Mandela mantra” of “Education is the most powerful weapon you can produce to change the world,” and “I will change the world with my hope, strength, service, unity, peace, and wisdom.”

“I hope all those things are what this community sees coming out of this school,” Toohey says, “and that our kids develop those qualities of grit and resilience so critical for success.”

Lozier adds that Mandela is a symbol of hope and opportunity.

“To accomplish the things we’re capable of,” she says, “we have to believe we can do that. It’s an opportunity to make improvements and get past impediments, to use internal strengths and be recognized for what you can bring.”

Visit nelsonmandelaelementary.org to learn more.

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