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Duncans turn passion for art into major collection; In their pursuits, the couple master the art of living

July 28, 2019 1 comment

Duncans turn passion for art into major collection 

In their pursuits, the couple master the art of living

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

 

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Robert and Ksren Duncan

 

When it comes to visual art, there are institutions devoted to its display and then there are Karen and Robert Duncan. Married 50-plus years, the Duncans are serious art collectors whose patronage extends to individual artists, museums, artist residencies and cultural endowments.

The private contemporary collection cultivated by the couple is notable not only for its size (2,000-plus works), but also its” high quality and stylistic diversity,” said Flatwater Folk Art Museum director George Neubert. “I’ve been able to visit numerous private art collections across the United States and Europe,” said Neubert, formerly director of the Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln, “and many are fantastic. But often they have the same 25 artists. A lot of collections look a lot alike. This does not have that look because of their unique selection and the way they go about it.“Eclectic” is how the Duncans  describe their art trove that ranges across mediums with a strong three-dimensional object emphasis. Neubert joins other veteran art world professionals familiar with the holdings in saying the collection has “national significance.”

Unlike most collections that feature work by a particular artist or cohort, the Duncans have assembled work by many artists spanning the contemporary art scene both geographically and stylistically.

“The only thing they all have is our personal interest,” Robert Duncan said with wife Karen nodding approval beside him in the kitchen of their Lincoln home. “They reflect our personality and who we are.”

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, right?” Karen asked rhetorically.

Where some collectors retain a consultant to advise selections, the Duncans trust their own instincts. They can’t conceive someone choosing for them.

“That’s no fun.” Karen said.

They also can’t relate to art as a commodity

“We never buy art for investment. Lots of people do, but we don’t,” she said. “We buy art for our own pleasure. Some of our art has increased in value. But we never bought it for an investment. We see something and we have to have it – because we love it.”

Similarly, they don’t purchase a work just to fill a niche.

“We never buy art with a place in mind,” Robert said. “We buy the piece because we love it and we find a place for it or we don’t.”

They generally purchase art from galleries, sometimes directly from artists and other times at auction. The pair travel far and wide visiting museums, galleries, auction houses and artist studios. On their journeys, which have taken them as far as India and China and to the art capitals of the U.S. and Europe, they operate as a team.

“Collecting art is always a joint effort,” Robert said. “We agree on the pieces we’re going to buy 99.9 percent of the time. We won’t buy anything of consequence unless we both agree.”

“If we don’t agree on it,” Karen said, “then we’ll go look at something else.”

“Our tastes have developed together. Forty years is a long time,” Robert said of their collecting experience.

By now, they share the same discriminating eye for what they feel has merit. But they don’t always get it right.

“We’ve made a lot of mistakes, too,” Robert said, “but we get better and better at it. I think both of us have got a really good eye now to collect good art.”

Their alignment is uncanny. “If there’s a roomful of art, he’ll walk around, and I’ll walk around separately, and we find we have the same piece in mind,” Karen said.

While some collectors keep their art out of sight, under close wraps, the Duncans enjoy sharing their treasures with others. When word spread of their collection, they began fielding requests from university art departments for tours. Other groups followed suit. Then, when the couple built an art repository that doubles as their residence, they received overtures from architectural and design schools. Today, the Duncans or their in-house curator Anne Pagel accommodate private tours as schedules allow.

The couple frequently loan out works for exhibitions at museums and galleries.

“Things move all the time,” Karen said. “They’re loaned out all over the place. I don’t worry about them, but I do miss them. You have to have pieces that travel easily. Some pieces are impractical to loan. They’re just too big or too difficult to ship, so they’re here permanently.”

“Sometimes we’ll go for a show (featuring their work). It’s fun to see people experience it,” Robert said.  “And to talk about when and why you bought it,” Karen added.

To share more of their art, the couple developed Assemblage gallery in downtown Lincoln. It’s open only by appointment. To bring art to their hometown of Clarinda, Iowa, they opened the Clarinda Carnegie Art Museum, whose exhibitions include work by artists they collect,

The couple’s art adorns the Lincoln headquarters of Duncan Aviation, the national business jet service and supply company Robert Duncan took over from his father Donald. Robert’s son. Todd Duncan, leads it today. The family-owned company has now reached four generations with grandsons following in the fold.

Duncan art pieces also brighten company facilities in Battle Creek, Michigan and Provo, Utah.

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The Duncans’ Lincoln residence

 

The most impressive receptacle for the art is the Duncan home on the outskirts of Lincoln. The classical structure designed by London-based architect Dimitri Porphyrios was built, per the Duncans’ express wishes, with permanency in mind through quarried stone and other durable materials. The eight-years-in-the-making project is a highly livable edifice that also functions as a gallery with museum-grade lighting, temperature controls and dedicated art spaces.

The house rests on gated property of nearly 40 acres studded with sculptures, including some monumental ones. The house may one day transition from their residence to a fully-dedicated museum. “We’re still talking about it,” Robert said. “We’ve got several options. We haven’t made that decision yet. We need to get busy and bring it to a conclusion.”

The couple keep homes in Mexico and Colorado as well.

Art has been a vital part of their lifestyle for decades but especially since Robert retired from Duncan Aviation 12 years ago. Travel and looking at art has dominated their lives since then.

Selecting a work may come down to a gut feeling, but there’s also research involved.

“I’m the reader of the two of us,” Karen said. “We get all these art magazines and I read them all. Robert’s on the phone talking to artists and planning where we’re going  next, which is as important as all the reading I do.”

The pair also comb art auction catalogues looking for potential buys. “We go through them in detail and mark the pieces we’re interested in or that are similar to pieces we have so we can do price comparisons,” he said. “Art shows are another great way to educate yourself because you see thousands of different pieces – many by artists you’ve never seen before.”

Once doing their due diligence, they plunge into major art markets, such as Art Basel Miami, an immersive, weeks-long exposure to countless works.

Staying abreast of trends, Karen said, “keeps you busy.” “India is one of our favorite destinations.” she added. The couple has traveled there four times. “This last trip to India,” she said. “we spent every day looking at art for three weeks.” They only took a break at the urging of a fellow traveler worried they were near exhaustion.

The intrepid couple will be off to Paris Photo at the Grand Palais in November.

They prefer traveling with others when possible.

“We are very good friends with Marc and Kathy LeBaron, who also collect contemporary art. We travel and do all kinds of art things together,” Karen said,

“They’re 10 years younger than we,” Robert said of the LeBarons, ” and they will say to this day we were their mentors.”

The Duncans acknowledge not everyone has the means to pursue their passion the way they do.

“We’re fortunate we have the time and the resources to travel,” Robert said.

Art networking leads to unexpected connections.

“We were introduced through a gallery to a sculptural collector in Cleveland,” Robert explained. “En route there Karen and I went to an art function we support in Chicago, where we met 50 artists. Then we went onto Cleveland to meet this guy, who has an incredible collection. He’s going to come out here and see our collection sometime and we’re going back to visit him again. Then we’re going to Yale University to view its collection and a new storage facility we want to see.

“It just goes on and on.”

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Karen’s children’s book, Chica

 

On one of the couple’s visits to Mexico Karen adopted a stray puppy she named Chica. The dog’s become such a fixture in their lives that she recently published a children’s book called “Chica.” Duncan wrote it and Omaha artist Joe Broghammer illustrated it.

Of all the couple’s myriad art activities, repurposing the former Carnegie library in Clarinda into a museum is “the most gratifying,” said Robert.

“We were both born and raised in Clarinda. We love it,” Karen said. “I practically lived in the library. I rode my bike there almost every day. So when that building came up for auction, it was ‘my’ building.”

The Duncans purchased it for $33,000 and spent much more renovating it. The museum opened in 2014. Thousands of people visit it every year.

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Clarinda Csrnegie Art Museum

 

Clarinda holds memories for the couple, including farm pond skinny dips. The former Karen Kent was a music prodigy. She’s a concert-level pianist. Robert applied his entrepreneurial innovation at Duncan Aviation.

“I’m more creative and imaginative than I am a professional manager,” he said. “A lot of the things Duncan has done were ideas for new businesses I created that really developed into major parts of the business. That’s one of the things I’m most proud of.”

His parents were adventurous enough to learn to fly. That led Donald Duncan to purchase surplus government aircraft and resale them. He became a Beechcraft, then Learjet distributor. That morphed into having the first Learjet authorized service center. Today, Duncan Aviation is a leader in the repair, maintenance, overhaul, refurbishing, painting of business-class jets.

Robert learned the business from the ground up.

“I pumped gas. I flew charters, I sold airplanes.”

Karen’s family, meanwhile, were not risk-takers. She doesn’t recall much adventure growing up.

“My parents worked all the time. We didn’t go anywhere. I wanted to go, I wanted to spread my wings. So I married this guy, and we did, didn’t we,” she said, nudging Robert.

“The thing I’m most grateful for,” said Robert, “is that we both have a sense of curiosity and …” “Fearlessness,” Karen said. It shows up in the wanderlust that’s seen them make cross-country treks by air and motorcycle – he’s a licensed small jet pilot and a Harley rider – and to follow their art quests to exotic locales.

“One of our first travels was to Spain.” Karen recalled. “It was there we went into the first gallery we’d ever been in together. We met the artist. He had a book with his art. We bought his book and a piece of his Spanish Impressionist art. I still kind of like it. I wouldn’t buy it today, but it’s not a bad painting.

“Robert hand-carried it home. That was our first piece and after that we hit the galleries and museums hard.”

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Duncan Aviation

 

Just as Duncan Aviation started small in a single office before growing to 2,000-plus employees at dozens of sites, the art collection began humbly and grew over time. Watching each evolve has been satisfying.

“In business we’ve really been opportunists,” Robert said. “All along we’ve taken advantage of opportunities and we’ve made good decisions. We’ve made some bad ones, too. You don’t hear about those, but they cost money and time. But all in all we’ve always been steps forward with perhaps one back.

“This is something pretty terrific we’ve put together. The team there now – led by our son Todd as chairman and Aaron Hilkemann as president – is taking the company to much greater levels than I did when I was there. What that means to me is that we have a great culture and great people. In the business we certainly learned to keep our eyes and ears open and look for opportunities, and we definitely do that in the art world now.”

Ever since they began collecting in earnest, the Duncans have made a point of meeting as many of the artists they patronize as possible.

“It personalizes our collecting,” Robert said. “It personalizes art,” added Karen.

Recently, an artist they visited in Mexico said something that resonated with them. “He told us.,you collect experiences,” Karen said, There’s a story behind every artist they meet. “In fact,” Robert said, “we’re seriously considering doing a book sharing the stories of our encounters with artists and our relationships with them.”

“Some of them are really worth reading.” Karen said.

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John Robert Weaver, self-portrait

 

Years ago they learned of a brilliant but sour Nebraska artist, John Robert Weaver, who’d completed a huge canvas and desperately needed a buyer for it.

“We bought it because it’s an amazing painting.” Karen said.

Thus began an association with the mercurial Weaver. who painted several commissions for the Duncans. Then he disappeared from their lives until Karen happened upon him one day in public.

“He looked as bad as that dog I picked up in Mexico,” she said. “I mean, he was in terrible shape – coughing, sick. He smelled.”

Then there was his abrasive personality.

“He was mean and rude. But he was a great painter. I thought, nobody’s going to care about him if he dies tomorrow, and we’ll have lost one of Nebraska’s best artists. I thought somebody needs to do something. So I bought him a house and furnished it and moved him in it. I took care of him for years and provided all the things he needed to work.”

The Duncans also funded the creation of a retrospective exhibition and catalog of his work and a feature-length documentary of his life. Weaver, who died in 2018, would likely have never enjoyed such recognition in his lifetime without their intervention.

More recently, the Duncans have fallen head over heals with the work of husband and wife artists Charley Friedman and Nancy Friedemann of Lincoln.

“We love the two of them,” Robert said.

Adopting artists “is Karen’s charity,” Robert said, adding, “She likes to do help individuals where she can see the impact.” She works with a Lincoln group that gives at-risk children piano lessons. She not only helps provide lessons but she’s purchased pianos for kids to practice on in their own homes.

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A sample of the Duncans’ sculpture garden

 

The couple’s patronage of Nebraska art is legendary. They’ve been major supporters of the Sheldon Museum of Art and the International Quilt Museum in Lincoln, the Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney and the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art and the Kaneko in Omaha.

“We both love the University (of Nebraska’s) art department,” Robert said. “Great people there. We have a lot of respect for them.”  “We buy their art, too,” Karen said.

The couple are ambassadors for Nebraska art. “There’s so much in Nebraska,” Robert said. “It’s very rich.”

The Duncans gave California artist Joseph Goldyne a sample of the state’s visual art scene after he arrived for the opening of his exhibit in Clarinda.

“He was amazed,” said Karen. Such reactions are typical of artists who come here for the first time and expect a cultural wasteland. “They just underestimate us so much.”

Another expression of the couple’s generosity is their Duncan Family Trust, which supports education and aviation-related endeavors. Daughter-in-law Connie Duncan manages it.

“The company funds part of that and part is supported by funds we’ve set up at the Lincoln Community Foundation,” Robert explained. “People apply to it. The most important part of that is an employee scholarship fund.”

For all their good works and all the jobs created by Duncan Aviation, the thing that most intrigues people about the couple is the collection they’ve built. It’s a never-ending source of inquiries from scholars, collectors and journalists. Robert Duncan has a theory why he and Karen took it to so emphatically.

“I know that both of us have a collecting gene, We have collecting in our souls because as children we collected (her, butterflies; him. cereal box prizes). As adults, we collect a lot of things.”

Her first edition American novel collection numbers some 10,000 volumes. She has a large handwoven basket collection.

Her own literary efforts didn’t begin with the children’s book. She earlier authored “Pieces of Me,” a book meant only for her grandchildren. “It’s vignettes from my life. I wanted them to know I was once their age and i did some stupid things just like all teenagers do.”

“If I can get myself organized I’m thinking of doing a second Chica book about her Nebraska friends (the fox, raccoon and hawk Chica frolicked with on the property).

The collecting gene seems inherited by the Duncans’ two adult children, Todd and Paige.

“They have an interest and they both collect,” Robert said. “I don’t think they’re interested in shouldering the burden of this collection.”

“No,” added Karen. “Besides, they’ve got our art in their houses. We said, come pick out whatever you want, and they picked out good pieces. They grew up surrounded by it. They knew what to pick.”

As the collection’s grown ever larger, Karen said, “this has all gotten very complicated.” Thousands of works, multiple sites, plus storage, security, insurance details. They stay at it though because it’s still “fun.”

Collecting keeps them engaged with all the research and travel required. The 76-year-olds not only preach the benefits of mental and physical activity, they live it. He still rides motorcycles and pilots planes. She’s turned weight-lifting for exercise into competing in powerlifting meets. She’s also a gourmet cook and an expert at Ikebana (Japanese flower arranging).

Much like the work they collect, they are singular in their boundless curiosity. Mastering the art of living may be their greatest legacy.

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

A Man for All Reasons: Legacy Omaha Investor John Webster Was a Go-To Guy for The Reader

March 10, 2019 Leave a comment

The Reader newspaper is celebrating 25 years with a special anniversary March 2019 issue. This is one of two articles I have in that milestone edition. In commemorating the paper’s quarter century serving the community, we’re noting some behind the scenes figures and events that helped get the paper this far. This piece profiles legacy Omaha investor John Webster, whose capital allowed publisher John Heaston to reacquire the paper and whose money and advice helped Heaston stabilize the operation through the economic downturn and the changing landscape for print media. Another Omaha investor who stepped up at the same time as Webster to aid The Reader was John Blazek, a social entrepreneur I profile in the second article. It takes a lot of talents and resources to put out a paper and it’s good to recognize some of the untold stories and unsung heroes who have a hand in making it reality. I didn’t know of Webster until I got the assignment to interview him. His role was eye-opening to me and I personally appreciate the way he assisted Heaston and bailed out the paper because I have been a Reader contributing writer for 23 of its 25 years. The bulk of my wide-ranging work as a journalist has been with the publication, where I have had something like a thousand or so pieces appear in its pages, including hundreds of cover stories. It’s been an eventful marriage filled with highs, lows, opportunities, adventures and all the usual stuff that attends a relationship that long-standing. I am glad to have some presence in this landmark edition and I look forward to being part of The Reader reaching new milestones over time.

 

A Man for All Reasons

Legacy Omaha Investor John Webster Was a Go-To Guy for The Reader

by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Being from a legacy family carries expectations. Retired broadcaster John Webster, 70, grew up knowing he was part of a historical line. Even though making his own mark as a Webster was expected, it wasn’t a given.

“I’m a fifth generation in Omaha on my dad’s side and sixth generation on my mother’s, so we’ve been around for a while. I come from a great family. It’s one thing to come out of a good family, but if you don’t have the desire to do something with yourself, it’s just not going to happen,” said Webster, whose family was successful in investments and transportation.

Blessed with creative and enterprising genes, he made his biggest imprint as owner of Omaha radio station KEFM. He was also a director of Ash Grove Cement Company, a cement and cement kiln dust provider to the construction industry. Additionally, he’s served on numerous community boards and committees.

“I was heavily involved in the masonic organizations in Omaha. I got to meet people from all walks of life. That was a big part of how I formed myself.”

When Reader publisher John Heaston needed capital to buy back the paper and stabilize it in this disruptive media space, Webster became an investor. He kept a low profile doing it, which is the Webster way.

“My grandfather and father were big influences on me. As a family we’ve always been pretty private and quiet as to what we do with investments or philanthropy. I’ve followed suit.”

Webster attended Shattuck, a private boarding school in Faribault, Minnesota, when it was a military academy. He earned a business administration degree from Menlo College in Menlo Park, California. His interest in the radio business was stoked visiting a West Coast station.

“I became fascinated with the broadcast side of things. I thought it was terribly creative.”

Back in Omaha, the licenses of radio stations KEFM and KOIL were suspended after owner Don Burden ran afoul of the FCC in 1976.

“When the properties came up I thought this would be a thing I would enjoy doing for a living and I might be pretty good at,” Webster said. “My father and I and Joe Baker formed a small company to go after the licenses.

We thought nobody would want to file against us but

11 other groups did. We went through a seven-year comparative hearing process I wouldn’t wish on anybody. We thought we could serve the community as well as anyone else given our strong Omaha history.

“After seven years the FCC finally decided the same thing. We went on the air officially in 1983. We started from scratch and we built it. Joe Baker left and my father and I continued on and I basically ran the thing.”

He said a lesson he learned is that “you can’t be a broadcaster and be thin-skinned.”

After a nearly two-decade run as a local independent, Webster saw the competitive landscape change when the FCC opened ownership to unlimited stations and markets.

“I could see the writing on the wall that I wasn’t going to be able to compete with somebody that had many more stations and resources. I called a friend of mine who was a license station broker and said, ‘It’s time for me to get out.’ And I got out at the right time.”

Webster made a cool $10 million selling his profitable stations to Clear Channel.

“I think if I had waited six months it would have been a totally different game.”

He added, “If the FCC hadn’t changed things, I’d probably still be in broadcasting.”

He misses it, especially the people.

“When it’s all gone, there’s a vacuum.”

Other business opportunities have popped up, he said,

“but broadcasting was my bread and butter,” adding, “Being in the business and being able to grow the business through creativity and drive meant a lot to me.”

He served as president of the Nebraska Broadcasters Association and was instrumental in creating its charitable foundation. In 2001, he was inducted into the association’s Hall of Fame.

Besides owning his own specialty advertising company, his only other media foray was The Reader.

“I met John Heaston and I liked him, and I liked what he was doing. John Blazek and I got involved as investors.

It was interesting.”

Webster appreciates the publisher’s entrepreneurial zeal. “I think a lot of John Heaston. He’s creative. He has worthwhile ideas. He pursues stories that maybe mainstream publishers wouldn’t lay a hand on. I think there’s something to be said for an alternative newspaper. It adds a different viewpoint.

“The Reader may not be the biggest operation, but I think it serves a very vital part in providing information to the Omaha community.”

Webster and Blazek’s infusion of cash helped The Reader through some tough times.

“It hasn’t been an easy road. It’s been a real struggle. It’s a real compliment to John Heaston that he stuck with it.”

Webster’s been there himself.

“When you own your own business the buck always stops at your desk,” he said. “You can’t blame it on anybody else.”

Satisfaction, he said, comes in direct proportion “to the degree that you can work things out and solve problems and continue to grow.”

Webster, who’s married with three adult children (a fourth died in 2015), keeps a wintertime residence in South Carolina, but Omaha remains home.

“I’ve always loved Omaha. I don’t think I could ever really cut my ties with the city or Nebraska.”

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

Chip Davis: The man behind the Steamroller machine

November 26, 2018 3 comments

 

The man behind the Steamroller machine

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the December 2018 issue of New Horizons

Music is a birthright for Grammy Award-winning American Gramophone and Mannheim Steamroller founder Chip Davis.

The Omaha transplant has built an international following with his music, which has earned some half a billion dollars in retail sales over four decades. Millions more have come from performing multimedia concert dates across the U.S. and the world.

An acknowledged entrepreneurial and branding whiz, he’s leveraged his music’s appeal to partner with Walt Disney Company, NBC, Universal Studios, NASA and the National Parks System.

In terms of fame and riches, only one other Nebraska musician can rival Davis singer-composer Paul Williams, a Grammy and Oscar-winner. But where Williams is a solo act, Davis fronts a multi-dimensional machine under the Mannheim Steamroller name.

Davis maintains a large production-recording-distribution complex in North Omaha. It covers five acres and four buildings, three of which are interconnected. He sponsors two national touring bands performing Steamroller’s popular Christmas catalogue. The tours nearly rival the Nebraska Theatre Caravan’s tours of A Christmas Carol.

Due to a bum arm from neck surgery, Davis no longer tours, though he still makes surprise appearances. His touring musicians travel via luxury buses, but the grueling every night schedule is too strenuous for him.

His private Hawker 900 XP jet gets him wherever he needs to go quickly and in comfort. He keeps a vacation home in Florida.

In December he’ll fly to Orlando to conduct a 60-piece orchestra at Universal Studios playing the music from The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. The concerts are held in an outdoor bandshell he calls “absolutely beautiful.”

He creates and oversees a branded line of non-music products, including food items that range from a spay-on meat baste to a cinnamon hot chocolate mix.

Breaking the mold

This third-generation musician from small town Ohio is credited with helping give birth to the New Age genre for his signature fusion of classical and rock. Before that though he was hard on the path of becoming a symphony orchestra player. But then a funny thing happened on the way to his dream. He went from the world of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart to the great American Songbook to a rock opera to advertising jingles to winning country music writer of the year to hitting upon his synthesized Steamroller sound of baroque meets easy listening.

It wasn’t the first time someone in his musical family made a detour. His parents made their own break from classical to commercial. His father Louis played saxophone in the Glenn Miller touring band. His mother Betty played trombone in the NBC Symphony and in Phil Spitalny’s All Girl Orchestra.

His family’s connections to American popular music run deep. His country doctor grandfather loved the (John Philip) Sousa marches and the lead trombonist in the Sousa band taught Chip’s mother in high school.

His folks. plus an aunt and uncle, studied at the University of Michigan’s prestigious music school. His father taught music, led choirs and built instruments. His  mother also taught music. Davis intended following suit as a teacher and classical performer.

Influences

Reflecting on how much of his own musical predisposition is inherited and how much is a result of environment and exposure, he said, “I think there’s probably a combination of both. I grew up around it. Third generation both sides of my family.  Music was flowing in my veins from the time I was born. In fact, my mother said when I was 6-months old I could hum the melody to ‘Silent Night,’ which is pretty crazy at that age. So I must be just full of music.”

The precocious only child started on piano at 4 with his grandmother as his first teacher. He conducted in front of the family console radio. At 6 he composed a four-part chorale ode to his pet dog, Stormy, who died.

“It broke my heart.”

In addition to being immersed in music and feeling compelled to create it, he said, “I had some of the best teachers you could ever have.” His accomplished father taught music theory-music history and was Chip’s main teacher through high school.

“I had all of that and then I went to the University of Michigan’s famous music school.”

For his primary instrument, Davis chose bassoon though he’s best known as a percussionist. It may surprise some this instrumental icon was a singer through his early 20s.

“I sang in a boys choir when I was about 10-years old in Oregon after our family moved there.”

He was invited to sing with the Vienna Boys Choir.

The family moved back to Ohio, where Davis was in his dad’s high school choir.

At Michigan Davis sang in the glee club and played drums in the marching band. He joined select students performing with the Toledo Symphony Orchestra.

His classical tradition focus was so intense he missed the en vogue music of the 1960s.

“I wasn’t sensitive to it at all. I mean, I certainly knew who Diana Ross and the Supremes were because they were right over in Detroit. I had roommates not in music that would go to concerts at the Fisher Theatre in Detroit. But it kind of slipped by me. I was so classically oriented that I didn’t really notice what was going on.”

While his friends listened to the latest hits from Motown and British Invasion rock bands, he stuck to classical.

“I listened to WJR Detroit – a big 100,000 watt AM station –  primarily because Karl Haas (later an NPR fixture) had a classical music program on every day and I would listen to that. I actually learned quite a lot from his explanations of different things, of composers and pieces and the way they’re constructed.”

Music kept him so preoccupied he was oblivious to the Vietnam War and civil rights protests on the Michigan campus, which was a hotbed of student activism.

“I didn’t even notice that.”

He did not participate in the counter-culture revolution at Michigan, but the school gave him the foundation for his professional music career.

“I still have a close connection with them,” he said. “When I was first there as a student the university opened a new music building. Now they’ve added a new wing and I’m fortunate enough to have my name on the Chip Davis Technology Studio. It’s full of computers and things we use for composing today.”

He donated about a million dollars to create the tech suite, which serves as a project workshop, research laboratory and multimedia gallery for courses in Sound Recording and Production, Interactive Media Design, Immersive Media and Performance Systems.

Davis finds it ironic that Michigan became a legacy school – “a lot of family ended up there” – when his family’s from Ohio, not Michigan.

Little did he know a youthful fascination with electronics  would be revisited when his music career took off.

“I had this ridiculous notion in high school I was going to go into electrical engineering – until I found how much math it took. Then I was like, Well, I’m pretty good at music, I guess maybe I’ll do that. I built electrical things, including an oscilloscope, from a Heath kit. For a senior science project I used it to analyze music notes. For example, flute is almost all sign waves.”

He could never have imagined how electronics would intersect with his music years later.

“Right, exactly,” he said in his state-of-the-art recording studio where everything’s digitally programmed.

The room’s on its third control board, though it too has grown nearly obsolete in the new digital age, he said.

“We don’t even use it anymore. Everything’s done on Pro Tools” (an Avid Technology digital audio workstation for Microsoft Windows and macOS). Everything’s in the computer as far as controlling levels and all that.”

Exploration

Ever the searcher, Davis loves the freedom technology affords to explore.

“Something astounding you can do today you couldn’t just a few years ago is sample different instruments. I have a new album coming out called ‘Exotic Spaces.’ I wrote pieces about exotic spaces like the Taj Mahal. I had access through Pro Tools to all these Indian instruments. I wrote with those instruments and I did it in the style of Indian music but with my Mannheim spin.

“I wrote another piece about Egyptian pyramids and I found Egyptian instruments, including one called the nay, which is a flute that almost sounds like a bagpipe.”

Perhaps his “farthest out” experiments have involved capturing natural sounds.

“I’m a scuba diver. I’m way into that,” he said. “I have Navy grade hydrophones because I’m interested in capturing sound under the surface of the ocean. On one dive we recorded a whale singing. On this new album ‘Exotic Spaces’ I use the whale song as the basis for a song I wrote the accompaniment around.

“I almost always write in the key of C because you don’t have sharps and flats and all that unless you want to add them. It’s an easy key signature to maneuver around in. Well, that darn whale was singing in the key of C. I had no idea beforehand. but when I put down the whale song track in the mix  I discovered it was singing in the same key I write in.”

His Ambience series records terrestrial sounds.

“I’ve got microphones out in the woods back on my farm. They’re 200 feet apart in a square and record the sounds of nature out there. The sound engineers here come out and run the gear for me.

“I wanted to go further. I used to go to Canyon Ranch (Arizona) quite frequently as a chill-out place. Once, my crew and I home-based there and went out and recorded desert sounds, which are entirely different from Great Plains sounds. Then we went to the west coast and got the sounds of waves.”

On a Northern Minnesota excursion to record loons he and his crew arrived at Black Duck Lake. Listening devices were strategically placed before inclement weather set in. The team holed up in a cabin listening to what the remote devices picked up.

“Out of the blue, we heard a loon. I said, ‘Hey, hit the record button quick.’ We were getting this great loon sound. Then all of a sudden the door to the cabin opens and my son comes in, saying, ‘Did you get that?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘That’s a loon whistle i got down at the Sinclair station.'”

Integrating music wit nature adds an ethereal depth of atmosphere and background listeners find soothing.

“I write the music over it. I write the music around the sounds. The sounds take precedence. The amount of music content is maybe only a third out of an hour. It’s not music heavy, it’s nature heavy. We’re hardwired to recognize those sounds.”

The Ambience series is available in four-channel DVDs. Davis sends film crews to capture images of nature that are then married with the nature sounds and music.

“People can play the DVDs in their home theater systems. Within three minutes, you are there. You close your eyes and you’re in the desert, you’re at the ocean. It seems to be real good chill out kind of stuff.”

He’s since applied this nature-music sonic approach to health and healing. His Ambience Medical company creates calming psychoacoustic tracks for use in medical settings. His Ambient Therapy combines specially-recorded sounds of nature with distinctive music content via a patented Ambient Therapy System.

The system is used in post-op treatment rooms at the Mayo Clinic, for example.

He also has a series on seasons.

Nature

This work combining nature with music has intersected with his abiding passion for wildlife conservation. His interest in the natural world, he said, goes back to his childhood, when he “played all the time in the woods.”

His “Yellowstone: The Music of Nature” project raised over $3 million for conservation efforts between the concert tour and album.

“I did ‘True Wilderness’ for Glacier National Park. The head ranger at the time was from my dad’s high school choir. She had grown up in my hometown. One of those quirky things. I did ‘Saving the Wildlife’ in conjunction with Lee Simmons as a fundraiser for the Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo’s Species Survival program.”

He recently gave $350,000 to fund an Eagle Mew for the Raptor Woodland Refuge at Fontenelle Forest.

At his 150-acre farm nestled in Ponca Hills north of Omaha, Davis keeps horses and wolves. A buddy built his rustic-chic 10,000 square foot Swiss Chalet-style home there.

From classical to country

The expansive breadth of his musical life may not have blossomed had he not diverged from the classical path. Soon after graduating college he got an opportunity that changed the course of his life and career when he signed to sing with the famed Norman Luboff Choir.

“I met Norman when he came to do a workshop in Toledo. He took new singers on every year. I asked if I could audition and at his invitation I went to his New York apartment to audition. He hired me on the spot.”

Singing tenor with Luboff freed Davis to be more diverse in his own music appreciation and experimentation

“Absolutely. It was the way Norman was. He wrote original compositions but he was a fabulous arranger.

He had songs of the West and songs of the South, and we did those different songs on tour. So I became very familiar with a lot of different styles that my classical      upbringing kept a clamp on. It really opened a floodgate of, Hey, let’s try this.”

Thus, when Davis came to Omaha for an early ’70s workshop, he was ripe for branching off in new directions. While here he met the late noted choral conductor Mel Olson (Master Singers), who informed him Talk of the Town Dinner Theatre needed a music director for a regional production of Hair.

Davis had never seen the musical but was just curious enough about the opportunity to apply. He got the gig.

“They needed somebody to rewrite the arrangements from the Broadway size down to where it could be played by a handful of players. I wasn’t familiar with any of that type of music and I had to learn it and then figure out how to rearrange it. So I did.”

The show proved a smash.

“We did six shows a week. It was supposed to run six weeks and it ran 26.”

Singer-actress Karla DeVito was in that production and Davis became good friends with her. She later performed with national rock acts, on Broadway and in feature films. She’s married to actor Robby Benson.

Omaha began as a waystop for Davis but he found his creative home and career-making work here.

“It completely opened me up. During that time I met the guys at Sound Recorders. They asked me to write jingles for their ad agency clients, On my off days (he was teaching) I started writing jingles. I found out I could make a really good living doing that.”

He became music director at Sound Recorders, where  he met Bozell & Jacobs creative director Bill Fries.

“Bill and I started on the C.W. McCall path and that just took precedence over everything.”

 

“Convoy” Creators Chip Davis and William Fries Roll On To Success

 

Some Steamroller fans are too young to remember, but Davis first made the big-time writing music to a series of Old Home Bread commercials penned by Fries. The folksy campaign was built around a fictional trucker named C.W. McCall, the Old Home Filler-Up an’ Keep-on-a-Truckin’ Café and a waitress named Mavis.

“Bill was writing these sagas of C.W. McCall and he was trying to find voice talent to do it the way he heard it in his head and the guys at the studio said, you sound great doing it, just do it yourself. I got involved writing the arrangements and songs .

“The C.W. McCall thing picked up and really took off.

People knew the commercials.”

The spots not only boosted the regional food company’s sales but caught the attention of media, advertising and music executives, especially when the campaign won the ad world’s highest honor – the Clio.

“Then we started writing a lot of original material,” said Davis. “I think we wrote 90 songs altogether.”

Realizing they were onto something big, Davis, Fries and Sound Recorders owner Don Sears formed American Gramophone to capitalize on these country and western musical tales, which they packaged and released as albums and singles.

“When we made the first 45 (record) we got it into all the jukeboxes. We had an ad campaign with a budget of $50. We turned it all into quarters. Everybody at the studio would grab a pocketful of quarters and go punch up the tune on jukeboxes at bars around town so that people could hear it and know that it existed.

“Later, we hired an independent promoter to go out and plug radio. In a very short period of time we sold 350,000 units.”

A subsequent single, “Wolf Creek Pass.'” was a crossover hit – even making Casey Kasem’s nationally syndicated “American Top 40” countdown show..

The second McCall album, “Black Bear Road,” contained a song called “Convoy” with an elaborate CB (Citizens Band) radio narrative. To everyone’s surprise, the single went viral.

“On the album we had ‘Convoy’ buried in the middle, as the seventh cut, because we thought it was too crazy. The DJs found it on their own. The DJs made that work. We didn’t push it at all.”

The success of “Convoy” led to commercial endorsement deals for CB radios, even lawnmowers.

Nashville came calling.

It even led to a 1978 major motion picture, Convoy, that took the song as its title. The legendary but troubled Sam Peckinpah directed the movie for EMI Films. It starred A-listers Kris Kristofferson, Ali McGraw, Burt Young and Ernest Borgnine.

The film shot in New Mexico. At that point in his life Peckinpah was an alcoholic and drug addict. He was nearly fired from the chaotic production and when he submitted a nearly four-hour long cut, the studio did ax him and editor Garth Craven. A new editor, Graeme Clifford, recut the film and drastically shortened it. Davis was then approached to score the film that his song inspired. The studio asked Davis to record a sample track before committing to him.

“They wanted me to record it in L.A. and I said, ‘No, I want to record it in Omaha.’ They were like, ‘All right, go try it.’ I recorded two or three cuts and synched it to film. We knew how to do all that stuff down at Sound Recorders. I took the sample out to L.A. and played it for the suits and they said, ‘You’ve got the job.’ I asked, ‘When do you need it?’ ‘Three weeks.'”

Doing a complete film score in that short of a window pushed Davis to the limit but he loved the challenge.

“It was frame-to-frame scoring. I had to synchronize all the music to the cuts.”

The movie did good box-office, due no doubt in part to its subject coinciding with the CB craze.

 

 

Finding his niche with Mannheim Steamroller

Davis was tempted to try his luck as a freelance film scorer in L.A. but thought better of it.

“It’s right when Mannheim Steamroller was about to start. I thought if I go out to L.A. I’m going to be up against these hot composers like James Horner and John Williams and I just decided that seems pretty competitive and out of my control. But I have a lot more control with my own record label and music back in Omaha, where I have a shot of maybe making   something out of this.”

The money Davis made off McCall funded his 18th century classical rock endeavor. As Davis readied his first Steamroller album, ‘Fresh Aire I,’ he had no idea how it would be received by the masses.

The first inkling he was onto something came from music producer Jimmy Bowen and TV music composer Mike Post, whose engineer John Boyd went to work for Davis.

“I played a couple tracks off of ‘Fresh Aire I’ and they said, ‘That’s what you should be doing. This McCall thing is great, you’ll make a bunch of money on it, your ship’s coming in, but this unique blend of classical and rock is worth exploring.'”

The first market inroad came when Sound Recorders owner Don Sears “got placement for the first ‘Fresh Aire’ album in hi-fi stores,” said Davis. “Then we started going to the Consumer Electronics Show, renting a booth and passing out these albums as demo material.”

Davis and Fries found a formula in McCall that worked in the country category, “but this was a completely different animal,” since no one had ever heard anything quite like ‘Fresh Aire’ before.

“I wanted to call it eclectic because it’s eclectic music. The retailers all thought I said electric,” Davis recalled.

Even Davis wasn’t sure what he had.

“I was so classical that when writing the first ‘Fresh Aire’ album I thought I was writing rock ‘n’ roll. I had no idea it was still sounding like classical music to a lot of people. I didn’t realize what I was doing and that this hybrid mix was coming out as a combination. Just because I put bass and drums with it didn’t make it rock. I kind of forgot I still had harpsichord and string orchestras in it.”

Do it yourself

Being an independent music creator and record producer may have been his greatest stroke of genius.

“The really fortunate thing for me is that the RCAs and industry guys I pitched it too did not take it. If they had taken it and if it didn’t work right away, I would have been dead in the water and never would have recovered. By distributing it ourselves, showing up with a trunk-full of records at Homer’s and other places around town, we got a good jumpstart right here in Omaha. That taught me how to go on with it.”

Besides, “he said, “I had more passion for it I’m sure than they did in New York or Los Angeles because it was my creation. And I had more control.”

He suddenly found himself both a musician and a businessman.

“The music part, I certainly was prepared for, but I had no business training at all. I was really flying seat of the pants trying to figure out how to run a company and how to promote and how to advertise and sell and do distribution and all that.”

What explains the appeal of his music and it selling something like 50 million units to date?

“Honestly, I don’t know,” he said. “It’s different and it has a sound of its own.”

Mannheim Steamroller merchandising not only includes food lines but casual clothing, holiday books and personal comfort items like lotions and candles. Davis calls it “connect-the-dots marketing.”

For him, it’s all part of the same creative urge.

“it comes from the same place the music comes from. It’s just another way to do what I do and create. I mean, I love all of it. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

His family enjoyed the ride as Steamroller gained momentum and found unexpected mega success.

“When I first started touring with my own band my parents went went me. My dad was part of the crew as the piano tuner. Mom went along, too. They went all over the place with us. They were really proud.”

When Davis needed a harpsichord with a distinct sound, his father built him one.

Fringe benefits

Travels for his music have brought him to Great Britain to record with the London Symphony Orchestra, St. Petersburg, Russia to score the Goodwill Games, the Czech Republic to record with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and the namesake of his group’s name, Mannheim, as part of a nine-city tour in Germany.

“I’ve been all over the place/”

He’s recorded with notable guest artists such as popular pop singer Johnny Mathis and he produced an album with the late superstar John Denver. Denver went morel mushroom hunting on Davis’ farm.

Davis’ wide-ranging interests have given him access to NASA space subtle launches. He provided the technology to make hyper-accurate film-sound recordings of Discovery and Atlantis launches. He’s met several astronauts, including Buzz Aldrin.

Mannheim Steamroller has performed at the Lighting of the National Christmas Tree ceremony during the Clinton, George W. Bush and Trump administrations.

“I’m around a lot of cool people and get to see a lot of cool things.”

His celebrity isn’t something he dwells on.

“You don’t think about fame when you are concentrating on composing and producing music and building your own record label-company and planning for the future.”

Davis is grateful his music resonates with so many.

“I couldn’t do this without my fans obviously.”

He’s also wise enough to know he’s often been in the right place at the right time.

“I feel very fortunate I’ve had the retail breaks I’ve had. People gave me a shot with my 1984 Christmas album (the first of many Xmas recordings). With their help, we got it out there. I’m really fortunate to have run across these people and to be given those opportunities.”

 

 

 

Ties that bind

There there’s the artists he’s gathered around him for studio sessions and concerts. He credits concertmaster and violinist Arnie Roth with landing stellar classical musicians.

“We’re talking real big-deal players from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra I could never have gotten to myself. French Horn superstar Dale Clevenger played all my sessions. We had just monster players in the studio. I couldn’t have done it without Arnie.

“And my musicians are just intensely loyal.”

For the Steamroller tours, contract musicians are hired at each stop to join the touring players to create a great big sound machine on stage.

The first violin player Davis hired to play, Steve Shipps, is associate dean at UM’s School of Music and he sits in as lead violinist whenever Steamroller plays in that area.

“It’s like a gigantic family of musicians stationed in different places,” Davis said.

Some of Omaha’s best known musicians have collaborated with Steamroller: Jackson and Almeda Berkey, Joey Gulizia, Ron Cooley, Becky Kia, Chuck Penington.

The music connections are everywhere.

Omaha native Jonathan Swoboda plays keyboards in the Universal Studios orchestra Davis conducts. Swoboda’s father was the attorney who trademarked American Gramophone for Davis.

Davis has had the same business partner and the same agent for decades. He became-remains friends with the head buyer who got his work in Target.

“These relationships have lasted,” he said.

A gift shared

Most of all Davis is grateful for the gift of music and the ability to share it. He feels obligated to.

“This music comes into me from somewhere. I don’t know where. I feel like it comes from above or from God or the ultimate creator. I feel its pouring into me and it just kind of leaks out.

“Sometimes it comes to me in my sleep.”

He may awaken in the middle of the night with an idea and stay up all night to write it. He keeps a voice recorder handy to whistle or hum notes that appear.

The framework for his music is always classically based.

“There are very distinct forms like a Rondo form, a Saraband form. I follow those forms but I plug my own notes into them. It’s a super structure.”

Making a difference with his music is icing on the cake.

“Doing things for people like the Ambience project makes me feel I’m repurposing different things I have  been given a shot at doing. To not take advantage of it would be a sin.”

He’s made sizable donations of CDs to U.S. troops, military hospitals, the VFW and military support groups.

For the Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum’s 20th anniversary gala on October 19 he conducted Mannheim Steamroller in concert and led the audience in singing the national anthem.

He’s far more comfortable in the studio than on the stage, where there are no do-overs.

“You’re only as good as your last performance. You can make mistakes out there in front of a bunch of people.”

The gregarious Davis is surprisingly shy.

“The thing that bothers me the most is talking to the audience.”

Doing press is another thing he’d rather not do, though he does a lot of it. He’s employed a high-priced interview coach to help him hone his message.

The family musical line hasn’t stopped with Davis. He said his two daughters are “really good singers.” He wrote an album for his youngest, Elyse. She’s yet to commit to music as a career. “I wish she’d pursue music,” he said. “Maybe she will later. It has to be on her own terms.”

Davis himself is still exploring new ground.

He and Mark Valenti co-wrote a boxed-set audio book, The Wolf and the Warlander, inspired by the friendship between a horse and a wolf who’ve grown up together on Chip’s farm.

The two men wrote the book in the Tiki-style hut Davis keeps in Florida.

“When we got done with the last chapter it was sad – we were having such a good time creating,” Davis said.

He could live and work anywhere but Omaha continues being his permanent home. Why leave where it all happened for him?

“The hand of God put me down here in this town and said, ‘You will create,” he said, laughing. Seriously, he added, “I wouldn’t want to be in any other place. There’s a lot of freedom here. A lot of memories.”

Chip Davis and Mannheim Steamroller will perform Christmas concerts at the Orpheum Theater on December 22 and 23.

Visit http://www.mannheimsteamroller.com.

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

Cathy Hughes proves you can come home again


Cathy Hughes proves you can come home again

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the July 2018 issue of New Horizons

 

Nebraskans take pride in high achieving native sons and daughters, Some doers don’t live to see their accomplishments burnished in halls of history or celebrated by admirers. This past spring, however, Cathy Hughes, 71, personally accepted recognition in the place where her twin passions for communication and activism began, North Omaha.

The mogul’s media holdings include the Radio One and TV One networks.

During a May 16-19 homecoming filled with warm appreciation and sweet nostalgia, Urban One chair Hughes reunited with life-shaping persons and haunts. An entourage of friends and family accompanied Hughes, who lives in the Washington D.C. area where her billion dollar business empire’s based. Her son and business partner Alfred Liggins Jr., who was born in Omaha, basked in the heartfelt welcome.

Being back always stirs deep feelings.

“Every time I come I feel renewed,” Hughes said. “I feel the love, the kindred spirit I shared with classmates, friends, neighbors. I always leave feeling recharged.”

With part of Paxton Boulevard renamed after her, a day in her honor officially proclaimed in her hometown and the Omaha Press Club making her a Face on the Barroom Floor, this visit was extra special.

“It was so emotionally charged for me. It’s like hometown approval.”

During the street dedication ceremony at Fontenelle Park, surrounded by a who’s-who of North O, Hughes said, “I cannot put into words how important this is to me. This is the memory I will take to my grave. This is the day that will stand out. When you come home to your own and they say to you job well done, there’s nothing better than that.”

 

Cathy Hughes Headshot 1B - 2017.jpg

Photo Courtesy of Cathy Hughes

 

Cathy Hughes’ mother, Helen Jones Woods with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, circa 1940

 

Welcoming home an icon

Good-natured ribbing flowed at the park and at the Press Club, where she was roasted.

The irony of the Press Club honor is that when Hughes was young blacks were unwelcome there except as waiters, bartenders and kitchen help. The idea of a street honoring a person of color then was unthinkable.

“This community has progressed,” Hughes told an overflow Empowerment Network audience at the downtown Hilton. “An empowerment conference with this many people never could have taken place in my childhood in Omaha. This is impressive.”

Empowerment Network founder-president Willie Barney introduced her by saying, “She is a pioneer. She is one of the best entrepreneurs in the world. She is a legend.”

Nebraska Heisman Trophy-winner Johnny Rodgers helped organize the weekend tribute for the legend.

“I think Cathy Hughes is the baddest girl on the planet,” Rodgers said. “She’s historical coming from Omaha all the way up to be this giant radio and TV mega producer and second richest black lady in the country. It’s just fantastic she’s a product of this black community. I want to make sure all the kids in our community realize they can be what Cathy’s done. Anything’s possible.

“I want hers to be a household name.”

Some felt the hometown honors long overdue. Everyone agreed they were well-deserved.

A promising start

People who grew up with her weren’t surprised when she left Omaha in 1972 as a single mother and realized her childhood dream of finding success in radio.

She had it all growing up – sharp intellect, good looks,  gift for gab, disarming charm, burning ambition and aspirational parents. Her precocious ways made her popular and attracted suitors.

“She’s very personable,” lifelong friend Theresa Glass  said. “She’s been a gifted communicator all the time. My grandmother Ora Glass was her godmother and she always believed Cathy was destined for great things.”

Radio veteran Edward L. “Buddy” King said, “She had this thing about her. Everybody projected she would be doing something real good. She knew how to carry herself. Cathy’s a beautiful woman. She’s smart, too.”

Glass recalled, “Cathy was always an excellent student. She’s always used her intellect in various pursuits. She was always out in the working world. Cathy used all the education and skills she learned and then she built on those things. So when she went to D.C, she was prepared to work hard and to do something out of the ordinary for women and for African Americans to do.”

 

Members of the De Porres Club in 1948

 

Cathy’s parents were pioneers themselves.

Her mother Helen Jones Woods, 94, played trombone in the all-girl, mixed-race swing band the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. Helen’s adoptive father, Laurence C. Jones. founded the Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi, which Helen attended. Cathy and her family lived in Jim Crow Mississippi for two years. She’s a major supporter of the school today.

Cathy’s late father, William A. Woods, was the first black accounting graduate at Creighton University. He and Cathy’s mother were active in the Omaha civil rights group the De Porres Club, whose staunchest supporter was Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown.

“Very young, I marched,” recalled Cathy Hughes, who’s the oldest of four siblings. “I was maybe 6-years old when we picketed the street car (company) trying to get black drivers. I remember vividly being slapped on the back of my head by my mother to ‘hold the sign up straight.’ I remember demonstrating but most importantly I heard truth being spoken.”

“Cathy’s parents were community-oriented people,” King said. “They cared about their community. They were  well-to-do in their circles. Cathy grew up in that but she never lost her street savvy.”

While attending private schools (she integrated Duschene Academy), she said, “The nuns would send notes home to my mother saying I had delusions of grandeur, I talked all the time, and I was very opinionated. I bragged I would be the first black woman to have a nationally syndicated program.

“I was good and grown before I found out that had already been accomplished.”

Her penchant for speaking her mind stood her apart.

“When I was growing up black folks didn’t verbalize  their feelings and particularly children didn’t.”

Mildred Brown gave her father an office at the Star. Cathy did his books and sold classified ads for the paper. Her father also waited tables at the Omaha Club and on the Union Pacific passenger rail service between Omaha and Idaho. She sometimes rode the train with her father on those Omaha to Pocatello runs.

 

 Taken under wing

She found mentors in black media professionals Brown and Star reporter-columnist, Charlie Washington. The community-based advocacy practiced by the paper and by radio station KOWH, where she later worked, became her trademark.

“We had a militancy existing in Omaha and when you’re a child growing up in that you just assume you’re supposed to try to make life better for your people because that’s what was engrained in us. We didn’t have to wait to February for black history. We were told of great black accomplishments on a regular basis at church, in school, in social gatherings. Black folks in Omaha have a nationalist pride.

“I was imbued with community service and activism. I don’t know any different. My mother on Sunday would go to the orphanage and bring back children home for dinner. We were living in the Logan Fontenelle projects and one chicken was already serving six and she would bring two or three other kids and so that meant we got a piece of a wing because Daddy always got the breast.”

During her May visit she recalled the tight-knit “village” of North Omaha where “everybody knew everybody.”

In the spirit of “always doing something to improve your community and family,” she participated in NAACP Youth Council demonstrations to integrate the Peony Park swimming pool.

“Because we were disciplined and strategic, there was a calm and deliberate delivery of demands on our part. I don’t know if it was youth naivete or pure unadulterated optimism, but we didn’t think we would fail.”

Peony Park gave into the pressure.

Opposing injustice, she said, “instilled in me a certain level of fearlessness, purpose and accomplishment I carried with me for the rest of my life.”

“It taught me the lesson that there’s power in unity.”

Her passion once nearly sparked an international incident on a University of Nebraska at Omaha Black Studies tour to Africa.

“The first day we arrived in Addis Ababa, Eithiopia, the students at Haile Selassie University #1 were staging demonstrations that ultimately led to the dethroning of emperor Haile Selassie. Well, we almost got put out of the country because when I heard there was a demonstration I left the hotel and ran over to join the picket line with the Eithiopian students. My traveling companions were like, ‘No, you cant do that in a foreign country, they’re going to deport us.’ Hey, I never saw a demonstration I didn’t feel like i should be a part of.”

 

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Charlie Washington

 

The influence of her mentors went wherever she went.

“Mildred Brown unapologetically published Charlie Washington’s rants, exposes, accusations, evidence. She didn’t censor or edit him. If Charlie felt the mayor wasn’t doing a good job, that’s what you read in the Omaha Star. It took the mute button off of the voice of the black community. It promoted progress. It also provided information and jobs. It’s always been a vehicle for advocacy, inspiration and motivation.

“That probably was the greatest lesson I could have witnessed because one of the reasons some folks don’t speak out in the African-American community is they’re afraid of being financially penalized or losing their job, so they just remain silent. Mildred and Charlie did not remain silent and she was still financially successful.”

Both figures became extended family to her.

“Charlie Washington became like my godfather. He was the rabble rouser of my youth. He had the power of the pen. Charlie and the Omaha Star actually showed me the true power of the communications industry. I saw with Charlie you can tell the truth about the needs and the desires of your community without being penalized” even though he wrote “probably some of the most militant articles in the United States.”

“That’s the environment I grew up in. So the combination of Charlie always writing the truth and Mildred being able to keep a newspaper in Omaha solvent were both sides of my personality – the commitment side and the entrepreneurial side.”

Today, Hughes inspires young black communicators with her own journey of perseverance and imagination in pushing past barriers and redefining expectations.

 

No turning back

As an aspiring media professional. Hughes most admired Mildred Brown’s “dogged determination.”

“When somebody told Mildred no, they weren’t going to take an ad, she saw it as an opportunity to change their mind, she never saw it as a rejection. She didn’t take no seriously. No to her meant. Oh, they must not have enough information to come to the right conclusion because no is not the right conclusion.

“Nothing stopped Mildred.”

Nothing stopped Hughes either.

“When I was 17 I became a parent. I realized I was on the brink of becoming a black statistic. My son Alfred was the motivation for me to think past myself. It was the defining moment in my life direction because for the first time I had a priority I could not fail. I was like, We’ll be okay, I’m not going to disappoint you, don’t worry about it. It was Alfred who actually kept me going.”

Her first ever radio job was at Omaha’s then black format station, KOWH.

“KOWH fed into my fasciation with having a voice. I think it is truly a blessing to have your voice amplified. I wasn’t even thinking about being an entrepreneur then. I was thinking about being able to express. I wasn’t at an age yet where had come into who I was destined to be.”

She left for D.C. to lecture at Howard University at the invite of noted broadcaster Tony Brown, whom she met in Omaha. It’s then-fledgling commercial radio station, WHUR, made her the city’s first woman general manager.

Leaving home took guts. Staying in D.C. with no family or friends, sleeping on the floor of the radio station and resisting her mother’s long-distance pleas to come back or get a secure government job, showed her resolve.

“Omaha provided me a safe haven. Once in D.C., I had to rely on and call forth everything I had learned in Omaha just to survive and move forward. If I had not left, I probably would not have become a successful entrepreneur because I had a certain comfort level in Omaha. I was the apple of several individuals’ eyes. They saw potential in me, but I think their love and support would not have pushed me forward the way I had to push myself once I moved into a foreign land.”

She feels Nebraska’s extreme weather toughened her.

“It builds a certain strength in you that you may or may not find in other cities.”

If sweltering heat, high winds and subzero cold couldn’t deter her, neither could man-man challenges.

“You learn that determination that you can’t let anything turn you around. When I went to D.C. and realized there weren’t people of color doing what I wanted to do, I just kept my eye on the prize. I refused to let anyone turn me around. When you learn to persevere in all types of elements, then business is really a lot easier for you.”

 

Mildred Brown

 

Brown was her example of activist entrepreneur.

“The Star was to Omaha what Jet and Ebony were to the black community nationwide. It’s why I have this media conglomerate. When you’re 10 years old and you’re looking up to this bigger-than-life woman, she was a media mogul in my mind. She had a good looking man and wardrobe and all the trappings.”

Just as Hughes would later help causes in D.C., Brown, she said, “was kind of a one-woman social agency before social agencies became in vogue.”

“She helped a lot of people. My father graduated from college and didn’t have a place to open an office and she opened her lobby for him. He was just one of many. Charlie Washington had a very troubled background and yet because of her he rose to being respected as one of the great journalists of his time in Omaha. Dignitaries would come and sit on Charlie’s stoop and talk to him about what was going on. He was considered iconic because of Mildred Brown.

“She put students through school and raised hell to keep them there. When my mother was short my Duschene tuition, Mildred told them, ‘You’re going to get your money, but don’t be threatening to put her out.’ She literally walked the walk as well as talked the talk. She didn’t tell folks what they needed to do, she helped them do it. She continued to inspire and advise and mold me.”

Full circle

Howard’s School of Communications is named after Hughes, who never graduated college. Decades after first lecturing there, she’s a lecturer there again today.

“They say I am their most successful graduate who never matriculated. I wasn’t prepared to be the first woman general manager of a radio station in the nation’s capital. That’s why Howard sent me to Harvard to take a six-week course in broadcast management and to the University of Chicago to learn psychographic programming. I went to various seminars and training sessions. Howard literally groomed me. They were proud of the fact I was the first woman in the position they had placed me in “

Hughes readily admits she hasn’t done it by herself.

“I have been blessed by the individuals placed in my life. They sharpened me, prepared me, educated me, schooled me, nurtured me, mentored me. I have been blessed so many times to be in the right place at the right time and with the right people.”

She grew ad revenues and listeners at WHUR. A program she created, “The Quiet Storm,” popularized the urban format nationally. With ex-husband Dewey Hughes she worked wonders at WOL in D.C. After their split, she built Radio One.

Upon arriving in D.C., Hughes found an unlikely ally in Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham. She met Graham through Susan Thompson Buffett, the wife of investor Warren Bufffett, and part owner of the paper.

“Susie was staying at the Grahams’ house. At that time Susie was a singer with professional entertainment aspirations and I was her manager. Katharine Graham took an interest in me and because she had this interest in me other people, including the folks at Howard University, embraced me.”

Networking

Hughes parlayed connections to advance herself.

“Part of my innate abilities since childhood has been to recognize an opportunity and take full advantage of it.”

Her first allegiance was to listeners though. Thus, she lambasted Graham’s Post for unfair portrayals of blacks, even encouraging listeners to burn copies of the paper.

Hughes has succeeded in a male-dominated industry.

“I never thought about being a woman in a male field. First of all. I was black. I’ve never put woman first. I was black first and a woman second. I had a goal I wanted to achieve, an objective that had to be accomplished. I didn’t see it as proving something to the old boys network. I was not intimidated by being the only female.

“I was naive. I really thought there would be a whole proliferation of black women owning and managing radio stations. Women have made more progress in professional basketball – they own and coach teams – than they have in the broadcasting industry.”

Men have played a vital role in her business success.

The two black partners in Syndicated Communications,  Herbert Wilkins and Terry Jones, loaned her her first million dollars to build Radio One. Wilkins has passed but Jones and his wife Marcella remain close friends.

When things were tough early on, it was Jones who instructed a downcast Hughes to change her mindset.

“He said to me when people ask you how are you doing they can’t be hearing you complaining or saying I don’t know. You’ve got to say it was a great day because the first person that hears the lie is you. Tell yourself your business is doing good. Tell yourself you’re going to make it. Everyone’s going to start agreeing with you. He told me to change my terminology, which changed my thinking, and guess what, one day it was no longer a lie, it became my truth,” she shared in Omaha.

Friends and family true

Theresa Glass said success has not changed Hughes, who looks keeping it real.

“She’s the kind of friend who’s always your friend and we always can start off where we last left off. I never have to do a whole bunch of catch up with her. We immediately go into friend mode and are able to talk to one another. A lot of times you’ve been away from somebody for a long time or your lives have really shifted and they’re not even close to being the same, and you feel awkward, and that’s not happened for us.”

Hughes acknowledges her success is not hers alone. “I didn’t do it on my own. Right time, right place, right people.” She leans on staff she calls “family.” She believes in the power of prayer she practices daily. She credits her son’s immeasurable contributions.

“Radio One was me. TV One was totally Alfred. He decided he wanted his own path. Our expansion, our going public, all of that, was in fact Alfred. He does the heavy lifting and I get to take all the bows.”

Not every mother-son could make it work.

“Alfred and I had to go to counseling, alright, because one of us was going to die during those early years. It was not happy times – and it was basically my refusal (to relinquish control),” she said at the Hilton.

Alfred Liggins acknowledges their business partnership ultimately worked.

“It was my mother’s willingness to want to see me succeed as a human being and as a business person and unselfish ability to share her journey with me. When it came time to let me fly the plane, she was more than willing to do that.”

He recognizes how special her story is.

“I could always recognize and appreciate her drive, tenacity and lessons. We didn’t let any of the mother-son-family potential squabbles disintegrate that partnership, so I guess we’ve always been a team since the day I was born.”

Challenges and opportunities 

“Buddy” King. who’s had his own success in satellite radio, is happy to share a KOWH tie with Hughes.

“I’ve always admired Cathy. We KOWH alums are all proud of her success because her success shines light on what we did in Omaha.”

King further admires Radio One continuing to thrive in an increasingly unstable broadcast environment.

“iHeart media and Cumulus, two of the largest broadcast owners in the country, are both in bankruptcy, but Cathy is still chugging along. Her son has done an excellent job since making it a publicly-traded company. As the stock market fluctuates, they’ve able to survive.”

Diversification into online services and, more recently, the gaming industry, has kept Urban One fluid.

The changing landscape extends to Me Too movement solidarity around survivors of sexual harassment in the entertainment field.

“Was I subjected to it? Yes, absolutely,” Hughes said, “and I’m so glad women are stepping forward. Now we have a voice. The reality is we need more than a voice, we need to have action. Just talking about it doesn’t change it. I mean, how long have black folks talked about disparity and a whole host of things.

“It’s great that women are speaking out but we have to put pressure on individuals and on systems. Wherever we can find an opening. we must apply pressure to change it. Let’s start with education.”

She despairs over what she perceives as the dismantling of public education and how it may further erode stagnant income of blacks and the lack of inherited wealth among black families. She shared how “disturbed” she was by how Omaha’s North 24th Street has declined from the Street of Dreams she once knew.

 

 

Street Dedication for Cathy Hughes

Mrs. Marcella Jones, Alfred Liggins, III and his mother Cathy Hughes

 

 

Black media

Voices like hers can often only be found in black media.

“Black radio is still the voice of the community. Next to the black church, black-owned media is the most important institution in our community,” she said.

She embraces technology opening avenues and fostering change, but not at the expense of truth.

“I pray that truth prevails in all of these advancements we’re making. I see a world of opportunity opening, particularly for young people. I’m so impressed with this young generation behind the millennials. These kids are awesome because they’re not interested in just celebrity status. They’re interested in real change and I think the technology will be a definite part of that and I think with it comes a different level of responsibility for media than we’ve had in the past.

“Information is power. Mildred Brown understood that and it wasn’t just about a business for her – it was about a community service.”

Hughes credits an unlikely source with unifying African-Americans today.

“President Trump has single-handedly reignited activism, particularly in the black community. That did not occur in the Clinton administration, nor the Obama administration. But Trump has got people riled up, which is good. He has made people so mad that people are willing to do things, voice their opinion, and that’s why black radio is so important. You are able to say and hear things that you couldn’t get anywhere else.”

The Omaha Star is in its eighth decade. Hughes maintains its survival is “absolutely critical – because again it’s the voice of the people,” adding, “It’s our story from our perspective.” She still reads every issue. “It’s how I know what’s going on. The first thing I do is read Ernie Chambers’ editorial comments.”

Hughes is adamant blacks must retain control over their own message.

“You cannot ever depend on a culture that enslaved you to accurately portray you. That just cannot happen. I think too often African Americans have looked to mainstream media to tell our story. Well, all stories go through a filter process based on the news deliverer’s experience and perception and so often our representation has not been accurate.

“The reality is we have to be responsible for the dissemination of our own information because that’s the only time we can be reasonably assured it’s going to be from the right perspective, that it’s going to be from the right experience, and for the right reasons.”

Yet, she feels blacks do not support black media or other black business segments as much as they should.

A challenge she addressed in Omaha is black media not getting full value from advertisers.

“My son and I are not going for that. We want full value for our black audience and we insist on that with advertisers. I learned that from Mildred Brown. She did not allow y’alll to be discounted because it was a black weekly newspaper. She wanted the black readership of the Omaha Star to have the same value as a white readership to the Omaha World-Herald.

“I learned at the Omaha Star you don’t take a discount for being black.”

 

 

Still learning 

Six decades into her media career and Hughes said, “I’m still learning. I’m not totally prepared for some of the responsibilities and charges I’m being blessed with now. Like I’m just learning how to produce a movie (her debut project, Media, premiered on TV One in 2017). I want to learn how to direct a movie. I want to learn how to do a series. Thank God we went into cable, which has given me an opportunity to learn the visual side.”

She’s searching for a new project to produce or direct.

“I’m reading everything I can get my hands on. I am just so thankful to the individuals in my life who have loved and nurtured me that I keep acquiring new skill sets at this age. I’m still growing and learning. which is kind of my hobby.”

Hughes is often approached about a documentary or book on her life. If there’s to be a book, she said, “I don’t want someone else interpreting who I am. I don’t want someone else telling my story from their perspective. I want to tell my own story.”

 

 

 

 

Lasting impact and legacy

Her staff is digitally archiving her career. There’s a lot to capture, including her Omaha story.

“I thank Omaha. Nothing’s better than making your mark in your hometown.”

Getting all those accolades back here is not her style.

“In Omaha, we just don’t get carried away with a whole bunch of fanfare and hero-worshiping. Again, it’s how I grew up. That’s our way of life in Omaha and I thank God for that because it’s made a big difference. It’s a whole different mentality and way of life quite frankly.”

Omaha’s impact on her is incalculable.

“It touched me probably a lot more deeply and seriously than I realized for many decades. When you’re trying to build your business you don’t have a lot of time to reflect on how did I get here and the people who influenced me. I went through a couple decades working on my career and my personal and professional growth and development before I realized the impact the Omaha Star had had on me and what a positive influence Omaha has been on me.”

“Buddy” King said he always knew if from afar.

“Even when she was a young single parent, Cathy was a fighter. It all to me comes back to her Omaha roots.”

Though Alfred Liggins and his mom have been back several times, with this 2018 visit, he said, “you feel like you finally made it and made good and you’re making you’re community proud.”

“It’s about meaning and legacy. That’s why this is hugely different. It really is the culmination of a journey I’ve shared with my mother trying to elevate ourselves and in the process elevating the community from which we came. I’m proud to have been part of what my mother embarked on and I feel like I am being recognized alongside her.

“And it is a deserving honor for her. She’s got guts, grit and she still has a ton of energy. She always gives me lots of praise and lots of love – until I do something she doesn’t like. But it has kept me on the up-and-up and to have my nose to the grindstone.”

At the close of her Empowerment Network talk, Hughes articulated why coming back to acclaim meant so much.

“I think Omaha teaches you to best your best and practices tough love. If you have the nerve to leave here and go someplace else, you better hope you do good because if you come home, you don’t want to hear (about returning a failure). But it’s really love telling you, You should have done better, you should have been more persistent.

“That whole village concept sometimes is not comfortable but it’s so productive because it pushes you to best your best. It teaches you that when you come home one day … they may hang a sign and name a boulevard in your honor.”

As she told a reporter earlier, “My picture’s on the floor of the Press Club, okay  It don’t get no better than that.”

Visit https://urban1.com.

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

Coming home is sweet for media giant Cathy Hughes



 

Coming home is sweet for media giant Cathy Hughes

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the June 2018 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Sweet nostalgia flowed when Omaha native media titan Cathy Hughes got feted in her hometown May 17-19. It marked the first time many Nebraskans heard of Hughes, even though this head of national networks cites her Midwest upbringing for the resilience behind her barrier-breaking entrepreneurial success.

After the hoopla around her coming back, she owns the state’s undivided attention.

The Omaha African-American community that produced Hughes has long followed her achievements. Her multimedia Urban One Inc., whose brands include Radio One and TV One, are black-centric platforms. Despite a media footprint rivaling Oprah and a personal net worth of half a billion dollars, her black market niche didn’t register with the general public. Until last month. Heisman Trophy-winner Johnny Rodgers marshaled coverage for street renaming, Empowerment Network and Omaha Press Club recognitions.

Surrounded by friends, family and local black leaders, Hughes, the 71-year-old Urban One chair, and her son and business partner, CEO Alfred Liggins Jr., 53, basked in the glow of defining legacies. Liggins said admiringly of her: “She’s got guts, grit and she still has a ton of energy. She’s well-deserving of these honors.”

She recently produced her first movie, Media, for TV One.

Rodgers is among history-makers whose paths she’s intersected. She appreciates him making her mogul ascent more widely known so as to inspire others.

“Johnny told me, ‘I’m doing this for the black kids that need to know you exist – that you grew up in the projects in Omaha (to become the first black woman chair of a publicly traded company).’ Johnny added, ‘I’m also doing it for the white folks who don’t realize that in a whole different arena and way you’re our Warren Buffett.’ That kind of caused me to choke up.”

She came up in Logan-Fontenelle public housing when northeast Omaha truly was “a village.” Her accountant father and International Sweethearts of Rhythm musician mother were civil rights warriors (the De Porres Club). The former Cathy Woods attended Catholic schools. She demonstrated for equal rights. The bright Central High student was “the apple of many influential eyes.” When she became a teen single mom, she didn’t let that status or reality define her, but drive her.

Neither did she keep her radio fame ambitions to herself.

“Ever since I’ve been born, I’ve been running my mouth. I remember once almost getting suspended because I challenged a nun. She said, ‘You have a big mouth,’ and I said, ‘One day I’m going to make a lot of money off of my big mouth.’ I knew as a child I was a communicator. As I grew in my knowledge and awareness of my African history and legacy, I realized I was from the giro tradition of maintaining folklore and history in story form. I just innately had that ability.”

In 1972 she left for Washington D.C. to lecture at Howard University at the invite of noted broadcaster Tony Brown, whom she met in Omaha. It’s then-fledgling commercial radio station, WHUR, made her the city’s first woman general manager. She grew ad revenues and listeners. A program she created, “Quiet Storm,” popularized the urban format nationally. With ex-husband Dewey Hughes she worked wonders at WOL in D.C. After their split, she built Radio One.

“Omaha provided a safe haven, but once in Washington D.C. I had to rely on and call forth everything I had learned in Omaha in order just to survive and move forward. Folks in D.C. were like, ‘Oh yeah, another small town hick girl come to town to try to make a way for herself.’ It was an entirely different environment.”

Remarkable connections opened doors.

“I was prepared to recognize an opportunity and take full advantage of it. Howard University (whose School of Communication is named after her) literally groomed me. They were proud of the fact I was the first woman in the position they placed me in and they kept going with me because Katharine Graham (the late Washington Post publisher) was enthusiastic about me.”

She met Graham through the late Susan Thompson Buffett, the first wife of billionaire investor and then-major Post shareholder Warren Buffett.

“Susie was staying at her house. At that time Susie was a singer with professional entertainment aspirations and I was her manager.”

Hughes already knew Buffett from their shared social activism in Omaha.

“Katharine Graham took an interest in me. Because of her interest in me other people, including the folks at Howard University, embraced me. They saw potential in me. They paid for me to get training at Harvard University and the University of Chicago.”

The late publishing magnate John H. Johnson (Ebony, Jet magazines) became a friend, mentor and adviser.

She first got schooled in community-based black media by Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown and columnist Charlie Washington. Her keen social consciousness got sharpened by Ernie Chambers, Rodney Wead and Al Goodwin. Thus, her guiding credo: “I’m unapologetically in the black people business.”

“In Omaha, we had black pride and black love and a militancy that was very unique. When you’re a child growing up in that you just assume you’re supposed to try to make life better for your people. That’s what was engrained in us. We didn’t have to wait to February for black history. We were told of great black accomplishments at church, in school, in social gatherings. I thank Omaha for instilling that in me.

“The combination of Charlie (Washington) always writing the truth and Mildred (Brown) keeping a newspaper solvent were both sides of my personality – the commitment side and the entrepreneurial side. Charlie taught me how to be proud of my blackness and Mildred taught me how not to compromise my blackness.”

Working at KOWH. the metro’s first black radio station, affirmed for her blacks could realize their media dreams.

Fulfilling her dreams necessitated leaving home.

“If I had not left Omaha I probably would not have become a successful entrepreneur because I had a certain comfort level here.”

Her career’s based on the proposition black media is the unfiltered voice of a people.

“It is impossible for a culture that enslaved you to accurately portray you. Our people are still under oppression and denied opportunities. We don’t need anybody to give us anything, just get the hell out of our way. All we want is self-determination.”

She advocates black consumers collectively focus their purchasing power in support of black businesses, thus creating greater opportunities for economic growth and job creation within black communities.

Her visit home sparked bittersweet nostalgia.

“Driving down North 24th Street was so disturbing to me,” she said of sparse business activity along this former Street of Dreams now undergoing revival efforts.

Fittingly for someone whose amplified voice reaches millions, the North Omaha Legends Award she received celebrates her work “”to empower individuals and communities through the power of information.”

She thanked those “who removed obstacles out of my path so I could be who God destined me to be” and  “Omaha’s tough love” for pushing her to excel.

“I haven’t done it on my own. Right time, right place, right people. Sometimes prepared, sometimes not. But the combination of it propelled me forward.”

She rejects the idea her recognition here was overdue.

“Everything in its proper time. I don’t think I’ve been overlooked or anything. Nothing’s better than your hometown saying job well done.”

Meanwhile, when she gets asked, “Are there black people in Omaha?” she’ll continue bragging on its notable black sons and daughters:

Bob Gibson

Malcolm X

Buddy Miles

Marlin Briscoe

John Beasley

Gabrielle Union

Monty Ross

Yolonda Ross

Kevyn Morrow

Q. Smith

“I want to help put Omaha in the right light. I am unapologetically Omaha until the day I die.”

Visit https://urban1.com.

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

 

 

The Reader asked some African-American native Omaha media professionals what they find inspiring about Cathy Hughes:

ANGEL MARTIN

Freelance journalist

“Just to see where she started from in her career with a small studio in D.C. to large media owner. She was determined to never give up no matter what challenges she had to face. Very inspiring for a freelance journalist and radio host-producer at Mind and Soul/Malcolm X Radio like me. She also comes from very humble beginnings right in the Omaha metro. A very positive example of what can happen when you keep your eyes on the prize, so to speak.

“With her being a double minority -– this is a great example of how one should not only play with the ‘good ol’ boys’ but rather change the rules and win. When you think of radio and media ownership, Oprah’s name comes to mind and when you do your research you’ll soon realize Ms. Hughes is right up there, in fact she’s the number two based on her net worth.”

_ _ _

MONIQUE FARMER

Omaha Public Schools communications director

“Her accomplishments are truly inspirational, particularly for African-American women in the fields of journalism, communication, entertainment and entrepreneurship. She’s been breaking glass ceilings for decades and she continues to prove that some barriers are merely mental. She’s also proven that hard work, drive, discipline and possessing the boldness necessary to reach for one’s goals can account for so much. She makes us native Omahans all proud to be from the city we call home.”

_ _ _

WILLIAM KING

Founder, 1690-AM The One and 95.7-FM The Boss

“It’s inspiring because I’m currently walking in her footsteps with the creation of radio stations. I’m following every lesson from the matriarch of radio and TV.

“She’s an example that greatness come from the North Omaha community. It gives one the belief that if she can do it so can I. It’s motivation that drives you to succeed.

I recently talked to her and our conversation focused on both of us telling our stories on how we struggled and sacrificed to build our radio stations.”

_ _ _

MICHELLE TROXCLAIR

Mind and Soul radio host

“A black woman having achieved the success she has is an inspiration and motivator to all black women. Her accomplishments have transcended the barriers of race and gender. She has laid an important path.”

_ _ _

CARINA GLOVER

Founder, Ace Empire Media

“Cathy Hughes has raised the bar in the media industry and is inspirational as a black woman, professional,and business woman. As a young woman from Omaha on the path to building my own empire in media and tech, Cathy Hughes is a major inspiration. On a national scale, there’s a false perception that the roots of successful media companies generate from the west and wast coasts. Cathy demonstrates the barriers that can broken and how there’s no limit to success, despite where you began your journey.”

_ _ _

CHANELLE ELAINE

New York-based film producer (First Match

“What i find inspiring is Ms. Hughes’ willingness to take chances, to go against expectations and push forward by her own definition of what a young African-American woman can do. She refuses to be put in a box by gender, color or origin, giving us all equity in the landscape of opportunity.”

Tech maven LaShonna Dorsey pushes past stereotypes

January 8, 2018 2 comments

Tech maven pushes past stereotypes

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

LaShonna Dorsey, 38, busts stereotypes. Start with this sunny disruptor launching and selling a successful technology organization in her hometown.

As an African-American entrepreneur, she bridged the digital divide with Interface Web School. Though now part of the AIM Institute, she still heads the coding school that’s won her and its work much recognition. Her AIM title is Vice President, Tech Education.

She’s bypassed the Omaha ceiling for young black professionals that finds many leaving for better advancement opportunities elsewhere.

She’s defied expectations by going public, rather than remain silent, about an assault she endured.

For this superstar doer who serves on multiple boards, AIM’s acquisition of Interface was strategic.

“Interface had really reached a point of capacity,” said Dorsey. “We were growing, which was great, but I just knew I couldn’t take on more classes without having more infrastructure and all that. AIM has the infrastructure, they’ve got the space, they’ve got human resources, accounting, marketing departments.”

AIM Interface solidifies and expands partnerships.

“We had really good relationships with the Nebraska Department of Labor and Heartland Workforce Solutions and still maintain those, but it’s a lot easier for us to partner with companies and other organizations because we’re AIM now.

“It fit right with where AIM and Interface wanted to go. They have the youth education side and professional development, but they didn’t have adult tech training. The cool thing is that Interface LLC was a for-profit and now we’re a program within a nonprofit and so we get to take advantage of having that 501 designation.”

Building Interface fulfilled a dream.

“I really thought I was a starter, and so it was good to see something through from idea to completion in a major way.”

She frequently shares her start-up story, warts and all.

“I felt like especially in the early days of Interface I often had to act like I had it altogether all the time because I was selling it, too. It’s kind of a challenging position to be in because you can’t be truly authentic.

“I was really grateful to have good friends and a really strong support system. That made a huge difference.”

She especially enjoys sharing her story with women.

“Women that have done a ton in their career appreciate how difficult it is to do something like this. Women just getting started are like, ‘How did you even do that?’ We have real conversations about what it’s like and the pitfalls – but also the rewards. Being in the middle myself, I am kind of still navigating that.

“I do feel I have a lot of value to add and information to share if people are ready to hear it. I tell people it wasn’t easy all the time, but the thing that kept me moving forward was that it was so rewarding. I have so many graduate stories of people whose lives were changed because of what they learned. It helped them get better jobs and buy homes. They’re still reaping the benefits. It’s still rippling. The culture of Interface is like that.”

She readily accepts being a role model and mentor to young black women.

Growing up in a single-parent family, Dorsey learned self-reliance skills. As a bright Goodrich scholar at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, she became a self-motivated high achiever. Early in her career, she proved a project management whiz.

“I like to just figure my way forward. I like problem solving. When things get a little too simple, then that is hard for me. Then I’m like, ‘Okay, what else can we do here?’ I’m not afraid of conflict, so I do lean into it, and I encourage people who work for me to do the same. If you really want to get the thing you want, you have to work through the hard stuff, too.”

Omaha’s limited horizons saw Dorsey leave in her 20s.

“But I came back. The thing that’s really tough here is that as you move up in your career, the leadership gets more white. Working in tech, you’re with a lot of white professionals and when I lived in west Omaha I’d go home, where it was all white, and I felt I had no community. It’s unfortunate and it felt uncomfortable.

“Living in a diverse community is important for me.”

Workplace inclusion requires more than new hires.

“You can hire a bunch of black and whatever programmers but that is not going to change the culture of organizations who might not be ready for it. You have to give people a space where they’re comfortable being themselves and not feeling like they have to fully assimilate in order to fit in.

“I cannot wait until we don’t have to have this conversation anymore and where it’s not special that I’m a black woman in tech. But it matters a lot to people and I have to talk about it.”

She feels she’s reached a personal breakthrough by reclaiming her given name, LaShonna, in place of Shonna and letting her hair go natural.

“Now, I feel like I can be more of myself.”

Dorsey embraces the new diversity in revitalized northeast Omaha, where African-American culture is being discovered by white millennials.

“Whenever you can create opportunities for people to have those experiences with people they don’t interact with on a daily basis, you start to change the narrative. That’s the only way were going to see change.”

Mindset to her is critical to create the transformation she and others hope to see there.

“I think we’re still many years out from seeing the fruits of it. There’s a lot of work to do because we can’t deny the fact poverty is the highest in those zip codes. That’s something to address and fix but people have to want it and see it even as an issue.”

She’s doing her part to equip adults with job-ready tech skills by bringing her code school to the Highlander Village purpose-built community on North 30th Street.

“Those economic improvement opportunities can make a big difference for people,” she said. “It will be awesome to see all of that come to life.”

Her career exploded two years ago, but few knew she was reeling from having barely survived an assault.

“Everything was still new at Interface and I still didn’t feel like I knew what I was doing all the time when I had this really difficult, tragic thing happen. There were many work days when I had to meet attorneys or go to court Turning those emotions on and off was really hard.”

It stemmed from someone she’d dated suddenly revealing a side he’d concealed before.

“It turned into a night where he took me from where I was without my permission. He strangled me three times, including once where I lost consciousness. He assaulted me in all sorts of ways in what was a five-hour ordeal.”

Fifteen months elapsed from when she pressed charges to her attacker’s sentencing.

“It was a really hard process. I totally understand why people don’t pursue that path because it is very difficult and as the victim you have to prove something happened. Typically, this kind of stuff happens one-on- one.”

Dorsey nearly didn’t report the incident for fear of how she’d be perceived.

“I remember thinking this is going to be so embarrassing and people are going to think I can’t do anything right. It’s irrational thinking, I know, but that was in my head. I decided to report it anyway.

“I try to do everything on my own all the time. But I did get some counseling and I did work through some of this with friends. Leaning into work helped a lot.”

Nature walks and karaoke nights helped, too.

Then she began dealing with it in public forums, including a poignant Facebook post.

“It was hard to carry around all the time. People were really supportive. They called me brave and things like that. I just felt it was relieving a burden for me.”

She posted soon after the last presidential election and urged people to walk through their fear and anger over the results as she had with her assault.

“Every time I talk about it publicly, more than one person will come up to me and say, ‘Me, too,’ or “My friend, my sister, my daughter.’ It’s so common. There’s a bunch of people who feel like they can’t talk about it, so I decided to share what happened to me.”

If nothing else, she said, her story reveals all is not what it seems on the path to success.

“People tend to look at the surface and just assume that because you’ve done a lot, it was without hardship.”

Visit Interfaceschool.com. Follow Dorsey on Facebook.

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

Omaha Small Business Network Empowers Entrepreneurs

August 22, 2017 4 comments

If you’re an entrepreneur seeking to establish or take your start-up to the next level, then the Omaha Small Business Network may be the place for you. Julia Parker (pictured below) is the latest in a succession of women of color to head the OSBN. The OSBN is located at the historic 24th and Lake hub where a revitalization is happening. North Omaha entrepreneurs might want to look at working with the organization to help make their dreams come true and perhaps be a part of the North O revival. Read my B2B Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/) feature about the services and programs the OSBN offers.

Omaha Small Business Network
Empowers Entrepreneurs

©By Leo Adam Biga
©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Originally published in Jan-Feb 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

The Omaha Small Business Network is on its third female executive director since its 1982 launch. Julia Parker leads an all-female full-time staff that continues the nonprofit’s founding mandate to assist historically undercapitalized entrepreneurs achieve financial inclusion.

OSBN helps remove barriers that inhibit some women and racial minorities from realizing business ventures. Parker says clients lack access to capital and lines of credit and often have no formal business training. Lacking collateral, they’re rejected by lenders. “To be eligible for our micro-loans, the first qualification is you be turned down for traditional financing,” Parker says.
OSBN helps “un-bankable” clients do a financial makeover.

“What OSBN seeks to do is to initially bridge that gap between the bank and the consumer. But after receiving an OSBN loan, our desire is for you to become bankable. We really hope after that two- or three- or six-year loan you develop a relationship with a local banker, through strong payments and good credit history, and then take the leap into the traditional financial market,” she says. “That’s really where we want you to go and thrive.”

On The Edge Technology co-owner Rebecca Weitzel credits a $35,000 OSBN micro-loan, plus information gleaned from OSBN classes, and network opportunities with helping grow her firm and navigate the economics of doing business. She explored options at banks and credit unions before deciding OSBN was “the best choice for us.”

“Each opportunity with OSBN helped develop my confidence as a business owner. Now, I refer other people to OSBN that want to start or grow a business,” says Weitzel.

OSBN offers a three-pronged support system: micro-loans between $1,000 and $50,000 at low interest rates; free monthly professional development and small business training classes; and below-market-rate commercial office spaces at Omaha Business and Technology Center (2505 N. 24th St.) and two nearby buildings. Ken and Associates LLC is one of two dozen OSBN tenants benefiting from commercial office space renting for 80 percent less than market value.

OSBN has lent $2 million-plus in micro-loans to startups and existing businesses since it began micro-lending in 2010.

As of October 2016, OSBN had $500,000 in outstanding loans, with $300,000 in loan payoffs during the past calendar year.

Parker says, “Those are big numbers. Our clients are paying off their loans and going on their way as successful entrepreneurs. We’re pretty proud of that.”

Spencer Management LLC owner Justin Moore is another OSBN success story.

Since receiving a $35,000 micro-loan, Parker says his business expanded services, moved to a new, larger facility, paid off the loan in full, and exceeded $1 million in annual revenue.

As a micro-enterprise development entity, OSBN is funded by private donations from local philanthropists and banks.

Parker leverages her plugged-in experience in the nonprofit and business arenas. She served as director of operations and communications at Building Bright Futures from 2007 to 2013. She applies the skills she used there, along with lessons learned as a black female running a small business, to engage OSBN clients and partners. She owns her own communications consulting agency.

“I think there’s always a barrier for minorities in certain spaces in Omaha,” she says. “The key is to try and overcome those by having a strong work ethic and being on top of your game at all times. But I think across the city, no matter what sector you’re in, there are barriers to entry.”

She reports to a board whose members represent public and private interests. OSBN partners with leading Omaha giving institutions to even the playing field.

“With the support of the Sherwood Foundation,” she says, “we have created a loan pool specifically for minority contractors and suppliers because of the issues they face. And we’ve teamed up with Creighton’s Financial Hope Collaborative to put those contractors and suppliers through a 12-week training course to ensure they’re prepared to go out and bid on, win, and fulfill those contracts. We just completed our first cohort and started our second.”

Parker likes helping dreams be realized. It’s why she said yes when the board offered her the job in 2013.

“I took the position because I really believe in the mission of supporting low-to-moderate-income entrepreneurs. I also like the idea of micro-enterprise development and its very unique take on financial inclusion.”

She described that mission in testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship on Capitol Hill last August. She says OSBN is “dedicated to bringing underserved local small business owners, entrepreneurs, and nonprofits the tools needed to become successful and sustainable entities.” She added, “OSBN and like-minded, community-based micro-lenders…have the ability to become a catalyst for both community and economic development.”

She sees OSBN playing a role in increasing the dearth of black middle class residents and small business owners in northeast Omaha and stimulating economic revival there.

“Small business ownership has long been held as a path to financial inclusion. Owning your own business allows you to break that cycle of poverty. Often those businesses become generational. We would love to see the 24th Street corridor come alive again with small businesses.”

Besides, she says, small businesses have a positive ripple effect by creating jobs and paying taxes.
Visit osbnbtc.org for more information.

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