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South Omaha Museum: A melting pot magic city gets its own museum

April 13, 2017 2 comments

South Omaha’s history is a heady brew of industry, working class families, immigrants, refugees and migrants, tight-knit ethnic neighborhoods, high spirits and fierce pride and though it took more than a century to get one, it finally has its own museum to celebrate all that rich heritage. This is my recent El Perico story about the newly opened South Omaha Museum. It’s a true labor of love for the three men most responsbile for pulling it together: Gary Kastrick, Marcos Mora and Mike Giron. But the heart and soul of it, not to mention most of the collection it displays, comes from Mr. South Omaha, Gary Kastrick, a historian and educator whose dream this museum fufills.

 

South Omaha Museum: A melting pot magic city gets its own museum

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico (el-perico.com)

 

Just like the community that forged him, the dreams of South Omaha native and historian Gary Kastrick don’t die easy. The educator developed the Project Omaha teaching museum at South High but when he retired the school didn’t want it anymore.

For years he stored his collection’s thousands of artifacts at his home while seeking a venue in which to display them. An attempt at securing a site fell through but a new one recently surfaced and has given birth to the South Omaha Museum. The nonprofit opened March 15 to much fanfare. Fittingly, it’s located in a building at 2314 M Street he helped his late father clean as a boy. It’s also where he found his first artifact.

Building owner Marcos Mora of the South Omaha Arts Institute wanted Kastrick’s font of history to have a permanent home.

“He’s got this knowledge and we need to share it with  everybody,” said Mora. “If we don’t preserve that history now, it’s going to go away.”

 

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A $10,000 City of Omaha historical grant helped but it still took 12-hour days, sweat equity and hustle to open it. Kastrick’s family, friends and former students pitched in. Artist Mike Giron designed the exhibit spaces.

Funding is being sought. Donations are welcome.

The founders are pleased by the strong early response.

“People are overwhelmed,” said Kastrick.

“People come in with expectation and come out with gratitude,” Giron said.

Offers of artifacts are flooding in.

The free admission museum marks the third leg of Kastrick’s three-pronged campaign to spark interest in “a South Omaha renaissance.” Between the museum, historical walking tours he leads and the South Omaha Mural Project he consults, he aims to bring more people to this history-rich district.

“My main goal is to generate traffic.”

The museum’s opening exhibition, “The Smell of Money,” which runs through April 15, chronicles the stockyards and meatpacking plants that were South O’s lifeblood and largest employer.

Kastrick said, “There was a pride in this industry. The owners did everything first-rate. They put money into it. They made innovations. They created state-of-the-art sheep barns. They did everything right. It’s why Omaha’s stockyards kept growing. It wasn’t expected to be bigger than Chicago but in 1955 it became the world’s largest livestock market.”

He estimates it generated $1.7 million a day.

“It was an extremely wealthy area.”

Ancillary businesses and services sprung up: bars, cafes, hardware stores, feed stores, rendering plants, leather mills, a railway, a newspaper, a telegraph office, grocers, banks, brothels. South O’s red light district The Gully offered every vice. The Miller Hotel was notorious.

Fast growth earned South O the name Magic City.

Rural families taking livestock to market also came for provisions and diversions.

“This was their visit to the big city,” Kastrick said, “so they’d do their shopping, playing, gambling here. It was a treat to come into South Omaha.”

For laborers, the work was rigorous and dangerous.

“There was a comradeship of hard labor. It defined who we were and that definition gave us a color and a flavor other parts of the city don’t have,” Kastrick said. “We’ve always been tougher than those who have it easy.”

 

 

The packing plants drew European immigrants and African-American migrants. Then the antiquated plants grew obsolete and got razed. The loss of jobs and commerce triggered economic decline. The South 24th Street business district turned ghost town. New immigration sparked revival. New development replaced the yards and plants. Only the repurposed Livestock Exchange Building remains. Kastrick’s museum recalls what came before through a scale model layout of the yards, photos, signs, posters, narratives. He has hundreds of hours of interviews to draw on.

“It’s a fascinating history.”

He envisions hosting classes and special events, including a scavenger hunt and trivia night.

Future exhibits will range from bars, brothels and barber shops to Cinco de Mayo to ethnic groups.

Kastrick, Mora and Giron all identify with South O’s melting pot heritage as landing spot and gateway for newcomers.

“There’s that common gene in South Omaha of the immigrant,” said Kastrick, whose grandparents came from Poland. “Wherever people are from, they uprooted themselves from security to come here and start over. It takes a lot of guts. It’s a great place because you run into so many different nationalities. We’re such a compact area – it’s hard not to be with each other.”

Mora, whose grandparents came from Mexico, said

“South Omaha is in our heart.”

Giron, the son of Cuban emigre parents, said, “What I see and identify with here is the underdog. People willing to sacrifice, to work hard, to do what it takes but also knowing how to have a good time. It isn’t an area where everybody takes everything for granted.” Giron said the museum’s “not just about history and facts, it’s about people’s lives,” adding, “It’s like you’re touching or expressing their experience.”

Once a South Omahan, always a South Omaha, said

Mora. “People might have moved out, but they still have that connection. Those roots are still down here. It’s a neighborhood community and extended family network.”

Kastrick said, “We have our own unique identity. It’s       something special to be from here. We enjoy who we are. We have kind of a defiant pride because we’ve always been looked down as the working class, the working poor and everything else. We don’t care. We created our own nice little world with everything we need.”

Through changing times and new ethnic arrivals the one constant, he said, “is the South Omaha culture and concept of who we are – tough, good people” who “won’t be stopped.”

For hours, visit http://www.southomahamuseum.org.

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Mural project celebrates mosaic of South Omaha culture

July 19, 2016 2 comments

Historically, South Omaha is the city’s receiving community for new immigrants and refugees, though North Omaha plays some of that role, too. Blue collar jobs in the commerical, industrial labor sector have provided the livelihood for succeeding waves and generations of ethnic groups to have settled there. South O once had and to some extent still does have neighborhoods with distinct concentrations of ethnic groups. Traditionally, these ethnic enclaves become communities within the larger community. At one time, there were neighborhoods where Poles, Czechs, Lithuanians, Croats and other peoples of Eastern European origin established their own enclaves. There were also strong Italian, Irish and Mexican contingents. And the Great Migration brought many African Americans from the Deep South here as well. The railroads and packing houses were the main employers for many of these new arrivals. World War II-era manufacturing jobs were lures as well. The residents living in the various ethnic neighborhoods that took shape were bound by their shared birthplace, language, customs, religious affiliation and so on. They had their own churches and  community centers that reinfoced their tight-knit connections. Festivals celebrated their hertiage and traditions. Having long ago assimilated and with second-third generation descendants moving to other other sections of the city and with the wartime, railroad and packing house jobs disappearing, those once ethnic-centric areas in South Omaha became more homogenized over time. Today, only trace elements of their once ethnic identities remain. The last three decades have seen the emergence of new emigrees from Latin and Central America, Asia and Africa, thus repeating the patterns that happened with earlier groups in the late 19th century through the late 1920s. All of this is context for an art project now underway in South Omaha that celebrates the different heritages that have made it such a melting pot over time. The South Omaha Mural Project is creating a mural for each of the major ethnic groups that have populated the area. A future mural may also commemorate the stockyards-packing plant epoch that dominated the South Omaha landscape for decades with that industry’s acres of buildings and structures that emplpyed thousands of people and with all the ancilliary businesses that served those workers.

 

Mural project celebrates mosaic of South Omaha culture

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in El Perico

 

What began as a one-off neighborhood mural by Richard Harrison and his daughter Rebecca Van Ornam has morphed into a project with several artists depicting historical South Omaha ethnic groups and landmarks.

When historian Gary Kastrick saw the South 13th Street mural Harrison and Van Ornam did illustrating the area’s Czech heritage, it sparked an idea for a mural culture series celebrating South Omaha’s role as a gateway for ethnic immigrant and refugee assimilation.

More murals followed through the help of the South Omaha Business Association (SOBA), who secured grants for a history mural at the Metropolitan Community College south campus and a Magic City Mural at 24th and N. Thus, the South Omaha Mural Project was born.

Artist Hugo Zamorano joined the team for a Lithuanian mural on the Lithuanian Bakery at 5217 South 33rd Avenue. A Mexican mural in the Plaza de la Raza was unveiled July 10. New murals are planned for the Polish, Irish, Croatian, Italian, Jewish, African-American ethnic enclaves that traditionally called South Omaha home. The more recently arrived Honduran, Guatemalan and El Salvadoran communities will get murals, too. There’s talk of one celebrating South O’s stockyards-meatpacking legacy as well.

The Polish mural will adorn a wall of Dinker’s Bar at 2368 South 29th Street. The Irish mural will grace another popular hangout, Donohue’s Pub, at 3232 L Street.

“We’re looking for walls that have good visibility in relationship to the neighborhood,” Harrison said. “Size is a good thing.”

Every wall poses its own challenges.

“When a wall is rough and covered with obstacles like water meters and things we are coming up with solutions of putting up profile cut sign boards with characters and symbols on them, so the wall has sort of a pop-up book, three-dimensional feeling to it,” Harrison said.

Project funding comes from SOBA, the Nebraska Arts Council, the Mayor’s Neighborhood Grants Program, the City of Omaha’s Historical Grant initiative and various community sources.

David Catalan served as SOBA president when the organization decided to support the mural project. He said the project aligns well with SOBA’s mission of “preserving the diversity and heritage of South Omaha.”

Some ethnic organizations hold fundraisers to help underwrite their individual murals. The South Omaha Neighborhood Alliance is a new partner.

Harrison is a project facilitator and a supporting artist. Michael Giron and Zamorano trade-off as lead artist. Kastrick serves as the history consultant. Catalan is an advisor and liaison.

 

 

This labor of love entails extensive community engagement and input for each mural. Multiple public meetings elicit information and ideas. The public can view the final sketch projected on a wall and can join community paint days.

“We are connecting with a lot of people in each successive community we focus on,” Harrison said. “We’re happy how fast this connects with people and how much it matters to them. They come to the meetings and share their stories and memories. Everybody we talk to finds it meaningful to them.”

He believes the community taking ownership of the murals explains why none have suffered graffiti.

After the communal paint days, Harrison, Giron, Zamorano and other artists paint for a month or two – working in acrylics to sharpen images and to apply shading and highlights. A clear protective sealer is added at the end.

When a mural’s finished, a public celebration is held.

This community-based approach is much more involved than the private commissions Harrison does under his A Midsummer’s Mural business but he said it’s all worth it.

“What’s really special is bringing the community together to talk about what’s important to them and what memories they have.”

Kastrick, a retired Omaha South High history teacher who leads South Omaha history tours, hopes the murals educate and entertain about South O’s long, unfolding melting pot story.

“It’s about rekindling South Omaha roots in people who moved away and reestablishing those roots with their children and grandchildren. I envision people coming to see the murals and talking about the people and the history they see on them.”

He and Harrison believe the murals can be destination attraction urban maps for residents and visitors wanting to learn about the area’s cultural history.

None of the primary artists working on the project are originally from Omaha and for these transplants each mural is an education.

“There is a lot that I did not know before this project and still more to learn.,” said Zamorano.

The Mexican mural he took the lead on is a perfect example.

“Almost everything I learned was new information to me. I learned about some of the different waves of Mexicans that moved to Omaha, why they moved, and where they came from.  I never knew how much the Catholic church and Lutheran church were involved in the community helping people move forward in education and empowerment. The list goes on. I never knew how much history there is in South Omaha alone.”

Fostering appreciation for place is what the project team wants every mural to encourage. Zamorano said Mexican mural images represent “topics and themes about unity, struggle, education, work, identity, education and celebration.” A working couple eats dinner with their family. A “Dreamer” graduates high school. Community anchors, such as the American GI Forum and Chicano Awareness Center, loom large. “In the center,” he said “an ancient Aztec god and two children share a history book to symbolize the past and future.”

Follow the project’s progress at http://www.amidsummersmural.com/for-communities/south-omaha-mural-project/.

The History Man, Gary Kastrick, and his Project OMAHA lose home base

October 3, 2010 10 comments

A frequent enough occurrence finds me reading about somebody in the local daily newspaper and my feeling an immediate connection to the person and what makes him or her tick.  Usually I am responding to a depth of passion the subject has for whatever that thing is that’s become a magnificent obsession in their life.  As a journalist, I then naturally want to take my own crack at telling the story.  That’s precisely what happened when I read about the subject of the two stories posted here, Gary Kastrick. At the time he was an Omaha high school teacher getting off the ground an ambitious history-social sciences program called Project OMAHA, which entailed Kastrick and students collecting, researching, and interpreting local history through multi-media projects.  Kastrick was an award-winning teacher who paired his love of education with his love of history.  Kastrick’s also a lifetime collector who has gathered countless artifacts of Omaha history.  His collecting increased after he started Project OMAHA.  He ended up creating an interactive museum at Omaha South High School that displayed materials he found and that others acquired or donated.  I followed Project OMAHA’s progress from afar, charting its ups and downs.  It was years before I finally caught up with Kastrick, and by that time his beloved project was in a tenuous state.  By the time I completed these two stories this year, one for the New Horizons and the other for El Perico, he had retired and the project retired with him. Thus, my stories are bittersweet in tone, because that’s how Kastrick feels after seeing his magnificent obsession became homeless after 12 years of pouring so much of himself into it.
UPDATE: Since writing that above, Kastrick and some collaborators finally did find a new home for his collection by forming the South Omaha Museum, which still operates today. You can find my story about the museum on this blog.
The History Man, Gary Kastrick, and his Project OMAHA lose home base

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in the New Horizons

 

One of Omaha’s most honored high school teachers retired at the end of this past school year, and with him a singular history project he gave his heart to retired with him.

In 1999 then-Omaha South High social studies teacher Gary Kastrick’s abiding love of history led him to create Project OMAHA (Oral Memories and Historical Anthologies), an innovative local history educational-interpretive program at the school, which happens to be his alma mater.

After announcing the project and inviting the public to come forward to have their oral histories recorded and to donate artifacts, the positive response that followed took him by surprise.

“We got floods of people and floods of material. A lot of stockyards people came forward,” said Kastrick. “What we have the most material of is the stockyards. I’ve got tons and tons of material.”

But he soon realized his little project struck a chord well beyond the stockyards and South Omaha to include all kinds of people with stories to tell about many different segments of the city.

“There was no rhyme of reason to the people that came down and interviewed. We have such a diversity of people on tape.”

The history and memorabilia added to what Kastrick had been acquiring himself for years. With a museum to put it in, he ramped up the collecting.

“I never expected it to happen like this,” he said, “but stuff just came pouring in. For awhile there I was going to every (estate) sale I could find, I was on e-Bay constantly, just gathering material. When the Durham Museum threw out a lot of stuff I ended up in their garbage heap. I mean, I almost had to literally stop (collecting) because it was just becoming overwhelming.”

Stuff soon jam-packed the subterranean room given over to the project at South. Every last inch utilized. As far back as two years ago he ran out of space, saying then, “I’ve basically used about every inch of space I can in this room. I’ve got hundreds of artifacts more than this. I’ve got stuff in the back of this room, in storage places…I don’t know what to do with all of it I’ve got so much.”

The interactive space encouraged South High and visiting students to pore through the collection. It was harder for the general public to access the project since it was housed in a functioning school, making it perhaps the only museum in a school anywhere, but occasional open houses were held and tours could be arranged by appointment.

It was a sight to see. Photographs and descriptive panels put history in context. Remnants from famous buildings that no longer exist were exhibited. A popular exhibit recreated one of the famous Christmas window displays of the downtown J.L. Brandeis & Sons department store.

“We had an open house here one Christmas and people flocked. We had this place packed. They literally cried in front of the window and started telling their Brandeis stories,” said Kastrick.

Instead of static displays of history that remained distant, this was hands-on, up-close history that students were encouraged to use in multi-media projects that repurposed the material as teaching tools for elementary school students. Working under Kastrick’s direction, South students produced children’s books and videos based on oral history interviews and made these available to 3rd grade teachers and their students.

South students variously described Kastrick as “making history fun” and Project OMAHA as being “different than a regular class.” One student said, “It reminded me of my grandma’s house.” Indeed, it was like the ultimate grandma or grandpa attic overbrimming with things.

While OPS never mandated teachers utilize the project, some 3rd grade classes did make regular treks down there. He enjoyed giving tours of historic Omaha to youths, especially suburban kids who rarely venture that far east. The tours obviously energized him because once he had a captive audience he suddenly turned spry, animated guide and Pied Piper leading his charges up and down South 24th Street or through Prospect Hill Cemetery.

 

 

 

His goal was instilling in children an interest in history they could carry wherever they went. On a 2009 tour for Pinewood Elementary students he told the 8-year-olds to note the names and dates on buildings:

“What I really want you to learn is how to look at buildings or how to look at historical places. By the time we’re through here you should have a real good history of this area without even opening a book. Now when you go around the city you have to look for clues on what might have been there at one time.”

 

 

1928 South 24th Street, Omaha, NE 68107.

South 24th Street, past and present

 

2014 South Omaha, NE - South 24th Street

 

Mr. K, as kids call him, always has a story about whatever site he stops to show a group. He often interjects personal anecdotes, like as a boy his hunting rats around the packing plants or his selling bologna sandwiches to livestock haulers stuck in the long procession of trucks waiting to unload their cargo at the stockyards.

“I love the 3rd graders because they’re at that age where they still have that vim and vigor for things, and they still have that appreciation.”

He still leads a popular South Omaha tour for the Durham Museum and even in retirement he may lead school tours again because of all the requests he gets from teachers. Teachers love how Kastrick’s own childlike passion for history, combined with colorful information, resonates with kids. Teachers refer to the project as “a great asset.”

The interpretive center he created within South was his playground. He loved having his own students as well as visiting students immerse themselves in it. Besides the children’s books/videos South students created, an original opera, Bloodlines Sings of South Omaha Immigrants, was drawn from the historically-based narratives South students gathered about the community’s immigrant experience. Former South teacher Jim Eisenhardt took those stories and enlisted then-Opera Omaha artistic director Hal France and composer-in-residence Debra Fischer Teaser, along with local theater director Kevin Lawler, the Omaha Symphony and local actors and dancers ,to collaborate with South students on the product. It had its world premiere in 2001.

The opera showed the potential of Kastrick’s project.

“It was more of a learning center than it was a museum,” Kastrick said. “It was more to bring kids down and have them do activities. I’m going to miss that, I’m going to miss the activities, I’m going to miss the 3rd graders and trying to educate people about local history.”

Designed as a multi-media learning experience for students at South, an arts and technology magnet school, the project provided opportunities to hone computer, video, Photo-Shop, editing and writing skills. All that activity is suspended now, leaving many unfinished projects and unrealized dreams. Hundreds of taped interviews need transferring to DVD. Kastrick wanted to publish many stories people shared. He wanted to see completed new book/video projects abandoned as students graduated or funds ran dry, including a planned four-set animated history DVD.

The school and school district helped underwrite the project at times, including a technology upgrade. But Kastrick’s vision and ambition seemingly went beyond where South or OPS were prepared to go. The limbo position the project inhabited was perhaps best summed up by spokeswoman Luanne Nelson, who described it as an “unofficial but valuable resource.”

Much recognition came Kastrick’s way for his efforts in the classroom and with extracurricular activities, including an Alice Buffet Outstanding Teacher Award. Shortly before retiring the Omaha Optimist Club honored him for his work with the organization’s Academic Decathlon competition. In September he received the Nebraska State Historical Society’s James C. Olson award for his contributions to preserving local history through Project OMAHA.

Despite considerable media coverage and grant funding, Kastrick bemoaned a lack of support, appreciation and, well, love for his baby. In his mournful Chicagoese “Sou’d O” voice he vented frustration. He complained of burn-out. The craggy-faced Kastrick often looked as bedraggled as he sounded. Chalk it up to a mid-life crisis or to the divorce proceedings he was embroiled in.

The mood of this self-described “pessimist” brightened in light of 2009 developments. He won a tourism grant to enhance displays and upgrade an interview booth used for recording oral histories. Artist Doug Kiser was commissioned to fashion a scale model replica of the Omaha Stockyards. It was enough to have “rekindled” Kastrick’s hopes.

Still, it vexed him there was no plan to continue the project at South and no off-site facility to house it once he retired in May. He rued the prospect of moving the entire works. Then his worst fears were realized when South officials disbanded it. With resignation and resentment in his voice, he told a reporter, “Project OMAHA has ended at South High.” He glumly dissembled the exhibits, hauling away hundreds of items into an already cluttered storage site.

Many items are stacked in a heap: an old cash register, an adding machine, a vintage typewriter, assorted furniture, display cases. Against walls are a floor radio and a juke box. Arranged more carefully are posters, photographs, audio cassettes, newspaper clippings. None of it has any real monetary value he concedes, but it’s history he and others value.

Upon retiring, he grew his gray hair out and sprouted a full beard, giving him a Biblical prophet look befitting his extreme history fixation. He wasn’t letting himself go, instead he was getting into “character” for his gritty South O tours.

Whether or not the collection sees the light of day again, he wants it archived. That task was put on hold when he had hip replacement surgery, followed by a bout of pneumonia. He may be getting his other hip done. For now then, the collection gathers dust, a sad end to a proud program that seemingly came out of nowhere but that was the culmination of a lifetime fascination.

He and former colleague Dean Flyr conceived Project OMAHA. Kastrick devoted countless unpaid hours treasure hunting, interviewing, organizing, supervising, presenting. Flyr and a paraprofessional who once assisted him moved on. Officially, the project was an adjunct to Kastrick’s teaching. Emotionally, it’s what he lived for. It’s where his passion for education and history coalesced.

After giving so much and getting so little in return, he felt like an unrequited lover. A decade into it he still fought to get it institutionalized. Though the project received significant direct grant support, donated equipment and in-kind services from Apple and other sources, it was never an official Omaha Public Schools or South project. Instead, it was Gary’s Chasing Windmills Dream. That precarious position left it at the whim of administrators. It’s why he was always scrounging to keep it going.

Its governance was under the nonprofit Omaha History Inc. The board’s comprised of Kastrick and a friend. South High Alumni Association executive director Dick Gulizia  was a vocal advocate, as was Omaha City Councilman Garry Gernandt.

 

 

Omaha South High School

 

 

The History Boys sought benefactors to recognize and reward this labor of love. Finding a permanent home was priority one. Kastrick acknowledged his lack of tact was a detriment. “Maybe it’s because I’m not a good politician. I’m not a schmoozer. I’m a stubborn Pollack. I believe this is good enough on its own merit and should be able to sell itself.” He said it didn’t help being “a peon — I’m just a working stiff.”

Denver architect Phil Greenberg did offer $50,000 should a permanent home be found. An Omaha native, Greenberg’s father, Sam Greenberg, owned the South 24th Street landmark, Phillip’s Department Store. The old South Omaha City Hall building was one site Kastrick and Co. eyed. More recently, they fixed on the former South Omaha public library branch at 23rd and M. They asked the City to donate the structure for the Project Omaha/Sam Greenberg Learning Center. But the Omaha Library Board declared the building surplus property and put it up for auction at fair market value, making it a cost prohibitive for the project.

Luanne Nelson said that after some preliminary discussion the district decided not to get involved in acquiring the old South O library for OMAHA.

Kastrick’s been unable to get a line on another building. Even if he did, renovations would likely cost more than the promised $50,000.

He also wanted to to establish an endowment that put the project’s operations on sound financial footing well into the future. With the project disbanded, it seems a moot point now. A part of him is prepared to move on and let the project rest in mothballs, but another part of him is holding out hope a patron will step up and provide a new lease on life. A grant that Metropolitan Community College is seeking could provide a lifeline for a new exhibition space. He’s not holding his breath though.

He sometimes ponders what might have been. He wonders if the project’s scope was too broad for others to grasp or if the inner city location hurt its chances of being endorsed. “Maybe if it wasn’t at South High, maybe if it was at a Burke or a Central, the crown jewels, there’d be more interest,” he speculated. He wanted OPS and the Learning Community to “authenticate this” — to make it a required or encouraged part of the curriculum. He said a project web site was taken down by OPS during a digital redesign. It was never restored.

It was all proof to him that no one cared as much about the project as he did.

His laments are remindful of Bertha Calloway’s. Her grassroots Great Plains Black History Museum struggled on the north side just as Kastrick’s did on the south side. Like him, she found some support but ultimately felt betrayed when she couldn’t get the museum on solid enough ground to secure its future. It’s now closed. The materials Calloway worked so long and hard to accumulate have no permanent home. Kastrick long feared a similar fate for the materials he collected should things not work out and the project forced to move.

For Kastrick, as for Calloway, it’s a legacy thing. It’s about preserving heritage and history for future generations. It’s about saving a lifetime of work. They know without preservation their work’s likely lost forever. After the GPBHM closed, Calloway’s legacy lay in storage for years and only recently a portion of the collection has been archived at the Nebraska State Historical Society.

To understand how much this endeavor meant to Kastrick you have to know he grew up in the neighborhood, shadowing his late custodian father Leo Kastrick on moonlight shifts tending bar and cleaning businesses. The belly-up-to-the-bar stories told by meatpackers, stockyards workers and ethnic immigrants spurred Kastrick’s interest in culture and history.

“I do distinctly remember listening to all these people and their stories. Like in any of these ethnic, industrialized areas the taverns were where the folk history abounded. I found that interesting and I always thought later on down the road I’d like to get together some of these stories,” he said.

His father was a born storyteller. He told Kastrick of the 1919 lynching of William Brown outside a besieged courthouse, the ‘35 streetcar riot, the fatal ‘30 Krug Park rollercoaster accident and Johnny Goodman’s upset win at the ‘33 U.S. Open.

“He loved to tell stories about Omaha,” the proud son said.

History came alive in those moments. “Yeah, there was a passion and fascination for local history, with what used to be. Being an old romantic, I love walking down the street and visualizing what used to be there. That’s really the inspiration for this.”

His dream was to have a large enough space to accommodate groups who could come tell their stories — of working at the Martin Bomber plant or dancing at Peony Park or playing the ponies at Ak-Sar-Ben or shopping at the downtown Brandeis department store — and make digital recordings of them.

He rues not having a venue or apparatus for collecting this history. “Some of these people really love to tell their stories,” he said. “It’s amazing sitting and listening to them and having them recount their lives like that.”

He regrets, too, not having a space where all his stuff can be displayed. His “packratism” manifested early and has never stopped. His storage units overflow with memorabilia collected since childhood. Collecting, he said, is “what got me enthralled” with not only preserving the past but teaching it.

As a fresh young teacher at Bancroft Grade School in the ‘70s he struggled connecting with its at-risk kids. With the old school slated for closure officials wanted to document its history. He volunteered himself and a group of students to do the job. He peeked students’ interest by telling them their old urban digs were where Omaha began.

“We looked through old city directories and found the original Bancroft school building. One of the kids was actually living in it. Sure enough, downstairs was a blackboard. That intrigued me and so then I thought, Let’s do all of South 10th Street. What I saw happening from this was the kids got a whole different perspective of their own neighborhood. This was no longer ‘Aw, they’re just a bunch of old beat-up houses,’ but instead, ‘Somebody famous lived here’ and ‘This company started there.’ They really got into it.”

Noting how history helps kids see with new eyes, he made it his educational focus.

“When I came to South I put into progress the first local history class” in OPS, he said. “By 1987 I had an Omaha history class.”

Twelve years later Project OMAHA was born. He and Dean Flyr were already thinking about a history project when the stockyards announced it would close in 1999, prompting the pair to have students chronicle its rich past. A World-Herald article on the fledgling project and the educators’ interest in recording stories elicited a huge response.

He and South students sought out artifacts for display, conducted oral/video history interviews and researched various facets of local history to inform educational products they produced. He also accepted materials brought in by staff and the public — artifacts, books, photos, newsreel film. The memorabilia documented everything from the history of organized sports in Omaha to the early struggles for civil rights here.

Kastrick even salvaged the last standing cattle pen from the now defunct Omaha stockyards, which once claimed the title of world’s largest livestock market. He regards the pen as if a holy relic.

“A lot of people wanted this wood,” he said, caressing it. “It took me awhile to get that out of there.”

 

Omaha Stockyards

 

 

Even though the project is homeless and he’s short on space, he still collects things, like Omaha Knights hockey memorabilia he recently came into possession of, adding to his already extensive Omaha sports collection.

Whenever he adds a new piece, he feels he’s saved another link to the past. But where to put it?

“What I feel good about is that I had families bring me photographs and newspaper clippings and little pieces from their businesses that otherwise would have been thrown away. If it’s thrown away, you’re never going to find it again. Where would that have gone if I wasn’t here?”

But his heart isn’t in it like it used to be. He’s had it broken too many times. Still, he can’t help acquiring things. Like the Jetter Brewing Co. beer case he obtained. He had to have it. Then there’s that great white elephant, Rosenblatt Stadium, and all the stories and artifacts to cultivate. It sickens him the old ballpark will soon be gone. He covets a row of grandstand seats.

Beyond that, there’s an Alamito Dairy sign he lusts after. And if he can ever locate the old Chief movie theatre’s neon headdress sign, he’ll feel complete.

As much as he’d like to be out from under the avalanche of materials in his care, he cannot renege on the promise he’s made to himself and others to hold onto this “hodgepodge” of ephemera. Even though he’s a curator without a museum now, he feels a custodial duty to preserve what he has.

He admits it’s become a burden. Not that he’d ever do it, but he said “there are times when I want to take it all and burn it, because it’s holding me down. Sometimes stuff can take you over.” Part of him would like to leave it all behind. He talks about getting on a Harley and just taking off. Where to, you ask. “Who knows,” he says.

As much as he craves freedom from his encumbrance, the glint in his eyes tells you he’s not done collecting or leading South Omaha tours. Besides, people just won’t let him alone, always calling or emailing with requests for tours or Omaha history tidbits. He’s always happy to oblige because in truth he’d be disappointed if people didn’t contact him for his expertise. It’s his passion.

Project OMAHA may now be only a heap of junk in the dark, but The History Man’s magnificent obsession still burns bright.

If there’s anyone out there who’d like to help it find a home, Mr. K will gladly listen. Sure, he’s tired, but he’s not dead.

El Perico cover/Reader culture story on Gary Kastrick and Project Omaha

Story sources: interviews w/Kastrick, visits to Project Omaha and his home, etc.

Photo contacts: Kastrick, 905-2538

 

The History Man, Gary Kastrick, Loses the Home to His Beloved Project OMAHA But His Magnificent Obsession Still Burns Bright

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in El Perico

In 1999 then-Omaha South High teacher Gary Kastrick’s abiding love of history led him to create Project OMAHA (Oral Memories and Historical Anthologies). The impetus for this innovative local history educational-interpretive program at the school, also his alma mater, was the Omaha stockyards’ closure. The focus soon extended to all Omaha history.

After announcing the project, he said “stuff just came pouring in. For awhile there I was going to every (estate) sale I could find, I was on e-Bay constantly, just gathering material. When the Durham Museum threw out a lot of stuff I ended up in their garbage heap…it was just becoming overwhelming.”

Artifacts were displayed in a subterranean room at South. In the jam-packed space, South students pored through the collection and, using computer technology, created history materials for 3rd grade teachers in the Omaha Public Schools. Teachers brought their classes to South.

Kastrick loved leading history tours: at the project’s digs; along South 24th Street; at Prospect Hill Cemetery. The activity energized him.

“It was more of a learning center than it was a museum,” he said. “It was more to bring kids down and have them do activities.”

Despite media coverage and grant funding, Kastrick bemoaned a lack of support, appreciation and, well, love for his baby. In his mournful Chicagoese “Sou’d O” voice he vented frustration. He complained of burn-out. The craggy-faced Kastrick often looked as bedraggled as he sounded.

The mood of this self-described “pessimist” brightened in light of 2009 developments. He won a tourism grant to enhance displays and upgrade an interview booth used for recording oral histories. Artist Doug Kiser fashioned a scale model replica of the Omaha Stockyards. It was enough to have “rekindled” Kastrick’s hopes.

Still, it vexed him there was no plan to continue the project at South and no off-site facility to house it once he retired in May. He rued the prospect of moving the entire works. Then his worst fears were realized when South officials disbanded it. With resignation and resentment in his voice, he said, “Project OMAHA has ended at South High.” He glumly dissembled the exhibits, hauling away hundreds of items into a storage site already cluttered with excess.

 

 

Omaha Stockyards

 

 

Many items are stacked in a heap: an old cash register, an adding machine, a vintage typewriter, assorted furniture , display cases. Against walls are a floor radio and a juke box. Arranged more carefully are posters, photographs, audio cassettes, newspaper clippings. None of it has any real monetary value he concedes, but it’s history he values.

Unbound by school rules, he’s grown his gray hair out to shoulder-length, giving him a mad Biblical prophet look befitting his extreme history fixation. Whether or not the collection sees the light of day again, he wants it archived. That months-long task must wait until he recovers from hip replacement surgery and pneumonia.

He thought up and did Project OMAHA with former colleague Dean Flyr. Along the way Kastrick devoted countless unpaid hours treasure hunting, interviewing, organizing, supervising, presenting. Flyr and a paraprofessional who once assisted him moved on.

Officially, the project was an adjunct to his teaching. Emotionally, it’s what he lived for. It’s where his passion for education and history coalesced. After giving so much and getting so little in return, he felt like an unrequited lover. A decade into it he still fought to get it institutionalized. Though the project received significant direct grant support, donated equipment and in-kind services from Apple and other sources, it was never an official Omaha Public Schools or South High project. Instead, it was Gary’s Chasing Windmills Dream. He was always scrounging.

Its governance was under the nonprofit Omaha History Inc. The board’s comprised of Kastrick and a friend. South High Alumni Association executive director Dick Gulizia  was a vocal advocate, as was Omaha City Councilman Garry Gernandt.

The History Boys sought benefactors to recognize and reward this labor of love. Finding a permanent home was priority one. Kastrick acknowledged his lack of tact was a detriment. “Maybe it’s because I’m not a good politician. I’m not a schmoozer. I’m a stubborn Pollack. I believe this is good enough on its own merit and should be able to sell itself.” He said it didn’t help being “a peon — I’m just a working stiff.”

Denver architect Phil Greenberg did offer $50,000 should a permanent home be found for the collection. An Omaha native, Greenberg’s father, Sam Greenberg, owned the South 24th Street landmark, Phillip’s Department Store. The old South Omaha City Hall building was one site Kastrick and Co. eyed. More recently, they fixed on the former South Omaha public library branch. They asked the City to donate the structure for the Project Omaha/Sam Greenberg Learning Center. But the Omaha Library Board declared the building surplus property and put it up for auction at fair market value, making it a cost prohibitive deal for the project. Kastrick’s been unable to get a line on another building. Even if he did, renovations would likely cost more than the promised $50,000.

It seems a moot point now.

He wonders if the scope was too broad for others to grasp or if the inner city location hurt the project’s chances of being embraced. “Maybe if it wasn’t at South High, maybe if it was at a Burke or a Central, the crown jewels, there’d be more interest,” he speculated. He wanted OPS and the Learning Community to “authenticate this” — to make OMAHA a required or encouraged part of the curriculum. He said a project web site he launched was taken down by OPS during a digital redesign. It was never restored.

To understand how much this endeavor meant to him you have to know he grew up in the neighborhood, shadowing his custodian father on moonlight shifts tending bar and cleaning businesses. The belly-up-to-the-bar stories told by meatpackers, stockyards workers and ethnic immigrants spurred Kastrick’s interest in culture and history.

“I do distinctly remember listening to all these people and their stories. Like in any of these ethnic, industrialized areas the taverns were where the folk history abounded. I found that interesting and I always thought later on down the road I’d like to get together some of these stories,” he said.

 

 

Gary Kastrick leading a tour

 

 

His old man was a born storyteller. He told Kastrick of the 1919 lynching of William Brown outside a besieged courthouse, the ‘35 streetcar riot, the fatal ‘30 Krug Park rollercoaster accident and Johnny Goodman’s upset win at the ‘33 U.S. Open.

“He loved to tell stories about Omaha,” the proud son said.

History came alive in those moments. “Yeah, there was a passion and fascination for local history, with what used to be. Being an old romantic, I love walking down the street and visualizing what used to be there. That’s really the inspiration for this,” he said, taking in what’s left of the project, caressing the last stockyards pen salvaged from the Omaha Livestock Market as if a holy relic.

Objects are one thing, interviews are another. “Some of these people really love to tell their stories,” he said. “It’s amazing sitting and listening to them and having them recount their lives like that.”

His “packratism” manifested early and has never stopped. His storage units over-brim with memorabilia collected since childhood. Collecting, he said, is “what got me enthralled” with not only preserving the past but teaching it.

But his heart isn’t it like it used to be. He’s had it broken too many times. Still, he can’t help acquiring things. Like the Jetter Brewing Co. beer case he recently obtained. He had to have it. Then there’s that great white elephant, Rosenblatt Stadium, and all the stories to cultivate. He covets a row of grandstand seats. There’s an Alamito Dairy sign he lusts after. And if he can ever locate the old Chief movie theatre’s neon headdress sign, he’ll feel complete.

Whenever he adds a new piece, he feels he’s saved another link to the past. But where to put it?

“What I feel good about is that I had families bring me photographs and newspaper clippings and little pieces from their businesses that otherwise would have been thrown away. If it’s thrown away, you’re never going to find it again. Where would that have gone if I wasn’t here?”

As much as he’d like to be out from under the avalanche of materials in his care, he cannot renege on the promise he’s made to himself and others to hold onto this “hodgepodge” of ephemera. Even though he’s a curator without a museum now, he feels a custodial duty to preserve what he has.

He admits it’s become a burden. Not that he’d ever do it, but he said “there are times when I want to take it all and burn it, because it’s holding me down. Sometimes stuff can take you over.” Part of him that would like to leave it all behind. He talks about getting on a Harley and just taking off. Where to, you ask. “Who knows,” he says.

As much as he craves freedom from his encumbrance, the glint in his eyes tells you he’s not done collecting or leading his Gritty City tours. Besides, teachers clamor for him to resume his Old Omaha jaunt. He won’t commit, saying only, “I’m going to miss the 3rd graders and the activities and trying to educate people about local history.”

Project OMAHA may be in moth balls, but The History Man’s magnificent obsession still burns bright.

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