Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Bea Karp: Holocaust survivor feels obligation to share painful memories

March 15, 2018 Leave a comment

Bea Karp: Holocaust survivor feels obligation to share painful memories

©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in New Horizons Newspaper (1999)


On a January morning students at Omaha’s Lewis and Clark Middle School file in an auditorium to hear a tale of survival by Bea Karp, a petite Jewish woman of 66 who as a child in her native Germany, and later in France, endured the Holocaust. She and her younger sister, Susie, are among their extended family’s few survivors. As Bea’s harrowing tale unfolds, the students listen with the stilled respect due the haunted figure standing before them. Not all survivors can speak about their experiences. Some want only to forget, but for Bea, and thousands like her, there is a need to speak out. To bear witness. Why?

“I tell this story in memory of my parents and the six million Jews that died. I don’t want the world to forget. It’s a lesson to the future and the future is in your hands. And it’s up to you to make sure nothing like that will ever happen again,” she tells the students in what is a solemn plea. Her German-accented voice rings strong and clear. Her words intoned as in prayer. Her kind eyes shimmer with sadness, yet burn with defiance. Her resolve remains unshakeable. Her will, unbroken.

One wonders if these comfort-laden kids understand the true horror of what she describes. Then again, who among us really can, save another survivor? But the rest of us do have much to learn from her. If nothing else, that the human spirit can persevere in the most awful circumstances. Because she has so much to offer, Bea often shares her story with school, church and service organization audiences. She does it, she says, so others may know “how terrible hatred and prejudice is and what a terrible sickness it can be when you are not tolerant of other people.” In 1936, the former Bea Stern had her childhood stolen at the hands of Nazi tyranny. Stripped of the most basic human rights, her family was imprisoned in work camps during the Second World War. While Bea and Susie were rescued by a children’s refugee organization, their parents, along with scores of cousins, uncles and aunts, were killed. The orphaned sisters were fortunate enough to have relatives in England to take them in. By their teens the sisters came to America and remade themselves – marrying, bearing children, leading full lives. While Be a’ post-war years have not been tragedy-free, she’s found meaning in life and dedicated herself to educating others.

Every survivor has a story. Ultimately, it’s one of rebirth. Of going into the abyss and coming back out, scarred, but alive, and, as in Bea’s case, compelled to testify. As the number of survivors dwindles each year, there is added urgency to having their stories recorded for future generations. In 1994 that same urgency drove Steven Spielberg to establish the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation as a vehicle for preserving survivors’ testimonies. To date, the Los Angeles-based foundation has videotaped interviews with 50,000 survivors, including Bea, worldwide. The goal, says executive director Michael Berenbaum, is developing the most comprehensive multimedia archive of survivor testimonies and making this material available via computer technology for educational used in schools, libraries, museums, et cetera. Further, he adds, the project is giving survivors like Bea a voice and face in history.

Omahan Ben Nachman, who interviewed 60 people for the project, says of survivors: “They’re the most special people in the world. They’re the most morally correct people I’ve ever found. I never see hate in them and they’ve got every reason in the world to hate. They’re my heroes.”

The telling, painful as it is, has not gotten easier for Bea. She began talking about her experiences years ago at the urging of her then young children. She’s since shared her odyssey with her seven grandchildren and scores of other young people in schools. “At first I had a very bad time about it. It was very difficult for me,” she says. “After all these years, I still get emotional. It pulls me back too much and the emotions I felt then I can still feel. But I think it’s helped me a lot psychologically. I don’t hold it all inside of me. I feel like I’m doing something good and I feel my parents really want me to do it too. If I can just teach one person each time I tell my story, it’s well worthwhile.”

To appreciate the arc of her story one must go back to the beginning. To when the darkness descended and innocence ended. The year was 1936. Bea was 4 and living with her family in her birthplace, Lauterbach, a scenic rural village in western Germany. A sedate place where children played safely in the unpaved streets. Her family had a good life. Her studious father, Moritz, owned a textile store that her resourceful mother, Rosa, helped in. Their nice spacious home accommodated the immediate family as well as Bea’s grandmother and an uncle.

Bea remembers, “We always had an open house. There was lots of goings-on. My aunts and cousins used to come and visit all the time. We enjoyed music. My mother and father loved dancing. Lauterbach was the only childhood I knew.” Far removed from Berlin, the Sterns were at first unaffected by Hitler’s anti-Semitic policies. But things soon changed. Jews were made to wear the yellow star. Signs emblazoned with “Juden verboten” (Jews forbidden) sprang up. Restrictions on their activities enacted. The black-booted, brown-shirted military began brutalizing the Jewish citizenry. Bea still sees the approaching apocalypse in the form of a rumbling tank. “The first time I was aware that something was wrong came while playing in the streets. Suddenly, a tank came rolling onto that same street, going very slowly but still kicking up dust. I got terribly scared and screamed, ‘Momma, momma, momma.’ That was the start of it all. That was kind of like the end of my childhood.”

She recalls arguments at home between her father and uncle over whether to stay or flee. Her uncle favored leaving, her father did not. “I think my father was a bit scared of leaving Lauterbach because, you know, where were we going to go? What were we going to do? My father had responsibilities. He had a family to feed.” As things worsened, her uncle left, taking his mother and sister with him to Palestine. Her father did act when anti-Jewish decrees effectively made them non-citizens. “Hitler decreed Jews could not own any property,” she notes, “so therefore we had to give up our home and my father had to give up his textile store. There was no means for him to make a living.” She says her parents were in a state of disbelief over the turn of events. Numbed over being branded outcasts in their own country, a county the Sterns had called home for generations. “They were shocked because they thought of themselves as German. That’s when I really felt personally what Hitler was doing,” she says.

In the face of such hostility the family moved to Karlsruhe, a city on the western border of France, near the Black Forest. It proved no friendlier. “Nobody wanted to rent an apartment to a Jewish family,” Bea says. “By then the Gentile community was afraid to have anything to do with Jews. We stayed at the apartment of an aunt and uncle and their three children. It took my father six weeks to find a small apartment of our own.” Her father, unable to ply his trade, worked as a manual laborer.

Their lives grew ever more restricted. With religious services banned, her Orthodox family went to a nearby apartment for clandestine prayers. A lookout on the street below watched for approaching soldiers. School became a nightmare for Bea and her Jewish classmates. “I hated going to school. The other kids would push us on the street. They’d yell at us, ‘Dirty Jew, Christ killer.’ It got so bad my father had to go with me.” She says grownups were at even greater risk, targeted by roving gangs and thugs. A male cousin disappeared without a trace. The parents of her Gentile friends were quite cruel.“I had a friend across the street and we used to play with our dolls together. I loved her very much. One day I knocked on her door and her mother opened it, looked at me and closed the door in my face. That was the end of our friendship. I was heartbroken. I didn’t realize she wasn’t Jewish. When you’re small you don’t think that way. I never thought about being different.”

As Bea and her family were made strangers in their own homeland, the less secure and more frightened they became. “These were very, very difficult times on my parents and us children. We really felt the hand of anti-Semitism. It wasn’t a good feeling.” With conditions deteriorating, she says she grew angry at her persecutors and turned from a shy, sweet-mannered girl into a loud rebel, once even daring to vent her anger at a soldier.“One day my sister and I were playing in the street when two Nazis passed by. I went ahead and picked up pebbles from the gutter and threw them at them. One of the pebbles hit them and they turned and came after us. All of us ran and we escaped them in an alley. My mother, who had watched the whole incident from the living room window, was furious with us.”

Bea recalls family discussions regarding plans for departing Germany.“I think we were very close to being able to leave,” she says, but once the borders closed and refugee quotients enacted, “then it was too late. On November 9, 1938 the Nazis unleashed a nationwide pogrom foreshadowing the atrocities ahead. Mobs swept through the streets smashing windows, looting shops, burning synagogues and ransacking homes of Jewish residents. Bea recalls the glow outside her bedroom window and thinking all of “Karlsruhe” was on fire.” The terror campaign didn’t stop there, either, as Jewish males were attacked and some killed, The glass shards littering the streets came to symbolize not just shattered windows, but shattered ideals, morals, laws and lives. It came to be known as Kristallnacht of The Night of the Broken Crystal. When Bea’s father didn’t arrive home that evening from work, her mother grew distressed.“I still remember her pacing. He never did come home that night. We learned he and other men had been rounded up and taken to Buchenwald, one of the worst concentration camps. I shall never forget the day he came home. He was covered with blood and mud. He was trembling. He was a sick man for a very, very long time and never quite recovered from his ordeal.”

By the fall of 1940 Jewish children were not allowed to attend school, and Bea, then 8, was increasingly running wild, getting into trouble. One day, without warning, there was a pounding on the apartment door. The Gestapo. The armed men barked orders to pack enough for two weeks. Bea remembers her mother asking, ‘Where are you taking us”’ and being roughly rebuked. “You ask too many questions. Mach schnell! Mach schnell!,” (hurry up, hurry up) the men yelled. In the chaos Bea retrieved her favorite doll but a Gestapo goon shook her arm, saying cryptically, “Where you’re going you don’t need this doll.” Bea was scared, then angry, and threw the doll on the floor, its porcelain face breaking. She gripped a table leg, sobbing to her mother, “‘I just know we’re never going to come back here.’ I was very agitated,” she recalls.

“My mother had a horrible time prying my hands loose and getting me out the door.” So traumatizing was the episode that Bea recalls only her mother during this period, even though her sister and father were present.“I was beside myself for a long time. It was like they uprooted me.”The family was taken to the city’s railroad station, where they and many others were forced aboard a passenger train, their destination unknown. “As we moved into the countryside some people jumped through the windows of the moving train,” she says. “But there were soldiers on the roof and they shot at the people. I don’t know how many escaped.” The train stopped at a French-German border station, where a voice on a loudspeaker ordered everyone to get rid of money or else be shot. When she saw her mother trying to hide money, she screamed, ‘No!.’ “My mother said, ‘Here…get rid of it,’ and so I took the money, went to the restroom and threw it down the toilet. Coming back to our compartment I saw, sure enough, the Nazis searching everyone. They took people off, lined them up on the platform and shot them.”

When the train stopped again in southern France, the prisoners were ordered off, loaded onto trucks and transported to the work camp Gurs. Bea remembers it as “a dismal place. All gray, brown and black. Barbed wire strung all around the camp. There were so many barracks that it looked like a small village. Guardhouses towered above the barracks.” Upon arrival the men and women were separated. “And that’s the next time I’m conscious of my dad again,” she says. “Because I had to say goodbye to him, I just clung to him.”

She saw her father only twice more. Once, she and her sister defied orders and bravely marched past guards to the men’s compound, finding their dad frail and weak. While in his barracks she recalls each of the men being given a raw egg, an unheard of delicacy. The famished Bea could “already taste” it. When cracked open, however, the eggs were all bloody inside. “My father got very agitated because as an Orthodox Jew he could not eat such an egg. It’s not Kosher. The Nazis were playing psychologically games. But I thought, ‘My father will surely make an exception. We’re starving, after all.’ Well, to my utter surprise he threw the egg against the wall, and I went to the wall to lick off the yellow ooze, but when I saw the expression on my father’s face I couldn’t do it. I was so furious I stomped my feet on the floor. He took me and my sister in his arms and then we all cried. Looking back on it, I now admire my father’s fortitude.”

She saw her mother endure her own indignities, as when her pierced gold earrings were “pulled right off her ear lobes. To this day I can hear her cry out from the pain.” Bea, Susie and their mother were assigned a barracks with dozens of others. The trio shared a rickety bed with a straw-filled mattress. Lice and rodents abounded. There was no medicine to treat sores, which invariably became infected. It rained often, leaving the compound a muddy quagmire. Their diet consisted almost entirely of watery soup. The entire barracks’ daily bread ration was but one loaf and its division caused bitter fights. “if one person would get just a little bit more than somebody else,” Bea says, “the other women would jump on her. These women, who used to be ladies, ruined into animals. It was horrible.”

To survive, Bea became like a feral child — scrounging and scavenging garbage cans for food. Any respite from the misery and tedium was welcome, as when a visiting Red Cross worker sang for the children and treated them to Swiss cheese wedges. But in such conditions even acts of kindness were soon perverted. “The stronger of us would take cheese from the weaker,” Bea says. “One day I even took a piece from my sister…a terrible thing to do.”

While adults worked as slave laborers, children went on long forced walks. Stopping invited beatings. Still, life went on. Children played games. Inmates performed music. Secret classes met. A black-market thrived. The family was at Gurs several months when Susie, who developed an infection from scratching her lice-infested head, was among a group of children taken out of the camp by the O.S.E. (The Osay), an international humanitarian organization operating homes in France for refugee children. Saying goodbye, not knowing if they’d ever see each other again, was hard on everyone. Some time later, in about late 1941, the cholera-stricken Bea was herself rescued by the O.S.E. from the work camp Rivesaltes, where Bea and her parents had been taken. Each time, Bea’s mother was given the impossible choice of letting a daughter go or stay to meet an uncertain fate. Some mothers refused to give their children up.

“It must have been terrible for my mother,” she says. “First, one daughter, and then her other daughter leaving her. I don’t know how she did it. I don’t know how much she knew. Maybe only that we’d be better off anywhere than in the camp. At the time though I didn’t want to leave.” But leave she did, staying in a series of safe houses where refugee children like her were fed, supervised and educated. Over the next couple of years she moved 14 times, eventually reuniting with Susie. Once rejoined, the sisters were inseparable. The homes, scattered throughout southern and central France, were large chateau estates. The children attended classes and performed chores. They received mail from family, although Bea and Susie heard nothing more from their parents after early 1942.

Bea describes it as “an uncertain time,” adding, “I never knew how long I would be staying in one place. I never made close friendships.” By 1943 The Final Solution was in full gear and the homes , which the Vichy regime tolerated at its discretion, were no longer safe havens. The children were dispersed — some to Christian families and others, like Bea and Susie, to a convent in Millau. The girls were given French names and identity cards, staying there nearly till the war’s end.

By then Bea’s parents were presumed dead, yet there was nothing concrete. “There were rumors” about death camps,” she says. “I knew something terrible had happened. That they were gone, but where or how, I didn’t know. For the longest time I still had hope that maybe, maybe they escaped. I remember thinking, What am I going to do? My sister and I are left all alone in the world.”

She knew the war in Europe was won when American and Russian planes filled the skies in 1945. That’s when the O.S.E. reentered her life and placed her and Susie back in a chateau. An ad in an international Jewish newspaper requesting contact with any living relatives netted responses from Israel and England. That same year the girls, then 13 and 10, left for London to live with an uncle and his family. There, Bea and Susie began a new life and with it learned new customs and a new language. As teens they made yet another transition, coming to America to live with an aunt and her family in New York, Queens to be exact.

Soon after graduating high school Bea married American-born Bob Pappenheimer and in 1949 moved with him to O’Neill, Neb., where he worked in the grocery trade. They raised four daughters there. It was in O’Neill when she got official word her parents had died at Auschwitz.

“I was very much upset because it was so final. On the the other hand, part of me was also relieved to finally know.”

In the 1960s the family moved to Omaha, Her husband, Bob, died of cancer in 1987. Her second husband, Harold Karp, died also of cancer. Even after losing so much and then being twice-widowed, her indomitable spirit carries on, her righteous path continues. How?

“It’s like I told my sister when we left England: “Susie, we’re just turning another corner.’ That’s my attitude. Take things in stride. Otherwise, you give up.” Her resiliency springs from a near epiphany at one of the children’s homes.

“I was going down the staircase to the dining room, holding onto the railing, wondering, Why am I feeling happy? — things are just terrible. And it suddenly dawned on me happiness is something that comes from within. It was like a revelation. I learned to just take care of the moment. To not worry too far ahead. That it isn’t so much what life hands you, as how you cope with what you get. And I always remembered that through everything.”

It is a survivor’s philosophy. One from which we might all benefit.


MUST-SEE THEATER “Starkweather” by Doug Marr, March 8-11, Florence City Hall


“Starkweather” by Doug Marr, March 8-11, Florence City Hall

The Florence Community Theater proudly presents: The FCT Studio Series production of “Starkweather”

“Starkweather” is based on the shoclomg real-life events of December 1957 thrpugh early January 1958 when 19-year-old Charles Raymond Starkweather and his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate, engaged in a killing spree which ended with 11 people murdered in Nebraska and Wyoming. This was the first serial massacre to capture the nation’s attention. It happened some years before the Boston Strangler, Richard “Dick” Hickock-Perry Smith, Richard Benjamin Speck and Charles Manson murder sprees. After the initial killings. a massive manhunt ensued in pursuit of the suspects, neither of whom had shown any obvious signs of such depravity. Until Starkweather and Fugate were apprehended by authorities, much of the American Midwest and West was on high alert because of the seeming randomness of the killings and the fact that they happened over a several hundred mile span. The fear was intensified by the pack media coverage of the killings and the sheer size of the manhunt. There was also the uneasy feeling that something unhinged had been released in the placid late 1950s. No one could understand how two teenagers could seemingly just snap and act with such unadulterated evil. Residents of rural communities armed themselves to the teeth. Written by Omaha playwright Doug Marr (of Diner Theater fame), “Starkweather” is a riveting dramatic evocation of the fear Heartland residents felt and of the surreal and sensational trial that followed of the two teenagers accused and found guilty of these heinous crimes. Orignally staged at the Omaha Community Playhouse to great acclaim, this work has rarely been mounted in recent decades and is now being revived in the 60th anniversay year of Starkweather’s capture.

Disclaimer: This show contains adult language or situations. Children under 17 will not be admitted.

Show Dates and times: March 8 – 11, 2018; Thursday – Saturday 7 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday 2 p.m.

Tickets: Reservations can be made by calling (402) 455-6341 or online at Single General Admission tickets are $10; TAG Members $8; Patrons Aged 60+ $8; Or Groups of 8 or more $8.

A series commemorating Black History Month – North Omaha stories Part III

February 14, 2018 Leave a comment


Commemorating Black History Month
Links to North Omaha stories from 1998 through 2018.
Articles on social justice, civil rights, race, history, faith, family, community, business, politics. education, art, music, theater, film, culture, et cetera
A weekly four-part series
This week: Part III –  history, art, music, theater, film, culture, entertainment, society

Her mother’s daughter:  Charlene Butts Ligon carries on civil rights legacy of her late mother Evelyn Thomas Butts

January 28, 2018 Leave a comment

Her mother’s daughter: 

Charlene Butts Ligon carries on civil rights legacy of her late mother Evelyn Thomas Butts

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in February 2018 issue of the New Horizons


Chances are, you’ve never heard of the late Evelyn T. Butts. But you should know this grassroots warrior who made a difference at the height of the civil rights movement in the Jim Crow American South.

A new book, Fearless: How a poor Virginia seamstress took on Jim Crow, beat the poll tax and changed her city forever, written by her youngest daughter, Charlene Butts Ligon of Bellevue, Neb. preserves the legacy of this champion for the underserved and underrepresented.

Defying odds to become civil rights champion

Evelyn (Thomas) Butts grew up with few advantages in Depression Era Virginia. She lost her mother at 10. She didn’t finish high school. Her husband Charlie Butts came home from World War II one hundred percent disabled. To support their three daughters, Butts, a skilled seamstress, took in day work. She made most of her girls’ clothes.

When not cooking, cleaning, caring for the family, she volunteered her time fighting for equal rights, She became an unlikely force in Virginia politics wielding influence in her hometown of Norfolk and beyond. Both elected officials and candidates curried her favor.

She fought for integrated schools, equal city services and fair housing. Her biggest fight legally challenged the poll tax, a registration fee that posed enough of a financial burden to keep many poor blacks from  exercising their right to cast a ballot. The Twenty-fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution had ruled poll taxes illegal in federal elections but the practice continued in southern state elections as a way to disenfranchise blacks. Butts’ case, combined with others. made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. in 1966, Thurgood Marshall argued for the plaintiffs. In a 6-3 decision, the court abolished the poll tax in state elections and Butts went right to work registering thousands of voters.

Devoted daughter documents mom’s legacy in book

More than 50 years since that decision and 25 years since her mother’ death in 1993, Ligon has written and published a book that chronicles Evelyn Butts’ life of public service that inspired her and countless others.

Ligon and her husband Robert are retired U.S. Air Force officers. The last station of their well-traveled military careers was at Offutt Air Force Base from 1992 to 1995. When they retired, the couple opted to make Nebraska their permanent home. They are parents to three grown children and five grandchildren.

By nature and nurture, Ligon, inherited her “mama’s” love of organized politics, community affairs and public service. She’s chair of the Sarpy County Democrats and secretary of the Nebraska State Democratic Party. As the party’s state caucus chair, she led a nationally recognized effort that set up caucuses in all 93 counties and developed an interactive voting info website.

Former Nebraska Democratic Party executive director Hadley Richters knows a good egg when she sees one.

“In politics, you learn quickly the people who will actually do the work are few, and even fewer are those who strive to do it even better than before. Charlene Ligon is definitely a part of that very few. I have also learned those few, like Charlene, are who truly uphold our democracy. Charlene works tirelessly to further participation in the process, selflessly driven by rare and deep understanding of what’s at stake. She is a champion for voices to be heard, and when it comes to protecting the democratic process, defending fairness, demanding access, and advocating for what is right, I can promise you Charlene will be present, consistent, hard-working and fearless.”

Ligon is a charter member of Black Women for Positive Change, a national policy-focused network whose goals are to strengthen and expand the American middle-working class and change the culture of violence.

Besides her mother, she counts as role models: Barbara Jordan, Shirley Chisholm and Dorothy Height.

In addition to participating in lots of political rallies, she’s an annual Omaha Women’s March participant.

Like her mother before her. she’s been a Democratic National Convention delegate, she’s met party powerbrokers and she’s made voting rights her mission.

“It all goes back to that – access and fairness. That’s how I see it.”

Even today, measures such as redistricting and extreme voter ID requirements can be used to suppress votes. She still finds it shocking the lengths Virginia and other states went to in order to suppress the black vote.

“Virginia’s really shameful in the way it did voting,” she said. “At one time, they had what they called a blank sheet for registration. When you went to register to vote you had to know ahead of time what identifying information you needed to put on there. It wasn’t a literacy test. By law, the registrar could not help people, so people got disqualified. Well, the black community got together and started having classes to educate folks what they needed to know when they went to register.”

The blank sheet was on top of the poll tax. An unintended effect was the disqualification of poor and elderly whites, too. In a majority white state, that could not hold and so a referendum was organized and the practice discontinued.

“The history books tell you they did it because of white backlash, not because of black backlash,” Ligon said.

Virginia’s regerettable record of segregation extended to entire school districts postponing school and some schools closing rather than complying with integration

“It always amazes me they did that,” she said.


Speaking her mind and giving others a voice

As a Norfolk public housing commissioner, Butts broke ranks with fellow board members to publicly oppose private and public redevelopment plans whose resulting gentrification would threaten displacing black residents.

“She really gave them a fit because they weren’t doing what they should have been doing for poor neighborhoods and she told them about it. They weren’t really ready for her to bring this out,” Ligon said of her mother’s outspoken independence.

“Mama could be stubborn, too. She was authoritarian sometimes.”

Butts became the voice for people needing an advocate.

“They called her for all kinds of things. They called her when they needed a house, when they were having problems with their landlord. They called her and called her. They knew to call Mrs. Butts and that if you call Mrs. Butts, she’ll help you. Nine times out of ten she could get something for them. She had that reputation as a mover and shaker and they knew she wasn’t going to sell them out because it wasn’t about money for her.”

Ligon fights the good fight herself in a different climate than the one her mother operated in. It makes her appreciate even more how her mom took on social issues when it was dangerous for an African-American to speak out. She admires the courage her mother showed and the feminist spirit she embodied.

“My mama always spoke up. She didn’t cow. She talked kind of loud. I got that from her. She looked them in the eye and said, ‘Yeah, this is the way it needs to be.’ They didn’t always pay attention to her, but she just always was ready to say what needed to be said.  Of course, the establishment didn’t want to hear it. But she actually won most people’s respect.”

Growing up, Ligon realized having such a bigger-than-life mother was not the norm.

“She stood out in my life. I started to understand that my mom was different than most people’s moms. She was always doing something for the neighborhood. There were so many things going on in the 1950s through the early 1960s that really got her going.”

Her mother was at the famous 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Charlene wanted to go but her mother forbade it out of concern there might be violence. Being there marked a milestone for Evelyn – surpassed only by the later Supreme Court victory.

“It meant a lot to her. That was the movement. That was what she believed,” Ligon said. “And it was historic.”

Long before the march, Butts saw MLK speak in Petersburg, Virginia. He became her personal hero.

“She was already moving forward, but he inspired her to move further forward.”

Decades later, Ligon attended both of Obama’s presidential inaugurations. She has no doubt her mother would have been there if she’d been alive.

“I wish my mom could have been around to see that, although electing the nation’s first black president didn’t have the intended effect on America I thought it would. It gave me faith though when he was elected that the process works, that it could happen. He could not have won with just black votes, so we know a lot of white people voted for him. We should never forget that.

“It just really made me proud.”

Ligon shook hands with President Obama when he visited the metro. She’s met other notable Democrats, such as Joe Biden, Hilary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Jim Clybern, Doug Wilder, Ben Nelson and Bob Kerrey.

The day the Supreme Court struck down the poll tax, her mother got to meet Thurgood Marshall – the man who headed up the Brown vs. Board of Education legal team that successfully argued for school desegregation.

“She was really thrilled to meet him.”

Then-U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy was in the courtroom for the poll tax ruling and Evelyn got to meet the future presidential candidate that day as well.

Butts was vociferous in her pursuit of justice but not everyone in the movement could afford to be like her.

“As I look back on the other prominent people in the movement,” Ligon said, “they had their ways of contributing but there were a lot of people who had what they considered something to lose. For instance, teachers just wouldn’t say a word because they were afraid for their jobs. There were lots of people that wouldn’t say anything.”

Her mother exuded charisma that drew people to her.

“People liked her. Mama was an organizer. She was the person that got them all together and she was inspirational to them, I’m sure. She had a group of ladies who followed her. They were like, “Okay. Mrs. Butts, what are we going to do today? Are we going to register voters? Are we going to picket?”

Evelyn Butts formed an organization called Concerned Citizens for Political Education that sought to empower blacks and their own self-determination. It achieved two key victories in the late 1960s with the election of Joseph A. Jordan as Norfolk’s first black city council member since Reconstruction and electing William P. Robinson as the city’s first African-American member of the state House of Delegates.

Charlene marveled at her mother’s energy and industriousness.

“I was always proud of her.”

Having such a high profile parent wasn’t a problem.

“I never felt uncomfortable or had a negative feeling about it.”

Even when telling others what she felt needed to be done, Ligon said her mother “treated everybody with respect,” adding “The Golden Rule has always been my thing and I’m sure my mom taught me the Golden Rule.”

Telling the story from archives and memories

As big a feat as it was to end the poll tax, Ligon felt her mother’s accomplishments went far beyond that and that only a book could do them justice. So, in 2007, she and her late sister Jeanette, embarked on the project.

“We thought people needed lo know the whole story.”

Ligon’s research led her to acclaimed journalist-author Earl Swift, a former Virginian Pilot reporter who wrote about her mother. He ended up editing the book. He insisted she make it more specific and full of descriptive details. Poring through archives, Ligon found much of her mother’s activities covered in print stories published by the Pilot as well as by Norfolk’s black newspaper, the New Journal and Guide. Ligon also interviewed several people who knew her mother or her work.

Writer Kietryn Zychal helped Ligon pen the book.

Much of the content is from Charlene and her sister’s vivid memories growing up with their mom’s activism. As a girl, Charlene often accompanied her to events.

“She took me a lot of places. I was exposed.”

Those experiences included picketing a local grocery store that didn’t hire blacks and a university whose athletics stadium restricted blacks to certain sections

“The first time i remember attending a political-social activism meeting with Mama was the Oakwood Civic League about 1955 during the same time the area was under annexation by the city of Norfolk. My next memory is attending the NAACP meeting at the church on the corner from our house concerning testing to attend integrated schools. I have vivid memories of attending the court proceedings of a school desegregation case. Mama took me to court every day. She was called to testify by the NAACP lawyers.”

Charlene joined other black teenage girls as campaign workers under the name the Jordanettes, for candidate Joe Jordan. Her mom made their matching outfits.

“We passed out literature, campaign buttons, bumper stickers at picnics, rallies and meetings. Hanging out with my mom and doing the campaign stuff definitely had an influence. I was always excited to tag along.”

At home, politics dominated family discussions.

“My mom did what she did all the time and she talked about it all the time, and so I always knew what was going on, She involved us. She would update my dad. We were always in earshot of the conversation. My sisters and I were expected to be aware of what was happening in our community. We were encouraged to read the newspaper. We participated in some picketing.”

Always having Evelyn’s back was the man of the house.

“He was behind her a hundred percent,” Ligon said of her father, who unlike Evelyn was quiet and reserved. He didn’t like the limelight but, Charlene said, “he never fussed about that – he was in her corner.”

“He might not have done that (activism) personally himself but yeah he was proud she was out there doing that. As long as she cooked his dinner.”

Because Evelyn Butts was churched, she saw part of her fighting the good fight as the Christian thing to do.

“We attended church but my mama wasn’t really a church lady. She just always believed in what the right thing to do would be. I guess that inner thing was in all of us as far as social justice.

“She taught me there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do if I put my mind to it. She taught me not to be afraid of people because I was different.”

When it came time for Ligon to title her book, the word fearless jumped out.

“That’s what she was.”

Where did that fearless spirit come from?

After her mother died, she was raised by her politically engaged aunt Roz. But headstrong Evelyn took her activism to a whole other level.

“I remember Roz telling mama to be careful. She said, ‘Evelyn, you better watch out, they’re going to kill you.'”

The threat of violence, whether implied or stated, was ever present.

“That’s just the way it was. In Virginia, we had some bad things happen, but it wasn’t like Mississippi and the civil rights workers getting killed. We had a few bombings and cross burnings. It still amazes me how she was able to put up with what she did. A lot of people were frightened. Not far from where we lived. racists were bombing houses near where she was picketing. She wasn’t frightened about that and she always made us feel comfortable that things were going to be okay.”

Butts drew the ire of those with whom she differed, white and black. For example, she called out the Virginia chapter of the NAACP for moving too slowly and timidly.

“My mom was considered militant back in the day, but she was also pragmatic about it. There was so much ground to cover. There’s still a lot of ground to cover.”


Progress won and lost in a never-ending struggle

Ligon rues that today’s youth may not appreciate how fragile civil rights are, especially with Donald Trump in office and the Republicans in control of Congress.

“I don’t think young people realize we’re losing ground. They aren’t paying attention. They take things for granted, I’m old enough to remember when everything was segregated and how restrictive it was. I may not want to go anywhere then someplace where all the people look like me, but I need to have that choice.

“We’ve lost almost all the ground we made when Barack Obama was president. People who wanted change said we don’t need the status quo and I would say, yes we do, we need to hold it a little bit.”

She’s upset Obama executive orders are under assail. Protections for DACA recipients are set to end pending a compromise plan. Obamacare is being undone. Sentences for nonviolent drug offenders are being toughened and lengthened.

Perhaps it’s only natural the nation’s eyes were taken off the prize once civil rights lost an identifiable movement or leader. But Ligon chose a Corretta Scott King quotation at the front of her book as a reminder that when it comes to preserving rights, vigilance is needed.

Struggle is a never ending process. Freedom is never really won –you earn it in every generation.

“I think the struggle is always going to be there for us minorities, specifically for African-Americans,” Ligon said. “It’s my belief we’re always going to have it. Each generation has to continue to move forward. You can’t just say, ‘We have it now.'”

She’s concerned some African-Americans have grown disillusioned by the overt racism that’s surfaced since Trump emerged as a serious presidential candidate and then won the White House.

“With the change that’s happened in the United States, I think a lot of them have lost faith. They seem to have given up. They say America is white people’s country. I remind them it’s our country. Do you know how much blood sweat and tears African-Americans have invested in America? Somewhere down the line we did not instill that this is our country. It’s okay to be patriotic and call them out every day. You can do both.”

How might America be different had MLK lived?

“Hopefully, we would be a little bit further along in having a more organized movement,” said Ligon.

She’s distressed a segment of whites feel the gains made by blacks have come at their expense.

“Some white people feel something has been taken from them and given to the minorities, which is sad, because it’s not really so. But they feel that way.”

She feels the election of Trump represented “a backlash” to the Obama presidency and his legacy as a progressive black man in power.

If her mother were around today, Charlene is sure she would be out registering voters and getting them to the polls to ensure Trump and those like him don’t get reelected or elected in the first place.

In her book’s epilogue, Charlene suggests people stay home from the polls because they believe politics is corrupt and dirty but she asserts Mama Butts would have something to say about that.

If my mother could, I know she’d say this: If you don’t vote, you can be assured that corrupt politicians will be elected.

“And that’s the truth,” Ligon said.

Drawing strength from a deep well

Just where did her mother get the strength to publicly resist oppression?

“It probably came from a long line of strong women. My grandmother’s sisters, including Roz, who raised my mom, and women from the generation before. The men, I suspect, were pretty strong too. You just had to know my mom and the other family ladies, and the conclusion would be something was in the genes that made them fighters. They were fighters, no doubt. They all were civic-minded, too.”

Going back even earlier in the family tree reveals a burning desire for freedom and justice.

“My great-great-grandfather Smallwood Ackiss was a slave who ran away from the plantation during the Civil War after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and went to Norfolk. He went on to fight for the Union for two years,” Ligon said. “In 1865, he came back to the plantation. John Ackiss II, who was the plantation owner and his owner, had been fighting for the Confederacy at the same time. We do know Smallwood was given 30 acres of land. He lost the property, but we still have a family cemetery there that’s now on a country club in a real exclusive area of Virginia Beach.”

From Smallwood right on down to her mother and herself, Charlene is part of a heritage that embraces freedom and full participation in the democratic process.

“I guess I was always interested and Mom always took me with her. I always saw it. Even in the military, when stationed in South Dakota, I chaired the NAACP Freedom Fund in Rapid City.

“It’s always been there.”

She feels her time in the service prepared her to take charge of things.

“The military strengthens leadership. It’s geared for you to get promoted to become a leader.”

Then there’s the fact she is her mother’s daughter.

Entering the service in the first place – as a 26-year-old single mother of two young children – illustrated her own strong-willed independence. It was 1975 and the newly initiated all-volunteer military was opening long-denied opportunities for women.

“I was divorced, had two kids and I needed child care and a regular salary. I didn’t want to have to depend on anyone else for it but me. It was difficult entering the military as a single parent, but I saw it as security for me and my kids. I was really fortunate I met a great guy whom I married and we managed to finish out our careers together.”

Ligon made master sergeant. She worked as a meteorologist.

“I didn’t want a traditional job. I didn’t want to be an administrative clerk in an office.”

She ended her career as a data base programmer and since her retirement she’s done web development work. She also had her own lingerie boutique, Intimate Creations, at Southroads Mall. Democratic Party business takes up most of her time these days.

Charlene’s military veteran father died in 1979. He supported her decision to serve her country.

Bittersweet end and redemption 

While off in the military, Charlene wasn’t around to witness her mother falling out of favor with a new regime of leaders who distanced themselves from her. Mama Butts lost bids for public office and was even voted out of the Concerned Citizens group she founded. This, after having received community service awards and being accorded much attention.

Personality conflicts and turf wars come with the territory in politics.

“For a long time, my mom didn’t let those things stop her.”

Then it got to be too much and Evelyn dropped out.

Upon her death, Earl Swift wrote:

Evelyn Butts’ life had become a Shakespearean tragedy. She’d dived from the heights of power to something very close to irrelevance. This is someone who should have finished life celebrated, rather than forgotten. History better be kind to this woman. Evelyn Butts was important.

The family agreed her important legacy needed rescue from the political power grabs that tarnished it.

“The Democratic Party really was not nice to my mom. That was another reason I wrote the book – because I wanted that to be known,” Charlene said. “I didn’t know all that had gone on until 1993 when she died. I wanted to present who she was. how she came to be that way and the lessons you can learn from her life. I think those lessons are really important for young people because we need to move forward, we need to stay focused and know that we can’t give up – the struggle is still there.

“People need to vote. That’s what they really need to do. They need to participate. Voting is their force and they don’t realize it, and that’s really disheartening. Even in Norfolk, my hometown, the registered voter numbers  and turnout for elections among blacks is horrible – just like it is here. In north and south Omaha, they don’t turn out the way they could – 10 to 15 percent less than the rest of the city. That should not be.

“When John Ewing ran for Congress he lost by one and a half points. A little bit of extra turnout in North Omaha would have put him over the top. The same thing happened when Brenda Council ran for mayor of the City of Omaha. If they had turned out for Brenda, Brenda would have been elected. That discourages me because they feel like they’re only a small percentage of the population. Yes, it’s true, but you can still make a difference and when you make that difference that gives you a voice. When you can swing an election, candidates and elected officials pay attention. When black voters say ‘they don’t care about us,’ well I guess not, if you don’t have a voice.”

If anything, the work of Evelyn Butts proved what a difference one person can make in building a collective of activated citizens to make positive change.

To Ligon’s delight, her mother is fondly remembered and people want to promote her legacy. A street and community center are named after her. A church houses a tribute display. Endorsements for the book came from former Virginia governor and senator Chuck Robb and current Norfolk mayor Kenneth Cooper Alexander, who wrote the foreword.

Ligon was back home in Norfolk in January for a book signing in conjunction with MLK Day. She’s back there again for more book signings in February for Black History Month.

In Omaha, Fearless is available at The Bookworm, other fine bookstores and select libraries.

Fittingly, the book has been warmly received by diverse audiences. Long before intersectionality became a thing, Ligon writes in her book, her mother practiced it.

She was black. She was a woman. She was poor. She had dropped out of high school. She was overweight and she spoke loudly with confidence in her opinions in a voice that disclosed her working-class, almost rural upbringing. But this large, black poor woman was in the room with politically powerful white people, making policy and advocating for the poor, and it drove some suit-wearing, educated, well-heeled, middle-class male ministers nuts. Some wanted her place. Or, they believed her place should be subservient to a man.

When her public career ended, my mother retreated to private life … She occupied her time by being a mother, a grandmother, a caregiver, a homemaker and a fantastic cook. To say that her post-political years were tragic is to miss how much strength and satisfaction she drew from those roles. She may have retreated, but she was not defeated.

We will never come to consensus on why Evelyn Butts lost her political power. There will always be people in Norfolk who thought her ‘style’ made her unelectable, that she brought about her own demise … Whatever her failings, her legacy is not in dispute. She will always exist in the pages of the U.S. Supreme Court case, in brick and mortar buildings that she helped to create, and in the memories of people …

For me, her last surviving daughter, Evelyn Butts will always be a great American hero.

If there’s a final lesson Charlene said she’s taken from her mother it’s that “there are things bigger than yourself to fight for – and so I do what I do for my kids and grandkids.”

She’s sure her mom would be proud she followed in her footsteps to become a much decorated Democratic Party stalwart and voting rights champion.

“I haven’t thought about a legacy for myself. I hope people will remember me as a hard worker and as a pragmatic, fair fighter for social justice and civil rights.”

Visit or


Dundee Theater: Return engagement for the ages

October 28, 2017 2 comments

When the iconic Dundee Theater appeared in danger of being lost, perhaps to the scrap heap of history, along came a means to save it courtesy Susie Buffett. Her Sherwood Foundation purchased it and donated it to Omaha’s art cinema nonprofit Film Streams, which successfully raised millions of dollars for its renovation, led by Rachel Jacobson. Before the end of the year, the newly made-over movie and stage house that dates back to 1925 will reopen after being closed for more than four years and host the theatrical premiere of the latest major Hollywood motion picture by Omaha’s own Oscar-winning filmmaker, Alexander Payne, when his “Downsizing” plays there in December. This return engagement for the ages is a personal project for everyone involved. Buffett, Jacobson and Payne all grew up watching movies there. Payne’s first feature “Citizen Ruth” played the Dundee and now his seventh feature “Downsizing’ will play there, too. This time his movie will help usher in the theater’s new era. This is my November 2017 New Horizons cover story about the Dundee Theater – its past, present and future, The issue with my story should be hitting newstands and mailboxes this weekend and no later than October 31. The story includes comments about the Dundee from several people, including Payne, all of whom share a great love for the theater. On a personal note, I share that love, too. It’s where so many of us from here lost it at the movies. 

You can access a PDF of the New Horizons at:

Here are some extra Alexander Payne reflections on the Dundee Theater:

“I spent a considerable amount of time in all of Omaha¹s movie theaters when I was growing up, from the old palaces downtown (Omaha, State, Cooper, and Orpheum) to the Admiral, Indian Hills, Fox, Six West and Cinema Center. But the one I probably spent the most time in was the Dundee, since I could walk to it, as soon as I could walk. I can¹t even say I was ‘proud’ of it – it was just always there.

“I saw ‘The Sound of Music’ there six times when I was 4 years old. It played there for many months, and you know how little kids like to see the same thing over and over again. My older brothers used to take me to the Saturday morning show for kids – usually monster movies, and they had giveaways.

“In the early ’70s, they showed revivals of W.C. Fields, Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy – those early comedies had something of a renaissance then. In more recent times, when the Morans had it, I used to love the midnight shows of ’70s movies. I caught ‘Midnight Cowboy’ there just a few years ago.”

On having “Citizen Ruth” play there:

Well, that was a big deal to me, to have my first feature play at my neighborhood movie house. I still have a framed photo of the marquee hanging in my house. It meant something to Laura Dern too – while shooting ‘Citizen Ruth,’ she, Jim Taylor and I had seen ‘The English Patient’ there and walked out halfway through.

On soon having “Downsizing” play there:

“I expect to have the same delight I had when ‘Citizen Ruth’ premiered there 20 years ago, but ever more-so because it now belongs to Film Streams. It will serve as a new anchor in the elegantly-blossoming Omaha and will exist as our neighborhood movie theater for the next 100 years.”





Dundee Theater: Return engagement for the ages

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the November 2017 issue of the New Horizons newspaper

The return this fall of the long dormant Dundee Theater under its new Film Streams brand is cause for celebration whether you’re a movie fanatic or not.

Once the theater closed in 2013 for renovations, then-owner Denny Moran assured the public the theater would reopen once renovations were completed. But the project kept getting delayed and by 2015 rumors spread he was looking to sell. The rumors were true. Moran fielded offers with no guarantee the theater would remain intact. Speculation grew. Neighbors and preservationists didn’t want an irreplaceable icon torn down for some generic new development.

With its future uncertain, many feared it might meet the same sad fate as the Cinerama palace Indian Hills that got razed for a parking lot in 2001.

Even before Moran called it quits, Rachel Jacobson and the board of her north downtown art cinema, Film Streams, eyed acquiring the theater as a second venue should the Dundee ever falter.

“We knew that as a nonprofit organization with a really strong board and donor base and with a good reputation in the community that we would be in the best position to take it on if it was threatened,” she said.

Once Jacobson learned the Dundee was indeed on the market and its fate in question, she contacted Moran and philanthropist Susie Buffett, a major Film Streams donor, and a deal was struck.

When news broke Buffett bought the Dundee and donated it to Film Streams, this two-reeler cliffhanger got a happy ending.

New life for theater gets thumbs-up 

From 2013 to now, it’s been the most closely followed local movie theater saga since the Indian Hills debacle. Why so much interest? In one fell swoop, Omaha’s regained a rare neighborhood theater that’s catered to audiences for nine decades and preserved an historic building that’s served as cultural touchstone, landmark and neighborhood fixture.

“The Dundee Theater has not only brought art and culture to central Omaha, it has also served to let people driving by know where they are for nearly a century,” said longtime Dundee resident and theater patron Thomas Gouttiere.

The 2016 announcement this historic building would be saved, undergo millions of dollars in renovations and have new life as a millennial art cinema center, was met with relief and gratitude by area movie fans and Dundee neighborhood residents.

That appreciation extended to $7.5 million raised in a public campaign to support the theater’s makeover.

“That kind of support does not grow on trees. It has to be earned the hard way – through vision, a lot of hard work and a high quality program. And Rachel Jacobson and her staff have them all.” said Film Streams booster Sam Walker.

“I don’t think we could have ever hoped for a better outcome for the theater than to have Film Streams renovate it and to be able to have the kind of programming they’re going to offer there,” said Vic Gutman. “It’s going to be a huge anchor for what’s already a very vibrant neighborhood,”

David Corbin and Josie Metal-Corbin shared similar sentiments in an email:

“It is nice to see the Dundee Theater returning to the neighborhood. We enjoyed walking to the theater together and seeing great films. Dundee may have lost our grocery store, hardware store and bookstore, but the renovation of the Dundee Theater helps the city and the neighborhood rebuild a sense of community.”






Dundee Theater found its niche

A sleek new marquee and main entrance pay homage to a rich film heritage while signaling a fresh new start.

“It’s honoring that whole history of moviegoing in our community that’s enriched so many lives,” said Film Streams founder-director Rachel Jacobson.

“Film is arguably the most engaging and innovative art form of the 20th century. How wonderful that art form will be shown in Dundee well into the 21st century in such a charming, hospitable and attractive venue,” Gouttierre said.

Though it grew rough around the edges by the early 2000s and faced increasingly stiff competition from cineplexes and streaming, the Dundee outlasted all the other independent locally owned and operated single-screen theaters. The fact it was the last of Omaha’s still active neighborhood theaters added to its nostalgia and luster.

When the sell was complete, an auction of its old theater seats drew many buyers.

The theater was the main attraction but it once also connected to a video store and bar owned by Moran.

The Dundee set itself apart with its niche for projecting independent, foreign and midnight movies. For a long time, it had the metro art film market nearly to itself. Other than an occasional art film showing up at a chain, it’s only competition for that fare were university (UNO), museum (Joslyn) and film society (New Cinema Coop) series. They eventually disbanded. A short-lived Bellevue operation didn’t last.

“Before Film Streams, the Dundee was the only spot in town if you wanted to see the cool films coming out. As a high schooler, the midnight movies were a big thing to look forward to,” said Nik Fackler, among an impressive group of Dundee devotees who became filmmakers.

“Growing up in the neighborhood, Dundee Theater was always a haven for independent cinema as well as an Omaha landmark,” Quinn Corbin said. “The midnight movies were a wonderful feature of the nightlife scene and the video store provided the movie posters with which I plastered my childhood walls.”



Changing times, moving on, handing it off

Later, two new players arrived on the scene: Film Streams in 2007 and Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in 2015. In between, the quirky Dundee held on. Then, after 88 years of nearly continuous operation, it closed for renovations that proved too much for Denny Moran and wife Janet. They owned other theater properties as well. The retirement age couple wanted out and sought and found a buyer for it and contiguous properties.

“I didn’t want to run anything anymore,” Moran said. “I’m tired, I don’t want anything. The kids are grown now. Jan and I just want to enjoy ourselves and travel a little bit.”

The Dundee holds many memories for the Morans.  While it was their baby, it was also a burden. Denny Moran is just glad it’s in good hands so it can generate memories for new generations of moviegoers.

“I’m glad its being saved,” he said. “It came down to two other buyers and one other buyer wanted to save it, too. We came close to selling it to them but the wife had little kids and Jan said, ‘I don’t want it to ruin her life like it did mine down there with all the time being spent on theater stuff while the kids are in day care.’ So we went with Susie’s offer. This other couple would have taken care of it, too, but it’s not many times when a Buffett calls.

She’s got the money to put in it for the new infrastructure and to secure its future.”

Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture in collaboration with Lund Ross Construction have kept the old world charm while modernizing it, too. They uncluttered the roofline. They reconfigured the main entrance off Dodge Street on the south side to a new promenade on the north. They added a patio. They folded in a Kitchen Table cafe that leads right into an expanded theater lobby with its original terrazzo floor intact. They added a conference room, a bookstore and a micro auditorium, thus giving Dundee a second screen for the first time.

“It is going to be a neighborhood theater,” Jacobson said, “but we see the audience for the cinema being the entire community. I like to think of it as Omaha’s neighborhood cinema. It still has that feel, that history.”

“It’ll be more than just a movie theater,” Vic Gutman said. “It’s going to be a place for great conversations, for learning about film, being exposed to films you wouldn’t normally see and then having Kitchen Table there. So, I see it as a true social and educational space. And I love the fact that I can walk to it from my home.”

“The purpose of it is to be a real true community space,” Jacobson confirmed. “There are multiple spots throughout that facilitate people coming together and talking either before a film or after a film. It has that design intention of this is what a neighborhood theater can be in the 21st century. We tried to be really thoughtful about that by incorporating the bookstore, by having the micro cinema, which also has the potential to do not only ticketed shows but hosting new adult education ‘Courses’ program there,.

“Kitchen Table will give people another reason to go there, to hang out, without even going to see a movie, and so that creates all these opportunities for interaction, and that’s a big part of what we’re about.

We’re trying to create learning about film by osmosis.”

Jacobson said great care was taken balancing renovation versus restoration “to make what we know will be a sustainable place versus what we maintain for people’s memories and the history of the Dundee.”

Progress on the transformed theater, which sat idle four years, has been closely watched

None of this might have happened if Moran hadn’t hung in there for 30-plus years and waited for the right offer. The theater could easily have been history by now.

“I want to give a shout-out to Denny Moran, who kept it going for so long,” Gutman said. “I don’t think it was a money-maker for him. I think it was a labor of love and a commitment to the neighborhood. It could have been torn down or repurposed for something different a long time ago and he kept that property intact.

“So I think we owe him a thank you for doing that.”



Sentiments about the theater run deep. It’s meant so much to so many.

It’s not hard to imagine a pair of Hollywood legends who grew up in Dundee, the late Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire, may have frequented the theater. Though it was still a stage venue when he left Omaha to pursue his acting dreams, he twice did extended play runs here and it’s nice to think he might have caught a picture show or two at Dundee during his down time.

Future late night TV king Johnny Carson may have indulged in some movies at the Dundee when he was starting out at WOW in Omaha.

Other celebs who’ve known it as their neighborhood theater include billionaire investment guru Warren Buffett. His daughter Susie Buffett, who’s also seen her share of pictures there, is responsible for reactivating the theater through her Sherwood Foundation.

Some fans who cut their cinema teeth there have gone on to be feature filmmakers, including Dan Mirvish (Omaha, the Movie) and Nik Fackler (Lovely, Still).

Mirvish grew up near the theater. Besides the Dundee being a neighborhood staple, he echoes others in saying how supportive Moran was of the then-nascent local cinema community in letting emerging filmmakers like himself show their work there.

“I. of course, remember going to movies at the Dundee growing up in the neighborhood and then later renting tapes at the video-store,” Mirvish said. “But my most distinct memory is when we were shooting Omaha, the Movie in fall of 1993. We screened some of our dailies there. We were shooting 35mm film and the footage had to be sent to a lab in L.A. for processing and sent back to Omaha for us to watch. The Dundee was the best place to watch the footage once a week. Okay, so instead of ‘dailies.’ they were really ‘weeklies.

“Denny was great about letting us in there. The whole cast and crew came. It was a huge relief to see our footage.”

A few years earlier Moran set a precedent working with filmmakers when he allowed Sean Penn to screen dailies of the actor’s directorial debut, The Indian Runner (1991), which shot in and around Plattsmouth.

When local filmmaker Dana Altman, who produced Omaha, the Movie, needed a space to premiere his locally-made feature directorial debut, The Private Public, Moran agreed to play it at the theater. Altman protege Nik Fackler was a teenager making short films then with friend Tony Bonacci and the aspiring filmmakers got their shorts screened the same night. Fackler, who went on direct Oscar-winners Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn, recalls the opportunity fondly.

“Like total nerds, we made tickets in photoshop and sent them out to our friends and family, we rented suits and a limo, got dates. We were like, ‘Here’s our one chance we could probably get dates.’ But, yeah, we got our short films shown at Dundee.”

An earlier “graduate” of the Dundee, the late Gail Levin, went on to make acclaimed documentaries about film (Making the Misfits, James Dean: Sense Memory). She remembered seeing Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 as a teenager and what an impression that film and others by international artists made on her.

Jacobson appreciates the memories the Dundee holds for so many because it does for her, too. She said, “I grew up nearby, so we went to Dundee plenty. My dad tells the story that my very first movie was at Dundee. A 31-year old dad took his 18-month old daughter to The Empire Strikes Back, He said whenever Darth Vader came on, he would take me into the lobby. So, my first memory is not my own, it’s more my dad’s,” she said.

“In high school, I remember seeing Citizen Ruth there, which was huge, and Clerks – that was definitely a big one. I remember going to a full house and me and my girlfriends being the only girls opening night of Showgirls. We were just so interested because it had so much press and we really wanted to check it out.”

Memories just like these from movie lovers have been shared with Jacobson and her Film Streams staff ever since the nonprofit took over the Dundee.



Silver screen stirrings 

Two cinephiles who became famous filmmakers. Joan Micklin Silver (Hester Street, Crossing Delancey) and Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt, The Descendants, Nebraska), go way back with the Dundee.

Payne’s childhood home was within a couple blocks of the theater. It’s where he fell in love with 1970s cinema. Whenever back home from college in the ’80s, he’d return to whet his cinema appetite at the Dundee. Even after finding success with his filmmaking career in the ’90s and beyond, winning two Academy Awards and nominated for several others, he made the Dundee his go-to Omaha sanctuary for feeding his celluloid hunger.

Moran said, “Alexander would come in. His mom would come to movies here all the time, They’re both big Dundee fans .” Moran has a handwritten note by Payne thanking him for all he did in keeping the theater going.

In movie-movie fashion, Payne shot much of his first three feature films in Omaha, including scenes in and around various Dundee haunts, and his debut film Citizen Ruth starring Laura Dern played at the theatre.

“I’ve got a Citizen Ruth poster signed by Laura Dern

‘to my friends at the Dundee Theatre’ that I left in there for Film Streams,” said Moran, who collected other film memorabilia signed by visiting film artists.

“I had them framed in glass. It’s part of the theater and so I left it with the theater.”

Payne’s latest film Downsizing will make its national premiere at the new Dundee on December 22.

Given his personal history with the Dundee, he’s felt a sense of proprietorship in it. As a Film Streams board member, that ownership’s no longer symbolic but real.

“The reopening of the Dundee Theater is the realization of a dream – a dream we’ve had for a long time, first of all for preserving it in any form. That in the current incarnation of Omaha it belong to Film Streams is perfect. When the Morans closed the theater a few years ago, my hope was that if it was going to reopen that it become part of Film Streams, and now the dream is a reality and I couldn’t be more excited.”

His warm feelings run for its deep because as a second home the Dundee helped form his cinema sensibilities.

“I spent a huge amount of time in that theater watching movies.”

Payne also has a soft spot for vintage theaters. He’s supported the restored Midwest Theater in Scottsbluff and the World Theatre in Kearney. He speaks longingly of the time when neighborhood theaters dotted the urban landscape and he’s enthused about efforts to preserve and revive those theaters.

He said the Dundee, which once sat 470 people, stood out from some other cinemas.

“Few of these neighborhood theaters were as large as the Dundee. The Dundee had a more regal presence, so I’m extra glad it has survived.”

A generation before he cultivated his cinema passion there, Joan Micklin Silver attended movies at the Dundee. Her family, who owned Micklin Lumber, lived nearby and she saw standard post-World War II Hollywood fare growing up in the 1940s before moving East and becoming enamored with world cinema. By contrast, a decade later Gail Levin got turned onto world cinema at the Dundee. The difference in what the women saw at the Omaha theater is explained by the fact that during various eras and ownership regimes, it played very different slates of films.

Rich history

The Dundee’s shown motion pictures since the early 1930s, but it opened years before that, in 1925, as a vaudeville house. Harry Houdini once performed his escape artist act there. The locally owned Goldberg Circuit converted it from stage to film just as talking pictures became all the rage as a cheap escape from the hardships of the Great Depression.

The noted Omaha father-son architect team of John and Alan McDonald designed the historical revivalist venue that was Omaha’s then-westernmost theater. It opened to much fanfare in the Roaring Twenties. An ad touted it as a modern community asset to be proud of:

“The opening of the new Dundee Theater at 50th and Dodge is another example of the growth and development of this enterprising community. Only a personal visit can possibly give you an idea of the beauty of the lobby and interior of this beautiful showplace. All the latest developments in theater construction have been included in the building of the Dundee. All the new ideas for the comfort and entertainment of patrons will be found even in a greater extent than other houses … built just a few years ago.”

The ad went on to play up the beauty and comfort angle, referring to the “steel and concrete fireproof construction, finest ventilation and extra large upholstered seats with plenty of aisle space.”

The promotion continued: “Our policy is to bring to this theater the best pictures obtainable anywhere, and to present them as finely as possible.”

Finally, the ad played off the names of its McDonald designers. The elder John earlier designed the George A. Joslyn home, now known as Joslyn Castle, and First Unitarian Church of Omaha. The McDonalds later designed Joslyn Art Museum.

During the 1950s the Dundee was still part of the circuit owned by Ralph and Hermine Goldberg, who operated it as a first-run commercial house screening Hollywood studio releases. By 1958, Ralph Goldberg was dead and his widow sold the Dundee and State Theaters to the Cooper Foundation in Lincoln, Neb. That organization acquired the Dundee for its Cooper Theaters chain that later included the Indian Hills. Under Cooper management, the Dundee switched to showing art films from the U.S. and abroad.

“We have noted around the country a growing interest in the motion picture as an art form,” a Cooper rep told the Omaha World-Herald. “We hope to encourage this.”

Cashiers de Cinema critics in France led the film as art movement. Some became leading filmmakers (Jean Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut) themselves in the French New Wave. Great centers of international cinema and directors emerged in Italy (Federico Fellini, Luciano Visconti, Michelangelo Antonioni, Bernardo Bertolucci, Sergio Leone), Sweden (Ingmar Bergman), Great Britain (Tony Richardson, Joseph Losey), (Mexico-Spain (Luis Bunuel), Japan (Akira Kurosawa), India (Satyajit Ray) and behind the Iron Curtain – Roman Polanski in Poland and Milos Forman in Czechoslovakia.

Dundee’s artsy foray was interrupted when it exclusively booked The Sound of Music and ended up playing the mega-musical hit for more than two years on its solo-screen. The 20th Century Fox picture from Robert Wise began a reserved-seat, roadshow run in April 1965. In August 1966, Cooper Theaters reported that in its 69th week the film set records for the longest run and highest gross in Omaha. The previous records were held by South Pacific at the Cooper Theatre (64 weeks), grossing $430,000. Sound of Music passed those marks and added to them the next 49 weeks for a total of 118 weeks. It was the second longest run in the world, exceeded only in London, England, according to Art Thompson with the Cooper Foundation.

“The story around the Cooper Foundation was that a notation scribbled on the wall of the projection booth recorded the record run of The Sound of Music,” Thompson said.

The Omaha theater went on to host other long runs in its Cooper era. Funny Girl (1968) ran 55 weeks and Hello Dolly (1969) played 36 weeks.

Under Moran’s ownership, the Dundee enjoyed overwhelming receptions to very different kinds of movies. The South African comedy The Gods Must Be Crazy and the spare American drama Tender Mercies, featuring Robert Duvall in a Best Actor Oscar performance, each played several months.

After Sound of Music’s exceptional showing, the art emphasis resumed. When business waned, the theater was purchased by Omahans Edward Cohen and David Frank. They tried a family-friendly slate but eventually settled for second-run features. Nothing worked.

By the early 1980s, the Dundee struggled turning a dollar. It was already among the last single-screen commercial neighborhood theaters still in operation here. Virtually all the rest – in Benson, North Omaha, South Omaha – were closed and repurposed. All the downtown movie palaces were defunct or converted for new uses. Theaters moved west with the suburbs and independent locally owned and operated single-screen movie houses gave way to chains and multiplexes.

Cop who narrowly escaped death turned theater mogul

Then-Omaha police officer Denny Moran bought the Dundee in 1980 as a real estate investment. He was already buying and flipping houses in the area. His interest was the prime property the Dundee occupied, not the movie business. He already owned two adjacent lots and wanted to tie up all the land on that half-block. He initially planned to only keep the theater running until he found a national franchise, perhaps McDonald’s, to build on the site. But then a funny thing happened: He fell in love with it and the movie exhibition business.

Though Moran, an Omaha native, was a casual movie fan and frequented many local theaters growing up, he was a most unlikely candidate to carry on the Dundee’s legacy. For starters, he was not a film buff and he had zero prior experience in the film exhibition game.

“I didn’t know diddly squat about the movie business,” he told a reporter in 2012.

Besides, he was lucky to even be alive. A decade before buying the theater, he was a young cop in town when he intersected with a tragic incident that remains one of the darkest days in local law enforcement history.

On August 17, 1970, an anonymous 911 call of a woman being assaulted in a house at 2867 Ohio Street resulted in several police officers being dispatched. Moran and partner Larry Minard Sr. were first on the scene. They found two vacant houses. Minard and other officers entered the back of the 2867 dwelling while Moran investigated the other. Moran made his way outside when a tremendous explosion went off in the first house. Though protected by a tree, the concussive force sent him flying. Minard, a husband and father of five, died and several officers suffered injuries.

The call had been a ruse to lure the cops into a trap and when Minard opened the front door to exit the house a powerful homemade bomb detonated.

Two local Black Panthers were arrested, charged and convicted of the crime. They denied any involvement and never changed their stories. Controversy arose when documents revealed the federal government engaged in illegal measures to discredit and disrupt the Panthers. Many inconsistencies and irregularities were found in the prosecution of the suspects. Attempts to have the two men pardoned or their convictions overturned failed. One recently died in prison.

Asked about the incident, Moran confirmed the facts of that fateful night, his eyes watering at the memory of the trauma still with him. He became an undercover narcotics officer and a bodyguard-driver for the mayor.

Once he had the Dundee and celluloid got in his blood, he wanted to make it work as a going concern again.

“I said, ‘We’ve got to figure this out, this ain’t going to go.”

He finally hit upon returning to its recent past but this time going all in in making it an art cinema. The timing was right because the ’80s saw the end of the New Hollywood and the emergence of the Independent or Indie craze. Smart early bookings helped reestablish Dundee as a must-see cinema venue:

The Elephant Man

The Gods Must Be Crazy

Das Boot



Tender Mercies

Local Hero

Then, Moran scored a real coup by getting Universal Studios’ rerelease of five classic Alfred Hitchcock films long unavailable and unseen:

Rear Window


The Man Who Knew Too Much


The Trouble with Harry

By the mid-’80s on, the Dundee was THE place to catch the latest Woody Allen film. By the ’90s. it was where you went to see works by breakout new talents such as Terry Gilliam (Brazil), the Coen Brothers (Miller’s Crossing), Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter) and Omaha’s own Alexander Payne.

The midnight movie screenings with their party-like atmosphere of fans reciting lines aloud, yelling and throwing popcorn, became a signature thing. The sound system was another attraction point.

“I was always a big sound guy,” Moran said. “We had the best sound of any theater in the area. It was clean sound, not loud sound. I was the first one in town with Dolby digital. It was expensive.”

Once, its high fidelity sound secured a coveted picture.

“We were talking about playing U2: Rattle and Hum and I had a guy come in from Paramount Pictures

because he wanted to check out the theater before he would give it to us. We screened Colors for him – the picture where Robert Duvall and Sean Penn play cops.

The guy’s sitting there when the digital sound comes in during an outdoor night scene and he starts complaining about ‘the freaking crickets chirping in back of the screen’ and I said, ‘They’re in the soundtrack.’ He goes, ‘What?’ ‘It’s in the soundtrack.’ He says, ‘You got the movie.’ After we started playing that movie, a local radio station said, ‘You can go see the movie, but if you want to hear that movie, go to the Dundee Theatre.”

Stephanie Kurtzuba, a busy film-TV actress (The Wolf of Wall Street) from Omaha, recalled seeing the movie “with a big group of friends and being enthralled by the experience.” “I think that was more about Bono than the theater,” she added, “but I sure was grateful Omaha had a movie house that showed things like concert films.”


Passing the torch

Dundee continued enjoying its art niche but once Film Streams came on the scene and on-demand services like Netflix, Hulu and Red Box appeared, margins got smaller. It became more grind-house than art house.

Moran said he and Film Streams enjoyed a friendly relationship.

“We always had a good rapport. Even when I was open here, I’d help them out with stuff, like spare parts when their projector broke down.”

“We had a pretty complementary relationship,” Rachel

Jacobson said. “It felt more collaborative than competitive.”

But industry changes took the fun out of running a theater for Moran. He enjoyed it when it was a more personal business. He learned the ropes from exhibition  veterans he met at theater owner conventions. He got to know distribution reps, too. But as small companies gave way to conglomerates, it became more corporate.

Moran held on as long as he could.

“We planned on keeping it,” he said.

But aft it got to be too much, he found the best deal for himself, the theater and the community.

“There’s a lot of people we need to thank for what’s happening there. Denny Moran. The Sherwood Foundation, which does so much for this city. Rachel (Jacobson) and her vision for Film Streams. All the donors,” Vic Gutman said. “We are fortunate to have so many visionaries and philanthropists who are helping to shape those visions and make them a reality.”

The Dundee’s back to projecting our collective dreams and nightmares, whimsies and follies, on the big screen.

Film buffs Sam and Mary Ann Walker can’t wait.

“Mary Ann and I practically live at Film Streams. And we live only a block and a half away from their new Dundee venue,” Sam Walker said. “I have had the thrill of seeing all my favorites from my college years, and finally a chance to see the great international films I never saw.”

Jacobson appreciates what good stewards the Morans were in keeping the theater viable for so long. She said she and her staff realize the “huge responsibility” Film Streams is taking on, but the fit seems so right.

“It’s seen so much film history and in that respect it’s so intricately tied to our mission and what we’re about. In one sense, it’s a big leap for us, and in another sense    something about it feels natural-next-step about it, too.”

She reassures people the theater will “continue to be the Dundee” but for a new age.

In Their Own Words – The Greatest Generation on World War II

Omaha Magazine remembers World War II in its May-June 2017 issue. This is the second of two stories I wrote for that issue that I’m posting on my social media. Omahans Shawn Schmidt and Jill Anderson are putting aside their divergent political beliefs to collaborate on a documentary, “48 Stars,” that tells personal stories of World War II through the words and eyes of veterans and others who lived through that epoch. 


In Their Own Words

The Greatest Generation on World War II

©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Appearing in the May-June 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine (

Members of the Greatest Generation tell their own stories in a locally produced documentary, 48 Stars. The in-progress film features personal testimonies from World War II veterans.

War buff Shawn Schmidt conceived the project. His co-director is Jill Anderson. The Omaha filmmakers are unlikely collaborators. He’s a holistic health care provider and former race car owner-driver. She’s a singer-actress. He’s unabashedly patriotic. She’s not. But they’re both committed to telling authentic stories of resilience.

They met while she was a patient under his care. After sharing CDs of her Celtic music, he was taken by her rendition of “Fare Thee Well.”

“It was not just the music, but Jill’s voice. That song fits everything this film has to say about that generation,” Schmidt says. “They’re disappearing, and the interviews we did are like their final swan song. It gave them a final chance to have their say about their country, their life, where America is today, where America is going.”

Originally hired as music director, Anderson’s role expanded. Filmmaker Aaron Zavitz joined the team as editor and creative consultant.

Forty-plus interviews were captured nationwide, mostly with veterans ranging across different military branches and racial-ethnic backgrounds. Some saw combat. Some didn’t. Civilians were also interviewed about their contributions and sacrifices, including women who lost spouses in the war. Even stories of conscientious objectors were cultivated. Subjects shared stories not only of the war, but of surviving the Great Depression that preceded World War II.

With principal photography completed, editing the many hours of footage is underway. The filmmakers are still seeking funding to finish the post-production process.

The film’s title refers to the number of stars—representing states—displayed on the American flag during World War II. Each interviewee is framed with or near a particular 48-starred flag that inspired the project. Schmidt rescued it from a junk store. On a visit to Pearl Harbor’s war memorials, he had the flag raised on the USS Arizona and USS Missouri.

He grew up respecting veterans like his late father, Richard W. Schmidt—a Navy Seabee in the Pacific theater. His father died without telling his story for posterity.

“It dawned on me I could interview other veterans and have them hold this flag, almost like a testimonial to what this piece of fabric is about,” Schmidt says.

He added that combat veterans’ accounts of warfare teem with emotion.

“There’s a distinct difference in energy, pain, and identification with their country and flag from the ones who did not have to kill. The ones who did kill are still hurting, and they’ll hurt till the day they die,” he says.

Whatever their job during the war, Anderson says, “There were discoveries with every new person we talked to. It’s humbling that people trust you with some of their most soulful experiences and memories.”

Schmidt says, “They opened up with stories sometimes they’d never shared with their family. I think, for a lot of them, it’s a catharsis.”

There are tales of love and loss, heroism and hate, improbable meetings, close calls, intersections with infamy, history, and fate.

Not all the attitudes expressed are sunny. Some folks became anti-war activists. Others returned home to endure Jim Crow bigotry.

Anderson says the film intentionally depoliticizes the flag: “It can’t be about God and country or honoring glory because that doesn’t match with the testimony.”

Schmidt feels an urgency to finish the project. “The generation that has the most to teach us is leaving,” he says.

He won’t rush it though.

“It’s a serious responsibility,” Schmidt says. “[The film] needs to honor these individuals who gave their time, and it’ll be done when it’s exactly right.”

Visit for more information.

This article appears in the May/June 2017 edition of Sixty-Plus, a periodical within Omaha Magazine.


The Tail-Gunner’s Grandson Ben Drickey revisits World War II experiences on foot and film

Omaha Magazine remembers World War II in its May-June 2017 issue. This is one of two stories I wrote for that issue. It tells the story of the late Wendell Fetters through the eyes of his grandson, Omaha filmmaker Ben Drickey, who accompanied his grandfather on a trip to Europe visiting the sites of some intense and bittersweet wartime experiences. The emotional trip gave Drickey, who was there to document it all, a new path for this life’s work. His footage of that experience brought things full circle for his grandfather and gave his family the precious gift of an intimate look back into the past.



The Tail-Gunner’s Grandson

Ben Drickey revisits World War II experiences on foot and film

©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Appearing in the May-June 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine (

Filmmaker Ben Drickey’s lifelong fascination with history turned personal in 2001. That’s when he documented his grandfather’s return to Germany, revisiting the sites where the U.S. Army Air Corps serviceman crashed and was captured during World War II.

Drickey’s video of the emotional trip has only been seen by family, but the project inspired him to make video production his career after years working with still photography and politics. Today, he creates documentaries and branded film content through his studio, Torchwerks.

Growing up, Drickey was spellbound by family patriarch Wendell Fetters’ stories of being a tail-gunner on a B-26 Marauder flying with the 9th Air Force, 391st bomb group.

On an ill-fated daylight bombing run during the Battle of the Bulge on Dec. 23, 1944, his plane crossed the English Channel and delivered its payload over the Ahrweiler bridge. Enemy artillery and fighter flak killed the left engine, igniting a fire, but the crew bailed out before the plane went down.

Fetters’ chute pitched him into a tree. The impact broke an ankle, but he cut himself down. Alone, injured, and afraid, the 20-year-old Iowa native took a sun reading and hobbled west behind enemy lines in sub-zero cold and snow. Two days later, militia captured him. A family housed him over Christmas, and he spent the next four months in a POW camp before the war in Europe ended. After a stay-over in England, he came home to resume his life. He worked, married, and raised a family.

Ben Drickey of Torchwerks

Fast forward nearly six decades. Drickey was attending a family reunion, where he learned of his grandfather’s plans for returning to Germany to visit the plane’s crash site. German amateur historian Hermann Josef Stolz found its debris and used a piece stamped with identifying information to trace the plane’s manufacturer, bomber group, and crew. He invited Fetters to come pick through remnants.

“The rest of us were totally intrigued and we quickly realized this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” says Drickey, who, along with his mother, two aunts, and an uncle, joined his grandparents on the summer 2001 trip. Drickey went as a video documentarian even though he was strictly working as a still photographer at the time.

“I had no formal experience creating a moving image. I borrowed a friend’s camera and pirated a copy of Final Cut Pro. But I just knew I had to go do it,” he says.

With Stolz as guide, the Americans traveled to the site, where a cross memorializes the remains of the pilot, Jack Haynes, who died in the crash.

Even all this time later, Drickey says, “pieces of fiberglass, aluminum, and rubber” are strewn about. “I was picking up things to take home.” He displays one piece on his desk in the Mastercraft Building.

He says his “ecstatic” grandfather “was like a little kid being reunited with something from his past.”

The Americans next went to the nearby two-story wood and stucco farmhouse of Josef Hayer, the man who—at age 14—first arrived on the scene of the 1944 crash. Hayer had salvaged things from the smoldering debris. Among his finds was a tailpiece with a yellow triangle on a canvas peak.

“It was the first time on our trip where my grandfather was presented with the past in such a dramatic way,” Drickey says. “You could see on his face the memories just flooding back.”

Fetters then wanted to return to Eisenschmitt, the village his captors paraded him through to the home he was billeted in. He recalled a tannenbaum atop a table and framed photos of two German Army conscripts hanging on a wall. He was fed dinner and slept in the barn, then he was taken to the rail depot for transport to the POW camp.

After nearly giving up the search for the home all those years later, Fetters noticed a familiar landmark. Sure enough, just beyond the hill sat the house. Through translation, the elderly woman occupant said she remembered that war-torn Christmas when an American airman was brought to the house. She was 9 years old then. She recognized Fetters standing before her 56 years later.

She explained that the uniformed men in the photos were her brothers, and the pictures still hung in the same spot. She invited Fetters to see for himself. He refused.

“My grandfather said, ‘No, no, no, let’s go,’” Drickey says. “He went to the car and wouldn’t come out. He was visibly shaken. We didn’t know what to do, but we were standing there in awe reliving this history with him.”

As the visitors drove off, the woman hurried behind clutching oranges as a gesture of friendship. She handed them to Fetters. A family meeting ensued. Fetters held firm. Drickey explained he’d come too far not to go back, so he did.

“In my business, I would rather beg for forgiveness than ask for permission most of the time,” Drickey says.

He filmed inside the house and interviewed the woman, one of many interviews he conducted for the project.

The experience gave him a career path and archived a precious family legacy.

“I’m so glad I did it. It was such a learning experience for me about myself, my eye, and my ability to capture an image,” he says.

“So many things happened on this trip,” and Drickey says he can only appreciate them all by re-watching the footage.

His grandfather lived to see the video. “He thanked me for taking the time to do it,” Drickey says. “He was very pleased it will live on past him.”

Drickey has gone on to produce slick corporate videos, commercials, and short films. He also worked as cinematographer on the feature film It Snows All the Time, but nothing compares to that first personal project.

His grandfather—the airman who also served in the Korean War—passed away July 31, 2015.

Visit for more information.

This article appears in the May/June 2017 edition Sixty-Plus, a publication within Omaha Magazine.

%d bloggers like this: