Women covering sports today is routine but not so long ago it was a rarity. Ann Schatz broke the mold as the first female sportscaster in Omaha in the late 1970s. She then became the first in Portland, Oregon. In both cities she dealt with serious push-back that got ugly. Not from male colleagues, who supported her, but from fans and viewers. She’s stuck it out to have a big career as a reporter and play-by-play announcer. I distinctly remember when Ann broke through on Omaha television. It really was A Thing and topic for conversation because she was the first. Because viewers, myself among them, were not entirely sure how we felt about her doing sports, which back then was the clear domain of men, we collectively put her through a trial-by-fire period that saw some folks get downright rude and nasty. She rose above it all to prove herself a real pro who could talk and report sports with the best of her male counterparts. Ann’s been away from Omaha a long time but she’s coming back as a keynote speaker for an event I will be at and I’m very much looking forward to meeting her for the first time. However, I feel like we do know each other already as a result of the interview I did with her for the following profile appearing in the April 2016 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).
Ann hails from a prominent Omaha family. Her brother Thomas Schatz is a noted film educator, historian, and author who wrote one of the forewords fro my book, Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film.
Ann Schatz on her own terms – Veteran sportscaster broke the mold in Omaha
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the April 2016 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Omaha native Ann Schatz swears she never meant to be a pioneer. She became one as her hometown’s first female sportscaster in the late 1970s, repeating the feat in Portland, Oregon in 1989. From that Pacific Northwest base she’s traveled to cover the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, where she broke the Tonya Harding story, and the 2000 Sydney, Australia Summer Games. She’s covered everything from the NBA finals to the Boston Marathon to the U.S, Women’s Open Golf Championship.
These days, she does play-by-play of women’s college sports for the Pac-12 Network. sometimes gigging for Westwood One.
Schatz is back in Omaha as keynote speaker for the April 29 Toast to Fair Housing Gala at the Livestock Exchange Building Bsllroom.
As a woman sportscaster, she’s confronted gender bias. As a lesbian, she once hid her sexual orientation for fear of repercussions.
Today, with women sports reporters galore on ESPN and Fox, her story may seem passe. But a few decades ago, even as recently as 2000, a female covering sports raised eyebrows and ire. Being there first paved the way for others.
Schatz’s late father was a federal district judge in Omaha. She grew up playing sports with her siblings.. She competed in basketball and softball at Creighton University. where she earned a broadcasting and mass communication degree. A WOWT internship introduced her to local television sports legend Dave Webber, the first of many men in the business who encouraged her. Still, she didn’t see herself as a sports journalist until KMTV hired her as a weekend sports reporter despite scant experience. The late Terry Yeager mentored her.
Try as she might, she says, “there were very few women role models” in the field then. None locally. Only former beauty queens Phyllis George and Jayne Kennedy nationally. “There wasn’t anything to aspire to. It’s not like you could point to somebody and say, ‘I want to be like her.’ There weren’t any hers, they were all hims.”
She’s mused whether affirmative action or her family name got her in the door but she’s concluded, “It really doesn’t matter why, it just matters what you do with what they’ve given you,” adding, “It didn’t take me long to find out I had found my calling. i knew the questions to ask. I wasn’t afraid of hard work.”
To her surprise and delight, male peers schooled and shielded her.
“They taught me in the most kind, compassionate, relevant way. Those guys saved me and the rest of the newsroom saved me. When I heard potshots from people it would be from athletes and fans, never from my colleagues, and that meant everything to me. I got nothing but support and it was genuine.”
That support extended to her family. From her pre-Title IX childhood on, they championed Schatz’s love of sports.
“It didn’t occur to me girls weren’t supposed to play sports because that’s not how I grew up. In the neighborhood I played with boys all the time and it was no big deal. My brothers taught me how to bat, throw, shoot, run. My dad, my brothers and I read the sports section of the Omaha World-Herald every night. My dad would wake me up in the morning and let me know how my beloved Boston Celtics did the night before. I learned how to read box scores. It never occurred to me this was an odd, difficult activity for a young girl to love and pursue.
“What a gift. What a testament, especially to my father and mother who never once caused me to question it. All they did was encourage.”
Not everybody was so inclusive. In Omaha she endured vitriol from some viewers and fans.
“People would tell me, ‘You suck, we hate you. you’re the worst, we never watch you.’ Some of the stuff that came out of the stands, especially at high school games, was just brutal.
“Some of the athletes would test me. I would remind myself, Hey, you chose this, you knew exactly what to expect, so either figure out a way to deal with it or walk away.”
As bad as it got here, she says. “Portland was tougher initially because I was the girl from the cowtown with the hick accent. It was very much, Are you kidding me – who the hell is she?””
Worse yet, she was far from her family’s embrace.
“I knew not a soul in Portland You can only call home so often. Not having any support personally was really difficult. That made the comments, the letters, the phone calls sting much more. I just didn’t have that ability to vent and let off steam.”
Her saving grace was an empathetic workplace at KOIN-TV.
“Had I had any kind of push-back in that newsroom in Portland I’m not sure I would have lasted. Their support meant everything to me. It was critical I did not bail out on a tough situation. I’m glad I stuck with it. And, hey. look, I’m still here 27 years later.”
Portland’s also an LGBT-friendly place that, she says. is “not counterproductive to my head and heart,” adding that being gay is not something “I lead with, but if it comes up – and it took a long time – I am absolutely comfortable.”
As time went by, she was no longer the lone woman covering sports.
“It was a relief to see another female in those environments in which I was the only one for all those years”
She loves what’s happened at the networks with Erin Andrews and Co.
“God bless that these women are young and blonde and pretty. It’s not just style either, but substance, too. I applaud these women for going in an arena where women are still judged differently.”
She says women are still not immune from double standards she confronted.
“You always had to be better. You were judged much more harshly. Your mistakes were magnified. The smallest things were scrutinized. If a guy got something wrong, like a score, it’d be, ‘Oh, there goes Bob again.’ If I got it wrong, it was, ‘See, I told you – stupid women.’ You always had to be better, more nimble, more prepared.
“As hard as it was, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes where I’d excuse myself because I needed a good cry, that awareness I had to be better helped immensely.”
For all the strides women in sports media have made elsewhere, she notes that after opening the door here and in Portland few have followed her footsteps.
“That makes me sad. I thought there would be more after me. The fact that there isn’t is puzzling.”
She says the playing field will only be level when more women call the shots in media executive suites and in sports organization front offices.
Her biggest professional coup was getting Tonya Harding to address the Nancy Kerrigan imbroglio. KOIN sent Schatz and her cameraman to Lillehammer sans credentials. They were among hundreds of journalists on the outside looking in but found a way to reach Harding when no one else did. “Connie Chung, Dan Rather, 60 Minutes were calling us. We went from the step child to the golden child real quick.”
After years reporting, including sideline work for the Portland Trailblazers, she found her niche doing play-by-play for the Big East, Conference USA and the Pac-12 (soccer, hoops softball). She likes the “purity” of women’s college athletics and its lack of “hired guns.”
“There’s nothing like an in-the-moment call when you gotta get it right. You don’t get to take it back and do it again.”
Unlike the mellifluous tones of her sportscaster idols Vin Scully and Keith Jackson, she’s fast-talking, high-energy, high-emotion.”
She feels privileged witnessing-chronicling great moments in athletics.
“The only way we can understand greatness is to watch athletes do their thing at the highest level. It doesn’t have to be the Super Bowl. Greatness happens at every level if you’re open to it. That’s the beauty of sports.”
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.
It must be a decade ago or so now that I first met a remarkable cadre of creatives through the Loves Jazz & Art Center. Felicia Webster. Michelle Troxclair. Neville Murray. Gabrielle Gaines Liwaru. Frank O’Neal. And Jason Fischer. Jason was making three-dimensional art pieces then in addition to doing graphic art, photography, film, and video production work. He’s always had a really good eye and instinct for composition, colors, lighting, and all the different elements that go into making arresting visuals. At his old Surreal Media Lab studio on the lower floor of Leola’s Records & Tapes I sampled some street documentaries he was making back then. We talked about collaborating one day. Perhaps we may still. He’s come a long way. His clients today include some of Omaha’s top for-profit and nonprofit organizations. His poverty documentary “Out of Frame” has opened eyes and provoked conversations. His art films are powerful, personal testimonies. This is my B2B Omaha Magazine profile of Jason.
Master of Many Mediums Jason Fischer
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the March-April 2016 issue of B2B Omaha Magazine
The design team for Omaha’s bold “We Don’t Coast” campaign included 30-something-year-old Jason Fischer, owner of boutique marketing-branding firm, Surreal Media Lab.
“It’s great to know it’s been used so well and been so widely accepted,” Fischer says of the slogan.
This master visual stylist grew up drawing, airbrush illustrating and acrylic painting. Then he turned to graphic art. He taught himself photography, film-video production, software programming and computer coding as digital, Web-based platforms came in vogue. All the while, he fed wide-ranging interests in art, culture, media, history.
“I just wanted to do something creative for a living. It’s nice to be able to have these disciplines and ultimately connect all these dots. I think that’s what really helps me be successful in the marketing-branding area. My brain lives on the big picture scale.
“I like the challenge behind the collaboration of taking what a client wants and creating something that is me but that captures their vision.”
His diverse clients span the metro but he he’s done “a body of socially conscious work” for the Urban League of Nebraska, No More Empty Pots, Together, the Empowerment Network and others. Other clients include the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce and the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts.
“At one point I was asked by a few community leaders to get involved. I would be the fly on the wall at meetings and events. That led to opportunities. I really care about community and want to see changes. Everybody has their own part they play. I’m just doing my piece, using what my calling is, to be an advocate the best way I can.
“I am really inspired by the work these nonprofits are doing.”
His feature documentary Out of Frame gives voice and face to Omaha’s homeless. His short docs Project Ready and Work Their Best won festival awards. His new art film, I Do Not Use, puts images to Frank O’Neal’s powerful poem decrying the “n” word. He’s in-progress on another feature doc, Grey Matter, about being biracial in America.
Fischer’s M.O. is “asking the right questions and getting people to tell their own story,” adding, “I go in with the end in mind but I’m fluid enough to be open to the unexpected. Then it’s piecing it together.”
He’s known tough times himself. Raised by a single mom who labored hard to make ends meet, he used that work ethic to build The Lab. Then a burglary nearly wiped him out. Insurance didn’t cover the loss.
“It put me at ground zero. I was fortunate to have enough resources to get a loan through the SBA (Small Business Administration).
He moved his business from North O to the Image Arts Building’s creative hub at 2626 Harney Street.
“If it hadn’t happened I feel like I would still be stuck doing the same thing, smaller jobs, just turning the wheel. The move brought greater expectations and bigger opportunities to express myself and raise the bar. Before, it was more the hustle of making the dollar. Then it switched from dollars to passion. I think the passion part has definitely shown through and propelled the work and the business.”
Recognition has come his way, including the Chamber’s Business Excellence award. He looks to “leverage” his success “to open doors and opportunities” for fellow creatives via a for-profit community collaborative space he’s developing.
Shining Light: News of Omaha Star publisher’s illness spurs admiration for her stewardship and interest in historic paper’s future
Shining Light: News of Omaha Star publisher’s illness spurs admiration for her stewardship and interest in historic paper’s future
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the December 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)
One of the things that makes North Omaha North Omaha is the Omaha Star, the historic black newspaper made famous by Mildred Brown. For the first time since Marguerita Washington took it over from her late aunt in 1989, the future of the 77-year-old newspaper is unclear as Washington battles cancer. But those close to the situation say under no circumstances will they let the paper fold because it means too much to the community it serves. Check out my Reader story about the legacy of the Star under Brown and Washington and how strongly people feel about it and what it’s meant to them. Read, too, about people’s admiration for what these black women did to give Black Omahans a voice.
News of Omaha Star publisher’s illness spurs admiration for her stewardship and interest in historic paper’s future
North Omaha is more than a geographic district. It is a culture and a state of mind. That is particularly true of African-American North Omaha. For generations the voice of that community has been the Omaha Star, which started in 1938. Flamboyant Mildred Brown made the Star an institution as its publisher, managing editor and gudiing spirit. When she passed in 1989 her niece Marguerita Washington, who grew up around her bigger-than-life elder and the advocacy-minded paper, took it over. Washington’s kept the paper’s vital voice alive and relevant all these years, even as print publications have become endangered in the digital age. She’s reportedly put everything she has into keeping it afloat. Now though Washington is facing an end of life scenario that for the first time in her tenure as publisher – Washington never married and has no children – leaves the future of the Star in question. Phyllis Hicks has been acting publisher during Washington’s health crisis. But those close to the situation say there is no way the Star is going to fold if they have anything to do wth it. My story below for The Reader (www.thereader.com) assesses what the Star has meant and continues to mean to people and what may happen with it moving forward should certain events play out. I called on several folks for their perspective on the Star, past, present and future, and on the legacy of the two black women who have made it such a resource all this time. Some of the most interesting comments are from Cathy Hughes, the Radio One and TV One communications titan from Omaha who got her media start at the Star and at KOWH. This is at least the third time I’ve written about Washington, Brown and the Star and you can find the earlier stories on Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories at leoadambiga.com.
Marguerita Washington on the left standing beside a bust of her aunt Mildred Brown pictured on the right
News of Omaha Star publisher’s illness spurs admiration for her stewardship and interest in historic paper’s future
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the December 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The Omaha Star has given African-Americans a voice for 77 years. The newspaper is not only a vital mouthpiece for locals, but a valued hometown connection for natives living elsewhere.
It became an institution under the late Mildred D. Brown, a force of nature who became an icon with her ever-present smile, carnation and salesmanship. She charmed and challenged movers and shakers, near and far, with her insistent calls for equality. Through the Great Depression, the Second World War, the Cold War, the late 1960s riots, it never missed an issue. Upon Brown’s 1989 death, niece Marguerita Washington, who worked at the paper as a young woman, took over the helm. She reportedly used her own money to pay off debt her aunt accumulated. Despite financial shortfalls, this grassroots, advocacy, activist, community-minded paper has never missed a beat. Not through the 2008 economic collapse or the decline of print and concurrent rise of online media. While circulation’s dropped and the Star’s now published bi-weekly instead of weekly, its social conscience, watchdog, give-voice-to-the-voiceless roles remain intact.
For the first time though since Brown’s death, the Star’s future is unclear because Washington, the woman who’s carried the torch lit by her aunt, is now terminally ill. The 80-year-old Washington was diagnosed earlier this year with lung cancer. The cancer spread to her brain. Meanwhile, there’s no direct heir to inherit the Star because she never married and has no children. When Brown passed she divvied up shares to Washington and other family members. Washington is the majority share holder and out-of-town relatives who’ve never taken an active hand in its operations own the other shares.
Star advertising and marketing director Phyllis Hicks has been acting managing editor and publisher during Washington’s health crisis. Hicks began at the Star in 2005 and grew to be Washington’s closest colleague.
“It was a growing relationship that became more of a personal one than a business one,” Hicks says.
The two formed the Mildred D. Brown Memorial Study Center as a vehicle for preserving the paper’ legacy and the Junior Journalists program to encourage youth to enter the field. The pair obtained historic status for the Star building at 2216 North 24th Street.
Brown’s brash, bigger-than-life style lent the paper panache and edge. By contrast, the quiet, unassuming Washington, an academic with a Ph.D., exhibits a “walk softly and carry a big stick” tone,” said Hicks, adding, “Marguerita is not one to be vocal and take the lead and sound off, but she’s going to support from the background to do what she can to make it happen.” For each woman, the Star became a labor of love. Washington’s never drawn a salary as publisher and maintainer of a historic line of female leadership that made it the longest continuously published black newspaper owned and operated by women.
“The role of the Omaha Star in the history of this community cannot be overstated,” says Gail Baker, dean of the School of Communication, Fine Arts and Media at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “The Star, like other black papers, is key to developing and maintaining the community. Under both Mildred Brown and Marguerita Washington, the Star’s voice has been loud, clear and critical. Whether championing the rights of African Americans, calling the community to action, covering the stories others did not see fit to print or just shining a light on what is important to its readers, the Star is that beacon of light leading the way. Its place in Omaha is without parallel.”
Chicago Crusader editor-publisher Dorothy Leavell writes in an email about Washington, “I appreciate all of her support of things I hold dear. I love her loyalty, sense of humor and dedication to the Black Press as well as the fighting spirit of Mildred Brown that we shared memories of. I know she is putting up the good fight…”
Hicks, who shares power of attorney for Washington, has watched her friend endure radiation and chemotherapy to try and arrest the cancer. She and other friends of the paper are weighing what might happen to the Star in the absence of Washington. Discussions have grown more urgent as doctors recently discontinued treatment.
Washington, who suffers from dementia, is cared for at a northwest Omaha assisted living facility.
Hicks and others close to the situation have been selling off some of Washington’s possessions and are looking for a buyer for her home.
“We’re dealing with her business, we’re dealing with her and her doctors and we’re trying to sell her things and her home so we can have money for her care,” Hicks says. “I guess at one time she was quite wealthy but with all the money going into the Star and her never taking a salary her wealth has dwindled. My goal is trying to make sure she’s safe for the remainder of her life.”
A means to continue the paper, including finding a buyer-publisher, is also being discussed.
For folks of a certain age the Star is part of what makes North Omaha, North Omaha. It’s a touchstone for those who reside here and for natives who left here. More than any other institution it holds fast the community memory of a people and a district. Those who grew up with the publication are bound and determined to do whatever it takes to keep it alive even as its leader nears the end.
“It’s my goal and her goal as well the paper remain in North Omaha and remain black owned if we can sell it,” Hicks says. “Some mention female owned. That’d be nice but I don’t have any desire to own and run a paper. Lots of folks have approached me and asked what’s going to happen, and it’s not up to me to make that determination. I’m power of attorney with one of her nieces in Kansas City.”
Asked if she sees any scenario in which the paper would close, she says, “I’m hoping that with the amount of people expressing interest and working towards its survival that that won’t happen. It’s my hope that somebody or somebodies will come forth.
“The officers of the Study Center are working on coming up with a plan. We’re looking at avenues and ways. We’re even looking at if the nonprofit Study Center could own the paper as a for-profit arm.”
Omaha Economic Development Corporation executive director Michael Maroney says, “A lot of people want to see it survive, that’s for sure,
There will be a solution found, we just don’t know what it is yet. I’m quite confident it will survive in some form or fashion.”
“Now is a pivotal moment for the Omaha Star and the Near North Side community,” says Amy Forss, author of the biography, Black Print with a White Carnation: Mildred Brown and the Omaha Star. “I am emphatically stressing the need for a successor because if the Omaha Star ceases to exist, then the longest-running record no longer exists and neither does the regularly published voice of the black community and that would be a piece of history you cannot replace.”
Omaha native Cathy Hughes, a national media czar through her Radio One and TV One companies, has credited Mildred Brown and the Star, for whom she worked, as a direct influence on her own entrepreneurial communications career. She says much as Ernie Chambers has been its militant voice in recent years through his column, the late Star reporter Charlie Washington once served that “rabble rouser” role.
“Charlie and the Omaha Star actually showed me the true power of the communications industry,” she recalls. “The Star took the mute button off of the voice of the black community in Omaha. It was more than just advocacy, it was a safety net. It has fostered and nurtured and promoted progress. It glorifies the success and accomplishments of Africa Americans in that community, which says to our young people, ‘You too can do it.’ It has been a vehicle for inspiration and motivation.
“I think that’s why it’s been able to successfully survive all these years and I pray that it will continue for many decades more.”
Hughes admires what Washington’s done.
“She could have done a lot of things with her life,” she says of the publisher, “but instead she came home because. It’s in her blood.”
“I believe it was commendable of Marguerita to take up the banner. I think she understood and saw the need of what it meant to the community and she also had the desire to continue her aunt’s legacy,” OEDC’s Maroney offers.
Retired photojournalist Rudy Smith says, “To her credit she continued the legacy, integrity and mission of the Omaha Star. Mildred Brown was a pioneer and a trailblazer and it’s hard to follow a pioneer but Marguerita was able to do that..”
According to community activist Preston Love Jr., who pens a column for the Star, “There was pretty much a transparent and no wrinkle transition from Mildred to Marguerita. It happened without much of a blip in terms of the paper being published. I think Marguerita’s played several roles. To some degree early she played a caretaker role. Then she emerged to take more of an editor-in-chief role and she has moved into the role of publisher. So while the paper’s made a transition she has, too. She’s made some tough editorial decisions as well. All of that is a testament to her stewardship.”
Like her aunt before her, Washington’s been much honored for her work, including last summer by the Urban League of Nebraska. More recently, the City of Omaha proclaimed Tuesday, December 1 Marguerita Washington Day for her “commitment to the community and issues that have impacted African-American people” and for “her great sense of social justice and social responsibility.”
Her empowering marginalized people continued a long, unbroken line.
“The paper has been a staple to me and the community for generations.,” Love says. “Other African American newspapers have come and gone here over the years but the Omaha Star endured. In my generation it’s something we all grew up with and hold in very strong endearment.”
Love sold the paper as a boy and was Mildred Brown’s driver summers during college. His late father, musician-educator-author Preston Love, sold advertising for the Star. The son says it’s been a link for blacks here and who’ve moved away “like no other link – you can’t overstate how important that link is.”
If the Star should close, he says, “what would be lost is part of the personality of North Omaha. Embedded in that is history and culture.”
Hicks says blacks would lose a valuable platform for “telling it like it is in the community without having to always be politically correct.”
The Star may not have the readership or pull it once did, but that’s a function of these times.
“When I was growing up in Omaha the Star was all that we had,” Hughes recalls. “Now everyone is in the black lane competing for that black consumer market. When my company went into the cable industry 10 years ago there were two choices for black folks watching cable – BET or TV One. Now every cable and broadcast television station has some type of black programming, which makes it that much more difficult for us to secure advertising dollars.
“Well, Marguerita has really had that problem with the Omaha Star. When her aunt was running it Mildred could candidly say to the head of the electric company, ‘The only way you’re going to reach these black folks is through me.’ Well, that no longer is true, they can reach ’em in social media, in a whole host of other ways.”
It may not be the presence it once was but Hughes leaves no doubt it’s meaning for her.
“When I was on the front page of the Omaha Star I called up and ordered two dozen copies – I was sending my Omaha Star out to everybody. And I laughed at myself and said, ‘Boy, that’s the little girl still in you.’ It was like hometown approval. It’s more than just the hometown newspaper to me, it’s the approval of the folks in Omaha, it’s the cheering, it’s the you-did-good, we’re-proud-of-you vehicle
“It inspired me then and it still does today.”
She says she hasn’t been formally approached about how she might assist the Star but would entertain ideas.
Preston Love says such deep sentiments about the Star are not just based on its rich past but its vibrant life today.
“The contribution the paper is making today should not be overlooked.
So it is not just historical but the present and the future. What it does to provide a platform for columnists, churches, businesses, community organizations and individual accomplishments is all right now.”
He says he and other concerned observers “will fight tooth and nail” any transition not deemed in the best interests of North Omaha.
Having arrived at this each-one-to-teach one and it-takes-a-village juncture, the Star’s fate is in the people’s hands as never before.
Rudy Smith says the fact the Star is both a historical treasure and a still relevant and resonant voice bodes well for it continuing.
“Marguerita put in building blocks that will allow the Star to continue even after she’s gone.Years ago Marguerita and I had talks about the future of the Star and she told me, ‘My goal is for the Star to live beyond me.’ I know for a fact there are things in place now that will allow the Star to continue. Marguerita started preparing the community to embrace the Star years ago.
“I think the community is rallying around the Star more than it ever has
because the Star is a community institution and if it dies part of the fabric of the community dies. The community will not let it die. I’m familiar with some of the things going on now (behind the scenes) to ensure its survival and I’m encouraged.”
Somewhere, Mildred Brown is smiling that people care so much about the fate of the paper she and her niece devoted their lives to.
Mildred Brown met many dignitaries
I suppose it’s inevitable and only natural that I write about journalists from time to time. After all, the world of journalism what I know best having plied the trade myself for many years. The following New Horizons cover profile I wrote about the popular Omaha World-Herald columnist Mike Kelly is like a lot of stories I’ve done about journalists that you can find on this blog in that like those other pieces this one focuses on a veteran in the field whom I admire. Kelly has become the face of that venerable daily and a leading advocate for Omaha and for good reason: he’s a prolific storyteller well plugged into the ryhthms of life in his adopted hometown of Omaha, Neb.
Omaha World-Herald Columnist Mike Kelly: A Storyteller for All Seasons
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the New Horizons
The face of a newspaper
When it comes to local print media, the Omaha World-Herald is the only game in town owing to its vast coverage and reach. For a long time now the venerable daily’s most public face has been lead Metro columnist Michael Kelly, also a much in-demand master of ceremonies and public speaker. The Cincinnati, Ohio native has made his life, career and home here. He often uses the popular column he’s penned since 1991 as a platform for celebrating Omaha.
He served as sports columnist-sports editor for a decade before his Metro gig. He was a news reporter for 10 years before that. He estimates he’s produced 6,000 columns and another 2,000-plus bylined pieces. The sheer volume and visibility of his work make Kelly the paper’s most branded writer commodity.
Managing editor Melissa Matczak measures his impact this way: “Mike Kelly has endured as a popular columnist because he knows what makes Omahans tick. He understands the people and our culture and he has deep sources within the community. People trust him and want to talk to him. He is invaluable to our news organization. His knowledge base, connections, sources and trust in the community take decades to build. There is no one in Omaha quite like Mike Kelly.”
Working at the same publication for the entirety of one’s professional life is increasingly rare in a field where job turnover’s common. Kelly”s survived upheavals, housecleanings and regime changes.
His allegiance to this place is such he lives here year-round while his wife Barb is in Cincinnati. Their commuting relationship finds him going there regularly, sometimes filing stories from Ohio, and her coming here. Phone and email help keep them connected.
As Kelly explains, “We’re both from Cincinnati. We raised our kids in Omaha. Barb always wanted us to relocate and I didn’t want to leave. Meanwhile, our oldest Laura and her husband moved to Cincinnati. They now have five kids. We just got to the point where I said, ‘We can do this two-city thing.’ I knew she wanted to go back. So we bought a house there near our daughter. Barb helps them. She sees her siblings (she’s the oldest of 11) all the time, and I go back there one week a month. Then Barb comes out here (she’s back in April). She’s still very active in Omaha. She has lots of friends.
“We’re at the age we can pull this off and it works very well.”
Kelly says his bosses tell him they can’t tell the difference when he’s here or away, “and that’s good, but it is harder writing from away. I just wish the whole family was here but they’re not. They’re dispersed.”
Too close to home
His scattered clan includes daughter Bridget, who lives in New York City with her husband. In 2002-2003 Kelly wrote a moving series about Bridget surviving a traumatic attack in Killeen, Texas, where she taught school. She’d moved there to be near her then-Army boyfriend stationed at Fort Hood.
The morning of June 21, 2002 Kelly was at his newsroom desk when he got the call that changed everything. A detective informed him that overnight Bridget had been abducted from her apartment and taken to a field, where a male suspect raped her and shot her three times. She somehow made it 200 yards to the home of Army combat veteran Frank James, who cared for her until paramedics arrived. The call to Kelly came after emergency surgery at the Fort Hood hospital.
“I kind of stuttered, ‘Is she going to live?’ ‘I think so,’ was the reply. I hung up the phone and turned to Anne Henderson, my editor, who was having a confab, and said, ‘Anne!’ She looked at me like, Why are you interrupting me?, and I told her. I was told later it was like everything stopped in the newsroom. Our executive editor Larry King spoke to our publisher John Gottschalk, who made a private jet available. I went into an office and called Barb in Cincinnati. She had the terrible duty of calling our three other kids and telling them.
“I ran home, grabbed a few things. Steve Jordon, my buddy (and Herald colleague), got on the plane with me without so much as grabbing a toothbrush.”
Ironically, only months before Kelly had written about WOWT Omaha anchor John Knicely’s daughter Krista being attacked while a student at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. But this was Kelly’s own flesh and blood. At the hospital he found Bridget conscious in the ICU.
“She couldn’t speak because of all these tubes. I just leaned down, both of us crying, and tried to comfort her. Then she motioned with her hand she wanted to write something and I pulled out my reporter’s notebook. She wrote, ‘I was thinking of you and Mom and the whole family when this was happening. I didn’t want to die.’ I’ve still got that notebook. That afternoon the police took me out to the field. I saw her blood. I met the James family at their house to thank them. That night her survival was the lead story on the 5 o’clock TV news down there. No name, but everyone from the school she taught at figured it out.”
Kelly received a message of support that evening from John Knicely.
“I appreciated that.”
The “tight-knit” Kellys came together as they always do in crisis.
“The waiting room was overflowing with people. Barb and our daughter Laura got there the next day. Eventually the whole family was there.”
Business reporter Jordon, who was there to support his friend, witnessed Kelly rise to the occasion amidst the anguish:
“Mike showed impressive calm during that time, and that’s what Bridget and the other family members needed. Mike was able to talk with the authorities, make decisions about what to do for Bridget, talk with her friends about the incident, keep family members informed and engaged and help Bridget start on the road to recovery during those first few days. He was a true father.”
Bridget’s assailant, who’d driven off in her car, was soon captured.
“The police down there were amazing,” Kelly says. “About four days after Bridget had given her long statement to the police and identified her attacker in a photo lineup, I was talking and she was writing. The whole story had not been told at that time. The paper down there, The Killeen Daily Herald, said a 24 year-old school teacher had been raped and shot, left for dead, survived. The World-Herald said Bridget Kelly, a local girl, was abducted and shot three times and was in critical condition. It didn’t say anything about rape.
“I explained to her the difference in the coverage and she wrote, ‘Did they say rape?’ and I said, ‘No, this is born out of compassion. Also, some people think there’s a stigma on the victim.’ And she wrote, ‘Why is it more shameful to be a rape victim then a gunshot victim?’ And I thought, Oh my gosh, she wants to say something. That would have been against our policy.”
His first column about the incident expressed gratitude that “our daughter was still alive” and singled out those who aided her. The lead read, “June 21, the longest day of the year for daylight, became our family’s longest, darkest day.” He laid out in stark, sparse prose the nightmare of her attack and the miracle of her survival.
But after what Bridget communicated in the hospital, he knew there was more that needed to be said.
“I told my editors Bridget wants to say what happened, that she’s not ashamed, she didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t get the OK right away. Five weeks after it happened the suspect was charged with attempted murder, abduction, robbery and rape. I asked, ‘Are we going to report that?’ The decision was yes and so I wrote a column whose headline was, ‘A plea for more openness on rape.’ I wrote, ‘You don’t have to read between the lines and wonder if my daughter was raped…’
“When that column ran we heard from so many people. A lot of women survivors of rape were just glad someone was talking about it. The outpouring was unbelievable.”
Much more lay ahead for Bridget’s recovery and story. Kelly recounts, “She went to Cincinnati to recuperate. At the end of the summer her blood sugar shot through the roof and she was diagnosed with Juvenile Diabetes (Type I). She still has to deal with that. We believe it’s tied to the trauma. She was bound and determined to get back. She resumed teaching (at the same Texas school).”
National media picked up the story. The Dallas Morning News asked Kelly to write a piece that ran on the front of its Sunday paper.
“So then came a whole other wave of response.”
His handling of her story netted wide praise from peers. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized him with its Award for Commentary/Column Writing. Jordon summed up what many admired about Kelly’s treatment of the intensely personal subject matter:
“His writing about the attack was straightforward, honest and unvarnished, the right approach to a story that deserved to be told without embellishment and tricks. In the end, he was able to tell Bridget’s story fully, from a father’s perspective that resonated with the readers. He put himself in the story, but didn’t dominate the writing. It’s Bridget’s story, and he told it as her father would tell it.”
Bridget did many interviews. The Herald’s Todd Cooper went to Texas to file a story about her. “I appreciated that because then it wasn’t just the dad writing,” says Kelly. Bridget spoke at her alma mater, Duchesne, and at a Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation banquet her father MCd and her Good Samaritan, Frank James, attended. A commendatory telegram from Colin Powell recognized James for his heroic service.
“That was very memorable.”
Tragically, James died a few years later. “The family asked me to speak at his funeral, which I was honored to do.”
Then a movie-movie twist occurred. ABC’s Prime Time flew Bridget to New York City to be interviewed by Charles Gibson. She met an associate producer with the show, Eric Strauss. A couple years later Bridget moved to the Big Apple to get her master’s in literacy. A mutual friend reconnected Bridget and Eric and the two developed a friendship that bloomed into a romance that culminated in marriage.
Kelly wrote a 2012 Herald piece updating Bridget’s journey, including her work as a teacher, her public speaking and her volunteering as a trained advocate for rape-domestic violence survivors.
“She’s on call one weekend a month to go to any (NYC) emergency room,” says her father. “I’m very proud of her for doing that.”
His piece referenced that at the behest of the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault she went to the field where she was attacked and made a video shown statewide for a public awareness campaign.
His story appeared ahead of a scheduled New York Times article about Bridget and Eric’s unusual meeting and storybook romance.
“We were looking forward to the Times piece. Then I get a call from a Times editor who says, ‘We’re killing the story.’ ‘Oh, that’s too bad, why? ‘We want to run your story.’ They wanted it longer, so I had to actually interview Bridget and Eric. It was interesting because I asked questions I never would have asked.”
Her advocacy will bring her to Omaha as featured speaker for the April 11 Torchlight Ball to benefit the SANE/SART (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner/Sexual Assault Response Team) unit at Methodist Hospital.
Omaha love affair
Some hearing about Kelly’s two-city lifestyle assume he resides in Cincinnati, only maintaining the facade of an Omaha presence through his column. Mailing it in so to speak. He sets the record straight.
“No, I live in Omaha, I pay a lot of taxes here. This is my home. But I do have a job where I can get away with going back to Cincinnati.”
As a locals columnist he must stay in touch with Omaha’s heartbeat.
“I love the neighborhoods. We raised our kids in Dundee, Happy Hollow. They went to St. Cecilia, Duchesne and Mount Michael.”
Kelly later moved to the Skinner Macaroni Building downtown. Now he’s in a 7th story condo in the restored Paxton Building.
“I feel like we’re right in the middle of everything here, close to the airport. I’m a block from my office. As my wife said when I bought here at the Paxton, ‘Well, now you’ll be happy, you’re going to spend 24 hours a day at the World-Herald.’ It’s not a 9 to 5 job, so it’s good and bad to be that close. You do have to get away.”
Kelly values many Omaha attributes.
“We’re not quite big enough to have major league professional sports but we’ve got everything else. It’s a great-sized city. Not to use the cliché but people come together, it’s friendly, it’s easy. I love my colleagues, I love my job.”
This big-fish-in-a-small-pond can find anonymity when he wants it, though his gregarious side doesn’t mind the limelight.
“I love my privacy and I love being out and around people.”
He’s a featured performer at Omaha Press Club Shows, where his gift for mimicry and ability to carry a tune have seen him impersonate Elvis and Johnny Cash, among others.
“Then, of course, there’s my new career, singing.” he says, jokingly, referring to recent vocal lessons he’s taken from Omaha crooner Susie Thorne. which he wrote about in a March column.
Kelly’s closely charted Omaha’s coming out party from placid, nondescript burg to confident creative class haven.
“I’ve seen the whole Omaha attitude change. The late ’80s for me was the low point. There was so much stuff going wrong, you wondered what the future was of this town, Then in the ’90s things started turning around.”
Downtown-riverfront redevelopment spurred a cultural-entrepreneurial explosion. Omaha suddenly went from a staid place where 20 and 30-somethings complained there was nothing to do to an attractive market for young professionals and tourists.
“The Chamber of Commerce had some studies done saying, Well, Omaha doesn’t have a bad image, it doesn’t really have an image. People didn’t know who we were. So I think the change is not so much that people have a great image of us but our image of ourselves. I hear this over and over from people. I think we had kind of a negative feel about it, like we weren’t worthy. Now we’re worthy.
Kelly says in national socioeconomic rankings “Omaha’s consistently in the top 10 for livability,” adding, “At the same time we’ve got urban problems any city has. A few years ago Kiplinger’s ranked Omaha as the number one overall place to live and I interviewed the reporter who came here and he said, ‘You’ve really got a lot going on, but if you could just solve the north Omaha problem you’d be a great city.’ That is my lament, having come here in 1970 and seen that the north Omaha problem has not improved. There’s a lot of people working on it. I’d love before I retire to see north Omaha rise up.”
What’s the best part of what Kelly does?
“Just getting to tell people’s stories. being able to touch people, whether make ’em laugh, make ’em think, put a lump in their throat now and again. People do read the World-Herald. We do have one of the highest penetration rates – the percentage of people in your local market that read the paper – in the country. It’s like we have this commonality of interest. It doesn’t mean we agree, it doesn’t mean we’re all interested in the same things, but people are interested in what goes on in this community.”
Story after story, his column paints a rich human mosaic.
“i do believe everybody’s got an interesting story.”
He doesn’t believe a writer should draw undue attention to himself or to his style. “The better material you have the more important it is for you as the writer not to get in the way but to let it tell itself,” he says. “Your job is just to organize it for maximum impact.”
He’s outraged some journalists resort to fabricating things, saying, “The true stuff has great natural utter born drama. You don’t need to make stuff up, just keep listening, keep asking questions.”
If there’s a Kelly axiom he abides by it’s – get it right.
“I always feel I have a responsibility to the readers and to my editors and to the source to tell the person’s story accurately. There’s nothing more important than accuracy.”
He says he’s methodical, “plodding” even as he hones copy to the bone and compulsively fact checks. “I keep the reader in mind all the time.” Next to accuracy, clarity and brevity, structure is everything.
“I do have a philosophy about writing, and that is the importance of getting your key words and phrases at the ends of sentences. It’s just like telling a joke – where does the punchline go. And then you always want to have a thump. You don’t want it to just end, you want to have an ENDING.”
Like father, like son
When he joined the Herald in 1970 at age 21, fresh out of the University of Cincinnati, he couldn’t have imagined still being at the paper in 2014. Next to Jordon he’s the newsroom’s most senior staffer.
“I was happy to get a job here. I thought Omaha would be a nice place to go for two or three years. No regrets for having stayed. I feel very lucky I’ve latched on here.”
Kelly wasn’t the first journalist in his family. His late parents Frank and Dorothy Kelly put out a small weekly, the St, Bernard (Ohio) Journal, during the Great Depression. Though his father, who was also a stringer for various publications and news services, gave up the business to work for the IRS, it remained his life’s true passion.
“That was his love – journalism,” says Kelly, whose prized possessions include a framed front page of the St. Bernard Journal and the old portable Underwood typewriter his father employed. “I used to type my term papers on that,” Kelly says with pride.
“We always had newspapers around the house. Cincinnati had three daily papers in the ’50s when I was growing up and my dad subscribed to all of them. I was the only one of his eight kids that went into what was his love, so it was a nice connection. This is my heritage.”
The devoted son spent much of his first decade in Omaha covering the police and city hall beats, where former head cop Richard Andersen and mayor Ed Zorinsky were among the public servants he covered. Next he became a general assignment reporter. Then he unexpectedly got offered the position of sports editor.
Back in the day before computers
From news to sports to news again
“I’m a sports fan like a lot of people but I had no intention of going into this. The managing editor, Bob Pearman, liked a couple things I wrote, one of them a piece on Ron Stander (the ex-club fighter who fought heavyweight champion Joe Frazier at the Civic Auditorium). I wrote this long piece with flashbacks to the championship fight, which I was at, and it got Associated Press story of the year.
“Pearman wanted me to be writer and editor. I hemmed and hawed for days. One day he calls me into his office. ‘Mr. Kelly, have you decided yet?’ ‘Well, I was thinking I wanted to…’ ‘Mr. Kelly, shut the god______ door. Do you want to be my sports editor or don’t you?'”
Kelly timidly accepted.
“I’d just turned 33, so I call this the highlight day of my career. Oh my gosh, it was like jumping into the deep end and not knowing how to swim. I’m glad I did it, but the problem was trying to do two jobs. You’re a middle manager with no middle management training in charge of 25 people, plus all of a sudden you’re a columnist with your picture in the paper. I’m dealing with Tom Osborne and I had been a fan. I knew enough that now I had to have an arm’s length relationship.
“Newspapers were starting to cover recruiting. It’s an industry now. I’m there at 9 o’clock one night after putting in 12 hours. I get a call from an assistant Nebraska football coach. He cussed me out, every filthy word I’ve ever heard and about six others I hadn’t, because we were doing recruiting stories and letting Oklahoma know who they were going after. Well, Oklahoma knew who they were going after. He tried to intimidate me and I was a little shaken. I remember hanging up the phone and thinking, Oh my God, this is not fun and games is it?”
Besides being young, Kelly was an interloper coming from news into a sports role that older, more qualified colleagues had been in line to get.
“Acting sports editor Bob Tucker was a veteran and all of a sudden some guy from news side was put into the job he deserved to get. He was my assistant, I relied on him. It worked out. He was the kind of guy who could make the trains run on time. That’s what I needed.
“I think I injected some creativity. I was more controversial in my sports days than I am now. I used to get criticized regularly by Cornhusker fans. I wasn’t constantly critical but sometimes that’s what you’re supposed to be. I enjoyed the 10 years in sports for the most part but I could never get my arms around both those jobs.”
A highlight was covering the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, where the U.S. gymnastics team, which included Nebraskans Jim Hartung and Scott Johnson, won the gold medal. He considers Creighton’s 1991 College World Series run “the most fun event of my time in sports.” His father covered the 1940 Major League World Series in Cincinnati.
But Kelly was already torn by the enormous time sacrifice covering sports events demands. He was missing, among other things, his daughter Laura’s volleyball matches.
“I asked if I could go back to news side.”
He got his wish when named a Metro columnist. But where sports provided a constant, steady stream of in-season subjects related to area teams, news side subjects were less defined.
“I remember thinking, How am I going to come up with 200 column ideas a year? What am I going to write about?”
He gives the same answer to the question readers most often ask him: Where do you get your story ideas?
“I read a lot, I get out and talk to people, but luckily the best source for me is people calling and telling me stuff. That’s usually a function of I’ve been around for a long time and they’ve seen what I write, so that’s a benefit. But when I left sports and started column writing in the news section I didn’t quite have that. It was harder in the beginning.”
One of his most “memorable” columns dealt with the Vietnam War. The subject’s always been sensitive for him because his enrollment in college deferred him from serving and then when the draft lottery went into effect his birth date exempted him. He found these privileged exclusions “patently unfair.” Then he got the idea of following what happened to one of the unlucky ones with a birthdate near his own.
Reggie Abernethy of Maiden N.C. was born one day removed from Kelly and that was all the difference it took for him to get drafted and ultimately killed in Quang Tri, South Vietnam while the luck of the draw allowed Kelly to stay home, launch his career and start a family.
“I made a couple calls and found out a little bit about Reggie. I went to his hometown and met with his family, friends, his old girlfriend. I went to his school.. It was really moving. It’s one of these moments where you think, What a privilege to get to ask people these personal questions. It was like he had only died a week or two before.
“Before I left his brother took me out to his gravesite. I had a letter from his friend who was with him when he was killed. I wrote the piece for Memorial Day and that got the biggest reaction of anything I’ve written up until the columns about my daughter a decade later. It was kind of a story that hadn’t been written. It was just a different angle. It was definitely (motivated by) survivor guilt.
“That damn war, it had so many tentacles, even today. It was just dumb luck I didn’t have to go.”
It’s one thing being haunted by the specter of vets who served in his place. It’s quite another coming so close to losing his daughter. It’s inevitable he wrote about her odyssey. He still gets emotional about it.
“You’d think at some point I’d be able to talk about this without getting choked up.”
Bridget Kelly went from being an interested observer of her father’s work to being the focus of it.
“Growing up, my dad helped me understand the power of storytelling. We can learn more about what it means to be human through reading about other people’s struggles and experiences. After my attack, there was an outpouring of supportive messages from family, friends, and my dad’s readership.
“It seemed a natural response my dad would share in his column some of what my family and I were going through.”
How did the experience of writing about it impact him?
“Something like that’s got to affect you. I think I was compassionate before. I don’t think it’s made me more compassionate but maybe it has.”
Bridget says, “I always knew my dad was a compassionate person He handles sensitive and difficult subject matter with compassion. Now I better understand what a special voice he has at the newspaper. He gets people talking about all kinds of topics.
“I gained a real respect for his connection to the readers of the World-Herald. He tells me he meets people in the Omaha community even today who still ask him how I’m doing. All kinds of people feel comfortable asking him about such a personal story because he made it okay in the way he wrote about it.”
He says seeing others not always get Bridget’s story right “caused me to redouble my efforts when I’m writing about someone to think of it as a little documentation of their life.”
His daughter got a deeper appreciation for what he does..
“He talked with me during his writing process, and I could tell he wanted to be sure my perspective was accurately reflected in what he wrote. I can see he takes that kind of care in telling other people’s stories, too. I think that’s one reason people trust him to give voice to their personal experiences.”
As for how much longer he’ll keep working, Kelly has no plans to retire.
“I love my job. I hope I can keep doing it reasonably well. I would miss it.”
His devoted readers would surely miss him, too.
Follow Kelly online at http://www.omaha.com/section/news60.