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Kent Bellows Legacy Lives On

October 13, 2010 1 comment

The following article appeared a few years ago in The Reader (www.thereader.com) announcing plans for the Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts named in honor of the late great American realist visual artist. That artist’s work is the focus of a current exhibition at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, where Bellows made his home, and the studio center where Bellows created many of his pieces is now open to the public.  As my article mentions, Bellows was known for his generosity towards young people with a passion for art, and the studio center pays forward the encouragement he provided young people by offering a mentoring program for high school students with a penchant for making art or pursuing art studies.  Students are paired off with professional working artists in mentoring relationships that give young people an intimate, real-life experience in the art world.  Students and their mentors collaborate on some projects and students work independently on others, and now that the studio center is complete, this creative community expresses itself in the very digs where Bellows himself worked and mentored.  See more of my stories related to Bellows and the studio center on this blog site.

 

 

Kent Bellows Legacy Lives On

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

When renowned Omaha visual artist Kent Bellows died suddenly in 2005, his family didn’t know what to do with his studio, where remnants of his career and life were everywhere.

The studio was stuffed with his life: eclectic stashes of books and CDs, mosaics of cut-out images, wall scribbling, monster figures, art supplies and his signature parka hanging on a hook. After Bellows living and working there 16 years, the two-story studio, at 33rd and Leavenworth streets, became a multi-planed art piece in itself. It’s survived as tableaux of his stilled creativity, not unlike one of the wall sets he built for his hyper-realistic work.

Bellows’ family knew the circa-1915 brick building contained artifacts that should be preserved, not packed away or thrown out. The site, which used to be the Mermaid Lounge, was imbued with the legacy of someone who encouraged others, especially young visual artists and musicians. Family and friends deliberated how best to honor his memory.

Griess, her sister Debra Wesselmann and other Bellows family members formed The Kent Bellows Foundation in 2007 and envisioned the nonprofit as an arts education haven with a strong mentoring component. It will serve area youths, ages 14 to 18, grades 9 through 12, with artist-in-residence, studio thesis and gallery internship programs/classes. Board members include artist Keith Jacobshagen, designer Cedric Hartman, art educator Dan Siedell and composer Peter Buffett. Now, after two years of planning, the Leavenworth studio is due to become the Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts. The Kent Bellows Foundation announced plans for the new arts organization on-site at a recent open house attended by friends of the late artist. If enough support is found, site renovations could begin this summer and the center could open by early 2009.

“We couldn’t make any rash decisions about it, it was just too important,” said his sister Robin Griess. “So fortunately we hesitated.”

$725,000 in renovations are needed to fix a leaky roof, replace mold-infested walls, make the structure handicap accessible, add a museum-grade HVAC system and construct multi-use gallery, studio, classroom and office spaces. The foundation is looking for public and private donors to help.

Working visual artists will act as mentors, offering students real life lessons on being a professional artist (did someone say this?) and helping them learn to create a studio space, network and market, build a portfolio and deal with galleries.

A close student-mentor ratio will ensure highly individualized instruction (who said this?). Bellows Education Coordinator Rebecca Herskovitz wants to create a comfortable, nurturing environment, she said, where students can be themselves and take ownership over these spaces.

“My goal is to create an art learning family,” Herskovitz said.

The Foundation has broad goals. Partnerships with local arts organizations will provide students more educational opportunities. Lesson plans and resources will be made available to art educators. A scholarship and stipend fund will assist students electing to study art in college.

“It’s a completely new take on arts education,” said Bellows Executive Director Anne Meysenburg.

Early on, the family determined art education as the focus. The specific mentoring mission evolved with input by Bluestem Interactive strategic planners. (We need some attribution in this paragraph, too. Who said these things?)

“When the mentorship idea came to us it made such sense because that’s who Kent was and to mesh that with his legacy and with this inspiring space was just the perfect idea,” Griess said. “We always kept in mind, ‘What would Kent want?'”

She said Bellows was “this wonderful big brother” to not only her and her sister but to many others.

“Whatever your thing was he would just celebrate it,” she said.

When he did break from his meticulous work, Griess said, the studio was a vibrant spot where he showed pieces, discussed ideas and jammed with musicians. Creativity was always in play. She hopes students can soon tap into the spirit bound there.

“To emulate that place of creativity and to inhabit it is absolutely contagious,” Herskovitz said. “You can just feel it’s a place where magic was happening. For kids to walk in there every day will be an enchanting thing.”

Randy Brown Architects’ design will alter and open up the studio, though portions will be preserved as Bellows left them; notably the south rear space where his easel still stands and his hand-sharpened pencils lay ready. The upper floor is home to undisturbed set pieces and backdrops. These expressions of Bellows will be conserved, pending funds, by the Ford Conservation Center in Omaha. (Who said this?)

“The ultimate goal,” Meysenburg said, “is to inspire and to ignite the creative spark in the artistic youth of this community.”

The job of documenting Bellows’ prolific original works continues. Researchers are working to create a comprehensive catalogue raisonne of Bellows’ work as Joslyn Art Museum prepares a fall 2009 Bellows retrospective.

Griess called the search a treasure hunt: some previously undiscovered works have turned up, and other notable pieces are still missing in action.

It’s all part of ensuring the Bellows legacy.

“We feel a heavy responsibility about doing this right,” Wesselmann said.

Mentoring programs start this September in yet-to-be-named art facilities, and the foundation has some potential site leads. The foundation is currently recruiting students and staff for its first 16-week semester.

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

October 3, 2010 10 comments

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in the New Horizons

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

 

 

1928 South 24th Street, Omaha, NE 68107.

South 24th Street, past and present

 

2014 South Omaha, NE - South 24th Street

 

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

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

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

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

The opera showed the potential of Kastrick’s project.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Omaha South High School

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Omaha Stockyards

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo contacts: Kastrick, 905-2538

 

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in El Perico

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Omaha Stockyards

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It seems a moot point now.

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

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

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

 

 

Gary Kastrick leading a tour

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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St. Peter Claver Cristo Rey High: A school where dreams matriculate

August 29, 2010 1 comment

Three years ago I did this story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) on the first Cristo Rey high school in Omaha.  It’s a school where the students, mostly inner city Hispanic and African-American kids from families of little means, are required to work an office job to help defray the cost of tuition. The job is also an important learning avenue, exposing students to environments and experiences they would likely otherwise not see and helping them develop skills they likely otherwise wouldn’t feel compelled to cultivate. My story focuses on two students in the school’s inaugural freshman class, a Hispanic named Daniel and an African-American named Treasure. Although each tried to downplay it, their attending the school meant a great deal to them and their families.  I may revisit the story of these two young people and their school next spring, when Daniel and Treasure, both of whom are doing quite well in the classroom and at the work site I am told, are set to graduate.

 

 

 

 

 

UPDATE: As updates go, this one is decidedly sad:  In early February the Catholic Archdiocese of Omaha announced that St. Peter Claver Cristo Rey High School will close at the end of the 2010-2011 school year due to the school incurring a $7 million deficit in its brief four-year history.  It seems the school was never really able to gain enough traction, in terms of numbers of students enrolled. There was a high turnover of students who could not or would not follow the school’s strict standards. Ultimately though the recession of the last three years may have dealt the biggest blow because the school could not find or maintain enough jobs with local employers for its students to work once the economy sagged, thus severely cutting into the revenues the school needed to operate.  Without those jobs, which defrayed the cost of tuition, some families simply could not afford what it cost for their children to attend.  The more financial burden the school and the archdiocese took on to cover the gap and the shorter the school came to meeting its enrollment projections the more untenable the situation became.  I will be filing a story in the spring that revisits the stories of Daniel and Treasure — who were part of the school’s first freshmen class and will now be part of its first and last senior class.  With the impending closing it becomes a poignant, bittersweet story for all concerned, but it doesn’t diminish the quality educational experience students experienced.

St. Peter Claver Cristo Rey High: A school where dreams matriculate

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Few school startups have attracted the attention of St. Peter Claver Cristo Rey. From the time plans for the new Catholic high school in south Omaha were first announced in 2005 through the end of its first academic year next week, the institution’s captured public imagination and media notice.

Claver’s housed in the former St. Mary’s school building at 36th and Q Streets, within walking distance of the historic stockyards site, Hispanic eateries and markets and Metropolitan Community College’s south campus. The Salvation Army‘s Kroc Center is going up down the road where the Wilson packing plant used to stand.

 

St Peter Claver Cristo Rey - Homestead Business Directory

 

That the school’s elicited so much response is largely due to its membership in the national Cristo Rey Network, a branded nonprofit educational association based in Chicago. 60 Minutes profiled it. The private CR urban schools model gives disadvantaged inner city children a Catholic, college prepatory education and requires they work a paid internship in white collar Corporate America.

Wages earned help defray students’ tuition and provide schools a revenue stream. Member schools share 10 mission effectiveness standards. Staff from CR schools around the nation attend in-service workshops.

Cristo Rey’s pairing of high academics with real life work experiences is why the network’s grown from one to 19 schools in less than a decade. Three more will open their doors next fall. The model appeals to families who otherwise can’t afford a private school, much less expect their kids to work paid internships. Communities are also desperate for alternatives to America’s public education system, where resources for urban schools lag behind their suburban counterparts. Students of color in inner city public schools struggle, fail or drop out at higher than average rates. Relatively few go on to college, much less complete it, and most lack employability skills beyond low paying customer service jobs.

So when something new comes along to offer hope people jump at it. That’s what the Mayorga Alvarez and the Anderson families did. The Omaha working class families, one Hispanic and one African American, fit the demographic profile the school targets. Claver’s kids mostly come from poor Hispanic or black households qualifying for the federal free or reduced lunch program.

Some whites, black Africans and Native Americans also attend. CR schools typically serve small enrollments. Claver’s no exception with 67 students.

The Mayorga Alvarez family and the Anderson family saw the school as a gateway they couldn’t pass up. After year one their views haven’t changed. Each family sends a child there. Daniel Mayorga Alvarez and Treasure Anderson are both honor roll students.

Claver internship director Jim Pogge said it’s easy to see how much this means to families. “I participate in almost all of the application interviews and the hope in the parents’ eyes is evident.”

Families also find appealing the prospect of being in on the ground floor of a new kind of school, a theme embodied by the Claver team nickname, Trailblazers. A sign in front of the school reads, “Become a Trailblazer.” A symbol and legacy in one.

“We call ourselves Trailblazers for all kinds of different reasons,” Pogge said. “This is a trailblazing school, the students are trailblazers in their own lives.”

Daniel Mayorga Alvarez said, “We’re kind of proud we’re the first class. I guess it makes us feel more special.” Among the downsides, he said, is that Claver “doesn’t offer all the classes I wanted.”

School president Rev. Jim Keiter said Claver’s expanding its courses and staff, hiring full-time music, art and reading teachers for next fall and adding CAD drafting, culinary arts and Microsoft certification classes as early as spring ’09.

 

 

Fr. Jim Keiter

 

 

Christopher Anderson made his daughter, Treasure, among Claver’s initial enrollees last summer. He liked the idea of her being in a school “totally different than what she’s been used to. The structure, the dress, the work ethic. I mean, I wish I could have gone to a school like this. And then you get to thinking she’s going to be part of the first class,” he said, beaming.

Each Claver student works a full-time shift once a week, plus one extra day per month. The school day runs from 7:50 a.m. to 3:55 p.m. Most students stay after school an hour or two. On work days, a student reports to school, is taken by cab to his/her 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. job and then returned to school. It might be 6 before they get home.

The curriculum includes a mandatory business class addressing office skills and etiquette. Students apply classroom lessons to the workplace. Back at school they share on-the-job experiences with fellow interns. Pogge works closely with the 22 employer partners in Claver’s Hire-4-Ed program. Student job performance is reviewed and graded. Pogge said, “It’s real. They can get fired.” That’s happened. In those cases students get retrained for new jobs.

“All of our students have to work in order to make this thing work. They have to be employable. The work component actually drives the school,” he said.

Claver sets the tone in the summer with a mandatory three-week long boot camp orientation that introduces students to school-workplace expectations.

When kids can’t or won’t meet expectations they’re asked to leave Claver. A number have been expelled.

“We have a very rigorous academic program. I mean, it’s college prep. There’s no deviation. It’s very linear in its focus. We also have this work component that’s very demanding. These kids have to perform but not everyone’s up to that task. Personally, I have kids this age and I wonder how they would do,” Pogge said.

On the whole, he said, the work study program’s met expectations. “We have had bumps, but we have had far more successes. As of February, 82 percent of our students received ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ job performance ratings.”

Students who do well on the job invariably gain confidence and maturity.

“We see it in changed behaviors here at school,” Pogge said. “They’re all of a sudden more focused, engaged. They communicate more effectively. They’re kind of coming out of their shell.”

Signs that Treasure’s growing up have surfaced since she started at Claver.

“She’s pretty mature. She missed a day of work, which they’re required to make up, and she made the arrangements without me asking her,” Anderson said.

Parents also like the strict dress code. Many students don’t. At Claver’s summer boot camp last August boys loosened or removed their required neck ties and girls pushed the envelope with revealing outfits. Staff reminders and reprimands were common.

Maria and Rodolfo Mayorga Alvarez made Daniel, their youngest child, an early enrollee. A bright boy with a sweet, outgoing personality, he previously attended public schools in south Omaha, where he, his two older brothers and his folks live in a snug bungalow within sight of Rosenblatt Stadium.

His Mexican immigrant parents work blue collar jobs. Their formal education is limited, as is their English. Daniel serves as interpreter. Translating for his mom, he said: “She wanted me to go to a school that was a different environment, a whole new experience. She says the work I’m doing and the interactions I’m having and the skills I’m learning will be really helpful to me in the future.”

His mother’s noticed a change in him now that he comports himself like a little man. “She says I try to correct myself more. She sees me setting more goals for myself. She likes how the school is more disciplined.”

Daniel enjoys being in a brand new school with few students and much diversity.

“It’s like you’re starting all over with a clean slate. You get to know a whole new group of people. You probably get closer to people because you’re going through the same thing…you get stronger relationships,” he said. “In this school you get to know different types of people. You get diverse friends. We’re all scattered. We’re from north Omaha, south Omaha, southeast Omaha. Everybody’s got their own story — where they live, how they grew up.”

He finds Claver more taxing than what’s he’s used to. “I put a bunch more effort into this school,” he said. “It’s hard to keep up a B or A. I come home tired.”

Treasure also finds Claver challenging. She said, “It’s not always easy or fun to get good grades but you have to. I’ve had to learn how to balance school and work. I’ve got responsibilities both ways.”

She and Daniel are keenly aware that “it looks good on a resume” to have a college prep diploma and professional internship among their credits.

Treasure’s native Omaha Baptist family has a history of Catholic education. Her dad and aunts attended Blessed Sacrament. Her aunts then went on to Dominican High. Treasure went a year at Sacred Heart, where her two younger siblings now attend.

Although she mostly attended public schools Treasure’s one year at Sacred Heart gave her an inkling of what to expect at Claver, where weekly Mass and daily religious instruction are the rule. In the end, she said, “it’s still kids. We get along, we don’t get along. It’s high school.”

Most of her friends now attend Marian, a school too pricey for her dad to afford. “I surely couldn’t,” he said. All her Claver tuition’s paid by her job earnings.

A shy, inquisitive girl with a big spirit, Treasure lives with her two younger siblings, her father and his girl friend in a big house on Florence Boulevard in North O. Her older sisters live on their own. The family attends Morningstar Baptist Church.

Her dad is separated from her mom, whom she sees regularly. Chris works at Walgreens. He’s battled kidney disease for 14 years. Last summer both kidneys were removed. He’s now awaiting a transplant. A grown step-daughter may be a match.

Claver Admissions Director Anita Farwell said Treasure hasn’t let her father’s illness stand in her way.

“I love how she keeps her mind focused. She’s not distracted. No excuses. She loves her father. She wants to succeed not only for him but also for herself. He’s a terrific man and he’s built it in her as well.”

Treasure has strong role models. One of her half sisters is in college and another’s gone back. An aunt’s in the Army. Her parents both have some college. Now Treasure’s a model for her little brother and sister. Twelve-year-old Tera and 7-year-old Trey Christopher can’t wait to join her at Claver. Anderson’s already determined they’ll be future Trailblazers.

 

The Archdiocese of Omaha announced Friday it is closing St. Peter Claver Cristo Rey High School at the end of the academic year due to the school’s $7 million debt, large operating deficits, an ongoing need for outside financial support and a soft economy.

 

 

Reporting to a job adds a new dynamic for Treasure and Daniel. They work in guest services at Immanuel Medical Center, where several Claver students intern. They variously escort patients/family members, answer the phone and do clerical tasks.

“It can be boring but it’s preparing us and that’s what we need,” Treasure said. “We’re not always going to like it but it’s the real world. It does help me with my communication and organizational skills. It’s helped me open up a little to people.”

Pogge said students get to see new worlds.

“These kids are now going into buildings they normally just drive by. Now they’re part of the process,” he said. “They’re exposed to jobs, professions they may have never thought of before, and they can transfer skills from one job or industry to another. Communication skills, attention-to-detail, punctuality, stick-toitiveness.”

The work’s not always cut-and-dried, either. In Immanuel’s Diagnostics and Procedures areas the interns interact with strangers — adult patients or loved ones. Worry is etched on people’s faces. Daniel said many of those he escorts remark on how young he is and a conversation inevitably ensues about the school. Staff say having Claver kids in this role disarms people, putting them more at ease. Daniel views it as a life skills learning experience.

“As you talk to them you get to know them and to know a whole different story. You feel so sorry for them and you want to do everything to help them,” he said. “I really do like helping people. That’s probably the most satisfying.”

Once, a woman broke down and cried in the arms of Treasure, who consoled her.

“I had to be there for her, I guess,” she said. “I just couldn’t leave her there. She was going through some hard times. Her husband wasn’t going to live. I’m not the best people person but I did learn I have to suck it up and just be there for people in order to help them.”

The incident reminded her of her father’s precarious condition.

“If my dad just died one day who would be there for me? You gotta give in order to receive. So I try my best.”

“She doesn’t like to talk about it but I’m a realist, I know on any given day,” said Anderson, his voice trailing off. “So I always tell her, You know if something was to happen to me you would kind of be the glue to hold them together,” he said, referring to her younger siblings. “If your sister or brother were doing something wrong you’d say, What would Daddy say? I’ve raised her enough now that she knows what I expect of her and them. We talk about real things.”

Same for the Mayorga Alvarez family. They were due to make their next pilgrimage to Mexico this summer but tight finances postponed those plans. His parents don’t hide the fact it’s a struggle these days.

“When Mom’s right about to finish all the bills, to pay the school off, this off, that off, then all of a sudden something breaks down and we have something else to pay,” he said. “We always have this conversation. We feel we’re right about to hit the point when we’re living free and then something else happens. We’ll probably use the vacation money to pay off the truck so next year we’ll be a little more debt free.”

If the Mayorga Alvarez family don’t make it across the border this year it’ll mark only the second time in Daniel’s memory they haven’t. Their faith sees them through hard times. On Sundays the family attends St. Agnes or Our Lady of Guadalupe churches, whose congregations are filled with aspiring, upwardly mobile young families just like them.

The family’s hopes of moving up are pinned on Daniel’s shoulders, an academic star who envisions a medical career, perhaps as a doctor. He’s already found he far prefers office work to the roofing jobs he went on with his father and brothers.

“This is way better than that. I’d rather exhaust myself mentally,” he said.

Conversely, his brother Jesus was a less than stellar high school student who’s now looking for work. His other brother, Renne, a South High sophomore, is not excited by school but does plan on college. The brothers feel while Claver may not be for them, it’s right for Daniel.

“I think it’s good because it teaches the kids how to be responsible,” said Renne, who works at a Hy-Vee. “It gives them a taste of life — of how it’s going to be.”

Daniel said his mother often expresses her fondest desires for her boys.

“She wants us to become kind of independent, finish school, get good jobs, become better people. Even though both my parents work it’s still not enough to pay for everything. She wants us to do our part and to find our own way.”

Maria Mayorga Alvarez said she dreams of the ranchero she grew up on in a small, isolated village in central Mexico. Life was simple but happy there. She loves visiting home. She sees then how far she’s come. She hopes once her boys move on they’ll return to the family’s Omaha home and appreciate how far they’ve progressed.

Rodolfo Mayorga Alvarez’s poured his heart, soul and sweat into improving the small house. When his boys leave home they carry his and Maria’s dreams for better tomorrows.

Farwell admires how Daniel’s parents “have raised him to, ‘Do your best son.’ He loves them and he’s so thankful for what they’ve done for him. That is one of the motivating factors for him to do his best.”

Maria and Rodolfo Mayorga Alvarez and Christopher Anderson harbor the classic dream that their children do better than them. Their dreams are bound up in the promise of a school whose Catholic priest namesake tended to black Africans taken off slave ships in Colombia, South America. Claver reaches out to at-risk kids with a step ladder to success. Students, though, must make the climb themselves.

“All we’re really doing here is cracking open the door. It’s up to them to walk through it, run through it, and many of them are sprinting through it,” Pogge said.

As symbols go, what could be more dramatic than a school, with all its promise for new life, situated next to a burial ground, where dreams go to die? The east and south sides of Claver look out over St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery. Just beyond the cemetery South O’s booming economy is evident.

It’s not only kids and families inspired by the opportunities the school affords but teachers, administrators and corporate internship partners as well. Pogge said businesses see the connection between profit and opportunity.

“The corporate response has been outstanding. These companies have a real need for this clerical work to be done. Why not give our students a chance to perform and develop?  Every decision maker I have met has told me they want to have a hand in developing the future workforce of this city,” he said. “These students will either be a part of that workforce or will fade away from it. If they fade away from it, then everybody loses. If they are actively engaged at a young age, then the future is very bright indeed.

“These companies believe these students have real and tremendous potential.”

Educators and employers want to be part of a journey that propels young people forward — past the traditional barriers in their path. As the Claver mantra says, “to serve those who desire it the most but can afford it the least.”

“It’s inspiring and humbling and exciting,” Pogge said, “It just makes absolute sense to give people a vision of what they can become, and that’s what this school is all about. It’s so tangible. It’s very real.”

“Our kids come from poverty and it’s really hard for them to see the consequences of getting an education or not getting an education and what it means to their future success or failure,” said Claver Principal Leigh McKeehan. “But when you expose them to careers then they can start putting two and two together and create a plan for their lives.”

The needs of Claver students are great. About half arrive below grade level, some two-three grades below in reading and math. While this first year was comprised solely of a freshmen class, some 16-17-year-olds were in the ranks of otherwise 14-year-olds. The older kids dropped out of schools at one time or another and desired what Keiter termed “a fresh start.”

Farwell said some kids come from single parent homes and others from homes where grandparents or guardians raise them. Kids may have moved several times.

“They’re 14 and they have gone through so much in life, they’ve seen so much,” she said, “and we’re trying to give them stability. We want them to know they can succeed. It doesn’t matter what their past has been. Go forward.”

“They can do it,” said Pogge, who refers to the entire staff as having “a calling” to this mission. Daniel said the staff’s dedication to “go the extra mile” is noticed.

Farwell said two of the school’s biggest selling points are its negotiated tuition and the transportation provided students to and from school (bus) and work (cab).

Interest is high. But the application-registration process can be daunting for Spanish speaking newcomers. Many parents work on hourly production lines and can’t easily arrange or afford missing work to fill out forms or go through school interviews. Claver’s simplified things by reducing the number of forms and expanding its hours — making admissions more of a one-stop process. Most Claver staffers speak some Spanish. A few, like Farwell and McKeehan, are fluent, which they say helps build trust.

Then there are the school’s high academic and accountability standards, which extend to students and parents signing a contract. Farwell said many parents expressing interest in the school the first year weren’t aware of its college prep rigor but adds that inquiries today seem more informed. That should mean fewer mismatches between the school and students and, thus, fewer expulsions.

As Keiter said he’s come to realize, “we can’t be the savior school for all students and families. Not every school is meant for every student.” He’s expelled 11 kids since August. Others withdrew after recognizing Claver was not for them. The attrition’s cut deep into the rolls of an already small student body.

When registration closed last summer Claver counted 106 students. Only 95 actually showed for the boot camp. By the time the school year began that number fell to 86. Enrollment now stands at 67.

Back in August Keiter already wrestled with “the savior complex.” One early morning he assembled the students at St. Mary’s Church across the parking lot and tearfully addressed them from the foot of the altar.

“Yesterday was probably one of the hardest days I’ve ever had. I removed four students from this school for behavior.”

He talked about the need to follow directions, make good choices and work together for the common good. Using the bad apple analogy, he said one or two rotten ones can spoil the whole bunch. Removing the students, he said, was “for the good of all of you.” He pledged he’d make more hard decisions as necessary.

“We have only one chance to set the bar and create the reputation of the school, and we want that reputation to be a school that is safe and a great learning environment preparing all our students for college and work,” he said.

Two of Daniel’s friends were expelled. “It was because of the dress code,” Daniel said. “I think for some of them it opened up their eyes. They’re going to come back next year hopefully. Their parents want to enroll them.” The dress code’s been enough of an issue that Claver’s introducing uniforms next year.

Casualties are inevitable.

“We are giving some second chances and they are excelling,” Keiter said. “That is what it is about, but for the whole to excel we will at times have to remove students who are not accepting or not wanting to accept this new way of learning at school and work. If they are disruptive, et cetera, it is not fair to those who are working hard to succeed.”

He said the school’s “being more diligent” about keeping standards high and not diluting them for the sake of “wanting to help or ‘save’ one. We have to be honest about who our school can serve best, not for our betterment but for each student’s betterment.”

Farwell’s actively recruiting freshmen and sophomores for next school year. Applications and acceptances are ahead of last year. June 12 and July 10 All Admissions days are planned. The boot camp’s being revamped to include a several nights retreat away from school that promotes relationship building.

Meanwhile, the school’s secured $5 million in its $7 million capital campaign and has renderings for a planned physical expansion. 

Keiter said the strength of CR schools is their “outside the box” approach of being neither tuition nor philanthropy driven but enrollment and jobs driven. Aside from that bottom line, dreams most drive what goes on there. The long hours and stringent rules are not popular with kids but the ones that stay, like Treasure and Daniel, sense a higher purpose at work. They know how much is riding on this for their folks.

When Treasure omplains how hard it is her dad reminds her, “That’s the reason we chose the school — you’re getting more out of it.” Chris Anderson added, “Me and a couple other parents talk all the time about what a great opportunity it is. I could not be any happier. She’s excelling. I have faith in her and in the school.”

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Strong, Smart and Bold, A Girls Inc. Success Story

August 29, 2010 5 comments

Shardea Gallion, ©photo Girls Inc. Omaha

 

 

The following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared as its go-getter subject was on the verge of womanhood, nearing her high school graduation and looking ahead to college. Shardea Gallion has lived up to the promise she showed as a star member of the Girls Inc. or Girls Incorporated club in Omaha, where she grew up and where she became the poster girl for the mentoring, youth development program’s Strong, Smart and Bold slogan.

I spoke with her last year and I’m pleased to report she’s well on her way to achieving her goal of a media career, studying film and television at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and working on video projects outside of class.  Like many of the girls served by the nationwide nonprofit Girls Inc., Shardea comes from a disadvantaged background, but with support and guidance she’s gone far to to position herself for a life and career that might have seen improbable a decade or so ago.  I have a feeling I will be writing about Shardea again some day, and this time she will be a professional film or television director/producer/writer.  You go, girl!

Strong, Smart and Bold, a Girls Inc. Success Story

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

“Strong, smart and bold” is the Girls Inc motto but it may as well be the personal creed of Shardea Gallion, an Omaha girls club member since age 5. In a life full of tests, Gallion, 17, has shown a resilience, intelligence, moxie and what she calls “old spirit” that belie her age and make her dream of a broadcast journalism career plausible. Already the host of her own cable television show — Those in Power — on Cox Communication’s community access channel, this poised hip-hop teen from The Hood makes like a young Oprah conversing with local movers-and-shakers on topics ranging from police-community relations to reparations for black Americans.

Besides holding her own with adults, the devout black Baptist excels at mostly white, middle-class Catholic Marian High School, where she’s a senior honors student, features page editor for the school paper and leader on multicultural-diversity committees. She also volunteers for her church, the YMCA and Girls Inc. In 2002 she was one of eight recipients of the national Girls Inc $2,500 college scholarship award and in 2000 was among 40 school-age girls chosen from 1,000 applicants to participate in the Eleanor Roosevelt Girls Leadership Workshop in Val-Kill, NY. An upcoming issue of Black Enterprise Magazine will profile her.

Two recent stories she penned for her school paper, The Network, hint at her audaciousness. In one, she asked non-Catholic Marian students to reveal what it’s like being a minority there. In tackling the story she defied administrators, explaining, “I want them to understand that, yes, there are other voices at Marian and my voice as a Baptist is just as important as those other students’ who are Catholic.” The other story explored the implications of teens getting hitched. “I hear a lot of talk about girls designing their wedding dresses and picking out their rings and I’m like, ‘This is ridiculous — you don’t even have your college picked out.’ I just wanted to send a message to girls that maybe you should wait and think about it.” Gallion, who said she “doesn’t want to throw away my dreams” by starting a family right out of school is herself the product of a young union.

One of six kids born to a teenage single mother, she endured a chaotic first five years before she, her sister and four brothers were taken in by their maternal grandparents. Ultimately, she and her siblings were placed in foster homes. She is still troubled by the fact they were adopted by separate families. “That’s when I was kind of crushed forever,” said Gallion, who’s been in counseling over the severing. “I never understood why we were separated or why my sister couldn’t join me.” She’s tried putting it behind her. “I know I can’t dwell on being separated because that would have just bring me down.”

Regarding her mother, whom she’s seldom seen since the split, Gallion chooses her words carefully. “I didn’t always have that solid foundation…of someone that was going to be there no matter what. At school, everything was fine, but the thing that gave me the greatest trouble was home life. When things are not OK at home, you’re not OK inside. I guess I always had to rely on myself. My mother was rather young. She has regrets. She does wish things would have played out differently.”

Through it all, the one constant in Gallion’s life has been Girls Inc, a sanctuary and activity center for a largely poor black membership. Located in the former Clifton Hill School building at 45th and Maple, the club is where a young Gallion found the stability and direction she lacked outside its red brick walls. “Girls Inc takes into consideration that all parents don’t teach their children everything they should know, so it steps in and is another mother to the girls here, and that’s exactly what it’s been to me,” Gallion said. “It’s helped me through all the times in my life. When situations come along where I’m the only female or I’m the only minority, I am constantly reminded that I am strong, smart and bold — no matter what.”

The girls club is where Gallion found a flesh-and-blood parental figure in Angela Garland, Girls Inc program director. Better known as Miss Angie, this cool, posh black woman was a confidante and mentor to Gallion before assuming guardianship over her three years ago. In Gallion, Garland saw “a very talented” girl who had “to grow up fast” and “take on adult responsibilities” and who, without the right support, might go the wrong way. “There were a lot of things going on in her home — teenage angst and all the rest — and I just kept thinking, ‘Oh, surely somebody will step in,’ and when that didn’t happen I told her she could stay with me. I honestly thought it would be temporary…that things would kind of work out.” When no one else filled the void, Garland made it official by becoming her legal guardian. Living together has taken some adjustment on both their parts.

For Gallion, it meant the woman she never heard a cross word from and whom she idolized as “independent” and “gorgeous” was now Mom. “She’s someone I really looked up to, not that I don’t now, but since taking on a parental role for me I have to look at things a little bit differently,” Gallion said. “I know it was a transition for her to go from me being Miss Angie at Girls Inc to being the parent at home that had guidelines and expectations,” said Garland. “We would go round and round about, you know, ‘Get off the telephone’ or ‘Turn the television off — get your homework done.’ One time, I just had to say, ‘Look, this is my house, this is not Girls Inc — do it because I say so.’ These are things she had never heard before growing up.” Amen, Gallion said. “There were so many things that were so foreign to me. I never had to study. She helped me discipline myself.” When Gardner married, Gallion had to adapt again. “I’ve never been in a household where there was a mom and dad — a husband and wife — and so that’s been an eye-opener.”

Gallion felt self-imposed pressure “to be this perfect person” for Miss Angie. “For a long time I was discouraged,” she said, “because I was doing things for others. The only reason I kept going is because people invested a lot in me. But Miss Angie lightened my burden when she told me I really don’t owe her much except to be the best person I can be. That made things so much easier. I realize she’s taken on a huge role and I do not want to let her down, but now I do things for me first.”

Sometimes Gallion tried so hard to please her guardian that Garland finally told her, “‘Honey, just be a kid — you’ll be grown up soon enough.’” Garland’s only wish for her young charge is for to reach her potential. “All I want is for Shardea to be the best she can be. I always encourage her to dig deeper and to not limit her options.” The experience of shaping a young life has been transforming for the 20-something professional. “It was a tremendous shift for me because when Shardea first came to live with me I was in graduate school and it was like I was an instant parent. But she’s really been a blessing to me. I think she’s made me more passionate about my job and a true advocate for kids. She’s made me respect parenting and she’s helped to kind of give me a new perspective — that there’s more to life than going to work and having things. I realize how blessed I am to be able to pay it forward and say, ‘Now, you go do it.’”

Girls Inc. Omaha

Often taken for older than she is, Gallion has some mature goals. “I plan to get into journalism but, from there, branch out. My ultimate goal is to work with people.” Among the colleges she’s considering is the University of Missouri in Columbia and its prestigious journalism school. Those around Gallion fully expect her to reach her goals. “Her passion is going to get her where she wants to go,” said Marsha Kalkowski, a journalism instructor at Marian. “She’s one of the most enthusiastic student journalists we’ve had here. I see her in front of a camera and I see her making a positive difference in the community.”

Gallion began hosting Those in Power, a project of the Edmonson Youth Outreach YMCA, at the tender age of 14. “Well, at Girls Inc you learn you just gotta take chances and jump in, and so that’s what I did,” she said of her precocious TV debut. She views the program as part of her education. “Once I get involved in a topic I don’t want to learn it just for the show,” she said, “I want to actually know about it so I can carry on a conversation and sound half-way intelligent. I always feel I don’t know enough and I just keep striving to learn as much as I can.”

With college on the near horizon, Gallion is focusing now on her studies and on applying for various scholarships. When things are more settled, she plans reconnecting with her blood roots. “My biological family can never replace Miss Angies’s family — I feel like that’s my family now — but I just want to know who they are. I don’t want to close the door on that. You never know what could become of it. It’s just not a huge priority right now. I feel like I have to get on with my life.”

Brotherhood of the Ring, Omaha’s CW Boxing Club

June 19, 2010 2 comments

I couldn’t resist posting another boxing story. This one is about an interesting venue that is one part hardcore gym for amateurs and professionals and one part community resource center for at-risk youth. The CW fills a lot of missions and many of those missions coalesce around boxing.  Like any gym worth its weight in sweat, the CW is full of characters straight out of a Ring Lardner story. It’s those personalities, combined with the harsh discipline and many rituals of the ring, that I try to capture in this story, a shorter version of which appeared in the Omaha Weekly.  This won’t be the last boxing story I post either.

 

Brotherhood of the Ring, Omaha’s CW Boxing Club

©by Leo Adam Biga

A version of this story was originally published in the Omaha Weekly

 

It owns a rep as perhaps the toughest, most competitive boxing gym in town. Its junior and amateur fighters shine at local tournaments. It is the training ground for many of the area’s top prizefighters. It routinely matches young pugs with grizzled veterans in an effort to raise the level of beginners. Its members are primarily African-American, but include whites, Hispanics and Asians too.

It is a sanctuary for some and a springboard for others. It is a place filled with colorful ringside characters straight out of a Damon Runyon yarn. It is the CW Boxing Club at 1510 Cass Street, and its take-no-prisoners approach and chip-on-the-shoulder attitude makes it the envy and the outcast of the fractious Omaha boxing community.

Rivalries are strong on the Omaha boxing scene. Every gym has its own stable of fighters, its own turf and its own image to maintain and sometimes when conflicts erupt stupid things are said. When a fighter leaves one gym for another, he may be called disloyal or the other gym may be accused of stealing him away.

In the case of the CW, there is a perception that it caters only to blacks, which even a quick survey of its training roster soon dispels. Disparaging things are also said about the character of the fighters who train there, but in reality it is far from the wild-and-woolly den of thugs that some rival boxing coaches portray it as. Instead, the CW, which gets its name from founder and director Carl Washington, features a no-nonsense, professional environment where serious fighters work intensely under the watchful eyes of experienced trainers Midge Minor, Larry Littlejohn and Chucky Brizendine.

The gym itself is only one part of what Washington, who coached the club’s talented first crop of fighters to national prominence in the late 1970s and early 1980s, calls the CW Youth Resource Center. The center offers near north side youth a venue for making music, working out, hanging out and performing community service projects. According to Washington, the gym’s fighters often get booed or jeered at local competitions because of racism and because the CW’s history of success breeds jealousy. He said his club has nearly boycotted area Golden Gloves events due to the ill treatment he believes his fighters receive.

 

 

 

 

Every gym has its own vibe, and the insistent tone of the CW is set-off by the throbbing bass rhythms and the grating harsh lyrics of rap music blaring from a boom box that plays incessantly in the background. Unlike the foul language of the music, however, there is little profanity heard in the gym, whose walls are plastered not only with the usual boxing posters but emblazoned with a detailed list of rules (which include no spitting on the well-scuffed hardwood floor and no horse playing) and printed mantras that express the philosophy of the place: Lead with Speed, Follow with Power; Only the Strong Survive; and If You Want to Box, Train — If You Want to Win, Train Harder. It is a place where if you can hold your own, you earn respect, but that respect is always tinged with the tension of proving you belong or, if really brazen, proving you’re the top dog.

The gym is a study in contrasts. Take the way that Minor, a four-time Midwest Golden Gloves champion who got his training start at the noted Olympic Gym in Los Angeles, deals with fighters. He is a taskmaster when one of his guys needs pushing and a buddy when one of them needs a pat on the back.

As 13-year-old junior fighter Rosendo Robles prepares to enter the ring one night for some sparring, Minor fastens the headgear and laces the gloves of this angelic, wide-eyed youth with the attentive tenderness of a father helping his son. “Am I going three rounds?” the boy eagerly asks Minor. “If you’ve got three rounds in you,” his smiling coach replies, rubbing the boy’s shoulders. “I’m going to try and get comfortable with my jab first, and then when I get comfortable, I’m going to work on throwing combinations,” the lad tells Minor, his big eyes looking for approval. “That’s right. Your jab sets everything up. It sets up combinations,” Minor tells him in a way that confers the approval Robles seeks. “But I don’t want to see you in there jumping around wasting energy like a little Easter bunny.” Robles grins at his coach’s funny remonstration.

Meanwhile, as this gentle interlude plays out, a rapper performing on a CD explicitly describes various sex acts. The contradiction does not seem to faze anyone, not even born-again Christian Servando Perales, a professional fighter who found religion during a stint in federal prison. To take the contrast even further Minor has the little boy, Robles, spar with the grown man, Perales, in an attempt “to elevate” the kid’s abilities.

Throwing his youngest fighters in with the wolves is one of many ways in which the CW veers from business-as-usual in its training methods. Washington, who began the gym’s tradition of working young fighters with their more experienced counterparts, said, “The reason boxers from Nebraska usually come home after the first round of a national tournament is they don’t have the experience of fighting the skilled fighters you find on the east and west coasts. Guys have to know how to slip punches. You have to work around guys at a certain level or you’ll always be coming home early.” Minor follows the Washington formula with the C.W. crew: “I work all my guys. That’s how they learn,” he said. “Every once in a while I have to elevate them to see where they’re at. I work my fighters a little different than they (other gyms) do. I don’t breed nothing but winners.”

In Robles, Minor sees a kid with “a lot of promise. He wants to learn, That’s what I like about him.” The youth is following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, both of whom boxed in their native Mexico. “My grandpa wants me to carry on with the tradition,” Robles said.

He has dreams of his own, too. “As soon as I can, I want to go to the Olympic Games, and if I do good there I’m thinking of a professional career when I get older.” As for training with adults, he appreciates the tricks of the trade he picks up from such savvy fighters. “I feel comfortable training with them because I learn from them in the ring. I like to learn new techniques. Sparring with these older guys is getting me prepared for bigger guys. Like with Servando (Perales), he puts pressure on me and I work on getting him off me. When I get done sparring I ask, ‘What’d you see wrong in me?’ and they tell me.” He also likes the attention his coach gives him. “I really like Midge. He shows interest in me. He says I’m his little project. That he’s going to build me up.”

Minor’s final words to Robles that night are, “Don’t be intimidated. Every chance you get you try and knock his ass off.” It is all well-supervised, with the adult Perales acting as a kind of moving punching bag — keeping his gloves open at all times to ensure he does not in any way injure the youth, whose father watches the action from ringside, yelling pointers to his son in Spanish.

During the three-round sparring session, Minor, leaning against the corner ropes from atop the ring apron, alternately shouts instructions to Robles with a sharp, disapproving edge in his voice and offers encouragement with a soft, approving tone. “You’ve got to move in closer. That’s the only way you’re gonna reach him,” he tells Robles, who is dwarfed by his sparring partner. “There you go, cut the ring off. Remember what I told you — if you miss with one hand, you lead with the other. Double jab. Stick — don’t wait on him. There you go. Shorten your hook up…too wide. Good hook.”

Robles, a surprisingly skilled little punching dynamo, is spent after the first round, but Minor denies him water. “You tellin’ me you’re tired? Like I care. You don’t need water yet. Show me you need some water.” After a rousing showing in rounds two and three, Minor lets his protege drink all he wants. As a soaked Robles climbs out of the ring, the chiseled Brezendine catches his eye and says, “If you keep fightin’ like that, you’ll be a world champion some day.” The boy’s eyes light up. “Really, Chucky?” “Certainly, Sando.”

 

Dreams of glory and chances at redemption are all over the gym. Take the story of Servando Perales, for example. The Omaha native showed tremendous promise as a junior competitor. Fighting for Kenny Wingo out of the Downtown Boxing Club, he won a National Silver Gloves title at 10 and captured second-place in the same competition at 14 in addition to winning a slew of city, state and regional championships. Then, just when Perales was on the verge of really making a name for himself in the sport, the bright, handsome young man got sidetracked by drugs, alcohol and gang-related mischief.

“Drugs had me real paranoid. I thought I always had to be carrying a gun. I had a few convictions for guns and for basically just acting like an idiot. Crime just caught up to me. It was hell. I was basically living in hell on earth. I was in darkness. Finally, I got sentenced to 18 months in a federal prison in Waseca, Minn. for illegal possession of firearms,” he said. “It was there that I gave my heart to Christ. Inside, I ran into a friend of mine whom I grew up with — Francisco Granados. He had been one of my number one crime partners or road dogs. He had given his life to the Lord a couple years prior to me arriving. He just began to minister to me and I just surrendered.”

For Perales, the reunion with his buddy behind bars was a life-saving one that went well beyond mere chance. “I was like a walking time bomb. I had no peace in my life. No joy, No nothin’. I was really a heartless heart. I wouldn’t open up to anyone other than somebody that I trusted and knew from my barrio. And I’m just so grateful for Francisco being there in my path. God put him there for that reason.” Today, Perales does volunteer work with Granados and his Overcomers in Christ ministry in south Omaha, where they counsel kids to stay away from the drug and gang culture they got caught up in. Perales, who works full-time as a maintenance supervisor at Sapp Brothers, is married with three sons. A fourth son is being raised by his ex and her husband.

In an unusual move, Perales, who had not fought in several years, turned pro only months after his 1997 release from prison. He was 26 and out of shape, but hungry to rededicate himself to a sport he viewed as an expression of his new found faith. “Boxing is the only way for me to say to kids, Hey, this is where I was then, and now look at me today, when I have Christ within me. I believe Christianity and boxing are a lot alike. As a Christian you’re always under attack by the Devil. He knows your weaknesses. It takes a lot of discipline to stay strong. Just like with boxing, you can’t get comfortable. You’ve got to continue training. Besides, boxing is just something I’ve loved all my life. I’ve come up short of some victories, but my real victory has been beating drugs and alcohol.”

 

 

Servando Perales

 

When Perales decided to enter the pro ranks he shopped around for a gym to begin his comeback at and decided on the CW.

“It’s the toughest gym in Omaha. Everybody said, ‘If you can make it at the C.W., you can make it anywhere because here, when you spar, you don’t just spar — you go to war. Basically, it’s a test to see what you’re capable of. I came down here and I got my butt kicked the first three times until I got my timing and my punch back. It took me awhile.”

Regarded as a mediocre pro, Perales is 11-5 and has no real prospects of making a mark, although he is widely admired for his heart. At age 30 he knows his fighting days are numbered, but his sheer determination keeps him going, sometimes to his own detriment. “In a fight I lost in Las Vegas I was a bloody mess, but I wouldn’t quit. I’ve got too much heart. I came out in the 6th and final round and I almost knocked the guy out I was that determined to win, even though my nose was broken, my eyes were closed and my face was bloody.” He has vowed to his wife he will quit rather than endure that type of punishment again.

Once Omaha’s “Great White Hope” — heavyweight Dickie Ryan may soon be facing a crossroads of his own. The battle-scarred 33-year-old, a solid contender a few years ago, is one of the most successful local pros since Ron Stander, but after 56 bouts (his record is 51-5) and countless thousands of rounds sparring his best fighting days are surely well behind him. Like so many men of the ring, he is unwilling to admit he may be past his prime and should, for his own good, hang-up the gloves.

“Everyone says, ‘When you gonna retire?’ I don’t know. I still feel like I’m in good shape. I still like fighting. I’m still trying to develop the best skills I can bring out in me. I don’t think I’ve done that yet, but I’m working on it,” he said. “I’ve been a pro since I was 19. I’m glad I’ve carried on this long because I turned pro the same time as a lot of other guys but I’m the only one still around after all these years, which is special. I wish it could last forever, but unfortunately nothing lasts forever.”

Ask him if he worries about the risk of permanent head injury, and he shrugs off the question with, “If I get brain damage or whatever, than that was my choice. I made it. Just like Dale Earnhardt made his choice and died doing what he loved doing. I have a friend that has Parkinson’s and the doctors think it was caused from boxing. I don’t know. Who knows? Boxing’s been around forever, though. Even if it was banned there’d still be underground boxing, and I’d probably be the first one there, you know, because that’s how I make part of my living.”

 

Dicky Ryan.jpg

Dick Ryan

 

Ryan has a passion for what might be called the Brotherhood of the Ring that he and other fighters share and it is this bond forged from sweat and courage and discipline that helps explain why he toils on. “We get these big muscle guys coming in the gym. These tough guys who knock everybody out on the street. They say, ‘I wanna box.’ We say, ‘Okay,’ and they box a couple days and we never see them back. I don’t know what it is, but it takes a special person. I won’t say it takes a tough person, but it takes a certain type of person to sacrifice your body the way we do. It really is hard. In boxing you can’t have a big ego because right when you think you’re all that somebody’s gonna knock you on your ass. And that’s the truth. If you’ve got an ego going into boxing, you’ll be humbled afterwards.”

According to Ryan, there is a camaraderie in the gym, any gym, that transcends race or religion or age. “It’s one of the only places you can go where there’s no racism at all. It’s neat. Everybody gets along. I never try hurtin’ no one in the gym. I can work with anybody. I can work with a guy that’s 150 pounds and I can work with a guy who’s 250 pounds. I can work with kids just coming up. I’ll help ‘em out. And hopefully by working with me they’re going to get better and then eventually they’re going to be good sparring partners. I’m helping them out and they’re helping me out. It works both ways.”

In a long career that’s seen him be a marquee sparring partner (for the likes of Lennox Lewis and Tommy Morrison) if seldom a main event draw, Ryan has trained at gyms across the country. He could train anywhere in Omaha, but the CW is where he’s gone to work the past eight years.

“I’ve been to Gleason’s Gym in New York and a lot of other big gyms and this (the CW) is as good as any gym around. Me and my manager, Mouse Strauss, seen that Midge (Minor) and Larry (Littlejohn) here were really good coaches and Mouse felt it would be good for me to come here. There’s a chemistry between me and my trainer Midge. He’s just a straight-up guy. He’s not the type of trainer to go, ‘You’ve got to kick his butt’ or ‘You’ve got to do this or do that.’ He’s just got a way of telling me to stay focused. He’s not afraid to cuss me out, though. He’s shows no favoritism.”

After 14 years of grinding out early morning runs and long nights hitting the bags and absorbing poundings as a much sought-after sparring partner Ryan said he stays motivated by the chance for a shot at the title or a big payday — even as remote as that possibility is now.

“I think a lot of it is just knowing in the back of your mind that, Hey, I’ve got to keep going because they might call me for that big fight and I’ve got to be ready.’ Before a fight I don’t have any fear at all because I know I’m in shape and ready to go.”

The closest he came to realizing his dream was when he upset Brian Nielsen in dramatic fashion before a hostile crowd in Denmark in 1999. In what was supposed to have been a tune-up bout for the Dane before an expected match-up with Mike Tyson, Ryan rallied late and knocked out Nielsen in the 10th and final round. Ryan said he was given the match with only two weeks notice but, as usual, was in peak condition. However, the victory did not earn Ryan any title shot but instead a rematch with Nielsen, which he lost.

Ryan, who describes himself as “mellow” even on the eve of bouts, is almost embarrassed to say that, apart from his work in the ring, he is not much of a fight fan. “Not really. I don’t go to the fights around here because I don’t like to see friends of mine get hit. It seems kind of weird, but that’s just how I am. I wish I wasn’t like that, but I am. I’d never encourage anyone else to fight. That’s just my opinion. Boxing’s been great for me. I’ve made a few bucks. It’s a good side job.”

The reality for pros fighting out of Omaha, a burg way off-the-beaten track in the boxing world, is that they must work regular jobs to support their pugilistic dreams. When not engaging in the Sweet Science, for example. Ryan is a meter reader for the Omaha Public Power District.

Featherweight Mike Juarez, another CW regular, is a part-time parcel handler at United Parcel Service. “If you’re in Omaha you’ve got to work a job. There’s no sponsorship around here like there is in big fight towns,” said Juarez, 31, who has compiled a 25-9 record during a 12-year pro career that has seen him fight and lose to several contenders and former world champions. The compactly-built Juarez has been something of a boxing vagabond over the years, including stops in Indianapolis and Vegas. After experiencing some hard knocks on the road, he’s returned to his Omaha roots.

“It’s pretty rough out there, you know? It’s a mean game. I didn’t get the fights. I went broke. I really wasn’t ready for the type of (mercenary) atmosphere that I put myself in. There’s nothin’ like being home around guys that I know,” he said while skipping rope one evening at the C.W. He feels the high-caliber training he gets at the Omaha gym sets it apart. “Midge Minor is a professional coach. He knows his stuff. He’s been in boxing forever,” he said. Like Dickie Ryan, Juarez is pushing the upper limits of his boxing career. He said the decision to retire will “depend on how long I can stay winning. There’s no money in it for losers, you know.”

In keeping with the CW’s belief that young fighters need pushing to reach the next level, Juarez often spars with amateurs much younger than him and possessing far less experience. Two of his regular partners are 20-year-old RayShawn Abram and 19-year-old Kevin Nauden, a pair of brash, promising fighters who, along with a third young phenom, Bernard Davis, are looking to make their marks as pros in the very near future. “I’m fast, I’m strong and nobody my size is going to touch me. I don’t lack for confidence,” said Abram, a 112-pounder sporting two gold front teeth. “I’m looking to win a national championship this year.”

 

 

With his penchant for splash and dash, Abram admits he enjoys ”the attention” that performing in the ring brings him. “When you’re in the ring and you’re doing real good — you’re throwing combinations and looking fast and start dropping your hands and showboating a little bit — then everybody’s cheering for you, and it’s a good feeling.” Nauden, like several young men who have come through the CW ranks, views boxing as a safe haven from the mean streets on the near north side. “I think if it weren’t for the gym I’d probably be in jail or dead or something,” the 132-pounder said. “It’s kept me out of a lot of trouble — for real.”

He was introduced to the sport after being caught fighting in school by an administrator, who brought him down to the CW to get his hostility channeled inside the ring. In Midge Minor he has found a confidante and mentor. “I sometimes get in with the wrong crowd and I sometimes talk to him about it and he keeps me out of trouble. He also helped me get through the time my grandma died. I can call him anytime.”

Nauden and Abram feel they benefit from going against older foes when sparring, but there is no any doubt who is boss inside the ropes. “They’ve got that grown man strength that we ain’t got yet,” Nauden said. “When I first came here and I hit some of the pros with a hard shot, they let me know this ain’t gonna be goin’ on for long. They ain’t gonna hurt you or nothin, but they’ll tap you and let you know they could.”

While Abram won his weight class (as did the CW’s Bernard Davis at 125 pounds) in the recent Midwest Golden Gloves tourney at Harvey’s Casino and is prepping for the national gloves in Reno. Nev., Nauden lost. As for their future plans, the young men are weighing pro offers and, if the money is right, may end their amateur careers later this year and sign contracts to enter the prizefighting arena. They intend to stay under the training arm of Minor and company.

Whether Nauden and Abram ever make any real money in the fight game, they epitomize what the coaches and trainers at the CW strive to do — get the most out of their fighters.

“It’s like a challenge to me to see how I can develop somebody,” Minor said. “I don’t try to change their style. I just try to better the style they’ve got.” He said he can be blunt with fighters, but they seem to respond to his straight shooting. “If I see a bum, I call ‘em a bum. I’m kind of mean to ‘em. but they work for me, though. They perform for me.” Larry Littlejohn is also known as a hard-driving sort. “We do demand quite a bit of you if you’re going to stay in this gym. This is not the place to be down here joking around. We don’t want those guys. We work hard. We want to win,” Littlejohn said.

CW amateur fighter Shabia Bahati said that when Littlejohn shows up “there’s no cutting corners on your workout,” adding, “He keeps us honest. He’ll put us to the test.”

Bahati, a Midwest Golden Gloves runner up at heavyweight, has trained at other gyms in town and he said the C.W. is not for the faint of heart or the frivolous. “It’s real competitive down here. You’ve got to be on your toes when you come and spar. There’s no play time. They take the boxing down here serious.” Jacqui (Red) Spikes is another amateur fighter who has found the CW more rigorous than other gyms. “I was at a different gym and the training was soft there. Here, it’s all business. There are no wimps down here. It’s got the best pros and amateurs in town. They get the most out of you.”

A Mentoring We Will Go

June 18, 2010 5 comments

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Richmond &...

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Mentoring programs, whether community or school-based , along with mentoring done more informally, on one’s own, offer effective ways for reaching at-risk youth. The following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about 10 or 12 years ago profiles some mentoring efforts in my hometown of Omaha.  I cannot recall much about the assignment other than the passion and commitment of the people involved as mentors to make a difference in young people‘s lives.

A Mentoring We Will Go

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

A sweltering June night in the inner city finds a rag-tag basketball game under way in the Adams Park Community Center gymnasium. Here, in this hot house of testosterone, a lone female watches from the sidelines, itching, like the men around her, for a chance to play.

Maurtice Ivy is a tall, poised woman of 31. She mingles easily with the crowd. A righteous sister perfectly accepted as one of the guys. And why not? She grew up a tomboy among them and is a bona fide player to boot.  The former Central High School all-state performer was a collegiate basketball star with the Lady Huskers and played professionally long before TV discovered the women’s game.

This night, like so many before, she’s brought along a young man she regards as a son, Rickey Loftin. The lean, hard-bodied 16-year-old harbors big-time hoop dreams of his own. The junior-to-be at South High School is anxious to strut his stuff. When the pair finally do take the court, she feeds him the rock again and again, highlighted by a slick one-handed bounce pass from the top of the key to a driving Rickey in the lane. Count it. These two anticipate each other’s moves and moods more than mere teammates do. More like soulmates.

It’s that way off the court, too, where Ivy mentors Rickey. In that capacity she serves as friend, counsel, guide, nag and personal coach.

After the gym clears out she “fusses at” him about his showboating and points out a flaw in his shooting technique. He listens good-naturedly and adjusts his shot. “That’s it,” she says approvingly.

 

Maurtice Ivy

Maurtice Ivy

 

The pair first met when she coached an Omaha Housing Authority team he played on. They hit it right off, and three years later they’re nearly inseparable. She attends all his athletic and school events. She helped pay for a black college tour he attended in May and is looking to enroll him in summer basketball camps where he’ll be exposed to better coaching and competition. She’s been there for him at every turn, including a tragedy.

“A couple years ago Rickey called me up one morning and asked me to come get him,” Ivy recalls. “I was wondering why he wasn’t in school and he said, ‘My dad was shot and killed last night. The only person I want to be around right now is you.’ I was speechless. It took everything in me not to break down and cry. At that point, I hadn’t realized how I had impacted him as a coach. And I just felt like that God was placing him in my life for a reason, and I needed to pick up the ball and be as positive as I could be.

“Rickey was hurting and he really didn’t know how to deal with that.  Since then, I’ve really played a role in his life. I just try to be a strong support system for him. Our relationship has truly grown over the years.”

Ivy is among thousands of adults in the Omaha metropolitan area who maintain a one-to-one mentoring relationship with an at-risk youth. What follows is an exploration of different mentoring relationships and how these relationships follow certain familiar patterns, yet retain their own individual dynamic. Of how mentoring brings adults, kids and resources together in often surprising ways. Of how good mentoring isn’t a magic elixer or quick fix, but an investment of time that pays off slowly but surely.

Who are mentors? They’re individuals lending the benefit of their experience to a younger person struggling to reach his/her potential. They can be parents, teachers, coaches, professionals, laborers or anyone with a commitment to making a difference in the life of a child.

Some, like Ivy, mentor on their own — as an extension of their life and work. Others do it through the growing number of formal mentoring programs offered by schools, community service agencies and corporations. For example, adults from all walks of life mentor students in Tom Osborne’s school-based Teammates program, currently serving the Lincoln Public Schools and now gearing to go statewide.

All Our Kids, Inc. of Omaha recruits and trains mentors from around the state, offers a scholarship pool and sponsors a mentoring program of its own that has grown from serving 19 youths in 1989 to 100 today. Since 1992 AOK has trained some 1,000 mentors from 60-plus organizations at 50 workshops and hopes to reach more through its new Mentoring Institute, says executive director Michael Hanson.

This surge in mentoring is part of a larger movement in which clearinghouse organizations like the National Mentoring Partnership provide training materials and funding referrals in support of local efforts. Several Omahans involved in mentoring, including Hanson, were delegates at a 1997 Presidential summit that examined the most effective ways adults can serve America’s youth. The summit launched the Colin Powell-led volunteer initiative, America’s Promise, a catalyst for linking adults with kids in positive, community-building ways like mentoring.

A Method to Mentoring

The needs of a specific community often dictate the shape mentoring takes. The Chicano Awareness Center’s Family Mentoring Project serves first-generation Hispanic-American families in south Omaha, meaning mentors like Maria Chavez must be a “big sister” to Diana Gonzalez, 12, as well as a bilingual liaison to the girl’s parents, Aman and Maria, as they deal with language, immigration, job, education and social service issues. Joe Edmonson’s Youth Outreach Program, housed in north Omaha’s Fontenelle Park Pavillion, gives kids the safety, discipline and nurturing the area’s gang-ridden streets do not. Edmonson builds kids’ minds and bodies via athletic, multi-media and recreation activities.

Programs generally try striking a balance between structure and spontaneity. The US West-sponsored Monarch Connection, matching employees with McMillan Magnet School students, awards achievement badges to kids completing community service projects with their mentors, and encourages participants to spend other leisure time together.

Some programs strive to be part of youths’ lives from elementary school through college, others target a shorter time frame. Scholarship and other financial aid is sometimes provided as an incentive for children to excel. To qualify for aid, kids must usually honor a signed agreement detailing certain standards of personal behavior and school performance.

Whatever its face, however, mentoring is seen by practitioners as one proven, prevention-based approach to the widespread problems facing America’s youth, although supporters agree it’s no panacea, much less substitute for quality parenting or professional counseling.

“I think in today’s society parents aren’t always there, and not necessarily because they don’t care or they’re bad. Economically, a lot of parents are put in positions where they have to work two or three jobs or opposite shifts. Part of the fabric of the family is missing. A lot of kids nowadays don’t learn at home about manners and etiquette, and about  consequences and encouragement and those kinds of things,” says AOK’s

Michael Hanson. “Often we hear from teachers or case workers that a kid’s parents are gone all day. The key is we need to do a better job of linking kids to the adult world in a way that makes sense to them.

“I think mentoring is being recognized as something that’s happened for a long time, but it just wasn’t called that, and now we’re formalizing it and trying to add some structure to it. That’s why I think its powerful. It’s the basis for everything we do as social animals. We form relationships, and a mentor is a special kind of relationship. If we look back in our own lives we all had someone who helped us see something in ourselves we couldn’t see or helped us make a decision we might not have made.”

Hanson says today’s mentoring efforts attempt “to artificially recreate something that happens naturally” for most youths, but that doesn’t for others. Without mentoring, he feels, kids fall through the cracks. That’s why programs like AOK work with school counselors and social service experts to identify youths who could most benefit from a mentor. Typically, it’s a bright student underachieving due to personal/family difficulties.

Doing the Right Thing

Mentoring is also a form of community activism. Of citizen helping citizen. Of giving back. Although Maurtice Ivy works in west Omaha (at Career Design), she still resides and takes an active role in the near north side community she grew up in, coaching youth athletic teams, sponsoring a 3-on-3 basketball tournament and mentoring kids like Rickey. “As a young community leader it’s my obligation to try and make a pathway to make things better,” she says. “It’s all about trying to do the right thing. And it’s just remarkable how receptive kids are when they know you’re sincere and doing everything you can do to try and help them.”

She has seen the difference mentoring’s made for Rickey. Thanks in part to her tutelage, he’s harnessed his mental and physical gifts and become a top scholar-athlete with lofty dreams for the future. He can’t imagine life without her.

“We have like a bond between each other,” he says. “She’s helped me not only with my physical skills on the basketball court, but mentally too by helping me keep my focus in the game and on school. She inspires me to keep getting good grades. She’s made me see how I can get a scholarship to college. I’d like maybe to be an engineer or an accountant. She’s like my second mom. I feel comfortable calling her my step-mom.”

Ivy, single and childless, doesn’t pretend to be Rickey’s mother.  Mentors sometimes tread a fine line between being a friend and usurping the parental role. When Ivy started working with Rickey, she sensed his mother, a single working parent of three, viewed her as a threat. “I can understand that,” Ivy says, “and I didn’t want it to be that way, so I would back off, but then I’d be there for him when he needed me. I told her basically, ‘View me as an extension of you.’ She’s done a wonderful job with him. His mom is now a lot more supportive of what I’m doing in his life. I just try to give him direction. I try to place him around individuals and resources that can give him the assistance he needs. I see the impact I’ve made in his life and that is truly the most rewarding thing. When I see him excelling, I feel joy. ‘There’s my boy!’”

In return, Rickey looks up to Ivy. “She’s a black independent woman.  No one can force her to do anything she doesn’t want to. She’s athletic. She’s working on graduate school now. She gives me advice on anything I need to talk about. I feel like I can always depend on her,” he says.

Reaching Out and Giving In

Trust must be present before a mentoring bond can be cemented. Getting there involves a feeling-out process. It can be a daunting task reaching sullen kids who are already wary of adults. According to Hanson, “A lot times mentors are more scared of the relationship than kids are because it’s a big responsibility. And if they feel they’re not doing a good enough job or don’t know what to expect in terms of working with a young person, they’ll give up.”

Jeff Russell had two AOK mentors give up on him in junior high before being paired with a third, David Vana. Already burned twice, Jeff held back. “I was really hesitant about getting involved with another because I figured he wasn’t going to stick around for very long anyway,” Jeff, now 20, says.

Vana, an Inacom business analyst, felt the young man’s reluctance. “He didn’t have a whole lot of faith in the program based on his experiences with his first two mentors, so I think he was a little cautious before he warmed up to me. I think the previous mentors tried to push him, and with Jeff it just didn’t work because he had a tendency to rebel. Before I started giving him advice and stuff, I wanted him to trust me and accept me. I didn’t want to come down too hard on him, so we started doing things together like going to hockey games and we got comfortable with each other.”

Before Vana came into his life, Jeff was a juvenile delinquent in the making. After the death of his mother upon entering 5th grade, Jeff, who never knew his father, was raised by an aunt and uncle. Things were fine at home, but he was failing high school and hanging with a bad crowd, so counselors recommended him for mentoring. “The friends I had were not exactly…going anywhere. In fact, they’re still not anywhere,” he says. “One of them is in jail for murder. Another one has many drug convictions. Another one can’t hold a job. I was very fortunate to get out of it when I did.”

Upon first meeting Jeff, Vana was struck by his fatalistic attitude. “When I asked about college, he said, and I’ll never forget it, ‘People like me don’t go to college.’ That’s when I focused on building his self-esteem and confidence. He made a lot of progress. Jeff definitely is a success story.”

Jeff credits Vana and Vana’s wife Noreen for helping him turn things around. “They’ve been very influential in my life. Whenever I’d have a question — school-related, work-related, anything — I’d call and we’d talk. They’ve been there for me a lot. They really took time out for me.” With their help he applied himself, raising his GPA from 0.32 to 3.20 and graduating on time. Currently taking a break from his studies at Metro Community College, where he’s working toward an associate’s degree in horticulture, Jeff oversees a gardening crew at a private estate and hopes to one day have his own landscaping business/nursery. AOK is paying his college tuition.

When he looks back to where he was headed — a likely drop-out — he sees how far he’s come and where he yet aspires to go. “I could have very easily followed that path. I still could revert back to that path, but I just have to remind myself of my goals. This program showed me that if I do what I should do, I can actually get someplace in my life.”

Trial and Error

Even when mentoring works, there are still power struggles, communication gaps, unrealistic expectations and bumpy spots along the way. “You can’t just pull two people’s names out of a hat — a mentor and a mentee — and expect their personalities to mesh perfectly,” says Vana. “It’s important to remember every kid is different. You can’t apply some mentoring template to every relationship. If it isn’t working, recognize that and make a new match.”

Bad matches do occur. They’re bound to, since aside from a screening/interview process, pairings are based on instinct and educated guesses. “With some, there’s no chemistry there. Others walk a fine line, with neither side willing to get real close or comfortable. But there’s been some extremely good matches too,” says Roz Moyer, US West manager of Community Affairs/ Employee Relations and Monarch Connection director. She says when things don’t click or mentors quit, affected youth are reassigned until a solid match takes hold. The challenge then becomes regaining the child’s trust. It can take time.

Moyer says mentors often have a sense of failure even when the match succeeds and the child thrives. “I think part of that is the kids don’t run up and say, ‘Thank you, you did such a good job.’ I tell the mentors not to expect them to do that. You’ll see it in other ways — in the success they have in school or by a good word every once in a while. You just have to know you’re doing a good job.”

Monarch mentor Linda Verner, a US West Finance executive, has at times doubted the job she’s done with former McMillan and current North High student Carrie Laney, 15, whom she’s mentored since 1996. Verner says, “I really wasn’t sure how much I had to contribute.”

Carrie, though, is certain of Verner’s impact. “I went through a lot of family and school problems the last couple years and Linda gave me a lot of good advice. I can talk about a lot more things with her than I can with my parents. She’s always told me she’s proud of me. She boosted my self-esteem so I would believe in myself and strive to get good grades, and I did.” Carrie plans attending college, with a goal of becoming a pediatrician.

Verner says if mentors just stick with it, good things happen. “I did not understand how much I would get out of it. Part of it is the enjoyment of setting goals with a young person and then getting them accomplished and feeling like you’ve contributed a little bit something.”

Because mentoring doesn’t follow a formula, sponsors offer support when things come a cropper. “Mentors can get discouraged,” Hanson says. “The challenge is tempering their expectations, but at the same time maintaining a level of enthusiasm that will help keep them there for the long haul. We can help prepare them for the fact kids are not going to fall down on their knees and thank you for saving them. They may not even acknowledge you at all. I mean, some of the kids we work with really need a lot of social skills. We have to teach kids how to look a person in the eye, shake their hand and greet them.”

Since mentoring only works if both parties are active participants,sponsors stress why each person shares responsibility for the relationship.

“Both the mentor and the mentee have to have a willingness to forge ahead. Neither one can give up on making that connection and forming that relationship. As a mentor you have got to be dedicated enough to overcome obstacles and focus on that kid. As a kid you’ve got to be as committed as the mentor in attending all the functions and doing all the things needed to make this thing go,” says Moyer. “We tell the kids right off, ‘We cannot change your life. You have to change your life. We can help you. We can guide you. We can open some doors. But you have to be the one who makes the changes.”

“We do group activities so that we can see kids and mentors interact,” Hanson says. “The kid may only say five words to his mentor, and you can see the adult is getting frustrated. The mentor may come to me and say, ‘Gee, I’m just not making any progress. This kid doesn’t like me. I don’t know what to do.’ Yet, if the mentor quits coming to the meetings, the first thing the kid will do is say, ‘Where’s my mentor?’ They’ll know when you’re gone.”

New Beginnings

Karnell Perkins felt betrayed after his first three mentors gave up on him. His family was in disarray. School was a bust. Things looked bleak for the black north Omaha native before he finally connected with AOK mentors Mike and Judy Thesing, a white suburban Omaha couple who practically adopted him. It all started when Thesing, president of America First Financial Advisors, was recruited by America First Cos. head, Michael Yanney, to mentor kids at McMillan Junior High (now McMillan Magnet School) in Yanney’s Kids (the forerunner of AOK). Eventually, Thesing was assigned Karnell, by then a struggling Burke High student reeling from an increasingly chaotic home life and three unsuccessful matches.

 

 

Mike Yanney

Michael Yanney

 

“Before I met them I was bounced around from mentor    to mentor,” Karnell says. “When I finally got Mike and Judy, they were different than the average mentor who sees their kids every once in a while for lunch or a movie or helping with their homework. But Mike and Judy, for sure, go above and beyond. They’ve meant a lot to me.”

But as the problems in Karnell’s family deepened, he was in danger of flunking out of school. “His unwed mother was on the fringe of being in trouble with the law for numerous reasons. There was never any role modeling or anybody who really cared what he was doing or how he was doing. There was never any money or transportation. He was the oldest of three boys and he felt responsible for his brothers. He worked after school, so school was the last thing he focused on,” Thesing explains.

That’s when Karnell’s mentors dramatically intervened in his life. “My wife and I took him by the ears and made him live with us the latter part of his senior year. We put together a program he was to abide by in order to get through school. We made sure he had transportation and that his academic requirements were fulfilled before he could go do anything else. It was a disciplinary and structural change for him, but I think he realized at that point that we really cared and were willing to do whatever it took to make sure he had every opportunity to be successful.”

The change in environment was profound, and so were the changes in Karnell. “I went from one culture in north Omaha to a totally different culture in west Omaha, but race was never an issue. Mike and Judy let me know there’s a better way of life than what I had. They gave me stability. They kind of became like mom and dad.”

There was a period of adjustment, however. “At first things were a little chilly, but as time went on and we did stuff together and he got to know us, things just evolved,” Thesing says. There’ve been road bumps since, like the time Karnell, now a University of Nebraska-Lincoln student, sloughed off in his studies and was placed on academic probation. He soon felt the wrath of the intense, goal-oriented Thesing. Karnell, who describes himself as “laidback,” says Thesing’s constant “do-it-now” prodding got old. “Sometimes I was like, ‘Hey dude, chill out.’ But I do know he’s trying to help me accomplish good things. If I didn’t have him I think I’d be a slacker.”

Thesing says working through such differences is worth the end result. “It can be pretty frustrating, but if you can get past those barriers and develop a real solid relationship, the reward is you’ll be making a difference in someone’s life.” He’s seen the change: “I’ve always been proud of Karnell, but I’ve seen him mature quite a lot. Now he realizes the value of an education, the value of hard work and the value of discipline. By most measures, especially given his background, he’s doing outstanding.”

Karnell, 21, pulled his grades up enough to not only graduate high school, but earn a full college scholarship — courtesy of AOK. The finance major is on pace to graduate from UNL next year, which will mark a family milestone. “No one in my family has ever graduated college,” he notes. “Now, it’s like I’ve set a standard for my brothers. William and Langston are planning to go too. That makes me feel really good.”

Having seen the ups and downs of mentoring, he feels an adult must first earn a child’s confidence before being called a friend: “You need a person who’s sincere. You can’t be fake. You have to sincerely care about kids and want to help out, even if you don’t have all the answers. You have to seriously lead by example. And you have to want to do it from the heart.”

Thesing agrees, adding: “These kids just need someone that cares about them. A lot of them have gone through their whole life without anyone really caring. Throwing money at these things is not really the answer. It’s got to be a genuine commitment of time. Kids need your time more than anything else, and the earlier you get involved the better.”

He expects to remain a part of Karnell’s life for as long as he’s around. “I see it as a lifetime commitment. I look at him as a son almost.” The Thesings have, in fact, gained partial custody of Karnell’s youngest brother, Langston, 10, who now lives with them.

“He really likes being there,” Karnell says. “Every night I go to sleep I thank God for Mike and Judy…and all the people who’ve helped us out.  Their hearts are so big.”

New school ringing in Liberty for students

June 6, 2010 1 comment

The thought of a new downtown elementary school housed in a massive former bus barn situated smack dab in a neighborhood rife with social ills caught my attention.  The barn site was only temporary, but that nontraditional location, plus the red light district around and about it, was enough for me to file a story.  Plus, I liked the fact the school would be serving a diverse student body of Latinos, Africans, African-Americans, and whites.  The space was every bit as interesting and the students every bit as diverse as I had hoped.  Then when I met the dynamo principal, Nancy Oberst, mother of indie rock star Conor Oberst, I was officially hooked.  My story, which originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com), is as much about her and and her staff’s passion as it is about this incongruent site for a school.  Liberty Elementary has since moved into its built-from-the-ground up school building just down the street.

 

New school ringing in Liberty for students

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Like a Pied Piper, Liberty Elementary School principal Nancy Oberst set a brisk pace one evening in the Columbus Park neighborhood. It was one of several nights when Oberst and staff went door-to-door in the blue-collar, racially-diverse area to symbolically blow the horn about Liberty, the new downtown K-6 public school. Liberty, which opened August 19 with some 360 students (and more matriculating each day) was conceived in part to relieve overcrowding at two other OPS sites — Jackson Academy and Field Club Elementary — which Liberty is drawing many students from. Consistent with the new OPS emphasis on neighborhood schools,

Liberty is serving a growing school-age populace on downtown’s southside. Temporarily housed in a renovated warehouse running from 22nd to 20th and Leavenworth Streets, Liberty is in a kind of incubator phase while awaiting construction of its own building, slated to open in March 2004.

In naming the school, Oberst wanted something that “embraced as many people as possible and spoke to a lot of things inherent in this society.” Above the main entrance is a phrase from Roman philosopher Epictetus that reads, “Only the educated are free.” Fittingly, Liberty is a beacon of hope to a largely Hispanic ward of recent emigres. An education for these children is more than a right of passage  — it is a burden of dreams. “These kids come from working class families that need to invest in something for the future,” she said. “They’re really wanting for their kids that old dream of learning English and being upwardly mobile.” It is why Oberst insists her staff be fully committed. “When I interview applicants, I say, ‘I’m really looking for people that have the will and the desire to make something special for kids who need a leg up.’” The impetus to learn, she said, is made even greater by the fact children often act as interpreters for their Spanish-speaking parents.

Because everyone is welcome at Liberty, parents are not pressed for their legal status. To register a child, a parent need only provide a birth certificate, an address and some record of the child’s past schooling, if any. Serving a highly-mobile population, Liberty expects to see a high student turnover rate.

 

Nancy Oberst, ©photo by Marlon Wright

 

 

 

Oberst, principal at Jackson the past three years, has many former students assigned to Liberty. During that night canvassing the hood she scanned a roster looking for familiar names. She found one in Diana Ramirez. In a wood-frame house perfumed by the rustic aroma of tortillas and accented by the folksy lilt of Spanish, Diana shyly emerged from a bedroom, bedecked in a fine pink dress, and when her big brown eyes locked on Oberst’s, she warmly embraced her. “There’s a beauty and a richness about a very urban group of kids,” Oberst said. “They’re the nicest kids I’ve ever been in contact with. Just well-behaved, very, very respectful children. They look forward coming to school. It’s very important to their day. I’ve never had one swing at me or push me. Sure, there’s times when one gets mad and tips over a desk or kicks a door, but you’d be amazed at how lovely these kids are. And, you know, the school has to set the tone. Kids have to know this is not just hanging out — this is different. That’s why we call kids if they don’t come and go get them if they can’t get here. They know we love them.”

While children from Spanish-speaking homes predominate, Liberty is also a magnate for area African-American, Sudanese, Asian and Caucasian families. Combined with NuStyle Development’s ongoing renovation of the historic and once stately Drake Court apartments on the north side of Liberty, the school is seen by many as an anchor of stability and a catalyst for redevelopment. The circa 1916-1921 Drake Court, a 14-building complex featuring Georgian Revival and Prairie style design elements, was once the centerpiece of this mixed residential-commercial zoned district. But when the apartments fell into disrepair in the 1970s, occupancy declined and the designated blighted area became a thoroughfare for transients. NuStyle has worked closely with the Nebraska Investment Finance Authority (NIFA) to qualify for low income tax credits for the Drake Court project. In anticipation of Liberty moving out in 2004, NuStyle is weighing various reuses of the warehouse, including a day care center, artist studios, a multi-media technology center and condos. It is also eying more area residential and commercial projects.

While most welcome the school and look forward to construction of the permanent Liberty site, a $9.2 million three-story structure to be situated on the corner of 20th and St. Mary’s Avenue, there is concern about introducing a large contingent of children into an area heavily trafficked by motor vehicles and frequented by panhandlers, vagrants, prostitutes and drug users.

“There’s been an undercurrent that this is too tough a neighborhood for a school,” Oberst said. “Some of the families are worried. But OPS is saying we believe in Omaha — we believe neighborhoods can be redeveloped. We know what a renovated North High did on 34th and Ames. That has become a very safe place for people to live. When we held meetings with residents in the spring we said, ‘This is how you do it — this is how you change your neighborhood. You put an anchor in with a school. You make the streets safer for mothers and children to come to and from school.’ I’m a big believer in the community the school is in knowing about the school and being involved in it.”

She said she will do whatever it takes to make Liberty safe, from asking street denizens to respect school property to telling those engaging in illicit behavior to move on. “You want to be a good neighbor. You don’t want people mad at you. You have to do some co-existing. But you also have to draw some lines.” She said when problems surfaced at Jackson, from the school getting tagged with graffiti to men harassing girls, she had students spread the word the school was off-limits and she told harassers their actions were unwelcome. The problems, she said, vanished.

Despite assurances from OPS, extra police patrols and neighborhood watch efforts, some parents still voice concern. “I’m not happy with the location,” said Lisa Arellano, whose son, Gage, is a 5th grader. “We have a lot of homeless people and trouble up on Leavenworth. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen the police tackling someone on the ground. Walking to and from school is too scary. It puts kids in jeopardy. There’s always reassurances, but there’s no guarantees.” Gatdet Tut, whose daughter Hynalem is in kindergarten, said, “I don’t want my child to walk on these streets.” Other parents, like Craig Hinson, hope OPS-OPD vows to keep a sharp eye out are more than “lip service.”

Commerce of all kinds unfolds around the school. Across 20th Street is the 24-Hour Package Liquor Store and the Motor West used car lot. Three blocks east is the Douglas County Correctional Center. On the south side is Precision Industries. A little farther west is a St. Vincent DePaul Super Thrift store.

The eastern front of the old bus barn housing the school has two ongoing businesses — Grunwald Mechanical Contractors and an auto detailing shop — that maintain active garages. Robert Wilczewski, owner of the property occupied by the firms, feels the volume of kids passing by to enter and exit the school, whose main entrance is off an adjacent alleyway, poses hazards and hinders operations.

“It’s starting to complicate life around here,” he said. “We just have some serious concerns about safety and about restrictions on what we do here. It’s become intolerable. We want business back as usual. They’re going to need to find a different route for children to enter the school.” Wilczewski, who owns part of the alley and a piece of Grunwald, said the company and OPS are signatories to a 1930 agreement prohibiting public alley use. The parties are trying to reach an accord.

Harold Wrehe, co-owner of Motor West, echoed other area businessmen in expressing surprise at the number of Liberty students. “I didn’t believe there’d be that many children going to an elementary school in this area. But I like it. It brings people in. Everything helps.” Mike Nath, branch manager of nearby Motion Industries, agreed the school “will, in the long run, probably be a good thing. It could help clean up the neighborhood.”

The consensus is that whatever undesirable-incongruous elements surround it, Liberty, along with the Drake Court, reopening for occupancy next year, is a keystone for an emerging 20th Street Corridor some envision as an Old Market West. Oberst, busily forging alliances between Liberty and the nearby Omaha Children’s Museum, the YMCA and the Omaha Theater Company for Young People, joins others in referring to 20th Street, from Leavenworth to Farnam, as Children’s Row. As Liberty’s provisional site does not have many school amenities, including a gym or theater, students are attending P.E. classes at the Y and performances at the children’s theater.

For Roberta Wilhelm, executive director of the children’s theater, the concept of “a downtown school is a great idea,” with Liberty adding another dimension to the burgeoning arts-educational scene emerging along the 20th Street strip. “I think between the school, the Children’s Museum, the Y, us, and the Joslyn Art Museum, which is not that far away, the synergy is just going to be wonderful. We’re excited to have the school as a neighbor.”

She envisions the theater and school having an intimate rapport. “We see ourselves developing a very close relationship with Liberty,” said Wilhelm, whose home base, The Rose, is only a stroll away. We will be doing our Every Single Child program in their school…which is where every child — in each grade — has a different experience with the children’s theater through drama residency workshops and dance activities. And that, in my opinion, is just the beginning. I think there’s much more we can do with them in after-school programming. We’d like to see the arts infused in their school.”

Oberst wants that infusion as well. “We’re really wanting to bring art into the school, including artists from the community, and to bring our students to the arts. We hope to build relationships with the Joslyn Art Museum and the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. We have to take advantage of where we are.”

The idea of placing a school smack dab in the middle of a bustling urban district is not new for Omaha. Central Grade School operated for decades across from Central High School and in the shadow of the Joslyn and other downtown landmarks. Although Liberty is the first school in the Drake Court-Park East-Columbus Park district since Mason School closed in the 1980s, it is repeating history in that, like Mason, which once served a largely Italian immigrant population, it is educating many new arrivals from Mexico.

What makes Liberty different is that the school is operating — at least the next 18 months — from a makeshift site that once served as a maintenance barn for Greyhound Bus Lines and more recently as a paper-printing supply storage facility for Redfield & Co. The top-to-bottom refurbishment of the old bus barn has revealed a 49,000 square foot space highlighted by the second-story’s free-span, cathedral-high, vaulted wood beam ceiling and elaborate iron truss network. A massive skylight and banks of tall windows bathe the upper level in natural light. Large ceiling fans maintain a constant air flow.

The rehab was funded by NuStyle, which bought the structure from Robert Wilczewski, and designed by Alley-Poyner Architects. OPS, which leases the building from NuStyle, is using large partitions to create classrooms and resource centers in a modular, flexible floor plan. By opening day, each partitioned space was outfitted with all the usual fixtures of a traditional school setting.

 

 Liberty Facade
The new Liberty Elementary School building

 

 

 

In the time in takes for the permanent school to be erected — construction starts this fall — Liberty plans being an established player in the neighborhood by building coalitions that Oberst hopes makes the school a vital contributor to and welcome beneficiary of the revitalization happening around it.

“The idea is to form this community now and for the kids to participate in the building of the new school and to have the neighborhood be involved with the whole redevelopment going on with us and the Drake Court,” she said.

Drawing on her experience forging community ties at Jackson, where she found an Adopt-a-School partner in Picotte Elementary, formed a food pantry with ConAgra Foods and sponsored clothing drives with First Lutheran Church in Omaha, she is already lining-up Liberty collaboratives. A food pantry, serving poor residents, is in the works along with clothing and furniture drives. “Our families sometimes don’t have beds and other basic things and, so, we’ll do a lot of give aways. It’s meant to bridge the gap. That networking with the community is part of my job and, besides, it opens more doors for opportunity for our kids and parents. I’m always looking for an angle,” she said.

Opening day at Liberty was marked by two words: diversity and vitality. Beaming brown, black, yellow and white faces mingled in the old-new environs. The sing-song sound of Spanish and hip-hop reverberated throughout the cavernous space.

Craig Hinson, whose daughter Jamillah is attending the 6th grade, said the diverse urban setting is just what he wants for his child. “I think it’s great. To me, it just adds a little flavor. I think being downtown, where you have blacks and whites and Hispanics and Sudanese, it just gives kids a real sense of the real world.”

As a show of faith in Liberty 3rd grade teacher Michelle Grau enrolled her own daughter Jordan there even though her family lives in Field Club. “I think the more kinds of people and the more kind of cultural experiences you can be exposed to, the better,” Grau said. “That’s why Jordan’s coming here. And to be in on the ground floor — I’m really excited about that. It’s going to be a fantastic thing once it’s finally completed…if you can just see the big picture.”

The promise of bigger things to come is what led Barb and Jim Farho to place their two children at Liberty. “We’re probably one of the few families choosing to go there even though we’re not forced to,” said Barb Farho. “My husband and I are interested in seeing downtown rejuvenated and we think this is one way to do that. A lot of people are afraid of downtown, but we think there’s a lot of cultural experiences awaiting. We also know the principal is very good at getting the community involved and we just think those partnerships are only going to get better. The surrounding area is going to improve for having a school there. Plus, our kids are excited about the fact the new school will be built before their very eyes. It just seems like a fun place to be in on at the very beginning.”

Assuming the school thrives, Oberst anticipates that once the new building opens and the word spreads more pilgrims will flock to Liberty from around the metro. “We are expecting that once the new school is up and once the real cultural-corporate connections are evident that parents from other parts of the city will want to send their kids here.” The new Liberty will accommodate 600-plus kids, yet another reflection of the confidence school officials have in the enterprising area.

Whatever happens, Oberst is sure to stir the melting pot. “What that woman does for and gets out of kids is incredible,” said Linda Daly, an ESL resource teacher and one of several educators who followed Oberst to Liberty from Jackson. “She makes things happen for the kids. She is absolutely a dynamo.”

Heart and Soul, A Mutt and Jeff Boxing Story

June 4, 2010 1 comment

 

 

This is another of my favorite boxing stories. I wrote it for the New Horizons.  It profiles the same downtown Omaha boxing gym as featured in the House of Discipline story also recently posted here, only this time I concentrate more on the two old men who ran the gym, Kenny Wingo and Dutch Gladfelter, both of whom are now gone.  I suppose my approach to this story and all the boxing stories I’ve done reveals influences of the boxing movies and documentaries and magazine articles I’ve been exposed to in a lifetime of being both thrilled and sickened by the sport.  You’ll find on this blog site a handful of boxing articles I’ve written over the years, and there will be more to come.

Heart and Soul, A Mutt and Jeff Boxing Story

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

The heart and soul of Omaha amateur boxing can be found one flight above the dingy 308 Bar at 24th & Farnam.   There, inside a cozy little joint of a gym, fighters snap punches at heavy bags, spar inside a makeshift ring, shadowbox and skip rope.

Welcome to the Downtown Boxing Club, a combination sweatshop and shrine dedicated to “the sweet science.”  A melting pot for young Latino, African-American and Anglo pugilists of every conceivable size, shape and starry-eyed dream.  They include die-hard competitors and fitness buffs. Genuine prospects and hapless pugs.  Half-pint boys and burly men.  They come to test their courage, sacrifice their bodies and impose their wills.  For inspiration they need only glance at the walls covered with posters of boxing greats.

 

 

 

 

Whatever their age, ability or aspiration, the athletes all work out under the watchful eye of Kenny Wingo, 65, the club’s head coach, president and founder. The retired masonry contractor keeps tempers and egos in check with his Burl Ives-as-Big Daddy girth and grit.  Longtime assistant Dutch Gladfelter, 76, is as ramrod lean as Wingo is barrel-wide. The ex-prizefighter’s iron fists can still deliver a KO in a pinch, as when he decked a ringside heckler at a tournament a few years back.

Together 17 years now, these two grizzled men share a passion for the sport that helps keep them active year-round.  Wingo, who never fought a bout in his life, readily admits he’s learned the ropes from Gladfelter.

“He’s taught me more about this boxing business – about how to handle kids and how to run a gym – than anybody else I’ve been around,” Wingo said.  “I’ve got a lot of confidence in his opinion.  He’s a treasure.”

The lessons have paid dividends too, as the club’s produced scores of junior and adult amateur champions; it captured both the novice and open division team titles at the 1996 Omaha Golden Gloves tourney.

Ask Gladfelter what makes a good boxer and in his low, growling voice he’ll recite his school-of-hard-knocks philosophy:  “Balance, poise, aggressiveness and a heart,” he said.  “Knowing when, where and how to hit.  Feinting with your eyes and body – that takes the opponent’s mind off what he’s doing and sometimes you can really crack ‘em.  I try to teach different points to hit, like the solar plexus and the jaw, and to stay on balance and be aggressive counterpunching. You don’t go out there just throwin’ punches – you have to think a little bit too.”

Gladfelter’s own ring career included fighting on the pro bootleg boxing circuit during the Depression. The Overton, Neb., native rode freight train boxcars for points bound west, taking fights at such division stops as Cheyenne, Wyo., Idaho Falls, Idaho and Elko, Nev. (where the sheriff staged matches).

“I fought all over the Rocky Mountain District.  You’d travel fifty miles on those boxcars for a fight.  Then you’d travel fifty more to another town and you were liable to run into the same guy you just fought back down the line.  They just changed their name a little,” recalls Gladfelter, who fought then as Sonny O’Dea.

He got to know the hobo camps along the way and usually avoided the railroad bulls who patrolled the freight yards.  It was a rough life, but it made him a buck in what “were hard times. There wasn’t any work.  Fightin’ was the only way I knew to get any money. I got my nose broke a couple times, but it was still better than workin’ at the WPA or PWA,” he said, referring to the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration and Public Works Administration.

After hanging up his gloves he began coaching amateur fighters in the early 1950s.  He worked several years with Native American coach Big Fire.  Gladfelter, who is part Lakota, hooked up with Wingo in the late ‘70s when he brought a son who was fighting at the time to train at the Downtown Boxing Club.  Gladfelter and wife Violet have five children in all.

“After his boy quit, Dutch stayed on and started helping me with my kids,” said Wingo.With Gladfelter at his side Wingo not only refined his coaching skills but gained a new appreciation for his own Native American heritage (He is part Cherokee.).“He took me to several powwows,” said Wingo.  “He taught me what a dream catcher is and the difference between a grass dancer and a traditional dancer.  He’s given me maps where the Native Americans lived.  I ask him questions.  I do some reading.  It’s interesting to me.”

A self-described frustrated athlete, Wingo grew up a rabid baseball (Cardinals) and boxing (Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson) fan in Illinois.  He saw combat in Korea with the U.S. Army’s 7th Regiment, 3rd Division.  After the war he moved to Omaha, where a brother lived, and worked his way up from masonry blocklayer to contractor.

He got involved with boxing about 25 years ago when he took two young boys, whose mother he was dating, to the city Golden Gloves and they insisted they’d like to fight too.  Acting on the boys’ interest, he found a willing coach in Kenny Jackson.  Hanging around the gym to watch them train sparked a fire in Wingo for coaching boxers.

“And I’ve kind of been hooked on it ever since.  It gets in your blood,” he said.

Before long Wingo became Jackson’s cornerman, handling the spit bucket, water bottle, towel, et cetera, during sparring sessions and bouts.  He increased his knowledge by studying books and quizzing coaches.

When Wingo eventually broke with Jackson, several fighters followed him to the now defunct Foxhole Gym.  Soon in need of his own space, Wingo found the site of the present club in 1978 and converted empty offices into a well-equipped gym.  He underwrote much of the early venture himself, but has in recent years used proceeds from pickle card sales to fund its operation.  No membership fees are charged fighters, whose gloves, headgear and other essentials are provided free.  He annually racks up thousands of miles on the club van driving fighters to tournaments around the Midwest and other parts of the nation.  Except for fishing trips, he’s at the gym every weeknight and most Saturday mornings.

What keeps Wingo at it?

“I like working with the kids, number one.  And when a kid does well it just makes you feel like all this is worthwhile.  That you did your job and you got the best from him,” Wingo explains.

He enjoys helping young men grow as boxers and persons.

“When kids first come into the gym, they want to fight but they’re scared to death – because it is physical contact.  But if you’re intimidated, you’ve got no chance.  You try to teach them to be confident.  I tell them from day one, and I keep tellin’ ‘em, that there’s three things that make a good fighter – conditioning, brains and confidence.”

Wingo feels boxing’s gotten a bad rap in recent years due to the excesses of the pro fight game.

He maintains the amateur side of the sport, which is closely regulated, teaches positive values like sportsmanship and vital skills like self-discipline.

The lifelong bachelor has coached hundreds of athletes over the years – becoming a mentor to many.

“Growing up without a father figure, Kenny’s really kind of filled that role for me,” notes Tom McLeod of Omaha, a former boxer who under Wingo won four straight city and Midwest Golden Gloves titles at 156 pounds.  “We developed a real good friendship and a mutual trust and respect.  I think Kenny’s a great coach and a great tactician too.  He always told me what I needed to do to win the fight.  He gave me a lot of confidence in myself and in my abilities.  He took me to a level I definitely couldn’t of reached by myself.”

 

 

 

 

McLeod, 27, is one of several Downtown Boxing Club veterans who remain loyal to Wingo and regularly spar with his stable of fighters.  Another is Rafael Valdez, 33, who started training with Wingo at age 10 and later went on to fight some 150 amateur and 16 pro bouts.  Valdez’s two small sons, Justin and Tony, now fight for Wingo and company as junior amateurs.

“When my kids were old enough to start fighting,” said Valdez, “Kenny was the first one I called. He treats the kids great.  There aren’t many guys who are willing to put in the amount of time he does.”

This multi-generational boxing brotherhood is Wingo’s family.

“Winning isn’t everything with me.  Fellowship is,” Wingo said.  “It’s the fellowship you build up over the years with fighters and coaches and parents too.  I’ve got friends from everywhere and I got ‘em through boxing.”

A 1980 tragedy reminded Wingo of the hazards of growing too attached to his fighters.  He was coaching two rising young stars on the area boxing scene – brothers Art and Shawn Meehan of Omaha –  when he got a call one morning that both had been killed in a car wreck.

“I really cared about them.  Art was an outstanding kid and an outstanding fighter.  He was 16 when he won the city and the Midwest Golden Gloves.  And his little brother Shawn probably had more talent than him.  I’d worked with them three-four years.  I picked ‘em up and took ‘em to the gym and took ‘em home.  I took the little one on a fishing trip to Canada.”

Wingo said the Meehans’ deaths marked “the lowest I’ve ever been.  I was going to quit (coaching).”  He’s stuck with it, but the pain remains.  “I still think about those kids and I still go visit their graves.  It taught me not to get too close to the kids, but it’s hard not to and I still do to a certain extent.”

Quitting isn’t his style anyway.  Besides, kids keep arriving at the gym every day with dreams of boxing glory.  So long as they keep coming, Wingo and Gladfelter are eager to share their experience with them.

“We’ve done it together for 17 years now and we’re gonna continue to do it together for another 17 years.  We both love boxing.  What would we do if we quit?”

The Downtown Boxing Club’s House of Discipline

June 4, 2010 1 comment

 

 

Most writers are drawn at one time or another to write about boxing.  There’s just so much atmosphere around the sport and so many characters in it.  I’ve done my share of stories on boxers over the years.  Every now and then I get the hankering to do another. I’m overdue for one now. This was my first and still one of my favorites.  I believe it was the very first assignment I did for an Omaha news weekly called The Reader (www.thereader.com).  It was 1996 and I’ve been contributing articles to that paper ever since.  The story concerns a classic urban boxing gym and its denizens.  A sidebar or companion piece to this feature follows below.

 

The Downtown Boxing Club’s House of Discipline

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The Powers Building at 24th and Farnam holds a dingy little dive called the 308 Bar, whose sodden patrons belly up in pursuit of oblivion.  Directly above the bar, yet a world apart, lies an athletic retreat where sturdy, modern-day spartans engage in a punishing physical regimen offering personal renewal and redemption.  The first is a public house of pain.  The second, a private house of discipline.

As dusk falls over downtown on a raw, windy day in February, a short but well-chiseled uniformed cop with dark, brooding good looks – Vince Perez – glides with cocksure grace towards the bar, which he bypasses to step inside a glass-fronted entrance next door.  A shabby carpeted staircase – enclosed by water-stained and paint-peeled walls – takes him one flight up to a dim landing poised between empty offices.  He follows a hallway to a bare, unvarnished pine door, behind which the rhythmic sounds of leather-lashed discipline reverberate.

 

 

 

 

Vince has once again arrived at 24th Street’s House of Discipline, otherwise known as the Downtown Boxing Club, where once inside he’s transformed from peace officer into fighting warrior. He says a warrior’s mentality is vital for entering a 20’ by 20’ ring to test yourself – one-on-one – against another man:  “I think that’s the attitude you have to have to even get in the ring. Because that’s the way it is – you and him.  The other guy wants to hurt you and it’s a challenge to see if your body is in good enough shape to try and withstand that.”

If your only boxing references are Hollywood-based, then the club will surprise you.  The gym doesn’t ooze a moody “Raging Bull” atmosphere.  The utilitarian brick-walled space is a non-profit center for amateur boxing – a closely regulated sport featuring many safeguards, such as mandatory headgear, that are worlds away from the anything-goes excesses of the pro fight game. Knockouts and serious injuries are rare here.  No punch-drunk pugs hang around the gym.  It doesn’t reek of stale sweat, urine and blood.

The gym lays out on one level, comprised of tidy work stations – the largest of which is a makeshift ring.  Two medicine balls sit against a ring post.  Outside the ropes four heavy bags hang in a row – like sides of beef – from chains fastened to the ceiling’s metal crossbeam.  Speed bags stand at opposite ends of the room.

Banks of tall windows filter in natural light, which blends with the fluorescent tube lighting overhead to cast a vague yellowish tint over the place.  Rusted radiators and exposed pipes run along one wall.  Plastered to another wall are posters of famous pugilists and snapshots of club fighters – all silently bearing witness to the men at work there.

On any given night fighters train under the scrutiny of three men:  Club founder, president, head coach and chief guru Ken Wingo, 64, wields a commanding authority befitting his Burl Ives-as-Big Daddy girth and grit; resident ring historian and assistant coach Dutch Gladfelter, who hopped freight trains to fight on the pro bootleg boxing circuit during the Depression, offers priceless pointers on feints, footwork and kill shots; and swarthy assistant coach John Glatgakos, a martial arts aficionado turned boxing buff, barks instructions in his thick Boston accent.

Wingo, who never fought a round in his life, describes himself as the ultimate frustrated athlete. He started coaching out of sheer love for the sport.  He credits much of his boxing acumen to Dutch, a ramrod at 76 whose arms hang like thick lengths of lead pipe from his sloped shoulders.

Through mid-February the coaches paid special attention to Vince, Steve Ray, Andy Schrader and Craig Price, who were all preparing for the Midwest Golden Gloves Tournament (Feb. 16-17).  Vince, who usually trains at Offutt Air Force Base under former world-class amateur boxer Kenny Friday, and the others fought gamely in the Midwest competition.  But this story isn’t about wins or losses.  It’s about how and why the men of the House of Discipline dedicate themselves to the rituals of the ring.

 

 

 

 

Wingo himself says, “Winning isn’t everything with me.  Fellowship is.”  Indeed, everyone at the club is treated the same. There’s a fraternal, democratic spirit that keeps many members coming back for years.  A boxing brotherhood borne from grueling workouts and sparring sessions as well as long road trips to smokers and tourneys.  For example, after sparring combatants touch gloves as a sign of sportsmanship, telling each other, “Good work.”  There’s no animosity because it’s all about being pushed to your limits through clean hard work and competition.  The sport breeds mutual respect because it takes courage to do what boxers do.

Club members can’t be pigeonholed.  Most are men in their late teens or early 20s, although many boys compete in the junior ranks and an occasional woman works out there.  There are family men like Vince, whose wife Heather is expecting the couple’s first child.  A fireman named John.  Blue-collar types like Steve and Craig.  College students.  Some members come purely for the exercise.  All share a passion for boxing so intense they sacrifice long hours training for a chance at not so much winning a title or trophy as a measure of honor and comradeship not found anywhere else.

“I love coming down to the gym just for the camaraderie with the guys,” says Steve, who’s trained there since 1991.  “We work out together and try to push each other and help each other out as much as we can.”

Rafael Valdez, 33, started training under Wingo as a 10-year-old junior amateur and a quarter-century later still spars with Wingo’s stable of fighters, who now include Rafael’s two small sons, Justin and Tony.  He fondly recalls Wingo driving him and other youngsters to regional competitions, something Wingo still does today.  After 150 amateur and 16 pro bouts, Rafael, an electrician, remains loyal to his friend and mentor.

The club is proving ground, training facility and sporting haven for boxers like Rafael.  The physical and mental discipline learned there is all fighters have to fall back on when, as Craig says, you’re alone in the ring and wild with adrenalin and “somebody’s tryin’ to take your head off.”

Steve describes “the rush you get at the beginning,  when you’re almost so scared you want to back out and you’ve got to push yourself to go on.  It’s not fear of being hurt.  It’s fear of losing and not doing well.”  Of losing face among the brotherhood.

“Boxing’s the only sport in the world where the intent is to hurt the other guy, so there’s that little bit of trepidation there,” notes Wingo.  “But if you’re intimidated, you’ve got no chance.  You try to teach fighters to be confident.  You say, “You can go with this guy, otherwise I wouldn’t have put you in there.’  You have to be a bit of a psychologist.  You have to know when to build them up and when to settle them down.”

Rafael says “the nerves” usually fade after the first blows are struck, although doubts sometimes creep in, making you wonder, “‘What the hell am I doin’ in here?’”  The answer is you’re trying to prove something.  Not your manhood or prowess exactly, but more your heart, your skill, your determination – to meet the challenge and go the distance.

“For me, the sport of amateur boxing isn’t so much about who’s tougher, but more about how far I can take my body,” says Vince, who despite being 29 is a relative newcomer to the sport.  “I’m more concerned about getting hurt on my job than in the ring.   Boxing’s more a test of whether my style, my skills, my training are better than yours.  For me, life is just a series of goals and this is just a goal I have.”

The eight-year Omaha Police Department veteran is a superb athlete who’s competed in baseball, basketball and bodybuilding.  He started boxing in 1994 – drawn by the keen fitness it develops and the steep athletic challenges it poses:  “It’s such a demanding sport.  Unless you’ve tried it, you have no idea what it entails.  You’re always on your feet, moving around.  There’s a lot of hand-eye coordination.   It truly is an art.  And if you’re out of shape, two or three minutes can be an eternity.”

Wingo says, “It takes more hard work to go three two-minute rounds than it does for a football player to play a whole game because boxing’s non-stop action.  Three things make a good boxer – conditioning, brains and confidence. You’ve got to pay the price to be a good boxer by training hard – getting up in the morning to go running when you’d much rather lay in bed.  You’ve got to be smart and to be able to think on your feet.”

Although boxing’s macho ethic is what first appealed to Steve, a husband and father two, he’s grown to love the competition and the self-reliance required to compete. “You’ve got to do a lot of stuff, like running and dieting, when nobody’s around.  If you’re not disciplined, you’ll never do it.”  The 24-year-old drywall construction foreman says boxing’s’ given him a new resolve that’s carried over into other aspects of his life.  “I’ve learned discipline from the gym.  I didn’t do well in school.  I was lazy.  But how well I dedicated myself to boxing and how fast I learned boxing made me feel confident.  Now I know if I set my mind to something I can accomplish it.  It’s extended even to my work.  I’ve excelled at work.”

Wingo admires the tenacity displayed by fighters like Steve and Vince – family men with demanding full-time jobs – who “have to pay a steep price” in order to box.  “Anytime you love something like they love boxing, you’re going to be good at it,” he says.

Vince pays the price every day by juggling his patrolman’s schedule with classes at Bellevue University – where he pursues a dual major in sociology and psychology – with a workout that includes a 2-mile run, 40 minutes at the gym (usually on his lunch break) and 500 sit-ups.  “It’s tough.  I really have to prioritize my time.”

At the gym the fighters follow a routine that hardly varies from night to night.  All arrive with a business-like attitude that’s relaxed enough for them to trade jibes with Wingo and company. Inside a cramped locker room they change from street clothes into assorted shorts, sweats, T-shirts  and tank-tops.  They wrap their hands with rolls of cloth.  In the gym they stretch out on the scuffed wood floor and variously jump rope, work the Stairmaster or treadmill, ride the stationary bike and do push-ups or sit-ups.

They lace on gloves to hit the heavy bags – throwing furious combinations of straight lefts and rights, hooks, uppercuts and jabs – and drum away at the speed bags.  When all the bags are going at once, the pounding, pulsing noise cascades around the room, pierced every few minutes by a ringing bell that calls time.   The fighters climb in the ring to shadowbox  – glancing at large mirrors propped against the windows – fighting their reflected images.  And each takes turns punching bang pads (overstuffed mitts) worn by John, who exhorts them to “double up.”

Andy, a 132-pounder, is a sawed-off Andre Agassi-lookalike whose scrappiness covers limited boxing skills.  Craig, a 6’4” 200-pounder, is an impulsive fighter and powerful puncher.  His wicked shots rock the heavy bags and send shudders through John’s arms and shoulders.  Steve, who has a model’s rakish body and classic face, and Vince, who always looks just right or as Wingo puts it – “slick” – even in sweats, are the smoothest, most stylish boxers.  A blur of bobbing, weaving motion – shifting weight from hip to hip, blocking and throwing punches from different positions.  What Steve (147 pounds) and Vince (125 pounds) lack in power, they make up for with quickness, precision, smarts.

On sparring nights, the guys grow tense – pacing the room, unable to keep still – just like before a fight.  Wearing headgear and mouthpieces, they spar three two-minute rounds.  The action’s fierce but lacks the no-holds bar fury of the real thing.  Guys hold back just a little.  This, after all, is “only” training.  During each session a harsh rhythm and momentum builds as arms flail, gloves thump, heads butt, and feet shuffle in a muscular dance around the ring – the partners variously swinging, clinching and bounding at each other at the most unexpected angles.

Wingo, Dutch and John clamber onto the ring apron and, leaning against the frayed ropes, cajole and challenge them:  “Go ahead, throw the jab…jab, jab, jab.  There you go.  Snap it off, that’s it.  Stick with ‘em now.  You need to relax – you’re stiff as a wedding cake.  Think.  Are you thinkin’?”

The object is to teach fighters basic boxing skills and refine these through repetition.  If fighters learn their lessons well, they respond swiftly, instinctively in the ring to opponents’ tactics and coaches’ advice.  It all gets back to the discipline that a taskmaster like Wingo imparts.

“Boxing teaches discipline,” Wingo explains.  “A coach is like a sergeant in combat.  When the sergeant hollers ‘Charge!’ everybody’s got to move.  If someone hangs back, then that messes up the whole works.  They’ve (fighters) got to do what you tell them without even thinking.  They’ve got to have that respect for you.  It takes a little more discipline than most kids have these days. When you find kids who want to do that, than you’ve got something special.  If it helps the kids (outside boxing), that’s a bonus.  If we win championships, that’s a bigger bonus.”

Sergeant Wingo drills his soldiers in the finer points of competition – both in and out of the ring – at his very own House of Discipline, where everyone marches to the same regimented beat.  Call it the boxing rag.

Sidebar

The House of Discipline Boys at the Golden Gloves

©by Leo Adam Biga

You arrive opening night at the Midwest Golden Gloves and find the site is not some grimy, smoke-filled, boxing noir pit.  Instead, the Mancuso Convention Center is a clean air-filtered, too-bright, flat, open expanse of institutional tile and plastic-chrome chairs.

A creaking wooden ring stands on risers near the back.  Even when empty the severe, boundaried square seems an incongruous, slightly menacing presence in a space where trade shows and sales meetings normally unfold.  And even though you know the tamer, safer brand of amateur boxing will be fought there, you can’t help but feel queasy thinking blood might splatter you at ringside.

The meager, subdued crowd is an insider’s, sportsman’s audience made up of coaches and fighters, die-hard fans and friends and relatives of competitors.  The mood is expectant and convivial, with much handshaking and playful sparring.  The small turnout is typical of local boxing events now, but a far cry from the days when the Gloves packed the Civic Auditorium.

Just behind the arena is a hall (complete with stage) turned assembly area, where fighters, coaches and officials mill before bouts with nervous, pent-up energy.  Ken Wingo and his Downtown Boxing Club crew (save Vince Perez, who’s received a bye into the finals) hold down a corner of the stage to wait.  Fighters deal differently with the waiting:  Andy Schrader sits on a chair, pumping his legs to music on his Walkman’s headphones – getting “in the zone”; Steve Ray stays loose stretching; Craig Price sits and stands and paces with quiet intensity.   All say they feel confident going in.

Wingo’s boys have a rough night of it.  First,Schrader is retired (TKO’d) in round two after taking the second of two standing eight counts.  Then the usually fluid Ray looks sloppy versus a rare left-handed foe and drops the decision.  Wingo reminds both “there’s no disgrace in losing.”  Finally, Price out-slugs a much shorter man to win a spirited bout that proves the crowd’s favorite.  Later, Price’s red, puffy left eye is the only evidence he and the others have fought.

At ringside the fights flash by as bursts of pouncing torsos, thrashing arms and fast moving feet bouncing off the taut, worn tarp covering the floor.  Many blows miss their mark, but with every solid impact a fighter’s face winces from the sting and his head whips back from the jolt – sending sweat, but thankfully not much blood, spraying over you.  More than anything, each fighter tries imposing his will on his opponent inside that terribly small ring and is left spent from the effort.  At the final bell – just like after sparring – men tap gloves, embrace and say “Good fight.”

Night two features the finals.  The pre-fight rituals are the same.  Perez and coach Kenny Friday arrive early since Perez’s 125-pound match tops the card.  Even out of his policeman’s dress blues Perez carries himself with a certain aplomb.  He looks every inch the fighting warrior with his grim face, swaggering walk and resplendent boxing garb – a black top and white trunks with blue trim showcasing his hard brown body.

He’s drawn the much younger, yet more experienced Rudy Mata.  With Friday and Wingo in his corner and wife Heather in the crowd, Perez appears supremely confident despite this being only his fifth sanctioned fight.  From the start Mata presses the action – boring in on Perez to pepper him with punches.  Perez rebounds, using his mobility to escape serious trouble and his hand speed to bloody Mata’s nose, the crimson staining Perez’s white gloves.  Entering the final two-minutes, it’s anybody’s fight.

Things turn quickly that last round when Mata comes out firing and traps Perez against the ropes.  By the time Perez can counterattack, it’s too late.  The bell sounds, ending the fight and the cop’s chance at victory.   The two men fall into each other’s arms as the crowd sounds its approval.  The decision, as expected, goes to Mata and the two warriors leave the ring proudly – knowing they’ve given a good effort.

Afterwards, Perez analyzes the fight:  “After the first round I told Kenny (Friday), ‘I can beat this guy.’  Going into that last round I was real comfortable, but then I forgot my whole game plan.  He stepped up the pressure and I stopped jabbing.  I’m disappointed I lost, but I’m pretty happy I did this well.”

Later that evening Price loses the heavyweight championship to Emerson Chasing Bear who, true to his Native American name, nimbly pursues Price around the ring, slipping punches and assaulting him with jabs and crosses.  It’s not even close.  Afterwards, a dejected Price picks his performance apart:  “My form wasn’t there.  I wasn’t snapping my punches enough.  I felt slow and clumsy.  My head just wasn’t in it.”

Perez says his bout was probably his last, although he’ll still hit the bags and spar.  He’s eying new athletic challenges now – like a triathlon (once he learns to swim).  Schrader, Ray and Price plan on fighting a little while yet.  Each echoes Price’s vow to get “back at the gym” and “work on what I did wrong.”  None have ambitions of turning pro.

While boxing remains an avocation for these men, it’s also a way of life – just as the House of Discipline is not merely a gym, but a place for growth and self-discovery.

A Good Deal: George Pfeifer and Tom Krehbiel are the Ties that Bind Boys Town Hoops


Here’s another Boys Town sports story.  It’s about tradition and legacy and giving back, George Pfeifer played for legendary Boys Town coach Skip Palrang when the school‘s founder, Father Edward Flanagan, was still there.  After Pfeifer graduated high school and served in World War II he came back to Boys Town to coach under Palrang.  Later, he took over as head basketball coach, leading the hoops program to some of its greatest successes. Now, many years into retirement, he’s back again, this time as a kind of unofficial coach and mentor, at the invitation of current head basketball coach Tom Krehbiel.  The old coach and the young coach have bonded like father and son and together they’ve helped Boys Town recapture some of the magic that made the school’s athletic teams juggernauts back in the day.

The story originally appeared in the New Horizons.

 

A Good Deal: George Pfeifer and Tom Krehbiel are the Ties that Bind Boys Town Hoops

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

 

When George Pfeifer coached the Boys Town varsity basketball team in the 1960s to great success, he used an adage with his players, “Get a good deal,” as a way of impressing upon them the advantage of working the ball to get an open shot.

The 81-year-old is long retired but a special tie he’s forged with current BT head basketball coach Tom Krehbiel finds Pfeifer offering kids young enough to be his grandchildren the same sage advice he gave players decades before. Krehbiel credits the recent turnaround in BT hoops — culminating in a Class C-1 state title last season — to the input of his unofficial assistant. “Coach Pfeifer is, in my mind, the school’s all-time greatest basketball coach. I wanted to get him involved in the program. I reached out to him and he’s been a big part of our program ever since. I don’t think it’s a coincidence we started winning” once he got involved, said Krehbiel, who previously coached at Omaha Skutt High School.

The association between the men peaked last season when the Cowboys’ won their first state championship in 40 years. Until beating Louisville in the finals, the school hadn’t won a state roundball title since 1966, when Pfeifer was head coach. That ‘66 crown was the second of back-to-back Class A titles won by Pfeifer’s teams, squads considered two of the best ever to play in Nebraska prep history. It was an era of athletic dominance by the Cowboys.

Since the summer before the 2003-2004 season, when he accepted Krehbiel’s invitation, Pfeifer’s worked with BT hoops. When his arthritis isn’t too bad, the tall man with the folksy manner makes his way on campus, over to the Skip Palrang Memorial Field House named after the legendary man he played and coached under and where he toiled away countless hours on drills.

He’ll keenly observe practice from the sideline, noting things he sees need correcting. This recent Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame inductee is still a master diagnostician at breaking down systems and plays. He does the same when he goes to see a Boys Town game or analyzes tape of one, as his sharp mind dissects the action with razor precision.

“He’ll notice little technical things that only someone who knows basketball can detect. He really sees and knows the game. It’s amazing,” Krehbiel said.

Pfeifer shares his insights with the players, kids not unlike the ones he coached years ago — boys full of attitude but hungry for love. Krehbiel said Pfeifer knows just how to prod people to improve. “He doesn’t criticize — he kind of suggests.”

Tremayne Hill, a starting guard from last year’s team whom Pfeifer got close to, said the old coach got the most out of him with his “encouraging” words. “He told us to stay positive and to work hard in trying to overcome adversity. He was a lot like a father figure,” said Hill, adding Pfeifer and Krehbiel are like a father-son team.

It doesn’t surprise Pfeifer he can get through to kids weaned on PlayStation and X-Box, not Fibber Magee and Molly. You see, he was a BT resident himself from 1939 to 1943, giving him a bond he feels makes him forever simpatico with kids there. It’s why his reconnection with the institution is more than a former coach returning to the fold. It’s a son or brother coming home to his family. It’s why the vast age difference doesn’t hamper him in talking to today’s kids.

“I talk their language,” Pfeifer said. “I grew up there, so I know. When I first went back out there I said, ‘Yeah, I’m an old fogy, but I used to be out here. I know all the tricks you guys know, so you can’t trick me on anything. You can’t tell me anything I haven’t heard. I was just like you guys. My heart’s with you guys. I know what you’re going through. I’m here to be a friend of yours.’”

Hill said Pfeifer’s BT roots make a difference as “he knows the type of stuff we go through. He knows how to relate to us. More than another coach would.”

Pfeifer said he and the team developed a strong bond. “When I’d come out there, some of the kids warming up before the game would come over and say, ‘God, we’re glad to see you coach. You feeling alright? We’re going to play hard for you.’ That last night when they accepted the trophy the one kid held it up and said, ‘This is for you coach Pfeifer…’ Those are the kind of kids….” Choked with emotion, Pfeifer’s voice trailed off.

When Pfeifer coached in the ‘60s he did something rare then — starting five African AmericansOne morning after a game, a caller demanded, “Why you playing all them n______s?” “Because they’re my five best players,” Pfeifer replied. Ken Geddes, a member of those teams, said race “was never even an issue.” Lamont McCarty, a teammate, said, “If you didn’t perform, you didn’t play… plain and simple. He was a wonderful coach. Same thing with Skip Palrang.”

As is now a custom, Krehbiel had Pfeifer address the assembled 2006-2007 team at a mid-November practice. It was Pfeifer’s first contact with the team. He’d have been there before if not for tending to his terminally ill wife Jean. Gathered round him were about two dozen players, many of them new faces after the loss of so many off last year’s team to graduation. Pfeifer owned their rapt attention.

He told them he was 13 when his father died. Left unsaid was the Depression was on, and with his widowed mother unable to support the poor Kansas farm family she sent him and a brother to Boys Town. There young George blossomed under iconic founder Rev. Edward Flanagan and star coach Skip Palrang..

Pfeifer also didn’t mention he became BT’s mayor (as did his brother) and excelled in football and basketball. That he developed an itch to give back to youth what he’d received. After serving in the U.S, Navy during World War II he coached at Fort Hays State down in Kansas, before accepting an offer to join Palrang’s BT staff. Intending to stay five years, Pfeifer, by then married with children, made it a 30-year career. He was a coach, a teacher and principal of the elementary school.

“I knew I wanted to be there to help those type of kids,” Pfeifer said of BT students past and present. “You know, they come there with a hole in their heart. Nobody cares about them, nobody encourages them –- they just think there’s no way they can make it. We set up goals and objectives. We praise them when they succeed. When a kid comes up to you and says, ‘God, I wish you were my dad,’ well, those kind of grab you. Then you know you made a difference.”

The campus holds a dear place in Pfeifer’s heart. It’s home. The people there, his family. He stays in touch with players by phone, letter, e-mail. He’s a regular at school reunions. But until Krehbiel asked him to come back as a consultant, Pfeifer hadn’t really felt welcome by previous coaches.

“I think he had a desire to get back close to the program, to his home and to this community, and so the timing was right,” said Krehbiel, a Burlington, Iowa native with his own ties to the place. His father worked there and as a youngster Krehbiel spent many a summer day on campus, running about and canoeing in the pond. “So I always knew Boys Town,” he said. “I loved it.”

As Pfeifer spoke to the kids that late afternoon in November, he was every inch the coach again, instilling values and commanding respect.

“There’s nobody working here that doesn’t love you, I guarantee you,” he told them in measured tones.” “So listen to your family teachers, listen to your coaches, work hard, study in school. You have great coaches, good facilities. You’ve got everything you need, except you got to do your part. You gotta keep your nose clean. Don’t get in no trouble. Do what you’re told. Coach is going to tell you what he wants you to learn, how you’re going to do this and he’s going to tell you why. Those are three really important parts of your basketball training.

“It takes a lot of hard work. You have to be focused. No matter what happens outside, you come here and be ready for basketball.”

After Pfeifer wished them good luck and some players responded with, “Thanks, coach,” the huddled team charged back into practice.

“If they know that you care about them and that you’re there for them, they’ll work for you — they’ll work hard. They appreciate you,” Pfeifer said.

“It’s funny. Kids today are real hip-hop, you know, with this Snoop Dog slang and coach uses old school terminology that I cringe at sometimes, assuming the kids think its kind of corny, but the kids like it. I think too he provides a grandfatherly figure,” Krehbiel said. “These kids, more than any kids I’ve ever been around, they want somebody to take an interest.

“He wants to help…It really comes down to his true interest and love for the kids in the program. He’s trying to give them that last tidbit…to help them on the court and help them in life. I think when he looks at our team and he’s rooting for these kids it’s like rooting for his family, his own kids or his own brothers….He gets emotional when he talks about this place. It’s his home.”

It’s that been there-done that experience Pfeifer brings that Krehbiel wanted for his players. Then there’s the “link to success” Pfeifer represents.

“He laid the foundation 40 years ago for all the nice things that have been said about us the last two or three years,” Krehbiel said. “I think we’re all proud to carry on a rich tradition. It’s just an honor to be associated with him. I was always taught to appreciate the people that came before you…You gotta respect the people who built up the history and this place is just full of history.”

What Krehbiel got in the figure of Pfeifer was more than he could have imagined.

“Coach has been a great mentor to me and a great resource for us,” he said. “You know he’s having an impact on our kids when after the state championship one of our starting five interviewed on TV” — Dwaine Wright — “spent his whole time on camera referencing coach Pfeifer, saying, ‘He told me in practice to get the good shots.’ We didn’t prompt him to do that. It just came out of his heart. You realize, Wow, this is an 80-some-year-old man having an affect on an 18-19 year-old kid. I was proud of our kids for the respect they showed coach. I’m proud of coach.”

Pfeifer appreciates that Krehbiel sought his counsel, thus allowing him to be a teacher again. “He was so sincere and open about establishing a good relationship. He was willing to receive me and invest in some of my knowledge,” Pfeifer said. “A lot of guys that coach, they think they know it all. But he’s really receptive. And that’s great for me because I didn’t feel that with some of the other people that were out there. I said, ‘I’ll be happy to help you out anyway I can.’”

When Krehbiel first approached him, he had no clear expectation other than getting some advice on the special demands of being a BT coach.

“This is a unique position,” Krehbiel said, “maybe as unique a position as there is in the country in high school because you’re in a home for boys. There’s not only the athletics parts of it but there’s the home campus part of it, dealing with the troubled youth, the homeless youth, with all the things they present.

“There are very few people who’ve had this position. There’s just a few of us around. There’s even fewer that have had the kind of success coach had.”

Krehbiel did some research in the BT and Omaha World-Herald archives in compiling a school record book and came away duly impressed by just “how successful” Pfeifer was at producing winning teams. In 14 years as head coach — 1959 to 1973 — his teams won 205 games and lost only 82. He led nine teams to the state tourney and guided a pair to state titles. His track and field teams were also a formidable bunch, always a threat at the state meet.

For Krehbiel, welcoming back someone like Pfeifer who’d given the best years of his life to BT was a way of honoring the man.

“My initial intention was to just try to give back to him for all the years he gave to Boys Town. My initial thought was to get him up here to one practice at the beginning of the year, and it’s morphed into a great relationship and friendship,” said Krehbiel, whose wife and five daughters all know Pfeifer.

Still, it took some convincing for Pfeifer to meet with Krehbiel that first time.

“I called him up out of the blue and introduced myself. He was real reluctant but I finally got him to agree to go lunch with me at Big Fred’s. He told stories for hours.
That’s when I told him, ‘You are welcome anytime.’ That fall I asked him to come out to practice. I gave him a pad of paper and a pen and said, ‘Watch me coach practice. Watch our kids. Give me some feedback about our team.’ He did that and from that point on he’s been popping in at practices whenever he feels like it.”

It didn’t happen overnight. Pfeifer eased his way in, not wanting to impose himself, less he undermine Krehbiel’s authority.

“When it first started we’d talk maybe once every couple weeks,” Krehbiel said. “He wouldn’t come to practices much. As he and I became closer and he became closer with all the other coaches, there was a comfort level. Last year he was out here about two or three times a week prior to the season opener, and we’d be talking about offenses and defenses and philosophies back and forth.

“I was reaching out initially to find out, ‘How did you handle the job? How did you handle the kids? What are the issues beyond basketball I should know about?’ Then when he and I started talking I found just how solid his philosophies are in basketball and in life and I really wanted to get to know him more. You just can’t help but sense the way he approached things and did things is probably the best way as well as the right way to have a lot of success. I try to emulate him.”

It doesn’t hurt that the two are cut from the same cloth. “Our personalities are a lot alike, so there’s a bond person-to-person, coach-to-coach,” Krehbiel said. That’s not to say these two see eye to eye on everything.

“He believes in zone defense and I believe in man to man,” Krehbiel said. “But that’s the fun of it — debating the merits of each. But,” he added, “as far as what we demand of our players, how we treat our players,” they’re on the same page.

It wasn’t until Krehbiel watched Pfeifer interact with the players that he understood all that the venerable old coach could bring.

“Then when I saw him around the kids and I saw how he still has a lot of viable, valuable contributions…and I saw the kids take to him, it obviously was a great idea to have him around. It’s just kind of matured into what it is today. He’s around quite a bit. As much as he wants to be. The door is always open.”

Along the way, Pfeifer’s shared some coaching secrets, including a list of offensive- defensive Dos and Donts and his mantra for teaching “technique, technique, technique” he got from coaching great Skip Palrang. Pfeifer’s passed along full-court press and matchup-zone tactics that made his teams so hard to beat. Above all, he’s preached taking the high percentage shot and protecting “the hole.”

“He gave me a file folder of his coaching notes and a card with his pregame preparation notes,” Krehbiel said. “I read through it all and I copied it down in my own words and style. That’s the relationship he and I’ve built up. For him to give that to me, I mean, what do you say? That should tell anyone a lot about his willingness to give. I think he really, really wants this program to be successful and those are the lengths he’s willing to go.”

What Pfeifer does for BT hoops can’t truly be measured.

“He doesn’t come out and design plays and run drills. He’s in the background helping the coaches. He’s really helped me in my preparation for games. He talks to players one one one,” Krehbiel said. “The last couple years he’d take some of our better players aside, real fatherly like, and say, ‘Here’s what I see in your game. Take the good shots, not the bad shots.’”

Wishing to remain in the background, Pfeifer chooses not to sit on the bench, but in the stands during games. He’s always watching, however.

 

 

 

As last year’s team stormed through the season, losing only four times, including twice to Wahoo Neumann, Pfeifer noted a tendency for BT players to settle for three-point shots and to play soft in the middle. With his adjustments the Cowboys avenged Neumann in the first round of the state tourney.

When last year’s star player, starting center and then-BT Mayor Vince Marshall,  felt good about a game in which he scored well but recorded few rebounds, Pfeifer had a heart to heart talk with him. “I said, ‘I was mayor when I was at Boys Town. You’re the mayor and you got only three rebounds last game. What the hell were you doing? You’re the mayor, you’re going to make me look bad. Get your ass on the boards.’ That’s the way we talked. We were brothers.”

Pfeifer’s known to intervene when emotions run over. Once, after a so-so practice on the eve of state, the admittedly “fiery” Krehbiel lost his cool when he noticed a couple players cutting up. “I lose it. I go up one kid and down another. I was furious they wouldn’t take this seriously,” Krehbiel said. “And here comes coach. He gets off his chair and gets right in the middle of us and says, ‘Wait a minute.’ I immediately shut up. He takes over and says something about not getting a big head and keeping yourself together and staying in the moment.

“He was just that calming influence and that’s what he’s been. I’ve really calmed my demeanor in regards to the sidelines and the game-time stuff in my conversations with him. He’s really helped me with the handling of the kids around here. He reminds me they’re always watching you and they’re going to play off your demeanor. He’s a sounding board. I can pick up the phone and say, ‘Coach, we’ve had this issue with a young man, how would you handle that?’ He gives me tidbits on how to handle certain situations as head coach.”

Pfeifer can still get fired up, as when he pulled his BT athletic jacket out of moth balls for a school pep rally to show how much he bleeds Big Blue. He told the crowd, “I’ve waited 40 years to wear this thing again.”

There’s the sense of a circle being closed. That what Pfeifer got from Palrang is being handed down to Krehbiel. Lessons from 65 years ago live on, no doubt to be carried on by the young men Krehbiel and Pfeifer work with today.

“The greatest thing for me, bar none, is to have my name linked with coach Pfeifer’s name and coach Palrang’s name in the same sentence. To be linked to that history is overwhelming,” Krehbiel said. When Pfeifer couldn’t get away to Lincoln to accept his Hall of Fame induction, he asked Krehbiel to accept in his place. For Pfeifer, Krehbiel was the natural choice. “I love him,” Pfeifer said of his coaching protege. “What an honor to accept for him. That just fortified our relationship. He’s a good old guy,” a tearful Krehbiel said.

Krehbiel met many athletes Pfeifer coached. They were disappointed he couldn’t make it. “They all love him. Guys came in from both coasts and from all over the country to honor him with this induction, which was long overdue,” Krehbiel said. One of Pfeifer’s favorites, Charles ”Deacon” Jones, a standout BT miler and football player who became a University of Iowa All American and two-time Olympic long distance runner, was inducted into the Hall the same night.

“I know it was killing coach not to be able to go and to be on the stage with Deacon,” Krehbiel said. But Deacon and the rest know Pfeifer was there with them in spirit. Like he always has been and will be. A brother under the skin.

Krehbiel never competed for Pfeifer, but considers it a privilege coaching with him and “seeing all he does around kids.” He said it seems he and the players benefit more from the relationship than Pfeifer does. However, he added, “I hope we’re helping keep him active.” It’s clear when Pfeifer talks hoops it takes his mind off, if only a little while, his wife. Krehbiel’s visited Pfeifer at his house during this hard time. Krehbiel’s daughters say prayers for Jean.

Perhaps the old coach’s greatest joy comes from watching his young protege catch the same passion he caught for Boys Town. Pfeifer said, “I’ve told him, ‘Tom, if you stay there long enough you’re going to get what I got.’ It’s a fever.” Krehbiel said the example of Pfeifer is one reason “why I stay here. It’s why I’ll always be here.”

 
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