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

July 28, 2019 1 comment

Duncans turn passion for art into major collection 

In their pursuits, the couple master the art of living

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

 

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Robert and Ksren Duncan

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s no fun.” Karen said.

They also can’t relate to art as a commodity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Duncans’ Lincoln residence

 

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

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

The couple keep homes in Mexico and Colorado as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They prefer traveling with others when possible.

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

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

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

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

Art networking leads to unexpected connections.

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

“It just goes on and on.”

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Karen’s children’s book, Chica

 

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

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

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

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

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Clarinda Csrnegie Art Museum

 

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

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

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

Robert learned the business from the ground up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Duncan Aviation

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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John Robert Weaver, self-portrait

 

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

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

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

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

Then there was his abrasive personality.

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

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

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

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

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

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A sample of the Duncans’ sculpture garden

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sandhills life gets big screen due thanks to filmmaker Georg Joutras and his “Ocean of Grass”


Oceans of grass

 

Sandhills life gets big screen due thanks to filmmaker Georg Joutras and his “Ocean of Grass”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the March-April 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine

This decade has found Nebraska’s wide open spaces pictured on the big screen more than ever before. First came the melancholic, madcap road trip of Alexander Payne’s Nebraska in 2013. Then, in 2018, came the Coen Brothers’ Western anthology fable The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Earlier that same year Georg Joutras debuted his documentary Ocean of Grass about a year in the life of a Sandhills ranch family.

Where Payne and the Coens use Nebraska landscapes and skyscapes as metaphoric backdrops for archetypal but fictional portraits of Great Plains life, Joutras takes a deeply immersive, reality-based look at rural rhythms. Joutras celebrates the people who work the soil, tend the animals and endure the weather.

As Hollywood dream machine products by renowned filmmakers, Nebraska and Buster Scruggs enjoyed multi-million dollar budgets and national releases. Ocean of Grass, meanwhile. is a self-financed work by an obscure, first-time filmmaker whose small but visually stunning doc is finding audiences one theater at a time.

For his truly independent, DIY passion project, he spent countless hours at the McGinn ranch north of Broken Bow, Aside from an original music score by Tom Larson, Joutras served as a one-man band – handling everything from producing-directing to cinematography to editing. He’s releasing the feature-length doc via his own Reconciliation Hallucination Studio. In classic road-show fashion he delivers the film to each theater that books it and often does Q&As.

A decade earlier Joutras self-published a photo illustration book, A Way of Life, about the same ranch. The 56-year-old is a lifelong still photographer who feels “attuned to nature”. He operated his own gallery in Lincoln, where he resides. A chance encounter there with Laron McGinn, who makes art when not running the four-generation family ranch, led to Joutras visiting that expanse and becoming enamored with The Life.

Joutras, who grew up in Ogallala from age 11 on, had never stayed on a ranch or stopped in the Sandhills until the book. Those were places to drive past or through. That all changed once he spent time there.

Ogallala became his home when he moved there with his family after stints in his native New Jersey, then Florida and Texas, for his sales executive father’s jobs.

Joutras is not the first to create a film profile of a Nebraska ranch family, A few years before he moved to Ogallala, a caravan of Hollywood rebels arrived. In 1968, Francis Ford Coppola, along with a crew that included George Lucas and a cast headed by Robert Duvall, James Caan and Shirley Knight, shot the final few weeks of Coppola’s dramatic feature The Rain People. That experience introduced Duvall to an area ranch-rodeo family, the Petersons, who became the subjects of his 1977 documentary We’re Not the Jet Set, which filmed in and around Ogallala.

The McGinns’ ranching ways may have never been lensed by Joutras if not for his meeting Laron McGinn. Joutras had left a successful tech career that saw him develop a Point of Sale system for Pearl Vision and an automated radio system (PSI) acquired by Clear Channel. Having made his fortune, he retired to focus on photography. He did fine selling prints of his work. Then he met McGinn and produced A Way of Life – one of several photo books he produced.

 A Way of Life: Ranching on the Plains of America,  a book written by Georg Joutras was the inspiration of his documentary film  Ocean of Grass  that will

A Way of Life: Ranching on the Plains of America, a book written by Georg Joutras was the inspiration of his documentary film Ocean of Grass that will be shown at the Hippodrome Arts Centre in Julesburg on Tuesday, January 8, and Thursday, January 10 with showings at 7 p.m. (Courtesy Photo)

Joutras only got around to doing the film after his family gifted him with a video camera. He began documenting things on the ranch. After investing in higher-end equipment he decided to ditch the year’s worth of filming he’d shot with his old gear to begin anew.

“It was evident immediately the picture quality was so much better than what I had shot the prior year that I was going to have to shoot it all again. So I put another year into shooting everything that goes on out there,” Joutras says. “I basically worked alongside the folks at the ranch. When something happened I thought I should capture, then I’d go into cinematographer mode.”

Upon premiering the film in Kansas City and Broken Bow, he discovered it resonates with folks, Sold-out screenings there have been followed by many more across Nebraska. The reviews are ecstatic.

“People are getting something out of this film,” he says, “They say it reflects the Nebraska ethos. I never did this film anticipating I’d make even one dollar on it. I just had this story I really wanted to tell. It’s certainly achieved much more than I thought it would. It’s done well enough that I’ve recouped pretty much what I put into it.”

Joutras believes his film connects with viewers because of how closely it captures a certain lifestyle. The rapport he developed and trust he earned over time with the McGinns paid dividends.

“I got the footage I did by being around enough and being embedded with them and being part of the crew that works out there. I wanted to earn my keep a little bit and they let me feed cows and run fence and check water. You have to be around enough to where you’re nothing special – you just kind of blend into the background.”

His depiction of a people and place without adornment or agenda is a cinema rarity.

“What I was really trying to capture was the feeling of this place – what it feels like to be out there among the people, the cows, the wind, the sun, the cold. Everything that makes it special. You’re seeing the real thing. Everything in the film is as it happened. Nothing was staged.

“These people are authentic. What they’re doing is authentic. Pretty much everyone you come in contact with in the ranching environment is their own boss. People don’t have to fake who they are. It’s really the American story of hard work trumps everything.”

The film makes clear these are no country bumpkins.

“They are some of the smartest people I know,” Joutras says. “They know how things work and are very articulate expressing their beliefs. By the end of the film I think you understand and admire them,”

He feels viewers fall under the same Sandhills spell that continues captivating him.

“The quality of life I think is exceptional. The pace of life slows down. You get to see real Americans doing real hands-on, get-in-the-mud work.”

He tried conveying in the film what he feels there.

“Out there I feel more in touch with nature and what’s important in life. I feel more grounded. I feel I can breath better. It’s really just a feeling of peace.”

The rough-hewn spirit and soul of it is perhaps best embodied by family patriarch Mike McGinn.

“Mike’s a great guy. He’s sneaky funny. There’s nothing I enjoy more than being in a pickup with him going out to feed cows, which can take half the day or more. He was always reluctant to talk on camera. His was the last interview we got, and it’s just gold. He has all the great lines in the film.

“We got him to watch the film and at the end he turned to me and said, ‘That’s my entire life right there.’ That was a great moment for me.”

Rather than hire a narrator to frame the story, the only voices heard are those of the ranchers.”because they said it better than anyone,” Joutras says.

Beyond the McGinns and their hands, the film’s major character is the Sandhills.

“From a visual standpoint there’s nothing that gets me more excited than attempting to capture really interesting and varied scenic shots that speak to people. The Sandhills are beautiful beyond belief in all their details – from the grass to the slope of the hills to the clouds coming across the prairie to the sound of the wind. It all works together.”

He acquired evocative overhead shots by mounting cameras to drones. The aerial images give the film an epic scope.

Ocean’s visuals have made him a cinematographer for hire. He’s contributing to three films, including a documentary about the women of Route 66.

Future Nebraska-based film projects he may pursue  range from rodeo to winemaking.

Meanwhile, he’s pitching Film Streams to screen Ocean.

“We’ll get it into Omaha one way or another.” More out-of-state screenings are in the worked.

Nebraska Educational Television has expressed interest. PBS is not out of the question.

Joutras is just glad his “little film that can” is getting seen, winning fans and giving the Sandhillls their due.

Visit the film’s website at http://www.oceanofgrassfilm.com.

Watch the trailer at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hNV6E5ihjP0.

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

sandhills grass

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8.25 SAT 3:00 p.m.

Terence Crawford affirms his place as Nebraska’s unequivocal homegrown sports hero

October 15, 2018 1 comment

Terence Crawford affirms his place as Nebraska’s unequivocal homegrown sports hero

 

Terence Crawford, right, lands a punch against Jose Benavidez Jr. on Saturday. “It feels so good to shut somebody up who’s been talking for so long. I’m at ease,” Crawford said after his victory. AP Photo/Nati Harnik

 

It used to be that Husker football was the collective, unifying force in this state. Who would have ever thought Terence Crawford would be that force? He is though. Maybe not in the same way, of course, but his representing Nebraska is something we can all be proud of and get passionate about regardless of whether we’re urban or rural, black or white, blue or red, straight or gay or any other permutations that usually divide us. Crawford represents the very best of us in terms of hard work, perseverance, dedication, loyalty and guts. He is a picture of health and fitness, striving and ambition and the pursuit of excellence. When you are the very best at what you do as he is and you come from ordinary beginnings as he does, it is hard not to be inspired by his story. He is a testament to daring and dreaming. He may be the most powerful individual inspirational figure to come out of Nebraska in a very long time. Maybe ever.

Terence Crawford’s dismantling of Jose Benavidez Jr. last night before a record fight crowd at Omaha’s CHI Health Center to retain his welterweight boxing title only further cemented his pound-for-pound greatness status. He is doing his thing at a time when area sports fans are desperate for a positive local sports story of national significance but can find only frustration and disappointment wherever they cast their gaze with the exception of Husker and Creighton volleyball. His ring mastery and dominance is playing out during the worst run of Husker football in a half-century. Meanwhile. Nebraska men’s basketball is still an unknown, unreliable quantity until proven otherwise and Creighton men’s hoops is caught up in a scandal. The NU and CU baseball programs have not even come close to national relevance much less the College World Series in decades. UNO athletics is still riding the hockey bell cow in its transition to Division I, which is a move that may still prove unwise. The hockey program has yet to fully realize the lofty expectations set for it.

That is why Crawford’s brilliance has been a godsend to this state and to this city – giving  the public a whole new sports obsession to follow and support, rejuvenating boxing to a level never before seen here and shining more attention on Omaha than any other individual Nebraska-born and bred athlete. At 31, the unbeaten Crawford could keep at it another five to ten years if he really wanted. Now that his fights from here on out will be pay-per-view and his promoter Bob Arum seems serious to match him with world-class opponents he’s yet to have faced, Crawford’s capital could climb even higher. He’s already established himself one of the best fighters of his era and with a couple big wins over marquee foes he will add his name to the all-time greats list.

Should he retire undefeated, which very few pro boxers have ever done, he will have to be considered one of the greatest professional fighters to ever compete in The Sweet Science. His defensive and overall boxing skills are so high that he’s already regarded as one of the best ring tacticians the sport has ever seen. True greatness is measured over the long haul and his excellence is now demonstrable over a several year span. The scary thing for future opponents is that he actuallly seems to be getting better with age and may be just peaking right now in his early 30s.

There are still some out there who question his size and power but with each successive ass whipping he applies, it’s clear, as he says, that he’s big and powerful for his division and always way more than his foes can handle once they’re standing toe to toe and trading blows with him inside the square circle. We are all privileged to be watching him perform at this elevated level and to be able to call him one of our own. His like around here will not be seen for a long time to come. Maybe never again.

 

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Crawford after win: ‘I want ’em all’

Terence Crawford reflects on his 12th-round TKO against Jose Benavidez and his future.

Music is legacy and salvation for classical cowboy Hadley Heavin

September 25, 2018 Leave a comment

Music is legacy and salvation for classical cowboy Hadley Heavin

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the October 2018 issue of New Horizons

Hadley Heavin encountered a personal crossroads in the 1970s. He was a Vietnam War veteran with a background playing blues-rock guitar and competing in rodeo -– pursuits he thought he’d left behind. Little did he know he was about to embark on an improbable road less traveled as a classical cowboy.

He’s long taught classical guitar at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He also taught at College of Saint Mary, Creighton University, Union College and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He’s given countless master classes, residencies and recitals. He and his band Tablao were fixtures at Espana and Little Espana.

Forty-five years ago though he was adrift. It was a dark period of his life. The light in his life returned when he discovered classical guitar. He no sooner taught himself to play that style when, in storybook fashion, he was discovered by Spanish master Segundo Pastor. The maestro passed onto his protege the art form’s direct lineage from its multi-generational source.

Heavin lived nearly a year in Madrid, where daily lessons and hard work made this country boy weaned on American roots music a virtuosic classical player. The men’s lives were intertwined for a decade. Heavin healed and reinvented himself as a performer and educator, taking up riding and roping again.

Musical roots

Heavin’s life has a way of coming around in full circles. Growing up an all-around athlete and a musician in the Ozarks, he became known for both his horsemanship and musicianship. His grandfather, father and uncles all played guitar professionally – swing and jazz – and young Hadley emerged the family prodigy, playing with his father’s band before gravitating to blues and rock. He played some drums but guitar was his destiny.

“Making music was just something we did,” Heavin said, “I was a little freak because I could play really well. I grew up in an environment thinking everybody was like this. I couldn’t believe it when a kid couldn’t sing or carry a tune or do something with music.”

About his father, E.C. Heavin, he said, “I haven’t heard anybody any better than he was. I had a lot of admiration for the kind of music he played. He knew the guitar perfectly. He couldn’t read music, but he could walk up on stage and play anything. He was amazing.”

Hadley’s Uncle Frog still cuts some mean licks at 90.

Athletic ability was another birthright. Frog played pro baseball as did Heavin’s mother.

Losing himself in the war

Hadley made the football team at the University of Kansas as a walk-on and showed promise on the Midwest rodeo circuit. Then he got drafted into the U.S. Army. His carefree existence vanished. Trained to be a killing machine, he fulfilled tours of life or death duty. The searing experience made the music inside him stop. He was unsure if it would ever return.

As a forward observer and artillery fire officer with 1st Field Force, he shuttled from one hot LZ to another with an M79 grenade launcher.

“I was what they called a ‘bastard.’ I would work with all different units. They would just send me wherever they needed me. I was on hill tops, some I can remember like LZ Lily. I was at Dactau and Ben Het during the siege. We were surrounded for like 30 days. I was in the jungle the whole time, mostly in the north, in Two Corps, close to the border of Laos and Cambodia.

“I saw base camp twice.”

Wounded by an AK47 round in a fire fight, he came home to recover. Stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, he impulsively entered the bare back at a local rodeo.

“I drew a pretty rank horse, plus I hadn’t ridden in years and I was still sore from my war injuries. The horse came out and bucked towards the fence and my spur hung in the fence and hung me upside down, facing the opposite way. He was kicking me in the back as he was bucking away. I got hurt. I could hardly walk that night. When I got back to base they were mad at me because I couldn’t pull my duty. Here I was a decorated combat vet, and they were going to court-martial me.”

Cooler heads prevailed and he completed his military service with an honorable discharge. Like so many combat brethren, he returned home broken.

“I was having bad PTSD. I didn’t know where my life was going. I wasn’t necessarily a violent person but that’s what I was used to. It kind of becomes no big deal at some point in your life. It becomes a big deal after the fact when you’ve got PTSD.”

He resents the morally bankrupt orders he followed.

“Emotionally, I was a mess from the war just as much for the atrocities I was forced to commit than what actually happened to me because there’s always collateral damage. You see that and you see that you’re responsible for it. It doesn’t turn off. It never does.

“I had some years there where I had a hard time because I felt I was part of something that was wrong.”

Then there’s the physical toll.

“I have a broken immune system because of Agent Orange. It became hard for me to travel. I started getting sick in my 50s. Every time I’d fly somewhere to play a concert I’d play with a fever or something. That got really old. It’s curtailed my travel.”

Adding insult to injury, he said the VA “won’t help – you’ve got to be near death before they’ll help you with that.” In the meantime, he said, the effects “can destroy your life and career.” His request for treatment went before an evaluation board who denied him care.

“I’m just shocked this country doesn’t treat its veterans very well. They just aren’t. I’ve been to the VA hospital. It’s not like going to a normal hospital. You’re just a number. These patients are the guys that fight for their country. They should have the same health care as everyone. Everybody says thank you for your service. Well, that doesn’t help very much. Why don’t you vote for somebody that’s going to help the veterans?”

Coming back to music

In his post-war funk he quit music, roping and riding. But those passions kept calling him back.

“I suffered because by then my father was gone and my mother couldn’t support me. Somehow I played guitar and kept myself fed.”

He was working a job unloading trucks in Springfield, Missouri when, on a whim, he went to see a classical guitarist perform. It changed his life.

“I was enthralled and it just came over me like that,” he said, snapping his fingers. “Right then and there I knew what I was going to do with my life. The feeling that came over me fulfilled me more than anything else ever had up to that time. A part of it was, I needed something, Classical guitar was the thread that gave me something to hang onto just to get through life and the pain.”

He taught himself via recordings and books. Then he found an instructor who took him as far as he could.

“As soon as my hands could take it I practiced six to eight hours a day working a full-time job.”

Attending school on the GI Bill, he convinced the music dean at then-Southwest Missouri State University (now Missouri State) to start a degree guitar program for him.

“I had such a passion for it that I was going to find a way  – whatever it took.”

Once in a lifetime opportunity

Then, a meeting changed his life again. Touring legend Pastor saw Heavin play a concert on campus. He asked to meet Heavin. Pastor complimented the talented beginner and told him what to work on. Pastor returned a year later to instruct Heavin for two weeks and then offered taking him on as his only student in Spain.

Dumbstruck and flattered by this once in a lifetime opportunity, Heavin still needed thousands of dollars to realize it, He approached school department heads and each passed him off onto someone else. His last resort was the head of religious studies, Gerrit tenZhthoff, a Dutch war hero who resisted the Nazis.

“I told him my story – that I played for this man (Pastor) who’s the best in the world and I would be his only student. As I was explaining this he jumped out of his chair and said, ‘This is wonderful, this is amazing.’ He got me the scholarships, got me everything I needed. He even made it so that I kept getting credit while I was away in Spain. He did all of it.”

MSU has recognized Heavin as an honored alumnus.

Heavin leaned on tenZhthoff for more than funding.

“I actually used to go and tell my problems to him. He was always there for me helping me through the shit. He was just a great guy. I owe my existence in the way that I’ve lived my life to people like him and to the maestro. I was just sort of there and fell into some stuff.”

Finding himself and his purpose

Pastor became his next mentor.

“The maestro and my time in Spain was my salvation. The guitar saved me. When I arrived there was an apartment for me. The maestro’s wife was like my mom. His son was like my brother. I realized shortly after I got there I was his only student. He rarely took them. There were Spanish boys waiting in line to study with him.

“He put all of himself into that one student. That’s why he didn’t take on many. It was really like a fairy-tale…”

Heavin struggled with why he should be so fortunate.

“The thing that’s odd about it is that I had only been playing about a year when the maestro invited me to Spain. It was confusing because there were Spanish boys who could play better than I.”

It nagged at him the entire time he was there.

“I kept asking, ‘Why did you pick me?’ And he would never answer it. I suspected he may may have just felt sorry for me because I was a Vietnam vet and I wanted to play guitar and he saw the gleam in my eye.”

Then, the night before his study-abroad fellowship was up and he had to return home, Heavin walked with Pastor down a wet, cobblestone street in Old Madrid.

“He said, ‘You keep asking why I picked you over all the Spanish boys. Well, truthfully, the Spanish boys are good guitarists and will always be good guitarists.’ Then he put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘But you will be a great guitarist.’ Until then, I was too naive to know if I was any good or not. But he knew. It gave me everything I needed to go forward.”

Not only did Pastor give him a career, Heavin said, “he gave me back myself.”

“He became like my father. We got really close.”

Pastor opened doors to him in Spain that otherwise would have been closed.

“What surprised me mostly when I got there is that he would have me go with him to these recitals he performed for the governors of the provinces in these beautiful concert halls. He would introduce me to very stately, formal people with diamonds on their cigarette holders. I was out of my league. He would me talk me up to these people. i just kept my mouth shut because I was a fish out of water.

“What he was doing was introducing me to the fact I didn’t need to be intimidated. Afterward he would say, ‘I always tell them what they want to hear and then I laugh about it later.’ In other words, don’t take it seriously. Deal with the people you have to deal with and try to understand them so that nobody’s offended. To him a concert was there to make everyone feel better, no matter who they were.”

The jovial Pastor charmed the upper crust in one setting and street people in another. With Pastor’s help, Heavin regained his own sense of humor.

“You can’t take life too seriously.”

Segundo Pastor

Second home

He found acceptance in Spain even after his ally and teacher died.

“After he passed away I did a tour with my friend Pedro, who was also a guitarist, playing the maestro’s music. We played in some of the same places the maestro had taken me to. We even played in his hometown where he was buried. We were very well received. We would always open the program with duets. Then one of us would close the first half by playing solo. Then the other one would play solo. Then we’d finish up with duets. Almost all the music was what the maestro played or wrote. It was a homage to his life.

“I remember walking out on stage at a music school to play solo. I looked out in the audience – there were a lot of guitarists there – and everybody was sitting up straight with their arms crossed, like, Who is this American? It made me a little tentative. But when I got done playing I got a standing ovation and everybody came walking up to me, kind of ignoring Pedro. Everybody was hugging me. Meanwhile. Pedro was over there getting mad. But when Pedro and I played in the States, he was the exotic one, so it was like a tradeoff, only the Americans were a little more forgiving.”

Earlier, Heavin toured Spain and America with Pastor. They once played Carnegie Hall together. He even brought Pastor to perform in Omaha.

During his time in Spain with the maestro, Heavin was introduced to the great guitar builders in Madrid, including the legendary Manuel Contreras.

“I got to know them personally. I played their guitars.”

He also got in on the end of a romantic era when artists – musicians, painters, writers – would get together in cafes to throw down beer or wine while talking about politics or bullfighting or art.

“But those days are gone,” he laments. “The last time I was back there I was talking to some young people about this musician or that musician and they didn’t know who I was talking about. They didn’t even know who Manuel de Falla was (one of Spain’s preeminent composers of the 20th century). I’m glad I got to experience that culture at the time that I did.”

Memories of Pastor are embedded in him. He absorbed the maestro’s mannerisms. The way Heavin plays and teaches, he said, is “very similar” to Pastor.

Heavin recalls a New York City recital they did together. Beforehand, Heavin peaked out from behind a curtain to see a jam-packed hall whose overflow crowd was even seated in folding chairs on stage.

“He saw me looking worried because of all the people and he asked, ‘Hadley, are you nervous?’ I said, ‘Yes, maestro, I’m very nervous.’ He said, ‘Why? Only five guitarists have died on stage.’ I started laughing and I played really well that night. So I’ve used that numerous times on students before they go on stage.”

Once. while visiting Pastor in the town of Caunce, he was reminded how much he took after his teacher.

“His son and I were walking behind him. Segundo said  something funny and I started laughing just like him and his son took my arm and said, ‘It is necessary for you to play the guitar like my father. It is not necessary for you to be like my father.'”

Having learned Spanish in Spain. he became fluent. “But I’m not so good at it anymore because I don’t use it. When i start using it, it starts coming back.”

A part of him would have loved making his home in Spain. But his family’s here. He helped raise his daughter Kaitlin with his ex-wife. Kaitlin is lead singer in his band Tablao. About a decade ago he remarried and now he has grandkids to dote on.

He teaches part-time, plays local gigs (you can soon catch him at The Hunger Block), ropes and rides. He was a Nebraska Arts Council touring artist for decades,  but his touring days are over.

“I enjoy not worrying about stuff so much anymore –making that flight or getting somewhere.”

 

The cowboy thing

His escape from academia is still the outdoors.

“The cowboy thing comes from when I was 4-years old watching Roy Rogers and Gene Autry movies. We grew up with a real simple outlook on how life’s supposed to be from these good guy and bad guy Western values. It’s pretty complex now. There’s a lot of variables that I think are hard for people to deal with.

“I loved horses. I always wanted a horse from the time I was four. When I was in high school I couldn’t afford a horse so I started rodeoing – riding bare back broncs and bulls.”

He fell head over spurs for it.

“It was a short-lived career because I went in the Army.”

He eventually got back into riding and roping. Today, he mostly enters team roping jackpots and Western horse shows. He has lots of stories. Like the time he was on a gelding at Kent Martin’s horse ranch.

“I backed him in the box and I roped two or three steers. I was heeling on him and he’d come around the corner and buck a little. But I was kind of showing off, thinking, ‘Aw, that’s nothing.’ Then there was one steer that ran really hard. I still thought, ‘We’ll be alright.’ Well, we’re going around the corner and he just started bucking. The steer was getting away from us and I was leaning out over the front trying to rope this steer and the next thing I know I went off right over the front of his head and landed on my shoulder. He stepped on the other shoulder as he was bucking over the top.”

As Heavin lay sprawled in the dirt, sore and dazed, Martin came riding up on his horse, not to offer sympathy, but good-natured cowboy sarcasm.

“Looking down at me, Kent said, ‘Get up, Hadley.’ I said, ‘I can’t right now.’ Then he said, ‘I’m going to charge you a tanning fee if you lay there lay any longer.'”

Martin doesn’t let it go at that. He describes the fall tis way: “The wind changed directions just gradually and caught Hadley just wrong, and he fell off.”

Heavin takes the ribbing in stride, saying, “That’s the way cowboys are. Everybody gets bucked off and   everybody gets injured. It’s no big deal.”

Martin does concede that Heavin “rides pretty good.”

Just as in Spain, Heavin travels in many circles in Nebraska and gets on with everybody. It’s bred in him.

“My whole family were Southern Democrats. We had all kinds of friends, even in the South.” As a progressive living in a Red State, he’s used to debating his Republican friends. “Luckily they tolerate me because I stand up to the stuff they say. We argue. They say things like, ‘We should kick him out of this roping club.'”

He doesn’t mince words about American adventurism.

“I understand Afghanistan was a response to 9/11 and we needed to be able to strike out against something. Iraq, I didn’t understand. That country’s much worse than it would have been if we had left it alone. I didn’t agree with that war. We get our people killed, we spent billions and billions and billions of dollars and we got guys like (Dick) Cheney making a fortune off it.

“I think (George W.) Bush’s heart was probably in the right place, but I think he was mislead. He went in there thinking there were weapons of mass destruction.”

Few of his students and fellow faculty know he’s a vet.

“I don’t tell those people much about this stuff,” he said within earshot of Martin, who quipped, “Hadley’s a closet cowboy.”

Heavin still burns from an old headline that described him as a “real rootin’-tootin’ classical guitar playing cowboy. “I took a lot of heat over that.” He prefers “classical cowboy.”

Music educator

Music offers escape from daily worries, world affairs and partisan politics. He’s been teaching classical guitar almost as long as he’s played it.

“I started teaching as an undergraduate, just privately, in Missouri. While studying for my masters at the University of Denver, I taught all the undergraduates in guitar and coached the ensembles.

“I came to UNO in 1982.”

Combining performing with teaching is tough.

“One robs you of the other. If I were out there performing a lot I wouldn’t be as good a teacher. I would have to be very selfish. I wasn’t a very good a teacher back when I toured because I wasn’t around as much. I’d go off on tour to play and then I’d come back and try to do makeup lessons and it’s really hard to do.

“Touring robs you of putting energy into other people when you have to have that yourself to go on stage and play as perfectly and as musically as you can. It’s a lot of energy, especially with classical guitar. It’s just a difficult instrument to play. After I started winding that down, teaching became more and more important. It’s a high priority for me.

“I’ve got former students out there teaching now and they teach kids that eventually come to me. It’s all coming full circle.”

Some former students are accomplished players, such as Ron Cooley, who plays with Mannheim Steamroller.

For years he only taught adults, but now he’s started teaching younger people and enjoys it.

He also teaches older than average students.

“I’ve got a 72-year-old lady, Sue Russell, that takes lessons and she’s really good. She’s been studying with me for probably 20 years. She plays Flamenco and classical. She’s awesome.

“I have a cardiologist, John Cimino, who’s studied with me for 20 years. He’s amazing. He practices every day despite his busy schedule.”

Long graduated students still rely on his expertise to fix technical problems others cannot. One former student came to him after his new teacher could not explain how to correct a flaw with his fingering.

“I said, ‘Here’s what you do,’ and I explained to him the physiology of it and how he could make it work and he just sat there and did it. That’s what other teachers miss

and that’s from 40 years of teaching.

“Some of the best players can’t teach at all. They’ll be sitting there teaching somebody in front of people and this student obviously has a big issue with a certain finger and the teacher will just say, ‘Well. you’re doing that wrong,’ but they can’t tell them how to do it. That’s what I’m good at.”

Expressive playing is big with Heavin. One of his all-time guitar idols, Steve Ray Vaughan, exemplified it.

“Musically I’m really big into the emotional side of playing. I’ve got a good balance between the physical and emotional. But it’s really hard to teach guitar. You can give all kinds of exercises to do. Some guys will do the work and nothing ever really happens. There has to be a thought process in a student’s head to actually make that happen.”

He recognizes Pastor’s teaching in his own instruction.

“Like he did with me, if someone’s doing something wrong I’ll shake my finger and say, ‘No!’ That taught me how to focus and to take this more seriously. It permeates my teaching today. And a lot of times I ask questions. I’ll stop them in a piece and say, ‘What are you doing?’ That’s how I get their focus.

“Until they start questioning something, they don’t listen. I’ll gradually hone in on the issue before getting to it too quickly. I’ll say, ‘Your wrist is cocked a certain way which causes your A finger to hit at a different angle,’ and then I’ll ask to see their hand. I might say, ‘That nail looks like it’s filed differently than the others.’ I’ll drill them and write out an exercise for them to do to fix that problem and show them how it’s supposed to feel. The hardest thing to do is to teach somebody how to feel something, but I’m really good at it.”

He rarely imparts the classical lineage he represents.

“I’m a little careful with that. I don’t just hand that to everybody. If I’ve got a student working hard and in their last year, then I start dealing with that lineage. I will have them play a piece by Francisco Tarrega. Then we’ll deal with all the technical issues. Then I’ll talk about this lineage thing. ‘What you’re going to hear from me now is as if you were sitting with Tarrega himself because the man I studied with studied with the man who studied with Tarrega, and this has been passed on.

“It’s not just me they’re getting it from, they’re getting it from all of us in the line. The students that figure that out and treasure that are the ones that go off to other schools and blow everybody away,”

He has students watch top guitarists on YouTube to illustrate that even technically brilliant players can lack subtlety  “Those players have it totally wrong. They’re not that close to the source so they don’t know how it’s played. It’s technical but not expressive.”

Heavin breaks it down for students.

“I’ll tell them what’s wrong with it. I’ll say, ‘Here’s what Tarrega wants–- he wants this to be very rhythmic through this phrase because this is going to be a recurring rhythmic unity in the piece. But we don’t do it all the time. It’s what we come back to each time to set it up again. Even a lot of great players don’t know.’

“That’s when they start feeling they’re getting something here that’s different. Some of them are never going to get it and maybe they’re doing it for different reasons. The guitar’s not really their major or where they’re going to end up, so I don’t necessarily put that on them  because it’s almost a responsibility once you have it.”

His world-class level instruction fits well within a UNO Music Department he says has “risen to a high level.”

“Hadley’s exceptional professional experience enhances our programs in a unique way,” said UNO School of Music Director Washington Garcia. “Visiting guest artist Manuel Barrueco, one of the greatest concert guitarists of all time, left Omaha raving about the talent of our students, all due to Hadley’s work and unconditional commitment to their artistic and academic development. As an artist, Hadley carries that tradition of many great masters and is a reflection of talent at its best.”

Having it his way

His cowboy friends know about his classical side. His recitals in Omaha and western Nebraska draw roping cronies.

“They’re full of questions, like, what about your hands?”

To protect his digits, he’s headed most of his roping life. Atop his horse, a header runs with the steer and can kick off when in trouble. Heeling entails catching up to a hard-charging steer moving away. Applying a rope can singe, even take fingers. At his age he’s now allowed to tie on hard and fast, which makes heeling safer.

Wherever he goes in ranch-rodeo country, he can swap stories with horsemen. One such place is the giant Pitzer Ranch in the Sandhills.

A top hand, Riley Renner, “won the very difficult ranch horse competition out there and he did it riding my mare Baley,” Heavin, said sounding like a proud owner.

“They do what they call a cowboy trail where they run this obstacle course. They’re running flat out, too. It’s a timed event. It’s all judged. The thing started at 7 in the morning and didn’t get over until 11 at night. The same horse all day long. My mare is kind of famous for going through that. She’s big and strong and easy.”

Asked if he’s ever played guitar on horseback, Heavin deadpanned. “I don’t mix the two genres.”

He enjoys socializing but if he had his druthers he’d just as soon hang out with horses.

Training a horse and a person is not so different.

“There’s a process you go through that’s not always exactly whispering. It’s more of making the wrong thing difficult and the right thing easy, so that the horse believes this is what I need to do. That’s where the trust comes in.”

With students, he said, “I use a lot of horse analogies, like trying too hard and getting too tight. I’ll back them off and say, ‘You’re kind of like a horse that’s nervous in the box. If you try too hard, you end up beating yourself up.  I wait till the horse relaxes.'” Similarly, with students, he said, “I slow everything way down so they can think about every move they make. And it works.”

Pastor’s loving instruction won the trust of his greatest student. Forgiveness freed Heavin to share with others the sublime gift of his music and lineage.

It’s been quite a ride.

Heavin doesn’t consider his story anything special. In his best Western wit, he sums up his life this way: “A guy’s gotta do something between living and dying.”

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

 

Ted Genoways Gives Voice to Rural Working Class

August 23, 2018 Leave a comment

 

Ted Genoways

Gives Voice to Rural Working Class

by Leo Adam Biga

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Originally appeared in July-August 2018 issue of Omaha Magazine ( http://omahamagazine.com/articles/ted-genoways/)

 

Award-winning poet, journalist, editor, and author Ted Genoways of Lincoln, Nebraska, has long been recognized for his social justice writing as a contributor to Mother Jones, onEarth, Harper’s and other prestigious publications. While editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, the magazine won numerous national awards.

His recent nonfiction books—The Chain: Farm, Factory and the Fate of Our Food, and This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Farm—expand on his enterprise reporting about the land, the people who work it, and the food we consume from it. The themes of sustainability, big ag versus little ag, over-processing of food, and environmental threats are among many concerns he explores.

He often collaborates on projects with his wife, photographer Mary Anne Andrei.

His penchant for reporting goes back to his boyhood, when he put down stories people told him, even illustrating them, in a stapled “magazine” he produced. His adult work took root in the form of secondhand stories of his paternal grandfather toiling on Nebraska farms and in Omaha meatpacking plants.

His father noted this precociousness with words and made a pact that if young Ted read a book a week selected for him, he could escape chores.

“I thought that was a great deal,” Genoways says. “Reading John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men was the first time I remember being completely hooked. After that, I tore through everything Steinbeck wrote, and it made a huge impact on me. I thought, there’s real power in this—if you can figure out how to do it this well.”

Reading classics by Hemingway, Faulkner, and other great authors followed. The work of muckrakers such as Upton Sinclair made an impression. “But those Steinbeck books,” he says, “have always really stuck with me, and I go back to them and they really hold up.”

Exposing injustice—just as Steinbeck did with migrants and Sinclair did with immigrants—is what Genoways does. Nebraska Wesleyan professors Jim Schaffer and the late state poet of Nebraska William Kloefkorn influenced his journalism and poetry, respectively. Genoways doesn’t make hard and fast distinctions between the two forms. Regardless of genre, he practices a form of advocacy journalism but always in service of the truth.

“I’m always starting with the facts and trying to understand how they fit together,” he says. “There’s no question I’ve got a point of view. But I don’t show up with preconceived notions of what the story is.”

He’s drawn to “stories of people at the mercy of the system,” he says, admitting, “I’m interested in the little guy and in how people fight back against the powers that be.”

While working at the Minnesota State Historical Society Press, Genoways released a book of poems,Bullroarer: A Sequence, about his grandfather, and edited Cheri Register’s book Daughter of a Meatpacker. At the Virginia Quarterly, he looked into worker illnesses at a Hormel plant in Austin, Minnesota, and the glut of Latinos at a Hormel plant in Fremont, Nebraska. He found a correlation between unsafe conditions due to ever-faster production lines—where only immigrants are willing to do the job—and the pressures brought to bear on company towns with influxes of Spanish-speaking workers and their families, some of them undocumented.

That led to examining the impact “a corporate level decision to run the line faster in order to increase production has up and down the supply chain” and on entire communities.

“That’s become an ongoing fascination for me,” Genoways says. “I can’t seem to stop coming back to what’s happening in meatpacking towns, which really seem to be on the front line of a lot of change in this country.”

The heated controversy around TransCanada Corp.’s plans for the Keystone XL pipeline ended up as the backdrop for his book, This Blessed Earth. He found “the specter of a foreign corporation coming and taking land by eminent domain” from legacy farmers and ranchers “and telling them they had to take on this environmental risk with few or no guarantees” to be yet another challenge weighing on the backs of producers.

His focus became a fifth-generation Nebraska farm family, the Hammonds, who grow soybeans, and how their struggles mirror all family farmers in terms of “how big to get and how much risk to assume.”

“They were especially intriguing because they were building this solar and wind-powered barn right in the path KXL decided to cross their land, and that seemed like a pretty great metaphor for that kind of defiance,” he says.

Pipeline or not, small farmers have plenty to worry about.

“Right now, everything in ag is geared toward getting bigger,” Genoways says. “The question facing the entire industry is: How big is big enough? What do we lose when we force farmers off the land or make them into businessmen more than stewards of the land? To my eye, you lose agri-CULTURE and are left with agri-BUSINESS.”

Farming as a way of life is endangered.

“Nebraska lost a thousand farms in 2017,” he says. “Those properties will be absorbed by larger operations. The ground will still be farmed. The connection between farmer and farm will be further stretched and strained. That’s the way everything has gone, and it’s how everything is likely to continue. Agribusiness interests argue these trends move us toward maximum yield with improved sustainability. But it also means decisions are made by fewer and fewer people. Mistakes and misjudgments are magnified. So we not only lose the culture of independence and responsibility that built rural communities, but grow more dependent on a version of America run by corporations.”

Chronicling the Hammonds left indelible takeaways—one being the varied skills farming requires.

“We saw them harvest a field of soybeans while keeping an eye on the futures trading and calling around to elevators to check on prices; they were making market decisions as sophisticated as any commodities trader,” Genoways says. “This is one of the major pressures on family farms. To survive, you have to be able to repair your own center pivot or broken tractor, but also be a savvy business owner—adapting early to technological changes and diversifying to insulate your operation.”

The Hammonds weathered the storm.

“They are doing well. They got good news when the Public Service Commission only approved the alternate route for KXL,” he says.

Meanwhile, Genoways sees an American food system in need of reform.

“We would benefit mightily from a national food policy,” he says. “How can you explain subsidizing production of junk food and simultaneously spending on obesity education? How do we justify unsustainable volumes of meat while counseling people to eat less meat? If we really want people to improve their eating habits, we should provide economic incentives in that direction.”


Visit tedgenoways.com for more information.

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Paula Poundstone talks Dick Cavett, Donald Trump and getting comfortable in her own skin

August 17, 2018 Leave a comment

Paula Poundstone talks Dick Cavett, Donald Trump and getting comfortable in her own skin

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Standup comedian, panelist, commentator and author Paula Poundstone brings her wry humor to the Holland Performing Arts Center on Friday, August 24.

She owns history with two native Nebraska television comedy icons. She guested on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. At the 2012 Great American Comedy Festival in Norfolk honoring his legacy, she was joined by fellow satirist Dick Cavett, whose own talk show she’d done. Last fall she did a Lincoln gig with the venerable host, author and New York Times columnist.

“I love Dick Cavett,” she said\ “In 2014 we did this series in Los Angeles where writers interview writers in front of an audience, and I interviewed Dick for that. Somehow from that came this thing of he and I working together in Nebraska. It was so much fun.”

“Oh my God, that was a dream night,” Cavett said of their latest collaboration. “We have a rapport somehow on stage together. We just like each other. We don’t interrupt. There’s no trace of competition. That’s rare with two performers both out there pulling for laughs. It’s a little theatrical miracle. We both get each other’s rhythm and it starts climbing and it just gets into a freewheeling situation you don’t want to end. It plays so well you’d almost think it’s a well-directed play.”

“He’s a wordsmith,” Poundstone said of Cavett, “so mostly I try to make sure he has some space to do his thing. You know he’s got so many great stories. I don’t know if he did this by design or if it’s just the way life worked out, but he became friends with legends – Stan Laurel, Groucho Marx …”

Cavett confirmed it was by design he befriended these towering comic figures, but he added he counts himself fortunate to know Poundstone, too.

“Paula is a genuine wit. So smart and so funny. Seeing Paula work an audience is one of the great experiences in performing arts. She’s an acknowledged genius at it.”

He recalls she was one of his few guests who ever hand-wrote him a thank-you note. Chalk it up to her New Englander-by-way-of-Southern-good-mannered-parents-bringing-up. Meanwhile, she defers any IQ edge to her erudite colleague.

“Dick has me there. He’s corrected my grammar before in emails. So he wins.”

It still blows her mind he was targeted by President Richard Nixon. As a pundit, Cavett criticized Nixon and tackled the still unfolding Watergate scandal on national TV when no one else in mainstream media would touch it (see Dick Cavett’s Watergate on YouTube).

“I’ll tell you what Dick has that I’m so jealous of, which is audio tape of Nixon saying, ‘Is there any way we can screw him?” What I wouldn’t give for (Donald) Trump to go down and for them to later find him cursing me along the way that he will somehow get me.”

A Trump-aimed barb she tweeted in the 2016 campaign did trigger a response, only not from the man Cavett’s called “the missing Fifth Marx Brother – Trumpo,” but from what she suspects were his minions.

“For the next maybe 48 hours my Tweeter feed was busting with vicious, cruel, horrible comments about me,” she said, “and then it went away. I’m fairly certain it was, A, Putin, B, bots, and, C, an army of people Trump has ready to do that. But why me, I don’t know, because I’ve tweeted many things since then not flattering to him and it never happened again.

“But an automated tweet is not nearly as good as Nixon saying how can we screw him.”

Even though Trump provides steady fodder, she said, “I would be happy to never come up with another joke again in exchange for justice being served in terms of Donald Trump. I’ll gladly make stuff up. I don’t need our lives to suck in order to think of jokes.”

She’s never thought her work as frivolous but “as the years go by,” she said, “I personally value my job more and more and more.”

“I consider myself a proud member of the endorphin production industry given the evidence of how important it is not just laughing but laughing with other people.”

“When people type LOL, generally speaking, it’s a lie. Looking at something on a screen when you’re by yourself you don’t laugh. You might acknowledge you think it’s funny, but you don’t laugh. The experience of laughing, even if you go by yourself to a theater or a movie or whatever, you have some connection to the rest of the audience. It’s important being in the room with other people.

“I don’t suggest people have to come see me, although wouldn’t that be nice, but it’s really important to go out and be with other people for a night of laughter. To me, the fact I get to do that and I get paid for it feels better and better every day that I live.”

Decades into her career, she feels freer being herself than ever before.

“There is something to be said for experience. The other thing is and I think this goes along with just life in general, I’m becoming more comfortable with who I am. What I endeavor to do on stage is actually to be the most me I can be, whereas when I was younger I don’t know if I was entirely comfortable with who I was in the way one becomes as time goes by.

“I went to my 40th high school reunion last fall and it was so damn much fun. I went to a couple of them before but none were as good as the 40th because you’re just old enough you don’t really feel the need to impress people, nor are you impressed by others who do feel that need. It just felt like everyone had taken a deep breath and exhaled.”

Her new book The Totally Unscientific Study Of The Search For Human Happiness(Algonquin Books) “is a series of experiments doing things that either I or other people thought would make me happy,” she said.

“Every chapter is written as an experiment with the conditions, the hypothesis, the qualitative and quantitative observations, the variable, et cetera. The real question for me wasn’t what I would enjoy because I know what I enjoy, but what can I do that will leave me with a bounce so that when I return to my regular life I have some reserve. My regular life being raising a handful of kids and animals and being a standup comic and being stuck being me 24 hours a day.

“In the analysis part of each chapter I check in with my regular life to see how things are going. it’s the story of raising my kids and by the end of the book they’re all out of the house.”

It took her seven years to write.

“It’s number one job is to be funny and I think it achieves that, But mercifully any number of reviewers noted it was more than that and that’s certainly satisfying..The audio version was one of five nominees for audio book of the year at the Audis last year, although it didn’t win. But it was up against A Hand Maid’s Tale, so I didn’t feel that bad about not winning. It’s pretty good company. You could do a lot worse.

“Now it’s a semifinalist in the James Thurber Prize for American Humor (competition).”

Fame is a relative thing and Poundstone’s content where she falls on the spectrum.

“I’m not a household name except in my house – where I insist on it. Nobody has to close a store for me to go shopping.”

“Crazy-making” is what she calls the social media expectations placed on creatives these days. “Now when your agent sells you to a promoter or a theater they want to know how many followers you have and what social media you do. All of that’s considered part of the package, which is too bad.”

She’s recently discovered the bliss of going unplugged.

“I’ve started doing this thing where I sometimes don’t have any devices on so I can just think. It’s a scary leap.

I can’t say I always like it. But I do find myself being a little bit more productive.”

She prefers authentic human connections. As Dick Cavett notes, she’s adept at improvising with audiences.

“In the beginning I thought I shouldn’t be doing that. But fairly early on I realized the heart of the show was in these unique things that weren’t going to happen in the other show – it’s just unique to that night and to that audience. Sometimes I kind of put my line out there. I’ll start talking to somebody and then I leave it and come back to it later. You just sort of weigh in little pieces of information that eventually connect and fill the show.

“It took awhile to recognize it is a very valuable thing to be doing and to get pretty good at.”

Her Omaha show starts at 8 p.m. For tickets, visit, ticketomaha.com.

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

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FROM 2012

In 2012, I also interviewed Paula Poundstone and Dick Cavett – that time on the everof their appearing at the Great American Comedy Festival in Norfolk, Nebraska. I refer to that event, which honors Johnny Carson, in the 2018 story featured above. Poundstone and Cavett both had Carson in common: she was a guest on the Tonight Show with the King of Late Night present and Cavett first wrote for Carson (before that, for Jack Paar) and then competed against him with his own talk-show, though they were always the friendliest of rivals.

 

One-liners and nonsequiturs will fly at the June 13-17 Viareo Great American Comedy Festival in Norfolk, Neb., where the late comic great Johnny Carson grew up.

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in a 2012 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

This annual celebration of the funny side is equal parts competition, workshop and roast.

Its home base is the Johnny Carson Theatre at Norfolk Senior High, where the legendary Tonight Show host graduated. The event welcomes professional stand-ups from around the nation vying for cash prizes. Paula Poundstone is the headliner. Jimmie “JJ” Walker is the “legend” recipient. Past Legend honoree Dick Cavett hosts a comedy magic show.

New this year is a June 14-15 Omaha showcase at the Holland Performing Arts Center featuring the fest’s standup contestants in 7:30 p.m. shows.

Poundstone and Cavett, long ago paid their comedy dues. They represent different generations in the craft but well identify with the vagaries of starting out.

She broke in during “the comedy renaissance” that saw clubs sprout in her native Boston and everywhere in the late 1970s-early 1980s. Open mic nights became her proving ground.

“They were just coming into being. I just lucked out in terms of time and place,” she says. “They had shows with guys who had no experience and they were awful but because there was no one else around nobody knew they were awful, and I got in on the awful train – when you could suck and it didn’t really matter. Now I think it’s a lot harder to get stage time.”

She was only 19 when she took the first of two cross-country Greyhound bus trips  on an Ameripass, stopping to perform at open mics in places like Denver, living out of a backpack and catching zs on the road between gigs.

“Odd but genius. It was pretty bold. I mean, I look back on it now and think, Whoa, boy, that could have gone bad. It was my nineteeness that saved me. You think you’re invincible…That helped a lot.”

She knew she belonged as a stand-up when she got to the west coast.

“I kept getting day jobs of necessity for a while. At one point on my second Greyhound bus trip I ended up in San Francisco. It was such a great place to be. It was perfect for my age and my personality and for the type of stand-up comic I am.

The audiences were willing to allow the comic to experiment in a way I found nowhere else in the country.

“It was there I gave up my day job.”

The Other Comedy Club near the Haight Ashbury District became her favorite venue.

“A bizarrely unassuming place. I found the best audiences there. Also, the people that ran the place liked me and gave me opportunities. One of the best things I ever did was host the weekly open mic night. Your job is to introduce people but also to kind of keep the crowd, so you’ve got to do a little bit in between. I would run out of material and I got to think on my feet and interact with the crowd and do all the stuff that’s really the good stuff.

“I had some raggedy nights where it just didn’t work or the crowd was horrible. I have better odds now.”

She describes the high that is stand-up as “addictive,” adding, “otherwise why would you?” (subject yourself to it).

Meeting fans after shows holds its own high, especially when this adoptive mother of three finds she’s struck a chord with parents over one of her favorite topics – the impossibility of child-rearing. “When those moments occur it really makes me feel worthwhile,” says Poundstone, whose concerts, HBO specials, books and recurring panelist role on Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me keep her busy.

Not surprisingly, Cavett admires Poundstone, who guested on one of his shows. “She may be one of four-five guests in all the years I did those shows who sent a thank-you note. It was a lovely, nice, handwritten note and it gave me a softer spot for her even than I already had. I was on Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me a couple weeks ago but I was sorry she wasn’t there that day so I could thank her again.”

Now he gets the chance to tell her in person. She may share her admiration for an impromptu bit he once did with Benny Goodman. Noticing the jazz great’s fly was down and sensing a rare chance to both prevent embarrassment and score laughs, Cavett instructed Goodman “to do exactly as I do.” As Cavett stood up with his back to the audience, Goodman did the same. The gestures that followed were unmistakable and funny, yet gracefully didn’t reveal whose fly was undone.

“I can’t imagine thinking of that,” says Poundstone. “It’s brilliant, just brilliant.”

Unlike Poundstone, Cavett made his bones in the business writing for others. After graduating Yale he worked as a New York Times copy boy when he audaciously wrote a monologue on spec for Jack Paar and personally delivered it to the Tonight Show host at the RCA building. He lived the dream of seeing some of his jokes used that very night on air. He soon became a staff writer for Jack, then Johnny. On the side he did stand-up in clubs. He doesn’t exactly miss it.

“Thank God I’m not doing that anymore. Some nights were awful, some were exhilarating and made you think this is what I’ve always wanted. When you would top a heckler you’d get a big thrill out of that.”

Once he got his own ABC talk show he delivered a monologue every night.

“It’s a horrible burden for anybody doing a talk show.”

The closest he’s come to stand-up in recent years is narrating the Broadway production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

“I treated it as a stand-up appearance, so I did stuff I had thought up that day or had worked the night before. I ad-libbed with the audience. I had a great time doing it. But those years at the Bitter End and the Village Gate and The Gaslight and Mr Kelly’s and The Hungry Eye all helped bring that about.”

His advice to aspiring comics is “get the best material you can, work as often as you can.”

Having Carson in his corner helped him survive the stand-up gauntlet.

“I would go back to work the next day for Johnny and he would ask me how it went the night before and we would laugh particularly hard when it went badly. He would be very helpful with joke wording. He’d say, ‘You’ve got a good premise there but you don’t go far enough with it.’ A lot of good advice.”

Cavett’s still touched by the affection Carson showed him and that he reciprocated.

They’re forever linked by their small town Nebraska roots (Cavett was born in Gibbon and raised in Grand Island and Lincoln) and similar career trajectories. They both performed magic as youths.

“We met over magic in the Westminster Church in Lincoln. As kids in junior high three of us went to see the magician and radio personality Johnny Carson from Omaha.”

That each went on to host his own network talk show still amazes Cavett. “Isn’t that funny – two magicians from Nebraska?” He promises to perform “my genius” rope trick at the comedy fest. Cavett, who pens a Times column and occasional books, regularly gets back here, He hopes to get in some time in his beloved Sand Hills.

Keenly aware he’ll be on Carson’s home turf, at an event paying homage to its most famous native son, his rope trick will be one more link in their shared legacy.

For schedule and ticket info, call 402-370-8004 or visit www2.greatamericancomedyfestival.com. Omaha Showcase details are at http://www.omahaperformingarts.org.

Up, Up and Away in My Beautiful Balloon

August 8, 2018 Leave a comment

Up, Up and Away in My Beautiful Balloon

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Omaha Magazine

 

No end of metaphors describe a hot air balloon suspended in the sky. To some, it’s a giant, free-floating lollipop, to others a floating bouquet of flowers. Even Christmas ornaments come to mind.

The sight of an inflatable riding the air currents brings out the kid in everyone.  Occupying the basket of a balloon, whether to sightsee or celebrate a milestone, offers a bird’s-eye experience. Most passenger flights last about an hour. Young, old or in-between, it’s an unforgettable joy ride.

The intrepid aeronauts who pilot these contraptions insist that hot air balloons truly are THE way to fly with the greatest of ease. Nebraska Balloon Club members are devotees of a time-honored pastime with its own rituals and traditions.

Ballooning is a hobby, business and sport for Tom Peterson, Rich Jaworski and Steve Lacroix, three active balloonists, instructors and NBC officers. The club promotes the activity statewide. Peterson, its president, said the group numbers about 100 members, including 29 pilots. It organizes free balloon flights, tethered and non-tethered alike, for dozens of charity events each year.

The three men have their own commercial balloon companies whose flights for-hire cover any occasion. Jaworski also does competitive ballooning — attempting extreme duration flights. He owns several world records.

Balloonists are as varied as their balloons, which range from towering to tiny, but all feel the tug of the breeze-blown freedom soaring among the clouds presents.

“There is just so no other way to fly that makes you feel so intimately associated with the Earth,” said Peterson, who pilots Dreamtime. “It’s the closest thing to that dream of flying I had and many other people had as a child, where you lean forward into the wind, spread your arms wide and you lift-off effortlessly. To be able to fly at tree-top level and pick the leaves off the top of a cottonwood or to dip down and brush the tassels of the corn, to follow the contours of the hills and valleys…

“If we go off over the Elkhorn River there’s some spectacular bluffs that drop a couple hundred feet. We come right over the treetops and drop right down following that fall of the land and we set down on a sandbar in the middle of the river. Then, when we take off again, we just hang there like the cottonwood fluff in mid-air. There’s no other way you can fly that you could do that. It’s definitely my passion.”

He equates skimming the air in a balloon with gliding on water in a sailboat. In each case, he uses cues to gauge wind speed and direction: ripples on the water’s surface, smoke plumes, blowing leaves.

Rich Jaworski said his balloon’s name, Euphoria, is an apt description for the experience of flying in one.

“I think it is,” he said. “It’s a feeling of happiness and buoyancy. Each flight is a different adventure. Never knowing where you’re going to land is part of the fun. It’s the antithesis of the American tradition of going from point x to point y. We go from point x, but we don’t know where point y is going to be. We’re definitely not conformists. We want to do something different.”

 

 

Just don’t call them casual thrill-seekers or madcap adventurers. The activity is too unforgiving to tolerate show-offs.

“I would not characterize any of the pilots I know as daredevils,” said Peterson, “because you can’t be a good pilot and be a daredevil. A daredevil is someone who is always pushing the edge and to be a good pilot you need to understand what are the limitations of the balloon, what are your limitations as a pilot and what are the limitations of the information you have about the weather. Meteorology is an imperfect science — we know some things but we don’t know them perfectly. If you’re a daredevil and pushing the edge eventually the edge catches up to you.

“The pilots I know and that are members of the club respect that edge and stay a safe distance back from it by staying within the limits of their abilities and skills and the capabilities of the aircraft.”

For Jaworski and fellow aeronauts a successful flight is a safe one. At the end of a trip he said he feels “self-pride and a sense of accomplishment.” The engineer said his penchant for “figuring out how things work” turned him onto ballooning:  “The beauty of the balloon and the tranquility of its flight, coupled with the technical challenges and the meteorological phenomena one has to come to understand, it just connects a lot of dots for me. Also, the social aspects of working with crew and passengers, and giving back to charities, have been very satisfying and fulfilling.”

Whether launching aloft alone or in a group, balloonists comprise a fraternity dedicated to what Jaworski calls “sharing the joy.” Some gypsy across the country from rally to rally, others fly close to home or only go up for special events.

The Nebraska Balloon Club makes regular launches at Zorinsky Lake and plans a summer slate of rides at Mahoney State Park, John C. Fremont Days, Iowa’s wine country and many other locations and events.

Whatever the occasion, said Peterson, once hooked, you’re a balloonist for life. “They’re just so magnificent, the colors, the fact you’re rising on nothing more than just a bubble of hot air. It’s just magical.”

For a schedule of summer balloon rides, visit nebraskaballoonclub.org/.

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