Love affair with Afghanistan and international studies affords Tom Gouttierre world view like few others
In the annals of unforgettable people I’ve interviewed and profiled, UNO’s retired director of Center for Afghanistan Studies and dean of International Programs and Studies Tom Gouttierre ranks right up there. This is my new profile of him for the March 2017 issue of the New Horizons published by the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging. Look for it at newstands and for subscribers in your mailbox starting Feb. 27.
My first encounter with this irrepressible man came some 20 years ago and I’m still recovering from it. I mean that as a compliment. You see, Tom fills up a room with not only his big frame and personality, but with the breadth of his life experience and the depth of his passion for things he cares about. Because he is a citizen of the world and considers his second home to be Afghanistan, where he lived and worked nearly a decade and that he made the center of his professional life,. he has an expansive view about things that you don’t run into every day. He’s seen things most of his fellow native born Americans haven’t. That translates into him apprehending the world in terms most of us don’t or can’t because we don’t have his experience or expertise. He even shakes hands differently than most of us. He calls its an international handshake. His immersion with Afghanistan, first as a Peace Corps volunteer, then as a Fulbright Fellow, then as director of the Fulbright program in Kabul and finally as director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, he became an official ambassador to that country. He has many close friends who are Afghan. You can’t turn around in his Dundee home without seeing something from there. That first meeting I took with Tom was for a long interview I did to inform a cover profile I wrote about him and his love affair with Afghanistan. His affection for that nation and its people runs deep and it’s safe to say his thoughts are never far from there and them. The article I did all that time ago contrasted the veritable paradise that the peacetime Afghanistan was in the 1960s and early ’70 with the devastated shell the invading Soviets left it in. Like the millions of refugees who fled their homeland, Tom has despaired that his dream place has been so violently disrupted and shattered during three-plus decades of ongoing chaos, terror, violence and war. Like some of the Afghan people, he’s never stopped hoping and trying to do what he can to stabilize and rebuild the infrastructure. His UNO Center conducted many education programs with Afghans in exile and with resident Afghans. Tom served as a top U.S. advisor on the country. He retired from UNO from 41 years but the center’s work continues and his personal interest in and connection to Afghanistan remains strong.
Here’s a link to that earler story I did about him–
Love affair with Afghanistan and international studies affords Tom Gouttierre world view like few others
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in the March 2017 issue of New Horizons
On the surface, Tom Gouttierre led a parochial Midwest life growing up in post-World War Ii America. By the time he was at Bowling Green State, he expected a traditional, stateside education career awaited him. Little did he imagine the far-off places his work would eventually lead, first as a Peace Corps volunteer with wife Marylu, then as a Fulbright Fellow, and finally as longtime director of UNO’s Center for Afghanistan Studies and dean of International Studies and Programs.
Gouttierre retired in 2015 after 41 years doing jobs he loved. His work brought him into contact with U.S. presidents, secretaries of state, ambassadors, generals, foreign leaders, geo-political intrigues and momentous events. But what he most enjoyed was interacting with International Studies students. Some came from all corners of the globe and others right from his own backyard.
“The thing driving me more than anything else was advising those International Studies majors – young Midwest kids very much like I was wanting to learn and work in the world,” he said. “I was so inspired regularly to be with these young dynamic students who wanted to do something, It was that more than any one thing that kept me working until age 75. That, and the fact that I’d step outside my door and be surrounded by students from all around the world.
“I had what I think most people who are interested in higher education and global affairs would have to be described as the dream job. I got to deal on a daily basis with hundreds of international students. They inform you even by their presence, they inform our students, they stimulate education. It’s really dynamic and so much fun.”
When Gouttierre came to UNO in 1974 after a decade of living and working in Afghanistan the university had fewer than two dozen international students and only one international program. When he left four decades later there were more than 2,000 international students and scores of programs.
The center’s work its first decade-and-a-half revolved around a donated archive comprising the largest collection of Afghan cultural material and documents outside its borders. The center’s role broadened after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. With the country in tatters and millions of Afghans in refugee camps, the center tasked itself with rebuilding that Central Asian nation’s education infrastructure. Meanwhile, UNO’s Intensive Language (ILUNO) program gave the University of Nebraska at Omaha a global presence as students from diverse nations came for intensive training. Gouttierre’s experience and expertise made him a go-to U.S. government advisor and media source. During his tenure, the center managed some $120 million in federal contracts and grants.
He was part of high-level, secret negotiations for the Soviet Union to exit Afghanistan after its failed invasion. He oversaw programs that trained hundreds of Afghan residents and refugees in learning English. public administration and advanced teaching skills. Some of those trained by UNO. either here or overseas, became key players in Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy. Long before Hamid Karzai became president of Afghanistan, he and Gouttiere knew each other. Another close personal friend is current Afghan president Ashraf Ghani – a former student of Gouttiere’s. The American’s Dundee home is filled with artifacts from his and Marylu’s time there, including collections of rugs and mortars and pestles. Their home features arches reminiscent of Middle Eastern design and a solarium with a running fountain.
It’s ironic Gouttierre ended up being a citizen of the world because he barely left his native Ohio before age 25. In 1965 he took his first airplane trip anywhere – to Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul. It was home to Tom and Marylu for may years, Adam, the oldest of the couple’s three sons, was born there, The country, the culture and the people fundamentally changed the course of Gouttierre’s life.
“I learned their language and culture to an uncommon degree and the reason I did is because i liked them so much,” said Gouttierre, who’s fluent in Dari. “I learned the language well enough to write poetry in their tongue and to have it published there.”
He went first as a Peace Corps volunteer, then as a Fulbright Fellow and eventually he headed the Fulbright Foundation there. He also coached amateur basketball teams, even the Afghan national men’s team. He once enlisted the advice of the Wizard of Westwood, UCLA coaching legend John Wooden, on how to run his famous zone press. When the Afghan nationals upset the Chinese, Gouttierre got carried off the court by jubilant players and fans chanting, “Mr. Tom.”
His immersion was as deep and complete as possible for an outsider. His interest in and affection for the people has never wavered and has been reciprocated in kind.
“They’re so warm and receiving and supportive. Afghans are the most hospitable people I’ve ever met in my life anywhere around the world and I’ve met wonderfully hospitable people In Japan and elsewhere. But Afghans, who have probably far fewer resources to extend in their hospitality, are heads and shoulders above everybody in their belief in their hospitality. Anybody who tries their language or knows their history is embraced by them and the more one knows these things the more one is drawn to learn more. I still enjoy that very much.”
“It’s important to know what the people are like.”
He admires the fierce, proud nature of Afghans who have famously taken up arms throughout history to repel enemy invaders in defense of their homeland and autonomy.
“They’re one of the most independent-minded people in the history of mankind. They defeated the British empire three times, they beat back the Soviet empire. They’re resilient.”
They’re also grateful to anyone who assists their aspirational dreams.
“Afghans would demonstrate and plead with the Ministry of Education to have Peace Corps volunteers teach them English in their schools.
They loved it. They were going through a democratic change at the time. They had a constitutional parliamentary monarchy with a new constitution that took control out of the military state. It was a remarkable thing that roughly coincided with the time I was there.”
Tom Gouttiere holding his oldest son Adam in Afghanistan
Before and after
In more recent years, Afghans have sent teams of teachers and journalists to Omaha for intensive training. But progress is slow in this tortured era of terror attacks. Reconstruction needs are vast. Corruption, rampant. The nearly nonstop fighting of these last 30-plus years has left Afghanistan in tatters. The devastation and loss is a far cry from the veritable paradise Gouttierre once experienced there.
“When I lived there it was a dream place,” he said wistfully. “It was the ideal place to serve as a foreign service officer. I got to know the Afghans and I got to know them intimately. And I knew everybody because I was there 10 years and I coached basketball. It’s a small town country. So it was ideal.
“Female Peace Corps volunteers like my wife could bike anywhere all by themselves without any fear for security. In fact, the country was charged with protecting these Americans. There were messages on the radio saying, ‘These are our guests,’ all while radio Moscow from antennas in Tashkent (Uzbekistan) beamed in that we Peace Corps volunteers were handmaidens of the CIA.”
None of this seemed a likely landing spot for this child of 1950s mid-America. But beneath the cookie-cutter facade of muscle cars, rock ‘n’ roil lyrics and school proms Gouttierre pined for adventures far from home. He wasn’t sure how to make those yearnings reality until John F. Kennedy laid out a vision for the Peace Corps during his 1960 presidential campaign and encouraged young people to serve their country and the world in his 1961 inaugural address. The vision sparked a sense of wanderlust in Gouttierre that dovetailed with America looking beyond its shores to win hearts and minds during the Cold War.
Coming of age in Maumee, Ohio, Gouttierre followed his devoutly Catholic, hard-working Belgian-American family’s lead by going to church and cheering for their beloved Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Detroit Tigers. His sports passion continues unabated today. He also follows Indiana and Creighton University basketball and UNO hockey. He’s a Mav season ticket-holder.
His father hailed from a long line of glass blowers but became a master baker. Tom worked in the family bakery from the time he was a boy and mastered the craft himself. Generations of Gouttierres emigrated to the States and Tom became enamored with his grandparents tales of the old country.
“I would constantly ask my grandparents and great grandparents about these things. I knew about Belgium. I was aware of the rest of the world. So I always had this interest.”
He studied maps and globes. He devoured books.
“I loved to read from The Book of Knowledge (children’s encyclopedia).
I was a curious kid. If I didn’t love sports i would have been a geek. We didn’t have geography bees but I would have loved to compete in them. I knew where the Zambezi River was and all these things.”
He loved foreign languages. One grandmother spoke only French. He went on to learn French. Latin, German, Russian and Dari.
None of his international experiences may have happened though if not for JFK’s clarion call to serve.
“I was 20 year-old college undergraduate when John Kennedy gave his address. It was THE momentous political moment in my life. Here was this rock star with a message drawing upon the angels of our nature, not the devils, that really appealed to the values Americans were feeling. It was revolutionary, too, because he was the new generation. He had just replaced one of the oldest presidents (Dwight D. Eisenhower) we ever had. He was calling for this new frontier.”
JFK’s challenge to Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” and to to the world – “ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man” – was a call to action Gouttierre couldn’t ignore.
“It was a tremendous opportunity. Marylu and I were dating then. It really inspired us. I went into grad school, I graduated and we went into the Peace Corps as a married couple. My passions were driven and still are by that particular message. It’s the greatest generational message any American leader has given other than FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt), who took us out of hell with “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” and Lincoln who implored us to behave “with malice toward none, with charity for all…”
“I am forever indebted to the Peace Corps and the Fulbright program.”
Peace Corps volunteers at a 1965 event outside a Kabul orphanage. Tom Gouttierre and wife Marylu are in the background along with Omaha educator Howard Faber.
A new era
Gouttierre said new U.S. President Donald Trump’s desire to build walls and ban immigrants is “so insular” by comparison.
He said Trump’s executive order travel ban has only inflamed immigration fears and frustrations.
“People are up in arms over immigration but Congress does nothing. What Trump has done through executive order is bring a tension. I don’t think his order was well-advised and I don’t think the content of it was appropriate to the task. The other thing I’m concerned about is that this kind of decision hurts our long-term trade and other political and cooperative relationships we have with numbers of these countries. We need the collaboration of many of them to help track down and vet individuals.
“What we need to have is improved vetting – there’s no question about that. I don’t think the vetting process now, though not totally unsuccessful, is as efficient and sufficient as it needs to be. It’s
chronically underfunded, understaffed and just not able to keep up with the demands.”
He said another unfortunate result of the ban will be the adverse effect it has on international student populations around the United States.
He favors rigorous trade negotiations that benefit America, but fears too hard a line might touch off trade wars that prove harmful.
“There’s all kinds of things we do we’re not going to be able to do or afford if we have trade wars,” he said. “We’ve got to think what this is going to do to our personal economies and our relationships with colleague nations and trading partners. We’re able to have the good life in Nebraska as we call it because Nebraska markets abroad.”
Among the many challenges Trump faces, he said.is is putting together an effective cabinet team that can help him effectively govern.
“Frankly, his team isn’t all that bad. They may think differently than I do, butt they’re all quality individuals.”
Regarding what Trump’s foreign policy looks like, Gouttierre said, “He’s somewhat of a blank canvas. We don’t know yet. He appears to be an individual who doesn’t create policy based on policy study or things of that nature. He hasn’t yet shown that. But he has indicated he wants to keep the U.S. strong and there’s no way we can keep the U.S. strong and not continue to be concerned with how the events in Afghanistan have an impact on our interests in that region of the world.”
For going on two decades American lives and resources have poured into Afghanistan to fight terrorists who’ve used that country as a staging ground and safe harbor. Every day Afghans want the terrorists out. The average Afghani gladly accepts America’s help in restoring the country to normalcy. But they warily watch for any signs American commitment is wavering. It’s happened before.
“Ashraf Ghani and President Trump have had a conversation and they both pronounced it as having gone well,” Gouttierre said. “We’ll see. I think at this stage most Afghans are just hanging loose. Believe me, Afghans at the common citizen level have a keen knowledge and focus about what’s going on in the United States than a great number of Americans because they know what happens here has major impact on their lives and their future.”
Gouttierre feels America’s relationship with Afghanistan has mostly been positive and well-received in each country.
“I think most Americans were very supportive of everything we were doing in Afghanistan after 9/11. They were also supportive before that when the Soviets invaded the country and we gave the Afghans weapons to resist them.”
UNO’s Afghanistan center took a lead role in educating the nation.
“Our center had funds to teach Afghan refugees, who number in the millions in Pakistan. After 9/11, the same thing – our center helped reopen the Ministry of Education and we prinedt books, supplied schools and trained teachers.
“We had an intimate relationship.”
By UNO bringing Afghans here over so many years, he said, a real understanding of that nation and its people developed.
.”In Nebraska we probably have a higher percentage per capita knowledge of Afghanistan and the people of Afghanistan than any other part of our country.”
Visiting Afghan teachers, for example. participated in programs in Omaha, Lincoln and host cities across the state.
“Nebraskans knew about them because they were seeing them and meeting them and loved them and developed intense relationships with them, so there were these good feelings.”
Relations between the nations changed once the war on terror began.
“Things started to kind of deteriorate after the invasion of Iraq” and the subsequent war in Afghanistan, Gouttierre said. “People say the war in Afghanistan is our longest war. I really resent that. It is not accurate historically. The longest by far and away was the Cold War. It required us to be intense and focused throughout in our competition with the Soviets and the Chinese. Nearly 50 years we had that.
“This is not a war against Afghanistan, it’s a war within Afghanistan
that’s a part of the greater global war against terrorism. Like the Cold War, it’s ideologically-driven and it’s going to take a solid long-term commitment to deal with it and put it out. It’s not going to just go away.
It’s going to require taxes. The biggest mistake George W. Bush made after going into Iraq was that he tried to run that war without taxing. You can’t have a war without taxes. And what did it do? It broke our national banks and we wound up with 2008 (recession).”
Afghanistan being a battleground in the war on terror, he said,
“unfortunately has infused a negative opinion about our experiences there.” He added, “Quite frankly, most of the enemies we’re fighting are in Pakistan. They go back and forth. It’s not the Afghan people.
Well, some of them. But that’s not the war – the war is against terrorism, Al Qaeda, Isis.”
The U.S. wouldn’t even be in Afghanistan militarily if Osama Bin Laden hadn’t sought refuge and established terror training camps there.
“Now we’re in this situation which is unfortunate,” he said. “They’re our closest allies in that whole region. They really want us there. Think about it. How many of the other countries really want us?”
Gouttierre rues America abandoning Afghanistan after it’s remarkable defeat of the Soviets.
“What happened was in ’89 we dumped Afghanistan. The Soviets had left and then the USSR collapsed. Then every nefarious group in the world went into a country which had no governmental structure, so it became the dump for all the drugs. When Marylu and I lived there we never saw a field under cultivation with opium poppies. That’s all post-Soviet invasion.”
Bin Laden was among those who exploited the vacuum of power.
“He went there to fight the Soviets like a great many else did, then he went home to Saudi Arabia, where he was a citizen. although his family was originally Yemeni. They’re a very successful family worth billions of dollars. When Saddam (Hussein) invaded Kuwait, Bin Laden went to the Saudi government and said, ‘Let me bring my Afghan Arabs,’ meaning those who fought against the Soviets, ‘and we’ll drive Iraqi forces out.’ On the other hand, there was the whole United Nations coalition and Saudi Arabia went with that.
“A disgruntled Bin Laden went public about the corruption of the Saudi government and monarchy, calling them the handmaidens of the West.
He was very vocal about this and he got kicked out and his passport taken away. He fled to Sudan. The Saudis put pressure on the Sudanese to kick him out, so he went where he knew – back to Pakistan and then Afghanistan. That was in 1996. He went to Afghanistan because there was no government there. He was allowed and welcomed by the Tallbs.
“He arrived just a few weeks before I did as a member of the United Nations Special Mission to Afghanistan.. I was the senior political affairs advisor for that mission based in both Pakistan and Afghanistan to try to bring the Taliban and the Northern Alliance together. The Pakistanis were constantly trying to undermine it, so it didn’t happen. They were supporting the Taliban.”
In his advisor role Gouttierre was tasked with building profiles on Bin Laden and the Taliban.
“These were both things about which i didn’t know much because they were new dynamics.”
He soon learned they posed a dangerous threat with clear intentions on attacking America.
Gouttierre never met Bin Laden but he did see his caravan pass through a Kandihar bazaar.
“I was walking in Kandahar and all of a sudden the bazaar went silent and there was a small convoy of SUVs that went through and everybody chanted, ‘Osama, Osama, Osama.’ Everybody knew who he was because he was putting money into Afghanistan. He had billions to do that. So I didn’t see him eye-to-eye but I saw his presence. That’s as close as I got.”
Gouttierre feels the U.S. hung Afghanistan out to dry after the Afghans drove out the Soviets,
“We switched administrations – we went from Reagan to Bush I. He and his secretary of state, James Baker, “saw great opportunity with the collapsing of the Soviet Union to ensure Russia would not come back as the Soviet Union again. That’s what their focus was. What Afghanistan needed, which I think it deserved, was some type of Marshall Plan. They were our allies fighting against the Soviet Union.
We owed them. They’re the ones that died.”
He said America’s failure to have a cohesive policy concerning Afghanistan and its fate proved costly.
“We didn’t understand how this would come back and bite us. We owed the Afghans something. That country was left in total destruction.
We talk about the tremendous refugee crisis now in Syria Why?
Because they’re going to Europe and they’re coming back to us.
Afghanistan had 7 million of its citizens outside of the country. There were 5 million in Pakistan, another 2.5 million in Iran. They lost over a million people in the war with the Soviets. We’ve forgotten that. Our memories are very short.
“So what happened? It came back and bit us in the butt. We dumped them and 12 years later we had 9/11.”
He suggests much of the chaos could have been prevented.
“We didn’t help the Afghans reconstruct their infrastructure. There were a lot of refugees in Pakistan and Iran who could have come back and helped to put something together. When we did start to help after 9/11, we blew it. We spend a lot of money and want immediate results. What does that bring? It brings mistakes, corruption, lost money.
The U.S. had $20 billion unaccounted for. Nobody knows where it is.
“The whole Muslim world was watching how we did it and we really messed it up. Now were trying to help the Afghans build out from under the mess our chaotic approach of throwing money and demanding quick results produced.”
Parween Arghandaywal pronounces words during English class at the University of Nebraska Omaha for visiting Afghan teachers in 2002. (©Omaha World-Herald Photo by Bill Batson)
Afghan women arrived in Omaha under the sponsorship of the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Saleemah, a teacher from Kabul and wearing a scarf is hugged by Masuma Basheer, an employee of America West Airlines in Omaha and a formerly from Afghanistan. (©Omaha World-Herald photo by Bill Batson)
Tom Gouttierre conferring UNO honorary status on Hamid Karzai during the then-Afghan president’s visit to Omaha
Finding an unlikely home for pursuits and passions
Gouttierre made Nebraska a haven for Afghans but he nearly didn’t come here himself. He was running the Fulbright Foundation overseas when he and Center for Afghanistan Studies founder Chris Jung, whose father was part of an Indiana University team in Afghanistan, began doing exchange programs. Then Jung died and UNO courted Gouttierre to take the open post. He told UNO officials no three times. He finally went to a trusted mentor, then-U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Theodore Eliot, who told him, ‘fI they offered me that job, I’d leave this job and take it.” Are you kidding me?” Gouttiere asked.
Eliot laid it out for him: “You love afghanistan, you love international education exchange – this is your way to go back to the United States.”
“I thought about it,” Gouttierre said, “and on April 1, 1974 I sent a cable to the head of the search committee that read, ‘This is no April Fool’s joke…I accept. I’ll report 1st of August.'”
Upon their arrival, the Gouttierres were struck by the welcome extended them and by the support that helped the center and international studies and programs rapidly grow.
“There was such an interest, such an enthusiasm in Omaha, more than we could have expected. It was really something we could have only dreamed for, hoped for,” Gouttierre said.
Under the leadership of chancellors Ronald Roskens and his successor Del Weber UNO caught the nascent wave of globalization. The university went from having a limited international presence to being a national leader in global engagement.
“Our whole experience here from the very beginning was overwhelmingly positive. It never ended and it still hasn’t. There was real receptivity and that’s what made it so wonderful.”
Sister University relationships were formed. The intensive language program, he said, “took UNO’s name all around the world. People came to Omaha, Nebraska to study intensive English. When I got here in ’74 the challenge was to get people to come to Omaha, Nebraska. We didn’t have agriculture. We didn’t have dorms. Well, we started an intensive English language program and it became one of the largest, most highly regarded ones in the Midwest. We became a leader.”
Former UNO chancellor Del Weber said, “Tom took a fledgling program and built it into an outstanding Center for Afghanistan Studies and International Studies known throughout the country. He combined a deep intellectual knowledge of the MIddle East with an on-site practical understanding of Afghanistan, Forty-one years ago few in Omaha would have known how to spell Afghanistan yet find its place on a map. It was a forgotten county. Countless Nebraskans are now well informed. That is no rare feat.”
Introducing his adopted state to the country that adopted him and that captured his heart has been satisfying. Being part of the inner workings to get the Soviets out was stimulating. His last trip to Afghanistan was in 2014 and he hopes to return again.
He’s grateful for the support subsequent UNO administrators continued showing the center and international studies and programs. He’s appreciative, too, of the strong team around him that made extensive travel to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Washington D.C., for example. possible. UNO’s partnerships with Kabul University are particularly close and varied, including a journalism exchange program between faculty and students from each institution.
Weber marvels at what Gouttierre wrought.
“I admire Tom for his grasp of the Middle East and Afghanistan, his sharp focus and his single-minded emphasis on that area. All of his time, effort and knowledge was given to building that program he was brought to build at UNO. He stood up for it, fought for it and succeeded in making a superb program known nationally and internationally.”
Weber got to see Gouttierre in action on some overseas trips they made together.
“My many travels with him told me much about his work. He was a man who knew how to play and work hard. On one of our trips to Pakistan we convinced the American consul In Islamabad to permit us to go into Kabul for a short trip to see our school programs in-person. The consul told us if we ran into any problems we were on our own as the U.S. government would not provide any assistance.
“We stayed with the minister of protocol, who insisted I sleep in his bed. As I crawled in, I felt a pistol under the pillow. Since there was no electricity, I gingerly put the pistol on the floor. In the morning I discovered it was loaded. He told me no one in Kabul was without his pistol in bed. We went to the airport to catch a Red Cross airplane back to Islamabad only to discover it had been grounded due to shelling at the airport. Again we stayed with the minister. That night in the city under siege was a long one. I wondered if we would ever get back.”
Even as Gouttierre’s profile increased and opportunities to go elsewhere emerged, he said, “I never, ever considered leaving Omaha. I love being in Omaha. The luckiest break of my life was to say yes to come to UNO and Omaha in 1974.”
His cozy ties to the U.S. State Department aroused suspicions in some quarters he was a CIA operative but he flatly denies it. While he did get push-back from some colleagues, he said most UNO faculty and staff expressed support, as did alums and the Omaha community, for the center’s work. No student protests raised objections.
“In all the speeches I’ve given, and I’ve given so many, I’ve never had anybody ask a question or make a comment that was motivated by a sense of meanness. I had people disagree with me, but that’s alright –I like that, I like to have discussion and debate.”
Tom Gouttierre relaxing at home
Stepping back and moving on
Though he clearly found his calling, Gouttierre said he always looked forward to retirement. He only worked as long as he did because he enjoyed his job. Now he’s enjoying that long anticipated retirement.
“My intent was to do more of the things I love to do with family and friends and that’s exactly what I’m doing.”
He’s taking his family to Lakeland, Florida to cheer on the Tigers at spring training. He said a day doesn’t go by without he and his sons exchanging texts or emails about the club.
His love of fine dining, cooking, reading, conversation, movies and tinkering around the house keeps him plenty busy.
Wherever he is, whatever he’s doing, his joy tinged with sadness affinity for Afghanistan is omnipresent. That place is so very far away, yet reminders of it are everywhere in his life and home. The feelings and memories always near.
“I’ll never be able to set aside Afghanistan. That’s a passion of a unique nature. I learned so much about life by having the opportunity to live among them, broadening my horizons, enriching my appreciation of other peoples, languages, cultures. I gained greater appreciation of our country by having the chance to live abroad – the best kind of comparative education.
“These opportunities have made me a better informed and more sensitive person and appreciative of the many breaks i have had.”
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.
This past summer Stuart Chittenden formulated an equally brilliant and lovely idea to explore the power of conversation for making community when he struck out on the road for a meandering journey of small talk into the very heart of his adopted state, Nebraska. Traveling by RV, the ex-pat Brit stopped in a series of towns and cities to sit down and talk with people about what community means to them, but mainly he listened to their stories. And he recorded those tales. On his weeks long adventure he met and had conversations with a cross-section of this state’s salt-of-the-earth folks and he came away with a new appreciation for this place and for people’s diverse lifestyles in it. Read my Journeys piece here about Chittenden and his project for Metro Magazine or link to it at http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/. Or get your copy of the print edition by subscribing at https://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/Subscribe/
IMAGES FROM STUART CHITTENDEN’S WEBSITE © http://830nebraska.com/ unless otherwise noted.
From the Metro Magazine print edition
How a wayfarer’s Nebraska odyssey explored community through conversation
Stuart Chittenden’s magnificent obsession led to an epic road trip…a summer sojourn across the state centered around community and conversation
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the Nov-Dec-Jan issue of Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)
Leave it to an ex-pat Brit to travel Neb. in search of what makes community in this Midwestern place. He did it the old-fashioned way, too, by engaging in dozens of face-to-face conversations with residents across the width and breadth of the state over a month-long journey.
Traveling alone in a rented RV, Stuart Chittenden, 46, stopped in urban and rural settings, on main streets and side streets, in libraries, coffee shops, barber shops, bars, town squares and private homes to chew the fat with folks. He shared the fruits of his travels and conversations across social media via his project website, Instagram posts and Twitter tweets. He also did radio dispatches for KIOS 91.5 FM.
Chittenden made the August 10-September 5 trip for his project A Couple of 830 Mile Conversations. Nebraska is about 430 miles from east to west but his purposely meandering, circuitous route nearly doubled that distance each way.
He will be making public presentations about the project across the state this fall. Beyond that, he’s considering what to do with the 100 hours of recorded interviews he collected.
The project received an $8,000 Humanities Nebraska grant matched by monies from an online Indie Go-Go Crowd Funding campaign.
The experience fulfilled a lifelong fascination he’s cultivated with American archetypes. He’s long wanted to see for himself the places and characters who’ve fired his “fertile imagination” about pioneers, cowboys, ranchers, rugged individualists. indigenous cultures and immense open spaces. The project gave him an excuse to “follow the archetypal American adventure to go west.”
Not surprisingly, the experience made quite an impression.
“My reactions to the state are that it’s remarkably diverse, very historic. There are areas of natural beauty really quite remarkable. Physically the state is an intriguing. lovely and delightful place to go and explore. In terms of the culture. I was surprised by how vibrantly pioneering the west of the state feels. In Scottsbluff several people demonstrated this zest for self-determination, for sustaining themselves and coming together as they need to. Billy Estes and others there credit that spirit to the legacy of the pioneers.
“In a more remote community like Valentine it also means you don’t have any other choice but to fix things or make things. You do it for yourself or it doesn’t get done. To see that spirit is to really appreciate it. I thought most rural communities would seem somewhat tired and there are those towns that do appear to be in a position of uncertainty – they don’t know what circumstances are going to do to them and so they feel in flux. But then there are those other towns that aren’t allowing circumstances to dictate what happens. They are looking at the available resources they have and managing those things in ways that make them sustainable.”
Individuals made their mark, too.
“Owen Timothy Hake in St. Paul touched on the courage needed in the choice to sit and talk with a stranger.”
R. Mark Swanson in Valentine recounted how conversation was therapeutic for him in the wake of his father’s suicide and losing his 16-year-old son. He told Chittenden that stories are “a form of freedom.”
The project was also an extension of work Chittenden’s been doing with conversation as a mediation and relationship tool. He wanted as well to assess the facility of this human communication medium as a means for finding consensus around the idea of community.
He says the project was “founded in my belief conversation is a way we connect better and form community.” It was also his opportunity to discover how people across the state talk about community. “I was very aware of the supposed divides between rural and urban. Also I wanted to put to the test my beliefs about conversation to see if it really has that kind of power or potency.”
Tom Schroeder in Dannebrog told Chittenden how community requires genuine personal, emotional investment. Community often came up in the sense of the safety it offers. Others spoke about community in terms of the appreciation they have for their town.
Though Chittenden’s lived in Omaha many years – his wife Amy is a native – the journey was his first real foray across the state with the intention of finding the heart of things and closely observing and recording them. That’s why he opted to follow the road less traveled – taking highways and byways rather than Interstate 80.
Making sense of it all
Still fresh from meeting people wherever he found them, he’s been weighing what these encounters and dialogues reveal. He says it was only at the end of the trip he began “to formulate some ideas around what community means to people.”
“Some of these incipient thoughts around community are that it’s paradoxical,” he says. “I heard a lot of people talk about things like it’s trusting, it’s supporting each other and it’s feeling safe and not locking your doors, et cetera, and that’s all true. But it didn’t really ever quite get to the heart of the matter. And the more people talked the more other elements started to come out that suggested to me community is a paradox. If you try to create it by saying, ‘I’m going to make my neighborhood a good community,’ it’s a very difficult thing to do.
Community instead is a deliberate individual choice to behave and do things in ways that invest in something not directly related to you.
“It’s a very individual action and it’s a very deliberate choice. The people that are active and altruistic and do something that isn’t selfish – the effect of that is community.”
Not his first rodeo
All of this is an extension of a path he’s been on to use conversation as a community building instrument. It started when he first came to Omaha to work as a business development director for David Day Associates, a branding agency he still works at today.
“Being new in town required me to network. I found there to be an arid landscape for engagement of a depth beyond one inch and that was not satisfying to me. I didn’t want to be in a new community and establish networking connections that had no merit other than just superficial Neb. nice. So that was one provocation that led me to desire more meaningful conversations with people.
“The second track is that the more I look around me in Omaha and in communities across the nation I see increasing division and inequality – wrapped up in very casual stereotypes and bigotry to people on the other side of the fence – and I am morally outraged by that situation.
I’ve begun to see that my contribution to the better health of our society is just to increase understanding of The Other and the way to do that is to engage people in conversation. You don’t have to like them, you don’t have to agree with them, but if you can do anything to increase rapport and understanding, you’ve already taken very bold steps to a more cohesive society.”
He felt strongly enough about these things that he and Amy hosted a series of by-invitation-only conversation salon evenings in their mid-town home beginning in 2010.
“People would come together and talk about issues without an agenda and move beyond the superficial,” he says.
That morphed into salons led by siimilarly-minded creatives. But after two-plus years it got to be more than the couple could handle at home. At Amy’s insistence, he looked long and hard at how much he wanted to continue doing it and the need to take the model out into the world.
“It was something incredibly meaningful and fulfilling for me and therefore I wanted to see if it had merit beyond the personal in our home,” Chittenden says.
He then formed Squishtalks, a for-profit platform for conversation-based interventions and experiences he develops and facilitates for organizations, corporations and communities.
The 830 Nebraska project amplified everything Squishtalks represents and reinforced what he feels his purpose in life is shaping up to be.
“Conversation is not only something of benefit to communities and to individuals but what I’m learning is that it’s my calling.”
“My reactions to the state are that it’s remarkably diverse, very historic. There are areas of natural beauty really quite remarkable. Physically the state is an intriguing. lovely and delightful place to go and explore.”
“I’ve begun to see that my contribution to the better health of our society is just to increase understanding of The Other and the way to do that is to engage people in conversation. You don’t have to like them, you don’t have to agree with them, but if you can do anything to increase rapport and understanding, you’ve already taken very bold steps to a more cohesive society.”
“Conversation is not only something of benefit to communities and to individuals but what I’m learning is that it’s my calling.”
“The list of people that will stay with me from this project and whom I intend to maintain connection is quite long.”
To be or not to be
Calling or not, Chittenden felt the project pulling him in different directions.
“I wrestled with should I heavily promote the project in the places I was going to or not promote things at all but literally just turn up somewhere totally unannounced. The difficulty with over-promotion is that what happens is you run the risk of getting a queue of people who want to talk at you and you miss other people. People self-select for reasons that perhaps aren’t the reasons you want them to sit down and talk to you. At the other end, if you just roll in and don’t tell anybody – I could be sitting around places and having no conversations with anybody.”
He resolved this dilemma by playing it down the middle “so things weren’t contrived but I’d also have people to talk to,” adding, “That was an interesting dance and I don’t know whether it was right or wrong, one could never really know. But I feel as if I struck a balance between reaching out to a few interesting people in advance, reaching out to library directors to work with them, and then just showing up.
“Actually getting on the road, the experience was very much working out – where do people convene, where does anybody convene in any environment for any purpose, where do people go to protest, to celebrate, to feel a safe environment for provocative conversation?
All of these things were occurring to me.”
Early into the experience, he says, “I realized I had to adjust my initial formal plan of just setting up in a public space to put myself into places where people did convene and often that meant a bar, more likely a coffee shop or the donut place and maybe stopping at the gas station to ask where the old-timers were. It was that balance between allowing serendipity to reign and if no one came and sat with me for two hours, that’s what happened, that’s how that was meant to be.”
At each stop, he says, “…maybe 95 percent of people would acknowledge me warmly or would respond to my greeting warmly. Maybe 2 in 10 would ask what’s going on and then 1 in 10 would sit down. And the reasons why the other people didn’t will remain unknown and I think that’s totally fine.”
Wherever he set up with his sign reading “Hello! Please sit and chat with me” he surrendered himself to take whomever fate offered in this intersection of outsider-meets-local. He was not disappointed.
People he won’t soon forget
“The list of people that will stay with me from this project and whom I intend to maintain connection is quite long.”
Two unforgettable characters were Lukas Rix and Mark Kanitz in Wayne.
“They’re in an open gay partnership in town. They are live wires. Very sophisticated, smart, lovely, generous, warm people running a business on main street called Rustic Treasures. They’re very interesting just because of who they are and the choice they made to be openly out in rural America. They talked about how if you do make that choice you can never turn it off – you become the barometer of gay issues for everything. We talked about that tension.”
Chittenden also heard their disenchantment.
“The business success they’ve created there is remarkable yet Lukas spoke of the ambivalence they experience from the Omaha young professional and entrepreneurial scene. That was my first taste of a community or group of people doing things that are genuinely interesting but facing the arrogant antipathy of the big urban center because we think it’s all irrelevant beyond the city limits.”
He found in college towns like Wayne and Chadron a tension between the campus and town cultures.
“I was told it’s like the seasons in how the vibrancy of a town ebbs and flows depending upon the student population. A professor in Wayne made a remark about ‘town and gown’ and that division between faculty-campus life and in-town residents. He talked about some of those differences and how these groups could do better to maybe be more integrated. In Chadron they call it the 10th Street Divide.”
There were characters and then there were characters.
“A guy called Butch Blecher in Neligh had a lot to say for himself between chain-smoking and chewing tobacco and telling me about how he’s in poor health. I was just across main street photographing something and he was on the other side in his wheelchair when he called out to me and I went across and sat down on the pavement for an hour-and-a-half while he talked about everything and anything.
“It was all storytelling. He interjected a tone of casual racism around Latinos being illegal immigrants and criminals and in the same conversation went on to talk about how much he liked a lady called Maria he bonded with. He let her get things from his garden and she cooked exquisite homemade Mexican meals for him. He was sad when she had to abruptly leave because she was illegal.
“It was fascinating to hear someone move from casual stereotypes into personal stories that defied those stereotypes.”
Chittenden says the exchange reminded him “we’re always informed in some way by our circumstances and it takes a lot of thought to step outside ourselves and recognize that must be true of everybody,” adding, “It’s difficult to judge people unless you get a sense of the landscape in which their lives and viewpoints were formed.”
In Alliance, Chittenden found a story of transformation and redemption in Native American Edison Red Nest III.
“He spoke powerfully and with brutal candor about the hope of his upbringing, the potential for success and how it all feil off the rails. He started doing drugs, dealing drugs, robbing places. He found himself in a federal penitentiary. He came out of jail, cleaned up and found himself again because Native American elders reintroduced a pride in his culture. He is now working in the community to help Native American children perceive the richness of their history and culture.”
Near Bayard, Chittenden got a guided tour of Chimney Rock from his ride, Gordon Howard.
“He’s by his own description a curmudgeonly S.O.B. and that’s exactly what he is. He put me in his truck, smoked his cigars and told me his stories as he drove up remnants of the Oregon Trail. Then we sat outside the rock for awhile.”
In Valentine, Chittenden was taken with Episcopal preacher R. Mark Swanson.
“He impressed me with his philosophical take on community and life
and how people adjust to hardships.
Swanson’s had his share of hardships and Chittenden says “he’s ministered to people who have experienced difficulties.” ”
“Mark and his wife Margaret were living up on the Rosebud Reservation. She was a teacher at one of the schools. He just struck me by how sensitive he is to relationships people form between themselves. There was an intelligence borne of ministering to hundreds if not thousands of people over his lifetime that just made me feel very warmly about him.
“He spoke very intelligently about the nature of the church and community and ministering and how people relate.”
In Loomis Tama Sundquist runs a convenience store-diner called Mrs. T’s that Chittenden found charming.
“I roll in and I’m chatting with the two girls at the counter and then Tama comes over and like any good proprietor she is all chit-chat and wanting to know what’s going on. She and her family race these small go-carts all around the region. She’s incredibly bubbly and has a lot of smarts about her. She’s the kind of person that fills a room up. She had plenty to say about the nature of town. I asked her what community is and she joked, ‘It’s a group of people too poor to leave.’ But I did have that impression of Loomis.”
The snob in him initially discounted having lunch there but the aroma, sight and sound of that day’s sizzling steak special won him over.
“This was the best steak I have had for a long time. It was fantastic.”
In Dannebrog, where all things are Danish, his visit to the bakery reminded him of an Irish pub. The old cronies enjoying coffee and dunkers there – John Nelson, Mike Hochstetter and Russell Powers –
welcomed the stranger with good-natured ribbing,
“These guys were so funny with their bantering and joking. Russell told how he had been confused by a tourist for Roger Welsch (Dannebrog’s most famous citizen for his best-selling books), so he just played it up and persisted in being Roger Welsch.
“John had had some surgery and never spoke, he just smiled, kicked his legs and gestured. Incredibly endearing the way he responded – the physicality of his presence so affirming.
“Mike is like 6-foot-7. He’s gigantic. He just seemed to be the epitome of everything I think about as the pioneering immigrant Scandinavian farmer – just from his look, his size, his poise. He wasn’t verbose but what he said was not wasted words. He was smart and intelligent with what he had to say. Like many other people I asked what community means and he just opened his big arms and warmly gestured, saying, ‘It’s what you see here.’ It was this idea that here’s this community place where people can come and talk about anything they want to.
“The money’s on the counter, non-molested. No one’s going to steal.
People pay what they should pay. You’re welcome anytime.”
Chittenden, who shaves his head, needed a shape-up at one point and got it from Chadron barber Don Dotson, whom he says is in “the great mold of barbers” as philosophers, psychologists and pundits.
“Don talked about community in somewhat predictable terms in the sense of this being a right-sized community, people know each other, that sort of thing. But he also warmly reflected on the fact that as one of only two barbers where Chadron once had more than 20 his place is now an even more important venue for community.
“He made it clear I was welcome to stay as long as I wanted to chat with him and the guys in there.”
One of those guys, Phil Cary, is a Chadron State College math professor.
“He came down to Chadron because he wanted a place he felt was the right environment to raise his boys. Since they’ve grown and left he’s come to love the community and doesn’t want to leave.”
Not everyone Chittenden met and spoke with wanted to be recorded.
One of those who declined was 83-year-old Dee from Broken Bow .
“She asked if I wanted to see a photo of the barn her father had built. I replied yes. She returned with a box. She was showing me some old photos and at one point her eyes lit up and, pointing at one photo, she said, ‘I remember!’ Dee then looked at me and said, ‘Perhaps it is a good thing you are here.’ We talked for three-and-a-half hours.”
The only two African-Americans he spoke to for the project – the paucity of blacks in greater Neb. dismayed him – declined to be recorded. He surmised they didn’t want to go on the record about what it’s like being black in a state where they are such a decided minority.
Between the 830-mile jaunt and various detours and side trips along the way, Chittenden logged 1.902 miles. The only formal route he followed was from Omaha to Scottsbluff. Everything else, including the return trip, was “random and digressive.”
“I had roughly mapped out the trip beforehand. On the road I used Google Maps and asked people for suggestions.”
He managed getting lost just once and then for only a brief while. He avoided any traffic tickets. But he did contend with some mechanical problems in the form of a bum water heater and various closet snafus that stops at a repair shop and a Menards, respectively, afforded the necessary if temporary fixes.
Mother Nature spared him any weather extremes.
An enduring sight after a rainstorm was “a delightful double rainbow on my last night out at the westernmost point of the trip in Scottsbluff.”
He slept every night away aboard the RV.
In terms of lessons learned or affirmed, he says, in order to engage in conversation “you have to be willing to be vulnerable” “If you don’t present yourself, you cant expect other people to do this. If you approach any environment with a sincere openness and willingness to appreciate someone else’s voice, then the door opens.”
In the end, he may have found out more about himself than anything.
“I don’t ascribe things to a divine hand. But if I’m going to make meaning from my life and think the net result of my being here was positive, then maybe conversation is the gift or the tool or the challenge I have before me to make this a meaningful existence.”
For more about his project, visit http://830nebraska.com/.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.
Brenda Allen is a good old broad. That’s a compliment by the way. She just says it like it is, take it or leave it. She’s funny, brash, the life-of-the-party and yet more than a little acquainted with tragedy. Her career as a country singer-guitarist took some unexpected turns, like taking her to Vietnam and Vegas. Her path and the forks in the road she came to along the way make her life story compelling. I tell that story in the following article for the New Horizons.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in the New Horizons
NOTE: This Web version contains bonus material not found in the print version
Brenda Allen is not your typical crooner come open mic nights at the southwest Omaha bar, Lauter Tun. Unlike the amateurs and wannabes who struggle carrying a tune, she’s a pro who can style a song to fit her voice and mood or any crowd and occasion. A real cut-up, she invariably does comedy bits as part of her act. Her brazen, earthy manner comes through loud and clear.
“I’m a straight shooter…full of piss and vinegar,” she likes to say.
The singer-guitarist, who was born Brenda Allacher, has decades of paying gigs behind her. She’s performed at major venues and appeared alongside bone fide legends, including the late Johnny Cash, who became a friend and champion.
Though long ago retired from her music career she simply can’t give up taking the stage, putting an audience in the palm of her hand and lapping up the laughs and applause. That’s why she often heads to the nearest night spot to present selections from her vast repertoire of country and rockabilly sounds.
A natural comedienne with a bold, often risque sense of humor, Allen is a no-holds-barred personality with plenty of stories to share from her eventful life. She sometimes catches audiences off guard with not only her humorous anecdotes but her unexpected true tales of love and loss, fear and regret, addiction and recovery.
She was in her early 30s when she had to leave the successful band she helped found, The Taylor Sisters, to address her alcoholism. She now has 39 years of sobriety that she maintains one day at a time.
The Taylor Sisters headlined at the famed Golden Nugget in Las Vegas when things came to a head for Allen, who upon getting herself clean and sober began a crusade against substance abuse.
“I left the show in ’73 because I was an alcoholic. I needed help,” she says. “I was told I had less than three months to live from cirrhosis of the liver. I had a good connection up there (she signals to heaven) because I’m the only one alive out of the original Taylor Sisters. He let me stay around because I talk about (the dangers) of alcohol and drugs. I started going into schools and doling shows like that. Then I went to nightclubs and said, ‘All you drunks, if you want to meet me tomorrow morning I’ll take you into detox.’ I talked about it even in nightclubs.”
Her use of alcohol to medicate feelings, she says, got worse after taking part in a three-and-a-half month tour of Vietnam the Taylor Sisters made during the height of the war in 1969. Servicemen called her “Crazy Legs” for the way she’d kick her legs up and fling her shoes into the crowd.
The members of the all-girl band were not really sisters but the things they experienced over there bonded them like blood siblings.
Allen is still haunted by all that happened. She survived a rocket attack that killed a U.A. Army nurse. Once, she got left behind by the convoy she was traveling in and had to catch up to it in the dead of night. After one show she talked her way out of a possible rape. Three U.S. army doctors died in an attack only hours after she met them. One time a mysterious U.S. Army colonel spirited her away, blindfolded, to a secret POW camp manned by a black-op Special Forces unit.
She can’t shake the fact mere boys were put in harm’s way for so dubious a cause. She fears their lives were lost in a conflict that had more to do with boosting the military industrial complex than defending freedom.
“To sacrifice a generation of young men for prosperity is sick,” she says.
She’ll never forget being around scared, lonely young men who saw in her and her fellow entertainers their girlfriends, sisters, mothers.
“They were looking at you, longing for you. We let them know America loved them and we were there to entertain them. We sat and drank with them just like we were one of the boys.”
Back home, Allen felt compelled to share these experiences with the press but she says nobody showed any interest. Then The Taylor Sisters hit it big at the Golden Nugget and between her busy career and wanting to forget what she saw at war she suppressed the trauma. Her drinking got out of hand. Not long after she left the group the other original Sisters died – one of cancer, the other by suicide, Just like that two of her closest friends were gone. She’s never married and has no children.
A man she dearly loved, Hollywood makeup artist Jerry P. Soucie, died in a 1989 motorcycle accident.
Life’s thrown more challenges at Allen. She was in a bad auto accident that cost her part of a foot. She was an identity theft victim.
After going on the wagon for good Allen returned to performing, sometimes with bands led by Johnny Ray Gomez and Pat Hamilton.
Increasingly, the entertainer felt a need to educate the public about the overlooked military and civilian roles American women played in Vietnam. She performed for veterans groups. Vets who saw her perform in Nam would call out “Crazy Legs” at her shows and she’d hold mini-reunions with them afterwards. She made a point to tell each vet, “Welcome home, soldier.” She advocated for a national memorial dedicated to the women who served. She was on a committee that pressed for the Congressional Medal of Freedom be given veteran USO entertainer Martha Raye.
A native of Lincoln, Neb., Allen grew up in nearby Martell, where her mother was the town switchboard operator. She sang at church and school from childhood. When her older brother went into the service he left his ukulele behind and she learned to play it. She soon switched to guitar. The advent of rock ‘n’ roll changed her life while a student at Lincoln High.
“That was the beginning of it all – The Memphis Five, Elvis, rock n roll. In 1958 we were rocking and rolling and the black sound was coming in and I loved it. I was the only one that played guitar in my school and the guys invited me to be in a rock ‘n’ roll band – The August Heat Wave. I was the only girl in the band. All the girls at school were mad at me.”
Her parents were not thrilled with her new passion.
“You know all the young girls found their libido after watching Elvis. My parents didn’t approve. My mother shut the TV off when Elvis was on. My dad said, ‘Why don’t you sing at church?’ I said, ‘They don’t applaud.”
She enjoyed every opportunity she could find to make music for people.
“I’d sit out on my front porch at night singing and playing and kids from the neighborhood would come. I loved doing that. I’d make money, too. I’d put a tin cup out there and say, ‘If you want to hear a song it’ll cost you a nickel.'”
The pretty, vivacious, saucy Allen attracted admirers. One was Charles Starkweather, just another neighborhood kid before he went on a killing spree that made him infamous. Allen was close friends with his sister Lavita.
“Charlie was nice looking but he had bright flaming red hair and he was bow legged and he spoke with a lisp, He was slow. Kids made fun of him,” recalls Allen. “Lavita loved him dearly. Charlie called up one day and said, ‘I’m Lavita’s brother.’ He’d been listening to me from his car. My father saw that and came out and said, ‘I don’t know who you are but I don’t want you here.’ I felt bad.”
Her last encounter with Starkweather gave her a chilling insight into what may have contributed to his homicidal rage.
“Lavita invited me to a slumber party and said to bring the guitar. There were about 10 of us girls. Her father came home and said hello and then here came Charlie. He sat down and listened to me playing guitar and asked if I would show him some stuff. I said sure. I gave him the guitar, showed him chords, and his father came in and said, ‘What are you doing in here you little shit?’ He was drunk. The dad took Charlie and threw him out the back door.”
Allen says she later learned that Starkweather didn’t returned home and the sister suspected her troubled brother was “with that girl” – meaning Caril Ann Fugate, his accomplice in the killing spree. Allen says she remembers asking Lavita, “What do you think of her?” and Lavita answering, “She’s nothing but trouble. He acts different with her.” Allen says, “The next few days they found the bodies. It was a very scary thing because Charlie was killing people he knew.”
Tragic as it was, Allen would not be distracted from her goal of being a professional musician. Her first major public show happened by accident but whetted her appetite for more big stages.
“I went to the (Nebraska) state fair and Jimmy Wakely (a popular singing cowboy) was appearing in the open auditorium. I snuck backstage and got his autograph. I was sitting back there singing with a band I knew from high school who were backing Wakely. We did “The Bible Tells Me So’ – a big Dale Evans song back then. Somebody tapped me on the shoulder and it was Wakely, and he said, ‘I want to have you be my special guest.”
Before she knew it she found herself being introduced before a crowd of a couple thousand folks. She was 15.
“I didn’t have time to be scared. He screwed up on the ending of it and he said, ‘Hey, you messed that up,’ and I shot back, ‘You’re the pro.’ Later, he took me aside to tell me, ‘Take up country music.’ Well, I loved Teresa Brewer, Patti Page, people like that. I said, ‘What’s country music?’ and he said, ‘Listen to Hank Williams.’ And he said there was only one big female name in country then – Kitty Wells.”
She also got a taste of show biz’s seamier side.
“He (Wakely) did make a play for me by the way and I downplayed it with, ‘Mr. Wakely, you always rode off in the sunset by yourself.’ A year later Channel 10 in Lincoln had a Multiple Sclerosis telethon I performed on and Mr. Wakely was there and he said, ‘How old are you now?’ I said, ‘Mr. Wakey, I’m 16, I’m still jail bait, and he kind of laughed and said, ‘Here’s a dime, call me when you turn 21.'”
Allen began making a name for herself as a solo entertainer and as one half of the duet, The Country Misses. She decided to go to Springfield, Mo. to audition for the Ozark Jubilee made famous by Red Foley on his ABC-broadcast show. It was there that an elephant doing its business brought she and a country icon together.
“I did my audition and they said I could stay and see the rest of the show. This was about 45 minutes before show time. My girlfriend and I were looking at three guys sitting in front of us. They weren’t regulars on the show.”
One in particular caught Brenda’s eye.
“I said, ‘God, he’s good looking,’ and my girlfriend said, ‘All three of them are good looking. Yeah, I wonder who that is?’ In the meantime the Jubilee’s version of a Hee Haw couple, Uncle Cyp and Aunt Sap Brasfield, were rehearsing.”
A live elephant was part of the act. The animal did some tricks. Then the elephant decided to pee.
“It sprayed 20 rows out. All the performers were in their costumes already. Everybody got hit. We were soaked,” Allen recalls with a hearty laugh. “I dived and my girlfriend dived under the seats and I saw these long legs go running over top and I said, ‘Is he done yet?’ And this male voice said, ‘No, you better stay down there,’ and he went on by me. Finally I peeked up and they were putting saw dust all over the place, wiping seats down and I heard that same voice say, ‘Well, how high is the water, mama?’ I said, ‘It’s two feet high and rising.’ It was Johnny Cash.
“I popped up and said, ‘Are you staying across the street?’ ‘Yeah,” he said. ‘We’re staying there, too, you want me to bring you a shirt?’ ‘Hell, yes,’ he said and he gave me the key to his room and I got him a clean shirt.”
The old theater lacked dressing rooms and so anyone drenched had to make do with what they had on or what they’d brought.
What Johnny Cash looked like around the time he befriended Brenda
That unlikely meeting was the beginning of an enduring friendship with The Man in Black. At the time Cash was married to his first wife Vivian and the woman he made his second wife, June Carter, was not yet in his life.
“That’s what started it,” Allen says of her long association with Cash. “We sat and played guitars that night and talked about country music. He was a perfect gentleman. I told him I was looking to join a band and he said, ‘Why not get your own band together?’ Back in Lincoln I wrote him a letter and I got a letter back. We had exchanged pictures. I gave him a picture of myself with my Fender Telecaster and I got his first song book. He wrote, ‘Love & kisses.’ Trust me, he wouldn’t have written that after June (Carter).
“Without me even knowing it he sent my picture to Fender. That’s the kind of guy he was. Fender offered me a contract to model.”
She never signed the contract. Instead, she worked hard on her music and at 18 landed her next big break when she met Marty Martin, who gained fame as Boxcar Willie.
“I was his first girl singer. Because of my age I couldn’t be in nightclubs. He and his wife looked after me. We toured the Midwest in a big car. I learned a lot from Marty. He was a honey. He was a very, very good teacher for me. But I got bored because they wanted me to be the prim Miss So-and-So. I’m not geared that way. I’m a ham.”
Fate intervened again when she got a call from an agent saying Cash was coming to Lincoln and needed an opening act. She promptly pitched The Marty Martin Show Featuring Brenda Allen. It was the early 1960s. They got the gig.
“We opened in Lincoln for him at Pershing Auditorium and in Omaha at the Civic Auditorium. I played the Omaha Music Hall with a lot country acts.”
“Wonderful,” is how she describes sharing the stage with Cash. She says he flattered her by saying, ‘You’ve got a damn good voice.'” She says Cash and his lead guitar player Luther Perkins “sat me down and said, ‘Brenda, stick with country music, you’re going to make it.'” She did, too.
She says it was sometime in the early ’60s that June Carter “started entering the picture and I started noticing things about John from when I first him.” Cash battled drug addictions at various points in his life.
When Allen turned 21 she began playing Lincoln lounges-clubs, When not performing she modeled and worked the switchboard at Hovland-Swanson clothing store. She says s strict policy forbid employees from moonlighting. One night, she says, the owner showed up where she was performing. His guest was newly hired University of Nebraska football coach, Bob Devaney. She says the owner fired her on the spot, saying, “You sing better than you sound on the switchboard.” She adds that the married Devaney took an immediate liking to her and pursued her through the years.
Now that she was on her own, she focused on perfecting her comedy and country act that was equal parts innocent and naughty.
“For instance, I’d start up and say, ‘OK, fellas, hang on because I’m going to take you for a ride. Hey, hey good looking, what you got cooking…’ And then I’d still be playing guitar and I’d say, ‘Move that chair,’ and I’d sit down on their laps and say, ‘Oh my goodness. I think he’s got a flashlight in his pocket.’ ”
With suggestive lyrics like, “I’ve been to Nagasaki, Hiroshima too, the things I did to them, sugar, I can do to you, I’m a Fujiyama Mama…” she made quite an impression.
How far she went depended on the crowd.
“Then I’d start doing my version of Johnny Cash.”
Allen had an established solo career going when she met fellow musician Joann Paugh backstage at a show. Paugh wanted to start an all-girl band. Allen resisted. “But she kept bugging me and bugging me,” recalls Allen, The dye was cast after Paugh introduced her to Helen Taylor, a formidable guitarist herself. “We drew straws to see who would play bass and rhythm guitar,” says Allen. Helen got bass and Brenda rhythm.
Things moved fast for the group. They began performing as the Taylor Sisters before Helen’s husband took over as manager and changed the name to Helen Taylor and the Taylor Sisters. “It pissed me off,” says Allen.
The band played with Cash a few times, even opening a 1964 Wichita, Kansas show with June Carter, Minnie Pearl, the Statler Brothers and Lefty Frizzell.
“I’d say we were in damn good company.”
Then the call came that changed their lives.
The Taylor Sisters had toured with Sheb Wooley and the entertainer called Brenda to say, “They need you in Vietnam,’ to which she responded, “What’s Vietnam?” He thought the Taylor Sisters would go over well with the boys. She says the decision to go was easy “once we heard what was going on over there and how bad it was.”
Instead of going with the USO (United Service Organizations), the group went independently though the Johnny Robinson talent agency, who hooked them up with an agency in Saigon, who signed them over to the Korean Entertainment Corporation.
Brenda and Co. arrived in Saigon the first week in April. The humidity, heat and stench are what first struck her.
Until they returned home in July they were kept busy.
“We did three-four shows in a day within a 150-mile radius every four or five days,” says Allen.
They traveled by jeep, truck, boat and helicopter. A military escort was assigned but she says those they were often drunk or stoned by the end of the show. Drinking and drugging were prevalent wherever they went. Brenda imbibed a lot herself.
The women were given strict orders to not venture out at night alone but that didn’t always prevent them from going off on their own, especially with an enlisted man they liked. “We always made sure the others knew where we were,” Allen says. Not every GI could be trusted, she discovered.
“One night we were tear gassed. We came off the stage and we were separated
The guy who grabbed me ended taking me out to a hangar and I said, ‘What are we doing here?’ ‘This is where you’re going to meet the rest of the group,” he said. ‘No it isn’t, I’m supposed to go to the major’s tent.’ The guy said, ‘We can wait a little bit.’ ‘No we can’t.’ Then he admitted, ‘I’m so lonesome.’ ‘That’s too bad,’ I said, ‘then you need to get a break. If you have the idea of what I think you’re thinking and you rape me here now the girls are going to miss me and the Army’s going to find you and throw the book at you, and I don’t want to see that happen. Look, I came here to get paid a little bit of money. I didn’t have to be here to make you feel better. Americans do care about you. And you want to rape me?’ He started to cry.
“I said, ‘I’m sorry but you’ve got problems, you need to go to your commanding officer. He took me to hs CO. I explained what happened and the major said, ‘You’re going to lose a stripe over this soldier.’ I was a little bit more careful from then on.”
Her suspicions were aroused another time but her instincts told her she’d be safe and she was. The experience sounds like something out of a movie.
“After an outdoor show in Da Nang a snap-to colonel wearing a green beret came up to me and said, ‘I want to ask you a question.’ ‘What’s that?’ ‘I am in charge of one of our POW camps and we have a North Vietmanese soldier starving himself. He doesn’t want to talk, he’s afraid we’re going to poison him. We want to get some information out of him. Would you be willing to help?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, where is it?’ ‘You can’t see where it is. but it’s about an hour’s drive from here. We’re Special Forces. Please do it.’”
Whether out of curiosity or patriotism, she says, “I agreed to go. I told the girls if I’m not back by six o’clock this is who I went with and I want you to report it. He loaded me up with my guitar in a jeep. We drove for awhile and then he said, ‘I have to blindfold you.’ ‘I’ll have a drink of scotch first,’ I said. He never laid a hand on me.” At the camp she found herself in an officers club, where the colonel barked, ‘“Attention. This young lady was going to help us with our North Vietmanese prisoner but he’s already been put down for the night. She has her guitar here and she’s going to entertain you.” She recalls, “The place went bonkers. They grabbed me and sat me on the bar. I cracked jokes and sang to them for about 45 minutes.”
When it was time for her to leave, she says the soldiers “separated into two lines and saluted her. At the end of the line was the colonel and as he walked her out he removed his green beret and placed it on her head. “He took me back and I never heard a word from him since,” she says. She tried tracking him down but her inquiries with the Army always got the same response: we don’t have anybody by that name. She assumes he was part of some black op, covert unit. She still has his green beret and sometimes dons it for pictures and performances. She also has a vest pinned with medals and decorations given to her by military personnel.
Brenda wearing the green beret and insignia
In Chu Lai Nebraska National Guard troops had just come back from the bush, she says, when the CO, “Big Daddy” Richardson, asked her, “Brenda, can you and the girls do one more show for the guys from Nebraska?” “Are you kidding?” she replied. Once on stage inside a quonset hut, she recalls, “I said, ‘Hit it girls,’ and we did ‘There is no place like Nebraska.’ The roof went off – the place exploded.”
She says that Chu Lai, a central coastal area manned by the Americal Division,“was one of our favorite places because we had privacy taking a shower. I remember ‘Big Daddy’ Richardson saying, ‘I’m going to work your butts off, but when you come back at night your favorite food and drink will be sitting in front of you.’ And it was, too. Lobster and blackberry brandy and Cutty Sark scotch. We’d do five and six shows a day for that man. The men, they just wouldn’t let us quit and we weren’t about to leave those boys. The guys were just absolutely beautiful. They called me ‘Crazy Legs’…I’d do wild dancing and kick my legs up. They just went bonkers. We’d come back exhausted.”
An incident in Chu Lai scarred her forever.
“One night, we’d come back from a show and a few of us were in the officers club drinking when there was a loud CLAP and the building just shook. “ It was the start of a prolonged mortar attack. A GI grabbed her and threw her down under the bar. “Aren’t we supposed to go to a bunker?” she asked, “Too late now,” she was told. “We took 16 rounds over a period of four or five hours. We just laid there on the floor and got drunk. I was so scared. Around daylight a young man came running in, shouting, ‘They got a nurse at the 312 Surg-Evac,’ which was like a block away.”
The victim, 1st Lt. army nurse Sharon Ann Lane of Canton, Ohio, was the first Army nurse to die under hostile fire in Southeast Asia and one of 68 American women in all — military and civilian — to die in the conflict. “She was decapitated by shrapnel,” says Allen. The incident shook the singer to her core. “She was 26 and I was 21. What really gets me is – why her and not me? – because she was saving lives. I held her mother in my arms at the dedication of the statue in 1993.”
The Taylor Sisters pushed off to their next stop. The war ground on as usual.
“We just forgot about it, we had to put it behind us…The next day it was a whole new ballgame, a whole new area to perform in.”
It was a sober reminder of what men in combat faced. She couldn’t fathom “seeing their best friends blown apart” and having to keep on fighting. “Holy crap, I still have post traumatic stress. I can’t stand the Fourth of July.”
She says she learned Western performers had a price on their heads. The bigger the star, the higher the bounty. Bob Hope was the biggest target of all though he reduced his exposure to danger by being flown to safety every night.
Another brutal reminder of war’s vagaries came when Brenda and Helen got their picture taken with three U.S. Army docs on the deck of a boat headed for Cua Viet, a base in the demilitarized zone near North and South Vietnam border.
“It was sand and tents and water. It was R & R for the troops.”
The Taylor Sisters did a show on a small stage with a sheet as a backdrop. The all-male audience sat on a sandy beach on the South China Sea.
“Cua Viet was getting hit almost every night. That’s why they got us back down the river right away. We did an afternoon show, they loaded us up, and away we went.”
After the band left the base came under attack that night and suffered major casualties. She was informed the men she got her picture taken with were among those killed.
“They died the day we played for them.”
The Taylor Sisters landed the Golden Nugget slot soon after returning from Nam.
“We had a damn good thing – an all-girl country western show band. We had the comedy, all the girls sang, we all played different instruments. We made history as the only headline act at the Golden Nugget without a recording.”
Years of loss and love, making people happy and getting healthy again followed. Then she found the cause that was so close to her heart. Getting the Vietnam Women’s Memorial approved by Congress and erected on the Washington Mall took years of persistence. “We fought and we fought,” Allen says of the sisterhood that took up the fight. The bronze statue by sculptor Glenna Goodacre depicts women in fatigues caring for a wounded soldier.
The Vietnam Women’s Memorial
Brenda was there for the statue’s dedication. She was there for the 10th anniversary in 2003 and she’s due to be there again for the 20th anniversary in November. She always says a few words and sings a few lyrics at the memorial.
She became a big supporter of the Shirley Lauro play, A Piece of My Heart, that dramatizes the true-life stories of American women in Nam. When the Blue Barn Theater in Omaha produced the play the woman who led the effort for the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, Diane Carlson Evans, attended opening night and ended up inviting the production to be performed in D.C. for the 10-year anniversary.
Brenda’s Vietnam story has been told in newspaper articles, the book Potpourri of War and in a Nebraska Educational Television documentary Not on the Front Line.
For a time she drowned her feelings about what happened in Vietnam in booze. But once she confronted those bittersweet memories the healing began. Of that intense time over there, she says, “I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything.”
- Vietnam veteran keeps solemn vow to his lost brother in arms (stripes.com)
- A lifelong passion for fiddle, country music (mysanantonio.com)
- Making a Country Music Bucket List (countrymusic.answers.com)
The Old Market. Make that Omaha’s Old Market. Sure, it’s a place, in this case a historic warehouse district that’s been gentrified into an arts-cultural hub and destination stop for locals and tourists alike. But like any place worth it’s salt, it’s the people that make it. One of the real holdover characters there from when the Old Market was still a wholesale produce center was Joe Vitale. As the area transformed from industrial to retail consumer mecca he stayed on with his fruit and vegetable stand , still doing his thing amidst head shops, galleries, restaurants, bars, and live music spots. When Joe passed away a couple years ago a little piece of the Old Market passed with him. The following story for Omaha Magazine is a kind of homage to Joe and the slice of Old World commerce he kept alive.
Remembering Omaha Old Market Original, Fruit and Vegetable Peddler Joe Vitale
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine
The late Joe Vitale was the last of the old-time produce vendors plying his trade in the Old Market. Long after the Omaha City Market closed, Joe stayed on.
The World War II combat veteran made a good living back in the day, first working for his parents Angelo and Lucia, and then with his business partner, Sam Monaco. By the time the Old Market took off, Vitale was set for life and well past retirement age, but he hung on there, wintering in Las Vegas.
Why keep at it, even into his 80s?
“He did it because of the love of doing business, being self employed, selling to new customers and former customers who wanted to buy something from the historic Old Market,” says George Eisenberg, a former wholesaler who did business with Joe.
“He was not only a throwback but he was the only one of the original market vendors that lasted that long.”
“I guess he enjoyed being down there with the people and doing his work,” says Tootsie Bonofede, who grew up with Joe. “You know, when you enjoy something you don’t want to give it up.”
Joe stayed through the area’s transformation from a wholesale-retail produce center to its rebirth as a cultural district. Manning the corner of 11th and Howard, he and his stand were fixtures before the modern Omaha Farmers Market started up.
Vitale, who died March 29 at age 92, was a popular figure among tourists, business owners and residents, who viewed him as a vital, living remnant of what used to be.
“He brightened up that corner,” says Mary Thompson, whose mother, Lucile Schaaf, was an Old Market entrepreneur and favorite of Joe’s. “He was a super guy. He was an energetic, happy person, and he always had a good word to everybody. He had been there for so many years, you could say he was almost the last of the originals.”
More than a merchant dealing in fruits and vegetables, Vitale was an engaging presence. “He had a lot of personality,” says Bonofede.
“That was about the lowest fee I’ve ever collected,” says Boyle. “Joe was really one of life’s great characters. He had a wonderful sense of humor and added a lot of color to that corner.”
Samuel Troia recalls he and his brothers going to Joe for business advice, not expecting much, but getting more than they bargained for.
“It was a great meeting and he helped us out tremendously, and with nothing to gain, other than to help these young kids, because we were in our 20s. He sat us down and said, ‘OK, this is who to talk to, and I’ll make a phone call for you.’ He told us about delivering what you promise. Joe talked to us just like he was our father.”
From that time on, says Troia, “every time he saw me he’d holler, ‘Troia,’ and my wife and I would walk over and buy fruit, and he’d wash it for us. It was so nice and refreshing to see him. It was just like having a family member down there in the Old Market.”
Joe treated everyone like a family member or friend.
“He was one of the most down to earth guys you’d ever want to meet,” says Troia.
“Everybody knew him and everybody loved him,” says Bonofede. “They can’t say anything bad about Joe. He was so kind to everybody.”
- George Eisenberg’s Love for Omaha’s Old Market Never Grows Old (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
I never met the late Mary Galligan Cornett during her long, legendary tenure as Omaha City Clerk, only when she’d been retired some years, but her reputation as a cantankerous, bigger-than-life personality preceded her and I was not disappointed when I finally did catch up with her. Sheds lost none of her bite or her blunt, blue-streak manner of speaking. She’s gone now but she’s definitely one of my most unforgettable characters. My profile of her appeared in the New Horizons in 2002.
One Helluva Broad: Mary Galligan Cornett
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the New Horizons
For more than half-a-century, Mary Galligan Cornett gave as good as she got with the boys at City Hall.
In her colorful 53-year civil service career she saw hundreds of elected officials come and go. In a 1961 to 1997 reign as Omaha City Clerk she served 13 mayors (counting acting and interim chiefs) and dozens of council members. She saw Omaha transition from the commission form of government to the city charter home rule system to the present structure featuring district council elections. She was a stabilizing presence as Omaha endured scandals, bitter fights over equal rights and public works and abrupt changes in leadership. She helped Omaha retain its Triple AAA credit rating by selling bonds in New York’s financial district.
Along the way, she earned a reputation as a tough woman valued for the knowledge and history she brought to city business and as one not to be trifled with in the political wrangling game. This blunt, unadorned woman, who says of the wrinkles in her face — “I’ve earned every one” — is one helluva broad.
Unafraid to speak her mind and uncowed by the rough-and-tumble maneuvers of smoke-filled, back-room deliberating, Cornett was a trailblazer in the male fraternity called politics. For years, she was among only a handful of women city clerks in major U.S. metropolises. So, how did she survive under so many different regimes and surrounded by so many powerful men of often clashing politics and personalities? “Very simple, I became one of the good old boys. I made friends with their wives, their secretaries and their mistresses, and I got along just fine,” she said from her terraced antique and bric-a-brac-filled home on the busy Northwest Radial Highway. As former City Councilman Subby Anzaldo said, “Having Mary in a group of men was not uncomfortable. If a cross word flew out of someone’s mouth it wasn’t a situation where you had to worry about it. Mary understood and she could throw a few out herself if she had to. She was one of a kind. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.”
At her home, family photographs are prominently displayed in the living room, where the pet dog and cat roam freely. Most pictures are of Cornett’s only child, Irene A. Cornett (Stranglin), now a 10-year veteran with the Omaha police force and the new mother of twin girls. Cornett raised Irene alone after the death of her husband, surety executive Bob Cornett, in 1976. Slowed by a broken hip suffered last March, she has a nurse tech, Raissa Franklin, help at home. About her patient, Franklin said jokingly, “She’s ornery. She’s worse than the agitator in the washing machine.” Ever the politician, the chain-smoking Cornett recently had pictures of herself taken sans cigarettes. After the photo session Cornett called out, “Raissa, honey, could you hand me a pack of cigarettes now that the photographer is gone?”
As far as being a woman in a man’s world, Cornett had only to look at the domineering women in her own life for role models.
Both of her grandmothers worked outside the home in addition to raising families. Her maternal grandma came from sturdy ranch stock and went on to become a music teacher in towns across Nebraska. Her paternal matriarch was a railroad brakeman as well as a seamstress. Her mother was a political operative and helped run the family produce business.
“I grew up with the idea a woman could be anything she wanted to be,” said Cornett. That’s why when she started working at City Hall as a building clerk in 1945 she chafed at the resistance she met from the all-male contractors who had to go through her to obtain permits. “Well, the men contractors had a hard time with that because they didn’t think a woman could look at a set of blueprints and figure out anything. It was a whole new thing for them. They had a hard time accepting it and I had a hard time accepting their chauvinism. My attitude was, ‘The hell with it. I’m here. I’m the one that issues the permits. Show me your (expletive) blueprints. Take me or leave me.’ I think I’ve always felt that way.”
Armed with her sharp tongue, astute mind and vast experience, she had the ear of mayors and council members. According to her successor, current City Clerk Buster Brown, whom she trained, “If she had something to say, people listened. Yes, she influenced decisions behind-the-scenes. She was an institution. She knew the ins-and-outs.” Rather than challenge her “strong personality,” he said, officials would “back away.” Former City Councilman Robert Cunningham said, “She handled things with authority. She was respected.” In her capacity as clerk and confidante, Cornett was the keeper of city records and secrets. She recalls how attorney Eddie Shaston, an associate of former Mayor A.V. Sorensen, “always said ‘I was the woman that knew and never talked.’”
Retired since 1997, Cornett is not telling tales out-of-school now, at least not on the record. If she did tell her story, the 77-year-old said she’d borrow the title from the Frank Sinatra anthem, “I Did It My Way.” The only trouble with that, she asked rhetorically, is “which of my lives would I be talking about? My private life? My political life? My life as a bondswoman?” To which Pat Wright, a friend and former assistant who popped over during a recent interview quipped, “Where does one stop and the other end? Sometimes you don’t even know,” which prompted Cornett to reply, “I know that.” Wright added, “Cornetts real. She tells it like it is.”
No doubt, Cornett thrived in the political arena because public service was, in a sense, a birthright by virtue of her family’s longtime involvement in the field. Her Irish-Scottish immigrant family’s political legacy extends back to the town’s wild-and-whooly beginnings to a pair of paternal grand uncles: former fire chief Jack J. Galligan and former police chief Michael Dempsey. Then there was her mother, Fairrie Irene Cameron Galligan, a wheel in the state and Midwest Democratic central committees. Mary often accompanied her to conventions, even meeting future president Harry S. Truman in Kansas City when he was still a ward leader for the Tom Pendergast machine. There was also a familial tie to the politically active Warners of Nebraska. “Everyone in my family, on both sides, was in politics,” Cornett said. “That’s been my whole life.”
Public service has been a passionate thing for the Cornett clan. “It was and it still is with me” she said. “My family at one time were all immigrants and this was the country that welcomed them. They felt they owed it something because of the freedom and the education and the employment they found here. And for all of that, there’s gotta be some payback. And, so, I think the whole family felt a personal responsibility to be part of government and to devote a lot of their lives to it. I devoted my entire life to it.” Politics also suited Cornett’s gregariousness. She said her capacity for getting along with people and putting aside personal differences for the public good is “an ability you have to have” to succeed in politics. Her skill at mixing with people from all walks of life and her hunger for being right in the thick of the action is why it all came naturally to her.
“I guess I’m a people person. I guess that’s why I picked this as my retirement house,” she said, referring to her residence. “It’s right on the street. Life goes on. There isn’t a time the rescue squad isn’t going that-a-way or a fire truck isn’t going this-a-way or a police car isn’t going another way. I can lay in bed and tell from the traffic what time it is.”
Cornett likes the neighborhood and its mix of young families and retirees. “I lived for many years in a big home at 61st and Decatur and I hated it. Everybody went to bed at like 8:30 or 9, and being a night owl, I’d be up till 1 or 2 in the morning. Also, I cannot imagine living in one of these retirement places where everybody’s old, where there’s no children, where there’s no dogs or cats. Why would you want to shut yourself off from the world? You’ve got to have some life going on around you,” she said above the din of rushing traffic and barking dogs outside.
For her, city government was where the action was. How apt then that this lifelong devotee of Italian grand opera found herself immersed in the drama and machinations of big city politics, with all its brokering, backstabbing and symbolic bloodletting. Because politics truly is in her blood, she still keeps close tabs on City Hall. Asked if leaders still come to her for counsel, she answered, “Let’s put it this way, I get a lot of telephone calls. I still have an excellent grapevine together. Remember, it’s been 53 years or so building it. I can tell you what’s going on in every (expletive) department down there. I keep track of things.”
After years directing the clerk’s office, which besides keeping records supports the functions and enforces the rules of the City Council, she has a rather proprietary feeling about that august body. The last council she worked with had a contentious relationship with former Mayor Hal Daub, whom she felt was not well served by some members, which makes her glad the present council, with its five new faces, is working so well with Mayor Mike Fahey. “I’m very proud of the new council. I think they’re doing a very good job. This council and the mayor are communicating. I think that’s a necessary part of good government. You can disagree, but you need to communicate at least your disagreements.”
In Cornett’s view the previous council “made life miserable for Mayor Daub,” adding: “I always felt very sorry for Daub. Did he make mistakes? Yes. Could he have maybe communicated with two or three of them better? Yes. But there were four of ‘em on that council that no matter what he would have done they would never have moved off what they wanted. And it wasn’t a matter of what was best for the city or what was good for the taxpayer. It was a matter of their own personal egos and their desire to stay in power. Well, you know what happened to most of ‘em? They were beaten out in the last election.”
In past administrations Cornett became a liaison or conduit between mayors and councils locked in stalemates. “When some mayors were not talking to certain council members they used me as a go-between,” she said. “They about wore my voice out, too.” She also frequently sat in on cabinet meetings.
One of Cornett’s closest cronies in city government was the late Herb Fitle, the longtime city attorney with whom she enjoyed a salty relationship that sometimes found them feuding. As years passed, Cornett and Fitle, along with officials George Ireland and S.P. Benson, became the wise old sages in city government. Cornett and Fitle were “the staunchest supporters and absolute protectors” of the city charter that came into effect in the late-1950s.
“We had a long, long tenure together,” she said. “If we stood together, all hell and high heaven could not have moved us — I don’t care if it was mayors, councils, outside influences, whatever. But our disagreements also were legend. He’d write his opinions and although I wasn’t an attorney I sometimes wouldn’t agree with his opinion and I wasn’t very amiss to tell him so.
“Once, we disagreed over some political or legal issue and we stopped talking to each other. I’d send my assistants up to his office for answers and he’d send his attorneys down to my office for answers. Well, the help got tired of that and came to me and said, ‘Look, you guys have got to stop this. We can’t take it anymore.’ I said, ‘OK, fine.’ It was near Christmas and we used to have this event called The Christmas Sing where we all gathered in the council chambers with an orchestra to sing carols, and so I asked someone to get peace doves. While this program was going on I said to Herb, ‘I think we should make up,’ and I let the birds go. They were scared as hell and flew all over the place. Well, it turned out they were pigeons and, you know, they pooped on everybody and everything…the musicians, the councilmen, the chairs, the desks. I think it took the night help two or three hours to clean up.”
Despite the mess, her goodwill gesture was accepted and The Great Cornett-Fitle feud ceased.
In her watchdog role with the council Cornett provided oversight to ensure proceedings followed protocol. She served as sergeant of arms, called roll, recorded results and supplied information requested by councilmen on resolutions, ordinances, liquor licenses, etc.. The job also involved training new council members in how municipal government operates. Not everyone comes prepared to govern. “You get newly elected officials that never saw a charter before,” she said. Former councilman Subby Anzaldo said her influence was felt. “She had input. We came to her for answers. She told it like it was. She was like the eighth council member.”
She provided continuity when, in 1981, the move from at-large to district elections brought seven new council members and a new mayor into office and then, in the late 1980s-early 1990s, when Omaha went through six mayors due to recall, death, defeat, election, resignation. At times like those, City Clerk Buster Brown said, “She was very vital to making sure city government ran smoothly.” The way she sees it, she helped by “just being there.”
Then there’s the delicate matter of sorting out potential conflicts of interest. As Cornett explained, “Everybody comes to government bringing their own baggage in terms of outside influences. There may be something in the charter that can favor an official in getting a contract” or a business advantage. “Will officials try to use their influence? Of course they will. In my downstairs office at home I have reams of settled rulings on certain sections of the charter where somebody tried to do something they couldn’t (legally) do.”
At the countless council meetings she oversaw, she heard everything from dissident voices to impassioned pleas to whimpers to cheers. Among those she had removed from the premises was a deputy sheriff who arrived with a warrant during a council session. When she informed the deputy it was not permissible to serve a sitting body but that he would instead have to wait until the meeting ended, he persisted, whereupon she called security, ordering police to “remove this man,” which they did, much to the deputy’s chagrin. Cornett said she was so upset that someone was “obstructing or interrupting MY council meeting” she never even “bothered to find out” who or what the warrant specified.
Another time, during the racially tense 1960s, Cornett recalls how marching civil rights demonstrators descending upon City Hall sent most officials scurrying for cover. Typical of Cornett, she stood her ground. As it turned out, the group included a large contingent of church-based elders whose intent was conciliatory. “With all the public officials having taken to the hills, I was the only one left, so the marchers came to my office. I called the switchboard and told them I didn’t want any calls and I told my staff to give these elderly ladies the cushions off their chairs to kneel on. That’s how I came to have a pray-in in my office.”
For the most part, however, Cornett plied her political savvy not in public view but behind-the-scenes. Of the many mayors she worked with, she said, “Almost every one of ‘em really cared about this city. I loved every one of ‘em, whether I fought with ‘em or not and whether they disliked me or not. Different mayors at different times had difficult personalities. I wouldn’t say who were my favorites, but I would say who taught me the most — A.V. Sorensen (1965-69). He made it a point to teach me…government, finances, investments, organization, management. He expected everything to be organized. He hated a messy desk.”
She said Sorensen was a model of efficiency who demanded subordinates follow suit. “If you couldn’t give him an answer in 5 minutes…forget it.” She recalls how when she and former City Council President Art Bradley questioned why he gave “both of us directives” to hunt up the same data, his honor replied — “‘Because you come back with different answers, and half way between the two of them is the truth.’ That was A.V.”
Sorensen restored faith in Omaha’s elected leadership in the wake of corruption at City Hall. His predecessor, the dashing young Jim Dworak (1961-65) was indicted but later acquitted on bribery and conspiracy charges involving rigged real estate zoning laws. Other city officials were convicted. While Cornett is convinced Dworak did not accept any bribes, she believes he was a victim of his own fast-living ways. “Wine, women and song were his problems. He just had too much too soon.”
Where Dworak was a free-wheeling playboy, Sorensen was a circumspect elder statesman. Tough facade aside, Cornett maintained a soft spot for old A.V. “I felt so close to him. He was one of the few people who hurt my feelings. He had been out of office a few months when he came to visit me. My office, for some reason, was all cluttered up. He didn’t say Hello or How are you? — no, he said, ‘I thought I taught you better than that,’ and walked out. Well, I sat there and cried.”
Another mayor whom Cornett says “taught me a great deal” was brash Hal Daub (1993-2001). She feels his greatest strength — a facile mind — often proved his undoing when combined with his impatience. “Hal is an extremely brilliant man,” she said. “He has almost a complete retentive memory for facts and figures. But he thinks so fast that he’s always jumping the gun on people.” The two respected each other enough that mere weeks after retiring from the clerk’ s office she accepted his request to assume an eight-month job researching issues related to city-county government merger, a subject she calls “near and dear to my heart.”
Over the years Cornett said she rejected notions of running for public office and spurned opportunities to enter the private sector. Life as an elected official held no interest, she said, because she “didn’t want to play the game” and disliked the idea of being beholden to “outside influences.” Besides, she added, elected officials don’t have the real control — civil service administrators do. The prospect of leaving City Hall altogether was equally unimaginable.
“I was offered two or three very good jobs paying twice what I made in city government, but I decided, no, that’s where I belonged.” It’s why she looked forward going to work every day and thought nothing of putting in overtime even though her post didn’t qualify her for extra pay.
“This sounds kind of corny, but I always felt the Lord put me in the right spot at the right time in my life,” she said. “Every day there were new problems. Every day there was something else. You never knew when you got there in the morning what was going to transpire. And, so, if you wanted an interesting life you couldn’t have had a better job. I loved every minute and I kept going as long as I could.”
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