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.”
- Steve Rosenblatt, A Legacy of Community Service, Political Ambition and Baseball Adoration (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Ashford to run for Omaha mayor (omaha.com)
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George Herriott, a writer friend of mine who was once a client, pitched me the idea of doing a story on his pro bike racing son, Todd Herriott, and the following profile is the result. I like when stories come out of left field like this because it’s unlikely I would have ever come to telling Todd’s story otherwise. Todd has since retired from the pro circuit to own and operate his own cyclist training and fitness gym, but he was full in it when I interviewed and profiled him. The story of how he came to the sport, then left it, only to take it up again at a rather advanced age, whereupon he enjoyed his greatest success, is a compelling one.
Going to Extremes: Professional Cyclist Todd Herriott
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
“I have an all or nothing personality.”
The telling self-assessment belongs to Omaha native Todd Herriott, a pro bicycle racer who made a dramatic return to the sport three years ago after a long hiatus to sate his insatiable curiosity. An uptown New York City resident with the cocksure attitude of a Big Apple denizen, Herriott competed as a premier amateur racer from the late 1980s until 1995, when his sense of wanderlust got the better of him and he opted out, at only 26, to try other things.
Changing gears is nothing new for Herriott, a 1987 Elkhorn Mount Michael graduate. About the same time he got into bike racing as an Omaha teen, he latched onto a dream of being a professional dancer, even studying the art form at Emerson College in Boston, where he supported himself as a bike messenger, before his “hyper-competitive” drive made racing his focus again. When he left the sport, he worked, in quick succession, as a Hollywood film production assistant, a Boston bike messenger again and a Manhattan personal fitness guru. Wherever adventure called, this searcher went, once driving cross-country on a motorcycle because “it sounded like a really bad idea, so it must be good.” Reinventing himself is a habit.
Even when racing “back in the day,” his eclectic interests kept him from ever giving himself fully over to the single-minded dedication and discipline demanded by cycling. It’s why he didn’t graduate then past the elite amateur level. “I wasn’t ready to be a professional bike racer when I quit the sport,” says Herriott, who radiates the high-energy vibe and rebel cool of the extreme athlete. “There were too many other things I wanted to try and, it’s like, there weren’t enough minutes in the day. Unless you’re really committed to doing the sport, you can’t make it. It’s too much. It’s too hard. It takes too much time and too much energy.”
Infatuated with an actress-model during this transitional period of his life, he acted impulsively and married the woman, he says. “for all the wrong reasons.” After sampling the west coast’s “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” scene, his obsession with salvaging his failed marriage sent him on a downward spiral back east, where he bummed lodging from friends between infrequent paying gigs. “The problem is, you take all the problems you had on one coast to the other coast,” he says. “I’m one of those people who sort of lives for drama. If I don’t have drama in my life, it’s very hard for me to get motivated, so I’m very good at creating drama for myself. Life would have been a little easier if I had done some things a little bit differently.”
Salvation for Herriott finally came in the form of a light, sleek, carbon-fiber racing bike, something he swore off ever riding again.
“I was in a down period of my life and I needed something to distract me and I thought, Well, cycling has always been a good diversion. It’s challenging, it’s difficult, it’s fast, it’s free-flowing, it’s a little dangerous,” says the hard-bodied Herriott, who since reentering the sport in a Central Park club race a few years ago has found his love for competitive cycling intact. “I’m still very much in awe of the sport. I still get excited to get up and go ride. I get real giddy about it. It’s almost embarrassing to talk about. It’s very much the way it was when I was 17 in that respect. I’m still overwhelmed by the guys I race against..,I’m like, Wow, they’re really good. Am, I that good?”
He made his amateur racing comeback at 32, an age when most top-flight athletes are slowing up or breaking down, by promptly winning two of the sport’s biggest international events, the 2002 Univest Grand Prix in Souderton, Pa. and the 2003 Tour of Cuba. Despite competing as an amateur for only part of the season, he was named the best amateur male road racer for North America in 2003 by Velo-News Magazine, the top cycling magazine in the world. Things clicked just right. He was in top form. In the zone. In sync.
“You don’t have those days very often, but, boy, it sure is nice when you feel it. You’re like Superman. I felt like that in Cuba. I felt that way in the Univest Grand Prix. I didn’t think anybody could beat me. At the end of the race, with like two laps to go on the circuit, I just rode away. I didn’t attack, I didn’t make some big move…nothing. I just put my head down and thought, ‘I’m out of here.’ I looked over my shoulder and saw ‘em hesitate and I said, ‘I just won the race.’ You just know. That was a really extraordinary feeling. It’s like the heavens opened up and someone shot a beam of light down and said, You are on! I think those moments are few and far between and I think that’s what everybody’s trying to capture.”
In a sport traditionally dominated by Europeans, Herriott became the first American to win the Univest and the Tour of Cuba. Along the way, he dispelled any doubts about the wisdom or the ability of a thirtysomething trying to keep pace, much less outdistance, competitors nearly half his age.
“I knew people would have problems with it,” he says, referring to his “old man” status. “I got a lot of, ‘Oh, you’re pretty old to be doing that.’ My mother was definitely not excited about me riding my bike. She was like, ‘You’re going to do it again? Nothing happened last time. You’re not driving a flashy sports car and you don’t own a home. There must be something wrong with you.’ But there just comes a time when you have to decide what you’re going to do and do it, whether or not anybody agrees with you.”
Herriott never second-guessed himself. “That’s the thing. I didn’t have any doubts,” he says. “That’s probably why I was able to pull it off. It probably would have been more of an issue if I sat down and really thought about it.”
He was recovering from an illness contracted in Chile, where he’d traveled for a big event, when he accepted an offer to join the elite pro team, Health Net, with whom he rode the second half of the 2003 U.S. Pro Road Race season. As a Team Health Net member, he rode with one of his idol’s and one of the sport’s icons, Gord Fraser, whom he trained with at the living legend’s Tucson, Arizona home.
Now with Team Colavilta Bolla, Herriott sees this as his moment to shine. That he’s defied time by not only recapturing but improving upon his performances as a youth, Herriott’s validated his own passion for cycling and his decision to rededicate his life to it. All the while he was out of the sport, living that fast, freaky lifestyle, he says his long-suppressed desire to ride “ate at me.” When he finally heeded the hunger, he felt the timing was right.
“The way I thought of it was, it’s such a brutal sport, that by taking years off from riding at the intense level it’s made me years fresher than I would have been. Early 30s is when you really hit it hard. Your body’s really matured. You really know what you’re doing. So, I have no question my best rides are ahead of me. My training gets better every year. I pay more attention to detail. I continue to get stronger and lighter at the same time. Strength to weight ratio is a big thing in cycling. So, I’m smarter and stronger and more motivated than ever. I really believe I’m going to uncork something pretty big,” he says.
He wouldn’t be where he is today if he weren’t so passionate about cycling. “It’s just too hard of a sport to do to not really enjoy it at that level,” he says. Being good helps make it fun. Defining good from mediocre is a mix of endurance, discipline, strategy, gamesmanship and technique. It all starts with conditioning. Herriott, who still trains clients in fitness programs of his own design, follows a rigorous workout regimen. “I’m something of a psycho when it comes to training. Training is fun for me. I’m training all the time. I love it.” In what can be “a selfish sport,” he’s often off alone doing his thing. An understanding girlfriend helps.
He works on different things on different days, sometimes emphasizing aerobic-cardiovascular training and other times resistance-strength exercises. For example, Tuesdays, one of his resistance days, finds him tackling a wide-ranging cross-training schedule that is equal parts pleasure and pain and an expression of both his attention to business and his personal cycling mantra.
“I’ll get up at 6. I’ll train a client at 7. Make a little money. Then, I’ll do like a two-hour ride, usually indoors, where I can monitor the intensity more easily. I’ll be doing base intensity, but on the higher end of my aerobic capacity. I’ll ride a special crank set that forces me to use one leg at a time. You have to coordinate the strokes, which forces you to use your hip flexors and your hamstrings. I do that indoors so I don’t have any distractions.
“Then, I’ll take the train downtown. I’ll change my gear around. I’ll run in the gym. I’ll do 30-40 minutes on a climbing machine or some weird different exercises I’ve created on the gym floor. Medicine balls, stair climbers, jumping rope, hitting the heavy bag. Then, I’ll teach a spinning class for an hour. Then, I’ll go back out on the gym floor for 30-40 minutes. I’ll run back to the apartment and do another 90 minutes or two hours on the bike. Usually, I have another client or two late in the afternoon. I’ll come home and eat. I have five floors to walk-up to my apartment to drop off my bike every night. It’s that last, little extra push at the end of my workout. After dinner I take a hot soak before stretching.
“So, some of those days can be working out for four or five hours.”
Other days, riding takes precedence. “Wednesdays, I do a long ride, anywhere from five to six hours. Sometimes, I do a double session…riding indoors, working form on the pedal stroke.” Gearing up in the winter for the spring-summer racing season, he progressively ratchets up his outdoor mileage until he’s riding 30 to 35 hours a week. During a December swing through his hometown to visit family, he noted, “I’ve already started doing six-and-a-half hour rides in 40-degree weather. You have to do it. It’s all about preparation.”
In preparaing for the rigors of the season, when he travels from event to event, competing in races ranging over a few days to a few weeks and covering anywhere from 100 to 155 miles over widely varying terrain, altitudes and weather conditions, Herriott goes to extremes. In December, he put in a grueling 30-hour week up and down the 11-mile El Diablo Climb outside San Francisco. As he often does, he wore a power meter that gave “a real time wattage output of how much power” he generated, one of many measures he uses in gauging his finely calibrated fitness. Besides giving him a steep vertical challenge to hone his climbing skills on, the El Diablo offers a chance to work on the equally vital art of descent.
“Descending is a serious technique. Going down a mountain and taking turns at mach 10, if you don’t practice that…CRASH.”
An edge. Every competitor seeks one. It can be a steely attitude or a superior bike or a high pain tolerance. Some resort to performance enhancing drugs. Herriott, who says he doesn’t “take anything funny,” feels his advantage resides in something basic. “Yeah, I’m always looking for an edge and I think my big edge this year is stretching a lot more. I hate stretching. It’s painful. But I still sit down and do it for 45 minutes to an hour a day because I know it’s going to help my recovery.” He’s also careful to rest and eat right. Seemingly little things separate winning from losing. Aside from physical aspects, a competition turns on wills and tactics. “Yeah, there’s a lot of races within the race,” he says, referring to the jostling and sizing-up that go on. It’s all about knowing your and your opponents’ capabilities and, when opportunity arises, seizing the moment. “When it’s on, it’s on,” he adds.
“If you’re being lazy sitting on the back during a breakaway move, people are going to think you’re useless. Well, that’s great because that’s what you want ‘em to think. It doesn’t matter how strong or hard you ride in the first 105 miles of a 110-mile road race. What matters is that last kilometer or last 500 meters,” he explains. “Will you be able to respond to the attacks that will certainly come? If you’re not a sprinter and you know there’s three sprinters in this group of 10 guys…you’ve got to jump off now and play your card. If you don’t play your card, you’ll never know. If you wait for the sprint, and you’re not a sprinter, you’re going to lose.”
From aching muscles to burning lungs, a cyclist’s physical threshold gets tested. “When you’re hurting, it’s safe to assume everybody’s hurting,” he says. “Some people can suffer more than other people. Period. That can be the difference.” The real race begins once the field’s trimmed. “The race is now a different race altogether,” he explains. “Your odds have already greatly improved. Your chances of crashing have decreased. So, you have to take some inventory. ‘Who’s fresh? Who’s not.? Over here’s a guy who won two weeks ago. He’s got good form. I don’t know this other guy in from Argentina. He’s supposed to be a good sprinter, but he looks like he’s suffering. Is he gonna be worth a crap after a couple of attacks?’”
In service of his team’s star racer, he often plays the rabbit by strategically drawing out the competition to “get my guy to the finish line. If I hear in my radio ear piece a teammate is coming up, I might attack off the front like a lunatic, and get a couple guys to come with me. And maybe when I take off, I am the strongest guy, and I’m gone. For any major race there’s probably 10 guys who could possibly win. And I’ll have days where I might be one of those 10 guys.”
Whatever comes of his cycling career, Herriott feels it’s steeled him for the future. “If I can do this, there isn’t anything I can’t do,” he says. For now, he’s “full on” for this cycling season, having completed his first Redlands Classic in Redlands, Calif. and earlier this year and now gearing up for the Wachovia USPRO Championship on June 6 in Philadelphia. The Phillie event is the longest running and richest single day cycling race in the U.S. A 35-year old champion?
“Who knows? Stranger things have happened in my life.”
- Cycling blogs I read, or Happy Links-giving! (rollthetriangle.wordpress.com)
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- How a bike crash set paralysed cyclist on the road to a miraculous recovery (independent.co.uk)