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Living legend Tom Osborne still winning game of life at 79

October 27, 2016 Leave a comment

Thirty-five years into practicing my craft as a journalist in my home state of Nebraska and I finally got to interview and profile state icon Tom Osborne. I mean, when it comes to the most famous living Nebraskans, there is Osborne, Warren Buffett, Alexander Payne and, well, that’s about it, unless you want to include Dick Cavett, Roger Welsch, Ernie Chambers, Pete Ricketts, Cathy Hughes, Bob Gibson, Johnny Rodgers, Tom Mangelsen, Nick Nolte, Marg Helgenberger and Gabrielle Union. I’ve interviewed them all with the exception of Nolte (long to do so) and Ricketts (don’t really care to). So it was satisfying to get this opportunity to take the measure of Osborne, especially since I grew up on Nebraska football and for most of that time he was the undisputed face and architect of the program. There is nothing groundbreaking in my cover story appearing in the November 2016 issue of the New Horizons (it should hit newsstands and arrive in mailboxes by October 31-November 1). But I believe I did achieve what I set out to do, which was create a humanistic portrait of this genuine living legend that keeps in proportion the fact he is a man, not a monument. His legendary status is not for anything heroic he did, after all, it’s for doing his very public job at a high level over a long period of time. In that sense, he’s just like hundreds of thousands of other Nebraskans who get up and go to work each day, most of whom never get their name in the paper until they die because their work isn’t covered by the media and obsessed over by fans. That’s how it goes in this game of life. When I followed Nebraska football more closely during its glory years, it was often hard for me to get a bead on Osborne through media reporting and television-radio interviews he gave. It took me a long time to appreciate his gifts because they are the subtle gifts of someone who is at his best in private, intimate moments with a player or coach or parent. He is all about the quiet communication, relationship building, intense analysis and unconditional love that happens one on one. That studied yet intuitive skill set is very personal and when combined with his naturally introverted demeanor it doesn’t pop out like the extroverts of his profession and their loud, over-the-top, folksy antics or mannerisms that sometimes seem a facade or a put-on. I believe I have captured in Osborne’s own words and in the words of those close to him some of the qualities that have come to define who he is and what he represents. I portray a man who has settled very comfortably into the role of elder statesman. He wears the mantle well.

Tom Osborne

Living legend Tom Osborne still winning game of life at 79

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the November 2016 issue of New Horizons (a free monthly published by the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging)



Right man for the job

What do you say about a living legend that’s not already been said?

When it comes to former Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne, aka T.O. or Dr. Tom, his whole life story and career is already delineated in print and online. That exposure comes with the territory from being a College Football Hall of Fame coach at a big time legacy program like Nebraska’s.

Next fall marks 20 years since he last patrolled the sidelines as coach. He misses some aspects of it and others not so much.

“I miss the game, I miss the strategy, but the main thing was the relationships,” he said, still looking fit and ruddy-faced at 79. “It didn’t mean winning wasn’t important because if you didn’t win a fair amount you weren’t going to stay employed, so that was something always in the back of your mind.”

NU couldn’t have found a better fit than Osborne. The native son grew up in small town Nebraska as a star athlete at Hastings High and Hastings College, where his grandfather captained the football team more than a half-century earlier, His father loved athletics and vicariously enjoyed his son’s exploits. Osborne won both state high school and college athlete of the year honors. He played three years in the National Football League as a wide receiver before joining the University of Nebraska football staff as a grad assistant under Bob Devaney. He earned a master’s and Ph.D. in educational psychology while serving in the Nebraska National Guard.

Osborne’s intelligence and mastery soon showed itself. In less than a decade on the full-time staff he moved from position coach to offensive coordinator and then to head coach when Devaney hand-picked him as his replacement. The 36-year-old successfully followed the winningest coach in school history and eventually surpassed his achievements.

“He knew that Tom was the right guy for the position,” said Frank Solich, the man whom Osborne passed the baton to when he stepped down as coach. “He had a great deal of trust in him and just turned the program completely over to him. I think there remained a great relationship between the two and it made it an easy working relationship for Tom.”

Moving on

There was a symmetry to Osborne’s leaving. Just as Devaney retired on top, so did Osborne. He followed precedent by handing the reins to his longtime assistant, Solich. The former Ohio prep star played at NU and after finding success as a high school coach he led the Husker freshman team before joining the regular NU coaching staff.

Osborne said he meant for the 1996 season to be his last. He’d promised Solich five years earlier he was quitting. But when top players he expected to declare for the NFL draft instead returned for their senior season, he felt obligated to stay. He did and the rest is history. He had NU on such a roll then it was hard giving it up, but there was that promise he made to Solich.

“I kind of felt like I couldn’t back down from what I told him – that was the primary reason I left. Also, I developed atrial fibrillation that year, which I thought was a little bit of a physical sign. But even if I hadn’t had the atrial fib, I felt at that point I had to turn it over to Frank at that point.”

Unlike Devaney, who stayed on as athletic director, Osborne made a clean break. He refused at least two opportunities to remain near or in the game.

“When I retired from coaching I was given the chance to go on the radio and be a color commentator and I refused simply because anything I would say could be interpreted as critical of Frank Solich or as somehow overboard in his favor, and I didn’t want to be put in that position.”

He could have coached again if he wanted.

“When I got out of coaching, Michigan State offered me the job up there. I knew the president of the school. I was tempted. It would have been quite a bit more money than I made here. But my grandchildren were here. I knew Nancy’s heart was here. And I just didn’t know if it would be a good idea. So I stayed here. I felt I needed to end my career as Nebraska coach.”

Besides, Osborne in anything but black, scarlet and cream just wouldn’t do. He “decided to do something different” by entering an entirely different competitive field – politics. He ran for and won Nebraska’s 3rd District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. During his six years in office he made an unsuccessful bid to be Governor of Nebraska. He returned to NU as athletic director following the Bill Callahan debacle and hired Bo Pelini, whose character issues he later lamented.

Just as Devaney didn’t meddle when Osborne led the program, T.O. took a hands-off role with Pelini.

Osborne appreciated Devaney giving him free reign.

“I’m sure he had thoughts on who ought to be playing and what plays we ought to run but he never made public his speculating or criticizing, so I’ve pretty much taken that approach. Unless you’re in every meeting and you know the injury report and you’re at every practice you really don’t have enough information to intelligently comment on what’s going on. I have views on things but it’s something I wont necessarily talk about.

“It’s about respecting the coach’s right to be able to function without somebody like me looking over their shoulders and commenting, so I kind of stay away from that.”


Nebraska football lives in Osborne lost fantasy world


What makes him tick

Today, three years removed from his AD duties, Osborne’s a Husker icon with no official active ties to NU, The respected patriarch and beloved former CEO is held in high esteem by administrators, athletic officials, coaches and fans. He’s been a model of “values, consistency and integrity” said one of his favorite players, Turner Gill.. True to Osborne’s deep Christian beliefs, football was always more about the journey, not the won-loss record. He even wrote a book titled More Than Winning that took its cue from an earlier coaching treatise.

“I read a book by John Wooden (the late UCLA hoops coach)years ago and he talked about the fact he never mentioned winning to his players – he always talked about the process, How you put your socks on so you didn’t get blisters, how you bend your knees on free throws, and those kinds of things. We kind of broke the game down to the fundamentals we felt you needed to accomplish each day. The main emphasis during the week was on how we prepared, it wasn’t so much on winning games. So if we did the little things and the details correctly, the winning would take care of itself.”

That formula worked to the tune of 255 wins in 25 seasons. He was under enormous stress to win and he did.

He weathered the pressure and arm-chair critiques that come with the territory. He endured under heavy fire from 1973-1979 when he went 1-7 and 3-4 against chief rivals Oklahoma and Missouri, respectively. It got so bad he seriously considered bolting for Colorado. But he stuck it out and finally got over his OU and MU nemesis and can’t-win-the-big-one albatross.

During that rough stretch he was befriended by an important figure in his life.

“(D.B.)’Woody’ Varner was the chancellor at UNL when I was starting out as a head coach. We had good teams but we lost to Oklahoma the first five years and that was wearing very thin on people. It wasn’t just a matter of having a winning season and going to a bowl game, it was ‘Did you beat Oklahoma?’ and if you didn’t beat Oklahoma you didn’t have a good year, no matter how many you won.

“But Woody was always very supportive. Quite often he’d come over after one of those tough losses. Here he was wanting to spend time with this young guy. He probably had a lot of other things as chancellor he could have been doing, He was a very good friend and mentor.”


Champions-Jason Peter's arm around Coach Tom Osborne!:


What Osborne misses least is the win-at-all-costs mentality.

“Just the fact there were times when it became a one-game season and some of the public reaction. You know, if you win a game you’re the greatest and if you lost a big game then people were mad at you and you’d get all kinds of crazy mail. So the unevenness of the experience – you’re either up or down and not too much life in the middle. Most people live most of their lives somewhere in the middle and in coaching sometimes there isn’t a whole lot of middle.”

The pressure to keep up with the competition invites scenarios where some coaches are willing to cut corners.

“I remember one of our coaches came to me and said. ‘You know, if we cant beat ’em, maybe we ought to join ’em.’ He was referring to some things happening in recruiting that weren’t entirely ethical. Schools were bending the rules and on occasion we were losing players to those schools.

I said, ‘No. We may get fired, but we’re going to go out of here with our heads up by doing things the right way.’ I felt essentially in coaching your primary duty is that of a teacher and if you were conveying to young people that bending the rules was the way to get ahead, you weren’t really fulfilling your academic mission. I wanted to be consistent in what we were saying and what we were doing.”

The big money, recruiting excesses and unrealistic expectations that surround college football give him pause.

He finds much of the business side “unpleasant.”

Like any good teacher, Osborne took the most satisfaction in helping young people develop.

“I remember Tom Landry (Dallas Cowboys coaching legend) telling me one time he didn’t feel he made a difference in any player he coached in the NFL in regards to their character because by the time they came to him at 23-24 their character was pretty well formed. I didn’t feel that way in college. I saw a lot of players come to us as one person at 17-18 who left a somewhat different person at age 21-22. That was one reason why I was never that interested in going into professional athletics because I felt there was more going on in college in terms of education and culture and those kinds of things.”

Frank Solich, the man Osborne selected to succeed him and the current head coach at Ohio University, said, “Tom was way ahead of the game in terms of looking after our players academically. It was as important to him that we had success in the classroom as well as on the football field. He wasn’t just after the wins. He was also after doing what he could to help his players get ready for what was out there in the real world. He was able to cover both of those bases and his players appreciated it and his coaches appreciated it.”

The buttoned-down Osborne has always played things close to the vest in public but he’s regarded as a warm person in private.




“He’s a very caring person,” said Solich, “I think there’s no question his players as well as his coaches knew he cared for them beyond just playing the game and coaching the game. That came across all the time. He’s a very loyal guy. He developed loyalty within his players and especially his coaches. Aa lot of us hung around a long long time and obviously there were reasons for that. Number one was how Tom treated people.

“He looked after his players and coaches. He wanted people to succeed and reach their highest potential and did everything he could in order to help us reach our individual goals. He developed such relationships that those players and coaches would do anything for him. He’s just a special guy that I think would have been special in anything he went into. He’s still helping people now with the Teammates program. I think that’s embedded in him – to help people – and so he continues.”

Solich said he tries emulating his old boss.

“Just as you could always go to him, I have an open door policy here for my players, for my coaches. They can always come to me I hope and feel comfortable in doing that and be able to really discuss anything. Tom was very much that way for the people that worked for him.”


Turner Gill 49222

Turner Gill


Turner Gill quarterbacked Osborne’s 1981-1983 high-octane teams that contended for three straight national titles. Now a veteran coach at Liberty University, Gill said, “He always told people their value. He has a unique way that whenever he meets anybody, even for the first time and for a few minutes, he makes them feel like they’ve know this man for a long time. He has that presence about him. He has that unbelievable way of being able to touch people and make them feel valued.”

Gill felt such a kinship with Osborne that he asked him to be a groomsman in his wedding.

“I just wanted him to know how I really believed in him and felt about him for me to ask him. If he’d had said no it would not have been a disappointment, but I was pleasantly surprised he accepted. It’s just a fond memory and special moment not just for me and my wife but for all the people there who witnessed it.

“We’ve known each other in a deep way and continue to value each other. I feel privileged and honored to continue our relationship to this day.”



On being a servant leader

Osborne said as coach he practiced transformational leadership, where “the leader essentially serves – your main objective is to have the best possible outcome.” His best teams so bought into it that they became unstoppable forces.

He said, “If people know you care about them and value them then they are much more responsive because they feel whatever you’re asking them to do is to promote their long-term interests. It’s important the leader be able to model the behavior and be consistent. If somebody has to take the hit for something negative that happens, you don’t point the finger at somebody else, you accept responsibility.”

Heisman Trophy-winner Johnny Rodgers recalls Osborne as always “doing what he was saying.” “It was clear what his values-base was.”

Osborne said effective communication is key to leadership. His subdued personalty didn’t fit the popular coaching stereotype.

“You do a lot of listening. You try to understand what it’s like to walk in people’s shoes. You can’t be telling or ordering people around. You have to have good communication skills. Being positive is important because the best way to change behavior is to catch somebody doing something right and reinforcing it. So often people equate coaching to hollering, screaming, swearing. When you’re constantly on people’s backs, they begin to tune you out, so I tried not to coach that way.”

When he saw a need to correct, he did it subtly.

“People want to be treated with respect. They want to be given a clearly defined job and then the autonomy within that area to operate. I don’t think I ever walked around and interfered with a drill or second-guessed a coach in front of the players. If I had   something I felt I needed to talk about, I did it privately.”

As Osborne’s teams often demonstrated, character, hard work and love can trump talent.

“There’s no question maybe the most important thing your team can have is good team chemistry and unity of purpose and that essentially is a very spiritual act. You focus on physical skills, you focus on the mental side – knowing assignments and making sure you understand what it is you have to do in an actual game. But I think there’s also a spiritual side, too, and the transformational leadership develops that”sense of people caring for each other and for the shared the task at hand.

He said it’s about moving people away “from thoughts that it’s all about me to making this organization, program or team the best it can be.”

He said his longtime offensive line coach at NU, Milt Tenopir, “was a really good teacher and a good representative of the kind of things I’m talking about.”

Osborne acknowledges he picked up traits from Bob Devaney that helped make him a better coach.

“I learned something from Bob about good people skills and a good sense of humor. He had a good feel for when to lighten up on the players and tell them a joke or whatever and when he should bear down on them a little bit. So it wasn’t always grinding and it wasn’t always the same all the time. He had a good touch with people.”



Devaney and Osborne


Building a culture

Osborne inherited the walk-on program and expanded it. He saw how the work habits of hungry student-athletes motivated to be Huskers could rub off on scholarship players.

“I think every organization develops its own culture and some of that depends on the values system and principles of the leadership. But I think in a very real sense the walk-on players had an awful lot to do with shaping the culture of Nebraska football because these guys constituted about 50 percent of our football team. They were mostly from Nebraska, so they grew up wanting to play at Nebraska. Most of them would give up scholarships at other schools, usually smaller institutions, to come play. Almost by definition they were overachievers. They would go the extra mile, work a little bit harder, be a little bit more loyal, be willing to sometimes be on the scout team for three or four years just to have a chance to get a letter and maybe rundown on a kickoff and be part of the program.

“As a result I think the attitude of these walk-on players began to permeate those who came from outside of Nebraska or maybe came for other reasons. Sometimes players came to be part of a high profile program, be on TV more and maybe get a faster avenue to the National Football League. But I often talked to those guys and they would mention that the work ethic and attitude of the walk-ons really began to affect them.”

Many walk-ons came out of obscurity, buried deep on the depth chart, to work themselves into the starting lineup, even stardom.

“In every case they had a great deal of determination, a great work ethic and good character,” Osborne said, “and I think that made all the difference. Character is always a big ingredient.”

Make no mistake, Osborne not only knew how to motivate and lead, he knew Xs and Os as well as anyone. He was an offensive innovator and risk-taker. He called memorable trick plays in critical situations. He boldly converted from a pro style to an option-based spread attack with dual-threat signal-callers who are now all the rage today. Rather than settle for a tie and probable share of the national title, he went for two points and the win in the heartbreaking 31-30 Orange Bowl loss to Miami.

Leaving it all behind

As surprising as those moves were, his sudden announcement he would retire following the 1997 season shocked most everybody. That’s because it came in the midst of a historic five-year run of excellence. Counting what his final team did in going 13-0 and winning a share of the national championship, he led the Huskers to an unprecedented 60-3 record and three national titles in that 1993-1997 span. Though a head coach 25 seasons, he was still only 60 years old. Many of his veteran peers went on to coach into their 70s. Yet here he was calling it quits just as NU became the dynasty program of an entire era.

In his usual pinched way, he articulated well-arrived at reasons for stepping away. None of them eased the pain of Husker fans losing the man who brought Nebraska to the pinnacle. But he methodically, dispassionately explained his decision to leave was the result of fulfilling promises he made. He also assured the program would be handed off to trusted colleagues who would maintain the carefully developed culture there.

One of his biggest disappointments came when Solich was unceremoniously fired after six seasons.

“I left the program in good shape and in good hands and we had good teams under Frank. He had some injuries that first year, then two 10-win plus seasons, played for a national championship, won the Big 12. He won 76 percent of his games, which is what some of the great coaches of the game did. Frank’s teams played at the top level, went to several BCS bowl games, played for a national championship. If you/re around for only six years and you do that, you’re a good coach, so it was unfortunate he was let go.”


From the Archives: Second chance revitalized Phillips, friends say


One that got away

Besides losing a beloved former player, Brook Berringer, to a fatal plane crash shortly after his senior season, perhaps Osborne’s greatest disappointment was Lawrence Phillips. The tragedy that became his life and death haunts the ex-coach.

“Lawrence had some issues, primarily with rejection and abandonment. Somehow his mom had chosen a boyfriend over him and he was kicked out of the home when he was 10. He was pretty much homeless for two years. Then he got put in a group home. It was a pretty rough place. Everyone was there for criminal activity. He was 12 when he went in and I think there was some abuse.

“He was pretty well crippled. He didn’t have a lot of trust for people. We knew Lawrence had a difficult background but we also knew the people at the group home said that he had not committed any crime, that he was very adamant against drugs and alcohol and gangs. The coaches at his high school were very complimentary of him, too. He completed two years of school in his senior year because he missed most of two years. He tested out as academically gifted. He had the characteristics of a very good player – unselfish, great work ethic. So we weren’t necessarily out there recruiting a problem.”

Osborne said when Phillips was charged with two misdemeanors for entering a female student’s apartment and dragging her down three flights of stairs, he was kicked off the team with conditions for possible reinstatement.

“He met all the conditions, including going to counseling. When he went to the NFL I told his agent he needed to stay in counseling.”

Phillips stopped going to counseling and between the lack of mental health support, the big money and the rejection of being cut and suspended several times, he spiraled downward.

“He attracted a certain group of hangers-on, most of whom were from that group home, and I don’t think they did him any great service,” said Osborne, who remained in contact with Phillips.

“One thing led to another. Primarily he experienced rejection.  He had a lot of that going on and he didn’t handle it well, so he went to prison.”

In prison, where Phillips killed someone and later committed suicide, prison officials ignored his insistence that he not be given a gang member for a cellmate.

“There was a fight and the other guy died.” Osborne said. “Lawrence got the feeling there was no way he was going to get out of prison, so he took his own life. It’s a very sad story because he had a lot of things going for him, but he just wasn’t able to overcome his previous experience.”


Tom Osborne



Phillips was not the first or last NU player from a troubled past. Osborne earlier helped Johnny Rodgers stick to the straight and narrow after a hold-up he was charged in came to light. “We ran a lot of laps together,” Osborne wryly noted. Osborne was his position coach and by the time he was assigned to shepherd the player, Rodgers said “we were already hooked at the hip and then we had to get a little deeper because things got a little bit more complex.” “He gave me direction. He was my mentor and he’s been one of my mentors ever since.” Rodgers added.

Osborne wrote the foreword for a new book by Rodgers. Reading the book, Osborne said, “there were some things in his background I had not realized he went through.” “He came up from a difficult circumstance – pretty much without a dad and with a very young mother,” he said. “Johnny sometimes required a little discipline but we stayed with him and it’s been a journey. But he’s certainly made considerable strides in his lifetime and done some good things.”


Johnny Rodgers


Osborne went into some rough hoods after recruits.

“I went to a lot of inner city areas and there would be times when the mother would make sure the player was down at the curbside to walk me up because if I walked up into the housing project unaccompanied it could be a pretty dicey situation. But you did what you had to.”

The longer he coached, he saw more products of broken homes.

“We began to see a lot of changes in family structure. In the ’60s you very seldom ran across a player who didn’t have both biological parents living under the same roof with them and by the time the ’90s began to unfold you began to see more and more kids who were in families that had split up and a lot of them that didn’t have fathers. Some of these young persons quite often were not familiar with discipline and how to relate to authority and those kinds of things.

“Many of them had mothers struggling just to keep their head above water financially and not always able to devote a lot of time to their kids.”

Other societal-cultural trends added to the challenges.

“Talk radio and social media started to come along. With the influence of technology a lot of kids don’t have the same emotional intelligence. So much of their communication is electronic anymore. It used to be when you got on an airplane or a bus there was a lot interaction, people talking, and now it’s sometimes dead silent. People have headphones on or else they’re texting someone maybe three-four feet in front of them. That kind of communication doesn’t have the emotional content. It’s very much scripted and as a result some people don’t have the ability to carry on a conversation or understand where somebody’s coming from, what they’re feeling, so they’re blunted emotionally.”


Tom Osborne’s wife, children and grandchildren were all on the field for a Saturday tribute at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln. Photo Courtesy Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications



Osborne’s interest in giving young people a solid emotional footing led him and his wife Nancy to form the Teammates Mentoring Program for at-risk youth.

“We feel you can’t always legislate strong families but you can provide a mentor. In many cases it’s the difference between life and death and some pretty serious outcomes. We’re in our 25th year.”

Of the program’s first cohort of 22 students, 20 graduated on time and 18 went onto higher education – trade school,  community college or four-year universities. One even went to Oxford.

“We thought, well, maybe there’s something to this, so we expanded the program, first here in Lincoln, and we began to mentor young men and young women from third grade through high school. We ended up last spring mentoring 8,000 kids. We’re in 45 school districts across Nebraska, into iowa and some in Kansas. So it’s grown a lot and that’s where I spend most of my time.”

He actively recruits mentors and more are needed now than ever he said, “because we’re growing and trying to get over 12,000 matches over the next few years.” He added, “You always lose some mentors every year. Some have been with their mentee for years and want to do something else. We try to re-engage them but some don’t come back. There’s always people that move or get transferred. Just to stay at 8,000 we’re going to have to replace about 800 to a thousand mentors and then try to add another thousand on top of that.”



Tom and Nancy Osborne


Purpose and meaning

He strongly advocates volunteering for retirees who have some time on their hands.

“Retirement is tricky. Some people don’t last very long after they retire. I think you’ve got to feel that life still has purpose and meaning and you still can make contributions. Most people can in some way until the day they draw their last breath. It can be as simple as making a few phone calls to people who are hurting, delivering meals on wheels, teaching Sunday school or mentoring a young person. And yet we’ve been having trouble with the Baby Boomers. Some of them are responsive but not to the degree you would think you would see.”

He said he’s learned some things about retirement.

“You always hear stories of people who look forward to retirement and then they find out it isn’t what they thought it was going to be. Playing golf every day and traveling is okay for awhile but then at some point you wonder does this mean. Making a contribution and living with meaning and purpose is important. It think it’s really important if you retire that you have some hobbies and a willingness to engage in something that requires service and sacrifice for somebody else. Otherwise it becomes a very self-absorbed lifestyle, which i don’t think is particularly healthy.”

University of Nebraska at Omaha Department of Gerontology professor and chair Julie Masters often taps his experience by asking him to speak about aging and end of life.

“I asked him to share his thoughts with the death and dying classes I teach for our department at UNL. I also have him share the benefits of serving as a Teammates volunteer. Each semester he wows the students with his wisdom and insight about life and living and meaning and purpose.”

She likens his sage advice to that of the late Morrie Schwartz in Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie. “Students see this required book come alive in Dr. Osborne’s words. I greatly admire him for his wisdom and compassion. He is an extraordinary example of someone who is aging with grace and dignity. Indeed, he is a role model for young and old alike.”

The old coach walked away with few regrets and appears quite satisfied with the quiet place he’s landed after so the limelight.

He still talks regularly with former players and coaches and enjoys catching up with their lives.

“We talk about a little bit of everything,” Turner Gill said.

What impresses everyone who knows him is his constancy.

“If he says he’s going to do something, he’s going to do it –  he’s not going to vary off of it.” Gill said. “You don’t have to write it down, you can just count on it, because he understands his true purpose each and every day.”



Storybook hoops dream turns cautionary tale for Omaha South star Aguek Arop

September 18, 2016 Leave a comment

As Division I collegiate athletics have become an ever larger big business segment for insitutions of higher learning, the recruitment of promising young student-athletes has gotten out of hand. Recruitment starts ever earlier and proceeds with an intensity far out of proportion to the reality that finds very few of these kids ever making much of a mark, athletically speaking, in college, much less in the professional ranks. Often times lip service is given to their academics. This pipedream on both ends of the transaction makes kids over-hungry to be courted and colleges over-zealous to secure their pledges and services. When money is at the root of things, as it is here, bad consequences are more apt to occur, including rash, cruel decisions based on cold calculations, not on the best interests of all involved. A cautionary tale of what can happen is the story of Aguek Arop, an Omaha South High hoops phenom who accepted a University of Nebraska scholarship offer tended to him when he was barely 15. After recently learning NU was no longer excited to have him, he’s reopened his recruitment just a few months before the start of his senior season at South. As my El Perico story reports, the way things played out left South Coach Bruce Chubick none too happy. He feels NU did his young star wrong and he’s not mincing words about it. He also feels Arop will wind up in a better situation, as there are several Division I schools now recruiting him, and will use the motivation of this rejection to have a great senior year. Arop and his teammates are defending the state Class A title his Packers won last year.


Storybook hoops dream turns cautionary tale for Omaha South star Aguek Arop

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico



Aguek Arop


Aguek Arop




In 2014 Omaha South High’s Aguek Arop realized a hoops dream when, at 15, he accepted an athletic scholarship offer from Nebraska. Now this once storybook wedding between promising player and program has turned cautionary tale.

His Husker commitment made him the latest Omaha Sudanese athlete to make waves in local hoops. But he recently re-opened his recruitment after NU coach Tim Miles, who can’t comment per NCAA rules, made the offer conditional. In August, Miles, reportedly asked Arop, now 17 and a senior who led South to the Class A state title last year, to attend a post-graduate prep school for developmental purposes.

Observers say it’s an odd change of heart about a heralded player from a program fresh off two straight losing seasons and lacking any in-state scholarship players. Miles surprised many when he offered Arop so early but shocked more with this twist.

South coach Bruce Chubick Sr. said, “It’s an unknown quantity down there. I think they’re in panic mode.”

Upon getting the news Arop, reigning Gatorade Player of the Year in Nebraska, said, “I think my mind just kind of went blank. I didn’t really know what to think, I’ve now moved on. I didn’t take it personal. I looked at it as business.”

Chubick knows his star felt a deep sting.

“Nobody likes to be rejected. He was hurt and I was hurt. He’s like one of my kids and when your kids hurt, you hurt. I knew it was a tough thing for him. He loves Nebraska. He stayed true to his word. I’m proud of him for that.”

As for questions about Arop’s readiness, Chubick feels he’s ahead of two other Division I players he coached at this same point in their careers: his son Bruce Chubick and John Turek, both of whom starred at NU and professionally overseas. He said Arop has things you can’t measure in terms of “heart and determination,” not to mention a 6-foot-6 frame, 7-foot-plus wing span, high motor and huge athleticism.

“That kind of gets lost in the shuffle.”

Chubick doesn’t like the way NU handled the situation.

“I kind of felt in the spring they were getting cold feet about the fact he hadn’t grown, that he’d got hurt – missing his sophomore season. I mean, there were some indicators we kind of picked up on,” said Chubick.

“If they would have just set Aguek down and told him, nobody would have been happy but at least they would have been up front. You see, he played in all these tournaments all over the country and played really well, but all the college coaches knew he was committed to Nebraska, so they left him alone. So, he pretty much went through the summer circuit and then they (NU) pulled the plug after the fact, when it was too late to be recruited by these schools.”



2017 Omaha South G/F Aguek Arop will move on from Nebraska and has reopened his recruitment.


Chubick also didn’t appreciate Miles passing the buck.

“They wanted me to break it to him,” Chubick said, “and I wasn’t real fond of that because it’s not really my place. I mean, he held true to his commitment.”

Though NU technically didn’t de-commit, Chubick said their loss of interest got couched “under the ruse of going to a prep school, which to me meant they didn’t have a plan for him.” He said, “If Nebraska would have said we want you to redshirt that first year, that would have been the indicator they really had a plan.” In his opinion no redshirt option was broached because NU’s “loaded at the 3 spot, which is probably what he would have to play.” He noted, “They have a freshman and a transfer coming in who play Aguek’s position. The math doesn’t add up.” Meaning, he said, even if Arop went the prep school route, “they wouldn’t have a scholarship for that position and they’re all about numbers down there, which I think is a mistake.”

Chubick said, “I’ve told Aguek, things happen for a reason and maybe this is a good thing. A couple schools that have expressed interest in him were in the NCAA tournament.”

He expects Arop to play his final South season proving a point.

“Oh, I think he’s going to be hungry as all get out. I want him to be pissed and have the I’m-going-to-show-you attitude, and I think he’s got that. ”

Arop simply said, “I can’t wait for the season to start.” He appreciates his coach having his back. “He’s always looking out for us. He doesn’t let anyone try to take advantage of us.”

As for where he’ll play in college, he said he’ll choose “the best fit for me” and one “somewhat close to home.”

South opens its season in December.

Paul Johnsgard: A Birder’s Road Less Traveled

Paul Johnsgard is an unassuming Great Plains genius whose writing, lecturing, illustrating and photographing of birds and the natural world have earned him and his work high distinction. He is also renowned for his wood carvings of waterfowl. His impressive skill set has resulted in him being called a Renaissance Man by some and a rare bird or a bird of a different feather by others. The best way I found into his story was to frame his deep passion for nature as an extension of the imprinting process that goes on with birds. Everything about where he grew up and how he grew up immersed him in nature and reinforced his fascination with birds and wild things until it became embedded or imprinted in him. He is one of the latest in that ever growing gallery of my profile subjects whose life and work epitomize what I highlight in my writing – “stories about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions.” Johnsgard’s regard for birds and the lengths he goes to observe, study, describe, illustrate, photograph than and to represent them in art are all about passion and magnificent obsession.

My profile of Johnsgard is the cover story in the July 2016 New Horizons that should be hitting stands and arrving in mailboxes by the end of June.

As an aside, whenever I do one of my new Horizons profiles I am reminded that the people of a certain age I profile in its pages are consistently the most complex, interesting subjects I write about. These people live rich, full lives marked by intellectual rigor, unbound curiosity, joyful work and play and a sense of adventure. They know themselves well enough by age 60 or 70 or 80 or 90 or whenever I get around to them to be comfortable in their own skin and to not much give a damn what anyone else thinks. They are well past pretense and posturing. They are al about living. They own every inch of their humanity, gifts and warts and all. It’s a refreshing and instructive lesson to live large and love hard.


2006 (Esquire image)

Paul Johnsgard in 2006 (Esquire image)


Paul Johnsgard: A Birder’s Road Less Traveled

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the July 2016 issue of New Horizons


A birder’s beginnings

World-renowned ornithologist Paul Johnsgard, 85, ascribes his passion for birds to something akin to the imprinting process that occurs with the winged creatures he’s made his life’s work.

For the University of Nebraska-Lincoln emeritus professor and author of 82 books, many illustrated with his own drawings and photos, this road-less-traveled life all began as a lad in North Dakota. His earliest memories are of birds and other natural things that captured his imagination while growing up on the edge of prairie country.

“The railroad track went through town and that was probably important because I could walk the railroad track and not get lost, and see birds and flowers,” he recalled. “I was unbelievably lucky I think.”

This Depression-era baby got exposed to the surrounding natural habitats of the Red River and of Lake Lida in Minnesota, where his family summered in a cottage. Those summer idylls gave him free range of unspoiled woods.

He loved the forests, grasslands, flowers, birds. But feather and fowl most fascinated him. Why?

“I don’t know,” he said, pausing a moment. “It’s their sense of freedom – they can fly anywhere and do anything. They have incredible grace. They’re wild. I’m not interested in domestic birds – turkeys and chickens and so on.”

Ah, the wild. From that Arcadian childhood through his adult field work, wild places and things have most captivated him. His appreciation for birds has ever deepened the more he’s observed them. Among other things, he admires their acuity.

Wonderful world of birds

Johnsgard wrote, “I’m absolutely convinced that there is a lot more to what they know and perceive than what humans observe. I honestly think that we are underestimating birds, and certainly other mammals, when we avoid anthropomorphism too rigorously.”

He told the New Horizons, “I even more believe that today. We’re learning things about bird intelligence that were not only unknown but unbelievable just a few years ago, such as their solving fairly complicated problems of putting things together to get at food and things like that that really require some kind of logic. The first person I think that really began to realize that was Irene Pepperberg (Brandeis University professor and Harvard University lecturer), who taught her parrot 300 or 400 words in English and the bird would put them together in not quite sentences but use them in that kind of a logical combination. I think that was one of the first major insights into how smart birds can be. They are remarkably aware of their environment and of any alterations in it, which is a measure of their intelligence.”

He has special admiration for one species – the crane – that has ancient roots and that mates for life. He’s so taken with the Sandhill Crane he’s devoted more words to its study than any other bird.  For decades he’s made a pilgrimage to see and record the annual Sandhill Crane migration in central Nebraska’s Platte River Valley,

“More than any bird I know,” he said, “they are amazingly aware of what’s going on. You don’t want to go anywhere near a crane nest because even if the female’s gone if she sees it has been disturbed she will abandon the nest. The only way you can do it safely is to wait until the nest is hatching – then she will stay there and protect it.”

His favorite bird has varied over time. “I think I was probably first enamored by Wood Ducks, which are so beautiful.  Then I became interested in swans, especially the Trumpeter Swan, and now, of course, cranes. Even though the Whooping Crane is bigger and more beautiful, I think I’m more attracted to the Sandhill Crane. I’ve spent so much time with them. I’ve probably not spent more than 10 hours looking at Whooping Cranes. They’re so rare. The chances of seeing them in Nebraska are remote at best.  But there’s a plethora of Sandhills.”



Thousands of greater sandhill cranes lift off from their island roosts at dawn along the North Platte River downstream from Oshkosh, Neb.

Thousands of greater sandhill cranes lift off from their island roosts at dawn along the North Platte River downstream from Oshkosh, Neb. (Courtesy/Stephen Jones


Sandhill Crane

Photo: usfws



The great migration

He has a special perch from which to watch the Sandhill Crane migration unfold courtesy of a cabin owned by internationally known wildlife photographer, Tom Mangelsen. The two men go way back. Mangelsen, a Grand Island native who did part of his growing up in Omaha, was a student and field assistant under Johnsgard, who mentored him in the 1970s. These friends and colleagues have collaborated on several projects, including a documentary Mangelsen shot and Johnsgard wrote about the Sandhill Cranes and for a new book A Chorus of Cranes.

Johnsgard is among the ranks who feel the spring migration is one of the greatest shows on Earth. It is a sensory experience to behold between the massive numbers on the ground and in the air and the swell of their trumpeting call.

“It’s a combination of place and sight and sound, all of which are unique,” he said. “To have 50,000 cranes overhead is quite something. Cranes are among the loudest birds in the world, so it just about blows your eardrums out when they’re all screaming. And to have a sunset or a sunrise, as the case may be, and to have this beautiful river flowing in front of you – it just all makes for a unique site in the world. It’s all those things coming together.”

Johnsgard’s prose is usually straightforward but there are times he uses a more literary style if it fits the subject, and he can’t think of anything more deserving than cranes,

“In my book Crane Music there’s a section on the cranes returning to the Platte in the spring that I wrote in the style of a kind of prayer: ‘There’s a season in the heart of Nebraska and there’s a bird in the heart of Nebraska and there’s a place in the heart of Nebraska…’ So those three paragraphs come together and then I wrote – ‘There’s a magical time when the bird and the season and the place all come together.'”

In a CBS Sunday Morning report on the migration Johnsgard described the amplified cacophony made by that many cranes  “as the sounds of a chorus of angels, none of whom could sing on key, but all trying as hard as they can.” The naturalist also described what these majestic birds remind him of. “It’s almost like watching ballet in slow motion, because the wing beats are slow and they move in such an elegant way.”

Johnsgard explained to the New Horizons why the area around Kearney, Nebraska is the epicenter for this mass gathering that goes back before recorded time. An ancestral imperative has  brought the birds yearly through millennia and the presence of humans has not yet disrupted this hard-wired pattern.

“Well, Kearney didn’t do anything to attract it, but the Platte River had become increasingly crowded with vegetation, both upstream and downstream, so all these wonderful sandbars were disappearing and the area around Kearney was one of the last places where the Platte was something like its original form. Lots of bars and islands and not too much disturbance. The birds from the whole upper Platte and even the North Platte were being crowded more and more together and so now you have over 500,000 in an area of no more than 50 miles.

“If it were normal conditions, then in those same 50 miles you might have 40,000 or 50,000.”

The cranes that arrive in March and April, he said, “are not getting as much food as they should be getting, so they’re having to leave the Platte due to food competition before they really have as much fat on them as they should.”

He said conservation measures help by controlling dam water releases and diversions for irrigation, recreation and other uses and therefore keeping steady water levels through the year. The shallow Platte and its surrounding vegetation is a fragile ecosystem that requires monitoring and intervention. The Platte has benefited from a river management agreement between Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska to share the water and maintain enough flow for Whooping Cranes and other  endangered species. The Sandhill Cranes are not endangered.

He expects the compact to be renewed before it expires, but it will require the governors of all three states to re-up. He feels the measures are adequate to protect the cranes and other wildlife that make the migration a wonder of the world.

Even though he’s been going to catch that great display of plumage for years now, it never ceases to enthrall him.

“It just about gives me chills,” he said. “I call it nirvana. It pretty much is like a state of bliss.”

That feeling is shared by many. When Johnsgard took noted nature writer David Quammen out to the Platte for the migration he wasn’t sure what this much-traveled adventurer would make of it since “he’s been everywhere to see the natural world,” said Johnsgard. “I took him out to a blind one late afternoon at the Crane Trust and everything happened perfectly and he said, ‘You know, of all the places I’ve been and all the things I’ve seen this is probably the best time I’ve ever had watching birds.’ He did say there’s a bird sanctuary in India where storks come in in a somewhat similar way but that it’s the only thing that could possibly match what we saw.”

Acclaimed conservationist and chimp expert Jane Goodall has been joining Johnsgard and Mangelsen for crane watching expeditions since about 2000. Even though she’s seen so much of the natural world she told CBS’s Dean Reynolds, “I wasn’t quite prepared for the absolutely unbelievable, glorious spectacle of all these thousands of birds coming in. It’s just unbeatable, and it’s really peaceful.”


2007, Spring Creek

2007, Spring Creek


A confluence of interest

None of this would have happened for Johnsgard – from hanging out in blinds with celebs to his words reaching general audiences – if not for a string of things that transpired in his youth. His call to be a birder started just as he entered school.

“When I was 5 or 6 I asked Mother for the salt shaker so I could go out and put salt on a Robin’s tail. Do you know that story?” he asked a visitor at his UNL office. “Well, it goes that if you put salt on a bird’s tail it becomes tame, and I wanted to have a tame Robin. I spent a lot of time trying to do that. I wanted to touch them.”

He made his first drawings of birds then, too. But the real origin of his imprinting may be traced to an experience in first grade.

“My first-grade teacher, Hazel Bilstead, had a mounted male Red-winged Blackbird in a glass Victorian bell jar. She lifted the glass and let me touch it and that really captured my attention. I’d never seen anything that beautiful that close. I’ve never forgotten it. I remember it as well as I did that very day. I think that my need to see live birds in detail began at that time. I later dedicated one of my books to Miss Bilstead’s memory.”

His passion got further fed when a camera (Baby Brownie Special) first came into his life at 7 or 8. He’s not been without a camera since. He’s gone through the whole evolution of 35 millimeter models. He shoots digital images today. On one of his office computers alone he estimates he has more than 20,000 archived photographs.

He supports high tech image capture projects like one by the Crane Trust that has camouflaged game cameras programmed to take pictures every half hour or when motion is detected.

“These six weeks or so the birds spend in the Platte Valley are critically important for them to acquire the amount of fat — energy — they need for the rest of their spring and summer activities. So it really is important to get this kind of data,” he told a reporter.

Even though he grew up hunting – it was simply part of the culture he was raised in – he eventually gave up the gun for the camera. “It increasingly bothered me to kill things that I spent hours watching,” he wrote.

The sanctity of nature became more and more impressed upon him the more time he spent in it. Having the sanctuary of those woods near the family lake cottage nourished him.

“I’d wander around there with my dog and chase skunks and get chased by skunks, look for bears. I’d heard there were some. I developed a little wildflower garden from the flowers in the woods and tended it until we finally sold the cottage in 2005. It was still thriving then.”

Many people played a role in nurturing his Thoreau-like rapture.

“My mother’s cousin Bud Morgan was a game warden and by the time I was 12 he realized I really loved birds, so he’d take me along and we’d count ducks and just talk about birds. That really helped a lot actually in directing my studying waterfowl. He taught me how to identify waterfowl.”

Thirsty to know everything he could about birds, Johnsgard practically memorized what books on the subject his town library held. One he used to particularly “delight in” is T.S. Roberts’ two-volume The Birds of Minnesota.

“I thought it remarkable that a little town library carried it because it was an expensive book for the time. It was a wonderful book. Still is.”

As it was readily apparent that young Paul was crazy about birds, his parents and others happily indulged his curiosity by gifting him with books that any birder would be proud to own. As a result, he possess today several first editions of classics,  including Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and  F.H. Kortright’s Ducks, Geese, and Swans of North America. He has a later edition of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America.

He got his first field guide in college.

Until recently brought to his attention, Johnsgard said he didn’t realize how so many early life elements reinforced his interest in nature and birds. That background set him off on his odyssey as naturalist, wildlife biologist, birder, author and more.


Johnsgard smiling


Renaissance man

Tom Mangelsen (Images of Nature), who knows Johnsgard as well as anyone, said of him, “He’s a wonderful man and really inspirational. Nobody’s done that many books on birds. He’s remarkably prolific and a major intellect. It’s been a long, wonderful journey for me. We are dear friends.”

Mangelsen said Johnsgard likes to tell people that while he was not his best student he is his most famous former pupil. The two also enjoy sharing the fact that Johnsgard accepted him as a graduate student not based on his grades, which were poor, but on the family cabin Mangelsen offered him access to.

As far as Mangelsen’s concerned, Johnsgard is a real “Renaissance Man.” Indeed, in addition to being a scientist, educator, author, illustrator and photographer, Johnsgard’s a highly regarded artist. Several of his drawings and wood bird sculptures are in private collections or museums. For his line drawings he works from photo composites and specimens.

“Having photographs makes it possible to draw them accurately. A photograph though won’t give you much more than just an outline so you really need to be able to look at the thing from the front, from the sides, from the top to get a sense for its shape. So I like to have a specimen if I can. Most of the time I’ve been here I’ve had access to a reasonably good collection of stuffed birds. If that doesn’t do it, I can go over to the state museum and look at things.”

This stickler for details notices when people take artistic license or just don’t get it right.

“When I was in London at the National Gallery there was a painting by Rembrandt of a dead black grouse upside down ready to be plucked. It had the wrong number of primary feathers on the wing, so he wasn’t a birder.”

Johnsgard’s waterfowl carvings are much admired. He is self-taught. “I’ve been at it since I was a Boy Scout,” he said. One of his carvings is in the permanent collection of the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery in Lincoln. “It’s a full-sized Trumpeter Swan preening. Up until then it was by far the biggest carving I’d done. It weighed about 50 pounds.”  He based it on a photo he saw in National Geographic. He didn’t know what to do with the carving when he finished it.

“It was so big that the only place I could put it at home was on top of the damn refrigerator. It was gathering dust up there. Sheldon’s then-director, George Neubert, asked if I could loan him some of my decoys for a folk art show, so I put that thing down there and after it was over he asked me if I’d consider selling it. He told me later he thought it was one of the 10 best acquisitions he got during his time as director.

“Audrey Kauders, director of MONA (Museum of Nebraska Art), has been after me for years to give them a carving. Every time I see her, she says, ‘You promised me a carving.’ I’ve gotta do it.”

He is that rare scientist to have crossed over from academia to the mainstream. Some of that attention has come from the prolific number of nature books he’s written. A book he did with his daughter Karin Johnsgard, Dragons and Unicorns: A Natural History, is an allegorical-metaphorical work that’s never been out of print from St. Martin’s Press. Some of his straight nature books have been popular with the general public. His essays and articles in NebraskalandNebraska Life and Prairie Fire have enjoyed wide readership. Then there’s the public speaking he does and the media interviews he gives.

“Anyone who has made a trip west to see the Sandhill Cranes is familiar with Paul Johnsgard,” said Julie Masters of Omaha. “His books, lectures and interviews on the subject inspire. To experience the cranes through his eyes is a great gift.”

Masters recently developed a friendship with him that’s enriched her appreciation for nature.

“I happened to be on the UNL campus in January and saw him out walking. We struck up a conversation and have been meeting every few weeks to discuss cranes and all sorts of other birds. It is a great privilege to learn about bird behavior from this highly regarded ornithologist ”


Johnsgard and Mangelsen B & W

Paul Johnsgard and Tom Mangelsen, ©Sue Cedarholm


Reverence for nature

While Johnsgard appreciates having his work recognized and enjoyed, he could do without the fuss or fame, such as a recent Esquire magazine piece he was part of that featured “Men of Style” from different walks of life. He would much rather commune with wild things than reporters. He’s most at home sitting patiently in a blind watching birds or marveling at the array of wildlife drawn to a water hole on the Serengeti or contemplating the flora and fauna of the High Rockies. These are mystical spots and interludes for him.

“If I had a religion, it would be nature,” he said, “I think watching birds is the most spiritually rewarding thing I do.”

He realizes the notion runs counter to science but doesn’t much care, though he’s quick to point out, “I don’t believe in any god per se, but I have a reverence for what I see in nature, I don’t think those things were created by a god, but they’re god-like aspects of the world, Without wild things and wild places in the world it’d be a pretty dreary place, so I have that maybe Eisley (Loren)-like or Neihardt (John)-like idea of the world.”

Reading Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks “mesmerized” Johnsgard, particularly the appearance of Snow Geese in several of Black Elk’s visions. Johnsgard, who was already considering a book on Snow Geese. felt compelled to respond in a new work that counterpointed what he knew about the biology of that bird with Native American views of it.

“I couldn’t sleep, so I started scribbling the outlines of what became Song of the North Wind. I went to the library and found all I could on the beliefs of the Plains Indians and also the Inuit.

I finally decided I had enough to write a book. I went up to the nesting grounds in Western Hudson Bay before I finished it.”

Rhapsodizing about the sacredness of nature is one thing, just don’t preach to Johnsgard about thou shalt dos and do-nots.

“I don’t go to church and I get pretty upset with people who are overly religious. I have been a member of the Unitarian Church. I went mostly for the good music and the important issues they talked about, but I haven’t been back in a long time. I prefer to spend my Sunday doing other things.”

The concept of a Higher Power, he said, is “something so amorphous it’s hard to put into objective words,” adding, “I think for everybody it’s a pretty personal thing.”

Questions big and small still consume Johnsgard, who juggles three book projects at any given time. In June he submitted the page proofs for his latest, The North American Grouse, Their Biology and Behavior. Now that the retired scholar is freed from teaching, he does whatever books come to mind these days but especially on subjects that he fills a void in.

Having reached the point where he doesn’t care about royalties anymore, he puts his work in the public domain via Digital Commons, where anyone can download his books for free.


Johnsgard at brick wall (for Leo)


As the bird flies 

Not surprising for an octogenarian of arts and letters, his two-room office on the Lincoln campus is crammed with books as well as art and artifacts from his many travels studying birds across North America, Europe, Africa, South America, Australia. His extensive collection extends to his home.

A prized birding site he’s never been to is in the Himalayas, where the Black Necked Crane resides. “It never comes below 8,000 feet. It’s the last crane in the world I haven’t seen. There’s very few in captivity. I did see a pair at the International Crane Foundation. But the ultimate in birding is to go to the Himalayas to see this incredibly rare bird. I don’t think I’ll make it because my heart isn’t up to those altitudes anymore.

“There’s still four species of waterfowl in the world I haven’t seen and I don’t think I ever will. They’re in places like Madagascar and the East Indies – hard to get to and probably not worth the time and expense and effort to try to do it. But it’s still fun to think about what might be special about them.”

Most of his birding adventures are uneventful but he’s had close calls. A harrowing incident occurred in the Andes. “A guide and I were coming down off an 11,000 foot volcano in a jeep I’d rented when it suddenly lost its brakes on a one-way narrow road looking down on a canyon probably 3,000 feet deep. The road was lined with bushes and I thought the only way I could possibly stop was if I drove into the bushes and used them to slow us down. They finally did and we got the jeep stopped. We looked at the brake connection and where there should have been a bolt there was a leather shoe lace somebody used as a temporary measure. We retied the leather and made it down.”

On other excursions, he said, “I’ve been in really life threatening situations where I should have never gone. The worst place was Oaxaca, Mexico.” Drug cartel-fueled killings and kidnappings happen there. “The biologist who was there before me was macheted to death. I was advised to carry a pistol, so I got one at a pawnshop in Lincoln and as soon as I got home I took it back.” Johnsgard never had reason to use it.

During that same trip he realized as his departure drew near he lacked permits for the birds he’d captured. They were supposed to be quarantined, but he didn’t have the time. “So I thought I’d take a chance,” he said. Wishing to avoid a customs snag, he waited till midnight to access a remote border crossing point. When an inquisitive guard asked what he was carrying in back of the van he was driving Johnsgard acknowledged the birds but left out the part about restrictions on import. The guard then asked “What else you got back there?” and Johnsgard replied, “Well, that’s about it and it’s fine if you check back there, but look out for the snake – he might have escaped,” whereupon the guard whisked him through with, “Go on, get out of here.”

Paul Johnsgard – born smuggler.

He delivered his birds back to Lincoln and got a paper out of it.

A splendid place for birding without any drama is the Waterfowl Trust in England, where Johnsgard studied two years in the 1960s. It holds special meaning because he was befriended by its founder, the late Sir Peter Scott, who became a key figure in his life. Scott was the son of legendary British explorer Robert Falcon Scott, whose second Antarctic expedition ended in tragedy when he and his men died on the return trek after reaching the South Pole.

“Peter was 2 years old at the time,” Johnsgard explains. “The last thing Robert Scott wrote to his wife read, ‘Make the boy interested in natural history” So, growing up, it was sort of incumbent on Peter to become a biologist.”

He did. He also became a renowned wildlife artist. “The art work is what made him famous,” Johnsgard said. “He was a wonderful artist.” Just like his father before him, Peter Scott became a national hero. “He was involved in the Dunkirk extraction of  British troops during World War II, Then he put together this great collection of birds. At the time I went to study at the Wildlife Trust it was the best in the world, Every species has its own unique aspects and that’s part of the fun of studying this. When I had 120 species of waterfowl in England it was like opening 120 gift boxes because they’re all a little different and its fun trying to describe how they are different.”

Scott helped start the World Wildlife Fund.

“He was a great symbol to me I guess of what you could do in art and conservation.”

Johnsgard said his time at the Wildfowl Trust “was incredibly important – it gave me the experience to write books and a world view. I met some of the most famous biologists of the day there.” The Nebraska transplant thought enough of his British counterpart that he and his wife named one of their sons after him. “I dedicated one of my books to him as well. He did a painting as a favor to me for one of my big books. I have all of his big books and he inscribed each one with a watercolor on the title page. He was a very kind and wonderful person. I had the highest possible regard for him.”

Scott pursued his interests up until his death at age 79 in 1989.



A cradle to the grave creative 

Though officially retired, Johnsgard shows no signs of slowing down at 85. He wakes up most days at 4 a.m. and he either reads or writes at home before going to the office. He’s as busy as ever researching and writing about birds and habitats. Before he ever gets around to writing a book he assembles references. Hundreds of them. Once he starts writing, he’s fast. He admits that his work is “a compulsion.”

He feels his rare triple threat skills to not only write but illustrate and photograph books makes his projects more palatable to publishers. He said mastering things comes with repetition. “I think talent is largely what you put into it in terms of practice.”

He’s been producing things since he was small and he fully expects to continue creating until he dies.

His new friend Julie Masters, professor and chair of the Department of Gerontology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, views him as a model for health aging.

“As the population ages, we need people who show us that creativity can and does increase with age,” she said. “Paul Johnsgard is someone who serves as an ideal role model for us all. His passion and enthusiasm for life and the beauty of nature allow those of us who are less learned a glimpse into a world that is made even more awesome through his instruction.”

Johnsgard is just grateful he found his calling and stayed true to the road-less-traveled. “I don’t know anybody I’d trade my life with. I’ve been very lucky.”

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at

Sam Meisels leads early childhood mission through Buffett Institute

October 9, 2015 1 comment

The more researchers explore the human brain the more evidence there is that very young children, even infants, learn from the very start of life and then so much of their continued development is dependent on how they are nurtured and stimulated and what they are exposed to.  The more enriching and interacive the environment it seems, the more children thrive and the better prepared they are to succeed as they progress through those critical developmental years.  Sam Meisels knows all about that and a lot more when it comes to early childhood.  He leads the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska and he and his staff work hard to make Nebraska the standard by which early childhood progams and initiaitives are judged.

Samuel J. Meisels

Sam Meisels

Sam Meisels leads early childhood mission through Buffett Institute

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (
Since Sam Meisels arrived in 2013 to head the Buffett Early Childhood Institute, he’s become the academic-based advocate ally to the socially conscious philanthropist who hired him, Susan A. Buffett.

The dynastic wealth of the Buffetts has always had a progressive bent, Billionaire investor Warren Bufffett’s first wife, the late Susan Thompson Buffett, gave generously to liberal causes.

The daughter has carried on this legacy by supporting quality education for children from low income families. Her Sherwood Foundation is a major player behind programs attempting to bridge achievement and opportunity gaps from birth through college. Her Buffett Early Childhood Fund backs Educare. The Fund created the Institute in partnership with the University of Nebraska.

The research, policy, outreach-armed Institute housed at the University of Nebraska at Omaha emerged from her conversations with NU-system leaders about the need to improve early childhood outcomes for at-risk populations. She and Meisels say since learning begins at birth any early deficits can contribute to later academic-reading struggles. That’s why enriching activities from infancy on are vital. As the Institute’s tag lines read: “Start Early, Start Well” and “All children need the opportunity to develop, learn and succeed in life.”

In Meisels, she tapped an early childhood guru as BECI’s founding executive director and as Neb.’s new Pied Piper for the cause.

“Sam is the real deal. He’s a world-class early childhood leader deeply committed to leveling the playing field for very young children growing up in families facing some very tough odds. Sam’s vision of making Neb. the best place in the country to be a baby is a vision inspiring more and more people, and I’m convinced we’ll get there,” she says.

“Children are born learning. Their earliest experiences set the trajectory for how they will succeed in school and life. Sam has put together a team at the Institute to help him and, really, to help all of us across the state close the student achievement gap and develop an early childhood workforce to do the critical work of nurturing Neb.’s youngest learners.”

Meisels came from Chicago, where he helped make Erikson Institute the nation’s leading graduate school in child development. Before joining Erikson in 2002, he held senior positions at prestigious schools.

The University of Rochester graduate with a master’s and Ph.D. from Harvard Graduate School of Education has ample experience with children both as a parent and as a former pre-school, kindergarten and first grade teacher. As a leading authority on the assessment of young children he’s spent much time observing early child ed programs.

Most of his time today is spent with stakeholders, including school district superintendents, education officials, legislators and philanthropists, as well as with fellow experts in devising strategies and policies for better assessment and training.

On September 11 the Buffett Institute and the Aspen Institute hosted a panel discussion featuring leading early childhood experts about the future of early childhood education and care.

Institute staff have traveled the state to meet with and speak to many constituencies. With the Buffett and NU names preceding them, Mesiels and Co. can get in any door and before any audience to advocate for quality, accessible early childhood programs that educate rather than warehouse, that have well-trained staff and that are accountable to state standards.

Meisels is impressed by the public-private support marshaled for early childhood efforts in Nebraska. Those initiatives are in part responses to societal failures. The state faces a crisis of young children living in poverty, a factor posing serious challenges for healthy development. The 2010 census showed 40 percent of all children birth through age 5 in the state meet the Nebraska Department of Education’s general at-risk criteria, including low income, English as a second language, having adolescent parents or being born prematurely. That percentage equates to 60,000 children statewide. The numbers keep growing.

These problems are magnified in families and communities lacking resources for quality out of home child ed and care. Meisels sees a need for more such programs wherever he visits.

“A lot of pre-schools I go into, not just in Neb. and certainly not just in Omaha, are places where kids spend time, but they don’t learn very much. They meet in places where there’s very little attention paid to something as simple as transitions, whether it’s from home to school or within school from one activity to another activity. Most very young children have trouble making transitions – being able to change what they’re doing into something else and do it in a way that makes sense in a group of 12 or 20 children.

“We’re talking also about relying not at all on television but relying instead on what takes place interactively. We’re talking about having art experiences, alphabet letters, displaying children’s work on the walls, having goals in the areas of social problem solving, literacy, math. Even for 3 year-olds and 4 year-olds you should have appropriate goals in those areas.”

A Vision of the Future

Meisels doesn’t often see those things in place. He also sees disturbing disconnects in the continuum of early childhood programs.

“Right now in this area we have a number of 4 year-old programs sponsored with public dollars but very, very few programs for 3 year- olds. It’s like having sixth grade and fourth grade but no fifth grade.
That doesn’t work.”

Meisels not only finds it illuminating but rejuventating to visit pre-schools in order to get a handle on what’s happening in settings where young children spend much of their time.

“When I go into a pre-school I actually feel transformed, honestly. I’m taken over by the environment. The first thing I do is look around and see how many adults are there and how many children are there. Then I just listen for a little bit to get the tone – how are children talking to each other, how are adults talking to children, how are children tailing to adults. I note the interactions and how problems are solved.

“Then I start to walk around and note what the materials are like – are children able to reach them, are they in good repair, is there a good variety. Do we just have a few books and counters for math or are there blocks, is there a dress-up corner for dramatic play. On and on and on. That gives me a pretty darn good idea.”

He says while most out of home providers are motivated by the right reasons, some cut corners rather than put children first.

“If you’re going to be very concerned about the bottom-line, you’re going to try to have to hold costs down, most of which are for the personnel, and to that extent you’re going to short change everybody.”

He says most providers pay relatively poor salaries – on average $28,000 – to child care educators.

“That’s a terrible salary given that who’s more important to us in the world than our children. We’re also paying it all out of our pocket. The amount of federal and state dollars that goes into early childhood is very, very small compared to what goes into K-12 education. So who pays for it? Parents pay for it.

“Salaries, work conditions and benefits are very, very bad and the status of that profession, my profession, is low as a result.”

All of which serves as a disincentive to enter the field, leaving many inner city and rural communities wanting because there aren’t enough early childhood educators to meet the need.

With providers charging a few hundred dollars to a thousand dollars or more a month, parents must make hard decisions and sacrifices, perhaps going well out of their way in order to access child ed or care.

“These are generally young people and they can’t be stretched very far,” Meisels says.

Parents of limited means sometimes choose the more expedient rather than best option, including in-home providers operating off the radar and therefore outside the eyes of regulators.

“Many people are unlicensed and then they’re totally unregulated,” Meisels says.

Since not all children who receive out of home child care are in licensed-regulated settings, he says, “We have to find ways of reaching out to them through professional development, improving the quality of the programs as a general rule.” He says, “For those programs that do enroll children who receive any kind of state subsidy the state now has a quality rating system and so those programs over the coming years will have to meet certain minimum requirements of quality, not just health and safety, and we will work with that and try to improve that.”


The Institute has launched the Early Childhood Workforce Development Program in order to raise the standards and skill levels of early childhood staffers. It is hosting higher education faculty from across the state October 5-6 for the conference “Transforming the Early Childhood Workforce in Nebraska.”

Meisels says another challenge posed by the early childhood arena is variable quality in day cares and after school programs. ”

Some of them have educational goals, some of them have more fun, play-based goals. It’s a big issue all around. Actually United Way of the Midland here is focusing more of their attention now on trying to improve after school programs.”

A formal approach to the issue is the Achievement Gap Challenge through the Superintendents’ Early Childhood Plan mandated by the Nebraska Legislature (LB 585). The plan will be funded for three years by the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties. Created in collaboration with 11 metro area school districts, the plan aims to reduce achievement gaps for children birth through age 8. It emphasizes creating more quality pre-school for 3 and 4 year-olds and enhancing teaching and curriculum for pre-K through third grade.

Home visits will target at-risk kids up to age 3. The idea is to educate families about activities and resources that aid development in situations where children may not be getting the stimuli they need.

“For example, we know if children aren’t exposed to a lot of words early in life that even as early as 18 months they’re going to show a deficit in vocabulary that can persist all the way through third grade,” Meisels says. “And we know there’s a very tight correlation between vocabulary and learning to read.

“So we want to teach people to talk, to read and to sing to their kids. We want to help them learn how to help their children grow in terms of physical well-being, fine motor and gross motor skills, all aspects. We need to communicate to parents – what are our goals for learning. how well is your child doing in terms of what has he learned about this and about that. We particularly want the parent to have a strong relationship with the child. What takes place between the parent and child is the driving force in childhood development.”

He says it’s not only parents who can stand to be schooled about children’s age appropriate behavior.

“We need to teach parents about why play is a valuable avenue of learning for young children, why there’s always a surplus of activity level in children. We need to teach teachers that, too. Some kids getting expelled are not wanting to sit down all day long or for a few hours, which is what we would expect for a 4 or 5 year-old. Some people don’t know that.”

He says the Institute will monitor and support early elementary ed outcomes with schools, centers and families.

“We’ve got to think in terms of families rather than parents because a lot of children are raised by other family members. We have to think about the family with the child all the time. There’s no such thing as an isolated child because as humans cannot survive alone. That’s not just our physical needs but our emotional needs, our intellectual needs. We need to be supported, scaffolded all the way, for a long time.”

He says education intervention is generally well-received.

“Because you’re very alone when you’re the parent of a very young child and a new-born especially, you want someone to talk about it with. How you do it is very important. Finding someone from the community who understands what you’ve been through is very important.”


He says the early childhood field’s come a long way.

“We have learned what to do with kids, we’ve learned how to do it better. We’ve learned that children can learn a great deal. We’ve learned the first five years of life is when the greatest amount of brain growth occurs. All of that is supportive of what we’re doing. We can teach very young children about letters, about numbers, about shapes, about space, about all kinds of things like that.

“A more recent revolution is we’ve learned we need to teach them about non-cognitive things, too, like taking responsibility for their actions, relating to others, being cooperative. It’s these non-cognitive factors that have a lot to do with how well they succeed then in life. Much of the evidence behind that has grown out of what we’ve learned from early childhood programs as we follow kids longitudinally through their early adult years.”

He says early childhood has more visibility “than at any time” and
“the research is pretty clear that if we can be persistent in our effort we will experience the persistence of effect.”

When it comes to assessment, Meisels says No Child Left Behind initiated “more testing than we’ve ever seen and most of it has not been useful.” He adds, “A lot of it has been punitive in nature. I think something that is punitive is not educational.”

“The assessment work I do,” he says, “is based upon teachers observing, recording and comparing to standards in order to differentiate what they do with individual children. You have to have evidence-based data. We learn how to observe so that we have some reliability and repeatability. Based on that I can see this is a child who learns in this way but not so well in that way and I can use that to help the child develop and have success.

“It is more resource-intensive for a teacher but teaching’s a tough job and this actually improves your teaching.”

Another punitive thing that happens in pre-schools, he says, is children being suspended or expelled for behavioral issues.

“It is a national problem. Boys are more frequently expelled than girls.”

Some reports suggest boys of color are disproportionately impacted.
Meisels isn’t surprised it happens given that the overwhelming early childhood workforce is white females.

“There are problems of identification with an authority figure who looks so different and is so different. Children from minority backgrounds may not have encountered a white authority figure before.”

Samuel J. Meisels

He says the kinds of behaviors that can lead to disciplinary action are preventable and solvable.

“Often a teacher doesn’t know how to structure a physical space for pre-schoolers. Some kids will respond to your saying ‘no running,’ others won’t, they like to challenge, they like to test limits. which is a very natural healthy thing to do.

“It’s our job as adults to help the child cross that divide and we have to understand where the child is so we can be successful at that. It’s a huge responsibility for the teacher to bring a child into a learning world
and to expel a child at that age is a failure on the part of the teacher.”

Meisels sees a largely health early child landscape here.

“Some factors that led to the establishment of this Institute help Neb. stand out in a very positive way. That doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot of work to do, but it means there are points of excellence here. We have combined public-private programs focusing on the first three years of life that very few states have. We have four Educare schools. We have three colleges of education in the NU system.

“There are things that need to improve, too. We are a rural, low population state, so as you get into greater Neb. there are fewer people prepared at a high level. Our standards of qualification for taking care of children are not high. Some say if we made them too high we’d have nobody to serve the kids in need. We want to find ways of improving that situation. We have very few birth to 3 programs and very few programs for 3 year-olds.”

Overall, he says, “there’s room for a lot of improvement and there’s a lot of strength to build from.”

He says the investment made to support the Institute’s work sends a message that “the lives of young children at risk and their families are important enough that they would rise to be a priority of the university,” adding, “Most universities don’t do that and this is one saying that it’s important enough for us to do it.”

The Institute’s interdisciplinary-collaborative work spans across all four University of Nebraska campuses in Lincoln, Kearney and Omaha.

“What I say to the deans around these campuses is that we can identify where most of the children at risk are coming from and we want every single one of those children 18 years after they’re born to be eligible to apply and to be qualified to be accepted at the university.

“So in a way it’s a jobs program – that these kids should grow up and hold jobs and be real contributors here in this state. Early childhood I always say is not an inoculation, it’s an investment.”


Better together: UNO Community Engagement Center a place for conversations and partnerships

Somehow I missed it, but for years now my alma mater the University of Nebraska at Omaha has been making itself a national leader in local community engagement efforts and service learning projects.  In doing this story for Metro Magazine ( about the still new UNO Community Engagement Center I was properly schooled on just how deeply interwoven the university is in the community.  Just in the few months since filing this piece I’ve found myself drawn to that center for a variety of events.





Better together: UNO Community Engagement Center a place for conversations and partnerships

Collaboration the hallmark of new university facility

Center in line with UNO’s metropolitan university mission

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the February/March/April 2015 edition of Metro Magazine (
Since opening last March the Barbara Weitz Community Engagement Center at UNO has surpassed expectations in its role as a bridge between the university and the community.

“We knew it was going to be a benefit to the community,” CEC director Sara Woods says, “we just didn’t anticipate how much use it was going to get and how many organizations were going to take as much advantage of it as they have.”

In its first eight months alone the two-story, 60,000 square foot building located in the middle of the Dodge Street campus recorded 23,000 visits and hosted 1,100 events. The $24 million structure was paid for entirely by private funds. It’s namesake, Barbara Weitz, is a retired UNO School of Social Work faculty member. She and her husband, Wally Weitz, are longtime supporters of UNO’s service learning programs. The Weitz Family Foundation made the CEC’s lead gift.

As an outreach hub where the University of Nebraska at Omaha and nonprofits meet, the center welcomes users coming for meetings, projects and activities. Interaction unfolds transparently. Conference rooms have windows that allow participants look out and passersby look in. The glass-fronted facade offers scenic views of the campus and lets in ample sunlight. A central atrium creates an open, airy interior whose enclosed and commons areas invite interaction.

“This is a very public place and we want to keep it that way.” Woods says.

She, along with UNO colleagues, students and community stakeholders, worked closely with Holland Basham Architects to envision a collaborative environment that, she says, “feels different than any other campus building and offers incredible flexibility.” Project designer Todd Moeller says, “Spaces were intentionally arranged so that users would be prompted to utilize several parts of the building, thus increasing the opportunity for the spontaneous meeting.”

Artwork by several community artists adorns the walls. UNO junior art major Hugo Zamorano joined community artists in creating a 120-foot mural in the center’s parking garage.

Zamorano is a former tagger who found a positive outlet for his graffiti at the Kent Bellows Mentoring Program, under whose supervision he worked on several community murals. Now a mentor for the program, he joined two other artist mentors and three high school artists in creating the CEC mural symbolizing community engagement after input from UNO and community leaders.


UNO Large Meeting Area-Barbara Weitz Community Engagement Center




Diverse partners and spaces
Woods says the collaboration that went into the mural project mirrors the CECs intended purpose to “be a place where people gather, plan, collaborate to find ways to solve problems.” She says that’s exactly what’s happening, too. “People are holding workshops and meetings and conferences around critical community issues and these things are happening very organically, without any orchestration. We’re excited about the extent of use of it and the range of organizations using it. We’re excited about the debates, the dialogues, the forums.”

Nineteen entities – 11 nonprofits and eight university-based organizations – officed there last fall. Among the nonprofits are the Buffett Early Childhood Institute and Inclusive Communities. Signature UNO engagement efforts housed there include the Service Learning Academy and the Office of Civic and Social Responsibility. All have different focuses but each is in line with serving the common good.

“They all work side by side in this great collaborative environment we created,” Woods says. “Those organizations are thriving here with us. They’re great ambassadors. They take advantage of our volunteers, our interns, our graduate assistants, our service learning classes. They have students work on special projects for them.”

Service Learning Academy director Paul Sather and Office of Civic and Social Responsibility director Kathe Oelson Lyons report new partnerships resulting from the ease of collaboration the CEC fosters.

“I mean, you just walk down the hall to have conversations with people,” Sather says and new partnerships get formed.

Building namesake Barbara Weitz, who serves on many community boards, says the sheer variety and number of organizations that office or meet there means connections that might otherwise not happen occur.

“People engage in conversation and find they have common interests. There’s just so many possibilities. The communication just starts to ripple and in a way that’s easy for everybody and in an environment that encourages collaboration and creativity.”

She says many small organizations lack space of their own for meetings and the CEC, whose meeting rooms are free for nonprofits meeting certain criteria, provides a valuable central spot for confabs. Those rooms come in a range of sizes and are state-of-the-art.

Among the CEC’s many engaging spaces, the Union Pacific Atrium, honors the legacy of Jessica Lutton Bedient, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate and UNL Foundation employee who devoted her short life to volunteering.

Nine additional organizations were slated to move in over the semester break. In a few years the current roster of community tenants will have moved out and a new group taken their place. Whoever’s there the center will continue being a funnel for community needs and a tangible expression of UNO’s metropolitan mission to respond to those needs.


Fulfilling a larger community mission
“A metropolitan university has an obligation and commitment to serving its urban community and we do that through purposely applying our student, faculty and staff resources through teaching, service and applied research,’ Woods says. “It’s reciprocal in that way. We don’t just treat the city as a laboratory, although we want to learn from it and gain knowledge from it, but we try to do work that benefits the community as opposed to being in an ivory tower where the university exists within a metropolitan area but doesn’t necessarily give back.

“We really see ourselves as a thriving part of the metropolitan community and because of that we have an obligation to contribute to it. That’s our metropolitan mission. Not only is it part of our DNA we believe urban universities like ours are going to become more and more important going forward.”

She says the ever enhanced reputation UNO enjoys in its hometown is a direct result of the university “connecting to our community and showing the value we offer our citizens in so many ways and you see a lot of these things come together in this building.”

Woods says UNO’s engagement legacy is strong and ever growing.

“There’s a sea change taking place in faculty seeing engagement, whether through their research or teaching or service, as a natural part of what they do. This campus allows that to happen. A lot of physical, student and faculty capital is going towards that. It’s wonderful watching it grow. The CEC is one giant mechanism to promote engagement throughout this campus. We hope to support, encourage and promote engagement wherever it takes place at UNO.”

She says the center is “the only stand-alone comprehensive engagement-focused facility of its kind in the United States,” adding, “We’re very unique and we’re getting a lot of national attention.” Because access is everything the center’s easily found just south of the landmark bell tower and has its own designated parking.


Service learning projects and volunteering opportunities connect students to community
Being intentional about engagement means that not only UNO faculty and staff connect with community at the center, so too do students, who use the CEC to find service projects and positions in the metro.

“We know those co-curricular experiences are really helpful in building a student’s professional portfolio,” Woods says. “If we can engage students as volunteers or inservice they are more likely to do well in school, to be retained, to graduate, to get a good job in a profession. When they are successfully employed they are more likely to be engaged in their community. We know that’s even more the case for first generation students and students of color.”

UNO annually offers more than 100 service learning courses across academic disciplines. In service learning projects UNO students gain experiential opportunities to apply classroom lessons to real-life nonprofits and neighborhoods. UNO students work collaboratively with K-12 students on projects. Some projects are long-standing, such as one between UNO gerontology students and seniors at the Adams Park Community Center. Other projects are nationally recognized, such as the aquaponics program at King Science Center, where UNO biology and chemistry students and urban farmer Greg Fripp teach kids to build and maintain sustainable systems for growing food.

A new project recently found UNO political science students partnering with the Northwest High School student council on the No Place to Hate dialogue process taught by the Anti-Defamation League’s Plains States Region. The ADL invited 100-plus students from nine high schools to the CEC for a discussion facilitated by UNO-ADL. In small groups participants shared views on bullying and racial attitudes and strategies to increase understanding and compassion.

“It’s very much integrated learning where you take learning and combine it with the needs of a nonprofit or a neighborhood or a community organization,” Woods says. “Part of students’ academic credit is earned working with a partner organization.”

Students find other service avenues through the Office of Civic and Social Responsibility (CSR), whose the Volunteer Connection and the Collaborative pair students with organizations’ short term and long-term needs, respectively. Woods says these service opportunities are designed to “put more meaning into students’ volunteer experiences” by putting them into leadership positions. In the Collaborative UNO students serve as project managers for a year with the nonprofits they’re matched with, giving students resume-enhancing experiences that assist organizations in completing projects or events.

CSR director Kathe Oelson Lyons says, “Corporations are more and more seeking employees who are willing to engage in the community. We know service enriches students’ educational experience and that stimulates success in academics and in the soft skills of learning how to interact with others and gaining an awareness of the greater community. We know our students will leave with a rich set of skills transferable to any work environment upon graduation.”

“Service is a great open door,” Lyons says. “Anybody can do it and everybody is welcome. It allows for access to all and that’s a wonderful leveler for community and university. When you have students out in a neighborhood rehabbing a home they’re interacting with neighbors, who see that these students aren’t so different from me. It’s a great equalizer. Students learn a great deal from the community, too. They learn more about what the needs are, what’s happening in areas of the community they’d never entered before.”




Lighting the way
As a conduit or liaison for community collaboration, Lyons says the center “isn’t the end point, it’s the connecting point – we still need to be out in the community” (beckoning-reaching out). “That’s the power of the building. It’s kind of a beacon. It always feels like to me it’s the lighthouse and it shines the light both ways. It’s a reflection of who the university is and the university is a reflection of who the community is.

“What a wonderful symbol of a metropolitan university – to be a lighthouse of stewardship and scholarship.”

Donor Barbara Weitz was turned on to the power of service learning as a UNO faculty member. She and her philanthropic family regularly see the benefit of engagement on the social justice causes they support. Weitz sees the UNO Community Engagement Center as the culmination of what UNO’s long been cultivating.

“For me it’s the embodiment of what everyone’s been working towards at UNO, including the chancellor. This idea that we’re a metropolitan university set in the middle of a community with rich resources but also huge needs. The fact that we can a have a place where we come together and through a variety of methods, not just service learning, and meet and talk about what we’re working, compare it with what other people are working on, and find ways to partner.

“It’s all about bringing people together to create the kind of energy it takes to make big change in a metropolitan area. It’s the kind of vital space that’s needed on a college campus.”

Connect with the CEC at

Nebraska’s Changing Face; UNO’s Changing Face

March 18, 2014 Leave a comment

I wrote the following  feature and sidebar exploring some trends about the changing face of Neb. and the University of Nebraska at Omaha, my alma mater.  Slowly but surely the state and some of its institutions are becoming more diverse.  Some of the changes can be readily seen already, others not so much, but in a few decades they will be more obvious.   It’s a healthy thing that’s happening, though diversity is still taking far too long to be fully felt and lived and embraced in all quarters, but that’s for another story.





Nebraska’s Changing Face

©by Leo Adam Biga


Nebraska’s “Plain Jane” sameness has long extended to its racial makeup. Diversity hasn’t held much truck here. Even when the foreign-born population was at its peak in the state’s first half century, the newcomers were predominantly of European ancestry.

An African-American migration from the Deep South to Omaha in the early 1900s established the city’s black base. Until a new immigration wave in the 1990s brought an influx of Africans and Latinos-Hispanics to greater Neb., the composite face of this Great Plains state was decidedly monotone.

The perception of Flyover Country as a bastion of white farmers has never been completely accurate. The state’s two largest metropolitan areas, for example, have always boasted some heterogeneity. Urban areas like Omaha and urban institutions such as the University of Nebraska at Omaha express more racial-ethnic diversity because of longstanding minority settlement patterns and the university drawing heavily from the metro.

But it is true Neb.’s minority population has always been among the nation’s smallest, which only supported the stereotype.

Finally, though, its minority numbers are going up and its diversity broadening.

Still, if Nebraskans posed for a group portrait as recently as 1980 more than 9 of every 10 would have beeb white. Only 6 percent identified as African-Americans, Latino-Hispanics, Native Americans or Asians.

The lack of diversity extended virtually everywhere. The largest minority group then, blacks, was highly concentrated in Omaha. Despite slow, steady gains blacks still account for only 13 percent of the city’s population and 4 percent of the state’s population.

But as recently announced by UNO researchers, Neb. is changing and with it the face of the state. A group picture taken today would reveal a noticeable difference compared to a quarter century ago, with whites now accounting for 8 of every 10 residents. Indeed, the state’s minority population has more than doubled the past four decades, with by far the largest increase among Latinos-Hispanics, who now comprise the largest minority segment. Latinos-Hispanics are on a linear growth trajectory. They tend to be young and their women of childbearing age.

Minority growth has been even greater in select communities, such as Lexington, where meat processing attracted newcomers.

Celebrated native son filmmaker Alexander Payne’s new movie “Nebraska” – set and shot primarily in the northeast part of the state – accurately portrays a slice of Neb.’s past and present through a large ensemble of characters, all of whom but two are white. The exceptions are both Hispanic. The Oscar-winning writer-director may next make a partly Spanish-language feature about the impact of the immigrant population on Neb.’s towns and cities.

New UNO Center for Public Affairs Research projections posit that by 2050 the state’s portrait will dramatically change as a result of major demographic trends well under way. Within four decades minorities will account for about 40 percent of the entire population. Nearly a quarter of the projected 2050 population of 2.2 million, or some 500,000, will be Latino-Hispanic.

It’s a sea change for a state whose diversity was traditionally confined to a few enclaves of color. Immigration, migration and natural causes are driving this new minority surge.

Everything is relative though. So while CPAR Research Coordinator David Drzod says, “Our diversity will increase,” he adds, “Neb. is one of the less diverse places countrywide and other states are going to become more diverse as well.”

Still, the snapshot of Neb. is changing due to real demographic shifts with significant longterm consequences. Just as the majority white base is holding static or declining, non-whites are proliferating. The results can be seen in the ever more diverse profiles of some communities, neighborhoods, schools and other settings.

Thus, for the first time in Neb. diversity is becoming more lived reality than aspirational goal.

Economic conditions were the main driver for the sharp rise in Latinos-Hispanics migrating here. Plentiful jobs, a low cost of living, coupled with aggressive industry recruitment, lured people to move here from places with comparatively weak economies, high cost of living and job shortages. Neb. grew its Latino-Hispanic base from points of origin in California, Texas. Mexico, Central America and South America, The state also saw its African and Asian populations increase as refugees from Sudan and Bhutan, for example, resettled here.

Drozd says, “People are not coming as directly for new jobs like in the ’90s when the meat processors were expanding and recruiting. We expect to see some regional migration that Neb. has typically seen from smaller locations to more urban locations that tend to have a diverse pool of job opportunities within various industries.”

While migration has slowed from its peak waves it’s expected to continue in fits and starts. Migration, researchers agree is “a wildcard” that can’t be accurately forecast, but Office of Latino and Latin American Studies Research Associate Lissette Aliaga Linares notes an uptick in Latinos-Hispanics from Arizona, which OLLAS Director Lourdes Gouvia attributes to that state’s anti-immigrant policies.

Drozd says Neb.’s minority experience is consistent with some surrounding states and inconsistent with others.

“We are typical of the Great Plains in that we tend to suffer from outmigration especially of young college-aged whites, which is counteracted by in-migration and increase in the minority population groups. On the other hand Neb. is unique in that we are growing faster in some of our metropolitan areas and not holding our population as well as some of the more rural areas.”






The emergence of more minorities is perhaps most visible in urban inner city public schools, where student enrollment naturally reflects the heavily minority communities these schools serve. Minority enrollment in the Omaha Public Schools stands at 68 percent.

“The diversity of UNO will continue to grow and one only has to look at the demographics in the metro area to understand that traditional middle school and high school students will increasingly be students of color,” says UNO Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs B.J. Reed.

Some outstate school districts are now majority Latino-Hispanic.

The impact of diversity in this small population state that suffers from brain drain cannot be overstated.

“There’s a large part of Neb. that would be having population decline if it were not for minority growth,” says Drozd. “There’s all sorts of implications with respect to aging, the workforce, health care, education. From a gerontology standpoint you have the possibility of seeing a younger, more diverse working-age population caring for a predominantly white non-Hispanic aging population and will there be any issues associated there. With programs like Social Security you’re going to be relying more and more on an immigrant population to support payments for predominantly white people collecting from the program. So there are potentials for tension there and of course political ramifications and all sorts of factors.”

Gouveia, a sociology professor, reminds that “Latinos are going to imitate some trends of the larger population the more urban and educated they become,” adding. “The more women are able to work outside the home fertility rates will drop and the population will begin to age. It’s the life cycle.”

As minorities grow they become a larger sector of the tax and voting base that elected officials and prospective candidates must recognize.

Drozd says communities must adapt, whether offering English-as-a-Second Language programs or multicultural competency classes, in order to best serve minorities and their particular needs.

As more minorities graduate high school educators and employers hope that many of these college-bound grads and working-age young adults will attend school and find jobs in-state.

“As people have become upwardly mobile in Neb.’s past that has led to outmigration out of the state,” says Drozd. “It’s going to be a very policy relevant factor because people born in the early ’90s are now hitting age 18. Even if they choose a Neb. college where are they going to go to work? Will there be jobs and associated positions for them here in the state or will they go out of state?”

Just as preparing students to succeed in school is critical, so is preparing a workforce for today’s service and skilled jobs.

“Let’s make no mistake about this, without immigration Nebraskans may have to rethink how they are going to have a viable economy that produces not only jobs but payrolls that produce taxes from which an aging population will benefit greatly,” says Gouveia. “Without this population there won’t be services this Boomer population and this aspiring mini-global city of Omaha depends on. These are increasingly service economies and that means it’s very important for the economy to increasingly be based on higher pay jobs likely to grow, such as information technology or biotechnology.

“That also means educational institutions need to be able to truly know how to train this generation of children of immigrants. The children may not be immigrants themselves but a large number have immigrant parents who endured very poor, disadvantageous conditions that tend to disadvantage the educational achievement of their children. We have to have multidimensional. multidisciplinary perspectives to understand who this population is. And that goes to our research also.”

She believes minorities will succeed to the extent opportunities allow.

“We haven’t addressed the serious barriers to education that would guarantee that new face of America and of Neb. becomes a face with equal opportunities to participate in the prosperity all of us will want to share.” She says if barriers to upward mobility aren’t removed “it may prevent Neb. from truly harnessing what we call this demographic bonus that’s been gifted to this state. A state that was losing population were it not for minority growth and international migration would be in serious trouble today to have a viable economy and future.”





Daniel J. Shipp, UNO associate vice chancellor for student affairs, says schools must find ways to support minority students.

“When combined with the typical struggles of new college students the demographics of race-ethnicity will create even more difficult challenges in both access to and success in college. Not only must we continue to open our doors wider to traditionally under-served student populations but once on campus it is critical for all of us to see their success as a top institutional and community priority.”

UNO Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs Pelema Morrice urges educators and employers to appreciate diversity’s many forms.

“We always focus on racial-ethnic diversity but I think intellectual diversity, geographic diversity, cultural diversity, all those different forms of diversity, really add a lot of value to everyone’s experience. There’s plenty of evidence that the more diverse environment we’re in the more we all have opportunities to learn from each other.

“So I think it’s incredibly important for an institution to be a welcoming and diverse environment where folks can learn from each other at a higher level. I think that adds to the educational experience and it provides students with really good training to go out and be productive citizens and to be successful in the workplace.”

Diversity is also the way of this flatter, interconnected world.

Reed from UNO’s Academic and Student Affairs office, says “Our students will grow up in a much more global environment requiring exposure to difference cultures and different experiences.”

Where diversity often must be programmed, Gouveia is heartened by students’ inherent embrace of it. “About this new Neb. mosaic, one thing I’m particularly hopeful about is the younger generation. I love our new students. From any background they are so much more prepared and so much more ahead of where we are as professors or department chairs or deans in terms of knowing how to do diversity. We are the ones who are often behind them.”

As Neb. becomes more multi-hued, UNO’s Morrice says representative stakeholders should discuss what diversity holds for the state.

“With these new demographics coming forward it means our student base will obviously be more diverse than it is now and that means the outcomes will be more diverse and so we’ll see more diverse workplaces and communities within the state. We’re just a piece of that puzzle but I think it’s a good collective conversation for everyone to have as the state continues to grow and it becomes clear that there will be different faces at the table.”





UNO’s Changing Face

©by Leo Adam Biga


The same demographic trends on pace to make the United States a minority majority population by 2050 and making Neb. a more racially-ethnically diverse place in the second decade of the new millennium, are increasingly being expressed at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Roughly a quarter of UNO’s 2013-2014 freshman class is minority and just under 20 percent of the school’s entire undergraduate enrollment is minority. Both are record marks for the school. In 2000, for example, UNO’s minority enrollment stood at 9 percent. The minority numbers are even greater among graduate students.

The 11 percent rise in UNO minority enrollment from 2000 until now reflects in large measure the Latino-Hispanic boom that happened in-state from 1980 to 2010, when that segment increased from about 37,000 to 167,000. The Latino-Hispanic population is expected to add another 370,000 residents by 2050, according to UNO’s Center for Public Affairs Research.

As a public institution with a state-wide reach, UNO’s a model for the changing face of Neb. Drawing principally from the Omaha metropolitan area, which as the state’s largest urban center has always been Neb.’s most racially-ethnically diverse spot, UNO is, as expected, one of the most diverse campuses in the University of Nebraska system.

At the University of Nebraska-Kearney minority undergraduate enrollment has nearly doubled since 1995. Today, nearly a quarter of its students are non-white or non-resident alien. Meanwhile, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln reports the most diverse student body in its history. UNL’s  2,328 minority undergrads are about 12 percent of the undergraduate total, a 9 percent increase just from last year. Just as at UNO, the largest minority gains at each school are in the Latino-Hispanic and international students categories,





As minorities comprise a growing segment of the state’s mainstream and of its public schools’ enrollment, institutions are tasked with incorporating these populations and responding to their needs.

“The good news for Omaha is that UNO has a proud tradition of supporting minority students through various educational equity and learning community investments such as Goodrich, Project Achieve and the newer Thompson Learning Community,” says UNO Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Daniel J. Shipp. “These programs provide student participants with a network of caring and concerned faculty, staff and peer mentors that help students to succeed and thrive in college. Moving forward, I expect we will continue to build on our national reputation for attracting and supporting the growing numbers of minority students and their families in the Omaha area and beyond.”

“Minority students are an important population but they are only one of an increasing mosaic of diversity at UNO, whether they are military, first generation, students of color or adult learners or transfer students,” says UNO Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs B.J. Reed. “We are working every day to ensure that these students feel welcome at UNO and have the type of support services and environment that will make them want to be want to be here and to be successful. We do this for all our special populations of students. We have programs and learning communities as well as staff specifically directed at helping ease their transition to UNO and success in their academic goals.”

Reed says hiring faculty and staff who reflect the changing face of UNO “is a top priority,” adding, “We have made important strides in diversifying our staff but we lag behind where we want to be here and also with recruiting and retaining a more diverse faculty. We are working on reviewing existing policies and procedures and looking at incentives and support efforts to increase the diversity of faculty and staff to reflect the changing demographics of our student body.”

There’s wide agreement that diversity is a net sum experience for all involved.

“The benefits are substantial,” Reed says. “The workplace is becoming increasingly diverse and employers need and want an increasingly diverse group of employees. We cannot underestimate the shift occurring here. We need to provide a strong educational workforce for employers and UNO must be positioned to do that effectively.”





Office of Latino and Latin American Studies Director and Sociology Professor Lourdes Gouveia agrees that educators at UNO and elsewhere must increasingly consider diversity and its impact.

“We have to educate our professionals and student populations in ways that allow them to be skilled about global issues and diversity and to have multicultural competencies as the world is very connected,” she says. “But also we need to address structural barriers that may prevent Neb. from truly harnessing what we call this demographic bonus that has been gifted to this state. A state that was losing population if not for minority growth and international migration would be in serious trouble today to have a viable economy and a future.”

Author Joy Castro Writes Close to Her Heart in Two New Books

November 23, 2012 Leave a comment

Joy Castro is a writer to be reckoned with.  I’ve had the pleasure now of interviewing her twice and I trust more interviews will follow in the future.  Her work is widely recognized.  And while she has until recently published memoirs and personal essays she’s now established herself as a mystery writer with her debut novel, Hell or High Water.  That book may be turned into a movie.  I finally had the pleasure of meeting Joy (our interviews have been by phone) when she generously attended a talk and reading I gave at Indigo Bridge Books in Lincoln, Neb. for my new Alexander Payne book.  She even bought three copies.  What a sweet thing to do for someone of her stature.  It’s a lesson in how we fellow writers need to support each other.



Joy Castro and her smash debut mystery novel, Hell or High Water



Author Joy Castro Writes Close to Her Heart in Two New Books

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico


University of Nebraska-Lincoln associate professor of English Joy Castro made her mark as a short story writerand essayist before her acclaimed 2005 memoir The Truth Book: Escaping a Childhood of Abuse Among the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Now she’s being hailed for her debut novel, Hell or High Water, set in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. Mystery author superstar Dennis Lehane (Mystic River) calls it “a terrific thriller.

Her new book of personal essays, Island of Bones is “getting some really nice press,” she says, adding, “The book critic Rigoberto Gonzalez, who writes for the El Paso Times and is part of the National Book Critics Circle, wrote a really nice review.” Island of Bones takes up where The Truth Book left off.

Castro often lectures and writes about her Cuban-American heritage and journey through poverty into academia and stability.

“Much of my work focuses on bringing attention to economic injustice as well as racism and sexism. I’m lucky and grateful to be someone who has made it out of poverty, abuse and voicelessness – to a position where I have a voice. It’s an important responsibility. My own published fiction, nonfiction and poetry all concern issues of poverty and I make a point of teaching literature by poor people in the university classroom.”

Castro shares much in common with her novel’s protagonist, Nola, a female Cuban-American reporter from a poor background. Just as Castro once sought to keep her own roots secret, so does Nola. Just as Castro explored abuse, Nola investigates sexual predators.

“Nola comes from the projects. She’s trying to pass among her colleagues and friends. She doesn’t want anybody to pity her and she doesn’t really want it to be known at all. So she’s struggling to sort of keep up with the Joneses while dealing with the after-effects of her difficult past, all while researching this creepy story.”

Hell or High Water’s been optioned as a film-television drama and Castro’s writing a sequel with Nola as the main character again.

She says, “The two artists associated with the project right now are both really fantastic Latina actresses – Zoe Saldana and Gina Rodriguez. And I’m really excited about having a mystery series with a Latino protagonist.”

Now that Castro’s own story is out there, she’s over any sense of shame.

“When you’re hiding something, the feeling you have is a tremendous anxiety that revealing it will destroy you or someone else,” she says. “After you’ve had a little practice at disclosing, you realize it’s not quite that life-or-death a situation.”

Writing The Truth Book and Island of Bones proved cathartic.

“Laying it all out in book form, I came to respect the difficulty of what I’d had to navigate. In some ways, my journey was as challenging as moving from one country, one culture to another. All the new customs have to be learned.

“For the most part, I earned and climbed my way out of trauma and poverty by myself. My family was too shattered, scattered and dysfunctional to support anyone. I’ve been on my own since I was 16. There were counselors who helped me change, sure, and thank goodness, but I paid for them, and I did the emotional work. No one stepped in and said, ‘Here, let me lighten the load.’ That’s the hard truth of it. No one’s going to do it for you, no one’s going to hold your hand.

“But the important thing to remember is that it’s your life and if you want to change it you have to put in the hours and the labor and the love. Your life is worth it, you’re worth it. Even in the bleakest of circumstances, it’s worth doing, and it’s possible.”



Joy Castro and Amelia Montes for release of Island of Bones at Indigo Bridge Books, ©



Her interest in Spanish-speaking cultures and identities infuses her work.

“Latinidad is hugely important to me, and it is definitely connected with class and gender. Because of the great wave of well-to-do Cuban immigrants who came to the USA when Fidel Castro took power, many people assume all Cuban-Americans are wealthy and right-leaning. That wasn’t the case for my family, who had been in Key West since the 1800s and were working-class and lefty-liberal.”

Island of Bones explores that little-known history.

“My father experienced racism and police abuse in Miami in the 1950s, after which he tried very hard to assimilate and be ‘American’ in ways ultimately painful for him and for us.”

Her father, a conch diver as a boy, moved north as a young man seeking adventure and a wider life.  As The Keys became an expensive resort playground that priced old-line residents out, some family relatives were forced to leave.

Her father committed suicide in 2002. One of her essays deals with the aftermath.

“For my brother Tony and me, our father’s life is a cautionary tale about the costs of shame and of trying to erase who you are. We raised our children to be proud of their heritage. My son is fluent in Spanish, for example, which my father refused to speak at home.”

What it means to be Latina and the roles Latinas play are also primary concerns.

“I’m glad to say things are changing. But despite many advances in women’s rights, Latinas are often pushed, even today, to put men first, to have babies, to love the church without question, to be submissive and obedient to authority. It took me a long time to crawl out from under the expectations I was raised with.”

View more about the author’s work at

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