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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 leoadambiga.com.

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 (www.thereader.com)
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.”

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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.”

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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.”

Visit http://buffettinstitute.nebraska.edu.

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 (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-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 (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-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  http://www.kurtjohnsonphotography.com/:

 

 

 

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 http://www.unomaha.edu/community-engagement-center.

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, ©labloga.blogspot.com

 

 

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 joycastro.com.

Never Give Up: The Budge Porter Story Comes Home

November 1, 2012 Leave a comment

Here is what I hope you find to be a touching and inspiring piece about Budge Porter, a one-time Husker football player left paralyzed after tackling a teammate in a spring practice but despite overwhelming physical challenges his friendly demeanor and positive outlook on life have never left him.  Recently, Budge, his wife, and their two children were the beneficiaries of a campaign to raise funds for a totally barrier-free home that will accommodate Budge and his special needs without looking in the least institutional.  That customized adaptive, accesssible home is nearly complete and the Porters are very close to moving in and enjoying it.  Led by local builder Brad Brown, the Budge Porter Project is entirely dependent on donations, of which there have been many, and now Budge hopes he can help others similarly afflicted like him find the resources they need to ease the burdens in their lives.  My story is in the Nov/Dec 2012 issue of Omaha Magazine.

 

 

Budge Porter, omaha.com

 

 

 

Never Give Up: The Budge Porter Story Comes Home

©by Leo Adam Biga

In the Nov/Dec issue of Omaha Magazine

 

Budge Porter lost many physical capabilities when he broke his neck tackling a teammate in a 1976 Husker football practice. The catastrophic injury left him a quadriplegic confined to a wheelchair.

What he’s never lost is determination and, remarkably, a positive outlook. It’s what helped him build a successful stockbroker career, woo and marry his college sweetheart and start a family when many doubted he could do those things. He and his wife Diane are parents to three children.

His will has continued carrying him through recent setbacks.

“Every step of our lives we’ve been told this can’t be done,” says Budge. “We have the character between the two of us, working together with great friends and family, to beat all those odds…”

Disappointments are not foreign to us,” Diane says. “There were many hopeless feelings and times of despair through all this, but I think so often what’s saved us is that you get to the point where you’re either going to laugh or cry and we’ve chosen always to laugh. You kind of know in your heart of hearts it’s always going to work out and it always does. It’s like you’ve got to throw it up to God or whatever and just say, ‘Whatever happens, it’s going to work out and we will survive.'”

That indefatigable spirit is what’s motivated friends and well-wishers to build a completely barrier-free home for this never-say-die warrior and his family. The non-profit Budge Porter Project is a volunteer, donation-fueled effort led by Omaha home designer-builder Brad Brown, whose Archistructure has supervised construction of the pottery barn or rustic ranch style home at 13522 Corby Street.

“Budge has got this captivating spirit about him,” says Brown. “You look at a person who’s been dealt what some feel is a bad hand and you might expect they’d get bitter. If anything Budge has turned it around and looks at life as every day is a blessing and an opportunity. I don”t think it started off that way but it’s led him to a sense of inner peace.

“He’s a very open and caring person. When you’re around him you feel like a breath of fresh air.”

The 1,900-plus square foot home includes an elevator, a therapy pool, a tracking-lift system, ramps and various features built at wheelchair level and wherever possible, subtle and aesthetically pleasing. Those are big-ticket items the Porters could never afford themselves, but donations in excess of $120,000 have purchased them.

Subcontractors and suppliers have given time and materials. Consolidated Kitchens and Fireplaces owner Sam Marchese donated all the cabinets and countertops. He also co-signed Porter’s home loan and hosted an August 15 fundraiser.

Steve Reeder gifted the lot.

Accepting help doesn’t come easy for Porter, who hails from a long line of orchard and farm owners. They’re a tough, independent lot. His father and grandfather both played at Nebraska. When Budge and brother Scott carried on the football legacy there, the school had its first and only three generation athletic family.

 

Budge and family at the foundation of his new home, netnewsnebraska.tumblr.com

 

 

 

“He feels somewhat embarrassed and undeserving,” says Brown, “because he’s always made it on his own. I told him, ‘This is a hand-up, not a hand-out and it’s something these guys are tickled to give back.’ It makes us all feel so good.”

To customize the home to Budge’s specific needs Brown had to ask personal questions and view Budge in intimate situations. Diane says Kent Pavelka’s public relations company made a video documenting what Budge contends with daily.

“I looked at Kent and Sam and Brad and they were all crying,” says Diane. “They didn’t realize what the simple act of getting in and out of bed is for Budge. He’s so good about downplaying all the stuff that goes with his injury and he doesn’t want people feeling sorry for him. But I’ve often said if people really knew what it takes to be him every day it’d be very hard to keep positive because it’s exhausting. A lesser man would not handle it as well as he has.”

The experience gave Brown a deeper appreciation for Budge’s “courage” and bonded the two men even more.

“We were really good friends but we’re definitely brothers now,” says Budge.

The Porters have always managed dealing with the challenges of paralysis but then Budge lost big in the 2000 stock market crash, which also cost him many clients similarly hard hit. Osteoporosis forced him to retire in his mid-50s and go on disability.

A stretch of the Papio Creek behind the family’s previous home eroded, causing such severe damage to the property the home’s value plummeted. Health scares resulted in long, expensive hospitalizations. Finally, Budge swallowed his pride and filed for bankruptcy. The family gave up their home. Getting a loan and finding a new place to live proved daunting.

It seemed like more than one family could bear.

“I don’t like to make excuses,” Budge says.

He’s heartened by how others have responded to their plight.

“We’ll never be able to repay all these people other than just to tell them we’re forever grateful. We’re rich beyond compare with friends. We intend to be good stewards of these benefits.”

Budge views the home as “a legacy” for Diane and the kids when he’s gone.

He hopes to inspire and assist others through the Budge Porter Project.

“I would love to see us form a foundation to raise future monies to help others in need along these same lines. There’s a lot of people far worse off than us and we feel for them and pray for them and we just hope they’re as fortunate someday to have the type of friends we’re blessed with to give them a hand.”

Donations may be made at http://www.budgeporter.bbnow.org.

Norman Krivosha’s Life in Law

August 10, 2012 2 comments

 

I rarely do stories involving any aspect of law or justice and if I do it’s generally a profile like the following one I did a few years ago for the Jewish Press on Norman Krivosha, who at one time served as chief justice of the Nebraska Supreme Court.  As you might expect from someone who has enjoyed a distinguished career on the bench and as an attorney Krivosha is a thoughtful, well-spoken individual.  He’s well aware how fortunate he is to have found a profession and vocation that has engaged him for so long.  He’s one of those blessed persons who proves that attitude can be everything. He’s definitely of the glass half-full fraternity.

 

 

 

Norman Krivosha

 

 

 

Norman Krivosha’s Life in Law

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Jewish Press

 

Norman Krivosha’s life is a classic case of the adage that behind every great man is a woman. The noted attorney and one time Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice and corporate counsel may not have been any of those things if the Detroit, Mich. native had not met a certain woman at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln when he arrived as a brash but undisciplined undergrad in the early 1950s.

Krivosha came to UNL at the urging of a cousin who taught microbiology there. The professor saw his cousin’s potential. The young Krivosha was bright. He’d done well at a select college prepatory public school in Detroit. He’d shown industry as a top notch sales clerk for the Mary Jane Shoe Store. He’d displayed an avid interest in politics, handing out pamphlets on the street for a cousin running for public office.

Only when Krivosha got to Lincoln — having never been further west than Chicago  — he was the proverbial big city boy let loose in the sticks.

“I had to get out a map to see where Nebraska was. I vividly recall walking downtown the first Sunday I was there and I was the only person on the street. It was such a great transition for me coming from Detroit, but a very valuable one.”

Studying was not a priority. The former Helene Sherman changed all that. The studious young woman from a tradition-rich Lincoln family eventually became Mrs. Helene Krivosha, but long before marrying him she got him on track.

“The truth of the matter is had I not met my wife Helene when I did I would probably have retired as the general manager of the Mary Jane Shoe Store in Miami, Fla.” said Krivosha, who with his wife retired to Naples. Fla. three years ago.

“When I got to the university I was not very interested in worrying about studies.

But I met her and I’d go over to the library to take her for coffee and she’d say, ‘Well, we can go at 10 o’clock.’ And I’d say, ‘It’s 7 now — what do I do for three hours?’ She’d say, ‘Bring some books.’ So I started studying. Then I started taking some classes she was in so I could see her during the day. And before I knew it I got a Regent’s Scholarship and I was on my way to law school.”

There would be more mentors in his life. Before any of these guided him, however, his immigrant parents, neither of whom completed high school, stressed the importance of education to their only child. His mother was a homemaker and his father one in a long line of dry cleaners.

“Neither of them were well-educated.” Krivosha said. “Both of them were terribly literate. Going to college in my neighborhood was not a common sort of thing to do but my parents were determined that I should. We always talked about me going.”

The dutiful son attended Wayne University in Detroit but didn’t exactly buckle down. Between going to school by day and working for the post office at night, he said, “I was running with my friends.” That’s when he took up his egghead cousin’s offer to live with him in Lincoln and go to school there.

Krivosha carried his family’s hopes and dreams for a better life and finally aplied himself. With the help of Helene, some veteran lawyers and an ambitious newcomer to the political scene, Krivosha enjoyed a fast ride up the political-legal ladder. He readily acknowledges the aid he received along the way.

“I’m a great believer that nobody gets where they get on their own. That they all have help. Quite frankly, I resent when people seem to want to take claim for having made it ‘on their own.’”

From a macro perspective, he knows the opportunities given him resulted from the sacrifices and generosity of folks, some of whom he’ll never meet. He views his achievements as the return on an investment that others made in him.

“I did what I did because somebody in Scottsbluff, Nebraska got up at 4 o’clock in the morning and milked cows and paid his taxes so I could get a Regent Scholarship to go to law school. That’s what helped me become a lawyer and be successful.”

He believes fate has played a part in it all.

 

University of Nebraska

 

“Things work out the way they’re supposed to,” he said. “I was supposed to go to law school, I was supposed to be a lawyer, and that’s where I wound up.”

Funny thing is, he initially only studied law “because some friends were going to law school and that just seemed like something to do.” At some point law became more than a way to pass the time.

“I did well in law school. I finished high in my class. I started clerking in my second year in law school with a firm I ultimately became senior partner of.”

It was soon apparent he’d found his niche.

“I immediately enjoyed it. For me, law has always been a challenge — the ability to seek to analyze a situation, to design a solution. The practice of law was just something I loved to do. I never got up a single morning in my life not looking forward going to work.”

Past tense notwithstanding, he still practices law. This marks his 50th year in the profession. He cut his legal teeth with twin lawyers Herman and Joe Ginsburg in their Lincoln, Neb. firm. Krivosha had already clerked there three years by the time he finished law school. He became a lawyer with the firm as soon as he was admitted to the bar.

He said Herman Ginsburg “was extremely influential in my career. He was one of the best lawyers in the state if not the country — a fine, wonderful trial lawyer. He taught me a great deal.”

The Ginsburgs operated a general practice.

“In the late ‘50s-early ‘60s in Lincoln, Nebraska lawyers were probably what today would be described as country lawyers,” he said. “That is, we did everything. We did a great deal of trial litigation for other lawyers outstate who did not frequently go to court. We represented corporations, we probated estates, we did adoptions, we did divorces, we did personal injury cases. We did anything that came into the office. Our office was in Lincoln but we really practiced all over the state.”

That heavy, diverse case load made a good training ground.

“I think what it did was it made me a better lawyer and certainly made me a better judge ultimately because I had had all that experience.”

As a comparison of just how different his experience was from young lawyers starting out today, he used his daughter Terri Krivosha-Herring as an example.

“My oldest daughter is a lawyer in Minneapolis. A very fine, wonderful lawyer whose practice is limited to mergers and acquisitions. She’s great in her field but I don’t think lawyers today have the same broad background we used to have.”

Terri’s married to Rabbi Hayim Herring. Krivosha’s younger daughter, Rhonda Hauser, is married to lawyer Adam Hauser. “In our family you must either be a lawyer or marry a lawyer,” Krivosha joked. “If you’re smart you marry a lawyer, if you’re not so smart you become a lawyer.”

The Ginsburgs brought on a third partner, brother-in-law Hyman Rosenberg, before Krivosha became a partner with his name on the window. All the while he honed his legal skills he pursued a parallel interest in politics. His law partner Joe Ginsburg was active in Nebraska Democratic politics for years and became a political mentor.

“He sort of led me into it and it was sort of a natural for me. I’d been involved in Democratic politics all of my life and certainly all of my adult life in Lincoln. I was Lancaster Democratic Party County Chairman for a number of years. And I was state vice chairman. I was an alternate delegate for the 1968 National Democratic Convention in Chicago, although I never did wind up going. I was (Nebraska) campaign manager for Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson’s presidential bid.”

He also managed Clair Callan’s only successful Congressional bid — a rare instance of a Democrat being elected from the Republican stronghold 1st District.

Political engagement was another way Krivosha hoped to make a difference.

“I cared. I believed Democrats were providing the answers to the country’s needs. Being involved in Democratic politics was a way of trying to make things better. I was never interested myself in holding public office but in helping others.”

Krivosha’s political stock in the state grew when he befriended a newcomer to the arena named Jim Exon, a future governor and U.S. senator.

“I nominated him as national committee man at the state Democratic convention in Hastings (in the early ‘60s), and that was really sort of the beginning of his political career,” said Krivosha.

Exon was elected Nebraska governor in ‘71 and asked Krivosha to join his inner circle.

“When he became governor he asked me to come be his general counsel,” Krivosha explained. “I didn’t want to leave the practice. And so I made an agreement with him that I would be his general counsel at no pay and I would come to the capitol every morning, maybe till one-two o’clock, do whatever he needed done, and then I would go downtown and practice law for the rest of the day and evening. I did that for four years.

“And during all that time we (his firm) agreed not to take cases involving the state.”

No conflict of interest that way.

“I had really sort of gotten used to that because in 1969 I was loaned by my firm to be City Attorney of the City of Lincoln, and I did that for 20 months.”

By the time Krivosha’s general counsel duties for the governor ended his next entree into state government presented itself when then-Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul White “unexpectedly resigned” in 1978. Krivosha inquired if Exon would be OK if he submitted his name for the seat, which for the first time was to be appointed rather than elected.

Exon gave his blessing and Krivosha said just to avoid any hint of impropriety he didn’t speak with the governor from that moment until after he got the nod.

“There were 16 of us whose names were submitted and Jim (Exon) had an incredible way of advising you you’d been appointed. He sent a letter to everyone who had not been appointed, but you, telling them who had been appointed and thanking them for applying,” Krivosha recounted.

“I was in Judge Dale Fahrnbruch’s court on a Friday morning about to start trying a lawsuit before him. He and I had both been candidates for chief justice. He was opening his mail on the bench as we were getting ready to begin the case and he stopped suddenly and said, ‘I think we better take a recess.’ He called me into his chambers and said, ‘I suppose you’re not going to want to try your case today.’”

Krivosha didn’t know what the judge meant. It was left up to Fahrnbruch to inform him he was the state’s new chief justice. “That’s how I found put,” Krivosha said. He made it to the highest judicial seat without prior bench experience.

“Not unheard of,” he said. “You have to also remember I was the first appointed chief justice (of Nebraska). Up until then all the members of the Court had been elected and we had just recently changed to the merit selection system. It’s probably more common to have people come from the District Court to the Supreme Court, but not unheard of. There were people elected before and certainly there were people appointed later who had not been judges before.”

Not only was he serving his first judgeship on the state supreme court, he was perhaps the youngest member of that august and senior body.

“Some of the members of the court called me ‘Sonny,’ which they were entitled to. I mean, I was 44 years-old and some of them were in their 60s. But they were wonderful. It was a great experience.”

He’d argued many cases before the Nebraska Supreme Court prior to his appointment. After leaving the bench he argued cases before the court again, but only after all the members he’d served with had retired. from the court. While admitted to the U.S. Supreme Court he never argued before it.

He said his becoming chief justice was dependent on three key factors.

“You have to work very hard in law school and graduate at or near the top of your class. You then have to spend the next 20 years as a lawyer gaining a reputation of being a fine lawyer. And you need to become a close friend of a governor. And if you can’t do all of them, you must at least do the last one.

“The fact of the matter is I guess I can honestly say I did all three. I graduated well in my class, I think I had a reputation of being a good lawyer, and I was a close friend of Jim Exon.”

 

Jim Exon, ©ebay.com

 

 

 

What made he and Exon click?

“We were both committed Democrats. We both felt the same way about things. I think we got along so well because we shared the same views about family, about ethics, about integrity,” Krivosha said. “He would never ask you to do anything you’d be embarrassed to tell your mother…He always did what was ethically and morally right even if it wasn’t politically right, but for him it always turned out to be politically right.

“Jim Exon in my view was one of the world‘s greatest public figures.”

Krivosha was Exon’s last appointment before he left to serve in the U.S. Senate in 1979. For Krivosha, serving on the bench was another facet of a rich legal career.

“I’ve been a practitioner, I’ve been a trial lawyer, I’ve taught, I’ve been a judge and I’ve been a corporate counsel. All of it was satisfying. I enjoyed very much the collegiality with my colleagues on the bench. I disagreed with them occasionally but nonetheless had a very close relationship with them.”

A fellow Nebraska Supreme Court justice, Judge Nick Caporale, was a classmate of Krivosha’s at UNL and remains a good friend.

Being a judge suited Krivosha.

“I enjoyed looking at the cases, trying to conclude an appropriate legal answer, but even more than that I guess as executive head of the judicial branch of government I enjoyed the administration of the court system.”

He introduced some innovations.

“We made some changes along the way,” he said, “many of which still exist today. We did away with the municipal courts in Lincoln and Omaha — merging them into the County Court system. This was a more efficient way at a financial savings. We instituted type-written briefs in the Supreme Court — doing away with printing the briefs — which certainly was a savings to litigants.”

He also instituted measures to ease the volume of cases heard.

“There was no Court of Appeals then, so the Supreme Court was a court as a matter of right. You could appeal to the Nebraska Supreme Court from Small Claims Court and we had to take the case,” he said. “So we appointed two district judges and we sat in divisions of five instead of a court of seven, which the statute allowed, in an effort to try to cut down the number of cases and to handle the volume in a more expeditious way.”

While presiding on the bench he wrote more than 600 opinions, meaning he decided far too many cases to single out just a few. Besides, he said, “once I finished a case I finished it. It’s done, it’s done. I didn’t have any second thoughts once I decided a case.”

He does take satisfaction, however, in knowing some of his dissents ultimately became the law. He was the lone dissenter when the court ruled a landowner with a ranch bisecting two states could not transfer water from Nebraska to Colorado to feed his cattle.

“I dissented on the basis it interfered with interstate commerce — that he had a perfect right to do that — and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed. It was reversed based on my dissent”

He said it’s unusual the highest court in the land opted to hear this water rights case in the first place since the Nebraska Supreme Court is usually the last word.

He served eight years as Chief Justice, stepping down in 1987.

“I did not leave because of any unhappiness. I delighted in being Chief Justice. I was 53 years old, about to turn 54, and somebody made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”

 

Nebraska Supreme Court

 

 

 

Bankers Life Nebraska in Lincoln hired him as senior vice president, administration, and chief counsel and when the company became Ameritas Life Insurance Company he was executive vice president, secretary and corporate general counsel. He later worked as general counsel for Kutak Rock.

He retired a couple years ago.

Reviewing his long legal career is not something that occupies much of his time.

“It’s not my style to look back,” he said.

Still, he said, “I’ve been fortunate enough to do almost everything a lawyer can do.” All his years trying and hearing cases did not sour him on the system but rather reaffirmed his faith in it.

“I’m just more convinced it’s as good a system as I always believed it to be. I believe that courts by and large do a good job. There are exceptions. The law is an art, it is not a science, and therefore the answer you get depends on the question you see. The job of the lawyer, for instance, is not to convince the court what the law is but to convince the court what the question is. Once that happens the answer becomes obvious.”

These days he does a bit of arbitration work and sometimes litigates cases. Mostly, though, he serves as an expert witness in insurance fraud suits. His keen political mind is attuned to the presidential race. He reads The New York Times and watches the Sunday public affairs programs. Barack Obama’s chances excite him.

“Obviously as a Democrat I’m a great believer that we need to move in a different direction,” he said.

Is he ever tempted to return to the bench?

“No…Remember, I never look back.”

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