Posts Tagged ‘Adventure’

Naturalist-artist John Lokke – In pursuit of the Timber Rattlesnake and In the footsteps of Karl Bodmer

September 2, 2010 3 comments

en: The Fox River near New Harmony in Indiana....

Image via Wikipedia

This is the kind of long-form journalism that’s become increasingly rare in city newspapers and magazines.  My profile of naturalist-artist John Lokke is one of my personal favorites among my own body of work.  The nuances and connections made throughout the article represent the kind of context and texture that is just not possible in a short piece.  I wish I had the opportunity to do this kind of writing, for pay that is, more often, but the realities of 21st century journalism preclude it.  I found Lokke an utterly fascinating figure and after reading the profile for the first time in a dozen years I must say I still find him as compelling a subject as I’ve ever encountered in a quarter century of journalism, over which time I’ve interviewed and profiled hundreds of people from literally all walks of life.  It helps when you come across, as I did with Lokke, a subject who expresses himself so well and who has an appreciation for not only his passion but for how it fits into the big picture.  And that very quality, of honing in on the specific while keeping in mind the big picture, is one of the things that distinguished my work.  The story originally appeared in The Reader ( and this is the first time it’s been republished since then.  I eventually lost track of Lokke, but I’d like to think he’s still out searching for the Timber and painting his heart out.


Naturalist-artist John Lokke – In pursuit of the Timber Rattlesnake and In the footsteps of Karl Bodmer

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (


Snakes have served as potent cultural symbols since, well, Eve was led astray by one in the Garden of Eden. Whether it’s the Hydra of Greek mythology or the serpent (read: Satan) in the Book of Genesis, snakes have long been equated with treachery if not outright evil.

The tendency throughout history has been to regard all members of the Serpentes family — even non-poisonous ones — as deadly threats to be eradicated at all costs. That bad rap, combined with their demonized place in myth and holy scripture, gave rise to the notion the only good snake is a dead one. Indeed, snake hunting has made some species scarce and others extinct. Then too there’s the creature’s cold calculating eyes, sinister scaly body and slithering, secretive ways.

Still, not everyone has bought into the snake-as-devil doctrine. Native American rituals, including Hopi Indian dances and Lakota Indian vision quests, celebrate the snake as a symbol of power and regeneration. Sierra Club types contend snakes are wildlife treasures unfairly maligned for instinctive traits borne of evolution not evil.

Then there’s John Lokke, a local herpetologist, naturalist and watercolorist who combines his interest in the Timber Rattlesnake (“the largest and most imperiled venomous snake in Nebraska”) with his love for the Missouri River Valley, his interest in this region’s history and his rigorous artistic vision. Lokke, a 43-year-old Omaha native, creates paintings capturing the ever-changing face of the river bluffs where the Timber once roamed in great abundance across southeast Nebraska but, due in part to extensive rock quarrying operations begun in the 1930s, has been nearly wiped out. Until then, the snake went largely undetected, but once discovered became a target for residents who killed them in great numbers.







Today, the snake, whose range in Nebraska was always limited to the extreme southeastern corner, is rarely reported within the state’s borders. In 20 years of searching for them Lokke estimates he’s seen dozens, with the vast majority in Kansas. “They’re not easy to find. They blend in beautifully with their surroundings. It’s a big beautiful snake. A really large one is just a little over four feet long. Probably what accounts for it being rarer or absent today throughout its range in Nebraska and in other parts of the country is that its habitat has been degraded to the point where it can’t carry on its life cycle,” he explained.

He blames rampant tree succession, which unchecked prairie fires once controlled, for spoiling the high rock outcroppings favored by the Timber. “As the trees fill in the rocks no longer get the warm sun in the spring, when the snakes emerge from their dens, or in the fall, when they retreat back into them. Bluffs are slowly but surely being consumed by the trees, including dogwoods, cedars and cottonwoods.” Further eroding the snake’s habitat, he added, is a widespread phenomenon called slumping in which tons of dirt slide down from atop a bluff to cover or bury a rock outcrop, effectively making it uninhabitable.

It is tempting to compare the tall, tapered Lokke, who began studying and collecting snakes as a child, with the Crotalus Horridus he often seeks and paints on field trips in far southeast Nebraska. Much like the Timber, he has a quiet, still presence and patiently bides his time before acting in precise, definitive ways.

Since the mid-1990s this rather sober artist has been on a self-appointed mission to document a stretch of the Missouri along the Kansas-Nebraska border where the Timber once flourished but is now mostly vanished and where noted 19th century Swiss artist Karl Bodmer traveled with German Prince Maximilian of Wied, a noted naturalist, to explore the then pristine American West. He not only makes drawings, paintings and photographs of riverscapes but collects data on the area’s history through interviews with long-time residents, including old quarry workers whose labors inadvertently revealed the snake’s existence and sealed its fate. Why does Lokke do it? To leave a record of how the river, the land and the snake’s habitat has been altered by man’s presence in the ensuing years since Maximilian-Bodmer journeyed there during their 1832-1834 trek. It is Lokke’s way of providing a link to the past and a gauge for the future.

When, in 1996, Lokke discovered he had been drawn in his search for the snake to visit and paint some of the very sites Bodmer had before him, it revealed fresh connections and sparked renewed dedication to his mission.

“I had made three initial watercolor landscapes in Cass County of King Hill and of Indian or Ace Hill. When I discovered Bodmer had painted these hills it absolutely bowled me over,” he said. “It was through repeated searches for this snake I really became enamored with the beauty and mystery of those hills. I always knew there was something very powerful, very special about those hills, something a little more deep and more rugged than the others, and obviously a scientist from Germany and an artist from Switzerland 160 years earlier thought so too, and I thought that was pretty amazing. To see that Bodmer had chosen these hills was very validating for what I was trying to do because, you know, I went into this basically cold.

“I believed in what I was doing — I knew it was important — but I wasn’t sure of an historical context. But when I saw Bodmer’s work, that all changed. I now had a link with my natural history interests and a tie to the past through art history. I made up my mind then I was going to make a lot more of these paintings and make them ever better. That I was going to work at this very hard and push this as far as I can…and maybe I could leave behind some paintings that will be as useful to people in 200 years as Karl Bodmer’s are today. I got very invigorated by that possibility, and I went to work.”




Karl Bodmer




The bridge between Lokke and Bodmer takes on added interest in that Omaha’s Joslyn Art Museum, where Lokke worked as an art education intern, is the repository of the internationally renowned Maximilian-Bodmer collection. The collection, under the auspices of the museum’s Center for Western Studies, includes hundreds of Bodmer watercolors and sketches as well as three journals kept by Maximilian that detail the expedition’s day-by-day progress. Joslyn has featured the Bodmer collection in major exhibitions and catalogs.

By 2001-2002, work should be completed on a new book detailing all 81 of the hand-colored engravings Bodmer made from his on-site watercolors, and during 2003-2004 a first-ever European tour of the Bodmer watercolors is scheduled. The long-anticipated publication of Maximilian’s German-language diaries is still two or three years off, according to museum officials.

Lokke, who discovered his link to Bodmer in the book “Karl Bodmer’s America,” envisions an illustrated book of his own someday that, in his words, “will tell the story of this amazing snake and its habitat and all the changes that have happened along this habitat in the 20th century.” The book will also document his own personal journey of discovery in the places he’s visited, the people he’s met, the stories he’s heard and the paintings, drawings and photographs he’s produced.

Beth Irwin, a former teaching specialist at Joslyn who supervised Lokke at the museum, is familiar with his work and its reverberations with Bodmer. “The feeling you get from John’s work is similar to the feeling you get from Bodmer’s. The Bodmer watercolors have a strong feeling of immediacy because they were painted more quickly — done maybe over a day’s time — where John’s are probably done over a month’s time. But they both have that freshness and immediacy in common.”

After working as a commercial artist during the 1970s and ‘80s, Lokke decided to embark on a fine arts degree about 10 years ago. Now a year-and-a-half away from earning his degree at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Lokke brings a non-traditional maturity and vision to the classroom. One of John’s teachers at UNO, associate professor of art Bonnie O’Connell, said Lokke distinguishes himself by “his extensive experience out in the field” as well as by “the research he’s done. He’s quite delightful because he’s literate and articulate.”

Frances Thurber, an associate professor in art and art history at UNO, has taught Lokke and seen his watercolor work develop. “John really took to watercolor and became quite facile with the medium. He has a natural affinity for it. John really looks at the subtleties of that paint. He has a fine eye and a fine hand,” she said.  “And I think he’s found a real niche for himself by incorporating his interests as a naturalist with his historical recording and his gifts as an artist. He has very much a scholarly approach to things. His work is precise and deep. He’s very gifted.”

To date, the artist has completed some 23 paintings and drawings relating to the Timber’s historical range and/or updating Bodmer’s views of the region. His watercolor landscapes, which have shown in a few area exhibitions, will be on display at the Omaha History Center through the end of October.

Finding the subjects for his watercolors requires Lokke venture to some off-the-beaten-path spots. He backpacks into remote wooded areas along the river, accessing long-abandoned quarry sites and mining towns. His favorite haunts include the Barada Hills, Jones Point, Morgan’s Island and the site where the Big Nemaha River meets the Missouri. Since much of the territory he covers is private land, he asks residents permission to traverse their property. Through such contacts with locals he’s heard many tales about the Timber Rattlesnake and about life along the once free and wild river.

“I’ve had some great experiences talking to these guys. They provide a glimpse into pre-World War II life on the Missouri River, before it was managed. Life then was simpler. Much less mechanized. Farms were smaller. A lot of southeastern Nebraska was devoted to fruit production. More families fished the river commercially. There were a number of small ferrying operations. The Schmid brothers, a pair of bachelor farmers who came to the United States from Switzerland in 1930 and settled on some land at the base of Indian or Ace Hill, remember being able to walk out their door, cross a flood plain and find an oxbow or slough full of fish in clear water. They feel the river is less for the better through channelizing. A lot of the wildlife and natural beauty is gone. Their opinion is it probably should have been left alone.”

Pete Everett, a 95-year-old ex-quarry worker, has told Lokke of the time at King’s Hill Quarry when a mound of loose dirt was removed from a bluff to reveal a depression in the ground. Digging turned up a den of 40 hibernating Timber Rattlesnakes. Lokke practically drools at the thought. His works include a series of “illustrated narrative” paintings depicting some of the snake tales the men have told him. He relies on the memories of men like Everett to inform him what those hills looked like and what habitat they sustained. He says his work is “increasingly becoming a tribute to the old men who have provided me with such wonderful stories. The greatest satisfaction I get is when I show them the paintings and watch 40 years fall off their faces.”

While far from a raving John the Baptist in the wild, Lokke concedes his quest is all-consuming, leaving him somewhat out-of-step with the times. “I’m much too slow for the 20th century,” he said. “I barely know computers. To tell you the truth I miss probably about 90 percent of popular culture. I don’t know what’s going on. I kind of live in my own oblivion. You kind of have to, you know?”

He prefers old-fashioned American music and often plays it on one of his National resophonic fingerstyle guitars. He also composes original tunes based on sounds that come to him on his river sojourns. “If I do something quite rigorous, like hiking or struggling with a drawing or searching for snakes, I’ll start hearing a recurring sound in my head — a riff — and once I get it in my head I try mentally playing with it and expanding on it and then I try to find it on the guitar. Some, I discard. Others survive to become what I like to think of as soundtracks to the places I go and the things I see.”







He looks to the past for much of his inspiration and, a la Thoreau, to nature for his sustenance. During one of his many Missouri River haunts, when he variously searches for the Timber and for just the right vantage point from which to paint its river bluff environs, he is a man in tune with himself and with his universe. At one with the rushing wind, the streaming river, the warbling Thrush. “It is essential,” he said of communing with the Great Outdoors, “because when I’m out there, even if I’m having a really bad day and just can’t get it together, I still think I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. It can certainly become a spiritual experience.”

In his work Lokke calls on both his training as an artist and his knowledge as a natural history buff. “I do go out there with the overt intention of striking a balance between what I know from my artistic training is aesthetically and
compositionally engaging and what is of historical interest or importance. My basic technique is to make as detailed a drawing as possible in the field. Then I take a few color snapshots just to help my memory with the colors I was seeing out there at the time. The drawing is really the skeleton and essence of what’s going to become a painting. In the drawing I bring out details lost or distorted in the photograph. I transfer the drawing directly onto good watercolor paper.” He often returns several times to the same site before finishing a painting.

For someone as passionate about nature as Lokke, working with a sketch pad outdoors can prove distracting. “It’s absolutely overwhelming to draw outdoors because I have a naturalist’s eye and I’m trained to see as much as possible, so I have to be selective. You cannot take it all home. After awhile a sense of what needs to be there will come through. But it’s very hard. I’m usually pretty tired by the time I’m done with one.”

Just as the remote bluffs that once provided a perfect haven for the snake and its dens have changed since Karl Bodmer’s time, so has the muddy river below — owing to massive dike-building and channelizing efforts aimed at taming floods and aiding river navigation. Lokke, who has a river’s stillness and serenity accentuated by his deep gaze, long slow gait and deliberate manner of speaking, would have loved to glimpse the Missouri and its surrounding hills in their pure wild state.

Crafting his words as carefully as he renders the details in his fine paintings, he said: “Often times when I’m driving home I get this deeply satisfying sensation that I I’m somehow connecting with the history of the place. The recollections of the old men come back to me strongly when I’m painting. My imagination gets keen with how it must have looked when this was frontier. I see it in very idyllic terms: The hills are a savannah that are basically open, with a spangling of hardwood trees through them; the bottoms are extremely rich with grasses, trees, water, birds and fish. I try not to think about the mosquitoes or the mud or the other problems.”





He appreciates that while he sometimes contends with tough conditions out in the field, ranging from hordes of nagging insects to severe heat or cold, he can always retreat to the comfort of his car and to a warm soft bed at night whereas Bodmer was exposed to harsh elements for weeks at a time, with only the bare provisions and flimsy accommodations afforded by the Yellowstone Steamer he and the rest of Maximilian’s party used to ply the Missouri River.

“He dealt with things that were much worse than what I face,” Lokke said. “From what I’ve been able to glean from notations in the journals, Bodmer was not just an artist for hire but also a crew member who was expected to go ashore and cut wood and hunt animals and assist when the steamboat got caught in snags or mired on sandbars, which was a common problem. It was a very difficult journey.”

It is not an exaggeration to say Lokke feels a kinship with Bodmer that extends beyond simply retracing the earlier artist’s historic steps. For example, Lokke paints in the same medium (watercolor) as his predecessor did and shares with him an affinity for nature and a sensitivity for accurately portraying flora and fauna.

“The kinship I feel with him is that we both work in watercolor, which can be a difficult and unforgiving medium…an elusive way to do art. At the same time, the properties of watercolor — the transparency and the way the paint behaves — are very conducive to rendering nature. There’s something about the way the colors lay on the paper, especially a fine rag paper, and the way that beautiful white paper shines through this paint.

“Bodmer was an immensely talented man. I love the way he handles his colors. His paintings have great economy. He can depict a whole line of trees along the river with basically just two layers of color whereas I have to use half-a-dozen. The greatest thing about his paintings for me is how his use of colors evoke the last glimpse of an unspoiled continent. The colors have a softness and sophistication that I think, more than any frontier artist I’ve looked at, capture the innocence of the North America he saw.

“The real connection I feel with Karl Bodmer is he had a real love for details and it was important to him that the plants and animals and the people and their tools were all done accurately. Bodmer was one of hundreds of artists in the 1800s sent far away to bring back imagery of foreign lands for review at home. Topographical artists like him were the camera of the day. Pictorial accuracy was paramount.”

In 1998 Lokke’s own skills as a representational artist led the then director of the UNO-sponsored Bethsaida Excavation Project, Richard Freund, to commission him to visit the Holy Land and paint historic sites documented by 19th century
topographical artist David Roberts. It was his first trip abroad. “That was a chance for me to live out every topographer’s dream,” Lokke said. His resulting paintings are currently on display in Hartford, CT and will tour other cities across the U.S.

Lokke is not the first Nebraskan to feel a keen personal kinship with the Maximilian-Bodmer odyssey. The late Paul Schach, emeritus professor of modern languages at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, worked 12 years on the translation of Maximilian’s diaries. In a 1990 interview Schach, who grew up in Pennsylvania speaking and reading a dialect similar to Maximilian’s, said the painstaking translation put him on intimate terms with the man, with whom he shared more than a common heritage and language. Just as Maximilian spent a lifetime as a rugged outdoorsman and rigorous scholar, so too did Schach, who admitted to having “become perhaps too much interested in the man.”

Although Lokke regrets the fact he and Schach never met, Lokke feels they shared a bond no words could have expressed. Each felt the pull of the frontier West. Each identified with his own historical counterpart. Each in his own way delved far into the past in order to extract a better understanding of then and now. Schach is gone now, having left behind a vital store of knowledge. Lokke hopes to leave behind a legacy of his own whenever his time comes. A legacy staked out in the footprints of Bodmer.

Combat sniper-turned-art photographer Jim Hendrickson on his vagabond life and enigmatic work

August 30, 2010 5 comments

Camp Hansen, Okinawa, Japan (May 21, 2004) - A...

Image via Wikipedia

Another of the unforgettable characters I have met in the course of my writing life is the subject of this story for The Reader (  Jim Hendrickson is a Vietnam combat vet who went from looking through the scope of a rifle as a sniper in-country to looking through the lens of a camera as an art photographer after the war. His story would make a good book or movie, which I can honestly say about a number of people I have profiled through the years.  But there is a visceral, cinematic quality to Jim’s story that I think sets it apart and will be readily apparent to you as you read it.

Combat sniper-turned-art photographer Jim Hendrickson on his vagabond life and enigmatic work

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (


Combat sniper-turned-art photographer Jim Hendrickson is one of those odd Omaha Old Market denizens worth knowing. The Vietnam War veteran bears a prosthetic device in place of the right arm that was blown-off in a 1968 rocket attack. His prosthetic ends in pincer-like hooks he uses to handle his camera, which he trains on subjects far removed from violence, including Japanese Butoh dancers. Known by some as “the one-armed photographer,” he is far more than that. He is a fine artist, a wry raconteur and a serious student in the ways of the warrior. Typical of his irreverent wit, he bills himself as — One Hand Clapping Productions.

The Purple Heart recipient well-appreciates the irony of having gone from using a high-powered rifle for delivering death to using a high-speed camera for affirming life. Perhaps it is sweet justice that the sharp eye he once trained on enemy prey is today applied in service of beauty. For Hendrickson, a draftee who hated the war but served his country when called, Vietnam was a crucible he survived and a counterpoint for the life he’s lived since. Although he would prefer forgetting the war, the California native knows the journey he’s taken from Nam to Nebraska has shaped him into a monument of pain and whimsy.



Jim Hendrickson



His pale white face resembles a plaster bust with the unfinished lines, ridges and scars impressed upon it. The right side — shattered by rocket fragments and rebuilt during many operations — has the irregularity of a melted wax figure. His collapsed right eye socket narrows into a slit from which his blue orb searches for a clear field of vision. His massive head, crowned by a blond crew cut, is a heavy, sculptured rectangle that juts above his thick torso ala a Mount Rushmore relief. Despite his appearance, he has a way of melding into the background (at least until his big bass voice erupts) that makes him more spectator than spectacle. This knack for insinuating himself into a scene is something he learned in the Army, first as a guard protecting VIPs and later as a sniper hunting enemy targets. He’s refined this skill of sizing-up and dissecting a subject via intense study of Japanese samurai-sword traditions, part of a fascination he has with Asian culture.

Because his wartime experience forever altered his looks and the way he looks at things, it’s no surprise the images he makes are concerned with revealing primal human emotions. One image captures the anxiety of a newly homeless young pregnant woman smoking a cigarette to ward off the chill and despair on a cold gray day. Another portrays the sadness of an AIDS-stricken gay man resigned to taking the train home to die with his family. Yet another frames the attentive compassion of an old priest adept at making those seeking his counsel feel like they have an unconditional friend.

The close observation demanded by his work is a carryover from Vietnam, where he served two tours of duty. “With sniping, you had to look at the lay of the land. You had to start looking from the widest spectrum and then slowly narrow it down to that one spot and one moment of the kill,” he said. “You got to the point where you forced yourself to look at every detail and now, of course, I’m doing that today when I photograph. I watch the person…how they move, how they hold themselves, how they talk, waiting for that moment to shoot.”

Shooting, of a photographic kind, has fascinated him from childhood, when he snapped pics with an old camera his Merchant Marine father gave him. He continued taking photos during his wartime tours. Classified a Specialist Four wireman attached to B-Battery, 1st Battalion, I-Corp, Hendrickson’s official service record makes no mention of his actual duty. He said the omission is due to the fact his unit participated in black-op incursions from the DMZ to the Delta and into Cambodia and Laos. Some operations, he said, were conducted alongside CIA field agents and amounted to assassinations of suspected Vietcong sympathizers.

As a sniper, he undertook two basic missions. On one, he would try spotting the enemy — usually a VC sniper — from a far-off, concealed position, whereupon he would make “a long bow” shot. “I was attached to field artillery units whose artillery pieces looked like over-sized tanks. The pieces had a telescope inside and what I would do is sit inside this glorified tank and I would rotate the turret looking through the telescope, looking for that one thing that would say where the Vietcong sniper was, whether it was sighting the sniper himself or some kind of movement or just something that didn’t belong there. I’d pop the top hatch off, stand up on a box and then fire my weapon — a bolt-action 30-ought-6 with a 4-power scope — at the object. Sometimes, I’d fire into a bunch of leaves and there’d be nothing there and sometimes there was somebody there.” When the target couldn’t be spotted from afar, he infiltrated the bush, camouflaged and crawling, to “hunt him down.” Finding his adversary before being found out himself meant playing a deadly cat-and-mouse game.




©Images by Jim Hendrickson




“You look at where he’s firing from to get a fix on where he’s holed up and then you come around behind or from the side. You move through the bush as quietly as possible, knowing every step, and even the smell of the soap you wash with, can betray you. I remember at least three times when I thought I was going to die because the guy was too good. It’s kind of a like a chess match in some sense. At some point, somebody makes a mistake and they pay for it. I remember sitting in a concealed location for like three days straight because only a few yards away was my opponent, and he knew where I was. If I had gone out of that location, he would have shot me dead. So, for three days I skulked and sat and waited for a moonless night and then I slipped out, came around behind him — while he was still looking at where I was — and killed him.”

His first kill came on patrol when assigned as a replacement to an infantry unit. “I was the point man about 50 feet ahead of the unit. I heard firing behind me and, so, I turned to run back to where the others were when this figure suddenly popped up in front of me. I just reacted and fired my M-16 right from the hip. I got three shots into the figure as I ran by to rejoin the patrol. The fire fight only lasted two or three minutes, By then, the Vietcong had pulled back. The captain asked us to go out and look for papers on the dead bodies. That first kill turned out to be a young woman of around 16. It was kind of a shock to see that. It taught me something about the resolve the Vietcong had. I mean, they were willing to give up their children for this battle, where we had children trying to evade the draft.”

As unpopular as the war was at home, its controversial conduct in-country produced strife among U.S. ground forces.

“Officers were only in the field for six months,” Hendrickson said, “but enlisted men were stuck out there for a year. We knew more about what was happening in the field than they did. A lot of times you’d get a green guy just out of officers’ school and he’d make some dumb mistake that put you in harm’s way. We had an open rebellion within many units. There was officer’s country and then there was enlisted men’s country.”

In this climate, fragging — the killing of officers by grunts — was a well-known practice. “Oh, yes, fragging happened quite a lot,” he said. “You pulled a grenade pin, threw the grenade over to where the guy was and the fragments killed him.” Hendrickson admits to fragging two CIA agents, whom he claims he took-out in retribution for actions that resulted in the deaths of some buddies. The first time, he said, an agent’s incompetence gave away the position of two fellow snipers, who were picked-off by the enemy. He fragged the culprit with a grenade. The second time, he said, an agent called-in a B-52 strike on an enemy position even though a friendly was still in the area.

“I walked over to the agent’s hootch (bunker), I called him out and I shot three shots into his chest with a .45 automatic. He fell back into the hootch. And just to let everybody know I meant business I threw a grenade into the bunker and it incinerated him. Everybody in that unit just quietly stood and looked at me. I said, ‘If you ever mess with me, you’ll get this.’ Nobody ever made a report. It went down as a mysterious Vietcong action.”

He was early into his second tour when he found himself stationed with a 155-Howitzer artillery unit. “We were on the top of a gentle hill overlooking this valley. I was working the communications switchboard in a bunker. I was on duty at two or three in the morning when I started hearing these thumps outside. I put my head up and I saw explosions around our unit. Well, just then the switchboard starts lighting up.”

In what he said was “a metaphor” for how the war got bogged down in minutiae, officers engaged in absurd chain-of-command proprieties instead of repelling the attack. “Hell, these Albert Einsteins didn’t even know where their own rifles were,” he said, bellowing with laughter. What happened next was no laughing matter. In what was the last time he volunteered for anything, he snuck outside, crossed a clearing and extracted two wounded soldiers trapped inside a radio truck parked next to a burning fuel truck.

“First, I started up the fuel truck, put the self-throttle on, got it moving out of the unit and jumped out. Then I went back and helped the wounded out of their truck and got them back to where the medics were. Then, another guy and I were ‘volunteered’ to put a 60-caliber machine gun on the perimeter fence. We were on the perimeter’s edge…when I saw a great flash. A Russian-made 122-millimeter rocket exploded. The man behind me died instantly. The only thing I remember is the sense of flying.” Hendrickson’s right arm and much of the right side of his face was shredded off.

As he later learned, a battalion of Vietcong over-ran a company of Australians stationed on the other side of the hilltop and attacked his unit “in a human wave.” He said, “They ran right by me, thinking I was dead, probably because of all the blood on me.” The attack was knocked-back enough to allow for his rescue.

“I remember starting to come around as my sergeant yelled at me…I heard an extremely loud ringing noise in my ears. I knew something was extremely wrong with my right arm, but I didn’t know what. I couldn’t really see anything because my eyes were swollen shut from the fragments in my face. About that time the medic came along. They put me on a stretcher and pulled me back to a hold. That’s when I was told my right arm was blown off.

“I was just thankful to be alive at that point. Then, the rockets started coming in again and people were running around getting ready for the next human wave attack. I was lying there with the two guys I’d saved. Then I saw this big bright light in the pitch black. It was a chopper coming in to pick us up. The medics carried us up, threw us in and the pilot took off. As we lifted, I could hear bullets ripping through the chopper. We were taken to the nearest hospital, in Long Binh, about 50 miles away.”

While recuperating, Hendrickson was informed by his captain that of the 100-plus-man strong unit, there were only five survivors – the captain, Hendrickson, along with the two men he saved, plus one other man. “Apparently,” Hendrickson said, “the unit had been hit by a combination of rocket and human wave attacks that night and the day after and were eventually wiped off the earth. Years later, the historians said this was a ‘retreating action’ by the Vietcong. If this was a retreating action, I sure as heck would hate to see it when they were serious and advancing.” He said his fellow survivors are all dead now. “Those are four people whose names should be on that wall in Washington. Unfortunately, they’ll never be recognized as casualties of war, but yet they are casualties OF THE war.”

He spent the next several months in and out of hospitals, including facilities in Japan, before undergoing a series of operations at Letterman Hospital in the Presidio of San Francisco. Afterwards, he said, he entered “a wandering period…trying to find myself.” He made his home in Frisco, becoming a lost soul amid the psychedelic searchers of the Haight-Ashbury district. “I tried to resume a life of somewhat normalness, but it was like a whole separate reality.” He enrolled in City College-San Francisco, where he once again felt out of place.

Disillusioned and directionless, he then came under the guidance of a noted instructor and photographer — the late Morrie Camhi. “Morrie made that connection with me and started me on a pathway of using photography as a kind of therapy. It was a really great relationship that evolved…He became like a second father.” Years of self-discovery followed. Along the way, Hendrickson earned a master of fine arts degree from the San Francisco Art Institute, married a woman with whom he got involved in the anti-war and black power movements and, following years of therapy in storefront VA counseling centers, overcame the alcohol abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder he suffered from after the war. While his marriage did not last, he found success, first as a commercial artist, doing Victoria’s Secret spreads, and later as an art photographer with a special emphasis on dance.



Morrie Camhi



Helping him find himself as an artist and as a man has been an individual he calls “my teacher” — Sensie Gene Takahachi, a Japanese sword master and calligrapher in the samurai tradition. Hendrickson, who has studied in Japan, said his explorations have been an attempt to “find a correlation or justification for what happened to me in Vietnam. I studied the art of war…from the samurai on up to the World War II Zero-pilot. I studied not only the sword, but the man behind the sword. In the Japanese philosophy of the sword it’s how you make the cut that defines the man you are and the man you’re up against.” He said this, along with the minimalist nature of Haiku poetry and calligraphy, has influenced his own work.

“I try to do the same thing in my photography. I try to strip down a subject to the most essential, emotional image I can project.” He has applied this approach to his enigmatic “Haiku” portraits, in which he overlays and transfers multiple Polaroid images of a subject on to rice paper to create a mysterious and ethereal mosaic. While there is a precision to his craft, he has also opened his work up to “more accidents, chaos and play” in order to tap “the child within him.” For him, the act of shooting is a regenerative process. “When I shoot — I empty myself, but everything keeps coming back in,” he said.

A self-described “vagabond” who’s traveled across the U.S. and Europe, he first came to Omaha in 1992 for a residency at the Bemis Center for the Contemporary Arts. A second Bemis residency followed. Finding he “kept always coming back here,” he finally moved to Omaha. An Old Market devotee, he can often be found hanging with the smart set at La Buvette. Feeling the itch to venture again, he recently traveled to Cuba and is planning late summer sojourns to Havana and Paris. Although he’s contemplating leaving Omaha, he’s sure he’ll return here one day. It is all part of his never-ending journey.

“I see photography as a constant journey and one that has no end until the day I can’t pick-up a camera anymore,” he said.

Golf shots: Patrick Drickey lives dream photographing the world’s great golf courses

August 5, 2010 6 comments

This successful art and commercial photographer has in recent years found his niche making panoramic images of the world’s great golf courses. The creative artist’s early work goes back to the founding, fledgling years of Omaha’s Old Market. He never really left the Market in his heart and when he could he bought property. He’s developed cool living-work-community spaces out of old buildings tastefully renovated to retain their charming urban historical character. Subsequent to this profile being published he’s opened a popular art gallery and event space, the 1516 Gallery, in one of his buildings. Those who know of Drickey or who know only one aspect of his life and work will likely be surprised by the breadth and depth of his experience and of his output. With any profile subject it’s best to get to know their passion because once you know that then you get to know the man or woman you’re writing or reading about. If nothing else, I hope this adequately expresses the extent of Drickey’s passion.




Stonehouse Publishing



Golf shots: Patrick Drickey lives dream photographing the world’s great golf courses

©by Leo Adam Biga

As published in the current edition (August 2010) of the New Horizons


The same wanderlust that sent Patrick Drickey off to see the world at 17 in the U.S. Navy Reserve carries him today on photographic shoots around America and overseas.

After working as an art, architectural, food and agricultural photographer, Drickey hit upon an idea for photographing the world’s great golf courses. He saw a market for indelibly commemorating the signature golf holes that make these green meccas and Elysian Fields iconic symbols for everyone from professionals to weekend duffers.

He appreciates the irony of being one of the world’s most in-demand golf photographers yet not having grown up playing the game. Though he plays now, he’s hardly accomplished as a 25-handicapper. But this “history buff” is well-versed in the game’s heritage. He knows its hallowed grounds, having trod many of those very links himself. He is schooled in its legends, many of whom he’s met and photographed, including Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.

He also enjoys reviving his own family’s golf legacy. His late maternal grandmother Helen Burmester was a local amateur champion in the 1930s. His mother didn’t play the game, therefore he didn’t. The images he makes today would have surely pleased grandma. He displays her antique clubs at Stonehouse.

His is the ultimate niche business specializing in panoramic images of picturesque places like Pebble Beach and St. Andrews. Drickey and his staff employ a rigorous production process to create archival quality prints imbued with painterly attributes. Customers collect framed Stonehouse prints the way some folks collect fine art works.

None of that was on his mind 44 years ago. In 1966 he was a bored Omaha Burke High School junior, just marking time before going off on some undefined adventure. He got what he wanted when he joined  the Navy — both to see the world and escape the military draft for the escalating Vietnam War.

He counted on being assigned a cushy, scenic port of call out of harm’s way. He got his wish in Guam. Then in January ’68 he was sent to a naval supply facility in Saigon, where as “a storekeeper” he was in charge of procuring most everything for delta patrol boat crews and construction battalions.

“It was like being given the keys to the kingdom as an enlisted man,” he said. The job gave him latitude as the point person who could lay his hands on whatever people wanted. “Pretty much anytime anything needed to be greased, they’d come to me.”

He would apply that keep-everybody-happy skill set to his professional photography career, where pitching and pleasing clients is paramount.

He knew Saigon was far from the front line action and so he had little cause for worry.

“I had no idea what to expect, except Saigon was considered a safe zone, so I wasn’t that concerned about anything. We were at a place called the Annapolis, like a temporary Navy billet right outside Tan Son Nhut Air Base (the near Saigon base accommodated military personnel from each branch). From there guys would get assignments and be sent everywhere in the country. Because we were on temporary assignment they had us staying there. We would drive to the main warehouse compound early in the morning.”

On his third morning there he and fellow supply personnel left for the drive into Saigon, unaware the area they left behind would come under attack by Viet Cong forces in the Tet Offensive, which took its name from the traditional Vietnamese holiday it coincided with.

The VC flooded into the south by the tens of thousands. Fire fights and full scale battles erupted over a wide battlefront. Except Drickey and his mates didn’t know it was happening until almost too late.

“The morning Tet started we all piled on a two-and-a-half ton flatbed stake truck. The streets were dead quiet and we didn’t really think anything of it. There was no machine gun fire going off or anything like that. The three days prior the streets were filled and fire works were going off in celebration of Tet. That’s a big event for those people. Kind of like the Fourth of July in America.”

He and his mates figured the quiet was the post-holiday lull, but they were then jolted into reality.

“We went past the U.S. embassy and we noticed damage to the facade, like big mortar or artillery rounds hit it. We got down to the compound and the gates were closed, which was unusual. Then guards popped up from over the top, outfitted in flak jackets, brandishing M-16s. They asked, ‘What are you guys doing  — haven’t you heard?’ We hadn’t heard anything.”

Strategic parts of Saigon were, Drickey said, “under siege,” a situation in which “anything could happen.” He recalled,,” We got in the compound and spent the next seven days isolated there. We did come under sniper fire. We had guard duty on all the perimeters. No (regular) food, we had to break out sea rations.”

Though the offensive was repelled, it put everyone on edge.

“You didn’t go anyplace after that without firearms,” he said. “I had my own vehicle, and they issued anybody who was driving a truck a sawed-off shotgun because the blast pattern was so big that all you had to do was point and shoot and it would take out anything.”



Drickey was stationed in Saigon during the Tet Offensive



Even his “sweet sawed-off” was no gauranteed protection against tactics targeting U.S. military. In those tropical climes he said it was standard practice to drive with vehicle windows rolled down, making drivers and passengers susceptible to a grenade or other explosive being thrown inside or someone taking pot shots at them. Drickey luckily escaped injury.

Indeed, he settled into a familiar, comfortable routine. Along the way, he was exposed to an intrepid band of men who inspired a new vision for what he might do with his life. The backdrop for this revelation were great big R & R bashes the local commander of Naval supply operations threw.

“The old man was interested in camaraderie among the troops,” Drickey explained. “There were seven warehouses in Saigon and once a month you’d get together at one of them for an afternoon of barbecue, volleyball, poker, and shoot-the-shit. It was also a time to get grievances ironed out. The food during those events was always top rate, and that was attractive to the AP (Associated Press) and UPI (United Press International) photographers, who would spend time in our compound.”

These photojournalists covering the war were a breed apart. Their independence and their enthusiasm for their work made a distinct impression on Drickey.

“I was just a kid and they were the first people I met who never complained about their jobs. They couldn’t wait to get their next assignment, wherever it was going take them around the world, and that intrigued me,” he said. “It was their attitude. I said, Wow, that’s the kind of adventure I want my life to be.”

Before encountering the lensmen, he’d never considered photography a career choice. He’d only fiddled with a Brownie back home. Until ‘Nam, no photographer served as a model he might follow.

“My only experience with a photographer was posing for one at a wedding or for high school portraits. I had absolutely no interest in that. But the adventure of photojournalism hooked me.”

Back home in the States in ’69, he pursued his new found aspiration. He used the GI Bill of Rights to enroll at the University of Nebraska at Omaha but between meager funds and a requirement he take writing-reporting classes, he dropped out. At the time, he said there was no focused photojournalism program or track at any area school, and so he pieced together his own by taking a course here and a course there.

“I wound up auditing courses for photography at Bellevue College and Creighton University. I took a course over at Iowa State specializing in architectural photography. My dad was a carpenter and contractor, so for me getting involved with buildings seemed like a natural choice.”

Drickey never became a news hound like those romantic figures who sparked his imagination. But he learned the craft bit by bit, carving out a place for himself that, while hardly heroic, made him a nice living and ultimately provided the freedom to find his passion and travel the world.

Early on, he identified himself as an art photographer.

“I was doing black and white still-lifes then. I had a show with Judith Welk (Omaha acrylic and oil painter) called “Fresh Produce,” all based on still llfes and a visit to Seattle. I was somewhat successful with that but I soon realized it wasn’t a career move for me unless I decided to get a degree and become a teacher.”

In the early ’70s Drickey immersed himself in the emerging Old Market counterculture scene. “I was always drawn to it. Everybody down there was very independent thinking. I was one of the founding members of the Artists Cooperative Gallery, when it was above M’s Pub. It was a true coop . You were required to work one period a month, typically a Friday night opening. It taught me the discipline of pulling together a show and what that takes.”

Other pioneering Old Market artists whose paths he crossed then included the late Lee Lubbers, installation artist Catherine Ferguson and the former Ree Schonlau, now Ree Kaneko. Ree’s husband is celebrated ceramic artist Jun Kaneko. Ree founded the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, whose artist-in-residency program has brought hundreds of artists from around the world to live, work, and exhibit in Omaha.

“Ree’s my all time hero in the city. Her vision for what could be, can be, is still amazing to me. She is just one-of-a-kind and an absolute Omaha treasure. She was one of four women who had an operation called the Craftsmen’s Guild. Ree was the potter. I was a young photographer looking for space and they had an upper floor open I considered doing a studio in. For whatever reason the deal fell apart but I maintained a relationship with Ree. She always had me photograph the artists’ work for the invitations.”

That led to contacts with other local artists. He’s collected their work ever since. His artist friends include Larry Sasso and the Kanekos. He was close to the late Kent Bellows, whose hyper realistic drawings are the basis for a fall Joslyn Art Museum retrospective Drickey’s helped organize.

The Old Market remains his artistic home. He’s maintained property in the historic district for years, always making his studio and office there, though never residing there.

“I started in a basement at 12th and Harney. Back then I paid $175 a month rent. It was affordable, it was doable, I don’t know that anybody can do that (starting out) today. I bought my first building at 14th and Howard.”

The two-story red brick building his Stonehouse Publishing occupies at 1508 Leavenworth was originally St. Philomena school. As he tells the story, a fire led to the third floor being removed. At some point, he said, a tractor supply company bought the entire block and combined that building with two adjacent ones. A porch addition was made to the original structure.





In the ‘70s Omaha businessman and politico Leo Kraft bought the complex, converting it into a home and studio (his wife Frances Kraft was an artist) . Drickey and his wife Karen, a Bryan High School art teacher, led efforts to preserve Tomlinson Woods as a public arboretum and they found an ally in Kraft, the then-Omaha City Council president.

“We came there for a brunch one Sunday with kind of an eclectic mix of people and I never forgot the space. That was the first time I’d witnessed anything like this,” Drickey said, referring to the urban loft space with exposed original brick and wood work.

Drickey’s appreciation for well designed historic buildings was instilled in him by his father and honed by the photography he did for HDR and for Leo A. Daly. His work for Daly sent him all over the country, photographing their projects.

When the Krafts passed away Drickey approached their son Marc about the property but, he recalled, “it was so close to the family’s hearts I couldn’t ever see a chance when they’d part with it.” In 2000 he saw a for sale sign out front. He acted quickly to purchase the site. He’s put much sweat equity into renovating the studio-office space. He and his three brothers learned the construction trades from their father.

“Construction is in our blood,” he said. “We all know how to do stuff. I know how to dig a footing and put up a building. There’s nothing I can’t do.”

His blue collar sensibility is why his closest relationships in golf are with the course superintendents.

“Let’s just say in the world of golf I probably get along better with the golf course superintendents than anyone else,” he said. “I’m more drawn to those guys. They’re the unsung heroes to me because they are the ones out there providing what it takes to make that course a beautiful challenge. I’ve made so many friends on the superintendents side.”

When he finishes a golf project he generally gives a limited edition print to the course super as a thank you for the courtesy and access they provide on a shoot.

Drickey’s pathway to golf photography came via ag photography. His apprenticeship included a five-year stint with Walter and Nancy Griffith and their Photographers Associated. He said it was under Walter Griffith’s tutelage “where I learned how to be a studio photographer. He had an extraordinary studio.”

One of Griffith’s big accounts was Omaha Steaks, and Drickey went on to build his own food clientele, including Godfather’s Pizza.

Griffith also introduced Drickey to the panoramic format for shooting outdoor landscapes by way of a panoramic camera he built himself for the ag business. When Fuji came out with a panoramic camera Drickey was one of the first in this area to get one.

“Whenever you looked at those panoramic images on the light table and studied them with a loop it was like you were standing in the field,” said Drickey. “I knew the power of that image. That had great impact on me.”

Subsequently, Drickey said, “I chased the ag business.” He felt at ease with the farmers and ranchers he met on projects, saying, “They just have a different quality about them.” He came to appreciate the unexpected similarities of how light and shadow fall on the contours of a food and ag landscape.

“It’s funny because I aways heard that shooting food is like shooting landscapes, just on a different scale, and it’s true. A successful food shoot is a landscape, in how it’s lit, all of the elements are there.”

Reinventing himself as a golf photographer came about in a mother-of-invention way. A client, Cushman, a leading manufacturer of golf carts and lawn maintenance equipment, put out an annual calendar using “the tool girl” concept of a Playboy centerfold posing with products. “It worked for years,” he said. When a new, female marketing director asked him to take the calendar in a whole new direction, he hit upon the idea of picturing Cushman products against the backdrop of the world’s best golf courses.

The marketer loved the idea but then Cushman was sold and the new owners ditched the campaign. Fortunately for Drickey his idea was shared with Cushman’s advertising agency. They liked it so much they pitched the idea to another client, Rainbird Irrigation, which serviced many top courses, and they bought it.

“The next thing I knew I was on a worldwide, whirlwind tour of all the world’s best courses, starting with Pebble Beach,” Drickey said.

That very first assignment at Pebble Beach in 1995 proved pivotal. He was there to get a shot of its famed No. 7 hole, only the weather didn’t cooperate.

“I waited there in the rain for six days for it to stop raining, and on the seventh day the sun shone and I got a beautiful panoramic shot.”

The shot remains the best-selling print in the Stonehouse archive. When 600 prints of that image sold at the 1996 AT & T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, he said, “that’s when I knew this could be a business. it’s been a fun ride, a bit of a roller coaster, but a fun ride ever since.” He sold his ag-food photography business to form Stonehouse, whose name comes from the field stone lake house he kept in Iowa.

The USGA (United States Golf Association) saw the image, and, he said, “they embraced it and put in their catalogue and it was like the top selling item for six consecutive issues.” That exposure, he said, “got the attention of some folks at The Open (the British Open), and I wound up doing all of the British open rotation courses, including some of the historic ones, like Royal Port Rush in Northern Ireland.”





This year Stonehouse was selected as one of the official images by St. Andrews Links, which runs the course on which the 2010 Open at St. Andrews was played. Contestants autographed the picture for permanent display in the St. Andrews clubhouse, a rare honor accorded a Yank photographer.

“It validates my career in the manner Kent Bellows was validated when the New York Metropolitan Museum acquired his work for their permanent collection,” said Drickey.

He’s also been privileged to do special projects for living legends Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. The Nicklaus project involved Drickey documenting Jack’s last round as a player at St. Andrews.

“That turned out to be great, but totally unnerving for me because it’s not something I specialize in. I was like, OK, what are you going to do to capture this icon within an icon in a panoramic format? You preview these things in your head, what you expect, where you’re going to be, where he’s going to be, and it’s not a matter of, Hey Jack, look over here. You don’t get that opportunity.

“I took my son on that and that was a great experience for him.”

It turned out one of Nicklaus’s sons caddied for Jack that day.

Drickey failed to get a hoped-for element in the shot but made up for it by nailing another: “Jack was playing with Tom Watson and Luke Donald. I wanted the leader standard in the shot to show where the players stood in the tournament, but when Jack lined up for his putt on No. 1, I was limited to where I could be, and I couldn’t control where those guys were.”

Thus, the leader standard ended up out of frame. But Drickey did get Jack in the sweater he wore when he won his last British Open. Picturing the golf god in it took on added importance when Jack then removed it, giving Drickey one of the only shots of the Golden Bear in that sentimental garb on the Old Course.

“It’s the shot I’m the most proud of,” said Drickey. “We did a big print of it and sent it down to Jack, and his people called me and said that Jack added the prints to his personal collection.”

At the storied Latrobe Country Club in Latrobe, Penn. the course that Palmer’s father designed and where Arnie learned to play, Drickey got to contribute to the Palmer lore by shooting an assignment there. He said the only instruction given by club officials was “to pay special attention to the back nine, where the covered bridges are — those are real special to Mr. Palmer.”

“I knew it was significant to the Palmers. I walked out on this course…I had misty early morning light. Then I got to No. 11, and the sun came out in such a way that it kind of highlighted the bridge, with the mist rolling back. That’s how Pennsylvania people see their countryside all the time in their mind’s eye. and I got the shot. I said, I don’t need to do anything else on this course, this is it.”





The framed print was sent to Palmer, who invited Drickey to a licensee event at Latrobe. It was there Drickey learned his print made quite an impact.

“I ate dinner with his brother Jerry, and I had brought these mini-prints I give out as examples of who we are, and he said, ‘Oh you’re this guy, I gotta tell you this story: When you sent that framed print Arnie’s assistant put it on an easel for him to see it and all of us were standing around just to see his reaction. Arnie looked at it, he had a tear in his eye, and he said, Boy did you ever think this place could look this good?'”

Drickey said he was told Palmer got so “emotional” that he purportedly declared, “When I’m dead and in a coffin one of those prints is going to be buried with me.” The photographer also learned some of his images hang in Palmer’s office. Having Palmer as a fan, he said, has “opened some doors for us like you can’t believe.” For example, the Golf Channel did a piece on Drickey and now carry Stonehouse prints online.

In addition to being endorsed by some of golf’s top names, Stonehouse is licensed by major courses, by the USGA and by the PGA, giving him access to virtually any fairway and green. From Pinehurst to Medinah to many other championship courses with rich histories, Stonehouse and Drickey are recognized names with carte blanche access.

“Which is a significant deal,” he said, ”because we are becoming that embedded in the lore of golf.”

Additionally, he said more than 600,000 Stonehouse prints are now in circulation.”We’ve branded the panoramic format for golf,” he said “That belongs to Stonehouse. One of the things I like about what I’ve been able to do is carve out a niche that goes beyond the confines of Omaha.”

Employing all-digital equipment in the field and in the studio, Drickey applies exacting standards to his imagemaking not possible with film. Digital enhancements bring clarity from shadows and achieve truer, more balanced colors, he said. Even a sand trap can be digitally raked.

“It’s just incredible what you can do — the control you have,” he said.

The refinements or touch-ups accomplished in the post-production process are why he calls what he does “more photo illustration than straight photography.”

He said Stonehouse has adopted the fine art Giclee process to its own printmaking methods, which entails using expensive pigmented archival inks on acid free watercolor paper to ensure prints of lustrous, enduring quality.

“I want to produce a product that’s going to be around for a long time. The color hits that paper and stays with it — it will not fade,” he said.

He feels another reason for Stonehouse’s success is its images portray the timeless characteristics that distinguish a scenic hole or course. He strives to fix each scene into a frieze that expresses the design, the physical beauty, the tradition. His eye for detail helps him bring out “the architecture” of it all.

The clubhouse is often featured in shots because club members expect to see it.

Getting the composition just how he wants it means “waiting for the right light,” he said, adding, “Even a tree shadow coming across the green will change the dynamics of that composition.” Waiting for magic time can mean hours or days.

Much care and research go into finding the one idyllic, golden-hued shot that will speak to avid golfers. That’s who Stonehouse prints are marketed to. He said a typical customer wants a print of the famous hole or course they challenged, much like a hunter wants the head of the game he bagged.

Building-updating Stonehouse’s image collection keeps Drickey on the road several days a month. He’s half-way to his goal of photographing the world’s top 100 courses. One he’s still waiting to shoot is Augusta, home to the Masters.

“That’s one of America’s crown jewels. We are present at the other majors and we’d like to have a presence there. It’s just a matter of time. Those introductions have been made,” he said.


image006.jpg  image008.png  image010.png

Glimpses at the 1516 Gallery he’s opened and directs



Stonehouse prints grace books-periodicals-calendars and other publications. Some of its images are included in the coffee table book, Planet Golf.

Not all his assignments are outside Nebraska. He often shoots in-state courses, at least one of which — the Sand Hills Golf Club near Mullen — is regarded as world-class. Its managing partner, Dick Youngscap, said Drickey “does all of our work. He’s a premier photographer. He’s the best I’ve been around. Pat seems to have an empathy for not only the golf course but the physical environment — the scale and the scope of it. He’s just special, both as a human being and as a talented artist.”

Whether trudging across the Sand Hills or the Scottish Moors, Drickey always brings his clubs along in case the mood strikes to shoot a round or two. He said club officials “always offer” an invitation to play. “They assume I’m a golfer first and a photographer second, and that’s not true. I am a photographer first. I love the game, not that I have what I would call a game. I just like being out there. I don’t keep score. I stopped a long time ago. It makes it a much more enjoyable game. What’s the point? I guess to see if you’ve improved, but I know when I’ve hit a good shot, and that’s all I care about.”

Just like he knows when he’s composed a winning photograph.

He realizes how lucky he is to visit such oases for his job. “They’re beautiful places, absolutely stunning,” he said. It’s his dream job come true.

“I’m doing exactly what I want to do.”

Visit the Stonehouse website at or call 1-800-949-7274.

A Peace Corps Retrospective

Logo of the United States Peace Corps.

Image via Wikipedia

Another anniversary story.  It was the 40th anniversary of the Peace Corps and I just happened to know a few veterans of that renowned service program, and so after they agreed to share their stories with me, those experiences formed the backbone of  what I wrote.  One of the individuals I profiled served in Afghanistan and the other three in India. All of them were deeply affected by what they saw and did and at some level that experience has informed everything they’ve done since then.  My story originally appeared in the New Horizons.  On this same blog you can find my profile of one of these Peace Corps veterans – Thomas Gouttierre, and his affinity for and work with Afghanistan.

A Peace Corps Retrospective

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

Forty years ago, the first wave of Peace Corps volunteers landed in Ghana and Tanzania, Africa. The young, bright-eyed Americans were a new kind of emissary. Neither diplomats nor missionaries, they arrived in far-flung destinations with the appointed task of helping Third World peoples learn skills and develop resources for overcoming tyranny, poverty and disease.

Trained in various service assignments, ranging from education to health to agriculture, the volunteers embodied the idealism and vigor of America’s young, energetic President, John F. Kennedy, who had announced his vision for the Peace Corps in an October 14, 1960 campaign speech at the University of Michigan in which he challenged the nation’s youth to aid the developing world. Once elected, Kennedy reiterated the plan for an international volunteer corps during his January 20, 1961 inaugural address, asking a new generation of Americans to join “a grand and global alliance” to aid the dispossessed and pledging “our best efforts to help them help themselves.”

Kennedy’s clarion call was answered by thousands, including several Nebraskans. By September ‘61 Congress approved legislation formally authorizing Peace Corps and by the end of that year the first contingent of volunteers left for their host countries. Within five years, more than 15,000 volunteers from around the U.S. were implementing Peace Corps projects in the field. As of 2001, 163,000 volunteers have served in 135 countries.

Among those heeding the call during that heady first decade were Tom and Marylu Gouttiere, Peter Tomsen, Beth Furlong and Ron Psota, five transplanted Omahans who were then fresh-from-college graduates looking for a way to make a difference and to find an adventure. Peace Corps duty proved a defining experience for each, indelibly changing the pattern, direction and focus of their lives. For each, it was a time of personal growth and broadened perspectives. They would never look at the world or its diverse people the same way again. For proof, each returned Peace Corps volunteer has given his or her life over to working with people and each has become a world citizen with deep, personal ties to the international arena.

Tom Gouttierre was either headed for a career as a master baker just like his father or as a manager with General Motors just like his friends when Kennedy’s call to service got him thinking beyond the parochial borders of his Maumee, Ohio hometown. “He was an inspiring guy. When he spoke I was just kind of taken by his message of going outside what we normally do,” said Gouttierre, who today directs the Center for Afghanistan Studies and heads the International Studies and Programs Department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.



Tom Gouttierre



From the time he was a child Gouttierre had been curious about the wider world and longed for journeys that would open up its vast horizons to him, only he lacked a way to make it happen. By his early 20s he was studying liberal arts at Bowling Green State University, but remained frustrated in his efforts to break from the mold. That’s when he and his wife, Marylu, decided to throw caution to the wind and enter the Peace Corps. After training in Vermont, the couple was assigned to Afghanistan, a remote, forbidding country that would figure prominently in the rest of their lives. During their 1965-1967 tour, the couple was based in the capital city of Kabul. He worked as an English-as-a-foreign language instructor and basketball coach at Lycee Habibia high school and she as a physical education instructor at Kabul University and a business instructor at all-girls schools.

“We were one of the few married couples,” said Marylu, an Oriental rug retailer. “It was an unknown experience. We had no idea what to expect, whether our language skills would help us or where we would live. There was no telephone. No television. No communication. It was a really exciting experience, a really scary experience, but also a very rewarding experience, and after awhile we just both fell in love with the culture and the people. It’s good to give some of your own services to others, but when you do that you gain so much also.”

Especially in the early 1960s, countries viewed Peace Corps volunteers “as a kind of feather in their cap,” Tom Gouttierre said, and much of that enthusiasm had to do with foreign peoples’ admiration of Americans. “The students I worked with tried to take everything out of me that they could. They were curious as hell. They were always wanting me to do something with them or for them. It was flattering that your skills were that attractive to this group of people. Before Vietnam really got kind of overbearing, Americans, largely because of the impact of Kennedy, had a real appeal for the younger generation. I can’t tell you how many times some Afghan came up to me to express their sorrow at the death of Kennedy. ‘He was a great man,’ they would say. That was a great asset for any Peace Corps volunteer. You had this icon who helped elevate your own position in their eyes. Today, America is viewed a little differently and for that reason it’s probably more difficult to be a Peace Corps volunteer now, even though living conditions are better.”

Tom Gouttierre’s Peace Corps service set the stage for a distinguished professional life with deep ties to Afghanistan. He and Marylu returned there in 1969 when he studied abroad as a Fulbright Scholar and they remained there the next six years as he headed the Fulbright Foundation and coached the national basketball team. The Gouttierre’s oldest child, Adam, was born in Afghanistan. During his UNO tenure he’s built a massive archive on Afghanistan, supervised education programs there, participated in United Nations fact-finding junkets there and appeared before Congress addressing issues relating to Afghanistan.

Since leaving, he’s watched with a heavy heart as the nation crumbled under the strain of successive crises — from a war with the former Soviet Union to civil strife to the oppressive Taliban regime to the current specter of American-Allied retaliation for harboring terrorist Osama Bin Laden. Many of his former students have been lost. “I’ve seen what one my call the end of innocence in Afghanistan,” he said. “To see the destruction and to learn of the deaths and disappearances of so many friends and associates is very, very sad.”

His thoughts of Afghanistan are bittersweet.

“It’s the place where I kind of grew to a mature person. I was a flower waiting for the sun to rise and it just unfolded parts of me that never would have been unfolded if I had not done that. I learned how to live in very challenging circumstances. It opened everything else up for me. I was naive, but the Peace Corps showed me the world. It gave me the opportunity to learn well another language, culture and people. I love Afghanistan. Its people are very hospitable. They have great self-assurance and pride. Today, however, they have such despair about the future of the country. They are fed up with war. They want things to return to the way they were. And I guess what keeps me at this work is that I am ever hopeful that somehow, some way, those admirable qualities of Afghan culture I came to love so much will to some degree be restored. So, I keep pursuing that.”

Peter Tomsen was a student at Wittenberg University in Ohio when Kennedy’s appeal to America’s youth hooked him. “I can remember, even today, him asking us, ‘How many of you would be willing to study Urdu and go to Pakistan and serve?’ There was an explosion of enthusiasm built around the novelty of the idea — of going off to help others — but also the charism of President Kennedy. He moved us. He moved a whole generation,” said Tomsen, ambassador-in-residence in the UNO International Studies and Programs department. “There was a rush to join up. There were many more volunteers then there were slots. We were extremely idealistic. Many of us, including me, had never even left our country much less our state. And that element — of an unseen adventure — was there, too.”

In a case of it truly being a small world, Tomsen and Gouttierre, both the same year, grew up within 35 miles of each other in northwest Ohio, came to a similar epiphany regarding the Peace Corps at nearly the same time and embarked on international careers that eventually led them to being UNO colleagues. Assigned to Nepal, Tomsen first underwent extensive language and culture training in Washington, D.C. and hard physical training in Hawaii (to steel him for the rigors of trekking through the Himalayas). Upon his arrival in Nepal, he taught social sciences at a college constructed of stone, bamboo and thatch, but before his two years were up he was charged with the new mission of opening a vocational school for Tibetan refugee children.

Peter Tomsen



Being transported from the plenty of America’s Breadbasket to the subsistence-level conditions in Nepal exposed Tomsen to a side of the world he could not have imagined. “Outside of the capital, there was no electricity in Nepal,” he said. “There was only one road. It was a very poor area with very little to eat. We ended up just having rice twice a day with vegetables and sometimes with meat. Often, we slept on mats on the ground. We didn’t have newspapers or television. We could only get the BBC on transistor radio. We were really isolated. There was a high illiteracy rate. Peoples’ interests didn’t go much beyond survival. But, faced with a situation like that, you soon realize how little you need, especially when you have friends. We had extremely close friendships with the people and they had it with each other too. The people were proud and led a fulfilling life.”

After his 1963-1965 Peace Corps tour, Tomsen returned to the U.S. to teach at St. Cloud State University before landing a diplomatic post in the U.S. State Department, where he enjoyed a 33-year career that culminated with him serving as ambassador to Armenia. Wherever he’s worked, he’s carried with him core values from the Peace Corps, including “interpersonal and intercultural abilities” and greater “tolerance, patience and sensitivity.” He said. “After living in a village environment in Nepal for two years I was at home and comfortable the rest of my life every time I met a foreigner.”

Beth Furlong had rarely traveled outside the confines of Davenport, Iowa, where she was a hospital nurse, when she opted to stop playing it safe and to push herself beyond her comfort zone by entering the Peace Corps. Following training in New England, her assignment was teaching public health education to adult men and women, including students at an all-women’s teacher training institute in East Mysore, India. It was about as far afield from her rural Midwestern upbringing as she could get and the dichotomy led her to change her outlook on things.

“I led a restricted life before I entered,” said Furlong, an associate professor in the School of Nursing and a faculty associate in the Center for Health Policy and Ethics at Creighton University. “It made me a mobile-international citizen. It helped me look beyond my ethnocentrism. It gave me a new concern about poverty and justice. And, also, it gave me an appreciation for the fact there’s no one right way to do anything. The area I lived in was predominantly Hindu and Muslim and so I learned there are many ways to worship. I learned that washing myself didn’t have to mean bathing, but could mean pouring water over myself. It was a wonderful lived experience of getting outside America and seeing how other people live.”

Back in the U.S., Furlong switched her career track from hospital nursing to community health nursing as a direct result of her Peace Corps service, which opened her eyes to the need for more and better preventive — rather than reactive — public health policy in addressing such things as nutrition, safe drinking water, immunizations, family planning and maternal-child care. At home, she has involved herself in scores of organizations dedicated to the justice, anti-poverty and peace movement, including Omaha Together One Community (OTOC) and Nebraskans for Peace. She has taught ethics at international conferences in Eastern Europe, most recently under the auspices of the Albert Schweitzer Institute and the American International Health Alliance.

Today, she is planning her first trip back to India since she left 33 years ago and is eager to return to the villages she volunteered in to see what progress time has wrought. All these years later, Furlong fondly looks back at her India tour of duty and appreciates how it helped her move beyond the “constricted view” of things she arrived with to develop a greater, more encompassing understanding of other cultures. As Furlong discovered, Peace Corps volunteers do not merely observe the cultures they serve from some ivory tower distance, but rather wade right in to live and work among the people.



Beth Furlong



In her case, that meant eating spare meals, doing without electricity, using an outhouse, bicycling from town to town and being the object of curiosity wherever she traveled. It meant being treated to a level of hospitality that humbled her, as peasants shared meager food supplies with her, a perfect stranger, when such provisions should really have gone to their malnourished children. It also meant finding out, first hand, what peoples’ needs were and devising responses to meet those needs.

When she and her Peace Corps partner, Alice, identified a need for sanitary food preparation and bathroom facilities, they took the initiative and worked with CARE volunteers to build kitchen sheds and latrines in dozens of villages. She’s hoping that when she visits these villages, the sheds and latrines still stand. She said she could not have gotten as intimate with Indian culture as she did without the Peace Corps placing her smack dab in the middle of things. That sentiment is shared by fellow Peace Corps veterans.

“Peace Corps volunteers get closer to the quick of society than do anybody else, whether its foreign service officers or scholars or anyone else,” Gouttierre said. “The Peace Corps is probably the best people-to-people experience ever devised. In that regard, it’s as important as it ever was and I think it’s still the best kind of foreign assistance and foreign exchange of any kind.”

Ron Psota had long ago decided not to be a dairy farmer like his parents, who owned and operated a spread near Ord, Nebraska. No, he wanted to see the world and to explore other possibilities. So, he became a liberal arts major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he earned an architecture degree he hoped one day to use in the Peace Corps, whose foreign service appealed to his sense of curiosity. Ironically, once in the Peace Corps he did not end up designing low cost housing as imagined but instead found himself on familiar ground by assisting farmers in India with their agricultural needs. Still, the Peace Corps offered him the chance to live out a dream and to carve out a new life.

“I’d always been interested in other cultures. That was a strong pull. That and the fact maybe you could do some good and maybe have a helluva good adventure too,” said Psota, International Students Coordinator at Bellevue University. “I think if I had not done that my life would be quite a bit different. It was sort of a defining moment. It changed my world view. It changed the way I work and what I do and everything else.”



Ron Psota, left, with foreign exchange students



Perhaps the biggest change it made in the lives of Psota and his wife, Eileen Wirth, has been in their serving as hosts for hundreds of foreign students over the years. First, at UNO, and more recently at Bellevue University, Psota has been a liaison for international students, many of whom have lived with the couple at their Bemis Park area home, which is filled with artifacts and photographs from their many travels and exchanges. Psota has maintained contact all these years with the village he served and has returned to India four times.

The couple are adoptive parents to two children, now grown, who are foreign-born nationals. Their son, Raj, came from Mother Theresa’s orphanage in New Delhi and their daughter, Shanti, came from an orphan agency in Thailand. He said his reaching out to international youths is his way of repaying a debt he feels he owes those villagers who welcomed him 30-odd years ago. “A lot of this is sort of pay back. The world needs to be more welcoming to each other.” Psota’s wife, Eileen, said she knew as soon as Ron came back from his Peace Corps stint that “I was going to share him with India for the rest of our lives. And, of course, India then became Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand…”

Psota was part of a Peace Corps team working to increase village level food production.

“We were sort of county agents charged with introducing new hybrids, fertilization, land leveling and crop protection measures. We were half that  and half snake oil salesmen in a lot of ways,” he said. “We were supposed to get farmers to change. At times it was sort of, ‘God, are they ever going to change?’ We were probably bringing on the future and one of the things we were concerned about was ensuring the future had a human face.”

Despite some resistance and skepticism, Psota said farmers soon saw the benefits of improved methods. “The Indians were like farmers anyplace in the world. They may not have been able to read and write, but they all could count. When they counted the number of bags of rice that came off some of our hybrid areas versus what they got off their own plots, they were going to plant them. The yield was that much greater.” Psota and his team also modernized farming practices by starting a tractor cooperative that brought mechanized plowing and harvesting to the area.

A lasting impression for Psota is how much a spectacle he and his Peace Corps mates were. “We were the best show in town in a lot of ways. We were curiosities. I always felt I was on display. The first month or so after my arrival I lived in a school house with windows on all sides, usually complete with little kids looking in at all hours of the day and night. The villagers were just always there. You’d open your door at 6:30 in the morning to go do your duty in the mulu bushes and four people would fall in on you. You soon learned to play to the crowd.” In his travels back to India he’s found the people “much more in tune with what’s going on and a little more in control over their own lives.”

Peace Corps veterans comprise a special fraternity or, as Peter Tomsen, put it, “a family,” built on shared service abroad. Ron Psota often organizes reunions of returned Peace Corps volunteers. To a man and woman, they describe their volunteering as the most seminal experience in their lives.

Gouttierre said, “My whole life is the product of the Peace Corps. I’m more proud of being a Peace Corps volunteer than of anything else I’ve done. When I find out somebody is a returned Peace Corps volunteer it automatically raises their estimation in my eyes. It still is a very profound experience in terms of what it does to crystallize one’s inner dimensions.”

Tomsen, whose daughter followed him into the Peace Corps, said, “It was the most formative experience I ever had. Do I think I made a difference? Yes, but I think I got more back than the villagers.” Furlong, who was planning to attend the Peace Corp’s 40th anniversary celebration in Washington D.C. until it was postponed in the wake of the recent terrorist attack, simply said, “It changed me.” Finally, Psota said, the Peace Corps opened up “the wonder of the world for me. Now, I’ve got friends all over the world to see. Yeah, I got a lot out of it.”

Donovan Ketzler, The Last of the Rough Riders

June 18, 2010 1 comment

1st Cavalry Shoulder Patch

Image via Wikipedia

The subject of this profile, Donovan Ketzler, is like one of those romantic adventurer  figures from a Jack London or Rudyard Kipling yarn. I believe you will find his adventures as a cavalryman and recreational horseman will enchant you as much as they did me. The Omaha, Neb.-based boot manufacturing company he headed for years, Dehner, earned a national and international reputation for the superior craftsmanship of its fine boots.  Its customers have  included heads of state and celebrities of all kinds. The story originally appeared in the New Horizons.

Last of the Rough Riders

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

Sitting astride his pale gelding, Snowdrift, Donovan Ketzler is the very embodiment of the gallant, weatherworn horse soldier of frontiers past. He looks the part too with his leathery skin, cropped mustache, squinting eyes, gnarled hands, erect posture and stern but jaunty deportment. Then there’s the way he uses a nudge of the boot, a tug of the reins and a brush of the riding crop to expertly guide his mount.

The rough rider image he projects is no facade, either.  The 74-year-old retired president of the Dehner Co., Omaha’s renowned manufacturer of hand-made custom boots, is, in fact, an ex-cavalryman. During World War II he served in the U.S. Army’s Cavalry Replacement Training Center at Fort Riley, Kansas, instructing troops in the 1st Cavalry Division and participating in combined horse and mechanized maneuvers on the Great Plains.  He later mule-packed with Chiang Kai-sheck’s Chinese troops fighting the Japanese in Burma and mainland China.

This consummate horseman and inveterate adventurer is the last of a dying breed of men with any link to the rugged cavalry troopers who roamed the American West.  Although his own cavalry days are long behind him, riding is still a large part of his life.

He rides for sport and pleasure today in the hills and river valleys north of Omaha.  He boards his horse at a stable just inside Washington County, near Neale Woods.  “I know Ponca Hills like the back of my hand,” he says.  “We ride from there clear down to the river.”  For him, there’s nothing grander than being atop a fine animal with the sun at his back, a jump looming ahead and a fox on the run.

“I tell you, when you’re on horseback and you get behind a pack of hounds that’s in full cry, you’re just hell bent for leather,” he says in his rough-hewn voice.  “The old adrenalin’s going, you’re flying fences, going cross-country, down ditches, up hills, and there ain’t nothin’ nicer.”

As much as he likes the thrill of the chase, he enjoys watching  animals at work amid nature’s splendor.

“It’s fun working with a horse and seeing success.  And I love to watch that pack of hounds circling and trying to pick up a scent.  One will pick it up and the rest of ‘em will come over to honor it and when two or three of ‘em honor it, why they’ll take off and follow the scent, then they’ll lose it and have to find it again.  To watch those animals working is tremendous,” he says.

Son Jeff Ketzler, who succeeded him as Dehner president in 1991, says his father likes his outdoor recreation wild and woolly. “That’s his favorite thing. He likes to tread where no man has tread before. He always likes it a little bit rougher than I do.”

A frequent riding companion of Ketzler’s is Vicki Krecek, vice president of communications with the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce.  She admires his desire to make riding a lively group affair.

“One Saturday he went down by the Missouri River and spent all day making this one trail with all these little jumps, so that it became a real fun, challenging course to ride,” she says.  “He’d really thought it out and done it beautifully.  He got such a kick out of doing that.  I thought it was so neat that somebody would take the time just so we could have some more fun.”

Equestrians feel you can tell a lot about a person by how he/she handles a horse.  While Ketzler insists he’s nothing special —  “I get on the horse, I look like hell, and at the end of the day I get off the horse” — others disagree.  Krecek says: “He’s an excellent rider.  He rides with a real assurance.  And he’s also really compassionate about the horse, even though he’s very much in control. He won’t tolerate bad behavior on the part of the horse, but he has a very gentle hand.  He’s very conscientious of the land too.  We never set foot on anybody’s planted field.”

Krecek also echoes others in describing his bold, macho side.  “He’s definitely a hard charger and he’s definitely very fearless,” she says.  “I can’t believe some of the things he’s done.  Once, we were in a hunter’s pace and his horse refused a fence and kind of reared around, and Van fell off and hit his head.  I said, ‘Are you okay?’  ‘Yes,’ he said.  ‘Well, hurry up, get on,’ I said, because we had another half-hour to ride at a pretty fast pace.  Later on, he said he thought he was having a heart attack because he couldn’t breathe very well.

“I couldn’t believe he would think he was having a heart attack and wouldn’t tell me to stop.  It turned out he had a couple broken ribs, yet he rode that extra half hour.  When he says he’s hurting…he’s really hurting.”

In a lifetime with horses Ketzler’s taken his share of spills and suffered a medical dictionary full of sprains, strains, tears and broken bones.

“He gets himself hurt in the most spectacular ways,” Jeff says.  “When I was a kid he was brought home in an ambulance after a horse he was trying to shoe kicked him in the head, and to this day he has a horseshoe scar on his forehead.  Another time Dad tried to drag my horse Gizmo into a trailer.  He had wrapped the lead shank around his hand, and when Gizmo took off, Dad took off with him.  He always tells the story how he was in a helluva foot race for about 75 feet, but then that lead shank came undone and he fell behind very quickly.  He tore his hamstring and rotator cuff, and busted this and that.”

Ask what’s the most outlandish thing his father’s done, and Jeff pauses, laughs and says, “He’s done so many spectacular things it’s hard to narrow it down to just one.  He’s trained in the cavalry way…you’ve got to be up front, doing it all…and no type of terrain or obstacle will keep you from getting to your objective, and that’s always the way he has been.  Always forward, always going, always full blast.”

Then there are the times, entirely apart from horses, Ketzler’s heeded his fanciful, slightly mischievous nature.  Like his penchant for dropping everything in the middle of the day to go gallivanting half-way around the world.  He’s been known to drag his wife Bette along on military hops out of Offutt — with little or no advance notice — to destinations like Hawaii.

The ever-spontaneous Ketzler once surprised her with the news that in two hours they were leaving that afternoon for Great Britain. “I called her from the office at 2 and said, ‘I’m picking you up at 3 and at  4 we’re going to be gone,” Ketzler recalls.  “Pack what you think you need.  If it’s too much, we’ll throw it away.  If it’s not enough, we’ll buy it.  And it was the best trip we ever had.”

Jeff says his mother, who’s gotten used to such unpredictability, sometimes endures more than she bargains for.  Like the time his father  swept her away to Australia.  Sounds romantic and exotic, right? Except they traveled in the tail section of a C-5 Hercules military transport. “Mom, of course, didn’t like it very much, but Dad had an absolute blast.  He loved every minute of it.”

Ketzler is a restless sort whose rash sense of adventure and wanderlust causes him to fidget if he’s forced to sit very long.  He’s always itching for action.  “If there’s something happening, you can be sure he’s always right in it,” Jeff says.  “He cannot sit down.  He never stands still.  He’s always the first one out during a tornado warning, looking around.”

Donovan Ketzler himself likes telling the story of how as a brash teen smitten with Bette, he took her riding in the bluffs overlooking the Missouri River.  While already an accomplished rider used to the steep terrain, she was quite green.  “We ran these horses to the edge of the cliff and dropped about 40 feet,” he says.  “She was just hangin’ on by the horse’s neck.  She hasn’t been riding since.”

Her swearing off riding the last 60 years didn’t get in the way of their love for each other, as the couple recently celebrated their 51st wedding anniversary.  Neither did she stand in the way of their four children riding.

“She’s as knowledgeable about horses as any woman I know,” Ketzler says, “even if it’s mostly from the ground.”

One thing Bette did disapprove of was her husband’s habit of taking the kids riding on the Sabbath. “We never got to church because we were always out fox hunting on Sunday mornings,” Jeff says. “Dad has always been a spiritual man, but never much of a churchgoing man. He always felt going over a snowy field early on a Sunday morning put him a lot closer to God than he could ever get in any church pew.”

Indeed, whether camping at Custer State Park, riding in Ponca Hills or watching cranes in the Sand Hills, the great outdoors is Donovan Ketzler’s sanctuary and temple.  “I tell you, you get out in the woods and it’s like going to church,” he says.  “You’re really pretty close to your god out there.  You’ve got a good horse under you that you trust and really you just get back down to the basics and forget all about your frustrations.”

Even to this day he searches for new riding epiphanies.  Recently returned from a week-long horseback tour of County Sligo on the west coast of Ireland, he was still beaming with childlike glee over the experience.  “There were three of us that went.  They gave us two saddlebags, a horse and a map apiece and we took off, stopping at bed and breakfasts about 20 kilometers apart.  We were in the saddle about 6 1/2 hours a day,” he says.  “We started in a little village called Grange on the Atlantic Ocean.  Then we rode down the coast along Sligo Bay.  Then we went inland and up to the mountainous areas, then into a wooded area and around a lake called Gill.  We came out on the other side of Sligo Bay.”

The demanding horseman found the trek up to his rigid standards.

“The horses were good, the equipment was fantastic, and the trails and the maps were just exceptional. We lived out of those saddlebags.  I liken it to reliving my youth in the cavalry — going out with the horses in the field.  I was in seventh heaven.  We had a helluva good time.  Absolutely spectacular.”

Upon reaching the last stop, Ketzler and his riding partners were met by their spouses and together they toured, by more conventional means, western Ireland, staying on the Shannon side.

The party took several side trips, including a visit to the site of the Dehner factory Ketzler built and operated briefly in the mid-’70s in the village of Knocklong.  The plant now houses a packaging company.  During Dehner’s brief foray in Ireland, which was foiled by steep labor costs, Ketzler, wife Bette and their sons Jeff and Jon lived there at various times.

Donovan and Bette were most enchanted by the Irish huntsman’s apartment they resided in, located in the stables of a centuries-old manor house belonging to a local dairy farmer.  Ketzler felt at home because the farmer was also the area master of hounds and kept horses on either side of the couple’s apartment. Never one to skip a hunt, Ketzler rode with the hounds over there and has the black thorn shredded boots to prove it.

The failure of the Irish factory is one of the few missteps Ketzler made during his 20 year-reign as Dehner president.  The more than 120-year-old company, which bears the name of his maternal grandfather, C.C. Dehner, has always been a family-run concern.  Ketzler’s father, Harold, headed the firm until Ketzler, who started working there at age 12, took over in 1971.

Ketzler streamlined the operation dramatically increasing the output, sales and profits, and consolidating its hold in the English riding, law enforcement and military markets.  Dehner’s reach has even extended to NASA, making astronaut boots from Mercury to Apollo to the Shuttle.

Among its prominent customers over the years has been former President Ronald Reagan, a longtime rider who began wearing the Dehner brand in 1946 while still a contract motion picture actor.  Dehner boots have been worn by generations of West Point graduates, including Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton.  The always image-conscious Patton collaborated with Ketzler’s grandfather in designing a striking strap model that came to be called “the Patton boot.”  It was worn by the general’s tank troops, and later by U.S. Air Force personnel, including U-2, Thunderbird and test pilots, who came to know it as “the SAC boot.”

While stepping down from the firm’s day to day operations seven years ago, Ketzler retains chairman of the board status and holds veto power.  He keeps an office in the plant, nestled in a quiet residential neighborhood at 3614 Martha Street.  Customers trailing horses cross-country often let their animals graze on the Dehner lawn while getting a fitting or a tour of the plant.  A peek inside Ketzler’s office reveals his old McClellan cavalry saddle on display, walls laden with photos of him riding, inscribed photos from Reagan and Patton and a plaque thanking Ketzler for his efforts in supporting the Omaha Police Department’s mounted patrol.

Ketzler shows up to work every day because, he says, “I still want to know what’s going on.  I still want to get in the swing of it.  But by and large I bite my lip a lot and let ‘em run it.”

Jeff Ketzler says his father applied the same organizational skills and disciplined approach learned in the military to running the business, and the ramrod style paid off.  “When Dad took over I think our production was about 2,500 pair a year, and by the time he retired it was about 12,000 pair a year.  He took a very, very small company and turned into the largest handmade custom boot manufacturer in the world.  Everything was very, very organized.  Everybody knew what they had to do…and it was always kind of his way or the highway.  My dad is definitely a hard act to follow.”

According to Jeff, his father employed a strict hand at home too.  “He’s always been a military-type guy. This is his life, and this is the way he’s chosen to live it.  He reveres those people and, I mean, he was one of ‘em.”

Living a Jack Armstrong adventure as a boy, Donovan Ketzler became exposed to the cavalry way of life accompanying his grandfather on sales trips to army outposts, where the troops adopted the eager lad. Not long after the firm’s 1930 move from Kansas (where it originated) to Omaha, Ketzler and his late sister Janne learned to ride at Fort Omaha and the 113th Cavalry Stables in Council Bluffs.

“Although my family were not military people, I was practically raised in the military,” he says.  “I was thrown in with a group of 7th Service Command officers’ children in a riding class.  I became very proficient at it.   I pretty much had carte blanche with the use of their horses.”

So proficient that by his mid-teens he was riding with the National Guard cavalry troops in Council Bluffs.  “I got in with the officers, and they allowed me to come along on an officers’ ride every Sunday morning.  We’d ride off into the bluffs and just do some hellish things.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.”  By the outbreak of the war the unit was federalized and Ketzler, still a kid, was told to “get lost.”

At 18 he was determined to serve in the cavalry, but after enlisting in 1943 found himself assigned instead to the infantry.  That is until he informed the brass he was already cavalry-trained, whereupon he promptly got his wish at Fort Riley.  He soon became a cavalry instructor.  Although cavalry units in the field had been dismounted, drilling with horses continued, he says, “because it was said a horse-trained soldier was more responsible than straight-legged infantry.  With a horse, you have to take care of it and you accept a certain responsibility.”

Later he went overseas, training “rag-tag” Chinese resistance forces in infantry weaponry (mortars and anti-tank devices) as a replacement to the 124th Cavalry.  While serving with the Chinese Combat Command he largely remained behind the front-lines, but occasionally got caught “in counter barrages.” He explains, “When I was in Burma the planes would fly over and parachute everything in — all the supplies — because they had no place to land.  And of course the Japanese would see these parachutes coming in.  Well, we’d wait about 10 minutes before going out there with our mules to pick up the supplies, and the Japanese would throw mortars in on us.  I lost a mule to shrapnel.”

His Far East duty spurred an appreciation for the region and its people, who endured appallingly poor living conditions and cruelties enforced by warlords.  He says it was a nation ripe for revolution.

Back home Ketzler briefly attended theUniversityof Nebraska-Lincoln before rejoining the family business, marrying Bette and starting his family.  He remained in the army reserves until retiring, as a major, in 1967.  He’s sure he would have stayed in the military if not for the family business.

In his post-war life he ached to see China again but the political situation made it impossible.  He finally got his chance in the ‘70s when the country was opened to foreign visitors.  He and Bette have traveled there several times since, trekking across the Silk Road, floating down the Yangtze River and visiting the back country where Ketzler served in the war.

Other favorite destinations have included his ancestral homeland of Germany and a bird watching haven in a remote Mexican coastal village.

His travels often intersect with his interest in frontier soldiering, an interest he cultivates by reading, collecting vintage weapons, visiting such historic sites as the Battle of the Little Big Horn and wearing reproductions of cavalry uniforms (complete with his own leathermade goods) on River City Roundup rides from Ogallala to Omaha.  While he does not romanticize the “hard, hard life” endured by the troopers, he does feel a strong kinship with them.  “Yeah, I really do.  Very much so. They were cavalry too.”

The intrepid spirit of the cavalry is what keeps him active today.  “We’re survivors.  You gotta have a reason for gettin’ out of bed,” he says.  Just as the horse cavalry’s days were numbered, Dehner will likely close whenever Ketzler’s son Jeff retires.  “This is the last of the line,” Ketzler confirms.  Does that sadden him?  “No, we had a helluva run…a good time.”  And like an old soldier, he’ll just fade away, riding to the setting sun.

John and Pegge Hlavacek’s globe-trotting adventures as foreign correspondents

June 2, 2010 3 comments

This is a story about an amazing couple, John and Pegge Hlavacek, I met only a few years ago, decades removed from their adventures as globe-trotting foreign correspondents. Their fascinating stories are from way before my time but they are timeless because they personally speak to adventure, romance, intrigue, news, and history that they were there to experience and witness for themselves.  Their life together was like something from a movie or a play or a book. John has published a series of memoirs written by himself and by his late wife Pegge that document much of their intrepid adventures.  As my article notes, they don’t make couples like this anymore.  The piece originally appeared in the New Horizons.


John and Pegge Hlavacek’s globe-trotting adventures as foreign correspondents

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons


Prior to meeting, John and Pegge Hlavacek were young, intrepid reporters filing stories from news making capitals around the world. Then, when fate brought them together in Asia in 1951, they forged a life together that fed their mutual curiosity and hunger for adventure. It was all so Bogey and Bacall. Two dashing Americans falling in love in post-colonial India and the promise of its new democracy.

He was a breezy foreign correspondent. She, a posh former reporter-turned-public affairs officer. After marrying in Bombay and honeymooning in Rome, their whirlwind life took on all the intrigue and romance of a movie as they trailed after news from one exotic port of call to another. There was travel to fantastic spots. Hong Kong, Delhi, Darjeeling, the North Pole. Interviews with compelling world figures. Nehru, Indira Gandhi, the Dalai Lama. Memorable sights. The Taj. The Himalayas. Meeting visiting Chinese and Soviet premieres. Visiting palaces, temples, ruins, museums. Haggling in crowded bazaars. Rushing to catch trains, planes, boats, ferries. And, always, hurrying to meet deadlines and beat the competition.

Just like they broke the mold with Bogey and Bacall, they don’t make couples like the Hlavaceks anymore. What a match they made. He with his boyish enthusiasm, rakish charm and rugged good looks. She with her fresh, feisty, unspoiled spirit and down home wile. As exciting and enchanting a lifestyle as they led, what made it more storybook was that when Pegge met John, she was a widowed mother of fraternal twins she had with her first husband, who was killed in China. Gallant John took on the instant family and he Pegge soon added three children of their own.

The Hlavaceks’ years chasing stories and kids are told in two new books authored by Pegge, Diapers on a Dateline and Alias Pegge Parker, a pair of great reads written in her clean, colorful prose style. She actually wrote the manuscripts in the 1960s, but when she could not find publishers she put them away. After being stricken with Alzheimer’s a few years ago, John, who still cares for her at their Rockbrook area home in Omaha, unboxed the pages, read them again, and impressed, sent them off to an editor friend, who agreed they deserved a life in print. John then got them published via iUniverse, a vanity press in Lincoln, Neb.

Now 86, Hlavacek is proud of his wife’s work and glad, after all these years, to have finally seen her accounts of their rich lives on bookshelves. “She is a much better writer than I am,” he said. “Pegge has the gift of putting down in words a picture. She’s an excellent writer. I’m just a journeyman.” In a reflective mood these days, he’s writing his own memoirs from the diaries he kept and the letters he wrote during his early years overseas. In conversation, this unadorned man blithely recalls one fascinating chapter after another of his and Pegge’s foreign adventures, leaving the listener, if not himself, awed by the sheer magnitude of their stimulating lives.

A native of LaGrange, Illinois and a graduate of Carleton College (Minn.), where he was a star athlete, Hlavacek originally came to the Far East in 1939 to teach English in Chinese mission schools. He went on a fellowship from the Carleton-in-China exchange program, which his football teammates signed him up for while he recovered from appendicitis. The way it all came about, he said, is indicative of “how accidental my whole life is.” It was not the last time his life took a major detour as the result of some seemingly random act. Not a religious man, he chalks up all these events to “serendipity,” saying: “I’ve got a little star following me around. All of my life, nothing’s been planned. It just happened.”

Going to the other side of the world then was far from routine. “My folks were not too thrilled with the idea of my going,” he said. “In 1939…all they knew about China was famine and disease, and they thought they would never see me again. It was like going off to war.” War came soon enough.

In Peking, he took intensive language courses. By the end of his stay at the mission schools, where his status as the only American made him “a celebrity,” he spoke passable Chinese. On holidays, he traveled widely in-country and also got his first glimpses of India and Pakistan, visiting Rangoon, Calcutta, Agra, Dehli, Peshawar, the Khyber Pass and Kashmir. The first of two schools he taught in was comfortably outfitted. “We had a cook and a bearer and a valet.” At the second, situated on an old temple site, life was more “primitive,” he said. “I just had a little room for my office and another room for my bed. We had vegetable oil lamps.” He enjoyed his time over there. “I liked the Chinese. I got along with them very well. I had a ball.”

With the outbreak of WWII, he felt compelled to help the beleaguered native populace and, so, he signed on with the International Red Cross. He “fell in” with a group of Welshmen driving medical supplies over the Burma Road, a “rugged” job, as daunting for the red tape as the conditions. “Every time we went out, we had to get permits from the local officials to show where we were going and what we were doing,” he said. “Much of the road was mountainous, with switchback turns. Trucks had accidents. They got stuck in mud. Springs broke. Batteries died. But, fortunately, none of the people I was with ever got killed.”

He saw flashes of the war from places like Chintang and Chungking. “Japanese bombers would go over us, heading for Chengtu. One time, I was fortunate to survive a bombing raid,” he said.” We were down in a hotel dugout when a bomb landed on the front of us and another on the back of us. There was a lot of explosions.” After his Red Cross duty ended, he applied his language skills to the U.S. military attache as a decoder and interpreter, helping track troop movements.

In another example of the way things have fallen into place for Hlavacek, he was in a Chungking hotel one “cold, dreary, wet night” in February 1943 when he struck up a conversation with John Morris, eastern manager for the United Press news service. Hlavacek recreates the scene: “We had lots to drink and we were sobering up in the morning in front of a big fireplace when I said, ‘Mr. Morris, what does it take to be a United Press correspondent?’ He said, ‘What have you done?’ And I told him, ‘I’ve taught English and I speak Chinese.’ ‘You’re hired,’ he said. Thus, without a shred of newspapering experience, Hlavacek talked his way into a foreign correspondent’s job he made his life’s work the next 25 years.

One of his early assignments overseas saw him covering the American 14th Air Force commanded by Major General Claire Chennault. “I got a big scoop. I was the only American journalist when they evacuated the city of Heng Yang. The Japanese were coming down from Changsha. I was in the last jeep leaving the city.” On their way out, U.S. forces destroyed key installations to spoil the invaders’ advance, and by joining-in the patriotic Hlavacek found himself part of the story. “We blew up an airfield. We threw grenades into buildings to make them burn up,” he said. “It was a great story and I sent it in and they (UP editors) killed it. It never got published. You see, we had censorship at that time.” But his actions were recognized when he received a citation from Gen. Chennault for aiding the military.

It was not the last time Hlavacek aided those in need. His wife writes about a 1955 episode in which he and another journalist pulled wounded Indian protesters to safety after Portuguese troops fired on them. It was all in the line of duty, he said.

After Heng Yang, Hlavacek fell ill. Recuperating back in the states, he got a baptism-by-fire on the UP’s New York night cable desk. Sent back abroad, he rose through the ranks to bureau chief in Bombay, getting news from London by Morse code, editing and printing it off and then sending it out to papers via bicyclists. His territory extended across all of India and into Pakistan, Afghanistan and Ceylon. He employed stringers, but also reported, snapped pics and, later, shot TV footage himself, often doing all three on one story. “I got to know how to do all this just by doing it,” he said of his self-taught news career. It helped, he said, “to be nosey.”

He was there for the press conference announcing the partition of India. He lived through the Bombay riots of 1946 and ‘47. He once walked two hours with Mahatma Gandhi. He saw Nehru’s rise to and fall from grace and power. Everywhere he went, the big affable American was known for his good humor and winning way with kids. Besides a few scrapes with rebels, including being imprisoned in Nepal, and some bouts of dysentery, he emerged from Asia unscathed. The bachelor lived and breathed news in his UP post, which saw him cover everything from riots to celebrations and untouchables to heads of state, but nothing prepared him for the dark-haired American girl who stole his heart.

A native of Harrisburg, Pa., the former Margaret Lyons displayed an early aptitude for spinning tales and seizing opportunities, like the time, at age 17, she convinced the publisher of the Harrisburg Telegraph to start a youth column, Teen Topics, which she wrote while still a high school student. She wrote under the pen name Pegge Parker, which remained her non de plume the rest of her writing life. The column proved so popular that when she decided to try her luck in Washington, D.C., the publisher kept it as a regular feature. In the nation’s capital, Pegge landed a night reporting job with the Washington Times Herald, where she became a pet of its owner, Cissi Patterson, who liked the way she took the measure of congresswoman Clare Booth Luce in a piece. Plucky Peg’s wartime reporting from the homefront included first-hand features she did on maneuvers with the Tenth Armored Division and the Paratroop School in Fort Benning, Ga., complete with pics of “the Amazon girl” atop a Sherman tank and harnessed in a control tower chute.

One of the biggest exclusives she scored was an interview with Margaret Mitchell, who had retreated from public life after the sensation of her book, Gone With the Wind, and the mega-hit movie made from it.

Soon, however the beltway beat’s political wrangling and society finagling grew tiresome for Pegge. Her restlessness peaked so much that, in 1943, she got as far away from Washington as possible by taking a reporting job with the Daily News Miner in Fairbanks, Alaska. The great white wilderness, then not long removed from its untamed gold rush days, proved a rich news source for the young journalist, who met its salty characters, viewed its rough-hewn beauty and traveled to its remotest regions, even venturing to the Aleutian Islands and the North Pole. One of her stories, about a lottery awarding a gaudy cash prize to anyone guessing the exact time the ice breaks on a river, was published in the Readers Digest. Years later, Pegge said of her time in Alaska, “I loved every minute of it.”

Wanderlust called again in 1949 when, without knowing a word of the language, much less a single solitary soul, she embarked for China. She went, minus even a reporting gig, on pure blind faith things would work out. They did, too. The New York Daily News picked up the stories she filed from the Great Wall, Shanghai, Peking and the frontier mountain regions. Even though he didn’t know her yet, Hlavacek appreciates the spunk she exhibited then as “the girl on the go. Where I just kind of went along with things,” he said, “she went out and pursued them.”

It was in China she met and married her first love, Doug Mackiernan, an American scientist serving as an American vice consul in a distant and politically sensitive part of China. She bore him fraternal twins. When Communist-fired tensions rose there, she and the twins went to live in America, where Pegge got the news he’d gone missing. Weeks passed before it was confirmed he was killed by Tibetan border guards while fleeing China. At the time, the Chinese publicly accused Mackiernan of being a spy, allegations Pegge and U.S. officials refuted. Years later, it was revealed MacKiernan had indeed been a CIA agent.

Grief-stricken, she accepted her husband’s old post. Leaving the twins in the care of his parents in Boston, she went off to serve as a vice consul in Lahore, Pakistan before ending up a public affairs officer in Karachi. It was in Pakistan she met John. Despite a testy first encounter, the news hounds knew they’d found their match.

“We didn’t like each other at first. You have to understand, she was working for the government and I was a reporter, and there’s a natural antipathy there,” he said. Then there was the way he upbraided her for leaving her children at home while she went gallivanting about Asia. She explains in Diapers on a Dateline how, at first, she was enraged at his impudence. Then, she felt guilty, because she knew he was right. Finally, she was fascinated by this man who took such interest in reuniting a mother and her children. The die was cast. Their Bombay marriage took place in 1952 in the chapel of St. Xavier’s College, presided over by a friend of Hlavacek’s who was a Spanish Jesuit priest.

Headstrong personalities are bound to clash, and while John and Pegge have enjoyed 51 years of marital harmony, there’ve been times they’ve butted heads. “We’ve had our fights,” he said. “We’re both competitive.”

Raising five kids largely in a downtown Bombay hotel, with the family’s suite also serving as an office to Papa John, who was often away on assignment, the Hlavaceks somehow made it all work. Pegge ran things while he was gone, the ever-present typewriter strewn with diapers and toys. As if not hard enough making ends meet with seven mouths to feed, 11 counting the family’s bearer, driver, cook and their beloved aiha (nanny), Tai Bhai, the UP’s chintzy pay and shoestring budgets made matters worse. Pegge writes humorously about her obsession with shopping for bargain trinkets and relics from the wallas (peddlers-merchants) she could never refuse. The couple’s many homes have been adorned with the artifacts and just plain junk they’ve acquired over the years.

What hardships the family endured, they will tell you, were more than made up for by the enriching experiences they shared among themselves and with the world.

The Hlavaceks broke some of their biggest news stories in India. John befriended Tenzing Norgay, head sherpa on Sir Edmund Hillary’s historic Everest ascent, and told his tale for the first time in a UP story syndicated around the world. When John learned famed Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossillini, then married to Ingrid Bergman, was having an illicit tryst with a much younger married woman, he enlisted Pegge to get the scandalous goods, and she did. Pegge also made a splash when she co-authored a story with Nehru’s sister about the Indian prime minister.

When the rival Associated Press cut into UP’s India market, John lost his job in 1957. With things looking bleak he then received — “out of the blue” — the Council of Foreign Relations’ Murrow Fellowship at Columbia University, a windfall, he said, “which saved our bacon.” The family lived a year in New York. Hankering to be where the action was in the Cold War, he studied Russian for an expected Eastern bloc assignment, but instead he and Pegge followed their nose for news to the Caribbean and the region’s growing political strife. The family lived in Jamaica, a haven for the rich, the famous and the infamous.

From their hillside bungalow near San San as their island base, John fed radio and TV reports to NBC News and he and Pegge filed stories for Time-Life. They did pieces on exiled dictators Juan Peron and Zeldivar Batista, who despaired to the Hlavaceks, “They call me a murderer,” and John nabbed a world beat exclusive on the assassination of Rafael Trujilla. On a lighter note, the couple cultivated stories on famed composers Rodgers and Hammerstein, fading matinee idol Errol Flynn, evangelist Billy Graham and James Bond author Ian Fleming and they hobnobbed with the vacationing Kennedys and Johnsons and Princess Margaret.

With Castro’s ascent to power in Cuba, John went there as NBC’s primary correspondent, getting jailed and deported once for pressing too hard on a story. He interviewed all of Castro’s cabinet, but never “got to” the leader himself.

By 1964, Hlavacek’s network contract was up and his search for a news gig brought him and his family to Omaha’s then-NBC affiliate, KMTV, for whom he became a news analyst and roving correspondent. In a rare move for a local station, then news director Mark Gautier and general manager Owen Sadler let Hlavacek, with Pegge at his side, go far afield for news gathering sojourns, including trips to Vietnam, Africa and Europe. His Vietnam dispatches from the battlefront, which profiled ordinary GIs from the heartland, proved popular. He was a one-man crew, too — reporting, writing and filming. Between his field reports and analysis, he was part of a serious era in local TV news that’s long gone. “Well, it’s all fun and games now. Mark Gautier was a strict newsman. He didn’t believe in the happy talk that’s all the rage now,” said Hlavacek, who marvels at the instant news allowed by today’s digital-satellite technology and “the big production” TV makes of things.

Pegge’s pen was busy, too, as she wrote columns for the Sun Newspapers and Council Bluffs Nonpareil, among other publications, and hosted a radio show.

In the ‘70s, Hlavacek, a Democrat, scratched an itch to run for public office, losing a Congressional bid before winning a seat on the Omaha City Council. By showing his political colors, he found his journalism career closed. “Nobody would hire me,” he said. Still needing to earn a buck and looking to stay put in Omaha, where the family had put down roots, he started a travel agency, TV Travel, that capitalized on his and Pegge’s globetrotting expertise. After selling the business in 1983, he and Pegge remained in Omaha but continued hopscotching the world for pleasure, including several trips to China, where they visited old haunts and new sites.

Their grown children, all Westside High grads, are doing well. Two are doctors. One’s an airline pilot. Another’s in e-commerce. And still another’s an author.

Now, John’s days revolve around Pegge and memories of their high times. He takes her to an adult day care, after which they go to the Swanson branch library, where they pore over newsapapers. “We’re news junkies,” he said. “She’s at her best in the morning. She knows who I am and everything else. But at night she’s not quite sure whether she’s in Harrisburg or in Omaha. It’s rather discouraging…this terrible disease. I don’t know how many more years we’ve got.”

Rummaging through a lifetime of mementos at their home, everything he comes across evokes a story from their halcyon days as reporters. “I’ve got lots of stories,” he said.

Thomas Gouttierre: In Search of a Lost Dream, An American’s Afghan Odyssey

May 19, 2010 13 comments

Emblem of Afghanistan

Image via Wikipedia

Thomas Gouttierre’s work with Afghanistan has drawn praise and criticism, moreso the latter as of late given what’s happened there with the war and some of that nation’s top leadership having been befriended and trained by Gouttierre’s Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.  The following profile I did on Gouttierre appeared in 1998, long before U.S. involvement there escalated into full military intervention.  Regardless of what’s happened since I wrote the piece, the essential core of the story, which is that of Gouttierre’s magnificent obsession with that country and its people, remains the same.

The story originally appeared in The Reader (




Tom Gouttierre, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Afghanistan, took over as director of the Afghanistan Studies Center at the University of Nebraska in 1974.



Thomas Gouttierre: In Search of a Lost Dream, An American’s Afghan Odyssey

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (


Like a latter-day Lawrence of Arabia, Omahan Thomas Gouttierre fell under the spell of an enigmatic desert nation as a young man and has been captivated by its Kiplingesque charms ever since.

The enchanting nation is Afghanistan and his rapture with it began while working and living there from 1965 to 1974, first as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English as a second language, then as a Fulbright fellow and later as executive director of the country’s Fulbright Foundation.  His duties included preparing and placing Afghan scholars for graduate studies abroad.  During his 10 years there, Gouttierre also coached the Afghan national basketball team.  Sharing the adventure with him was his wife and fellow Peace Corps volunteer Marylu.  The eldest of the couple’s three sons, Adam, was born there in 1971.

Before his desert sojourn, the Ohio native was a naive, idealistic college graduate with a burning desire to serve his fellow man.  When he got his chance half-a-world away, it proved a life transforming experience.

“It’s the place where I kind of grew to a mature person,” he said.  “I was there from age 24 to 34 and I learned so much about myself and the rest of the world.  It gave me an opportunity to learn well another language, culture and people.  I love Afghanistan.  It’s people are so admirable.  So unique.  They have a great sense of humor.  They’re very hospitable.  They have a great self-assurance and pride.”

But the Afghanistan of his youth is barely recognizable now following 19 years of near uninterrupted carnage resulting from a protracted war with the former Soviet Union and an ongoing civil war.  Today, the Muslim state lies in shambles, its institutions in disarray.  The bitter irony of it all is that the Afghans themselves have turned the heroic triumph of their victory over the vaunted Soviet military machine into a fratricidal tragedy.

Over the years millions of refugees have fled the country into neighboring Pakistan and Iran or been displaced from their homes and interred in camps across Afghanistan.  An entire generation has come to maturity never setting foot in their homeland or never having known peace.

The nation’s downward spiral has left Gouttierre, 57, mourning the loss of the Afghanistan he knew and loved.  “In a sense I’ve seen what one might call the end of innocence in Afghanistan,” he said, “because for all its deficiencies, Afghan society – when I was living there – was really a very pleasant place to be.  It was a quite stable, secure society.   A place where people, despite few resources and trying circumstances, still treated each other with a sense of decency and civility.  It was a fantastic country.  I loved functioning in that Afghanistan.  I really miss that environment.  Not to be able to go back to that culture is a real loss.”

Through it all, Gouttierre’s kept intact his ties to the beleaguered Asian nation.  In his heart, he’s never really left.  The job that took him away in 1974 and that he still holds today – as director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha – has kept him in close contact with the country and sent him on fact-finding trips there.  He was there only last May, completing a tour of duty as a senior political affairs officer with the United Nations Special Mission to Afghanistan.  It was his first trip back since 1993 (before the civil strife began), and what he saw shook him.

“To see the destruction and to learn of the deaths and disappearances of so many friends and associates was very, very sad,” he said from his office on the UNO campus, where he’s also dean of the Office of International Studies and Programs.  “Much of the country looks like Berlin and Dresden did after the Second World War, with bombed-out villages and cities.  Devastation to the point where almost no family is left unaffected.

“Going back for me was very bittersweet.  With every Afghan I met there was such despair about the future of the country.  The people are fed up with the war…they so want to return to the way things were.  People cried. It was very emotional for me too.”

Everywhere he went he met old friends, who invariably greeted him as “Mr. Tom,” the endearing name he’d earned years before.  “In every place I visited I wound up seeing people that I have known for most of my adult life.  Individuals that have been here at the University of Nebraska at  Omaha – in programs that we’ve sponsored – or people I coached in basketball or people I was instrumental in sending to the U.S. under Fulbright programs or people who taught me Persian and other languages of Afghanistan.  So, you know, there’s kind of an extended network there.  In fact, it was kind of overwhelming at times.”

Colleague Raheem Yaseer, coordinator of international exchange programs in UNO’s Office of International Studies and Programs, said, “I think he’s received better than any ambassador or any foreign delegation official.  He’s in good standing wherever he goes in Afghanistan.”

Yaseer, who supervised Gouttierre in Afghanistan, came to America in 1988 at the urging of Gouttierre, for whom he now works.  A political exile, Yaseer is part of a small cohesive Afghan community in Nebraska whose hub is UNO’s Center for Afghanistan Studies.  The center, which houses the largest collection of materials on Afghanistan in the Western Hemisphere, provides a link to the Afghans’ shared homeland.

Aside from his fluency in native dialects, his knowledge of Islamic traditions and sensitivity to Afghan culture, Gouttierre also knows many of the principals involved in the current war.  It’s the kind of background that gives him instant access and credibility.

“I don’t think there’s any question about that,” Gouttierre said.  “The Afghans have a phrase that translates, ‘The first time you meet, you’re friends.  The second time you meet, you’re brothers.’  And Afghans really live by that – unless you poison that relationship.”


Thomas Gouttierre greeting an Afghani girl


According to Yaseer, Gouttierre’s “developed a skill for penetrating deep into the culture and traditions of the people and places he visits.  He’s able to put everything in a cultural context, which is rare.”

It’s what enables Gouttierre to see the subtle shadings of Afghanistan under its fabled veil of bravado.  “When people around the world wonder why the Afghans are still fighting, they don’t realize that a society’s social infrastructure and fabric is very fragile,” said Gouttierre.  “They don’t realize what it means to go through a war as devastating as that which the Afghans experienced with the Soviet Union – when well over a million people were killed and much of the traditional resources and strengths of the country were destroyed.  When the Soviets left, the Afghans tried to cobble together any kind of government and they were unsuccessful.

“Now they’re trying to put this social-political Humpty-Dumpty back together again, and its just very difficult.”

Under Gouttierre’s leadership the center has been a linchpin in U.S.-U.N. efforts to stabilize and rebuild Afghanistan and has served as a vital conduit between Afghans living inside and outside the country and agencies working on the myriad problems facing it.  With nearby Peshawar, Pakistan as a base, the center has operated training and education programs in the embattled country, including a new program training adults in skills needed to work on planned oil and gas pipelines.

Gouttierre himself is a key adviser to the U.S. and world diplomatic community on Afghan matters.  He’s served as the American specialist on Afghanistan, Tajikistan and South Asia at meetings of the U.S.-Russian Task Force (Dartmouth Conference) on Regional Conflicts.  He’s made presentations on Afghan issues at Congressional hearings and before committees of the British Parliament and the French National Assembly.
And last year he was nominated by the U.S. State Department to serve as the American representative on the U.N. Mission to Afghanistan. “It was quite an honor,” said Gouttierre. “And for me to go back and work among the people again was very appealing and very rewarding.”

The aim of the U.N. mission, whose work continues today, is to engage the combating parties in negotiations toward a just peace settlement.  German Norbert Holl, a special representative of the U.N. secretary general to Afghanistan, heads the mission, whose other members are from Russia, Japan, England and France.

On two separate month-long trips to Afghanistan, Gouttierre met with representatives of the various factions and visited strategic sites – all in an effort to help the team assess the political situation.  His extensive travels took him the length and breadth of the country and into Pakistan, headquarters for the mission.  He talked with people in their homes and offices, he visited bazaars, he viewed dams, irrigation projects and opium fields and traversed deserts and mountains.





Marylu Gouttierre said her husband’s involvement with Afghanistan and commitment to its future stems, in part, from a genuine sense of debt he feels.  “He feels a responsibility.  It is his second home and those are his people. He’s not only given his heart, but his soul to the country.”

He explains it this way:  “Afghanistan has a special place in my professional and personal life and it has had a tremendous impact on my career.  It’s been so much an instrument in what I’ve done.”

To fully appreciate his Afghan odyssey, one must review how the once proud, peaceful land he first came to has turned into a despairing, chaotic killing field.   The horror began in 1978, when Soviet military forces occupied it to quell uprisings against the puppet socialist regime the USSR had installed in the capital city of Kabul.  The Soviets, however, met with stiff resistance from rebel Mujaahideen freedom fighters aligned with various native warlords.  Against all odds, the Afghans waged a successful jihad or holy war that eventually ousted the Soviets in 1989, reclaimed their independence and reinforced their image as fierce warriors.

The Afghans, whose history is replete with legendary struggles against invaders, never considered surrender.  Said Gouttierre, “The Afghans felt they were going to win from the start.  They felt they could stick with it forever.  They had a strong belief in their own myth of invincibility…and to everyone’s surprise but their own, they did force the Soviets to leave.”

But the fragile alliance that had held among rival factions during the conflict fell apart amid the instability of the post-war period.   “The Soviets left someone in charge who had been their ally in power. That was Najeebullah.  His government fell in 1992.  That only helped exacerbate things.  The cycle of fighting continued as the Afghans who had fought against the Soviet army continued their fight against Najeebullah, who was captured, tried and executed by the Taliban (an Islamic faction) in September of 1996 for his crimes against the Afghans, which were considerable.”  Gouttierre knew Najeebullah in very different circumstances before the war, when the future despot was a student of his in a class he taught at a native high school.

After Najeebullah’s fall, a mad scramble for power ensued among the  Mujaahideen groups.  As Gouttierre explains, “The leaders of these groups had become warlords in their own regions.  They kind of got delusions of grandeur about who should be in control of the whole country and they began to struggle against each other.”



Sports Illustrated photo of Afghan basketball



In the subsequent fighting, one dominant group emerged  – the Taliban, a strict Islamic movement whose forces now command three-quarters of the country, including the capital of Kabul – with all its symbolic and strategic importance.  A loose alliance of factions oppose the Taliban.

“As the Taliban (Seekers of Islam) grew in strength, they began intimidating and even fighting some of the minor Mujaahideen commando groups, and to a lot of people’s surprise, they were successful,” said

Gouttierre, whose U.N. assignment included profiling the Taliban.  “They are very provincial, very rural – and in their own minds – very traditional Muslims and Afghans.  They’re not that philosophically sophisticated in terms of their own religion, but they are very sophisticated in terms of what they understand they want for their society, and they’re able to argue and discourse on it at length without giving any quarter.  And they’re willing to go to war over it.

“Each region where they’ve gone, they’ve been aided by the fact that the people living there were disenchanted with those in control.  Most of the other groups, unfortunately, lost any credibility they had because of their failure to bring about peace, stability, security and reconstruction.  The people were willing to support almost anything that came along.”

The Taliban has drawn wide criticism, internally and externally, for its application of extreme Islamic practices in occupied areas, particularly for placing severe restrictions on women’s education and employment and for imposing harsh penalties on criminals. Gouttierre said while such actions elicit grave concerns from the U.N. and represent major stumbling blocks in the Taliban’s quest for full recognition, the movement has effectively restored order in areas it controls.

“I have to say that in the areas of Afghanistan I traveled to which they control, the Taliban had confiscated all the weapons, removed all the checkpoints people had to pass through, eliminated the extortion that was part of the checkpoints and instilled security and stability,” said Gouttierre.  “You could travel anywhere in Kabul without having to be in any way concerned, except for the mines that haven’t been cleared yet.”

Conversely, he said, the Taliban has exhibited brutal politics of intimidation and blatant human rights violations, although other factions have as well.  “It’s not a question of who’s good and who’s bad,” he adds.  “There’s plenty of blame and credit to be shared on all sides.”







He found the Taliban a compelling bunch.  “One of the things I was impressed with is that all of the leaders I met were in some ways victims of the war with the Soviet Union.  They all exhibited wounds, and they acquired these wounds heroically carrying out the struggle against the Soviet Union, and I respect them for that.  That needs to be taken into account.”

In addition to pushing for a ceasefire between the Taliban and its adversaries, Gouttierre said the U.N. mission consistently makes clear that in order to gain credentialing from the U.N. and support from key institutions like the World Bank, the Taliban must do a better job of protecting basic human rights and ensuring gender equity.

He said the main barrier to reaching a cease fire accord is the Taliban’s nearly unassailable military position, which gives them little reason to make concessions or accept conditions.  Another impediment to the peace process is the nation’s rich opium industry, whose interests diverge from those of the U.N.  And a major complicating factor is the support being provided the warring factions by competing nations.  For example, Pakistan and certain Persian Gulf states are major suppliers of the Taliban, while Iran and Russia are major suppliers of the opposition alliance.

Taliban and opposition leaders did meet together at several U.N. sponsored negotiation sessions.  The representatives arrived for the talks accompanied by armed bodyguards, who remained outside during the discussions.  The tenor of the meetings surprised Gouttierre.  “It was far more cordial than I had anticipated.  These men got along remarkably well, in part because they all know each other.  That’s not to say there weren’t disagreements.  When offended, Afghans can be exceedingly formidable to deal with.”

At Gouttierre’s urging, the mission began holding intimate gatherings at which representatives of the warring parties met informally with U.N. officials over food and drinks and “where translators were not the main medium for communication and where everybody wasn’t on guard all the time.”  He hosted several such luncheons and dinners, including ones in Kandahar, Baamiyaan and Kabul.  The idea was to create a comfortable mood that encouraged talk and built trust.  It worked.

“In diplomatic enterprises often the most effective periods are at the breaks or the receptions, because you’re sometimes able to get people off to the side, where they’re able to say off the record what they can’t say officially.  And that’s exactly what happened.  Those of us in the U.N. mission got a better sense of who the Taliban are.  They’re not irrational.  They do have a sense of humor.  And they got a better sense of who we are – that we’re not just officials, but that we also have a long-term interest in Afghanistan.”

Gouttierre said the mission has overcome “high skepticism” on the part of Afghans, who recall the U.N. granted Najeebulah asylum despite his being a war criminal.  He said the Afghans’ estimation of the mission has moved from distrust to acceptance.  And he feels one reason for that is that the present mission has “more clout and recognition than any previous mission to Afghanistan.”  Supplying that essential leverage, he said, is the “unstinting support of influential countries like the U.S., France, England, Russia and Japan.”

Despite recent news stories of military inroads made by opposition forces, especially around Kabul, the Taliban remain firmly entrenched.  Gouttierre believes that unless a major reversal occurs to change the balance of power, the Taliban will continue calling the shots.  If the Taliban eventually consolidate their power and conquer the whole nation, as most observers believe is inevitable, the hope then is that the movement’s leaders will feel more secure in acceding to U.N. pressure.

Gouttierre said that despite the failure to gain a ceasefire thus far, “the fact remains the two sides are meeting with each other, and that’s the first step in any peace process.  We don’t have agreements on anything yet, but at least the channels for continuing dialogue have been opened.”

As Gouitterre well knows, the process of binding a nation’s wounds can be frustrating and exhausting.  He stays the course though because he wants desperately to recapture the magical Afghanistan that first bewitched him.  “I guess one of the things that keeps me at this is that I am ever hopeful that somehow, some way those admirable qualities of Afghan culture which I came to love so much will to some degree be restored.  So I keep pursuing that.”

Three old wise men of journalism – Hlavacek, Michaels and Desfor – recall their foreign correspondent careers and reflect on the world today

May 18, 2010 3 comments

Nehru and Gandhi at the opening of the Indian ...

Image via Wikipedia

As a kid I watched John Hlavacek on a local network television affiliate’s newscasts and documentaries, and as a young man I was aware of him serving on the Omaha City Council, and operating his own travel agency. I vaguely knew that he had been a foreign correspondent.  It was only a few years ago though that I met him for the first time and got to know more of his story.  He and his late wife Pegge were both reporters in the Golden Age of American journalism.  Their life stories of living and working around the world are as amazing as those of the historical events and figures they covered.  In the last few years John has had published several books authored by himself and Pegge that recount their adventures. I have also posted the story I wrote about John and Pegge and their adventures, but the following piece is about John and two old reporter friends of his from back in the day.  The three men hadn’t seen each other in decades until John arranged for their meeting in Omaha for a panel discussion.  I covered the event and wrote this story for  The Reader (

Three old wise men of journalism – Hlavacek, Michaels and Desfor – recall their foreign correspondent careers and reflect on the world today

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (


They were three young lions of American journalism when they met far from home, a long time ago. John Hlavacek of Carleton College (Minn.) and Jim Michaels of Harvard were green United Press foreign correspondents based in post-World War II India. In wartime Hlavacek trucked medical supplies over the Burma Road for the International Red Cross. Michaels drove an American Field Service ambulance. Each was imprisoned there: Hlavacek for days; Michaels for months. New Yorker Max Desfor covered the war in the South Pacific as an Associated Press photographer.

The paths of these three men crossed in 1946, when their lives-careers intersected with India’s historic bid for independence from British colonial rule. Last spring, they came together for the first time in 60 years with the publication of a book, United Press Invades India, by Hlavacek, an Omaha resident who invited his colleagues to participate in public forums about their intrepid reporting days. The men shared stories and observations during two panel discussions in Omaha.

After being out of touch all that time Hlavacek began the process of reestablishing contact with his old colleagues while working on his memoir. Facts needed checking and where Hlavacek’s memory faltered, he relied on Desfor and Michaels to fill in the blanks. By the time the book was completed, Hlavacek suggested he and his comrades reunite. The men still correspond today.

John Hlavacek

The book that helped bring the old colleagues together was Hlavacek’s second volume of memoirs based on his overseas adventures in India and China, where he taught English in an American mission school in Fenyang as part of the Carleton in China exchange program. Hlavacek now has a third volume of memoirs out, Freelancing in Paradise, that recounts the years he and his wife Pegge, a fellow journalist he met and married in India, filed stories from the Caribbean for national media outlets. He’s also published two books authored by Pegge about her own far flung news career and the couple’s remarkable feat of raising five children while working in India, New York, Jamaica and Omaha.

For Hlavacek and Michaels, now in their late 80s, India began long, distinguished careers in journalism. As bureau chief in Bombay, Hlavacek built up UP’s presence there and under his aegis the news service proved a formidable rival to their bitter rival, the AP. He won what’s now called the Edward R. Murrow Fellowship for study at Columbia University, he covered the Caribbean and after moving with his family in the early 1960s to Omaha, where he was a television news correspondent/commentator, he filed a series of reports from Vietnam on area residents serving in the war.

Michaels got the scoop of a lifetime when he broke the story of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination in 1948. He joined Forbes Magazine in 1954, was made editor in 1961, a post he held until 1999. He’s credited with turning Forbes into one of the world’s most read financial pubs. A VP today, he can be seen Sundays on Forbes On Fox.

Before India, Desfor already made memorable images: of the Enola Gay crew upon their return from the mission that dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima; and of the Japanese surrender to the allies on the USS Missouri. Soon after his arrival in India in 1946, he snapped a famous picture of Gandhi and India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in an unguarded moment of friendship. “You see the interchange, the compatibility, the simpatico. It’s just an enormous moment,” he said. The iconic pic was used as the basis for a popular Indian postage stamp.

Desfor won a Pulitzer Prize for news photos for his work in the Korean War. In all, he shot five wars, many conflicts and much civil strife. He later served as an AP  photo executive/editor before retiring in 1979. That same year though he joined US News and World Report as director of photos. He made his 1984 retirement permanent, but he’s till snapping pics, only now with a digital camera. He’s 93.

Max Desfor posed in front of picture taken of himself during the Korean War

These young lions turned wise old men of journalism reunited for panel discussions in Omaha in 2006. They took to their role as pundits well. They spoke about the momentous events they reported on, the way the news biz has changed and how the India and China of today differ from the developing nations they knew then.

Hlavacek said the troika may be the only surviving American journalists to have met Gandhi. While his colleagues minimize Gandhi’s ultimate influence, Desfor said “he had a moral effect” of lasting import. Michaels said by the end Gandhi was “almost irrelevant” for opposing “industrialization or modernity. Had Gandhi lived, he said, “he would have been loved but nobody would have paid attention to his views.”

The ascetic led a huge movement yet was quite approachable. Unlike today’s restrictive climate, the press had unfettered access to major public figures then.

“A journalist’s access to events in those days was so much more intimate than it is today,” Michaels said. “Gandhi was a world figure, yet he had these prayer meetings when he was in Delhi that the public could come to. If you got there early you could sit right up in front and ask him questions. Or, as John (Hlavacek) did, you could go right up to him and ask for an interview. Today, you wouldn’t be able to get through the masses of hired guards, spin meisters, the whole lot.”

“Once, I wanted to interview the number two man in the cabinet of Independent India, Vallabhbhai Patel, a very important figure in Indian independence,” Michaels said. “So, I drove up in my little car to his place, knocked on the door, a servant answers and says, ‘What do you want?’ I say, ‘I’m from the United Press of America  — I’d like to interview Vallabhbhai Patel’ He says, ‘Wait a minute,’ takes my card and five minutes later ushers me into the garden, where Patel and I had tea together and I had an interview. That kind of immediacy today simply does not exist.”

When Hlavacek wanted to interview Mohammed Ali Jinnah, a Muslim leader in the free India movement, he simply stopped by his flat. He had similar access to presidents (Nehru, Indira Gandhi), religious leaders (the Dalai Lama), royalty (Aga Kahn) and dictators (Juan Peron of Argentina, Zaldivar Batista of Cuba).

“There are many great stories I had the opportunity to cover,” Hlavacek said. “It was interesting. I had a lot of fun. I had a lot of worries from time to time, too. And you were always in competition. You were always trying to beat someone.”

“It was a wonderful era for being a correspondent,” said Desfor, who with his Speed Graphic made pictures of great personalities that “will live forever in history books. This is what gives me such great pleasure,” he said.

When Michaels arrived at the scene of the estate where Gandhi lay fatally shot, he was among the first there. The grounds were open and he could move freely about to ask questions and make observations. After sending off his first dispatches at a nearby cable office, he returned to find the area cordoned-off by police and a large group of reporters and peasants gathered outside the closed and guarded front gates. The reporters there earlier with him were now inside.

“I thought, Oh, my God, I’m going to get beat on this story. I better do something,” Michaels said. “So I went around the back. I knew the area pretty well. And I climbed through the hedges and, wow, staring me right in the face was an Indian constable. I desperately searched in my wallet for my old Geneva card, which I carried as an ambulance driver during the second world war. I flashed this card, which was very impressive, and he said, ‘OK, sahab.’ So I got in. I saw as they brought Gandhi’s body out on the balcony for the people to see. I saw a famous woman photographer (and correspondent) for Life Magazine, Margaret Bourke-White, thrown out physically when she refused to stop taking pictures.

“I saw all these great Indian leaders sitting around crying. I witnessed Nehru, the first prime minister of India, get up on the wall with tears streaming down his face declaring, ‘The father of our country is dead.’ I witnessed all these scenes.”

The phalanx of competing news groups was far smaller then, too, compared to the unwieldy mobs that descend on news events today.

“The independence of India was one of the great events of the century. It was huge news. Yet it was covered by less than 100 journalists,” Michaels said. “When Hong Kong became independent less than a decade ago, there were 8,000 journalists covering it and the ones that got there had to cover it by watching it on TV. Today, everything is staged. Access to events is tightly controlled.”

In the process, Michaels said, “something is lost between what you read and what happens. The whole nature of the profession has changed — I don’t think necessarily for the better. The news business today belongs more to presenters.” “You have to be an actor,” Hlavacek interjected.” “You have to be a performer,” Michaels agreed, “and what you get is filtered through these presenters.”

Another major difference between then and now is the rate at which news is disseminated. Filing stories from the field in Third World nations once meant getting the news out via mail or cable or teletype, all of which took time. Sometimes just getting from a news event to a dispatch office could take hours of travel. Now, stories can be filed from the most remote or dangerous regions, even war zones, almost instantaneously due to satellite phone lines and the Internet.

“The speed of communication is what’s really changed,” said Hlavacek, who adds “the 24-hour circuit” of news coverage puts hard copy newspapers in a tough spot. “You used to break a story in a special edition. It’s too late now.” Michaels believes the ever growing online info world “is killing newspapers.” To those who worry a point-and-click universe prevents analysis, Hlavacek said, “No, it doesn’t, but this is spot news and it never did. Analysis can come later.” He marvels at “the emergence of the Internet” and is encouraged that “there’s so much information out there. I don’t think you can control it. At least I don’t see that you can.”

The dynamic economies and rising technocracies of India and China have caught the men’s notice. Michaels often goes back to India, where he’s interviewed current prime minister Manmohan Singh. Michaels said India’s ascendancy “is one of the great unheralded revolutions of our time.” He said the planned socialist state under Nehru and his successors resulted in an India that “stagnated from the time of independence right through 1989.” Michaels, who calls  Singh “a very impressive man,” credits him with engineering “a revolution from the top” that urged Indian leadership to abandon the old system in favor of “a free enterprise model.” The result, he said, is a “booming” economy. While India prospers, its caste system’s inequities still pervade the society, said Hlavacek, who’s also been back. The India-Pakistan divide, they agree, is one born of religious-political differences.

Last fall Hlavacek visited the mission school in Fenyang, China he taught at under Japanese occupation. On his 10-day China trip he was most impressed by all “the change,” he said. “That’s the difference.” He said while China is still “ostensibly a Communist country, they’re the greatest capitalists in the world.” “They call themselves Communists,” said Michaels, who’s been there, “but everybody winks and nobody really believes that.” The journalists believe China and India will grow as trading partners with each other and with the U.S. as their economies continue to grow. As the world changes at an ever faster rate, Hlavacek said journalism remains “a higher calling.”

For three old men, a lifetime of curiosity has not waned. The world is still their oyster. The news, their metier.

Seafarer Doug Hiner and His Cuban Medical Supply Runs

May 11, 2010 3 comments

Sailboat in San Francisco Bay

Image via Wikipedia

A couple acquaintances introduced me to Doug Hiner and he immediately got on my radar as someone I’d like to profile when I learned he regularly sailed down to Cuba on missions that were partly about delivering medical supplies and partly about secreting back contraband, as in cigars.  Hiner is a wheeler-dealer type who denied the illegal trafficking at the time I interviewed him, then expressing upset at my story’s suggestion that he engaged in anything like that, but subsequent events confirmed his smuggling activity because he got caught in the act down in Florida and faced serious federal charges.  He pleaded guilty to one count and received 36 months probation.

Aside from the intrigue, which occurred after my story appeared, his story is really a classic tale about his taste for adventure and his passion for all things Cuban.  A version of the following story appeared in The Reader (

Seafarer Doug Hiner and His Cuban Medical Supply Runs

©by Leo Adam Biga

A version of this story appeared in The Reader (

More than any other country, Cuba both seduces and vexes Americans. This island of paradoxes is at once a natural paradise fulfilled and a socialist promise unrealized. In a place where bare necessities do not go for want, chronic shortages make hustlers out of peasant and professional alike. Within a closed society and controlled economy, anything, for a price, is a black market possibility.

Fidel Castro may or may not own Cubans’ hearts and minds, but the land and culture definitely hold residents and exiles transfixed.

Social/economic problems don’t change the fact that Cuba, at least geographically, is a tropical island idyll. Sun, ocean, jungle, mountains — much of it pristine. Politicians/bureaucrats aside, the people embrace life with a live-and-let-live Latino insouciance. Music, dance, food, art, love, sun, surf. Fun prevails, if not for all, for tourists.

Omahan Doug Hiner sees the schizoid nature of Cuba every time he sails there on his 53-foot cutter, the Vitamin Sea. He captains the Tampa-docked boat on voyages that transport medical equipment to hospitals and clinics on the island. He’s been making runs like this to Cuba for seven years, a period when official American policy toward that intransigent Caribbean nation has gone from rigid to ultra hard-line. Embargoes of one kind or another have limited trade with Cuba and, in some cases, denied aid.



Doug Hiner




With Fidel’s recent stomach surgery making his mortality and his grip on power a renewed subject of world interest, Hiner prepared for a late December sail to bring in another boatload of supplies. But the gringo’s boat blew an engine, pushing the trip back until this month. He arrived February 10 in Havana, where the gear still sits, waiting for the red tape to be cut so he can move stuff inland.

His artist wife, Christina Narwicz, usually joins him on these maritime adventures but she wasn’t feeling up to it when he shoved off this time around.

The Man and the Sea
Hiner, 67, is a former hair dresser and a retired real estate developer and landlord. He made and lost a fortune. He’s not oblivious to the political realities that hold Cuba hostage in a state of suspended animation. Far from it. He has strong views on what Cuba and its paternalistic neighbor to the north should do to ease restrictions and tensions. His awareness of Cuban medical needs drives his missionary trips there, even as he brings in and takes back his share of contraband.

His journeys go well beyond idol curiosity. Hiner and his wife feel they have a fair handle on Cuba by virtue of not only having traveled there several times — it’s 15 trips and counting for him and about the same for her — but their stays usually last weeks or months at a time. They get around to different parts of the island and really immerse themselves in the place.

“We’re not tourists, we’re travelers,” Hiner said. “A tourist wants to have MacDonald’s no matter where he’s at. We like to enjoy the cultures of different countries and not live like Americans. We try to blend and be friendly with the people, and that’s all it really takes to be accepted. They love Americans, especially if you’re friendly to them. They don’t like the ugly-American types.”

Whatever motivates him, he ultimately makes these journeys because they put him in touch with three of his favorite things — sailing, the sea and people.

Though he grew up in landlocked South Dakota and Nebraska, Hiner long ago felt the call of the open sea.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the sea,” he said, “and I’ve always had this dream of having a boat to sail around the world.”

Years ago he and Christina “were planning to do a sail around the world …” when his “business fortunes changed,” making such a trip “impractical.” Circumnavigating the globe is not such a passion now, not with the expanse of warm southern waters to explore. “You can spend your whole life in an area like that and never see everything,” he said. “The Caribbean is a whole chain of islands. We’ve never been to Colombia or Central America, so eventually I’d like to do that.”

Besides, it’s the carefree, unrestricted, port-of-call lifestyle he enjoys, more than the challenge of seeing how far Hiner can push his sailing skills.

“A boat is like your home. You’ve got everything on it. You’re totally self-sustaining … It’s a real nice feeling,” he said. “You can anchor anywhere you want for nothing. We spent a couple New Years Eve’s anchored off of Key West, one of the liveliest New Years places in the world.”

Still, the allure of cruising wave and wind is like the call of the sirens — hard to resist. Half the challenge is dealing with weather and the other half comes with the inevitable mishaps.

“Weather on the high seas — that’s your biggest danger,” Hiner said. “We’ve gone through some pretty turbulent stuff, some accidentally, some on purpose because we had to. But it’s never been a safety issue. You’re never really out of ear shot of weather” reports via radio/radar.

Nature-related or not, things do go wrong. Take the couple’s 1999 trip to Cuba for instance.

“Going down on the second trip we blew out the sail. We ran into some bad weather. We had to have it repaired. It’s usually mechanical problems. It’s like, not if it’s going to break, but when it’s going to break. The last time we left Cuba the autopilot failed and we had to hand steer for 40 hours. Oh, and coming back from Cuba once we lost our fresh water pump, so we had no engine. There was no wind and we drifted for a day-and-a-half or two days before we finally got close enough to Key West to get a boat to tow us in.

“Our boat is about 20 years old and it needs extensive rewiring and stuff and I really haven’t been able to afford that, so we just kind of patch things together. It’s safe but it’s always a little bit of an adventure.”

Sea-faring is an apt avocation for an inveterate beach bum who, whether inland or coastal, enjoys kicking it with friends over drinks in the Old Market, where he developed some of the first condos, or partying on his boat.

He enjoys the simple, well-done pleasures of good food, good drink and good company. His wife’s the same. The residence they fashioned from an old brick-faced bar and parking lot on South 13th Street reflect their shared interests. The grounds’ richly decorated Great Wall that fronts 13th Street has a gated entry whose mammoth door opens onto a large courtyard filled with her plantings.

Hiner’s no stranger to graceful living, as he once owned a Fairacres mansion “back,” as he likes to say, “when I was rich and famous.” He made big bucks and moved in tony circles in the ’70s and ’80s. Then it all crashed. He alludes to a business partner running his development company into the ground.

The house, featured in the Spring 2000 edition of Renovation Style magazine, is designed with walkouts along the length of the courtyard that connect to a wood deck, creating a veranda. The interior opens up to a loft master bedroom and guest quarters, revealing a 32-foot-high ceiling and a bank of large windows that stream light in. At one end of the property is a screened-in porch. At the back of the lot is Christina’s well-lit studio. It all works toward a cozy hacienda feel.

As soon as he laid eyes on the spot he knew “it was exactly what I had in mind.” When he bought the former Glass Front Bar it was only a shell. But, he said, “I had this vision.” He designed the place himself. The work fit neatly into his years of “retrofitting old buildings. I’ve always had a knack for design and style and just living comfortably.” The result, he said, adheres to “the European concept of zero lot lines…where you basically use the whole property. We don’t have a back yard or front yard or side yard — we have a court yard. The same with our house. We utilize the whole house. We don’t have formal spaces. It’s just more practical and creative in my estimation. It’s just a feeling of well-being.”

His passion for this getaway within the city dovetails neatly with his ardor for Cuba. It always comes back to communing with people.

“It’s just a wonderful country. The people are so friendly and so caring and loving,” he said. “It’s hard to explain. I’ve traveled all over the world and I don’t think I’ve ever been to a country that is so warm and safe. There’s virtually no crime in Cuba. It’s true there’s a policeman on almost every corner, but the people there are so law-abiding. They’ll steal, but their attitude is, ‘If you don’t lock your bicycle up with a chain or padlock, then you must not want it.’ I’ve never had anything stolen off my boat in the marina and I can’t say that in almost any other country.”

Years living under the thumb of a dictatorship has its palliative effects.

“If a policeman on the corner points to a driver and signals him to stop,” Hiner said, “he’ll almost come to a panic stop to obey the order. They wouldn’t even think of not [stopping]. A police chase over there would be unheard of.”

Back to the contradictions bound up there, he said Cuba can seem chaste one minute and carnal the next. “It’s a real straight-laced island. Pornography is totally illegal. Drugs — zero tolerance. One marijuana cigarette would throw you in jail for a week before you’d be expelled from the country and told never to come back.” On the other hand, he said, “Cuba’s a very sexually open country. Even though prostitution is illegal…a lot of people are shocked by the young women that are readily available for sexual encounters. One, there’s a serious lack of men on the island. And two, their culture is not uptight about sex at all. I mean, geez, if some foreigner wants to give you twenty bucks, that’s even better.”

Besides, he said, “Cuba’s all extended families — there’s four-five generations that live under the same roof, and so it’s everybody’s responsibility to help support the family group.”

While Cuba prides itself on a system that accounts for citizens’ basic needs, rampant poverty compels most everyone to be on the make.

“You see very little begging, yet the young Cuban kids and the old folks are out hustling for the family,” Hiner said. “Everybody is sort of doing whatever needs to be done to provide extras. They have to have some access to dollars to really have any quality of life.”

Amid all this naked human need, Cuba takes great pains to put on a good face. “They sweep each block of Havana every day. If you don’t have anything to do, they’ll put a broom in your hands,” he said.

By Western standards, he said, Cubans lack everything we take for granted. He tries to give friends there some creature comforts otherwise unavailable to them.

“I’ve taken personal things down for people, like a microwave oven or VCR or DVD player, because all that stuff is illegal. Everything’s illegal in Cuba. Mainly, if it plugs into the wall, it’s illegal. They have an energy problem and they’re just trying to keep people’s lives basic.”



Even more basic than that, he said, he brings items like toothbrushes and razor blades that are “not a big deal here, but are a big deal there.”

He’s also brought back, on consignment, works by Cuban artists he and Christina sold in Old Market art shows, the proceeds going toward supplies for the artists.

Beat the Bushes, ‘Bend a Few Rules’
He’s sympathetic to the plight of the Cuban people, whose deprivation goes deeper than a lack of material things, to essential services. Sure, Cuba provides free health care, but many clinics and hospitals lack equipment and technology that can not only improve care but save lives. And while average Cubans and natives of nearby Latin American countries have access to free care, some medical centers are reserved for the elite. It’s why he got involved as a medical supplier in the first place. His awareness began on his inaugural visit to Cuba in 1998. The marina in Havana introduced him to fellow travelers, including many Americans, some of whom became a model.

“I met a lot of people that first time. A lot of just normal people. Some were bringing medical equipment on their boats down there,” he said. He soon discovered an informal network of doctors and suppliers. “As I met people in the marina and friends of theirs I was put in touch with various doctors and got lists of things they needed.”

Over the next year Hiner beat the bushes and made contact with “various organizations” that run aid into Cuba.” He cultivated the names of key suppliers, like Jack Oswald in Chicago, and key recipients, like surgeon Gilberto Fleites in Havana. When Oswald, who works with a group called Caribbean Medical Transport, ran a check on Hiner’s then-fledgling medical mission activities he was duly impressed.

“The medical equipment he gets is a cut above most of the stuff humanitarian aid groups get and I’ve been doing this a long time. His stuff is absolutely flawless,” Oswald said. “I went with him on his last trip because he was packing some really heavy equipment…I came from Chicago to help him figure out a way to put some of this stuff on the boat without it sinking. We put thousands of pounds on the bow…and you no longer could see to navigate…so we had to have somebody at the front of the boat calling instructions out to the captain just to avoid the reefs and boats and weather we came across on our way to Cuba. It got a little adventurous here and there.

“I’ll tell you, the guy’s fearless, he really is. He’s mission-oriented, there’s no question about it. Almost militaristically I might add. He doesn’t really let anything get in his way. Some of the stuff he does is a bit risky. And sometimes he doesn’t have the money, the equipment or even the plan…but he just keeps doing it. I think both sides are willing to let him operate, maybe even bend a few rules here and there…because they know what he’s doing is valuable.”



Joining Oswald, Hiner and his wife Christina on the voyage was a Cuban American physician who brought medical supplies to a cousin physician in Cuba. The Americans also brought art supplies for an artists collective there. Oswald said of Hiner and Narwicz, “They just know a whole lot of people and they just really enjoy Cuba. The folks I met that know them are like family.”

On Hiner’s first supply run in 2000 he was introduced to Dr. Fleites. “I met Gilberto and his wife Teresa and they were really neat people and we became really close friends and we had a really wonderful time there,Hiner said.

Hiner calls Dr. Fleites “a bit of a renegade. He ran the national cancer institute in Havana. He was on the Cuban ethics board. He tried to get some doctors removed from practice because he thought they were killing more people than they were saving,” Hiner said. “But his superiors kicked him off the board because he wasn’t ‘a team player.’ He still performs surgeries … but only on important people because they know he’s very, very good. He’s sort of like freelance. It’s kind of a bizarre situation.”

The Omahan’s “become sort of an emissary” to Dr. Fleites. “I get lists of stuff from him” the Cuban medical community “needs,” he said, “and come back and hustle my friends. I know a lot of doctors from when I used to be rich and famous.” As Hiner’s refined his networking, tons of things get donated — once, an entire operating suite. Omaha’s Children’s Hospital donated an anesthesia machine. He works with established humanitarian nonprofits that authorize him use of their license for delivering free medical goods abroad. Much of what he takes there goes to Pedro Kouri Institute of Tropical Medicine, an AIDS hospital directed by Dr. Jorge Perez. It’s not an impersonal process for Hiner, who’s visited there and other sites he’s supplied. He’s impressed by Cuba’s “incredible medical system.”

What began as annual trips became twice-a-year voyages. Their last trip, in 2005, they were in Cuba four months.

He’s transported medical gear worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, including mechanical operating tables and surgical instruments ranging from forceps to retractors to endoscopic devices. The goods ship to a central location and, when there’s enough for a full haul, he loads a truck and drives it to his boat in Tampa. After everything is securely stored and lashed aboard, he rigs his boat and sails for Cuba. Once there everything must be checked and approved by customs officials, a process that can take weeks. Various government stamps and seals are needed. From start to end, a single supply mission can take months.

He cuts what red tape he can with “gifts” to marina workers and ministry officials.

For the current trip, he amassed a large inventory that includes an entire delivery room donated by a hospital, complete with delivery table, incubators and monitors. So large is the haul he left half the load in Florida for a return trip next month.

Donations have never been better, but he said navigating the bureaucratic waters to get them to Cuba has become more problematic. He blames the Bush administration for “tightening travel restrictions,” especially since 9/11. He said the feds have made it harder for the nonprofits he works with to obtain or renew licenses. The main clearance he needs is from the U.S. Coast Guard that grants free passage through “an imaginary security zone between Key West and Havana that no one can define.” Without the permit, he said, “they can seize your boat, fine you $250,000 and put you in jail for 10 years.” When things were more “more relaxed,” he could slide by. Not now.

There are also new Commerce Department and Council of Foreign Currency Control approvals needed.

Cuba’s hardly immune from bureaucracy, but the tropics make the paperwork and graft more bearable. Besides, as “well accepted” as Hiner is there, he can play Lord Jim. He hopes a meeting he’s been angling for with Fidel, whom he admires, happens one day. He knows just what he’d say to the dictator. “I would tell him he needs to make more opportunities. The people there are very industrious but he keeps stifling any kind of private enterprise,” Hiner said. “He’s getting old and overly restrictive. I would tell Fidel, ‘You’ve got to loosen up. If you were a young man today you’d start a revolution against yourself.’”

To Cuba with Love
Ironically, Hiner’s romance with Cuba may never have happened if not for an accident. It was late 1998. Doug and Christina were on one of their Caribbean sailing jags and had put into port in Jamaica. There, Christina took a fall and broke her ankle, putting her in a cast. He hired a young Jamaican boy to help him crew. The trio sailed to the Camyan islands, where Christina’s pain worsened. Doug sent her home by plane. That left Doug and the boy. The idea was to make for Florida, but Doug knew the boy would be denied entry without papers.

“So, we decided to go to Mexico,” Hiner said. “I got in big trouble there because, unbeknownst to me, a Jamaican needs a visa to get into Mexico. They almost threw us in jail. I talked my way out of that.”

Next, Hiner set his sights on Key West, but learned that, too, was off-limits. Desperate, he asked officials, “Where can we go?’ ‘Cuba,’ they told him. “So, the next morning off we went to Cuba. That was my first time. We were there almost 10 days before I was able to get a plane to fly him out to Montego Bay. And while in Cuba I just loved the country. When I got back home I told Christina, ‘I loved it so much we need to go back there.’” Go back they did.

%d bloggers like this: