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Moving right along: Educators, dancers, advocates, activists Josie Metal-Corbin and David E. Corbin not slowing down in retirement

July 3, 2015 1 comment

For all of us there are people in our lives, even if tangentially, who we admire for the way they, well, live.  Josie Metal-Corbin and David E. Corbin are two of those people for me.  This married couple just knows how to do life right.  At least that’s the distinct impression I get whenever I’m around them, which is rarely and then only for brief visits, but my instincts about people are good and all evidence suggests my perception about them is right on.  There’s a joyous spirit to them and their pursuits, both personal and professional, that largely remains elusive to those of us, like me, who fall on the depressive, anxious side of the spectrum.  Oh, I’m sure they have their dark, down moments and struggles like anyone else but I suspect they are far more positive than negative in the balance of things.  I also know for a fact they intentionally, consistently keep themselves healthy in mind, body, spirit by virtue of their degreed disciplines, specializations, and passions having to do with physical education, recreation, healthy aging, and dance.  They are active people and in retirement they’re still moving right along, just as the headline for my New Horizons profile about them says.

 

 Cover Photo

Moving right along: Educators, dancers, advocates, activists Josie Metal-Corbin and David E. Corbin still on the move in retirement

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in the New Horizons

 

Josie Metal-Corbin and David E. Corbin are aware not everyone is as fortunate as they are in following their passion work. Their magnificent obsession happens to be health, physical education, dance and, more broadly speaking, the humanities.

They were already married and established in their respective fields when they joined the University of Nebraska at Omaha staff in 1980, where the next four decades they pursued their professional lives. Today, they look back fondly on distinguished educational careers that often intersected with one another.

A soon to be retired dance educator and choreographer, Josie led UNO’s award-winning resident dance troupe, The Moving Company, whose concerts explore myriad subjects in diverse spaces. David’s an emeritus professor of health education and public health who led many community health initiatives and is now an environmental activist.

Besides their mutual interest in health education and recreation, they share in common a passion for performance – she’s a dancer and he’s a musician – along with art, activism and advocacy. In addition to being each other’s favorite dance partner, he’s often accompanied, on guitar, performances she’s danced in or directed-choreographed. He’s even danced with The Moving Company himself.

The two actually met over dance – at a Brigham Young University social ballroom dance workshop in Provo, Utah. He came to the workshop from Saskatchewan, Canada, where he was teaching at the University of Regina and she traveled there from back East, where she was teaching at Robert Morris University in her native Pittsburgh.

They both actively promote healthy aging through activities like dance and Tai Chi and they use their expertise to support progressive, humanist causes.

Married 38 years and residing in the same Dundee house they’ve always lived in, they are parents to a daughter, Quinn Corbin. She describes her folks as “an incredibly inspiring couple,” adding, “They always follow their passion and work incredibly hard while still taking the time to meditate every day as well as view life through a positive yet realistic lens. They both care for so many others and are heavily involved in the community.”

Her parents are friends, colleagues and collaborators with a large circle of fellow creatives and concerned citizens.

 

 

©photo vt David Conway

 

 

Putting down roots

These Omaha transplants were both teaching in Pittsburgh when they accepted offers from UNO. He was completing his Ph.D. and she was following him wherever he landed. He weighed options in Boston and Indiana when jobs serendipitously opened for each at UNO.

Before Omaha David Corbin never lived anywhere longer than eight years. His educator parents moved the family from Ohio to New Mexico when he was young and he came into his adolescence in that sun-swept and desert land, living on a ranch in a small Sandia Mountains town. His folks taught at a two-room schoolhouse. He attended a school 18 miles from home. He often rode into town on one of the family’s horses. Before his senior year his parents accepted positions at an American school on a U.S, military base, Fort Buchanan, in Puerto Rico. That’s where he graduated and after getting his teaching degree in the States at the University of New Mexico he returned to Puerto Rico to make his living as a teacher and musician.

Music’s been a big part of his life since age 12. As a young man his father played bass in touring bands. When David got struck by the folk and rock explosion, his father gave him his first guitar lessons. David headed up a band during high school in New Mexico. A popular song then, “El Matador,” by the Kingston Trio was naturally adopted as the fight song for his school, nicknamed the Matadors. David’s group performed the tune before basketball games.

His band’s gigs extended to ski resorts.

“We didn’t get paid. We got room and board and free lift tickets. We didn’t care,” he recalls of those free-spirited adventures.

He led a band all through college at UNM.

“After college I became solo in Puerto Rico. i worked on cruise ships and I was teaching by day and playing by night in bars.”

A tee-totaler, he never imbibed at those night spots, but he was burning the candle at both ends.

“Looking back, I wonder why in the world was I doing that. After working a full school day I’d get home at 4 p.m,, take a nap, go to work at 10 to sing and play guitar, get off at 2 a.m. and then have to be back at school at 7:30.”

Even though his parents were educators, he says it was really his older brother Charles “Chuck” Corbin, a noted fitness-wellness educator and author, who influenced him to pursue a physical education track.

After Puerto Rico, David’s roaming began again. He studied at the University of Oslo (Norway), he taught in Fort Worth, Texas, he earned his master’s from the University of Ohio, he taught in Maryland, he lectured in Canada, he attended an intensive course on human sexuality at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University,

Josie, meanwhile, rarely left Penn. before he came into her life.

Her father was a coal miner turned hobo hell-bent on being a lumberjack before contracting tuberculosis. He then learned the craft of fine motor watchmaking and clockmaking. Her father and mother raised the family in an undeveloped Pittsburgh suburb that was more like the country. The eldest of three, Josie led adventures in “these great woods behind our house.”

But it was work, not play, combined with a self-sufficient attitude that was most impressed upon Josie by her folks.

“Work, work and work. We were the Metal girls and we could do anything – this was the philosophy. We went hunting and fishing, we skinned rabbits, we chopped off cement from bricks so my father could salvage brick.”

Running parallel to that blue collar, tomboy lifestyle were the dance lessons she took from age 3 on.

“This Metal girl had an unbelievable opportunity. The Carnegie Museum of Art had this wonderful program called the Tam O’Shanters. Kids from the public schools were selected to come every Saturday for free. I did that from third grade through high school, by which time we were going to the Carnegie Mellon Institute of Art. So I had free art lessons, I saw different exhibitions. It introduced me to this whole other world. It was really amazing.”

That experience is so ingrained in her, she says, “when I go to museums or older institutions to get a drink from the old brass fountains it just all floods back.”

“One of the highlights of my life came when the Durham Museum (Omaha) asked me to be a scholar in residence,” she says.

Fine art and higher ed were not part of her parents’ experience and she appreciates that these things became a vital part of her life.

“I was first generation college,” she says. “I went to Slippery Rock Sate College  (Penn.). I actually played soccer on a sheep field there. I was always in dance, Dance then was part of physical education. Now you go to study dance. Then I went to the University of Pittsburgh (for her masters). I taught three years in the public schools – health and physical education – and did dance and choreography. Then I went to Robert Morris, where I founded Orchesis (the greek word for dance).”

UNO’s company was originally called Orchesis after a nationwide modern dance  movement and honorary society.

Metal-Corbin stretched herself while at Robert Morris.

“Not only did I found the dance company, I joined folk dancers from Duquesne University as an itinerant grad school teacher for Penn State University. I coached varsity basketball for women, I was the softball director, I was the cheerleader sponsor. I did a million things there.”

 

 

DJsculpture

Sculpture by Jamie Burmeister; ©photo by Quinn M. Corbin

 

 

Dance as life

Once at UNO she contributed to The Moving Company’s long legacy.

“I’ve been involved in the work of carrying on a tradition of modern dance at UNO that goes back to 1935. We’re in our 80th year of continued existence, which makes us one of the oldest modern dance university companies on the planet.”

There have been four directors – Ruth Diamond Levinson, Aileene Lockhart, Vera Lundhahl and Josie Metal-Corbin.

Bringing dance to people and places that don’t often see it is one of Josie’s passions. She’s done that as a Nebraska Arts Council Artist in Schools and Communities and via the Moving Company, whose mission, she says, is community oriented. “We were doing community engagement before it became the byword of institutions.”

Indoors or outdoors, kids to seniors, she’s made dance accessible everywhere, for everyone.

“We invite the community. When i came to UNO I wanted to see the dancers and the audience reflect north, south, east and west Omaha. I worked for a very long time to get diversity of audience and performers and today we are diverse in age, religion, language, race. you name it That is I think my biggest accomplishment.”

She’s been intentional doing outreach work with the Omaha International Folk Dancers and the African Culture Connection. She’s worked with a local ballroom dance group. She formed Reach for It, a dance class for people with Parkinson’s disease.

Her interest in dance as cultural rite, symbol and storytelling device found full expression in a native Bosnian dance-inspired piece she choreographed. The performance was accompanied by authentic music and projected images of the Bosnian-Serb War. Among the dancers and musicians were Bosnian refugees living in Omaha.

“I love collaborations, I thrive on collaborations, I always have from day one in my teaching career. You see, dance is very ecumenical. Dance is physics, dance is force, gravity, weight, flow and time, so connecting it to science in any way is a natural connection. We’ve done the water cycle dance, the spider dance…There’s an easy connection to math with patterns and forms and shapes. There’s most definitely a connection to fine art, to music, to language arts.”

She says “dance is very universal” but American culture doesn’t readily see its broad integration until someone like her choreographs a site specific work where you least expect it.

“A recent book I published a chapter in is about site specific dance. I illustrate how you can have dance on bridges, in the middle of water, on mountaintops. There’s vertical dancing now where people are hooked up on rigs and they do the mountain or climbing wall.”

Some of her favorite site specific work has intersected with some of the area’s most sublime spots.

“The first meaningful site specific piece I did here was with artist Catherine Ferguson, storyteller Nancy Duncan and musician Michael Fitzsimmons. We did it in a Joslyn Art Museum gallery with words, music and dance within a Catherine Ferguson installation of slate and rope. Then we did something through the galleries at the Sheldon Art Museum in Lincoln with works by artist Jamie Burmeister.”

She recalls another Joslyn performance that brought nontraditional dancers together for a piece that took some improvising.

“In 2005 The Moving Company was commissioned to respond to an exhibition, Renaissance to Rococo. I wanted the dance performed in the galleries among the works of art but was denied permission due to security issues. Our performance was relegated to the Witherspoon Concert Hall. I was disappointed but richly rewarded with the premiere of a piece I made for five physical education majors. They were future teacher candidates learning ways of integrating dance, language arts and sign language into the physical education setting.

“A quarterback, a coach, an assistant at Boys Town and two K-12 physical education majors made their dancing debut, much to the amazement of their peers. Although the site was a traditional stage to our Moving Company dancers, it was a very unexplored place to these newcomers. In this new environment they learned to navigate space, time, effort and relationships on a stage versus on a playing field.”

A few years earlier she assembled dancers at UNO to serve as models for sculptor John Lajba and his commission to create what became the “The Road to Omaha” bronze sculpture for the College World Series.

“Lajba and a photographer came to the UNO Dance Lab and worked with dancers as they performed combinations of running, jumping and lifting. Lajba used photos of the dancers as departure points for maquettes and ultimately some dancers sat for wax casts.”

Then there’s her work for the great outdoors.

“Two times we did a dance on the Glacier Creek Preserve,” she notes.

Northwest of Omaha, this topographically diverse nature preserve is dedicated to the study and appreciation of the tall grass prairie and associated ecosystems of Eastern Nebraska.

“The first prairie dance was based on a poem. It came out of an environmental presentation I did at Kaneko. Then when the preserve’s barn was dedicated we performed in the loft. David played music for it.”

She describes how a public byway became a medium for dance.

“Last year we did a dance along the full length of the Bob Kerresy Pedestrian Bridge. The theme was the fragility of U.S. waterways and our performance was synched with performances by dancers across the nation at 3 o’clock on April 6 to bring attention to the issue.”

Legacy

Now that she’s retired, she’s pleased the university “is going to carry on the dance company” with an interim director.

Metal-Corbin says while she’s stepping out of the field, she’ll always remain a part of dance.

“I don’t want to say that I’m through. I am a dancer, I’ll be dancing in my kitchen, I’ll be on the highways and byways dancing, but it’s not going to be these huge events. I am setting boundaries. There are other people that can do this now. I’ve done it and it takes a lot of energy. I now want to take my energy and put it somewhere else.

“I’m not fading away. I am leaping and stepping out and landing – I don’t know where. We will see what kind of a landing it will be. I’m OCD, and so it’s unlike me not to know what the next step is.”

There are still bound to be those whimsical moments, at home or in public, when the mood strikes and she, and sometimes David, too, trip the light fantastic, not giving a hang what people think.

“Once while visiting a shop in Quebec City,” Josie recalls. “I became engaged in conversation with the hat maker at a millenary store concerning the art of modern dance. She was intrigued I was a dancer-choreographer. Before I knew it, she suggested a ‘trade.’ She asked me to create a dance within the store, and in turn, I would receive a discount on the beautiful hat I had been admiring and trying on. She locked the front door and for a few minutes I improvised dancing through the aisles and around the displays.

“She got her dance and I walked out with the hat.”

Quinn Corbin grew up expecting the unexpected with her parents.

“At times them dancing in the aisles of the supermarket or singing loudly on the street corners in New York City was embarrassing but I’ve always pretty much embraced it as have my friends.”

Retired or not, Josie’s spontaneity to break out in dance will never go away as long as she can still move.

Always a teacher, always of service

Even when she stopped concert dancing more than a decade ago, teaching still brought out the performer in her.

“When I’m teaching I also am performing. Every teacher who is a good educator is looking for a performance level. So every time I go into that classroom or studio I humbly feel I have a captive audience and I’m pulling out all the tricks in the book to engage people. Even though I stopped performing in formal concert at age 56 I was still directing, choreographing and teaching.”

She says the passion she expresses for her work is contagious.

“My (teacher) evaluations have always said, ‘She’s energetic, she’s enthusiastic,’ and the truth is it’s a quid pro quo. I get my energy because there’s people there, so they reflect things back to me. Or if they don’t, I have a genre to get them to move or to respond.”

Her ability to connect with students and to be a leader in her profession earned her National Scholar-Artist recognition from the National Dance Association in 2012, one of many awards recognizing her work in the studio and in the classroom.

All in all, she’s content with how her career evolved.

“I have worked very hard to create a body of work on the academic side and on the artistic side that’s been very rewarding. I’ve had the chance to work with so many different people I’ve given to but that in turn have given back. That quid pro quo is what I always try to do.”

 

 

©photo by Josie Metal-Corbin

 

 

Alone and together

David has his own recognized body of work separate from Josie. They respect that they are their own persons, professionally and otherwise.

“We’re two independent people,” Josie says. “We don’t speak for each other and people have honored that because I think we’ve kind of insisted on it. I’m not Mrs, Corbin. I have a hyphenated last name. I have my own professional title. He has his own professional title. David has his teaching, his writing and all these other initiatives that retirement allowed him to expand.”

He confirms he’s a man of varied interests, saying, “I have many passions. Certainly teaching and advocacy are among them. But I also enjoy music, nature, travel and reading.” Writing, too. He’s authored or co-authored many books in his field, including a pair of high school textbooks he worked on shortly after retiring. His brother Charles, whom he considers a mentor, was a co-author on those projects.

An earlier book the brothers did, Homemade Play Equipment, landed David on The Late Show with David Letterman Show. He’d sent a copy to the show. Years passed when a staffer called to request a video of what he’d demonstrate if he were a guest. Thus, he ended up showing Dave reuses of bicycle inner tubes, milk jugs, panty hose and other throwaways as resistance and strength training tools. Corbin utilizes some in an exercise program he conducts at deFreese Manor. He even gives Green Fitness workshops that emphasize getting in shape using fun, repurposed, low environmental impact devices.

He’s traveled extensively for his work, once serving as a consultant in Romania. He and Josie taught a stress management workshop in China. She says she’s grateful for the support he’s shown her to go after certain professional opportunities.

The couple have merged their interests and expertise to do many projects together. For years he’s taught, with Josie assisting, exercise classes and workshops for older adults, many of them for the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging (ENOA). The pair ended up writing a book together, Reach for It, that grew out of their shared interest and experience in getting older adults moving to improve their health. David says, “The subtitle of that book is A Handbook of Health, Exercise and Dance Activities for Older Adults. I was teaching healthy aspects of aging at UNO at the time. Part of it was at that time there were no decent textbooks around, so it was kind of meant to be background information on aging, plus activities that people could do.”

David says introducing exercise to older adults may meet with resistance at first but once people participate they’re hooked.

“We were giving a workshop for ENOA and it was pretty obvious the group was very reticent to get involved. Some people had canes.

We actually had a parachute canopy (a tool to stimulate perceptual, cognitive and motor skills) and we said, ‘OK, we’re going to try this,’ and finally everyone was up. Then we got the activity going and one person took his cane, threw it down, and started dancing. We felt like Oral Roberts or someone,” he’s says, laughing at the memory. “So it turned completely around. It went from people rolling their eyes and I don’t want any part of it to active joyful engagement and movement.”

 

 

©photo by Quinn M. Corbin

 

Performance of “Thriller” at the Durham Museum; ©photo by Debra S. Kaplan

 

 

Parkinson’s program

Josie borrowed the book’s title for a dance program at UNO she started for persons with Parkinson’s.

“There are inherent therapeutic benefits of dance no matter whether you’re ill or you’re well,” she says. “The joy of movement, being with other people in a community of learners, sharing in the rhythm and the music – that’s the therapeutic part of it. You have a chance to be creative, sometimes to do problem solving. You’re moving in the kinesthetic domain, so if you’re under stress your body gets a chance to get rid of some of the stress products.”

She says the Parkinson’s program’s been well-received.

“It’s a very sound program. It’s based on one I studied in New York that is worldwide. At Reach for It we do 10-week sessions. This last semester we had speech, language and hearing students come – that’s really important because with Parkinson’s you have to exercise your voice as well as your body. We let in free the caretakers or drivers of the persons with Parkinson’s. So we have usually a nice circle of maybe 20 people at the UNO Dance Lab.. We always have live music.

“We’re in our fifth year. The Nebraska chapter of the American Parkinson Disease Association and The Moving Company are the sponsors. We just got a grant to carry it forward, which I feel good about because I’m leaving and at least the funding’s in place. The person leading them now is Danielle Laurion, who is a dance therapist and a choreographer.”

David says the benefits of dance for Parkinson’s are well documented.

“Part of the philosophy behind it is that the rhythm of the music helps with the tremors and things like that. Music is part of it and rhythm is part of it. People will usually report they have an after-effect, too – they feel better for a couple of hours.”

“When you’re losing some of your physical movements in your flow, to get it back even for a short while is reassuring,” Josie says. “It’s well known in the Parkinson’s community that dance is beneficial. This is all about the healing powers of dance. Participants are moving in all ranges of motion and the thing is they’re with other people. You have a community of learners and these people want to have music and dance in their life. Instead of going to play bingo maybe or going to a book club, they’re going to a dance class.”

Last year she directed an impromptu private performance in the backyard of a longtime Moving Company supporter battling a terminal illness. Josie says the patron’s daughter shared that her mother seemed like her old self for the first time in awhile during the dance.

David says whatever your age, the best advice he can offer is “keep moving and exercising” and “emphasize what you can do and not what you can’t do.” After a 23-year gap, he did Bike Ride Across Nebraska last year and found it much tougher this time. But he did it.

 

 

©Cover photo by Bill Sitzmann

 

 

Public health

With that same can-do attitude he’s taken on public health issues and affected change. He helped get the smoking ban in Omaha and statewide. He helped get funding from the Master Tobacco Settlement to establish new public health departments in Neb. so that for the first every county’s covered by a local or district public health department.

“Both of these were collaborative initiatives, but I am proud to have played a role in each of them.”

His mission to connect people with public health issues is ongoing.

“I am still educating about the relationships between public health and climate change. If you ask people whether or not they support public health or taking steps to reduce the consequences of climate change you get somewhat tepid support. If you ask people if they support clean air and water and safe and healthy foods, you get very high support. Good public health programs and slowing or mitigating the consequences of climate change are essential to clean air and water and safe and healthy foods.”

He wishes Obamacare had gone much further.

“It baffles me the U.S. is one of only a few so-called developed countries that does not have universal health care. I think we should.”

He’s not shy expressing his views in public forums.

“I’ve certainly been active in writing letters to editors and op-eds for as long as I can remember. I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in kind of major things. Sometimes they’re little. For example, I’m trying to get something going for a plastic bag ban here in Omaha, not because it’s the biggest issue in the world but it’s a way to get people talking about recycling in general – to get the argument going.

“The average person uses 500 single-use plastic bags a year and most of them get used for less than 20 minutes and then they’re tossed. We did a trash day at Prospect Hill Cemetery. I put all the trash on display – there were over 70 plastic bags. Of all the times I’ve been in the newspaper more people remember me for picking up trash. I still pick up the trash every day when I walk.”

He even produced videos about the evils of plastic bag proliferation. In one, he does a dance he choreographed himself.

He’s focused on environmental issues these days. He’s on the Sierra Club board. He’s president of Nebraskans for Solar. He’s on the Public Health Association of Nebraska board. He’s also a self-appointed watchdog at all Omaha Public Power District open board meetings.

“I think we’ve been pretty successful in getting them to have more wind power and less coal,” he says of his and other activists’ pressure on OPPD. “I follow a lot of the legislation.”

Environmental events he attended in 2014 included Earth Day Omaha, the People’s Climate March and the Harvest the Hope Concert in opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline.

 

 

©photo by Josie Metal-Corbin

 

 

©photo by Josie Metal-Corbin

 

 

Happy trails

Just like Josie, he’s never at a loss for what to do. She says upon announcing her retirement “the first thing people said was, ‘Oh, you and David will get to spend more time together.'” She’s quick to point out, “We don’t need more time – we have good time. We’ve managed to figure out our own space. We’re not a couple that has to do everything together. But we do a lot together. We travel. We’ve done a lot of very good trips together.” They celebrate wedding anniversaries trekking to exotic locales.

“For our 30th we did Argentina and Patagonia,” she says. “In Buenos Aires we took tango lessons at an Armenian social club late at night. Then we took a little plane down to Patagonia and stayed on this sheep ranch. To me, it was what the creation of Earth must have looked like because we were on the water, no lights. Beautiful.”

“For our 35th we went to Iceland,” she says. “It was the best. Beautiful.

Little hamlets, horses, black and white sheep on the hillsides, no telephone poles, geothermic.”

David marveled at Iceland’s “one hundred percent renewable energy.”

They both like that Iceland’s tech savvy enough to have wi-fi in the most remote regions yet protects its pristine, lush, green environment.

On another trip they enjoyed the vistas of Vancouver, British Columbia, at one point staying in a tree house with all the amenities. They got around by sea-plane, kayak, tandem bicycle, hiking, bus, car and ferry.

In 1998 she made her New York City dance debut and has also performed in Lisbon, Portugal, Paris, France and Italy. In 2001 she led a large group of Moving Company dancers to Cesena, Italy to compete in the international Dance Grand Prix Italia. The UNO team won second place in Theatre Dance. David made the trip, too.

For their own personal travels, the couple often do self-guided tours she extensively researches, though their itineraries leave plenty of room for unexpected discoveries and adventures. Like taking tango in the wee hours of the night or suddenly dancing when the spirit moves them, wherever they happen to be.

A miniature sculpture by artist Jamie Burmeister, who was a graduate student of David’s, captures the effervescent couple in, what else, a dance pose that reflects their embrace of life.

“Their commitment to making the world a better place through their activities really inspires me,” says Burmeister, who simply titled the piece, “David and Josie.”

When it comes to living and relating, the couple answer a resounding yes to the question: May I have this dance? Their life is a living metaphor for the symbiotic give and take and affirmation that is dance.

 

 

 

 

 

©photo by Quinn M. Corbin

 

Alexander Payne’s new film “Nebraska” features senior cast and aging themes in story sure to resonate with many viewers

November 30, 2013 2 comments

This is my sixth published story on Alexander Payne’s new film Nebraska and it takes a somewhat unique slant on the movie’s senior cast and aging themes.  The angle I take was predicated by the publication I wrote the piece for, the New Horizons, a monthly newspaper published by the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging.  If you’ve seen the film or even clips of it, then you already know it prominently features several older actors and deals with some of the challenges that accompany aging.  In the piece Bruce Dern and some of his senior co-stars comment on how they are still working at the top of their craft even in their 70s and 80s.  Indeed, Dern believes he delivered his finest performance in “Nebraska.”  Will Forte talks about what it was like collaborating with such a veteran cast.  They all talk about what it was like working with Payne.  You can find my other Nebraska stories on this blog.

In case you’re new to this blog or to my work, then you should know that I am the author of the book, Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, a collection of my journalism about the filmmaker over a 15-year period.  A new edition of the book will be coming out in 2014 with all my Nebraska coverage.

 

Alexander Payne‘s new film ‘Nebraska” features senior Ccst and aging Ttemes in story sure to resonate with many viewers

© by Leo Adam Biga

Excerpt from an article that originally appeared in the New Horizons

 

Oscar-winning native son Alexander Payne famously feels affection for his home state, so much so he’s made four of his six feature films here, even titling his new movie starring Bruce Dern and Will Forte, Nebraska.

Payne, the writer-director of Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways and The Descendants, has with Nebraska forever burnished the name of this place in cinema history.

The film stands apart from most flicks today. For starters, it’s black and white. Next, it captures elements of this Great Plains state never before seen on the big screen. Largely filmed in northeast Neb., the movie shows the rolling landscapes, prosaic farmsteads, played-out small towns and crusty denizens of this starkly beautiful rural region

The Nebraska Gothic picture plays like a funny, tragic and sad still life evocation of people and places rubbed raw by weather and misfortune.

But what really makes Nebraska a singular work is the preponderance of older folks in the picture and the various aging themes that permeate its storyline. Several senior-aged actors are featured in the nostalgia-laced story starting with Dern as protagonist Woody Grant, June Squibb as his piss-and-vinegar wife, Stacy Keach as his arch nemesis, Angela McEwan as his old flame, Mary Louise Wilson as his chatty sister-in-law Martha and Rance Howard as one of his brothers.

Payne’s casting director, John Jackson, is impressed by what these actors of a certain age bring to the table.

Jackson says, “They are pros. They are inspirational to me. Their desire to create, passion to succeed, pursuit of challenges to themselves as performers – I want that as I age. I can only hope to be as fully functional as Mr. Dern, Mary Louise Wilson, June Squibb and Stacy Keach.”

The movie’s fanciful tale revolves around Dern’s character of Woody, an unrepentant lech and cantankerous cuss who’s lost some bearings in old age. He’s seemingly unaffected by anything but hides a deep well of hurt, longing and regret. Like many males of his Depression-era generation he’s doesn’t reveal much in the way of feelings.

Much to the exasperation of his wife and two adult sons, he’s stuck in his ways and bad habits and refuses to change. He’s also facing some challenges that come with advancing years. For example, he’s no longer able to drive and he walks with a halting gait. He appears depressed, confused and cut off from others.

When we first meet Woody he’s running away from home, intent on walking the 900 miles from his home in Billings, Mt. to Lincoln, Neb. to claim a sweepstakes prize he believes he’s won. Even when returned home no one can convince Woody he’s got it wrong. More than once, he lights out to tramp alongside busy roads, in all kinds of weather, his son David coming to his rescue.

Realizing his old man is still bound and determined to go and afraid his father will be a hazard if he sets out again on his own David reluctantly agrees to take him to Lincoln, convinced Woody will come to his senses before they get too far. But things happen. The father-son road trip turns into a retracing of Woody’s old haunts in his native Neb, Along the way the son learns some hard truths about his father’s past that help explain the way he is and what’s behind this crazy Don Quixote quest to redeem a prize.

 

 

 

 

Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging experts say they don’t know of a senior who’s gone so far as to show up at a sweepstakes office expecting to collect their winnings. ENOA Care Management Program coordinator Diane Stanton says some seniors do mistake marketing pieces for actual checks and bring them to their bank thinking they can cash them. “That will happen unfortunately,” she says.

Legitimate sweepstakes are one thing, but there are scams that prey on the trusting nature and sometimes naivete of seniors.

“We encourage our seniors to never give out personal information on the phone,” says Stanton, adding that one should never have to divulge private details or send money as a condition for receiving a prize. “The Better Business Bureau has a Senior Line, 877-637-3334, that we strongly encourage our seniors to keep by their phone and to call anytime they suspect they’re being scammed.”

Stanton says the free service hotline frequently updates the newest scams to avoid.

Whether Woody’s gullible or addled or simply wants to believe he’s won, it becomes apparent what he’s really seeking is redemption. He wants to leave his boys something to salvage his misbegotten life. In an act of unconditional love and forgiveness David poignantly grants him a valedictory moment at the end. Woody’s problems are still with him but he and his son have become closer and the lines of communication opened. We’re left with the feeling that should something happen to Woody or his wife, David will be there for them.

Experts say adult children need to discuss with aging parents those limitations affecting quality of life and what role they’ll play in terms of support and caregiving.

ENOA Information and Assistance Program coordinator Gloria Erickson says her office fields a variety of calls each week from adult children inquiring about everything from financial assistance to home care to senior housing to transportation for their aging parents.

If an adult child feels his or her parent is a potential risk driving, a good course of action is to seek professional consultation.

“The first thing you need to do is talk to their doctor and get the doctor’s perspective and opinion on where they are physically and cognitively in regards to driving,” says Stanton. “That’s the first step. And then talking about the need for one of the driver assessments.”

Stanton says Immanuel Hospital and AARP offer assessments or evaluations to help determine if seniors are still able to drive safely. AARP also offers a self-test seniors can take online.

Assessments or not, an adult child may still need to have a conversation with an aging parent about surrendering their keys.

“Those heart to heart discussions are tough,” says Erickson because it means the parent may be giving up some of their independence. “Family dynamics have a lot to do too with how things go.”

ENOA Community Services division program coordinator Karen Kelly says whatever aspect of daily living a senior may need assistance with, it’s always best to give them options.

She says among the changes adult children should look out for in their aging parents are increased memory loss, growing social isolation, worsening sleep issues and increasing difficulty taking stairs and keeping up their home.

As adult children notice changes in their parents, she says they need to address what can they “do to help and step in to fill in those gaps” and to determine when to “start looking outside the family for help.”

Erickson says it’s vital family members know “you don’t have to do it alone.” ENOA offers direct services and refers callers to other resource providers as needed.

Alexander Payne says he was better prepared to tell the story of Nebraska in 2012 than in 2003 when he acquired the script by Bob Nelson because his own life caught up with the film’s themes. His father George was placed in a nursing home and his mother Peggy endured a health scare. Payne’s attended to it all.

“I was able to make it quite personal in certain details related to David taking care of his older folk,” he says. “I’m at that age and everyone I know of my generation at that age have parents that are getting on and need a little special attention. We love them to death and they drive us crazy, and how we take care of them and accommodate them and all those things, and how far do we extend ourselves to be dutiful and at what point do we cut it off, all those questions.

“It wound up being because of the time in my life when I was making it quite personal and I think that helps the film. It always helps a film if you can put some of yourself in there.”

Not every senior needs special assistance. Indeed, most get along just fine on their own and still work, recreate, make love and learn. Take the older actors who populate Nebraska. Angela McEwan, who plays Peg Nagy, the editor of the newspaper in Woody’s fictional hometown of Hawthorne, Neb., says she and her fellow actors of a certain age are busy professionals who haven’t lost a beat. In fact, she says, “We’re at the top of our game.”

Casting director John Jackson saw both Mary Louise Wilson and Stacy Keach on stage in New York during the casting process of Nebraska and was inspired by their vitality.

“Both were terrific. Mary Louise was doing what was essentially a two-person show. That is a tremendous amount of energy to put out each week, each night. Mr. Keach was on Broadway. Big theater. Long run. Lead role. Wow. Good on them. They’ve set the bar high, both for themselves and others. That’s what I want for myself as I age. More. Better.”

 

 

 

 

In the film these actors vividly play characters their own age who still stir with passion and energy. McEwan’s character was once in love with Woody. Near the end she gives a wistful look that suggests she still yearns for what might have been. Wilson plays a chattering busybody. Keach portrays an intimidating man set on getting what he feels he’s owed.

The film overturns aging myths by demonstrating that even well into our Golden Years we can remain not only physically active but cognitively sharp and emotionally full. A positive spin on aging is encouraged by ENOA experts who say it’s healthier to think in terms of assets or what can be done versus deficits or what can’t be done.

Forte, best known for his long stint on Saturday Night Live, was moved by how engaged his veteran co-stars were.

“It was just a delight and an honor to get to work with these people,” he says. “They’re just such amazing actors. I learned a lot from them because I think at times I could be over-thinking stuff and it just reminded me, Oh, don’t try to act too much, just be real. Like Bruce (Dern) would always say, ‘Just be truthful,’ and that always sounded like acting mumbo jumbo to me coming in but for some reason the way he would explain it and describe it it made sense.

“There’s such an honesty that comes from these performances that it really taught me a lot to watch them.”

Forte got close to Dern, who in real life is old enough to be his grandfather, during the two months they worked on the shoot.

“It was very similar to our characters in the movie – we really got to spend a lot of time together and by the end of it we were incredibly close. It just feels like we’re family now. I learned so much from him. He was good to me. He was such a good teacher and friend. Nurturing, encouraging, patient. I can’t say enough about him, and that’s just personally.

“Professionally, to get to watch what that man does in this movie…I don’t know what I will do in the future but it will be one of the highlights of my life to get to see such a special performance from that close up. It’s something I will always remember.”

Forte says he was already a fan of Dern’s work before the project.

“I have watched so many Bruce Dern movies and he is the kind of person who I will rewind scenes to watch because he’s so interesting. The performance he gives in this movie is mesmerizing. We’ve done a lot of screenings of this movie and I’ve seen it quite a few times now and I’m just always seeing new things I never saw before. He continues to amaze me with different subtleties. It is such a privilege to get to be in this movie with him.”

 

 

 

 

This wasn’t the first time Payne’s worked with older actors. Jack Nicholson was in his late 60s when he played the title character in the filmmaker’s About Schmidt.  June Squibb, the actress who appears as Dern’s wife in Nebraska, was in her 70s when she played Nicholson’s wife in Schmidt. Robert Forster was 70 when he essayed his small but telling part in The Descendants. Just like Forte finds it educational working with veterans, Payne does too.

“I’ve adored working with the ‘old pros’ — Nicholson, Dern, Keach and Forster. They are the best actors to work with,” says Payne. ‘They know what they’re doing and they know how to study the director to see what movie he or she’s trying to make. Plus, I have much to learn from them about what it is to have a life in movies. After all, I don’t get to work with and learn from older directors, but I do get to have the actors. ”

 

 

 

FINAL FRONT COVER 6-28-16

YOU CAN READ THE REST IN THE NEW EDITION OF MY BOOK-

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

(The new edition encompasses the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s work from the mid-1990s through Nebraska in 2013 and his new film Downsizing releasing in 2017 )

Now available  at Barnes & Noble and other fine booktores nationwide as well as on Amazon and for Kindle. In Nebraska, you can find it at all Barnes & Noble stores, The Bookworm and Our Bookstore in Omaha, Indigo Bridge Books in Lincoln and in select gift shops statewide. You can also order signed copies through the author’s blog leoadambiga.com or via http://www.facebook.com/LeoAdamBiga or by emailing leo32158@cox,net. 

For more information. visit– https://www.facebook.com/pg/AlexanderPayneExpert/about/?ref=page_internal

 

 

In her 101 years, ex-vaudeville dancer Maude Wangberg has lived a whirl of splendor

August 2, 2010 2 comments

English: Photograph of Sophie Tucker

Image via Wikipedia

With the passage of time the chances of meeting an ex-vaudeville performer diminish.  A few years ago I got the chance to meet a veteran of the vaudeville stage, and while she was never a star or a household name, she shared with me and I shared with readers her experience in one of the great American forms of entertainment.  Like most people around today, I never got to witness a vaudeville show.  My only reference for it is movie and book depictions of it. But after meeting and profiling Maude Wangberg, who was part of a vaudeville dance act, I feel a bit closer to that enchanting chapter of the American popular stage.  My story appeared in the New Horizons when Maude was 101.  I don’t know if she’s still living. but I’m glad I got to her when I did, and when her recall was still quite sharp.

 

In her 101 years, ex-vaudeville dancer Maude Wangberg has lived a whirl of splendor

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

 

Vaudeville once ruled the American live entertainment scene. For mere peanuts, an entire family could enjoy a show in an ornate theater on whose stage artists of all kinds took turns performing their well-honed acts. Acrobats, jugglers, comedians, singers, dancers, magicians, orators, trained animals and precocious kids filled the bill. Everything from gymnastics to pratfalls to pirouettes were seen. Everything from hot jazz licks to Shakespearean soliloquies to operatic arias to punch lines were heard. House musicians in the orchestra pit cued the action on stage.

From the late 19th century through the 1910s, vaudeville was king. With the advent of motion pictures and radio, two mediums that stole many of vaudeville’s best talents, this American art form went the way of variety and burlesque. Vaudeville hung on until the 1930s before finally succumbing to the movies. Vaudeville’s wide-ranging impact extended to the slapstick-screwball-sketch comedy routines and variety show formats that ex-vaudevillians brought to radio, film and television.

Omaha’s own Maude Wangberg, age 101, is proud to count herself a veteran of vaudeville, a distinction few can claim today, as most of its artists are long gone now. If not for acting on a whim and studying dance as a girl Maude might have become a nun. Two of her classmates at Mount St. Mary, the forerunner to today’s Mercy High School, did. Maude grew up in a strict Catholic home at a time when a girl’s options were pretty much limited to marriage and motherhood, religious vocation, nursing, teaching or secretarial work. She chose dancing.

Still cutting the trim figure of a dancer, the New Cassel Retirement Center resident defied convention to become a show girl in a vaudeville act called The Whirl of Splendor. The show took its name from the revolving stage that performers made entrances and exits on. She was part of an all-girl dance act that closed the show. In between dance numbers singers performed. Preceding Maude and the other chorines a couple did an adagio. Sharing the bill with The Whirl were all manner of acts. Presented by New York City-based producer Meyer Golden, the popular show toured widely. Maude performed with the act from 1925 to 1930, a stretch that saw her mature into a woman.

The Whirl followed the vaudeville circuit, playing Orpheum Theatres in and around New York, across Canada, down the west coast, the middle of America and then back east, but mostly playing the big Loews Theatres along the East Coast. The act appeared at all the top vaudeville sites. Maude and company sometimes shared the bill with established stars like Sophie Tucker or legends-to-be like Edgar Bergen.

Touring meant a hectic schedule spent in hotels, theatres and rehearsal halls, on trains and two shows a day or more on stage, seven days a week. “You played every place of any size. The bigger the city the more performances you had to do,” she said. Some audiences were livelier than others. “In Pennsylvania we played a lot of smaller places like Redding because the big steel mills were working then and the young men employed there had to have entertainment,” she said. “They would stomp their feet and whistle. It was fun then.”

 

 

 

Young men, naturally, have a thing for pretty young girls in skimpy outfits, but she said there were never any problems with “stage door Johnnies, as they used to call them, but somehow or other we met a lot of them. In Providence, R.I. we met a lot of fellas from Brown University. They came down to the hotel — a whole bunch of ‘em. They were nice. I mean, they didn’t get rough or rowdy or anything. I guess they wanted to say they’d been with show girls.”

Advances were common from not only fans but other performers on the bill. If Maude were ever singled out for special attention from stage struck paramours it’s no wonder because her classical-training earned her featured parts in two of the troupe’s dance numbers. Of the six chorines, she shined brightest.

“I always had a little special part. See, I had more training than the other girls did and I had much better training too. I had ballet, tap and toe dancing where they just had ballroom. I was a better dancer alright. You could tell the difference.”

She well recalls the dance numbers she performed in.

“The first act we clanked hand-held cymbals as we danced around in little Grecian costumes. The costume was a pink cotton under thing with a filmy deal over it. Real short. I would dance around and take a big leap off the stage,” she said. “The second act was an Italian folk dance. I had the lead along with another girl who did some turns. I was dressed as a boy. I had black velvet shorts on and a big red sash around my waist with long streamers and a red bandana on my head with streamers too. We had tambourines. I was supposed to kind of romance her and then she would spurn me and I would dance off and then do this Italian folk dance.

“Then the last one was a jazz number. Our costumes were one-piece silver tops and shorts with fringe all over. We danced to Black Bottom, a real popular tune that was THE song then. That ended the act.”

Although a lifetime ago now, once Maude gets to reminiscing it seems like only yesterday she cavorted on stage at New York’s Palace Theatre or the Hippodrome, two of vaudeville’s finest venues. Those years gave her the time of her life.

“It was just a lot of fun. I liked it. I just liked being on the stage and wearing a costume and, oh, hearing the applause and everything. It’s just very enticing when you hear your music come on. You’re ready. You get keyed up. You know what’s coming exactly because you’ve been rehearsed and rehearsed. It’s nice to get out there and see a big audience in front of you and to wait for the applause, and then when you get the applause you enjoy that,” she said.

There were other benefits too.

“I loved traveling and seeing all those different places,” she said. “I loved New York. We were there during the Prohibition Era and there were speakeasies on almost every corner. We were in Washington, D.C. when the cherry blossoms were in bloom. New Orleans, I think that’s the most interesting city in the United States. I love the French Quarter. I used to stroll through there all the time. Just a wonderful place. Sorry about the flood. I would name San Francisco second (most interesting) because of the Wharf district…Chinatown..and all they have there.”

Dancing opened up a world of splendor to Maude, who learned under the tutelage of a petite, attractive Omaha woman named Adelaide Fogg. An intimate of hoofers Fred and Adelle Astaire, the Omaha brother-sister act that became the toast of Broadway before Fred achieved fame in Hollywood, Fogg might have been a star herself if she’d desired it. “She could have been in any New York show she wanted to be in,” Maude said. “She was that good.”

In a century of living Maude’s pretty much seen and done it all. Show biz accounted for a brief period in her life, but no matter how short her time in vaudeville it provided fond memories and linked her to a great tradition of which she’s one of the few survivors. Hers is the classic tale of a starry-eyed girl who ran away from the stodgy Midwest to see the bright lights of the big city and to dance amid the footlights and spot lights of the stage. She gleefully recalls how it is a gal from a convent school ended up a chorus girl.

Fogg’s dance studio was in the ballroom of the ritzy Blackstone Hotel. She had a reputation as “the leading dancing teacher here,” according to Maude. “She went to New York every summer to get the latest dancing steps for her classes.” Maude was about 15 when she heard about Fogg from some neighbor girls who studied with her and she pestered her mother to let her join the dance school too.

“I insisted on it. Even though I started kind of late — most kids start in grade school — I enjoyed it. It was just a lot of fun. I danced and danced. I practiced at home too. I got so that I took two private lessons a week.”

She proved a natural. “I don’t really know, it’s just that I loved moving around like that and learning new things. It wasn’t that hard to conquer the steps.” The by-then dance crazy young lady sought out dancing wherever she could find it.

“I never missed any dancers that came. I saw Anna Pavlova (great Russian ballerina) dance The Dying Swan at the Brandeis Theatre. That was really something.”

Never dreaming she’d one day be on stage, she “went every chance I got” to Saturday matinee vaudeville shows at the Orpheum and Gaiety Theatres. Maude attended Duschene College for a time but the pull of dance made her leave.

Saturday nights were reserved for Peony Park, where she and her future husband, John Wangberg, “would dance the night away” to the swing tunes of a live orchestra in the ballroom. But weekdays meant practice. Lots of practice. It wasn’t long before Maude was a star pupil of Fogg’s. She even conducted classes in Omaha when Fogg was away teaching in outstate Nebraska and in Iowa. At her mentor’s urging, Maude left home at age 20 to pursue a dancing career back East. Her father disapproved, suggesting she’d only come running back home disappointed, but her mother encouraged her. It was the chance of a lifetime.

“When Adelaide Fogg’s dancing master in New York wanted to form a dancing act he asked her to bring any of her dancers that would be interested to New York for him to see,” Maude said. “She asked several of us to go with her. Her mother always went with her in those days. They rented an apartment with two bedrooms. We girls had one bedroom, with all four of us jammed up in it, and she and her mother had the other bedroom. You could see the Hudson River from there.”

Of the four girls from Omaha who went East, only Maude stayed, the others either getting married or soon tiring of The Life. Maude stuck with it. There were lots of good times. She and her roommate for most of those years in vaudeville, Edie, became fast friends. There were also some tough times. Maude and Edie and the rest of the girls did a lot of growing up far from home and family.

“You were on your own. Well, see, I was a convent girl and the other girls were just out of high school. Totally unsophisticated — that’s what we were. Totally new to everything. That’s the way it was.”

Maude finally got “sick” of the $55 a week road grind and retired from the stage at 25. She resettled in Omaha, taking up with her old beau, John Wangberg, an RKO Pictures salesman. Much happened in between the time Maude went from girl next door to show girl and much more happened after she hung up her dancing shoes.

The former Maude Fodrea was born in Grand Island, Neb. on May 16, 1905 to Pennington Parker Fodrea and Blanche Watson. She was the youngest of three sisters. Her parents met and married in Grand Island. When her father, a manager with the Burlington Northern Railroad got a promotion, the family moved to Chicago. Blanche returned home to Grand Island to have her babies. When Maude was about 5, the family moved back to Grand Island after her father lost his job and her mother suffered a nervous breakdown. After her mother recovered, the family moved to Omaha, where her father got work, first as a reporter with the Omaha Bee, and then as advertising-sales manager for the Iten Biscuit Company.

Maude grew up near downtown, in a home at 2869 California Street long since gone in the wake of Creighton University campus expansion. She’s seen Omaha’s skyline rise and fall and rise again, just as she’s seen the city’s boundaries expand ever westward. She witnessed one mark to its landscape she’d rather forget — the devastation left behind by the 1913 Easter Sunday tornado.

“Oh, yes. My family and I were out in Benson visiting my grandmother. Towards the middle of Sunday afternoon there was such a strange light in the sky and then it got real dark after awhile,” she said. “So my father and mother decided it just wasn’t safe to go out. No, it just didn’t look right. There was something wrong. So we stayed there all night and then the next morning we left. The streetcars were running. Nothing moving but them. No automobiles. No people. It was just very quiet. Just dead silence. On our way home we saw clothes hanging up in trees and trees down and, oh, things like that. We didn’t know if anything happened to our house or not. But everything was OK in that section of Omaha. There wasn’t anything bothered at all. That’s about all I remember of it. It was soon forgotten.”

 

Aftermath of 1913 Easter tornado

 

 

 

Streetcar lines once crisscrossed Omaha and that’s how Maude, her family and her friends got around town. “We took the streetcar every place — downtown, to high school and back. It was a nice ride, you know. I think it was a nickel.”

One of her streetcar rides brought her smack dab in the middle of a violent mob. It was September 28, 1919, a day of infamy in Omaha history. Only a few days before a black man named William Brown was arrested and charged with the rape of a white woman. Serious questions were raised even then about his guilt, but racist fervor made for a tense situation. An attempt to lynch Brown the day of his arrest failed. Calm seemed to prevail but on the 28th passions reignited and an angry crowd bent on vigil ante justice gathered outside the Douglas County Courthouse in the afternoon. Word spread that Brown would be taken by force and hanged.

Maude, then a 14-year-old schoolgirl, was in a group of girls who heard news of the trouble and she and the others went downtown “out of curiosity.” What they found scared and sickened them. Brown, protected by a cordon of police far too small for the growing crowd, fled under guard to the balcony level of the courthouse, which people began laying siege to.

“My sister and I and another girl and her sister went down on the streetcar to the courthouse and we stood across the street. There was just a mob of people all over,” she said. “The man who was going to be lynched was up there on the steps higher up where you could see part of him. It just was awful, that’s all I can say. It was terrible and you wished that it wouldn’t be. It was just an eerie feeling. It was very unpleasant. We stayed awhile just looking and wandering around and then we went home. We never saw the actual lynching. We didn’t want to really. I remember that very, very well. I won’t forget it.”

As night fell some in the crowd armed themselves with guns and shots rang out. Blacks were beaten. Lives lost. A pitched battle between the mob and police ensued. In the process, the courthouse was riddled with bullets and set ablaze. Brown and other prisoners were forced to the roof to escape the smoke, flames, gunfire and ropes. Late that night Brown was captured by the mob, killed and his lifeless body strung to a telephone pole, a fate the mayor nearly met earlier. A race riot followed. The violence made news across America. The woman who accused Brown of the crime recanted her story.

A mix of memories — good and bad — abound for Maude. Like sharing the bill with a young Milton Berle, whose mother traveled with him and “would go down into the audience when it was time for his act and start the laughing. We could tell her laugh standing back there in the wings.” Watching performers from the wings Maude and the other girls sometimes got “silly” and caused a ruckus, whereupon a flustered stage manager would shoo them away. It was a kind of game.

Her last year on tour she got to perform at home, on the Orpheum stage. Friends and family saw her strut her stuff there and feted her at a banquet her dad put on.

Twice, Maude was offered chances at stardom and twice she declined, once to lead a Paris revue and again to head a new vaudeville act. The prospect of Paris came soon after arriving in New York, she said, and “it scared me to death.” She wasn’t ready for such an opportunity so early in her career. Besides she said, “I didn’t have any ambitions, so I didn’t really envision myself as a big dancer all by myself. I never really thought about that.” The chance to be a vaudeville headliner came after she already decided she’d had enough. “I don’t know what came over me, but I kept telling myself, You don’t want to do this anymore — you need to go home.” So home she went. On the very next train.

Like many a star-struck girl she fancied a fling at Hollywood but never could work up the courage to go try her luck there.

Following her abrupt departure from the stage she opened her own dance school at the Elks Club. Just as Adelaide Fogg did for her, Maude did for young girls. Hard times came with the Great Depression. “My father lost a lot of his money. Things were just pretty sad for awhile there around home,” she said. Given this reversal of fortune, Maude and John opted for a small wedding. His job took them to Kansas City. He rose through the RKO ranks to become regional manager. When his job required relocating to the South, the couple lived out of hotels in various cities and states. They returned to Kansas City, visiting their folks in Omaha on weekends.

With John on the road a lot, a “lonely” Maude began adoption proceedings for their only child, Lorraine. It was 1946. When little Lorraine was old enough, Maude gave her ballet lessons. Lorraine Boyd became a Creighton University grad and is now a reporter with The Daily Record in Omaha.

In Kansas City Maude volunteered for several Catholic causes and groups and played lots of bridge. “I was active. I really enjoyed Kansas City. I call that my home,” said Maude, who has a big framed poster of the night-time K.C. skyline above her bed. Except for that stint down South, she lived there until 1988, when she and John moved back here to be near their daughter. After nearly 60 years of marriage, Maude lost John in the early 1990s.

Today, she keeps active working crossword puzzles (in ink), reading, watching TV and going to mass. If there’s a ballet on she might give it a look but not so much anymore as her favorite artists, like Mikhail Baryshnikov, no longer perform. Yet her love for dance is always near and it doesn’t take much prodding for her to recall her days on stage. Even though Maude claims her passion for it’s all in the past, her daughter says her octogenarian mother is “always up for dancing at parties,” where she’ll demonstrate a few steps to anyone interested. At 101 she’s still gotta dance!

I’ll Be Seeing You, An Alzheimer’s Story


Alzheimer’s scares me.  I suspect it does many people.  I cannot hardly think of anything more devastating or tragic than having your mind slip away or watching helplessly as a loved one’s mind fades into confusion, and ultimately oblivion. All of which is to say I was a bit queasy when I got the assignment to profile a woman with Alzheimer’s, or more accurately to profile a family and their odyssey with the afflicted loved one in their care.  But I was struck by the love this family has for each other and for their beloved Lorraine, who was variously a wife, mother, grandmother to them. The way they rallied behind her is a testament to the family.  Of course, not all families are as close or loving, and not all Alzheimer’s victims are fortunate to have such attentive support.  If you’re in the mood for a sentimental story that is based in fact, than this might be your cup of tea.  The piece originally appeared in the New Horizons.

 

 

I’ll Be Seeing You, An Alzheimer’s Story

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places, and in all the old familar faces…

Blessed with the voice of an angel, the former Lorraine Clines of Omaha enchanted 1930s-1940s audiences with her lilting renditions of romantic ballads as the pert, pretty front singer for local bands. Billed as Laurie Clines, she was also featured on WOW radio’s “Supreme Serenade,” whose host, Lyle DeMoss, made her one of his “discoveries.”

From an early age, she used her fine singing voice to help her poor Irish Catholic family get by during the Great Depression — winning cash prizes in talent contests as a child and, after turning professional in her teens, earning steady paychecks singing with, among others, the Bobby Vann and Chuck Hall orchestras at area clubs and ballrooms. After the war, she gave up her performing career to marry Joe Miklas, an Army veteran, semi-pro baseball player and Falstaff Brewery laborer. The couple raised seven children and boast 17 grandchildren.

The memories and meanings bound up in such a rich past took on added poignancy at a recent Miklas family gathering during which Lorraine, a victim of Alzheimer’s Disease since 1990, sang, in a frail but charming voice, some standards she helped popularize in the big band era. Her family used the occasion to preserve her voice on tape, thus ensuring they will have a record of her singing in her senior years to complement the sound of her voice on platters she cut years before. While even advanced Alzheimer’s patients retain the ability to hum or sing, Lorraine has clung to music with an unusual ardor that reflects her deep feeling for it and the significant role this joyous activity has played in her and her family’s life.

“There was always music in the house — singing, records, dancing,” daughter Kathy Miklas said. “When we were little we each learned two songs Mom recorded, “Playmate” and “Little Sir Echo,” and we all learned how to dance to “Ball and the Jack.” At their mother’s insistence, the Miklas kids took piano lessons and at their father’s urging, they played ball. “We really were lucky Dad loved sports and Mom loved music. It was a great combination. They made sure we did both. It was a nice foundation to have,” daughter Theresa Ryan said, adding the family participated in neighborhood talent shows and competed in softball leagues as the Miklas team.

 

 

 

 

Even though she went from headliner to homemaker, Lorraine never stopped making music. She harmonized doing chores at home. She sang lullabies to her kids. She broke into tunes on holidays and birthdays. Away from home, she taught music at St. Adalberts Elementary School, vocalized in the church choir, led singalongs on family road trips and performed for her children’s weddings. Ryan said she and her siblings knew that whenever Mama made music, she was in a merry mood.

“You would get a yes if you asked her a favor while she was singing. You knew that was a good time.” Even now, despite the ravages of Alzheimer’s, music continues to hold a special place in Lorraine’s mind and heart. In a reflective moment one September Sunday afternoon Lorraine commented, ‘We gotta get all the music we can.” And then, as if remembering how music enriched life for her and her family despite scant material comforts, she said, “We haven’t had a lot of other things, but we sure have had a lot of music.” Accompanied on piano by Carolyn Wright, Lorraine found most of the words, with some prodding from husband Joe, to ballads like “I’ll Walk Alone” and “Girl of My Dreams.” When she got around to singing the bittersweet “I’ll Be Seeing You,” which is about being true to an absent loved one, Joe broke down in tears — the lyrics hitting too close to home.

“Not having her around” is the worst agony for Joe, who loses a little more of his wife each year. “It’s hard to live alone,” said Joe, breaking down with emotion. As he has seen Lorraine slip further and further away into the fog that is Alzheimer’s, he has had to content himself with memories of “the good old days.” He said, simply, “We had some good times.” A son, Joe Miklas, Jr., said the cruel reality of the degenerative disease is that it feels like losing a loved one, only the afflicted is not dead but stranded in a dementia that makes them increasingly unreachable. unknowable, unrecognizable. They are present, yet removed, their essence obscured in a vague shadowland of the mind. “Physically, she’s there, but she’s not Mom anymore. We’ve lost our mother and yet she’s still here.” Kathy Miklas describes the experience as akin to “a slow grieving process.”

Bill Miklas, the youngest among his siblings, is convinced his mother is, on some level, aware of the prison her impaired brain has confined her to, although she is unable to articulate her predicament. Evidence of that came only last year when, Kathy Miklas said, her mother confided to her, “‘I think something’s wrong with me, but I don’t know what it is. It makes me feel bad that people are having to do things for me that I used to have to do for them.’”

The sad thing, Bill said, is “this disease has forced her to be isolated, not only from those around her, but from herself. She has to live within her world. She has to travel this journey, for however long, by herself. It must be very frustrating to her to realize when she talks she’s not making sense. She can see the reactions on our faces, but her pride won’t allow her to show she’s debilitated. It’s hard for her to look me in the face and say, ‘I don’t remember your name.’ Yet even as debilitating as this disease can be…she still likes to sit and talk, and she’s still a happy person.”

As Alzheimer’s evolves, its victim presents changing deficiencies, behaviors and needs. Mirroring the patient’s own journey are the changing emotions and demands felt by family members. Just as no two sufferers are alike, the experience for each family is individual. Every step of the way, the Miklas clan has made Lorraine’s plight a family affair. “Everybody just kind of took their part in it and did what had to be done,” said Ryan. “I don’t know what I would have done without them,” Joe said of his family’s pitching-in. Not everyone always sees eye-to-eye on how to handle things, but the Miklas’s remain united in their commitment to do right by Mom. And, no matter what, they’ve stuck together, through thick and thin, in illness and in health. “We’ve kind of become our own support group,” Joe, Jr. said. “We don’t always agree, but we always communicate, which is the key.”

Married 54 years, Joe and Lorraine hail from a generation for whom the vow “for better and for worse” has real import. That’s why when she was stricken with Alzheimer’s he put his life on hold to become her primary care giver at the couple’s home, where she continued living up until about a year ago. Lorraine’s first symptoms were shrugged off as routine forgetfulness, but as her memory deficits and confused states grew more frequent and pronounced, her family could no longer ignore what was going on. It all began with Lorraine making repeat phone calls to family members without knowing who she was dialing and not remembering she made the exact same call just minutes before.

Ryan said, “At first, we laughed it off among ourselves. It was like, ‘Oh, did Mom call again to ask who’s making the turkey for Thanksgiving? I told her 10 times.’ And then, we got a little upset with her. We’d say, ‘Mom, would you pay attention. You’re just not listening.’ There were other signs. Normally a precise, productive person who kept on top of her large family’s many goings-on, she could no longer keep track of things. She let the house and herself go. She grew disorganized. And she seemed to just shut down. “I think one of the things we first started noticing is that she just wasn’t doing as many things as she was doing before,” Kathy said. “One of the striking differences was she’d always been very organized and efficient” but not anymore.

Concerned, Kathy convinced her mother to be evaluated by the University of Nebraska Medical Center geriatric team. “When the doctors said she didn’t have any physical reason for this — that it’s probably Alzheimer’s — I was totally shocked,” she said. The entire family was. Lorraine went on living at home with Joe. “I think our family…was in denial,” Bill said. “We didn’t want to mention Alzheimer’s in front of Mom. I think a lot of us thought there was a mixed diagnosis. That, you know, it’s not really Alzheimer’s — Mom just forgets things. It’s not that big a deal.” From denial, the family gradually accepted Lorraine’s fate, the diminished capacity that accompanies it and the demands her care requires.

To get to that point, however, the Miklas children first had to come to terms with how their mother’s condition was affecting their father. “We were all kind of going on with our lives,” Ryan said, “but I don’t think we were focused too much on the disease because Dad was there to do the day to day caring.” As the disease progressed and Lorraine grew more unmanageable, the job of caring for her 24/7 consumed Joe’s life. He halted his active recreational life to attend to her needs. “Dad started to give up a lot of the things he likes to do,” Ryan said. It got so that it was dangerous leaving her alone, even for brief periods, and no longer possible for anyone untrained like Joe, now 79, to always be on call. Overwhelmed by it all, he could no longer hack it alone, and that’s when the family began the long, winding odyssey to find the right care giving situation.

 

 

 

 

Kathy, a private practice speech-language pathologist, steeped herself in Alzheimer’s — from possible causes to drug therapies to support services to care providers. “I felt like I could deal with it better if I understood it. So, I started talking to the Alzheimer’s Association and reading lots of stuff. As a family, we shared information about what Alzheimer’s is and what goes on with it. I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to do something or to have something because we didn’t know about it.”

Family members also attended conferences to glean more understanding — from health professionals and family care givers alike — about what to expect from Alzheimer’s and what adjustments the family could make to ease things for themselves and for Lorraine. For further insight about her condition and how to manage it, they consulted one of the world’s preeminent Alzheimer’s experts, Dr. Patricio Reyes, director of the Center for Aging, Alzheimer’s Disease and Neurodegenerative Disorders at Creighton University Medical Center. “We just lived and made adaptations and accommodations as needed,” Kathy said. “We knew not to ask Mom to do certain things because she wouldn’t remember them and we reminded her to do things she maybe still remembered how to do.”

The family explored several care giving options: first, enrolling her in a respite day care program; next, arranging for a home health nurse to come each morning to assist with her personal needs; and, then, when respite/home care was no longer sufficient to accommodate her unfolding illness, they sought more intensive aid.

“In November, we decided it was not a good idea for Dad to have to constantly be on duty all the time,” Kathy said. “We could see his health deteriorating from the stress…so we started looking at nursing homes.” Lorraine was placed in one, but the family found its medically-based approach and strictly-regulated environment stifling for their mobile, verbal, social mother, who felt uneasy in such a restrictive setting.

According to Kathy, the site “just wasn’t set-up to handle somebody like Mom. They had everybody get up at seven, eat breakfast at eight and go to bed by seven-thirty. Well, having been a singer — Mom never gets up at seven and she’s used to going to bed at about one o’clock in the morning. Plus, they had her heavily medicated. One night, they called and said, ‘Your mom is having a behavior episode we can’t manage.’ Well, I got there and she was having ice cream with a nurse. She was fine. Mom was very frustrated because in her mind this was her house and at night she got terrified. She would ask, ‘Why are all these people in my house?’ After a month of that place, we decided it wasn’t working out.”

Searching for the best care facility for a love one means weighing many complex issues and making many difficult decisions, not the least of which are financial. Although the nursing home was unsatisfactory, it did have the advantage of being Medicaid certified. As the Miklas’s looked around for an alternative, they discovered most quality care centers do not accept Medicaid patients, are cost prohibitive on a private pay basis and, even if the family could afford to pay privately, they would face a two or three-year waiting list.

“We were struggling with what we were going to do,” Kathy said. That’s when they found new hope and the right fit in Betty’s House, a residential assisted care facility, where Lorraine resides today. Where, at the large, institutional nursing home, Lorraine was anxious and irritable, the family has seen “a dramatic difference” in her mood at Betty’s House, Kathy said, adding: “It’s been a godsend. It’s small and home-like, not like a nursing home. The lady who runs it, Mary Jo Wilson, cared for her own Alzheimer’s-sticken mother for 10 years. She knows how to do Alzheimer’s. She knows what you say, when you argue, when you don’t argue, what’s important, what’s not important and she teaches her staff…that you give residents praise and tell them how happy you are they’re there, and I really think that positive feedback is part of the reason Mom’s been so calm and so happy the past few months. She’s doing well.”

And, relieved from the pressure of daily care giving, Joe Miklas began doing better, too. “Now, he can relax,” Kathy said.

Joe is just relieved Lorraine is situated where she seems at peace. “She’s safe. She seems to be happy,” he said. “They’re very good out there. The owner does a hands-on job. She’s always around, supervising things. She’s got some good help. It makes a lot of difference. I try to make it out there every other day if I can. Lorraine talks about coming home, and I’m not sure whether she has this (he gestured to mean their home) in mind or what. I thought she considered that (Betty’s House) her home. It’s hard to know.”

He does know she’s content whenever she breaks into song, as she did upon overhearing a conversation he had with another visitor to Betty’s House. “We got to talking about music when Lorraine suddenly sang ‘When Irish Eyes Are Smiling’ and she just took it up right from there.” Anything Irish elicits a response from her, said Kathy. “She’s always been passionate about her heritage. St. Patrick’s Day was a big day at our house. She’d sing Irish songs. Even now, when you mention something about being Irish, she’ll go into her version of an Irish brogue” and maybe start up a song.

Music remains a vital conduit to the past. “Still, in spite of all the things she can’t do, if you put a microphone in front of her, she turns into Laurie Clines, the singer,” Kathy said. “Her body moves as a singer. Her voice changes and her intonation, her breath and her rhythm become that of the singer again.” This transformation was evident the night son Tim Miklas appeared with his band, the Pharomoans, at Harvey’s Casino. “I went down into the crowd where Mom was and we sang “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” together. That was pretty special,” Tim said.

Family and faith have defined Lorraine’s and Joe’s lives. Growing up within blocks of each other in south Omaha, each lost their father at a young age and each began working early on to support their family during tough times. They attended the same school and church, St. Adalberts, but didn’t start dating until after the war.

“I thought she was the prettiest girl in school,” Joe said, “but I didn’t think I had a chance to get a date with her, so I just kind of put it out of my mind.” After marrying and starting their own family, the pair made sure all their kids attended parochial school, scraping together the tuition from his modest Falstaff salary, and even saved enough for family vacations. “Family was very big to her and she passed that on,” Theresa Ryan said. “I think they both wanted that family environment and worked very hard to achieve it.” Bill Miklas added, “One of their man ambitions was to raise a great family, and I think they did a wonderful job.”

Through the process of Lorraine’s sickness, the Miklas’s, always close to begin with, have drawn ever closer. If there’s anything they’ve learned about dealing with a loved who has Alzheimer’s it is, Tim Miklas said, “to try to maintain the courage to go on and make sure that person is still a member of your family. Maintain your relationship with that person as much as possible. At some level, some of the things get through to them.” Whatever the family occasion, Joe knows his wife still “wants to be part of it, that’s for sure.”

Kathy Miklas advises others to “really value the time and the experiences you have with your loved one because you don’t know what it’s going to be like three months or six months from now. Like many people with Alzheimer’s, physically Mom’s going to last a lot longer than she is mentally.” Another piece of advice she has is: “Give people choices. Give people dignity and the ability to have some control over their lives. For example, giving my mother the choice of when gets dressed eliminated a lot of arguments.”

In the end, this Alzheimer’s story is about the enduring love of a man and a woman and of a resilient family. “Theirs was a very subtle love,” Bill Miklas said of his parents. “It was something you always felt. The same with the faith they lived. It was a constant. There was never a question — never a doubt. It was a very stable reality. I think Mom taught us a lot about faith and about commitment — to ourselves and to our family. She taught us not to focus on what you don’t have but to enjoy what you do have and to find the value in that. Somehow, if I can take that to my family than that will be Mom’s greatest legacy.”

I’ll see you in the morning sun and when the sky is grey.  I’ll be looking at the moon, but I’ll be seeing you…

There’s No Place Like Home Sums Up Home Instead Senior Care Philosophy


 

 

From oh-so-humble beginnings Home Instead Senior Care has become a huge business that founders Paul and Lori Hogan have built from a single good idea based on some core principals that come directly from their lives, not from a manual or focus group.  This short story provides a glimmer of what makes them and their business tick.  The piece originally appeared in B2B Magazine.

There’s No Place Like Home Sums of Home Instead Senior Care Philosophy

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in B2B Magazine

 

Home Instead Senior Care co-founders Paul and Lori Hogan take a similar strategic approach running their business as they do their marriage and family. The principles that guide their professional life are congruent with their personal life because they authentically express the couple’s beliefs.

That consistent message helps explain how in 15 years they’ve grown from a single desk in Paul’s mother’s home to a new Omaha corporate headquarters with 100-plus employees. What began as a handful of caregivers and clients now encompasses 872 independently owned and operated franchises employing some 60,000 caregivers serving more than one million clients worldwide.

 

The Hogans

 

Along the way the Hogans helped create a new industry for delivering nonmedical home care and companionship and are recognized leaders in the field.

“One of the things we did before we started the business was we established our set of corporate objectives, which are to honor God in all we do, treat each other with dignity and respect, encourage growth in ourselves and others, and build value in service to others,” said Paul. “As I look back, that is the single most important thing we ever did in the business. The second most important thing is we shared those with absolutely everybody that’s ever joined the company — as a franchise owner, caregiver, staff person. Therefore, before deciding whether to join us or not. you know where we’re coming from. Those two things done in the very beginning have played out now to be invaluable.

“I suspect it’s turned some people off, but those that identify with those values join us and thrive. They can be themselves and can achieve excellence, and that’s really the foundation for the chemistry that exists in the corporation.”

At the heart of it all is the story of Paul’s late maternal grandmother, Eleanor Manhart, whom family members cared for at the home of her daughter, Catherine Hogan (Paul’s mother). Grandma Manhart didn’t want to go to a nursing home. Paul and Lori were among her caregivers. The example of how Grandma thrived with personal, attentive, in-home care gave Paul the idea for the business. “Slowly her strength came back and she regained the will to live,” he said. “Without that experience there wouldn’t even be a business. It was the impetus to give me and Lori the confidence this is needed and it works.”

He learned “the fear of being isolated, lonely and institutionalized” is universal, as is “the basic human need” or desire to stay at home. “That was the inspiration — the promise of home,” said Paul. He also learned “It’s not so much how well the towels get folded,” it’s how well people connect. The quality of that connection has become the paradigm for Home Instead’s model.

“It’s one relationship at a time,” he said, “and the larger we get the more important it is we continue to find ways to focus on our core strengths, and our core strength is our relationships with people. We’ve actually measured it. The most important aspect of our service between our caregiver and our client is the relationship.”

That relationship model is expressed in a new Home Instead tag line: To us, it’s personal. “We all realize that is the key to success yesterday, today and the future,” said Paul. “So that’s a way we continue to build upon our core strength. It’s aspirational. Every time that phone rings, that’s how we deal with people.”

“As we get bigger we keep going back to those core values and with every decision  ask, Does it line up with our core values? If it doesn’t, it’s best we don’t do it,” said Lori, “and I think that’s been a really good guide for us to measure against.”

Home Instead is highly selective in awarding franchises. It has to be the right fit. A proprietary evaluation system is used to determine if candidates possess the right mix of five key talents deemed necessary for success. Paul meets every prospect.

 

“Caring and competitiveness are two of the five I’ll talk about,” said Paul. “If competitiveness is really high and caring’s really low that’s a bad formula, or if caring’s really high and competitiveness is low you’re not going to be aggressive enough to do what it takes to make it. We’ve turned down 25 to 35 (applicants) a year for the last seven or eight years, where the chemistry was just not right. If we were out just to sell franchises and put more money in the bank we wouldn’t care about that, but that’s obviously not a good approach because the more that don’t make become a bad reflection on the brand.

“I think another part of the formula is we’re not a public company, we’re privately held. Therefore we can make those decisions, we’re not pressured by quarterly earnings statements that compel you to sell just to make the numbers. Not having that pressure continues to be to our advantage.”

Communication is essential. Paul and his senior team leaders maintain contact with franchise owners. “We’re always getting feedback from our franchise owners before we go into making our next year’s plan. Therefore we’ve always been out in front of things — issues and challenges and opportunities as opposed to being in crisis mode. It’s helped us as a couple to continue to enjoy the business, build the business, feel like we’re in control of the business…”

Home Instead was not the first nonmedical home care provider, but it introduced focus and professionalism. Paul first learned the corporate world working at Merry Maids, an Omaha-based company that found franchise success. Founder Dallen Peterson became a mentor. “I saw how he took a very simple service concept — home cleaning — and made it a professional service by developing a system that ensured quality work,” said Paul. “So I took that experience into this and I was the first one to really do that in the industry. Secondly we focused on doing one thing and just doing it really well. Before we came along there were other home health companies doing both medical and nonmedical, and there still are today.”

Building a niche, Lori said, has proved smart, as Home Instead’s positioned itself as THE expert in the private duty home care field.

“We have the goal by 2025 to be among the world’s most admired companies by actively changing the face of aging,” said Paul. “Today, the face is fear. We want to replace that with hope. We want to replace loneliness with companionship. The old face is institution — we want to change that to home. That’s why we’re writing a book called Stages of Senior Care, Your Step by Step Guide to Making the Best Decisions (McGraw Hill).”

The book is slated for a fall release.

Home Instead does public awareness campaigns via print, video, online guides that help adult children and older parents navigate aging issues early on. There are tips on how to start the conversation about Mom and Dad’s living arrangements, bringing home care into the picture, et cetera.

Opening this fall will be the Home instead Center for Successful Aging, a partnership with the University of Nebraska Medical Center. The mid-town drive-up facility will offer health and wellness services and clinicians and will conduct research. Said Paul, “We sponsored that center because we want to be a part of the solution. Maybe Home Instead can be a part of discovering some breakthroughs about Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s and so on. We’re going to avail to UNMC the thousands of clients we have to help with clinical trials.”

The Hogans view their work as a calling. “We see it as our purpose and we see it as our mission,” Paul said. “It makes us feel like we’re doing something relevant and we realize how that’s not easy to come by. We recognize how special that is.”

“We feel blessed,” said Lori.

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