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Her mother’s daughter:  Charlene Butts Ligon carries on civil rights legacy of her late mother Evelyn Thomas Butts

January 28, 2018 Leave a comment

Her mother’s daughter: 

Charlene Butts Ligon carries on civil rights legacy of her late mother Evelyn Thomas Butts

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in February 2018 issue of the New Horizons

 

Chances are, you’ve never heard of the late Evelyn T. Butts. But you should know this grassroots warrior who made a difference at the height of the civil rights movement in the Jim Crow American South.

A new book, Fearless: How a poor Virginia seamstress took on Jim Crow, beat the poll tax and changed her city forever, written by her youngest daughter, Charlene Butts Ligon of Bellevue, Neb. preserves the legacy of this champion for the underserved and underrepresented.

Defying odds to become civil rights champion

Evelyn (Thomas) Butts grew up with few advantages in Depression Era Virginia. She lost her mother at 10. She didn’t finish high school. Her husband Charlie Butts came home from World War II one hundred percent disabled. To support their three daughters, Butts, a skilled seamstress, took in day work. She made most of her girls’ clothes.

When not cooking, cleaning, caring for the family, she volunteered her time fighting for equal rights, She became an unlikely force in Virginia politics wielding influence in her hometown of Norfolk and beyond. Both elected officials and candidates curried her favor.

She fought for integrated schools, equal city services and fair housing. Her biggest fight legally challenged the poll tax, a registration fee that posed enough of a financial burden to keep many poor blacks from  exercising their right to cast a ballot. The Twenty-fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution had ruled poll taxes illegal in federal elections but the practice continued in southern state elections as a way to disenfranchise blacks. Butts’ case, combined with others. made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. in 1966, Thurgood Marshall argued for the plaintiffs. In a 6-3 decision, the court abolished the poll tax in state elections and Butts went right to work registering thousands of voters.

Devoted daughter documents mom’s legacy in book

More than 50 years since that decision and 25 years since her mother’ death in 1993, Ligon has written and published a book that chronicles Evelyn Butts’ life of public service that inspired her and countless others.

Ligon and her husband Robert are retired U.S. Air Force officers. The last station of their well-traveled military careers was at Offutt Air Force Base from 1992 to 1995. When they retired, the couple opted to make Nebraska their permanent home. They are parents to three grown children and five grandchildren.

By nature and nurture, Ligon, inherited her “mama’s” love of organized politics, community affairs and public service. She’s chair of the Sarpy County Democrats and secretary of the Nebraska State Democratic Party. As the party’s state caucus chair, she led a nationally recognized effort that set up caucuses in all 93 counties and developed an interactive voting info website.

Former Nebraska Democratic Party executive director Hadley Richters knows a good egg when she sees one.

“In politics, you learn quickly the people who will actually do the work are few, and even fewer are those who strive to do it even better than before. Charlene Ligon is definitely a part of that very few. I have also learned those few, like Charlene, are who truly uphold our democracy. Charlene works tirelessly to further participation in the process, selflessly driven by rare and deep understanding of what’s at stake. She is a champion for voices to be heard, and when it comes to protecting the democratic process, defending fairness, demanding access, and advocating for what is right, I can promise you Charlene will be present, consistent, hard-working and fearless.”

Ligon is a charter member of Black Women for Positive Change, a national policy-focused network whose goals are to strengthen and expand the American middle-working class and change the culture of violence.

Besides her mother, she counts as role models: Barbara Jordan, Shirley Chisholm and Dorothy Height.

In addition to participating in lots of political rallies, she’s an annual Omaha Women’s March participant.

Like her mother before her. she’s been a Democratic National Convention delegate, she’s met party powerbrokers and she’s made voting rights her mission.

“It all goes back to that – access and fairness. That’s how I see it.”

Even today, measures such as redistricting and extreme voter ID requirements can be used to suppress votes. She still finds it shocking the lengths Virginia and other states went to in order to suppress the black vote.

“Virginia’s really shameful in the way it did voting,” she said. “At one time, they had what they called a blank sheet for registration. When you went to register to vote you had to know ahead of time what identifying information you needed to put on there. It wasn’t a literacy test. By law, the registrar could not help people, so people got disqualified. Well, the black community got together and started having classes to educate folks what they needed to know when they went to register.”

The blank sheet was on top of the poll tax. An unintended effect was the disqualification of poor and elderly whites, too. In a majority white state, that could not hold and so a referendum was organized and the practice discontinued.

“The history books tell you they did it because of white backlash, not because of black backlash,” Ligon said.

Virginia’s regerettable record of segregation extended to entire school districts postponing school and some schools closing rather than complying with integration

“It always amazes me they did that,” she said.

 

Speaking her mind and giving others a voice

As a Norfolk public housing commissioner, Butts broke ranks with fellow board members to publicly oppose private and public redevelopment plans whose resulting gentrification would threaten displacing black residents.

“She really gave them a fit because they weren’t doing what they should have been doing for poor neighborhoods and she told them about it. They weren’t really ready for her to bring this out,” Ligon said of her mother’s outspoken independence.

“Mama could be stubborn, too. She was authoritarian sometimes.”

Butts became the voice for people needing an advocate.

“They called her for all kinds of things. They called her when they needed a house, when they were having problems with their landlord. They called her and called her. They knew to call Mrs. Butts and that if you call Mrs. Butts, she’ll help you. Nine times out of ten she could get something for them. She had that reputation as a mover and shaker and they knew she wasn’t going to sell them out because it wasn’t about money for her.”

Ligon fights the good fight herself in a different climate than the one her mother operated in. It makes her appreciate even more how her mom took on social issues when it was dangerous for an African-American to speak out. She admires the courage her mother showed and the feminist spirit she embodied.

“My mama always spoke up. She didn’t cow. She talked kind of loud. I got that from her. She looked them in the eye and said, ‘Yeah, this is the way it needs to be.’ They didn’t always pay attention to her, but she just always was ready to say what needed to be said.  Of course, the establishment didn’t want to hear it. But she actually won most people’s respect.”

Growing up, Ligon realized having such a bigger-than-life mother was not the norm.

“She stood out in my life. I started to understand that my mom was different than most people’s moms. She was always doing something for the neighborhood. There were so many things going on in the 1950s through the early 1960s that really got her going.”

Her mother was at the famous 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Charlene wanted to go but her mother forbade it out of concern there might be violence. Being there marked a milestone for Evelyn – surpassed only by the later Supreme Court victory.

“It meant a lot to her. That was the movement. That was what she believed,” Ligon said. “And it was historic.”

Long before the march, Butts saw MLK speak in Petersburg, Virginia. He became her personal hero.

“She was already moving forward, but he inspired her to move further forward.”

Decades later, Ligon attended both of Obama’s presidential inaugurations. She has no doubt her mother would have been there if she’d been alive.

“I wish my mom could have been around to see that, although electing the nation’s first black president didn’t have the intended effect on America I thought it would. It gave me faith though when he was elected that the process works, that it could happen. He could not have won with just black votes, so we know a lot of white people voted for him. We should never forget that.

“It just really made me proud.”

Ligon shook hands with President Obama when he visited the metro. She’s met other notable Democrats, such as Joe Biden, Hilary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Jim Clybern, Doug Wilder, Ben Nelson and Bob Kerrey.

The day the Supreme Court struck down the poll tax, her mother got to meet Thurgood Marshall – the man who headed up the Brown vs. Board of Education legal team that successfully argued for school desegregation.

“She was really thrilled to meet him.”

Then-U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy was in the courtroom for the poll tax ruling and Evelyn got to meet the future presidential candidate that day as well.

Butts was vociferous in her pursuit of justice but not everyone in the movement could afford to be like her.

“As I look back on the other prominent people in the movement,” Ligon said, “they had their ways of contributing but there were a lot of people who had what they considered something to lose. For instance, teachers just wouldn’t say a word because they were afraid for their jobs. There were lots of people that wouldn’t say anything.”

Her mother exuded charisma that drew people to her.

“People liked her. Mama was an organizer. She was the person that got them all together and she was inspirational to them, I’m sure. She had a group of ladies who followed her. They were like, “Okay. Mrs. Butts, what are we going to do today? Are we going to register voters? Are we going to picket?”

Evelyn Butts formed an organization called Concerned Citizens for Political Education that sought to empower blacks and their own self-determination. It achieved two key victories in the late 1960s with the election of Joseph A. Jordan as Norfolk’s first black city council member since Reconstruction and electing William P. Robinson as the city’s first African-American member of the state House of Delegates.

Charlene marveled at her mother’s energy and industriousness.

“I was always proud of her.”

Having such a high profile parent wasn’t a problem.

“I never felt uncomfortable or had a negative feeling about it.”

Even when telling others what she felt needed to be done, Ligon said her mother “treated everybody with respect,” adding “The Golden Rule has always been my thing and I’m sure my mom taught me the Golden Rule.”

Telling the story from archives and memories

As big a feat as it was to end the poll tax, Ligon felt her mother’s accomplishments went far beyond that and that only a book could do them justice. So, in 2007, she and her late sister Jeanette, embarked on the project.

“We thought people needed lo know the whole story.”

Ligon’s research led her to acclaimed journalist-author Earl Swift, a former Virginian Pilot reporter who wrote about her mother. He ended up editing the book. He insisted she make it more specific and full of descriptive details. Poring through archives, Ligon found much of her mother’s activities covered in print stories published by the Pilot as well as by Norfolk’s black newspaper, the New Journal and Guide. Ligon also interviewed several people who knew her mother or her work.

Writer Kietryn Zychal helped Ligon pen the book.

Much of the content is from Charlene and her sister’s vivid memories growing up with their mom’s activism. As a girl, Charlene often accompanied her to events.

“She took me a lot of places. I was exposed.”

Those experiences included picketing a local grocery store that didn’t hire blacks and a university whose athletics stadium restricted blacks to certain sections

“The first time i remember attending a political-social activism meeting with Mama was the Oakwood Civic League about 1955 during the same time the area was under annexation by the city of Norfolk. My next memory is attending the NAACP meeting at the church on the corner from our house concerning testing to attend integrated schools. I have vivid memories of attending the court proceedings of a school desegregation case. Mama took me to court every day. She was called to testify by the NAACP lawyers.”

Charlene joined other black teenage girls as campaign workers under the name the Jordanettes, for candidate Joe Jordan. Her mom made their matching outfits.

“We passed out literature, campaign buttons, bumper stickers at picnics, rallies and meetings. Hanging out with my mom and doing the campaign stuff definitely had an influence. I was always excited to tag along.”

At home, politics dominated family discussions.

“My mom did what she did all the time and she talked about it all the time, and so I always knew what was going on, She involved us. She would update my dad. We were always in earshot of the conversation. My sisters and I were expected to be aware of what was happening in our community. We were encouraged to read the newspaper. We participated in some picketing.”

Always having Evelyn’s back was the man of the house.

“He was behind her a hundred percent,” Ligon said of her father, who unlike Evelyn was quiet and reserved. He didn’t like the limelight but, Charlene said, “he never fussed about that – he was in her corner.”

“He might not have done that (activism) personally himself but yeah he was proud she was out there doing that. As long as she cooked his dinner.”

Because Evelyn Butts was churched, she saw part of her fighting the good fight as the Christian thing to do.

“We attended church but my mama wasn’t really a church lady. She just always believed in what the right thing to do would be. I guess that inner thing was in all of us as far as social justice.

“She taught me there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do if I put my mind to it. She taught me not to be afraid of people because I was different.”

When it came time for Ligon to title her book, the word fearless jumped out.

“That’s what she was.”

Where did that fearless spirit come from?

After her mother died, she was raised by her politically engaged aunt Roz. But headstrong Evelyn took her activism to a whole other level.

“I remember Roz telling mama to be careful. She said, ‘Evelyn, you better watch out, they’re going to kill you.'”

The threat of violence, whether implied or stated, was ever present.

“That’s just the way it was. In Virginia, we had some bad things happen, but it wasn’t like Mississippi and the civil rights workers getting killed. We had a few bombings and cross burnings. It still amazes me how she was able to put up with what she did. A lot of people were frightened. Not far from where we lived. racists were bombing houses near where she was picketing. She wasn’t frightened about that and she always made us feel comfortable that things were going to be okay.”

Butts drew the ire of those with whom she differed, white and black. For example, she called out the Virginia chapter of the NAACP for moving too slowly and timidly.

“My mom was considered militant back in the day, but she was also pragmatic about it. There was so much ground to cover. There’s still a lot of ground to cover.”

 

Progress won and lost in a never-ending struggle

Ligon rues that today’s youth may not appreciate how fragile civil rights are, especially with Donald Trump in office and the Republicans in control of Congress.

“I don’t think young people realize we’re losing ground. They aren’t paying attention. They take things for granted, I’m old enough to remember when everything was segregated and how restrictive it was. I may not want to go anywhere then someplace where all the people look like me, but I need to have that choice.

“We’ve lost almost all the ground we made when Barack Obama was president. People who wanted change said we don’t need the status quo and I would say, yes we do, we need to hold it a little bit.”

She’s upset Obama executive orders are under assail. Protections for DACA recipients are set to end pending a compromise plan. Obamacare is being undone. Sentences for nonviolent drug offenders are being toughened and lengthened.

Perhaps it’s only natural the nation’s eyes were taken off the prize once civil rights lost an identifiable movement or leader. But Ligon chose a Corretta Scott King quotation at the front of her book as a reminder that when it comes to preserving rights, vigilance is needed.

Struggle is a never ending process. Freedom is never really won –you earn it in every generation.

“I think the struggle is always going to be there for us minorities, specifically for African-Americans,” Ligon said. “It’s my belief we’re always going to have it. Each generation has to continue to move forward. You can’t just say, ‘We have it now.'”

She’s concerned some African-Americans have grown disillusioned by the overt racism that’s surfaced since Trump emerged as a serious presidential candidate and then won the White House.

“With the change that’s happened in the United States, I think a lot of them have lost faith. They seem to have given up. They say America is white people’s country. I remind them it’s our country. Do you know how much blood sweat and tears African-Americans have invested in America? Somewhere down the line we did not instill that this is our country. It’s okay to be patriotic and call them out every day. You can do both.”

How might America be different had MLK lived?

“Hopefully, we would be a little bit further along in having a more organized movement,” said Ligon.

She’s distressed a segment of whites feel the gains made by blacks have come at their expense.

“Some white people feel something has been taken from them and given to the minorities, which is sad, because it’s not really so. But they feel that way.”

She feels the election of Trump represented “a backlash” to the Obama presidency and his legacy as a progressive black man in power.

If her mother were around today, Charlene is sure she would be out registering voters and getting them to the polls to ensure Trump and those like him don’t get reelected or elected in the first place.

In her book’s epilogue, Charlene suggests people stay home from the polls because they believe politics is corrupt and dirty but she asserts Mama Butts would have something to say about that.

If my mother could, I know she’d say this: If you don’t vote, you can be assured that corrupt politicians will be elected.

“And that’s the truth,” Ligon said.

Drawing strength from a deep well

Just where did her mother get the strength to publicly resist oppression?

“It probably came from a long line of strong women. My grandmother’s sisters, including Roz, who raised my mom, and women from the generation before. The men, I suspect, were pretty strong too. You just had to know my mom and the other family ladies, and the conclusion would be something was in the genes that made them fighters. They were fighters, no doubt. They all were civic-minded, too.”

Going back even earlier in the family tree reveals a burning desire for freedom and justice.

“My great-great-grandfather Smallwood Ackiss was a slave who ran away from the plantation during the Civil War after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and went to Norfolk. He went on to fight for the Union for two years,” Ligon said. “In 1865, he came back to the plantation. John Ackiss II, who was the plantation owner and his owner, had been fighting for the Confederacy at the same time. We do know Smallwood was given 30 acres of land. He lost the property, but we still have a family cemetery there that’s now on a country club in a real exclusive area of Virginia Beach.”

From Smallwood right on down to her mother and herself, Charlene is part of a heritage that embraces freedom and full participation in the democratic process.

“I guess I was always interested and Mom always took me with her. I always saw it. Even in the military, when stationed in South Dakota, I chaired the NAACP Freedom Fund in Rapid City.

“It’s always been there.”

She feels her time in the service prepared her to take charge of things.

“The military strengthens leadership. It’s geared for you to get promoted to become a leader.”

Then there’s the fact she is her mother’s daughter.

Entering the service in the first place – as a 26-year-old single mother of two young children – illustrated her own strong-willed independence. It was 1975 and the newly initiated all-volunteer military was opening long-denied opportunities for women.

“I was divorced, had two kids and I needed child care and a regular salary. I didn’t want to have to depend on anyone else for it but me. It was difficult entering the military as a single parent, but I saw it as security for me and my kids. I was really fortunate I met a great guy whom I married and we managed to finish out our careers together.”

Ligon made master sergeant. She worked as a meteorologist.

“I didn’t want a traditional job. I didn’t want to be an administrative clerk in an office.”

She ended her career as a data base programmer and since her retirement she’s done web development work. She also had her own lingerie boutique, Intimate Creations, at Southroads Mall. Democratic Party business takes up most of her time these days.

Charlene’s military veteran father died in 1979. He supported her decision to serve her country.

Bittersweet end and redemption 

While off in the military, Charlene wasn’t around to witness her mother falling out of favor with a new regime of leaders who distanced themselves from her. Mama Butts lost bids for public office and was even voted out of the Concerned Citizens group she founded. This, after having received community service awards and being accorded much attention.

Personality conflicts and turf wars come with the territory in politics.

“For a long time, my mom didn’t let those things stop her.”

Then it got to be too much and Evelyn dropped out.

Upon her death, Earl Swift wrote:

Evelyn Butts’ life had become a Shakespearean tragedy. She’d dived from the heights of power to something very close to irrelevance. This is someone who should have finished life celebrated, rather than forgotten. History better be kind to this woman. Evelyn Butts was important.

The family agreed her important legacy needed rescue from the political power grabs that tarnished it.

“The Democratic Party really was not nice to my mom. That was another reason I wrote the book – because I wanted that to be known,” Charlene said. “I didn’t know all that had gone on until 1993 when she died. I wanted to present who she was. how she came to be that way and the lessons you can learn from her life. I think those lessons are really important for young people because we need to move forward, we need to stay focused and know that we can’t give up – the struggle is still there.

“People need to vote. That’s what they really need to do. They need to participate. Voting is their force and they don’t realize it, and that’s really disheartening. Even in Norfolk, my hometown, the registered voter numbers  and turnout for elections among blacks is horrible – just like it is here. In north and south Omaha, they don’t turn out the way they could – 10 to 15 percent less than the rest of the city. That should not be.

“When John Ewing ran for Congress he lost by one and a half points. A little bit of extra turnout in North Omaha would have put him over the top. The same thing happened when Brenda Council ran for mayor of the City of Omaha. If they had turned out for Brenda, Brenda would have been elected. That discourages me because they feel like they’re only a small percentage of the population. Yes, it’s true, but you can still make a difference and when you make that difference that gives you a voice. When you can swing an election, candidates and elected officials pay attention. When black voters say ‘they don’t care about us,’ well I guess not, if you don’t have a voice.”

If anything, the work of Evelyn Butts proved what a difference one person can make in building a collective of activated citizens to make positive change.

To Ligon’s delight, her mother is fondly remembered and people want to promote her legacy. A street and community center are named after her. A church houses a tribute display. Endorsements for the book came from former Virginia governor and senator Chuck Robb and current Norfolk mayor Kenneth Cooper Alexander, who wrote the foreword.

Ligon was back home in Norfolk in January for a book signing in conjunction with MLK Day. She’s back there again for more book signings in February for Black History Month.

In Omaha, Fearless is available at The Bookworm, other fine bookstores and select libraries.

Fittingly, the book has been warmly received by diverse audiences. Long before intersectionality became a thing, Ligon writes in her book, her mother practiced it.

She was black. She was a woman. She was poor. She had dropped out of high school. She was overweight and she spoke loudly with confidence in her opinions in a voice that disclosed her working-class, almost rural upbringing. But this large, black poor woman was in the room with politically powerful white people, making policy and advocating for the poor, and it drove some suit-wearing, educated, well-heeled, middle-class male ministers nuts. Some wanted her place. Or, they believed her place should be subservient to a man.

When her public career ended, my mother retreated to private life … She occupied her time by being a mother, a grandmother, a caregiver, a homemaker and a fantastic cook. To say that her post-political years were tragic is to miss how much strength and satisfaction she drew from those roles. She may have retreated, but she was not defeated.

We will never come to consensus on why Evelyn Butts lost her political power. There will always be people in Norfolk who thought her ‘style’ made her unelectable, that she brought about her own demise … Whatever her failings, her legacy is not in dispute. She will always exist in the pages of the U.S. Supreme Court case, in brick and mortar buildings that she helped to create, and in the memories of people …

For me, her last surviving daughter, Evelyn Butts will always be a great American hero.

If there’s a final lesson Charlene said she’s taken from her mother it’s that “there are things bigger than yourself to fight for – and so I do what I do for my kids and grandkids.”

She’s sure her mom would be proud she followed in her footsteps to become a much decorated Democratic Party stalwart and voting rights champion.

“I haven’t thought about a legacy for myself. I hope people will remember me as a hard worker and as a pragmatic, fair fighter for social justice and civil rights.”

Visit evelyntbutts.com or http://www.facebook.com/evelyntbutts.

 

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‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film’ book signing meet and greet @ Our Bookstore

November 7, 2017 Leave a comment

“Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Book signing meet and greet

@Our Bookstore, Old Market Passageway

Monday, Nov. 13

5-7 p.m.

 

 

 

This Fall is a cinema showcase to remember in Nebraska: 

•Omaha’s own Alexander Payne will be back in December with his new movie, “Downsizing.” The sci-fi satire shot a few days in Omaha with stars Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig.  
 
•The Oscar-winner’s film will premiere at Omaha’s last remaining neighborhood movie house, the historic Dundee Theater, where his silver screen dreams were stirred and his first feature, “Citizen Ruth,” played. 
•The renovated landmark is beginning a new life under the management of Film Streams. Check out my New Horizons cover story about this return engagement for the ages in the Nov. issue.
 
•Through my work as an Omaha film journalist, I’ve created a book celebrating the writer-director’s creative process: “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film.” The new edition features expanded content.
 
•Join me for a book signing meet & greet @ Our Bookstore: Monday, Nov. 13, Old Market Passageway, 5-7 p.m.. Hor dourves and refreshments will be served.
•The $25.95 book makes a great gift for film lovers. 
 
Hope to see you there.
 
 

2017 Nebraska Book Festival: Saturday, July 15 in Lincoln


Source: Announcing the Nebraska Book Festival

I am proud to be a part of the 2017 Nebraska Book Festival this weekend in Lincoln’s Union Plaza. The Saturday, July 15 event is an all-day (9 a.m. to 6 p.m.) celebration of the written word featuring presentations by several Nebraska authors, including yours truly. As the following description explains, I will share my writer’s life as an author-journalist-blogger. Since the figure and subject of Alexander Payne plays a prominent part in my career, I will discuss my book “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” and sign copies of it.

2:15-3:15 p.m.
Jane Snyder Trails Center
“My Adventures as a Nonfiction Book Author, Freelance Journalist and Compulsive Blogger” with Leo Adam Biga

Sponsored by Nebraska Writers Guild

Veteran Omaha writer Leo Adam Biga has done a little of everything in his career. He started in public relations in the arts and athletics fields, then became a freelance journalist for business and health publications. His work today as a contributing writer for newspapers, magazines and online sites ranges across many topics – from boxing to books and movies to food to social justice issues. His extensive work on Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne is the basis of his book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, one of a handful of books that Biga has written. He will share insights into what the life of a full-time writer entails, including its challenges, rewards and opportunities.

Click links for the complete schedule of author presentations and festival events and activities.

I hope to see some of my Lincoln friends there. And if any of you from Omaha can make it, so much the better.

Wish I could make it to the festival kick-off party the evening of Friday, July 14, but my schedule won’t allow it. Hope to see you there on Saturday.

NBF_Flyer_Final2

Voyager Bud Shaw gives up scalpel for pen

April 20, 2017 Leave a comment

If you follow my work via my blog or Facebook page then you may have noticed I like writing about fellow writers. I mean, beyond the natural affinity I feel for anyone who takes up the pen and sticks with it, there are myriad things about the writing life that are universal and singular to each writer I profile. There’s no single path to becoming a writer and every writer’s life around the work and separate from it looks a little different, sometimes a lot different. And then there’s the very different kinds of writing people do and the unique voices they express. The subject of this New Horizons cover story, Bud Shaw, is a medical doctor and writer who’s gained a measure of fame for training his inner eye and ear on his former life as a transplant surgeon through essays, several of them collected in his well-received book, Last Night in the OR. Though it took him until about a decade ago to finally write about his own personal experiences, he’s been writing since he was a child. It can take the better part of a lifetime to find one’s voice, especially that voice residing deep within the inner recesses and nooks and crannies of our subconscious. When Shaw finally did find his, he revealed himself to be a strong, spare writer in the style of his literary heroes. My profile of Shaw will appear in the May 2017 issue of the New Horizons, a free montly newspaper from the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging. Beginning April 28, look for the new issue at area newsstands or, if you’re a subscriber, in your mailbox,. Order your free subscription by calling 402-444-6654.

 

Voyager Bud Shaw gives up scalpel for pen

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in the May 2017 issue of the New Horizons

 

Before Dr. Bud Shaw gained fame as a liver transplant surgeon, first in Pittsburgh, then at the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC), he was a writer. An adventurer, too. He’s a veteran small-engine pilot and hang gliding enthusiast and an avid bicycle trekker.

His wonderment with words goes back to childhood. It continued during his formal education – all the way through undergraduate and medical studies. Even during his surgical career he continued writing whenever he had down time. But since putting down the scalpel for the pen, his writing’s really taken off.

For decades he composed fiction but in recent years he’s turned to nonfiction. Some of his highly personal essays have won recognition. His 2015 book Last Night in the OR was a New York Times Bestseller.

His wife Rebecca Rotert is an award-winning poet, short story writer and essayist whose first novel Last Night at the Blue Angel was well-received.

Shaw leads writing clubs at the Med Center. He advocates students and professionals take writing courses to enrich their humanities education. He cites research showing the health benefits of writing.

“When you write something down as opposed to talking about it, it gets stored in long-term memory – with far fewer details but more indelibly – and it’s in an area where your brain keeps working on it. It’s like the thing where you write something and put it away and come back to it and you start editing it immediately when you couldn’t have done that the day before. But your brain’s been working on it.”

He said studies show that in “patients who wrote for three days in a row their brain did some processing that somehow also helped them deal with their illness.”

 

 

Image result for bud shaw unmc omaha

 

Reading and writing

Prose fed Shaw’s imaginative escapes as a youth.

“I read a lot. As a kid I got sick frequently and I’d end up having to stay home. We had bookshelves full of books. My mother bought a series of classics for kids: Black Beauty, Treasure Island, Bambi. I would pick them out and read them, and then I got into The Hardy Boys and when I read all that I even tried Nancy Drew.”

He became a familiar figure at the local library.

Family trips to Crystal River, Florida got him hooked on diving and his natural curiosity and affinity for reading found him hunting every book he could on the subject.

“My school projects were reports about the aqua lung and the difference between one and two stage regulators and how you could get the bends and prevent that. I knew the decompression tables when i was 12.”

Writing had already become an outlet.

“I began writing seriously in second grade, My mother helped me write a romantic adventure novel involving a boy and his pony. It filled 10 pages of Golden Rod tablet paper we bound with rubber cement and a cardboard cover. She died a few years later and I guess I’ve been looking for that kind of approval ever since.”

His passion for literature was stoked at Kenyon College a small liberal arts school near where he grew up in rural Ohio. There, he said, “reading and writing were paramount and literature became a limitless world for me – a world where anything could happen. I was a chemistry major, but I filled the other spaces with literature and creative writing courses. In the first two years of medical school, those intellectual pursuits were largely replaced with the drudgery of rote memorization. I found myself obsessively writing short stories and sending them off to Redbook, Playboy and Reader’s Digest. It was a useful diversion and the rejections hardly mattered.”

His literary favorites range from John Steibeck, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner to Kurt Vonnegut, Gunter Grass and Cormac McCarthy.

 

Image result for last night in the or bud shaw

 

Finding his niche as a transplant surgeon

Though his father was a surgeon, Bud at first resisted following in his footsteps. He said the fact he eventually did was “probably because he didn’t push it on me.” Shaw received his MD at Case Western Reserve University, did general surgery training in Utah and completed a transplant surgery fellowship in Pittsburgh,

There, he made a name for himself as a talented maverick working under the father of transplantation in America, the late Tom Strazl. The two men shared a complicated relationship.

“Most of the advances going on at that time in transplantation were happening in Pittsburgh. I was working with Starzl, who then was by far the most important pioneer in transplantation. I would have stayed there happily and worked with him but it just became more and more difficult.”

Shaw left because he disagreed with the way certain things were being done that he felt hampered surgeons’ learning and endangered patients’ lives.

“I wanted to change the way we did things and I realized I wasn’t going to be able to do that there as much as I wanted. I realized I didn’t want to be part of a program that was chaotic and dangerous for patients.”

Prestigious hospitals coveted having this hot shot young surgeon come start a transplant program in what was a sexy new medical horizon making headlines.

“It was a brand new field. I had probably done more liver transplants in the previous two years than anybody in the world .”

Coming to Omaha and building a world-class transplantation program

UNMC recruited him. It didn’t have the cachet of other courters but it proved the right fit. It helped that the man pursuing him. Layton “Bing” Rikkers, knew him when Shaw trained in general surgery at the University of Utah, where Rikkers had taught.

“Once I got trained in transplant I always intended to go back to the University of Utah but they just didn’t seem to want to do it (start a transplant program).”

When Rikkers took the UNMC job he asked Shaw to join him but Shaw wouldn’t be persuaded – at first.

“I told him I want to go someplace with a seacoast or mountains or preferably both.”

Rikkers wouldn’t take no for an answer. He strategically brought Shaw in as a consultant on the ABCs of starting a transplant program. Shaw met a Med Center contingent, including Mike Sorrell and Jim Armitage, who, he said, were “incredibly enthusiastic about doing liver transplants.” “There was a stark contrast between the attitude here, which was one of ‘We understand we don’t know anything about how to do this – we need you to be the expert,’ and what I found elsewhere.”

Shaw said. “I realized this was a rare opportunity because I’d interviewed at much more famous, high-powered places. I’d told them the same thing I told UNMC – I can’t come alone, I’m going to bring a junior surgeon with me and I need to have an anesthesia team go to Pittsburgh and learn how to do anesthesia and a pathologist go learn how to read the biopsies of the liver. And all these places said, ‘No, we have experts, we’re sure they can handle this, and we have very precious faculty positions to maintain.”

He said other centers didn’t appreciate just what a commitment they needed to make.

“They said, ‘We want you to come start this and we’ll see how it goes,’ and I said, ‘See how it goes? This is a high risk sort of thing.’ That’s when I realized they were mainly interested in doing this not because they were interested in treating liver disease but because it was a cool thing to start doing and they didn’t want to be left out. This place (UNMC) was clearly different. It was one of the only places in the country thinking about this as a long-term prospect they could succeed in, and that’s why I came here.”

One of Shaw’s biggest contentions with the way things were done in Pittsburgh that he changed in Omaha was transplant surgeons not having responsibility for post-op patient care. Some patients get profoundly sick after transplant surgery and lax care can exacerbate already dire situations.

“On a typical Sunday morning I’d find three transplant patients in the ICU and two of them would be bleeding still and I’d have to take them back and fix them in the operating room. I’d go talk to the family and they’d say, ‘Nobody’s talked to us.’ So I found myself cleaning up messes made by other surgeons who weren’t being supervised adequately and hadn’t had enough training.

“I talk about this in the book,” Shaw said. “Tom Starzl never wanted to have a routine, he wanted to change it every time, and you just can’t teach other people what works and what doesn’t work very well if you’re changing it constantly.”

After coming to Omaha in 1985 with his first wife and establishing a world-class solid organ (liver, kidney, pancreas, heart) transplant program here, the city became their home.

“I came here with the idea we’d spend five years and then move to one of those places with seacoast and mountains, but at the end of five years we had a really good program going. We were still growing, we were doing innovative things.

“I got recruited to go look at a couple of jobs right around that time. I just realized it was going to be like starting over and the politics would be worse. There’s no advantage of going to those places other than geography and I can buy a plane ticket.”

Diversions by ground and air

He’s bought plenty of tickets over the years to make bike tours with friends in scenic spots around the globe:

Cuba

Costa Rica

Panama

Argentina

Chile

Scotland

Nova Scotia

Newfoundland

Hungary

Slovakia

Poland

France

Italy

Crete

Australia

Vietnam

Cambodia

Then there’s his life as a pilot. He got his license at 19.

“I bought a 1939 J-3 Cub and flew it back to college. I had another airplane in Utah where I also took up hang gliding. I didn’t have any aircraft in 1981 when I arrived in Pittsburgh, but by 1984 I bought a used seaplane that I also took to Omaha in 1985. I eventually sold it and joined two other guys in a partnership in several airplanes.

“I plan on getting my glider rating this summer.”

Shaw’s logged enough hours behind the controls to have had some harrowing moments in the air.

“Every pilot with that many years experience has many stories to tell, as do I. I’ve been scared several times when weather closed in on me unexpectedly while flying cross-country. I flew aerobatics for half a dozen years in the ’90s. That was always exciting but I never had any close calls doing that. I had a couple of close calls hang gliding. I describe one in the book.”

More often than not, his time in the sky has afforded sublime glimpses of beauty. He recalled a Utah ridge that provided “wonderful soaring” and close encounters with Bald and Golden eagles living in the rocky cliffs.

“They often came out and flew along with us, sometimes showing off their aerobatic skills.”

Unexpected turbulence 

Then there was the 1973 coming-of-age flight he made in his little Cub with an acquaintance of his from Ohio, Scottie Wilson.

“The summer of ’73 was between my first and second year of medical school, which I hated. I’d restored an airplane I kept out at the local airport. Scottie had just gotten his wings for the Air Force. That summer we flew in my little Cub a lot together. Toward the end of the summer he had to get to Tuscon, Arizona for combat training. He was going to drive and I said maybe we should fly my Cub out there.

“There were multiple times during that trip where I was going to quit medical school and become a jet jockey.

When the whole thing was done I had to turn around and fly back by myself, and this was like two weeks before I was getting married. I had sort of abandoned ship and ran away.”

The event proved a crucible for Shaw.

“Right after I crossed the Continental Divide there was a storm up ahead I realized iI couldn’t fly around or above so I just landed on a road. As I was sitting there watching this storm go by I started crying. I had this deep sense of loss.”

Broke and out of fuel, he siphoned gas from every small plane on the line at the airport. Back home. he married. started a family and completed his studies. That summer interlude never left him but it’s only recently he

tried writing about it.

“I told Rebecca about it and she said, ‘There’s a romance there of a kind,’ and there really was. A closeness developed in a short period of time that was very different than any experience I’ve had with another guy.”

Intent on catching up with his old pal, Shaw happened to open a magazine to a story about Wilson restoring a 1938 Bugatti airplane presumed lost during World War II. The plane was rediscovered and Wilson, a retired Air Force officer, was building a replica.

“I tracked him down through Facebook and we ended up spending hours on the phone three or four different times over the space of a couple months. My plan was to go see him. He was in the process of starting to test fly this plane. I talked to him in May 2016 and in December I got an email from his brother that said, ‘I’m sure by now you’ve heard about Scottie dying…’ He’d taken the plane up again and was barely off the ground when it happened.

“He’d sent me some sample writing. He wanted me to help him write the story of this airplane.”

Wilson’s passing marked the latest of four recent deaths of important people in Shaw’s life. He feels compelled to write about what they meant to him.

“I have lots of starts in different directions in talking about the way your relationship with your mentors is more like a love affair than it is like a parenting             relationship. It’s like seeking their love and approval more-so than maybe with a parent.”

Merging his personal, medical and writing lives

When Shaw was still doing transplants he was barraged by life and death events but so cut-off from them emotionally he didn’t write about them.

“I was so busy and chronically sleep deprived I rarely had time or inclination to write. Except on vacation. Once I got away from work, I inevitably started writing. It was always fiction. By the mid-’90s I had the starts of five novels. I took a sabbatical in 1996 to write and came away with a 180,000-word novel that isn’t yet worthy of publication. Of course, family and friends all thought it was wonderful but nobody else did. I was afraid of getting it reviewed by anybody.

“None of my writing then had any direct relationship to my work. I think it was largely a way to escape the stress of that life.”

Shaw’s real growth as a writer began when he confronted his own life on the page at the 2007 Kenyon Review Workshop.

“It was very educational and inspirational to actually have to write something and then to have people critique it. It was the first time I had valuable critique of what I’d written. I began to understand what I needed to do to improve things was to keep writing, to keep having people critique and then keep changing and writing.”

His next evolution came as a participant in the Seven Doctors Project that puts doctors together with writers.

Shaw was in the project’s first group of doctors in 2008 and he participated in several other sessions the next few years. One session in particular proved fruitful.

“I did get some wonderful stuff from the review of what I wrote that year. The most telling thing was from another writer there, Rebecca Rotert” (whom he ended up marrying after he and his first wife split).

“When it was my turn to read, everybody complimented how they liked this or liked that and then all of a sudden Rebecca said, ‘Okay, here’s the deal: I don’t know what this person’s motivations are. We’re missing some of the basic things of a story and by now we should know this.’

I started to feel defensive and then I thought, ‘Oh my God, she’s absolutely right,’ and I can fix that because I know what the answers to those questions are.”

All of it spurred him to explore his own life in nonfiction writing. The more he drew from his personal experience, the more he liberated himself.

“I was finally able to think about some of the experiences I had and to step back from them far enough to actually write about them without having a strong emotional agenda that kept me from doing it before.”

With each story he takes from his own life, he’s puts himself on the line.

“I suppose writing highly personal nonfiction stories is risky for anyone. I felt I couldn’t do it unless I found a way to be more objective about the most difficult and emotional experiences. I had to resist the temptation to ‘set the record straight.’ I had to discover instead the other stories within those moments.”

His first published essay, My Night With Ellen Hutchinson, is about a devastating personal and professional episode early in his career.

“As I sat down to write about it, I discovered just how stubbornly I still held onto a version of that story that blamed others, that let me off the hook for the death of a patient during a liver transplant. I had to revisit that night over and over again for weeks to reconstruct a view that wasn’t about the cause of the failure so much as it was about the results of it. It wasn’t easy.

“That was a very straight forward operation. In my mind, I’d done everything right. I got the new liver sewn into place and blood flowing into it and everything was just great when her heart stopped. And yet, the technical details of why the woman’s heart stopped and how we should have handled it and how today, I know she would not have died because of what we later learned to prevent the problem, none of that was a story worth recounting. I needed a fresh and far more human perspective, and that required me to do a lot of processing I hadn’t done before.

“Now I don’t seem able to stop.”

For years Shaw erected shields warding off self-reflection when people’s lives were in his hands.

“The protective mechanisms were about dealing with failure, where failure could be somebody’s death. After failure I felt it absolutely necessary to approach the next case with supreme confidence that everything is going to go well. There’s a lot of ways of getting to that point. Maybe the quickest way is to simply say, ‘That last problem – that wasn’t my fault.’ But that’s not the only way. Another way, but it’s not the one I took, is to think about it more and to recognize we’re fallible and I did play a role in that, and what can I do next time to make sure that doesn’t happen again.

“It would have taken the ability of being more mindful as they call it now.”

 

 

            

 

Frailties 

In his book Shaw reveals his own and others’ frailties as counterpoint to the God-like status medical professionals are held in or hold themselves in. His essays chronicle how he didn’t let things touch him, not the lives he saved or lost, not even his own bout with cancer, What opened the flood gates of introspection was the disabling anxiety that overcame him in 2006.

“I didn’t have any problems with social anxiety at all

until one day I was sitting in my living room and suddenly had a panic attack that eventually caused me to crawl into bed and cover up. I had no idea what was causing it. It just came out of the blue.”

Some days at work he couldn’t leave his office. He finally sought help. Drugs help regulate the condition. Writing about it has been freeing.

“What the writing has done is help me understand and accept the fact that I have this problem. It’s also helped me recognize I did have these protective things and the question in my mind is – what if I had been as self-aware and self-reflective when I was in the midst of this incredibly intense surgical career with all this risk?

Would I have been able to continue? I think the answer to that question is probably yes.

“The process of writing about my own experiences really did open up my writing in a way. That, and there were about three books I read around that time that made me become much more spare, to work harder on eliminating stuff. The big problem I had was my need to make sure you understood everything, explaining

everything. Being freed up from the idea that you have to explain everything was like a miracle. You can actually let people figure out stuff on their own.”

He said a UNMC colleague objected to how much medical imperfection he revealed in his book.

“She said, ‘This is a huge mistake. Nobody should pull back the curtain and expose these sorts of things.’ I said, ‘Why, do you think people are going to come after us with torches?’ She said, ‘Well, they might,’ and I said, ‘Well, if they do, maybe we deserve it.’ I certainly got lots of positive feedback from surgeons outside of here. In fact, I’m still getting it.”

A notable exception was his old mentor Tom Starzl, who reacted strongly against the book. It strained the two men’s already tenuous relationship. As a show of respect and peace offering, Shaw attended Starzl’s 90th birthday celebration.

“I gave him a big hug and he started crying. It was very emotional.”

Starzl died a year later.

Before Shaw could get his book published, UNMC made him jump through hoops to change details so as to avoid privacy issues.

“A lot of the essays had been written with the names of the real people involved before I knew these stories were going to be part of a book,” Shaw said. “I had to start looking at how I could contact these people (for their permission). I knew I wasn’t allowed to look in the medical records for that purpose and I knew I couldn’t ask anybody else to do it for that purpose.

“I couldn’t remember some of their names. I was in the process of trying to sort out how to contact them when the privacy officer at the hospital called and said you can’t write about any of your experiences here.”

The decree made Shaw bristle. He resisted the blanket refusal, pointing out there was nothing in his contract or in UNMC’s HIPPA policy preventing him from doing it.

“Eventually I could not get them to allow me to contact the people. So I went in and changed enough of the details that there’s just no way anybody could recognize the real people.”

 

 

Doing what he has to do

Some of his writing does name names. His essay A Doctor at His Daughter’s Hospital Bed recounts the time  he intervened in the care of his daughter Natalie, who was hospitalized with pneumonia and not getting the IV fluids he knew she needed.

“I know I shouldn’t be my daughter’s doctor. They taught us the problems with that during my first week in medical school. It’s a really bad idea, especially in high-risk situations. We doctors are also very superstitious that when dealing with family members … something is always going to go wrong. The more the Special Person hovers over the care of his or her loved one, the worse the complication will be. I’ve had conversations in which doctors feel they change their routine with V.I.P. patients, and it’s that disruption in routine that allows error to creep into their care.

“But right now, I don’t care about any of that. I’m the one with experience taking care of really sick patients, and if I know she needs more fluids, she’s going to get them.

I break into the crash cart … I pull out two liters of saline solution and run both into Natalie’s IV in less than 20 minutes. Natalie’s pulse slows and her blood pressure rises. An hour later, after the nursing supervisor and on-call resident finally arrive, I’ve finished infusing a third liter. Natalie finally looks better.

“This wasn’t the first time during Natalie’s illness … I broke my promise to just be her dad.”

It also wasn’t the first or last time he crossed the medical care barrier with a loved one.

My younger son, Joe, almost died … from septic shock. He became ill while I was out of town. I flew home and by the time I arrived at the hospital, he looked deathly ill to me. I told the nurse I thought he should be transferred to the intensive care unit, but she said the doctors thought he was improving. Joe stopped breathing during the night and I have blamed myself ever since for not insisting they move him.

“Over and over again during my dad’s last few years of life, I felt as if I should have just moved in with him so that I could prevent all the well-meaning doctors and nurses from killing him. Sometimes it was just because his doctors weren’t talking to one another and their conflicting prescriptions sent Dad to the hospital. In the end, he died about 10 minutes after receiving an injection I didn’t want him to receive.”

Shaw’s daughter did recover but, he writes. “I didn’t.” He explains in his essay:

“I stopped operating and taking care of really sick people two years later. I told myself I had become too distracted by my increasing administrative duties to be a safe doctor. I was glad to leave all that behind. Now I just want to sit on the sidelines and marvel as a new generation of doctors performs the miracles. I never again want to step in to rescue someone I love. But I will, if I have to.”

On a pedestal 

He had occasion to operate on public figures or loved ones of celebrities. Such was the case in 1993 when he performed liver transplants on Hollywood icon Robert Reford’s son, Jamie Redford, in Omaha.

As is often the case, patients with good outcomes form an attachment with their surgeons that is one-part gratitude and one-part adulation. It was no different with Jamie Redford, who on Instagram recently posted a photo of himself and his life-saver with this caption: “My hero and good friend, Dr. Bud Shaw.”

Redford regained his health and produced a documentary, The Kindness of Strangers, raising awareness of the need for organ donation. Redford and Shaw saw each other just last year.

“Jamie and I did something at the Sundance Authors Series. I did a reading of my book and then Jamie came up and we sat on a couple stools and we did a kind of give-and-take with each other and people asked questions. Bob (Robert Redford) was there and Jamie’s sister was there. It was standing-room-only.”

But in his essay Real Surgeons Can’t Cry Shaw divulges how he didn’t cope well with the hero worship showed him. For him, surgery was a job to be gotten through, a task to be completed. The human dimensions of it sometimes escaped him or made him uncomfortable, and so he avoided those implications and interactions that required emotional investment.

Taxing times in the crowded OR give way to one-on-one writing-editing critiques 

A transplant operation is always complex and requires a team of professionals/ But these were far riskier procedures in the 1980s and 1990s then they are today because there weren’t the techniques and drugs available then that there are now.

“The longest one in my experience was in Pittsburgh that was 27 hours,” Shaw recalled. “In that case it was a child. When we started out trying to open the abdomen it was like concrete. We had to go ahead and get the liver in there because its time out of the donor’s body was getting too high. We didn’t want it to die – the liver would be nonfunctional. So we put it in and then we had all this sorting out of stuff to do for hours and hours, trying to get the bleeding stopped.

“What would happen is the patient’s own body would start dissolving its clots. That was a pretty common feature of a liver transplant.”

The operating room is a collaborative, dynamic environment of high risk and high reward. Writing, by contrast, is a solitary experience whose rewards are more internal then external. Shaw values having a life partner in Rotert who is a fellow writer. They share everything they write with each other.

“We are our own best editors,” he said. “I think I take her criticism of what I write a lot better than she takes my criticism about what she writes, and I don’t know if that’s because her criticism is more gently delivered because she’s not very gentle with it. But for some reason whatever she tells me often rings so true.

“LIke with these initial essays I wrote, I wasn’t sure what they were really about and she helped me figure out what they were really about.”

He admires her craftsmanship.

“She really writes incredibly well. She writes some beautiful sentences. She also develops characters incredibly well, each with different voices. She’s really a master at that sort of thing.”

The couple live in a multi-story home on the edge of Neale Woods. Books, magazines, paintings (by her) and photographs (by him) adorn the rustic-chic living spaces whose large windows look out on the Missouri River basin and bluffs to the east and pristine forested land to the west.

 

 

Reinventing himself

Idyllic surroundings and professional accolades aren’t salves for the demons inside us as Shaw discovered. Even at the height of his career, politics and egos found him fighting external battles. He eventually became chairman of surgery at the Med Center and after 12 years in that post he headed-up a large point-of-care software development project that got canceled.

He’s felt a bit adrift since retiring from surgery and then having that software project killed.

“There’s almost nothing like having a really difficult job to do with a lot riding on it and you’re afraid going in about what might happen but you do it anyway and you succeed and everything’s okay. It just so happens that liver transplants is one of the best things like that. And so I lost that reward system. The other thing I lost was every day somebody telling me what to do. Even when i was chairman of the department. It’s not like I had to say what am i going to do today? There was always stuff to do and too much to do.

“Not having that and having so called free time to write and to do other stuff was initially fun and easy but the longer it’s lasted the more difficult it’s become

finding reward.”

While a practicing surgeon he once thought of leaving that career to write full-time but he wasn’t crazy or brave enough to try it. “Doing liver transplants is easier.”

Ever the voyager, Shaw has worlds yet to explore in his travels and in his new vocation as author, Having finally given himself permission to write about his past, he’s embracing new adventures as source material for future tales. With so much to draw on, his creative well should never run dry.

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

March 16, 2017 Leave a comment

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

If you are an Omaha native like me, then I am sure you agree our shared hometown boasts many leading lights of merit. In arts-entertainment, fellow Omaha native Alexander Payne is at the top of his profession. The two-time Oscar winner’s craftsmanship makes him one of the Hollywood film industry’s most acclaimed and sought after professionals. His reputation as a writer-director extends worldwide.

As Nebraska celebrates 150 years, Payne represents the best this state has to offer in terms of talent, output, loyalty and work ethic. I am privileged to be the author of a book – “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” – that takes the full measure of the man and his work. My comprehensive look at his career is newly released in an expanded second edition.

I am happy to say that “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” has many champions.

Leonard Maltin gives it a big thumbs up with:
“Alexander Payne is one of American cinema’s leading lights. How fortunate we are that Leo Biga has chronicled his rise to success so thoroughly.”

Thomas Schatz, (“The Genius of the System”) recommends it with:
“This is without question the single best study of Alexander Payne’s films, as well as the filmmaker himself and his filmmaking process. In charting the first two decades of Payne’s remarkable career, Leo Adam Biga pieces together an indelible portrait of an independent American artist, and one that’s conveyed largely in the filmmaker’s own words. This is an invaluable contribution to film history and criticism – and a sheer pleasure to read as well.”

The publisher is River Junction Press LLC in Omaha and its distributor is Independent Publishers Group (IPG). The book is a available at Barnes & Noble and other fine bookstores nationwide, as well as on Amazon and for Kindle. In Nebraska, you can find it at all Barnes & Noble stores as well as at The Bookworm and Our Bookstore in Omaha, Indigo Bridge Books in Lincoln and in select gift shops statewide.

The easiest way to purchase it is at–

You can order signed copies by emailing your request to leo32158@cox,net.

Just as it’s my pleasure to showcase one of Nebraska’s greatest natural resources in Alexander Payne, I hope it’s your pleasure to read about his journey in film. That journey is about to take a dramatic new turn with the December 2017 release of his long-awaited film “Downsizing” starring Matt Damon. Look for my new Reader story about it in the April 2017 issue.

 

Kevin Simonson on Interviewing Hunter S. Thompson and Kurt Vonnegut


Nebraska is full of folks with connections to cultural icons. Kevin Simonson of Omaha is such a person. At one time at least he boasted a mere single degree or less of separation from a pair of literary superstars – Hunter S. Thompson and Kurt Vonnegut. Now that those writers are gone, Simonson’s connnections to them are admittedly in the past tense but that doesn’t change the fact he personally knew the two men and he got some great stories out of the experiences. Thompson actually counted Simonson as a friend and that friendship earned the Omaha writer great access to the king of Gonzo journalism. Simonson’s interviews with Thompson informed several stories he wrote about him. Though Simonson only met Vonnegut once, it was a memorable encounter he also recorded for posterity. This is my Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com) profile of Kevin and his star literary relationships. 

 

Kevin Simonson

On Interviewing Hunter S. Thompson and Kurt Vonnegut

©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Originally appeared in the March/April 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com)

 

Kevin Simonson of Omaha realizes he occupies an unlikely position as a leading chronicler of that dark jester of American letters, the late Hunter S. Thompson.

Thompson, a New Journalism exponent, gained a Grateful Dead-like following for his irreverent, self-referential Gonzo-style reporting on America’s underbelly. During his lifetime, he was portrayed in film by Bill Murray (Where the Buffalo Roam) and Johnny Depp (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). A Doonesbury character was based on him.

He was already a counterculture icon when Simonson, a Wahoo native, got turned onto his work while a Doane College student. The enterprising Simonson and his brother Mark published an underground newspaper, The Great Red Shark, which evolved into The Reader. They booked Thompson to speak at the University of Nebraska, but the author reneged owing to legal troubles with a porno producer (Thompson once managed an X-rated theater). Simonson’s taped interviews with the producer became evidence in legal proceedings that saw felony weapons charges against Thompson dismissed. Leveraging Thompson’s gratitude, Simonson gained access to interview him several times over the years for such national pubs as the Village Voice, Hustler, Penthouse, and Rolling Stone.

“The hardest thing was just getting him to commit. With him, it wasn’t a sit-down interview. It was like, click-on-the-recorder and he’d go crank up some music for a half-hour, to where you couldn’t hear anything. He couldn’t sit still very long. I’d get a few questions in here and there, then he’d take a phone call or go outside and shoot his guns off. It would stretch on for hours.”

Interviewing Thompson could be a real trip.

Deciphering his low, quiet, gravelly voice—near unintelligible when stoned—required asking Thompson to recreate what he said.

Simonson entered Thompson’s trusted inner circle. Several times he visited the author at his infamous Owl Creek Farm in Aspen, Colorado, a scene of odd characters and goings-on. He ascribes losing his former fiancee to getting her a job as Thompson’s assistant. The assorted weirdness freaked her out, and she and Simonson split.

He was so deeply immersed in Thompson lore, he says, “Anything he talked about, I could talk about. I sort of knew him inside-out. The first time I walked into his house, it was like walking into a museum. I looked around and recognized things from certain books or stories.”

Simonson finally did get Thompson to speak in Lincoln (in the spring of 1990, a month after the original booking date). Typical for Thompson, he ran hours late and took the stage, presumably under the influence. People were variously delighted or outraged.

“I grew up with Spy Magazine, National Lampoon, and Saturday Night Live, and I thought his writing was the funniest stuff ever done. You could turn to any page and there was something laugh-out-loud funny about it. That’s what attracted me to it,” Simonson says.

Thompson, too, represented a refreshing, unfiltered, unapologetic voice and uninhibited, nonconformist lifestyle. “It was his bad- boy attitude and the way he would do things in public and not be even remotely self-conscious about the repercussions,” he says.

Simonson’s widely published work includes authoring and co-editing Conversations with Hunter S. Thompson  He’s helped build the cult of personality around the writer. Even in death, Thompson’s mystique grows larger with every new book and film out on him.

“It’s kind of crazy,” says Simonson, who has also managed bars and done marketing and promotions work for Boston University (during a few years on the East Coast) and KFAB and Clear Channel Radio in Omaha. He was the original managing editor of The Reader, where some of his Thompson work has appeared.

As Thompson’s health declined, he talked suicide, but Simonson and others were surprised when he fatally shot himself in 2005. Simonson was among 250 invited guests at a surreal Owl Creek memorial celebration. In the shadow of a towering Gonzo statue, Thompson’s ashes were shot out of a cannon. Booze ran freely. A film crew captured it all.

When not chasing literary dreams, Simonson manages a golf course in Fremont, where he directs a 5K mud run. He possesses much Thompson memorabilia (taped interviews, faxes, photos, keepsakes). His “most prized possession” is a Fear and Loathing first edition inscribed with a personal note by Thompson and an original caricature by illustrator and frequent Thompson collaborator Ralph Steadman.

Simonson feels fortunate he got close to Thompson and rues his loss.

“I feel really lucky. There’s definitely a void in the literary and even entertainment community with him gone. He definitely made a huge mark on the whole pop culture scene. I miss talking to him. It was always an event when he had a new release out.”

Thompson was not the only late literary giant with whom Simonson was acquainted.

The Simonson brothers, Kevin and Mark, brought literary star Kurt Vonnegut to lecture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1991. To their surprise, he readily agreed to an interview in a local strip club.

“Compared with Hunter, he [Vonnegut] was like hanging out with Mark Twain. He was funny and so easy to talk to,” Simonson says. His Vonnegut interview ran in the December 2016 issue of Hustler.

Visit facebook.com/conversationswithhuntersthompson to learn more about Simonson’s book. Visit5kthehardway.com to learn about his (non-literary) work with Nebraska’s Mud Run.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

 

A book a day keeps the blues aways for avid reader and writer Ashley Xiques


If you’re like me, sitting down with a good book is a distinct pleasure and there have been times in my life when I would plow through a fair number of books in the course of a year. It’s been a long time since that was true. As a writer, I’m not proud of that. But even at the height of my reading habit I was never into books the way Ashley Xiques is. She’s not sure how many she’s read but she’s virtually never without without a new book to read, which means as soon as she finishes one, she’s onto another. She’s into young adult fantasy and other genres of fiction. She just can’t get enough. It’s been like this for her since her early teens. I wouldn’t be surprised that at age 20 she’s already surpassed my lifetime account of books read. Like most good readers she’s also a good writer. She’s shared her writng online via different platforms, including Odyssey. The twin passions of reading and writng merged a couple years ago when as an Elkhorn South student she won the national Letters About Literature contest for Nebraska for the letter she penned to author Leigh Bardugo. She’s now a sophomore at UNO. Since she works and attends school full-time, she doesn’t have much time to write these days, but she always makes time for reading. Still undecided on a major, she doesn’t plan to study writng but she does expect to write a novel one day. I don’t doubt she will and if she does I will add her work to my long neglected reading list.

 

Image result for Ashley Xiques odyssey

Ashley Xiques

Self-described “full-time book addict” who’s “overly enthusiastic about fictional people.”

 

A book a day keeps the blues aways for avid reader and writer

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

There are book lovers and then there’s Ashley Xiques, an Elkhorn South graduate and UNO sophomore.

The 20-year-old caught the bug after being swept away by a Young Readers fantasy series in her early teens. Countless books later, she’s now a self-described “full-time book addict.”

“I can’t go like even two days without reading a book – it drives me crazy,” she said.

Her habit’s filled several book shelves at home and finds her often hunting new reads at bookstores and in online reading communities.

“I go around taking pictures of books and post them and I talk to other people about books online. I’ve found so many recommendations on Goodreads through people from all across the United States and the world. It’s just a way of connecting through books.”

Her Facebook timeline, Pinterest page and Instagram page brim with book chatter.

“There’s so many ways of finding good books. I’m on those sites. too, for inspiration about characters and stories. Whenever I read new books I want other people to find out about them, especially if they’re not popular. I want people to find them so we can talk about them together.”

She’s also shares her literary musings with fellow bibliophiles on Odyssey.

 

The Perfect Books To Read This Fall

 

Her admiration for the Grisha series by New York Times best-selling author Leigh Bardugo led Xiques to enter the national Letters About Literature contest through a high school creative writing class. Ashley’s letter won her age category in Nebraska.

As soon as she came across her first Bardugo book, she was hooked.

“It was one of the very first fantasy books I read. Fantasy’s still my favorite genre.”

She calls herself “a fantasy nerd” online.

The Grisha trilogy captured her imagination.

“It was very addictive. Leigh’s a really good author. I like her writing style and her storytelling.”

Ashley’s letter draws parallels between themes in the series and her own life. For sample. the series deals with what it’s like to feel adrift. She related to that as her large family – she’s one of eight siblings – moved several times following her now retired Air Force father’s military base assignments.

“We moved around a lot. We moved all around Texas (where she was born), then to Virginia, back to Texas and then to Nebraska eight or nine years ago. I don’t mind moving – it’s nice to see new things and meet new people. But, yeah, it’s nice to be settled, stable and have a set group of friends and not have to leave them.

“Sometimes it’s difficult to readjust your life again.”

I need a home. Not a house, I’ve known a plethora of those.

-from Ashley’s letter

Like a series character, she doesn’t like being labeled things she’s not. She took offense at being called spoiled and selfish by other kids.

“I’ve never been like that. I’ve never been someone that things are just given to. I’ve always been a person who’s worked for what I want. My parents don’t buy me everything. I work for myself, I work for my grades, I work for my money. But people want to put labels and stereotypes on you. People judge before they understand the situation and the person and who they actually are.”

Before anyone actually knew the person I was, society had already placed a label on my shoulders. Time to prove them wrong. 

I could. I would. I did.

-from Ashely’s letter

Xiques also identified with an outsider character because she sometimes felt like the odd sibling out as the third oldest sibling and then having to try and fit in as the new kid on the block.

Writing the letter helped her express things she couldn’t always verbalize. She went through several drafts. Two days before the deadline, she rewrote it in a single sitting.

“I do good under pressure. I didn’t edit it or anything. I just said, ‘OK, this is what I’m feeling and that’s what it’s going to be.’ That’s why I was kind of shocked when it won. It’s cool though.

Ashley soon after winning the Letters About Literature contest

She’s an old hand at writing: reviews, essays, poems. She once started her own spy novel. Fifty thousand words worth. She sent friends each new chapter. Then she decided it wasn’t good enough and abandoned the project. She laid out the plot and characters for a new book before putting it aside, too, but she’s hatched new ideas for it.

“I’ve spinned the original idea into something completely different. If I were to do it now, I’d be torn between writing a fantasy book or a realistic modern fiction book. I think I will eventually write a book if I come up with a good (enough) idea.”

It will have to wait though. She’s too busy now working a job and carrying 17 credit hours at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. At her parents urging Xiques long ago set her sights on college. She credits reading with her excelling in school. She made the UNO Dean’s List.

“I know reading helped a lot with that. It boosted my comprehension skills in all different subjects.”

To The Book I'll Never Forget

 

As glad as she is to be settled, she anticipates one day returning to  Texas to live. Wherever she ends up, books will be part of her life.

Meanwhile, she’s cultivating new readers in her family.

“My two younger brothers like to read. They go with me to bookstores when I’m out looking for new titles. They view it as an adventure.”

Follow Ashley’s literary adventures at http://www.theodysseyonline.com/@ashleyxiques.

 
 
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