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Cathy Hughes proves you can come home again


Cathy Hughes proves you can come home again

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the July 2018 issue of New Horizons

 

Nebraskans take pride in high achieving native sons and daughters, Some doers don’t live to see their accomplishments burnished in halls of history or celebrated by admirers. This past spring, however, Cathy Hughes, 71, personally accepted recognition in the place where her twin passions for communication and activism began, North Omaha.

The mogul’s media holdings include the Radio One and TV One networks.

During a May 16-19 homecoming filled with warm appreciation and sweet nostalgia, Urban One chair Hughes reunited with life-shaping persons and haunts. An entourage of friends and family accompanied Hughes, who lives in the Washington D.C. area where her billion dollar business empire’s based. Her son and business partner Alfred Liggins Jr., who was born in Omaha, basked in the heartfelt welcome.

Being back always stirs deep feelings.

“Every time I come I feel renewed,” Hughes said. “I feel the love, the kindred spirit I shared with classmates, friends, neighbors. I always leave feeling recharged.”

With part of Paxton Boulevard renamed after her, a day in her honor officially proclaimed in her hometown and the Omaha Press Club making her a Face on the Barroom Floor, this visit was extra special.

“It was so emotionally charged for me. It’s like hometown approval.”

During the street dedication ceremony at Fontenelle Park, surrounded by a who’s-who of North O, Hughes said, “I cannot put into words how important this is to me. This is the memory I will take to my grave. This is the day that will stand out. When you come home to your own and they say to you job well done, there’s nothing better than that.”

 

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Photo Courtesy of Cathy Hughes

 

Cathy Hughes’ mother, Helen Jones Woods with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, circa 1940

 

Welcoming home an icon

Good-natured ribbing flowed at the park and at the Press Club, where she was roasted.

The irony of the Press Club honor is that when Hughes was young blacks were unwelcome there except as waiters, bartenders and kitchen help. The idea of a street honoring a person of color then was unthinkable.

“This community has progressed,” Hughes told an overflow Empowerment Network audience at the downtown Hilton. “An empowerment conference with this many people never could have taken place in my childhood in Omaha. This is impressive.”

Empowerment Network founder-president Willie Barney introduced her by saying, “She is a pioneer. She is one of the best entrepreneurs in the world. She is a legend.”

Nebraska Heisman Trophy-winner Johnny Rodgers helped organize the weekend tribute for the legend.

“I think Cathy Hughes is the baddest girl on the planet,” Rodgers said. “She’s historical coming from Omaha all the way up to be this giant radio and TV mega producer and second richest black lady in the country. It’s just fantastic she’s a product of this black community. I want to make sure all the kids in our community realize they can be what Cathy’s done. Anything’s possible.

“I want hers to be a household name.”

Some felt the hometown honors long overdue. Everyone agreed they were well-deserved.

A promising start

People who grew up with her weren’t surprised when she left Omaha in 1972 as a single mother and realized her childhood dream of finding success in radio.

She had it all growing up – sharp intellect, good looks,  gift for gab, disarming charm, burning ambition and aspirational parents. Her precocious ways made her popular and attracted suitors.

“She’s very personable,” lifelong friend Theresa Glass  said. “She’s been a gifted communicator all the time. My grandmother Ora Glass was her godmother and she always believed Cathy was destined for great things.”

Radio veteran Edward L. “Buddy” King said, “She had this thing about her. Everybody projected she would be doing something real good. She knew how to carry herself. Cathy’s a beautiful woman. She’s smart, too.”

Glass recalled, “Cathy was always an excellent student. She’s always used her intellect in various pursuits. She was always out in the working world. Cathy used all the education and skills she learned and then she built on those things. So when she went to D.C, she was prepared to work hard and to do something out of the ordinary for women and for African Americans to do.”

 

Members of the De Porres Club in 1948

 

Cathy’s parents were pioneers themselves.

Her mother Helen Jones Woods, 94, played trombone in the all-girl, mixed-race swing band the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. Helen’s adoptive father, Laurence C. Jones. founded the Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi, which Helen attended. Cathy and her family lived in Jim Crow Mississippi for two years. She’s a major supporter of the school today.

Cathy’s late father, William A. Woods, was the first black accounting graduate at Creighton University. He and Cathy’s mother were active in the Omaha civil rights group the De Porres Club, whose staunchest supporter was Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown.

“Very young, I marched,” recalled Cathy Hughes, who’s the oldest of four siblings. “I was maybe 6-years old when we picketed the street car (company) trying to get black drivers. I remember vividly being slapped on the back of my head by my mother to ‘hold the sign up straight.’ I remember demonstrating but most importantly I heard truth being spoken.”

“Cathy’s parents were community-oriented people,” King said. “They cared about their community. They were  well-to-do in their circles. Cathy grew up in that but she never lost her street savvy.”

While attending private schools (she integrated Duschene Academy), she said, “The nuns would send notes home to my mother saying I had delusions of grandeur, I talked all the time, and I was very opinionated. I bragged I would be the first black woman to have a nationally syndicated program.

“I was good and grown before I found out that had already been accomplished.”

Her penchant for speaking her mind stood her apart.

“When I was growing up black folks didn’t verbalize  their feelings and particularly children didn’t.”

Mildred Brown gave her father an office at the Star. Cathy did his books and sold classified ads for the paper. Her father also waited tables at the Omaha Club and on the Union Pacific passenger rail service between Omaha and Idaho. She sometimes rode the train with her father on those Omaha to Pocatello runs.

 

 Taken under wing

She found mentors in black media professionals Brown and Star reporter-columnist, Charlie Washington. The community-based advocacy practiced by the paper and by radio station KOWH, where she later worked, became her trademark.

“We had a militancy existing in Omaha and when you’re a child growing up in that you just assume you’re supposed to try to make life better for your people because that’s what was engrained in us. We didn’t have to wait to February for black history. We were told of great black accomplishments on a regular basis at church, in school, in social gatherings. Black folks in Omaha have a nationalist pride.

“I was imbued with community service and activism. I don’t know any different. My mother on Sunday would go to the orphanage and bring back children home for dinner. We were living in the Logan Fontenelle projects and one chicken was already serving six and she would bring two or three other kids and so that meant we got a piece of a wing because Daddy always got the breast.”

During her May visit she recalled the tight-knit “village” of North Omaha where “everybody knew everybody.”

In the spirit of “always doing something to improve your community and family,” she participated in NAACP Youth Council demonstrations to integrate the Peony Park swimming pool.

“Because we were disciplined and strategic, there was a calm and deliberate delivery of demands on our part. I don’t know if it was youth naivete or pure unadulterated optimism, but we didn’t think we would fail.”

Peony Park gave into the pressure.

Opposing injustice, she said, “instilled in me a certain level of fearlessness, purpose and accomplishment I carried with me for the rest of my life.”

“It taught me the lesson that there’s power in unity.”

Her passion once nearly sparked an international incident on a University of Nebraska at Omaha Black Studies tour to Africa.

“The first day we arrived in Addis Ababa, Eithiopia, the students at Haile Selassie University #1 were staging demonstrations that ultimately led to the dethroning of emperor Haile Selassie. Well, we almost got put out of the country because when I heard there was a demonstration I left the hotel and ran over to join the picket line with the Eithiopian students. My traveling companions were like, ‘No, you cant do that in a foreign country, they’re going to deport us.’ Hey, I never saw a demonstration I didn’t feel like i should be a part of.”

 

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Charlie Washington

 

The influence of her mentors went wherever she went.

“Mildred Brown unapologetically published Charlie Washington’s rants, exposes, accusations, evidence. She didn’t censor or edit him. If Charlie felt the mayor wasn’t doing a good job, that’s what you read in the Omaha Star. It took the mute button off of the voice of the black community. It promoted progress. It also provided information and jobs. It’s always been a vehicle for advocacy, inspiration and motivation.

“That probably was the greatest lesson I could have witnessed because one of the reasons some folks don’t speak out in the African-American community is they’re afraid of being financially penalized or losing their job, so they just remain silent. Mildred and Charlie did not remain silent and she was still financially successful.”

Both figures became extended family to her.

“Charlie Washington became like my godfather. He was the rabble rouser of my youth. He had the power of the pen. Charlie and the Omaha Star actually showed me the true power of the communications industry. I saw with Charlie you can tell the truth about the needs and the desires of your community without being penalized” even though he wrote “probably some of the most militant articles in the United States.”

“That’s the environment I grew up in. So the combination of Charlie always writing the truth and Mildred being able to keep a newspaper in Omaha solvent were both sides of my personality – the commitment side and the entrepreneurial side.”

Today, Hughes inspires young black communicators with her own journey of perseverance and imagination in pushing past barriers and redefining expectations.

 

No turning back

As an aspiring media professional. Hughes most admired Mildred Brown’s “dogged determination.”

“When somebody told Mildred no, they weren’t going to take an ad, she saw it as an opportunity to change their mind, she never saw it as a rejection. She didn’t take no seriously. No to her meant. Oh, they must not have enough information to come to the right conclusion because no is not the right conclusion.

“Nothing stopped Mildred.”

Nothing stopped Hughes either.

“When I was 17 I became a parent. I realized I was on the brink of becoming a black statistic. My son Alfred was the motivation for me to think past myself. It was the defining moment in my life direction because for the first time I had a priority I could not fail. I was like, We’ll be okay, I’m not going to disappoint you, don’t worry about it. It was Alfred who actually kept me going.”

Her first ever radio job was at Omaha’s then black format station, KOWH.

“KOWH fed into my fasciation with having a voice. I think it is truly a blessing to have your voice amplified. I wasn’t even thinking about being an entrepreneur then. I was thinking about being able to express. I wasn’t at an age yet where had come into who I was destined to be.”

She left for D.C. to lecture at Howard University at the invite of noted broadcaster Tony Brown, whom she met in Omaha. It’s then-fledgling commercial radio station, WHUR, made her the city’s first woman general manager.

Leaving home took guts. Staying in D.C. with no family or friends, sleeping on the floor of the radio station and resisting her mother’s long-distance pleas to come back or get a secure government job, showed her resolve.

“Omaha provided me a safe haven. Once in D.C., I had to rely on and call forth everything I had learned in Omaha just to survive and move forward. If I had not left, I probably would not have become a successful entrepreneur because I had a certain comfort level in Omaha. I was the apple of several individuals’ eyes. They saw potential in me, but I think their love and support would not have pushed me forward the way I had to push myself once I moved into a foreign land.”

She feels Nebraska’s extreme weather toughened her.

“It builds a certain strength in you that you may or may not find in other cities.”

If sweltering heat, high winds and subzero cold couldn’t deter her, neither could man-man challenges.

“You learn that determination that you can’t let anything turn you around. When I went to D.C. and realized there weren’t people of color doing what I wanted to do, I just kept my eye on the prize. I refused to let anyone turn me around. When you learn to persevere in all types of elements, then business is really a lot easier for you.”

 

Mildred Brown

 

Brown was her example of activist entrepreneur.

“The Star was to Omaha what Jet and Ebony were to the black community nationwide. It’s why I have this media conglomerate. When you’re 10 years old and you’re looking up to this bigger-than-life woman, she was a media mogul in my mind. She had a good looking man and wardrobe and all the trappings.”

Just as Hughes would later help causes in D.C., Brown, she said, “was kind of a one-woman social agency before social agencies became in vogue.”

“She helped a lot of people. My father graduated from college and didn’t have a place to open an office and she opened her lobby for him. He was just one of many. Charlie Washington had a very troubled background and yet because of her he rose to being respected as one of the great journalists of his time in Omaha. Dignitaries would come and sit on Charlie’s stoop and talk to him about what was going on. He was considered iconic because of Mildred Brown.

“She put students through school and raised hell to keep them there. When my mother was short my Duschene tuition, Mildred told them, ‘You’re going to get your money, but don’t be threatening to put her out.’ She literally walked the walk as well as talked the talk. She didn’t tell folks what they needed to do, she helped them do it. She continued to inspire and advise and mold me.”

Full circle

Howard’s School of Communications is named after Hughes, who never graduated college. Decades after first lecturing there, she’s a lecturer there again today.

“They say I am their most successful graduate who never matriculated. I wasn’t prepared to be the first woman general manager of a radio station in the nation’s capital. That’s why Howard sent me to Harvard to take a six-week course in broadcast management and to the University of Chicago to learn psychographic programming. I went to various seminars and training sessions. Howard literally groomed me. They were proud of the fact I was the first woman in the position they had placed me in “

Hughes readily admits she hasn’t done it by herself.

“I have been blessed by the individuals placed in my life. They sharpened me, prepared me, educated me, schooled me, nurtured me, mentored me. I have been blessed so many times to be in the right place at the right time and with the right people.”

She grew ad revenues and listeners at WHUR. A program she created, “The Quiet Storm,” popularized the urban format nationally. With ex-husband Dewey Hughes she worked wonders at WOL in D.C. After their split, she built Radio One.

Upon arriving in D.C., Hughes found an unlikely ally in Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham. She met Graham through Susan Thompson Buffett, the wife of investor Warren Bufffett, and part owner of the paper.

“Susie was staying at the Grahams’ house. At that time Susie was a singer with professional entertainment aspirations and I was her manager. Katharine Graham took an interest in me and because she had this interest in me other people, including the folks at Howard University, embraced me.”

Networking

Hughes parlayed connections to advance herself.

“Part of my innate abilities since childhood has been to recognize an opportunity and take full advantage of it.”

Her first allegiance was to listeners though. Thus, she lambasted Graham’s Post for unfair portrayals of blacks, even encouraging listeners to burn copies of the paper.

Hughes has succeeded in a male-dominated industry.

“I never thought about being a woman in a male field. First of all. I was black. I’ve never put woman first. I was black first and a woman second. I had a goal I wanted to achieve, an objective that had to be accomplished. I didn’t see it as proving something to the old boys network. I was not intimidated by being the only female.

“I was naive. I really thought there would be a whole proliferation of black women owning and managing radio stations. Women have made more progress in professional basketball – they own and coach teams – than they have in the broadcasting industry.”

Men have played a vital role in her business success.

The two black partners in Syndicated Communications,  Herbert Wilkins and Terry Jones, loaned her her first million dollars to build Radio One. Wilkins has passed but Jones and his wife Marcella remain close friends.

When things were tough early on, it was Jones who instructed a downcast Hughes to change her mindset.

“He said to me when people ask you how are you doing they can’t be hearing you complaining or saying I don’t know. You’ve got to say it was a great day because the first person that hears the lie is you. Tell yourself your business is doing good. Tell yourself you’re going to make it. Everyone’s going to start agreeing with you. He told me to change my terminology, which changed my thinking, and guess what, one day it was no longer a lie, it became my truth,” she shared in Omaha.

Friends and family true

Theresa Glass said success has not changed Hughes, who looks keeping it real.

“She’s the kind of friend who’s always your friend and we always can start off where we last left off. I never have to do a whole bunch of catch up with her. We immediately go into friend mode and are able to talk to one another. A lot of times you’ve been away from somebody for a long time or your lives have really shifted and they’re not even close to being the same, and you feel awkward, and that’s not happened for us.”

Hughes acknowledges her success is not hers alone. “I didn’t do it on my own. Right time, right place, right people.” She leans on staff she calls “family.” She believes in the power of prayer she practices daily. She credits her son’s immeasurable contributions.

“Radio One was me. TV One was totally Alfred. He decided he wanted his own path. Our expansion, our going public, all of that, was in fact Alfred. He does the heavy lifting and I get to take all the bows.”

Not every mother-son could make it work.

“Alfred and I had to go to counseling, alright, because one of us was going to die during those early years. It was not happy times – and it was basically my refusal (to relinquish control),” she said at the Hilton.

Alfred Liggins acknowledges their business partnership ultimately worked.

“It was my mother’s willingness to want to see me succeed as a human being and as a business person and unselfish ability to share her journey with me. When it came time to let me fly the plane, she was more than willing to do that.”

He recognizes how special her story is.

“I could always recognize and appreciate her drive, tenacity and lessons. We didn’t let any of the mother-son-family potential squabbles disintegrate that partnership, so I guess we’ve always been a team since the day I was born.”

Challenges and opportunities 

“Buddy” King. who’s had his own success in satellite radio, is happy to share a KOWH tie with Hughes.

“I’ve always admired Cathy. We KOWH alums are all proud of her success because her success shines light on what we did in Omaha.”

King further admires Radio One continuing to thrive in an increasingly unstable broadcast environment.

“iHeart media and Cumulus, two of the largest broadcast owners in the country, are both in bankruptcy, but Cathy is still chugging along. Her son has done an excellent job since making it a publicly-traded company. As the stock market fluctuates, they’ve able to survive.”

Diversification into online services and, more recently, the gaming industry, has kept Urban One fluid.

The changing landscape extends to Me Too movement solidarity around survivors of sexual harassment in the entertainment field.

“Was I subjected to it? Yes, absolutely,” Hughes said, “and I’m so glad women are stepping forward. Now we have a voice. The reality is we need more than a voice, we need to have action. Just talking about it doesn’t change it. I mean, how long have black folks talked about disparity and a whole host of things.

“It’s great that women are speaking out but we have to put pressure on individuals and on systems. Wherever we can find an opening. we must apply pressure to change it. Let’s start with education.”

She despairs over what she perceives as the dismantling of public education and how it may further erode stagnant income of blacks and the lack of inherited wealth among black families. She shared how “disturbed” she was by how Omaha’s North 24th Street has declined from the Street of Dreams she once knew.

 

 

Street Dedication for Cathy Hughes

Mrs. Marcella Jones, Alfred Liggins, III and his mother Cathy Hughes

 

 

Black media

Voices like hers can often only be found in black media.

“Black radio is still the voice of the community. Next to the black church, black-owned media is the most important institution in our community,” she said.

She embraces technology opening avenues and fostering change, but not at the expense of truth.

“I pray that truth prevails in all of these advancements we’re making. I see a world of opportunity opening, particularly for young people. I’m so impressed with this young generation behind the millennials. These kids are awesome because they’re not interested in just celebrity status. They’re interested in real change and I think the technology will be a definite part of that and I think with it comes a different level of responsibility for media than we’ve had in the past.

“Information is power. Mildred Brown understood that and it wasn’t just about a business for her – it was about a community service.”

Hughes credits an unlikely source with unifying African-Americans today.

“President Trump has single-handedly reignited activism, particularly in the black community. That did not occur in the Clinton administration, nor the Obama administration. But Trump has got people riled up, which is good. He has made people so mad that people are willing to do things, voice their opinion, and that’s why black radio is so important. You are able to say and hear things that you couldn’t get anywhere else.”

The Omaha Star is in its eighth decade. Hughes maintains its survival is “absolutely critical – because again it’s the voice of the people,” adding, “It’s our story from our perspective.” She still reads every issue. “It’s how I know what’s going on. The first thing I do is read Ernie Chambers’ editorial comments.”

Hughes is adamant blacks must retain control over their own message.

“You cannot ever depend on a culture that enslaved you to accurately portray you. That just cannot happen. I think too often African Americans have looked to mainstream media to tell our story. Well, all stories go through a filter process based on the news deliverer’s experience and perception and so often our representation has not been accurate.

“The reality is we have to be responsible for the dissemination of our own information because that’s the only time we can be reasonably assured it’s going to be from the right perspective, that it’s going to be from the right experience, and for the right reasons.”

Yet, she feels blacks do not support black media or other black business segments as much as they should.

A challenge she addressed in Omaha is black media not getting full value from advertisers.

“My son and I are not going for that. We want full value for our black audience and we insist on that with advertisers. I learned that from Mildred Brown. She did not allow y’alll to be discounted because it was a black weekly newspaper. She wanted the black readership of the Omaha Star to have the same value as a white readership to the Omaha World-Herald.

“I learned at the Omaha Star you don’t take a discount for being black.”

 

 

Still learning 

Six decades into her media career and Hughes said, “I’m still learning. I’m not totally prepared for some of the responsibilities and charges I’m being blessed with now. Like I’m just learning how to produce a movie (her debut project, Media, premiered on TV One in 2017). I want to learn how to direct a movie. I want to learn how to do a series. Thank God we went into cable, which has given me an opportunity to learn the visual side.”

She’s searching for a new project to produce or direct.

“I’m reading everything I can get my hands on. I am just so thankful to the individuals in my life who have loved and nurtured me that I keep acquiring new skill sets at this age. I’m still growing and learning. which is kind of my hobby.”

Hughes is often approached about a documentary or book on her life. If there’s to be a book, she said, “I don’t want someone else interpreting who I am. I don’t want someone else telling my story from their perspective. I want to tell my own story.”

 

 

 

 

Lasting impact and legacy

Her staff is digitally archiving her career. There’s a lot to capture, including her Omaha story.

“I thank Omaha. Nothing’s better than making your mark in your hometown.”

Getting all those accolades back here is not her style.

“In Omaha, we just don’t get carried away with a whole bunch of fanfare and hero-worshiping. Again, it’s how I grew up. That’s our way of life in Omaha and I thank God for that because it’s made a big difference. It’s a whole different mentality and way of life quite frankly.”

Omaha’s impact on her is incalculable.

“It touched me probably a lot more deeply and seriously than I realized for many decades. When you’re trying to build your business you don’t have a lot of time to reflect on how did I get here and the people who influenced me. I went through a couple decades working on my career and my personal and professional growth and development before I realized the impact the Omaha Star had had on me and what a positive influence Omaha has been on me.”

“Buddy” King said he always knew if from afar.

“Even when she was a young single parent, Cathy was a fighter. It all to me comes back to her Omaha roots.”

Though Alfred Liggins and his mom have been back several times, with this 2018 visit, he said, “you feel like you finally made it and made good and you’re making you’re community proud.”

“It’s about meaning and legacy. That’s why this is hugely different. It really is the culmination of a journey I’ve shared with my mother trying to elevate ourselves and in the process elevating the community from which we came. I’m proud to have been part of what my mother embarked on and I feel like I am being recognized alongside her.

“And it is a deserving honor for her. She’s got guts, grit and she still has a ton of energy. She always gives me lots of praise and lots of love – until I do something she doesn’t like. But it has kept me on the up-and-up and to have my nose to the grindstone.”

At the close of her Empowerment Network talk, Hughes articulated why coming back to acclaim meant so much.

“I think Omaha teaches you to best your best and practices tough love. If you have the nerve to leave here and go someplace else, you better hope you do good because if you come home, you don’t want to hear (about returning a failure). But it’s really love telling you, You should have done better, you should have been more persistent.

“That whole village concept sometimes is not comfortable but it’s so productive because it pushes you to best your best. It teaches you that when you come home one day … they may hang a sign and name a boulevard in your honor.”

As she told a reporter earlier, “My picture’s on the floor of the Press Club, okay  It don’t get no better than that.”

Visit https://urban1.com.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

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Life Itself IX: Media and related articles from the analog past to today’s digital era


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From wars to Olympics, world-class photojournalist Kenneth Jarecke shoots it all, and now his discerning eye is trained on Husker football
 
Dream catcher Lew Hunter: Screenwriting guru of the Great Plains
Sun reflection: Revisiting the Omaha Sun’s Pulitzer Prize-winning expose of Boys Town
Open Minds: “Portals” explores human longing in the digital age
Omaha native Steve Marantz looks back at city’s ’68 racial divide through prism of hoops in new book, “The Rhythm Boys of Omaha Central”
Magazine and mission founded on spirit of giving: Metro Magazine publisher Andy Hoig celebrates philanthropy
SkyVu Entertainment pushes “Battle Bears” brand to sky’s-the-limit vision of mobile games, TV, film, toys …
Beware the Singularity, singing the retribution blues: New works by Rick Dooling
Old partnership takes new turn: UNO-Kabul University renew ties with journalism program 
North Omaha champion Frank Brown fights the good fight

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Warren Buffett, left, and Stan Lipsey at the Omaha Sun in the 1970s.

Being Dick Cavett
Homecoming always sweet for Dick Cavett, the entertainment legend whose dreams of show biz Success were fired in Nebraska
Bill Maher Gets Real
Exposed:
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Imagemaking celebrated at Joslyn Art Museum: “The Misfits” and Magnum Cinema
Forever Marilyn: Gail Levin’s new film frames the “Monroe doctrine”
Hidden In plain view: Rudy Smith’s camera and memory fix on critical time in struggle for equality
Radio DJ-actor-singer Dave Wingert, in the spotlight 
 
Theater-Fashion Maven Elaine Jabenis
Marguerita Washington: 
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Ron Hull’s magical mystery journey through life, history and public television
Author, humorist, folklorist Roger Welsch tells the stories of the American soul and soil
Buffett’s newspaper man, Stanford Lipsey
John and Pegge Hlavacek’s globe-trotting adventures as foreign correspondents
 
 
 
Howard Rosenberg’s much-traveled news career
A good man’s job in radio is never done: Nebraska broadcasting legend Gary Sadlemyer
What’s in a brand? For Rebel Interactive, everything
Extremities: As seen on TLC’s “Hoarding: Buried Alive” – Mary Thompson takes her life back one piece at a time
Three old wise men of journalism – Hlavacek, Michaels and Desfor – recall their foreign correspondent careers and reflect on the world today
Culturalist Kurt Andersen wryly observes the American scene as author, essayist, radio talk show host
Radio One queen Cathy Hughes rules by keeping it real: Native Omahan created Urban Radio format
Alice’s wonderland: 
Former InStyle accessories editor Alice Kim brings NYC style sense to Omaha’s Trocadero
Radio Day: “Michael Feldman’s Whad’Ya Know?”Live from Omaha
 

Doug Wesselmann, aka Otis Twelve

 
Otis Twelve’s Radio Days
Preston Love: His voice will not be stilled
Slaying dragons: Author Richard Dooling’s sharp satire cuts deep and quick
Man on fire: Activist Ben Gray’s flame burns bright
Former Omaha television photojournalist Don Chapman’s adventures in imagemaking keep him on the move

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Image is everything in doing business, so let my writing cut through the clutter to make you shine.

 

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Linda Lovgren’s sterling career earns her Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce Business Hall of Fame induction

March 26, 2012 6 comments

Wherever one lives there are those high achievers whose professional work and community service connote on them the epitome of respect, and that’s certainly the case with the subject of this profile, Linda Lovgren, a marketing-public relations expert known for her keen strategic thinking and execution.  I can attest to her not only being extremely professional but eminently approachable as well.   She’s just what you’d expect from a Midwest entrepreneur, too, with her legendary work ethic and unassilable integrity combined with that down-to-earth humility that makes her rather uncomfortable talking about herself.  Of course, she makes her living polishing the image of others and so naturally she prefers deflecting attention away from herself to her clients.  But it’s easy to see why clients would develop an easy rapport with her and place their trust in her.  Yes, she’s as salt-of-the-earth as they come.  But don’t assume that means she’s unsophisticated.  Her blue plate client roster is proof she’s fully engaged in 21st century   marketing-public relations techniques.

 

Linda Lovgren’s sterling career earns her Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce Business Hall of Fame induction

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

 

“I’ve kind of always been a carpe diem or seize the day sort of person,” says new Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce Business Hall of Fame inductee Linda Lovgren.

The highly respected public relations maven began her Lovgren Marketing Group in 1978 at the age of 30. It was an era when relatively few women, especially women that young, went in business for themselves. Growing up and working on her family’s far northwest Iowa farm taught the former Linda Hoeppner the independence and conviction necessary for being an entrepreneur. Her parents were both teachers but they left that field to run a farm and later formed another business. With that enterprising model as an example, Lovgren made the leap from working for others to working for herself only eight years after graduating college.

“It never occurred to me I could fail,” she says.

She’s keenly aware of the glass ceiling many women report encountering in the corporate world, then and now, but she didn’t experience it herself.

“I felt like when I started my business I had an equal opportunity to go after new business or to make people aware of what I was doing and to integrate into the community,” she says. “Now those aren’t things you do overnight, it takes time to grow a business, to grow relationships, and one connection leads to another connection. It’s this large linkage you begin to build.”

With businesswomen scarce then, her mentors were the opposite sex.

“As I discovered there weren’t very many women in business and so that made it a little bit tougher, and so a lot of my business mentors have been men.”

She says former Chamber president Bob Bell was a big help at the start.

“I went down to get a Chamber membership and I met Bob and told him what I was going to do and he said, ‘Well. let’s see what we can get you involved in that would be good.’ He kind of started to help connect me in various ways.”

Those connections not only aided her in getting established but forged a strong relationship with the Chamber that culminated in her serving as its first female chairman in 2003.

Several other prominent men have taken her under their wing.

Hal Daub was clearly one of them,” says Lovgren, who’s been active in Republican party politics. “I got to know Hal when he was running for Congress and he hired me to do marketing work with him and we became very good, lifelong friends. In fact, when he was running for reelection in 1980 I had young children at home and one night we needed to have a meeting but I couldn’t leave because my husband had some obligation and I had kids to put to bed. So the meeting came to my house and Hal put my kids to bed. He read them the stories while his staff and I worked on the campaign. We always chuckle about that a little bit.

“Roy Smith, another Omaha icon, was a great mentor. I met him through the Chamber and Hal. Mike McCarthy of the McCarthy Group has been a great business advisor to me over the years.”

The late Bob Reilly, an Omaha PR-advertising legend, proved an invaluable resource as well.

“When I first started in business I realized I knew a lot about advertising and public relations but I didn’t know a lot about running the business. I didn’t know the business management practices for billing and managing. I called up Bob, who had been a partner in Holland, Dreves, Reilly and was teaching at UNO at the time, and I said, ‘Can I hire you to consult with me and help me through this startup phase?’ We talked things over at what turned out to be a long lunch and we developed a long friendship and great relationship.”

For someone as forward-thinking and confident as Lovgren, making a go of it on her own was a strategic move to advance her career. She entered the adventure with a come-what-may attitude that prepared her for whatever happened.

“As I look back on it now I just kind of looked at it as this is the next step in what I’m going to do, and if it works out that is spectacular, and it has been, and if it doesn’t work out, there will be another door opening.

Besides, when she and her husband moved to Omaha after college she tasted the disappointment of not finding the dream job she had her sights set on, yet she landed on her feet anyway and soon found the pathway to her career.

“I really had wanted a job in an advertising agency,” she says. “I had gone around and knocked on all the doors and dropped off my resume and nothing happened.”

She considered working in television, whether in front of or behind the camera. She acted in theater productions and did public speaking throughout high school and college. She studied broadcast journalism as part of her communications program at Indiana University, where she interned at the school’s TV station.

“I really wanted to work in that creative field of writing and production.”

Among other things, she was the IU station’s weather girl. “I knew nothing about the weather,” she admits. “It was all about the performance,” And about a pretty face and nice figure. Thus, she says, “my first job interview in Omaha was to do the weather on KMTV. But Carol Scott got the job.” With her TV and advertising aspirations foiled, Lovgren moved onto the next best thing.

“I went to work for KRCB Radio in Council Bluffs. I was doing the writing for all the direct accounts and doing a lot of voice-over production. If the news person got sick I did the news. It was a small family station at the time. This was before it was acquired by the Mitchell Broadcasting Company.”

Linda Lovgren briefs the media at a CSO press conference in 2010 at Spring Lake Park.

Linda Lovgren briefs the media at a CSO press conference in 2010 at Spring Lake Park.

Her big break finally came when veteran ad man Howard Winslow offered her a position with his Winslow Advertising agency.

“His clients included Sears, McDonalds, Shavers Food Marts and a number of retail stores. As creative director I was the writer-producer of all the spots we did. I really was well-suited for that. I enjoyed working with the clients.”

In seven years with Winslow she says “I got a broad education from him. That was a good foundation.” He was the first in that string of male mentors who aided her professional development.

Branching out on her own after working for Winslow was “a defining moment” in her personal and professional life, she says. Making it an even greater challenge was the fact she had a 16-month old child at home, with her second child on the way. Going it alone while pregnant was a big decision. She knew being a mother, wife and owner-operator would severely test her and the family.

She got the idea to go in business for herself when, she says, “some of the clients I had been working with came to me and said, ‘We know in a few months you’re going to take some time off but we would really like to continue to work with you.’

So I thought about that for awhile and decided I was going to start the company.”

She says she and her husband, Robert W. Lovgren, then a fresh from college Mutual of Omaha manager and now longtime executive with the company, discussed the pros and cons. “We talked about all of this and he said, “I know you really well and I know you’re not going to be happy unless you try because you’ll always look back and say, Should I have done this?’ So I had great support from him to start with.”

 

She concedes there were sacrifices and struggles being a working mom but she wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

“I know I was a happier person because I was working, which means my children were probably happier kids. It meant that when we spent family time together we spent very focused, productive family time together, and so that’s a positive. It was just a matter of figuring out how to make all the pieces fit.”

Finding the right balance, she says, was key. That was no easy thing either for this self-described “workaholic.” Having a driven nature is characteristic of virtually every successful entrepreneur and she’s no different. Her hectic schedule as a new business owner and mother was all she could handle.

“I had childcare in the mornings, so that”s when I’d see my clients and do my work  outside of the house. Then I’d come home in the afternoons and do naps and activities with the kids, fix dinner at night and put the kids to bed. We would do that as a family. And then I’d resume work again.

“I’ve always been a late night person which probably was a good thing in this case.

I would always enjoy that peaceful time in the evening to work and think about the strategies for my clients and do creative things.

She says young entrepreneurs need “to think about how they want to use their time and what kind of balance do they want in their life. As their business grows and if they have a family then the pressures on priorities start to grow as well. There were times when I don’t think I did the best of job balancing those priorities but now when I talk to my kids who are adults and have children of their own they say, ‘Boy, Mom, we didn’t realize it then, but we’re kind of wondering how that all worked out.’ And it did, too, because they both have great families.”

A favorite way she maintains balance is by enjoying the great outdoors, particularly her sport of choice, fly fishing.

“I grew up on the Minnesota-Iowa border and my mom and my dad and my brother and my grandmother loved to fish. I learned to spin fish for bullheads and crappies and bass when I was growing up.”

She says she hadn’t fished for maybe 20 years when she and her husband were off on one of their backpacking, hiking, camping trips in Estes Park, Colorado and she noticed a promotion for a fly fishing instructional.

“I thought, That looks really interesting, I’m going to go do that, so I went on this Sunday night four-hour excursion to learn how to fly fish and that was it. I have taken to it you might say like a fish to water. I love it. Part of the reason I love it is it’s physical and what I do day to day isn’t very physical.

“I also enjoy the peace and quiet and just the serene atmosphere. It’s just you and the fish. It’s an opportunity to think about things that aren’t day to day work. It’s just kind of that emotional release and, of course, catching a fish is a lot of fun. It has skill and it has art. But most of all it has an emotional attachment with the people I’m around when I fly fish.”

The sport took on deeper meaning for her when it became part of her own and other women’s ongoing healing as breast cancer survivors.

“About three years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer and I was home recovering from a minor surgery reading a fly fishing magazine and there was  something about an organization called Casting for Recovery. It’s a program that does fly fishing retreats for breast cancer survivors because the therapy of the fly fishing is good for the muscles in the arms and chest area. I contacted them and got together a group of friends and we had our first retreat in Nebraska last September.

Fourteen women. We went out to Valentine and fished on the Snake River.”

She emphasizes she was “very lucky” in her own bout with cancer because the doctors caught it early.”

Life throws curves at her like it does at everyone else sand she says it helps to cultivate positive attitudes and friends.

“I guess you could say I always had confidence but it didn’t mean I always got what I wanted and I think that’s really an important lesson to learn, too – that sometimes even though you think you’re the best or you’ve done it the best you aren’t going to win all the time, and in a way those are good growing experiences, too. I’ve never regretted and I’ve never looked back.

“I surround myself with a very eclectic group of people that I like to be around. They’re all energetic, they’re all achievers in their own way. Some are professionals, some are stay-at-home moms. Some of them are my fly fish pals. They all like to get out and do things. They’re all looking forward to what’s the next adventure we can have. They’re also people that are very loyal to each other. If you need help and you call them, they’re there.”

It helped that she knew what she wanted when she launched Lovgren Marketing. Thirty four years later she still looks forward to coming to the office every day. Her hunger has never left and it’s reflected in the can-do attitude she brings to the image enhancement, branding, message control and media liaison work she does.

“Get there, do what you can, do it with enthusiasm, and if things don’t go the way you want, pick up the pieces and find out how to put them back on track. That’s what I love about it, and no two days are ever the same.

“What keeps me going every day is that I really love what I do and I enjoy the  relationships I build with clients.”

One of her firm’s big ongoing projects is the Clean Solutions for Omaha or CSO Program that includes sewer separation in northeast Omaha. Lovgren Marketing has been recognized for its work on the project with multiple awards from the Public Relations Society of America – Nebraska Chapter.

“When the city’s CSO project came along we were selected to do the public involvement work on it, so for the last six-plus years we’ve been doing public education in all sorts of fashions: marketing materials, media management and training, speaking to civic groups, working with schools and doing presentations to students about the environmental reasons for the project and how it will affect them into the future.

“It will be 15 years before the project’s implementation is finished and many years beyond that before we finish paying for it. I’ve gotten to meet people from literally every corner of this city, from the Mormon Bridge to Bellevue, from the Missouri River to Elkhorn, and I really get energized by talking to other people and finding out what they’re thinking and why they’re thinking it.”

She says public involvement projects like this are a new niche for her firm.

“When we started out we were primarily a retail advertising organization. We worked for restaurants, a clothing store, an appliance store, a car dealer, a bank and for Countryside village shopping center. Krug’s Men’s and Boys Clothing was our original client. We were very active in political campaigns for two and a half decades. About seven years ago we started doing a lot of work with municipal organizations.”

Lovgren Marketing Group led the advocacy campaign for the Omaha Convention Center and Arena bond issue.

Her company also does its share of earned media and event marketing. “We’ve done things like the ground breaking and ribbon cutting for Pay Pal and Gallup and the CenturyLink Center.”

As communications has evolved so has her business.

“The public relations field today is not just about news conferences and news releases,” she says. “It involves Facebook and Twitter and all the social media activities that are available now to help people get their messages out and to help manage messages. So staying up with technology, understanding how that technology can impact a client, those are all important.

“As time has gone on our business has changed dramatically. Twenty years ago we didn’t have personal computers. We do probably three times as much business with one person because of the computers and the Internet and the ability to communicate and get more information quickly. We can design more quickly and certainly make design changes more efficiently, and that’s good for the client.”

Technology can only take you so far though. Her profession, she says, is still about

“thinking and strategy to come up with the best product you can.” She feels her staff of five have some built-in advantages, including “the ability to connect our clients to the right people to get their business done. Because we are experienced and mature we have a lot of network and connection throughout the community, so we’re able to help people find the right places to get information effectively to market their products or services.”

She brings a wealth of experience and a considerable tool box to the table.

“I think I’m really good at sitting down with a client and saying, ‘What do you want to achieve?’ and then figuring out very useful strategic ways for them to meet their goals through marketing and public relations. And obviously one of the skill sets in that industry is having some creativity, being able to brainstorm with the client what creative ideas might help get that message to the public, what’s going to connect their product or service to their target audience.

“Over the years I think I’ve really honed a skill set that helps me get through all of the discussion and figure out what really is the underlying strategy for doing that.”

She’s quick to add, “i don’t do this on my own. In fact, sometimes I look at the organizational chart and I think I’m on the bottom of it. There are very talented people on our staff who do design and writing and PR and keep the organization functioning as a whole. We’ve had amazing talented people work here who I have enjoyed a lot. It’s a very collaborative kind of business. It’s like a family. Everyone has a task to do but as a whole we are so much better doing it together.”

What keeps her hungry for more after all these years is essentially the same thing that’s always motivated her.

“I think the thing I love the most is getting to the end of the day and knowing we helped a client or clients take one more step toward their success. You got the meeting you needed or got the ad finished and it looks great. Whatever that is it just makes you feel good when you go home.”

 

 

Lovgren-Staff2

 

Lovgren Marketing team

 

An indication of the mark she’s made locally is that she’s among very few women in the Omaha Chamber Business Hall of Fame. This year’s unusual in that she’s one of three women inductees, along with Ree Kaneko (Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts and KANEKO) and Lori Hogan (Home Instead Senior Care). The other 2012 inductees are Land Title Company founder and former Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey, Midlands Business Journal founder and publisher Bob Hoig and the late co-founder of Pamida, D.J. “Tex” Witherspoon.

Lovgren feels Omaha abounds with many “capable” women professionals and that it’s only a matter of time before more of them fill top management and executive roles in corporations and other organizations. She points out that many of the most accomplished women are, like her, Kaneko and Hogan, owners of their own businesses. Women CEOs are harder to find.

“It will come,” she says.

A chapter in her life that once again found her in a male-dominated field was her involvement with the GOP. “I worked very hard in party politics from 1976 to 1980.”

She was state party vice chairman before becoming interim chair. “It’s a huge responsibility. I enjoyed it tremendously, and I learned a lot. I certainly met people all over the state. It was a great time.”

While working on the state committee to elect Ronald Reagan she went on a campaign junket the then-candidate made across Nebraska.  She flew on the press plane and then got to sit next to Reagan in his limo on the way to a speech he was making in Grand Island. ”

“I spent 15 minutes talking to him. That was very exciting.”

At the 1980 national GOP convention in Detroit she was part of a team that put together a daily newspaper delivered to delegates. She was on the convention floor and attended various parties. “It was a lot of fun,” she says.

“I did stay involved in party politics for a long time after that in other ways,” she adds, but today she’s more calculated in her political deliberations.

“I’m very interested in politics and where it leads because it has an impact on us every day in terms of the policy that’s made. I think it’s very important for people to pay attention to the candidates and the issues surrounding us.”

Just as politics can be topsy turvy, her life and career have had ups and downs but she tries keeping an even keel through it all. She buys into the conventional wisdom that one learns more from failures than successes.

“I do agree with that, and sometimes they aren’t big failures either. You know, in our business we have great clients but sometimes they merge with someone else or they sell their company or the relationship just doesn’t work and you move on and they move on. I never look at those as failures in the sense that a lot of people might. I look at them and say, What opportunity does that present for me to build a better company and to build better relationships with the clients we do have? So I think you learn from everything you do.”

 

 

Some of Lovgren Marketing’s projects

Little Steps, Big Impact
Omaha Storm Chasers
City of Omaha Public Works
CSO (Clean Solutions for Omaha)
National Strategic Research Institute
YPO US Capital

 

 

 

As a matriarch in her field, she feels she has something to offer young people coming into the profession and embraces sharing her knowledge base with them.

“I take every meeting that I can get with them. Not only young women but young men, too. I enjoy talking with them because they come with new ideas and fresh perspectives. I think it’s important for them to understand what they want to do, what they want to be, and if I can help them sort that out I’m happy to do it. I haven’t done it all right but I’ve done enough things right.”

She says part of the satisfaction she takes from her career is when a former employee goes on to success of their own and tells her they couldn’t have done it without her. “That tells me I made a difference for somebody,” she says, “and that’s what we all hope to do in our life.”

For Lovgren, whose give back has included volunteering with the State Fair Board, Nebraska Kidney Foundation, Mid-America Boy Scouts of America and Habitat for Humanity, “the prize in the end is not one thing,” adding, “The prize is – Did I accomplish what I wanted to accomplish for the people who surround me and work hard for the company, for my family who have come along for this whole effort, for the clients we work for? It’s really more about knowing you have accomplished something that has made a difference for all of those people.”

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