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Love affair with Afghanistan and international studies affords Tom Gouttierre world view like few others

February 21, 2017 Leave a comment

In the annals of unforgettable people I’ve interviewed and profiled, UNO’s retired director of Center for Afghanistan Studies and dean of International Programs and Studies Tom Gouttierre ranks right up there. This is my new profile of him for the March 2017  issue of the New Horizons published by the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging. Look for it at newstands and for subscribers in your mailbox starting Feb. 27.

My first encounter with this irrepressible man came some 20 years ago and I’m still recovering from it. I mean that as a compliment.  You see, Tom fills up a room with not only his big frame and personality, but with the breadth of his life experience and the depth of his passion for things he cares about. Because he is a citizen of the world and considers his second home to be Afghanistan, where he lived and worked nearly a decade and that he made the center of his professional life,. he has an expansive view about things that you don’t run into every day. He’s seen things most of his fellow native born Americans haven’t.  That translates into him apprehending the world in terms most of us don’t or can’t because we don’t have his experience or expertise. He even shakes hands differently than most of us. He calls its an international handshake. His immersion with Afghanistan, first as a Peace Corps volunteer, then as a Fulbright Fellow, then as director of the Fulbright program in Kabul and finally as director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, he became an official ambassador to that country. He has many close friends who are Afghan. You can’t turn around in his Dundee home without seeing something from there. That first meeting I took with Tom was for a long interview I did to inform a cover profile I wrote about him and his love affair with Afghanistan. His affection for that nation and its people runs deep and it’s safe to say his thoughts are never far from there and them. The article I did all that time ago contrasted the veritable paradise that the peacetime Afghanistan was in the 1960s and early ’70 with the devastated shell the invading Soviets left it in. Like the millions of refugees who fled their homeland, Tom has despaired that his dream place has been so violently disrupted and shattered during three-plus decades of ongoing chaos, terror, violence and war. Like some of the Afghan people, he’s never stopped hoping and trying to do what he can to stabilize and rebuild the infrastructure. His UNO Center conducted many education programs with Afghans in exile and with resident Afghans. Tom served as a top U.S. advisor on the country. He retired from UNO from 41 years but the center’s work continues and his personal interest in and connection to Afghanistan remains strong.

Here’s a link to that earler story I did about him–

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/19/in-search-of-a-lost-dream-an-americans-afghan-odyssey/

 

 

 

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Tom Gouttierre

 

 

Love affair with Afghanistan and international studies affords Tom Gouttierre world view like few others

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in the March 2017 issue of New Horizons

 

Life changing

On the surface, Tom Gouttierre led a parochial Midwest life growing up in post-World War Ii America. By the time he was at Bowling Green State, he expected a traditional, stateside education career awaited him. Little did he imagine the far-off places his work would eventually lead, first as a Peace Corps volunteer with wife Marylu, then as a Fulbright Fellow, and finally as longtime director of UNO’s Center for Afghanistan Studies and dean of International Studies and Programs.

Gouttierre retired in 2015 after 41 years doing jobs he loved. His work brought him into contact with U.S. presidents, secretaries of state, ambassadors, generals, foreign leaders, geo-political intrigues and momentous events. But what he most enjoyed was interacting with International Studies students. Some came from all corners of the globe and others right from his own backyard.

“The thing driving me more than anything else was advising those International Studies majors – young Midwest kids very much like I was wanting to learn and work in the world,” he said. “I was so inspired regularly to be with these young dynamic students who wanted to do something, It was that more than any one thing that kept me working until age 75. That, and the fact that I’d step outside my door and be surrounded by students from all around the world.

“I had what I think most people who are interested in higher education and global affairs would have to be described as the dream job. I got to deal on a daily basis with hundreds of international students. They inform you even by their presence, they inform our students, they stimulate education. It’s really dynamic and so much fun.”

When Gouttierre came to UNO in 1974 after a decade of living and working in Afghanistan the university had fewer than two dozen international students and only one international program. When he left four decades later there were more than 2,000 international students and scores of programs.

The center’s work its first decade-and-a-half revolved around a donated archive comprising the largest collection of Afghan cultural material and documents outside its borders. The center’s role broadened after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. With the country in tatters and millions of Afghans in refugee camps, the center tasked itself with rebuilding that Central Asian nation’s education infrastructure. Meanwhile, UNO’s Intensive Language (ILUNO) program gave the University of Nebraska at Omaha a global presence as students from diverse nations came for intensive training. Gouttierre’s experience and expertise made him a go-to U.S. government advisor and media source. During his tenure, the center managed some $120 million in federal contracts and grants.

He was part of high-level, secret negotiations for the Soviet Union to exit Afghanistan after its failed invasion. He oversaw programs that trained hundreds of Afghan residents and refugees in learning English. public administration and advanced teaching skills. Some of those trained by UNO. either here or overseas, became key players in Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy. Long before Hamid Karzai became president of Afghanistan, he and Gouttiere knew each other. Another  close personal friend is current Afghan president Ashraf Ghani – a former student of Gouttiere’s. The American’s Dundee home is filled with artifacts from his and Marylu’s time there, including collections of rugs and mortars and pestles. Their home features arches reminiscent of Middle Eastern design and a solarium with a running fountain.

It’s ironic Gouttierre ended up being a citizen of the world because he barely left his native Ohio before age 25. In 1965 he took his first airplane trip anywhere – to Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul. It was home to Tom and Marylu for may years, Adam, the oldest of the couple’s three sons, was born there, The country, the culture and the people fundamentally changed the course of Gouttierre’s life.

“I learned their language and culture to an uncommon degree and the reason I did is because i liked them so much,” said Gouttierre, who’s fluent in Dari. “I learned the language well enough to write poetry in their tongue and to have it published there.”

He went first as a Peace Corps volunteer, then as a Fulbright Fellow and eventually he headed the Fulbright Foundation there. He also coached amateur basketball teams, even the Afghan national men’s  team. He once enlisted the advice of the Wizard of Westwood, UCLA coaching legend John Wooden, on how to run his famous zone press. When the Afghan nationals upset the Chinese, Gouttierre got carried off the court by jubilant players and fans chanting, “Mr. Tom.”

His immersion was as deep and complete as possible for an outsider. His interest in and affection for the people has never wavered and has been reciprocated in kind.

“They’re so warm and receiving and supportive. Afghans are the most hospitable people I’ve ever met in my life anywhere around the world and I’ve met wonderfully hospitable people In Japan and elsewhere. But Afghans, who have probably far fewer resources to extend in their hospitality, are heads and shoulders above everybody in their belief in their hospitality. Anybody who tries their language or knows their history is embraced by them and the more one knows these things the more one is drawn to learn more. I still enjoy that very much.”

“It’s important to know what the people are like.”

He admires the fierce, proud nature of Afghans who have famously taken up arms throughout history to repel enemy invaders in defense of their homeland and autonomy.

“They’re one of the most independent-minded people in the history of mankind. They defeated the British empire three times, they beat back the Soviet empire. They’re resilient.”

They’re also grateful to anyone who assists their aspirational dreams.

“Afghans would demonstrate and plead with the Ministry of Education to have Peace Corps volunteers teach them English in their schools.

They loved it. They were going through a democratic change at the time. They had a constitutional parliamentary monarchy with a new constitution that took control out of the military state. It was a remarkable thing that roughly coincided with the time I was there.”

 

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Tom Gouttiere holding his oldest son Adam in Afghanistan

 

 

Before and after

In more recent years, Afghans have sent teams of teachers and journalists to Omaha for intensive training. But progress is slow in this tortured era of terror attacks. Reconstruction needs are vast. Corruption, rampant. The nearly nonstop fighting of these last 30-plus years has left Afghanistan in tatters. The devastation and loss is a far cry from the veritable paradise Gouttierre once experienced there.

“When I lived there it was a dream place,” he said wistfully. “It was the ideal place to serve as a foreign service officer. I got to know the Afghans and I got to know them intimately. And I knew everybody because I was there 10 years and I coached basketball. It’s a small town country. So it was ideal.

“Female Peace Corps volunteers like my wife could bike anywhere all by themselves without any fear for security. In fact, the country was charged with protecting these Americans. There were messages on the radio saying, ‘These are our guests,’ all while radio Moscow from antennas in Tashkent (Uzbekistan) beamed in that we Peace Corps volunteers were handmaidens of the CIA.”

None of this seemed a likely landing spot for this child of 1950s mid-America. But beneath the cookie-cutter facade of muscle cars, rock ‘n’ roil lyrics and school proms Gouttierre pined for adventures far from home. He wasn’t sure how to make those yearnings reality until John F. Kennedy laid out a vision for the Peace Corps during his 1960 presidential campaign and encouraged young people to serve their country and the world in his 1961 inaugural address. The vision sparked a sense of wanderlust in Gouttierre that dovetailed with America looking beyond its shores to win hearts and minds during the Cold War.

Coming of age in Maumee, Ohio, Gouttierre followed his devoutly Catholic, hard-working Belgian-American family’s lead by going to church and cheering for their beloved Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Detroit Tigers. His sports passion continues unabated today. He also follows Indiana and Creighton University basketball and UNO hockey. He’s a Mav season ticket-holder.

His father hailed from a long line of glass blowers but became a master baker. Tom worked in the family bakery from the time he was a boy and mastered the craft himself. Generations of Gouttierres emigrated to the States and Tom became enamored with his grandparents tales of the old country.

“I would constantly ask my grandparents and great grandparents about these things. I knew about Belgium. I was aware of the rest of the world. So I always had this interest.”

He studied maps and globes. He devoured books.

“I loved to read from The Book of Knowledge (children’s encyclopedia).

I was a curious kid. If I didn’t love sports i would have been a geek. We didn’t have geography bees but I would have loved to compete in them. I knew where the Zambezi River was and all these things.”

He loved foreign languages. One grandmother spoke only French. He went on to learn French. Latin, German, Russian and Dari.

None of his international experiences may have happened though if not for JFK’s clarion call to serve.

“I was 20 year-old college undergraduate when John Kennedy gave his address. It was THE momentous political moment in my life. Here was this rock star with a message drawing upon the angels of our nature, not the devils, that really appealed to the values Americans were feeling. It was revolutionary, too, because he was the new generation. He had just replaced one of the oldest presidents (Dwight D. Eisenhower) we ever had. He was calling for this new frontier.”

JFK’s challenge to Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” and to to the world – “ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man” – was a call to action Gouttierre couldn’t ignore.

“It was a tremendous opportunity. Marylu and I were dating then. It really inspired us. I went into grad school, I graduated and we went into the Peace Corps as a married couple. My passions were driven and still are by that particular message. It’s the greatest generational message any American leader has given other than FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt), who took us out of hell with “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” and Lincoln who implored us to behave “with malice toward none, with charity for all…”

“I am forever indebted to the Peace Corps and the Fulbright program.”

 

Tom GouttierrePeace Corps volunteers at a 1965 event outside a Kabul orphanage. Tom Gouttierre and wife Marylu are in the background along with Omaha educator Howard Faber.

 

 

A new era

Gouttierre said new U.S. President Donald Trump’s desire to build walls and ban immigrants is “so insular” by comparison.

He said Trump’s executive order travel ban has only inflamed immigration fears and frustrations.

“People are up in arms over immigration but Congress does nothing. What Trump has done through executive order is bring a tension. I don’t think his order was well-advised and I don’t think the content of it was appropriate to the task. The other thing I’m concerned about is that this kind of decision hurts our long-term trade and other political and cooperative relationships we have with numbers of these countries. We need the collaboration of many of them to help track down and vet individuals.

“What we need to have is improved vetting – there’s no question about that. I don’t think the vetting process now, though not totally unsuccessful, is as efficient and sufficient as it needs to be. It’s

chronically underfunded, understaffed and just not able to keep up with the demands.”

He said another unfortunate result of the ban will be the adverse effect it has on international student populations around the United States.

He favors rigorous trade negotiations that benefit America, but fears  too hard a line might touch off trade wars that prove harmful.

“There’s all kinds of things we do we’re not going to be able to do or afford if we have trade wars,” he said. “We’ve got to think what this is going to do to our personal economies and our relationships with colleague nations and trading partners. We’re able to have the good life in Nebraska as we call it because Nebraska markets abroad.”

Among the many challenges Trump faces, he said.is is putting together an effective cabinet team that can help him effectively govern.

“Frankly, his team isn’t all that bad. They may think differently than I do, butt they’re all quality individuals.”

Regarding what Trump’s foreign policy looks like, Gouttierre said, “He’s somewhat of a blank canvas. We don’t know yet. He appears to be an individual who doesn’t create policy based on policy study or things of that nature. He hasn’t yet shown that. But he has indicated he wants to keep the U.S. strong and there’s no way we can keep the U.S. strong and not continue to be concerned with how the events in Afghanistan have an impact on our interests in that region of the world.”

For going on two decades American lives and resources have poured into Afghanistan to fight terrorists who’ve used that country as a staging ground and safe harbor. Every day Afghans want the terrorists out. The average Afghani gladly accepts America’s help in restoring the country to normalcy. But they warily watch for any signs American commitment is wavering. It’s happened before.

“Ashraf Ghani and President Trump have had a conversation and they both pronounced it as having gone well,” Gouttierre said. “We’ll see. I think at this stage most Afghans are just hanging loose. Believe me, Afghans at the common citizen level have a keen knowledge and focus about what’s going on in the United States than a great number of Americans because they know what happens here has major impact on their lives and their future.”

Gouttierre feels America’s relationship with Afghanistan has mostly been positive and well-received in each country.

“I think most Americans were very supportive of everything we were doing in Afghanistan after 9/11. They were also supportive before that when the Soviets invaded the country and we gave the Afghans weapons to resist them.”

UNO’s Afghanistan center took a lead role in educating the nation.

“Our center had funds to teach Afghan refugees, who number in the millions in Pakistan. After 9/11, the same thing – our center helped reopen the Ministry of Education and we prinedt books, supplied schools and trained teachers.

“We had an intimate relationship.”

By UNO bringing Afghans here over so many years, he said, a real understanding of that nation and its people developed.

.”In Nebraska we probably have a higher percentage per capita knowledge of Afghanistan and the people of Afghanistan than any other part of our country.”

Visiting Afghan teachers, for example. participated in programs in Omaha, Lincoln and host cities across the state.

“Nebraskans knew about them because they were seeing them and meeting them and loved them and developed intense relationships with them, so there were these good feelings.”

 

Different strokes

Relations between the nations changed once the war on terror began.

“Things started to kind of deteriorate after the invasion of Iraq” and the subsequent war in Afghanistan, Gouttierre said. “People say the war in Afghanistan is our longest war. I really resent that. It is not accurate historically. The longest by far and away was the Cold War. It required us to be intense and focused throughout in our competition with the Soviets and the Chinese. Nearly 50 years we had that.

“This is not a war against Afghanistan, it’s a war within Afghanistan

that’s a part of the greater global war against terrorism. Like the Cold War, it’s ideologically-driven and it’s going to take a solid long-term commitment to deal with it and put it out. It’s not going to just go away.

It’s going to require taxes. The biggest mistake George W. Bush made after going into Iraq was that he tried to run that war without taxing. You can’t have a war without taxes. And what did it do? It broke our national banks and we wound up with 2008 (recession).”

Afghanistan being a battleground in the war on terror, he said,

“unfortunately has infused a negative opinion about our experiences there.” He added, “Quite frankly, most of the enemies we’re fighting are in Pakistan. They go back and forth. It’s not the Afghan people.

Well, some of them. But that’s not the war – the war is against terrorism, Al Qaeda, Isis.”

The U.S. wouldn’t even be in Afghanistan militarily if Osama Bin Laden hadn’t sought refuge and established terror training camps there.

“Now we’re in this situation which is unfortunate,” he said. “They’re our closest allies in that whole region. They really want us there. Think about it. How many of the other countries really want us?”

Gouttierre rues America abandoning Afghanistan after it’s remarkable defeat of the Soviets.

“What happened was in ’89 we dumped Afghanistan. The Soviets had left and then the USSR collapsed. Then every nefarious group in the world went into a country which had no governmental structure, so it became the dump for all the drugs. When Marylu and I lived there we never saw a field under cultivation with opium poppies. That’s all post-Soviet invasion.”

Bin Laden was among those who exploited the vacuum of power.

“He went there to fight the Soviets like a great many else did, then he went home to Saudi Arabia, where he was a citizen. although his family was originally Yemeni. They’re a very successful family worth billions of dollars. When Saddam (Hussein) invaded Kuwait, Bin Laden went to the Saudi government and said, ‘Let me bring my Afghan Arabs,’ meaning those who fought against the Soviets, ‘and we’ll drive Iraqi forces out.’  On the other hand, there was the whole United Nations coalition and Saudi Arabia went with that.

“A disgruntled Bin Laden went public about the corruption of the Saudi government and monarchy, calling them the handmaidens of the West.

He was very vocal about this and he got kicked out and his passport taken away. He fled to Sudan. The Saudis put pressure on the Sudanese to kick him out, so he went where he knew – back to Pakistan and then Afghanistan. That was in 1996. He went to Afghanistan because there was no government there. He was allowed and welcomed by the Tallbs.

“He arrived just a few weeks before I did as a member of the United Nations Special Mission to Afghanistan.. I was the senior political affairs advisor for that mission based in both Pakistan and Afghanistan to try to bring the Taliban and the Northern Alliance together. The Pakistanis were constantly trying to undermine it, so it didn’t happen. They were supporting the Taliban.”

In his advisor role Gouttierre was tasked with building profiles on Bin Laden and the Taliban.

“These were both things about which i didn’t know much because they were new dynamics.”

He soon learned they posed a dangerous threat with clear intentions on attacking America.

Gouttierre never met Bin Laden but he did see his caravan pass through a Kandihar bazaar.

“I was walking in Kandahar and all of a sudden the bazaar went silent and there was a small convoy of SUVs that went through and everybody chanted, ‘Osama, Osama, Osama.’ Everybody knew who he was because he was putting money into Afghanistan. He had billions to do that. So I didn’t see him eye-to-eye but I saw his presence. That’s as close as I got.”

Gouttierre feels the U.S. hung Afghanistan out to dry after the Afghans drove out the Soviets,

“We switched administrations – we went from Reagan to Bush I. He and his secretary of state, James Baker, “saw great opportunity with the collapsing of the Soviet Union to ensure Russia would not come back as the Soviet Union again. That’s what their focus was. What Afghanistan needed, which I think it deserved, was some type of Marshall Plan. They were our allies fighting against the Soviet Union.

We owed them. They’re the ones that died.”

He said America’s failure to have a cohesive policy concerning Afghanistan and its fate proved costly.

“We didn’t understand how this would come back and bite us. We owed the Afghans something. That country was left in total destruction.

We talk about the tremendous refugee crisis now in Syria  Why?

Because they’re going to Europe and they’re coming back to us.

Afghanistan had 7 million of its citizens outside of the country. There were 5 million in Pakistan, another 2.5 million in Iran. They lost over a million people in the war with the Soviets. We’ve forgotten that. Our memories are very short.

“So what happened? It came back and bit us in the butt. We dumped them and 12 years later we had 9/11.”

He suggests much of the chaos could have been prevented.

“We didn’t help the Afghans reconstruct their infrastructure. There were a lot of refugees in Pakistan and Iran who could have come back and helped to put something together. When we did start to help after 9/11, we blew it. We spend a lot of money and want immediate results. What does that bring? It brings mistakes, corruption, lost money.

The U.S. had $20 billion unaccounted for. Nobody knows where it is.

“The whole Muslim world was watching how we did it and we really messed it up. Now were trying to help the Afghans build out from under the mess our chaotic approach of throwing money and demanding quick results produced.”
Parween Arghandaywal pronounces words during English class at the University of Nebraska Omaha for visiting Afghan teachers in 2002. (Omaha World-Herald Photo by Bill Batson, used by permission)

Parween Arghandaywal pronounces words during English class at the University of Nebraska Omaha for visiting Afghan teachers in 2002. (©Omaha World-Herald Photo by Bill Batson)

 

Afghan women arrived in Omaha under the sponsorship of the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Saleemah, a teacher from Kabul and wearing a scarf is hugged by Masuma Basheer, an employee of America West Airlines in Omaha and a formerly from Afghanistan. (Omaha World-Herald photo by Bill Batson, used by permission)

Afghan women arrived in Omaha under the sponsorship of the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Saleemah, a teacher from Kabul and wearing a scarf is hugged by Masuma Basheer, an employee of America West Airlines in Omaha and a formerly from Afghanistan. (©Omaha World-Herald photo by Bill Batson)

 

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Tom Gouttierre conferring UNO honorary status on Hamid Karzai during the then-Afghan president’s visit to Omaha

 

Finding an unlikely home for pursuits and passions

Gouttierre made Nebraska a haven for Afghans but he nearly didn’t come here himself. He was running the Fulbright Foundation overseas when he and Center for Afghanistan Studies founder Chris Jung, whose father was part of an Indiana University team in Afghanistan, began doing exchange programs. Then Jung died and UNO courted Gouttierre to take the open post. He told UNO officials no three times. He finally went to a trusted mentor, then-U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Theodore Eliot, who told him, ‘fI they offered me that job, I’d leave this job and take it.” Are you kidding me?” Gouttiere asked.

Eliot laid it out for him:  “You love afghanistan, you love international education exchange – this is your way to go back to the United States.”

“I thought about it,” Gouttierre said, “and on April 1, 1974 I sent a cable to the head of the search committee that read, ‘This is no April Fool’s joke…I accept. I’ll report 1st of August.'”

Upon their arrival, the Gouttierres were struck by the welcome extended them and by the support that helped the center and international studies and programs rapidly grow.

“There was such an interest, such an enthusiasm in Omaha, more than we could have expected. It was really something we could have only dreamed for, hoped for,” Gouttierre said.

Under the leadership of chancellors Ronald Roskens and his successor Del Weber UNO caught the nascent wave of globalization. The university went from having a limited international presence to being a national leader in global engagement.

“Our whole experience here from the very beginning was overwhelmingly positive. It never ended and it still hasn’t. There was real receptivity and that’s what made it so wonderful.”

Sister University relationships were formed. The intensive language program, he said, “took UNO’s name all around the world. People came to Omaha, Nebraska to study intensive English. When I got here in ’74 the challenge was to get people to come to Omaha, Nebraska. We didn’t have agriculture. We didn’t have dorms. Well, we started an intensive English language program and it became one of the largest, most highly regarded ones in the Midwest. We became a leader.”

Former UNO chancellor Del Weber said, “Tom took a fledgling program and built it into an outstanding Center for Afghanistan Studies and International Studies known throughout the country. He combined a deep intellectual knowledge of the MIddle East with an on-site practical understanding of Afghanistan, Forty-one years ago few in Omaha would have known how to spell Afghanistan yet find its place on a map. It was a forgotten county. Countless Nebraskans are now well informed. That is no rare feat.”

Introducing his adopted state to the country that adopted him and that captured his heart has been satisfying. Being part of the inner workings to get the Soviets out was stimulating. His last trip to Afghanistan was in 2014 and he hopes to return again.

He’s grateful for the support subsequent UNO administrators continued showing the center and international studies and programs. He’s appreciative, too, of the strong team around him that made extensive travel to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Washington D.C., for example. possible. UNO’s partnerships with Kabul University are particularly close and varied, including a journalism exchange program between faculty and students from each institution.

Weber marvels at what Gouttierre wrought.

“I admire Tom for his grasp of the Middle East and Afghanistan, his sharp focus and his single-minded emphasis on that area. All of his time, effort and knowledge was given to building that program he was brought to build at UNO. He stood up for it, fought for it and succeeded in making a superb program known nationally and internationally.”

Weber got to see Gouttierre in action on some overseas trips they made together.

“My many travels with him told me much about his work. He was a man who knew how to play and work hard. On one of our trips to Pakistan we convinced the American consul In Islamabad to permit us to go into Kabul for a short trip to see our school programs in-person. The consul told us if we ran into any problems we were on our own as the U.S. government  would not provide any assistance.

“We stayed with the minister of protocol, who insisted I sleep in his bed. As I crawled in, I felt a pistol under the pillow. Since there was no electricity, I gingerly put the pistol on the floor. In the morning I discovered it was loaded. He told me no one in Kabul was without his pistol in bed. We went to the airport to catch a Red Cross airplane back to Islamabad only to discover it had been grounded due to shelling at the airport. Again we stayed with the minister. That night in the city under siege was a long one. I wondered if we would ever get back.”

Even as Gouttierre’s profile increased and opportunities to go elsewhere emerged, he said, “I never, ever considered leaving Omaha. I love being in Omaha. The luckiest break of my life was to say yes to come to UNO and Omaha in 1974.”

His cozy ties to the U.S. State Department aroused suspicions in some quarters he was a CIA operative but he flatly denies it. While he did get push-back from some colleagues, he said most UNO faculty and staff expressed support, as did alums and the Omaha community, for the center’s work. No student protests raised objections.

“In all the speeches I’ve given, and I’ve given so many, I’ve never had anybody ask a question or make a comment that was motivated by a sense of meanness. I had people disagree with me, but that’s alright –I like that, I like to have discussion and debate.”

 

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Tom Gouttierre relaxing at home

 

 

Stepping back and moving on

Though he clearly found his calling, Gouttierre said he always looked forward to retirement. He only worked as long as he did because he enjoyed his job. Now he’s enjoying that long anticipated retirement.

“My intent was to do more of the things I love to do with family and friends and that’s exactly what I’m doing.”

He’s taking his family to Lakeland, Florida to cheer on the Tigers at spring training. He said a day doesn’t go by without he and his sons exchanging texts or emails about the club.

His love of fine dining, cooking, reading, conversation, movies and tinkering around the house keeps him plenty busy.

Wherever he is, whatever he’s doing, his joy tinged with sadness affinity for Afghanistan is omnipresent. That place is so very far away, yet reminders of it are everywhere in his life and home. The feelings and memories always near.

“I’ll never be able to set aside Afghanistan. That’s a passion of a unique nature. I learned so much about life by having the opportunity to live among them, broadening my horizons, enriching my appreciation of other peoples, languages, cultures. I gained greater appreciation of our country by having the chance to live abroad – the best kind of comparative education.

“These opportunities have made me a better informed and more sensitive person and appreciative of the many breaks i have had.”

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

 

Dick Holland remembered for generous giving and warm friendship that improved organizations and lives

February 8, 2017 Leave a comment

Dick Holland remembered for generous giving and warm friendship that improved organizations and lives 

Free-spirited entrepreneur gave with his heart and mind

Philanthropist’s gifts raised Omaha arts, culture, education health and public policy sectors

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the 2017 Metro Magazine Giving Guide & Event Book (https://issuu.com/metmago/docs/thegivingguideandeventbook2017)

 

Entrepreneur and philanthropist Richard D. Holland lived life large. Not in an ostentatious sense. He was too Midwest modest for that. Rather he lived out loud in a make-the-most-of-every-moment way that endeared him to many.

The Omaha native fit loads of living into his 95 years. A Unitarian and a liberal, he wore his beliefs on his sleeve and was unapologetic about it.

This benevolent, bellowing, love-to-laugh and make-you-laugh mover and shaker got much done in his hometown. He was considered a builder who contributed to Omaha’s physical and cultural landscape through the public structures and quality of life enhancements his giving helped build.

The University of Nebraska at Omaha graduate first gained traction as an advertising whiz handling elite accounts through his own agency. He later entered the public sphere as a funder of major health, education and arts projects, public policy initiatives and political campaigns through his Holland Foundation. The art of persuasion he learned as a Mad Man era ad exec helped him coalesce support for things he put his heart and money behind.

 

 

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The making of the man

As a young entrepreneur he sowed his adventurous oats by trying bookmaking, ice house hawking, door-to-door selling and  riding the rails. He served in the U.S. Army chemical corps during World War II. He pitched for the University of Omaha baseball team. The world was his oyster and learning about it became a lifetime passion. The voracious reader accumulated a home library thick with biographies. He subscribed to and absorbed dozens of magazines ranging from science to sports to the arts. He read at least four newspapers daily.

He found an inquisitive soulmate in his wife Mary, with whom he helped raise four children: Dean, Barbara, Nancy and Mary Ann or “Andy” Holland, who said her playful father enjoyed a strong relationship with her mother that stood the test of time.

“Marriages are full of all kinds of things happening,” she said,

“and my parents were very committed to the marriage and very loyal to each other. It was a good marriage.”

The couple were together six decades before Mary preceded Dick in death in 2006. Perhaps their greatest trial came when their son Dean was killed in an auto accident.

“It was horrible,” Andy said. “I think that’s the first time I ever saw my dad cry. It was a terrible loss for my parents. It hit them very hard. It was a very difficult time.”

While no one ever really gets over losing a son or wife, nothing kept Holland down for long. He was too irrepressible for that. Despite tragedies and setbacks, he always rallied. He rarely met a day he didn’t welcome.

“He was always very forward thinking,” Andy said. “He never dwelt on the past. He would have wanted to go on living forever. I don’t know many people that feel that way. He never got tired of living because he was just interested in everything. It wasn’t really until the very end he decided, well, I’ve got to go.”

DickHolland1

Soulmate

He and Mary were a matched set but, Andy said, “they were pretty different.” “My mother was much more outgoing. My dad appeared outgoing but where you’d have to drag my mom out of a party, my dad would have his little social fix and then be ready to go. I think my dad was more the intellectual. My mother went more with her feelings. But they did complement each other in a lot of ways. They made decisions together.”

Former University of Nebraska Medical Center chancellor Harold Maurer feels a portrait of the couple on display at the Holland Performing Arts Center captures their bond. The painting “Opening Night 2005” by Debra Joy Groesser shows the pair seated intimately together at the center’s grand opening.

“The painting depicts the strong interdependence between Mary and Dick,” Maurer said. “She has her head on his shoulder. It’s such a warm, wonderful feeling – which is what they personified in life. They were marvelous together. They seemed to agree on everything they undertook. They completed each other’s sentences they were so close.”

Holland Children’s Movement and Holland Children’s Center director John Cavanaugh said of the couple, “Mary was protective of him. He was so open, you know. Anybody could call him up and ask him for money (his number was publicly listed). Mary was a little more skeptical of the world out there and protected him from his own vulnerabilities. They were a perfect team together and the Holland Center is a perfect memorial to both of them.”

Andy Holland said her mom’s death “was very devastating” for her father. “They were married 58 years and they had a wonderful time together, especially the last 20 years. He missed her very much and he was very sad about it. Somebody told me after my mom’s death he would probably follow her shortly, but he didn’t. My dad was an extremely resilient man. He picked himself up and moved on because that’s just how he lived. He was just always looking forward, acquiring new ideas, doing new things and finding new friends. It wasn’t that he didn’t love her but he wanted to live life – he didn’t want to just exist.”

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UNMC Chancellor Harold M. Maurer, M.D., left, and his wife, Beverly, with Richard Holland at a Nebraskans For Research luncheon to honor Holland for his efforts to advance research in the state.

 

A thirst for knowledge and getting things done

Nothing engaged him more than good conversation. He hosted a regular confab known as the Saturday Morning Gang. A faithful participant, author-essayist Rick Dooling, described it as “a cross between a literary salon and five old guys in a booth at the local diner,” adding, “Always fascinating banter with Dick as the maestro.” UNMC physician Dan Schaefer, retired film editor Mike Hill and photographer Pat Drickey completed the group.

Drickey said, “We would discuss the week’s events, including politics, art openings, movies, books we were reading and interesting stories from the New Yorker or the New York Times. Others made an appearance, like John Cavanaugh. Dick was very engaging and had a contagious laugh. Occasionally, he’d break out with his call of the loon. Thinking about it still brings a smile to my face. I think what Dick enjoyed about our company was the fact we were pretty much all down-to-earth native Omahans who’d reached the top of our professions.”

The Gang continues meeting. The group has an urn containing Holland’s ashes as a way of keeping his presence near.

His last few years Holland found a new companion in Marian Leary who gave him added reason to live.

He stayed connected to the people dearest to him, including Cavanaugh, an old friend who worked closely with Holland.

“I really miss the daily conversations I had with him,” Cavanaugh said. “He was just every day an inspiration in terms of things that needed to be done to mainly improve the lives of poor people in our community and across the country. We continue that work of improving early childhood care – a passion of his. Expanding access to quality care is a big part of our commitment. He was just a delight to have as a friend. He was a regular for Sunday dinner at our house. That was something he greatly enjoyed and we miss him tremendously.”

Following Holland’s August death a flood of tributes appeared. Recurring themes referred to his boundless generosity, caring, curiosity, intelligence, sense of humor and penchant for taking stands and speaking his mind.

Telling it like it is

His many admirers included daughter Andy Holland.

“He was courageous about speaking his mind and speaking out against things he thought wrong – no matter what it might have cost him. He was just never afraid to stick his neck out even when there could have been negative consequences to him. I know that’s relatively easy to do when you’ve got millions, but back in the 1950s he began an organization – Omahans for Common Sense – to counter McCarthyism. At the time he was a young man trying to build a business and had a wife and small children, so I think that was a very brave thing to do.”

Early Buffett Childhood Institute executive director Sam Meisels remembers Holland as “utterly unafraid,” adding, “He was such a strong and staunch defender of those things he felt right. He wanted to understand and he had an opinion. Anyone who knew him knew he wanted to share that opinion, and he always did. The critical thing was to hear him out because he did have a lot to say and there was a lot to be learned from him.”

Harold Maurer worked with Holland on several UNMC projects the philanthropist supported. Maurer recalled a particularly controversial area of research that he needed someone to champion and Holland jumped right into the fray.

“We were engaged in embryonic stem cell research early on

and we were getting killed by the press,” Maurer said. “I went to (then-Omaha World-Herald publisher) John Gottschalk and said, ‘John, I’m getting killed in the newspaper, what should I do?’ and he said, ‘Hal, you’ll hemorrhage for awhile but you’ll be okay.’ I spoke with (philanthropist) Mike Yanney and said, ‘I’ve got to know if the community supports what I’m doing or not,’ and he organized a breakfast I’ll never forget in his office with all the community leaders there, including Dick Holland.

“I asked them, ‘What do you think we should do?’ and someone said, ‘I think you should continue because we do not want to be last in Nebraska.’ I said, ‘Great, that’s the point. Now I’d like to ask one of you to head the development of an initiative to advocate this. They asked, ‘Who do you want?’ and I said, ‘Dick Holland.’ And Dick didn’t say not me or this or that, he said, ‘Sure, I’d be glad to take it on.’ That’s typical Dick Holland – willing to go to battle for the right things. He even came up with the name Nebraskans for Life Saving Cures.”

Holland didn’t stop there.

“He showed up at a very tense (University of Nebraska) Board of Regents meeting when that subject came up,” Maurer said. “Those opposed and those for the research were there. Dick came and spoke before the board on behalf of the research and I think that had a major impact on their decision.

“I miss his willingness to speak up about taboo subjects in Nebraska. I miss his advocacy for things that were right.”

Maurer recalled a time when he and John Niemann, senior vice president of the University of Nebraska Foundation, visited Holland at his home.

“We went to ask him for a gift for the cancer center. He knew why we were there, and he got up and said, ‘Excuse me, I’ve got to go to the bathroom.’ He left for the bathroom, came back and without a word from us he said, ‘Okay, I’m going to give you’ his amount of money.’ And that was it – without any kind of instigation from us at all. John Niemann and I looked at each other disbelievingly. He was that kind of person.”

As recipients of Holland’s gifts attest, “he took a personal interest in things and it was important for him to trust you – that was a big factor in his giving,” Maurer said.

Then there was his brazenness. A favorite hangout was the Happy Hollow Club, where Holland delighted enlivening the staid place. Maurer recalled, “Once, the leaders of an effort to recall the mayor were sitting at a table and he went over to them and said in a loud voice, ‘Oh, here’s a table full of fools.’ and walked on. Often, Warren Buffett would be in the corner by himself or with some dignitary. This one time, everybody’s quiet, they don’t want to bother him, so Dick gets up in the middle of the room and hollers, ‘Hey, Warren, how you doing?’ and that got the whole place stirred up.”

“Yeah, that’s the kind of thing he would do – he had a lot of chutzpah,” Andy Holland said of her father.

Not much surprised Andy about her old man but she said the general public probably didn’t know “he loved to cuss.” “He always swore a lot,” she said. “I mean, we all grew up with it, so it was no big deal. The grandkids were all a little shocked by it.

They were like, ‘Hey, Mom, you know what poppa said?'”

 

Image result for dick holland omaha

 

A caring heart for the less fortunate

He could be profane or profound but was above all compassionate. His passing left a gap in the local giving community. Those who benefited from that generosity appreciated how he targeted his wealth to support things he felt would make the greatest impact. He was renowned for getting others to give, too.

“He was so admired in the community that he just had to ask people to participate and they did, at whatever level he wanted them to,” Maurer said.

“He inspired a lot of other people to become more involved in creating a great community,” Andy said.

“He was a great man who was unique in every way. Just an unequaled kind of guy with a marvelous mind and such clarity of purpose,” said Maurer. “He did a lot for the Medical Center in terms of supporting the cancer center, stem cell research and a number of other activities as well. He was a founder of the Nebraska Coalition for Life Saving Cures and its president until he passed away.”

Holland exemplified the work ethic and resilience of the Greatest Generation by becoming a self-made man. Leavened by the Great Depression, he knew the value of a dollar and the gulf between haves and have-nots. Thus, he established the Holland Children’s Movement and Holland Children’s Center to study avenues for alleviating poverty and giving all children a good start in life. For him, the need for universal early childhood education was a social justice issue of utmost importance.

He found a noted ally and kindred spirit in Buffett Early Childhood Institute leader Sam Meisels.

“We talked about children and services to children and what the state and federal government could do to help children and families,” Meisels said. “We were certainly on the same wavelength there. He found it very hard to tolerate that any child’s potential was ignored or lost or not fulfilled. He always wanted to give everybody the best chance possible, and that’s how I feel, too. So we had a lot to talk about on that.”

Meisels recalled an event that highlighted Holland at his best.

“We had a symposium on the UNO campus with the Aspen Institute. On the stage I had three or four billionaires sitting next to me and the former governor of the state of Massachusetts. The moderator was the CEO of the Aspen Institute, who’s the former CEO of Time Magazine. There were questions from the audience and Dick raised his hand and he basically castigated everyone on that stage for not thinking hard enough about the fact children growing up in poverty need more than what we offered and considered. He made it very clear he thought we had missed the boat. He let us all have it. Well, that was a very Dick thing to do. He just never would hide his thoughts or pull his punches – and that was very foreign to people there.”

Holland backed his bluster with facts and action. Meisels admired him for doing his homework.

“He was absolutely very informed and when he didn’t know something he wanted me to send him articles to read. He wanted to know who to talk to in order to get the best information. He recognized when he didn’t understand and needed to know more and he wanted to do something about it.”

Omaha Performing Arts executive director Joan Squires said Holland was generous not only with his money but with his time and expertise.

“Dick was a great resource to go through a plan. He not only wanted to know artistically what we were doing but he knew the financials inside and out and he had a great in-depth working knowledge of how the organization operated. He actively participated in our board meetings, offered really great advice and was committed the entire time I had the opportunity to know him, which was 15 years.

“To be that vibrant and engaged and active was really a gift to all of us.”

Similarly, Meisels believes the totality of Holland’s contributions are what set him apart.

“He made a huge difference,” Meisels said. “You see it all around the city. Then there’s places you don’t know where to look even and if you know what he was committed to, there he is, too. He made a difference to everybody who came in contact with him personally. Not everyone loved him. Not everyone even liked him, I suspect. But those of us who were lucky enough to have a friendship with him, will never forget him.”

A social justice advocate

Just as he fought for children’s rights, Holland worked to repeal the death penalty in Nebraska and to raise the state’s minimum wage. He also backed many Democratic Party candidates.

John Cavanaugh knew his heart and mind as well as anyone.

“In the last 10-12 years we basically talked two or three times a day almost every day,” he said. “We worked very closely on public policy initiatives he was very passionate about. He was a terrific communicator and an inspirational voice and he would just go all out. A real goer and doer. He was still writing op-ed and letters to the editor at over 90 years old and still engaging in the political process, supporting candidates and causes.

“He was very strong in supporting the repeal of the death penalty in Nebraska. Up until his own death that was something he was proud the Nebraska Legislature had done and was supportive of the ballot effort to retain the repeal.”

Nothing though stirred Holland as much as early childhood and Cavanaugh said his friend play a key role in a major victory.

“Four years ago Nebraska reversed its position on providing prenatal care for undocumented pregnant women. Dick took up that cause and I worked with him in the Legislature to get that reinstated. It took the Legislature to pass legislation and then to override Governor Heineman’s veto. Dick was a driving force behind that effort and just felt passionately every child needed a chance to have a healthy start in life that begins with prenatal care. So we’re now one of six states in the country who provide publicly funded prenatal care for every expectant mother.”

Leveling the playing field for jobs and earnings also found Holland leading Nebraska to take progressive action.

“He spearheaded the effort to raise the minimum wage in Nebraska from $7.25 to $9. He did that as the primary funder for a ballot initiative that passed by over 60 percent – projecting Nebraska into one of the highest paying minimum wage states in the country, adding probably more than $250 million to the income of low income Nebraskans ” Cavanaugh said.

“After that passage a number of major national chains raised their own internal wage, so it had a huge ripple effect. He felt very strongly income inequality and the fact people work full-time and aren’t able to support their families was a critical issue of our time. He was very personally committed to addressing that, so we now have in Nebraska the lowest unemployment in the country and among the highest minimum wage.”

 

 

Making a difference

Andy Holland said her father “was very proud of some of the impact he was able to be a part of in education and in helping families and children in poverty.” “He really wanted to make  this a better place because he loved Omaha,” she said. “He lived here his whole life and wanted to make a difference here.”

Even after he found professional success and substantial wealth, Holland never forgot the values of his solid middle class upbringing. He also never lost the common touch with every day folks of whom he considered himself a most fortunate son.

Far from an all work and no play bore, Holland appreciated the finer things, especially the arts, and his giving reflected that. In making the lead gift for the Holland Performing Arts Center and contributing to the Orpheum Theatrer refurbishing he helped expand and enhance Omaha’s live arts scene.

OPA’s Joan Squires said the Holland Center actually fulfilled a long-held dream of the philanthropist’s to gift the city with a special venue.

“He had been committed to helping develop a performing arts center years before and the process never really got started until he and Mary were introduced by John Gottschalk to Sue Morris from Heritage Services. With their lead gift and John’s leadership all of this happened. Dick remained engaged, involved and passionate about our institution and the community from the time I first met him to the end of his life.

“One of the most meaningful things he said was that the Holland Center so far surpassed his expectations, He knew it would be beneficial for Omaha and the region but I think he did not understand the breadth and scope of what we would be able to accomplish. It really transformed the arts community here. He said, ‘I will always love it forever and it can only get better.’ It exemplified who he was – he just wanted to make this place a better community for everybody. And I know he took great pride in that and in how his and Mary’s philanthropic support and leadership encouraged others to join them and all of it came to fruition.”

Squires said both Dick and Mary were “very involved” in the design and construction process and she was “grateful” Mary had a year to enjoy the finished facility before she passed.

Despite their accomplishments, the Hollands remained humble.

“They were low profile, they were not looking for the spotlight, they just felt they were so fortune to have these gifts to share with others,” Squires said. “It really was never about recognition – it was about having a world-class performing arts center for Omaha.”

Andy Holland said her father enjoyed raising the city’s cultural profile.

“He was very proud of the impact he had on the arts in our community because of the tremendous difference it made,”

 

  • Holland is gifted a hockey jersey with his name on it during a parade outside his home, held in appreciation for his donation toward Baxter Arena.

  • Durango greets Holland at the parade.

  • Holland is recognized during Baxter Arena’s dedication ceremony.

  • Holland and Chancellor John Christensen share a moment during an early childhood education event held by the Aspen Institute and the Buffett Early Childhood Institute.

Enriching lives

Squires appreciated Holland the man, not just the philanthropist. “From the day I met Dick Holland I knew he was an extraordinary person,” she said of her dear friend.

She and her late husband Tom were struck, as others were, by his voracious reading habits.

“Tom and I would get him a book for his birthday or the holidays because what else could you get for him. We had to scramble to find something he hadn’t read that might be of interest, and it could be wide-ranging, on so many topics. We would comb the New York Times Best Sellers List to find just the right book. It was usually nonfiction, current events or historical and things he was engaged in. One of the books I gave him was about the Wright brothers and he read it cover to cover and loved it, because he just had to know how things worked.”

Heritage Services president Sue Morris worked with Holland on several brick and mortar projects he contributed to.

“Dick knew that facilities inspire excellence,” Morris said.

Even though he was a UNO alum she was “blown away” when he made the lead gift for the Baxter Arena – a sports facility. “Honestly, I think he got a kick out of doing something “different” and he was especially pleased the community ice rink was named Holland Ice. We didn’t know how to thank Dick for his generosity and he was beginning to be restricted in his trips, so we brought a parade to his home with the UNO marching band, the hockey players, convertibles with pretty ladies. He laughed and laughed and laughed. No plaque or crystal bowl or sign could have meant more to Dick than his very own parade.”

Just as Squires got close to Holland, so did Morris, and like everyone else who knew him, they miss his friendship.

“My life has been enriched in so many ways by Dick Holland. I miss him,” said Morris.

She and Squires said they will remember Holland always looking expectantly to the next step, the next phase, the next project and getting impatient if things didn’t move fast enough.

Following the old lion’s death a private memorial celebrating his life was held at the venue that meant more to him than any other bearing his name, the Holland Performing Arts Center.

Andy Holland said, “The final thing that closed out the memorial service was an opera duet with two sopranos called “The Flower Song” from the opera Lakme. It’s a beautiful song.”

That night she and some close friends of her father’s remembered the man they all loved.

“I was very touched by how many people really loved him. We had an awful lot of grown men crying. There were a few people we asked to say a few words and they just couldn’t.”

Rather than feel she had to share her father with others, Holland said, “I always thought my father enjoyed his life so much that I felt there was plenty of him to go around.”

Of that night, she said, “It was a wonderful tribute to him – I just thought it was perfect. My dad would have loved it.”

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

 

_________________________________________________

“He was always very forward thinking. He never dwelt on the past.. He would have wanted to go on living forever. I don’t know many people that feel that way. He never got tired of living because he was just interested in everything. It wasn’t really until the very end he decided, well, I’ve got to go.”

“He was courageous about speaking his mind and speaking out against things he thought wrong – no matter what it might have cost him. He was just never afraid to stick his neck out even when there could have been negative consequences to him.”

“He really wanted to make  this a better place because he loved Omaha, He lived here his whole life and wanted to make a difference here.”

“I was very touched by how many people really loved him.”

(Quotes by Andy Holland)

_ _ _

“He was just every day an inspiration in terms of things that needed to be done to mainly improve the lives of poor people in our community and across the country.”

He was a terrific communicator and an inspirational voice and he would just go all out. A real goer and doer. He was still writing op-ed and letters to the editor at over 90 years old and still engaging in the political process, supporting candidates and causes.”

(Quotes by John Cavanaugh)

_ _ _

“He made a huge difference. You see it all around the city. Then there’s places you don’t know where to look even and if you know what he was committed to, there he is, too. He made a difference to everybody who came in contact with him personally. Not everyone loved him. Not everyone even liked him, I suspect. But those of us who were lucky enough to have a friendship with him, will never forget him.”

(Quote by Sam Meisels)

_ _ _

“I miss his willingness to speak up about taboo subjects in Nebraska. I miss his advocacy for things that were right.”

(Quote by Harold Maurer)

” … he just wanted to make this place a better community for everybody. And I know he took great pride in that and in how his and Mary’s philanthropic support and leadership encouraged others to join them and all of it came to fruition.”

(Quote by Joan Squires)

_ _ _

“Dick knew that facilities inspire excellence.”

“We didn’t know how to thank Dick for his generosity (for making the lead gift for the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Baxter Arena) and he was beginning to be restricted in his trips, so we brought a parade to his home with the UNO marching band, the hockey players, convertibles with pretty ladies. He laughed and laughed and laughed. No plaque or crystal bowl or sign could have meant more to Dick than his very own parade.”

(Quotes by Sue Morris)

Tribute to educator who fired my passions for writing and film

December 7, 2016 Leave a comment

Tribute to educator who fired my passions for writing and film

©by Leo Adam Biga

Author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

 

Most of us, I suspect, end up doing what we do and loving what we love in large part because someone showed us the way or encouraged us to step out on a certain path that ended up being our calling or passion. In my case, the same person is responsible for nurturing  the two deep heart streams that run hard and fast in my life: my love for writing and for film. His name is Michael Krainak. The retired high school teacher now serves as the art editor for The Reader. If you follow my work, then you know that I have a long, strong relationship with The Reader as a contributing writer. Thus, Mike and I are colleagues today.

As most of you know by now, I make my living as an author-journalist-blogger. As a lifelong film buff I have never felt compelled to make a movie, though I would like to try my hand at a documentary one day. Instead, my cinema fix comes via watching movies and reading and writing about movies and the people who make them. While I am not a full-time film journalist, I write enough about the subject to qualify. My book “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” is now in its second edition. Before I ever began writing on film for pay, I was a film exhibitor-programmer-publicist at three nonprofits: the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where I received my journalism degree; the Joslyn Art Museum; and the New Cinema Cooperative. The latter, which also went by New Cinema Coop, was sort of the precursor to Film Streams in Omaha.

I took English, journalism and film from Mike at Holy Name High School in North Omaha. The high school closed years ago but the elementary school, which I also attended, is going strong after some struggles. Some years after I graduated Hold Name, Mike went on to teach at North High and just as Holy Name’s journalism program and student newspaper fared well in statewide competitions under him so did the program and paper at North.

Mike taught my two older brothers before me at Holy Name. Greg and Dan had him strictly for English. I was the only writer in the family and it wasn’t until I came under Mike’s influence that I gave any thought to the idea of pursuing writing as a field of study, much less a career. While my brothers and I all enjoyed movies growing up, I pushed that interest in some unexpected ways as a result of Mike opening a world of cinema possibilities to me I never knew existed.

Mike came into my life at a critical juncture. As a kid I rarely went to see movies at theaters. Virtually all my cinephile stirrings happened at home watching whatever was available on the three commercial networks, the three local network affiliates as well as on PBS and NET. Even with those seemingly limited options, I availed myself of a pretty wide sample of old Hollywood and foreign films in addition to more contemporary pictures from the 1960s and 1970s.

I remember the strong feelings and awakenings that particular films evoked in me.

“On the Waterfront”

“It’s a Wonderful Life”

“The Manchurian Candidate”

“The Red Shoes”

“Spartacus”

“Odd Man Out”

“To Kill a Mockingbird”

“A Thousand Clowns”

“The Producers”

“Bonnie and Clyde”

“The French Connection”

“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”

“The Quiet Man”

“Lonely are the Brave”

“Cape Fear” (the original)

And hundreds more.

At home, spellbound by the reverie of film’s magic, the intensity with which I felt movies often overwhelmed me. I didn’t yet possess the emotional maturity and the necessary vocabulary to articulate or even identify what I was feeling and thinking. I just sensed that these were important works of art that were somehow affecting and changing me. They were a huge part of my education about the world and about the human condition, though as I would come to find out no adequate replacement for actual lived human experience and interaction. I couldn’t really express to my parents, try as I might, the revelations and inspirations that films were feeding me. My brothers were both out of the house by the time I came of age through film and so I really couldn’t share these things with them either. Mike’s teaching affirmed for me that the very films I was reacting so strongly to were indeed essentials and that confirmation opened new horizons to my intellectual curiosity. He also challenged some of my assumptions and that process alone made me a more rigorous thinker and writer.

Mike’s film class was remarkable for any high school in America but especially for an inner city parochial school in Omaha, Nebraska. For starters, he screened an amazingly diverse mix of films that included pictures with very adult themes and R-rated content such as “Point Blank” and “Walkabout” and groundbreaking older Hollywood films only just being rediscovered then:

“Paths of Glory”

“Touch of Evil”

“Night of the Hunter”

It was important that I got exposed to these work when I did. It was equally important that Mike first introduced me to the vocabulary of film language in a focused way. I was so caught up in the whirl of cinema that within a couple years of starting at the University of Nebraska at Omaha I did something radical for someone as insular and insecure as I was by applying to be the chairperson of the Student Programming Organization film series. I ended up chairing or co-chairing that series for four years as a student and then continuing on as an unpaid graduate consultant for another eight or nine years. It meant programming, booking and publicizing the films as well as supervising their exhibition. In my 20s and despite my shyness I was appearing on radio and TV and giving print interviews to promote the series. It was a big program by the way. At its peak, we screened something like 75 to 100 films a year, showing a wide range of content from American and foreign classics to more contemporary pics. The reason I felt confident in doing it was the foundation that Mike laid for me in high school, which I made stronger by seeking out film books and magazines at the UNO Library and at the Omaha Public Library in order to advance my education about the art form. I once subscribed to three film magazines. I accumulated a fairly large private collection of film books. I also began paying close attention whenever a filmmaker or film actor was interviewed or profiled on television. All of it was an education for me, greatly informing my appreciation and understanding of cinema, past and present.

Mike ended up teaching film studies coursse at UNO. I took one of the courses and it was again a seminal experience, though not quite the revelatory rite of passage that his high school class had been. A fellow film buff friend and I would also sometimes attend private screenings Mike would hold at his home of some film he was passionate about us seeing. In that formative time in my young adulthood from ages 20 through 35 I more and more identified as a film buff and my circle of friends and I shared similar interests. In the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s I saw a whole lot of movies in theaters and on television – far more than I see today, though with Netflix I’m beginning to get back in the groove again.

I eventually evolved the SPO film series into a very different program that exclusively screened newer American and foreign films. many of them independent productions. We actually brought several films into town for their Omaha premiere screenings.

My efforts with the film series complemented and eventually supplanted my journalism studies at UNO. The assignments I wrote for class and for the UNO Gateway were not nearly as helpful to my development as a writer as were the many press releases and public service announcements I wrote and the brochure copy and film notes I wrote in support of the series.

Mike’s influence on me as a writer wasn’t as profound because that development came long after high school and even college. But thanks to Mike, I overcame my doubts and did follow his advice to study journalism. And if it wasn’t for that push, I would never have embreked on a career as a writer. My first real writing job was as head of public relations at the Joslyn Art Museum ,where fate reunited us because Mike ran a film series for the museum that I helped publicize. I also did some special film programming at the museum, including a Western film series in conjunction with River City Roundup. As my career transitioned into freelance writing, Mike continued to be an influence because I would attend some of the museum film screenings he presented and he attended some of the screenings I put on at the New Cinema Cooperative.

It was in the last year of the New Cinema Coop’s existence that we screened, on my recommendation, a student thesis film by a the unknown Omaha native and recent UCLA grad named Alexander Payne. His “The Passion of Martin” was showing at festivals around the nation and the world and getting high praise, not to mention getting him a deal with a major Hollywood studio. It was the first time I heard of him. We booked and exhibited his student film and five years later I did my first interview with him. Dozens of interviews have followed. 2017 will mark 21 years that I’ve written and reported about Payne and his work. During that time I’ve interviewed many other film artists from Nebraska and from well beyond Nebraska, including several legends and Oscar-winners.

Thanks to Mike, my cinephile leanings merged with my journalistic skills and I have since created a huge body of work that I have already turned into the book “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” and that I intend to turn into another book about Nebraska’s Screen Heritage.

It took me a long time but I came to a point of ever more identifying as a writer and associating myself with fellow writers. I enjoy interviewing and profiling writers. Just as an exercise, I recently culled through my mental and digital files to chart the number of writers of all types I have interviewed and written about over the years. Though the list I came up was surely incomplete I was rather startled to find thatIi have made something like 75 or 80 writers the subjects of stories. Some of these writers I consider colleagues and friends and they include leading literary lights.

The blessing and curse that has been my life as a lover of films and words is something I attribute to Mike. I told him that myself just the other night at a book event I was a part of and he reminded me that we ultimately all choose our own path. Yes, but it does take someone to nudge or guide us onto or along the path. Thanks, Mike, for seeing something in me and giving me a direction to follow. I don’t know where I would be without these two constant passions coursing through my life. You helped me find dual magnificent obsessions that have enriched me and given me my livelihood.

Tony Vargas beats the bushes for votes in pursuit of history

October 17, 2016 Leave a comment

South Omaha has been home to machine politics and to legacy families serving in elected office and other avenues of public leadership. Trying to break the mold is Omaha transplant Tony Vargas. The brash New York City native and son of Peruvian immigrants has made quite a splash on the scene since moving here in 2012 with his wife, attorney and South Omaha native Lauren Micek Vargas. He was soon appointed to the Omaha Public Schools board. He co-founded New Leaders Council Omaha. Now he’s running for the Nebraska Legislative District 7 seat. The bi-lingual candidate has been pressing lots of flesh and knocking on lots of doors to better know the constituents and issues he’s vying to represent. The majority of residents in that district are Latino. The demographics roughly parallel those of the Subdistrict 9 OPS Board of Education seat he holds until his term ends this year. Should he win his state senate bid, this outlier would be the first Latino from Omaha to serve in the Nebraska Legislature and only the second Latino ever to serve in the Unicameral.

 

Tony Vargas beats the bushes for votes in pursuit of history

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

 

Nebraska Legislative District 7 candidate Tony Vargas canvasses homes wearing shoes with soles worn to the nub. Even though his feet get wet on rainy days, he intentionally sticks with that same beat-up footwear.

“It is a reminder that if I’m not knocking on doors, I’m not doing enough,” said Vargas, 32. “There is no substitute for hard work. People in our community are working their tails off trying to provide for themselves and their families and so I should be doing the same thing, which means meeting people where they’re at. There’s no substitute for that type of engagement.”

This bilingual son of Peruvian immigrants is nearing the end of his Omaha Public Schools Board of Education term representing Subdistrict 9.,which encompasses the same heavily Latino South Omaha area as Legislature District 7.

The former New York City public school teacher knows what it took for his family to make it in America. His father is a machinist shop steward and leader in his local union. His mother worked on assembly lines.

“It wasn’t until later in life my family had some success. I’m fully aware of all the struggles and sacrifices my parents made and I carry that with me in everything I do. My parents emphasized it was great our getting closer to the middle class but it didn’t mean anything unless we were helping others do the same.”

A life of public service has followed for Vargas.

“My parents instilled you can’t sit idly by and watch. I worked with Habitat for Humanity all throughout high school doing builds in my community and across the nation. In college I did service work. I became a public school teacher in a lower income community because I wanted to be where it reminded me of places I grew up and where I felt my skills would be most impactful.”

He was a Teach for America adviser and Leadership for Educational Equity’s director of policy and advocacy.

His wife, attorney Lauren Micek Vargas, is a South Omaha native who was a pubic school special education teacher, She worked for Legal Aid Nebraska before joining the Douglas County Public Defender Office. The couple moved here in 2012 so Lauren could finish law school at Creighton University. They have a home in Little Italy and attend St. Frances Cabrini Church. In 2013 Vargas felt called to apply for the vacant OPS Subdistrict 9 board seat. He was appointed over three others to complete the position’s remaining term.

Vargas is now vying for incumbent Nicole Fox’s District 7 state senate seat that she won by appointment when Jeremy Nordquist’s vacated the office. Vargas decisively won the spring primary – taking 10 of 12 precincts – over Fox and runner up John Synowiecki, who is a past District 7 representative. Vargas and Synowiecki both registered Democrats, are facing off in the nonpartisan Nov. 8 general election.

If elected Vargas would be the first Latino state senator from Omaha and only the second ever in the Unicameral. The potential history is not lost on Vargas.

“To me it does mean something and since my district is one of the state’s largest Latino populations, the topic does come up. But what really comes up is how I’m working to earn people’s votes and respect. My wife and I have been knocking on doors for a year. People are excited we are working to understand what their lives look and feel like. Still, some people do remark, ‘And you’ll be the first Latino elected from Omaha to this office.’ and that makes it a little more exciting for them.

“As much as I want to be a voice for the Latino community, I’m serving all people-all populations in my district.”

Vargas said his melting pot experience dovetails with the “very diverse district” he seeks to serve.

“I have many different identities that matter to me: my Latino identity; my immigrant identity; my working-class labor family identity; my public service-public school teaching identity. All those things keep me grounded. One thing my background really taught me is that in our current system there are haves and have nots and it tends to be much harsher on communities in poverty and of color. If we don’t find pathways to support them, we’re not improving our entire city.

“The same real problems I saw affecting people in New York I see in my community now. There are pockets seeing some growth, strength and development. But I see the majority of people still struggling in similar ways to how my family did.”

He said people are voicing “concerns around barriers to accessing quality health care, housing and not making high enough wages or getting enough hours from employers. I am hearing about underemployment and unemployment and the impact it has on kids and families.” Education inequities at inner city schools is another pressing issue. He’s proud of the track record he and his school board mates achieved.

“I think what we’ve done on the school board is really a step in the right direction in terms of improving infrastructure and the safety of our schools, closing the achievement gap in our neighborhoods, improving community engagement, holding the district accountable to what we do well and what we don’t do well and passing a strategic plan.”

His campaign stresses voter education.

As a founding board member of New Leaders Council Omaha, he trains millennials to be Next Gen leaders like himself.

Visit http://www.vargasfornebraska.com.

“Nebraska Methodist College at 125: Scaling New Heights”

September 15, 2016 Leave a comment

UPDATE:
The evening of Friday, October 21, 2016  Pam and I attended the Nebraska Methodist College Reunion Dinner at the DC Center. It was my great honor to accept NMCs Honorary Alumnus Award in recognition of my work on the college’s just published history book “Nebraska Methodist College at 125: Scaling New Heights.” I co-authored the book with NMC President and CEO Dennis Joslin. It was a great project to be a part of and I am most grateful to everyone who contributed to it. Thst growing nursing and allied health college celebrates 125 years in 2016. NMC is known for its caring culture and I can attest to the fact that it is a community of warm, welcoming, nurturing faculty and staff deeply committed to educating, growing and mentoring health professionals. I came to the project with no healthcare or educational background and everyone I interacted with for the book went out of their way to make me feel at home and to catch me up to speed. That the college thought enough of my efforts to give me their highest award tells you something about how they practice mindfulness. The video that Peter Soby produced on me for the award presentation was very well done. The comments that Dennis Joslin made in introducing me were flattering. The whole evening was beautifully put together by Alumni Engagement Director Angela Heesacker Smith. Thanks to NMC marketing pros Elizabeth Billington and Marc Costanzo for their expert work on the book and for the great book display they set up in the lobby. The entire alumni reunion dinner felt like a family reunion. Indeed, I am told that an NMC Honory Alum is automatically a part of the college’s family for life. I am thrilled to have been adopted by this loving family and I look forward to many more reunions to come.

Happy to report that I have a new book being published this fall–

“Nebraska Methodist College at 125: Scaling New Heights”

It is the history of this highly respected and fast growing private college of nursing and allied heatlh located in Omaha. The book was written by NMC president and CEO Dennis Joslin and myself. We are proud to have told the story of the school’s remarkable ascent in a hardbound volume that we hope appeals not only to NMC alums, faculty, staff and donors but to the wider Methodist and Nebraska healthcare community as well.

The NMC story is one of vision, commitment, resiliency, courage amd innovation. Known for most of its history as Nebraska Methodist School of Nursing, the instution established itself early on as a leader in nursing education. From the start, its graduates have been highly sought-after. But as healthcare underwent great changes, schools of nursing conferring diplomas were losing standing and colleges of nursing granting degree were becoming the preferred model. The institution’s crucible test came in the 1980s. Many private nursing schools were closing their doors, either unable or unwilling to transition into colleges. NMC looked past the challenges of small enrollment, less than ideal facilities and the task of going from a school to a college to embark on the first of many ascents. The new heights scaled these past few decades have dramatically grown the student body, added many programs and degrees, built a new campus and positioned NMC as a leader in community engagement.

 

book-cover-large

 

Now, a century and a quarter after its founding, NMC has arrived at an historical peak that affords a grand view of the college’s rich past, dynamic present and  promising future. “Nebraska Methodist College at 125” charts the course of this persistent journey in excellence. Just as its partner Nebraska Methodist Hospital delivers the meaning of care, Nebraska Methodist College teaches the meaning of care. NMC graduates practice their nursing and allied health professions near, far amd wide. They are part of a rich legacy of students, facult, staff and alums who have contributed to the college’s success. Their voices and stories comprise a good share of the book.

To order “Nebraska Methodist College at 125,” contact:

Angela Heesacker Smith
Director of Alumni Engagement, Nebraska Methodist college
402-354-7256 or Angela.HeesackerSmith@methodistcollege.edu>

 

You know, it’s a funny thing about writing. There was a time when I could never have imagined myself writing books – this despite the fact that for many years I was one of the principal practitioners of long form journalism in this town. As I have come to find out, if you can write a compelling narrative in a 4000 to 6000 word newspaper or magazine article, then it’s really not much of a stretch to do the same in a 75,000 to 100,000 word manuscript.

Book projects are an increasing part of my writing life and career. The book projects I have done thus far have come to me in a variety of ways. I have colleague David Bristow to thank for recommending me to NMC for what became “Nebraska Methodist College at 125.” Some of my other books came as a result of journalism assignments I did.

“Nebraska Methodist College at 125” marks my fifth book. The others are:

“Open Wide: Dr. Mark Manhart’s Journey in Dentistry, Theatre, Education, Family, and Life”

“Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores”

“Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

“Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden”

I have a new edition of the Alexander Payne book out right now.

Visit my Amazon author’s page at:
https://www.amazon.com/Leo-Adam-Biga/e/B00E6HE46E

If there is a nonfiction book you want written about yourself, your family, your business, your creative work, then drop me a line here or via email at leo32158@cox.net or by calling 402-445-4666.

The Silo Crusher: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Trev Alberts

August 27, 2016 2 comments

Full disclosure: When the University of Nebraska at Omaha unceremoniously dropped the school’s highly successful football and wrestling programs five years ago, I took out my disappointment and frustration in some posts that might have read like rants. The posts were not written as a journalist trying to be objective but as a UNO grad, former UNO sports information staffer and lifelong Omaha resident who had grown close to both programs through my work as a journalist. My posts were my personal opinion and presented as such. The only time I wrote anything about those events in my role as a journalist was in a New Horizons cover story I did on Mike Denney in the immediate aftermath of it all. My siding with Denney definitely bled over into the story and I make no apologies for that because it was a passionate and honest response to a traumatic severing. My sympathies were entirely with Denney and I let him have his say, though he was actually quite tame in his comments, even though he was deeply hurt by what happened. I do regret not getting athletic director Trev Alberts and chancellor John Christensen to comment for the story, though I think I tried. If I didn’t, well then that’s my bad. As fate would have it, I was recently assigned to do a piece on the state of UNO athletics five years after those events and this time around the assignment called for me to tell the story from UNO’s point of view, which meant interviewing Alberts and Christensen. I must say that after talking to those two men, particularly Alberts, I have a mcuh better appreciation and understanding of why the deicison to eliminate the two sports was made and just how wrenching it was for them to make. I believe the rationale they lay out today is more telling than what they communicated then, but that may be a function of my not wanting to hear what they said before. I am sharing here the new story that I did for Omaha Magazine  (http://omahamagazine.com/). It’s featured in the Sept/Oct 2016 issue.

 

TrevAlberts1

The Silo Crusher

Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Trev Alberts

August 26, 2016
©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Illustration by Matt Wieczorek
Appearing in the Sept/Oct 2016 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

The story of athletics at the University of Nebraska at Omaha has fluctuated from wild success to heartbreak (and back). All-Americans, post-season runs, and national title traditions collided with mismanagement and sparse spectator attendance.

Then a fresh Maverick joined the fray. Trev Alberts—one of the most decorated defensive players in the history of Huskers football and a former ESPN anchor—took the mantle of UNO’s athletic director in April of 2009.

Tensions bubbled behind the scenes. Chronic budget shortfalls clashed with fractious booster relations. Although new to his administrative role, Alberts knew enough about balance sheets and group dynamics to recognize systemic disarray and dysfunction. “We were in trouble and we needed to find some solutions,” he says.

The current academic year marks five years since Alberts dismantled UNO’s beloved wrestling and football programs. Alberts looks back on his crucial decisions without regrets. But the “solutions” didn’t come easily. In 2011, the former football star had to cut the sport that defined his own athletic career.

He saw that the financial equation for UNO’s splintered athletic programs no longer worked. A struggling Division I hockey program could not prop up the remaining Division II programs. Even with a hefty university subsidy, low athletic revenue painted a bleak picture amidst rising costs.

UNO’s bold response was to transition its entire athletic program to Division I by joining the Summit League in 2011. Because the conference does not accommodate wrestling or football, those two sports had to go.

News broke with awkward timing. Maverick wrestlers had just clinched the Division II national championship for the third straight year. A few hours after their victory, UNO Athletics began reaching out to notify celebratory wrestling coaches of the grim news.

Public rancor ensued. Coaches and student-athletes of the winning programs were left adrift. History, however, has proven the difficult decisions were healthy for the university and its athletics department.

Alberts found a key ally in chancellor John Christensen. The man who had initially recruited Alberts promoted him to vice chancellor in 2014, thus giving athletics a seat at UNO’s executive leadership table. “There needs to be absolute integration and now we have internal partnership, collaboration,” says Christensen.

Five years have passed. Athletics programs are stable. Sport teams no longer operate in silos. Alberts dismantled the barriers to build a strong overall athletic department: “When I got here, it appeared we had 16 different athletic departments,” he says. “There was no leadership. We hated campus. The mindset was the university leadership were out to get us, didn’t support us, didn’t understand us. The athletic department would blame the university; the university would blame the athletic department. 

“Strategically, my job was to get on the same page as part of the university team. I asked John Christensen to define his goals. He said community engagement, academic excellence, and (being) student-centered. I had to explain to staff everything we do is going to try to help the university advance its goals and every decision we make, if it isn’t student-centered and doesn’t support academic excellence and community engagement, we’re going to ask ourselves why are we doing that.”

Since then, the athletic department has made major strides. The hockey team made the 2015 Frozen Four, men’s basketball contended for the 2016 Summit title and saw a 65 percent attendance increase, and other sports have similarly fared well. With added academic support, the cumulative student-athlete grade point average of 3.4 is among the nation’s highest.

Alberts says that cutting the beloved football and wrestling programs meant “a really trying time, but galvanized the department and the university.” He continues,“We came together as a university. This was an institutional decision. It wasn’t John and I in a corner room deciding. We had a lot of people involved.”

Even with unanimous University Board of Regents approval for the athletic department shake-up, emotions ran high among constituents opposed to the cuts. Despite pleas to save wrestling and football, Alberts says, “The data was going to drive the decision-making. We weren’t going to manage the outcome of a good process. We moved to Division I because the market had an expectation about what the experience would be like, and we weren’t able to meet that expectation.” Maintaining the programs, especially football, would have required larger expenditures at the next level and exacerbated the fiscal mess.

Everything was on the table during deliberations: “We looked at trying to stay at Division II and regaining profitability in hockey, we looked at Division III, we looked at having no athletics, and then we looked at Division I. The conclusion was Division I would bring us an opportunity to get at more self-generated revenue through NCAA distributions.”

It was all about athletics better reflecting the “premiere urban metropolitan university” that Christensen says defines UNO. As the strategic repositioning set in, academics flourished, new facilities abounded, and enrollment climbed. Christensen says going to D-I was “a value-add” proposition.

“We looked at our peer doctorate-granting institutions and they were all Division I,” Alberts says. “The real value an athletics department has to a campus is essentially a brand investment. You have alumni come back, you have student engagement. That’s really the role you play. We are the front porch of the university.”

What followed was the rebranding of UNO to associate more with Omaha and embrace what Alberts and Christensen call “the Maverick family.” The rebrand is encapsulated in the construction of Baxter Arena, a D-I sporting facility adjacent to UNO’s midtown campus that also provides a venue for community events.

The past five years were not without tumult. Some longtime donors withdrew financial support in response to UNO cutting wrestling and football. Businessman David Sokol reportedly cut part of his pledged donation in reaction. But donors have since returned in droves.

Van Deeb, another longtime booster and a former UNO football player, was initially an outspoken critic of UNO cutting wrestling and football. “My big disappointment was not that it did happen but the way it happened. Even being on the Maverick athletic board, we had no clue it was coming,” says the Omaha-based entrepreneur.

“But that’s in the past,” says Deeb. “I couldn’t be prouder of where UNO is headed as an athletic department and as a university. I’m 100 percent behind the progressive leadership of Trev Alberts and John Christensen. They’re all about the student-athlete and the future.”

Alberts realizes that some hard feelings linger. “We have people who I don’t think will ever be a part of what we’re doing, and I understand that,” he says.

Regardless, there was enough community buy-in that private donations reached new heights ($45 million) and helped build the showplace Baxter Arena. Alberts cites the construction of Baxter Arena as a tangible result of the move to Division I.

Deeb says Baxter Arena has propelled UNO to another level. “When you’re around campus or at a UNO event there’s a level of excitement I can’t describe,” he says. “It’s a great time to be a Maverick supporter.”

The arena has proven a popular gathering spot for greater Omaha. This past spring, some 100,000 people attended high school graduations there, a realization of the chancellor and Alberts’ desire for greater community engagement.

Although few of UNO’s current students remember what campus was like before the rebrand, that doesn’t mean that Alberts or his team have forgotten. They still recognize the historic importance that the canceled sports provided to the university.

In fact, Alberts joined Van Deeb and several other community leaders on a steering committee seeking to honor one of UNO football’s greatest athletes, Marlin Briscoe. “An Evening with The Magician,” will celebrate the school’s most decorated football player, an Omaha native and civil rights trailblazer, at Baxter Arena on Thursday, Sept. 22.

As a quarterback at UNO (then called Omaha University), the Omaha South High School grad set 22 school records (including 5,114 passing yards and 53 touchdowns during his collegiate career). Briscoe became the first African-American starting quarterback in the NFL during his 1968 season with the Denver Broncos. He played for several franchises during a nine-year NFL career, spending the majority of time in the league as a wide receiver with the Buffalo Bills. He won two Super Bowls with the Miami Dolphins.   

On Friday, Sept. 23, UNO will unveil a life-size statue of Briscoe on campus. Alberts says he envisions that the sculpture might be added to “a champions plaza” whenever the south athletics complex gets built-out. “This is not necessarily a UNO thing; it’s an Omaha thing,” Alberts says. “Marlin is a great person with a great story, and it’s been an honor to get to know him.”

Under Alberts’ leadership, the university does not seek to diminish the importance of those former storied programs. But he has to keep an eye toward the future. “I’m absolutely bullish on where we are today and where we can go,” says the optimistic Alberts. “We’re only scratching the surface. We are an absolute diamond in the rough.”

Visit baxterarena.com for more information.

TrevAlberts1

 

Girls Inc. makes big statement with addition to renamed North Omaha center


Girls Inc. of Omaha has added to the heavy slate of north side inner city redevelopment  with a major addition that’s prompted the renaming of its North O facility to the Katherine Fletcher Center. Though the center’s longtime home, the former Clifton Hill Elementary School building, remains in use by Girls Inc. and is getting a makeover, the connected 55,000 square foot addition is so big and colorful and adds so much space for expanded programs and new services that it is the eye candy of this story. Here is a sneak peek at my story for the June issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com) about what the addition will mean to this organization and to the at-risk girls it inspires to be “strong, smart and bold.” The $15 million project is another investment in youth, opportunity and community in North O on top of what has already happened there in recent years (NorthStar Foundation, No More Empty Pots, Nelson Mandela School) and what is happening there right now (Union for Contemporary Art getting set to move into the renovated Blue Lion Center, the North 75 Highlander Village under construction, the three new trades training buildings going up on the Metro Fort Omaha campus). But so much more yet is needed.

 

 

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North Omaha Girls Inc. makes big statement with addition

New Katherine Fletcher Center offers expanded facilities, programs

 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in the June 2016 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

A poor inner city North Omaha neighborhood recently gained a $15 million new investment in its at-risk youth.

The Girls Inc. center at 2811 North 45th Street long ago outgrew its digs in the former Clifton Hill Elementary School but somehow made do in cramped, out-dated quarters. Last month the nonprofit dedicated renovations to the old building as well as the addition of an adjoining 55.000 square foot structure whose extra space and new facilities allow expanded programming and invite more community participation. The changes prompted the complex being renamed the Katherine Fletcher Center in honor of the late Omaha educator who broke barriers and fought for civil rights. The addition is among many recently completed and ongoing North O building projects worth hundreds of millions dollars in new development there.

This local after school affiliate of the national Girls Inc. takes a holistic approach to life skills, mentoring, career readiness, education enrichment and health-wellness opportunities it provides girls ages 5 through 18. Members are largely African-American, many from single parent homes. Others are in foster care. Young girls take pre-STEM Operation SMART through the College of Saint Mary. Older girls take the Eureka STEM program through the University of Nebraska at Omaha. There are also healthy cooking classes, aquaponics, arts, crafts, gardening, sports, field trips and an annual excursion outside Nebraska. Girls Inc. also awards secondary and post-secondary scholarships.

The addition emphasizes health and wellness through a gymnasium featuring a regulation size basketball court with overhead track, a fitness room, a health clinic operated by the University of Nebraska Medical Center, a space devoted to yoga, meditation, massage and a media room. Amenities such as the gym and clinic and an outdoor playground are open to the public. The clinic’s goal is to encourage more young women, including expectant and new mothers, to access health care, undergo screenings and get inoculations.

Dedicated teen rooms give older girls their own spaces to hang out or study rather than share space with younger girls as in the older facility. Multi-use spaces there became inadequate to serve the 200 or so girls who daily frequent the center.

“I think we’ll see more teens in our programs because this expansion separates them from the younger girls and provides more opportunities to get drawn into our programs,” says executive director Roberta Wilhelm. “They may start as drop-ins but we foresee them getting involved in the more core programs and becoming consistent members. So, we think we’ll impact more girls and families.”

A big, bright, open indoor commons area, the Girls Hub, is where the brick, circa 1917 historic landmark meets the glass and steel addition.

“The design team showed great respect for how to best join the two buildings and for the importance of this space and for the social aspects of how girls gather and interact,” Wilhelm says.

The impressive, brightly colored, prominently placed new addition – atop a hill with a commanding view – gives the organization a visual equivalent to its “strong, smart and bold” slogan.

“It’s a big statement,” says director of health access Carolyn Green. “It speaks loudly, it brings awareness, it turns heads. People can’t wait to come through and see what is all in here.”

 

Roberta and Mychael

 

Before the open house program director Emily Mwaja referenced the high anticipation. saying, “I’m ready, the girls are ready, we’re ready for everything.”

Girls Inc. member Desyree McGhee, 14, says, “I’m excited for the new building. I feel it’s giving us girls the opportunity for bigger and better things and bringing us together with the community. I just feel like a lot of good things could come from it.” Her grandmother, Cheryl Greer, who lives across the street, appreciates what it does for youth like Desyree and for the neighborhood. “It’s just like home away from home. I have seen her grow. She’s turning into a very mature, respectful young lady. I think Girls Inc. is a wonderful experience for these girls to grow up to be independent, educated adults. The center is a great asset for them and the community.”

McGhee says Girls Inc. empowers her “to not just settle for the bare minimum but to go beyond and follow your dreams. It’s really given me the confidence to thrive in this world. They really want you to go out and leave your mark. I love Girls Inc. That’s my second family.”

Girls Inc. alum Camille Ehlers, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate, says caring adults “pour into you” the expectations and rewards youth need. “It was motivating to me to see how working hard would pay off.” She says she felt called to be strong, smart and bold. “That’s what I can make my life – I can create that.” Mentors nudged her to follow her passion for serving at-risk students, which she does at a South Side of Chicago nonprofit. Denai Fraction, a UNL pre-med grad now taking courses at UNO before medical school, says Girls Inc. nurtured her dream of being a doctor. Both benefited from opportunities that stretched them and their horizons. McGhee is inspired by alums like them and Bernie Sanders National Press Secretary Symone Sanders who prove anything is possible.

Wilhelm says, “Girls Inc. removes barriers to help girls find their natural strengths and talents and when you do that over a period of years with groups of girls you’re helping affect positive change. A lot of the girls are strong and resilient and have chops to get through life and school but if we can remove some barriers they will go so much farther and be able to accomplish so much more. We see ourselves in that business.

“If you help a girl delay pregnancy so she’s not a teen mom, it’s a health outcome, an education outcome, a job outcome, it’s all of those things, they’re all tied together. If you are feeding girls who are hungry that impacts academics and also impacts growing bodies. I do think our holistic model has become more intentional, more focused. We use a lot more partners in the community who bring expertise, We are all partners with parents and families in lifting up girls. The Girls Inc. experience is all these things but the secret sauce is the relationships adult mentors, staff and volunteers cultivate with youth.” Alums come back to engage girls in real talk about college, career and relationships. The shared Girls Inc. expereince creates networking bonds.

She says support doesn’t stop when girls age out. “Even after they graduate they call us for help. We encourage that reaching out. They know there’s someone on the other end of the phone they can trust.”Assistance can mean advice, referrals, funds or most anything.

 

Girls Inc. of Omaha

 

Everyone from alums and members to staff and volunteers feel invested in the bigger, bolder, smarter Girls Inc.

“It’s not just about the million dollar donors,” Wilhelm says. “We all have ownership in this. I always tell the girls, ‘The community invests in you for a reason. They want you to create a better future for yourself, to be a good student, to focus on education, to live healthy, to make good choices. They think you’re worth this investment.'”

She says there’s no better investment than girls.

“Girls make decisions when they grow up for their families for education and health. To the extent you can educate girls to make wise decisions and choices you really do start to see cycle breaking changes. How you educate girls, how you treat girls, how you invest in girls matters over time and we’re a piece of that, so we’re foundational.

The girls graduating college now are maybe going to be living and working in this community and hopefully be a part of the solution to make North O more attractive to retain the best and brightest.”

Visit girlsincomaha.org.

 
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