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Music is legacy and salvation for classical cowboy Hadley Heavin

September 25, 2018 Leave a comment

Music is legacy and salvation for classical cowboy Hadley Heavin

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the October 2018 issue of New Horizons

Hadley Heavin encountered a personal crossroads in the 1970s. He was a Vietnam War veteran with a background playing blues-rock guitar and competing in rodeo -– pursuits he thought he’d left behind. Little did he know he was about to embark on an improbable road less traveled as a classical cowboy.

He’s long taught classical guitar at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He also taught at College of Saint Mary, Creighton University, Union College and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He’s given countless master classes, residencies and recitals. He and his band Tablao were fixtures at Espana and Little Espana.

Forty-five years ago though he was adrift. It was a dark period of his life. The light in his life returned when he discovered classical guitar. He no sooner taught himself to play that style when, in storybook fashion, he was discovered by Spanish master Segundo Pastor. The maestro passed onto his protege the art form’s direct lineage from its multi-generational source.

Heavin lived nearly a year in Madrid, where daily lessons and hard work made this country boy weaned on American roots music a virtuosic classical player. The men’s lives were intertwined for a decade. Heavin healed and reinvented himself as a performer and educator, taking up riding and roping again.

Musical roots

Heavin’s life has a way of coming around in full circles. Growing up an all-around athlete and a musician in the Ozarks, he became known for both his horsemanship and musicianship. His grandfather, father and uncles all played guitar professionally – swing and jazz – and young Hadley emerged the family prodigy, playing with his father’s band before gravitating to blues and rock. He played some drums but guitar was his destiny.

“Making music was just something we did,” Heavin said, “I was a little freak because I could play really well. I grew up in an environment thinking everybody was like this. I couldn’t believe it when a kid couldn’t sing or carry a tune or do something with music.”

About his father, E.C. Heavin, he said, “I haven’t heard anybody any better than he was. I had a lot of admiration for the kind of music he played. He knew the guitar perfectly. He couldn’t read music, but he could walk up on stage and play anything. He was amazing.”

Hadley’s Uncle Frog still cuts some mean licks at 90.

Athletic ability was another birthright. Frog played pro baseball as did Heavin’s mother.

Losing himself in the war

Hadley made the football team at the University of Kansas as a walk-on and showed promise on the Midwest rodeo circuit. Then he got drafted into the U.S. Army. His carefree existence vanished. Trained to be a killing machine, he fulfilled tours of life or death duty. The searing experience made the music inside him stop. He was unsure if it would ever return.

As a forward observer and artillery fire officer with 1st Field Force, he shuttled from one hot LZ to another with an M79 grenade launcher.

“I was what they called a ‘bastard.’ I would work with all different units. They would just send me wherever they needed me. I was on hill tops, some I can remember like LZ Lily. I was at Dactau and Ben Het during the siege. We were surrounded for like 30 days. I was in the jungle the whole time, mostly in the north, in Two Corps, close to the border of Laos and Cambodia.

“I saw base camp twice.”

Wounded by an AK47 round in a fire fight, he came home to recover. Stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, he impulsively entered the bare back at a local rodeo.

“I drew a pretty rank horse, plus I hadn’t ridden in years and I was still sore from my war injuries. The horse came out and bucked towards the fence and my spur hung in the fence and hung me upside down, facing the opposite way. He was kicking me in the back as he was bucking away. I got hurt. I could hardly walk that night. When I got back to base they were mad at me because I couldn’t pull my duty. Here I was a decorated combat vet, and they were going to court-martial me.”

Cooler heads prevailed and he completed his military service with an honorable discharge. Like so many combat brethren, he returned home broken.

“I was having bad PTSD. I didn’t know where my life was going. I wasn’t necessarily a violent person but that’s what I was used to. It kind of becomes no big deal at some point in your life. It becomes a big deal after the fact when you’ve got PTSD.”

He resents the morally bankrupt orders he followed.

“Emotionally, I was a mess from the war just as much for the atrocities I was forced to commit than what actually happened to me because there’s always collateral damage. You see that and you see that you’re responsible for it. It doesn’t turn off. It never does.

“I had some years there where I had a hard time because I felt I was part of something that was wrong.”

Then there’s the physical toll.

“I have a broken immune system because of Agent Orange. It became hard for me to travel. I started getting sick in my 50s. Every time I’d fly somewhere to play a concert I’d play with a fever or something. That got really old. It’s curtailed my travel.”

Adding insult to injury, he said the VA “won’t help – you’ve got to be near death before they’ll help you with that.” In the meantime, he said, the effects “can destroy your life and career.” His request for treatment went before an evaluation board who denied him care.

“I’m just shocked this country doesn’t treat its veterans very well. They just aren’t. I’ve been to the VA hospital. It’s not like going to a normal hospital. You’re just a number. These patients are the guys that fight for their country. They should have the same health care as everyone. Everybody says thank you for your service. Well, that doesn’t help very much. Why don’t you vote for somebody that’s going to help the veterans?”

Coming back to music

In his post-war funk he quit music, roping and riding. But those passions kept calling him back.

“I suffered because by then my father was gone and my mother couldn’t support me. Somehow I played guitar and kept myself fed.”

He was working a job unloading trucks in Springfield, Missouri when, on a whim, he went to see a classical guitarist perform. It changed his life.

“I was enthralled and it just came over me like that,” he said, snapping his fingers. “Right then and there I knew what I was going to do with my life. The feeling that came over me fulfilled me more than anything else ever had up to that time. A part of it was, I needed something, Classical guitar was the thread that gave me something to hang onto just to get through life and the pain.”

He taught himself via recordings and books. Then he found an instructor who took him as far as he could.

“As soon as my hands could take it I practiced six to eight hours a day working a full-time job.”

Attending school on the GI Bill, he convinced the music dean at then-Southwest Missouri State University (now Missouri State) to start a degree guitar program for him.

“I had such a passion for it that I was going to find a way  – whatever it took.”

Once in a lifetime opportunity

Then, a meeting changed his life again. Touring legend Pastor saw Heavin play a concert on campus. He asked to meet Heavin. Pastor complimented the talented beginner and told him what to work on. Pastor returned a year later to instruct Heavin for two weeks and then offered taking him on as his only student in Spain.

Dumbstruck and flattered by this once in a lifetime opportunity, Heavin still needed thousands of dollars to realize it, He approached school department heads and each passed him off onto someone else. His last resort was the head of religious studies, Gerrit tenZhthoff, a Dutch war hero who resisted the Nazis.

“I told him my story – that I played for this man (Pastor) who’s the best in the world and I would be his only student. As I was explaining this he jumped out of his chair and said, ‘This is wonderful, this is amazing.’ He got me the scholarships, got me everything I needed. He even made it so that I kept getting credit while I was away in Spain. He did all of it.”

MSU has recognized Heavin as an honored alumnus.

Heavin leaned on tenZhthoff for more than funding.

“I actually used to go and tell my problems to him. He was always there for me helping me through the shit. He was just a great guy. I owe my existence in the way that I’ve lived my life to people like him and to the maestro. I was just sort of there and fell into some stuff.”

Finding himself and his purpose

Pastor became his next mentor.

“The maestro and my time in Spain was my salvation. The guitar saved me. When I arrived there was an apartment for me. The maestro’s wife was like my mom. His son was like my brother. I realized shortly after I got there I was his only student. He rarely took them. There were Spanish boys waiting in line to study with him.

“He put all of himself into that one student. That’s why he didn’t take on many. It was really like a fairy-tale…”

Heavin struggled with why he should be so fortunate.

“The thing that’s odd about it is that I had only been playing about a year when the maestro invited me to Spain. It was confusing because there were Spanish boys who could play better than I.”

It nagged at him the entire time he was there.

“I kept asking, ‘Why did you pick me?’ And he would never answer it. I suspected he may may have just felt sorry for me because I was a Vietnam vet and I wanted to play guitar and he saw the gleam in my eye.”

Then, the night before his study-abroad fellowship was up and he had to return home, Heavin walked with Pastor down a wet, cobblestone street in Old Madrid.

“He said, ‘You keep asking why I picked you over all the Spanish boys. Well, truthfully, the Spanish boys are good guitarists and will always be good guitarists.’ Then he put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘But you will be a great guitarist.’ Until then, I was too naive to know if I was any good or not. But he knew. It gave me everything I needed to go forward.”

Not only did Pastor give him a career, Heavin said, “he gave me back myself.”

“He became like my father. We got really close.”

Pastor opened doors to him in Spain that otherwise would have been closed.

“What surprised me mostly when I got there is that he would have me go with him to these recitals he performed for the governors of the provinces in these beautiful concert halls. He would introduce me to very stately, formal people with diamonds on their cigarette holders. I was out of my league. He would me talk me up to these people. i just kept my mouth shut because I was a fish out of water.

“What he was doing was introducing me to the fact I didn’t need to be intimidated. Afterward he would say, ‘I always tell them what they want to hear and then I laugh about it later.’ In other words, don’t take it seriously. Deal with the people you have to deal with and try to understand them so that nobody’s offended. To him a concert was there to make everyone feel better, no matter who they were.”

The jovial Pastor charmed the upper crust in one setting and street people in another. With Pastor’s help, Heavin regained his own sense of humor.

“You can’t take life too seriously.”

Segundo Pastor

Second home

He found acceptance in Spain even after his ally and teacher died.

“After he passed away I did a tour with my friend Pedro, who was also a guitarist, playing the maestro’s music. We played in some of the same places the maestro had taken me to. We even played in his hometown where he was buried. We were very well received. We would always open the program with duets. Then one of us would close the first half by playing solo. Then the other one would play solo. Then we’d finish up with duets. Almost all the music was what the maestro played or wrote. It was a homage to his life.

“I remember walking out on stage at a music school to play solo. I looked out in the audience – there were a lot of guitarists there – and everybody was sitting up straight with their arms crossed, like, Who is this American? It made me a little tentative. But when I got done playing I got a standing ovation and everybody came walking up to me, kind of ignoring Pedro. Everybody was hugging me. Meanwhile. Pedro was over there getting mad. But when Pedro and I played in the States, he was the exotic one, so it was like a tradeoff, only the Americans were a little more forgiving.”

Earlier, Heavin toured Spain and America with Pastor. They once played Carnegie Hall together. He even brought Pastor to perform in Omaha.

During his time in Spain with the maestro, Heavin was introduced to the great guitar builders in Madrid, including the legendary Manuel Contreras.

“I got to know them personally. I played their guitars.”

He also got in on the end of a romantic era when artists – musicians, painters, writers – would get together in cafes to throw down beer or wine while talking about politics or bullfighting or art.

“But those days are gone,” he laments. “The last time I was back there I was talking to some young people about this musician or that musician and they didn’t know who I was talking about. They didn’t even know who Manuel de Falla was (one of Spain’s preeminent composers of the 20th century). I’m glad I got to experience that culture at the time that I did.”

Memories of Pastor are embedded in him. He absorbed the maestro’s mannerisms. The way Heavin plays and teaches, he said, is “very similar” to Pastor.

Heavin recalls a New York City recital they did together. Beforehand, Heavin peaked out from behind a curtain to see a jam-packed hall whose overflow crowd was even seated in folding chairs on stage.

“He saw me looking worried because of all the people and he asked, ‘Hadley, are you nervous?’ I said, ‘Yes, maestro, I’m very nervous.’ He said, ‘Why? Only five guitarists have died on stage.’ I started laughing and I played really well that night. So I’ve used that numerous times on students before they go on stage.”

Once. while visiting Pastor in the town of Caunce, he was reminded how much he took after his teacher.

“His son and I were walking behind him. Segundo said  something funny and I started laughing just like him and his son took my arm and said, ‘It is necessary for you to play the guitar like my father. It is not necessary for you to be like my father.'”

Having learned Spanish in Spain. he became fluent. “But I’m not so good at it anymore because I don’t use it. When i start using it, it starts coming back.”

A part of him would have loved making his home in Spain. But his family’s here. He helped raise his daughter Kaitlin with his ex-wife. Kaitlin is lead singer in his band Tablao. About a decade ago he remarried and now he has grandkids to dote on.

He teaches part-time, plays local gigs (you can soon catch him at The Hunger Block), ropes and rides. He was a Nebraska Arts Council touring artist for decades,  but his touring days are over.

“I enjoy not worrying about stuff so much anymore –making that flight or getting somewhere.”

 

The cowboy thing

His escape from academia is still the outdoors.

“The cowboy thing comes from when I was 4-years old watching Roy Rogers and Gene Autry movies. We grew up with a real simple outlook on how life’s supposed to be from these good guy and bad guy Western values. It’s pretty complex now. There’s a lot of variables that I think are hard for people to deal with.

“I loved horses. I always wanted a horse from the time I was four. When I was in high school I couldn’t afford a horse so I started rodeoing – riding bare back broncs and bulls.”

He fell head over spurs for it.

“It was a short-lived career because I went in the Army.”

He eventually got back into riding and roping. Today, he mostly enters team roping jackpots and Western horse shows. He has lots of stories. Like the time he was on a gelding at Kent Martin’s horse ranch.

“I backed him in the box and I roped two or three steers. I was heeling on him and he’d come around the corner and buck a little. But I was kind of showing off, thinking, ‘Aw, that’s nothing.’ Then there was one steer that ran really hard. I still thought, ‘We’ll be alright.’ Well, we’re going around the corner and he just started bucking. The steer was getting away from us and I was leaning out over the front trying to rope this steer and the next thing I know I went off right over the front of his head and landed on my shoulder. He stepped on the other shoulder as he was bucking over the top.”

As Heavin lay sprawled in the dirt, sore and dazed, Martin came riding up on his horse, not to offer sympathy, but good-natured cowboy sarcasm.

“Looking down at me, Kent said, ‘Get up, Hadley.’ I said, ‘I can’t right now.’ Then he said, ‘I’m going to charge you a tanning fee if you lay there lay any longer.'”

Martin doesn’t let it go at that. He describes the fall tis way: “The wind changed directions just gradually and caught Hadley just wrong, and he fell off.”

Heavin takes the ribbing in stride, saying, “That’s the way cowboys are. Everybody gets bucked off and   everybody gets injured. It’s no big deal.”

Martin does concede that Heavin “rides pretty good.”

Just as in Spain, Heavin travels in many circles in Nebraska and gets on with everybody. It’s bred in him.

“My whole family were Southern Democrats. We had all kinds of friends, even in the South.” As a progressive living in a Red State, he’s used to debating his Republican friends. “Luckily they tolerate me because I stand up to the stuff they say. We argue. They say things like, ‘We should kick him out of this roping club.'”

He doesn’t mince words about American adventurism.

“I understand Afghanistan was a response to 9/11 and we needed to be able to strike out against something. Iraq, I didn’t understand. That country’s much worse than it would have been if we had left it alone. I didn’t agree with that war. We get our people killed, we spent billions and billions and billions of dollars and we got guys like (Dick) Cheney making a fortune off it.

“I think (George W.) Bush’s heart was probably in the right place, but I think he was mislead. He went in there thinking there were weapons of mass destruction.”

Few of his students and fellow faculty know he’s a vet.

“I don’t tell those people much about this stuff,” he said within earshot of Martin, who quipped, “Hadley’s a closet cowboy.”

Heavin still burns from an old headline that described him as a “real rootin’-tootin’ classical guitar playing cowboy. “I took a lot of heat over that.” He prefers “classical cowboy.”

Music educator

Music offers escape from daily worries, world affairs and partisan politics. He’s been teaching classical guitar almost as long as he’s played it.

“I started teaching as an undergraduate, just privately, in Missouri. While studying for my masters at the University of Denver, I taught all the undergraduates in guitar and coached the ensembles.

“I came to UNO in 1982.”

Combining performing with teaching is tough.

“One robs you of the other. If I were out there performing a lot I wouldn’t be as good a teacher. I would have to be very selfish. I wasn’t a very good a teacher back when I toured because I wasn’t around as much. I’d go off on tour to play and then I’d come back and try to do makeup lessons and it’s really hard to do.

“Touring robs you of putting energy into other people when you have to have that yourself to go on stage and play as perfectly and as musically as you can. It’s a lot of energy, especially with classical guitar. It’s just a difficult instrument to play. After I started winding that down, teaching became more and more important. It’s a high priority for me.

“I’ve got former students out there teaching now and they teach kids that eventually come to me. It’s all coming full circle.”

Some former students are accomplished players, such as Ron Cooley, who plays with Mannheim Steamroller.

For years he only taught adults, but now he’s started teaching younger people and enjoys it.

He also teaches older than average students.

“I’ve got a 72-year-old lady, Sue Russell, that takes lessons and she’s really good. She’s been studying with me for probably 20 years. She plays Flamenco and classical. She’s awesome.

“I have a cardiologist, John Cimino, who’s studied with me for 20 years. He’s amazing. He practices every day despite his busy schedule.”

Long graduated students still rely on his expertise to fix technical problems others cannot. One former student came to him after his new teacher could not explain how to correct a flaw with his fingering.

“I said, ‘Here’s what you do,’ and I explained to him the physiology of it and how he could make it work and he just sat there and did it. That’s what other teachers miss

and that’s from 40 years of teaching.

“Some of the best players can’t teach at all. They’ll be sitting there teaching somebody in front of people and this student obviously has a big issue with a certain finger and the teacher will just say, ‘Well. you’re doing that wrong,’ but they can’t tell them how to do it. That’s what I’m good at.”

Expressive playing is big with Heavin. One of his all-time guitar idols, Steve Ray Vaughan, exemplified it.

“Musically I’m really big into the emotional side of playing. I’ve got a good balance between the physical and emotional. But it’s really hard to teach guitar. You can give all kinds of exercises to do. Some guys will do the work and nothing ever really happens. There has to be a thought process in a student’s head to actually make that happen.”

He recognizes Pastor’s teaching in his own instruction.

“Like he did with me, if someone’s doing something wrong I’ll shake my finger and say, ‘No!’ That taught me how to focus and to take this more seriously. It permeates my teaching today. And a lot of times I ask questions. I’ll stop them in a piece and say, ‘What are you doing?’ That’s how I get their focus.

“Until they start questioning something, they don’t listen. I’ll gradually hone in on the issue before getting to it too quickly. I’ll say, ‘Your wrist is cocked a certain way which causes your A finger to hit at a different angle,’ and then I’ll ask to see their hand. I might say, ‘That nail looks like it’s filed differently than the others.’ I’ll drill them and write out an exercise for them to do to fix that problem and show them how it’s supposed to feel. The hardest thing to do is to teach somebody how to feel something, but I’m really good at it.”

He rarely imparts the classical lineage he represents.

“I’m a little careful with that. I don’t just hand that to everybody. If I’ve got a student working hard and in their last year, then I start dealing with that lineage. I will have them play a piece by Francisco Tarrega. Then we’ll deal with all the technical issues. Then I’ll talk about this lineage thing. ‘What you’re going to hear from me now is as if you were sitting with Tarrega himself because the man I studied with studied with the man who studied with Tarrega, and this has been passed on.

“It’s not just me they’re getting it from, they’re getting it from all of us in the line. The students that figure that out and treasure that are the ones that go off to other schools and blow everybody away,”

He has students watch top guitarists on YouTube to illustrate that even technically brilliant players can lack subtlety  “Those players have it totally wrong. They’re not that close to the source so they don’t know how it’s played. It’s technical but not expressive.”

Heavin breaks it down for students.

“I’ll tell them what’s wrong with it. I’ll say, ‘Here’s what Tarrega wants–- he wants this to be very rhythmic through this phrase because this is going to be a recurring rhythmic unity in the piece. But we don’t do it all the time. It’s what we come back to each time to set it up again. Even a lot of great players don’t know.’

“That’s when they start feeling they’re getting something here that’s different. Some of them are never going to get it and maybe they’re doing it for different reasons. The guitar’s not really their major or where they’re going to end up, so I don’t necessarily put that on them  because it’s almost a responsibility once you have it.”

His world-class level instruction fits well within a UNO Music Department he says has “risen to a high level.”

“Hadley’s exceptional professional experience enhances our programs in a unique way,” said UNO School of Music Director Washington Garcia. “Visiting guest artist Manuel Barrueco, one of the greatest concert guitarists of all time, left Omaha raving about the talent of our students, all due to Hadley’s work and unconditional commitment to their artistic and academic development. As an artist, Hadley carries that tradition of many great masters and is a reflection of talent at its best.”

Having it his way

His cowboy friends know about his classical side. His recitals in Omaha and western Nebraska draw roping cronies.

“They’re full of questions, like, what about your hands?”

To protect his digits, he’s headed most of his roping life. Atop his horse, a header runs with the steer and can kick off when in trouble. Heeling entails catching up to a hard-charging steer moving away. Applying a rope can singe, even take fingers. At his age he’s now allowed to tie on hard and fast, which makes heeling safer.

Wherever he goes in ranch-rodeo country, he can swap stories with horsemen. One such place is the giant Pitzer Ranch in the Sandhills.

A top hand, Riley Renner, “won the very difficult ranch horse competition out there and he did it riding my mare Baley,” Heavin, said sounding like a proud owner.

“They do what they call a cowboy trail where they run this obstacle course. They’re running flat out, too. It’s a timed event. It’s all judged. The thing started at 7 in the morning and didn’t get over until 11 at night. The same horse all day long. My mare is kind of famous for going through that. She’s big and strong and easy.”

Asked if he’s ever played guitar on horseback, Heavin deadpanned. “I don’t mix the two genres.”

He enjoys socializing but if he had his druthers he’d just as soon hang out with horses.

Training a horse and a person is not so different.

“There’s a process you go through that’s not always exactly whispering. It’s more of making the wrong thing difficult and the right thing easy, so that the horse believes this is what I need to do. That’s where the trust comes in.”

With students, he said, “I use a lot of horse analogies, like trying too hard and getting too tight. I’ll back them off and say, ‘You’re kind of like a horse that’s nervous in the box. If you try too hard, you end up beating yourself up.  I wait till the horse relaxes.'” Similarly, with students, he said, “I slow everything way down so they can think about every move they make. And it works.”

Pastor’s loving instruction won the trust of his greatest student. Forgiveness freed Heavin to share with others the sublime gift of his music and lineage.

It’s been quite a ride.

Heavin doesn’t consider his story anything special. In his best Western wit, he sums up his life this way: “A guy’s gotta do something between living and dying.”

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

 

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A Talent for Teaching and Connecting

August 8, 2018 Leave a comment

A Talent for Teaching and Connecting

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico (el-perico-com)

 

Liberty Elementary School kindergarten instructor Luisa Maldonado Palomo has reached the top of her field as a 2010 Alice Buffet Outstanding Teacher Award-winner.

The Gering, Neb. native is the grade leader at her Omaha school. She heads outreach efforts to parents, many of them undocumented, through the Liberty Community Council. She’s a liaison with partners assisting Liberty kids and families. The school engages community through parenting and computer classes, food and clothes pantries, and, starting in the fall, a health clinic.

Colleagues admire her dedication working with the school’s many constituents.

“She truly reaches the whole child —  behaviorally, academically, socially, emotionally — and then steps beyond that and reaches the family too,” said Liberty Principal Carri Hutcherson. “We can count on her to do a lot of the family components we have at Liberty because she gets it, she has a heart for it, the passion, the drive, the focus, all those great things it takes. She’s an expert practitioner on so many levels.”

But there was a time when Palomo questioned whether she wanted to be a classroom teacher. While a Creighton University education major she participated in Encuentro Dominicano, a semester-long study abroad in the impoverished Dominican Republic. She described this immersion as a “huge, life-changing experience” for reawakening a call to service inherited from her father, Matt Palomo.

“My dad has spent his whole life doling for others,” she said. “He comes from a migrant worker family. He gave up a college scholarship to work so he could help support his nine brothers and sisters. From the age of 15 he’s been involved with the Boy Scouts as a scout leader. He just celebrated his 45th year with the Boy Scouts of America.

“He’s always worked with underprivileged youth, Hispanic or Caucasian, in our small town. He’s such a role model for so many young boys who’ve gone through that program. He has such a sense of what’s right and wrong and he’s instilled that in my brother and sister and I.”

 

Luisa Palomo (standing) talks to Primarily Math Cohort 3 LPS on June 6.Luisa Palomo (standing) talks to Primarily Math Cohort 3 LPS on June 6.

 

In the Dominican Republic Luisa felt connected to people, their lives and their needs.

“You work, take classes and live with families,” she said. “You learn the philosophy and the why of what’s going on. You really learn to form relationships with people, which isn’t something that always comes naturally to Americans. Here, it’s always more individualistic and what do I need to do for myself, whereas in a lot of other countries people think about what do I need to do for my community and my family.”

The communal culture was akin to what she knew back in Gering. When she returned to the States she sought to replicate the bonds she’d forged.  “I came back wanting that,” she said. Unable to find it in her first teaching practicums, she became disillusioned.

“I was ready to quit education and my advisor was like, ‘Nope, there’s this new school in a warehouse and Nancy Oberst is the principal and you’ll meet her and love her — give it a shot before you quit.’ So I went there and loved it and stayed there. Nancy and I just clicked and she hired me to teach kindergarten.”

Liberty opened in 2002 in a former bus warehouse at 20th and Leavenworth. In 2004 it moved into a newly constructed building at 2021 St. Mary’s Avenue. Oberst was someone Palomo aspired to be like.

“She’s so dynamic and such a good model,” said Palomo. “She has such a vision for how a school should be — it shouldn’t be an 8:30 to 4 o’clock building. Instead it should be a community space where it’s open all the time and families come for all kinds of different services, and that really is the center of the community.”

Oberst and many of Liberty’s original teachers have moved on. Palomo’s stayed. “We have a core group of parents who have been with us from the old building and they know I’m one of the few teachers who have been here all eight years,” she said. “They’ve seen what I do. They know Miss Palomo is the one who spent the night in the ER when Jose broke his arm and started a fund raiser when Emiliano’s house burned down. They know me and they trust me and they let me into their homes.

“They know I’m coming from a good place.”

She said one Liberty family’s “adopted” her and her fiance. The family’s four children will  be in the couple’s fall wedding.

Hutcherson said Liberty is “the hub” for its downtown neighborhood and educators like Palomo empower parents “to feel they’re not just visitors but participants.” Whether helping a family get their home’s utilities turned back on or translating for them, she said Palomo and other staff “step out of the walls of this building to get it done.” For two-plus years Palomo mentored a girl separated from her parents.

“It’s that whole reaching out and meeting our families where they’re at,” said Palomo.

Liberty’s holistic, family-centered, “do what’s best for the child” approach is just what she was looking for and now she can’t imagine being anywhere else.

“I really love it here. We’re not just a teacher in the classroom. We do so much to really bring our community into our school so our families can come to us for all these different activities and for help with different needs. It’s one of those things where we let them into our lives and they let us into theirs, and we’re both better for it.”

She’s proud to be “a strong Hispanic” for kids who may not know another college graduate that looks like them.

Palomo recently earned her master’s in educational administration from UNO. Sooner or later, she’ll be a principal. Hutcherson said when that day comes “it’ll be a great loss to Liberty but a great gain for the district.”

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