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A. Marino Grocery closes: An Omaha Italian landmark calls it quits

June 22, 2011 10 comments

One of the last of the old line ethnic grocery stores in my hometown of Omaha closed down a few years ago.  The small Italian market is one my family and I shopped at quite a bit. It was the last of its kind, that is among Italian grocers. Truth be told, there are many ethnic grocers in business here today, only the owners are from the new immigrant enclaves of Latin America and Africa and Asia rather than Europe. The owner of the now defunct A. Marino Grocery, Frank Marino, inherited the business from his father. It was a throwback place little changed from back in the old days. My piece about Frank finally deciding to retire and close the place appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).

On this blog you can find more stories by me related to other aspects of Omaha’s Italian-American culture, including ones on the Sons of Italy hall’s pasta feeds and the annual Santa Lucia Festival.

 

 

A. Marino Grocery closes: An Omaha Italian landmark calls it quits

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader

 

The final days of A. Marino Grocery at 1716 South 13th Street were akin to a wake. The first week of October saw old friends, neighbors and customers file in to say goodbye to proprietor Frank Marino, 80, whose late Sicilian immigrant father, Andrea, a sheepherder back in Carlentini, opened the Italian store in 1919.

News of the closing leaked out days before the local daily ran a story about the store’s end. As word spread Marino was deluged with business. Lines of cars awaited him when he arrived one morning. Orders poured in. He and his helpers could hardly keep up. Those who hadn’t heard were disappointed by the news. Some wondered aloud where’d they get their sausage from now on.

A Navy veteran of World War II, Marino long talked of retiring but nobody believed him. Still, decades of 50-60 hour weeks take their toll. When he got an attractive offer for the building he took it. The new owner plans to renovate the space into an interior decorating office on the main level and a residence above it.

Folks stopping by for a last visit knew the store’s passing meant the loss of a prized remnant of Omaha’s ethnic past. Housed in a two-story brick structure whose upstairs apartment the family lived in and Marino was born in, the store represented the last of the Italian grocers serving Omaha’s Little Italy. While the neighborhood’s lost most vestiges of its Italian-Czech heritage, time stood still at the small store. Its narrow aisles, vintage fixtures, wood floors, solid counters, ornate display cabinets and antique scales bespoke an earlier era.

It was a living history museum of Old World charms and ways. No sanitary gloves. Meats and cheeses comingled, but regulars figured it just added to the flavor.

An aproned Marino would often be behind the deli case in back, hovering over the butcher’s block to cut, season, grind and encase choice cuts of beef for the popular sausage he made. He sold hundreds of pounds a week. He carried a full line of imported foods. Parmigiano reggiano, romano, provolone, mozzarella and fresh ricotta cheese. Prosciutto, mortadella, salami, capicolla and pepperoni. Various olives — plain or marinated. Meatballs. Homemade ravioli and other stuffed pastas. Canned tomatoes, packaged pastas, assorted peppers, et cetera. At Christmas he sold specialty candies and baccala, a salted cod used in Italian holiday dishes.

He’d slice, grate, measure, weigh and bag items himself. Nothing was precut. What few helpers he had were mostly old buddies. Banter between the men and with the customers was part of the experience. Characters abounded.

Marino rang up your purchases on an old-style cash register and engaged you in crackle barrel conversation from behind the massive front counter his father had made to order in 1932. Behind the counter, whose built-in drawers stored 20-pound cases of pasta, he’d light up his trademark pipe and shoot the breeze.

“I love being here and I love being around people,” he said.

It was the same way with his father. The two worked side by side for half-a-century. They had their spats, but the disagreements always blew over. There was, after all, a business to run and people to serve. His papa taught him well.

“It’s service-oriented. You’ve got to hand-wait on everybody,” Marino said.

In some cases he waited on three generations in the same family. He enjoyed the association and interaction. “I’ll miss that. There was a lot of closeness, you know.”

That last week people expressed heartache over the closing.

Mary Cavalieri of Omaha shopped there all her life. “It’s really sad,” she said, adding she felt she was losing “a tradition” and “a friend” in the process.

Oakland, Iowa resident Anna D’Angelo was among many who came some distance to shop there. Asked what she’ll miss most, she said, “The sausage and all the Italian specialties, and Frank. He knows everybody by name. He knows what you like. Frank never needs to see my ID. It’s that personal touch you don’t get anymore.”

Omahan Leo Ferzley, an old chum of Marino’s, said, “You hate to see it go, but what do you do? Everybody will miss it. A lot of memories.”

Marino is worried what he’ll do with all his free time. He and his wife plan their first trip to Italy. “That’s all we’ve ever talked about,” he said. One man told him that if the opportunity comes, “whatever you do, don’t pass it up.”

Customers, some whose names he didn’t even know, wished him and his wife well. One wrote a $100 check for the Marinos to treat themselves to a night on the town. As Mary Cavalieri said, “He deserves some retirement time.”

No regrets.

As Marino told someone, “It’s the end of the line. 88 years we’ve been here. Since before I was born. It’s been good to us. But I’m 80-years-old. I think it’s time.” Besides, he said, “I’m wore out.”

Nomad Lounge, An Oasis for Creative Class Nomads

June 21, 2011 6 comments

Nick Hudson is one of several Omaha transplants who have come here from other places in recent years and energized the creative-cultural scene. One of his many ventures in Omaha is Nomad Lounge, which caters to the creative class through a forward-thinking aesthetic and entrepreneurial bent and schedule of events. This Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com) piece gives a flavor for Hudson and why Nomad is an apt name for him and his endeavor. Three spin-off ventures from Nomad that Hudson has a major hand in are Omaha Fashion Week, Omaha Fashion Magazine, and the Halo Institute.  You can find some of my Omaha Fashion Week and Omaha Fashion Magazine writing on this blog.  And look for more stories by me about Nick Hudson and his wife and fellow entrepreneur Brook Hudson.

 

 

 

 

Nomad Lounge, An Oasis for Creative Class Nomads

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com)

Another side of Omaha’s new cosmopolitan face can be found at Nomad Lounge, 1013 Jones St. in the historic Ford Warehouse Building. The chic, high-concept, community-oriented salon captures the creative class trade. Tucked under the Old Market’s 10th St. bridge, Nomad enjoys being a word-of-mouth hideaway in a shout-out culture. No overt signs tout it. The name’s stenciled in small letters in the windows and subtly integrated into the building’s stone and brick face.

The glow from decorative red lights at night are about the only tip-off for the lively goings-on inside. That, and the sounds of pulsating music, clanking glasses and buzzing voices leaking outdoors and the stream of people filing in and out.

Otherwise, you must be in-the-know about this proper gathering spot for sophisticated, well-traveled folks whose interests run to the eclectic. It’s all an expression of majority owner Nick Hudson, a trendy international entrepreneur and world citizen who divides his time between Omaha and France for his primary business, Excelsior Beauty. Nomad is, in fact, Hudson’s nickname and way of life. The Cambridge-educated native Brit landed in Omaha in 2005 in pursuit of a woman. While that whirlwind romance faded he fell in love with the town and stayed on. He’s impressed by what he’s found here.

“I’m blown away by what an amazingly creative, enterprising, interesting community Omaha is,” he said. He opened Excelsior here that same year — also maintaining a Paris office — and then launched his night spot in late 2006.

If you wonder why a beauty-fashion industry maven who’s been everywhere and seen everything would do start-up enterprises in middle America when he could base them in some exotic capital, you must understand that for Hudson the world is flat. Looking for an intersection where like-minded nomads from every direction can engage each other he opted for Omaha’s “great feeling, great energy.”

“We’re all nomadic, were all on this journey,” he said, “but there are times when nomads come together, bringing in different experiences to one central place and sharing ideas in that community. And that’s exactly what it is here. Nomad’s actually about a lifestyle brand and Nomad Lounge is just the event space and play space where that brand comes to life for the experimental things we do.”

He along with partners Charles Hull and Clint! Runge of Archrival, a hot Lincoln, Neb. branding-marketing firm, and Tom Allisma, a noted local architect who’s designed some of Omaha’s cutting-edge bars-eateries, view Nomad as a physical extension of today’s plugged-in, online social networking sites. Their laidback venture for the creative-interactive set is part bar, part art gallery, part live performance space, part small business incubator, part collaborative for facilitating meeting-brainstorming-partnering.

“That whole connecting people, networking piece is really exciting to us because it’s not just being an empty space for events, we’re actually playing an active role in helping the creative community continue to grow,” said Hudson.

 

 

Nick Hudson

 

 

Social entrepreneurship is a major focus. Nomad helps link individuals, groups and businesses together. “It’s a very interesting trend that’s going to be a big buzz word,” Hudson said. “Nomad is a social enterprise. It’s all about investing in and increasing the social capital of the community, creating networks, fostering creativity. My biggest source of passion is helping people achieve their potential.”

“He’s definitely done that for me,” said Nomad general manager-events planner Rachel Richards. “He’s seen my passion in event planning and he’s opened doors I never thought I’d get through.”

The Omaha native was first hired by Hudson to coordinate Nomad’s special events through her Rachel Richards Events business. She’s since come on board as a key staffer. With Hudson’s encouragement she organized Nomad’s inaugural Omaha Fashion Week last winter, a full-blown, first-class model runway show featuring works by dozens of local designers. “That was always a dream of mine,” she said.

Under the Nomad Collective banner, Hudson said, “the number of social entrepreneurs and small enterprises and venture capitalist things that are coming from this space from the networking here is just phenomenal. Increasingly that’s going beyond this space into start-up businesses and all sorts of things.” Nomad, he said, acts as “a greenhouse for ideas and businesses to expand and grow.”

Nomad encourages interplay. Massive cottonwood posts segment the gridded space into 15 semi-private cabanas whose leather chairs and sofas and built-in wood benches seat 8 to 20 guests. Velvet curtains drape the cabanas. It’s all conducive to relaxation and conversation. Two tiny galleries display works by local artists.

There’s a small stage and dance floor. The muted, well-stocked bar features international drink menus. Video screens and audio speakers hang here and there, adding techno touches that contrast with the worn wood floors, the rough-hewn brick walls and the exposed pipes, vents and tubes in the open rafters overhead. It all makes for an Old World meets New World mystique done over in earth tones.

Hudson embraces Nomad’s flexibility as it constantly evolves, reinventing itself. In accommodating everything from birthdays/bachelorettes to release/launch parties to big sit-down dinners to more intimate, casual gatherings to social enterprise fairs and presenting everything from sculptures and paintings to live bands and theater shows to video projection, it’s  liable to look different every time you visit. Whatever the occasion, art, design, music and fashion are in vogue and celebrated.

Dressed-up or dressed-down, you’re in synch with Nomad’s positive, chic vibe.

“It’s this whole thing about being premium without being pretentious,” said Hudson. “Nomad is stylish, it’s trendy, it’s great quality. All our drinks are very carefully selected. But it’s still made affordable.”

In addition to staging five annual premiere events bearing the Nomad brand, the venue hosts another 90-100 events a year. Richards offers design ideas to organizations using the space and matches groups with artists and other creative types to help make doings more dynamic, more stand-alone, more happening.

 

 

 

 

Clearly, Nomad targets the Facebook generation but not exclusively. Indeed, Hudson and Richards say part of Nomad’s charm is the wide age range it attracts, from 20-somethings to middle-agers and beyond.

Nomad fits into the mosaic of the Old Market, where the heart of the creative community lives and works and where a diverse crowd mixes. Within a block of Nomad are The Kaneko, the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, the Blue Barn Theatre and any number of galleries, artist studios, fine restaurants and posh shops. Nomad’s a port of call in the Market’s rich cultural scene.

“It’s such a great creative community. We want to help make our little contribution to that and keep building on all the great things going on,” said Hudson.

Besides being a destination for urban adventurers looking to do social networking or conducting business or celebrating a special occasion or just hanging out, Nomad’s a site for charitable fundraisers. Hudson and Richards want to do more of what he calls “positive interventions” with nonprofits like Siena/Francis House. Last year Nomad approached the shelter with the idea for Concrete Conscience, which placed cameras in the hands of dozens of homeless clients for them to document their lives. Professional photographers lent assistance. The resulting images were displayed and sold, with proceeds going to Siena/Francis.

New, on Wednesday nights, is Nomad University, which allows guests to learn crafts from experts, whether mixing cocktails or DJing or practically anything else. It’s a chance for instructors to market their skills and for students to try new things, all consistent with a philosophy Hudson and Richards ascribe to that characterizes the Nomad experience: Do what you love and do it with passion.

Pot Liquor Love: Big Mama’s Keeps It Real, A Soul Food Sanctuary in Omaha

June 11, 2011 4 comments

Thanks to the Tyler Perry franchise of popular movies and plays and the character Madea he plays and to the Martin Lawrence series of films, the term Big Mama has come into the mainstream lexicon. This is no doubt part of the appeal behind a soul food eatery and catering operation in Omaha, Big Mama’s, that has enjoyed breakout success since I profiled its namesake owner, Patricia Barron, soon after her place opened. The breakfast and lunch crowds there are steady, the catering orders high, and in the past few years she’s seen her business featured in a slew of newspapers and magazines, then by the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, and more recently by another national cable food show. But I think what people really respond to is the story of her preserving her family’s heritage and recipes through her cooking. The deep current of passion that she and her daughters, who help run the place, have for family and community and tradition is expressed in all the framed pictures hanging there, so many that it’s practically a retrospective of African-American Omaha history. Those pictures, combined with the homey arts and crafts touches adorning the former cafeteria she converted into Big Mama’s, create a warm atmosphere that complements the down home meals she serves. All that, plus the fact that she pined to open her own restaurant for decades while raising her family and working in the corporate world, makes hers one of those magnificent obsession stories fulfilled that I love telling.

Follow my Pot Liquor Love food blogging at leoadambiga.com and on Facebook at My Inside Stories. And since food and movies are such a good pair, remember to follow my Hot Movie Takes on the same two social media platforms.

 

 

Image result for patricia barron omaha

 

Pot Liquor Love:

Big Mama’s Keeps It Real, A Soul Food Sanctuary in Omaha: As Seen on ‘Diners, Drive-ins and Dives’

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader

 

In some African American families tradition demands the matriarch be called Big Mama. That’s true with Patricia Barron’s family. The 60-something Omahan never cared for the “countrified” term, which her late maternal grandmother Lillie Johnson earned. But when Barron’s grandkids began calling her that sobriquet it became, she said, “the name that was stuck on me.”

Barron proudly carries on the name in her soul food place, Big Mama’s Kitchen & Catering. Located on the Turning Point youth services campus at 45th and Bedford, former site of the Nebraska School for the Deaf, Big Mama’s opened Dec. 10 serving breakfast and lunch. Barron, along with daughters Delena and Gladys and friend, “adopted daughter and chief cook” Valerie, are prepping for a Jan. 15 grand opening, when dinner service should be up and running, too.

For some 30 years Barron operated a catering business from her home. Last August she began a popular soul food dinner at her church, North Side Christian Center. An eatery was a long-held dream. More than once she put her dream on hold to climb the corporate ladder and raise her kids. Stymied in her search for a small business loan and a facility, she stayed the course. That’s typical of Barron and her husband, Earnest Wallace. When the couple and their five daughters moved into their Benson home they endured eggings and racial slurs. They didn’t budge. Now, with the help of volunteers whose work, she said, “has warmed my heart,” she’s converted a kitchen/cafeteria into Big Mama’s. Leopard-pattern oil cloths and flower-filled vases adorn the tables. Earth tone decor warms what could otherwise be a cold space. A display case features her signature desserts.

Barron’s right where she’s supposed to be. “I think I was born to do this. I love to cook. I can be ever so tired but once I get in the kitchen it’s like a rush of energy and I’m ready to go,” she said. “Now it’s time for me to do my second career — what I really wanted to do.”

Aptly, she’s found a home for Big Mama’s on a campus filled with ministries that inspire hope. “We like it here,” she said, “and we’re just pleased to be a part of all that’s going on.” In its own way she sees Big Mama’s as a ministry that rekindles a time when North O was one big clique and families came together over dinner.

“I want to bring people back to the table,” she said.

Anymore, authentic soul food’s hard to find here. She reconnects some folks to their roots and introduces others to the cuisine for the first time. As she likes to explain, soul food’s been handed down through the generations. It’s tradition.

“In our neighborhood we used to hear the term ‘eating high off the hog,’ and that derived,” she said, “from when the master got the best cuts and the slaves were left with scraps. We took those scraps and made delicacies out of them. Made entire meals out of them. That’s really what it is.”

Soul food’s slow-cooked goodness is also a byproduct of slave times. “You worked in the fields 10-12 hours and you had to come home to something to eat, and so your food had to be slow-cooked all day long,” she said. Fresh, savory ingredients cooked for hours at low temps make for succulent eats.

More than the Big Mama name, Barron carries on “Miss Lillie’s” way with soul food. Sundays Lillie put out a spread fit for a wedding banquet. After church the whole family gathered to indulge at her 34th and Bedford home in an area called Plum Nelly. With your chicken, ribs, catfish or gumbo — on holidays there was a choice of entrees — you got greens, chitlins, rice, beans, mac and cheese, cornbread, biscuits and desserts like sweet potato cheesecake and fried pies filled with prune or apricot. All made from scratch, memory and love on a wood-burning stove.

As a girl Barron spent summers with Big Mama, under whose apron a young Patricia learned to cook, propped up on a wooden soda pop case. Later, Barron took it upon herself to preserve grandma’s best dishes. Derived in part from oral history and observation, these dishes form the core of Barron’s menu at Big Mama’s.

 

 

(Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)

 

With your breakfast staples — omelets, casseroles, french toast, pancakes, bacon and eggs — you can get grits or biscuits. Lunch is skimpy on soul food for now with its catfish sandwich, fried shrimp, trio of burgers — including an Afro burger — pizza bread and taco salad. Sides range from greens to cornbread to sweet potato pudding. For dessert there’s pound cake, sweet potato cheesecake, tea cakes and fried pies. Try the sweet raspberry ice tea. Prices are a bit high but not bad.

Big Mama’s enormous, varied catering menu offers hundreds of dishes, half of which are traditional soul food, the other half home-cooked favorites, with some gourmet thrown in. There’s ribs, roasts, chops, oven fried chicken and greens made every which way. A shopping cart is soon coming to her web site — bigmamaskitchen.com.

But will enough folks wend their way to her digs on the institutional, fenced-in grounds? Situated in an old, red-brick structure, Big Mama’s is in Building A at 3223 No. 45th Street. Banners and signs direct you there. Nothing fancy or chic — just real. Clean, too. Barron and crew make you feel welcome with their warm smiles and greetings. Don’t be surprised if Big Mama herself sidles right up beside you.

Open for breakfast and lunch, Monday-Saturday, 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Call 455-6262.

Dick Holland responds to far-reaching needs in Omaha

June 4, 2011 6 comments

Dick Holland is the proverbial fat cat with a heart of gold. The avuncular Omaha philanthropist has been a major player on the local philanthropic scene for a few decades now. He was already a highly successful advertising executive when he heeded Warren Buffett’s advice and invested in Berkshire Hathaway. Holland and his late wife Mary became part of that circle of local investors who could trace their incredible wealth to that fateful decision to ride the Buffett-Berkshire snowball that made millionaires out of dozens of ordinary investors. Unlike some donors who prefer to remain silent, Holland is not shy about expressing his opinions about most anything. This classic liberal makes no bones about where he stands on social issues, and you have to give him credit – he really does put his money where his mouth is. The causes that he and Mary put their energies and dollars behind have helped shape the social, cultural, aesthetic landscape in Omaha.

 

Holland Performing Arts Center

 

 

Dick Holland responds to far-reaching needs in Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

 

When it comes to big time philanthropy in Omaha, a few individuals and organizations stand out. Richard Holland has become synonymous with king-sized generosity through the Holland Foundation he and his late wife Mary started.

If the 88 year-old retired advertising executive is not making some large financial gift he’s being feted for his achievements or contributions. In April he was honored in Washington, D.C. with the Horatio Alger Award “for his personal and professional success despite humble and challenging beginnings.” While his success is indisputable, how much adversity he faced is debatable. Closer to home Holland was presented the Grace Abbott Award by the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation “for his work in creating positive change for children through community.” No one questions his devotion to helping children and families, causes that legendary social worker Grace Abbott of Nebraska championed.

Several area buildings bear the Holland name in recognition of gifts the couple made, including the Holland Performing Arts Center in downtown Omaha and the Child Saving Institute in midtown. Mary was a CSI volunteer and benefactor. Her passion for its mission of improving the lives of at-risk children was shared by Dick once he saw for himself the pains that staff and volunteers go to in “restoring” broken children.

The couple made sharing their wealth, specifically giving back to their hometown, a major priority through the establishment of their foundation in 1997. Since Mary’s death in 2006 Dick, as he goes by, has continued using the foundation’s sizable assets, $60 million today and expected to be much more when he’s gone, to support a wide range of educational, art, health, human service and community projects.

True to his social justice leanings, Holland is a mover and shaker in Building Bright Futures. The birth-through-college education initiative provides an infrastructure of tutoring, mentoring, career advice and scholarship support for disadvantaged youth.

Like many mega donors he prefers deflecting publicity from himself to the organizations he supports. He makes some notable exceptions to that rule, however. For one thing, he vociferously advocates people of means like himself give for the greater good. For another, he believes in speaking his mind about issues he cares about and isn’t afraid to ruffle feathers along the way, even if those feathers belong to a political kingpin.

Just last March Holland took the occasion of accepting the NEBRASKAlander Award from Gov. Dave Heineman to criticize a stance by the conservative Republican leader.  Heineman publicly opposes renewal of government-funded prenatal services for low income immigrant women in America illegally. Holland, who supports the care, used the evening’s platform to editorialize.

“No one should be denied prenatal care in Nebraska,” he bluntly told the black tie audience and the governor. His comments were viewed as ungracious or inappropriate by some and as a strategic use of the bully pulpit by others.

Consistent with his Depression-era roots, Holland is not rigidly bound by the constraints of political correctness and so he doesn’t mince words or tip-toe around controversy when he talks. Neither does he hide his political allegiance.

“I’m a liberal Democrat and I underline that,” said Holland, a Unitarian who also prides himself on his free-thinking ethos.

 

 

Dick Holland

 

 

He recently sat down for an interview at his home, where he readily shared his frank, colorful, unparsed, unapologetic impressions on the state of America in this prolonged recession. Critics may say someone as rich as Holland can afford to be opinionated because he’s already made his fortune and therefore nothing short of a mismanaged investment portfolio can hurt his standing. Besides, dozens of organizations and institutions rely on his goodwill and they’re not about to object to his pronouncements.

Those who know him understand that Holland’s just being himself when he says it like it is, or at least the way he sees it. Most would concede he’s earned the right to say his piece because unlike some fat cats, he worked for a living. His proverbial ship came in only after he’d launched a highly successful business. It was after that he followed his gut and his head and became an early Berkshire Hathaway investor. The millions he accrued made him a Player, but he first made a name for himself as a partner in one of Omaha’s premier advertising agencies, Holland, Dreves and Reilly, which later merged with a Lincoln agency to become Swanson, Rollheiser, Holland, Inc.

All along the way, from young-man-in-a-hurry to middle-aged entrepreneur to mature tycoon, he’s been speaking his mind, only when you carry the clout and bankroll he does, and make the kind of donations he makes, people are more apt to listen.

The Omaha Central High graduate came from an enterprising family. His father Lewis Holland emigrated to the States from London, by way of Canada, where a summer working the wheat fields convinced him his hands were better suited for illustration than harvesting. Lewis settled in Omaha and rose to advertising director for Orchard and Wilhelm Furniture. He later opened his own ad agency, where Dick eventually joined him and succeeded him.

Before Dick became a bona fide Mad Man in the ad game, he began studies at Omaha University. Then the Second World War intervened and after seeing service in the chemical corps he returned home to finish school, with no plans other than to make it in business and study art. Indeed, he was all set to go to New York when he met Mary. Their courtship kept him here, where he found the ad world fed his creative, intellectual, entrepreneurial instincts. He built Holland, Dreves, Reilly into the second biggest agency in the state, behind only Bozell and Jacobs.

He was certainly a well-connected, self-made man, but by no means rich. That is until he started investing with fellow Central High grad Warren Buffett, who is 10 years his junior. Much like Buffett, he’s careful about where he invests and donates his money. When Holland sees a problem or a need he can help with, he does his homework before committing any funds.

“I’m not throwing money at it,” he said, adding that the best thing about giving is getting “results.” He said, “It’s always great to have ideas but somehow or other somebody has to pay, and pay big, in order to get something done.”

The socially-conscious Holland is keenly aware that in these financially unstable times the gap between the haves and have-nots has only widened, something he finds unforgivable in what is held out to be a land of plenty for all

“What has happened in the United States over the past 40 years has been to make a helluva lot of people poor and less wealthy and to make a few people much richer, and we’ve done that by taxation, by trade policies, by not controlling health insurance costs,” he said. “We increased poverty during this period by at least 35 or 40 percent, but the worst thing that’s happened is the middle class itself, which was coming along after World War II very well, suddenly starting making no gain, particularly when inflation’s  taken into account.”

He said the great promise of the middle class, that repository of the American Dream, has actually lost ground. The prospects of poor folks attaining middle class status and the-home-with-a-white-picket-fence dream that goes along with it seems unreachable for many given the gulf between minimum wage earnings and home mortgage rates

“It’s almost ridiculous,” he said. “We might as well say we’ve screwed ’em. I mean, it’s a really sad thing because this country is supposed to be a liberal democracy. The general idea is to provide an equal opportunity and life for almost everyone you possibly can. It sure as hell isn’t having huge groups of impoverished people going to prison and posing all kinds of social problems. All these things should be brought under control by education. It is not supposed to be a South American republic with wealth at the top and a whole vast lower class at the bottom, and we’re headed in that direction unless we make some serious changes in the way we approach this subject.”

When Holland considers the deregulated environment that led to unchecked corporate greed, the Wall Street bust, the home mortgage collapse and the shrinking safety net for the disadvantaged, he sees a recipe for disaster.

“We began to deregulate everything, thinking that regulations made things worse and deregulation would make everything better, and the truth is there are a lot of things that need to be regulated, including human behavior in the marketplace,” he said. “We just ignored that. In fact, it’s almost like saying our social system is every man for himself, and that’s crazy. It’s not every man for himself, we’re interdependent on one another on everything we do. This whole thing is wrong. We’re beginning to see we have to make some changes, but the changes I’ve seen so far are not nearly as drastic as I think they should be.

“I guess I sound like a doomsday guy, but I really believe unless we correct some of these things the United States risks its future.”

The health care reform debate brought into stark relief for Holland how far apart Americans are on basic remedies to cure social ills.

“Why can’t we get together more on this?” he asked rhetorically. “I have a hunch that part of it is misunderstanding, a growing ignorance among a large body of the populace, not recognizing just exactly what has happened. Talking about health care reform, poor people or middle class people objecting to it don’t seem to understand all the benefits they’re going to gain from it, they’re worried their health care won’t be as good as it was when it’ll be just as good,”

He said health care reform will help the self-employed and small business employees get the coverage they need but couldn’t afford before and will allow persons with preexisting conditions to qualify without being denied. Someone who will benefit from reform is right under his own roof.

“I have a helper who looks after the house. She has a preexisting condition. I pay her insurance, and it’s just over $1,300 a month,” an amount the woman couldn’t possibly afford on her own. “It’s absolutely wrong,” he said.He said the ever rising cost of health care under a present system of excess and waste drains the nation of vital resources that could be applied elsewhere.

“There’s no question in my mind that a nation as wealthy as the United States having to pay 17 percent of its gross national product for health care versus every other advanced country in the world sticking around 10 or 11 is just leaving several hundred billion dollars on the table that should be available for education, which at the primary level is in terrible shape.”Education has become the main focus of Holland’s philanthropy. Years ago he began seeing the adverse effects of inadequate education. He and Mary became involved in two local programs, Winners Circle and All Our Kids, that assist underachieving schools and students in at-risk neighborhoods. The couple saw the difference that extra resources make in getting kids to do better academically.

 

 

Dick and Mary Holland portrait by Debra Joy Groesser

 

He views education as the key to addressing many of the endemic problems impacting America’s inner cities, including Omaha’s. He wasn’t surprised by what a 2007 Omaha World-Herald series revealed in terms of African-American disparity. Blacks here experience some of the worst poverty in the nation and lag far behind the majority population in employment and education. He said he and other local philanthropists, such as Susan Buffett, were already looking into the issue and formulating Building Bright Futures as a means to close ever widening achievement gaps.

“I think one of the things we don’t really understand really well about cause is the effect of abject poverty,” said Holland. “Most people who have a decent life don’t understand that having no money, no transportation, not having an adequate diet or health care or stimulating opportunities for children in a very poor family is a straight line to prison and social problems. Those children, more than half of them, enter kindergarten not ready at all, with limited vocabularies of 400 words when they should have 1,200 to 1,500, and you can just go from there and it just all goes down hill.”

He said those critical of the job teachers do miss the point that too many kids enter school not ready to learn.

“That’s not because a bunch of teachers are dumb, that’s because there’s a bunch of kids that have not been looked after properly from the beginning. You can blame teachers until the cows come home, but I just say to you, How is a teacher going to teach a child who is that far behind? It’s almost impossible, and that’s the first great neglect. If we had been doing that differently, we would avoid an awful lot of this. In fact, we’d avoid most of it.”

When students enter school unprepared to learn, he said, there’s little that can be done.

“After they get into the grades, there again, there’s no family, no money, no reading, no looking after, no stimulation, no going places, and the net result is the child goes from 1st through 4th grade not catching up and instead starting to diminish. By the 7th and 8th grades they find out they can’t hack it and they get awfully damn tired of being regarded as dumb, and the net effect of that is dropping out.

“It’s as plain as the nose on your face this is what goes on and this is what we don’t do anything about. It’s a tragedy and one of the great national disasters.”

Things get more complicated for children who enter the foster care or juvenile justice systems. Teen pregnancy and truancy add more challenges. The entrenched gang activity and gun violence in Omaha, he said, has at its source poverty, broken homes, school drop outs, lack of job skills and few sustainable employment options.

He said the fact the majority of Omaha Public Schools students come from households whose income is so low they qualify for the free/reduced lunch program indicates how widespread the problem is. “When a child has to have a free lunch all you can say is something is terribly wrong,” he said.

To those who would indict an entire school district he points out OPS students attending schools in middle and upper middle class neighborhoods do as well or better than students in the Westside and Millard districts. He said the real disparity exists between students from affluent environments and those from impoverished environments.

“The way I sometimes put it to people is, ‘The kids make the school.’ It’s a funny thing how we don’t understand this. It’s very obvious to me,” he said, that on average children from “reasonable affluence” do better than children from poverty. He said Winners Circle and All Our Kids, two programs under the Building Bright Futures umbrella, are full of success stories, as is another effort he and Bright Futures endorses, Educare. Through these and other programs Bright Futures is very intentional in putting in place the support students need from early childhood on.

“We’re going to have a thousand kids this year in early childhood programs. We have organizations that are working in something like 12 or 14 schools. We’ve got five hundred volunteers of all kinds. And we actually have cases. From the very beginning it’s been shown that if we get a hold of a child, even after this bad beginning, and mentor him properly we can get him higher up in the education scale.  In All Our Kids we have 40 kids in college, 50 that have graduated, several with master’s degrees, and every one of those kids was a kid at risk. So we know what to do if we work hard enough on it. What we have to overcome is the kid who doesn’t think he’s so hot. At home an impoverished child often gets put down, diminishing his ego. We have to overcome that, and that’s one of the things we really try to do.”

Mary Holland recognized there must be a continuum of support in place all through a student’s development. Dick said that’s why she encouraged the merger between Winners Circle, whose focus is on elementary school students, and All Our Kids, whose focus is on junior high and high school students.

 

Image result for dick holland omaha

 

 

“We’re trying to take those kids all the way through the 11th grade, taking them every where and teaching them what college requires, what businesses are like, exposing them to the world,” he said. “Bright Futures is not a five or six year program, it’s a 15-year program. It’s gotta be done like that.”

The idea is to get kids on the right track and keep them there. Getting kids to believe in themselves is a big part of it. “If you don’t have a lot of self-confidence you don’t try things, and we try to overcome that. With some kids it works. Some find out, I’m better than I thought, I can do that.”

The goal is qualifying students for college and their attaining a higher education degree. Towards that end, Bright Futures works with students from 12th grade through college.

“We follow you there,” said Holland. “We’ve set up things in universities to help people. We’re still trying to bring it all together. It’s an effort to refresh, restore, make them understand what they have to achieve in order to do anything in life.”

Enough funding is in place that cost is not an issue for Bright Futures students.

“We have adequate scholarship money for thousands, we don’t even have to worry about that, and yet we don’t have enough people to take them that qualify. Just because you graduate from high school doesn’t mean you’re ready for college. Sometimes I think they (schools) get ‘em out of high school just to get ‘em out of high school.”

Holland has a better appreciation than most for the barriers that make all this difficult in practice. He and Mary mentored some young people through All Our Kids and they experienced first-hand how things that most of us take for granted can be stumbling blocks for others. He recounted the time he and Mary mentored a young single mother. Things started out promisingly enough but then a familiar pattern set in that unraveled the whole scenario. He said the young woman got a job, her employer liked her and her performance, but she stopped coming to work and she got fired. The same thing happened at another job. And then another. Each time, he said, the challenge of affording child care, getting health problems addressed and finding reliable transportation sabotaged both the young mother’s and the Hollands’ best efforts.

“She couldn’t hold a job, and we gave up,” he said. It’s not something he’s proud of, but he’s honest about the frustration these situations can produce. Other mentoring experiences ended more positively but still highlighted the challenges people face.

“You find out an awful lot about how tough this is because they don’t have the same kind of get up and go confidence like my daughters, who think that nothing is beyond them. You try to instill that, and when you see a little bit of it happening it’s worth the price of admission.”

He acknowledges that despite government cutbacks there’s still plenty of public aid to help catch people who fall through the cracks. But he feels strongly that a different emphasis is required — one that helps people become self-sufficient contributors.

“We have all kinds of government programs designed to grab these people as they fall off the cliff. The failure is to raise them so they can climb cliffs. There’s no question in my mind sooner or later it’s going to be a major government project. It has to be.”

Policies also need to change in terms of guaranteeing people a living wage, he said.

“Let me give you an idea of how we look at things,” said Holland. “We had a $2 (hourly) minimum wage in 1975 and that was adequate to get people out of poverty, it really was. But since the ‘80s the minimum wage has not kept pace with the cost of living and inflation. It’s kept people in poverty. The Congress of the United States, Republicans and Democrats alike, failed to really go after that. They failed to understand it.”

He said despite the minimum wage having increased to $7.25 in Nebraska and higher in other states, “it ought to be $10 or $11” to give families a chance of not just getting by but getting ahead. “We’re not looking at this problem the right way, we’re just creating it. There’s a dismissal of the problem by people that don’t have it.”

Similarly, he said early childhood programs must be learning centers not babysitting or recreational centers, that address the entire needs of children.

“We have a fractional help system. Somebody helps them after school, somebody sets up a club, somebody sets up something else over here. Some of those after school things make you feel better, they’re fun to go to, they’ve got cookies, but that doesn’t focus on their actual intellectual needs. There’s a lot of that that goes on.”

Holland calls for systemic change that comprehensively affects lives.

“I’m more and more positive it’s going to take a revolution. We’re going to have to stop what we’re doing and start doing something along the lines I’ve talked about. At various times there’s been various suggestions about poverty, but one thing that will help alleviate poverty a helluva lot is money, there’s no getting around it. If it takes 5 or 10 percent of the gross national product it will be a benefit over time because once you have a little money you begin to be able to do a few things, and then you begin to learn a few things, and your children do the same.”

A model approach in his eyes is Educare’s holistic early childhood education. “We’re (surrogate) parents there, that’s what we are,” he said, “and the people that bring their children there know what’s happening, they know that suddenly the whole world is opening for that child. When those kids enter kindergarten they’re ready, they’ve got these big vocabularies. We know it can be done, but we also know the price.”

To those who might balk at the $12,000-$13,000 annual cost of caring for a child in a state-of-the-art center, he said it’s but a fraction of what it costs to incarcerate someone or to navigate someone through the justice system or the foster care system.

Agree or disagree with him, you can be sure Dick Holland will continue putting his money where his mouth is and where his heart is.

Community and coffee at Omaha’s Perk Avenue Cafe

June 4, 2011 8 comments

It’s fun to do stories that try to place an establishment, in this case a cafe, with a neighborhood, in this case a near downtown urban swath on the edge of of rebirth and oblivion. The Perk Avenue Cafe in Omaha opened as a humanitarian mission and community building experiment for activist owners John and Jennifer Cleveland and it was my pleasure to try and convey that within the context of the couple’s own personal experiences and beliefs as born-again Christians. They minister to the neighborhood through the food and coffee they serve, the cozy gathering spot they create, and the warm welcome they extend to everyone who comes in.  The story appeared in the Omaha City Weekly, a newspaper that is no more.  To be honest, I’m not sure the cafe is still open.

Community and coffee at Omaha’s Perk Avenue Cafe

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Omaha City Weekly

 

Perk Avenue Cafe fits the road-less-traveled crowd coursing Park Avenue, an off-the-beaten-track artery linking immigrant south Omaha with transitional midtown with mainstream downtown. From its modest 1107 Park Avenue digs in a mixed use district ranging from stately old homes to shoddy rentals and open air drug-sex deals to revitalization efforts, the cafe’s that rare spot where urban families, adventurers and fringe dwellers all feel welcome. Beyond its free-trade coffee, made-from-scratch pies and home-style breakfast-lunch menu, Perk’s real mission is as a community center — an extension of proprietors John and Jennifer Cleveland’s well-practiced beliefs.

Neighborhood activists residing in the area, the married couple opened Perk Avenue in the fall of 2003. The brick building was home to a vending business before sitting vacant. The property, like other nearby lots, was plagued by addicts and prostitutes. Veterans of missionary work abroad and social service work in Omaha, the couple bought the site and then surveyed neighbors about what should be done with it. When the consensus said it should be made-over into a community gathering spot, the husband and wife team renovated it for that purpose.

By day, Perk Avenue is the prototypical laidback coffeehouse/diner whose counter-hugging patrons warm up over coffee and conversation. The Clevelands, a mellow combo whether dishing out their low-priced food or their well-articulated social advocacy, are a main attraction along with their four chatty children. “Our children are a big part of this,” Jennifer said.

Tim Siragusa, an actor and waiter who walks to Perk Avenue for his “pre-yoga double-shot of espresso” said, “I’ve just been charmed by the owners. John and Jennifer brought a nice communal space into this part of town that wasn’t here before. And I think one of the things that keeps neighborhoods vital is a coffee shop. A place where everybody can come in the morning and get their coffee and chat over the paper. And their delightful children have no problem speaking with the customers.” Or joining in with artists who variously perform music and give readings there. For an Omaha Public Library Program, Siragusa read Farenhite 451 at the Perk.

With time, the couple’s vision for Perk Avenue has broadened. For example, on some nights the Clevelands, in concert with Mosaic Community Development, hold Spanish and English classes as “a bridge builder” to bring together the neighborhood’s disparate peoples.

On Friday nights, the joint jumps to live music by folk musicians or grunge bands. Other nights, it becomes a venue for parties and receptions. The commercial kitchen is an incubator for food entrepreneurs like Bob and Mary Brown, who use the premises to sling up half the cafe’s menu in addition to their own catering business dishes. Whether hosting meetings of the Ford Birthsite Neighborhood Association, which John Cleveland has headed, or reaching out to street denizens, the couple use the Perk Avenue as a base for their “holistic approach” in addressing the social, economic, political and spiritual concerns of an area Cleveland said is “on the edge — it could go either way.”

Being change agents is an intensely personal thing for the couple, born-again Christians whose own lives bear witness to the transforming power of faith and love. The product of a broken home, John was “a self-styled Satanist” and “chief sinner” waging a one-man war against God before his conversion in 1986 at Trinity Lutheran Church in Omaha. He describes being taken into the fold as an “adoption,” adding, “It was a family, it was a place of purpose and belonging.”

“I hated God, and that He could somehow reach into my heart and make that kind of life change in me,” said Cleveland, “it made me believe there was nobody on this planet beyond His reach or His help. I felt a real deep conviction and compulsion, and a real called mission, to do something.”

He met Jennifer there. After attending bible college together they made an early 1990s Christ in the City International missionary tour — first, to Costa Rica to learn Spanish, and then to Medellin, Colombia to work. Arriving in drug warlord Pablo Escobar’s last year in power, the couple started their family in the poor, violent land, where John ran a program training Colombian youth to help orphans, drug addicts and AIDS victims. It was a fulfilling but trying experience.

“It was hard on our family. There were bombings and kidnappings. Like a war zone. My second day there, a 10-year old prostitute approached me. She didn’t want my help. Nothing they taught in bible school prepared me for that. It was like hell on earth for some. We were in constant danger. It was terrifying at times,” he said.

John recalled one hairy confrontation with armed guerrillas. “We were coming back from the coast with a team of Colombians. We had a ton of people in the Toyota car I was driving. We pulled into this military checkpoint and we knew something was wrong because there was nobody there. It was a ghost town. So, we kept going and at the crest of the next hill we were stopped by two guerrillas. Apparently they’d come down out of the hills and done an operation and were now retreating. This one came up to my window and started asking questions. What had we seen? Where were we going? Who were we with? Where were we from? His questions started getting more specific to my being an American.”

This was in a time and place, Cleveland said, when if it was assumed “you had any value, they would kidnap you and hold you for ransom. Well, we’re at that point when, all of a sudden, the guy can’t talk. He’s choking on his words. The other guy is freaking out because it’s taking too long. They’re exposed. And the guy who can’t talk finally gets so mad he just waves us off, like, Get out of here. So, we tear off and everybody in the car is like, Oh, my God, it’s a miracle. On the other hand, I’m hyperventilating, going, I just about died — God, what were you thinking?”

Of their time in Colombia, he said, “We were so young. Freshly married. A new family. There were a lot of things we should have done differently, but that’s OK. We made it through and learned a lot from it.” Once back in Omaha, John tried working in the for-profit arena, but was “miserable.” He said, “I love people and I felt we could apply some of the principles of community development we learned in a foreign land to what we do here locally.” He joined the local office of Christ for the City, heading a program for Lutheran Family Services called Strong Urban Neighborhoods. He now works at Turning Point, a youth-centered organization.

The Clevelands were drawn to the area bounded by Park Avenue, the Ford Birthsite and Field Club for “its cultural diversity.” Immigrants from Latin America and Africa settle there for its affordable housing.

 

 

 

 

Plus, John said, “We wanted to use our Spanish. We felt a real affection for the Hispanic community. And we wanted to live in a community we felt we could contribute to, and this neighborhood was perfect. My big emphasis in ministry has always been community development. Getting community ownership, finding community solutions to problems and sustainable solutions locally.” And “breaking down barriers,” like in the language classes offered at Perk Avenue that help diffuse differences. Participants range from immigrants trying to master English to city inspectors and landlords needing to communicate with Spanish-speaking business owners and tenants to teachers from nearby Liberty Elementary School, where three of the couple’s kids attend, looking to breach the divide with newcomer pupils. In the process, he said, “perceptions  change and dialogues start, and I don’t know where else that would happen.”

With so much diversity intersecting the area, Cleveland wants Perk Avenue viewed as a safe haven for everyone, even the late night street walkers he shoos away but also assists when they appear battered or cold or disoriented. “We want a place where people from Field Club can rub shoulders with people from down here and where everybody thinks it’s theirs. We’ve tried to make this a melting pot.”

On a recent morning, customers included a middle-aged contractor, a thirtysomething Hispanic laborer, a senior couple, actor Tim Siragusa and young artist Leslie Iwai, who discussed bible passages with companion Jonathan Starkey. Iwai welcomes what the Clevelands are doing. “I think it’s a light in a dark place. It brings order to a location that’s had a lot of oppression. It’s establishing something here — like grass growing through a crack in the sidewalk. We didn’t need another bar.” Starkey agreed, adding, “It’s good to see a healthy establishment.”

Cleveland said the neighborhood seems to be turning the corner. He’s helped lead efforts to combat dealers, addicts, pimps and hookers. “It’s frustrating, because you want to extend help and you want to see life change, but in the meantime I’ll settle for relocation. There’s a sense of righteous indignation of — you know what? — this has got to stop. There’s enough people in this neighborhood who are to that point that it’s starting to make a difference.” He’s also encouraged by a new development that’s renovating a former illicit drug-sex den into Boston row houses.

The couple hope Perk remains a community resource long after they’re gone. “It’s not ours. It’s not about us. It’s about the destiny of this neighborhood. It’s just a matter of time, I believe, before people start owning it. There’s great potential here,” Jennifer said.

Life is a Cabaret, the Anne Marie Kenny Story: From Omaha to Paris to Prague and Back to Omaha, with Love

May 28, 2011 7 comments

My writing brand focus is “telling stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions” and the following New Horizons profile I wrote about cabaret singer Anne Marie Kenny is an almost perfect match of writer and subject. She is a multi-talented woman whose love of music and adventure has driven much of her life. She is one of those bright spirits I feel drawn to, and I think you will too reading her story.  She comes from a long line of Omaha women who have made careers as cabaret or torch or big band singers – from Anna Mae Winburn to Julie Wilson to Richetta Wilson to Camille Metoyer Moten to Karrin Allyson.  These chanteuses all share in common at art and craft of interpreting a song.  Indeed, they all feel a kinship with one another, and Kenny is quick to acknowledge that she adores Julie Wilson’s work.  Much like Wilson had to once take an extended leave from the performing world she loves so, Kenny did as well.  My story charts some of the ups and downs,  twists and turns, and various adventures of her life in and out of music.

©photo by Bill Sitzmann
Life is a Cabaret, the Anne Marie Kenny Story: From Omaha to Paris to Prague and Back to Omaha, with Love

©by Leo Adam Biga    

As appeared in the New Horizons

“What good is sitting alone in your room? Come hear the music play. Life is a cabaret old chum, come to the cabaret…”

 

Singer Anne Marie Kenny’s life is a cabaret alright. The story of how she left Omaha to follow her dream in Paris is storybook stuff. It only gets better when you learn she came back home to find true love in dashing advertising executive, John Bull. Then she left for Paris again, only this time with her man. The two lived an enchanted life as expatriates abroad. She sang, he painted…

But then like the tragic-romantic songs this chanteuse sings in clubs and concert halls, their fortunes changed. They struggled financially and then John fell ill. She gave up music to go into business, reinventing herself as an entrepreneur in the newly liberated Czech Republic. Just as her company took off and a new life dawned in Prague, John’s condition worsened. He later died.

That was 15 years ago. Since then Kenny’s reinvented herself again. She remarried, though this second union didn’t last long. She has no children of her own but is involved in the lives of her step-children.

After selling her company she resettled in Omaha, now the base for her intercultural consulting and training business. She’s fluent in French, Italian and Czech, Along the way she earned a master’s degree in organizational leadership from the College of Saint Mary..

Today, this vivacious world citizen, businesswoman, vocal coach, choir leader and cabaret singer still lives her performing dream. She looks forward to whatever life holds, certain she’s prepared to take the bitter with the sweet.

Growing up, Kenny’s musical family met tragedy when her father, attorney Dan Kenny, drowned at 35. While on a fishing trip with buddies his motorboat capsized. Everyone ended up in the chilly waters that fateful day. He was a good swimmer but between the cold, the heavy clothing he wore and his head likely hitting the motor, he didn’t survive.

Anne was not quite 3. She, her four older sisters, a brother and their mother, Veronica Janda Kenny, were on their own. Until the initial shock wore off, their Field Club home, usually filled with the sound of music, was silent except for weeping.

“My father played instruments, saxophone, a little bit of piano. My mother played the piano. My father had a great singing voice, so did my mother. They loved music — it was a big part of their lives,” said Kenny.

All the kids took piano lessons.

Soon, music took its rightful place again in the Kenny home, serving as healing therapy for the still grieving Irish (her father’s side) and Czech (her mother’s side) clan.

“I think the music redeemed whatever loss we had.”

This was the mid-1950s, long before professional counseling became de rigueur for children touched by trauma.

“In those days, no, you just forged ahead,” Kenny said. “I think the music was a godsend for us. I don’t know what we would have done if we had not had it. I think life might have been a little bit harder, but music was our outlet, and we harmonized.”

When old enough, Anne joined her sisters in the four-part harmony group, the Kenny Sisters. They performed at Show Wagons, service clubs, receptions and various other events. All her siblings have remained musical into adulthood.

Not all was peaches and cream. Anne’s mother, formerly a traditional stay-at-home mom, suddenly had to be the breadwinner.

“I can look back now and I realize what an amazing mother we had because she made sure she provided for us, there was no thought of welfare or anything for Mom,” said Kenny. “She had to go to work and she found a way. She worked hard. She started as a secretary in my dad’s old law firm.

“Then she moved to Creighton University, in the career placement office. Even though I’m sure we had very little money, we always looked good because Mother sewed all of our clothes. She made sure we had a parochial education.”

Anne attended St. Peter Elementary and Mercy High Shool.

Everyone pitched in to make ends meet. Mother Kenny made sure of it.

“She made us start working at a very early age, so that we helped with the finances,” recalls Anne, who with her sisters worked at St. James Orphanage. “I remember having to go get a work permit at age 13 or 14 to be a child care worker. I would pick up babies and feed them three nights a week.”

Meanwhile, Anne blossomed into a beauty with an angelic voice and a fetching personality. She couldn’t go to a party without being prevailed upon to sing. Her late ’60s repertoire included folksongs, Beatles hits, show tunes, et cetera.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I was in high school, all I know is that everybody loved my music. I could play the guitar, I could sing, I could play the piano a little bit. I got the leads in the plays — the musicals, even the nonmusicals.

“When my mother asked me what I wanted to be, I said I wanted to be an actress, so I was thinking along those lines in those early days. And singing is acting, because you’re selling a song, you’re becoming the character of whatever the song is.”

It would be a few years yet before Anne became a polished vocalist but right from the start she understood the importance of breathing heart and soul into a song and winning over an audience.

“I learned early on, when I first started singing professionally at 21, that you have to lose yourself in the song, and that’s what you do when you’re acting. You have to lose the nerves, you have to lose the everybody’s-looking-at-me mentality and get into the music, interpret that music, let it take you away.”

That expressiveness, she said, only comes “after you do your homework and learn the words and learn the song, and learn some technique and how to deliver it.” It only comes, she said, “after you have really concentrated on studying it.”

One of Kenny’s musical idols is fellow Omaha native Julie Wilson, the legendary singer. Wilson’s a revered figure in New York City cabaret circles and is still going strong at 86. Kenny said no one does cabaret better than Wilson.

“Julie is a master at that. She really sells the song. You’ve heard that Rodgers and Hammerstein song a hundred times, yet you hear Julie Wilson sing it and it’s like you’ve never heard it before. It’s her phrasing and the color and tone she brings to it. And her diction is impeccable. I am a huge fan of Julie Wilson.”

 

 

Julie Wilson

 

 

She said unlike some singers who bore after awhile, Wilson holds you spellbound.

“Never do you feel you want it to get over. You’re hoping there’s another verse. She’s completely into it. I would say I am too when I sing but I don’t know if I get it across as well as Julie.”

Kenny said while Wilson’s voice is limited in range now, age has also ripened it. “She delivers it with such intensity and emotion,” said Kenny. “She just has it.”

All this insight was was still ahead of Kenny in 1973. Music then was an avocation, not a career. She tried office work for a time, but felt her creative impulses stymied.

“I knew it wasn’t for me, and that’s when I decided to move from Omaha. I was 21, I couldn’t figure out where I wanted to go, I just knew I needed to spread my wings.”

“Put down the knitting, the book and the broom, time for a holiday…”

In truth, Kenny knew exactly where she was headed: France. She studied French  in school and became a Francophile. At 18 she made her first trip to Europe, to then-West Germany, where a sister and her military husband lived. Even though Anne didn’t make it to Paris that time, she said, “That trip did tell me I’m coming back to Europe and I always knew someday I was getting to France.”

That day came sooner than expected when she finally threw caution to the wind and booked passage there.

“It was just welling up in me and I still feel this way today — I cannot not do my art. If I don’t, I’m not healthy.”

Still, the idea of going off to Paris alone was daunting. Yes, she was adventurous but also insecure enough that she kept her plans secret. She was even too timid to tell herself she was pursuing a singing career.

“I didn’t dare tell anybody I was going to Paris. I didn’t know anyone there, I didn’t know anything, except I knew some French. So I sold my little Volkswagen Beetle, all my possessions. I knew I couldn’t tell anybody who would naysay. I’ve held that principle all my life — don’t talk about any big plans to anybody who cant help you or isn’t going to be encouraging. I knew my mother would talk me out of it, but I was old enough to do this, so I did.”

She found a great deal and made the voyage on a luxurious Italian oceanliner.

“That was an education in itself —  this Omaha girl on a ship,” she said.

She disembarked in Marseilles, where she caught a train bound for Paris. En route, she said, a French passenger asked what her plans were, “and I don’t know why but I said, ‘I’m a singer, I’m going to sing,’ and that’s the first time I admitted that to myself. I remember being surprised to hear that come out of my mouth.”

Once in Paris the romance and reality of the City of Light set in.

“When I first moved there by myself I didn’t know a soul, but the minute I hit Paris I felt like I was home. Paris is about beauty and art all around you. That’s how I see it.”

That electric energy aside, there was still the matter of supporting herself.

“I only had like $2,000 to my name to last me — I had to start earning money. I did get a job as an au pair, so I at least had a secure place to live, and the family was just wonderful. It was a great job. I’m still friends with these people today.”

But how does an unknown young American break into the Paris music scene? In Kenny’s case, by pluck and luck.

“I put this sign up at a place called the Centra Americain that read, ‘Singer looking for musicians.’ I don’t know how I had the guts to do this by the way. And lo and behold a couple days later a phone call — this deep resonant voice on the other end. The person spoke French but I could tell it wasn’t a Frenchman. He was a guitarist named Carlos. He’d worked with a lot of singers.”

It was attraction at first sight. He, the tall, dark Argentine virtuoso. She, the lithe, lovely American song stylist.

“We didn’t even talk much. He started playing, and he just played with such purity and exactness. He’s the best guitarist I have ever heard. Anything I knew, he knew. We were very good together musically. After we had about 10-12 songs under our belt, he said, ‘I think we’re ready to perform in the streets.’ I said, ‘No way,’ but he talked me into it.

“He felt we should go to the Champs Elysees, the busiest street in Paris. We had crowds all around us listening. I passed a long glove. We made pretty good money.”

Her first big break happened only days later when a talent scout discovered them.

“Somebody came along from ORTF radio and asked if we would come for an audition, and we did, and we got a job on the radio.”

She and Carlos appeared on the popular Le Petit Conservatoire de Mireille, a showcase for emerging talents.

“The French loved the show,” said Kenny. “We were on almost every week, and we got paid — not a whole lot,  but enough to get me ‘off the streets’ so to speak.”

The duo also appeared on the show’s television spinoff. More offers poured in.

“It got me an agent, who was also a songwriter. He wrote songs that kind of fit my voice. He got me gigs in theaters around Paris.”

All this after being in Paris only weeks. She chalks it up as “meant to be,” adding, “I just think things do fall into place, and if they don’t maybe they’re not meant to be.” Plus, she sad, “I was determined.”

She and her Argentine dream boat were more than musical partners, they were lovers. But their romance and collaboration didn’t last. Se la vie, as the French say.

After a year living her dream, she ran short of funds. After all, singing is at best sporadic work. Besides, it was time to return home.

“No use permitting some prophet of doom, to wipe every smile away, come hear the music play…”

Kenny took her first formal voice lessons from teachers Diana Morrison and Mary Fitzsimmons Massie. After she performed Edith Piaf and Jaques Brel songs at an Omaha Alliance Francaise concert, the late Morrison offered to work with her.

“She got me started in a whole new world of learning the technique of singing,” said Kenny. “Now, before that, I had a good natural voice, but she got me into classical music. I must say I love it. But I love the Great American Songbook, too. With good technique you should be able to do it all, you should be able to sing operatic but then when you sing a pop song not sing it in the operatic style, but switch those gears.

“I don’t think there’s many people who have a cache of different voices to use.”

With training, she said, she’s learned to “try on different voices” to suit the song, the mood, the venue, the audience. Therefore, she can project, in a belting voice, in all the registers, but can also “pull it way back” to a soft, intimate purr. She likes leading off her opening set with a “wow” song, then throttling down a few notches, before closing with her favorite, “La vie en rose,” or saving that emotional number for her encore.

She’s further honed her instrument in master classes at Juilliard, Peabody and Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris. She’s fluent in the full French and Italian repertoire.

It was the late ’70s in the Old Market when Kenny became a hot item singing at M’s Pub, V Mertz and the French Cafe. Meanwhile, she’d met her future husband, John, socially. He was a Mad Man ad whiz from Chicago come to work at Bozell and Jacobs. His big account was Mutual of Omaha. Sparks flew when the two met and their mutual attraction developed into a full-blown courtship.

“Every time I performed, he was there. He clearly was interested in me.”

They married in 1980, honeymooning — where else? — in France.

Back in the States she sometimes traveled with him cross-country as he made syndication deals for Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Then one day he surprised her by announcing he’d quit his job and they were moving to Paris.

“We had talked about one day wouldn’t that be wonderful. He wanted to live his dream too — of painting. Talk about a risk taker. But it was a shared dream. So off we went to live our dream.”

They started their new life together in Paris in 1983.

“We lived the life. We were two artists in Paris. It was a beautiful life. We had a lot of fun, contact with other artists. We had musical parties. I would sing at his art shows, He was always so supportive of my music.

“We just blended so well. I heard life, he saw life. We would go places and he would notice things I would never even see. Likewise, I’d pick up on other things.”

The couple lived in an idyllic setting, too, in an apartment on the Iie Saint-Louis, an island in the River Sienne, right in the heart of Paris.

Whenever she visits Paris that’s where she heads — to that arrondissement or district where she still knows the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, as well as all the neighborhood cafe proprietors.

Her next big leap as a singer came under the formidable vocal coach Janine Reiss, who’s worked with world class artists Maria Callas, Luciana Pavarotti and Placido Domingo. Kenny knew it was a long shot that Reiss would take her on as a student but she no sooner phrased a few verses at an informal audition then Reiss agreed.

“I was shocked.”

 

Janine Reiss

 

They worked intensively together and are friends to this day.

“She was meticulous, you could not get by with anything,” said Kenny, who appreciates how much Reiss pushed her to improve, saying, “She took me deeper into my art.”

The student-teacher relationship “is way more than just the singing,” said Kenny. “Invariably you need to talk about what is this song saying and where do you find that emotion within yourself. It’s like method acting. You end up having very intimate conversations. You need to be very vulnerable with your teacher, and Janine would share as much about herself.”

Kenny applied her finely honed technique and artistry at some posh venues, such as the Oak Room at the Paris Ritz Hotel. “Probably one of my favorite gigs of all time,” she said, “They treated me so well and they’re real connoisseurs. Sophisticated.”

 

Anne-Marie Kenny

 

She found time, too, for the part of Miss Moneypenny in three feature films shot on the Riviera and principal roles in plays and operettas.

“Come taste the wine, come hear the band, come blow your horn, start celebrating…”

Life was grand, and then the bottom fell out. The American dollar took a dive and the unsteady income from her singing and John’s painting no longer allowed them to live in the manner to which they’d become accustomed. It meant downsizing and moving to the South of France, where things were less expensive.

“I sang a lot in the South of France, but they weren’t the same opportunities I had in Paris,” she said, “so I wasn’t as happy.”

When John fell ill, things became even harder.

Then something straight out of one of the sentimental songs she sings occurred. It was late fall 1989 and the Iron Curtain was falling in Eastern Europe. The Velvet Revolution in the Czech Republic was capturing people’s hearts and imagination. The new president, Vaclav Havel, a poet and playwright once imprisoned for his dissident views, took office in a bloodless regime change from communist to democratic rule.

Watching on TV Kenny was enthralled by the charismatic Havel, a fellow artist, at the head of this movement. She was moved too by his writings.

“He was the moral voice of the people,” she said. “If you read anything he’s written you would be inspired, too. He’s the Nelson Mandela of the former Soviet bloc countries.”

Amid the nationalistic fervor, she took new pride in her Czech heritage.

“I’m half Czech, so I felt extra connected. I hoped to go one day.”

Caught up in the spirit of it all, she did something rash.

“That was one of those moments when I think I had too much champagne,” she said. “We had just seen on TV the celebrations in the street and I went over to the piano and I wrote some English words for the Czech people to Jacques Brel’s song “If We Only Have Love” and I sent them to President Havel with a congratulatory note that said how moved we were to watch this happen.

“And by gosh I got a letter back on behalf of President Havel inviting me to sing that song at the Reduta Jazz Club.”

That Prague club is a national landmark and playing it is considered a high honor, so naturally she accepted the offer. Her performance there marked the beginning of her own Czech Spring, as she witnessed first-hand the opportunities being afforded by the country’s new found freedom. With John sick and the couple needing a stable income, she began looking at making a major life-career change.

“I knew we had to do something and I was ready to make a break with music.”

With the Wild Wild East wide open to economic development, Kenny learned that companies struggled finding enough employable talent. That’s when she hatched the idea of a training and staffing firm. There was little competition at the time.

“Everything was new, laws were changing and it was the best time to go in. It was just a great place to be. I was very inspired there. I also realized I would have to throw myself completely into it if I was going to start this business.”

But could she really walk away from music to become a CEO? It’s then that she recalled a meeting with her idol, Julie Wilson, years earlier at New York’s Algonquin Hotel. Kenny was there to see Wilson perform. The two had never met.

“Julie walked into the room and I was alone sitting at one of those wonderful round booths, and as she came by I said, ‘By the way, I’m from Omaha and I’m a singer, too, and I’m so excited to hear you.’ Julie said, ‘Do you have time for dinner afterwards?’ ‘Why, yes,” I stumbled. ‘Good, I’ll catch you after the show.’ And we just had a great talk over dinner.”

As Kenny weighed her options in Prague years later she thought back to something Wilson told her that night — how this queen of the stage and the cabaret set had to quit when her marriage failed and she needed to attend to her trouble-prone sons in Omaha.

“She told me right out there came a time in her career she had to stop and give up what she loved doing the most to work a regular job to support her kids. I was so touched by her story. I thought, That’s what I have to do, I have to give up music. And it wasn’t a huge hardship. I’d been doing it professionally 20 years. But it was different.”

Kenny said she also identified with and took solace in something else Wilson told her: that once an artist, always an artist, “even if life takes you away from it.” And as Wilson proved, you can always go back to it. It’s never too late.

All of Kenny’s deliberation was rewarded when her company flourished, becoming Easter Europe’s go-to staffing and training service for multinationals.

“I knew I could do it. I just wont accept failure. Once you stand up at the Oak Room of the Paris Ritz Hotel and sing to that clientele, you can sell yourself.”

She ended up living 10 years in Prague.

Just as Julie Wilson resumed her singing career, Kenny’s performing again. She works gigs in Omaha, in Florida, in the South of France, all around her busy business schedule. Her intercultural work is ever more in demand in this flat world, digital age, global economy, where cross-cultural competency is vital.

She also enjoys passing on her expertise to vocal performance students she trains at her Dundee home. A new passion is leading the Siena Francis House Singers, a spirited choral group comprised of that shelter’s homeless residents.

Kenny looks forward to whatever new adventures await.

“I don’t know what my future is, but I don’t expect it to be any less exciting than what my life has been so far.”

There is one dream she pines to fulfill:  “I would love to do a cabaret show with Julie Wilson. The two of us back in Omaha. I just know we’d pack ‘em in.”

“Start by admitting, from cradle to tomb, isn’t that long a stay, life is a cabaret old chum, only a cabaret old chum, and I love a cabaret!”

Alice’s wonderland: Former InStyle accessories editor Alice Kim brings NYC style sense to Omaha’s Trocadero


Alice Kim’s story reads like a pitch line for a new reality television series. Growing up back east she began cultivating an intense interest in Omaha of all places, and her fascination grew more acute with each encounter she would have with someone from this Midwest city. She never visited here, mind you, she just read about it and kept running into Omahans, and every encounter and exposure reinforced in her mind this idealized version of Omaha as the embodiment of the All-American city. The thing is, her magnificent obsession didn’t wane after she carved out a career in New York City’s fashion and style industry, primarily as an editor with InStyle magazine. In fact, she kept cultivating this fixation and then one day she left her life and career in the Big Apple behind in order to transform her life in the middle of the country, far from the tastemaking and trendsetting scene of New York. The following story and sidebar for The Reader (www.thereader.com) describe how Kim has transferred her fashionista sensibilities to my hometown of Omaha and reinvented herself at the same time as a first-time mom and soon to be bride. Her fairytale life change is the subject of her delightful blog, Postcards from Omaha, and of a book she hopes to complete by year’s end.

There’s a nice symmetry to her story as well:  Now that this accessories maven is well ensconced in Omaha with her lifestyle boutique, Trocadero, she’s helping prepare young Nebraska women with designs on having career sin fashion and style in New York City realize their dreams.

 

 

 

 

Alice’s wonderland:

Former InStyle accessories editor Alice Kim brings NYC style sense to Omaha’s Trocadero

©by Leo Adam Biga

As appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Alice Kim’s story of leaving New York City for Omaha has gotten much play.

In 2007, the then-InStyle magazine accessories editor acted on her admittedly “weird,” long-held preoccupation with Omaha by moving here and opening the Old Market lifestyles boutique, Trocadero.

“My store is in some ways InStyle come to life,” she says.

Her experience recommending the best of this or that gives Trocadero customers the benefit of her branded, expert, insider’s advice.

“I have that kind of finger on the pulse of what people want.”

Still, her store has struggled amid the recession and conservative Midwest buying habits that don’t mesh with her somewhat frivolous merchandise.

Cognoscenti, however, regard this Big Apple sophisticate as a style maven and tastemaker. Her exclusive, discriminating suggestions for just the right hand bag, pair of shoes or home decor item is heeded.

She cops to not being a salesperson but says, “I can always convince somebody that this is a great something or other.” Her spin, she says, goes something like: “’It’s a total New York brand, it’s not sold everywhere, it’s at a great price point.’ And all of a sudden there’s a story and they’re like, Really? And they buy it.

“It’s like sharing industry secrets,” she says. “I feel I have a unique angle, which is really telling people about the stuff that we as editors love.”

Everything she sells or endorses, she says, “I stand by.”

 

 

 

 

If her style sensibility were a tag line she says it would be “practically perfect,” adding, “It’s always going to be practical and it’s going to close to darn perfect.”

She has the professional chops and personal élan to articulate her discerning aesthetic without sounding smug, whether selecting things to sell in her shop or for her own wardrobe or excising the dull dross from a client’s closet.

“I feel very confident in my skills,” she says over sushi at Hiro 88 West. “I’ve always known how to style.  I think a lot of it is innate. It’s just having the eye. It’s like being a good editor. But, of course, I’ve been trained. When I arrived in New York, from Pittsburgh, in 1992, I certainly was not a fashion diva then and I certainly didn’t look the part. I was doughty.”

She’s a long way from doughty today, though she felt that way while pregnant last year with her first child. Since the birth of her daughter Annabel she’s pined to retire her formless maternity clothes and return to some chic wear, such as the classic black dress she wore at lunch, accented by pearls.

“I don’t want to look messy anymore,” she says.

Kim is marrying Annabel’s father, entrepreneur Adrian Blake, this summer. She’s also step-mom to his two children as the two households recently merged.

Even before her pregnancy, Kim says she’d gotten lazy about her look and gained weight thanks to Omaha’s more sedentary lifestyle. Actually, she says her casual phase began near the burned-out close of her frenetic New York career.

“There were times when towards the end of my working days I just didn’t care anymore. I was just so busy. I’d wear flip flops because I was hoofing it all the time, walking from the garment district back to the office with bags of accessories. I wasn’t going to teeter in high heels.

“I was on the New York fashionista diet [champagne and finger food[. I was definitely much thinner when I lived in New York.”

 

 

 

Then there were those times, she says, “when I wanted to get dressed up, so then I’d wear a beautiful jacket with a dress and heels. It really depended on my day. If I knew I was going to be in the office all day then I would wear something nicer because I wouldn’t have to be schlepping around town for shoots and samples.

“When I first started the store [Trocadero],” she says, “I wanted to look nice — to be representative of fashion in New York in Omaha. I probably worked harder (at it) and then gradually just became more casual.”

For a year she bought her clothes at Target as a concession to mommy practicalities. Besides, she says, good style “doesn’t have to be super expensive.” Balancing being a new mom and fashionista at 41 means remaking herself, so she’s back to shopping at Von Maur to outfit herself more appropriately.

“I’m in my 40s — I really can’t keep dressing like a teenager. It’s just having to embrace that I’m an adult. I feel better now because I have grown-up clothes. I can look equally fine walking to the kids’ school or coming to lunch here or going to the supermarket.

“My thing is cardigans.”

Her lifetime hunt for the perfect black leather motorcycle jacket continues.

Making one’s self or home polished, she says, is all about investing in a few high quality things and making them pop with the right accessories.

“I think my house reflects my store, which is always about the accessories, the details, the accent pieces. Like I have this plain, white, Danish-modern couch. What makes it interesting is the hand-painted, embroidered pillows on it.”

When it comes to clothes, she says as clichéd as it sounds, “you start with a little black dress and the way you accessorize it is what gives it its style.”

It’s about transformation. Like opting to live out her version of the American Dream in Omaha. After a whirlwind start, she began doubting her life makeover, but now that she’s found her man and become a mother, she says, “I feel content.”

Her magnificent obsession is the subject of her blog,” Postcards from Omaha,” and a book she hopes to finish soon.

Trocadero is located at 1208 1/2 Howard St. in the Old Market. For more information call 402.934.8389 or visit shoptrocadero.com.

 

Living the NYC Fashion Dream 

©by Leo Adam Biga

As appears in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

With all the fabulous things Alice Kim ‘s done in New York City and now her entrepreneurial foray in Omaha, she says what she’s proudest of is helping people.

At InStyle she says she found great satisfaction “helping small designers get nationwide recognition.”

The fashion business is all about networking, and Kim worked hard cultivating and nurturing relationships with designers, photographers and publicists.

At Trocadero she’s parlayed old contacts and made new ones. She’s also availed herself as a go-to resource for young people with designs on their own NYC fashion careers. Several area women who came to her with their aspirations ended up as Trocadero interns. Each is now pursuing life in the Big Apple.

They credit “Alice’s Fashion Finishing School” with preparing them.

“It was a great experience to learn from someone that had actually been in the industry and really knew what it was about. She’s been a great mentor and a kind of guardian angel,” says Hannah Rood, an account executive with LaForce-Stevens. “We learned so much about things like sense of urgency and attention to detail that have carried over into what I’m doing now.”

“Alice’s influence continues to impact my life,” says Kathleen Flood, an associate editor and blogger with The Creators Project. “When I was working for her, she was not only a boss and mentor, but a friend, and even an older sister figure at times.

“Now that I have my own interns, I’m starting to teach them little tricks she taught me.”

“She definitely expanded my vision of success … and has truly guided me to where I am today,” says Ellie Ashford, a freelance public relations assistant at Polo Ralph Lauren.

They all refer to doors Kim helped open for them. The Omaha transplants say they’re keeping a pact to stay connected.

As for Trocadero as a launching pad, Kim says, “I feel like I’ve created a special space that people really consider to be a home away from home. I offer myself as much I can.” Before she’ll recommend an intern to a New York contact, she says, “you have to prove to me you’re ready for the big time.”

Kim enjoys following her former interns’ progress. “They’re all leading their own lives and having their own adventures. They’re doing it — they’re doing what I did 20 years ago. They’re living the dream.”

Magazine and mission founded on spirit of giving: Metro Magazine publisher Andy Hoig celebrates philanthropy

March 6, 2011 2 comments

Omaha Downtown

Image by herzogbr via Flickr

As a contributing writer to newspapers and magazines for going on 25 years I’ve had about every kind of assignment imaginable.  However, there’s always room for a new first.  The following story is just such a case. Metro Magazine publisher Andy Hoig asked me to write a story about her publication, which is celebrating 20 years in print.  I’ve been a regular contributor to the mag for a couple years and I appreciated her thinking of me for a project that meant a lot to her.  As a freelancer I don’t usually get to know very well the publishers and editors and staffers at the various pubs I contribute to because I essentially work out of my home and the vast majority of my contact  with these clients is by email and phone.  It’s the same with Metro, though in working on this assignment I do feel I got to know Andy and her team a bit better.  Of course, there’s something to be said too for keeping a professional distance in these matters. In preparing the story below I felt like a distant third cousin writing a family history I was only dimly aware of before, and that is I think how it should be.  I now feel more invested in that family, an apt word for Metro because it was actually started by Andy’s father, veteran newspaperman Bob Hoig.  I first met Andy while working for her father’s Midlands Business Journal and for what was originally called the Omaha Metro Update, later known as the Metro Monthly.  And so, you see, I’ve always been a part of the family, though there was a 20-year interruption in our relationship while I went off to pursue other freelance options and Andy grew the publication in wonderful new directions.  We’re together again and I value the reunion.

Magazine and mission founded on spirit of giving: Metro Magazine publisher Andy Hoig celebrates philanthropy

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in the January/February issue of Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com)

 

2011 finds the intrepid creatives behind metroMagazine releasing a collective sigh of relief after the tumultuous events of last year.

What was to have been a celebratory milestone marking the magazine’s 20th anniversary became a time to regroup and express gratitude. A January 7, 2010 middle-of-the-night fire destroyed the offices of ALH Publications along with three neighboring businesses in the Boardwalk mall. No one was hurt.

Ironically, a magazine whose niche is chronicling the charitable scene suddenly found itself in need. With the community rallying behind it, Metro continued publishing without interruption. After 10 months in temporary digs Metro has a new home and a rededication to fulfill its mission to “inform, educate and inspire.”

The night of the fire was one of the coldest on record. Publisher Andy Hoig and creative vice president Rob Kilmer arrived to survey the smoldering devastation as firefighters pumped water. Hoig saw everything she had built up being lost.

“I was crying,” said Hoig. “It wasn’t really crying for me. Fire is such a powerful thing and when you’re watching it burn your stuff there’s an emotional connection.

“I just remember laughing and saying, ‘You know, this would be a really respectful way to end this if I wanted to. I’ve been doing this for 20 years, maybe this is a sign.’ Well, within 24 hours I knew this was not one of the reasons this happened, because people just started coming out of the woodwork.”

The outpouring of support began while the fire still raged and news reports  leaked out.

“It wasn’t an hour after the fire started I started getting text messages,” said Hoig. “I got phone calls and emails. People genuinely wanted to help.”

Detailing how the giving community addresses myriad needs is what Hoig does for a living. Being on the other end things of took some getting used to.

“It was something I didn’t really know how to handle at first,” she said. “I’m used to being the one who says, How can we help? Now I was on the flip side of having people reach out to me. I actually learned that by receiving gracefully is a gift you actually give people. By not receiving we’re denying the person who’s giving to us.”

The expressions of concern gave her a new perspective on the value of her work.

“You know, you do what you do and you do it every day, and you get so far into it you don’t see outside of it. I often times wondered, Does anybody really even care about this?”

A tangible demonstration of how much metroMagazine matters came at a Feb. 22 Omaha Community Playhouse event that raised funds to assist Metro.

“Some friends of the magazine put on this event,” Hoig said, “and all these people showed up because they actually cared about what the publication’s doing. I remember mentioning that I thought about discontinuing it and people were like, ‘No, you cant do that,’ and I was like, OK, so we have been doing something here.

“It’s funny how it takes a catastrophe to affirm what you’re doing has made a difference. Out of this whole situation that was the biggest gift I could have ever received.”

Veteran Omaha charitable professional Ellen Wright was there. She said the event was a show of appreciation.

“When you pick up the Metro you know you’re going to be reading about the nonprofits in the community and the community leadership,” she said. “It’s become THE source, THE number one place you go. It’s an opportunity for nonprofits to talk about what they do. It gives people a chance to read about agencies and their missions. It lets people see how rich the community is with volunteer and charitable opportunities to give your time and treasure to. It fills an important niche. It’s something we didn’t have before.”

Hoig said, “The vision has always been to inspire people to make a difference, whether you look at something and say, ‘I want to be a part of that,’ or, ‘That looks like fun,’ or reading stories about people who are doing inspirational things.

“I look at the magazine as having this ripple effect. I want people to have an emotional experience reading it and when they’re done to kind of sit back and self reflect. It’s really about who’s getting involved, how are people getting involved, and how can you get involved.”

Hal and Mary Daub are big fans. The couple consider Metro a lifeline to happenings.

“My wife and I like the current events nature of it,” said Hal. “It keeps us up to speed on what’s going on. It gives us a great deal of pride every time we finish reading it about how much is going on in our community we want to be sure to catch up to. It always portrays Omaha in such a positive way — the volunteers, the organizations. We love the volunteerism of this town. The magazine captures all that.”

Wright said the way the philanthropic community responded to Metro’s setback was an expression of how much it would be missed if gone.

“I think the fire shook us that this precious little jewel could have been lost, but Andy wasn’t going to let that happen. People recognized how she’s extended herself to so many and how she’s filled a huge gap for us and how we are so incredibly fortunate to have this vehicle.”

Methodist Hospital Foundation president and CEO Cynthia Peacock said Metro “is a champion of collaborative community betterment. They are to be applauded for their continued commitment.”

As Wright sees it, Metro reflects Omaha’s famous generosity.

“People in Omaha care so greatly. I feel philanthropy makes this city, makes this state function. Business and philanthropy are intertwined, and Andy’s been able to mirror that. Her motivation is sincere. She wants not only to do good but she sees the importance of these agencies.”

Although there’s always been a philanthropic focus, it took Hoig some time before she felt invested in the giving culture herself.

“Eventually over the years it became a passion,” she said. “I myself personally started getting involved. The business got more involved.”

What many don’t know is that Metro was launched by her father, Midlands Business Journal publisher Bob Hoig. Originally a tabloid-format newspaper, it began as the Metro Update in 1990 and became the Metro Monthly. Andy got her start as a Metro photographer and later learned layout and other production skills.

By the mid-‘90s the paper struggled enough that Bob was about to shut it down. That’s when he got his first glimmer of his daughter’s ambition and grit.

“She asked if I would consider letting her take it over. My answer was, ‘Sure, I’ll sell it to you for a dollar.’ But I required she sign a small piece of paper I drew up on the spot agreeing to refund subscribers any money coming to them if the Metro later folded. She was to take over full legal ownership.”

What happened next both surprised and pleased him.

“Andy had practically no business experience at the time and I doubted she could make a go of the Metro. I hadn’t counted on her determination and her putting in whatever time and energy it would take to succeed as an entrepreneur.”

He added, “Andy gave new life and direction” to the enterprise by focusing on “charities and causes she believes in” and by transforming the newsprint tabloid into a glossy magazine.

As she matured as a publisher, Andy branded Metro as not just a magazine but a resource. She launched the Big Event Book, a comprehensive annual directory of nonprofits, and the Big Event, an awards recognition gala for area charities. More innovations followed: The Spirit of Omaha website; the weekly INSIDER e-newsletter; and the FACES – Omaha’s Model Search.

The Journeys series features in-depth profiles of inspired doers and givers.

“There has been growth. It’s been a trial and error evolution,” she said. “Part of it is reaching out to different demographics. We have an incredible YP (young professionals) community here that looks to get involved and that has been contributing to our growth.”

The event book and web site offer links and referrals to guide people’s giving and volunteering.

“We should not underestimate Metro’s potential as a connector — making a difference in the lives of nonprofits, donors and beneficiaries of the generous, caring community we call home,” said Methodist Foundation’s Cynthia Peacock.

Community volunteer Cheryl Wild said Metro’s coverage of fundraisers, particularly small grassroots ones, draws crucial interest and support: “I attribute so much of my success with events to the great coverage.”

The full-color magazine’s look and feel get ever more sophisticated.

“I think Andy’s really intuitive and I dare say a little bit cosmopolitan,” said Data Media Solutions CEO and president Jeff Wilke. “She gets the fact that if she’s not changing she’s probably going to be left behind and she’s always looking for the next opportunity to make sure she’s evolving with her clients.”

Hoig also surrounds herself with dedicated staffers and interns and a stable of top freelance writers and photographers.

“One of the things I’ve discovered about myself, especially this past year, is that I love creating and visioning,” she said. “Then I’ve got great people that take that vision and make it a reality. Starting the creation process is what I absolutely love to do and I look forward to the day when that’s what I do all day long, and that day will come. I want to get Metro to a place where it is rock solid and running on its own so I can go make a global impact someplace.”

On the fire’s one-year anniversary the Metro team uncorked a bottle of champagne that survived the blaze, raising glasses to a trying but growth-filled period and toasting the start of the mag’s next 20 years. Having experienced first-hand the Spirit of Omaha, the Metro family is poised to take things to a whole new level.

The much anticipated return of the Bagel Bin

December 3, 2010 2 comments

Bagel

Bagel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s a popular, family-owned bagel shop or bagel factory in Omaha that was out of commission for 10 months due to a fire that destroyed the place and even though the family, the Brezacks, almost immediately set about rebuilding, delays of one kind of another kept the new Bagel Bin from reopening. That left its die-hard customers, of which there are many, without their fix for the New York-style bagels that the  family, who came to Omaha from Long Island, serves up.  The following article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared in the midst of the Brezacks’ frustration with the red tape that was preventing them from reopening.  Since the piece appeared on Dec. 1, 2010, the Bagel Bin has indeed reopened and its bagelmaniacs are reportedly flocking there in record numbers.  Even though the Bagel Bin has been around for 30-plus years in my hometown, I had to admit to the owners that I had never eaten there, and so one of my must-dos this weekend is to stop by and indulge in some of their famous bagels, which for my taste and for a lot of other folks are a perfect food group unto themselves.  The place even makes authentic New York style pizza, another perfect food group.  Can’t go wrong there.

The much anticipated return of the Bagel Bin

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Coming soon.

The words on the hand printed sign affixed to the glass doors of the rebuilt Bagel Bin, 1215 South 119th Street, seem benign enough. Behind the hopeful words though is the bittersweet story of a family-owned kosher bakery that went up in flames Jan. 7.

The three-alarm blaze left a total loss of the beloved business the Brezack family opened there in 1978. It meant starting from scratch and a touchstone neighborhood place being out of commission.

Owner Sue Brezack, whose late husband Joel started the Bin, says she and her family were inundated with expressions of concern from people: “Anything we can do for you? We hope you’re coming back.”

The decision to rebuild was easy for her and sons David and Scott, who’ve run the business with her since Joel’s death in 2004

“We realize we’re kind of an icon in this area. Everybody meets here,” she says.

For weeks though the reopening has been pushed back by pending city inspector approvals and contractor delays.

“It’s been a long year,” she says. “It puts us into a stress mode because you think you’re going to open on a date and then somebody throws a monkey wrench in. Something has to be done, then it has to be ordered and installed. Then you need to get the permit.”

“Everything’s done. We have enough supplies we could open today,” David said two weeks ago.

“We keep telling everybody, it’s not us,” says Sue. “The codes are crazy.”

Rather than risk disappointing people again, she says, “We’re not going to commit to any dates.”

All the while the rabid fan base, evidenced by a Rebuild Bagel Bin Facebook page numbering hundreds of friends with comments of support, press the owners for a firm relaunch. Regular customers call or email, some stopping by to gauge progress and kibitz. Members of the Monday Breakfast Bunch, who’ve met there for years, peek in, reserving their spots for when the joint’s up and running again.

 

 

 

Mom and the boys

 

 

 

“We love seeing them as they come up here,” Sue says. “It’s great to know they’re all around. If we’re in any other big city and we had this fire I don’t think anybody would have been that upset. People would have just moved on. But Omaha’s such a wonderful place. People are very caring here.”

Her customers’ devotion, she says, “makes me cry.”

She and Joel felt Omaha’s embrace when they made a leap of faith in 1977 to relocate here from Long Island, New York. She says “the community kind of came together” for them, a young Jewish couple who invested everything in the start-up. It’s remained a staple in the Jewish community, though most customers are Christian.

Why Omaha? Sue did part of her growing up here when her father was hired as chief programmer at Strategic Air Command. After she moved to New York she and Joel, a Brooklyn native, married and started their family. On vacations, Joel fell in love with the city’s quiet and its slow pace, except he couldn’t find a decent bagel in town. That deficit, he figured, could be his gain, and so he learned the bagel biz inside-out before moving Sue and the family to the Midwest to become bagel evangelists-entrepreneurs. They had the territory to themselves, before competition arrived, but as David says, “we’re still here.”

“We found our niche here,” adds Sue.

The couple’s three sons were enlisted right from the start. When Joel died David and Scott were already helping run things. Their brother Glenn is in construction and he finished out the rich new interior at the remade Bin. The spiffy new digs has some worried the homey old charm will be no more but David insists, “nothing’s changed.”

Feelings run deep, say the Brezacks, because it’s an old-school place where repeat customers are known by name and preference. As soon as they pull in the parking lot their favorite bagel’s toasted and coffee’s poured. Regulars love being pampered almost as much as exchanging good-natured barbs with the owners and counter staff.

 

 

 

 

“The people are just great, they really are,” says Sue.

All that’s left to reopen is the city’s final approval. Well, that and “we need our oven lit by the rabbi”, says Sue, adding, “But we can’t have him do that until we get the OK.”

Off-the-record, Dec. 1 became the new target date.

“It’s going to be a crazy place,” says David.

For updates call 334-2744 or visit www.bagelbin.com.

A Passion for Fashion: Omaha Fashion Week emerges as major cultural happening

September 21, 2010 3 comments

Karachi Fashion show

Image via Wikipedia

Omaha‘s emerging fashion scene just concluded its annual coming out party, Omaha Fashion Week.  This story was a preview that appeared in Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com).  Ironically, I’ve written extensively about Omaha Fashion Week without ever having attended it. I’ve interviewed most of the key players behind it, many of the designers featured in it, and I’ve viewed video excerpts from it, but I’ve never actually been there.  Not because I haven’t wanted to, but circumstances just haven’t afforded me the opportunity. Besides, I’ve never been invited by organizers, this despite helping build a brand for it through my work.  This year, I had expected to do some reporting on scene, but an assignment never materialized.  Maybe next year.  Everything I’ve learned about the event tells me that fashion is the next big thing to come out of the Omaha cultural stew pot that’s already nourished strong literary, theater, film, and music scenes.  To see more of my writing about Omaha fashion, check out my post titled, My Omaha Fashion Magazine Work.”  It features the articles I did for the new Omaha Fashion Magazine (www.omahafashionweek.com).

 

A Passion for Fashion: Omaha Fashion Week emerges as major cultural happening

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com)

 

More than an event, the September 13-18 Omaha Fashion Week is a networking asset for the local design community. In only three years, OFW has become a cultural mainstay and hot ticket on the city’s burgeoning creative scene.

British transplant Nick Hudson‘s passion for Omaha’s entrepreneurial and creative class led him to co-found OFW and the Halo Institute, both of which grew out of his Nomad Lounge in the Old Market. As chic Nomad evolved into a performance art, exhibition, fashion forum and social networking site, Hudson realized the creative-entrepreneurial set needed support. He, along with Nomad marketing and events director Rachel Richards and photographer/designer Dale Heise, launched OFW to coalesce Omaha’s energetic but then unfocused fashion design culture.

 

 

Nick Hudson

 

 

Similarly, Hudson and Creighton University College of Business officials formed Halo to connect entrepreneurs with targeted resources, strategies and counsel.

Halo and Nomad, located in adjoining early 20th century buildings, are each incubators for young, entrepreneurial talent.

Fashion Week links designers with stylists, make-up artists, models, photographers and boutiques, parties who previously lacked a formal hook-up. OFW and its week-long September event bring this fashion forward community together in a nurturing environment that serves as a springboard for collaboration and opportunity.

There has been such a need for these designers, stylists, makeup artists, models to have a forum and I think Omaha Fashion Week provides that stage, that platform, that opportunity. It’s really filled a void,” said operations director Caroline Moore.

OFW’s small, indoor runway shows culminate in the grand, outdoor finale held in the urban canyon right outside Nomad.

Things began rather humbly. Hudson admits it was a struggle to find enough designers and models in year one. “We didn’t really get the word out very well. We sort of scraped it together. We couldn’t really get many sponsors. I just sort of wrote a check for the whole thing. We begged and borrowed equipment to make it happen on a budget the best we could.” Makeshift or not, he said the final product “looked really impressive. It was one of those magical things when you tap into something and it’s better than what you ever imagined.”

Last year saw everything double, in terms of budget, designers, models, volunteers and attendees. The scale has increased again in year three, with 37 designers slated to show collections, hundreds of models signed up to sashay down catwalks and upwards of 6,000 to 7,000 viewers expected to turn out the entire week. The weeknight runway shows are expanded and the weekend runway finale is primed to be bigger and glitzier than ever.

”We have been blessed with an overwhelming amount of talent this year, said Richards, OFW event director. “From designers to models to sponsors to hairstylists to spectators, all of Omaha wants to be a part of this premiere event.”

“It’s definitely grown in scale, and the opportunities have been broadened for those who are participating,” said Moore. “There’s a lot of people excited about this momentum happening and wanting to get on board, even as volunteers, and that is just wonderful. We need all of those people on board to grow the event.” Moore said the breadth and depth of designer lines has increased: “There’s everything from extreme and unique couture-type pieces to marketable off-the-rack items.”

Richards broke fashion week down by the numbers: “Each night fashionistas and their friends can view between three to five designers Monday through Friday with a fundraiser for the Women’s Fund of Greater Omaha on Thursday. Local artists will be donating their time and talent to our Jane Doe project. Eight life size mannequins will be painted, sculpted, et cetera, and be on display throughout the entire week in Fifth Avenue-inspired windows designed by interior designer and vintage expert Melanie Gillis.”

 

 

Rachel Richards

 

 

Weeknight runway showsstart at 8pm. A cocktail reception precedes each show. Following the September 16th show, a DJ-hosted dance party is set for 10 p.m. at Nomad. Tickets are $5 at the door.

All of it is prelude to the September 18th bash.

The runway finalewill be taking place between 9th and 11th and Jones Street on Saturday night,” said Richards. “The runway will grow from 130 to 260 feet with 75 VIP tables surrounding the catwalk. Over 150 models will walk the 260-foot runway as an expected audience of 5,000-plus watch the 15 designers’ designs pass before them.”

VIP ticket holdersare invited to an exclusive pre-party inside Nomad from 6 to 7:45 p.m. The big show kicks off outdoors at 8. A VIP ticket also nets red carpet access, front row seating, valet parking and a swag bag. VIP tickets start at $100. Reserved tickets are $40 and general admission $20. “We wanted to make it even more VIP and glam for these guests,” said Richards.

Moore said a local vendor area will be new this year. Organizing it all is a year-long process. But OFW is about more than a single week. It’s an ongoing initiative to support and highlight the design scene.

What I see happening is Omaha Fashion Week becoming a voice and an expert in the Omaha community for fashion and a facilitator for fashion design and creative conversation in Omaha,” said Moore. “It’s also a way for designers to have a very low risk, high return opportunity to showcase their collections. Most fashion weeks charge designers to participate, but this is an open, no-cost opportunity.”

In line with its missionas what Moore calls “a relevant, go-to source for fashion information,” OFW has a year-round presence via: the social media it’s plugged into; a new publication on the local fashion scene; and a series of breakout events.

There’s a lot of social media buzz, certainly,” said Moore. “People follow us on Facebook and Twitter. We get e-mails. Lately, people moving to Omaha have been contacting us saying they want to get involved.”

Designer Eliana Smith is a fresh new face in Omaha, by way of Salt Lake City, Utah and Argentina, who will show her fall collection during the September 16th runway show. She’s impressed with the support OFW provides.

“What an amazing programthis is that a designer can get so much help,” Smith said. “That is so rare. It’s like having a best friend holding your hand and helping you out. It really gives opportunity to new and upcoming talent, so what a great place to start out as a designer. They’re there for you, helping every step of the way. If you need photographers or models, they’re like, ‘We’re on it.’ What a treasure it is to have that.”

Native Omahan Emma Erickson is coming back to show her line for the runway finale. The Academy of Art University in San Francisco graduate will present her work mere days after showing her school’s textile collaboration at New York Fashion Week. Until now, Erickson said, Omaha hasn’t had much of a fashion scene, but OFW “is a really big opportunity for young designers who need some nourishment or feedback. It’s a huge thing, and it’s free.”

New this year are workshops leading up to Fashion Week. Presenters include experienced designers and entrepreneurs sharing tips with emerging designers on how to develop and market their brand and grow their business. Another new segue to Fashion Week is Vogue’s September 10 Fashions Night Out, a celebration of local-national design trends at select boutiques. The night culminates at Nomad with the unveiling of Metro Magazine’s Faces Model competition winner and the new SpiritofOmaha.com website.

The winner of OFW’s new Idol with Style competition will perform at intermission of the runway finale. Moore anticipates there will ultimately be an annual spring and fall fashion week. OFW held its first spring (preview) in March.

As a new vehicle to promote local fashion, OFW debuted Omaha Fashion Magazine over the summer. The free publication is distributed to metro salons, boutiques, specialty stores. The next issue is due out in March.

It’s all added momentum for what Hudson calls “the biggest Midwest fashion event by a sizable margin. The community should be proud of that. We’re really committed to keep growing Fashion Week, keep making it more professional, keep making it a better event.”

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