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Heart and Soul, A Mutt and Jeff Boxing Story

June 4, 2010 1 comment

 

 

This is another of my favorite boxing stories. I wrote it for the New Horizons.  It profiles the same downtown Omaha boxing gym as featured in the House of Discipline story also recently posted here, only this time I concentrate more on the two old men who ran the gym, Kenny Wingo and Dutch Gladfelter, both of whom are now gone.  I suppose my approach to this story and all the boxing stories I’ve done reveals influences of the boxing movies and documentaries and magazine articles I’ve been exposed to in a lifetime of being both thrilled and sickened by the sport.  You’ll find on this blog site a handful of boxing articles I’ve written over the years, and there will be more to come.

Heart and Soul, A Mutt and Jeff Boxing Story

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

The heart and soul of Omaha amateur boxing can be found one flight above the dingy 308 Bar at 24th & Farnam.   There, inside a cozy little joint of a gym, fighters snap punches at heavy bags, spar inside a makeshift ring, shadowbox and skip rope.

Welcome to the Downtown Boxing Club, a combination sweatshop and shrine dedicated to “the sweet science.”  A melting pot for young Latino, African-American and Anglo pugilists of every conceivable size, shape and starry-eyed dream.  They include die-hard competitors and fitness buffs. Genuine prospects and hapless pugs.  Half-pint boys and burly men.  They come to test their courage, sacrifice their bodies and impose their wills.  For inspiration they need only glance at the walls covered with posters of boxing greats.

 

 

 

 

Whatever their age, ability or aspiration, the athletes all work out under the watchful eye of Kenny Wingo, 65, the club’s head coach, president and founder. The retired masonry contractor keeps tempers and egos in check with his Burl Ives-as-Big Daddy girth and grit.  Longtime assistant Dutch Gladfelter, 76, is as ramrod lean as Wingo is barrel-wide. The ex-prizefighter’s iron fists can still deliver a KO in a pinch, as when he decked a ringside heckler at a tournament a few years back.

Together 17 years now, these two grizzled men share a passion for the sport that helps keep them active year-round.  Wingo, who never fought a bout in his life, readily admits he’s learned the ropes from Gladfelter.

“He’s taught me more about this boxing business – about how to handle kids and how to run a gym – than anybody else I’ve been around,” Wingo said.  “I’ve got a lot of confidence in his opinion.  He’s a treasure.”

The lessons have paid dividends too, as the club’s produced scores of junior and adult amateur champions; it captured both the novice and open division team titles at the 1996 Omaha Golden Gloves tourney.

Ask Gladfelter what makes a good boxer and in his low, growling voice he’ll recite his school-of-hard-knocks philosophy:  “Balance, poise, aggressiveness and a heart,” he said.  “Knowing when, where and how to hit.  Feinting with your eyes and body – that takes the opponent’s mind off what he’s doing and sometimes you can really crack ‘em.  I try to teach different points to hit, like the solar plexus and the jaw, and to stay on balance and be aggressive counterpunching. You don’t go out there just throwin’ punches – you have to think a little bit too.”

Gladfelter’s own ring career included fighting on the pro bootleg boxing circuit during the Depression. The Overton, Neb., native rode freight train boxcars for points bound west, taking fights at such division stops as Cheyenne, Wyo., Idaho Falls, Idaho and Elko, Nev. (where the sheriff staged matches).

“I fought all over the Rocky Mountain District.  You’d travel fifty miles on those boxcars for a fight.  Then you’d travel fifty more to another town and you were liable to run into the same guy you just fought back down the line.  They just changed their name a little,” recalls Gladfelter, who fought then as Sonny O’Dea.

He got to know the hobo camps along the way and usually avoided the railroad bulls who patrolled the freight yards.  It was a rough life, but it made him a buck in what “were hard times. There wasn’t any work.  Fightin’ was the only way I knew to get any money. I got my nose broke a couple times, but it was still better than workin’ at the WPA or PWA,” he said, referring to the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration and Public Works Administration.

After hanging up his gloves he began coaching amateur fighters in the early 1950s.  He worked several years with Native American coach Big Fire.  Gladfelter, who is part Lakota, hooked up with Wingo in the late ‘70s when he brought a son who was fighting at the time to train at the Downtown Boxing Club.  Gladfelter and wife Violet have five children in all.

“After his boy quit, Dutch stayed on and started helping me with my kids,” said Wingo.With Gladfelter at his side Wingo not only refined his coaching skills but gained a new appreciation for his own Native American heritage (He is part Cherokee.).“He took me to several powwows,” said Wingo.  “He taught me what a dream catcher is and the difference between a grass dancer and a traditional dancer.  He’s given me maps where the Native Americans lived.  I ask him questions.  I do some reading.  It’s interesting to me.”

A self-described frustrated athlete, Wingo grew up a rabid baseball (Cardinals) and boxing (Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson) fan in Illinois.  He saw combat in Korea with the U.S. Army’s 7th Regiment, 3rd Division.  After the war he moved to Omaha, where a brother lived, and worked his way up from masonry blocklayer to contractor.

He got involved with boxing about 25 years ago when he took two young boys, whose mother he was dating, to the city Golden Gloves and they insisted they’d like to fight too.  Acting on the boys’ interest, he found a willing coach in Kenny Jackson.  Hanging around the gym to watch them train sparked a fire in Wingo for coaching boxers.

“And I’ve kind of been hooked on it ever since.  It gets in your blood,” he said.

Before long Wingo became Jackson’s cornerman, handling the spit bucket, water bottle, towel, et cetera, during sparring sessions and bouts.  He increased his knowledge by studying books and quizzing coaches.

When Wingo eventually broke with Jackson, several fighters followed him to the now defunct Foxhole Gym.  Soon in need of his own space, Wingo found the site of the present club in 1978 and converted empty offices into a well-equipped gym.  He underwrote much of the early venture himself, but has in recent years used proceeds from pickle card sales to fund its operation.  No membership fees are charged fighters, whose gloves, headgear and other essentials are provided free.  He annually racks up thousands of miles on the club van driving fighters to tournaments around the Midwest and other parts of the nation.  Except for fishing trips, he’s at the gym every weeknight and most Saturday mornings.

What keeps Wingo at it?

“I like working with the kids, number one.  And when a kid does well it just makes you feel like all this is worthwhile.  That you did your job and you got the best from him,” Wingo explains.

He enjoys helping young men grow as boxers and persons.

“When kids first come into the gym, they want to fight but they’re scared to death – because it is physical contact.  But if you’re intimidated, you’ve got no chance.  You try to teach them to be confident.  I tell them from day one, and I keep tellin’ ‘em, that there’s three things that make a good fighter – conditioning, brains and confidence.”

Wingo feels boxing’s gotten a bad rap in recent years due to the excesses of the pro fight game.

He maintains the amateur side of the sport, which is closely regulated, teaches positive values like sportsmanship and vital skills like self-discipline.

The lifelong bachelor has coached hundreds of athletes over the years – becoming a mentor to many.

“Growing up without a father figure, Kenny’s really kind of filled that role for me,” notes Tom McLeod of Omaha, a former boxer who under Wingo won four straight city and Midwest Golden Gloves titles at 156 pounds.  “We developed a real good friendship and a mutual trust and respect.  I think Kenny’s a great coach and a great tactician too.  He always told me what I needed to do to win the fight.  He gave me a lot of confidence in myself and in my abilities.  He took me to a level I definitely couldn’t of reached by myself.”

 

 

 

 

McLeod, 27, is one of several Downtown Boxing Club veterans who remain loyal to Wingo and regularly spar with his stable of fighters.  Another is Rafael Valdez, 33, who started training with Wingo at age 10 and later went on to fight some 150 amateur and 16 pro bouts.  Valdez’s two small sons, Justin and Tony, now fight for Wingo and company as junior amateurs.

“When my kids were old enough to start fighting,” said Valdez, “Kenny was the first one I called. He treats the kids great.  There aren’t many guys who are willing to put in the amount of time he does.”

This multi-generational boxing brotherhood is Wingo’s family.

“Winning isn’t everything with me.  Fellowship is,” Wingo said.  “It’s the fellowship you build up over the years with fighters and coaches and parents too.  I’ve got friends from everywhere and I got ‘em through boxing.”

A 1980 tragedy reminded Wingo of the hazards of growing too attached to his fighters.  He was coaching two rising young stars on the area boxing scene – brothers Art and Shawn Meehan of Omaha –  when he got a call one morning that both had been killed in a car wreck.

“I really cared about them.  Art was an outstanding kid and an outstanding fighter.  He was 16 when he won the city and the Midwest Golden Gloves.  And his little brother Shawn probably had more talent than him.  I’d worked with them three-four years.  I picked ‘em up and took ‘em to the gym and took ‘em home.  I took the little one on a fishing trip to Canada.”

Wingo said the Meehans’ deaths marked “the lowest I’ve ever been.  I was going to quit (coaching).”  He’s stuck with it, but the pain remains.  “I still think about those kids and I still go visit their graves.  It taught me not to get too close to the kids, but it’s hard not to and I still do to a certain extent.”

Quitting isn’t his style anyway.  Besides, kids keep arriving at the gym every day with dreams of boxing glory.  So long as they keep coming, Wingo and Gladfelter are eager to share their experience with them.

“We’ve done it together for 17 years now and we’re gonna continue to do it together for another 17 years.  We both love boxing.  What would we do if we quit?”

A Good Deal: George Pfeifer and Tom Krehbiel are the Ties that Bind Boys Town Hoops


Here’s another Boys Town sports story.  It’s about tradition and legacy and giving back, George Pfeifer played for legendary Boys Town coach Skip Palrang when the school‘s founder, Father Edward Flanagan, was still there.  After Pfeifer graduated high school and served in World War II he came back to Boys Town to coach under Palrang.  Later, he took over as head basketball coach, leading the hoops program to some of its greatest successes. Now, many years into retirement, he’s back again, this time as a kind of unofficial coach and mentor, at the invitation of current head basketball coach Tom Krehbiel.  The old coach and the young coach have bonded like father and son and together they’ve helped Boys Town recapture some of the magic that made the school’s athletic teams juggernauts back in the day.

The story originally appeared in the New Horizons.

 

A Good Deal: George Pfeifer and Tom Krehbiel are the Ties that Bind Boys Town Hoops

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

 

When George Pfeifer coached the Boys Town varsity basketball team in the 1960s to great success, he used an adage with his players, “Get a good deal,” as a way of impressing upon them the advantage of working the ball to get an open shot.

The 81-year-old is long retired but a special tie he’s forged with current BT head basketball coach Tom Krehbiel finds Pfeifer offering kids young enough to be his grandchildren the same sage advice he gave players decades before. Krehbiel credits the recent turnaround in BT hoops — culminating in a Class C-1 state title last season — to the input of his unofficial assistant. “Coach Pfeifer is, in my mind, the school’s all-time greatest basketball coach. I wanted to get him involved in the program. I reached out to him and he’s been a big part of our program ever since. I don’t think it’s a coincidence we started winning” once he got involved, said Krehbiel, who previously coached at Omaha Skutt High School.

The association between the men peaked last season when the Cowboys’ won their first state championship in 40 years. Until beating Louisville in the finals, the school hadn’t won a state roundball title since 1966, when Pfeifer was head coach. That ‘66 crown was the second of back-to-back Class A titles won by Pfeifer’s teams, squads considered two of the best ever to play in Nebraska prep history. It was an era of athletic dominance by the Cowboys.

Since the summer before the 2003-2004 season, when he accepted Krehbiel’s invitation, Pfeifer’s worked with BT hoops. When his arthritis isn’t too bad, the tall man with the folksy manner makes his way on campus, over to the Skip Palrang Memorial Field House named after the legendary man he played and coached under and where he toiled away countless hours on drills.

He’ll keenly observe practice from the sideline, noting things he sees need correcting. This recent Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame inductee is still a master diagnostician at breaking down systems and plays. He does the same when he goes to see a Boys Town game or analyzes tape of one, as his sharp mind dissects the action with razor precision.

“He’ll notice little technical things that only someone who knows basketball can detect. He really sees and knows the game. It’s amazing,” Krehbiel said.

Pfeifer shares his insights with the players, kids not unlike the ones he coached years ago — boys full of attitude but hungry for love. Krehbiel said Pfeifer knows just how to prod people to improve. “He doesn’t criticize — he kind of suggests.”

Tremayne Hill, a starting guard from last year’s team whom Pfeifer got close to, said the old coach got the most out of him with his “encouraging” words. “He told us to stay positive and to work hard in trying to overcome adversity. He was a lot like a father figure,” said Hill, adding Pfeifer and Krehbiel are like a father-son team.

It doesn’t surprise Pfeifer he can get through to kids weaned on PlayStation and X-Box, not Fibber Magee and Molly. You see, he was a BT resident himself from 1939 to 1943, giving him a bond he feels makes him forever simpatico with kids there. It’s why his reconnection with the institution is more than a former coach returning to the fold. It’s a son or brother coming home to his family. It’s why the vast age difference doesn’t hamper him in talking to today’s kids.

“I talk their language,” Pfeifer said. “I grew up there, so I know. When I first went back out there I said, ‘Yeah, I’m an old fogy, but I used to be out here. I know all the tricks you guys know, so you can’t trick me on anything. You can’t tell me anything I haven’t heard. I was just like you guys. My heart’s with you guys. I know what you’re going through. I’m here to be a friend of yours.’”

Hill said Pfeifer’s BT roots make a difference as “he knows the type of stuff we go through. He knows how to relate to us. More than another coach would.”

Pfeifer said he and the team developed a strong bond. “When I’d come out there, some of the kids warming up before the game would come over and say, ‘God, we’re glad to see you coach. You feeling alright? We’re going to play hard for you.’ That last night when they accepted the trophy the one kid held it up and said, ‘This is for you coach Pfeifer…’ Those are the kind of kids….” Choked with emotion, Pfeifer’s voice trailed off.

When Pfeifer coached in the ‘60s he did something rare then — starting five African AmericansOne morning after a game, a caller demanded, “Why you playing all them n______s?” “Because they’re my five best players,” Pfeifer replied. Ken Geddes, a member of those teams, said race “was never even an issue.” Lamont McCarty, a teammate, said, “If you didn’t perform, you didn’t play… plain and simple. He was a wonderful coach. Same thing with Skip Palrang.”

As is now a custom, Krehbiel had Pfeifer address the assembled 2006-2007 team at a mid-November practice. It was Pfeifer’s first contact with the team. He’d have been there before if not for tending to his terminally ill wife Jean. Gathered round him were about two dozen players, many of them new faces after the loss of so many off last year’s team to graduation. Pfeifer owned their rapt attention.

He told them he was 13 when his father died. Left unsaid was the Depression was on, and with his widowed mother unable to support the poor Kansas farm family she sent him and a brother to Boys Town. There young George blossomed under iconic founder Rev. Edward Flanagan and star coach Skip Palrang..

Pfeifer also didn’t mention he became BT’s mayor (as did his brother) and excelled in football and basketball. That he developed an itch to give back to youth what he’d received. After serving in the U.S, Navy during World War II he coached at Fort Hays State down in Kansas, before accepting an offer to join Palrang’s BT staff. Intending to stay five years, Pfeifer, by then married with children, made it a 30-year career. He was a coach, a teacher and principal of the elementary school.

“I knew I wanted to be there to help those type of kids,” Pfeifer said of BT students past and present. “You know, they come there with a hole in their heart. Nobody cares about them, nobody encourages them –- they just think there’s no way they can make it. We set up goals and objectives. We praise them when they succeed. When a kid comes up to you and says, ‘God, I wish you were my dad,’ well, those kind of grab you. Then you know you made a difference.”

The campus holds a dear place in Pfeifer’s heart. It’s home. The people there, his family. He stays in touch with players by phone, letter, e-mail. He’s a regular at school reunions. But until Krehbiel asked him to come back as a consultant, Pfeifer hadn’t really felt welcome by previous coaches.

“I think he had a desire to get back close to the program, to his home and to this community, and so the timing was right,” said Krehbiel, a Burlington, Iowa native with his own ties to the place. His father worked there and as a youngster Krehbiel spent many a summer day on campus, running about and canoeing in the pond. “So I always knew Boys Town,” he said. “I loved it.”

As Pfeifer spoke to the kids that late afternoon in November, he was every inch the coach again, instilling values and commanding respect.

“There’s nobody working here that doesn’t love you, I guarantee you,” he told them in measured tones.” “So listen to your family teachers, listen to your coaches, work hard, study in school. You have great coaches, good facilities. You’ve got everything you need, except you got to do your part. You gotta keep your nose clean. Don’t get in no trouble. Do what you’re told. Coach is going to tell you what he wants you to learn, how you’re going to do this and he’s going to tell you why. Those are three really important parts of your basketball training.

“It takes a lot of hard work. You have to be focused. No matter what happens outside, you come here and be ready for basketball.”

After Pfeifer wished them good luck and some players responded with, “Thanks, coach,” the huddled team charged back into practice.

“If they know that you care about them and that you’re there for them, they’ll work for you — they’ll work hard. They appreciate you,” Pfeifer said.

“It’s funny. Kids today are real hip-hop, you know, with this Snoop Dog slang and coach uses old school terminology that I cringe at sometimes, assuming the kids think its kind of corny, but the kids like it. I think too he provides a grandfatherly figure,” Krehbiel said. “These kids, more than any kids I’ve ever been around, they want somebody to take an interest.

“He wants to help…It really comes down to his true interest and love for the kids in the program. He’s trying to give them that last tidbit…to help them on the court and help them in life. I think when he looks at our team and he’s rooting for these kids it’s like rooting for his family, his own kids or his own brothers….He gets emotional when he talks about this place. It’s his home.”

It’s that been there-done that experience Pfeifer brings that Krehbiel wanted for his players. Then there’s the “link to success” Pfeifer represents.

“He laid the foundation 40 years ago for all the nice things that have been said about us the last two or three years,” Krehbiel said. “I think we’re all proud to carry on a rich tradition. It’s just an honor to be associated with him. I was always taught to appreciate the people that came before you…You gotta respect the people who built up the history and this place is just full of history.”

What Krehbiel got in the figure of Pfeifer was more than he could have imagined.

“Coach has been a great mentor to me and a great resource for us,” he said. “You know he’s having an impact on our kids when after the state championship one of our starting five interviewed on TV” — Dwaine Wright — “spent his whole time on camera referencing coach Pfeifer, saying, ‘He told me in practice to get the good shots.’ We didn’t prompt him to do that. It just came out of his heart. You realize, Wow, this is an 80-some-year-old man having an affect on an 18-19 year-old kid. I was proud of our kids for the respect they showed coach. I’m proud of coach.”

Pfeifer appreciates that Krehbiel sought his counsel, thus allowing him to be a teacher again. “He was so sincere and open about establishing a good relationship. He was willing to receive me and invest in some of my knowledge,” Pfeifer said. “A lot of guys that coach, they think they know it all. But he’s really receptive. And that’s great for me because I didn’t feel that with some of the other people that were out there. I said, ‘I’ll be happy to help you out anyway I can.’”

When Krehbiel first approached him, he had no clear expectation other than getting some advice on the special demands of being a BT coach.

“This is a unique position,” Krehbiel said, “maybe as unique a position as there is in the country in high school because you’re in a home for boys. There’s not only the athletics parts of it but there’s the home campus part of it, dealing with the troubled youth, the homeless youth, with all the things they present.

“There are very few people who’ve had this position. There’s just a few of us around. There’s even fewer that have had the kind of success coach had.”

Krehbiel did some research in the BT and Omaha World-Herald archives in compiling a school record book and came away duly impressed by just “how successful” Pfeifer was at producing winning teams. In 14 years as head coach — 1959 to 1973 — his teams won 205 games and lost only 82. He led nine teams to the state tourney and guided a pair to state titles. His track and field teams were also a formidable bunch, always a threat at the state meet.

For Krehbiel, welcoming back someone like Pfeifer who’d given the best years of his life to BT was a way of honoring the man.

“My initial intention was to just try to give back to him for all the years he gave to Boys Town. My initial thought was to get him up here to one practice at the beginning of the year, and it’s morphed into a great relationship and friendship,” said Krehbiel, whose wife and five daughters all know Pfeifer.

Still, it took some convincing for Pfeifer to meet with Krehbiel that first time.

“I called him up out of the blue and introduced myself. He was real reluctant but I finally got him to agree to go lunch with me at Big Fred’s. He told stories for hours.
That’s when I told him, ‘You are welcome anytime.’ That fall I asked him to come out to practice. I gave him a pad of paper and a pen and said, ‘Watch me coach practice. Watch our kids. Give me some feedback about our team.’ He did that and from that point on he’s been popping in at practices whenever he feels like it.”

It didn’t happen overnight. Pfeifer eased his way in, not wanting to impose himself, less he undermine Krehbiel’s authority.

“When it first started we’d talk maybe once every couple weeks,” Krehbiel said. “He wouldn’t come to practices much. As he and I became closer and he became closer with all the other coaches, there was a comfort level. Last year he was out here about two or three times a week prior to the season opener, and we’d be talking about offenses and defenses and philosophies back and forth.

“I was reaching out initially to find out, ‘How did you handle the job? How did you handle the kids? What are the issues beyond basketball I should know about?’ Then when he and I started talking I found just how solid his philosophies are in basketball and in life and I really wanted to get to know him more. You just can’t help but sense the way he approached things and did things is probably the best way as well as the right way to have a lot of success. I try to emulate him.”

It doesn’t hurt that the two are cut from the same cloth. “Our personalities are a lot alike, so there’s a bond person-to-person, coach-to-coach,” Krehbiel said. That’s not to say these two see eye to eye on everything.

“He believes in zone defense and I believe in man to man,” Krehbiel said. “But that’s the fun of it — debating the merits of each. But,” he added, “as far as what we demand of our players, how we treat our players,” they’re on the same page.

It wasn’t until Krehbiel watched Pfeifer interact with the players that he understood all that the venerable old coach could bring.

“Then when I saw him around the kids and I saw how he still has a lot of viable, valuable contributions…and I saw the kids take to him, it obviously was a great idea to have him around. It’s just kind of matured into what it is today. He’s around quite a bit. As much as he wants to be. The door is always open.”

Along the way, Pfeifer’s shared some coaching secrets, including a list of offensive- defensive Dos and Donts and his mantra for teaching “technique, technique, technique” he got from coaching great Skip Palrang. Pfeifer’s passed along full-court press and matchup-zone tactics that made his teams so hard to beat. Above all, he’s preached taking the high percentage shot and protecting “the hole.”

“He gave me a file folder of his coaching notes and a card with his pregame preparation notes,” Krehbiel said. “I read through it all and I copied it down in my own words and style. That’s the relationship he and I’ve built up. For him to give that to me, I mean, what do you say? That should tell anyone a lot about his willingness to give. I think he really, really wants this program to be successful and those are the lengths he’s willing to go.”

What Pfeifer does for BT hoops can’t truly be measured.

“He doesn’t come out and design plays and run drills. He’s in the background helping the coaches. He’s really helped me in my preparation for games. He talks to players one one one,” Krehbiel said. “The last couple years he’d take some of our better players aside, real fatherly like, and say, ‘Here’s what I see in your game. Take the good shots, not the bad shots.’”

Wishing to remain in the background, Pfeifer chooses not to sit on the bench, but in the stands during games. He’s always watching, however.

 

 

 

As last year’s team stormed through the season, losing only four times, including twice to Wahoo Neumann, Pfeifer noted a tendency for BT players to settle for three-point shots and to play soft in the middle. With his adjustments the Cowboys avenged Neumann in the first round of the state tourney.

When last year’s star player, starting center and then-BT Mayor Vince Marshall,  felt good about a game in which he scored well but recorded few rebounds, Pfeifer had a heart to heart talk with him. “I said, ‘I was mayor when I was at Boys Town. You’re the mayor and you got only three rebounds last game. What the hell were you doing? You’re the mayor, you’re going to make me look bad. Get your ass on the boards.’ That’s the way we talked. We were brothers.”

Pfeifer’s known to intervene when emotions run over. Once, after a so-so practice on the eve of state, the admittedly “fiery” Krehbiel lost his cool when he noticed a couple players cutting up. “I lose it. I go up one kid and down another. I was furious they wouldn’t take this seriously,” Krehbiel said. “And here comes coach. He gets off his chair and gets right in the middle of us and says, ‘Wait a minute.’ I immediately shut up. He takes over and says something about not getting a big head and keeping yourself together and staying in the moment.

“He was just that calming influence and that’s what he’s been. I’ve really calmed my demeanor in regards to the sidelines and the game-time stuff in my conversations with him. He’s really helped me with the handling of the kids around here. He reminds me they’re always watching you and they’re going to play off your demeanor. He’s a sounding board. I can pick up the phone and say, ‘Coach, we’ve had this issue with a young man, how would you handle that?’ He gives me tidbits on how to handle certain situations as head coach.”

Pfeifer can still get fired up, as when he pulled his BT athletic jacket out of moth balls for a school pep rally to show how much he bleeds Big Blue. He told the crowd, “I’ve waited 40 years to wear this thing again.”

There’s the sense of a circle being closed. That what Pfeifer got from Palrang is being handed down to Krehbiel. Lessons from 65 years ago live on, no doubt to be carried on by the young men Krehbiel and Pfeifer work with today.

“The greatest thing for me, bar none, is to have my name linked with coach Pfeifer’s name and coach Palrang’s name in the same sentence. To be linked to that history is overwhelming,” Krehbiel said. When Pfeifer couldn’t get away to Lincoln to accept his Hall of Fame induction, he asked Krehbiel to accept in his place. For Pfeifer, Krehbiel was the natural choice. “I love him,” Pfeifer said of his coaching protege. “What an honor to accept for him. That just fortified our relationship. He’s a good old guy,” a tearful Krehbiel said.

Krehbiel met many athletes Pfeifer coached. They were disappointed he couldn’t make it. “They all love him. Guys came in from both coasts and from all over the country to honor him with this induction, which was long overdue,” Krehbiel said. One of Pfeifer’s favorites, Charles ”Deacon” Jones, a standout BT miler and football player who became a University of Iowa All American and two-time Olympic long distance runner, was inducted into the Hall the same night.

“I know it was killing coach not to be able to go and to be on the stage with Deacon,” Krehbiel said. But Deacon and the rest know Pfeifer was there with them in spirit. Like he always has been and will be. A brother under the skin.

Krehbiel never competed for Pfeifer, but considers it a privilege coaching with him and “seeing all he does around kids.” He said it seems he and the players benefit more from the relationship than Pfeifer does. However, he added, “I hope we’re helping keep him active.” It’s clear when Pfeifer talks hoops it takes his mind off, if only a little while, his wife. Krehbiel’s visited Pfeifer at his house during this hard time. Krehbiel’s daughters say prayers for Jean.

Perhaps the old coach’s greatest joy comes from watching his young protege catch the same passion he caught for Boys Town. Pfeifer said, “I’ve told him, ‘Tom, if you stay there long enough you’re going to get what I got.’ It’s a fever.” Krehbiel said the example of Pfeifer is one reason “why I stay here. It’s why I’ll always be here.”

 

Rich Boys Town sports legacy recalled

May 31, 2010 37 comments

I remember as a kid learning about the rich sports legacy at Boys Town, the youth development center founded by Father Edward Flanagan and forever immortalized in the MGM movie classic. When I looked into that athletic history a few years ago for a story I was struck by the amazing success Boys Town teams enjoyed for several decades and by how the football team in particular became a national powerhouse that actually traveled coast to cosat to play games against elite prep teams before big crowds in college and professional stadiums.  Flanagan and his immediate successor seized upon athletics as a healthy outlet and socialization model for residents and as a promotional tool for the campus.  The story of the football team’s many triumphs and travels would make a good movie itself.  Football was the school’s poster sport, but Boys Town enjoyed tremendous success and followings in basketball, baseball, wrestling, and track and field as well.  All the changes that came down at Boys Town beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s resulted in the athletic program suffering several lean years.  It’s only in the last decade that there’s been a resurgence in Boys Town sports, not to the heights of its former glory perhaps, but enough to link this era to that earlier Golden Age.

If you’re interested in another Boys Town sports story, then check out my story, “A Good Deal: George Pfeifer and Tom Krehbiel are the Ties that Bind Boys Town Hoops” on this blog.  More o f my Boys Town stories on this site cover various topics, including the classic 1938 MGM film Boys Town, the friendship of Fr. Edward Flanagan and Jewish attorney Henry Monsky, and the 1972 Sun Newspapers Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation of Boys Town finances.

The following story originally appeared in Nebraska Life Magazine. Look for more Boys Town stories in future posts.

 

Rich Boys Town sports legacy recalled

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Nebraska Life Magazine

 

“I didn’t know a jock strap from a toothbrush,” said alumnus George Pfeifer of his arrival at Boys Town from a Kansas farm in 1939. Like some of the finest athletes at Rev. Edward Flanagan’s home for “lost” boys, the future coach had never played organized sports before coming there. Most of the boys were either poor inner city or rural kids who’d played only sandlot ball or street ball. They came from all parts of the country, boys with different racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds, and on their shoulders was built an athletic dynasty that became the envy of the nation.

From the Great Depression through the 1960s, the Boys Town football team played elite Catholic prep schools and military academies in Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, New York, Miami and other cites. The games attracted dignitaries and made headlines. Playing against the nation’s toughest competition in large stadiums before tens of thousands of fans, the Cowboys won more than twice as often as they lost.

During the same era, Boys Town won multiple state championships in football and basketball, and produced scores of all-state athletes and individual champions, even some high school All-Americans. Its great track-and-field athletes include two-time Olympian Charles “Deacon” Jones (1956 and 1960) and quarter-miler Jimmy Johnson, who won the Pan Am Games only a few years after graduating.

It began with the dream of Boys Town’s founder, Father Flanagan, who was a fair soccer and handball player in his day, and a vocal champion of sports. He made sports an integral, even compulsory part of residents’ experience at Boys Town. Intramural athletics became a big deal. In those days, the boys lived in dorms and staged competitions between their respective buildings to see who were kings of the field or the court. By the mid-1930s, Flanagan hired a coach and pushed for Boys Town to compete in sanctioned interscholastic events.

Born and raised in Ireland, Flanagan made his long-held dream for Boys Town a reality through conviction, blarney and bluff. With his silver-tongued brogue and big sad eyes, he elicited sympathy and loosened purse strings for the plight of America’s orphaned. With his politician’s ability to build consensus, he got people of all persuasions and faiths to contribute to the home.

It didn’t hurt that Flanagan harbored a bit of P.T. Barnum in his soul. Almost from the start of the home in 1917, he made use of the media to further the cause of children’s care and rights. In the 1920s he hosted a nationally syndicated Sunday radio program, “Links of Love,” broadcast from the old WOW studios in Omaha. On a larger scale, there was the 1938 MGM box office smash “Boys Town,” starring Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney. Tracy won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Flanagan.

The movie made Flanagan and BT household names. He used his and the home’s growing reputation to bring national figures, including sports stars, to “the city of little men.” The BT archives detail visits by such sports icons as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis. Hollywood celebrities were also frequent visitors. “Deacon” Jones, then learning the barber trade at BT, recalls being summoned with his clippers to the quarters of Flanagan’s successor, Rev. Nicholas Wegner, where he found Spencer Tracy in need of a haircut. Jones complied.

 

The coach had a great influence on the start of Boys Town's famous sports teams.

Coach Skip Palrang had a great influence on the start of Boys Town’s famous sports teams

 

Just as Flanagan earlier made the school band and choir ambassadors for BT, so he did with football. The same year the movie “Boys Town” was released, the football squad boarded the Challenger super liner at Omaha’s Union Station for a trip west, where they played a benefit game against Black Foxe Military Institute of Los Angeles. The film’s producer, John Considine, Jr., made it happen. Among the 10,000 or so in attendance at Gilmore Stadium were numerous Hollywood stars. Boys Town won, 20-12.

The good turnout seems to have convinced Flanagan to take his football team on the road as a gypsy, bring-on-all-comers sideshow featuring orphans from the world-famous Boys Town. The bigger the stage, the tougher the opponent, the more Flanagan liked it.

He would often wend his way to wherever the football team appeared, posing for photos, making pre-game or halftime on-the-field speeches, and generally getting the Boys Town name in the press. A big banquet, often in his honor, usually preceded or followed the game, giving Flanagan another chance to spread the gospel.

BT alum Ed Novotny of Omaha, who played for Boys Town in the early 1940s, recalls the time Flanagan was on the field during pre-game festivities in New Jersey. Novotny says a press photographer asked to snap a few pictures of the famous priest doing a mock kickoff. Sensing a good photo op, Flanagan obliged. As he lined up for the kick, Novotny turned to an opposing player and said, “He’s in a bad spot” – meaning the photographer crouched in front of the ball, holding a Speed Graphic camera overhead.

“What do you mean?” the other player said.

“Father Flanagan can kick. He’ll blast that thing right over the goal post.”

“Really? A priest?”

Novotny will never forget what happened next. “No sooner did I say, ‘Yeah,’ than he kicked that ball and knocked that camera right out of the guy’s hands.”

Novotny recalls Flanagan as an enthusiastic presence on the sideline or in the locker room. The priest stood in the players’ circle to lead pre-game prayers. At basketball games he sat on the end of the bench with players and coaches. He greeted guys by name or with his favorite terms of endearment, “Dear” or “Laddie.”

To compete with the nation’s best, Flanagan hired Maurice “Skip” Palrang, who came to Boys Town after successful stints at Omaha Creighton Prep and Creighton University. Over his 29-year career at Boys Town, he led Cowboy teams to football, basketball and baseball titles. He won National Coach of the Year honors from the Pop Warner Foundation of Philadelphia, Pa., and Nebraska High School coaching plaudits from the Omaha World-Herald.

As athletic director, Palrang oversaw construction of a mammoth field house, modeled after those at Purdue and Michigan State. Its classic brick facade features sculpted panels of Greek-like figures in various athletic poses, stained glass windows and a vast arched metal roof that spans the length of a football field. Great facilities like these helped set BT apart.

Palrang hired coaches to carry BT’s dominance into other sports, but it was best known for football. “It wasn’t like Boys Town would play the weakest teams we could find – we’d play the baddest teams we could find,” said ’50s star halfback “Deacon” Jones. “We knew we played the best teams Skip could get to play. A lot of the players we played against went on to make All-American in college. Some went to the pros. We traveled to play Aquinas in Rochester, N.Y. That was like a Notre Dame prep school. And, whew, they had some tough players.”

 

Boys Town Bus Travels to Florida for exhibition game

Boys Town Bus Travels to Florida for exhibition game

 

Under Palrang, the Cowboys went 75-33-6 in these intersectional matchups. BT also participated in intersectional basketball and baseball contests, but on a far more limited basis.

Jones said players got “five dollars per trip for eating and fun money.” For some, like him, it was their first time on a train, a big deal for “kids that didn’t have anything,” he added. Seeing the sights was part of the experience – Chicago’s Field Museum, New York’s Rockefeller Center and Radio City Music Hall. But the road trips, which lasted up to three weeks, were not all fun and games. An instructor traveled with the team and made sure they kept up on their schoolwork.

Lessons of another kind came on the few road trips south of the Mason-Dixon Line. “We would go to some areas where they wouldn’t allow the black kids on our team to stay in the same hotel as the whites,” Pfeifer said. “A few times we had to arrange for those kids to stay with some people in the community. It was a terrible blow to Fr. Flanagan. That’s probably why we didn’t play that much in the South.”

Wilburn Hollis was among a black contingent denied access to a hotel. Although from the Jim Crow South, he’d been shielded from the worst of segregation – the same at color-blind Boys Town. “We were buddies, but even more than that we felt like we were brothers and we just lived like that,” said Hollis, a Possum Trot, Miss. native who became a high school All America quarterback at Boys Town and a signal caller for an Iowa University team that won a share of the Big 10 title. “I never heard anything racial.”

“At Boys Town I never thought about ethnicity or race,” said Ken Geddes, who grew up in Florida and went on to play for Nebraska and in the National Football League. “…We were all part of a family.”

Within that family of athletes, Palrang was the unchallenged head of household. “He was about six-four and probably 220 pounds and he was mean as a goat,” Hollis said. “But he was a wonderful coach. He loved the kids, he loved Boys Town….”

Hollis told of an incident involving Flanagan’s successor, Rev. Nicholas Wegner. (Flanagan died in 1948 on a goodwill mission in Berlin, Germany). Like his predecessor, Wegner was a sports booster, but apparently didn’t share Skip Palrang’s competitive philosophy. Once when BT was losing a football game, the priest tried to deliver a halftime pep talk. Wegner advised the team to do their best, Hollis recalls, “and honestly he used that old cliché, ‘It’s not if you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.’ Well, Skip was pretty hot and he said, ‘Bulls__t. We’re going to win this game.’ Monsignor was like, Oh-oh. And we went out and won the game.”

But Palrang’s success was based on more than force of will. Stern but fair, he was known for his precise preparation, a quality that fit his favorite hobby of watch repair. Ex-sportscaster Jack Payne of Omaha recalls Palrang in his field house office “hovered over a well-lighted table…wearing an eye shade, jeweler’s glasses, meticulously at work on a watch.”

An innovator, Palrang used his vast contacts to learn new offensive and defensive schemes from college and professional colleagues, often implementing packages years before anyone else at the prep level. He’d get reels of game or practice film with the latest sets to study. Sought out for his expertise, he often conducted clinics around the country. Pfeifer said that once, at the request of an old buddy, Palrang sent BT quarterback Jimmy Mitchell to Kansas State to help Wildcat signal callers learn the T-formation Skip helped initiate in high school.

The Cowboys often played far from home, so Palrang sent an assistant ahead to scout. Palrang’s protégé, George Pfeifer, inherited the thankless job. In order to see distant teams, he traveled by plane, train, automobile or any available mode of transport. He once flew into Chicago’s Midway Airport on his way to see an opponent that night in Wisconsin. In Chicago he was bumped from the last connecting flight north. With only a few hours until game time and hundreds of miles between him and the stadium, he was stuck. Desperate, he asked, “Is there any other way?” He was directed to a helicopter pad. For $15 and a slight case of nausea, he arrived “just about the time they were kicking off.”

 

Boys Town graduate Charles “Deacon” Jones competes in the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia, finishing ninth in the 3,000-meter steeplechase. Four years later, he would finish seventh in the same event in the Rome Olympics.

Boys Town graduate Charles “Deacon” Jones competes in the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia, finishing ninth in the 3,000-meter steeplechase. Four years later, he would finish seventh in the same event in the Rome Olympics.

 

Skip Palrang’s physician son, Art, who played for his father one year at BT, said besides the advantage Palrang got by scouting opponents “the Boys Town kids in those days… were really tough, tough boys. They weren’t very big but they were tough… There weren’t a lot of distractions out there, like girls. He had kind of a captive audience.”

Palrang also had the advantage of working with kids who came out of BT pee-wee, freshman and junior varsity programs imbued with his coaching systems. By the time they made varsity, kids were well-schooled in the Palrang way. It led to potent team chemistry.

Despite offers to leave, Palrang remained loyal to Boys Town. Art Palrang believes this allegiance stemmed from Skip being an orphan himself. “His mother died when he was two and left his father with three boys and three girls,” he said. “He was always sympathetic to the Boys Town kids, although he was typical Irish in that he would not show his emotions.”

Today, Palrang’s accomplishments are commemorated in a big memorial just inside the field house dedicated in his honor. The memorial is next to a long row of display cases reserved for trophies and plaques won by Boys Town coaches, athletes and teams. There are hundreds of items. There’d be more, except Palrang made a habit of giving them away to kids.

By the time Palrang retired in 1972, he was only coaching his main passion, football. Years earlier, he’d entrusted the basketball program to Pfeifer, another coach often described as a “no-nonsense father figure.” Pfeifer’s basketball teams went 202-45 (two state titles), and his track teams (two titles) were always a threat. He recently joined his mentor in the Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame.

Like his predecessor, Pfeifer encountered racist attitudes toward his players, as when he started five black players on his state championship basketball teams of 1965 and 1966. One morning after a game, a caller demanded, “Why you playing all them n_____s?”

“Because they’re my five best players,” Pfeifer replied.

Boys Town’s barnstorming era was prompted by publicity and the guaranteed payoff for its football games. But BT was also compelled to travel for another reason. Once it became a winner, it could find only a handful of area schools willing to schedule games.

Despite many attempts, BT was long denied membership in the Omaha Inter-City League, comprised of large Omaha area schools. Pfeifer said Wegner reportedly had to threaten to withdraw funds from local banks to gain admittance. It finally happened when the Inter-City League was disbanded and the new Metropolitan High School Activities Association was created in 1964.

Everyone has a theory about the blacklisting. Speculation ranges from envy over BT’s athletic riches to rumors, denied by BT alums, that it practiced off-season, suited older student-athletes, or recruited prospects. An image of BT suiting up juvenile delinquents, true or not, may have also accounted for schools not wanting to schedule the Cowboys. BT athletic equipment manager and head baseball coach Jim Bayly said that when he was a player at Omaha South, “we were afraid of Boys Town.”

Shane Hankins, quarterback for BT this past season, senses that the “jail” or “criminal” perception still haunts BT. But far from intimidating foes, he said it makes them “want to fight us even harder to prove we’re not tougher.” He concedes BT has some rough players, but points out that the Cowboys win sportsmanship awards.

Even without conference membership, Boys Town had a metro rival. “In the middle ’40s, when Boys Town was really taking off,” Art Palrang said, “Creighton Prep was also in its heyday and they played bitter, bitter battles. Rumor has it the archbishop said, ‘Hey, you guys have got to stop this. We can’t have two Catholic teams fighting each other.’” Adding fuel to the fire was the fact Palrang once coached Prep. There was no one he enjoyed beating more.

Aside from Prep, Palrang said, “Boys Town was obviously cleaning up on everybody and Omaha didn’t want ’em in their league because… Boys Town would have won everything.” By contrast, Prep had long been a conference member. And once let in, BT proved as dominant as feared by soon piling up Metro titles.

Perhaps nothing explains the ostracism better than what one alum called BT being “an island unto itself.” A certain arrogance surely came with all that independence, winning and notoriety. Besides, there was the perception – if not reality – that BT didn’t really need to be in a local athletic league. In fact, cross-country travel was expensive and eventually became cost-prohibitive.

 

The Cowboys basketball team wins its second straight state basketball championship.

The 1985-1966 Cowboys basketball team wins the school’s second straight state basketball championship.

 

By the time Boys Town’s reign ended in the mid-1970s, BT had evolved from a place where boys lived in dormitories to a family housing model where residents – girls too – live with teacher parents. Changes in the way BT works with youth lowered the number of residents from a high of about a thousand (elementary and high school combined) to about half that today, and decreased the average stay from six or eight years to about 18 months. The smaller enrollment forced BT to drop from the big school to small school ranks, and the shorter stays gave coaches less time to develop athletes and mold teams. For years, BT athletic prowess declined.

Today’s BT coaches are again turning out winning teams and top athletes, their job complicated by kids who present complex behavioral disorders. BT teams again compete for titles, but in Class C1, not Class A. The football team has its rivals, but a road trip today is an hour by bus, not overnight by train.

Girls and Boys Town (as the institution has been known since 2000) still uses athletics to further its mission of helping at-risk youth develop life skills that prepare them for adulthood. Head football coach Kevin Kush sets a high bar for his players, and makes no exceptions in holding them accountable. By late September 2006, he’d already let a few of his best players go for violating team rules, which brought his varsity squad down to 26. He could have supplemented the varsity by promoting JV players, but he refused, saying, “They haven’t paid the price. I’m not going to change my philosophy. I’m not going to lower my standards. See, these kids have standards lowered for them for their whole lives. We don’t do that. We want our kids to be committed to something and a lot of them have never been committed to anything.”

This past season’s star quarterback, Shane Hankins, said he appreciates that coaches and others care enough to make football special again. “Our goal is to achieve, to shoot for something in our lives some people say is impossible for us to do since we’re here. But we prove them wrong. We want to bring more winning to this campus because before we came here, most of us weren’t recognized as winners.”

All last basketball season, head boys basketball coach Tom Krehbiel relied heavily on an unofficial assistant, the 81-year-old George Pfeifer who, despite health woes, came to practices weekly to distill some of his wisdom to players young enough to be his great-grandchildren. Pfeifer’s championship teams of 1965 and ’66 are still regarded as two of Nebraska’s best high school basketball teams ever.

“I wanted to get him involved in the program,” Krehbiel said of Pfeifer. “I reached out to him. We ate lunch, hit it off and he’s been a big part of our program ever since. I don’t think it’s a coincidence we started winning since then. Coach has been a great mentor to me and just a great resource for us. For our current players he’s a link to success.”

After last year’s team won Boys Town’s first state basketball championship in 40 years, guard Dwaine Wright dedicated the victory to Pfeifer live on Nebraska Educational Television.

Pfeifer said that after a period of adjustment, he and the team forged a strong bond. “When I’d come out there, some of the kids warming up before the game would come over and say, ‘God, we’re glad to see you coach. You feeling alright? We’re going to play hard for you.’ That last night when they accepted the trophy the one kid held it up and said, ‘This is for you, Coach Pfeifer…’ Those are the kind of kids….” Choked with emotion, Pfeifer’s voice trailed off.

The experience brought him full circle to how as a kid he was welcomed and encouraged by Father Flanagan, Skip Palrang and others, and how he did the same for kids as a BT coach, vocational education teacher and middle school principal. “I knew I wanted to be there to help those type of kids,” Pfeifer said of Boys Town students past and present. “You know, they come there with a hole in their heart. Nobody cares about them, nobody encourages them – they just think there’s no way they can make it. We set up goals and objectives. We praise them when they succeed. When a kid comes up to you and says, ‘God, I wish you were my dad’…then you know you made a difference.”

Note:  The Boys Town Hall of History features displays and a film that relive some of BT’s glory years in football.

 
 

Winners Circle: Couple’s journey of self-discovery ends up helping thousands of at-risk kids through early intervention educational program

May 31, 2010 2 comments

I read somewhere about a wealthy white couple devoting their lives to help inner city schools. These schools are predominantly made up of African American students, many of whom under achieve.  The couple, Jerry and Cookie Hoberman, started an academic support program in one school, where students’ test scores dramatically increased, and its success has been replicated in several more schools.  What most intrigued me, however, was the couple’s own transformation from racially, socially insensitive to enlightened, and how their philanthropy to improve education among some of America‘s poorest children is not some idle exercise about assuaging white guilt but a genuine community response to a chronic problem they were awakened to and that they have awakened others to.

My story originally appeared in the Jewish Press, an Omaha weekly I contribute to.

Winners Circle: Couple’s journey of self-discovery ends up elping thousands of at-risk kids through early entervention educational program

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Jewish Press

 

The awakening of Jerry and Cookie Hoberman began in the early 1990s. Until then the hard-driving Omaha entrepreneurs went after what they wanted without much regard for people’s feelings. As Jews they knew about anti-Semitism from both personal experience and history, yet in a recent interview at their home they acknowledged they were intolerant when it came to other minorities.

Soul-searching led the Hobermans to take a long hard look at themselves. Their journey of self-discovery has propelled them to help thousands of impoverished, mostly African-American public school children and their families in north Omaha.

Winners Circle, an academic and citizenship program the couple began in one inner city school 12 years ago, has grown to 10 schools, with two more slated to join within a year. WC is viewed as a model for motivating students to achieve and getting parents more involved in their children’s education.

The Hobermans, once viewed with skepticism, even hostility, as white exploiters, are now seen as sincere community leaders making a difference. None of it would have happened without them being willing to face some unpleasant truths.

Jerry built his own Tires Inc. business from scratch, applying lessons learned from his days as a wagon peddler, selling goods from the back of a ‘54 Ford, and as a partner in his father’s small family tire center downtown. Cookie worked for Holland-Dreves-Reilly Advertising before starting her own agency. Amid their own careers each sought advice from the other. Cookie gave Tires Inc. its name.

Tires Inc. grew to several locations before business faltered. Drawn by lower overhead, Jerry opted to move the headquarters from the 72nd Street strip to 60th and Ames, a poor, predominantly African-American area of northeast Omaha the Hobermans didn’t really know, except by reputation. “I ended up in the inner city against the cautions of all my friends,” Jerry said. “And family,” Cookie interjected.

White employees resisted the move. “I had some employees who said they wouldn’t go to north Omaha — that they would rather leave than stay with us,” he said.
Cookie said preconceived notions spelled trouble. “Well, we came to north Omaha with as much stereotypic bias and ignorance as most people that never go to the inner city,” she said. “I think we were naive.”

No sooner did Tires Inc. open its North O digs than tensions surfaced.

“We had a lot of racial issues, a lot of problems,” Jerry said. “We had arguments. Sometimes a small fight would break out between my associates and the African-American population. It was not a very smooth transition.”

Threats were made. Hoberman didn’t give an inch. Rather than reaching out to mend fences, he closed ranks, making his business a fortress.

“I bought special insurance — kidnap and ransom. I had special alarm systems put in that when you push a button it goes right to the police. We did a lot of these things and all we did was separate ourselves,” he said. “It’s amazing what fear does,” Cookie added.

Things came to a head when a member of a prominent local black family took issue with the unequal way her credit was handled compared to white customers.

“One of my employees referred to her in a very disparaging manner,” Jerry said. “He called her ‘Aunt Jemima.’ She was really irate. A lovely lady, she came in and visited with me and told me what had taken place and I told her I’d had all sorts of problems. I asked what I should do. She said, ‘I suggest you get some sensitivity training for yourself and your associates.’ I didn’t even know what that was.”

On her advice Hoberman contacted Frank Hayes, the black owner of his own accounting firm, Hayes and Associates.

“My immediate response was, ‘Man, I’m a CPA, I’m not a social worker.’” Hayes recalled saying when Hoberman called.

But after the two met Hayes saw Hoberman wanted to do the right thing. Hoberman assembled all his workers for diversity training at which Hayes spoke about “some of the experiences I had had and how they affected or impacted me,” including, Hayes said, “the sense of frustration and anger I had as a black man trying to establish a business.” He related incidents that any black person could identify with, like the time a food service worker ignored him even though it was his turn in line. He had to demand service before he got waited on. It’s the same as when blacks are unfairly profiled by clerks in stores or by police in traffic. He let Hoberman and Co. know such treatment was insensitive at best and racist at worst.

“I just wanted to impress upon them the idea that when you serve someone you have to respect them as individuals, because these are the people who are going to buy your product. If you’re in a service business you have to serve the customer regardless of where you’re coming from.”

What Hayes also impressed upon his audience is that a black person enters any transaction with whites carrying a history of insults and slights, making it imperative whites check their words and actions.

“You may not even realize what you’re saying may be interpreted differently by a minority,” Jerry said. “Because of their past experiences,” Cookie explained.

The sobering talk had its intended effect. “It was just really eye-opening,” Jerry said. “I mean, we didn’t have clues about this,” Cookie said.

The talk was the first in a series Hoberman required his employees attend. Others addressed issues on the elderly, women, the disabled and HIV/AIDS patients.

“I’ll tell you, sometimes we had tears in our eyes when you just realized what people go through,” Hoberman said.

Each talk was followed by discussion.

“We’d have meetings and just talk about relationships with people,” Hoberman said, “and it really built some sensitivity in us as we came face to face with some of our own biases. Prior to that, when we were having all these problems, I built a wall between our company and the community. After we awakened ourselves it was the other way around. We embraced, we understood the individuals that came through our door. We saw we could become a part of the community.”

“Awareness,” Cookie said, made all the difference.

Race relations dramatically improved.

“In the community itself we went from being interlopers and separate to becoming part of the fabric of the community. We never had any more problems,” he said.

Hayes became a close friend of the Hobermans. They’ve had him over for seder. They’ve vacationed together.

In line with this new awareness Hoberman realized the way he treated his own employees left much to be desired. Problems arose as the business grew and Hoberman grew more distant from his rank-and-file associates That’s when, Cookie said, her husband vowed, “‘I want to get to know my people again.’”

The personnel problems were articulated by a mechanic who “came up to me one day and said, ‘You know, all you treat me like is a tool…You don’t care about myself, my family. What I do is I turn a wrench for you and make you a living.’ Hoberman recalled. “I thought about that and he was right. He was just someone to make money for me and that’s not the way to think about individuals. When I recognized that I had a real desire to change and I did. I really did.”

Hoberman devised an incentive program at the struggling Tires Inc. to boost employee performance-morale. He called it the Winners Circle. At its core was goal-setting and recognition. When a division would meet its goals a celebration dinner or picnic would be held at which every team member was recognized “for a job well done.” The program turned things around at the business.

“I was looking to do something to bring us together because we were in disarray and the Winners Circle created a great deal of camaraderie and excitement within the company,” Hoberman said. “It was a team-building kind of thing where everybody worked for their goals. We formed personal relationships.”

“People felt valued,” said Cookie, who added the model for the program was as much the Jewish Passover seder as anything. The company came together as a family and everyone felt a part of the whole. “It broke a barrier,” she said. “They got to meet the president of the company and his wife. They called us by our first names. We knew their children’s names and what was going on in their families. It elevated the sense of value and respect they felt.”

Hoberman also made it company policy to hire more qualified blacks.

The next step in the couple’s evolution came when the late Cornelius Jackson, then-principal at the former Belvedere Elementary School, paid Hoberman a call and “said something that started us down this road” of helping public school children. “He said, ‘You know Mr. Hoberman, you take money from this community — what are you giving back to it? I have a lot of problems with my school. Will you help me?’ So I talked to Cookie about it and it was so true. We were making our living in the black community and we were giving absolutely nothing back to it.”

The couple visited the school at 3775 Curtis Avenue, where they were “appalled” by the conditions. A total of three Apple computers to serve hundreds of students. No usable playground equipment. A racial divide between teachers. Undisciplined students. Classroom disruptions. Little parental involvement. Academically, Belvedere ranked next to last among OPS elementary schools.

“They had all kinds of problems,” Hoberman said. “It was just a real challenge.”

Despite the daunting needs, Cookie said she and Jerry found “inspiring the dedication and commitment” of teachers and staff who “must fill a lot more roles” than their counterparts in suburbia. The rampant north Omaha poverty now making news is a reality the Hobermans began learning about years ago. How, for example, most inner city students qualify for free-and-reduced lunches, how many are from single-parent homes and how many lead highly mobile, unstable lives.

The couple agreed to make Tires Inc. an Adopt-A-School Partner of Belvedere.

A basic need was filling the resource gap. The Hobermans found donors to underwrite the cost of dozens of new computers. The couple organized, with help from Tires Inc. employees, a carnival held on the grounds of the company. Proceeds from the event raised money for more equipment and improvements.

“Everybody got on board,” Hoberman said.

The Hobermans also found in Carol Ellis, who replaced the retiring Jackson as principal, an administrator open to new approaches, such as Hoberman’s idea to adapt the successful Winners Circle program at Tires Inc. to Belvedere.

“Based on what I had in my business I felt the same idea would work within the schools,” he said.

Hoberman and Ellis worked out the details, setting goals in reading, math and citizenship. Other changes were made, with input from staff and parents, including changing the school’s name to Belvedere Academy and introducing uniforms with the school name on them.

“We wanted the children to feel they were special,” he said. “It was all part of building…” “Self-esteem,” said Cookie. That’s why then, and now, the program is based on affirmation. Public ceremonies award gold medals to children who meet goals. Goal busters are eligible for prizes, from bikes to boom boxes. Classrooms that make goals receive $50 checks that the class can use how they want.

“Really, all it is, is having a child have an individual goal and rewarding that child for meeting that goal,” he said. “That’s the essence — just giving recognition the same as we did in my business.”

“Celebrating their success,” Cookie said. “The prerequisite for that is to reinforce with the child that they are smart and they can achieve. The first time I walked into the classroom I asked the children, ‘If you think you’re smart, raise your hand,’ and maybe two or three kids did. Today, all the kids raise their hand.”

To add accountability and encouragement Cookie visited every classroom four times a year. She had each student proclaim his/her quarterly goals in front of the whole class. She was the original Goal Buddy. More than 200 Goal Buddies serve today.

Hoberman admires what his wife did and the connections she made.

“Cookie’s great with kids,” he said. “She’d visit with every one of those 550 kids, asking, ‘What is your goal? Are you going to make your goal?’ and saying, ‘I’m going to be back to check on you.’ She would encourage each child and build great rapport. The kids just loved her.”

She and Jerry discussed their Jewishness with children. Their three daughters got involved, too. Cookie even introduced her passion for bridge to kids.

“The Goal Buddy component became a much more important aspect then I ever thought it was going to be,” she said, “because of the personal contact with a real person outside the educational system taking interest in them. It had a lot influence. Kids perceived it as really important support.”

Tierre Tucker, 19, is a Creighton University student, but 12 years ago he was at Belvedere when Winners Circle began. He can attest to what “a great impact it makes just to know that somebody cares. With Winners Circle we actually had to work toward achieving goals. It gave us something to look forward to. It gave you a sense of accomplishment. That’s what I felt when I met my goals. It let me know I can do anything as long as I put forth great effort.” The Hobermans have mentored Tierre all these years. “They’re like another set of parents,” he said. He’s come far and aimed high under their guidance. “I owe that to the Hobermans,” he said. “I don’t think I would have known exactly how to get there. That’s what makes them such lovable people — their optimism for the future.”

Social skills are also part of the Winners Circle and thus kids are taught to make eye contact, shake hands firmly and speak up when meeting people.

“It’s teaching them about life,” Cookie said.

Goal Buddies, recruited from local corporations, now visit classrooms eight times a year. Captains, also recruited from the community, host quarterly celebrations recognizing individual and classroom achievements. Students and their families attend along with teachers, staff and special guests — from Omaha Public Schools Superintendent John Mackiel to Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey.

OPS fully endorses Winners Circle. Mackiel recommends what schools make a good fit for the program. The district provides office space for WC staff. District researchers also provide data that helps WC staff track school performance/trends.

The program uses mantras, repeated by teachers, aides, Goal Buddies and Captains, to motivate and inspire. “Do you know that you’re winners?” “Yes,” children respond. “We know that you are winners, too.” “Are you smart?” “Yes.” “I know you are.” In unison, kids and adults say, “Going for my goal, going for the gold.”

The concept, Cookie said, is that “if you think you’re smart, you’ll be smart.”

Mottoes or platitudes aside, Hoberman said,“I am a businessman and I measure things. I’m not going to put all this work and effort into something that doesn’t show results.” “This isn’t just a feel-good program,” Cookie said.

They’ve got the numbers to show Winners Circle works. Three years after its inception Belvedere’s academic ranking went from 56th to 15th out of 57 schools. That improvement has been maintained and replicated in other schools. In the process of changing a school’s culture students feel better about themselves and when that occurs greater cooperation, motivation and achievement follow.

“Can you imagine the kind of joy and excitement Cookie and I receive to know we’re making a difference in people’s lives?” Hoberman said. The couple see it and hear it all the time — from parents who “put their arms around us and say, ‘Thank you for what you’re doing.’” to Winners Circle grads “who tell us, ‘I want you to know I’m still making my goals.’ That’s the greatest reward. What’s that worth?”

Besides improved test scores at Winners Circle schools, staff spend less time disciplining students, school spirit and pride soar and parents turn out in force for school activities. Ten schools serving 5,000 students have been transformed in this way. Two south Omaha schools will soon join the program. Ellis said the Hobermans made it all possible.

“I couldn’t imagine doing it without the support we’ve been given, the gift we’ve been given by their involvement,” Ellis said. “It allowed us to go to heights we had hoped for but didn’t have the means to accomplish. It wasn’t just the money, it was the caring. It gave us hope we could make things different.”

Success at Belvedere both mirrored and fed the turnaround at Tires Inc.. As the business began treating people right, customers and employees felt valued and profits rose. As students and teachers felt empowered, attitudes changed and test scores shot up. The good neighbor policy reaped dividends all around.

“The 60th and Ames store started making more money than the other stores when it had been at the bottom,” Cookie said. “Not only was Jerry feeling good about himself, his people were feeling good about themselves. There’s no substitute for giving and that’s what was happening at Tires Inc.. Similarly at Belvedere problems started to dissolve because people were getting on board with something positive.”

That first school year the program was in effect, attendance at the quarterly Winners Circle celebrations surged from 100 the first quarter to more than 1,000 the last quarter. The celebrations still attract big crowds today. It’s not uncommon for a child’s immediate and extended family to be there. Ellis said it may be the first time someone in the family has been honored at school.

Hoberman said that surge of support gives lie to the perception that parents in the inner city don’t take an active interest in their children’s education.

“These parents do care about their kids,” he said.

During a celebration each child is called on stage to receive a gold medal as the crowd applauds. There are hand shakes. Parents form a victory tunnel to greet and take pictures as their honored sons or daughters come off stage, beaming.

Holding a mike, Hoberman, his booming bass voice in fine form and his trademark pony tail flying, emceed the event himself in dynamic fashion those early years, “yelling and screaming” as he exhorted the crowd to give it up for the kids.

“He was a rock star leading this parade,” said the now retired Carol Ellis.

“He was powerful, he was wonderful,” said Winners Circle director Beth Smith. She heads a staff of five that do what Jerry and Cookie once did all by themselves.

Now captains do the emceeing, following Hoberman’s cheerleading example.

Ellis said the Hobermans personally saw to every detail at the start. Now that there’s a professional staff in place, the couple take a less hands-on role, but still keep a close tab on things. The fact they took Winners Circle on together, first at Tires Inc. and then in the schools, is typical of the way they tackle things.

“Cookie and I have been married 41 years and we’ve always been a team,” Jerry said, “so when I had problems in my business I would go home and we would talk about it. Cookie was always an integral part of what I did.” “And vice versa,” Cookie said, adding, “We work well together separately. Jerry does his thing, I do my thing, then we have meetings and we report back.”

It’s how they ran the United Jewish Appeal campaign one year. They’ve assumed many local leadership positions in the Jewish community over the years.

The Hobermans long ago earned what a Captain, Paul Bryant, calls “street cred” by proving they were genuine about making good on their promises and staying in it for the long haul. But they had to earn that trust.

“When we first went to Belvedere there were a lot of families that wanted to know what were these white Jewish people doing in our school. What do they want with our kids? And rightfully so,” Cookie said. “A few years later we received a wonderful letter from one of the parents that said, ‘I really didn’t believe you. I didn’t trust you. I was wrong. Thank you for what you’ve done in our school.’ And we’ve heard that more and more now.”

“When we started this program,” Jerry said, “we were told by educators and by members of the African American community ‘Don’t start this if you’re not going to keep doing it, because we’ve seen too many people make promises they don’t keep.’” As Cookie said, “You don’t go into the inner city and give them a taste of honey and then take it away from them.”

Bryant said the Hobermans live their values: “That’s what makes them so special. It’s easy to throw some money at it. But they invested themselves into it. Their commitment — that’s what makes them different.”

Longevity for the program is what the Hobermans want. It’s why, Cookie said, “we had to make provisions for it to go on past us.” When Jerry sold Tires Inc. in ‘98, finding more support became paramount as Winners Circle operates entirely on private donations. He directs the fund raising apparatus himself, sending out thousands of appeal letters. It costs some $45,000 to maintain Winners Circle in a school on an annual basis. With there about to be 12 participating schools, it takes half-a-million dollars to cover expenses.

With the help of major funders such as Dick and Mary Holland and Wally Weitz, the program has thrived and expanded.

When the Hobermans recruit new donors they let the children sell Winners Circle.

“When you’re with the kids they capture your heart,” he said. “We picked Dick (Holland) up one night and took him down to the Winners Circle celebration and that was it. The kids touched his and Mary’s heart and the Hollands just embraced the program. Dick said, ‘What do you need to expand it?’”

Holland is struck by what the Hobermans have accomplished.

“They’re highly compassionate people and also what they’ve done is an exercise in wisdom,” Holland said. “A lot of times disadvantaged children don’t have any belief in the future and Winners Circle overcomes a lot of that despair.”

Holland’s late wife put in motion the latest chapter in Winners Circle, a merger with the All Our Kids mentoring program. For all its success, Winners Circle stopped at the 6th grade, leaving students without the support of the program from middle school on. To address that interruption, a pilot program called Bright Futures Partnership continues the Winners Circle from 7th grade through high school, with mentoring offered in a seamless stream.

“We’ve accomplished our dream,” Hoberman said.

Those who know the Hobermans, like Frank Hayes, say they “are genuinely good people.” Beth Smith left corporate America five years ago looking to make a difference and she said, “I feel blessed to have come upon them (the Hobermans). Their heart and their passion is for the children.”

Hayes said the couple “are an extremely good example of the good that can come when people take a risk and step out of their comfort zone. They made a significant shift in the way they saw things and as a result of that they’ve lived a better, richer life. The return on their investment has been significant. Teachers, students, parents have benefited by it from interacting with them and Jerry and Cookie have benefited from interacting with them.”

Jerry Hoberman said his motivation for Winners Circle is in part “payback for all those years I made judgments of other people and I was insensitive toward individuals and their needs.” His awakening revealed “the inequality and struggles these kids have. I’ve gotten to know them and their families. I understand the challenges they have. Education is the road for them to move up and anything we can do to try and even the playing field makes us feel really good.”

“It’s changed our lives,” he said. “We’ve built friends and relationships that are just…” “Invaluable,” added Cookie, who said moving “beyond our own circles” has promoted personal growth. “It’s enhanced our lives,” Jerry said. “I like myself a lot better now…there were times when I really didn’t.”

Therman Statom works with children to create glass houses and more

May 31, 2010 2 comments

Glass House Project

When I read about world famous glass artist Therman Statom relocating to Omaha, I I knew I would one day pursue a story about him, and I finally did a year-and-a-half ago, and I’m glad I did.  He has a soft spot for kids, and my article for the Omaha City Weekly explores his work through the prism of his working with children.  In charting his interaction with kids in a variety of settinsg, I more and more came to see him as a kind of Peter Pan figure who’s never really grown up himself, and it’s this innocence and curiosity which may account in part for his imaginative works.

 

Therman Statom

 

 

Therman Statom works with children to create glass houses and more

©by Leo Adam Biga

A shorter version of this story appeared in the City Weekly (www.omahacitywekly.com)

 

When you picture internationally-renowned visual artists you don’t immediately associate them working with children. The image that likely comes to you is of an intensely-focused, hyper-kinetic figure slaving away in isolation or else imposing his will on a crew of assistants.

Acclaimed glass artist Therman Statom of Omaha fits that figure to a tee as he juggles a hectic, globe-hopping schedule of commissions, installations, openings and workshops. Yet he also loves sharing his skill and knowledge with youths. Amid all his demands he still heeds the Peter Pan in him by stealing away a few hours a week to take kids on journeys of discovery.

His 2006 move here began with him showing curious neighborhood kids around his immense downtown studio just southeast of 20th and Leavenworth Streets. This year he began formally working with kids from the Wesley House Academy of Leadership & Artistic Excellence in northeast Omaha. The at-risk African-American students at the academy, a United Methodist Community Centers Inc. program with a 136-year social service history, come from single-parent homes in many cases. They live in an area where drugs, gangs, poverty and violence persist, where positive adult male role models are scarce, where educational achievement lags and where hopelessness pervades neighborhoods.

Much as Wesley director Paul Bryant is dedicated to raising these children’s expectations, Statom tries exposing them to larger possibilities. He wants them to know his world can be theirs, too. He wants them to tap their rich imagination and full potential in pursuit of their own dreams, their own rainbow of desires.

It’s what happens when Statom hosts students at his 20,000 square-foot facility. There, in a white concrete block building that housed a window manufacturing company, an art and industrial wonderland awaits his young guests. They call him, “Mr. Therman.” Part studio, part factory, part gallery, the operation’s attended to by Statom and a team of assistants, including wood-metal craftsmen.

Fabricating machines, work tables, floor-to-ceiling storage bays, lockers, tools, forklifts, ladders, crates and sections of wood, metal and glass fill the space.

Ah, glass. It’s everywhere inside the cavernous environs. Assorted bins, boxes and buckets contain glass shards. A kaleidoscope of translucent shapes, colors, textures, friezes, panels, frames, shelves, boxes and mirrors greet you. Hanging on walls and strewn here and there are finished and unfinished glass pieces. More yet is shrink-wrapped in plastic bundles — for shipment/storage protection.

Carts variously hold tins with brushes, jars, cans and tubes of paint, glass beads and piles of old world atlases and art books, whose maps, illustrations and indexes he cannibalizes to add layers of narrative and symbol to his work.

He’s a glass virtuoso. He blows it, cuts it, molds it, paints over it, photo-etches on it, inserts objects in it, attaches things to it. He instructs children to do the same.  “The kids can sort of absorb what I do at a moment’s glance,” he said.

On a recent visit the Wesley kids made to his glass works he announced, “Today, this is your studio. You can use the whole studio.” They did, too, as soon as he broke them into pairs for a drawing project. One kid would lay down on an over-sized sheet of paper while the other traced their outline, braids and all. Each team interpreted their life figure in paint — alternately dripping it on, smearing it on with their hands or brushing it on. The figures were then cut out and displayed.

“It had a good energy to it. They were really having at it,” he said. “One kid had this brush out. He was going at it. He mixed the colors up right here on the floor. It was very powerful. In many ways it was like a Jackson Pollock action painting.”

In July he led the kids on a tour of Joslyn Art Museum’s contemporary galleries, where they saw everything from Steven Joy’s abstract paintings to a George Segal sculpture to a techo piece by video artist Nam June Paik. When they got to the enormous glass sculpture in the atrium he informed them he’s a friend and former student of its creator — Dale Chihuly.

He’s always coaxing responses from the kids. Never talking down to them, he strikes an easy balance between serious and casual. “I just try to treat them the way I’d like to be talked to and treated,” he said. Refusing to dumb things down, he challenges kids to consider the intentions and themes artists investigate. “What do you suppose the artist is trying to say here?” “Does anyone know what a metaphor is?” “What do you think a museum is?” “What’s contemporary art?”

At one point on the Joslyn tour he sat the kids down in the tiled fountain court to say, “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that all of you can grow up and create work that can be in a museum. You’re capable. The bad news is you have to work really hard to be able to do it. I grew up in these kinds of spaces, and that’s where my education started — at a museum like this.”

Washington, D.C. museums became his playground after moving with his family near the nation’s capital around age 9. Some classmates at Georgetown Day School were the children of prominent artists. Cady Noland introduced Statom to her father, painter Kenneth Noland, whose work is part of Joslyn’s permanent collection.

“When I was 13 I knew him. He is the first person who introduced me to painting. I’ve been lucky enough that all these artists in this gallery, except for one guy, I knew,” Statom told the kids. “I met them when I was your age and I didn’t know what art was.”

The more he immersed himself in art the more he learned.

“I remember the first time I went to the Smithsonian was through a school tour to see the Mona Lisa and standing in a big old line to see this painting. When I got to it I didn’t think too much of it but I was amazed by the line to go see it. Once I discovered the museums were free I’d go on the weekends. Then I was able to meet people whose parents were artists and we would go for fun.”

He said Noland was “nice to me, and I respected that.” Visiting the home-studio of a working artist let him know a career in art was possible. “I thought, ‘Well, I can do that. Why don’t I pursue that field?’ It seemed like a pretty open field.”

He tells kids museums also became his hideaways. “When I didn’t go to school I would come to a place like here because it was free,” he confided. He doesn’t condone kids play hooky but if they do they could do worse than hanging out at the Joslyn. Whole worlds await exploration there.

“I love museums,” he said. Finding these sanctuaries — what he calls his “home turf” — was key for Statom because for a long while he didn’t know where he belonged. Art changed all that. “I wasn’t very great at math and sciences but I loved painting and sculpture.”

This affinity became transformational when he had trouble adjusting to diverse, urban D.C. after living in Winter Haven, Florida.

“Coming from the South,” he said, the move up North “was tough for all of us.” The cultural differences profound. He said he struggled with identity issues and “being in a new culture.” He attended several schools. “I remember once I told a class I was Jewish — just to fit in. I didn’t even know what it was. I was just scared.”

He and his family adapted. Statom said, “My father ended up being a really great physician in Washington, D.C. He really did a helluva lot for a lot of people. He was a general practitioner. He catered to a largely poor black community there. He took care of people. I think the average visit until his retirement was about $20. That’s if you paid cash. He had patients that paid with food or trade.”

Statom’s mother was an elementary school teacher. She was also a self-styled spiritualist who brought her old soul, country healing ways with her.

“She didn’t advertise. It wasn’t very formal,” he said, “but it was definitely an issue in our raising. It was a part of our scene. It definitely added a different kind of context to our sensibilities as we got older. She taught me a lot of things.”

He learned he didn’t need to connect with a Higher Power in “a structured orthodox religious setting.” His art’s an expression of intuitive-spiritual journeys.

 

 

“The thing that’s great about me being able to do this,” he said, “is that the kids are exposed to world-class standards. There’s absolutely none of this, Oh, you’re from a bad neighborhood, so it’s OK if you have a mediocre art program. I’m establishing a precedent of the highest standard. I won’t accept anything less.”

That’s why he made sure Joslyn curator of contemporary art John Wilson met them. “I want the kids to have a sense that they met with someone that’s really responsible. I want them to have a sense of importance…” Both Statom and Bryant say it’s vital Wesley kids buy-in to the notion they belong, they matter and they deserve the same opportunities as anyone else.

Wesley went from no arts program last fall to “a world class arts program” in 2008, Bryant said, thanks to the participation of Statom and figures like Hal France, director of the Kaneko creativity center in the Old Market. “It’s a beautiful thing because it fulfills a dream I had for the Leadership Academy,” Bryant said. “Now our kids are attending the symphony, they’re making art, they’re meeting artists.”

About Statom, Bryant said, “We just connected immediately. He just has a passion for kids and he loves what we’re doing here.”

Statom, the father of an infant daughter, engages kids in various ways. He conducts workshops at the Wesley that involve students in hands-on projects. “A lot of times I don’t have specific guidelines. I like them to decide what we do in workshops,” he said. “They’re ready to go.” He often asks, “What do you all think of this idea?”

Sometimes he incorporates their creations into his own. He did that with his Nascita (Origin) installation earlier this year at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. Under his supervision the kids made glass houses — forms he makes himself — which they then adorned with paint, images, words, objects. He integrated them into his sprawling, multi-gallery sculptures, devoting an entire section to them.

Statom also had the kids paint over portions of the installation.

“Some of these paintings they did on top of my paintings — I’m amazed at what they came up with,” he said. “They have so much natural ability. I let them know they actually gave me insight into my own work. It really brought out a lot of things. It really changed it a lot and it actually made it better.”

For similar shows he’s done in other cities he’s had kids clean mirrors and glass plates and apply silicon scales to the snake figures that recur in his work. He views his interaction with kids as a true collaboration.

“I don’t take this lightly. They really do teach me things all the time. They kill me.”

For another workshop at the Wesley he had the kids work in clay — making objects as Mother’s Day gifts that were later fired and painted.

 

 

 

Statom installation and exhibition at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts

 

 

 

The kids are hesitant at first before warming to the task. He said it’s all about “getting them to trust themselves.” The responsibility of working with them weighs heavy on him. He confessed to students, “Every time I come here to assist you all, I get really nervous. Sometimes I talk to maybe 5,000 people at one time but I get more nervous here than there.” A little girl asked why. “I don’t know,” he said, “maybe because I like you guys so much. Maybe that’s it.” The girl smiled.

Later, Statom amended that to say “it’s because this is so important to me.” Why? “I just know I found a sense of place and empowerment through art and whatever part of my brain it embellished or helped I see it as being possible for other kids.”

The way he indulges children — letting them go crazy with clay-paint-charcoal or showing them cool places — is akin to a favorite uncle spoiling nephews-nieces. Certain ones he dotes on, including two of the smallest, Leonna and Gordon.

At the Joslyn he gave students, sketchbooks in hand, an assignment — find a piece they like, draw it and describe what it means to them. Once set loose they rushed from one gallery to the next — sitting or sprawling on the floor to sketch. In these settings Statom’s always on the move, going from kid to kid, checking on their progress, offering suggestions or just as often asking what they want to do.

Kids being kids, questions and issues arise. He’s patient, encouraging, prodding. “How you doing?” “Excellent.” “You did a really good job.” “Don’t give up.” “Give it your best shot.” He chides as needed. “I want you to do another one.” “Now you all were pretty good but you can do better with the noise.” “Listen up.” “Don’t touch.” One of his favorite expressions is, “You know what I mean?”

Gregarious, attentive, sweet, fun, he’s an animated teddy bear energized by how much he wants to show them, tell them, teach them. He’s a big kid who never grew up. A Peter Pan in paint-splattered T-shirt and shorts — eager to “take these kids where they’ve never been before,” he said. That’s what it’s all about.

Sometimes he stops to snap a picture to record the moment.

For Statom, working with kids is a creative act itself. “Each class is almost like a painting to me,” he said. “Figuring out what happens and what we are going to do. I like teaching. I think I always wanted to be a teacher. Teachers are creative.”

When he’s with young students, he said, “I get outside of myself. It makes me feel better — just as a balance — to what is otherwise a pretty self-absorbed activity. I’m just thrilled to be able to affect someone’s life. I’ve always been intrigued by how art affects someone’s life.”

He said his work with kids has “evolved” over time as he’s seen “what the art could do as a tool for inspiration. The one thing I know is that art makes kids smarter. It actually facilitates their ability to do academics. And so one of my first intents with the Wesley House was to use art to supplement what they do in the academics.”

He’s not so much concerned with product as he is process.

“Purely from an empowerment point of view, product doesn’t matter,” he said. “I really care about what goes on within the group effort, what goes on from a sense of self and how they define themselves…The act of doing sometimes becomes so enriching. These kids are just beginning to do something with their lives and if you can help them realize they can do anything, that they can make something that has value — that’s what’s important.”

His busy schedule may prevent him from working closely with the Wesley kids this fall but he’s laying a foundation for others to pick up the slack.

“I’m hoping about seven artists in the Omaha area will supplement what I want to do. I’m really interested in being more of a facilitator.”

As a Bemis friend and Kaneko board member, Statom wants to involve those arts venues and others in ongoing partnerships with the Wesley. He’s looking at the kids making regular visits to artist studios, art galleries and the Joslyn and taking extended glass blowing workshops at the Hot Shops.

He’d like to expand his youth-centered work to kids in the juvenile justice system and to students at downtown area schools. Opportunities to impact kids abound.

“There’s no end to it,” he said. “I’m just getting started. Once I get really organized there’s a lot I want to do.”

For Statom, who’s lived on both coasts as well as Denmark, where his artist-wife is from, and Mexico, where he has a studio, working with kids “gave me a reason to be here. It really did. It’s an honor for me to be able to work with them. It’s like a dream for me, it really is. I must admit, I do love those kids.”

They love you, too, Mr. Therman. Just promise to never grow up.

For more information on the Wesley House Academy of Excellence & Artistic Leadership, call 402-451-2228. To find out more about Therman Statom or to see more of his work, visit his web site, www.thermanstatom.com.

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