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Brotherhood of the Ring, Omaha’s CW Boxing Club

June 19, 2010 2 comments

I couldn’t resist posting another boxing story. This one is about an interesting venue that is one part hardcore gym for amateurs and professionals and one part community resource center for at-risk youth. The CW fills a lot of missions and many of those missions coalesce around boxing.  Like any gym worth its weight in sweat, the CW is full of characters straight out of a Ring Lardner story. It’s those personalities, combined with the harsh discipline and many rituals of the ring, that I try to capture in this story, a shorter version of which appeared in the Omaha Weekly.  This won’t be the last boxing story I post either.

 

Brotherhood of the Ring, Omaha’s CW Boxing Club

©by Leo Adam Biga

A version of this story was originally published in the Omaha Weekly

 

It owns a rep as perhaps the toughest, most competitive boxing gym in town. Its junior and amateur fighters shine at local tournaments. It is the training ground for many of the area’s top prizefighters. It routinely matches young pugs with grizzled veterans in an effort to raise the level of beginners. Its members are primarily African-American, but include whites, Hispanics and Asians too.

It is a sanctuary for some and a springboard for others. It is a place filled with colorful ringside characters straight out of a Damon Runyon yarn. It is the CW Boxing Club at 1510 Cass Street, and its take-no-prisoners approach and chip-on-the-shoulder attitude makes it the envy and the outcast of the fractious Omaha boxing community.

Rivalries are strong on the Omaha boxing scene. Every gym has its own stable of fighters, its own turf and its own image to maintain and sometimes when conflicts erupt stupid things are said. When a fighter leaves one gym for another, he may be called disloyal or the other gym may be accused of stealing him away.

In the case of the CW, there is a perception that it caters only to blacks, which even a quick survey of its training roster soon dispels. Disparaging things are also said about the character of the fighters who train there, but in reality it is far from the wild-and-woolly den of thugs that some rival boxing coaches portray it as. Instead, the CW, which gets its name from founder and director Carl Washington, features a no-nonsense, professional environment where serious fighters work intensely under the watchful eyes of experienced trainers Midge Minor, Larry Littlejohn and Chucky Brizendine.

The gym itself is only one part of what Washington, who coached the club’s talented first crop of fighters to national prominence in the late 1970s and early 1980s, calls the CW Youth Resource Center. The center offers near north side youth a venue for making music, working out, hanging out and performing community service projects. According to Washington, the gym’s fighters often get booed or jeered at local competitions because of racism and because the CW’s history of success breeds jealousy. He said his club has nearly boycotted area Golden Gloves events due to the ill treatment he believes his fighters receive.

 

 

 

 

Every gym has its own vibe, and the insistent tone of the CW is set-off by the throbbing bass rhythms and the grating harsh lyrics of rap music blaring from a boom box that plays incessantly in the background. Unlike the foul language of the music, however, there is little profanity heard in the gym, whose walls are plastered not only with the usual boxing posters but emblazoned with a detailed list of rules (which include no spitting on the well-scuffed hardwood floor and no horse playing) and printed mantras that express the philosophy of the place: Lead with Speed, Follow with Power; Only the Strong Survive; and If You Want to Box, Train — If You Want to Win, Train Harder. It is a place where if you can hold your own, you earn respect, but that respect is always tinged with the tension of proving you belong or, if really brazen, proving you’re the top dog.

The gym is a study in contrasts. Take the way that Minor, a four-time Midwest Golden Gloves champion who got his training start at the noted Olympic Gym in Los Angeles, deals with fighters. He is a taskmaster when one of his guys needs pushing and a buddy when one of them needs a pat on the back.

As 13-year-old junior fighter Rosendo Robles prepares to enter the ring one night for some sparring, Minor fastens the headgear and laces the gloves of this angelic, wide-eyed youth with the attentive tenderness of a father helping his son. “Am I going three rounds?” the boy eagerly asks Minor. “If you’ve got three rounds in you,” his smiling coach replies, rubbing the boy’s shoulders. “I’m going to try and get comfortable with my jab first, and then when I get comfortable, I’m going to work on throwing combinations,” the lad tells Minor, his big eyes looking for approval. “That’s right. Your jab sets everything up. It sets up combinations,” Minor tells him in a way that confers the approval Robles seeks. “But I don’t want to see you in there jumping around wasting energy like a little Easter bunny.” Robles grins at his coach’s funny remonstration.

Meanwhile, as this gentle interlude plays out, a rapper performing on a CD explicitly describes various sex acts. The contradiction does not seem to faze anyone, not even born-again Christian Servando Perales, a professional fighter who found religion during a stint in federal prison. To take the contrast even further Minor has the little boy, Robles, spar with the grown man, Perales, in an attempt “to elevate” the kid’s abilities.

Throwing his youngest fighters in with the wolves is one of many ways in which the CW veers from business-as-usual in its training methods. Washington, who began the gym’s tradition of working young fighters with their more experienced counterparts, said, “The reason boxers from Nebraska usually come home after the first round of a national tournament is they don’t have the experience of fighting the skilled fighters you find on the east and west coasts. Guys have to know how to slip punches. You have to work around guys at a certain level or you’ll always be coming home early.” Minor follows the Washington formula with the C.W. crew: “I work all my guys. That’s how they learn,” he said. “Every once in a while I have to elevate them to see where they’re at. I work my fighters a little different than they (other gyms) do. I don’t breed nothing but winners.”

In Robles, Minor sees a kid with “a lot of promise. He wants to learn, That’s what I like about him.” The youth is following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, both of whom boxed in their native Mexico. “My grandpa wants me to carry on with the tradition,” Robles said.

He has dreams of his own, too. “As soon as I can, I want to go to the Olympic Games, and if I do good there I’m thinking of a professional career when I get older.” As for training with adults, he appreciates the tricks of the trade he picks up from such savvy fighters. “I feel comfortable training with them because I learn from them in the ring. I like to learn new techniques. Sparring with these older guys is getting me prepared for bigger guys. Like with Servando (Perales), he puts pressure on me and I work on getting him off me. When I get done sparring I ask, ‘What’d you see wrong in me?’ and they tell me.” He also likes the attention his coach gives him. “I really like Midge. He shows interest in me. He says I’m his little project. That he’s going to build me up.”

Minor’s final words to Robles that night are, “Don’t be intimidated. Every chance you get you try and knock his ass off.” It is all well-supervised, with the adult Perales acting as a kind of moving punching bag — keeping his gloves open at all times to ensure he does not in any way injure the youth, whose father watches the action from ringside, yelling pointers to his son in Spanish.

During the three-round sparring session, Minor, leaning against the corner ropes from atop the ring apron, alternately shouts instructions to Robles with a sharp, disapproving edge in his voice and offers encouragement with a soft, approving tone. “You’ve got to move in closer. That’s the only way you’re gonna reach him,” he tells Robles, who is dwarfed by his sparring partner. “There you go, cut the ring off. Remember what I told you — if you miss with one hand, you lead with the other. Double jab. Stick — don’t wait on him. There you go. Shorten your hook up…too wide. Good hook.”

Robles, a surprisingly skilled little punching dynamo, is spent after the first round, but Minor denies him water. “You tellin’ me you’re tired? Like I care. You don’t need water yet. Show me you need some water.” After a rousing showing in rounds two and three, Minor lets his protege drink all he wants. As a soaked Robles climbs out of the ring, the chiseled Brezendine catches his eye and says, “If you keep fightin’ like that, you’ll be a world champion some day.” The boy’s eyes light up. “Really, Chucky?” “Certainly, Sando.”

 

Dreams of glory and chances at redemption are all over the gym. Take the story of Servando Perales, for example. The Omaha native showed tremendous promise as a junior competitor. Fighting for Kenny Wingo out of the Downtown Boxing Club, he won a National Silver Gloves title at 10 and captured second-place in the same competition at 14 in addition to winning a slew of city, state and regional championships. Then, just when Perales was on the verge of really making a name for himself in the sport, the bright, handsome young man got sidetracked by drugs, alcohol and gang-related mischief.

“Drugs had me real paranoid. I thought I always had to be carrying a gun. I had a few convictions for guns and for basically just acting like an idiot. Crime just caught up to me. It was hell. I was basically living in hell on earth. I was in darkness. Finally, I got sentenced to 18 months in a federal prison in Waseca, Minn. for illegal possession of firearms,” he said. “It was there that I gave my heart to Christ. Inside, I ran into a friend of mine whom I grew up with — Francisco Granados. He had been one of my number one crime partners or road dogs. He had given his life to the Lord a couple years prior to me arriving. He just began to minister to me and I just surrendered.”

For Perales, the reunion with his buddy behind bars was a life-saving one that went well beyond mere chance. “I was like a walking time bomb. I had no peace in my life. No joy, No nothin’. I was really a heartless heart. I wouldn’t open up to anyone other than somebody that I trusted and knew from my barrio. And I’m just so grateful for Francisco being there in my path. God put him there for that reason.” Today, Perales does volunteer work with Granados and his Overcomers in Christ ministry in south Omaha, where they counsel kids to stay away from the drug and gang culture they got caught up in. Perales, who works full-time as a maintenance supervisor at Sapp Brothers, is married with three sons. A fourth son is being raised by his ex and her husband.

In an unusual move, Perales, who had not fought in several years, turned pro only months after his 1997 release from prison. He was 26 and out of shape, but hungry to rededicate himself to a sport he viewed as an expression of his new found faith. “Boxing is the only way for me to say to kids, Hey, this is where I was then, and now look at me today, when I have Christ within me. I believe Christianity and boxing are a lot alike. As a Christian you’re always under attack by the Devil. He knows your weaknesses. It takes a lot of discipline to stay strong. Just like with boxing, you can’t get comfortable. You’ve got to continue training. Besides, boxing is just something I’ve loved all my life. I’ve come up short of some victories, but my real victory has been beating drugs and alcohol.”

 

 

Servando Perales

 

When Perales decided to enter the pro ranks he shopped around for a gym to begin his comeback at and decided on the CW.

“It’s the toughest gym in Omaha. Everybody said, ‘If you can make it at the C.W., you can make it anywhere because here, when you spar, you don’t just spar — you go to war. Basically, it’s a test to see what you’re capable of. I came down here and I got my butt kicked the first three times until I got my timing and my punch back. It took me awhile.”

Regarded as a mediocre pro, Perales is 11-5 and has no real prospects of making a mark, although he is widely admired for his heart. At age 30 he knows his fighting days are numbered, but his sheer determination keeps him going, sometimes to his own detriment. “In a fight I lost in Las Vegas I was a bloody mess, but I wouldn’t quit. I’ve got too much heart. I came out in the 6th and final round and I almost knocked the guy out I was that determined to win, even though my nose was broken, my eyes were closed and my face was bloody.” He has vowed to his wife he will quit rather than endure that type of punishment again.

Once Omaha’s “Great White Hope” — heavyweight Dickie Ryan may soon be facing a crossroads of his own. The battle-scarred 33-year-old, a solid contender a few years ago, is one of the most successful local pros since Ron Stander, but after 56 bouts (his record is 51-5) and countless thousands of rounds sparring his best fighting days are surely well behind him. Like so many men of the ring, he is unwilling to admit he may be past his prime and should, for his own good, hang-up the gloves.

“Everyone says, ‘When you gonna retire?’ I don’t know. I still feel like I’m in good shape. I still like fighting. I’m still trying to develop the best skills I can bring out in me. I don’t think I’ve done that yet, but I’m working on it,” he said. “I’ve been a pro since I was 19. I’m glad I’ve carried on this long because I turned pro the same time as a lot of other guys but I’m the only one still around after all these years, which is special. I wish it could last forever, but unfortunately nothing lasts forever.”

Ask him if he worries about the risk of permanent head injury, and he shrugs off the question with, “If I get brain damage or whatever, than that was my choice. I made it. Just like Dale Earnhardt made his choice and died doing what he loved doing. I have a friend that has Parkinson’s and the doctors think it was caused from boxing. I don’t know. Who knows? Boxing’s been around forever, though. Even if it was banned there’d still be underground boxing, and I’d probably be the first one there, you know, because that’s how I make part of my living.”

 

Dicky Ryan.jpg

Dick Ryan

 

Ryan has a passion for what might be called the Brotherhood of the Ring that he and other fighters share and it is this bond forged from sweat and courage and discipline that helps explain why he toils on. “We get these big muscle guys coming in the gym. These tough guys who knock everybody out on the street. They say, ‘I wanna box.’ We say, ‘Okay,’ and they box a couple days and we never see them back. I don’t know what it is, but it takes a special person. I won’t say it takes a tough person, but it takes a certain type of person to sacrifice your body the way we do. It really is hard. In boxing you can’t have a big ego because right when you think you’re all that somebody’s gonna knock you on your ass. And that’s the truth. If you’ve got an ego going into boxing, you’ll be humbled afterwards.”

According to Ryan, there is a camaraderie in the gym, any gym, that transcends race or religion or age. “It’s one of the only places you can go where there’s no racism at all. It’s neat. Everybody gets along. I never try hurtin’ no one in the gym. I can work with anybody. I can work with a guy that’s 150 pounds and I can work with a guy who’s 250 pounds. I can work with kids just coming up. I’ll help ‘em out. And hopefully by working with me they’re going to get better and then eventually they’re going to be good sparring partners. I’m helping them out and they’re helping me out. It works both ways.”

In a long career that’s seen him be a marquee sparring partner (for the likes of Lennox Lewis and Tommy Morrison) if seldom a main event draw, Ryan has trained at gyms across the country. He could train anywhere in Omaha, but the CW is where he’s gone to work the past eight years.

“I’ve been to Gleason’s Gym in New York and a lot of other big gyms and this (the CW) is as good as any gym around. Me and my manager, Mouse Strauss, seen that Midge (Minor) and Larry (Littlejohn) here were really good coaches and Mouse felt it would be good for me to come here. There’s a chemistry between me and my trainer Midge. He’s just a straight-up guy. He’s not the type of trainer to go, ‘You’ve got to kick his butt’ or ‘You’ve got to do this or do that.’ He’s just got a way of telling me to stay focused. He’s not afraid to cuss me out, though. He’s shows no favoritism.”

After 14 years of grinding out early morning runs and long nights hitting the bags and absorbing poundings as a much sought-after sparring partner Ryan said he stays motivated by the chance for a shot at the title or a big payday — even as remote as that possibility is now.

“I think a lot of it is just knowing in the back of your mind that, Hey, I’ve got to keep going because they might call me for that big fight and I’ve got to be ready.’ Before a fight I don’t have any fear at all because I know I’m in shape and ready to go.”

The closest he came to realizing his dream was when he upset Brian Nielsen in dramatic fashion before a hostile crowd in Denmark in 1999. In what was supposed to have been a tune-up bout for the Dane before an expected match-up with Mike Tyson, Ryan rallied late and knocked out Nielsen in the 10th and final round. Ryan said he was given the match with only two weeks notice but, as usual, was in peak condition. However, the victory did not earn Ryan any title shot but instead a rematch with Nielsen, which he lost.

Ryan, who describes himself as “mellow” even on the eve of bouts, is almost embarrassed to say that, apart from his work in the ring, he is not much of a fight fan. “Not really. I don’t go to the fights around here because I don’t like to see friends of mine get hit. It seems kind of weird, but that’s just how I am. I wish I wasn’t like that, but I am. I’d never encourage anyone else to fight. That’s just my opinion. Boxing’s been great for me. I’ve made a few bucks. It’s a good side job.”

The reality for pros fighting out of Omaha, a burg way off-the-beaten track in the boxing world, is that they must work regular jobs to support their pugilistic dreams. When not engaging in the Sweet Science, for example. Ryan is a meter reader for the Omaha Public Power District.

Featherweight Mike Juarez, another CW regular, is a part-time parcel handler at United Parcel Service. “If you’re in Omaha you’ve got to work a job. There’s no sponsorship around here like there is in big fight towns,” said Juarez, 31, who has compiled a 25-9 record during a 12-year pro career that has seen him fight and lose to several contenders and former world champions. The compactly-built Juarez has been something of a boxing vagabond over the years, including stops in Indianapolis and Vegas. After experiencing some hard knocks on the road, he’s returned to his Omaha roots.

“It’s pretty rough out there, you know? It’s a mean game. I didn’t get the fights. I went broke. I really wasn’t ready for the type of (mercenary) atmosphere that I put myself in. There’s nothin’ like being home around guys that I know,” he said while skipping rope one evening at the C.W. He feels the high-caliber training he gets at the Omaha gym sets it apart. “Midge Minor is a professional coach. He knows his stuff. He’s been in boxing forever,” he said. Like Dickie Ryan, Juarez is pushing the upper limits of his boxing career. He said the decision to retire will “depend on how long I can stay winning. There’s no money in it for losers, you know.”

In keeping with the CW’s belief that young fighters need pushing to reach the next level, Juarez often spars with amateurs much younger than him and possessing far less experience. Two of his regular partners are 20-year-old RayShawn Abram and 19-year-old Kevin Nauden, a pair of brash, promising fighters who, along with a third young phenom, Bernard Davis, are looking to make their marks as pros in the very near future. “I’m fast, I’m strong and nobody my size is going to touch me. I don’t lack for confidence,” said Abram, a 112-pounder sporting two gold front teeth. “I’m looking to win a national championship this year.”

 

 

With his penchant for splash and dash, Abram admits he enjoys ”the attention” that performing in the ring brings him. “When you’re in the ring and you’re doing real good — you’re throwing combinations and looking fast and start dropping your hands and showboating a little bit — then everybody’s cheering for you, and it’s a good feeling.” Nauden, like several young men who have come through the CW ranks, views boxing as a safe haven from the mean streets on the near north side. “I think if it weren’t for the gym I’d probably be in jail or dead or something,” the 132-pounder said. “It’s kept me out of a lot of trouble — for real.”

He was introduced to the sport after being caught fighting in school by an administrator, who brought him down to the CW to get his hostility channeled inside the ring. In Midge Minor he has found a confidante and mentor. “I sometimes get in with the wrong crowd and I sometimes talk to him about it and he keeps me out of trouble. He also helped me get through the time my grandma died. I can call him anytime.”

Nauden and Abram feel they benefit from going against older foes when sparring, but there is no any doubt who is boss inside the ropes. “They’ve got that grown man strength that we ain’t got yet,” Nauden said. “When I first came here and I hit some of the pros with a hard shot, they let me know this ain’t gonna be goin’ on for long. They ain’t gonna hurt you or nothin, but they’ll tap you and let you know they could.”

While Abram won his weight class (as did the CW’s Bernard Davis at 125 pounds) in the recent Midwest Golden Gloves tourney at Harvey’s Casino and is prepping for the national gloves in Reno. Nev., Nauden lost. As for their future plans, the young men are weighing pro offers and, if the money is right, may end their amateur careers later this year and sign contracts to enter the prizefighting arena. They intend to stay under the training arm of Minor and company.

Whether Nauden and Abram ever make any real money in the fight game, they epitomize what the coaches and trainers at the CW strive to do — get the most out of their fighters.

“It’s like a challenge to me to see how I can develop somebody,” Minor said. “I don’t try to change their style. I just try to better the style they’ve got.” He said he can be blunt with fighters, but they seem to respond to his straight shooting. “If I see a bum, I call ‘em a bum. I’m kind of mean to ‘em. but they work for me, though. They perform for me.” Larry Littlejohn is also known as a hard-driving sort. “We do demand quite a bit of you if you’re going to stay in this gym. This is not the place to be down here joking around. We don’t want those guys. We work hard. We want to win,” Littlejohn said.

CW amateur fighter Shabia Bahati said that when Littlejohn shows up “there’s no cutting corners on your workout,” adding, “He keeps us honest. He’ll put us to the test.”

Bahati, a Midwest Golden Gloves runner up at heavyweight, has trained at other gyms in town and he said the C.W. is not for the faint of heart or the frivolous. “It’s real competitive down here. You’ve got to be on your toes when you come and spar. There’s no play time. They take the boxing down here serious.” Jacqui (Red) Spikes is another amateur fighter who has found the CW more rigorous than other gyms. “I was at a different gym and the training was soft there. Here, it’s all business. There are no wimps down here. It’s got the best pros and amateurs in town. They get the most out of you.”

A Mentoring We Will Go

June 18, 2010 5 comments

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Richmond &...

Image by rogercarr via Flickr

Mentoring programs, whether community or school-based , along with mentoring done more informally, on one’s own, offer effective ways for reaching at-risk youth. The following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about 10 or 12 years ago profiles some mentoring efforts in my hometown of Omaha.  I cannot recall much about the assignment other than the passion and commitment of the people involved as mentors to make a difference in young people‘s lives.

A Mentoring We Will Go

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

A sweltering June night in the inner city finds a rag-tag basketball game under way in the Adams Park Community Center gymnasium. Here, in this hot house of testosterone, a lone female watches from the sidelines, itching, like the men around her, for a chance to play.

Maurtice Ivy is a tall, poised woman of 31. She mingles easily with the crowd. A righteous sister perfectly accepted as one of the guys. And why not? She grew up a tomboy among them and is a bona fide player to boot.  The former Central High School all-state performer was a collegiate basketball star with the Lady Huskers and played professionally long before TV discovered the women’s game.

This night, like so many before, she’s brought along a young man she regards as a son, Rickey Loftin. The lean, hard-bodied 16-year-old harbors big-time hoop dreams of his own. The junior-to-be at South High School is anxious to strut his stuff. When the pair finally do take the court, she feeds him the rock again and again, highlighted by a slick one-handed bounce pass from the top of the key to a driving Rickey in the lane. Count it. These two anticipate each other’s moves and moods more than mere teammates do. More like soulmates.

It’s that way off the court, too, where Ivy mentors Rickey. In that capacity she serves as friend, counsel, guide, nag and personal coach.

After the gym clears out she “fusses at” him about his showboating and points out a flaw in his shooting technique. He listens good-naturedly and adjusts his shot. “That’s it,” she says approvingly.

 

Maurtice Ivy

Maurtice Ivy

 

The pair first met when she coached an Omaha Housing Authority team he played on. They hit it right off, and three years later they’re nearly inseparable. She attends all his athletic and school events. She helped pay for a black college tour he attended in May and is looking to enroll him in summer basketball camps where he’ll be exposed to better coaching and competition. She’s been there for him at every turn, including a tragedy.

“A couple years ago Rickey called me up one morning and asked me to come get him,” Ivy recalls. “I was wondering why he wasn’t in school and he said, ‘My dad was shot and killed last night. The only person I want to be around right now is you.’ I was speechless. It took everything in me not to break down and cry. At that point, I hadn’t realized how I had impacted him as a coach. And I just felt like that God was placing him in my life for a reason, and I needed to pick up the ball and be as positive as I could be.

“Rickey was hurting and he really didn’t know how to deal with that.  Since then, I’ve really played a role in his life. I just try to be a strong support system for him. Our relationship has truly grown over the years.”

Ivy is among thousands of adults in the Omaha metropolitan area who maintain a one-to-one mentoring relationship with an at-risk youth. What follows is an exploration of different mentoring relationships and how these relationships follow certain familiar patterns, yet retain their own individual dynamic. Of how mentoring brings adults, kids and resources together in often surprising ways. Of how good mentoring isn’t a magic elixer or quick fix, but an investment of time that pays off slowly but surely.

Who are mentors? They’re individuals lending the benefit of their experience to a younger person struggling to reach his/her potential. They can be parents, teachers, coaches, professionals, laborers or anyone with a commitment to making a difference in the life of a child.

Some, like Ivy, mentor on their own — as an extension of their life and work. Others do it through the growing number of formal mentoring programs offered by schools, community service agencies and corporations. For example, adults from all walks of life mentor students in Tom Osborne’s school-based Teammates program, currently serving the Lincoln Public Schools and now gearing to go statewide.

All Our Kids, Inc. of Omaha recruits and trains mentors from around the state, offers a scholarship pool and sponsors a mentoring program of its own that has grown from serving 19 youths in 1989 to 100 today. Since 1992 AOK has trained some 1,000 mentors from 60-plus organizations at 50 workshops and hopes to reach more through its new Mentoring Institute, says executive director Michael Hanson.

This surge in mentoring is part of a larger movement in which clearinghouse organizations like the National Mentoring Partnership provide training materials and funding referrals in support of local efforts. Several Omahans involved in mentoring, including Hanson, were delegates at a 1997 Presidential summit that examined the most effective ways adults can serve America’s youth. The summit launched the Colin Powell-led volunteer initiative, America’s Promise, a catalyst for linking adults with kids in positive, community-building ways like mentoring.

A Method to Mentoring

The needs of a specific community often dictate the shape mentoring takes. The Chicano Awareness Center’s Family Mentoring Project serves first-generation Hispanic-American families in south Omaha, meaning mentors like Maria Chavez must be a “big sister” to Diana Gonzalez, 12, as well as a bilingual liaison to the girl’s parents, Aman and Maria, as they deal with language, immigration, job, education and social service issues. Joe Edmonson’s Youth Outreach Program, housed in north Omaha’s Fontenelle Park Pavillion, gives kids the safety, discipline and nurturing the area’s gang-ridden streets do not. Edmonson builds kids’ minds and bodies via athletic, multi-media and recreation activities.

Programs generally try striking a balance between structure and spontaneity. The US West-sponsored Monarch Connection, matching employees with McMillan Magnet School students, awards achievement badges to kids completing community service projects with their mentors, and encourages participants to spend other leisure time together.

Some programs strive to be part of youths’ lives from elementary school through college, others target a shorter time frame. Scholarship and other financial aid is sometimes provided as an incentive for children to excel. To qualify for aid, kids must usually honor a signed agreement detailing certain standards of personal behavior and school performance.

Whatever its face, however, mentoring is seen by practitioners as one proven, prevention-based approach to the widespread problems facing America’s youth, although supporters agree it’s no panacea, much less substitute for quality parenting or professional counseling.

“I think in today’s society parents aren’t always there, and not necessarily because they don’t care or they’re bad. Economically, a lot of parents are put in positions where they have to work two or three jobs or opposite shifts. Part of the fabric of the family is missing. A lot of kids nowadays don’t learn at home about manners and etiquette, and about  consequences and encouragement and those kinds of things,” says AOK’s

Michael Hanson. “Often we hear from teachers or case workers that a kid’s parents are gone all day. The key is we need to do a better job of linking kids to the adult world in a way that makes sense to them.

“I think mentoring is being recognized as something that’s happened for a long time, but it just wasn’t called that, and now we’re formalizing it and trying to add some structure to it. That’s why I think its powerful. It’s the basis for everything we do as social animals. We form relationships, and a mentor is a special kind of relationship. If we look back in our own lives we all had someone who helped us see something in ourselves we couldn’t see or helped us make a decision we might not have made.”

Hanson says today’s mentoring efforts attempt “to artificially recreate something that happens naturally” for most youths, but that doesn’t for others. Without mentoring, he feels, kids fall through the cracks. That’s why programs like AOK work with school counselors and social service experts to identify youths who could most benefit from a mentor. Typically, it’s a bright student underachieving due to personal/family difficulties.

Doing the Right Thing

Mentoring is also a form of community activism. Of citizen helping citizen. Of giving back. Although Maurtice Ivy works in west Omaha (at Career Design), she still resides and takes an active role in the near north side community she grew up in, coaching youth athletic teams, sponsoring a 3-on-3 basketball tournament and mentoring kids like Rickey. “As a young community leader it’s my obligation to try and make a pathway to make things better,” she says. “It’s all about trying to do the right thing. And it’s just remarkable how receptive kids are when they know you’re sincere and doing everything you can do to try and help them.”

She has seen the difference mentoring’s made for Rickey. Thanks in part to her tutelage, he’s harnessed his mental and physical gifts and become a top scholar-athlete with lofty dreams for the future. He can’t imagine life without her.

“We have like a bond between each other,” he says. “She’s helped me not only with my physical skills on the basketball court, but mentally too by helping me keep my focus in the game and on school. She inspires me to keep getting good grades. She’s made me see how I can get a scholarship to college. I’d like maybe to be an engineer or an accountant. She’s like my second mom. I feel comfortable calling her my step-mom.”

Ivy, single and childless, doesn’t pretend to be Rickey’s mother.  Mentors sometimes tread a fine line between being a friend and usurping the parental role. When Ivy started working with Rickey, she sensed his mother, a single working parent of three, viewed her as a threat. “I can understand that,” Ivy says, “and I didn’t want it to be that way, so I would back off, but then I’d be there for him when he needed me. I told her basically, ‘View me as an extension of you.’ She’s done a wonderful job with him. His mom is now a lot more supportive of what I’m doing in his life. I just try to give him direction. I try to place him around individuals and resources that can give him the assistance he needs. I see the impact I’ve made in his life and that is truly the most rewarding thing. When I see him excelling, I feel joy. ‘There’s my boy!’”

In return, Rickey looks up to Ivy. “She’s a black independent woman.  No one can force her to do anything she doesn’t want to. She’s athletic. She’s working on graduate school now. She gives me advice on anything I need to talk about. I feel like I can always depend on her,” he says.

Reaching Out and Giving In

Trust must be present before a mentoring bond can be cemented. Getting there involves a feeling-out process. It can be a daunting task reaching sullen kids who are already wary of adults. According to Hanson, “A lot times mentors are more scared of the relationship than kids are because it’s a big responsibility. And if they feel they’re not doing a good enough job or don’t know what to expect in terms of working with a young person, they’ll give up.”

Jeff Russell had two AOK mentors give up on him in junior high before being paired with a third, David Vana. Already burned twice, Jeff held back. “I was really hesitant about getting involved with another because I figured he wasn’t going to stick around for very long anyway,” Jeff, now 20, says.

Vana, an Inacom business analyst, felt the young man’s reluctance. “He didn’t have a whole lot of faith in the program based on his experiences with his first two mentors, so I think he was a little cautious before he warmed up to me. I think the previous mentors tried to push him, and with Jeff it just didn’t work because he had a tendency to rebel. Before I started giving him advice and stuff, I wanted him to trust me and accept me. I didn’t want to come down too hard on him, so we started doing things together like going to hockey games and we got comfortable with each other.”

Before Vana came into his life, Jeff was a juvenile delinquent in the making. After the death of his mother upon entering 5th grade, Jeff, who never knew his father, was raised by an aunt and uncle. Things were fine at home, but he was failing high school and hanging with a bad crowd, so counselors recommended him for mentoring. “The friends I had were not exactly…going anywhere. In fact, they’re still not anywhere,” he says. “One of them is in jail for murder. Another one has many drug convictions. Another one can’t hold a job. I was very fortunate to get out of it when I did.”

Upon first meeting Jeff, Vana was struck by his fatalistic attitude. “When I asked about college, he said, and I’ll never forget it, ‘People like me don’t go to college.’ That’s when I focused on building his self-esteem and confidence. He made a lot of progress. Jeff definitely is a success story.”

Jeff credits Vana and Vana’s wife Noreen for helping him turn things around. “They’ve been very influential in my life. Whenever I’d have a question — school-related, work-related, anything — I’d call and we’d talk. They’ve been there for me a lot. They really took time out for me.” With their help he applied himself, raising his GPA from 0.32 to 3.20 and graduating on time. Currently taking a break from his studies at Metro Community College, where he’s working toward an associate’s degree in horticulture, Jeff oversees a gardening crew at a private estate and hopes to one day have his own landscaping business/nursery. AOK is paying his college tuition.

When he looks back to where he was headed — a likely drop-out — he sees how far he’s come and where he yet aspires to go. “I could have very easily followed that path. I still could revert back to that path, but I just have to remind myself of my goals. This program showed me that if I do what I should do, I can actually get someplace in my life.”

Trial and Error

Even when mentoring works, there are still power struggles, communication gaps, unrealistic expectations and bumpy spots along the way. “You can’t just pull two people’s names out of a hat — a mentor and a mentee — and expect their personalities to mesh perfectly,” says Vana. “It’s important to remember every kid is different. You can’t apply some mentoring template to every relationship. If it isn’t working, recognize that and make a new match.”

Bad matches do occur. They’re bound to, since aside from a screening/interview process, pairings are based on instinct and educated guesses. “With some, there’s no chemistry there. Others walk a fine line, with neither side willing to get real close or comfortable. But there’s been some extremely good matches too,” says Roz Moyer, US West manager of Community Affairs/ Employee Relations and Monarch Connection director. She says when things don’t click or mentors quit, affected youth are reassigned until a solid match takes hold. The challenge then becomes regaining the child’s trust. It can take time.

Moyer says mentors often have a sense of failure even when the match succeeds and the child thrives. “I think part of that is the kids don’t run up and say, ‘Thank you, you did such a good job.’ I tell the mentors not to expect them to do that. You’ll see it in other ways — in the success they have in school or by a good word every once in a while. You just have to know you’re doing a good job.”

Monarch mentor Linda Verner, a US West Finance executive, has at times doubted the job she’s done with former McMillan and current North High student Carrie Laney, 15, whom she’s mentored since 1996. Verner says, “I really wasn’t sure how much I had to contribute.”

Carrie, though, is certain of Verner’s impact. “I went through a lot of family and school problems the last couple years and Linda gave me a lot of good advice. I can talk about a lot more things with her than I can with my parents. She’s always told me she’s proud of me. She boosted my self-esteem so I would believe in myself and strive to get good grades, and I did.” Carrie plans attending college, with a goal of becoming a pediatrician.

Verner says if mentors just stick with it, good things happen. “I did not understand how much I would get out of it. Part of it is the enjoyment of setting goals with a young person and then getting them accomplished and feeling like you’ve contributed a little bit something.”

Because mentoring doesn’t follow a formula, sponsors offer support when things come a cropper. “Mentors can get discouraged,” Hanson says. “The challenge is tempering their expectations, but at the same time maintaining a level of enthusiasm that will help keep them there for the long haul. We can help prepare them for the fact kids are not going to fall down on their knees and thank you for saving them. They may not even acknowledge you at all. I mean, some of the kids we work with really need a lot of social skills. We have to teach kids how to look a person in the eye, shake their hand and greet them.”

Since mentoring only works if both parties are active participants,sponsors stress why each person shares responsibility for the relationship.

“Both the mentor and the mentee have to have a willingness to forge ahead. Neither one can give up on making that connection and forming that relationship. As a mentor you have got to be dedicated enough to overcome obstacles and focus on that kid. As a kid you’ve got to be as committed as the mentor in attending all the functions and doing all the things needed to make this thing go,” says Moyer. “We tell the kids right off, ‘We cannot change your life. You have to change your life. We can help you. We can guide you. We can open some doors. But you have to be the one who makes the changes.”

“We do group activities so that we can see kids and mentors interact,” Hanson says. “The kid may only say five words to his mentor, and you can see the adult is getting frustrated. The mentor may come to me and say, ‘Gee, I’m just not making any progress. This kid doesn’t like me. I don’t know what to do.’ Yet, if the mentor quits coming to the meetings, the first thing the kid will do is say, ‘Where’s my mentor?’ They’ll know when you’re gone.”

New Beginnings

Karnell Perkins felt betrayed after his first three mentors gave up on him. His family was in disarray. School was a bust. Things looked bleak for the black north Omaha native before he finally connected with AOK mentors Mike and Judy Thesing, a white suburban Omaha couple who practically adopted him. It all started when Thesing, president of America First Financial Advisors, was recruited by America First Cos. head, Michael Yanney, to mentor kids at McMillan Junior High (now McMillan Magnet School) in Yanney’s Kids (the forerunner of AOK). Eventually, Thesing was assigned Karnell, by then a struggling Burke High student reeling from an increasingly chaotic home life and three unsuccessful matches.

 

 

Mike Yanney

Michael Yanney

 

“Before I met them I was bounced around from mentor    to mentor,” Karnell says. “When I finally got Mike and Judy, they were different than the average mentor who sees their kids every once in a while for lunch or a movie or helping with their homework. But Mike and Judy, for sure, go above and beyond. They’ve meant a lot to me.”

But as the problems in Karnell’s family deepened, he was in danger of flunking out of school. “His unwed mother was on the fringe of being in trouble with the law for numerous reasons. There was never any role modeling or anybody who really cared what he was doing or how he was doing. There was never any money or transportation. He was the oldest of three boys and he felt responsible for his brothers. He worked after school, so school was the last thing he focused on,” Thesing explains.

That’s when Karnell’s mentors dramatically intervened in his life. “My wife and I took him by the ears and made him live with us the latter part of his senior year. We put together a program he was to abide by in order to get through school. We made sure he had transportation and that his academic requirements were fulfilled before he could go do anything else. It was a disciplinary and structural change for him, but I think he realized at that point that we really cared and were willing to do whatever it took to make sure he had every opportunity to be successful.”

The change in environment was profound, and so were the changes in Karnell. “I went from one culture in north Omaha to a totally different culture in west Omaha, but race was never an issue. Mike and Judy let me know there’s a better way of life than what I had. They gave me stability. They kind of became like mom and dad.”

There was a period of adjustment, however. “At first things were a little chilly, but as time went on and we did stuff together and he got to know us, things just evolved,” Thesing says. There’ve been road bumps since, like the time Karnell, now a University of Nebraska-Lincoln student, sloughed off in his studies and was placed on academic probation. He soon felt the wrath of the intense, goal-oriented Thesing. Karnell, who describes himself as “laidback,” says Thesing’s constant “do-it-now” prodding got old. “Sometimes I was like, ‘Hey dude, chill out.’ But I do know he’s trying to help me accomplish good things. If I didn’t have him I think I’d be a slacker.”

Thesing says working through such differences is worth the end result. “It can be pretty frustrating, but if you can get past those barriers and develop a real solid relationship, the reward is you’ll be making a difference in someone’s life.” He’s seen the change: “I’ve always been proud of Karnell, but I’ve seen him mature quite a lot. Now he realizes the value of an education, the value of hard work and the value of discipline. By most measures, especially given his background, he’s doing outstanding.”

Karnell, 21, pulled his grades up enough to not only graduate high school, but earn a full college scholarship — courtesy of AOK. The finance major is on pace to graduate from UNL next year, which will mark a family milestone. “No one in my family has ever graduated college,” he notes. “Now, it’s like I’ve set a standard for my brothers. William and Langston are planning to go too. That makes me feel really good.”

Having seen the ups and downs of mentoring, he feels an adult must first earn a child’s confidence before being called a friend: “You need a person who’s sincere. You can’t be fake. You have to sincerely care about kids and want to help out, even if you don’t have all the answers. You have to seriously lead by example. And you have to want to do it from the heart.”

Thesing agrees, adding: “These kids just need someone that cares about them. A lot of them have gone through their whole life without anyone really caring. Throwing money at these things is not really the answer. It’s got to be a genuine commitment of time. Kids need your time more than anything else, and the earlier you get involved the better.”

He expects to remain a part of Karnell’s life for as long as he’s around. “I see it as a lifetime commitment. I look at him as a son almost.” The Thesings have, in fact, gained partial custody of Karnell’s youngest brother, Langston, 10, who now lives with them.

“He really likes being there,” Karnell says. “Every night I go to sleep I thank God for Mike and Judy…and all the people who’ve helped us out.  Their hearts are so big.”

New school ringing in Liberty for students

June 6, 2010 1 comment

The thought of a new downtown elementary school housed in a massive former bus barn situated smack dab in a neighborhood rife with social ills caught my attention.  The barn site was only temporary, but that nontraditional location, plus the red light district around and about it, was enough for me to file a story.  Plus, I liked the fact the school would be serving a diverse student body of Latinos, Africans, African-Americans, and whites.  The space was every bit as interesting and the students every bit as diverse as I had hoped.  Then when I met the dynamo principal, Nancy Oberst, mother of indie rock star Conor Oberst, I was officially hooked.  My story, which originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com), is as much about her and and her staff’s passion as it is about this incongruent site for a school.  Liberty Elementary has since moved into its built-from-the-ground up school building just down the street.

 

New school ringing in Liberty for students

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Like a Pied Piper, Liberty Elementary School principal Nancy Oberst set a brisk pace one evening in the Columbus Park neighborhood. It was one of several nights when Oberst and staff went door-to-door in the blue-collar, racially-diverse area to symbolically blow the horn about Liberty, the new downtown K-6 public school. Liberty, which opened August 19 with some 360 students (and more matriculating each day) was conceived in part to relieve overcrowding at two other OPS sites — Jackson Academy and Field Club Elementary — which Liberty is drawing many students from. Consistent with the new OPS emphasis on neighborhood schools,

Liberty is serving a growing school-age populace on downtown’s southside. Temporarily housed in a renovated warehouse running from 22nd to 20th and Leavenworth Streets, Liberty is in a kind of incubator phase while awaiting construction of its own building, slated to open in March 2004.

In naming the school, Oberst wanted something that “embraced as many people as possible and spoke to a lot of things inherent in this society.” Above the main entrance is a phrase from Roman philosopher Epictetus that reads, “Only the educated are free.” Fittingly, Liberty is a beacon of hope to a largely Hispanic ward of recent emigres. An education for these children is more than a right of passage  — it is a burden of dreams. “These kids come from working class families that need to invest in something for the future,” she said. “They’re really wanting for their kids that old dream of learning English and being upwardly mobile.” It is why Oberst insists her staff be fully committed. “When I interview applicants, I say, ‘I’m really looking for people that have the will and the desire to make something special for kids who need a leg up.’” The impetus to learn, she said, is made even greater by the fact children often act as interpreters for their Spanish-speaking parents.

Because everyone is welcome at Liberty, parents are not pressed for their legal status. To register a child, a parent need only provide a birth certificate, an address and some record of the child’s past schooling, if any. Serving a highly-mobile population, Liberty expects to see a high student turnover rate.

 

Nancy Oberst, ©photo by Marlon Wright

 

 

 

Oberst, principal at Jackson the past three years, has many former students assigned to Liberty. During that night canvassing the hood she scanned a roster looking for familiar names. She found one in Diana Ramirez. In a wood-frame house perfumed by the rustic aroma of tortillas and accented by the folksy lilt of Spanish, Diana shyly emerged from a bedroom, bedecked in a fine pink dress, and when her big brown eyes locked on Oberst’s, she warmly embraced her. “There’s a beauty and a richness about a very urban group of kids,” Oberst said. “They’re the nicest kids I’ve ever been in contact with. Just well-behaved, very, very respectful children. They look forward coming to school. It’s very important to their day. I’ve never had one swing at me or push me. Sure, there’s times when one gets mad and tips over a desk or kicks a door, but you’d be amazed at how lovely these kids are. And, you know, the school has to set the tone. Kids have to know this is not just hanging out — this is different. That’s why we call kids if they don’t come and go get them if they can’t get here. They know we love them.”

While children from Spanish-speaking homes predominate, Liberty is also a magnate for area African-American, Sudanese, Asian and Caucasian families. Combined with NuStyle Development’s ongoing renovation of the historic and once stately Drake Court apartments on the north side of Liberty, the school is seen by many as an anchor of stability and a catalyst for redevelopment. The circa 1916-1921 Drake Court, a 14-building complex featuring Georgian Revival and Prairie style design elements, was once the centerpiece of this mixed residential-commercial zoned district. But when the apartments fell into disrepair in the 1970s, occupancy declined and the designated blighted area became a thoroughfare for transients. NuStyle has worked closely with the Nebraska Investment Finance Authority (NIFA) to qualify for low income tax credits for the Drake Court project. In anticipation of Liberty moving out in 2004, NuStyle is weighing various reuses of the warehouse, including a day care center, artist studios, a multi-media technology center and condos. It is also eying more area residential and commercial projects.

While most welcome the school and look forward to construction of the permanent Liberty site, a $9.2 million three-story structure to be situated on the corner of 20th and St. Mary’s Avenue, there is concern about introducing a large contingent of children into an area heavily trafficked by motor vehicles and frequented by panhandlers, vagrants, prostitutes and drug users.

“There’s been an undercurrent that this is too tough a neighborhood for a school,” Oberst said. “Some of the families are worried. But OPS is saying we believe in Omaha — we believe neighborhoods can be redeveloped. We know what a renovated North High did on 34th and Ames. That has become a very safe place for people to live. When we held meetings with residents in the spring we said, ‘This is how you do it — this is how you change your neighborhood. You put an anchor in with a school. You make the streets safer for mothers and children to come to and from school.’ I’m a big believer in the community the school is in knowing about the school and being involved in it.”

She said she will do whatever it takes to make Liberty safe, from asking street denizens to respect school property to telling those engaging in illicit behavior to move on. “You want to be a good neighbor. You don’t want people mad at you. You have to do some co-existing. But you also have to draw some lines.” She said when problems surfaced at Jackson, from the school getting tagged with graffiti to men harassing girls, she had students spread the word the school was off-limits and she told harassers their actions were unwelcome. The problems, she said, vanished.

Despite assurances from OPS, extra police patrols and neighborhood watch efforts, some parents still voice concern. “I’m not happy with the location,” said Lisa Arellano, whose son, Gage, is a 5th grader. “We have a lot of homeless people and trouble up on Leavenworth. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen the police tackling someone on the ground. Walking to and from school is too scary. It puts kids in jeopardy. There’s always reassurances, but there’s no guarantees.” Gatdet Tut, whose daughter Hynalem is in kindergarten, said, “I don’t want my child to walk on these streets.” Other parents, like Craig Hinson, hope OPS-OPD vows to keep a sharp eye out are more than “lip service.”

Commerce of all kinds unfolds around the school. Across 20th Street is the 24-Hour Package Liquor Store and the Motor West used car lot. Three blocks east is the Douglas County Correctional Center. On the south side is Precision Industries. A little farther west is a St. Vincent DePaul Super Thrift store.

The eastern front of the old bus barn housing the school has two ongoing businesses — Grunwald Mechanical Contractors and an auto detailing shop — that maintain active garages. Robert Wilczewski, owner of the property occupied by the firms, feels the volume of kids passing by to enter and exit the school, whose main entrance is off an adjacent alleyway, poses hazards and hinders operations.

“It’s starting to complicate life around here,” he said. “We just have some serious concerns about safety and about restrictions on what we do here. It’s become intolerable. We want business back as usual. They’re going to need to find a different route for children to enter the school.” Wilczewski, who owns part of the alley and a piece of Grunwald, said the company and OPS are signatories to a 1930 agreement prohibiting public alley use. The parties are trying to reach an accord.

Harold Wrehe, co-owner of Motor West, echoed other area businessmen in expressing surprise at the number of Liberty students. “I didn’t believe there’d be that many children going to an elementary school in this area. But I like it. It brings people in. Everything helps.” Mike Nath, branch manager of nearby Motion Industries, agreed the school “will, in the long run, probably be a good thing. It could help clean up the neighborhood.”

The consensus is that whatever undesirable-incongruous elements surround it, Liberty, along with the Drake Court, reopening for occupancy next year, is a keystone for an emerging 20th Street Corridor some envision as an Old Market West. Oberst, busily forging alliances between Liberty and the nearby Omaha Children’s Museum, the YMCA and the Omaha Theater Company for Young People, joins others in referring to 20th Street, from Leavenworth to Farnam, as Children’s Row. As Liberty’s provisional site does not have many school amenities, including a gym or theater, students are attending P.E. classes at the Y and performances at the children’s theater.

For Roberta Wilhelm, executive director of the children’s theater, the concept of “a downtown school is a great idea,” with Liberty adding another dimension to the burgeoning arts-educational scene emerging along the 20th Street strip. “I think between the school, the Children’s Museum, the Y, us, and the Joslyn Art Museum, which is not that far away, the synergy is just going to be wonderful. We’re excited to have the school as a neighbor.”

She envisions the theater and school having an intimate rapport. “We see ourselves developing a very close relationship with Liberty,” said Wilhelm, whose home base, The Rose, is only a stroll away. We will be doing our Every Single Child program in their school…which is where every child — in each grade — has a different experience with the children’s theater through drama residency workshops and dance activities. And that, in my opinion, is just the beginning. I think there’s much more we can do with them in after-school programming. We’d like to see the arts infused in their school.”

Oberst wants that infusion as well. “We’re really wanting to bring art into the school, including artists from the community, and to bring our students to the arts. We hope to build relationships with the Joslyn Art Museum and the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. We have to take advantage of where we are.”

The idea of placing a school smack dab in the middle of a bustling urban district is not new for Omaha. Central Grade School operated for decades across from Central High School and in the shadow of the Joslyn and other downtown landmarks. Although Liberty is the first school in the Drake Court-Park East-Columbus Park district since Mason School closed in the 1980s, it is repeating history in that, like Mason, which once served a largely Italian immigrant population, it is educating many new arrivals from Mexico.

What makes Liberty different is that the school is operating — at least the next 18 months — from a makeshift site that once served as a maintenance barn for Greyhound Bus Lines and more recently as a paper-printing supply storage facility for Redfield & Co. The top-to-bottom refurbishment of the old bus barn has revealed a 49,000 square foot space highlighted by the second-story’s free-span, cathedral-high, vaulted wood beam ceiling and elaborate iron truss network. A massive skylight and banks of tall windows bathe the upper level in natural light. Large ceiling fans maintain a constant air flow.

The rehab was funded by NuStyle, which bought the structure from Robert Wilczewski, and designed by Alley-Poyner Architects. OPS, which leases the building from NuStyle, is using large partitions to create classrooms and resource centers in a modular, flexible floor plan. By opening day, each partitioned space was outfitted with all the usual fixtures of a traditional school setting.

 

 Liberty Facade
The new Liberty Elementary School building

 

 

 

In the time in takes for the permanent school to be erected — construction starts this fall — Liberty plans being an established player in the neighborhood by building coalitions that Oberst hopes makes the school a vital contributor to and welcome beneficiary of the revitalization happening around it.

“The idea is to form this community now and for the kids to participate in the building of the new school and to have the neighborhood be involved with the whole redevelopment going on with us and the Drake Court,” she said.

Drawing on her experience forging community ties at Jackson, where she found an Adopt-a-School partner in Picotte Elementary, formed a food pantry with ConAgra Foods and sponsored clothing drives with First Lutheran Church in Omaha, she is already lining-up Liberty collaboratives. A food pantry, serving poor residents, is in the works along with clothing and furniture drives. “Our families sometimes don’t have beds and other basic things and, so, we’ll do a lot of give aways. It’s meant to bridge the gap. That networking with the community is part of my job and, besides, it opens more doors for opportunity for our kids and parents. I’m always looking for an angle,” she said.

Opening day at Liberty was marked by two words: diversity and vitality. Beaming brown, black, yellow and white faces mingled in the old-new environs. The sing-song sound of Spanish and hip-hop reverberated throughout the cavernous space.

Craig Hinson, whose daughter Jamillah is attending the 6th grade, said the diverse urban setting is just what he wants for his child. “I think it’s great. To me, it just adds a little flavor. I think being downtown, where you have blacks and whites and Hispanics and Sudanese, it just gives kids a real sense of the real world.”

As a show of faith in Liberty 3rd grade teacher Michelle Grau enrolled her own daughter Jordan there even though her family lives in Field Club. “I think the more kinds of people and the more kind of cultural experiences you can be exposed to, the better,” Grau said. “That’s why Jordan’s coming here. And to be in on the ground floor — I’m really excited about that. It’s going to be a fantastic thing once it’s finally completed…if you can just see the big picture.”

The promise of bigger things to come is what led Barb and Jim Farho to place their two children at Liberty. “We’re probably one of the few families choosing to go there even though we’re not forced to,” said Barb Farho. “My husband and I are interested in seeing downtown rejuvenated and we think this is one way to do that. A lot of people are afraid of downtown, but we think there’s a lot of cultural experiences awaiting. We also know the principal is very good at getting the community involved and we just think those partnerships are only going to get better. The surrounding area is going to improve for having a school there. Plus, our kids are excited about the fact the new school will be built before their very eyes. It just seems like a fun place to be in on at the very beginning.”

Assuming the school thrives, Oberst anticipates that once the new building opens and the word spreads more pilgrims will flock to Liberty from around the metro. “We are expecting that once the new school is up and once the real cultural-corporate connections are evident that parents from other parts of the city will want to send their kids here.” The new Liberty will accommodate 600-plus kids, yet another reflection of the confidence school officials have in the enterprising area.

Whatever happens, Oberst is sure to stir the melting pot. “What that woman does for and gets out of kids is incredible,” said Linda Daly, an ESL resource teacher and one of several educators who followed Oberst to Liberty from Jackson. “She makes things happen for the kids. She is absolutely a dynamo.”

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.”

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