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Sculptor Benjamin Victor gives shape to Ponca Chief Standing Bear’s enduring voice


Sculptor Benjamin Victor gives shape to Ponca Chief Standing Bear’s enduring voice

 

©Story by Leo Adam Biga

©Photography by Sarah Lemke

Appearing in the May’June 2018 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com)

 

In creating the larger-than-life likeness of Chief Standing Bear for the Nebraska state capitol’s Centennial Mall, sculptor Benjamin Victor felt communion with the late Native American icon. Victor was “captivated” by the principled ways of the Ponca leader, whose eloquent advocacy for his people led to a historic federal court ruling at Fort Omaha that declared the nation’s indigenous peoples to be legally “human” for the first time on May 12, 1879.

“He was a true servant-leader,” Victor says of his subject. “The things he wanted were very basic, inalienable human rights everyone should be afforded. He carried himself with dignity even through demeaning treatment. He had a higher moral code of ethics during a time when the laws were not moral. He had the courage to stand up for right through many injustices.”

Based in Idaho, the Boise State University professor and resident artist felt connected to Standing Bear through every stage of his artistic process—from preparatory research into the famous Nebraskan, through molding his clay form, to casting the Ponca leader in bronze.

“His story and spirit definitely were speaking to me,” Victor says. “As an artist, you try to get that voice through your artwork to speak to viewers who see it. I felt humbled to be working on it. In the sculpture itself, I tried to keep the spirit of Standing Bear alive as much as I tried for an accurate portrait. An accurate portrait is important, but to me a spiritual portrait is just as important. I hope it really inspires other people to study his life. If my work does that, then it’s a success.”

The Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs and Donald Miller Campbell Family Foundation commissioned the 11-foot-tall sculpture, unveiled Oct. 15, 2017. Then, over the winter, a pair of Nebraska state senators (including Sen. Burke Harr of Omaha) introduced a bill to replace the state’s two sculptures—of J. Sterling Morton and William Jennings Bryan—in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall with those of Willa Cather and Standing Bear. A donor, Donald Miller Campbell, pledged funds for a copy to be made of Victor’s Standing Bear work.

“To have him as a towering icon in the U.S. Capitol would be important. His story should be on the national scale. He should be known in every school,” Victor says.

The artist already has two works in the Hall. One is of Northern Paiute activist Sarah Winnemucca on behalf of the state of Nevada. Anything Native holds profound meaning for Victor, as his late step-grandfather was a member of the Juaneño—a coastal California tribe engulfed by Spanish missions.
“It’s always a big deal to me whenever I do a Native American piece that it’s done right and with purpose. I always think of my grandpa when I do them. He liked the images I created of Native Americans with a strong stance and with dignity. That really meant a lot to him. If he’s looking down, he’s really proud of this one.”

Victor’s second sculpture in the U.S. Capitol represents Iowa—Norman Borlaug, the father of modern agriculture’s “Green Revolution.”

Working from photos, Victor “modified” Standing Bear’s pose “to capture a hint of motion,” as if the chief were moving forward slightly. In an attempt to “capture every detail,” he created folds and the look of heaviness in the blanket draped about his subject. Ornamental details included intricate beadwork, a bear claw necklace, and peace medals. Victor symbolized the chief’s dual roles as warrior and ambassador by having him holding an ax-peace pipe.

The bronze is positioned in front of a wall carved with the eloquent words of Standing Bear on trial (as translated by Omaha Native Susette “Bright Eyes” LaFlesche): “That hand is not the color of yours, but if I pierce it, I shall feel pain. If you pierce your hand, you also feel pain. The blood that will flow from mine will be the same color as yours. I am a man. The same God made us both.”

The project selection committee for the state capitol’s Centennial Mall learned about Victor from George Neubert (director of the Flatwater Folk Art Museum in Brownville, Nebraska), who befriended the artist when he did a commission for Peru State College, where his bronze of a hulking football player adorns the Oak Bowl.

Although Victor originally hails from California, he developed deep roots in the Great Plains while attending Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota, where he discovered his love of sculpture.

“When I picked up clay the first time in college, the medium just clicked for me,” he says. “I felt like the concepts I was trying to get across were very readily expressed in sculpture. I really like the physicality of sculpture, how you move the clay with your hands and manipulate it. I like everything about it. I also work in marble—so I do the subtractive process of carving, the additive process of clay work, and the replacement process of bronze.”

He was still in school when he landed his first big commission—for the Aberdeen airport.

“I had a family to support,” he says. “I worked at the YMCA part-time, took odd jobs, and went to school full time. I was on food stamps and rental assistance. We had nothing. To get the commission was really amazing because you can struggle your whole life as an artist and never get a commission like that.”

Soon thereafter came the Winnemucca project. Demand for his work has never ceased.

“I never thought I’d get the opportunity to make it on my own in my dream field and career,” he says. “It’s a true American success story. I still don’t take it for granted. Every day I get to do this, I feel very blessed. And then to do something inspiring like Standing Bear. What a dream commission to commemorate him and everything he stood for.”

Upon graduating, Victor was a Northern State teacher and resident artist before Boise State courted him.

“They gave me a beautiful studio space and gallery. It’s been a great home,” he says, adding that he maintains close ties with his former colleagues in South Dakota. “I’ve got so many friends there that are just like family.”

Back at his Boise studio, his studio life intersects with students, patrons, and his three children. Meanwhile, he continues to always keep his ears open to the spirits of his subjects.

Visit benjaminvictor.com for more information.

This article was printed in the May/June 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

 

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Nature photographer Joel Sartore taking cue from Noah for his National Geographic Photo Ark

April 24, 2018 Leave a comment

Nature photographer Joel Sartore taking cue from Noah for his National Geographic Photo Ark

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in April 2018 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

If Noah had a camera, perhaps he would have done what noted nature and wildlife photographer Joel Sartore is doing. Sartore, who resides in Lincoln, Neb., is a star National Geographic shooter in the midst of an epic project, aptly named Photo Ark, that’s creating an archive of global biodiversity in order to raise awareness and spur acton around endangered habitats and species. The National Geographic Society is throwing its considerable weight behind the effort.

The endeavor transcends geo-political differences to put a face on stressed ecosystems and inhabitants.

Photo Ark grew out of Sartore’s early assignments around the world documenting wildlife.

In addition to National Geographic magazine, he’s shot for Audubon, Life and book projects. His work’s been the subject of national broadcasts. He’s a regular contributor on CBS Sunday Morning.

The more he saw and learned, the more species and habitats that became threatened, the more urgency he felt to create a comprehensive archive in his lifetime.

“I’ve been a National Geographic photographer for more than 27 years, and I photographed the first 15 years or so out in the wild doing different conservation stories, on wolves, on grizzly bears, on koalas, all in the wild,” he said. “Can I say that moved the needle enough to stop the extinction crisis? No, it did not. So I just figured maybe very simple portraits lit exquisitely so you can see the beauty and the color, looking animals directly in the eye with no distractions, would be the way to do it.

“NG sees themselves as not only responsible stewards of the environment, but they’re in it for the long haul. I always believed that, if I could build the project up a bit, they would see the value in it. And they sure have.  Sadly, I have seen species go extinct since starting the Photo Ark. A rabbit, a fish, an insect and the Rabbs’ fringe-limbed treefrog have all gone extinct since I photographed them. It saddens me greatly, but also angers and inspires me to want to give everything I’ve got to this project, and use extinction as a wake up call. As these species go away, so could we.”

Traveling to where species are, often to remote areas, accounts for much of his time on the project.Ironically, the Photo Ark practically began in his own backyard about 12 years ago.

“The Photo Ark started when my wife got breast cancer. That event ‘grounded’ me for a year in that I literally needed to stay home and take care of my wife and kids while she got chemo and radiation. She’s fine now, and on the days that she felt better, I started going to the Lincoln Children’s Zoo, a mile from my house, to take photos. The naked mole rat at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo was the first animal to come on board the Ark.

“Since then, I have visited 40 countries and worked in more than 250 zoos, aquariums and animal rescue centers around the world to create the Photo Ark. Most of the countries I’ve visited for this project are those I’d not visited before.”

He’s already logged thousands of hours and tens of thousands of miles to photograph thousands of species, and yet he’s far from finished.

“We are a little more than halfway done after 12 years with just over 7,500 species (photographed). Because we’ll now have to travel farther and wider to get the remaining species (an estimated 5,000 more), it’ll take us another 15 years to complete. So, if I had to guess, I’d say another 30 countries or so should do it.”

When working in the wild, things can get hairy.

“Now that I’m working mainly at zoos, the work has fewer unpleasant surprises. During my 16 years on assignment in the field for National Geographic magazine, however, I had a few close calls with critters. But it’s mostly the little things I’m most wary of.”

For example, there are diseases carried by insects like the Marburg virus.

“I was quarantined three weeks for that one and didn’t get it.”

Then there’s a flesh-eating parasite called mucocutaneous leishmaniasis.

“I did get that one and the treatment is no fun at all.”

Things are less creepy-crawly today,

“These days, working in controlled environments. most of these shoots go extremely smoothly because the animals have been around people all their lives,” he said. “But sometimes the critters do ‘have their way’ with my backgrounds and sets.

“Having enough time to get to everything is the biggest challenge, but definitely doable. Thankfully, the project isn’t political and so we’re welcomed pretty much everywhere we go.”

The work holds deep personal meaning for him.

“Most animals I photograph have a real impact on me. They’re all like children to me because I’m the only voice most will ever have. It’s giving a voice to the voiceless. For many of these species, especially the small ones that live in the soil or in little streams or high up in the treetops, this will be their only chance to be heard before they go extinct. That’s a great honor, and a great responsibility, and why I’m devoting my life to this. “If I had to choose one right now though, I suppose it would be Nabire, one of the last northern white rhinos at the Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic. She was the sweetest and passed away less than two weeks after our visit of complications brought on by old age. Now the world just has three left, all in a single pen in Kenya.”

EDITOR’S NOTE:The world’s last male northern white rhino, age 45, died at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya on March 19.

Sartore, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism graduate, is now working exclusively on the Photo Ark. He’s the project’s lone photographer though it’s evolved into a family and legacy adventure.

“My oldest child, Cole, goes with me to assist on most foreign shoots and has promised to carry out the work should I not be able to complete it in my lifetime,” Sartore said.

Photo Ark strives to make a difference. One way is by raising money to save species from extinction. “In the bigger picture,” Sartore said, “we raise public awareness to the extinction crisis.” The message gets out via projections on touchstone buildings (St. Peter’s Basilica, the Empire State Building), publication in NG magazine and posts on NG social media. “The images get people to care about some of the least known animals on the planet while there’s still time to save them.”

The PBS documentary series, Rare: Portraits of the Photo Ark, provided more exposure.

Nat Geo Photo Ark EDGE Fellowship is a new initiative aimed at supporting future conservation leaders working on the planet’s most unique and endangered species. In partnership with the Zoological Society of London’s EDGE of Existence program, the fellowship will support funding and highlight creatures in the Photo Ark that historically receive little or no conservation attention.

Sartore doesn’t mince words when describing what’s at stake with endangered biodiversity and the consequences of inaction.

“We’re looking at a massive extinction event if we don’t control human behavior in a way that spares some of the largest rain forests, prairies, coastal marshes, coral reefs, et cetera. But if we can raise public awareness, and get people to care, it’s my hope there will be far fewer extinctions than predicted. It is not too late to turn this around.

“At its heart, the Photo Ark is meant to be more than just a huge archive; it’s meant to inspire the public to care about the future of all life on Earth, including our own. After all, when we save other species, we’re actually saving ourselves.”

In his travels, he encounters just enough positive developments to encourage him.

“I meet people every month who have saved species simply because they cared enough to devote time to it. That inspires me greatly and gives me plenty of hope to carry on.”

To those who pooh-pooh global warming and the damage done by ever encroaching human contact with the wild, he offers some food for thought.

“People don’t think this issue affects them, but it will in a major way in the not too distant future. Climate change, overfishing of the seas, habitat loss, clean air, clean water, good food to eat – these things are all tied together. When we save these other species, we’re actually saving ourselves. It’s my hope, my prayer, that the public wakes up, and soon. There’s still time to save the Earth, but we must act now.

“There are a million things we each can do: Insulate your home and drive a smaller car to reduce your carbon footprint. Eat less meat or no meat. Put zero, and I mean zero, chemicals on your lawn. And just how do you spend your money? Every time you break out your purse or your wallet, you’re saying to a retailer, ‘I approve of this, please do it again’. Is your money helping to tear down the world or to save it? Yes, it requires a bit of education to know right from wrong in terms of your consumer choices, but it’s so important.”

In 2019, the Lincoln Children’s Zoo will incorporate a Photo Ark show into its new exhibit space.

Even three decades into his high profile career, Sartore still has to pinch himself that it’s real, especially the part about his modern-day Noah’s ark gig.

“I still can’t believe a kid from Nebraska who dreamed of working for National Geographic is doing just that. I’m a lucky guy, to say the least.”

For more about the project, visit natgeophotoark.org. Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film screenings-discussions – “Nebraska” next on tap, Saturday, April 28

April 22, 2018 Leave a comment

 

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film screenings-discussions

“Nebraska” next on tap

Saturday, April 28

9:30 am-12:30 pm

MCC @ DoSpace

Every Nebraskan needs to see this film, not only because its title is the state’s name but because it captures on the big screen some essential truths about this place and its people that no other motion picture does.

Join me this spring for my Metropolitan Community College Continuing Education non-credit film screenings-discussions class–

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

Saturday mornings @ DoSpace

Through May 12

Register at:

http://coned.mccneb.edu/

Take this opportunity to explore the creative process of Indiewood filmmaker Alexander Payne through screenings and discussions of his more recent work. The book “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” serves as an informal guide for this appreciation of the American cinema master who calls Omaha home. Don’t be surprised if some film artists drop in to share a few things about Payne and their own cinema careers.

Optional textbook available for purchase at class for $25.95. If you register for all three remaining classes, you can purchase the book at a discount for $20.

Must be 18.

Instructor:

Leo Adam Biga

Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Remaining classes

Alexander Payne: Nebraska

Many years had passed since Payne made a film in his home state and he returned to make arguably his most artful to date, “Nebraska.” Distinguished by its fine ensemble cast, rural settings, black and white photography and Oscar-nominated script by Robert Nelson, the film follows a father-son road trip of healing and discovery. The small pic didn’t do much at the box-office but it was warmly received by those who saw it.

MCC at Do Space

Saturday, April 28

9:30am-12:30pm

Alexander Payne: Downsizing 

Payne ventured into new territory with “Downsizing,” his first big visual effects film. For it, he collaborated with a-name-above-the-title star in Matt Damon, who headed a large international cast, and re-teamed with old writing partner Jim Taylor. The late 2017 release filmed in Los Angeles, Omaha, Toronto, Norway and other spots has an original take on looming world crises.

MCC at Do Space

Saturday, May 5

9:30am-12:30pm

Alexander Payne: Recap/Looking Ahead

Few filmmakers have accumulated a body of work of such depth and quality as Payne has in two decades. He’s given us much to think about already but he may only be at the mid-point of his career, which means there’s much more to come. It’s fun to speculate on what might come next from him. We we will screen excerpts from his films to date and discuss what Payne’s work has meant to world cinema thus far and we expect to see from him in the future.

MCC at Do Space

Saturday, May 12

9:30am-12:30pm

Heartland Dreamers have their say in nation’s capitol

March 24, 2018 Leave a comment

Heartland Dreamers have their say in nation’s capitol

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Self-described social justice warrior, activist and community organizer Amor Habbab-Mills cannot sit idly by while lawmakers decide her fate as a Dreamer and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient.

With President Donald Trump’s deadline for Congress to revamp DACA unmet last fall, she organized a September 10 rally in South Omaha. Dreamers and allies gathered to show solidarity. She then shared her story in a Lincoln Journal-Star op-ed and in the locally produced documentary and play We Are Dreamers.

“It was great because people got to know a little more about our struggle,” she said.

Two weeks ago, with the March 5 deadline looming and redoubled U.S. immigration enforcement efforts placing more undocumented residents in detention, awaiting possible deportation, tensions ran high. True to her “drive to speak up against injustice,” she led a group of Nebraska Dreamers to Washington D.C. to join United We Dream demonstrations demanding Congress act to pass protections and paths for citizenship. It did not.

Thus, those affected like her remain in limbo with DACA provisions slated to end pending a new program.

She’s in the process of obtaining her Green Card.

Before she and her fellow travelers could make the trip, they had to find funds to cover air fare. United We Dream picked-up meals. She donated the hotel tab.

“We raised $1,676,” she said. “It was nice to see our community had our backs and they wanted us to go to D.C. This trip was so important to me and the local movement.”

The Omaha contingent arrived Feb. 28 and returned March 6. They were joined by activists from Centro Hispano in Columbus, Nebraska. The groups coordinated schedule to walk in a planned march.

“My goal was to be there when the Dream Act passed. I had a lot of hope the government would act on March 5 or before,” she said. “I wanted to be there to witness history happen. It did not happen. It was sad. But it was good to be there with other Dreamers. We just get each other. We know exactly what each other has been through. We all share the same heartbreak, the same roadblocks, the same fears.

“The trip opened our eyes about what’s going on in our government and how the Trump administration is pushing its racist agenda on our community.’

She won’t soon forget the experience of rubbing shoulders with thousands of kindred spirits, voicing pro-DACA chants, carrying signs with slogans, and seeing some protesters engage in acts of civil disobedience that resulted in arrest. All unfolding in front of national symbols of power, including the White House.

“It was empowering. It was a breath of fresh air and a reminder we’re not alone in the fight. it made me feel not as afraid, not as worried. It put things into perspective.

“The march was really the highlight of the visit. That’s why we went there. We walked to Capitol Hill. We had an ‘artivism’ moment where we put some paper flowers on the ground that read: ‘We Rose Unafraid.’ We wanted to beautify the word undocumented to bring attention that we’re not afraid” (and not apologetic).

“It was a great experience. It opened my eyes to how much support we actually have,” trip participant David Dominguez-Lopez said.

The local group plead their case to Nebraska Republican Congressman Don Bacon.

“We did a (peaceful) office takeover of Rep. Bacon’s office,” Habbab-Mills said. “We went there because he’s said he supports Dreamers. We appreciate that. But we don’t appreciate him supporting bills, such as the Secure and Succeed Act, that will harm our community.”

The proposed legislation seeks to secure the border, end chain migration, cancel the visa lottery and find a permanent solution for DACA tied to building a wall.

“We were there sharing our stories, chanting and asking him to not vote for the Secure Act. It’s this horrible bill that would build a stupid wall, give more money to the Department of Homeland Security so they can do raids and put more agents on the street.”

Given the Republican majority’s anti-immigration stance, Habbab-Mills is leery of promises. Distrust intensified when leaked government memos revealed discussions to use the National Guard to maintain border security

She’s concerned “more families are going to be apart” in the wake of immigration crackdowns.

“On a personal level, if my mom were to get pulled over by a cop who does not like immigrants, she faces a good chance of being deported. The fact I cannot help her, breaks my heart. Under the current political climate, we need a way to protect family members under attack.”

Another goal of the trip was “to plant the seed of social justice with the Dreamers who went,” she said, “and that’s what’s happened,” adding, “Everyone’s ready to get things going back home to stop the Secure Act.”

“it inspired me to learn more and be active in my community and to work with Amor and the rest of the ‘D.C. gang,'” said Dominguez-Lopez.

Habbab-Mills traces her own social activism to seeing disparity growing up in Mexico City and to doing Inclusive Communities camps here. She earned high marks at Duchesne Academy and Creighton University. She founded the advocacy group Nebraska Dreamers. She works as a legal assistant at a law firm and is eying law school. She hopes to practice immigration and human rights law.

Meanwhile, she amplifies Dreamer’s voices for change.

“If we’re not the ones speaking up, who else will? We want people to know we are educated and even though we cannot vote, we have the power to influence people on how they vote. Social media is huge for us.

“Bringing awareness to the issues is a way of creating change. Planting that seed will bloom into a more just society one day. I think it’s a duty to speak up when something’s not right. If i don’t, I’m part of the problem.”

Follow Nebraska Dreamers on Facebook.

Ben Kuroki: A distinguished military career by a most honorable man

March 17, 2018 1 comment

 

Ben Kuroki: A distinguished military career by a most honorable man

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons (2007)

Sergeant Ben Kuroki dreaded what awaited him.

It was 1994, World War II raged on, and the 27-year-old American serviceman was on special leave back in the States,  where he was ordered to make a speech about his wartime experiences. He felt ill-prepared to do so. After all, he grew up a poor Nebraska farm boy near Hershey. He’d had a spotty education. His school was often interrupted when his folks needed him to work the potato fields.

Kuroki had never done any public speaking unless you count a speech or two he gave in school. Now he was expected to address an audience of hundreds of well-heeled strangers, He was so intimidated, he tried getting out of it. But the U.S. War Department, which had arranged for Kuroki to speak, would not have it.

The crowd of movers and shakers belonged to San Francisco’s elite Commonwealth Club. Its members were used to hearing from power-brokers , including every U.S. president since Abraham Lincoln. Now they were about to hear from Kuroki, a skinny, young Japanese-American enlisted man at the height of America’s war with Japan. Skepticism ran high. For his part, Kuroki was plain scared and it took a lot to scare a man who has seen as much battle action as he had.

The B-24 Army Air Corps gunner had flown through the worst the German air defenses over North Africa and Europe could throw at Allied forces. A veteran of 30 bombing missions, including the famed Ploesti raid, Kuroki was already a hero. He went on to fly 28 more missions on B-29s over the Pacific.

On the eve of giving a talk before a group of fat-cats in San Francisco, he felt a new kind of fear. There was good reason for his unease. As a Japanese-American, Kuroki was widely viewed with suspicion or worse in the wake of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s ongoing bloody war with the Pacific island nation. Wartime hysteria, particularly on the west coast, resulted in hundreds of thousands of Japanese-Americans beige forcibly interned in “relocation” camps. Hostility toward anyone of Japanese ancestry was common.

Kuroki himself suffered insults and slights from the time he enlisted. Just being in the Air Corps was an anomaly. At the outset of the war, young men wanting to enlist like Ben and his kid brother, Fred, encountered roadblocks. Japanese-Americans already in uniform were kicked out. Those who got in were mustered out. denied combat assignments or shifted to the segregated 442nd Infantry Regiment that earned distinction. Kuroki was desperate to prove his loyalty to America and persisted in the face of racism and red tape.

“I had to fight like hell just for the right to fight for my own country,” he said recently from his home in Camarillo, California where he and his wife, Shige, live.

Few have faced as much to risk their life for an ungrateful nation. None of his remarkable service record, including two Distinguished Flying Crosses, would have happened if Kuroki  didn’t press his case up the chain of command: once, all the way to the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson. Stimson reversed U.S, policy that banned Japanese-Americans from seeing combat in the Pacific. As a result, Kuroki was the only Nisei to see such duty over mainland Japan.

His continuing inequality became Kuroki’s “59th mission.”

Kuroki’s singular story is told in a new documentary, Most Honorable Son, that premiered in Lincoln Aug. 1. The documentary is set to air on PBS (NET1) Sept. 17 at 8 p.m.

For filmmaker Bill Kubota, who grew up hearing his father tell of Kuroki’s visit to the camp at which he was interned, Kuroki’s story is unique.

“It’s very rare you can find one person that can carry a lot of different themes of the war with their own personal experience,” Kubota said. “He saw so many different things. It’s a remarkable story no matter who it is, but throw in the fact he’s basically the first Japanese-American war hero, and you have even more of a story.

“He’s more than a footnote in Japanese-American history. One that needs to be better understood and more heard from. It’s a unique, different story that not only Asian-Americans can relate to, but all Americans. That’s why I like this story.”

Even now, the 90-year-old Kuroki, a retired newspaper editor, asks, “Why the hell did I do it? I mean, why did I go to that extent? I was just young. I had no family, no children, or wife or anything like that. I was all gung-ho to prove my loyalty.”

One key to what Kuroki calls his “all guts, no brains” loyalty was his upbringing. His parents “pounded it into their children  to never bring shame to yourself or you family,” he says in the film. “I hated the fact I was born Japanese. I wanted to try and avenge what they (Japan) had done for causing what we considered shame.”

The tenor of the times was expressed in a newspaper headline that announced his speech as “Jap to Address S.F. Club.” That story ran next to another condemning Japanese atrocities on the Bataan Death March. Even the officer escorting Kuroki worried how the audience would react. Making the appearance even more dramatic, Kuroki was the first Japanese-American to return to the west coast since the mass evacuation.

“I realized I had a helluva responsibility,” he recalled.

Seeing the public relations windfall of a Japanese-American combat hero, the War Department put him to work winning hearts and minds by booking him on the public speaking circuit. By parading him around to civic groups and internment camps, it was hoped Kuroki’s example would reverse racist attitudes and boost Nisei recruits.

“Bivouacked” at a Santa Monica, California rest-rehab center, he gave interviews and met celebrities. Stories about him appeared in Time Magazine and the New York Times. Then came the Commonwealth gig in San Francisco. He was given a room at the Palace Hotel. An Army PR officer accompanied him. In preparation for the talk, Sgt. Bob Evans asked Kuroki to outline his experiences on paper., which Evans transformed into the moving speech Kuroki made.

“He did a terrific job,” Kuroki said of Evans’ work shaping his story.

The words Kuroki spoke that day and the heartfelt way he delivered them are said to have turned the tide of west coast public opinion on the Japanese-American question. Broadcast via radio in Calif., the speech got wide news coverage.

Here’s a sample of what he said on February 4, 1944:

“I learned more about democracy, for one thing, than you’ll find in all the books, because I saw it in action. When you live with men under combat conditions for 15 months, you begin to understand what brotherhood, equality, tolerance and unselfishness really mean. They’re no longer just words.”

He went on to recount how a crewmate caught a piece of flak in his head on a mission. The co-pilot left the cockpit to go back and give the injured man a morphine injection, but Kuroki waved him off, remembering training that taught morphine could be fatal to head injuries at high altitude. The wounded airman recovered.

“What difference did it make what a man’s ancestry was? We had a job to do and we did it with a kind of comradeship that was the finest thing.”

He described his “nearly continuous struggle” to be assigned a flight crew. How he “wanted to get into combat more than anything in the world, so I kept after it.” How he was “waging two battles, one against the Axis one against intolerance of my fellow Americans.” The prejudice he felt in basic training was so bad, he shared, “I would rather go through my bombing missions again than face it.”

Following the talk, reports refer to men crying and to a standing ovation that lasted 10 minutes. Kuroki confirmed this. Even his escort was in tears.

The reaction stunned Kuroki. He didn’t realize what it all meant until a letter from Club doyen Monroe Deutsch, a then University of California at Berkeley vice president, reached him overseas and reported what a difference the address made in tempering anti-Japanese sentiment.

Filmmaker Bill Kutoba’s research convinced him the address brought the matter “back to the forefront around the time it needed to be.”

“It helped people realize this is an issue they should think about and deal with.”

Kubota said the speech is little known to most Japanese-American scholars because the JA community was prevented from hearing the talk. Vital evidence for the profound effect is in Kuroki’s own files, not in public archives.

Before Kuroki went back overseas, he appeared at internment camps in Utah, Idaho and Wyoming, where his visits drew mixed responses: enthusiasm from idealist young Nisei wanting his autograph; and hostility from bitter older factions.

Kuroki’s ardent American patriotism and virulent anti-Japam rhetoric elicited “hissing and booing from some of those dissidents,” he says.

“Some started calling me dirty names. It got pretty bad. I didn’t take it too well. I figured I’d risked my life for the good of Japanese-Americans.”

Among the young Nisei who idolized Kuroki was Kabota’s father, a then-teenager impressed with the dashing, highly decorated aerial gunner.

“My dad regards him as a hero, which is how pre-draft age Japanees-Americans also saw him,” Kubota said.

Because of the personal tie, the film “means more to me because it means more to my father than I had earlier realized,” Kubota added.

At one time, Kuroki’s story was widely reported in newspapers, magazines, newsreels and a 1946 book, Boy from Nebraska, by Ralph Martin. Outside of Audie Murphy, Kuroki may have ended the war as the best-known enlisted man to have served.

For years afterward, Kuroki kept silent about his exploits. The humble man, like most of his generation, did not want a fuss made about events long past. He married, raised a family and worked as a newspaper publisher and editor, first with the York (Nebraska) Republican and then the Williamston (Michigan) Enterprise. He later moved to California, where he worked as an editor with the Ventura Star-Free Press.

Kuroki’s story resurfaced with WWII 50th anniversary observances in the 1990s. At the invitation of the Nebraska State Historical Society, he cut the ribbon for a new war exhibit. On the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, he was the subject of a glowing New York Times editorial. More recently, he has been feted with honors by the Nebraska Press Association an his alma mater, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. As a result of all the new-found attention, Kuroki and wife Shige have been invited guests to the White House on several occasions, most recently in May.

In 2005, Kuroki was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. He was honored again last month when the new documentary was screened at a dinner hosted by Nebraska Gov. Dave Heinemann and First Lady Sally Ganem in Lincoln.

High distinction for a man from such humble beginnings. Always, he credits his Nebraska roots for preparing him for life and duty.

“I think in the long run, I have to thank my Nebraska upbringing, my Nebraska roots, for playing a real credible role in giving me a solid foundation for patriotism. It really was a way of life. Freedom was always something really I had the best of.”

Kuroki came from a poor family of 10 children. His parents emigrated from Japan with scant schooling and speaking no English. His father, Sam, arrived in San Francisco and worked his way east on Union Pacific Railroad section crews. The sight of fertile Nebraska land was enough to make the former sash salesman stay and become a farmer.

A small Japanese enclave formed in western Nebraska. Times were hard during the Great Depression and the years of draught, but Ben enjoyed a bucolic American youth, playing sports and hunting with friends, trucking potatoes down south and returning with fresh citrus.

Though accepted by the white majority, the newcomers were always aware they were different.

“But at the same time, I never encountered racial prejudice until after Pearl Harbor,” Kurokki said.

On Dec. 7, 1941, he was in a North Platte church basement for a meeting of the Japanese-American Citizens League, a patriotic group fighting for equality at a time of heightened tensions with Japan. Mike Masaoka from the JACL national office was chairing the meeting when two men entered the hall and, without explanation, said something to Masaoka and led him outside.

“Just like that, he was gone. We were just baffled, so we just sort of scattered, and by the time we got outside the church someone had a radio and said, ‘My God, Pearl Harbor has just been bombed by the Japanese.’ That was a helluva experience for us the way we found out. It really was a traumatic day.”

They soon learned that Masaoka had been arrested by the FBI and jailed in North Platte.

“I guess all suspects, so to speak, were taken into custody,” Kuroki said,

Masaoka was soon released, but his arrest presaged the coming restrictive measures imposed on all Japanese-Americans during the conflict. As part of the crackdown, their assets, including all bank accounts, were frozen. As hysteria built on the west coast, Executive Order 9066 forced the evacuation and relocation of individuals and entire families. Homes and jobs were lost. Lives disrupted. As the Kurokis lived in the Midwest, they were spared internment.

Soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Kuroki and his brother Fred were surprised when their father urged them to volunteer for the armed services. As Kuroki recalls in the film, their father said, “This is your country, go ahead and fight for it.”

They went to the induction center in North Platte 13 miles away. They passed all the tests but kept waiting for their names to be called.

“We knew were getting the runaround then because all our friends in Hershey were going in right and left,” Kuroki said.

The brothers left the facility in frustration.

“It was about two weeks later I heard this radio broadcast that the Air Corps was taking enlistments in Grand Island, so I immediately got on the phone and asked the recruiting sergeant if our nationality was any problem. He said, ‘Hell, no, I get two bucks for everybody I sign up. Come on down.’ So we drove 150 miles and gave our pledge of allegiance.”

The Omaha World-Herald ran a picture of the brothers taking their loyalty oath.

While on the train to Sheppard Field, Texas for recruit training, the brothers got a taste of things to come. Ben Kuroki recalled how “some smart aleck said, ‘What the hell are those damn Japs doing in the Army?'” “That was the first shocker.”

Things were tense in the barracks as well.

“I’ll never forget this one loudmouth yelled out, ‘I’m going to kill myself some Japs.’ I didn’t know whether he was talking about me or the enemy and I just felt like I wanted to crawl in a hole and hide.”

At least the brothers had each other’s back. Then, without warning, Fred was transferred to a ditch-digging engineers outfit.

“My god, i feared, for my life then,” Ben said.

As Kuroki learned, it was the rare Japanese-American who got in or stuck with the Air Corps. Almost all served in the segregated 442nd Infantry Regiment that earned distinction.  The brothers corresponded a few times during the war. Fred ended up seeing action in the Battle of the Bulge.

From Sheppard Field, Ben Kuroki went to a clerical school in Logan, Colorado and then to Burksdale Field, Louisiana, where the 93rd Bomber Group made up of B-24s, was being formed. As a clerk, he got stuck on KP duty several days and nights.

“I knew damn well they were giving me the shaft, but I wasn’t about to complain because I was afraid that if I did the same thing would happen to me that happened to my brother. That I’d get kicked out of the Air Corps in a hurry.”

Kuroki took extra precautions.

“I wouldn’t dare go near one )B-24 bomber) because I was afraid somebody would think I’m going to sabotage. That’s the way it was for me for a whole year. I walked on egg shells worried if I made one wrong move, if I was right or wrong, that would be the end of my career.”

The his worst fear came to pass. Orders were cut for him to transfer out, which would ground him before he even got over enemy skies. That’s when Kuroki made the first of his pleas for a chance to serve his country in combat. He got a reprieve and went with his unit down to Fort Myers, Florida, the last stop before going to England. After three months of training, he once again faced a transfer.

“I figured if I didn’t go with them then, I’d be doing KP for the rest of my Army life. So I went in and begged with tears in my eyes to my squadron adjutant. Lt. Charles Brannan, and he said, ‘Kuroki, you’re going with us, and that’s that.’ All these decades later, I;m forever grateful because if it wasn’t for him I probably would never have gotten overseas.”

Kuroki made it to England – the great Allied staging area for the war in Europe – but he was still a long ways from getting to fly. He was still a clerk. But after the first bombing missions suffered heavy losses there were many openings on bomber crews for gunners. Not leaving it to chance, he took his cause directly to his officers.

“I begged them for a chance to become an aerial gunner and they sent me to a two-week English gunnery school. I didn’t even fire a found of ammunition.”

In late 1942, Kuroki got word his outfit was headed to North Africa and he was going with it. It took beseeching the 93rd’s commander, Ted Timberlake, whose unit came to be called “The Flying Circus,” before Kuroki got the final go-ahead. He was delighted, even though he “had practically no training.” As he would later tell an audience, “I really learned to shoot the hard way: in combat.”

Training or not, he finally felt the embrace of brother airmen around him.

“Once I got into flying missions with a regular crew and I was with my own guys, the whole world changed,” he said. “On my first mission I was just terrified by the enemy gunfire, but I suddenly found peace. I mean, for the first time I felt like I belonged. And by God we flew together as a family after that It was just unbelievable, the rapport. Of course, we all knew we’re risking our lives together and fighting to save each other’s lives.”

A crewmate dubbed Kurpki “The Most Honorable Son.” It became he nickname for their B-24.

At the time, Kuroki was reading accounts of extremists calling for all Japanese-Americans to be confined to concentration camps. Some nativists even suggested Japanese-Americans be deported to Japan after the war.

By then, Kuroki’s own battles were more with the enemy than with the military apparatus. His first action came on missions targeting the shipping lines of “The Desert Fox,” Erwin Rommel, whose Panther tank divisions had caused havoc in North Africa. Kuroki was on missions that hit multiple locations in North Africa and Italy.

Kuroki and his mates made it through more than a dozen missions without incident. Then, on a return flight in 1943, their plane ran out of fuel and made an emergency landing in Spanish Morocco. Armed Arab horsemen converged on them. The crew feared for their lives but Spanish cavalry rode to the rescue. The Spanish held the Americans more as reluctant guests than as prisoners. But Kuroki tried to escape.

“I just had to prove my loyalty,” he says in the film. He was caught. What ensued next was a limbo of bureaucratic haggling over what to do with the captured airmen. They were taken to Spain, where they were told they might sit out the rest of the war. For a time, it was welcome news for the crew, who stayed in luxurious quarters. But soon they felt they were missing out on the most momentous events of their lifetime.

Finally, the way was cleared for them to rejoin the 93rd, which soon moved to England for missions over Europe. Of all those bombing runs, the August 1, 1943 raid on Ploesti, Romania is forever burned in Kuroki’s memory. In a daylight mission, 177 B-24s came in at tree-top level against heavily fortified oil refineries deep in enemy territory. Nearly a third of the bombers failed to return. Hundreds of American lives were lost.

The legend of Kuroki grew when he reached he 25 mission rotation limit and volunteered to fly five more. His closest call came on his 30th trip, over Munster, Germany, when flak shattered he top of his plexiglass turret just as he ducked.

On an official leave home in early 1944, he was assigned a series of public appearances, including the Commonwealth Club speech that caused such a stir. The came his visits to internment camps. None of this sat too well with Kuroki.

“I felt very much used and I wasn’t cut out for that sort of thing. I got my belly full of it. I wanted to quit.”

Once back overseas, his bid for Pacific air cut was soon stalled. When Monroe Deutsch of the Commonwealth Club learned that a regulation stood in Kuroki’s way, he and others pressured top military brass to make an exception. Kuroki also prevailed upon U.S. Congressman Carl Curtis (Rep.–Neb.), who telegraphed Secretary of War Henry Stimson and Generals George Marshall and Hap Arnold. Stimson wrote a letter granting permission.

“They certainly were unusual people to go to bat for me at that time, when war hysteria was so high,” Kuroki said of the campaign waged on his behalf.

Stimson’s letter read in part: “I am now happy to inform you that by reason of his splendid record, it has been decided to except Sgt. Kuroki from the provisions of the policy.”

A fellow veteran and old friend of Kuroki’s, Carroll “Cal” Stewart, speculated it may have been the only time a GI “beat a War Department regulation during WWII.”

Even with his clearance, Kuroki still encountered resistance. Twice, federal agents tried to keep him from going on flights: once, at Kearney (Neb.) Air Base, and then again at Martha Field (Calif.), where the agents carried sidearms. Each time, he had to dig in his barracks bag to produce the Stimson letter.

“My pilot and bombardier were so damn mad because by this time they figured we were just getting harassed for nothing,” Kuroki said.

The B-29 he was assigned was dubbed “Honorable Sad Saki” in honor of Kuroki.

His crew flew out of Tinian Island, where their plane was parked next to the “Enola Gay” B-29 that would soon drop the first atomic bomb. Meanwhile, the fire bombings of Japanese cities left a horrible imprint.

While on Tinian, Kuroki could move safely about only in daylight and then only flanked by cremates, as “trigger-happy” sentries were liable to shoot anyone resembling the enemy.

After completing 58 missions unscathed, Kuroki was nearly murdered by a fellow American. When a drunken GI called him “a dirty Jap,” Kuroki started for him but was waylaid by a knife to the head. The severe cut landed him in the base hospital for the remainder of the war.

“Just a fraction of an inch deeper, and I wouldn’t be here talking,” he said. “And it probably would ever have happened if he hadn’t called me a Jap.”

As he says in the film, “That’s what my whole war was about. I didn’t want to be called a Jap. Not after all I had been through. The insults and all the things that hurt all the way back, even in recruiting.”

 

Giving a helping hand to Nebraska greats


Giving a helping hand to Nebraska greats

©story by Leo Adam Biga

©photos by Bill Sitzmann

Appears in the March-April 2018 issue of Omaha Magazine ( http://omahamagazine.com/ )

Memory-makers.

That’s what former Husker gridiron great Jerry Murtaugh calls the ex-collegiate athletes whose exploits we recall with larger-than-life nostalgia.

Mythic-like hero portrayals aside, athletes are only human. Their bodies betray them. Medical interventions and other emergencies drain resources. Not every old athlete can pay pressing bills or afford needed care. That’s where the Nebraska Greats Foundation Murtaugh began five years ago comes in. The charitable organization assists memory-makers who lettered in a sport at any of Nebraska’s 15 universities or colleges.

“All the money we generate goes into helping the memory-makers and their families,” says Murtaugh.

Its genesis goes back to Murtaugh missing a chance to help ailing ex-Husker star Andra Franklin, who died in 2006. When he learned another former NU standout, Dave Humm, was hurting, he made it his mission to help. Murtaugh got Husker coaching legend Tom Osborne to endorse the effort and write the first check.

“The foundation has been a source of financial aid to many former Huskers who are in need, but also, and maybe equally important, it has helped bind former players together in an effort to stay in touch and to serve each other. I sense a feeling of camaraderie and caring among out former players not present in many other athletic programs around the country,” Osborne says.

The foundation’s since expanded its reach to letter-winners from all Nebraska higher ed institutions.

By the start of 2018, more than $270,000 raised by the foundation went to cover the needs of 12 recipients. Three recipients subsequently died from cancer. As needed, NGF provides for the surviving spouse and children of memory-makers.

The latest and youngest grantee is also the first female recipient – Brianna Perez. The former York College All-America softball player required surgery for a knee injury suffered playing ball. Between surgery, flying to Calif. to see her ill mother, graduate school and unforeseen expenses, Perez went into debt.

“She found out about us, we reviewed her application and her bills were paid off,” NGF administrator Margie Smith says. “She cried and so did I.”

It’s hard for still proud ex-athletes to accept or ask for help, says all-time Husker hoops great Maurtice Ivy, who serves on the board. Yet they find themselves in vulnerable straits that can befall anyone. Giving back to those who gave so much, she says, “is a no-brainer.”

The hard times that visit these greats are heartbreaking. Some end up in wheelchairs, others homeless. Some die and leave family behind.

“I cry behind closed doors,” Murtaugh says. “One of the great ones we lost, a couple weeks before he passed away said, ‘All I’m asking is take care of my family.’ So, we’re doing our best. What I’m proud of is, we don’t leave them hanging. Our athlete, our brother, our sister has died and we just don’t stop there – we clear up all the medical bills the family faces. We’re there for them.”

“We become advocates, cheerleaders and sounding boards for them and their families,” Smith says. “I am excited when I write checks to pay their bills, thrilled when they make a full recovery and cry when they pass away. But we’re helping our memory makers through their time of need. Isn’t this what life is all about? “

Smith says the foundation pays forward what the athletes provided us in terms of feelings and memories.

“We all want to belong to something good. That is why the state’s collegiate sports programs are so successful.  We cheer our beloved athletes to do their best to make us feel good. We brag about the wins, cry over the losses. The outcome affects us because we feel a sense of belonging. These recipients gave their all for us. They served as role models.

“Now it’s our turn to take care of them.”

Murtaugh is sure it’s an idea whose time has come.

“Right now, I think we’re the only state that helps our former athletes,” he says. “Before I’m dead, I’m hoping every state picks up on this and helps their own because the NCAA isn’t going to help you after you’re done. We know that. And that’s what we’re here for – we need to help our own. And that’s what we’re doing.”

Monies raised go directly to creditors, not recipients.

He says two prominent athletic figures with ties to the University of Nebraska – Barry Alvarez, who played at NU and coached Wisconsin, where he’s athletic director, and Craig Bohl, who played and coached at NU, led North Dakota State to three national titles, and now coaches Wyoming – wish to start similar foundations .

Murtaugh and his board, comprised mostly of ex-athletes like himself, are actively getting the word out across the state end beyond to identify more potential recipients and raise funds to support them. He’s confident of the response.

“We’re going to have the money to help all the former athletes in the state who need our help, Athletes and fans are starting to really understand the impact they all make for these recipients. People have stepped up and donated a lot of money. A lot of people have done a lot of things for us. But we need more recipients. We have some money in the bank that needs to be used.”

Because Nebraska collegiate fan bases extend statewide and nationally, Murtaugh travels to alumni and booster groups to present about the foundation’s work. Everywhere he goes, he says, people get behind it.

“Nebraskans are the greatest fans in the country and they back their athletes in all 15 colleges and universities. It’s great to see. I’m proud to be part of this, I really am.”

Foundation fundraisers unite the state around a shared passion. A golf classic in North Platte last year featured the three Husker Heisman trophy winners – Johnny Rodgers, Mike Rozier, Eric Crouch – for an event that raised $40,000. Another golf outing is planned for July in Kearney that will once more feature the Heisman trio.

Murtaugh envisions future events across the state so fans can rub shoulders with living legends and help memory-makers with their needs.

He sees it as one big “family” coming together “to help our own.”

Visit nebraskagreatsfoundation.org.

The State of Volleyball: How Nebraska Became the Epicenter of American Volleyball

January 21, 2018 1 comment

The State of VolleyballHow Nebraska Became the Epicenter of American Volleyball

©by Leo Adam Biga

©Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Originally published in Jan-Feb 2018 issue of Omaha Magazine


For generations, football gave Nebraska a statewide identity. But with Husker gridiron fortunes flagging, volleyball is the new signature sport with booming participation and success.

Here and nationally, more girls now play volleyball than basketball (according to the National Federation of State High School Associations).

“It’s the main or premier sport for women right now,” Doane University coach Gwen Egbert says.

Omaha has become a volleyball showcase. The city hosted NCAA Division I Finals in 2006, 2008, and 2015, with the Cornhuskers competing on all three occasions (winning the national title in 2006 and 2015).

Packed crowds at the CenturyLink Center will once again welcome the nation’s top teams when Omaha hosts the championships in 2020. Meanwhile, Creighton University is emerging as another major volleyball powerhouse, and the University of Nebraska-Omaha has made strides in the Mavericks’ first two years of full Division I eligibility since joining the Summit Conference.

In the 2017 NCAA tournament, Creighton advanced to the second round (but fell to Michigan State). As this edition of Omaha Magazine went to press, the Cornhuskers headed to regionals in hopeful pursuit of a fifth national championship.

“The fact Nebraska has done and drawn so well, and that kids are seeing the sport at a high level at a young age, gets people excited to play,” says Husker legend Karen Dahlgren Schonewise, who coaches for Nebraska Elite club volleyball and Duchesne Academy in Omaha.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln first reached a national title game with Schonewise in 1986. The dominant defensive player set Nebraska’s career record for solo blocks (132)—a record that still stands—before going on to play professionally. (The Cornhuskers didn’t win the national championship until 1995.)

“I think the amount of kids that play in Nebraska is No. 1, per capita, in the country. I think the level of play is far higher than many states in the country,” says Omaha Skutt Catholic coach Renee Saunders, whose star freshman, 6-foot-3 Lindsay Krause, is a UNL verbal commit.

Volleyball’s attraction starts with plentiful scholarships, top-flight coaching, TV coverage, and professional playing opportunities.

Few states match the fan support found here.

“We have probably the most educated fans in the nation,” Saunders says. “They’re a great fan base. They know how to support their teams, and they’re very embracing of volleyball in general.”

The lack of physical contact appeals to some girls. The frequent team huddles after rallies draw others.

Omaha Northwest High School coach Shannon Walker says “the camaraderie” is huge. You really have to work together as a unit, communicate, and be six people moving within a tiny space.”

Volleyball’s hold is rural and urban in a state that has produced All-Americans, national champions, and Olympians.

The Husker program has been elite since the 1980s. Its architect, former UNL coach Terry Pettit, planted the seeds that grew this second-to-none volleyball culture.

“He really spearheaded a grassroots effort to build the sport,” says Creighton coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth. “Besides winning, he also worked diligently to train our high school coaches.”

“It’s important to realize this goes back many years,” former Husker (2009-2012) Gina Mancuso says, “and I think a lot of credit goes to Terry Pettit. He created such an awesome program with high standards and expectations.”

Pettit products like Gwen Egbert have carried those winning ways to coaching successful club and high school programs and working area camps. Egbert built a dynasty at Papillion-LaVista South before going to Doane. Several Papio South players have excelled as Huskers (the Rolzen twins, Kelly Hunter, etc.).

 

Their paths inspired future Husker Lindsay Krause.

“Seeing the success is a big motivation to want to play,” Krause says. “Just watching all the success everyone has in this state makes you feel like it’s all the more possible for you to be able to do that.”

Many top former players go on to coach here, and most remain even after they achieve great success.

Walker says quality coaches don’t leave because “it’s the hotbed of volleyball—they’re staying here and growing home talent now.”

“It’s us colleges that reap the benefits,” Bernthal Booth says.

Pettit says it’s a matter of “success breeds success.”

Schonewise agrees, saying, “Once you see success, others want to try it and do it and more programs become successful.”

“The standard is high and people want to be at that high level. They don’t want to be mediocre,” UNO coach Rose Shires says.

Wayne State, Kearney, Hastings, and Bellevue all boast top small college programs. In 2017, Doane was the first Nebraska National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics program to record 1,000 wins.

“We’ve got great Division I, Division II, NAIA, and junior college volleyball programs,” says Bernthal Booth, who took the Creighton job in part due to the area’s rich talent base. She feels CU’s breakout success coincided with the 2008 opening of D.J. Sokol Arena, which she considers among the nation’s best volleyball facilities.

“All these colleges in Nebraska are in the top 25 in their respective divisions,” Saunders says. “It’s crazy how high the level of play has gone, and I think it’s going to keep going that way.”

“It’s really built a great fan base of support,” Mancuso says, “and I think the reason the state produces a lot of great volleyball players is the fact we have great high school coaches, great college programs, and great club programs.”

Club programs are talent pipelines. There are far more today than even a decade ago. Their explosion has meant youth getting involved at younger ages and training/playing year-round. Nebraska Elite is building a new facility to accommodate all the action.

“The athleticism found in the state has always been pretty high, but the level of play has definitely improved. The kids playing today are more skilled. The game is faster,” Egbert says. “When I started out, you’d maybe have one or two really good players, and now you could have a whole team of really good players.”

“You have your pick of dozens of clubs, and a lot of those clubs compete at the USA national qualifiers and get their players that exposure,” says Shannon Walker, the Northwest High School coach who is also the director of the Omaha Starlings volleyball club.

“Volleyball is such a joy to be a part of in this state,” Mancuso says.

“It’s cool to be a part of everything going on in Nebraska and watching it grow and develop,” Skutt freshman phenom Krause says.

“My goal is to make Lindsay ready to play top-level Division I volleyball by the time she graduates here,” Saunders says. “She already has the physicality, the competitive edge, the smarts. Now it’s just getting her to play to her full potential, which she hasn’t had to yet because she’s always been bigger than everybody. She’s definitely not shy of challenges. I feel like every time I give her a challenge, she steps up and delivers.”

Krause values that Saunders “gives great feedback on things I have to fix.”

Native Nebraskans dot the rosters of in-state and out-of-state programs. Along with Krause, Elkhorn South freshman Rylee Gray—who holds scholarship offers from Nebraska and Creighton—may emerge as another next big name from the Omaha metro. But they are both still a few years from the collegiate level.

UNO’s Shires says “impassioned” coaches like Saunders are why volleyball is rooted and embraced here. Shires came to Omaha from Texas to join the dominant program Janice Kruger built for the Mavericks at the Division II level. Kruger, now head coach at the University of Maryland, was previously captain of the Cornhuskers’ team (1977).

Further enhancing the volleyball culture, Shires says, is having former Olympian Jordan Larson and current pro Gina Mancuso come back and work with local players. Mancuso’s pro career has taken her around the world. She wants the players she works with at UNO, where she’s an assistant, to “see where it can take them.”

As volleyball has taken off, it’s grown more diverse. Most clubs are suburban-based and priced beyond the means of many inner-city families. The Omaha Starlings provide an alternative option. “Our fees are significantly lower than everybody else’s,” says Walker, the club’s director and Northwestern’s coach. “Anybody that can’t afford to pay, we scholarship.”

Broadening volleyball’s reach, she says, “is so necessary. As a result, we do have a pretty diverse group of kids. I’ve had so many really talented athletes and great kids who would have never been able to afford other clubs. We’re trying to even the scale and offer that same experience to kids who have the interest and the ability but just can’t afford it.”

“It’s very exciting to see diversity in the sport—it’s been a long time coming,” Schonewise says.

Forty-five Starlings have earned scholarships, some to historically black colleges and universities. Star grad Samara West (Omaha North) ended up at Iowa State.

Starlings have figured prominently in Omaha Northwest’s rise from also-ran to contender. Eight of nine varsity players in 2017 played for the club.

Walker knew volleyball had big potential, yet it’s exceeded her expectations. She says while competition is fierce among Nebraska coaches and players, they share a love that finds them, when not competing against each other, cheering on their fellows in this ever-growing volleyball family/community.

“It’s awesome,” Walker says. “But I don’t think we’ve come anywhere close to reaching our peak yet.”

 

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