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Life Itself III: Twenty-plus years of New Horizons stories about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions

April 20, 2018 Leave a comment

Life Itself III: Twenty-plus years of New Horizons stories about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions

©by Leo Adam Biga

Author-Journalist-Blogger

John Knicely

A Broadcast Journalism Career Five Decades Strong

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/02/26/john-knicely-a-l…e-decades-strong/

Charlene Butts Ligon

Her Mother’s Daughter

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/01/28/her-mothers-daug…lyn-thomas-butts

Dundee Theater

Cinema Revival for the Ages

https://leoadambiga.com/2017/10/28/dundee-theater-r…ent-for-the-ages/

Syed Mohiuddin

A Tri-Faith Pillar

https://leoadambiga.com/2017/09/01/syed-mohiuddin-a…tiative-in-omaha/

Brenda Council

A Public Servant’s Life

https://leoadambiga.com/2017/06/26/brenda-council-a…ic-servants-life

Bud Shaw

Voyager

https://leoadambiga.com/2017/04/20/voyager-bud-shaw…-scalpel-for-pen/

Tom Gouttierre

An American’s Afghanistan Odyssey

https://leoadambiga.com/2017/02/21/love-affair-with…-like-few-others/

Camille Metoyer Moten

Songstress

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/12/26/camille-metoyer-…ong-in-her-heart/

Tom Osborne

Still Going Strong

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/10/27/living-legend-to…me-of-life-at-79/ 

Ron Hansen

Literary Star Revisits the Old West

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/08/25/literary-star-ro…ew-novel-the-kid/

Paul Johnsgard

Birdman

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/06/24/paul-johnsgard-a…ad-less-traveled/

John Beasley

Living His Dream

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/04/22/john-beasley-living-his-dream/

Lew Hunter

Hollywood Success Story

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/02/25/lew-hunters-smal…story-is-a-doozy/

Bob and Connie Spittler

Creative Couple

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/12/23/bob-and-connie-s…rs-in-the-making/

Father Ken Vavrina

Crossing Bridges

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/10/29/father-ken-vavri…e-serving-others/

Carol Rogers

Singer’s Life Comes Full Circle

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/08/28/life-comes-full-…ger-carol-rogers

David Corbin and Josie Metal-Corbin

Moving Right Along

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/07/03/moving-right-alo…wn-in-retirement/

Paul Williams

Still Alive and Making Music

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/05/01/paul-williams-al…usic-again-at-74

Sam Walker

Social Justice Warrior

https://leoadambiga.com/2014/05/30/justice-champion…it-as-he-sees-it/

Tom Mangelsen

Natural Imagery

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/01/30/natural-imagery-…-comes-back-home/

Gene Hayes

North’s Star

https://leoadambiga.com/2014/12/02/norths-star-gene…orth-high-school/

Vic Gutman and Roberta Wilhelm

A Community-Engaged Couple

https://leoadambiga.com/2014/09/29/alone-or-togethe…to-the-community/

Linda Meigs

The Artist in the Mill

https://leoadambiga.com/2014/08/01/linda-meigs-brin…at-florence-mill/ 

Jim Trebbien

Culinary Artist

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/03/02/culinary-artist-…ommunity-college/

Michael Kelly

Decades of Deadlines

https://leoadambiga.com/2014/04/02/omaha-world-hera…-for-all-seasons/

John and Liz Backus

Upon this Rock, Husband and Wife Pastor Team Shepherds North Omaha Flock

https://leoadambiga.com/2014/02/02/upon-this-rock-h…trinity-lutheran/

Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska”

Movie Laden with Senior Themes and Cast

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/11/30/alexander-paynes…ith-many-viewers

Minne Lusa House

Coffee and Community

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/09/27/minne-lusa-house…on-and-community/

Terrence Crawford and Midge Minor

In Each Other’s Corner

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/07/30/in-his-corner-mi…nce-bud-crawford/

Brenda Allen

Country Western Saga – Nebraska to Vietnam to Vegas

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/06/01/brenda-allens-re…vietnam-to-vegas/ 

Eileen Wirth

Female Journalist Recounts Nebraska Women in Journalism

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/03/22/ex-reporter-eile…ge-to-front-page/

Shirley Jones

Star Recalls “Carousel”

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/05/01/shirley-jones-in…ning-of-carousel/

Susie Baer Collins and Carl Beck

Matched Set Exiting Stage Left

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/02/28/matched-set-susa…munity-playhouse/

Bob Hoig

Newsman, Publisher, Flyer

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/01/25/bob-hoigs-uninte…cades-strong-now/

Theresa Glass Union

Parenting the Second Time Around

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/11/25/parenting-the-se…uts-family-first/

Jose and Linda Garcia

Building Community Through Art

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/09/30/community-builde…-culture-history/

Ben and Freddie Gray

North Omaha Power Couple

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/13/gray-matters-ben…hways-to-success/

Bill Cosby

On His Own Terms

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/05/11/bill-cosby-on-his-own-terms/

Linda Lovgren

PR Pioneer

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/03/26/linda-lovgrens-s…f-fame-induction/

Mary Mitchell

Timeless Fashion

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/01/07/timeless-fashion…k-and-exhibition

Nancy Kirk

Fabric and Faith

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/10/21/nancy-kirk-arts-…erfaith-champion/

Howard Silber

Globe-trotter

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/10/06/retired-omaha-wo…nt-globe-trotter/

Mike Denney

Requiem for a Wrestling Dynasty

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/07/28/requiem-for-a-dy…ville-university/

Anne Marie Kenney

Life is a Cabaret

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/05/28/life-is-a-cabare…-omaha-with-love/

Harvey Perlman

University Leader

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/04/02/chancellor-harve…s-in-the-big-ten

Dean Blais

Coach has UNO Hockey Dreaming Big

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/01/29/dean-blais-has-u…key-dreaming-big

Lucile Schaaf

An Old Market Original

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/11/28/luciles-old-market/

Debbie Reynolds

Hollywood Legend Remembers “Singin’ in the Rain”

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/10/31/hollywood-legend…d-at-nov-5-event

Gary Kastrick

South Omaha History Man

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/10/03/gary-kastricks-p…es-its-home-base

Patrick Drickey

Golf Shots

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/05/golf-shots-pat-d…eat-golf-courses/

Dick Holland

Giving to those in Need

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/06/04/dick-holland-res…g-needs-in-omaha/

William Kloefkorn

Man of His Words

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/07/07/a-man-of-his-wor…illiam-kloefkorn/

Teela Mickles

Nurturing One Lost Soul at a Time

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/06/29/nurturing-one-lo…-back-to-society/

Jim Suttle

Omaha Mayor

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/04/jim-suttle-feels…as-omaha’s-mayor/

Click Westin 

Back in the Screenwriting Game

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/07/11/click-westin-bac…-again-at-age-83/

Bill Sprague and Marcia Hinkle

50 Years Making Music with the Omaha Symphony

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/03/marcia-hinkle-an…iversary-players/

John Sorensen

Rediscovering the Abbott Sisters

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/04/26/10/

Connie Spellman

Designing Woman

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/12/13/designing-woman-…-omaha-by-design

Mike Saklar

Whatsoever You Do to the Least of My Brothers

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/01/whatsoever-you-d…t-you-do-unto-me/

Lela Knox Shanks

Activist-Advocate

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/04/one-day-at-a-tim…alcoholics-story/

Isabella Threlkeld

Art for Life

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/04/isabella-threlke…an-uncommon-life

Jim Ramirez

South Omaha Champion

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/01/jim-ramirez-a-man-of-the-people/

Michael Voorhies

Bone Hunter

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/02/the-bone-hunter/

Catherine Ferguson

Artist Stretches Herself

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/01/artist-catherine…-aida-and-beyond/

Mike Green and Dick Davis

Lifetime Friends, Former Backfield Mates, Now Entrepreneurs

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/08/20/lifetime-friends…-black-citizenry/

Ron Hull

A Magical Journey in Public Television

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/07/11/ron-hull’s-magic…ublic-television/

Ron Stander

Still Fighting for Friends in Need

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/31/ron-stander-stil…-friends-in-need/ß

Ben Kuroki

Most Honorable Son

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/03/17/ben-kuroki-a-dis…st-honorable-man/

Jo Ann McDowell

Love of Theater Leads to Major Conference

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/05/24/jo-ann-mcdowells…ls-and-conferenc/

Dick Cavett

Homecoming is Sweet for Nebraska Legend

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/12/04/homecoming-is-al…ed-in-nebraska-2/

Black Women in Music

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/07/11/black-women-in-music/

George Pfeifer and Tom Krehbiel

A Good Deal at Boys Town

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/31/a-good-deal-geor…-boys-town-hoops/

Buck O’Neil

Negro Leagues Icon

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/08/27/buck-o’neil-and-…lack-perspective

Roger Welsch

Author-Folklorist Mines the American Soul

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/19/author-humorist-…he-american-soul/

Marguerita Washington

Guiding an Omaha Star that Never Sets

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/02/marguerita-washi…-that-never-sets/

Ted Kooser

Keeper of the Flame

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/19/keeper-of-the-fl…inner-ted-kooser/

Everett Reynolds

Civil Rights Champion

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/06/05/rev-everett-reyn…ctivist-preacher/

Edith Buis

A Life Immersed in Art

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/06/11/eddith-buis-a-life-immersed-in-art

Tuskegee Airmen of Omaha

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/18/the-tuskegee-airmen/

Nancy Bounds

Omaha Arbiter of Poise, Beauty, Grace

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/02/04/nancy-bounds-a-t…ty-glamour-poise

John and Pegge Hlavacek

A Couple’s Foreign Correspondent Adventures

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/02/john-and-pegge-h…n-correspondents/

Harley Cooper 

The Best Boxer You’ve Never Heard Of

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/05/harley-cooper-th…e-never-heard-of/

Dick Boyd

Scrooged

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/12/24/dick-boyd-found-…-christmas-carol/ 

Blacks of Distinction II

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/04/01/blacks-of-distinction-ii/

Elaine Jabenis

Theater-Fashion Maven

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/04/theater-fashion-…n-elaine-jabenis/

Senior Men of Medicine 

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/02/men-of-science/

Don Benning

Man of Steel

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/07/17/don-benning-man-…ots-of-greatness/

“West Side Story”

American Movie Musical Classic

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/08/15/west-side-story-…american-classic/

A Family’s Odyssey with Alzhemier’s 

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/07/11/ill-be-seeing-yo…alzheimers-story/ 

Evie Zysman

A Force of Nature

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/16/a-force-of-natur…e-advocate-at-99/

Carole Woods Harris

Breaking Barriers

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/04/17/carole-woods-har…ess-and-politics/

Mary Galligan-Cornett

One Helluva Broad

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/06/09/one-helluva-broa…galligan-cornett/

Peace Corps Veterans

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/18/a-peace-corps-retrospective/

Saturday Night Bingo Brigade

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/07/11/the-saturday-night-bingo-brigade/

Ritz Cab Company Remembered 

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/18/puttin-on-the-ritz/ 

Ballroom Dancing

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/12/10/gotta-dance-seni…of-staying-young/

Joan Micklin Silver

Filmmaker Paved Path for Women Directors

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/10/10/joan-micklin-sil…-women-directors

Blacks of Distinction I

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/07/11/blacks-of-distinction/

John H

Finding Recovery in AA

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/04/one-day-at-a-tim…alcoholics-story

Bill Ramsey

A Korean War Story

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/26/a-korean-war-story-2/

Nancy Duncan

Storyteller

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/02/nancy-duncan-storyteller/

Omaha Community Playhouse at 75

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/04/the-show-goes-on

Charles Bryant

Man on Fire, Soul on Ice

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/12/09/soul-on-ice-man-…ots-of-greatness/

Charles Jones

Looking Homeward

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/03/looking-homeward/

Contemplative Sisters of the Good Shepherd

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/07/11/contemplative-compassion/

Tom Lovgren

A Good Man to Have in Your Corner

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/03/tom-lovgren-a-go…e-in-your-corner/

Chuck Powell

A Berlin Airlift Story

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/18/a-berlin-airlift-story/

Florence Young

Enchanted Life of this Daughter of a Whirling Dervish

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/12/10/the-enchanted-li…whirling-dervish/

Warren Francke

Reporter-turned-educator

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/06/11/from-the-archive…eaching-and-life/  

Bea Karp

Holocaust Survivor

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/03/15/bea-karp-holocau…painful-memories/

Omaha Stockyards

Last Days and Halcyon Times Remembered

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/02/the-last-days-an…yards-remembered

Donovan Ketzler

Last of the Rough Riders

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/18/last-of-the-rough-riders/

Bob and Roberta Rogers

Art Missionaries at Gallery 72

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/19/art-missionaries/

Omaha’s Sweet 16

WWII Service in the All-Black Quarternaster Corps

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/04/30/omahas-sweet-six…master-battalion/

Magnificent Obsession of Art Storz

The Old Man and the Mansion

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/15/the-magnificent-…-and-the-mansion/

Bob Gibson

Master of the Mound

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/07/18/bob-gibson-the-m…from-the-diamond/

Preston Love Sr.

Bittersweet Jazz Stylings of Mr. Saturday Night

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/03/mr-saturday-night

Kenny Wingo and Dutch Gladfelter

Heart and Soul of the Downtown Boxing Club

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/06/24/heart-and-soul-k…town-boxing-club/

Patricia Neal

Unforgettable Actress

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/09/06/unforgettable-patricia-neal/

Bob Boozer

Basketball Immortal

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/14/bob-boozer-basketball-immortal/

Myers Family Funeral Home Legacy

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/07/11/the-myers-legacy…ng-and-community/

Maude Wangberg

Easter Sunday Tornado Survivor Performed in Vaudeville

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/02/in-her-101-years…hirl-of-splendor/

When Boys Town Became the Center of the Film World

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/31/when-boys-town-b…f-the-film-world/

Fight Doctor Jack Lewis

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/08/20/omahas-fight-doc…al-golden-gloves/

King Kong 

Bringing Back the Old Ballyhoo with Classic Film Revival

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/12/03/bringing-back-cl…carpet-treatment

Helen Jones Woods

Swinging with International Sweethearts of Rhythm: Now Wasn’t That a Time?

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/04/29/17

 

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When New Horizons dawned for African-Americans seeking homes in Omaha

January 17, 2013 11 comments

The following story  explores one of the first intentional interracial housing developments in Omaha and perhaps anywhere in the Midwest or the nation as a whole.  The suburban New Horizons addition was created in the 1960s as a sanctuary free of the red lining practices and restrictive housing covenants that relegated blacks to specific, designated, and confining areas to live.  Blacks found no barriers to build or rent or move into New Horizons, where their neighbors might be black or white. This social action or experiment largely worked, too, though decades later the neighborhood has lost the diversity it once had and is now mostly white.  This story is very personal to me. You see, my late life partner, Joslen Johnson Shaw, grew up in New Horizons.  She was African American,  Her parents, George and Juanita Johnson, built there in 1969 and were among the first residents in the neighborhood, black or white. The Johnsons were barrier breakers in more ways than this.  They didn’t let racism or discrimination stand in the way of their aspirations.  Before moving to New Horizons Joslen accoompanied her folks to open houses and saw with her own eyes as realtors and homeowners shunned and ignored them.  As Joslen’s mother, Juanita, put it, “It was if we were invisible.”  My primary source for the story is Juanita, who still lives in New Horizons.  Joslen and I bought a home of our own in New Horizons several years ago.  It’s just around the corner from Juanita’s place.  I’m sitting in my office in that home as I type and post this.  The other main source is Joslen’s brother, Marty.  I wrote the story for them and in memory of Joslen and her late father, George.

 

 

Image result for When New Horizons dawned for African Americans in Omaha www.thereader

 

 

When New Horizons dawned for African-Americans seeking homes in Omaha

For The Reader (www.thereader.com)

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

It took the civil rights movement to bring segregation in the United States into sharp relief. The South was the epicenter of the racial equality battle but American-style apartheid as well as attempts to dismantle it were everywhere, including Nebraska.

Omaha prides itself on hospitality yet African Americans here could not always live or or work or play or attend school where they wanted through the 1960s. In response to housing and work discrimination, for example, protest marches, sit-ins and other advocacy efforts organized.

With homeowners, realtors and banks discouraging blacks from white neighborhoods, it took extraordinary measures for blacks to integrate some sections of the city. One remedy was the creation of a new subdivision, appropriately named New Horizons, located on the then-western outskirts of the city, just off 108th Street between Dodge and Blondo and just north of Old Mill. The backs of the western-most homes abut 108th Street and the easternmost residences face 105th Street. Homes also extend from Nicholas Street on the north to Burt Street on the south. The interracial developers designed the new addition as an integrated neighborhood open to all. By all accounts their vision was fulfilled.

Situated in what was then-countryside New Horizons was established in 1965 and the first houses were built soon after on the tiered land. Corn fields stretched south, west and east of this built-from-the-ground-up neighborhood only a stone’s throw away from small working farms and stables. The two major east-west thoroughfares in the area, Dodge and Blondo, were two lanes each then.

 

 

10761 Izard St, Omaha, NE 68114

New Horizons neighborhood

 

 

This story chronicles the experiences of some past and present residents of this mixed race community, including what precipitated their moving there. They don’t necessarily view New Horizons as having been a social action or social experiment but that’s exactly what it was. It was revolutionary for the time, especially by Omaha standards, where even hometown icon and Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Bob Gibson was frustrated in his attempts to move into the neighborhood of his choice. If he couldn’t find satisfaction, then every day people like George and Juanita Johnson stood little chance.

In the mid-1960s the Johnsons were a college-educated, two-income married couple on an upwardly mobile track, but neither their names nor their positions gave them any influence to change that era’s prevailing discrimination. He was a Benson High art teacher. She was a North High math instructor and guidance counselor. They’d recently started a family and next sought buying a new, larger home near a park and good schools.

The North Omaha residents had built a house at 38th and Bedford but having outgrown it they set their sights on moving to wherever they could find their dream home. As African Americans, however, their aspirational pursuits, like those of countless other persons of color, were blocked.

It was a time when blacks were routinely subjected to unfair housing practices, some subtle, others blatant, that effectively confined them to living in a small geographic area. Regardless of means, if you were black in Omaha then you had little choice but to live, as the Johnsons did, in the area bounded by Cuming Street on the south, Ames Avenue on the north, 40th Street on the west and 16th Street on the east. The northeast inner city became the black “ghetto.” Getting out of it required a migration not alike that of blacks migrating from the Deep South.

In many ways Omaha’s de facto segregation was as pernicious and long lasting as any on the books in the South, resulting in a divided city that clearly demarcated the Near Northside as Black Omaha. Red lining real estate tactics, discriminatory banking practices, restrictive housing covenants and unfair hiring standards made it difficult if not impossible for blacks to live and work in many parts of their own city, denied and discouraged simply due to the color of their skin.

Though blacks live everywhere in the metro today, Omaha’s geographic segregation persists – with most blacks in Omaha still residing in North Omaha – in part due to the lasting imprint of the housing discrimination that once ruled the day.

Better opportunities in education, employment and housing slowly emerged in response to equal rights pleas, marches, mandates, laws and court rulings.

“Things were just beginning to open up with schools and jobs and activities in Omaha but you had to look for them. You know, you would see pictures in the paper of things happening, of activities that should have been open to everyone, but because of restrictive housing they really weren’t,” says Juanita Johnson.

She says an entire apparatus or conspiracy of bigoted hearts kept white areas off limits to blacks. Realtors and others acted as overseers in steering blacks to all black enclaves or to undesirable neighborhoods deemed ready for integration.

“We contacted some realtors and they showed us some places north. They told us we could be blockbusters and open up some new neighborhoods,” Johnson recalls. “The realtors decided which areas were going to integrate and which areas weren’t. They would watch the housing trends and determine, ‘We’ll let this block go now.” But the neighborhoods they were offering to us didn’t show much potential, they didn’t look like they were going to stay good working neighborhoods, they didn’t look like they were stable. There were several for rent signs on properties.”

 

 

 

Juanita Johnson today

 

 

She’s sure some realtors she and her late husband George dealt with were merely “going through the motions” to placate them.  “They just showed us places that we would not have been interested in anyway – houses that were too small for what we wanted. We didn’t want a place that would have other houses six feet on either side. We wanted to find a house or build a house on a good-sized lot that had room for yard and play space for kids.”

Even though the Johnsons were eager and prepared to buy, it was as if their money was no good and their wishes didn’t matter. The more they looked for a home and were turned away the more incredulous they grew.

“We went to several open houses and at some of them it was as if we were invisible,” Johnson says. “I mean, they would greet people in front of us, they would greet people that were coming in behind us and it was just as if we weren’t there. I really can’t say there was anything (racial) said, it was more or less as if we were invisible walking through the places. We just thought they were stupid to behave in this way and we laughed at them.”

The Johnsons experienced the same frustration in their desire for a better life that the fictional Younger family encountered in Lorraine Hansberry‘s A Raisin in the Sun. Though the Youngers meet much resistance in the story, they eventually fulfill their goal of moving out of the inner city tenement they rent into a suburban home of their own. That play’s powerful dramatization, later adapted to the screen, made quite an impact on blacks facing the same issues in real life.

“I think that helped to motivate a lot of us in that it appeared to be possible and that this could happen to us as individuals,” says Johnson.

But there were societal-cultural roadblocks to achieving that dream. Being shunned, ignored and disrespected the way the Johnsons and so many of their black peers were elicited hard feelings in some, discouraged others and in the case of the Johnsons, motivated them even more.

The fact that we had been looking for a place and were just tired of running into barriers,” Johnson says, is what made the prospect of building a home in New Horizons “so attractive.” She says New Horizons represented a balancing-the-scales effort at “an integrated community of middle to upscale housing that was out far enough from the main part of the city that people wouldn’t say we were living in the ghetto – that we were in a suburban house just like anyone else.”

Moving to a racially blended suburb also promised a diversity fast disappearing in northeast Omaha, where white flight left the area predominantly African American. The suburbs also meant access to better performing schools.

“We wanted to be in a situation where we could have the best for our children, the best opportunities, and we wanted them to be exposed to the cultural advantages I knew other children were being exposed to,” she says. “We wanted our kids to have the opportunities to participate in whatever they were really interested in doing and not be kept out or let in because they were black. We knew we wanted an opportunity for the kids to have a really integrated education.”

 

Juanita, Joslen and George Johnson a few years before moving to New Horizons

 

 

Enter New Horizons. Its late developers were prominent Omaha veterinarian, Dr. A.B. Pittman, architect Golden Zenon and architect-civil engineer J.Z. Jizba. Pittman and Zenon were African American and Jizba was white.

For Pittman, New Horizons was an expression of a commitment to helping his own people realize their dreams and to bridging the divide between people of different races and creeds. He was president of the Omaha branches of the National Urban League and the National Council of Christians and Jews.

“My father was always concerned about getting people better housing,” says his daughter Antoinette “Toni” Pittman. “He was on the board of the Urban League Housing Foundation (now Family Housing Advisory Services), the Omaha Planning Board and the Omaha Housing Authority. Even before New Horizons he was involved in a housing development around 27th and Hamilton that the North Freeway took out. He was just concerned with people bettering themselves. He just did it, he didn’t talk about it.”

Pittman struck a personal blow for equal housing by buying a home at 97th and Dodge. In order to avoid potential obstacles or opposition he had a proxy buy it for him and then hand over the deed, explains his daughter, who grew up there. She says hers was the only black family there and fortunately they met no resistance.

 

Dr. A.B. Pittman

 

 

The Johnsons were friends with the Pittmans through the northeast Omaha Episcopal church they both attended, St. Philip’s.

“Probably George and A.B. and Zinnon had been talking about this and it just seemed it was available at the right time and we were in the right position to make that decision and build there. We were looking at getting settled before any more time went by,” says Johnson.

The Johnsons moved into their newly built split-level home in the spring of 1969. Their late daughter, Joslen Johnson Shaw, was 9 at the time and their son Marty 4.

She says finally getting into the house they’d so long sought brought a mix of feelings, including relief.

“We were just real anxious to get settled in what we knew was going to be our permanent home.”

Another black family there with the same surname, though no relation, felt the same sense of accomplishment.

“I remember the day we moved in there my father standing in front of the house and being so proud,” says Glenda Johnson Moore, whose parents Walter and Bernice Johnson had weathered the same frustrations George and Juanita did in seeking a new home. “Who would have ever thought my father would have moved in that neighborhood? That was unheard of. It was great. I mean, it was a big thing.”

It was enough of a newsworthy event that the Omaha World-Herald did a story.

For the most part, New Horizons lived up to its promise, with a nearly 50-50 split of blacks and whites at the start. A Hispanic family also became early residents there.

“It worked out fine,” says Juanita Johnson, who adds that the neighborhood association and occasional neighborhood picnics enjoyed nearly even black and white participation. Her best friends there were black and white. She suspects most if not all the whites who moved into New Horizons were not looking to make any kind of social statement about diversity.

“I think they were people that really didn’t care, they were just looking for housing.”

That was true of Corinne Murphy and her late husband William, who built their home in 1970 directly north of George and Juanita’s. Though the Murphys knew about the open integration policy it didn’t factor one way or the other in their decision. “We were just looking for a place where they were building houses and this happened to be one of the places they were building them,” says Corrine. “I just liked the neighborhood. It had a nice park. There weren’t too many people yet.”

She says the idea of living in a racially mixed neighborhood “didn’t bother us” and that, if anything, she admired her new black neighbors, most of whom were professionals. “They were a lot smarter and better off than I was. They all had good paying jobs and were well educated. I got along with them all.”

She says her five kids became fast friends with the black kids in the neighborhood.

“Marty Johnson and my son Rory were very good friends. There was a time when they were walking home from school and kids were picking on Marty and my Rory just got right in the middle of that argument with those kids and made sure he got home OK. Yeah, they were best friends, they really liked each other. They still do.”

Marty says neither the white kids he befriended there nor their parents ever betrayed any hint of racism.

“I was always up at their houses playing and their parents were always very friendly and welcoming to me, and they’d always come down and play at our house.”

Whatever sport was in season, he says, neighborhood kids would join in playing it, older kids, young kids, black kids, white kids.

“Looking back on it now somebody driving by having no idea what this neighborhood was about would probably be really surprised to see all these kids of different colors playing together. It was probably very unique. I look back at it and I think, ‘Oh wow,’ it was probably pretty groundbreaking.”

Lee Valley, an adjacent neighborhood built around the same time as New Horizons, stood in sharp contrast because it lacked any diversity. The Horizons kids would occasionally challenge the Valley kids to a game of football or baseball and the marked difference in their makeup was hard to ignore.

“We were this totally mixed group of kids playing these white kids,” Marty says.

The area school Marty and Joslen attended, Edison, was all white until the Johnson siblings and some of their fellow black Horizons neighbors attended there. Marty says he never ran into racism in the neighborhood but did at school.

Glenda Johnson Moore also had a hard time adjusting to otherwise all white schools but her Horizons experience wasn’t all peaches and cream.

“The people that lived across the street from us were extremely racist,” she says. “We were called names. It got better eventually but you felt it, you absolutely you felt it. It was uncomfortable for a long time.”

Overall, she’s grateful to have grown up there.

“I’m glad I had the diversity. It’s made me a stronger person, it’s made me who I am today. I can communicate to anybody. It was a good place, it was a good thing.”

Juanita Johnson says she wanted her kids to have the enrichment that comes from diverse experiences because her “progressive” parents wanted the same for her. Her father Saybert Hanger was one of the area’s first black attorneys and a federal meat inspector. Her mother Ione Hanger was an elementary school teacher in the Omaha Public Schools and later taught at Creighton University. Johnson says her parents wanted full opportunities for all kids “and I was fortunate enough that they pushed and encouraged me to break barriers.”

At Omaha Central High, circa 1945, Juanita was the only black student on the year book and school newspaper staffs. She received her master’s from Creighton University at a time when few blacks attended there. At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s  International House she resided with students from around the world and she attended interracial camps that attracted students from the four corners.

Similarly, her husband cultivated black and white friends growing up in Marshalltown, Iowa and he integrated Wayne State (Neb.) College.

It’s not coincidental both Marty and Joslen involved themselves in activities, including her showing horses, that meant interacting mainly with whites. Joslen integrated Brownell-Talbot School. Many of their friends were white. Each ended up with a white life partner.

Marty says, “I think my well-rounded life is because my parents were always exposing me to different things. They really were pioneers in a lot of different things. This was the pattern of their life –  breaking barriers. If there was a barrier they certainly eliminated it. They were groundbreaking and cool and somewhat courageous, too.”

His mother says all of it was meant to foster a time when “I didn’t want my children to have to look at the things they were doing as being barrier breakers. If they wanted to try out for something they could just go ahead and try and either be good enough to be accepted that every other child was accepted or refused because they weren’t good enough, but not because of their color.”

Juanita and George were also intentional about keeping their family’s ties to Omaha’s traditional African American community alive. For example, they continued attending their home parish, St. Philips, whose congregation was entirely black. Marty took music lessons from an instructor in northeast Omaha. Joslen was active in Jack and Jill, a social club designed to reconnect young blacks dispersed when their families moved from the Near Northside.

Marty says he appreciates “all that my parents exposed us to and always giving us opportunities. I feel very fortunate they made the choices they made. It’s pretty amazing to me how forward thinking they were.”

Juanita Johnson still lives in New Horizons and her next door neighbor is still Corinne Murphy. The neighborhood is not nearly as diverse as it once was and the homes show their age, but it’s held its own. Many old-line black residents have moved or died off and few new blacks have moved in. Johnson attributes the paucity of blacks there to the fact they have so many more options today. That was the whole point of New Horizons anyway – freedom to live where you want.

Now the metro’s replete with diverse neighborhoods just like New Horizons used to be and may be again.

 

Nancy Duncan: Storyteller

August 2, 2010 Leave a comment

Woman reading

Image by National Media Museum via Flickr

I wrote several articles about the late storyteller Nancy Duncan. Eventually they will all find their way onto this site.  There is one other currently on the blog.  That piece is entitled “Her Final Story,” and was written when a quite weak Duncan faced her final days with terminal cancer.  From the time she was diagnosed with cancer and on through the many rounds of treatments and surgeries she endured over years, she used storytelling as a means of coping with and making sense of her experience.  The story offered here was written when she was a breast cancer survivor and still full of energy. Through it all though, she never lost her warmth or spirit or her passion, and that is what I always tried to convey about her when I profiled her.  The other thing she inspired me to do was to try and find the right words to describe the art of storytelling and to explain why it was and remains a primal form of communication that we all need for our nourishment.  My search for those words made me a better writer.  Being around Nancy made me a better person.

Nancy Duncan: Storyteller

©by Leo Adam Biga

This article originally appeared in the New Horizons

 

WANTED:  Storyteller.  Must possess engaging personality, commanding voice, malleable face and ability to relate well with people of all ages.  Active imagination a plus. Large repertoire of stories advised.  Previous storytelling experience preferred, but not required.  Some traveling involved. Hours and fees negotiable.

No, the ad is not real, but the description is true enough.  For proof, just catch Omaha storyteller Nancy Duncan in action. That is if you can find her before she hits the road again with her bag full of tales.  A seasoned performer, Duncan inhabits a story in such a way that it spills out in animated spasms of sound, expression, posture and gesture.  She is as quiet as a whisper or as loud as a shout. As still as a mountain or as antsy as a mouse.  Her rubber face bends.  Her supple body contorts.  Her attentive eyes dart.  Her sonic voice booms.  She is whatever the story calls for:  firebrand pioneer, wily coyote, grizzled witch, fearsome wind, bubbling brook, puff of smoke or, more and more, simply herself.

Duncan left a successful theater career behind to join the professional storyteller ranks in 1987.  Since devoting herself full time to spinning yarns, she has developed a kind of fervor for her calling only true converts possess.  For her, storytelling is more than a trade, it is a way of being and a means of sorting out the world.  As she will tell you, this ancient oral tradition still has the power to hold us enthralled amid today’s digital revolution.  Using only the force of her voice and her charisma, she tells stories that variously amuse, inform, heal and enlighten.  Since beginning a battle with breast cancer in March, Duncan, 63, has made storytelling part of her therapeutic regimen and survival strategy.

While she did not discover storytelling as a personal artistic medium until the mid-1980s, she says, “I’ve been a storyteller all my life.  I was a huge liar as a kid.”  From the very start, the former Nancy Kimmel was immersed in stories told by her father, Harley, and maternal grandmother, Emma.  “My grandmother shared a bedroom with me from the time I was 5 until I was 16.  She was great.  She’d smoke a pipe and tell stories.  She loved the B’rer Rabbitt stories and could do them with a great dialect.  And my father was a great storyteller.  He liked to perform the story.”

When she moved with her family from the suburbs of Illinois to the backwoods of Georgia (Buford), she found a ripe landscape for her fertile imagination and boundless energy.  She and her playmates organized “safaris” where they roughed-it like natives in the wild.  Their only close-call came when moonshiners ran them off.  As an imaginative child, she wore different identities like so many hats.  “I was a leopard woman for a whole summer.  My friend and I made ourselves leopard suits and claws.  We would hide in bushes and jump out and scare our friends,” she recalled.  She was a fine athlete too, whether scaling hills or playing hoops.  Despite her dramatic gifts, when forced to choose between acting in school plays or competing on the school team, she opted for the court over the stage.

With the intent of curbing Nancy’s rambunctious ways and turning her into a proper young lady, her mother sent her to private art and elocution lessons.  But Nancy chafed at any attempts to make her a debutante.  She would much rather have been tomboying it outdoors with friends.  By the time she graduated high school her father had fallen ill and she reluctantly left home to attend Agnes Scott College, a private women’s school in Atlanta.  Not long after completing her first year there, her father died.  She missed his stories.  After grieving, she blossomed in college, majoring in English and minoring in art and theater.  She then embarked on being a writer, even completing a fellowship at the famed University of Iowa Writers Workshop, before turning her attention to the theater and earning a master of fine arts degree in Iowa City.

It was there she fell in love with one Harry Duncan, a renowned fine book printer and instructor 20 years her senior.  She learned typography from him.  She also fell in love with him.  And he with her.  Student and teacher married in 1960. Despite skepticism from family and friends about their marriage surviving such an age difference, the union worked.  The couple enjoyed 37 years as husband and wife and raised three children together.  Harry died in 1997 from the effects of leukemia and colon cancer.

 

 

Harry Duncan

 

 

What made the relationship click?  “The secret of our marriage and our lives is that we both found ways to do what we loved to do and would have done anyway if we didn’t have to work.  It had to do with living our dream and not letting anything get in the way of that.  Harry was a master printer, poet, editor, designer.  He was devoted to his work.  We sometimes had to drag him away to go on a vacation.”

After leaving academia behind, Nancy taught theater and directed stage productions at a small Iowa Quaker School. Then, in 1973, she joined the Omaha Community Playhouse staff as associate director.  She left the Playhouse in 1976 to serve as artistic director and later as executive director of the Omaha Children’s Theater (now the Omaha Theater Co. for Young People), which she helped grow into one of the nation’s largest and most respected arts organizations of its kind.  Burned-out by the demands of keeping a theater afloat, she turned to storytelling, a medium she had dabbled with a few years, as her new vocation.

Drawing on her theater background, her early storytelling was character-based and performance-driven.  Her large catalog of stories — some original and some borrowed — include the collections Why the Chicken Crossed the RoadGood Old Crunchy Stories and Nebraska ‘49, which chronicles the true-life adventures of pioneer women.  Her most popular incarnation, Baba Yaga, is a grouch of a witch with a golden heart.  The old hag has become a sensation with school-age audiences, although some fundamentalist Christian groups concerned about the character have boycotted Duncan and even banned her from performing.

Since becoming a storyteller Duncan has often worked as an artist-in-residence in schools via the Nebraska Arts Council. She is currently one of only 225 artists participating in the national arts residency initiative of the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation.  Her telling takes her on wide-ranging tours across the country (she recently returned from performing at the National Storytelling Conference in Kingsport, Tenn.).  In 1999 the National Storytelling Network presented her with a Leadership Award for her work promoting the art in the North-Central region.  She is also a board member with OOPS, the Omaha Organization for Professional Storytelling, a storytelling instructor at various colleges and universities the coordinator of the annual Nebraska Storytelling Festival.

She has seen the 15-year-old Nebraska festival grow amid a general storytelling revival in America inspired by the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tenn.  Duncan said there is a demand for these public storytelling forums because people hunger to hear stories.  “We all love stories.  We seem to be wired to the narrative form.  It used to be everybody told stories.  Today, people miss the stories in their lives.  It may be they grew up when we didn’t have all these machines do our work and we didn’t have television sap up our time and instead we gathered on our big front porches in the evening to tell stories.  Some people never had it in their lives and miss it because they know television is not giving them the stories they want to hear.  They want to be present in the story — to recognize themselves — because stories celebrate who we are.  They validate us.  It’s like identity maintenance.”

As a creative artist, she naturally feels compelled to explore and express in her work whatever is going on in her life. Lately, that has meant examining her cancer. At a recent telling before a group of prospective medical students she struck up a quick rapport with the audience through her open, honest demeanor and her disarmingly whimsical humor.  More than a creative outlet, her cancer stories function both as a coping mechanism for herself and as a forum for others about the risks of the disease and the forbearance of patients like herself.  In a recent interview at her handsome, sun-drenched home in central Omaha, Duncan described how her experience with cancer is changing her.

“Breast cancer is transformational.  I can feel already changes happening in me because of this, and it’s all based in community.  There’s a huge community of people out there who’ve had cancer and because they’ve lived through this they have a relationship other people don’t have,” said Duncan, who, once she was diagnosed, informed friends around the world about her illness and, in turn, received supportive messages about their survival or the survival of their friends and loved ones.  “That’s a pretty amazing group of people.”  Duncan plans on joining a cancer support group as soon as her summer touring season ends.  “I plan to get in one because I believe in efficacy within your own community — of people healing themselves and healing each other through their communications.”

 

Image result for nancy duncan story

    Image result for nancy duncan story

 

According to Duncan, confronting problems through stories can be curative:  “It’s a very healing process because as we turn our own experiences, including very negative ones, into stories and share those with other people, they share back and their comments shape the way we feel about our lives and a community is created. As we story, we heal the situation or solve the problem.  It’s very healthy.”

She feels sharing the details of her story, including the mastectomy she underwent March 21 and the loss of hair she has endured during chemotherapy treatments, is her way of fighting the sense of denial and defeat still accorded subjects like cancer.  “We need not to hide the fact this is happening.  If we hide the fact we have cancer in order to be normal again we’re denying who we are.  We’re also making it easier for others to get it because we’re doing nothing to prevent it.  That’s why I have decided I’m not going to wear a wig and I’m not going to wear a prosthesis.  Part of who I am is going to be a person who’s had breast cancer and who wants to tell stories about it.  I hope my actions draw attention to the fact there is breast cancer in the world and that we need to do something to cure it.  Moreover, we need to prevent it.  Hiding it, to me, says the opposite.  That it doesn’t exist.  Instead, we need to let women know, You have a job to do.”

She said her anecdotal research reveals many women still do not do not know how to self-examine themselves or are afraid to.  Why?  “They don’t want to know.  It’s maddening.  They’re cutting their own throat.”  She admits she has become something of a militant in the war on cancer.  “There is an epidemic of cancer.   Over and over again I keep hear people saying, ‘Well, we don’t know what causes it.’  I don’t believe that.  I think we do know — we’re just denying that too — and so we’re writing death sentences for ourselves and for our children.  It makes me kind of fiery.”  Her decision to go wigless and to refuse surgical and/or cosmetic measures takes some people aback.  “It’s threatening.  That’s problematic for me because I don’t want to knock anybody’s choices.  Women have the right to make their own choices.  But at the same time I think denial is a dangerous habit of women.  Too often, we deny the depth of what’s happening in our lives and ignore ways to change things for the better.”

In the process of describing her journey with cancer, her mission is to get people to look at the illness in a new way and thereby keep it from being a taboo subject shrouded in fear and morbidity.  It is why she uses humor to discuss it and to defuse certain attitudes about it.  “I want my stories to be very funny.  When you have cancer there are all sorts of tricks your body plays on you.  Losing a breast is tragic, but it’s also very funny.  For example, without having any breast on my right side I realized that anything I tried eating that missed my mouth had a straight shot to the floor.  Before, it didn’t.  I always wondered before why there were more crumbs under my husband’s chair than mine.  Guys have been keeping that a secret for a long time,” she said with her big wide smile and full-throttle laugh.

“And being able to wash your hair with a washrag is really wonderful,” she added, her hand sweeping back the few brown wisps on her head.  “I’m not sure I’m ever going to let my hair grow long again.  Also, the whole notion it might come back in red is very appealing to me.  These are just little ways of looking at things that make them fun, rather than threatening.

She said storytelling is a perfect means for the teller and audience to explore together personal issues that are universally identifiable.  Unlike a lecture where the speaker imparts a rigid message to a passive audience, storytelling is an organic, communal, interactive form of communication.  And unlike reading from a text, storytelling springs from the recesses of the teller.  Said Duncan, “If you’re holding up a book and reading from it you are not present in the same way you are telling a story.  You’re just processing words and your personality doesn’t come through in the same way it does in storytelling, where who the teller is and how they feel at any moment is in what they’re telling.  You can’t separate the teller from the story.  That’s why there’s such a wide variety of tellers.”  Storytelling works best, she said, when a spellbinding teller invites rapt listeners to shape the story to their own ends.  It then becomes an individual and shared experience in one.

“You don’t tell stories into the wind.  You tell stories to people,” she said. “Because storytelling is a live process, a story is not frozen.  It’s like jazz — it’s still living and being shaped — and the storyteller navigates the story with the audience and changes it depending on what they get back from that audience.  The audience makes the story in their minds.  They create all the pictures to go with the words, and they get those pictures from their own lives.  So, by the end of the evening you have as many different versions of the story as you do people in the room because each person has co-made their own part of the story.  And when that happens, it’s very powerful and bonding.  It’s like going on a journey together to a different place.  It’s sometimes deliciously entertaining and funny.  It’s sometimes spiritually intriguing and challenging.  It’s sometimes moving and bereft with all the memories that get brought to the story.”

When a teller connects with an audience, she said, it is hypnotic.  “There are certain stories that take you so deep into an emotion or an event that they are trance-inducing.  The audience goes off with you.  You can see it in the way the story flows across their faces.  Their eyes lock-in and their jaws go slack.  It’s as though they are dreaming.”

Duncan said the more emotionally honest a story, the more resonance it carries. For a residency in a Fremont alternative school last year she asked a group of wary students to listen to personal stories told by adult mentors.  To their surprise, she said, “the kids were wiped out by the stories.”  Students then had to tell the stories back and find a personal link to their own lives.  “This time, the adults were in tears.  The kids and adults realized they had a real human connection.  They wanted to know each other better,” she said.

This Pied Piper for storytelling has encouraged several other tellers.  Among them is her daughter, Lucy, a professional storyteller in her own right, and granddaughters, Louise and Beatrice, with whom Nancy regularly swaps tales.  “My grandkids are always asking for stories.  They’re steeped already in the personal stories and in the more fanciful stories.  I have a story I’m working on now that is all about them and their relationship with me.  It’s kind of a grandmother story.” Duncan hopes many of the stories she values will be taken-up by her grandkids and told by them.

“My goal is that one of them will be telling those stories at a festival somewhere.  I’m trying to pass that love of story onto them.”  She feels senior citizens have an obligation to be storytellers, but finds too many isolated from this traditional familial-societal role.  “It’s a great loss to our society when seniors are separated and devalued.  They have a responsibility to pass on knowledge and they have a need to be validated,” she said.  Whether told at a fireside, a bedside or a festival, she said stories tap a deep well of shared human experience.  “Storytelling is the best-kept secret in the world.  It’s not just for children.  It’s for anyone.  We all have valuable stories to share.”

So far, Duncan has not allowed her illness to limit her busy, independent lifestyle.  She said friends and family urge her to take it easy.

“They keep saying, ‘You need to slow down, to stop, to rest’  I haven’t quite accepted that yet.  I tend to listen more to what the holistic medicine people say, which is — do what you want to do…do what makes you happy.”  At a recent telling about her cancer, she said, “Now, this story…doesn’t have an ending.  Not yet.  I don’t know if I’ll truly know the meaning of this experience.  But I have learned many things.  One of them is, you cannot lose something without getting something else back.  You don’t get back the same thing you lost, but you get back something that might be better.  For example, I may not be a grandmother with a great shelf of busom, but there are other kinds of shelves.  There’s the comforting shelf of story.”

A force of nature named Evie: Still a maverick social justice advocate at 100


Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother," a...

Image via Wikipedia

Spend even a little while with Evie Zysman, as I did, and she will leave an impression on you with her intelligence and passion and commitment.  I wrote this story for the New Horizons, a publication of the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging. We profile dynamic seniors in its pages, and if there’s ever been anyone to overturn outmoded ideas of older individuals being out of touch or all used up, Evie is the one. She is more vital than most people half or a third her age.  I believe you will be as struck by her and her story as I was, and as I continue to be.

A force of nature named Evie:

Still a maverick social justice advocate at 100

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

 

When 100-year-old maverick social activist, children’s advocate and force of nature Evelyn “Evie” Adler Zysman recalls her early years as a social worker back East, she remembers, “as if it were yesterday,” coming upon a foster care nightmare.

It was the 1930s, and the former Evie Adler was pursuing her graduate degree from Columbia University’s New York School of Social Work. As part of her training, Zysman, a Jew, handled Jewish family cases.

“I went to a very nice little home in Queens,” she said from her art-filled Dundee neighborhood residence. “A woman came to the door with a 6-year-old boy. She said, ‘Would you like to see his room?’ and I said, ‘I’d love to.’ We go in, and it’s a nice little room with no bed. Then the woman excuses herself for a minute, and the kid says to me, ‘Would you like to see where I sleep?’ I said, ‘Sure, honey.’ He took me to the head of the basement stairs. There was no light. We walked down in the dark and over in a corner was an old cot. He said, ‘This is where I sleep.’ Then he held out his hand and says, ‘A bee could sting me, and I wouldn’t cry.’

“I knew right then no child should be born into a living hell. We got him out of that house very fast and got her off the list of foster mothers. That was one of the experiences that said to me: Kids are important, their lives are important, they need our help.”

Evie Zysman

Imbued with an undying zeal to make a difference in people’s lives, especially children’s lives, Evie threw herself into her work. Even now, at an age when most of her contemporaries are dead or retired, she remains committed to doing good works and supporting good causes.

Consistent with her belief that children need protection, she spent much of her first 50 years as a licensed social worker, making the rounds among welfare, foster care and single-parent families. True to her conviction that all laborers deserve a decent wage and safe work spaces, she fought for workers’ rights as an organized union leader. Acting on her belief in early childhood education, she helped start a project that opened day care centers in low income areas long before Head Start got off the ground; and she co-founded, with her late husband, Jack Zysman, Playtime Equipment Co., which sold quality early childhood education supplies.

Evie developed her keen social consciousness during one of the greatest eras of need in this country — the Great Depression. The youngest of eight children born to Jacob and Lizzie Adler, she grew up in a caring family that encouraged her to heed her own mind and go her own way but to always have an open heart.

“Mama raised seven daughters as different as night and day and as close as you could possibly get,” she said. “Mama said to us, ‘Each of you is pretty good, but together you are much better. Remember girls: Shoulder to shoulder.’ That was our slogan. And then, to each one of us she would say, ‘Don’t look to your sister — be yourself.’ It was taken for granted each one of us would be ourselves and do something. We loved each other and accepted the fact each one of us had our own lives to live. That was great.”

Even though her European immigrant parents had limited formal education, they encouraged their offspring to appreciate the finer things, including music and reading.

“Papa was a scholar in the Talmud and the Torah. People would come and consult him. My mother couldn’t read or write English but she had a profound respect for education. She would put us girls on the streetcar to go to the library. How can you live without books? Our home was filled with music, too. My sister Bessie played the piano and played it very well. My sister Marie played the violin, something she did professionally at the Loyal Hotel. My sister Mamie sang. We would always be having these concerts in our house and my father would run around opening the windows so the neighbors could also enjoy.”

Then there was the example set by her parents. Jacob brought home crates filled with produce from the wholesale fruit and vegetable stand he ran in the Old Market and often shared the bounty with neighbors. One wintry day Lizzie was about to fetch Evie’s older siblings from school, lest they be lost in a mounting snowstorm, when, according to Evie, the family’s black maid intervened, saying, “You’re not going — you’re staying right here. I’ll bring the children.’ Mama said, ‘You can go, but my coat around you,’ and draped her coat over her. You see, we cared about things. We grew up in a home in which it was taken for granted you had a responsibility for the world around you. There was no question about it.”

Along with the avowed obligation she felt to make the world a better place, came a profound sense of citizenship. She proudly recalls the first time she was old enough to exercise her voting right.

“I will always remember walking into that booth and writing on the ballot and feeling like I am making a difference. If only kids today could have that feeling when it comes to voting,” said Evie, a lifelong Democrat who was an ardent supporter of FDR and his New Deal. When it comes to politics, she’s more than a bystander — she actively campaigns for candidates. She’ll be happy with either Obama or Clinton in the White House.

When it came time to choose a career path, young Evie simply assumed it would be in an arena helping people.

“I was supposed to, somehow,” is how she sums it up all these years later. “I believed, and I still believe, that to take responsibility as a citizen, you must give. You must be active.”

For her, it was inconceivable one would not be socially or politically active in an era filled with defining human events — from millions losing their savings and jobs in the wake of the stock market crash to World War I veterans marching in the streets for relief to unions agitating for workers’ rights to a resurgence of Ku Klux Klan terror to America’s growing isolationism to the stirrings of Fascism at home and abroad. All of this, she said, “got me interested in politics and in keeping my eyes open to what was going on around me. It was a very telling time.”

Unless you were there, it’s difficult to grasp just how devastating the Depression was to countless people’s pocketbooks and psyches.

“It’s so hard for you younger generations to understand” she told a young visitor to her house. “You have never lived in a time of need in this country.” Unfortunately, she added, the disparity “between rich and poor” in America only seems to widen as the years go by.

With her feisty I-want-to-change-the-world spirit, Evie, an Omaha Central High School graduate, would not be deterred from furthering her formal education and, despite meager finances, became the first member of her family to attend college. Because her family could not afford to send her there, she found other means of support via scholarships from the League of Women Voters and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where the Phi Betta Kappa earned her bachelor’s degree.

“I knew that for me to go to college, I had to find a way to go. I had to find work, I had to find scholarships. Nothing came easy economically.”

To help pay her own way, she held a job in the stocking department at Gold’s Department store in downtown Lincoln. An incident she overhead there brought into sharp relief for her the classism that divides America. “

One day, a woman with a little poodle under her arm came over to a water fountain in the back of the store and let her dog drink from it. Well, the floorwalker came running over and said, ‘Madam, that fountain is for people,’ and the woman said, ‘I’m so sorry, I thought it was for the employees.’ That’s an absolutely true story and it tells you where my politics come from and why I care about the world around me and I want to do something about it.”

Her undergraduate studies focused on economics. “I was concerned I should understand how to make a living,” she said. “That was important.” Her understanding of hard times was not just of the at-arms-length, ivory-tower variety. She got a taste of what it was like to struggle when, while still an undergrad, she was befriended by the Lincoln YWCA’s then-director who arranged for Evie to participate in internships that offered a glimpse into how “the other half lived.” Evie worked in blue collar jobs marked by hot, dark, close work spaces.

“She thought it was important for me to have these kind of experiences and so she got me to go do these projects. One, when I was a sophomore, took me in the summer to Chicago, where I worked as a folder in a laundry and lived in a working girls’ rooming house. There was no air conditioning in that factory. And then, between my junior and senior years, I went to New York City, where I worked in a garment factory. I was supposed to be the ‘do-it’ girl — get somebody coffee if they wanted it or give them thread if they needed it, and so forth.

“The workers in our factory were making some rich woman a beautiful dress. They asked me to get a certain thread. And being already socially conscious, I thought, ‘I’ll fix her,’ and I gave them the wrong thread,” a laughing Evie recalled, still delighted at the thought of tweaking the nose of that unknown social maven.

Upon graduating with honors from UNL she set her sights on a master’s degree. First, however, she confronted misogyny and bigotry in the figure of the economics department chairman.

“He said to me, ‘Well, Evelyn, you’re entitled to a graduate fellowship at Berkeley but, you know, you’re a woman and you are a Jew, so what would you possibly do with your graduate degree when you complete it?’ Well, today, you’d sue him if he ever dared say that.”

Instead of letting discrimination stop her, the indomitable Evie carried-on and searched for a fellowship from another source. She found it, too, from the Jewish School of Social Work in New York.

“It was a lot of money, so I took it,” she said. “I had my ethic courses with the Jewish School and my technical courses with Columbia,” where she completed her master’s in 1932.

As her thesis subject she chose the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, one of whose New York factories she worked in. There was a strike on at the time and she interviewed scores of unemployed union members who told her just how difficult it was feeding a family on the dole and how agonizing it was waking-up each morning only to wonder — How are we going to get by? and When am I ever going to work again?

As a social worker she saw many disturbing things — from bad working conditions to child endangerment cases to families struggling to survive on scarce resources. She witnessed enough misery, she said, “that I became free choice long before there was such a phrase.”

Her passion for the job was great but as she became “deeply involved” in the United Social Service Employees Union, she put her first career aside to assume the presidency of the New York chapter.

“I could do even more for people, like getting them decent wages, than I could in social work.” Among the union’s accomplishments during her tenure as president, she said, was helping “guarantee social workers were qualified and paid fairly. You had to pay enough in order to get qualified people. We felt if you, as social workers, were going to make decisions impacting people’s lives, you better be qualified to do it.”

Feeling she’d done all she could as union head, she returned to the social work field. While working for a Jewish Federation agency in New York, she was given the task of interviewing Jewish refugees who had escaped growing Nazi persecution in Germany and neighboring countries. Her job was to place new arrivals with the appropriate state social service departments that could best meet their needs. Her conversations with emigres revealed a sense of relief for having escaped but an even greater worry for their loved ones back home.

“They expressed deep, deep concern and deep, deep sadness and fear about what was going on over there,” she said, “and anxiety about what would happen to their family members that remained over there. They worried too about themselves — about how they would make it here in this country.”

A desire to help others was not the only passion stoked in Evie during those ”wonderful” New York years. She met her future husband there while still a grad student. Dashing Jack Zysman, an athletic New York native, had recently completed his master’s in American history from New York University. One day, Evie went to some office to retrieve data she needed on the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, when she met Jack, who was doing research in the very same office. Sharing similar interests and backgrounds, the two struck up a dialogue and before long they were chums.

The only hitch was that Evie was engaged to “a nice Jewish boy in Omaha.” During a break from her studies, she returned home to sort things out. One day, she was playing tennis at Miller Park when she looked across the green and there stood Jack. “He drove from New York to tell me I was definitely coming back and that I was not to marry anybody but him.” Swept off her feet, she broke off her engagement and promised Jack she would be his.

After their marriage, the couple worked and resided in New York, where she pursued union and social work activities and he taught and coached at a high school. Their only child, John, today a political science professor at Cal-Berkeley, was born in New York. Evie has two grandchildren by John and his wife.

Along the way, Evie became a New Yorker at heart. “I loved that city,” she said. Her small family “lived all over the place,” including the Village, Chelsea and Harlem. As painful as it was to leave, the Zysmans decided Omaha was better suited for raising John and, so, the family moved here shortly after World War II.

Soon the couple began Playtime Equipment, their early childhood education supply company. The genesis for Playtime grew out of Evie’s own curiosity and concern about the educational value of play materials she found at the day care John attended. When the day care’s staff asked her to “help us know what to do,” she rolled up her sleeves and went to work.

She called on experts in New York, including children’s authors, day care managers and educators. When she sought a play equipment manufacturer’s advice, she got a surprise when the rep said, “Why don’t you start a company and supply kids with the right stuff?” It was not what she planned, but she and Jack ran with the idea, forming and operating Playtime right from their home. The company distributed everything from books, games and puzzles to blocks and tinker toys to arts and crafts to playground apparatus to teaching aids. The Zysmans’ main customers were schools and day cares, but parents also sought them out.

“I helped raise half the kids in Omaha,” Evie said.

 

 

 

The Zysman residence became a magnet for state and public education officials, who came to rely on Evie as an early childhood education proponent and catalyst. She began forming coalitions among social service, education and legislative leaders to address the early childhood education gap. A major initiative in that effort was Project AID, a program she helped organize that set-up preschools at black churches in Omaha to boost impoverished children’s development. She said the success of the project helped convince state legislators to make kindergarten a legal requirement and played a role in Nebraska being selected as one of the first states to receive the federal government’s Head Start program.

Gay McTate, an Omaha social worker and close friend of Zysman’s, said, “Evie’s genius lay in her willingness to do something about problems and her capacity to bring together and inspire people who could make a difference.”

Evie immersed herself in many more efforts to improve the lives of children, including helping form the Council for Children’s Services and the Coordinated Childcare Project, clearinghouses geared to meeting at-risk children’s needs.

The welfare of children remains such a passion of hers that she still gets mad when she thinks about the “miserable salaries” early childhood educators make and how state budget cuts adversely impact kids’ programs.

“Everybody agrees today the future of our country depends on educating our children. So, what do we do about it? We cut the budgets. Don’t get me started…” she said, visibly upset at the idea.

Besides children, she has worked with such organizations as the United Way, the Urban League, the League of Women Voters, the Jewish Council of Women, Hadassah and the local social action group Omaha Together One Community.

In her nearly century of living, she’s seen America make “lots of progress” in the area of social justice, but feels “we have a long way to go. I worry about the future of this country.”

Calling herself “a good secular Jew,” she eschews attending services and instead trusts her conscience to “tell me what’s right and wrong. I don’t see how you can call yourself a good Jew and not be a social activist.” Even today, she continues working for a better community by participating in Benchmark, a National Council of Jewish Women initiative to raise awareness and discussion about court appointments and by organizing a Temple Israel Synagogue Mitzvah (Hebrew, for good deed) that staffs library summer reading programs with volunteers.

Her good deeds have won her numerous awards, most recently the D.J.’s Hero Award from the Salvation Army and Temple Israel’s Tikkun Olam (Hebrew, for repairing the world) Social Justice Award.

She’s outlived Jack and her siblings, yet her days remain rich in love and life. “I play bridge. I get my New York Times every day. I have my books (she is a regular at the Sorenson Library branch). I’ve got friends. I have my son and daughter-in-law. I have my grandchild. What else do you need? It’s been a very full life.”

As she nears a century of living Evie knows the fight for social justice is a never-ending struggle she can still shine a light on.

“How would I define social justice?” she said at an Omaha event honoring her. “You know, it’s silly to try to put a name to realizing that everybody should have the same rights as you. There is no name for it. It’s just being human…it’s being Jewish. There’s no name for it. Give a name to my mother who couldn’t read or write but thought that you should do for each other.”

The Smooth Jazz Stylings of Mr. Saturday Night, Preston Love Sr.

June 3, 2010 2 comments

 

An unforgettable person came into my life in the late 1990s in the form of the late Preston Love Sr. He was an old-line jazz and blues player and band leader who was the self-appointed historian and protector of a musical legacy, his own and that of other African American musicians, that he felt did not receive its full due.  Love was a live-life-to-its-fullest, larger-than-life figure whose way with words almost matched his musicianship.  As I began reporting on aspects of Omaha’s African American community, he became a valuable source for me. He led me to some fascinating individuals and stories, including his good friend Billy Melton, who in turn became my good friend. But there was no one else who could compare to Preston and his irrepressible spirit.

 

 

 

 

I ended up writing five stories about Preston.  The one that follows is probably my favorite of the bunch, at least in terms of it capturing the essence of the man as I came to know him.  The piece originally appeared in the New Horizons.  Aspects of this piece and another that I wrote for The Reader, which you can also find on this site, ended up informing a profile on Preston I did for a now defunct national magazine, American Visions.  Links to that American Visions story can still be found on The Web.  I fondly remember how touched I was listening to the rhapsodic praise Preston had for my writing in messages he left on my answering machine after the first few stories were published. After basking in his praise I would call him back to thank him, and he would go off again on a riff of adulation that boosted my ego to no end.

I believe he responded so strongly to my work because I really did get him and his story.  Also, I really captured his voice and pesonality.  And this man who craved validation and recognition appreciated my giving him his due.

Near the end of his life Preston hired me to write some PR copy for a new CD release, and I approached the job as I would writing an article.  I’ve posted that, too.

The last story I wrote about Preston was bittersweet because it was an in memoriam piece written shortly after his death. It was a chance to put this complex man and his singular career in perspective one more time as a kind of tribute to him.  A few years after his death I got to interview and write about a daughter of his he had out of wedlock, Laura Love, who is a fine musician herself. Her story can also be found on this site.

The Smooth Jazz Stylings of Mr. Saturday Night, Preston Love Sr.,

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

An early January evening at the Bistro finds diners luxuriating in the richly textured tone and sweetly bended notes of flutist-saxophonist Preston Love, Sr., the eternal Omaha hipster who headlines with his band at the Old Market supper club Friday and Saturday nights.

By eleven, the crowd’s thinned out, but the 75-year-old Love jams on, holding the night owls there with his masterful playing and magnetic personality.  His tight four-piece ensemble expertly interprets classic jazz, swing and blues tunes Love helped immortalize as a Golden Era lead alto sax player and band leader.

Love lives for moments like these, when his band really grooves and the crowd really digs it: “There’s no fulfillment…like playing in a great musical environment,” he said.  “It’s spiritual. It’s everything.  Anything less than that is unacceptable. If you strike that responsive chord in an audience, they’ll get it too – with that beat and that feeling and that rhythm. Those vibes are in turn transmitted to the band, and inspire the band.”

His passion for music is shared by his wife Betty, 73, the couple’s daughter, Portia, who sings with her father’s band Saturdays at the Bistro   and sons, Norman and Richie, who are musicians, and Preston Jr.

While the Bistro’s another of the countless gigs Love’s had since 1936 and the repertoire includes standards he’s played time and again, he brings a spontaneity to performing that’s pure magic.  For him, music never gets tired, never grows old. More than a livelihood, it’s his means of self-expression.  His life.  His calling.

Music has sustained him, if not always financially, than creatively during an amazingly varied career that’s seen him: Play as a sideman for top territory bands in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s; star as a lead alto saxophonist with the great Count Basie Orchestra and other name acts of the ‘40s; lead his own highly successful Omaha touring troupe in the ‘50s; and head the celebrated west coast Motown band in the ‘60s and early ‘70s.

He’s earned rave reviews playing prestigious jazz festivals (Monterey, Montreux, Berlin). Toured Europe to great acclaim. Cut thousands of recordings, including classics re-released today as part of anthology series.  Worked with a who’s-who list of stars as a studio musician and band leader, from Billie Holiday to Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles to Stevie Wonder.  Performed on network television and radio.  Played such legendary live music haunts as the Savoy and Apollo Theater.

 

 

After 61 years in the business, Love knows how to work a room, any room, with aplomb. Whether rapping with the audience in his slightly barbed, anecdotal way or soaring on one of his fluid sax solos, this vibrant man and consummate musician is totally at home on stage. Music keeps him youthful.  Truly, he’s no “moldy fig,” the term boppers coined to describe musicians out-of-step with the times.

“As far as being a ‘moldy fig’…that’ll never happen.  And if it does, then I’ll quit.  I refuse to be an ancient fossil or an anachronism,” said Love.  “I am eternally vital.  I am energetic, indefatigable,  It’s just my credo and the way I am as a person.  I play my instruments as modern as anybody alive and…better than I’ve ever played them.”

Acclaimed rhythm and blues artist and longtime friend, Johnny Otis,  concurs, saying of Love: “He has impeccable musicianship.  He has a beautiful tone, especially on solo ballads, which is rare today, if it exists at all.  He’s one of the leading lead alto sax players of our era.”

Otis, who lives in Sebastopol, Calif., is white.  Love is black.  The fact they’ve been close friends since 1941 shouldn’t take people aback, they say, but it does.  “Racism is woven so deeply into the fabric of our country that people are surprised that a black and a white can be brothers,” Otis said.  “That’s life in these United States.”

 

 

 

Love’s let-it-all-hang-out performing persona is matched by the tell-it-like-it-is style he employs as a recognized music authority who demands jazz and the blues be viewed as significant, distinctly African-American art forms.   He feels much of the live jazz and blues presented locally is “spurious” and “synthetic” because its most authentic interpreters – blacks – are largely excluded in favor of whites.

“My people gave this great art form for posterity and I’m not going to watch my people and our music sold down the road,” he said.  “I will fight for my people’s music and its presentation.”

Otis admires Love’s outspokenness.  “He’s dedicated to getting that message out.  He’s persistent.  He’s sure he’s right, and I know he’s right.”

Love’s candor can ruffle feathers, but he presses on anyway.  “No man’s a prophet in his hometown,” Love said. “Sometimes you have to be abrasive and caustic to get your point over.”

Orville Johnson, Love’s keyboardist, values Love’s tenacity in setting the record straight.  “He’s a man that I admire quite a bit because of his ethics and honesty.”

Love has championed black music as a columnist with the Omaha World-Herald, host of his own radio programs and guest lecturer, teacher and artist-in-residence at colleges and universities.

With the scheduled fall publication of his autobiography, “A Thousand Honey Creeks Later,” by Wesleyan University Press, Love will have his largest forum yet.  Love began the book in 1965 while living in Los Angeles (where he moved his family in 1962 during a lean period), and revised it through a succession of editors and publishers.  He sees it as a career capstone.

“It’s my story and it’s my legacy to my progeny,” he said.  “They’ll know what I’m like and about by the way I said things, if nothing more.”

 

 

He started the book at the urging of a friend, who typed the manuscript from his handwritten scrawl.  After Love and his family returned to Omaha in 1972, he “totally rewrote” it, adding chapters on his Motown years (1966-1972) and on Omaha.  “I did a lot of it at that desk in there,” he said, indicating his cubbyhole office at the Omaha Star, where he is advertising manager.  Helping him shape the book over the years has been noted jazz authority Stanley Dance and, more recently, Wesleyan contributing editor George Lipsitz, who wrote its glowing introduction.

Love long ago rejected the idea of a ghost writer.  “It’s no longer you then,” he said.  “Even if I wasn’t articulate enough or didn’t have the literary background to write it, I wanted to reflect Preston.  And it sure and the hell does, for better or worse.” As a veteran writer and avid reader, he does feel on solid ground as an author.  He said ideas for the book consumed him.  “All the time, ideas raged in my brain.  And now I’ve said ‘em, and according to Wesleyan, I’ve said them very well.”

An outside reviewer commissioned by Wesleyan described Love’s book as more “than an account of a musician’s career,” but also an important document on “African-American social history, the history of the music business and institutional racism in American popular culture.”

Love is flattered by the praise.  “I’m very proud of it,” he said.  “Before the editorial staff acts on your book, they always bring in an outside reader, and what that person has to say has a big bearing on what’s going to happen.  It had a big bearing on the contract I signed several weeks ago.”

Love feels his far-flung experience has uniquely qualified him to tell his story against the backdrop of the black music scene in America.  “The fact that mine’s been a different, unlikely and multifaceted career is why publishers became interested in my book.”

To appreciate just how full a life he’s led and how far he’s come, one must look back to his start. He grew up the youngest of Mexie and Thomas Love’s nine children in a “dilapidated” house, jokingly called “the mansion,” at 1610 North 28th Street.  His auto mechanic father died in Love’s infancy.  Although poor in possessions, the family was rich in love.

“My mother did the best she could,” he recalls.  “There was no welfare in those days.  No ADC. This brave little woman went out and did day work for 40 cents an hour, and we survived.  There were no luxuries. “But it was a loving, wonderful atmosphere.  Our house was the center of that area.  Naturally, guys courted my sweet, beautiful sisters and girls pursued my gorgeous brothers.”

He was steeped in music from a young age.  He heard the period’s great black performers on the family radio and phonograph and hung-out on then teeming North 24th Street to catch a glimpse, and an autograph or two, of visiting artists playing the fabled Dreamland Ballroom and staying at nearby rooming houses and hotels.

“Twenty-fourth street was the total hub of the black neighborhood here.  This street abounded with great players of this art form.”

By his teens, he was old enough to see his idols perform at the Orpheum and Dreamland.  He recalls the Dreamland with great affection:

“All of the great black geniuses of my time played that ballroom.  Jazz was all black then, number one, and here were people you admired and worshiped, and now you were standing two feet from them and could talk to them and hear their artistry.  To hear the harmony of those black musicians, with that sorrowful, plaintive thing that only blacks have.  That pain in their playing.  That indefinable, elusive blue note.  That’s what jazz is.”

 

 

He’d rush home after a night there to play the sax his brother “Dude” had saved up for and bought.  “Dude” eventually joined a touring band and passed the sax onto his brothers.  Love taught himself to play, picking up pointers from veteran musicians and from the masters whose recordings he listened to “over and over again.”

He began seeing music as a way out.  “There was no escape for blacks from poverty and obscurity except through show business,” Love said.  “I’d listen to the radio’s late night coast-to-coast broadcasts of those great bands and I’d go to sleep and just dream of going to New York to play the Cotton Club and dream of playing the Grand Terrace in Chicago.  I dreamed of someday making it – and I did make it.  Everything else in my life would be anticlimactic, because I realized my dream.”

He traces the spark for his dream and its fulfillment to an August night in 1938 at the Dreamland, when, at 17, he met his main idol – Earle Warren – Basie’s lead alto sax man. Warren later became Love’s mentor.

“That was the beginning of my total dedication and my fanaticism for this thing called jazz.  He was the whole inspiration for my life.”

With Warren as his inspiration, Love made himself an accomplished musician.  “I had the natural gift for sound – a good tone – which is important.  Some people never have it.  I was self-motivated.  No one had to make me practice.  I did it all on my own.  And being good at mathematics, I was able to read music with the very least instruction.”

His ability to sight read was rare among blacks then and became his “forte.”  His first paying gig came in 1936, at 15, as a last-minute fill-in on drums with Warren Webb and His Spiders at the Aeroplane Inn in Honey Creek, Iowa.  The North High graduate eventually played scores of other small towns just like Honey Creek, hence the title of his book.

His breakthrough came in 1943, when Warren recommended Love as his replacement in the Basie band.  Love auditioned at the Dreamland and won the job.  It was his entry into the big time.  “I was ready,” he said.  “I knew I belonged.”  It was the first of two tours of duty with Basie.  In storybook fashion, Love returned to play the very sites where his dreams were first fired – the Dreamland and Orpheum.  He went on to play many of the famous, glittering big city clubs he’d envisioned.

Love enjoyed the spotlight playing with Basie and the bands of Lucky Millinder, Lloyd Hunter, Nat Towles and Johnny Otis.  “Touring was fun,” he said.  “You played the top ballrooms, you dressed beautifully, you stayed in finer hotels.  Big crowds.  Autographs.  It was glamorous.” Life on the road agreed with he and Betty, whom he married in 1941.  “The itinerant thing is what I love.  The checking in the hotels and motels.  The newness of each town.  The geography of this country.  The South, with those black restaurants with that flavorful, wonderful food and those colorful hotels.  It was my culture, my people.”

His book vividly describes it all.  Including the difficulties of being black in America and the reversals of fortune he’s experienced.  He has some harsh things to say about Omaha, where he’s witnessed the Dreamland’s, demise, North 24th Street’s decline and the black music scene dry up.

He’s left his hometown many times, but has always come back.  Back to where his dream first took flight and came true. Back to the mistress – music – that still holds him enthralled.  To be our conscience, guide, our inspiration.

That January night at the Bistro, a beaming Love, gold horn slung over one shoulder, tells his audience, “I love this.  I look forward coming to work.  Preston Love’s an alto player, and you want to hear him play alto, right?  Listen to this.” Supplying the downbeat, he fills the room with the golden strain of “Mr. Saturday Night.”  Play on, Mr. Saturday Night, play on.

Ron Stander: One-time Great White Hope still making rounds for friends in need

May 31, 2010 19 comments

I did this follow up story on ex-Omaha heavyweight boxer Ron Stander about seven or eight years after the first story I did on him, which you will also find on this blog. In that earlier piece Stander was still fighting some demons, still in the throes of recovery. In the interim, Stander had come to terms with some things in his life and by the time I did this second story he seemed more at peace with himself and his place in the world. Stander was and is a tough dude, but he’s also a big teddy bear of a man with a heart of gold.  That’s one thing that’s never changed about him.  This story, which originally appeared in the New Horizons, portrays Stander as the good man he is, just a regular guy who helps his friends, including some fellow ex-boxers who have fallen on various hard times.  To a man, his buddies love him. It’s heartening to know that Stander is now happily remarried and writing his life story.  It should be a helluva read.

Boxing-Standers

 

 

 

Ron Stander: One-time Great White Hope still making rounds for friends in need

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

 

Far from the spotlight he inhabited when he fought for the world heavyweight boxing title 35 years ago, Ron “The Bluffs Butcher” Stander goes about his daily routine these days in relative obscurity. That’s fine with him. He had his moment in the sun. He’d rather be remembered anyway as a good man, a good father and a good friend than as a good fighter.

“Yeah, right, that’s exactly it,” he said. “I just want to be a good person.”

He lives a simple life, both by choice and circumstance. He may be poor in finances, but he’s rich in friends. Despite his own problems, he aids folks less well-off and able than him, often making the rounds to visit old pals, many of whom he knows “from boxing.” Some, like Tony Novak, Gabe Barajas and Art Hernandez, are ex-fighters. Novak and Hernandez sparred with Stander back in the day.

Fred Gagliola coached a young Stander as an amateur Golden Gloves fighter. Maurice “Mad Dog” Vachon is an ex-pro wrestler quite popular here. Stander and Vachon know the highs and lows of life inside and outside the ring. Tom Lovgren was the matchmaker for many Stander fights and at one time managed him.

Each man suffers some kind of health impairment or disability. All befriended Stander at one time or another and he’s never forgotten it.

“They all helped me. Now I attempt to give back in some way. I like to help out. They were in my corner and now I’m in their corner,” said Stander, who variously does chores, runs errands and offers companionship for them.

Lovgren is afflicted with multiple sclerosis. The effects of the advanced disease confine him to a wheelchair. When his wife Jeaninne broke a leg last winter she could not get her large husband out of his chair into bed.

“So I called Ronnie and said, ‘Can you come down and help me into bed every night?’ — and he did,” Lovgren said. “He came down at 10:30 every night and put me to bed. I paid him, because he didn’t have to do that. He’s a good friend.”

Not long ago Lovgren took a fall at home, unable to get up by himself or even with an assist from his petite wife. Enter Stander.

“It was about 10 o’clock at night. I was beat, tired. I worked hard that day and I was all out of gas. I’d just had my first beer of the night when Jeaninne called. ‘Can you help out?’ I went down to their place. He was flat on the floor and I had to pick him up…and put him in his chair. It was a tough lift. Boy, he’s getting heavy. Probably weighs 250. Dead weight,” Stander said. “I about didn’t make it. Jeaninne had to get on his side and grab his pants and pull him up. We got him though.”

Stander’s glad to help the man who so much did for him. Lovgren not only got him fights, but was part of the team that readied him for his May 25, 1972 title bout with champ Joe Frazier in a jam-packed Civic Auditorium. Lovgren prodded Stander to get in fighting trim and stay away from late night beer binges.

“He would always get me to do the road work real good,” Stander said. “He’d take me running, count laps. He was a real disciplinarian. But fun, too. I respected him.”

Before he challenged for the championship, Lovgren arranged what Stander called a “steppingstone” match with future contender Earnie Shavers. Considered one of the hardest punchers in the heavyweight division, Shavers’ blows “felt like getting hit by a night stick or a ball bat,” Stander said. “It was like a whip cracking at the end.” After a slow start that saw him get pummeled, he KO’d Shavers in the fifth. Shavers reportedly had to be carried off by his corner.

That became Stander’s signature win. His most notable loss, of course, came in his title bid. After losing to Frazier, Stander sank into a deep depression and his career nose-dived. “I didn’t have any desire,” he said.

Except when Lovgren got him a marquee match against former contender Ken Norton on the undercard of the Muhammad Ali-Jimmy Young bout. Norton won when the fight was stopped in the fifth due to cuts he opened up on Stander, who was prone to bleed, but to this day “The Butcher” feels he would have had a tiring Norton “out of there in another round or two.”

Coulda’, woulda, shoulda’. “You can’t fight destiny” Stander said.

 

 

 

 

 

Away from the ring, the fighter admires how Lovgren has never given up in his own battle with MS. Despite the debilitating disease, Lovgren has raised a family, worked, traveled and maintained his passion for sports, especially boxing.

“He’s been an inspiration,” Stander said. “He’s paid his dues.”

The other men Stander helps are inspirations to him, too.

Former world middleweight contender Art Hernandez lost a leg after a freak fall from a roof, but he hasn’t let it stop him from living a life and enjoying his family. “I’ve got all the respect for him, too,” said Stander, who, like Lovgren, considers Hernandez to have been the best fighter, pound-for-pound, to ever come out of Nebraska. As an undersized but much quicker sparring partner, Hernandez used to frustrate Stander in the gym, confounding and evading the lumbering heavyweight. “I couldn’t hit him with a handful of rice,” Stander said.

Stander admires too how “Mad Dog” Vachon has not allowed the mishap that cost him a leg to embitter him.

“’Mad Dog’s’ a good guy,” he said. “He has a great attitude.”

Through “Mad Dog” Stander met an array of pro wrestling legends, such as Andre the Giant. “When I shook his hand it was like grabbing a pillow,” he said.

When Hernandez first got fitted with his prosthesis Stander brought him over to “Mad Dog’s” place so these two old warriors with artificial limbs would know they were not alone. The gesture touched the two men.

“He did me a favor that day,” Hernandez said.

“He’s got a heart of gold,” Vachon said. “He’s a very nice man. A real softee. He’s the kind of guy who would give you the shirt off his back.”

Since suffering a series of strokes Fred Gagliola, the man who helped show Stander the ropes as an amateur, has trouble getting by.

“I was just weeding in his yard the other day,” Stander said one summer morning outside the south downtown home of the man he calls Coach. “He can’t do much. I sweep and mop the floor for him.” “He cuts the grass, he throws out the garbage,” Coach said. “Whatever it takes,” added Stander. “I just try to help him however I can. He was on my side in the Gloves, you know. He backed me, supported me. He did favors, I do favors. He helped me, I try to help him now. So it’s pay back.”

Although he can use the money, Stander doesn’t lend a hand for the “couple bucks” he earns “here and there.” “Other things,” besides money, “make him happy,” Vachon said. Like doing good deeds.

Friends and family are all that are left once the money runs dry and the glory fades. “Mad Dog” and “The Butcher” made names for themselves in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Vachon reigned as an All-Star Wrestling king on cards at the Omaha Civic Auditorium. That’s where Stander enjoyed his greatest ring success, topped by challenging Frazier for “all the marbles” in what may have been the biggest sporting event Omaha’s ever seen.

The title fight was the pinnacle of his career. But life goes on. Things change. Stander was 27 and fighting on the biggest stage his sport has to offer — in his adopted hometown no less. Before friends and family and the assembled boxing world he put himself on the line and he failed. The fight was stopped after four rounds, Stander’s face a bloody, pulpy mask. He never went down, though. He pleaded for the fight to continue, but ringside physician Jack “Doc” Lewis made the only call he could given that Stander was blinded by blood from ugly gashes and could no longer defend himself. A longtime friend said Stander cried in the dressing room, sure he’d disappointed everyone. The friend assured him he hadn’t.

The incident reveals a couple things: how much Stander, often accused of taking a nonchalant approach to his training, cared about representing his hometown; and his never-say-die attitude. “I trained hard for the fights I cared about. I wanted to prove I was a legitimate contender,” he said. No one could ever call him a quitter.

“He’s got a heart the size of this room,” Lovgren said from his spacious living room. “When Joe Frazier is unloading on you and you’re still standing, you’re something special. Tough guy.”

Life hasn’t been a bed-of-roses since the Frazier fight. Stander’s contentious first marriage ended. He didn’t get to see much of his oldest two kids growing up. He remarried and had two boys before this second marriage soured. He has custody of the boys, Rowan and Ryan. He tried being an entrepreneur, owning his own bar, but that didn’t last. Long an imbiber, he developed a problem with alcohol and a DWI landed him behind bars. “I was stupid. I made some wrong decisions. I didn’t know when to say no. Let the good times roll. Let the party begin. When I had to go away for three months it was like shock treatment,” Stander said. “I was going to grow up sooner or later. Maybe it helped me to.”

The biggest blow — to both his pocketbook and ego — was losing the best job he ever had, as a machinist at Vickers. Through it all, he’s stayed sober and tried to do the right thing for his kids and his pals.

“He’s a good guy,” Lovgren said. “He’s a good father. He takes good care of those kids. He’s really a caring person. If you ask him to do something he makes a real effort to do that. If I need anything I know he’ll come.”

Largely unemployed since 2000, Stander leads a hand-to-mouth existence that finds him scrounging for discarded cans and car batteries he brings to the recycler for chump change. He also does odd jobs for people who reward him with scratch. “Most of the time I’m trying to hustle some gas money and food money,” he said.

One of his frequent stops is A. Marino Grocery, a South 13th Street throwback, or as Stander likes to say, “blast from the past.” Proprietor Frank Marino joked, “He’s my pacifier. If somebody doesn’t pay a bill we send him out to collect.” In reality, Marino said, “We have him do little things, cleanup a little bit, make a delivery every once in awhile for me.” “Take some boxes out,” added Stander, who on a recent visit grabbed a bundle of flattened cardboard boxes and deposited them in the dumpster out back. “It’s the same at Louie M’s (Burger Lust). We’re paisan.”

It puts a few extra dollars in Stander’s pocket. Otherwise, he gets by on his monthly Social Security check. There’s no pension, no nest egg to draw on. Fighters don’t have retirement plans. He does have a 401K through Vickers, but he’s had to dip into it to make ends meet. All of which makes things tight for a man raising his two youngest boys alone. One silver lining is that his house, a mere two blocks from Rosenblatt Stadium, is paid for. Another is that his son Rowan, a senior at Creighton Prep, is a top wrestler who might earn a college athletic scholarship.

Stander’s a robust 62, but he has health issues. He’s overweight, with high blood pressure and diabetes. He’s missing several teeth. For comic relief he slips his dentures out and opens wide to show his bare mouth. He has trouble remembering things. It’s what becomes of old fighters, even one as strong as an ox like him

He doesn’t complain much, except to bemoan the loss of that machinist’s job at Vickers, where he operated drill presses, grinders and lathes. The Omaha plant closed just before Christmas 2000, leaving him and more than 1,000 co-workers out in the cold. He was 55, an age when it’s hard to start over. With only a high school education and no marketable skills, he’s got few prospects.

“When Vickers closed up, that was it, that was the final straw for me,” he said, “because by the time you’re 55 or 60, if you’re not locked into something, you’re done, you’re screwed. So I’m screwed.”

He sometimes wonders if he did the right thing pursuing a boxing career. He began at Vickers in ‘65 while still an amateur. After turning pro in ‘69 he quit his job, even though his early purses were negligible. He got $75 his first fight. A few hundred each the next few bouts. Until Frazier his biggest purse was a few thousand.

“I had a good job at Vickers…If I had stayed there all those years and not taken a shot at the title I’d be retired right now. I went back to Vickers in ‘93 and when I finally started getting the big money in ‘95 they closed the plant. That’s what grieved me. People say, ‘Well, you can start over and work your way up again’ Yeah, right, whatever.”

Men his age aren’t in demand by employers.

“I’m ready to work, but people don’t want to hire ya. I’ve talked to friends in construction and they say, ‘We’re looking for guys 35, not 55. I talked to a friend in the heating and air business and he said, ‘Well, you know, Ron, at your age we don’t want you to be up on a roof when it’s 120 degrees working on an air conditioning unit. You could have a heart attack.’ There again, the age factor.”

He did attend Vatterott College to learn a trade. He was an apartment maintenance man, but tired of tenants calling in the middle of the night demanding their leaking toilets be fixed. His pride won’t let him take an $8 or $9-an-hour job. Until a few years ago he made extra dough refereeing boxing matches in Nebraska, Iowa, the Dakotas and Minnesota. He even did a few televised title bouts. But those gigs dried up with the loss of independent promoters. He’s shut out by the casinos, where the fight action is these days, and their contract refs. Besides, with two boys, in his care he can’t be gone on those overnighters anymore.

Like the old pug in Requiem for a Heavyweight, he’s at a loss what to do now. Fighting is all he knew. For a time he did have his own bar, The Sportsman’s Club, but his weakness for the drink made that an unhealthy environment for him to be in. He’s clean and sober now, but that alone doesn’t pay the bills.

Money worries nag at him, especially with the boys to clothe and feed. “It’s a struggle,” he said. “We live on $953 a month Social Security.”

Come College World Series time he pulls in some much-needed cash parking fans’ cars, at $5 a pop, on his property. His record for one game is 26 vehicles. But that happens only two weeks a year. He also makes some money from autograph signings he does in Omaha, Lincoln, Des Monies, et cetera.

Enough time has passed that he doesn’t carry the cachet he once did, when his mug and name were enough to buy him drinks and meals and perks wherever he went. As Omaha’s last Great White Hope, everyone wanted a piece of him then.

“It’s not like it used to be,” he said.

The Vickers job seemed like a sure thing and then, poof, it was gone — the steady paycheck, the security, his self-esteem. “When I had money, when I had a job,” life was good, he said, “before things went from sugar to shit in a short time.”

Quicker than you can say, Whatever happened to?, the career club fighter blew the six-figure purse he earned for his only shot at immortality. There were a handful of other big paydays. But the pay outs in his era were small potatoes compared to the millions contenders command today.

Long gone are the days when media hounded him for quotes. His last real exposure came in 2001, when he appeared with Joe Frazier, the man who gave him a Rockyesque chance at the title. For only the second time since that fight, the two warriors met — for a Big Brothers, Big Sisters of the Midlands promotional event in Omaha. In the way that old combatants do, they embraced like long lost buddies. They were never close, but the mutual respect is real.

The ensuing years wrought much change. Their hair’s flecked with gray, their mid-sections grown soft, their speech slowed. Yet, to their good fortune, each shows few effects from the punishing blows to the head they absorbed as sluggers who took many shots to land one of their own. They still have their wits about them.

But Stander’s life is a far cry from the ex-champ’s. Frazier is an icon within the larger sports canon for his Olympic gold medal, undisputed heavyweight crown, his three memorable fights with Muhammad Ali and the dramatic way he lost the championship against George Foreman. He has his own gym and other business interests in his hometown of Philly. His much sought-after autograph brings hundreds of dollars, compared to a fraction of that for Stander’s.

Where Frazier is a featured storyline in boxing history, “The Butcher” is a sidebar and footnote. Or an answer to a trivia question: Who was the last fighter Joe Frazier beat while world champ? Ron Stander. Stander’s match with “Smokin’ Joe” came between Frazier’s two most historic fights — eight months after beating Ali at New York’s Madison Square Garden and eight months before being brutally beaten in Jamaica by Foreman, who took the crown only to lose it a year later to Ali.

The boxing world can be a small community. Even though Stander’s career is
forgettable by all-time Ring Magazine standards, he’ll always be a part of boxing history for having fought for the title. The fight occasionally shows up on ESPN Classic. His bid, too, came at a time when the title was still unified. Plus, he squared off with some of the sport’s biggest names — Frazier, Shavers, Norton, Gerrie Coetzee. Then there’s the fact his career intersected with other legends, like Foreman, who was at the title bout in Omaha and reportedly saw something he exploited when he later faced and destroyed the champ.

Specifically, Stander worked on an uppercut to take advantage of a flaw in Frazier’s defenses. In the third round he saw his opening and let the uppercut fly, missing by an inch. He figured he’d only get one chance and he was right. Conversely, Foreman pushed Frazier off and caught him coming in with the same punch.

 

 

Then there were Stander’s meetings with The Greatest. He said on four occasions he was a surrogate member of Ali’s entourage. He said Ali liked having him around for his parodies of Aliisms like, “I’m the greatest of all time.” Stander does a fair impression of Ali, of sports broadcaster Howard Cosell, who once interviewed Stander, and of Mike Tyson, the troubled ex-champ.

Stander met Tyson in Las Vegas in the ‘90s, long after his own career had ended. There’s a story behind their encounter. In preparation for Frazier, Stander manager Dick Noland wanted him far from distractions and so shipped him off to Boston to work under famed Johnny Dunn. After the Frazier fight Stander parlayed the connections he’d made back east and went to the Catskills to train under legendary Cus D’Amato. It was D’Amato who went on to mentor the young Tyson.

Stander was in Vegas, where Tyson was training for a title defense against James Broad, when he paid a call on the then-champ. As dissimilar as the two men were, they did share a pedigree in the person of Cus D’Amato.

“He knew all of Cus’ disciples and he knew I was with Cus, so he let me in the gym. No introduction, he just came right up to me, ‘Hello, Mr. Stander.’ ‘Hey, champ, how ya doin’?.’ ‘I’m working on an uppercut that will drive that nose bone into the brain.’ ‘Yeah, that’s a good move, champ,’ said Stander in a wickedly dead-on Tyson impersonation — childlike voice, silly lisp and all. “He was something.”

“The Butcher” even ended up in a film, The Mouse, based on the life of his real-life friend, ex-boxer Bruce “The Mouse” Strauss.

Stander also hung out with non-sports celebrities — as a bodyguard for the Rolling Stones and The Eagles. He said Evel Knievel, whom he got to know, offered him $3,500 to work the security detail for his Snake River Canyon jump. Instead, Stander took a fight in Hawaii, where he’d never been, for the same money.

All these brushes with fame please Stander, but as he likes to say, “That and 50 cents will get you a cup of coffee.”

He experienced about everything you can in boxing. Good, bad, indifferent. He never really announced his retirement, but he knew when it was time to quit.

“You know when you’re almost done,” he said. “You don’t have the desire or the hunger. You’re tired of the running and the road work. You’re tired working out all the time. The stitches start mounting up. Your nose gets a little flatter. Your teeth get a little looser. Your brain gets a little jiggled. You just lose it.”

If anything, he hung on too long, waiting for one more big payday that never came. “Yeah, that’s probably right,” he said. “There at the end I fought a lot out of shape because I didn’t care. But a guy’s gotta have money. It wasn’t like I was gaining seniority working for U.P.”

Rather than work for meager wages today, he scrapes by. He’d like to run his own gym, but that takes moolah. One benefit of not having a regular job is that he has time to spend with his kids and help friends.

“I try to be a role model and do the right thing for these kids. I have to show them the right way to go,” he said.

As for his friends, Stander said, “They did right by me,” and now he’s trying to do right by them. Gabe Barajas appreciates having Stander as a friend. Barajas, the former owner of Zesto’s near the zoo and stadium, said, “We’re pretty close. He used to come up and help me out there, too, shaking everybody’s hand, bringing the heavy pop coolers up to us. He did lots of things. He ate a lot, too.”

Stander’s visits to the nursing home Barajas resides in bring a smile to his friend’s face. Stander sometimes takes Barajas, who has MS, for drives, down to old haunts. He lifts Barajas from the bed or recliner into his wheelchair and puts him and the chair in his car. Stander said his friend needs outings like these. Otherwise, “that’s his life — in that room and down in the dining hall,” he said.

Fred Gagliola, Stander’s old coach, knows he can count on him. “Oh, hell, yeah. He comes down here all the time to help me out,” Gagliola said. “He’s a good friend.”

Tony Novak, Stander’s first sparring partner, lives alone in a Carter Lake trailer home. Stander frets over his buddy’s health. “Ron’s been a good, true loyal friend for 40 years. He checks on my every day,” Novak said.

The breaks maybe haven’t gone “The Butcher’s” way since he lost to Frazier, but he just chalks it up to “fate” and appreciates what he does have.

“No matter how good you are, how smart you are, how well-built you are, you gotta have a little bit of luck to go along with it,” he said. And you gotta have “a few good friends.” That he has. It’s why he’s not about to quit now. There are too many rounds to go, too many friends in need.

“You gotta do whatchya gotta do. Hang in there. You can’t fight destiny.”

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