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Omaha fight doctor Jack Lewis of two minds about boxing

June 21, 2016 1 comment

Omaha’s fight doctor, the late Jack Lewis, was of two minds about boxing. He championed the closely regulated amateur side of the sport but he decried the anything-goes excesses of the professional game. He saw more fights than he could remember as a ringside physician. He was also a sideline physician at countless football games in his role as team doctor for his alma mater, Omaha Central High School. He was an athlete and scholar there and he went on to be an athlete and scholar at Stanford University. The story I’m posting here is an advance piece I did about the 2006 National Golden Gloves tournament held in Omaha. I got Dr. Lewis and two other venerable members of the local boxing community, Harley Cooper and Tom Lovgren, to weigh in on the event and the sport. Lewis was a much honored member of Omaha’s sports and medical community. He was an inductee in the Central High Hall of Fame as well as the Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame. He, his father and his son comprised three generations of physicians.
It is worth noting that world pro boxing champion Terence Crawford of Omaha made it to the finals of that National Golden Gloves tournament in his hometown only to lose a controversial decision. It pretty much marked the end of his amateur career and the last time he fought in Omaha until defending his newly won WBO lightweight title at the big arena downtown, which by that time was renamed the CenturyLink Center.
Before leading you to the story, here is an Omaha Central High Foundation announcement about Dr. Jack’s passing:
It is with heavy hearts that we share the passing of Dr. Jack Lewis. A 1952 graduate of Central, Dr. Lewis served as the team doctor at Central for over 50 years, performing thousands of physicals and walking the sidelines of hundreds of football games. Dr. Lewis received numerous recognitions and sat on many different boards, including being inducted into the inaugural Central High School Hall of Fame in 1999, Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame, and Omaha Public Schools Athletic Hall of Fame. After receiving his first degree from Stanford University, Dr. Lewis obtained his medical degree from the University of Nebraska College of Medicine where he then served as a professor of internal medicine. Football games won’t feel the same this fall when Dr. Lewis isn’t on the sideline, offering decades of expertise to our student athletes. Dr. Lewis loved Central, and we will miss him dearly.

The visitation will be held on Thursday, June 23, from 4 – 6:30 pm at the Heafey-Hoffmann Dworak & Cutler Bel Air Chapel on 12100 West Center Road. The service will be held on Friday, June 24, at 11 am at the Presbyterian Church of the Cross on 1517 S 114th Street.

 

 

Dr. Jack Lewis, who turns 81 this week, has his physician son watching for mistakes as Lewis sees up to 30 patients a day. “If I made a mistake, I’d be the first one to quit here,” he said.

Dr. Jack Lewis

 

Omaha fight doctor Jack Lewis of two minds about boxing as the city readies to host the National Golden Gloves

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

 

For the first time since 1988, Omaha plays host to the National Golden Gloves boxing tournament, one of the nation’s showcases for amateur boxing. The 2006 tourney is a six-day event scheduled for April 24-29 at two downtown venues. The preliminary and quarterfinal rounds will be fought at the Civic Auditorium the first four days, with the semi-final and championship bouts at the Qwest Center Omaha the final two days.

Historically, the national Golden Gloves has produced scores of Olympic and world champions. Former Gloves greats include Joe Louis, Ezzard Charles, Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Evander Holyfield and Roy Jones Jr.

Three men with long ties to the local boxing scene recently shared their thoughts on the Gloves with the New Horizons.

The man heading up the event is Omaha’s fight doctor, Dr. Jack Lewis, a 71-year-old internal medicine physician. As a doctor who loves a sport that gets a bad name from the medical community, he’s a paradox. While a staunch supporter of amateur boxing, Lewis is a fierce critic of the professional fight game, which he has come to abhor.

His experience in the prizefighting arena included serving as ringside physician for the 1972 world heavyweight title fight in Omaha between champ Joe Frazier and contender Ron Stander from Council Bluffs. Lewis stopped the fight after the fourth round with a battered Stander blinded by blood in his eyes.

“I love the sport of amateur boxing. I was involved in pro boxing and I didn’t like that from a medical standpoint,” Lewis said. “After just a few years working with the pros, I quit. In some cases, I didn’t know who the fighters were. They were fighting under fake names. I’d ask all these questions and the boxer would say the last time he lost a fight was a month ago in Chicago, and then some guy would come up later and tell me that same guy got knocked out last night in Chicago.

“Those pro boxers move around, have fake names, won’t give you their true medical history.”

Lewis continued, “Those pro boxing days are behind me. That sport needs to be cleaned up.”

More than just a fan of amateur boxing, Lewis is a veteran ringside doctor and longtime president of the Great Plains Boxing Association, the main organizing body for amateur boxing in Nebraska. This is the second time under his leadership his hometown of Omaha is presenting the Golden Gloves nationals.

Lewis is optimistic the event will fare better than recent national Gloves tourneys in cities like Kansas City, where the event failed miserably at the gate.

“We’ve done this before. I think our sales are going very well,” he said.

With Omaha’s success as College World Series host, with the Qwest Center filled to capacity for Creighton University men’s basketball home games, with the arena slated to host a slew of NCAA post-season events over the next several years, plus the U.S. Olympic swimming trials, the Omaha’s known as an amateur sports-friendly town. That’s why there’s talk of Omaha trying to host the Golden Gloves on a regular basis. The event is bid out a few years in advance, so it would be awhile before Omaha could host the event again after 2006.

“Omaha knows how to put people in the seats. Plus, this is really a fight town,” said Harley Cooper of Omaha. The former two-time national Gloves champion is seving as the 2006 tournament director. “It’s an outstanding event, Fans will see the best boxing in the country and probably see some future Olympic and professional champions.”

Omaha boxing historian Tom Lovgren joins many others in calling the Qwest “a great facility for boxing.” “The people there do a superb job,” he added.

While he never boxed, Lewis lettered in football and rugby at Stanford University, backing up future NFL great John Brodie at quarterback in the late 1950s. He said his athletic background and internal medicine specialization “lent itself” to begin treating athletes.

After graduation from Standford and the University of Nebraska Medical School, Lewis did his internal medicine residency in Oakland, California. He came back to Omaha in 1964 to practice with his physician father.

Right away, Lewis’ sports medicine interest found him treating a variety of athletes – jockeys at the Ak-Sar-Ben thoroughbred race track, football players at his alma mater Central high School, where he has been team physician since 1964, and boxers at the Omaha and Midwest Golden Gloves tournaments.

Lewis’ passion for amateur boxing has only grown. He enjoys the purity of the sport. He applauds the protective headgear and other measures taken to ensure fighters’ safety. He believes the competition inside the ropes instills discipline in its participants.

“I think the greatest athlete is the guy that steps in the ring and some guy comes after you. I think it builds character. I think it teaches you resraint. It helps you collect yourself. Through those years I’ve been to many meetings and been to many nationals. I’ve been he ringside physician at hundreds of fights and taken care of a lot of medical problems at the fights. Even though I never fought, I’ve educated myself in boxing and in all the trials and tribulations of the kids.”

Lewis said amateur boxing has suffered unfairly from the ills of its pro counterpart.

“There has been a lot of deaths and those deaths really hurt amateur boxing because then parents don’t want their kids to go into boxing. There’s been a lot of unscrupulous stuff. When I started it was a more popular sport. Today, kids are into doing all kinds of other things. They just don’t go into boxing anymore. And the coaching ranks have really declined. It’s an uphill battle.”

Despite the smaller number of young boxers, Tom Lovgren said “there are kids around that can fight and the Golden Gloves is still a major contributor to the U.S. Olympic boxing team. He said a Gloves title still carries weight in the world of boxing.

“If you are a national Golden Gloves champion, you’re highly respected when you make a turn to the pro ranks.”

Lewis said another thing unchanged in the sport over the years is that ethnic-racial minorities are disproportionately drawn to boxing.

“Our best known boxers in the state now are Latino. There’s been a great influx of Spanish-speaking kids. Unfortunately, many of them don’t have U.S. citizenship and the rules require you to be a citizen in order to compete at nationals (Golden Gloves).”

In the history of the Golden Gloves there have been but five national champions from Nebraska. According to Lovgren, the best of the bunch was Harley Cooper, who won his titles in 1963 and 1964 (the first at heavyweight and the second at light heavyweight). He won those titles when he was in his late 20s. which is much older than the typical Gloves fighter. Since retiring from the ring, Cooper’s devoted time to developing and suporting area amateur boxing. He never turned pro.

“Everybody wanted him to fight for them,” said Lovgran, a former prize fight matchmaker and a longtime observer of the local fight scene. “The first time anybody saw hiim in the gym they knew this guy was going to be a national champion. He could punch. He could box. He could do it all. He was the most complete fighter I ever saw from around here. I never saw Harley Cooper lose a round in amateur fights in Omaha. He was that dominant.”

Besides Cooper, the only other Nebraska boxers crowned national Gloves champions were Carl Vinciquerra and Paul Hartneck in 1936, Hartneck again in ’37, Ferd Hernandez in 1960 and most recently Lamont Kirkland in 1980. A number of other Nebraskans advanced to the semi-finals or finals, only to lose.

In general, Lewis said, area kids are at a distinct disavantage.

“Amateur programs here are not strong. We don’t have enough coaches to train these kids. We don’t have enough fighters to have regular smokers that season them. Every year, our kids go to nationals with maybe 10 to 12 fights under their belt and they face opponents with 70 to 80 fights.”

Harley Cooper said Omaha holding the nationals can only help raise the level of the amateur boxing scene here.

“It wil let our kids see what they have to strive to obtain – the different skills and knowledge they will need to be a world-class boxer. Seeing is much better than someone explaining it to you.”

He added the biggest difference between “our boxers and the fighters from bigger cities is the opponents’ strength, size and skill.”

“It’s going to be a great weekend for amateur boxing in Omaha, Nebraska” Lovgren said. “I just hope a couple of guys from Omaha can go as far as the finals.

A raucous home crowd could help spur a local fighter to do great things.

“It can’t hurt,” Lovgren said. “Who knows? Anything can happen. Boxing’s a funny game.”

“There’s still some kids out there. We should see some real good boxing,” Lewis said.

A final elimination stage before the nationals will be held March 17 and 18 at the Omaha Civic Auditorium’s Mancuso Hall. Winners in this Midwest Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions will complete Nebraska’s 11-man contingent for the April national tourney.

Tickets for the nationals may be purchased at the Qwest Center box office or via Ticketmaster by phone at 402-1212, or online at http://www.ticketmaster.com.

For more details, call the Qwest Center at 997-9378 or go online at http://www.qwestcenteromaha.com.

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JOHN C. JOHNSON: Standing Tall

May 14, 2016 3 comments

None of us is perfect. We all have flaws and defects. We all make mistakes. We all carry baggage. Fairly or unfairly, those who enter the public eye risk having their imperfections revealed to the wider world. That is what happened to one of Omaha’s Black Sports Legends, John C. Johnson, who along with Clayton Bullard, led Omaha Central to back to back state basketball titles in the early 1970s. Both players got Division I scholarships to play ball: Johnson at Creighton and Bullard at Colorado. John C. had a memorable career for the Creighton Bluejays as a small forward who could play inside and outside equally well. He was a hybrid player who could slide and glide in creating his own shot and maneuver to the basket, where he was very adept at finishing, even against bigger opponents, but he could also mix it up when the going got tough or the situation demanded it. He was good both offensively and defensively and he was a fiine team player who never tried to do more than he was capable of and never played outside the system. He was very popular with fans.His biggest following probably came from the North Omaha African-American community he came out of and essentially never left. He was one of their own. That’s not insignificant either because CU has had a paucity of black players from Omaha over its long history. John C. didn’t make it in the NBA but he got right on with his post-collegiate life and did well away from the game and the fame. Years after John C. graduated CU his younger brother Michael followed him from Central to the Hilltop to play for the Jays and he enjoyed a nice run of his own. But when Michael died it broke something deep inside John C. that triggered a drug addction that he supported by committing a series of petty crimes that landed him in trouble with the law. These were the acts of a desperate man in need of help. He had trouble kicking the drug habit and the criminal activity but that doesn’t make him a bad person, only human. None of this should diminish what John C. did on and off the court as a much beloved student-athlete. He is a good man. He is also human and therefore prone to not always getting things right. The same can be said for all of us. It’s just that most of us don’t have our failings written or broadcast for others to see. John was reluctant to be profiled when I interviewed him and his then-life partner for this story about seven or eight years ago. But he did it. He was forthright and remorseful and resolved. After this story appeared there were more setbacks. It happens. Wherever you are, John, I hope you are well. Your story then and now has something to teach all of us. And thanks for the memories of all that gave and have as one of the best ballers in Nebraska history. No one can take that away.

NOTE: This story is one of dozens I have written for a collection I call: Out to Win – The Roots of Greatness: Omaha’s Black Sports Legends. You can find it on my blog, leoadambiga.com. Link to it directly at–

https://leoadambiga.com/out-to-win-the-roots-of-greatness-omahas-black-sports-legends/

 

From the Archives: Creighton Basketball and the Big Dance

 

 

 

JOHN C. JOHNSON: Standing Tall

 

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

“I got tired of being tired.”

Omaha hoops legend and former Creighton University star John C. Johnson explained why he ended the pattern of drug abuse, theft and fraud that saw him serve jail and prison time before his release last May.

From a sofa in the living room of the north Omaha home he shares with his wife, Angela , who clung to him during a recent interview, he made no excuses for his actions. He tried, however, to explain his fall from grace and the struggle to reclaim his good name.

“Pancho” or “C,” as he’s called, was reluctant to speak out after what he saw as the media dogging his every arrest, sentencing and parole board hearing. The last thing he wanted was to rehash it all. But as one of the best players Omaha’s ever produced, he’s newsworthy.

“I had a lot of great players,” said his coach at Omaha Central High School, Jim Martin, “but I think ‘C’ surpassed them all. You would have to rate him as one of the top five players I’ve seen locally. He’d be right up there with Fred Hare, Mike McGee, Ron Kellogg, Andre Woolridge, Kerry Trotter… He was a man among boys.”

 

John C. Johnson

 

The boys state basketball championship Central won this past weekend was the school’s first in 31 years. The last ones before that were the 1974 and 1975 titles that Johnson led the Eagles to. Those clubs are considered two of the best in Omaha prep history. In the proceeding 30 years Central sent many fine teams down to Lincoln to compete for the state crown, but always came up short — until this year. It’s that kind of legacy that makes Johnson such an icon.

He’s come to terms with the fact he’s fair game.

“Obscurity is real important to me right now,” Johnson said. “I used to get mad about the stuff written about me, but, hey, it was OK when I was getting the good pub, so I guess you gotta take the good with the bad. Yeah, when I was scoring 25 points and grabbing all those rebounds, it’s beautiful. But when I’m in trouble, it’s not so beautiful.”

As a hometown black hero Johnson was a rarity at Creighton. Despite much hoops talent in the inner city, the small Jesuit school’s had few black players from Omaha in its long history.

There was a rough beauty to his fluid game. It was 40 minutes of hell for opponents, who’d wilt under the pressure of his constant movement, quick feet, long reach and scrappy play. He’d disrupt them. Get inside their heads. At 6-foot-3 he’d impose his will on guys with more height and bulk — but not heart.

“John C.’ s heart and desire were tremendous, and as a result he was a real defensive stopper,” said Randy Eccker, a sports marketing executive who played point guard alongside him at Creighton. “He had a long body and very quick athletic ability and was able to do things normally only much taller players do. He played more like he was [6-foot-6]. On offense he was one of the most skilled finishers I ever played with. When he got a little bit of an edge he was tremendous in finishing and making baskets. But the thing I remember most about John C. is his heart. He’d always step up to make the big plays and he always had a gift for bringing everybody together.”

Creighton’s then-head coach, Tom Apke, calls Johnson “a winner” whose “versatility and intangibles” made him “a terrific player and one of the most unique athletes I ever coached. John could break defenses down off the dribble and that complemented our bigger men,” Apke said. “He had an innate ability on defense. He also anticipated well and worked hard. But most of all he was a very determined defender. He had the attitude that he was not going to let his man take him.”

Johnson took pride in taking on the big dudes. “Here I was playing small forward at [6-foot-three] on the major college level and guarding guys [6-foot-8], and holding my own,” he said in his deep, resonant voice.

When team physician and super fan Lee “Doc” Bevilacqua and assistant coach Tom “Broz” Brosnihan challenged him to clean the boards or to shut down opponents’ big guns, he responded.

He could also score, averaging 14.5 points a game in his four-year career (1975-76, 1978-79) at CU. Always maneuvering for position under the bucket, he snatched offensive rebounds for second-chance points. When not getting put-backs, he slashed inside to draw a foul or get a layup and posted-up smaller men like he did back at Central, when he and Clayton Bullard led the Eagles to consecutive Class A state titles.

He modeled his game after Adrian Dantley, a dominant small forward at Notre Dame and in the NBA. “Yeah, A.D., I liked him,” Johnson said. “He wasn’t the biggest or flashiest player in the world, but he was one of the hardest working players in the league.” The same way A.D. got after it on offense, Johnson ratcheted it up on defense. “I was real feisty,” he said. “When I guarded somebody, hell if he went to the bathroom I was going to follow him and pick him up again at half-court. Even as a freshman at Creighton I was getting all the defensive assignments.”

Unafraid to mix it up, he’d tear into somebody if provoked. Iowa State’s Anthony Parker, a 6-foot-7, high-scoring forward, made the mistake of saying something disparaging about Johnson’s mother in a game.

“When he said something about my mama, that was it,” Johnson said. “I just saw fire and went off on him. Fight’s done, and by halftime I have two or three offensive rebounds and I’m in charge of him. By the end, he’s on the bench with seven points. Afterward, he came in our locker room and I stood up thinking he wanted to settle things. But he said, ‘I’m really sorry. I lost my head. I’m not ever going to say anything about nobody’s mama again. Man, you took me right out of my game.’”

Doing whatever it took — fighting, hustling, hitting a key shot — was Johnson’s way. “That’s just how I approached the game,” he said. He faced some big-time competition, too. He shadowed future NBA all-stars Maurice “Mo” Cheeks, a dynamo with West Texas State College; Mark Aguirre, an All-American with DePaul; and Andrew Toney, a scoring machine with Southwest Louisiana State. A longtime mentor of Johnson’s, Sam Crawford said, “And he was right there with them, too.”

He even had a hand in slowing down Larry Bird. Johnson and company held Larry Legend to seven points below his collegiate career scoring average in five games against Indiana State. The Jays won all three of the schools’ ’77-78 contests, the last (54-52) giving them the Missouri Valley Conference title. But ISU took both meetings in ’78-79, the season Bird led his team to the NCAA finals versus Magic Johnson’s Michigan State.

When “C” didn’t get the playing time he felt he deserved in a late season game his freshman year, Apke got an earful from Johnson’s father and from Don Benning, Central’s then-athletic director and a black sports legend himself. If the community felt one of their own got the shaft, they let the school know about it.

Expectations were high for Johnson — one of two players off those Central title teams, along with Clayton Bullard, to go Division I. His play at Creighton largely met people’s high standards. Even after his NBA stint with the Denver Nuggets, who drafted him in the 7th round, fizzled, he was soon a fixture again here as a Boys and Girls Club staffer and juvenile probation officer. That’s what made his fall shocking.

Friends and family had vouched for him. The late Dan Offenberger, former CU athletic director, said then: “He’s a quality guy who overcame lots of obstacles and got his degree. He’s one of the shining examples of what a young man can accomplish by using athletics to get an education and go on in his work.”

What sent Johnson off the deep end, he said, was the 1988 death of his baby brother and best friend, Michael, who followed him to Creighton to play ball. After being stricken with aplastic anemia, Michael received a bone marrow transplant from “C.” There was high hope for a full recovery, but when Michael’s liver was punctured during a biopsy, he bled to death.

“When he didn’t make it, I kind of took it personally,” Johnson said. “It was a really hard period for our family. It really hurt me. I still have problems with it to this day. That’s when things started happening and spinning out of control.”

He used weed and alcohol and, as with so many addicts, these gateway drugs got him hooked on more serious stuff. He doesn’t care to elaborate. Arrested after his first stealing binge, Johnson waived his right to a trial and admitted his offenses. He pleaded no contest and offered restitution to his victims.

His first arrests came in 1992 for a string of car break-ins and forgeries to support his drug habit. He was originally arrested for theft, violation of a financial transaction device, two counts of theft by receiving stolen propperty and two counts of criminal mischief. His crimes typically involved a woman accomplice with a fake I.D. Using stolen checks and credit cards, they would write a check to the fake name and cash it soon thereafter. He faced misdemanor and felony charges in Harrison County Court in Iowa and misdemeanor charges in Douglas County. He was convicted and by March 2003 he’d served about eight years behind bars.

He was released and arrested again. In March 2003 he was denied parole for failing to complete an intensive drug treatment program. Johnson argued, unsuccessfully, that his not completing the program was the result of an official oversight that failed to place his name on a waiting list, resulting in him never being notified that he could start the program.

Ironically, a member of the Nebraska Board of Parole who heard Johnson’s appeal is another former Omaha basketball legend — Bob Boozer, a star at Technical High School, an All-American at Kansas State and a member of the 1960 U.S. Olympic gold medal winning Dream Team and the 1971 Milwaukee Bucks NBA title team. Where Johnson’s life got derailed and reputation sullied, Boozer’s never had scandal tarnish his name.

After getting out on in the fall of 2003, Johnson was arrested again for similar crimes as before. The arrest came soon after he and other CU basketball greats were honored at the Bluejays’ dedication of the Qwest Center Omaha. He only completed his last stretch in May 2005. His total time served was about 10 years.

He ended up back inside more than once, he said, because “I wasn’t ready to quit.” Now he just wants to put his public mistakes behind him.

What Johnson calls “the Creighton family” has stood by him. When he joined other program greats at the Jays’ Nov. 22, 2003 dedication of the Qwest Center, the warm ovation he received moved him. He’s a regular again at the school’s old hilltop gym, where he and his buds play pickup games versus 25-year-old son Keenan and crew. He feels welcome there. For the record, he said, the old guys regularly “whup” the kids.

“It feels good to be part of the Creighton family again. They’re so happy for me. It’s kind of made me feel wanted again,” he said.

Sam Crawford, a former Creighton administrator and an active member of the CU family, said, “I don’t think we’ll ever give up on John C., because he gave so much of himself while he was there. If there’s any regret, it’s that we didn’t see it [drug abuse] coming.” Crawford was part of a contingent that helped recruit Johnson to CU, which wanted “C” so bad they sent one of the school’s all-time greats, Paul Silas, to his family’s house to help persuade him to come.

Angela, whom “C” married in 2004, convinced him to share his story. “I told him, ‘You really need to preserve the Johnson legacy — through the great times, your brief moment of insanity and then your regaining who you are and your whole person,’” she said. Like anyone who’s been down a hard road, Johnson’s been changed by the journey. Gone is what’s he calls the “attitude of indifference” that kept him hooked on junk and enabled the crime sprees that supported his habit. “I’ve got a new perspective,” he said. “My decision-making is different. It’s been almost six years since I’ve used. I’m in a different relationship.

 

 

 

Having a good time used to mean getting high. Not anymore. Life behind “the razor wire” finally scared him straight. ”They made me a believer. The penal system made me a believer that every time I break the law the chances of my getting incarcerated get greater and greater. All this time I’ve done, I can’t recoup. It’s lost time. Sitting in there, you miss events. Like my sister had a retirement party I couldn’t go to. My mother’s getting up in age, and I was scared there would be a death in the family and I’d have to come to the funeral in handcuffs and shackles. My son’s just become a father and I wouldn’t wanted to have missed that. Missing stuff like that scared the hell out of me.”

Johnson’s rep is everything. He wants it known what he did was out of character. That part of his past does not define him. “I’ve done some bad things, but I’m still a good person. You’ll find very few people that have anything bad to say about me personally,” he said. “You’ll mostly find sympathy, which I hate.” But he knows some perceive him negatively. “I don’t know if I’m getting that licked yet. If I don’t, it’s OK. I can’t do anything about that.”

He takes full responsibility for his crimes and is visibly upset when he talks about doing time with the likes of rapists and child molesters. “I own up to what I did,” he said. “I deserved to go to prison. I was out of control. But as much trouble as I’ve been in, I’ve never been violent. I never touched violence. The only fights I’ve had have been on the basketball court, in the heat of battle.”

He filled jobs in recent years via the correction system’s work release program. Shortly before regaining his freedom in May, he faced the hard reality any ex-con does of finding long-term work with a felony conviction haunting him. When he’d get to the part of an application asking, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” — he’d check, yes. Where it said, “Please explain,” he’d write in the box, “Will explain in the interview.” Only he rarely got the chance to tell his story.

Then his luck changed. Drake Williams Steel Company of Omaha saw the man and not the record and hired him to work the night shift on its production line. “I really appreciate them giving me an opportunity, because they didn’t have to. A lot of places wouldn’t. And to be perfectly honest, I understand that. This company is employee-oriented, and they like me. They’re letting me learn things.”

He isn’t used to the blue-collar grind. “All my jobs have been sitting behind a desk, pretty much. Now I’m doing manual labor, and it’s hard work. I’m scratched up. I work on a hydro saw. I weld. I operate an overhead crane that moves 3,000-pound steel beams. I’m a machine operator, a drill operator…”

The hard work has brought Johnson full circle with the legacy of his late father, Jesse Johnson, an Okie and ex-Golden Gloves boxer who migrated north to work the packing houses. “My father was a hard working man,” he said. “He worked two full-time jobs to support us. We didn’t have everything but we had what we needed. I’ve been around elite athletes, but my father, he was the strongest man I’ve ever known, physically, emotionally and mentally. He didn’t get past the 8th grade, but he was very well read, very smart.”

His pops was stern but loving. Johnson also has a knack with young people — he’s on good terms with his children from his first marriage, Keenan and Jessica — and aspires one day to work again with “kids on the edge.”

“I shine around kids,” he said. “I can talk to them at their level. I listen. There’s very few things a kid can talk about that I wouldn’t be able to relate to. I just hope I didn’t burn too many bridges. I would hate to think my life would end without ever being able to work with kids again. That’s one of my biggest fears. I really liked the Boys Club and the probation work I did, and I really miss that.”

He still has a way with kids. Johnson and a teammate from those ’74 and ’75 Central High state title teams spoke to the ‘05-’06 Central squad before the title game tipped off last Saturday. “C” told the kids that the press clippings from those championship years were getting awfully yellow in the school trophy case and that it was about time Central won itself a new title and a fresh set of clippings. He let them know that school and inner city pride were on the line.

He’s put out feelers with youth service agencies, hoping someone gives him a chance to . For now though he’s a steel worker who keeps a low profile. He loves talking sports with the guys at the barbershop and cafe. He works out. He plays hoops. Away from prying eyes, he visits Michael’s grave, telling him he’s sorry for what happened and swearing he won’t go back to the life that led to the pen. Meanwhile, those dearest to Johnson watch and wait. They pray he can resist the old temptations.

Crawford, whom Johnson calls “godfather,” has known him 35 years. He’s one of the lifelines “C” uses when things get hairy. “I know pretty much where he is at all times. I’m always reaching out for him … because I know it is not easy what he’s trying to do. He dug that hole himself and he knows he’s got to do what’s necessary. He’s got to show that he’s capable of changing and putting his life back together. He’s got to find the confidence and the courage and the faith to make the right choices. It’s going to take his friends and family to encourage him and provide whatever support they possibly can. But he’s a good man and he has a big heart.”

Johnson is adamant his using days are over and secure that his close family and tight friends have his back. “Today, my friends and I can just sit around and have a good time, talking and laughing, and it doesn’t have nothing to do with drugs or alcohol. There used to be a time for me you wouldn’t think that would be possible. I still see people in that lifestyle and I just pray for them.”

Besides, he said, “I’m tired of being tired.”

 

Song girl Ann Ronell

August 19, 2011 4 comments

I understand that a long overdue honor will be accorded Ann Ronell when she is posthumously inducted into the Omaha Central High School hall of fame. The recognition should draw new attention here to one of the most accomplished popular music composers of the 20th century, male or female, and shed light on groundbreaking work she did in Tin Pan Alley and in Hollywood when she was one of very few female composers.  Her career intersected with that of many legendary musical artists, some of whom she collaborated with. I came across her story as the result of my association with the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society, whose director, Renee Corcoran, alerted me to the fact the author of a new book about Ronell had done research about the artist in the Society’s archives. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) details some highlights about Ronell and her remarkable career and includes comments about her by  the book’s author, Tighe Zimmers.

 

 

Ann Ronell

 

 

Song girl Ann Ronell

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Native Omahan Ann Ronell was a swing era flapper whose songwriting skills made her a Tin Pan Alley, Broadway and Hollywood name in the male-dominated field of composing. Her versatility extended to writing English adaptations of classic operas.

Her collaborators and friends included such legendary figures as George Gershwin, Lotte Lenye, Kurt Weill and Leonard Bernstein. She’d already worked with the Walt Disney studio when she met Hollywood producer Lester Cowan in 1935. She went on to contribute music to several features produced by her husband.

Before she was through she made history as the first woman to: compose scores for Hollywood feature films (Algiers, 1939, One Touch of Venus, 1948); write both words and music for a Broadway musical (Count Me In, 1942); and earn Oscar nominations for best song (“Linda”) and best score (The Story of G.I. Joe, 1945). She wrote songs for films as diverse as Jean Renoir’s The River and the John Wayne Western, Hondo. She’s best known for the bluesy standard tune, “Willow Weep for Me,” and the novelty song, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?

Her success is chronicled in the new book, Tin Pan Alley Girl, A Biography of Ann Ronell (McFarland), by American popular song buff Tighe Zimmers, an ER physician at West Suburban Medical Center in Oak Park, Illinois. He got hooked on the great American songbook at Highland Park’s Ravinia Festival. He collected autographs of jazz greats. The idea for the book came after he purchased a collection of Ronell papers in 1999. The 24 boxes of materials underscored an unusual career that saw Ronell straddle the worlds of low brow and high brow music.

Zimmers found most “impressive” her eclectic interests and ability to work in different genres with diverse artists. “I think it speaks to her talent, intelligence and charm. People liked working with her.” She could also be what a Ronell relative described as “a steel fist in a velvet glove.” Ronell attributed her success to “perseverance and stick-to-it-iveness.” Said Zimmers, “I think that’s what she had and I think in some situations she had to really push to stay in that world.”

 

 

 

 

A few years ago Zimmers’ research brought him to Omaha to sift through the small Ronell collection maintained by the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society. Those holdings will soon grow as Zimmers is donating his entire Ronell collection to the NJHS. In addition to handing over the materials, he’s coming to speak about Ronell’s legacy for a 7 p.m. program on July 15 at the Jewish Community Center. Tuffy Epstein and Emily Meyer of Omaha will perform selections of Ronell’s music. Ronell memorabilia, including personal music sheets and photos, will be on display. A book signing and reception will follow. The event is free and open to the public.

“Ronell’s life and music is still very attached to Omaha. She still has friends and family here. It should be a wonderful night filled with memories and music,” said NJHS executive director Renee Corcoran.

 

 

 

 

Born Ann Rosenblatt in 1905, Ronell was a dancing, songwriting prodigy. She composed the class song for her 1923 Omaha Central High School graduation. She performed on a local radio variety show broadcast on WNAL. After a stint at Wheaton College she transferred to Radcliffe, where she bloomed. A meeting with George Gershwin led to her becoming his assistant and protege and some say lover.

Her early work was performed and recorded by many top swing era bands and vocalists, including the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, Ruth Etting and Billie Holiday. She wrote special material for an amazing roster of singers and artists, ranging from Eddie Cantor to Louis Armstrong to Ella Fitzgerald to Judy Garland to Andy Williams.

She’s in the National Association of Popular Music/Songwriters Hall of Fame. On one of her few visits to Omaha after making it she performed a concert of her own songs at the Paramount Theatre in 1934. She died in 1993 at age 88 in Manhattan.

“I think she just had an absolute universal love of music and dance and it shows up in her career in many things,” said Zimmers.



Omaha native Steve Marantz looks back at city’s ’68 racial divide through prism of hoops in new book, “The Rhythm Boys of Omaha Central”

April 1, 2011 29 comments

 It was two years ago when I first heard about Steve Marantz‘s then in-progress book about racial tensions in late 1960s Omaha – our shared hometown – through the prism of basketball. I knew then I would have to write about it.  Fast forward to my getting a copy of the book earlier this year and finding it a compelling read and then my filing the story below for a local publication that is still looking for an editorial hole to drop it in. Those editorial holes are getting harder to come by as papers literally shrink, but that’s another story. I highly recommend Marantz’s book for its glimpse at the convergence of racial, cultural, social, and political streams that came to a head in 1968 in Omaha and a lot of other places. He was there when it played out and now more than four decades later he revisits the story with the perspective of time.  The four battlegrounds where the events of his story blow up are stand-ins for larger forces: there’s the staid old school, Omaha Central High, with a diverse student body and out-of-touch administration in an era when interracial friendship, especially romance, could only happen on the down low and when expectations for black and white student achievement contrasted sharply; there’s the Omaha Civic Auditorium where George Wallace’s appearance set off violence; there’s North 24th Street, the black business hub with its mix of black and white owners, that became the target of outrage; and there’s the state basketball tournament in Lincoln, Neb., where black teams from Omaha historically got the shaft from all white officiating crews. But what elevates Marantz’s book is its occasional intimate glances at the personal costs exacted by the contradictions and the turmoil.

Omaha native Steve Marantz looks back at city’s ’68 racial divide through prism of hoops in new book, “The Rhythm Boys of Omaha Central”

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

America’s social fabric came asunder in 1968. Vietnam. Civil rights. Rock ‘n’ roll. Free love. Illegal drugs. Black power. Campus protests. Urban riots.

Omaha was a pressure cooker of racial tension. African-Americans demanded redress from poverty, discrimination, segregation, police misconduct.

Then, like now, Central High School was a cultural bridge by virtue of its downtown location — within a couple miles radius of ethnic enclaves: the Near Northside (black), Bagel (Jewish), Little Italy, Little Bohemia. A diverse student population has enriched the school’s high academic offerings.

Steve Marantz was a 16-year-old Central sophomore that pivotal year when a confluence of social-cultural-racial-political streams converged and a flood of emotions spilled out, forever changing those involved.

Marantz became a reporter for Kansas City and Boston papers. Busy with life and career, the ’68 events receded into memory. Then on a golf outing with classmates the conversation turned to that watershed and he knew he had to write about it.

“It just became so obvious there’s a story there and it needs to be told,” he says.

The result is his new book The Rhythm Boys of Omaha Central: High School Basketball and the ’68 Racial Divide (University of Nebraska Press).

Speaking by phone from his home near Boston, Marantz says, “It appealed to me because of the elements in it that I think make for a good story — it had a compact time frame, there was a climatic event, and it had strong characters.” Besides, he says sports is a prime “vehicle for examining social issues.”

Conflict, baby. Caught up in the maelstrom was the fabulous ’68 Central basketball team, whose all-black starting five earned the sobriquet, The Rhythm Boys. Their enigmatic star, Dwaine Dillard, was a 6-7 big-time college hoops recruit. As if the stress of such expectations wasn’t enough, he lived on the edge.

At a time when it was taboo, he and some fellow blacks dated white girls at the school. Vikki Dollis was involved with Dillard’s teammate, Willie Frazier. In his book Marantz includes excerpts from a diary she kept. Marantz says her “genuine,” “honest,” angst-filled entries “opened a very personal window” that “changed the whole perspective” of events for him. “I just knew the vague outlines of it. The details didn’t really begin to emerge until I did the reporting.”

Functionally illiterate, Dillard barely got by in class. A product of a broken home, he had little adult supervision. Running the streets. he was an enigma easily swayed.

Things came to a head when the polarizing Alabama segregationist George Wallace came to speak at Omaha’s Civic Auditorium. Disturbances broke out, with fires set and windows broken along the Deuce Four (North 24th Street.) A young man caught looting was shot and killed by police.

Dillard became a lightning rod symbol for discontent when he was among a group of young men arrested for possession of rocks and incendiary materials. This was only days before the state tournament. Though quickly released and the charges dropped, he was branded a malcontent and worse.

White-black relations at Central grew strained, erupting into fights. Black students staged protests. Marantz says then-emerging community leader Ernie Chambers made his “loud…powerful…influential” voice heard.

The school’s aristocratic principal, J. Arthur Nelson, was befuddled by the generation gap that rejected authority. “I think change overtook him,” says Marantz. “He was of an earlier era, his moment had come and gone.”

Dillard was among the troublemakers and his coach, Warren Marquiss, suspended him for the first round tourney game. Security was extra tight in Lincoln, where predominantly black Omaha teams often got the shaft from white officials. In Marantz’s view the basketball court became a microcosm of what went on outside athletics, where “negative stereotypes” prevailed.

Central advanced to the semis without Dillard. With him back in the lineup the Eagles made it to the finals but lost to Lincoln Northeast. Another bitter disappointment. There was no violence, however.

The star-crossed Dillard went to play ball at Eastern Michigan but dropped out. He later made the Harlem Globetrotters and, briefly, the ABA. Marantz interviewed Dillard three weeks before his death. “I didn’t know he was that sick,” he says.

Marantz says he’s satisfied the book’s “touched a chord” with classmates by examining “one of those coming of age moments” that mark, even scar, lives.

An independent consultant for ESPN’s E: 60, he’s rhe author of the 2008 book Sorcery at Caesars about Sugar Ray Leonard‘s upset win over Marvin Hagler and is working on new a book about Fenway High School.

Marantz was recently back in Omaha to catch up with old Central classmates and to sign copies of Rhythm Boys at The Bookworm.

 

 

 

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


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

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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.”

Howard Rosenberg’s much-traveled news career

June 2, 2010 3 comments

Edward R. Murrow at work with CBS, 1957.

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I am a sucker for stories about fellow Omahans who have left this place and made successes of themselves on a national scale. One such subject is Howard Rosenberg, a much-honored newsman whose career in investigative journalism has seen him break major stories over the past three decades or more.  I did this profile on him for the Jewish Press in Omaha and I share it here because Rosenberg’s life and career add up to a good yarn that I think a general readership will find interesting.  You be the judge.

Howard Rosenberg’s much-traveled news career

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Jewish Press

 

The pursuit of a hot story brought ABC news producer Howard Rosenberg from the network’s Washington, D.C. bureau to his hometown of Omaha in mid-September. He was on the trail of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, an avid Husker football fan who attended the September 15 Nebraska-Southern Cal football game.

Thomas’ wife, Ginni, is a native Nebraska and a University of Nebraska-Lincoln grad.

While in state Thomas was interviewed by ABC News legal correspondent Jan Crawford Greenburg. Rosenberg produced that segment as well as other recent interviews Greenburg conducted with Thomas, who’s plugging his autobiography, My Grandfather’s Son. The Thomas segments produced by Rosenberg ran October 1 on Good Morning AmericaWorld News Tonight with Charles Gibson and Nightline.

Growing up in Omaha, Rosenberg and his family attended Beth Israel Synagogue. His late parents were Monroe and Pearl Rosenberg. His two siblings, Marilyn Tripp and Maynard Rosenberg, reside in Omaha.

A veteran print and television journalist, Rosenberg’s been on the hunt for news since entering the U.S. Navy in 1972. He went in on the promise his nascent journalism skills, first developed at Omaha Central High School, would find good use in the service. They did. He edited a service magazine and freelanced.

For much of his news career he’s done investigative reporting, perhaps the highest calling for a journalist. It’s a mission he takes quite seriously. He said while “there’s a solitary aspect” to the research “there’s also an excitement to it; that you’re on the chase and you’re really searching for something and you’re looking for that moment, for that document, for that bit of information that’s going to make a difference. It’s very satisfying in that regard.”

He’s uncovered some major wrongdoings in his time, from top secret documents revealing illegal U.S. government-sponsored human experiments to tapes implicating key players in the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages operation.

After more than 30 years in the business, including a long stint at CBS, he remains remarkably unjaded, especially given he’s spent much of that time in Washington, D.C. He possesses the healthy skepticism necessary to do his job, but not the cynicism you might expect. At 55, he retains the same faith in his profession — and the difference it can make in people’s lives — that he did when he first got into it.

“The end result and the objective is to help people understand something or learn something they didn’t know before,” he said. “There’s a concept in Judaism, that sort of underpins the ethos of the faith, of tikkun olam, which means repair the world. And anytime you meet a young journalist they generally all have the same sort of idealism — that they’re going to go out and change the world.

“I think of it very much as a calling and something that is a useful career for people like us to do because I think in some small measure you accomplish a minor repair by stitching up a hole of knowledge on something that’s important.”

His repairs have come for many prestigious news groups. He’s written pieces for Mother Jones, The New Republic, The Progressive, Parade, The Washington Post and The New York Times. He’s produced in-depth segments for the CBS Evening News60 MinutesABC World News TonightPrimetime Live and Nightline. None of it might have happened, though, without his hitch in the Navy. He was 21 and unsure what to do with his life. All he had going for him was an ability to write. The Navy gave him a focus to perfect his craft.

“Navy recruiters were so anxious to get someone who could write a declarative sentence, which I could, they guaranteed me I could be a Navy journalist,” Rosenberg said from the Regency Marriott he stayed in during his recent visit. “They also gave me the rank of E3 out of boot camp, which meant I made more than my fellow recruits, which was fine with me.”

His reason for joining the Navy, rather than another branch of service, was quirky.

“Truth? I don’t like to wear ties and with a Navy uniform you don’t have to wear a tie. It’s as simple as that,” he said, smiling broadly.

He had enlisted in the service after “a very undistinguished academic career” at UNL, where he piled up lots of credits in creative writing and journalism, but came away with little else to show for his time there.

The Navy “was a fantastic turn of events for me,” he said, “because it gave me time to mature and I worked in a very interesting job.” The experience gave him a training ground to “hone” his skills for his subsequent news career.

After his honorable discharge he studied journalism at George Washington University, an elite private college in the nation’s capitol. “I could never have afforded to go,” he said, “without my Uncle Sugar paying the tab.”

The 1976 honors grad soon landed his first big break — as an associate editor of the late muckraker, Jack Anderson, in Washington, D.C., where Rosenberg’s been based his entire career. He, his wife and their two sons live in Chevy Place, Md.

Before Rosenberg ever went to work for Anderson, he’d been told he was cut from the same prickly mold as the crusading news hound.

“There was a lieutenant — one of the last commanders I worked for in the particular (Navy) division I was in — who saw me as somewhat of an iconoclast. I was a bit of a troublemaker, And one day this lieutenant said to me, ‘You know, Rosenberg, you’re kind of a (epithet) and you ought to go work for that other (epithet) — Jack Anderson.’ And I said, ‘Oh, that’s not a bad idea,’ and so I did.”

Rosenberg joined a group of idealistic journalists flush with power-of-the-press ambitions in the wake of Woodward-Bernstein’s expose of the Watergate cover up.

 

 

Jack Anderson

 

 

“Jack had at that point won a Pulitzer Prize and he had a staff of young turks who were all in their 20s, many of whom went onto careers in journalism,” he said. Besides Rosenberg and the lofty credits he’s since accrued, there were: Howard Kurtz, now a Washington Post reporter; Brit Hume, an ABC correspondent; Gary Cohen, a Pulitzer-winner with the Baltimore Sun and now an L.A. Times reporter; and Hal Burton, part of the Pulitzer-team at the Seattle Times.

“A lot of good journalists came out of there,” Rosenberg said. “It was a great place to work. I was 25 years old and I had a press credential that got me into press conferences at the White House, where I would go and ask questions of the President of the United States. It was very exciting.”

In Anderson, Rosenberg found “very much a mentor.”

“He was a Mormon, so he was very paternal. You know, ‘We’re all a big family.’ We played together, we worked together. I learned a lot,” Rosenberg said.

Looking back, the Omahan was fated to be a writer and a storyteller, which is how he ultimately thinks of himself.

“I had an interest not just in journalism but in writing, much of which was encouraged both by my late mother and by a teacher I had at Omaha Central High School named John Joseph Francis Keenan. He was just an inspirational teacher.”

The late Keenan preceded Rosenberg in the school’s hall of fame, whose distinguished ranks include many notables in the fields of arts and sciences. Rosenberg was accepted to the hall in 2005.

Rosenberg’s mother, the former Pearl Schneider, was a Central grad herself. Her inclinations sparked his own passions. “She was a great fan of moviedom and I loved to go to movies. She took me to movies when I was a child,” he recalled. What fascinated him most weren’t the actors but the stories. Somebody had to write the scenarios, after all, and thus began a lifelong interest in screen writing. “I always liked that aspect of the medium and thought a lot about it,” he said.

Rosenberg wrote a book, Atomic Soldiers (1980), “hoping it would become a movie.” It did. The book details how American servicemen were recklessly exposed to harmful levels of radiation during Cold War atomic weapons tests. It relied in part on classified documents he obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. It took a lot of digging, a lot of persistence. With docs in hand he felt emboldened, as his old boss Jack Anderson used to say, that “now the story can be told…”

“I was very interested in what happened to these soldiers,” he said. “The story of the atomic tests on soldiers had never really been told in the mass media since the time it happened…and then it was cast in a very controlled way by the federal government because it was all part of a Cold War propaganda strategy.”

Atomic Soldiers began as a magazine article but the more research he did the more he realized it was a subject that demanded a more thorough telling. The process of  going from page to screen took longer than he imagined. Nine years to be exact. He said it took so long because the ultra-conservative political climate then was not receptive to learning that American servicemen were used as human guinea pigs by their own country in tests that compromised their health. The soldiers were not told of the risks they faced. His book’s subtitle says it all: American Victims of Nuclear Experiments. “A lot of political ground had to be covered. There was not a lot of interest in taking on that subject anywhere,” he said. “It was a very difficult movie to get made.”

Screenwriter Tom Cook (China Syndrome) eventually adapted the book for a 19889 TNT cable movie called Nightbreakers starring Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez. The film version pleased Rosenberg.

“I thought it was wonderful,” he said. “You know how authors always say, ‘Ah, they butchered my book.’ I didn’t feel that way at all. I mean, Tom (Cook) wrote a fictionalized teleplay and it was its own work of art…his own artistic vision of the story and the best way to tell the story. It was like a dream come true in the sense that here was a story I had written that was made into a movie. My only regret was that my mother didn’t live to see it.”

As often happened in his career, one project led to another. His book research got him onto another story he then developed into a cover expose for Mother Jones, which in turn first brought him to the attention of network TV news.

 

Howard L. Rosenberg

Howard Rosenberg

 

 

“The article in Mother Jones grew out of a minor, sort of sidebar I learned about in writing my book,” he said. “It was about these children who were taken to a chamber” at a federal cancer care center in Oak Ridge, Tenn. “and (unwittingly) exposed to total body irradiation in an effort to cure them of various forms of blood malignancies — leukemia and so forth. These human experiments were conducted on behalf of NASA and the old Atomic Energy Commission” from 1957 to 1974 and “used nuclear sources on children.” The article suggested some of the children were denied conventional therapy in favor of the radical radiation treatment. “Every one of them died,” Rosenberg said of the young patients.

He can still hardly believe what horrors the children suffered in the name of science. The more he dug, the more it resembled Frankenstein or, more chilling yet, the Nazi medical experiments of World War II.

“It was almost like science fiction,” he said. “The more I Iearned about it it seemed like something out of someone’s imagination. Not to disparage him, but one of the physicians who ran this clinic had a deformity…a hunch back.”

Rosenberg was so struck by the story he revisited it 12 years later — this time as producer of a 60 Minutes segment. “I was able, through a source I had, to get into the chamber” where the experiments were done. The space was now a storage room. “I took back a woman who had lived in that chamber with her child while he was being irradiated, so she was irradiated, too.” The woman he brought to the site of so much grief was the mother of Dwayne Sexton, who died at age 6.

The Mother Jones story “got a lot attention. All three networks did stories on their nightly news broadcasts about this story I had written,” he said. New opportunities soon presented themselves. One came from the Center for Investigative Reporting, which approached Rosenberg and colleague Howard Kohn to open a Washington bureau. The two journalists, collaborators on Rolling Stone and Outside Magazine pieces, directed a year-long project on nuclear arms policy. By this time Rosenberg had become identified as an expert on the topic.

“I learned a lot about nuclear weapons — how they’re made, what effects they have, who the people are designing them, what the national security plans and implications of having a nuclear arsenal are. It was all part of my research.”

Thus, he said, he got “pigeonholed…every time somebody wanted to know something about nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons policy or testing, they’d say, ‘Well, let’s go to the guy that wrote that book.’”

His specialization paid dividends when the networks came calling.

“A certain light went on and I started asking myself, Well, why not cut out out the middle man? And that was really kind of one of those seminal moments where you sort of figure things out and say, This could be a really stimulating way to go — to combine my limited skills as a writer with my interest in visual media,” he said.

For his first forays into TV he still kept one foot in the print world, filing stories for both magazines and the networks.

“In those days the networks were interested in expanding their reach into investigative reporting,” he said. “But there weren’t a lot of people in television who were familiar with the kind of rigorous and mind-numbing work you have to do in investigative reporting. There was a fellow who worked at the time for the CBS Evening News who had an idea to go to people who were doing investigative reporting and form partnerships with them.”

 

 

 

 

The way it worked was a publication like Mother Jones and a network like CBS would work cooperatively on select projects, combining resources to break stories at the same time. The idea appealed to Rosenberg as it introduced him to the way television news is done, got his foot in the door at the networks, netted his stories bigger audiences and compensated him better than before.

“It was fine with me because investigative reporting is not just tedious and labor intensive, it’s time intensive,” he said, “and so you spend an awful lot of time for a relatively modest return in terms of financial renumeration.”

He began at CBS, then the most respected name in TV news. Icons abounded. Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, Don Hewitt, Morley Safer, Mike Wallace.

“It was really a very heady place with just a storied history,” he said. “There were just a lot of wonderful reporters there. George Herman, Robert Shackney. All these legendary names. People with great pipes, great voices.”

He began by working directly for Rather, who’d just taken over the anchor slot, from Cronkite, on the CBS Evening News. Rosenberg was one of the producers of the taped segment that preceded Rather’s famously contentious 1988 interview with then-candidate George Bush. He eventually moved over to 60 Minutes. He found working for the original news magazine, “a very, very rewarding experience.” His mentor was its creator and executive producer, Don Hewitt.

“I learned a lot from Don Hewitt, whose mandate was, ‘Tell me a story.’ Some people describe 60 Minutes as formulaic and mean it as a disparagement, but at the same time it is a formula that works in terms of storytelling. It has its limitations, as all of us as storytellers do. It is in some ways very black and white. You’re got your good guy and your bad guy and there’s not a lot of gray.

“There’s a certain pattern of the process that’s in some ways quite predictable. But at the same time it’s very comfortable.”

He worked on too many stories he liked, including several included among Classic 60 Minutes, to easily name his favorites. “The truth is usually the story I’m working on is the one that I like the best,” he said.

Pressed, he cited the story about the human experimentation at Oak Ridge. “That’s one of the most fascinating stories I’ve ever worked on,” he said. “I was very proud of that. The first story I ever did for 60 Minutes, called ‘The World’s Biggest Shopping Spree,’ was sort of a tour of these giant warehouses that covered hundreds of acres of Defense Department supplies in storage since the Korean War.
That’s one of my favorites.”

Then there was Olliegate.

“It was only a minute and 30 seconds, but it had quite an impact,” he said, referring “to the story of the security system outside of then-Colonel Oliver North’s house that ended up getting him indicted and sort of unraveled the entire criminal enterprise. All of the people involved in that (Iran-Contra operation run by North) were indicted under federal conspiracy charges.”

 

Oliver North

 

 

All the convictions were overturned on appeal, he added.

Other Rosenberg segments for 60 Minutes range from the controversial “Confessions of a Tobacco Lobbyist” to “The Letter,” a two-part probe of jury-tampering during the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

In’ 97 he left CBS for “a better offer” from ABC. The new post allowed him more time at home with his family. Not long into his ABC tenure he found himself in the awkward position of investigating former friends and colleagues at CBS. Rather had come under fire over a 60 Minutes report that offered documents purportedly showing President George W. Bush shucked a portion of his National Guard service.

Rosenberg said, “It was actually quite ironic in the sense that I ended up not just reporting on it but discovering the information that ended up unraveling the entire cover up by CBS” — hence known as Memogate. “I found two document examiners who had been consulted by 60 Minutes and by Dan Rather’s producer. They warned CBS the documents could not be authenticated. I also visited with the nation’s finest expert on typewriters. He said very explicitly it was impossible for any typewriter of that particular vintage to have created a superscript ‘th’ in the way it appeared in the documents. That was only possible in the computer age.”

“It was a joyless scoop,” said Rosenberg, as the fallout from the ABC report “ultimately led I think to Rather’s fall. I have a lot of personal affection and admiration for him. He is a person of great personal courage and great integrity.”

The two men have since met and spoken about the affair “and to his credit,” Rosenberg said, Rather “did not hold it against me because he understood himself as a journalist that the ultimate arbiter of what we do is the truth.”

Nightline assignments keep Rosenberg on the move. In the past year alone he’s been to: Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; Afghanistan; Lebanon and China. He’s produced segments featuring the first network TV interviews with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and coverage of the recent Minneapolis bridge collapse.

His ABC credits also include: writing/producing the hour-long specials, “Rumsfeld’s Rules of War” and “9/11: Moment of Crisis;” co-writing/co-producing the hour-long reports, “The Hunt for Osama bin Laden,” “Attack on the USS Cole,” “American Terrorist: In His Own Words” and a special Nightline edition, “The Lost Convoy” — the story of the Army’s 507th Maintenance Company ambushed in Iraq.

He’s often asked, what does a producer do? His answer: “Whatever you have to do to put the light in the box.” Any news segment, he said, is a team effort and “I can’t say enough about how important each part of the team is to the process, from the editors and audio engineers to the graphic artists to the producer to the correspondent. To the guy you hire to stand there at the entrance to the hotel with a flak jacket on and a semi-automatic rifle to make sure nobody comes in.”

“The collaborative nature of television is what I find most exciting and satisfying because unlike the solitary tedium of investigative reporting, you’re part of a team and there’s a real team spirit, especially in a show like Nightline. And especially when news is breaking or when you’re in a war zone, it’s just such an enveloping feeling. People bring different strengths and skills to the process.”

Ultimately Rosenberg is a journalist because of his undying “curiosity,” the same quality, he said, “that makes for any good journalist and makes this a great career for people who are interested in learning. When I talk to young people and they ask me about journalism I say…it’s a great career for people with short attention spans and…for people who like to go to school. What you do is you learn everything you can possibly learn about something and then you have a final exam, which in this case is you write your story or produce your segment. And then you forget about it and go on to the next thing. It’s like you’re a student all the time.”

It all sometimes seems too good to be true.

“I just feel so fortunate I want to pinch myself and say how lucky I am. Wow. And I’m getting paid to do this,” he said.

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