My alma mater, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, doesn’t possess the kind of larger-than-life, romantic tradition one associates with elite schools, which it most definitely is not. But in its own humble way the school has accumulated a notable and rich enough history. A modest book about that history was released a few years ago on the eve of UNO turning 100. This article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) more or less reviews the book and its impressionistic look at that school that’s seen much change over its lifetime and long ago left behind the West Dodge High moniker that many once attached to it.
Book Explores University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Rich History
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
With the UNO centennial nearing, a new book by two longtime historians at the university gives readers a primer on the events and persons that have shaped the school over its nearly 100-year existence. The book, simply titled “University of Nebraska at Omaha,” is part of Arcadia Publishing’s “Campus History Series.”
The text for the photo-rich work is mostly by Oliver Pollak, holder of the Martin Chair in History at UNO. He’s taught at the school since 1974. Pollak is the author of two previous books published by Arcadia — “Jewish Life in Omaha and Lincoln” and “Nebraska Courthouses.”
Selecting the 200-some images that illustrate the UNO volume’s 128-pages largely fell to Les Valentine, a UNO graduate (B.A. 1976, M.A. 1980) who has served as the university archivist since 1986. By virtue of his deep knowledge of UNO history and his intimate familiarity with the thousands of images and documents in the Dr. C.C. and Mabel L. Criss Library’s archives, Valentine was able to provide Pollak the context needed to flesh out the narratives and personalities behind the pictures.
Old acquaintances, the authors teamed up for the book in the spring of 2006 when Pollak suggested the idea to Valentine. The project marked the pair’s first collaboration. Pollak queried Arcadia with the proposal, a contract was signed and a December deadline set. The authors say they met the deadline on the dot.
As the subject is so close to them the men found the project a neat fit. “We’ve both been at UNO for years and years and years,” Valentine says, “and we have a good background on the history of the institution.” Pollak notes they have been at UNO for “a third of the lifetime of the school.”
The process of doing the book around normal duties proved relatively painless. “It was fun working with Les,” Pollak says. “We would get together on Saturday mornings and pull tables together on the lower level of the library and spread out these pictures and mess around with the order…what picture should be facing what picture. Les has been working the archives for so long he had stories and newspaper clippings to support the stories.”
Space issues meant only a small fraction of archival materials made the final cut. “It was a selection process,” Pollak says, adding he and Valentine chose from among digital images, prints, slides and negatives. “There was a variety. We managed to get high quality images and I think they got reproduced very well.” Some choices, he says, “are forced by technology and ratios of width to height.” Enough good photos had to be left out that he and Valentine have toyed with the idea of doing a presentation of them. “There’s still some good images out there,” Pollak says. Or, as Valentine put it, “There’s enough to do four or five photo-books, easy.”
Among their favorites to make it in is the cover image of a circa 1971 campus life scene. It pictures a diverse group of students gathered for a concert outside Arts and Sciences Hall — the then-administration building. The columned structure’s familiar cupola towers overhead. Pollak calls the photo “the iconic vision” of UNO. “It’s students spread out on the green, it’s 1971, it’s music, it’s diversity, it’s an urban university, it’s a school on a hill, it’s springtime. It was just a natural.”
Adding to its weight is the fact the 1938 building was the first structure built on the present north campus.
Valentine likes the background cover image, composed of smiling student faces, documenting a significant aspect of the school’s past. The picture is from a 1951 mill levy election victory party. In the institution’s municipal era, from 1938 to 1968, funding hikes were at the whim of city voters. Often as not, elections went against then-Omaha University. Some students actively campaigned in these elections.
The authors agree the milestone events in UNO’s history, each well documented, are the school’s 1938 move from its original north Omaha site to the current main campus and the move from the municipal model into the NU system. Just as the transition from municipal to state funding opened new horizons, including an expansion program that’s never really stopped, the university’s severing of ties to its Presbyterian Church roots ushered in new growth.
The physical move, Pollak said, was key to OU gaining accreditation by the North Central Association, another major event in the school’s life.
“You can’t live without accreditation. It’s important because it’s sort of like a seal of approval,” Pollak says. “You can’t live without a physical plant that’s attractive, just as you couldn’t live on Presbyterians alone.”He said that the school achieved three major defining goals in the 1930s — to municipalize, relocate and be accredited — amidst the constraints and struggles of the Great Depression “is an accomplishment.”
Change runs through UNO’s history, but the authors say its mission of providing a quality higher ed option to urban, working-class students has remained constant. What may surprise readers? One thing the authors point to is how the school welcomed women and racial minorities long before politically correct to do so.
UNO’s latest sea changes, they say, include the addition of dormitories, the development of the south campus and the embrace of information technology. Pollak says the way the university adapts to its times “is like a breeder-reactor” — putting out an ever exponentially greater return than what it takes in. UNO’s growth, while not always smooth, moves forward.
“Some hiccups, some burps, some setbacks, some waiting a little bit longer than you thought you would want to wait for innovation, and then crafting it in a way that fits Omaha,” he says. “Some people oppose it because it’s state funds, some because ‘they’re coming into my neighborhood,’ but it’s positively relentless.”
Leadership drives change and the figures at the top over this 100 years range from loyal soldier W. Gilbert James to tragic William Sealock to strong Milo Bail to embattled Leland Traywick to visionary Del Weber. The authors say the tenures of UNO presidents/chancellors tend to be placid or stormy. But the heartbeat of a university is its students, faculty and staff and the book is replete with examples of programs, activities, classes and rituals that express this human dimension.
From parades, athletic contests and commencements to groundbreaking ceremonies to visiting dignitaries to student protests to class/team photos to walks in Elmwood Park, it’s all charted. Even life in those awful annexes/Quonset huts.
Valentine says beyond alums, the book should appeal to a wide readership.
“Certainly people in Omaha should enjoy the book. It was their institution, for years and years and years, and in fact it’s still their institution,” he says. “We kind of grew up along with the city in many ways.”
The book is available online at www.arcadiapublishing.com or at fine bookstores.
- A Homage to the Bootstrapper by the Grande Olde Players (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- UNO/OLLAS Resident Expert on Cuban and Latino Matters Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- From the Archives: Warren Francke, A Passion for Journalism, Teaching and Life (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Project Improve Aims to Make the Best of a Bad Situation with Illegal Immigrant Detainees (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Gender Equity in Sports Has Come a Long Way, Baby; Activists-Advocates Who Fought for Change See Progress and the Need for More (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Larry Ferguson is one of the most collected and published fine art photographers in the Midwest. I have long been aware of the artist and his work, yet it was only witinh the last couple years he became a subject for this writer. I suspect I will be writing more about him in the years to come. This article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared in conjunction with an exhibition he had at Creighton University. The black and white works in the show were drawn from various series he has done over the years depictiing the views afforded by rooms he stayed in and various touchstone places he’s visited in his many travels. Like many photographers I’ve met over the years, he maintains a very cool studio space.
Larry Ferguson Studio
Photographer Larry Ferguson’s Work is a Meditation on the Nature of Views and Viewing
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Photographer Larry Ferguson’s lush black and white imagery displays a mastery of technique and composition. But it’s not so much the work’s subject or execution as the evocative subtext bound up in it that is most arresting.
His new exhibition at Creighton University’s Lied Art Gallery, The View From My Room, is drawn from pictures he’s made of scenes outside the many rooms he’s inhabited over 30 years. The rooms, located in Nebraska, other parts of the U.S. and the far corners of the globe, offer a road map of sorts for the Omaha artist’s journey through life and craft. Aside from a few landscape and cityscape images, nothing dramatic or sumptuous is revealed, but rather the prosaic, mundane fixtures and rhythms of life as it proceeds around us. That’s the point.
Ferguson shows the holy ordinary of moments and places, some he has personal ties to and others he merely intersects with, but all of which express deep stirrings in him. It is, he said, “a travelogue through my emotional life.”
This work is the first of several ongoing series he’s photographed since the late ‘70s to be organized into an exhibition. Besides views from his rooms, these series variously focus on “skyscapes, treescapes, grain elevators, nudes, private moments and all the great loves I’ve had in my life,” he said. “All are very long term, special projects that eventually will see the light of day.” Selections for these series are made from his archive of 250,000 negatives at his 17th and Vinton Streets studio.
He hopes the work provokes viewers to contemplate its underlying themes. “Rarely do people ever talk about what’s underneath it and in fact behind it,” he said.
On one level the photographs, all shot in wide angle on tripod — nothing’s hand-held — offer a visual chronicle of his haunts and journeys, near and far. But it as much the interior as the exterior journey and landscape he considers in Room.
“They’re really very internal and very emotional for me,” he said. “They are definitely some sort of record about what I’ve been doing but they’re not really in the aspect…a documentary photographer might work. It’s more introspective than that. They signify and give a physicality actually to the stories I can tell about the places. They are the evidence that what I did actually did happen and does exist. They jog that memory of the experience and what it was all about.”
Therefore, each image “is imbued” with meaning, as in the almost obligatory view from the farmhouse in Maxwell, Neb. he grew up in. It looks out onto a distant wind break of trees. The larger world beyond that horizon is where he dreamed to go, he said. This vision and yearning take on added meaning in the context of the show’s many images from his far flung travels — evidence he’s fulfilled his dream.
He spent many a summer with his feisty, spry grandmother, Frances Lawhead, at her Silvergate, Mont. cabin, which overlooks a snow field. The view from the cabin bedroom he slept in resonates with the warm embrace of hearth and home inside and the wonder of nature outside.
Fragments of a Lincoln, Neb. neighborhood are viewed through lacy curtains his then-girl friend Sally Donovan put up after she inherited the house from his good friend, photographer John Spence. The living room window becomes a nostalgic frame of reference for the observations, conversations and meals shared there.
With few exceptions his work is the antithesis of any deliberate, preconceived, picturesque style.
“I’m not here to make pretty pictures, ever,” he said.
He rejects the notion one must “go somewhere that has this exotic locale or spectacular scenery in order to make pictures. I’m always exactly the opposite,” he said. His credo is that “ordinary common life is extraordinary. That’s why the view right outside your window,” he said, “is so incredibly important. It’s more than the picture, it’s what it’s about that makes it work.”
He admits he only embraced this come-what-may philosophy after some false starts. He’d go somewhere anticipating a spectacular view or vista, only to be disappointed when it wasn’t all that and then he wouldn’t shoot anything.
“Then I would kick myself later for not having made the picture because it wasn’t spectacular, but not being spectacular is what it was about. That’s when I concluded you have to accept what’s there.”
Approaching Rainstorm, Near Crawford, NE, ©photo by Larry Ferguson
Whatever the scene holds it evokes linkages-associations to his life and work. Viewed in this light, something as blase as a dirt hill can be a rich vein of narrative. “It’s nothing, yet it’s everything,” he said.
What compels him to make a picture in any given spot, at any given time is intuitive.
“A lot of times people ask me, ‘How did you make that picture?’ And I go, ‘I don’t know.’ The pictures make themselves,” he said. “Something just says, Make that picture, and I do. People ask me, ‘What were you thinking about when you made it?’ I don’t consciously think about it. I couldn’t possibly tell you because it’s all internal, it’s all emotional. That’s how I respond — I respond viscerally to it. I trust my feelings and my instincts.”
On his many travels, whether to Mexico or Argentina or China, he goes where the spirit moves him, snapping pics as opportunities arise. The resulting images may feed into any of his long term projects. He shoots whatever he “discovers along the way.”
“When I travel I don’t have an itinerary. I have a start date and an end date and usually a destination point somewhere in between,” he said. “And then what happens between those times is plain and simple whim. Wherever I go, you know, it’s always, Well, let’s point the camera and take that image, whatever it happens to be. And that’s kind of how I work.”
It’s how he came to spend so much time in Guanajuato, Mexico, the capital city of the state of Guanajuato. He went there as part of a months-long, 10,000 mile trek he made in 1984 through Mexican jungles and mountains to photograph archaeological digs. Once he stumbled upon that city’s treasures and oddities, he couldn’t tear himself away. Images he made of one of his finds there, the home of artist Diego Rivera, are included in Room.
The happy accidents that result — compelling patterns of light and shadow, pleasing forms, symbolic shapes, complex compositions — are rooted in preparation.
“It’s that thing of preparing yourself to be ready to do it when it happens,” he said. “That’s what it takes. You have to get to where you practice and practice until you no longer think about it. Then it just happens automatically.”
- Photographer in the Picture (flickr.net)
- Frida Kahlo & Diego Rivera, at Pallant House, Chichester, Seven magazine review (telegraph.co.uk)
- Jesuit Photojournalist Don Doll of Creighton University Documents the Global Human Condition One Person, One Image at a Time (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- The Wall As Photographic Surface (fansinaflashbulb.wordpress.com)
- New York from Day to Night in One Picture [Image Cache] (gizmodo.com)
This will likely be my last word on the demise of the University of Nebraska at Omaha wrestling program in 2011. As some of you may know from reading this blog or from following other media reports on the story, the program did nothing to contribute to its demise. Quite the contrary, it did everything right and then some. UNO wrestling reached the pinnacle of NCAA Division II competition and maintained its unparalleled excellence year after year. Yet university officials disregarded all that and eliminated the program. The action caused quite an uproar but the decision stood, leaving head coach Mike Denney, his assistants, and the student-athletes adrift. In a stunning turn, Denney is more or less taking what’s left of the orphaned program, including a couple assistants and 10 or so wrestlers, and moving the program to Maryville University in St. Louis, Mo. The following story for the New Horizons is my take on what transpired and an appreciation for the remarkable legacy that Denney, his predecessor Don Benning, and all their assitants and wrestlers established at a university that then turned its back on their contributions. It’s a bittersweet story as Denney closes one chapter in his career and opens a new one. It is UNO’s loss and Maryville’s gain.
UPDATE: By 2014, Denney had already made Maryville a national title contender. His team is ranked No. 1 in 2015-2016 and is the favorite to win this year’s D-II championship.
Mike Denney exhorting his troops to keep the faith
Requiem for a Dynasty:
Mike Denney Reflects on the Long Dominant, Now Defunct UNO Maverick Wrestling Program He Coached, Its Legacy, His Pain, and Starting Anew with Wife Bonnie at Maryville University
©by Leo Adam Biga
As published in the New Horizons
The For Sale sign spoke volumes.
Planted in the front yard of the home Mike and Bonnie Denney called their own for decades, it served as graphic reminder an Omaha icon was leaving town. The longtime University of Nebraska at Omaha wrestling coach and his wife of 42 years never expected to be moving. But that’s what happened in the wake of shocking events the past few months. Forced out at the school he devoted half his life to when UNO surprised everyone by dropping wrestling, he’s now taken a new opportunity far from home — as head coach at Maryville University in St. Louis, Mo.
The sign outside his home, Denney said, reinforced “the finality of it.” That, along with cleaning out his office and seeing the mats he and his coaches and wrestlers sweated on and achieved greatness on, sold via e-Bay.
On his last few visits to the Sapp Field House and the wrestling room, he said he couldn’t help but feel how “empty” they felt. “There’s an energy that’s gone.”
It wasn’t supposed to end this way. Not for the golden wrestling program and its decorated coach.
But this past spring the winningest program in UNO athletic history, fresh off capturing its third straight national championship and sixth in eight years, was unceremoniously disbanded.
Denney’s teams won two-thirds of their duals, claimed seven national team championships, produced more than 100 All-Americans and dozens of individual national champions in his 32 years at the helm. At age 64, he was at the top of his game, and his program poised to continue its dominant run.
“Let me tell you, we had a chance to make some real history here,” he said. “Our team coming back, I think we had an edge on people for awhile. We had some good young talent.”
UNO celebrates its 2010-2011 national championship
A measure of how highly thought of Denney is in his profession is that InterMat named him Coach of the Year for 2011 over coaches from top Division I programs. In 2006 Amateur Wrestling News made him its Man of the Year. That same year Win Magazine tabbed him as Dan Gable Coach of the Year.
Three times he’s been voted Division II Coach of the Year. He’s an inductee in both the Division II and UNO Athletic Halls of Fame. UNO awarded him its Chancellor’s Medal for his significant contributions to the university.
“I suppose you’re bound to have a little anger and bitterness, but it’s more sadness”
Yet, when all was said and done, Denney and his program were deemed expendable. Suddenly, quite literally without warning, wrestling was shut down, the student-athletes left adrift and Denney’s coaching job terminated. All in the name of UNO’s it’s-just-business move to Division I and the Summit League. The story made national news.
Response to the decision ranged from incredulity to disappointment to fury. To his credit, Denney never played the blame game, never went negative. But as print and television coverage documented in teary-eyed moments with his wrestlers, coaches and wife, it hurt, it hurt badly.
“I suppose you’re bound to have a little anger and bitterness, but it’s more sadness,” he said.
The closest he comes to criticism is to ask accusingly, “Was it worth it? Was the shiny penny worth it? Or are people worth it? What are you giving up for that? Your self? Your soul?”
Referring to UNO officials, Bonnie Denney said, “They’re standing behind a system that treats people very disrespectfully. You just don’t treat people like that, — you just don’t. We’ve got to put it in God’s hands and move on. We’re not going to let it pull us down. We’re going to keep our core and take it someplace else.”
Nobody saw it coming. How could they? Wrestling, with its consistent excellence and stability, was the one constant in a topsy-turvy athletic department. The decision by Chancellor John Christensen and Athletic Director Trev Alberts to end wrestling, and along with it, football, was inconceivable in the context of such unprecedented success.
Unprecedented, too, was a university jettisoning the nation’s leading program and coach without a hint of scandal or mismanagement. No NCAA rules violations. No financial woes. It would have been as if University of Nebraska-Lincoln higher-ups pulled the plug on Husker football at the height of Tom Osborne’s reign of glory.
An apples to oranges comparison? Perhaps, except the only difference between NU football and UNO wrestling is dollars and viewers. The Huskers generate millions in revenue by drawing immense stadium crowds and television audiences. The Mavericks broke even at best and drew only a tiny fraction of followers. Judging the programs solely by winning and losing over the last half-century, however, and UNO comes out on top, with eight national titles to NU’s five. Where UNO won minus sanctions, NU won amid numerous player run-ins with the law.
Noted sports psychologist Jack Stark has said Denney’s high character makes him the best coach in any sport in Nebraska.
USA Wrestling Magazine’s Craig Sesker, who covered Denney for the Omaha World-Herald, said, “He is a man of the highest integrity, values and principles. He’s an unbelievably selfless and generous man who always puts his athletes first.”
“He has a unique way of treating everybody like they’re somebody,” said Ron Higdon, who wrestled and coached for Denney. “He physically found a way to touch every guy every day at practice — touch them on the shoulder, touch them on the head. I learned so much from him. I have such incredible respect for him.
“One of the reasons I never left is I felt it was a special place. I felt such a connection that I felt this was the place for me. I feel so fortunate to have been a part of it.”
The influence Denney has on young men is reflected in the 60-plus former wrestlers of his who have entered the coaching profession.
“They not only kept going what we started, they did it even better than we did”
Denney created a dynasty the right way, but what’s sometimes forgotten is that its seeds were planted a decade earlier, by another rock-ribbed man of character, Don Benning. In 1963 Benning became the first African-American head coach at a predominantly white university when he took over the then-Omaha University Indian wrestling program. Having already made history with its coach, the program — competing then at the NAIA level — reached the peak of small college success by winning the 1970 national title.
Once a UNO wrestler or wrestling coach, always one. So it was that Benning and some of the guys who wrestled for him attended the We Are One farewell to the program last spring. The UNO grappling family turned out in force for this requiem. In a show of solidarity and homage to a shared legacy lost. wrestlers from past and present took off their letter jackets, vowing never to wear them again.
“Wrestling is kind of a brotherhood. It was my life, and so I had every reason to be there,” said Benning. “There was a lot of hurt in seeing what happened. It was devastating. We felt their pain.”
Benning said the event also gave him and his old wrestlers the opportunity to pay homage to what Denney and his wrestlers accomplished.
“It was a chance for us to say how much we appreciated them and to take our hats off to them. They not only kept going what we started, they did it even better than we did.”
Benning left after the 1971 season and the program, while still highly competitive, slipped into mediocrity until Denney arrived in 1979.
For Denney, Benning set a benchmark he strove to reach.
“When we came one of the first things I said was we want to reestablish the tradition that Don Benning started.”
A farm-raised, Antelope County, Neb. native, Denney was a multi-sport star athlete in high school and at Dakota Wesleyan college. He played semi-pro football with the Omaha Mustangs. He became a black belt in judo and jujitsu, incorporating martial arts rituals and mantras into his coaching. For example, he called the UNO wrestling room the “dojo.” He has the calm, cool, command of the sensei master.
He taught and coached at Omaha South and Omaha Bryan before joining the staff at UNO, where in addition to coaching he taught.
With his John Wayne-esque swagger, wide open smile, genial temperament, yet steely resolve, Denney was the face of an often faceless UNO athletic department. In a revolving door of coaches and ADs, Duke, as friends call him, was always there, plodding away, the loyal subject faithfully attending to his duties. You could always count on him. He modeled his strong Christian beliefs.
Under Denney UNO perennially contended for the national title and became THE elite program at the Division II level. He led UNO in organizing and hosting the nation’s largest single-day college wrestling tournament, the Kaufman-Brand Open, and a handful of national championship tournaments.
He was particularly fond of the Kaufman-Brand.
“I loved that tournament. It was a happening. Wrestlers came from all over for that. It was a who’s-who of wrestling. I mean, you saw world, Olympic and national champions. Multiple mats. Fourteen hundred matches.”
“We were a positive force…”
With everything that’s happened, he hasn’t had much time to look back at his UNO career. Ask him what he’s proudest of and he doesn’t immediately talk about all the winning. Instead, it’s the people he impacted and the difference his teams made. His guys visiting hospitals or serving meals at homeless shelters. The youth tournament UNO held. The high school wrestling league it organized. The clinics he and his coaches gave.
“We were a positive force in the wrestling community. I think its going to hurt wrestling in the area. We provided opportunities.”
Then there was the annual retreat-boot camp where his wrestlers bonded. The extra mile he and his coaches and athletes went to help on campus or in the community. The Academic All-Americans UNO produced. All the coaches the program produced.
Then, Denney gets around to the winning or more specifically to winning year in and year out.
“I think one of the most difficult things to do in anything is be consistent. If it was easy, everybody would be doing it. I think that consistency, year in and out, in everything you do is the biggest test.”
In its last season UNO wrestling went wire to wire No. 1. “Staying up there is the toughest thing,” said Denney.
“People don’t realize how difficult what they did really is,” said Benning, who knows a thing or two about winning.
Benning thinks it’s unfortunate that local media coverage of UNO wrestling declined at the very time the program enjoyed its greatest success. “They kind of got cheated in regards to their value and what they accomplished.”
“Whether it was on our terms or not, we went out on top. No one can ever take away what we accomplished,” said Ron Higdon.
Highs and lows come with the territory in athletics. Win or lose, Mike and Bonnie Denney were surrogate parents to their “boys,” cultivating family bonds that went beyond the usual coach-player relationship. Parents to three children of their own, the couple form an unbreakable team.
“When you do anything that takes this amount of time, you gotta have a partnership,” said Denney, who said he often asks Bonnie to accompany him on recruiting trips and invites her to get to know student-athletes.. “She’s a recruiting asset. She’s kind of a second mother to them. They get to know her.”
Bonnie said she learned long ago that “if I wasn’t going to join him in this I was going to lose him — wouldn’t have a husband.” Therefore, she said, “it’s a shared mission.”
There’s been hard times. She survived a multiple sclerosis scare. They endured the deaths of UNO wrestlers Ryan Kaufman, R.J. Nebe and Jesse Greise.
Next to all that, losing a program pales in comparison.
“We kept this in perspective because we’ve been there when the parents of former wrestlers had to pull life support,” said Denney. “To be in a hospital room and to see a former wrestler take his last breath, to be there with the parents and the wives, this (wrestling getting cut) is not in that same category.”
That didn’t make it hurt any less. The coach and his boys didn’t go down without a fight, either. Denney, his assistants, his wrestlers and his boosters held rallies and lobbied university officials to reconsider, but they could not sway NU regents to reverse their decision.
Denney keeping things positive
What cut deepest for Denney is that no one in a position of power took wrestling’s side. No decision-maker spoke up for the program.
“There wasn’t anybody that thought we were valuable enough to fight for us,” he said. “There wasn’t anybody that cared. At Maryville, they care, they value us.”
Two men Denney counted as friends, Christensen and Don Leahy, who hired Denney at UNO and whom Denney regarded as a father figure, were not in his corner when he needed them. It stings, but Denney’s refrained from name-calling or recrimination.
Following the lead of their coach, UNO wrestlers took the high road, too.
“One of the things that made us really proud of our group is how they handled all this,” he said. “They really, I thought, did a nice job of showing dignity and class and poise.”
Just like he taught them.
“We always talk about teaching and building …that we’re teachers and builders. Immediately when this went down, I thought, How can we use this? Well, it starts with the family-the team pulling together, supporting each other, picking each other up, and then modeling and displaying character under adversity. It’s easy to do it when everything’s going good. But things are going to happen in life.
“Obviously, we got hit. we got blindsided. We had no idea this was going to happen, no indication. It was a cheap shot.”
On the mat or in life, he demanded his guys show grit when tested.
“I created a family with high expectations for how you acted. You demonstrated character under adversity. You had to be tough. You had to demonstrate moxie. You had to bounce back. If you got knocked down, you had to get up.”
“I kept saying… to expect a miracle”
His boys didn’t let him down. But as hard as they were hit with their team and dream taken away, they were crushed. Naturally, in the aftermath, they looked to their coach for answers. Denney said, “They gave me this look like, ‘Fix this coach.'” Starting the very night the team got the heartbreaking news, right on through the regents sealing its fate, Denney kept his troops together.
“We tried to meet every day and just talk about things,” he said. “It was a significant kind of thing, really.”
In the process, he tried to give his guys some hope.
“I kept saying — and I don’t have any idea why, except I was just trying to keep them up I think — to expect a miracle. First of all, I said, it’s a miracle that we’ve been able to do this for all these years.”
Denney admittedly walked a fine line between keeping things positive and offering false hope, but he wasn’t going to rest without exhausting every opportunity to maintain his program — whether it be at UNO or somewhere else.
“Our whole thing when this first happened, our prayer was, let there be some way that we could somehow continue this thing,” he said. “So, I kept telling them, ‘Expect a miracle.’ They’d kind of look at me like, What are you saying that for? I was kind of having fun with it, keeping things light. You know, we’ve hit some adversity, but we can still laugh, we can enjoy each other, we’re going to make the best out of this deal.”
But it wasn’t only about staying upbeat. Even before the regents made it official and unanimously endorsed UNO’s decision to cut wrestling and football, Denney sent out feelers to other universities to try and find a new home for his program.
Creighton University, it turned out, might have been able to add the program if the timing had been different, but as it was CU was in a budget cutting mode. There were also tentative discussions with Bellevue University and Benedictine (Kansas) College.
Denney and wife Bonnie consoling each other after the Regents vote; photo from Lincoln Journal-Star
Just when it appeared all might be lost, Maryville University approached Denney. After much soul-searching and many exploratory visits, now he, Bonnie, a couple assistant coaches and 10 former Maverick student-athletes, plus some new recruits, are taking what’s left of the UNO wrestling brand to inaugurate that small private school’s first entree into varsity wrestling. It’s the only time in NCAA history one university has essentially adopted another university’s athletic program.
“This is a miraculous kind of story really,” said Denney. “That’s why we have to go there. Because of all the things that have happened to set this up, it’s almost like we’re divinely guided to go there. So, I guess, be careful what you ask for.”
Thus, at a time when most couples their age prepare for retirement, the Denneys find themselves starting all over again, at a new school, in an unfamiliar city. Except, they have been made to feel so welcome and wanted there that they expect the transition to calling Maryville and St. Louis home will be easier than they ever imagined.
Recently, the Denneys shared how the Maryville option came into focus and what it’s like to be moving onto this new, unexpected chapter in their lives.
It all began with a phone call, which is ironic because once the news broke about UNO wrestling being cut, Denney’s office phone was so deluged with calls neither he nor the message system could keep up. He hardly ever caught a call.
One day, he’d just finished meeting with his team, he said, “when I walked into my office and the phone was ringing and I thought, Well, at least i can get this one. So I picked it up and it was someone saying, ‘I”m Jeff Miller from Maryville University in St. Louis. I’m representing Maryville president Mark Lombardi.'” Miller told Denney that as part of Maryville moving from Division III to Division II it sought to add wrestling and saw UNO’s orphaned program as a ready-made fit.
Denney was skeptical at first. “I said, ‘If this is one of my friends, this is a cruel joke.’ About four times during the conversation, I said, ‘Who really is this?'”
The more Miller, a Maryville vice president, laid out his university’s interest, the more convinced Denney became this was no joke. Miller came right out and said Maryville wanted not only Denney but as many of his coaches and student-athletes as he could bring to come there and start a wrestling program.
“I was like, ‘Really?'”
The clincher, said Denney, was when Miller told him he was flying “up there” — to Omaha — to talk things over.
“So he flew up and we spent time talking at Anthony’s (the venerable southwest Omaha steakhouse that’s long been a UNO hangout). He said this opportunity has presented itself.”
“From the beginning, they came after us, they recruited us”
The more Miller talked, the more Denney was convinced this was a one in a million chance come true to salvage a bad situation with something clear out of the blue.
It soon became clear to Denney Maryville had done its due diligence.
“This Jeff Miller studied our program,” he said. “They actually looked at some other things but they just didn’t feel like they fit. They felt like this fit for them somehow. From the beginning, they came after us, they recruited us.”
After the rejection at UNO, it felt nice to be appreciated again.
“Since the new AD (Alberts) came, these last couple years we really felt we weren’t being embraced, let’s just put it that way. We just kind of pulled back into our own area,” said Denney. “But they (Maryville) did embrace us. It was kind of a great feeling. It felt really good, actually.”
In terms of facilities, Maryville can’t match UNO, at least right now. When the deal was struck with Denney, Maryville didn’t even have a wrestling room. A meeting room is being converted into one. By contrast, UNO had a state-of-the-art wrestling room built to Denney’s specifications and that he was justifiably proud of.
Bonnie said what Maryville lacks in tangibles it makes up for with intangibles.
“It is a change to go from UNO to that environment, but there’s something about that spirit and environment that makes you feel valued.”
Besides, it’s not so different from when Mike started at UNO. The facilities were so bad his first several years there he purposely avoided showing them to recruits. Over time, things improved. Bonnie sees the same thing happening at Maryville.
“I think it will be kind of fun to see it grow and change,” she said.
For a UNO wrestler or recruit to buy in to a start-up program in a new locale, “it took some imagination,” said Mike, to visualize what things will look like in the future.
Committing to wrestling is a big thing for Maryville. First, the school already had a full complement of sports. Next, as a D-III school it offered no athletic scholarships and its coaches were part time. Now, in D-II, it’s granting partial scholarships to student-athletes and its coaches are closer to full-time.
“They’re making a real step and you can feel the energy on campus,” said Denney, who’s been impressed on multiple visits there by the buildings going up and the programs being added. “They’ve got a little money and they’re looking for every way they can to build their university. It adds to their campus, it adds exposure for their university.”
Besides, he said, an athletic program can be a revenue producer simply via the out-of-state tuition it generates.
“It actually can be a profitable thing for them. They’re figuring out this is a good business venture. If you look at it business-wise, if you bring in 30 scholarship student-athletes, with an annual out of state tuition of $31,000 each…”
Denney’s miracle was delivered in a most unexpected way
Still, Denney said he wasn’t prepared to accept Maryville’s offer unless Bonnie wholeheartedly agreed to the move.
“First of all, I had to recruit her,” he said. “She’s the one who’s going to give up everything. She’s gotta leave everything — all of her friends, our church, our house of 35 years.”
Bonnie knew Mike wanted it, but everything was happening so fast she wanted to make sure it was the right thing to do.
“I didn’t want him to rush into anything,” she said. “We were still in shock, and they (Maryville) were coming on so strong. It’s like it had a life of its own. He took me down there and you get to this campus and the people down there are warm and nice, and I thought, You know, this is possible — I know it’s going to be difficult, but I feel it.”
And so she consented to the move with a philosophical attitude: “You have to say farewell to have that new beginning.”
“‘We want to start another fire, but we need some logs.'”
Denney liked the idea of playing the Pied Piper, but first he needed assurance enough of his guys were willing to follow him there to make it worthwhile.
“I kept telling Jeff (Miller), ‘We’re willing to go, we’re willing to do this thing, we feel like we’re called to do that. But I’m not going to do it if it’s just my wife and I. I’m not doing it just for us.’ I mean, really, we could just ride off into the sunset. We could make it. There’s a lot of things I could do, and we got offered some things to do, but none that I felt called to do.
“It’s not like I was looking to build up my resume.”
His passion to teach and build good people still burns bright, however.
“He’s no where ready to retire,” said Bonnie, adding he outworks assistants half or a third his age.
The Pied Piper next had to re-recruit his own wrestlers and their parents, or as many as he could, to make this leap of faith with him.
“We kind of sold them on it,” he said. “I kept saying, ‘We want to start another fire, but we need some logs.’ I had to sense our guys wanted to help start the fire. I don’t know if you call it an obligation, but I want us to do well. They’ve been so good to us. I want us to make an impact on campus.
“We always said, ‘Let’s be a positive force.’ We’re going to do the same thing down there.”
After 32 years at UNO, Denney now heads a strong Maryville Saints wrestling program
Denney led several UNO contingents to visit Maryville, whose officials always took time to express how much they wanted them there.
Many factors went into determining whether it made sense or not for a UNO student-athlete to take the plunge. For example, geography. St. Louis would put some athletes an even longer distance from home and family. Too far in some cases. Then the academics had to mesh. One of UNO’s best returning wrestlers, Esai Dominguez, decided to bypass his final year of eligibility in order to remain at UNO and finish his engineering degree. And then there was cost. Maryville tuition is higher than UNO’s.
Transplanting the program is historic and given how stringent NCAA rules are, Denney said, “we’re starting to figure out why” it hadn’t been done before. UNO officials worked closely with their Maryville counterparts to make it work.
“Now get this, Maryville sent a whole team of admissions/financial aid people to Omaha,” said Denney. “We met at Anthony’s, and all day long our guys came in with their transcripts, and we tried to get all this to match up.”
“If you lose your history and tradition, I think you lose something that’s so vital to your organization”
While Denney tried retaining as much of his wrestling family as possible, “the vultures” — recruiters from other programs — circled about, pouncing on UNO strays who were uncommitted or undecided. He finally had to release his wrestlers to talk to other schools and to make visits. Some of his best returnees left for other programs.
Most of his assistant coaches couldn’t justify the move either between career and family considerations.
In the end, Denney’s brought fewer with him than he would have liked, having to say goodbye to about two-thirds of his former team.
“Oh, my gosh, it’s hard, but you’ve just got to let them go,” said Denney. “Here’s what we feel good about though — we offered everyone of them an opportunity to go.”
Still, he’s brought with him a a stable of wrestlers and coaches who have competed at and won at the highest levels. It’s a transformational infusion of talent, attitude, standard and expectation at a school whose teams have mostly endured losing seasons.
Denney expects to win right away but is enough of a realist to say, “We’re back into a building process here.” It took years to build UNO into D-II’s preeminent program and it won’t be done overnight at Maryville.
He leaves no doubt though he’s committed to making the Maryville Saints wrestling program an elite one. And he seems to be giving himself eight years to do it, saying he’s always envisioned coaching and teaching 100 semesters or 50 years (high school and college combined), a figure he would reach at age 72. Beyond that, nothing’s for sure.
“As long as we can handle it,” said Bonnie. “As long as we don’t fall over at some tournament.”
Ron Higdon can hardly believe what his close friend and old boss is doing. “I have a whole new respect for what he’s taking on and the way he’s handled it and the energy he’s putting into it, because it’s unbelievable.”
Make no mistake about it, Denney’s heart still aches over how UNO did him and his program in, but he has moved on. He does, however, offer a cautionary note for those who so cavalierly discarded the legacy of UNO wrestling.
“If you lose your history and tradition, I think you lose something that’s so vital to your organization,” he said. “You must keep it, you must do everything you can to keep it. You’re going to see the long term effects of this later on. That culture won’t last.
“What happens when you lose your tradition, your history, and you forget about it — then you don’t recognize it. You lose something, and sometimes you’ll never get it back.”
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I wrote the following two pieces in memory of the late, much-beloved Omaha jazz artist Luigi Waites. I only met the man once and I only saw him perform a few times, but I knew a lot of people who knew him and his music well. I had always meant to do a full-blown profile of him but it just never worked out. These short recaps of his career will have to do. I wish now I had pressed forward in doing something with him. It’s a reminder that particularly with older subjects the time to interview them is now, because one never knows when they might be gone. And once gone, the wisdom of that elder goes with them.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Encounter Magazine
Luigi, whose first name identified him for legions of fans, became an ambassador for jazz in his hometown of Omaha. Unlike the bombast of another local jazz icon, the late Preston Love Sr., Luigi was sedate. Contrasting personalities aside, these “brothers” came out of the same African-American social-cultural milieu to carve out careers.
The humble Luigi made friends wherever he laid down licks. It’s not surprising then his passing prompted memorials befitting a beloved hero. He touched innumerable lives with his timeless music and generous spirit.
Long ago divorced, the 82 year-old was survived by six children.
Wearing his signature floppy hat, Luigi exuded a Zen master’s inscrutable calm. His signature performance spot, Mr. Toad in the Old Market, lasted some 1,700 Sundays. Manager Rick Renn said what he’ll cherish most about Luigi is his “absolutely unique personality, adding: “He was just comfortable with everybody and he made everybody comfortable; he was one of these people who you met for the first time and you loved about a minute later; he was unusual, he was cryptic, he was always making you think.”
Whether playing a bar or festival, doing a school residency or giving private music lessons, Luigi was always teaching. Bandmates say he turned gigs into symposiums, encouraging an open exchange of ideas and approaches.
“You knew he was serious when you watched him play. You knew he was going, as the great ones do, into his element,. You’d sit and watch him on the vibes, the concentration on his face, but at the same time the fun he was having,” said Renn.
For years Luigi traveled the Midwest for the National School Tours program and Nebraska Arts Council. He provided music lessons, often for free, all over Omaha. His touring multicultural drum and drill corps, The Contemporaries, served at-risk kids. Professional side man and session player Arno Lucas credits his stint with the Contemporaries for saving him from the streets. He considered Luigi “a true mentor.”
For years, too, Luigi booked all the entertainment for the Summer Arts Festival downtown. He was also a clinician for Sonar, Trixon and Ludwig drums.
The lifetime learner never stopped being a student himself, whether teaching himself to play drums, later the vibes, or trying new things with his group, Luigi Inc.
He had some formal music training, courtesy a hitch in the U.S. Army and attending the Midwestern Conservatory of Music. Like many musicians of his era though he picked up his chops informally, traveling the country and Europe, but mostly in his hometown, where a vibrant live music scene back in the day saw him haunt the local night spots, sitting in on jam sessions galore and playing in various bands.
Luigi never lost his enthusiasm or curiosity. Late in life the amateur photography buff learned digital techniques from Omaha professional photographer Herb Thompson.
“He was always just very young at heart,” said Thompson, who mentored Luigi for a Nebraska Arts Council project that resulted in an exhibition.
Thompson said the only time he saw Luigi slow down was after the ailing musician underwent chemo treatments. The artist finally lost his battle with cancer, but till the end was making plans — for a new CD, for new photography projects.
“Neither of those was really a sad occasion, they were more a celebration,” said Thompson. “People just said how much they loved him, how much he meant to them. It was a cross-section of this city who celebrated the life of a man who had contributed so very much to his community. I don’t think there’s anyone in the black community of a certain age who hadn’t been touched by Luigi. Another thing that struck me is that it’s obvious he crossed racial barriers. It came out in almost all of the comments folks made at the tribute but also in the kind of racial mixture you had there.”
Playwright Monica Bauer can attest to Luigi gracefully defying social constraints. She was among many whites who took music lessons from him. In the 1960s he was teaching at Swoboda Music Center at 20th and Q. Few blacks worked in the heavily Czech area and despite some raised eyebrows from neighbors, owner Johnny Swoboda hired and kept Luigi, and the two became friends.
If anybody had objected to Luigi’s presence, Swoboda would have stood by his man. “We were buddies,” said Swoboda. “He made quite an impression on all kinds of people. It’s quite a legacy.” Swoboda’s children became the first white Contemporaries.
Bauer echoed the sentiments of many in describing Luigi as “a terrific music teacher” with a “kind and compassionate” manner. His students say he taught philosophical life lessons as much as music. She said she “learned how to be an artist” and a mensch from him. “Luigi always told me, ‘Be kind to everybody, and they will be kind to you.’ I took those words with me through two Ivy League degrees, three Master’s degrees, and a Ph.D.”
Her play My Occasion of Sin dramatizes Luigi’s social action of taking on white students in the racially tense ‘60s. He didn’t see it as making a statement. He was just being Luigi.
Luigi Gone But Not Forgotten
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
As much as the music he made. the generous spirit of iconic Omaha drummer and vibraphonist Luigi Waites is likely be remembered even more. Waites died early Tuesday morning at Immanuel Hospital. He was 82.
His 70-year performing career encompassed much of the Omaha live music scene but extended well beyond his hometown borders. He’s perhaps best known for the more than 1,700 Sunday night shows he and his group, Luigi Inc., performed at Mr. Toad in the Old Market. Luigi was also a fixture at the Dundee Dell. As a Summer Arts Festival board member, he booked the event’s entertainment.
As early as age 12 he began playing drums and soon gigged at local nightclubs, where his mother served as his escort. He studied at the Midwestern Conservatory of Music in Chicago and worked as a clinician for drum manufacturers. He influenced many youths through the touring multicultural marching corps he formed in 1960, The Contemporaries. He applied R&B rhythms to the traditional military-style marching band aesthetic. Professional musicians Arno Lucas and Victor Lewis “graduated” from The Contemporaries.
In a 2007 interview Lucas spoke for many when he said “Luigi was the guy who made it possible for me to stay focused and to keep out of trouble.” Lucas recalled Waites as a “mentor, teacher, step-father.”
For decades Waites did artist-in-the-schools presentations.
His many honors included 1996 Nebraska Artist of the Year from the Nebraska Arts Council and 2009 Best Jazz Artist from the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards, which previously honored him with a lifetime achievement award. Waites was also inducted into the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame.
The father of six leaves behind some recordings but mainly a legacy of teaching and sharing. He lives on in YouTube excerpts of his Mr. Toad shows.
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