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Marguerita Washington: The woman behind the Star that never sets

August 2, 2010 2 comments

My interest in Omaha‘s African-American newspaper of record, the Omaha Star, goes back a ways. The woman who founded it and rose to national prominence with it, the late Mildred Brown, I never had the pleasure of meeting.  By the time I began writing and reporting on the black community here she was gone and her niece, Marguerita Washington, was in charge.  I didn’t meet Washington though until a few years later. First, I got to know the Star’s longtime advertising director, the late Preston Love Sr., who was a jazz and blues musician and band leader.  Preston is someone I wrote about quite a lot and he served as a valuable source for me about historic black Omaha. Visiting the Star’s offices to meet with Preston only increased my interest in the Star and I eventually had several stories of mine reprinted in its pages., and it was during that time that I wrote this short piece about Marguerita and her aunt Mildred for the New Horizons.

The Omaha Star is less than generous when it comes to contributing writers like myself, as they seem to view a contributed story as a community service rather than a professional service like any other that requires compensation.  Because my sole living depends on my writing, I usually managed to work out some form of compensation for my work, although not in monetary terms. For example, I received a complementary subscription to the paper for a couple years and once I was paid in the form of a homemade sweet potato pie.

 

comunidad, fallecimiento, QEPD, QDEP, marguerita washington

 

Marguerita Washington: The woman behind the Star that never sets

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

When Mildred Brown, the loquacious, living-out-loud founder/publisher/editor of the Omaha Star, died in 1989, the city’s only black newspaper was left to niece Marguerita Washington, a woman as circumspect as her aunt was flamboyant. Even with their differences, the women enjoyed a close relationship. The matriarchal Brown mentored her niece, who was like a daughter to her.

A Kansas City, Mo. native, Washington lived with Brown for a time. Long before passing at age 76, Brown laid out how her niece would succeed her at the Star to carry on the cause of civil rights in its pages. There was even talk of them being partners. Washington loved the paper and its mission, but had other plans, namely to be an educator. When she achieved her dream as a special education teacher and, later, an administrator with the Omaha Public Schools, Brown was “disappointed at first, but she adjusted,” her niece recalled.

But, as usual, Brown got the final say when her will bequeathed ownership of the paper to her niece. For a time, Washington tried doing dual careers, but “it got to be pretty rough, so I took early retirement” from OPS.

All along, Washington said, she’d been groomed to take over the Star.

“When I lived with her, not a day went by she didn’t talk to me about the paper and what happened, how it happened, why it happened. And I don’t care how late I came in on Friday nights, I had to be out there in the front office to take care of the newsboys and girls. She wanted me to study journalism. That wasn’t my thing. But she made me take some journalism classes. In fact, we took some together (at UNO). That was interesting. I remember one time she was giving a presentation and the instructor cut her off because she was too long-winded.”

Washington said her aunt went to school “for the fun of it and also to try and make a point with me. The point being I should be interested in journalism. She wanted me to be prepared because, she said, ‘you never know what might happen.’ She was a very wise lady. She did what she felt she had to do.” Once the Star fell into her hands, the once reluctant Washington embraced the responsibility of taking over a weekly that has continuously published since 1938.

Journalism is something you get attached to. It gets in your blood. On a newspaper you never know from one minute to the next what story’s going to break. Sometimes, nothing happens for awhile. Other times, you’re almost tripping over yourself trying to keep up with everything,” she said. “It’s a learning process.”

She knew the burden she accepted after assuming the reigns as publisher/editor.

“It was a challenge. It’s still a challenge. My goal was to keep the paper basically the same, but to to add to it as the times or the issues dictated. In doing so, this will keep Millie’s legacy alive and the paper will continue for as long as possible.”

Through the crusading Star, Brown made herself a national figure in an era when it was rare for any woman, white or black, to own a paper. The strong stands she took against racism in the Star and on the many community-civic organization boards she served on, brought her and her views to the attention of civil rights leaders and presidents. Wherever she went and whomever she met, Brown worked on behalf of freedom and justice for her people.

The famous declaration of principles in the Star’s mast head — “Dedicated to the service of the people that no good cause shall lack a champion and that evil shall not go unopposed” — was a motto identified with Brown. She, like the paper she used as her mouthpiece, was seen as a champion of the underdog.

As a teen Washington got to see that advocacy in action when she tagged along with her aunt at protests and demonstrations aimed at overturning discrimination in the schools, at workplaces and in public places. “I was right there.” Brown and her paper ardently supported the work of the Urban League, the NAACP, black churches and social action groups such as the DePorres Club and the 4CL.

Advocacy journalism is still at the core of the Star’s mandate under Washington. While she may lack her aunt’s flair, she’s maintained the Star as a mirror for black concerns and, in her own quiet way, made it “a sounding board” for ordinary folks.

“I’m interested in the heartbeat of the community. What’s on the citizens’ minds? What do they feel? What are they interested in? What do they plan to do about it? The main thing I’m proud of is this paper has really become the people’s paper. We have many guest local columnists. Those in the community who have something to say and who can write — mind you I say who can write — they have space to express themselves. Because a paper is not just one person’s idea of what should be. It should be a total thing. It should be a community thing. I think a paper can function a lot better if you have a lot of different opinions…a diversity of voices.”

The Star’s regular columnists include Nebraska State Sen. Ernie Chambers, corporate VP Mike Jones and community activist Matthew Stelly.

While Brown’s garish style made her a public figure that sometimes overwhelmed the paper’s feats, Washington’s demure manner has kept her in the shadows to let the Star shine on its own merits. Two distinct approaches for two distinct women. But there’s no doubt Mildred Brown is a hard act to follow.

Known for wearing gaudy dresses and corsages, making the rounds of business meetings in a chauffeur-driven limousine and talking the ear off anyone if it meant a prospective ad sale, Brown was a force of nature. Her charm was such that despite being perpetually late for everything and reportedly overstating some claims, like the paper’s circulation, she was forgiven all. Selling was her gift. Selling herself was a large part of making the paper a success and outlasting every single competing black newspaper that went head-to-head with it.

Whether it was to close you on buying an ad or to shame you into doing the right thing, Brown was persistent in having her way.

“She was one of those people, whatever she wanted, she eventually got it, one way or the other,” said Washington, who as a teen accompanied her aunt on sales calls. “She loved to talk. And I think sometimes people would go ahead and buy just to get rid of her. But she didn’t care. And she would work on these people to be repeat customers, and usually got ‘em. She could sell the San Francisco bridge”

Even all these years later, the legacy of Brown looms large over the offices of the Star, 2216 North 24th Street, where an entire room is dedicated to her, including dozens of plaques on the walls that represent just a fraction of the 150 or so honors she received in her lifetime. The apartment she resided in in the rear of the circa-1923 brick building is much like it was at the time of Brown’s death. Washington uses the apartment as her personal office, where she and her Lhasa Apso dog, Carman, greet visitors.

Something else that hasn’t changed is the struggle for equality. While Washington sees progress, she’s alarmed by the education-achievement gaps between whites and blacks and decries how slow the redevelopment of north Omaha is proceeding.

“We understand the struggle is far from over. We’ve changed our techniques in writing about it or talking about it, but we’re still working toward the motto we have that if one person is down, then we’re all down,” she said.

That lesson is among many principles Brown taught her.

“She truly believed we should give each other a helping hand in any way we can. Somebody might be down, but you can help to pull them up. And if you don’t, then you’re a part of the problem. Another value I got from her is we all have to work together. We can’t pull apart. Once the link is broken, you can’t accomplish anything. She was also very strong on education. She believed there’s no limit to learning. I believe that also. And there’s always a better way to do something.”

“Education,” she said, “and journalism are really very similar. The only thing is, in education, you’ve got the classroom. In journalism, you’ve got the world.”

Preston Love: His voice will not be stilled

June 3, 2010 2 comments

This is one of those foundational stories I did on Omaha jazz and blues legend Preston Love. Together with my other stories on him I give you a good sense for who this passionate man was and what he was about.  The piece originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).  I should mention that Love’s autobiography, which is referenced in the story, was well-reviewed by the New York Times and other major national publications.  Preston always wanted to leave a legacy behind, and his book, “A Thousand Honey Creeks Later,” is a fine one.   The very cool Loves Jazz & Arts Center in the heart of North Omaha’s historic jazz district is named in honor of him.  More stories by me about Preston Love can be found on this blog site. I also feature a profile I did on his daughter, singer-songwriter-guitarist Laura Love.

 

 

 

Preston Love: His voice will not be stilled

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader

 

One name in Omaha is synonymous with traditional jazz and blues — Preston Love Sr., the native son musician most famous for playing lead alto saxophone with the legendary Count Basie in the 1940s.

The ebullient Love, still a mean sax player at 75, fiercely champions jazz and blues as rich, expressive, singularly African-American art forms and cultural inheritances.  This direct inheritor and accomplished interpreter of the music feels bound to preserve it, to protect its faithful presentation and to rail against its misrepresentation.

He has long been an outspoken critic of others appropriating the music from its black roots and reinventing it as something it’s not.  Over the years he’s voiced his opinion on this and many other topics as a performer, columnist, radio host, lecturer and oft-quoted music authority. Since 1972 his Omaha World-Herald “Love Notes” column has offered candid insights into the art and business sides of music.

From 1971 until early 1996 he hosted radio programs devoted to jazz.  The most recent aired on KIOS-FM, whose general manager, Will Perry, describes Love’s on-air persona: “He was fearless.  He was not afraid to give his opinion, especially about what he felt was the inequality black musicians have endured in Omaha, and how black music has been taken over by white promoters and artists.  Some listeners got really angry.”

With the scheduled fall publication of his autobiography “A Thousand Honey Creeks Later,” by Wesleyan University Press in Middletown, Conn., he will finally have a forum large enough to contain his fervor.

“It’s written in protest,” Love said during a recent interview at the Omaha Star, where he’s advertising manager.  “I’m an angry man.  I started my autobiography to a large degree in dissatisfaction with what has transpired in America in the music business and, of course, with the racial thing that’s still very prevalent.  Blacks have almost been eliminated from their own art because the people presenting it know nothing about it.  We’ve seen our jazz become nonexistent.  Suddenly, the image no longer is black.  Nearly all the people playing rhythm and blues, blues and jazz in Omaha are white.  That’s unreal.  False.  Fraudulent.

“They’re passing it off as something it isn’t.  It’s spurious jazz.  Synthetic.  Third-rate.  Others are going to play our music, and in many cases play it very well.  We don’t own any exclusivity on it.  But it’s still black music, and all the great styles, all the great developments, have been black, whether they want to admit it or not.  So why shouldn’t we protect our art?”

When Love gets on a roll like this, his intense speaking style belongs both to the bandstand and the pulpit.  His dulcet voice carries the rhythmic inflection and intonation of an improvisational riff and the bravura of an evangelical sermon, rising in a brimstone tirade one moment and falling to a confessional whisper the next.  Suzanna Tamminen, acting director of Wesleyan University Press, says, “One of the wonderful things about Preston’s book is that it’s really like listening to him talk.  A lot of other publishers had asked him to cut parts out, but he felt he had things to say and didn’t want to have to change a lot of that.  So we’ve tried to have his voice come through, and I think it does.”

Love pours out his discontent over what’s happened to the music in the second half of the book. Love, who’s taught courses at the University of Nebraska at Omaha on the history of jazz and the social implications of black music, says he “most certainly” sees himself as a teacher and his book as an educational document.

In his introduction to the book, George Lipsitz, an ethnic historian at the University of California-San Diego and a Wesleyan contributing editor, compares Love to the elders of the Yoruba people in West Africa” “According to tradition, elders among the Yoruba…teach younger generations how to make music, to dance, and create visual art, because they believe that artistic activity teaches us how to recognize ‘significant’ communications.  Preston Love…is a man who has used the tools open to him to make great dreams come true, to experience things that others might have considered beyond his grasp.

“He is a writer who comes to us in the style of the Yoruba elders, as someone who has learned to discern the significance in things that have happened to him, and who is willing to pass along his gift, and his vision to the rest of us.  His dramatic, humorous and compelling story is significant because it uses the lessons of the past to prepare is for the struggle of the future.  It is up to us to pay attention and learn from his wisdom.”

Some may disagree with Love’s views, but as KIOS Perry points out, “All they can do is argue from books.  None of them were there.  None of them have gone through what’s he gone through. They have nothing to compare it with.”  Perry says Love brings a first-hand “historical perspective” to the subject that cannot be easily dismissed.

Those who share Love’s experience and knowledge, including rhythm and blues great and longtime friend, Johnny Otis, agree with him.  “Those of us who came though an earlier era are dismayed,” Otis said by phone from his home in Sebastopol, Calif., “because things have regressed artistically in our field.  Preston is constantly trying to make young people understand, so they’ll do a little investigation and get more artistry in their entertainment.  He’s dedicated to getting that message out.”

 

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But Love’s book is far more than a polemic.  It’s a remarkable life story whose sheer dramatic arc is daunting.  It traces his deep kinship with jazz all the way back to his childhood, when his self-described “fanaticism” developed, when he haunted then flourishing North 24th Street’s popular jazz joints to glimpse the music legends who played there.

He grew up the youngest of nine in a ramshackle house in North Omaha.  Love’s mother, Mexie, was widowed when he was an infant.  Music was always part of his growing up.  He listened to his music idols, especially Count Basie and Basie’s lead alto sax man, Earle Warren on the family radio and phonograph.  He taught himself to play the sax brought home by his brother “Dude.”  He learned, verbatim, Warren’s solos by listening to recordings over and over again.  By his med-teens he was touring with pre-war territory bands, playing his first professional gig in 1936 at the Aeroplane Inn in Honey Creek, Iowa (hence the title of his book).

At Omaha’s Dreamland Ballroom he saw his idols in person, imagining himself on the bandstand too — hair coiffured and suit pressed — the very embodiment of black success.  “We’d go to see the glamour of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong.  We aspired to escape the drabness and anonymity of our own town by going into show business,” Love recalls.  “I dreamed of someday making it…of going to New York to play the Cotton Club and of playing the Grand Terrace in Chicago.”

He encountered both racism and kindness touring America.  The road suited him and his wife Betty, whom he married in 1941.

The couple’s first child, Preston Jr., was born 54 years ago and the family grew to include three more off-spring: Norman and Richie, who are musicians, and Portia, who sings with her father’s band.

Life was good and Love, who eventually formed his own band, enjoyed great success in the ’50s.  Then things went sour.  Faced with financial setbacks, he moved his family to Los Angeles in 1962, where he worked a series of jobs outside music.  His career rebounded when he found work as a studio musician and later as Motown’s west coast band leader in the late ’60s, collaborating with such icons as Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder.  He returned to Omaha in 1972, only to find his music largely forgotten and his community in decline.  While often feeling unappreciated in his hometown, he basked in the glow of triumphant overseas tours, prestigious jazz festival performances and, more recently, reissues of classic recordings. Today, he’s an elder statesman, historian and watchdog.

 

 

 

 

To grasp just how much the music means to him, and how much it saddens him to see it lost or mutilated, you have to know that the once booming North 24th Street he so loved is now a wasteland.  That the music once heard from every street corner, bar, restaurant, and club has been silenced altogether or replaced by discordant new sounds.

The hurt is especially acute for Love because he remembers well when Omaha was a major jazz center, supporting many big bands and clubs and drawing premier musicians from around the region.  It was a launching ground for him and many others.

“This was like the Triple A of baseball for black music,” he says.  “The next stop was the big leagues.”

He vividly recalls jazz giants playing the Dreamland and the pride they instilled:  “All of the great black geniuses of my time played that ballroom — Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Earl “Father” Hines, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker.  Jazz was all black then, number one, and here were people you read about in magazines and heard on radio coast-to-coast, and admired and worshipped, and now you were standing two feet from them and could talk to them and hear their artistry.”

Love regrets many young blacks are uninformed about this vital part of their heritage.  “If I were to be remembered for some contribution,” he says, “it would be to remind people that what’s going on today with the black youth and their rap and all that bull has nothing to do with their history.  It’s a renunciation of their true music — blues, rhythm and blues and jazz.  You couldn’t get the average young black person today to listen to a record by anyone but one of the new funk or rap players.  It’s getting to be where black people in their 20s and 30s feel that way, too.”

He says “the power structure” running the music business in cities like Omaha plays on this malaise, marketing pale reproductions of jazz and blues more palatable to today’s less discriminating audiences:

“Everything’s controlled from out west and downtown in our music.  It’s based on personalities, politics and cronyism.  Even though it’s often a very poor imitation of the original, it passes well enough not only for whites, but for black too.  The power structure has the ability to change the meaning of everything and compromise truth.  It’s a disservice to this art and to this city.  Every old jazz friend of mine who comes here says the same thing” ‘What happened to your hometown, Preston?'”

Love says his son Norman, a saxophonist living in Denver, largely left Omaha out of frustration — unable to find steady gigs despite overwhelming talent.  Love says black musicians have been essentially shut out certain gigs because of their race.

 

Omaha Bar-B-Q

 

He believes several local musicians and presenters inappropriately use the jazz label.  “The implication is that these guys might be fine jazz players.  It’s an arrogance on the part of people who really don’t have the gift to perform it and don’t have the credibility to present it.  What I’m saying is not an ego trip.  It’s irrefutable.  It is, at least, a professional opinion.”

It’s on points like these Love elicits the most ire because they are, arguably, matters of taste.  For example, Love complains the city’s main jazz presenters don’t book enough black performers and the people booking the events are unqualified.  When it’s pointed out to him that half the acts featured in a major jazz series the past two years have been black and the series’ booker is Juilliard-trained, he dismisses these facts because, in his view, the performers “haven’t been much” and the booking agent’s classical credentials carry little weight in jazz circles.

He acknowledges limited opportunities extend even to North Omaha.  “We have no place to play in our own neighborhood,” he says.  “The club owners here, in most cases, really can’t afford it, but even if they could they don’t know anything about it.  So we’ve been thrown to the wolves by our own people.”

Bill Ritchie, an Omaha Symphony bass player and leader of his own mainstream jazz quartet, agrees that many local jazz players don’t measure up and rues the fact there are too few jazz venues.  The classically-trained Ritchie, 43, who is white, says the boundaries of jazz, rightly or wrongly, have been blurred:  “There’s so much crossover, so much fusion of jazz and rock and pop today, that it’s hard to say where to draw the line.  Preston obviously feels he’s one to draw the line.  I might go a little further on that line than someone like Preston, because he comes from a different era than I do, and somebody younger than me might even stretch that line a little bit further.”

For Love and like-minded musicians, however, you either have the gift for jazz or you don’t.

Orville Johnson, 67, a keyboardist with Love’s band, says jazz and the blues flow from a deep, intrinsic experience common to most African-Americans.  “It’s a cultural thing,” Johnson says. “Jazz is sort of the sum total of life experiences.  It’s the same with the blues.  There’s a thread that runs clear through it, and it’s a matter of life experience that’s particular to black people in America.

“If a person hasn’t lived that life, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to express themselves musically that way.  It’s a sum total of what musicians frequently describe as ‘the dues that we’ve paid.’ It doesn’t have much anything to do with technique.  It’s a matter of being able to express in musical terms your experience.  A university-educated white student who’s been raised perhaps in a middle-class white neighborhood and never known hunger or the frustration of living in a racial society, usually isn’t able to play and get the same feeling.  And that includes a young black person who hasn’t known nearly the hardship that people of my generation or Preston’s generation has known.”

It’s the same message Love delivers in lectures.  Like Johnson, Love feels jazz is an expression of the black soul:  “To hear the harmony of those black musicians, with that sorrowful, plaintive thing that only blacks have.  That pain in their playing.  That blue note.  That’s what jazz is,” he says.  “The Benny Goodmans and those guys never got it.  They were tremendous instrumentalists in their own way.  But that indefinable, elusive blue note — that’s black, and a lot of blacks don’t get it.”

The two men doubt if many of the younger persons billing themselves as jazz and blues musicians today have more than a superficial knowledge of these art forms.  “Take the plantation songs that were the forerunners of the blues,” Johnson says.  “Many of the things they said were not literal.  When they sung about an ‘evil woman.’ frequently that was a reference to a slave master…not to a woman at all.  There’s pretty much a code involved there.  When you study it as I’ve done and Preston’s done, that’s what you discover.”

He and Love feel their music is diluted and distorted by university music departments, where jazz is taught in sterile isolation from its rich street and club origins.

Love bristles at the notion he’s a “moldy fig,” the term Boppers coined to describe older musicians mired in the past and resistant to change.

“As far as being a moldy fig, that’s bullshit.  I’m as alert and aware of what’s going on in music now as I was 60 years ago,” he says.  “I hear quite a few young guys today who I admire.  I’m still capable of great idol worship.  I am eternally vital.  I play my instruments as modern as anybody alive…and better than I’ve ever played them.”

And like the Yoruba elders, he looks to the past to inform and invigorate the present:

“When you muddy the water or disturb the trend or tell the truth even, you make people angry, because they’d rather leave the status quo as it is. A  lot of musicians around her will say privately to me the same things, but they’re afraid to say them publicly.  But I’m not afraid of the repercussions.  I will fight for my people’s music and its preservation.”

Omaha’s Own American Gangster, Clyde Waller

April 29, 2010 4 comments

street bokeh

Image by Daniel*1977 via Flickr

UPDATE: The memorable subject of the following story passed away June 9, 2011. I didn’t know Clyde Waller well, but I spent enough time in his company that I am confident he will alway be one of the most unforgettable characters in my life.

Here’s a story that two Omaha news weeklies turned down because the subject’s rather epic criminal boasts could largely not be corroborated.

Omaha’s African-American newspaper, The Omaha Star, did run the story, in two parts, but I wasn’t satisfied with the way they were laid out and positioned — they just kind of got lost or swallowed up in a sea of type.

I wrote the piece in a way that takes it all in with a certain grain of salt and leaves it up to you, the reader, to decide for yourself what’s credible and what’s not. In the end, I didn’t really care if what Clyde told me was the truth or not, because he and his stories, and most importantly, the way he told them, were too compelling for me to dismiss or walk away from.

Clyde later hired me to conduct a series of interviews, executed at his motel room, so that he could get his life on tape to inform a biography and a screenplay that another writer had begun but that he wasn’t happy with. In all, I amassed something like 15 hours of interviews with Clyde. The way he paid me, with a stack of bills in a plain white envelope that he slid across the bed to me, made me fill a bit like I was part of some criminal intrigue. I got the same feeling when he had his brother deliver some documents to me for my story project. His brother told me to meet him in the parking lot of a supermarket. I got there a bit early and waited in my car, having told Clyde’s brother the make and model and color of my ride. Before I knew it a Cadillac pulled up alongside me with two men in it, and the fellow in the passenger seat indicated I should slide my window down. I did as I was told, and the man handed over a manilla envelope thick with content. Barely a word was exchanged, except for me commenting how much the driver, who I took to be Clyde’s brother, resembled Clyde. Then the messengers drove off just as mysteriously as they’d arrived.

If I can ever get the interview tapes from Clyde I plan to write a one-man play whose entire monologue would be extracted from those sessions I had with him in the motel. I could never duplicate his streetwise patios and embellishments and poetry. It’s a project I hope to get to sooner rather than later.

Well, anyway, here’s a version of his story:

Omaha’s Own American Gangster, Living Urban Legend Clyde Waller, Spills His Crime Stories

©by Leo Adam Biga  Originally published in the Omaha Star (2008)

 

NOTE: This two-part story about Omaha native Clyde Waller is based on interviews I conducted with him. Waller described to me a multi-faceted criminal life whose sheer scope makes much of what he said he did difficult to confirm. Given Waller’s underground world and urban legend character, I do not purport the story is entirely factual. Rather, it is an interpretive, as-told-to account that, whenever possible, uses Waller’s own words. Make up your own mind.

Part I: Clyde Waller’s Education in The Life

Long before you meet living urban legend Clyde Waller, you hear the stories. When you finally talk to the man, he confirms a criminal past of mythic dimensions.

He describes growing up fast on the mean streets of post-World War II Omaha, where next door to each other his father ran Count’s Pool Hall and his uncle the after-hours Count’s Joint in south O. His dad and uncle had legit businesses, but always had some extra action going on the side, from moving bootleg liquor to boosted merchandise. Young Clyde soaked it all in.

Dodges came naturally to him as a kid. He resold comic books and costume jewelry for a profit. He supplied his mom with handkerchiefs he’d cut into swatches for her to crochet. Then he peddled the doilies on the street, at school, wherever. On his first train ride he hustled the sandwiches he packed to hungry GIs, for whom he spent the rest of the trip running errands, earning cold hard cash in tips. “I kind of had a hustling quality about me as a child,” he says.

When not looking for an edge, he roamed many a haunt. His south O hangouts included the banks of the Missouri River, the stockyards, Ak-Sar-Ben race track, Riverview Park, Playland Park and the Chief and Roseland theaters. When his family moved to the north side, he was a regular at the Crosstown roller rink and Reed’s Ice Cream stand. Downtown, he took in show after show at the Tiverly, Brandeis, Omaha and Orpheum theaters. He swears the movies’ glamorous portrayals of crime only reinforced his own way of life.

In the early 1960s the high school drop out led more or less a straight life. He ran errands for patrons at a hotel and worked as a janitor at the old St. Joseph’s Hospital. He even joined the Naval reserves. All that conformity ate at him. Just as the Vietnam War was about to grow hot, active duty called. When he went AWOL before his Navy hitch began, he fled to Kansas.

When he felt the heat was off he came back to Omaha a few weeks later, got married and started a family in the Spencer Street housing projects. But the MPs caught up to him and he soon found himself on the USS Procyon, a supply ship, bound for Nam. To teach him a lesson, he says, “they shipped my ass out with no basic training or nothing.” He reported for duty in his fly duds. The Navy proved a rude awakening, but some things never changed, as he soon found the angles in this bad situation to do a handsome trade in black market Naval stores.

Back stateside in the mid-’60s, he settled in Oakland, Calif., where he fell in with a proverbial den of thieves. They used the Color Me Natural barbershop on 98th Avenue as a front for their illicit operations. With its juke box and its hip cutters, the place was a gathering spot for people in “the life.”

“Gamblers, hustlers, pimps, dope dealers, you name it, they come through there. And some of it rubbed off on me,” he says. He learned the “honorable” craft of barbering along with less reputable pursuits, like how to pull off various frauds. He helped design West Coast scams that bilked companies and individuals alike. His crew staged accidents they then collected disability insurance settlements on or they filed false discrimination lawsuits defendants gladly settled out of court. The gang found ways to embezzle or otherwise redirect monies from private financial accounts.

“I always had some game going…running one scheme after another. Then we got into drugs. We were selling weed, cocaine, heroin and every damn thing else. So we were living on easy street. We got a nice barber shop and we’re selling drugs and driving Cadillacs and blah, blah, blah, livin’ on top of the world. Living way beyond the means of cutting hair,” he tells you.

His first marriage failed. He married again, only to see it crumble as well. Besides the children from his two wives, he fathered more with other women.

He’s captivated you with his tales over the phone. This natural storyteller’s rich, profane language is just what you expect from an old-school gangsta. He sounds like the real deal, too — a man wise to the ways of the wicked. When he comes to Omaha for an August family reunion, the legend doesn’t disappoint. He looks the part of an outlaw with his world-weary slouch, muscular arms, graying pony-tail, stylish clothes, Ray-Ban shades and gold bling-bling that drapes his ears, neck and wrist. You imagine Samuel Jackson or Terrence Howard playing him if his story ever finds its way on screen, which it just might. It’s one of the reasons he’s in town.

You sit down for lunch with him in the Old Market and he spills out details from his story in loud, expletive-laced riffs that you’re sure will turn heads, but don’t. It’s easy to see how he could manipulate people to his advantage with the way he seduces you into feeling you’re the only one in his gaze at that moment. There are glimpses of a compulsive man whose hunger for more gives him a desperate edge.

No matter how much he made, it was never enough. Too many middle men cut into the profits. Especially with coke. “So we devised a way to bring it up out of Bogota,” he says matter of factly.

He purports to, in the ’70s, being perhaps the first African-American drug lord with his own direct connection to the Colombia cartel of Pablo Escobar. Of being made “a godfather” by a Colombian family. Of being a big-time supplier. “I never dealt drugs directly. I never sold $50 worth. I sold no less than $50k in drugs,” he says. “But I never got away from the haunt of it.” Of how, in the ’80s and ’90s, he made San Francisco and Hawaii his new bases of crime, running drugs, pulling scams, laundering and counterfeiting monies. How he breached monetary security walls. How his graft finally caught the attention of state and federal authorities. How federal judge Henry Fong called him “the most serious threat to the American monetary system.” How he cut a deal with then-U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese to tell the Secret Service’s Fraudulent Crimes Division “all” he knew in exchange for himself and two brothers not serving any part of a stiff sentence.

His ego was hurt when the government doubted that he, a lone black man, could mastermind such sophisticated criminal enterprises. In a warped way, he was both a victim and a beneficiary of racism.

 

 

 

 

The key to his rackets was having the smarts to see and slip through what he calls “the blind door.” He refers, for example, to a period when in-transit credit card transactions are exposed to spying crooks who, by using devices and/or inside information, tap the WATTS line and pilfer accounts when no one’s aware. Poof, it’s gone. He intimates that his Omaha connections gave him access to figures with knowledge of the systems that made Omaha then, as now, a telecommunications-telemarketing hub.

“The blind door is the door you open that no one ever thinks about,” he says. “Nobody’s even conscious it’s there and that’s the one I use, and it makes me invisible. Man, there’s a blind door to every damn thing. There’s a part where nobody sees nobody, and that’s where I come in. I figured out when it was. And unless I tell you I did it, you’ll never know how I did it.”

He says he kept right on stealing even while in the employ of the Secret Service. He says he only escaped the distasteful world of informant by making himself an addict and thus a degenerate nobody wanted anything from anymore. That his life only found meaning once he stopped looking for an edge. He talks with pride about making himself clean and sober and raising, alone, his two sons with ex-wife Lola.

Millions in ill gotten gains passed through his hands, he says, as he never intended on accumulating wealth. Others speak of his generosity in sharing what he made.

Trina Smolen, a Phoenix, Ariz. writer he worked with to turn his story into a book and a screenplay, was a jobless single mother in Hawaii when Waller adopted her and her little girl in the late 1980s. She speaks of his “big heart” and his “Robin Hood quality.” She says, “He paid for operations for people. If somebody needed to make a rent payment, a mortgage payment, bail kids out, he was generous that way.” She also says he and his second wife Lola shared a coke habit and that his “criminal enterprise” employed dozens of people and raked in loads of cash.

“I‘d just make it and spend it, give it away, just (expletive) it off,” he says. “Eighty-ninety thousand dollars in the trunk of my car. And after awhile it became a burden. The money was not only illegal, the s___ was heavy. Then I had to hire people to count it. Then they stole a little bit. I was going through misery.”

He’s seen it all, done it all, short of killing. That’s where he says he drew the line.

“I stayed away from guns…murder. I didn’t want to be involved in nothing like that. I did it my way by not allowing anyone in with these tendencies. And it worked. I’m walking here a free man,” he says on a walk in the Old Market. “I did something right. But I really should be either dead or in a penitentiary for the rest of my life.”

Violence was all around him growing up, first in south O, then in north O. On the south side, young Clyde navigated an Eastern European immigrant turf dominated by rough and tumble men who drank and fought hard. He saw gun play and knife fights. He once came upon a frozen corpse in the snow. He developed street smarts to fend off pervs and other predators. When his family moved to the near northside, things only got worse. The Wallers lived across from the Apex Bar, commonly known as “the bucket of blood” for all the stuff that went down there.

“I witnessed a lot of violence. I witnessed people getting shot, people getting cut. I was paranoid from the time I was 7 until I was 33 because I knew what people would do to one another and the extent to what they would do. That made me go the opposite direction. It kept me from it because to me it was ugly.”

From the time he was a little kid, he learned how to talk his way out of any jam, even practicing his lies in the mirror. He learned too that being on the make was a way of life. Hanging around his dad and uncle’s places he learned to hustle suckers with words, cards, dice or a pool cue. He could take you any way he chose.

He knows he comes off a braggart, but he insists baring the darker side of himself wears on his soul.

“It’s only because of the way I tell the story it sounds glorified, but it actually hurts to tell the story. The emotions are still there. When I leave you I will be literally worn out,” he insists. “I want people to understand I not only have remorse about what I’ve done, I wish I had done something else. I’m telling this story because it needs to be told. This story will answer a lot of questions to a lot of people somewhere, somehow.”

Ego played a big part in his getting caught up in the whole drug scene. Circumstances too put him in a position where he could be a player, a somebody. He said coming of age the way he did, amid shrewd black men who lived large from vice, he developed a distorted view of the world and a corrupt confidence in himself. Magnifying this was a loving father who told Clyde “you can do anything you want to do” and a police department, not far removed from the corrupt old Dennison political machine, that got a piece of the action.

“In the back, my father always had a card game going on. When the police would come in my older brother would take ‘em back to my father who would hand ‘em an envelope and they’d walk out. I’m not saying this to offend people, but I was taught something the average black child today don’t get instilled in them. When I went on my three-decade odyssey I was not inhibited by white people or their laws. I was free — up here,” he says, rapping his temple with a finger, “and that’s why it was so easy for me to do it.

“I could have been anything. It’s just very unfortunate that at the time I chose to express my talents…coke was a recreational drug and everyone was doing it…doctors, attorneys, politicians, sports greats,” he says. “I actually stuck the needle in some of these arms. It put me on the same level with them. They, and I’m not lying, envied me. Ain’t that a b_____? They envied me. I done something they would never be able to do. They made me think what I was doing was important and, of course, I believed ‘em. I felt important.”

End of Part I.

 

 

 

Omaha’s Own American Gangster, Living Urban Legend Clyde Waller, Spills His Crime Stories

©by Leo Adam Biga

Part II: The Rise and Fall and Redemption of Clyde Waller

The way Clyde Waller tells his life story of dodges and deceptions, it’s a riveting saga. He has a way with words anyway. That, combined with his urban slang, and his Old School G appearance makes it easy to believe he’s seen his share of hell. You don’t doubt for an instance his street cred. But still…

Can his tale really be believed when so much of it must be taken on faith? Author Trina Smolen of Phoenix, Ariz. has known Waller for years. Up until a year ago or so she was writing a book and a screenplay about his life. But he parted company with her when he felt she wasn’t being authentic to his experience. What she did write about his various criminal scores and enterprises was largely based on extensive interviews with him. Her chapter summaries for the book Blind Door read like the narrative from some arresting crime fiction.

Family and friends either have direct knowledge of Waller’s larceny or anecdotally confirm he was into some kind of heavy stuff. Had to be. Why else would a barber from Oakland, Calif., by way of his hometown of Omaha, be hauling ass on repeated trips to South America just as the cocaine trade came of age?

An Omaha cousin who got caught up in Waller’s dealings on the coast describes going to the L.A. airport to meet Clyde on one of his return flights from Bogota. The cousin, who lived above the Color Me Natural shop in Oakland Clyde operated out of, asked him, “Where is it?”, meaning the drugs, whereupon Clyde told him, “You’re holding it,” referring to the large radio he’d handed his cousin. Clyde explains he gutted most of the radio’s insides to hold the stash of cocaine, leaving just enough wiring to let it still play. Good thing, Clyde says, as customs agents tried the radio. It played, just barely.

Then there was the “lavish lifestyle” that didn’t jive with cutting heads. “So they knew I had money,” Waller says. “I even paid doctor, hospital, pharmacy bills, down payments for homes and college tuitions for family and friends.”

Omaha actor-director John Beasley grew up with Waller and his brothers here and says it was common knowledge Clyde’s “always been into something. We used to hear these stories about him. We used to wonder about him.” Therefore, he believes what Waller says may be true. “The reason I don’t doubt it is I remember years ago when I’d ask his folks, — ‘How’s Clyde doing?’ — I’d hear, ‘He’s a barber out in Oakland, but he’s got some kind of scheme going on.’ Or, ‘Clyde’s been in Hawaii or South America again.’ I knew cocaine was involved. I’d hear tales back.”

Waller’s only sister, Larceeda Jefferson of Dolton, Il., said while never involved with Clyde’s misdeeds she learned of them from her brother or others as they played out. “You can trust it, it’s true. He did everything he said and then some probably…At the time I had mixed emotions. I didn’t feel like he failed anybody in what he was doing, I just felt like he wanted something and he wanted it so bad he didn’t care how he got it. He’s always been that way. He’s still that way now, except he don’t do that (crimes) anymore. He still has that pie-in-the-sky attitude that one day he wants to be somebody. I don’t know who he wants to be. It was all a matter of survival for him. He survived the best way he found.”

 

Ruby (May) White Waller

Ruby

 

He involved select family and friends in some of his criminal pursuits. At the very least a cousin and two brothers. Indeed, his ex-wife Lola, the mother of his children, got sucked into “the life” of a drug runner and addict. But mostly he kept that world a secret, a pattern he began in childhood.

“It’s like I was living in two different worlds,” he says, “but I never let those worlds meet. That made my life not only paranoid, but hard.”

Some official documents allude to his life off the grid and just how far his assorted mischief went, but nothing concrete. Otherwise, all you’re left with is Waller’s own claims of criminal exploits. All you have is his word. The irony doesn’t escape him. That a man who owns up to making and losing a fortune through elaborate deceptions raised to high art should be trusted that what he says now is how it was then. The past tense is deliberate, for Waller says he’s gone straight for the past dozen years. He says he’s paying taxes and following both the letter and spirit of the law. He recently opened a barber school in Oakland, where he’s widely seen as a mentor in the community. A 2004 Oakland Tribune feature paints him so.

He’s telling his story, he says, as the final piece in his recovery. Then again, you must take some of it with a healthy dose of skepticism when he says things like, “See, I come off to a whole lot of people as slow-witted, dumb. But that’s my game. That I’m just an old country boy from Omaha. That I ain’t going to hurt you,” he says with a smile, adding, until you realize “I’m going to take your house.”

He’s a master at taking people into his confidence for his own devices. He says he “learned” a long time ago “the average person is constantly looking for something for nothing, and I used that against them.” Could his spill-the-guts confessional be another “blind door” to some pay-off? But why would he risk the sterling rep he enjoys today by spinning a false story?

If this is a con, it’s hard to say how he’ll benefit unless a book deal gets inked or until the movie rights are sold. At one point, Waller and Smolen said major publishers had expressed interest in the outline for the manuscript. John Beasley”s convinced enough by Clyde and his story that he’s bidding to acquire the screen rights for his company, West O Films. Beasley’s currently preparing to mount a feature film on football great Marlin Briscoe, an Omaha native Beasley and Waller grew up with.

Waller knows how improbable it all seems. He says it seemed that way to him too as he was living it. From the moment he made his first trip to Colombia in 1978, it all unfolded as in a dream.

“I used to sit there at night looking up at the stars, saying, ‘You this little (expletive) from Omaha, Neb. down here in the (expletive) jungle.’ And I did it willingly. It wasn’t like the army sent me down there. I did this s___ on my own. When I first got there, I was actually crying. I’m saying, ‘(expletive). man, I’m back in Vietnam. What person in their right mind would even put their ass in a situation like this?’”

Bogota was as scary and foreign to him as Vietnam had been. The surreal nature of it all sank in as soon as the plane landed in a militarized airport.

“Guns everywhere. Dogs. I couldn’t speak Spanish for s___. I took a cab to the Hilton and they put me up in the Presidential suite. I wouldn’t come out for three days. I was crashing on the floor, freezing from the high altitude climate.”

He called home, desperate he’d made a terrible mistake. He told his wife Lola, “’Baby, I’m coming home. I gotta get out of here.’” She calmed him down, reminding him he “hadn’t done anything” yet,” he says, laughing. “I can laugh about it now, man, but there was a time I couldn’t even think about it.”

An African-American looking for a major drug connection in Bogota made him an object of suspicion, at least in his own mind. It was weeks before he met the young man, Foris, who would initiate him into the drug culture or “lifeline” of Colombia.

Before Foris and his people could trust Waller, they tested him. Having him hole up in the hotel for 30 days only disoriented him more for what came next.

“What they do is they take you out in the jungle and they leave your ass out there,” he says. “I didn’t know what the hell I was out there for and that’s what be getting you. Brother, you just go crazy. You just lose it. And that’s what they’re looking for — to see how fast you can get yourself back in control. At first I thought maybe they’d given me some kind of drug because I went out and pitched a b____. But I got under control in like 10 or 15 minutes and I passed the test.”

 

 

 

Another test he says he passed came in the presence of Pablo Escobar himself, only Waller asserts at the time he didn’t know who The Man was, only that he was an associate of Foris’s. Escobar came to the home of Foris, bodyguards stationed outside. Waller recalls Escobar as quiet and carefully “observing me.” The men whiled away the night drinking beer and smoking PalMals stoked with coke, each measuring their manhood by how much they could consume.

“They wanted to see how strong I was,” he says. “The next morning they were laying on the floor and I was stepping over their asses, still drinking, still smoking. The final result was, ‘I was a helluva black American.’”

Clay, as he was called there, lived with Foris, his wife and their extended family. His immersion in the coca culture brought him deep into an alternate reality. “It’s a world of it’s own down there,” he says. “See, everything down there is opposite here.” His acceptance in this underground gave him cachet but that didn’t mean he still wasn’t afraid. “I was always thinking they was trying to kill me,” he says. When told how the drugs were carried out — in small plastic bags to be ingested and then expelled — he was sure of it. “I thought they was crazy.”

Now he needed a sign of trust. It came on a road trip to Cali. “The police stopped us. Foris tried to bribe the cop and he took our asses straight to jail,” he recalls. Drug convictions bring stiff penalties in Colombia. “Down there if they caught you with a zig-zag in your pocket you’d do 30 years,” he says. “Any paraphernalia, you go to prison. If it’s coke, you never get out.” It’s why Waller made a decision while stewing in jail. “I sat there and thought, ‘If this man (Foris) get our asses out of this, then I know I can put my life in his hands.’ And he got us out of it. That’s when the trust came in. After that, I didn’t have to ask no more questions.”

Smuggling smack out of the country was a crucible of logistics and rituals and mind games. When Foris brought Clyde his first shipment, he avoided it for three days. “They said, ‘It belongs to you now.’ I did not touch it, I walked around it, I tried to ignore it, I even tried to act like it wasn’t there,” he says. “It was a helluva an experience.” As prep for each trip Foris’s wife communed with spirits to protect Waller on his mule run. “She’d come out from a closed room and say, ‘Clay, it’s time to go,’ and I knew it. I’d just get up and go. And it happened like that seven times. She always told me, ‘Everybody around you will help you.’ I didn’t know what she meant. But it happened just like she said. Everybody around me helped me…”

Once, when carrying into the U.S., he says he saw that drug-sniffing dogs were on duty. “I knew this day I might have a problem,” he says. Rather than panic he seized the moment when he sized-up a young girl aboard as someone special. He was right — she was a diplomat’s daughter. By insinuating himself into her entourage, neither his body nor luggage was searched.

He refers to the Zen-like “control” and presence of mind it takes to complete a drug run. “Pure control,” he says. “You have to be able to do it or go to prison. It got easier and easier. I was like an actor on the set getting ready to do his part…go into his character. You have to be able to live your cover.” He could have easily “lost it” on his first run if not for how he’d steeled himself. Going over “every scenario that is possible” in his head. “What it boils down to is thinking logically,” he says.“That first trip of mine, man, they made us sit on the plane for two hours before we could get off of it (in Miami). They turned off the air, we were sweating. All I could see outside was dogs and federal marshals.”

He nearly began tripping, until he reminded himself “they don’t know I’m coming through here with this unless I tell them.” In order to not betray any tells, he says, “you have to have the ability to take that fear away from you. I was always able to surmount it and get over it and get past it without being shaken. Nobody can teach you that. And when you get out you are so mentally exhausted.” He says making runs with someone else, as he did with Lola, is even harder and riskier. He had to “maintain” her and himself to avoid a slip. He says the two of them would assume fake identities, once even posing as missionaries. “We couldn’t do it the same way every time. We had to keep coming up with new ideas. I was very creative.”

Waller says he came to know the major drug routes and was courted by crime organizations, including a group he calls “the black mafia.” But he kept the drug business a sideline to his financial chicanery, eventually setting up base in Hawaii, where the feds finally closed in. Busted, he faced serious jail time. Rather than do time, he cooperated.

By the time he walked away from it all, he says he was spent from the pressure of being a user and being used. It’s why he “allowed” himself to get hooked.

“A way of paying penitence. The more hooked I became, the more my importance diminished — importance to the authorities and to the dealers. I never let anyone know that I was using. Only Lola knew and my brothers. But my concentration on ‘the game’ was waning, just like I wanted it to do. I made a conscious decision to do this. I couldn’t handle being in charge of so many other people’s lives and welfare — 15-20 people depending on me to feed their kids -– not including the users who were depending on my product.”

Sealed documents contain the threads of some of his criminal escapades. He and Smolen tried gaining access to those records without much success.

If things go the way he wants, his story will break big — as a book, a film, a play. He’ll be immortalized as an American Gangster. He’s fine with that, although he’s concerned his sons, the new women in his life, Ruby, and the young men and women he mentors at his barber school will learn disturbing things about him they don’t know.

The old life is not completely out of his system. Although he swears he’s mostly gone legit he acknowledges he’s still got some action going on in his capacity as a kind of liaison or procurer who can, for a price, get you anything you want. No questions asked.

Every one who reads or sees his story will have to make up their own mind about this living urban legend. Perhaps he says it best:

“Man, I’m telling you it’s so heavy and deep it’s almost like this s___ was a dream.”

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