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Love affair with Afghanistan and international studies affords Tom Gouttierre world view like few others

February 21, 2017 5 comments

In the annals of unforgettable people I’ve interviewed and profiled, UNO’s retired director of Center for Afghanistan Studies and dean of International Programs and Studies Tom Gouttierre ranks right up there. This is my new profile of him for the March 2017  issue of the New Horizons published by the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging. Look for it at newstands and for subscribers in your mailbox starting Feb. 27.

My first encounter with this irrepressible man came some 20 years ago and I’m still recovering from it. I mean that as a compliment.  You see, Tom fills up a room with not only his big frame and personality, but with the breadth of his life experience and the depth of his passion for things he cares about. Because he is a citizen of the world and considers his second home to be Afghanistan, where he lived and worked nearly a decade and that he made the center of his professional life,. he has an expansive view about things that you don’t run into every day. He’s seen things most of his fellow native born Americans haven’t.  That translates into him apprehending the world in terms most of us don’t or can’t because we don’t have his experience or expertise. He even shakes hands differently than most of us. He calls its an international handshake. His immersion with Afghanistan, first as a Peace Corps volunteer, then as a Fulbright Fellow, then as director of the Fulbright program in Kabul and finally as director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, he became an official ambassador to that country. He has many close friends who are Afghan. You can’t turn around in his Dundee home without seeing something from there. That first meeting I took with Tom was for a long interview I did to inform a cover profile I wrote about him and his love affair with Afghanistan. His affection for that nation and its people runs deep and it’s safe to say his thoughts are never far from there and them. The article I did all that time ago contrasted the veritable paradise that the peacetime Afghanistan was in the 1960s and early ’70 with the devastated shell the invading Soviets left it in. Like the millions of refugees who fled their homeland, Tom has despaired that his dream place has been so violently disrupted and shattered during three-plus decades of ongoing chaos, terror, violence and war. Like some of the Afghan people, he’s never stopped hoping and trying to do what he can to stabilize and rebuild the infrastructure. His UNO Center conducted many education programs with Afghans in exile and with resident Afghans. Tom served as a top U.S. advisor on the country. He retired from UNO from 41 years but the center’s work continues and his personal interest in and connection to Afghanistan remains strong.

Here’s a link to that earler story I did about him–

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/19/in-search-of-a-lost-dream-an-americans-afghan-odyssey/

 

 

 

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Tom Gouttierre

 

 

Love affair with Afghanistan and international studies affords Tom Gouttierre world view like few others

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in the March 2017 issue of New Horizons

 

Life changing

On the surface, Tom Gouttierre led a parochial Midwest life growing up in post-World War Ii America. By the time he was at Bowling Green State, he expected a traditional, stateside education career awaited him. Little did he imagine the far-off places his work would eventually lead, first as a Peace Corps volunteer with wife Marylu, then as a Fulbright Fellow, and finally as longtime director of UNO’s Center for Afghanistan Studies and dean of International Studies and Programs.

Gouttierre retired in 2015 after 41 years doing jobs he loved. His work brought him into contact with U.S. presidents, secretaries of state, ambassadors, generals, foreign leaders, geo-political intrigues and momentous events. But what he most enjoyed was interacting with International Studies students. Some came from all corners of the globe and others right from his own backyard.

“The thing driving me more than anything else was advising those International Studies majors – young Midwest kids very much like I was wanting to learn and work in the world,” he said. “I was so inspired regularly to be with these young dynamic students who wanted to do something, It was that more than any one thing that kept me working until age 75. That, and the fact that I’d step outside my door and be surrounded by students from all around the world.

“I had what I think most people who are interested in higher education and global affairs would have to be described as the dream job. I got to deal on a daily basis with hundreds of international students. They inform you even by their presence, they inform our students, they stimulate education. It’s really dynamic and so much fun.”

When Gouttierre came to UNO in 1974 after a decade of living and working in Afghanistan the university had fewer than two dozen international students and only one international program. When he left four decades later there were more than 2,000 international students and scores of programs.

The center’s work its first decade-and-a-half revolved around a donated archive comprising the largest collection of Afghan cultural material and documents outside its borders. The center’s role broadened after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. With the country in tatters and millions of Afghans in refugee camps, the center tasked itself with rebuilding that Central Asian nation’s education infrastructure. Meanwhile, UNO’s Intensive Language (ILUNO) program gave the University of Nebraska at Omaha a global presence as students from diverse nations came for intensive training. Gouttierre’s experience and expertise made him a go-to U.S. government advisor and media source. During his tenure, the center managed some $120 million in federal contracts and grants.

He was part of high-level, secret negotiations for the Soviet Union to exit Afghanistan after its failed invasion. He oversaw programs that trained hundreds of Afghan residents and refugees in learning English. public administration and advanced teaching skills. Some of those trained by UNO. either here or overseas, became key players in Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy. Long before Hamid Karzai became president of Afghanistan, he and Gouttiere knew each other. Another  close personal friend is current Afghan president Ashraf Ghani – a former student of Gouttiere’s. The American’s Dundee home is filled with artifacts from his and Marylu’s time there, including collections of rugs and mortars and pestles. Their home features arches reminiscent of Middle Eastern design and a solarium with a running fountain.

It’s ironic Gouttierre ended up being a citizen of the world because he barely left his native Ohio before age 25. In 1965 he took his first airplane trip anywhere – to Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul. It was home to Tom and Marylu for may years, Adam, the oldest of the couple’s three sons, was born there, The country, the culture and the people fundamentally changed the course of Gouttierre’s life.

“I learned their language and culture to an uncommon degree and the reason I did is because i liked them so much,” said Gouttierre, who’s fluent in Dari. “I learned the language well enough to write poetry in their tongue and to have it published there.”

He went first as a Peace Corps volunteer, then as a Fulbright Fellow and eventually he headed the Fulbright Foundation there. He also coached amateur basketball teams, even the Afghan national men’s  team. He once enlisted the advice of the Wizard of Westwood, UCLA coaching legend John Wooden, on how to run his famous zone press. When the Afghan nationals upset the Chinese, Gouttierre got carried off the court by jubilant players and fans chanting, “Mr. Tom.”

His immersion was as deep and complete as possible for an outsider. His interest in and affection for the people has never wavered and has been reciprocated in kind.

“They’re so warm and receiving and supportive. Afghans are the most hospitable people I’ve ever met in my life anywhere around the world and I’ve met wonderfully hospitable people In Japan and elsewhere. But Afghans, who have probably far fewer resources to extend in their hospitality, are heads and shoulders above everybody in their belief in their hospitality. Anybody who tries their language or knows their history is embraced by them and the more one knows these things the more one is drawn to learn more. I still enjoy that very much.”

“It’s important to know what the people are like.”

He admires the fierce, proud nature of Afghans who have famously taken up arms throughout history to repel enemy invaders in defense of their homeland and autonomy.

“They’re one of the most independent-minded people in the history of mankind. They defeated the British empire three times, they beat back the Soviet empire. They’re resilient.”

They’re also grateful to anyone who assists their aspirational dreams.

“Afghans would demonstrate and plead with the Ministry of Education to have Peace Corps volunteers teach them English in their schools.

They loved it. They were going through a democratic change at the time. They had a constitutional parliamentary monarchy with a new constitution that took control out of the military state. It was a remarkable thing that roughly coincided with the time I was there.”

 

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Tom Gouttiere holding his oldest son Adam in Afghanistan

 

 

Before and after

In more recent years, Afghans have sent teams of teachers and journalists to Omaha for intensive training. But progress is slow in this tortured era of terror attacks. Reconstruction needs are vast. Corruption, rampant. The nearly nonstop fighting of these last 30-plus years has left Afghanistan in tatters. The devastation and loss is a far cry from the veritable paradise Gouttierre once experienced there.

“When I lived there it was a dream place,” he said wistfully. “It was the ideal place to serve as a foreign service officer. I got to know the Afghans and I got to know them intimately. And I knew everybody because I was there 10 years and I coached basketball. It’s a small town country. So it was ideal.

“Female Peace Corps volunteers like my wife could bike anywhere all by themselves without any fear for security. In fact, the country was charged with protecting these Americans. There were messages on the radio saying, ‘These are our guests,’ all while radio Moscow from antennas in Tashkent (Uzbekistan) beamed in that we Peace Corps volunteers were handmaidens of the CIA.”

None of this seemed a likely landing spot for this child of 1950s mid-America. But beneath the cookie-cutter facade of muscle cars, rock ‘n’ roil lyrics and school proms Gouttierre pined for adventures far from home. He wasn’t sure how to make those yearnings reality until John F. Kennedy laid out a vision for the Peace Corps during his 1960 presidential campaign and encouraged young people to serve their country and the world in his 1961 inaugural address. The vision sparked a sense of wanderlust in Gouttierre that dovetailed with America looking beyond its shores to win hearts and minds during the Cold War.

Coming of age in Maumee, Ohio, Gouttierre followed his devoutly Catholic, hard-working Belgian-American family’s lead by going to church and cheering for their beloved Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Detroit Tigers. His sports passion continues unabated today. He also follows Indiana and Creighton University basketball and UNO hockey. He’s a Mav season ticket-holder.

His father hailed from a long line of glass blowers but became a master baker. Tom worked in the family bakery from the time he was a boy and mastered the craft himself. Generations of Gouttierres emigrated to the States and Tom became enamored with his grandparents tales of the old country.

“I would constantly ask my grandparents and great grandparents about these things. I knew about Belgium. I was aware of the rest of the world. So I always had this interest.”

He studied maps and globes. He devoured books.

“I loved to read from The Book of Knowledge (children’s encyclopedia).

I was a curious kid. If I didn’t love sports i would have been a geek. We didn’t have geography bees but I would have loved to compete in them. I knew where the Zambezi River was and all these things.”

He loved foreign languages. One grandmother spoke only French. He went on to learn French. Latin, German, Russian and Dari.

None of his international experiences may have happened though if not for JFK’s clarion call to serve.

“I was 20 year-old college undergraduate when John Kennedy gave his address. It was THE momentous political moment in my life. Here was this rock star with a message drawing upon the angels of our nature, not the devils, that really appealed to the values Americans were feeling. It was revolutionary, too, because he was the new generation. He had just replaced one of the oldest presidents (Dwight D. Eisenhower) we ever had. He was calling for this new frontier.”

JFK’s challenge to Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” and to to the world – “ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man” – was a call to action Gouttierre couldn’t ignore.

“It was a tremendous opportunity. Marylu and I were dating then. It really inspired us. I went into grad school, I graduated and we went into the Peace Corps as a married couple. My passions were driven and still are by that particular message. It’s the greatest generational message any American leader has given other than FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt), who took us out of hell with “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” and Lincoln who implored us to behave “with malice toward none, with charity for all…”

“I am forever indebted to the Peace Corps and the Fulbright program.”

 

Tom GouttierrePeace Corps volunteers at a 1965 event outside a Kabul orphanage. Tom Gouttierre and wife Marylu are in the background along with Omaha educator Howard Faber.

 

 

A new era

Gouttierre said new U.S. President Donald Trump’s desire to build walls and ban immigrants is “so insular” by comparison.

He said Trump’s executive order travel ban has only inflamed immigration fears and frustrations.

“People are up in arms over immigration but Congress does nothing. What Trump has done through executive order is bring a tension. I don’t think his order was well-advised and I don’t think the content of it was appropriate to the task. The other thing I’m concerned about is that this kind of decision hurts our long-term trade and other political and cooperative relationships we have with numbers of these countries. We need the collaboration of many of them to help track down and vet individuals.

“What we need to have is improved vetting – there’s no question about that. I don’t think the vetting process now, though not totally unsuccessful, is as efficient and sufficient as it needs to be. It’s

chronically underfunded, understaffed and just not able to keep up with the demands.”

He said another unfortunate result of the ban will be the adverse effect it has on international student populations around the United States.

He favors rigorous trade negotiations that benefit America, but fears  too hard a line might touch off trade wars that prove harmful.

“There’s all kinds of things we do we’re not going to be able to do or afford if we have trade wars,” he said. “We’ve got to think what this is going to do to our personal economies and our relationships with colleague nations and trading partners. We’re able to have the good life in Nebraska as we call it because Nebraska markets abroad.”

Among the many challenges Trump faces, he said.is is putting together an effective cabinet team that can help him effectively govern.

“Frankly, his team isn’t all that bad. They may think differently than I do, butt they’re all quality individuals.”

Regarding what Trump’s foreign policy looks like, Gouttierre said, “He’s somewhat of a blank canvas. We don’t know yet. He appears to be an individual who doesn’t create policy based on policy study or things of that nature. He hasn’t yet shown that. But he has indicated he wants to keep the U.S. strong and there’s no way we can keep the U.S. strong and not continue to be concerned with how the events in Afghanistan have an impact on our interests in that region of the world.”

For going on two decades American lives and resources have poured into Afghanistan to fight terrorists who’ve used that country as a staging ground and safe harbor. Every day Afghans want the terrorists out. The average Afghani gladly accepts America’s help in restoring the country to normalcy. But they warily watch for any signs American commitment is wavering. It’s happened before.

“Ashraf Ghani and President Trump have had a conversation and they both pronounced it as having gone well,” Gouttierre said. “We’ll see. I think at this stage most Afghans are just hanging loose. Believe me, Afghans at the common citizen level have a keen knowledge and focus about what’s going on in the United States than a great number of Americans because they know what happens here has major impact on their lives and their future.”

Gouttierre feels America’s relationship with Afghanistan has mostly been positive and well-received in each country.

“I think most Americans were very supportive of everything we were doing in Afghanistan after 9/11. They were also supportive before that when the Soviets invaded the country and we gave the Afghans weapons to resist them.”

UNO’s Afghanistan center took a lead role in educating the nation.

“Our center had funds to teach Afghan refugees, who number in the millions in Pakistan. After 9/11, the same thing – our center helped reopen the Ministry of Education and we prinedt books, supplied schools and trained teachers.

“We had an intimate relationship.”

By UNO bringing Afghans here over so many years, he said, a real understanding of that nation and its people developed.

.”In Nebraska we probably have a higher percentage per capita knowledge of Afghanistan and the people of Afghanistan than any other part of our country.”

Visiting Afghan teachers, for example. participated in programs in Omaha, Lincoln and host cities across the state.

“Nebraskans knew about them because they were seeing them and meeting them and loved them and developed intense relationships with them, so there were these good feelings.”

 

Different strokes

Relations between the nations changed once the war on terror began.

“Things started to kind of deteriorate after the invasion of Iraq” and the subsequent war in Afghanistan, Gouttierre said. “People say the war in Afghanistan is our longest war. I really resent that. It is not accurate historically. The longest by far and away was the Cold War. It required us to be intense and focused throughout in our competition with the Soviets and the Chinese. Nearly 50 years we had that.

“This is not a war against Afghanistan, it’s a war within Afghanistan

that’s a part of the greater global war against terrorism. Like the Cold War, it’s ideologically-driven and it’s going to take a solid long-term commitment to deal with it and put it out. It’s not going to just go away.

It’s going to require taxes. The biggest mistake George W. Bush made after going into Iraq was that he tried to run that war without taxing. You can’t have a war without taxes. And what did it do? It broke our national banks and we wound up with 2008 (recession).”

Afghanistan being a battleground in the war on terror, he said,

“unfortunately has infused a negative opinion about our experiences there.” He added, “Quite frankly, most of the enemies we’re fighting are in Pakistan. They go back and forth. It’s not the Afghan people.

Well, some of them. But that’s not the war – the war is against terrorism, Al Qaeda, Isis.”

The U.S. wouldn’t even be in Afghanistan militarily if Osama Bin Laden hadn’t sought refuge and established terror training camps there.

“Now we’re in this situation which is unfortunate,” he said. “They’re our closest allies in that whole region. They really want us there. Think about it. How many of the other countries really want us?”

Gouttierre rues America abandoning Afghanistan after it’s remarkable defeat of the Soviets.

“What happened was in ’89 we dumped Afghanistan. The Soviets had left and then the USSR collapsed. Then every nefarious group in the world went into a country which had no governmental structure, so it became the dump for all the drugs. When Marylu and I lived there we never saw a field under cultivation with opium poppies. That’s all post-Soviet invasion.”

Bin Laden was among those who exploited the vacuum of power.

“He went there to fight the Soviets like a great many else did, then he went home to Saudi Arabia, where he was a citizen. although his family was originally Yemeni. They’re a very successful family worth billions of dollars. When Saddam (Hussein) invaded Kuwait, Bin Laden went to the Saudi government and said, ‘Let me bring my Afghan Arabs,’ meaning those who fought against the Soviets, ‘and we’ll drive Iraqi forces out.’  On the other hand, there was the whole United Nations coalition and Saudi Arabia went with that.

“A disgruntled Bin Laden went public about the corruption of the Saudi government and monarchy, calling them the handmaidens of the West.

He was very vocal about this and he got kicked out and his passport taken away. He fled to Sudan. The Saudis put pressure on the Sudanese to kick him out, so he went where he knew – back to Pakistan and then Afghanistan. That was in 1996. He went to Afghanistan because there was no government there. He was allowed and welcomed by the Tallbs.

“He arrived just a few weeks before I did as a member of the United Nations Special Mission to Afghanistan.. I was the senior political affairs advisor for that mission based in both Pakistan and Afghanistan to try to bring the Taliban and the Northern Alliance together. The Pakistanis were constantly trying to undermine it, so it didn’t happen. They were supporting the Taliban.”

In his advisor role Gouttierre was tasked with building profiles on Bin Laden and the Taliban.

“These were both things about which i didn’t know much because they were new dynamics.”

He soon learned they posed a dangerous threat with clear intentions on attacking America.

Gouttierre never met Bin Laden but he did see his caravan pass through a Kandihar bazaar.

“I was walking in Kandahar and all of a sudden the bazaar went silent and there was a small convoy of SUVs that went through and everybody chanted, ‘Osama, Osama, Osama.’ Everybody knew who he was because he was putting money into Afghanistan. He had billions to do that. So I didn’t see him eye-to-eye but I saw his presence. That’s as close as I got.”

Gouttierre feels the U.S. hung Afghanistan out to dry after the Afghans drove out the Soviets,

“We switched administrations – we went from Reagan to Bush I. He and his secretary of state, James Baker, “saw great opportunity with the collapsing of the Soviet Union to ensure Russia would not come back as the Soviet Union again. That’s what their focus was. What Afghanistan needed, which I think it deserved, was some type of Marshall Plan. They were our allies fighting against the Soviet Union.

We owed them. They’re the ones that died.”

He said America’s failure to have a cohesive policy concerning Afghanistan and its fate proved costly.

“We didn’t understand how this would come back and bite us. We owed the Afghans something. That country was left in total destruction.

We talk about the tremendous refugee crisis now in Syria  Why?

Because they’re going to Europe and they’re coming back to us.

Afghanistan had 7 million of its citizens outside of the country. There were 5 million in Pakistan, another 2.5 million in Iran. They lost over a million people in the war with the Soviets. We’ve forgotten that. Our memories are very short.

“So what happened? It came back and bit us in the butt. We dumped them and 12 years later we had 9/11.”

He suggests much of the chaos could have been prevented.

“We didn’t help the Afghans reconstruct their infrastructure. There were a lot of refugees in Pakistan and Iran who could have come back and helped to put something together. When we did start to help after 9/11, we blew it. We spend a lot of money and want immediate results. What does that bring? It brings mistakes, corruption, lost money.

The U.S. had $20 billion unaccounted for. Nobody knows where it is.

“The whole Muslim world was watching how we did it and we really messed it up. Now were trying to help the Afghans build out from under the mess our chaotic approach of throwing money and demanding quick results produced.”
Parween Arghandaywal pronounces words during English class at the University of Nebraska Omaha for visiting Afghan teachers in 2002. (Omaha World-Herald Photo by Bill Batson, used by permission)

Parween Arghandaywal pronounces words during English class at the University of Nebraska Omaha for visiting Afghan teachers in 2002. (©Omaha World-Herald Photo by Bill Batson)

 

Afghan women arrived in Omaha under the sponsorship of the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Saleemah, a teacher from Kabul and wearing a scarf is hugged by Masuma Basheer, an employee of America West Airlines in Omaha and a formerly from Afghanistan. (Omaha World-Herald photo by Bill Batson, used by permission)

Afghan women arrived in Omaha under the sponsorship of the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Saleemah, a teacher from Kabul and wearing a scarf is hugged by Masuma Basheer, an employee of America West Airlines in Omaha and a formerly from Afghanistan. (©Omaha World-Herald photo by Bill Batson)

 

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Tom Gouttierre conferring UNO honorary status on Hamid Karzai during the then-Afghan president’s visit to Omaha

 

Finding an unlikely home for pursuits and passions

Gouttierre made Nebraska a haven for Afghans but he nearly didn’t come here himself. He was running the Fulbright Foundation overseas when he and Center for Afghanistan Studies founder Chris Jung, whose father was part of an Indiana University team in Afghanistan, began doing exchange programs. Then Jung died and UNO courted Gouttierre to take the open post. He told UNO officials no three times. He finally went to a trusted mentor, then-U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Theodore Eliot, who told him, ‘fI they offered me that job, I’d leave this job and take it.” Are you kidding me?” Gouttiere asked.

Eliot laid it out for him:  “You love afghanistan, you love international education exchange – this is your way to go back to the United States.”

“I thought about it,” Gouttierre said, “and on April 1, 1974 I sent a cable to the head of the search committee that read, ‘This is no April Fool’s joke…I accept. I’ll report 1st of August.'”

Upon their arrival, the Gouttierres were struck by the welcome extended them and by the support that helped the center and international studies and programs rapidly grow.

“There was such an interest, such an enthusiasm in Omaha, more than we could have expected. It was really something we could have only dreamed for, hoped for,” Gouttierre said.

Under the leadership of chancellors Ronald Roskens and his successor Del Weber UNO caught the nascent wave of globalization. The university went from having a limited international presence to being a national leader in global engagement.

“Our whole experience here from the very beginning was overwhelmingly positive. It never ended and it still hasn’t. There was real receptivity and that’s what made it so wonderful.”

Sister University relationships were formed. The intensive language program, he said, “took UNO’s name all around the world. People came to Omaha, Nebraska to study intensive English. When I got here in ’74 the challenge was to get people to come to Omaha, Nebraska. We didn’t have agriculture. We didn’t have dorms. Well, we started an intensive English language program and it became one of the largest, most highly regarded ones in the Midwest. We became a leader.”

Former UNO chancellor Del Weber said, “Tom took a fledgling program and built it into an outstanding Center for Afghanistan Studies and International Studies known throughout the country. He combined a deep intellectual knowledge of the MIddle East with an on-site practical understanding of Afghanistan, Forty-one years ago few in Omaha would have known how to spell Afghanistan yet find its place on a map. It was a forgotten county. Countless Nebraskans are now well informed. That is no rare feat.”

Introducing his adopted state to the country that adopted him and that captured his heart has been satisfying. Being part of the inner workings to get the Soviets out was stimulating. His last trip to Afghanistan was in 2014 and he hopes to return again.

He’s grateful for the support subsequent UNO administrators continued showing the center and international studies and programs. He’s appreciative, too, of the strong team around him that made extensive travel to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Washington D.C., for example. possible. UNO’s partnerships with Kabul University are particularly close and varied, including a journalism exchange program between faculty and students from each institution.

Weber marvels at what Gouttierre wrought.

“I admire Tom for his grasp of the Middle East and Afghanistan, his sharp focus and his single-minded emphasis on that area. All of his time, effort and knowledge was given to building that program he was brought to build at UNO. He stood up for it, fought for it and succeeded in making a superb program known nationally and internationally.”

Weber got to see Gouttierre in action on some overseas trips they made together.

“My many travels with him told me much about his work. He was a man who knew how to play and work hard. On one of our trips to Pakistan we convinced the American consul In Islamabad to permit us to go into Kabul for a short trip to see our school programs in-person. The consul told us if we ran into any problems we were on our own as the U.S. government  would not provide any assistance.

“We stayed with the minister of protocol, who insisted I sleep in his bed. As I crawled in, I felt a pistol under the pillow. Since there was no electricity, I gingerly put the pistol on the floor. In the morning I discovered it was loaded. He told me no one in Kabul was without his pistol in bed. We went to the airport to catch a Red Cross airplane back to Islamabad only to discover it had been grounded due to shelling at the airport. Again we stayed with the minister. That night in the city under siege was a long one. I wondered if we would ever get back.”

Even as Gouttierre’s profile increased and opportunities to go elsewhere emerged, he said, “I never, ever considered leaving Omaha. I love being in Omaha. The luckiest break of my life was to say yes to come to UNO and Omaha in 1974.”

His cozy ties to the U.S. State Department aroused suspicions in some quarters he was a CIA operative but he flatly denies it. While he did get push-back from some colleagues, he said most UNO faculty and staff expressed support, as did alums and the Omaha community, for the center’s work. No student protests raised objections.

“In all the speeches I’ve given, and I’ve given so many, I’ve never had anybody ask a question or make a comment that was motivated by a sense of meanness. I had people disagree with me, but that’s alright –I like that, I like to have discussion and debate.”

 

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Tom Gouttierre relaxing at home

 

 

Stepping back and moving on

Though he clearly found his calling, Gouttierre said he always looked forward to retirement. He only worked as long as he did because he enjoyed his job. Now he’s enjoying that long anticipated retirement.

“My intent was to do more of the things I love to do with family and friends and that’s exactly what I’m doing.”

He’s taking his family to Lakeland, Florida to cheer on the Tigers at spring training. He said a day doesn’t go by without he and his sons exchanging texts or emails about the club.

His love of fine dining, cooking, reading, conversation, movies and tinkering around the house keeps him plenty busy.

Wherever he is, whatever he’s doing, his joy tinged with sadness affinity for Afghanistan is omnipresent. That place is so very far away, yet reminders of it are everywhere in his life and home. The feelings and memories always near.

“I’ll never be able to set aside Afghanistan. That’s a passion of a unique nature. I learned so much about life by having the opportunity to live among them, broadening my horizons, enriching my appreciation of other peoples, languages, cultures. I gained greater appreciation of our country by having the chance to live abroad – the best kind of comparative education.

“These opportunities have made me a better informed and more sensitive person and appreciative of the many breaks i have had.”

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

 

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The Silo Crusher: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Trev Alberts

August 27, 2016 3 comments

Full disclosure: When the University of Nebraska at Omaha unceremoniously dropped the school’s highly successful football and wrestling programs five years ago, I took out my disappointment and frustration in some posts that might have read like rants. The posts were not written as a journalist trying to be objective but as a UNO grad, former UNO sports information staffer and lifelong Omaha resident who had grown close to both programs through my work as a journalist. My posts were my personal opinion and presented as such. The only time I wrote anything about those events in my role as a journalist was in a New Horizons cover story I did on Mike Denney in the immediate aftermath of it all. My siding with Denney definitely bled over into the story and I make no apologies for that because it was a passionate and honest response to a traumatic severing. My sympathies were entirely with Denney and I let him have his say, though he was actually quite tame in his comments, even though he was deeply hurt by what happened. I do regret not getting athletic director Trev Alberts and chancellor John Christensen to comment for the story, though I think I tried. If I didn’t, well then that’s my bad. As fate would have it, I was recently assigned to do a piece on the state of UNO athletics five years after those events and this time around the assignment called for me to tell the story from UNO’s point of view, which meant interviewing Alberts and Christensen. I must say that after talking to those two men, particularly Alberts, I have a mcuh better appreciation and understanding of why the deicison to eliminate the two sports was made and just how wrenching it was for them to make. I believe the rationale they lay out today is more telling than what they communicated then, but that may be a function of my not wanting to hear what they said before. I am sharing here the new story that I did for Omaha Magazine  (http://omahamagazine.com/). It’s featured in the Sept/Oct 2016 issue.

 

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The Silo Crusher

Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Trev Alberts

August 26, 2016
©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Illustration by Matt Wieczorek
Appearing in the Sept/Oct 2016 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

The story of athletics at the University of Nebraska at Omaha has fluctuated from wild success to heartbreak (and back). All-Americans, post-season runs, and national title traditions collided with mismanagement and sparse spectator attendance.

Then a fresh Maverick joined the fray. Trev Alberts—one of the most decorated defensive players in the history of Huskers football and a former ESPN anchor—took the mantle of UNO’s athletic director in April of 2009.

Tensions bubbled behind the scenes. Chronic budget shortfalls clashed with fractious booster relations. Although new to his administrative role, Alberts knew enough about balance sheets and group dynamics to recognize systemic disarray and dysfunction. “We were in trouble and we needed to find some solutions,” he says.

The current academic year marks five years since Alberts dismantled UNO’s beloved wrestling and football programs. Alberts looks back on his crucial decisions without regrets. But the “solutions” didn’t come easily. In 2011, the former football star had to cut the sport that defined his own athletic career.

He saw that the financial equation for UNO’s splintered athletic programs no longer worked. A struggling Division I hockey program could not prop up the remaining Division II programs. Even with a hefty university subsidy, low athletic revenue painted a bleak picture amidst rising costs.

UNO’s bold response was to transition its entire athletic program to Division I by joining the Summit League in 2011. Because the conference does not accommodate wrestling or football, those two sports had to go.

News broke with awkward timing. Maverick wrestlers had just clinched the Division II national championship for the third straight year. A few hours after their victory, UNO Athletics began reaching out to notify celebratory wrestling coaches of the grim news.

Public rancor ensued. Coaches and student-athletes of the winning programs were left adrift. History, however, has proven the difficult decisions were healthy for the university and its athletics department.

Alberts found a key ally in chancellor John Christensen. The man who had initially recruited Alberts promoted him to vice chancellor in 2014, thus giving athletics a seat at UNO’s executive leadership table. “There needs to be absolute integration and now we have internal partnership, collaboration,” says Christensen.

Five years have passed. Athletics programs are stable. Sport teams no longer operate in silos. Alberts dismantled the barriers to build a strong overall athletic department: “When I got here, it appeared we had 16 different athletic departments,” he says. “There was no leadership. We hated campus. The mindset was the university leadership were out to get us, didn’t support us, didn’t understand us. The athletic department would blame the university; the university would blame the athletic department. 

“Strategically, my job was to get on the same page as part of the university team. I asked John Christensen to define his goals. He said community engagement, academic excellence, and (being) student-centered. I had to explain to staff everything we do is going to try to help the university advance its goals and every decision we make, if it isn’t student-centered and doesn’t support academic excellence and community engagement, we’re going to ask ourselves why are we doing that.”

Since then, the athletic department has made major strides. The hockey team made the 2015 Frozen Four, men’s basketball contended for the 2016 Summit title and saw a 65 percent attendance increase, and other sports have similarly fared well. With added academic support, the cumulative student-athlete grade point average of 3.4 is among the nation’s highest.

Alberts says that cutting the beloved football and wrestling programs meant “a really trying time, but galvanized the department and the university.” He continues,“We came together as a university. This was an institutional decision. It wasn’t John and I in a corner room deciding. We had a lot of people involved.”

Even with unanimous University Board of Regents approval for the athletic department shake-up, emotions ran high among constituents opposed to the cuts. Despite pleas to save wrestling and football, Alberts says, “The data was going to drive the decision-making. We weren’t going to manage the outcome of a good process. We moved to Division I because the market had an expectation about what the experience would be like, and we weren’t able to meet that expectation.” Maintaining the programs, especially football, would have required larger expenditures at the next level and exacerbated the fiscal mess.

Everything was on the table during deliberations: “We looked at trying to stay at Division II and regaining profitability in hockey, we looked at Division III, we looked at having no athletics, and then we looked at Division I. The conclusion was Division I would bring us an opportunity to get at more self-generated revenue through NCAA distributions.”

It was all about athletics better reflecting the “premiere urban metropolitan university” that Christensen says defines UNO. As the strategic repositioning set in, academics flourished, new facilities abounded, and enrollment climbed. Christensen says going to D-I was “a value-add” proposition.

“We looked at our peer doctorate-granting institutions and they were all Division I,” Alberts says. “The real value an athletics department has to a campus is essentially a brand investment. You have alumni come back, you have student engagement. That’s really the role you play. We are the front porch of the university.”

What followed was the rebranding of UNO to associate more with Omaha and embrace what Alberts and Christensen call “the Maverick family.” The rebrand is encapsulated in the construction of Baxter Arena, a D-I sporting facility adjacent to UNO’s midtown campus that also provides a venue for community events.

The past five years were not without tumult. Some longtime donors withdrew financial support in response to UNO cutting wrestling and football. Businessman David Sokol reportedly cut part of his pledged donation in reaction. But donors have since returned in droves.

Van Deeb, another longtime booster and a former UNO football player, was initially an outspoken critic of UNO cutting wrestling and football. “My big disappointment was not that it did happen but the way it happened. Even being on the Maverick athletic board, we had no clue it was coming,” says the Omaha-based entrepreneur.

“But that’s in the past,” says Deeb. “I couldn’t be prouder of where UNO is headed as an athletic department and as a university. I’m 100 percent behind the progressive leadership of Trev Alberts and John Christensen. They’re all about the student-athlete and the future.”

Alberts realizes that some hard feelings linger. “We have people who I don’t think will ever be a part of what we’re doing, and I understand that,” he says.

Regardless, there was enough community buy-in that private donations reached new heights ($45 million) and helped build the showplace Baxter Arena. Alberts cites the construction of Baxter Arena as a tangible result of the move to Division I.

Deeb says Baxter Arena has propelled UNO to another level. “When you’re around campus or at a UNO event there’s a level of excitement I can’t describe,” he says. “It’s a great time to be a Maverick supporter.”

The arena has proven a popular gathering spot for greater Omaha. This past spring, some 100,000 people attended high school graduations there, a realization of the chancellor and Alberts’ desire for greater community engagement.

Although few of UNO’s current students remember what campus was like before the rebrand, that doesn’t mean that Alberts or his team have forgotten. They still recognize the historic importance that the canceled sports provided to the university.

In fact, Alberts joined Van Deeb and several other community leaders on a steering committee seeking to honor one of UNO football’s greatest athletes, Marlin Briscoe. “An Evening with The Magician,” will celebrate the school’s most decorated football player, an Omaha native and civil rights trailblazer, at Baxter Arena on Thursday, Sept. 22.

As a quarterback at UNO (then called Omaha University), the Omaha South High School grad set 22 school records (including 5,114 passing yards and 53 touchdowns during his collegiate career). Briscoe became the first African-American starting quarterback in the NFL during his 1968 season with the Denver Broncos. He played for several franchises during a nine-year NFL career, spending the majority of time in the league as a wide receiver with the Buffalo Bills. He won two Super Bowls with the Miami Dolphins.   

On Friday, Sept. 23, UNO will unveil a life-size statue of Briscoe on campus. Alberts says he envisions that the sculpture might be added to “a champions plaza” whenever the south athletics complex gets built-out. “This is not necessarily a UNO thing; it’s an Omaha thing,” Alberts says. “Marlin is a great person with a great story, and it’s been an honor to get to know him.”

Under Alberts’ leadership, the university does not seek to diminish the importance of those former storied programs. But he has to keep an eye toward the future. “I’m absolutely bullish on where we are today and where we can go,” says the optimistic Alberts. “We’re only scratching the surface. We are an absolute diamond in the rough.”

Visit baxterarena.com for more information.

TrevAlberts1

 

Marlin Briscoe – An Appreciation

May 13, 2016 1 comment

Marlin Briscoe – An Appreciation

©by Leo Adam Biga

Some thoughts about Marlin Briscoe in the year that he is:
•being inducted in the College Football Hall of Fame
•having a life-size status of his likeness dedicated at UNO
•and seeing a feature film about himself going into production this fall

 

For years, Marlin Briscoe never quite got his due nationally or even locally. Sure, he got props for being a brilliant improviser at Omaha U. but that was small college ball far off most people’s radar. Even fewer folks saw him star before college for the Omaha South High Packers. Yes, he got mentioned as being the first black quarterback in the NFL, but it took two or three decades after he retired from the game for that distinction to sink in and to resonate with contemporary players, coaches, fans and journalists. It really wasn’t until his autobiography came out that the significance of that achievement was duly noted and appreciated. Helping make the case were then-current NFL black quarterbacks, led by Warren Moon, who credited Briscoe for making their opportunity possible by breaking that barrier and overturning race bias concerning the quarterback position. Of course, the sad irony of it all is that Briscoe only got his chance to make history as a last resort by the Denver Broncos, who succumbed to public pressure after their other quarterbacks failed miserably or got injured. And then even after Briscoe proved he could play the position better than anyone else on the squad, he was never given another chance to play QB with the Broncos or any other team. He was still the victim of old attitudes and perceptions, which have not entirely gone away by the way, that blacks don’t have the mental acuity to run a pro-style offensive system or that they are naturally scramblers and not pocket passers or that they are better with their feet and their athleticism than they are with their arms or their head. Briscoe heard it all, and in his case he also heard that he was too small.

After Briscoe swallowed the bitter pill that he would be denied a chance to play QB in The League after that one glorious go of it in 1968, he dedicated himself to learning an entirely new position – wide receiver – as his only way to stay in the NFL. In truth, he could have presumably made it as a defensive back and return specialist. In fact, he was primarily on the Broncos roster as a DB when he finally got the nod to start at QB after only seeing spot duty there. Briscoe threw himself into the transition to receiver with the Buffalo Bills and was good enough to become an All-Pro with them and a contributing wideout with the back to back Super Bowl winning Miami Dolphins. As unfair as it was, Briscoe didn’t make a big stink about what happened to him and his QB aspirations, He didn’t resist or refuse the transition to receiver. He worked at it and made it work for him and the teams he played on. The successful transition he made from signal caller to received is one of the most remarkable and overlooked feats in American sports history.

About a quarter century after Briscoe’s dreams of playing QB were dashed and he reinvented himself as a receiver, another great Omaha athlete, Eric Crouch, faced a similar crossroads. The Heisman Trophy winner was an option quarterback with great athleticism and not well suited to being a pro style pocket passer. He was drafted by the NFL’s St. Louis Rams as an athlete first, but ostensibly to play receiver, not quarterback. He insisted on getting a tryout at QB and failed. The Rams really wanted him to embrace being a receiver but his heart wasn’t in it and he loudly complained about not being given a shot at QB. He went from franchise to franchise and from league to league chasing a dream that was not only unrealistic but a bad fit that would not, could not, did not fit his skills set at that level of competition. Unlike Briscoe, who lost the opportunity to play QB because he was black, Crouch lost the opportunity because he wasn’t good enough. Briscoe handled the discrimination he faced with great integrity and maturity. Crouch responded to being told the truth with petulance and a sense of denial and entitlement. That contrast made a big impression on me. I don’t know if Crouch would have made a successful transition to receiver the way Brsicoe did, but he certainly had the skils to do it, as he showed at Nebraska. I always thought NU should have kept him at wingback and Bobby Newcombe at QB, but that’s for another post.

But the real point is that when the going got tough for Briscoe, he rose to the occasion. That strong character is what has allowed him to recover from a serious drug addiction and to live a sober, successful life these past two-plus decades. John Beasley is producing a feature film about Briscoe called “The Magician” and its story of personal fortitude will touch many lives.

Link to my profile of Marlin Briscoe at–

Prodigal Son, Marlin Briscoe Takes the Long Road Home (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

Link to my collection of stories on Omaha’s Black Sports Legends: Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness at–

OUT TO WIN – THE ROOTS OF GREATNESS: OMAHA’S BLACK SPORTS LEGENDS

Opining about the life of a freelance journalist at a conference

March 28, 2015 Leave a comment

Mike Whye and I did a panel on freelance journalism this morning at the Society of Professional Journalists Region 7 Conference at UNO’s Community Engagement Center. The audience was made up of students, working professionals and educators from Nebraska and surrounding states. It was fun talking sharing craft and business aspects of freelancing. That’s Mike on the left, me in the middle and moderator Jonathan Garcia on the right. Thanks to Chris Bacon and Jeremy Lipschultz for the photos and thanks to Rob McLean for the invitation to participate. I enjoyed meeting Mike (mwhye.home.radiks.net), Jonathan and Rob and I enjoyed seeing my collleague Jeremy again. Doing events like this help remind me why I do what I do, the way I do it. FREElance = Indpendence.

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Homegrown Joe Arenas made his mark in college and the NFL

March 5, 2015 1 comment

As much as I enjoy writing about the arts and artists, I equally enjoy writing about athletics and athletes.  I finally caught up with a former football great from Nebraska, Joe Arenas, who has never really gotten his full due.  If the name isn’t familiar, it’s because his professional and college exploits happened about 60 years ago.  And though he was a very fine player – so good that he is still among the NFL’s all-time leaders in career kick return average – his jack of all trades verstality as a returner, running back, receiver, and defensive back made it hard for him to really stand out except as a returner.  When you come right down to it, how many returners other than maybe Gale Sayers, Travis Williams, Brian Mitchell, Eric Metcalf, and Devin Hester really made a dent in the national consciousness?  Sayers was of course a great running back in addition to being a great returner.  The other thing working against Arenas was that he had two future NFL Hall of Fame teammates, in Joe Perry and Hugh McElhenny, who got most of the offensive touches out of the backfield.  Before playing pro ball Arenas starred in the single-wing at then-Omaha University, where again he did a little of everything.  In the single-wing Joe played a half-back spot in that offense but he did everything a quarterback does.  Before he ever played college ball Joe served as a U.S. Marine in World War II.  He was wounded at Iwo Jima.  My story about Joe for El Perico newspaper refers to the fact that Arenas was among a small number of Hispanic football players who made a mark in the game.  I also reference how Omaha U., which today is the University of Nebraska at Omaha, is where another athlete of color, Marlin Briscoe, played quarterback in an era when that was very rare at a predominantly white university. What I didn’t mention in the article is that a third athlete of color with local ties, Wilburn Hollis, played quarterback at two mostly white institutions, first at Boys Town and then at the University of Iowa.  I was delighted to find Joe a still vital man in his late 80s.

 

 

Better together: UNO Community Engagement Center a place for conversations and partnerships


Somehow I missed it, but for years now my alma mater the University of Nebraska at Omaha has been making itself a national leader in local community engagement efforts and service learning projects.  In doing this story for Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/) about the still new UNO Community Engagement Center I was properly schooled on just how deeply interwoven the university is in the community.  Just in the few months since filing this piece I’ve found myself drawn to that center for a variety of events.

 

 

 

 

Better together: UNO Community Engagement Center a place for conversations and partnerships

Collaboration the hallmark of new university facility

Center in line with UNO’s metropolitan university mission

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the February/March/April 2015 edition of Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)
Since opening last March the Barbara Weitz Community Engagement Center at UNO has surpassed expectations in its role as a bridge between the university and the community.

“We knew it was going to be a benefit to the community,” CEC director Sara Woods says, “we just didn’t anticipate how much use it was going to get and how many organizations were going to take as much advantage of it as they have.”

In its first eight months alone the two-story, 60,000 square foot building located in the middle of the Dodge Street campus recorded 23,000 visits and hosted 1,100 events. The $24 million structure was paid for entirely by private funds. It’s namesake, Barbara Weitz, is a retired UNO School of Social Work faculty member. She and her husband, Wally Weitz, are longtime supporters of UNO’s service learning programs. The Weitz Family Foundation made the CEC’s lead gift.

As an outreach hub where the University of Nebraska at Omaha and nonprofits meet, the center welcomes users coming for meetings, projects and activities. Interaction unfolds transparently. Conference rooms have windows that allow participants look out and passersby look in. The glass-fronted facade offers scenic views of the campus and lets in ample sunlight. A central atrium creates an open, airy interior whose enclosed and commons areas invite interaction.

“This is a very public place and we want to keep it that way.” Woods says.

She, along with UNO colleagues, students and community stakeholders, worked closely with Holland Basham Architects to envision a collaborative environment that, she says, “feels different than any other campus building and offers incredible flexibility.” Project designer Todd Moeller says, “Spaces were intentionally arranged so that users would be prompted to utilize several parts of the building, thus increasing the opportunity for the spontaneous meeting.”

Artwork by several community artists adorns the walls. UNO junior art major Hugo Zamorano joined community artists in creating a 120-foot mural in the center’s parking garage.

Zamorano is a former tagger who found a positive outlet for his graffiti at the Kent Bellows Mentoring Program, under whose supervision he worked on several community murals. Now a mentor for the program, he joined two other artist mentors and three high school artists in creating the CEC mural symbolizing community engagement after input from UNO and community leaders.

 

UNO Large Meeting Area-Barbara Weitz Community Engagement Center  http://www.kurtjohnsonphotography.com/:

 

 

 

Diverse partners and spaces
Woods says the collaboration that went into the mural project mirrors the CECs intended purpose to “be a place where people gather, plan, collaborate to find ways to solve problems.” She says that’s exactly what’s happening, too. “People are holding workshops and meetings and conferences around critical community issues and these things are happening very organically, without any orchestration. We’re excited about the extent of use of it and the range of organizations using it. We’re excited about the debates, the dialogues, the forums.”

Nineteen entities – 11 nonprofits and eight university-based organizations – officed there last fall. Among the nonprofits are the Buffett Early Childhood Institute and Inclusive Communities. Signature UNO engagement efforts housed there include the Service Learning Academy and the Office of Civic and Social Responsibility. All have different focuses but each is in line with serving the common good.

“They all work side by side in this great collaborative environment we created,” Woods says. “Those organizations are thriving here with us. They’re great ambassadors. They take advantage of our volunteers, our interns, our graduate assistants, our service learning classes. They have students work on special projects for them.”

Service Learning Academy director Paul Sather and Office of Civic and Social Responsibility director Kathe Oelson Lyons report new partnerships resulting from the ease of collaboration the CEC fosters.

“I mean, you just walk down the hall to have conversations with people,” Sather says and new partnerships get formed.

Building namesake Barbara Weitz, who serves on many community boards, says the sheer variety and number of organizations that office or meet there means connections that might otherwise not happen occur.

“People engage in conversation and find they have common interests. There’s just so many possibilities. The communication just starts to ripple and in a way that’s easy for everybody and in an environment that encourages collaboration and creativity.”

She says many small organizations lack space of their own for meetings and the CEC, whose meeting rooms are free for nonprofits meeting certain criteria, provides a valuable central spot for confabs. Those rooms come in a range of sizes and are state-of-the-art.

Among the CEC’s many engaging spaces, the Union Pacific Atrium, honors the legacy of Jessica Lutton Bedient, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate and UNL Foundation employee who devoted her short life to volunteering.

Nine additional organizations were slated to move in over the semester break. In a few years the current roster of community tenants will have moved out and a new group taken their place. Whoever’s there the center will continue being a funnel for community needs and a tangible expression of UNO’s metropolitan mission to respond to those needs.

 

Fulfilling a larger community mission
“A metropolitan university has an obligation and commitment to serving its urban community and we do that through purposely applying our student, faculty and staff resources through teaching, service and applied research,’ Woods says. “It’s reciprocal in that way. We don’t just treat the city as a laboratory, although we want to learn from it and gain knowledge from it, but we try to do work that benefits the community as opposed to being in an ivory tower where the university exists within a metropolitan area but doesn’t necessarily give back.

“We really see ourselves as a thriving part of the metropolitan community and because of that we have an obligation to contribute to it. That’s our metropolitan mission. Not only is it part of our DNA we believe urban universities like ours are going to become more and more important going forward.”

She says the ever enhanced reputation UNO enjoys in its hometown is a direct result of the university “connecting to our community and showing the value we offer our citizens in so many ways and you see a lot of these things come together in this building.”

Woods says UNO’s engagement legacy is strong and ever growing.

“There’s a sea change taking place in faculty seeing engagement, whether through their research or teaching or service, as a natural part of what they do. This campus allows that to happen. A lot of physical, student and faculty capital is going towards that. It’s wonderful watching it grow. The CEC is one giant mechanism to promote engagement throughout this campus. We hope to support, encourage and promote engagement wherever it takes place at UNO.”

She says the center is “the only stand-alone comprehensive engagement-focused facility of its kind in the United States,” adding, “We’re very unique and we’re getting a lot of national attention.” Because access is everything the center’s easily found just south of the landmark bell tower and has its own designated parking.

 

Service learning projects and volunteering opportunities connect students to community
Being intentional about engagement means that not only UNO faculty and staff connect with community at the center, so too do students, who use the CEC to find service projects and positions in the metro.

“We know those co-curricular experiences are really helpful in building a student’s professional portfolio,” Woods says. “If we can engage students as volunteers or inservice they are more likely to do well in school, to be retained, to graduate, to get a good job in a profession. When they are successfully employed they are more likely to be engaged in their community. We know that’s even more the case for first generation students and students of color.”

UNO annually offers more than 100 service learning courses across academic disciplines. In service learning projects UNO students gain experiential opportunities to apply classroom lessons to real-life nonprofits and neighborhoods. UNO students work collaboratively with K-12 students on projects. Some projects are long-standing, such as one between UNO gerontology students and seniors at the Adams Park Community Center. Other projects are nationally recognized, such as the aquaponics program at King Science Center, where UNO biology and chemistry students and urban farmer Greg Fripp teach kids to build and maintain sustainable systems for growing food.

A new project recently found UNO political science students partnering with the Northwest High School student council on the No Place to Hate dialogue process taught by the Anti-Defamation League’s Plains States Region. The ADL invited 100-plus students from nine high schools to the CEC for a discussion facilitated by UNO-ADL. In small groups participants shared views on bullying and racial attitudes and strategies to increase understanding and compassion.

“It’s very much integrated learning where you take learning and combine it with the needs of a nonprofit or a neighborhood or a community organization,” Woods says. “Part of students’ academic credit is earned working with a partner organization.”

Students find other service avenues through the Office of Civic and Social Responsibility (CSR), whose the Volunteer Connection and the Collaborative pair students with organizations’ short term and long-term needs, respectively. Woods says these service opportunities are designed to “put more meaning into students’ volunteer experiences” by putting them into leadership positions. In the Collaborative UNO students serve as project managers for a year with the nonprofits they’re matched with, giving students resume-enhancing experiences that assist organizations in completing projects or events.

CSR director Kathe Oelson Lyons says, “Corporations are more and more seeking employees who are willing to engage in the community. We know service enriches students’ educational experience and that stimulates success in academics and in the soft skills of learning how to interact with others and gaining an awareness of the greater community. We know our students will leave with a rich set of skills transferable to any work environment upon graduation.”

“Service is a great open door,” Lyons says. “Anybody can do it and everybody is welcome. It allows for access to all and that’s a wonderful leveler for community and university. When you have students out in a neighborhood rehabbing a home they’re interacting with neighbors, who see that these students aren’t so different from me. It’s a great equalizer. Students learn a great deal from the community, too. They learn more about what the needs are, what’s happening in areas of the community they’d never entered before.”

 

 

 

Lighting the way
As a conduit or liaison for community collaboration, Lyons says the center “isn’t the end point, it’s the connecting point – we still need to be out in the community” (beckoning-reaching out). “That’s the power of the building. It’s kind of a beacon. It always feels like to me it’s the lighthouse and it shines the light both ways. It’s a reflection of who the university is and the university is a reflection of who the community is.

“What a wonderful symbol of a metropolitan university – to be a lighthouse of stewardship and scholarship.”

Donor Barbara Weitz was turned on to the power of service learning as a UNO faculty member. She and her philanthropic family regularly see the benefit of engagement on the social justice causes they support. Weitz sees the UNO Community Engagement Center as the culmination of what UNO’s long been cultivating.

“For me it’s the embodiment of what everyone’s been working towards at UNO, including the chancellor. This idea that we’re a metropolitan university set in the middle of a community with rich resources but also huge needs. The fact that we can a have a place where we come together and through a variety of methods, not just service learning, and meet and talk about what we’re working, compare it with what other people are working on, and find ways to partner.

“It’s all about bringing people together to create the kind of energy it takes to make big change in a metropolitan area. It’s the kind of vital space that’s needed on a college campus.”

Connect with the CEC at http://www.unomaha.edu/community-engagement-center.

UNO resident folk hero Dana Elsasser’s softball run coming to an end: Hard-throwing pitcher to leave legacy of overcoming obstacles

April 28, 2014 1 comment

No sooner did my profile of University of Nebraska at Omaha softball ace Dana Elsasser get posted and published than she went out and threw three straight shutouts, including a no-hitter, and she’ll go for a fourth in her final home appearance on Wednesday, April 30. Her great run as a collegiate pitcher is fast coming to an end and one has to wonder what might have been if UNO has remained Division II instead of transitioning to Division I during her career.  To what heights might she had lead the Mavericks?  The transition cost her and her teammates any chance to play in the postseason.  The move also made it difficult for UNO to schedule a full slate of regular season games.  All of that meant she made many fewer appearances than she would have otherwise.  On top of that, upon entering the program she largely had to sit her freshman year behind two returning All-America pitchers.  That cost her even more chances.  If she’d had those added opportunities her career stats, which are outstanding as is, would be even more impressive.  But that’s all beside the point because what makes her folk hero in my mind is how she seemingly came out of nowhere to become the face of a storied program and how she made herself into a great player despire all kinds of challenges that’s she never looked at as obstacles.

 

 

 

UNO resident folk hero Dana Elsasser’s softball run coming to an end

Hard-throwing pitcher to leave legacy of overcoming obstacles

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

The University of Nebraska at Omaha has a veritable folk-hero in its midst in hard-throwing senior softball ace Dana Elsasser, who’s overcame serious challenges to become a pitching phenom. With her near legendary career fast nearing its end, fans have only a few chances left to catch her in action.

In her No. 1 pitcher role she’ill get the ball at least twice in this weekend’s (April 25-26) three-game home series against Summit League foe IUPUI. She enters the circle for the final time at home versus Drake on April 30. UNO, with an RPI in the 60s, concludes its season May 2-3 at Western Illinois. The team’s guaranteed to finish with a winning record and Elsasser should climb UNO’s career pitching charts.

Entering Tuesday’s doubleheader versus North Dakota she was 21-7 on the year and 65-24 in her career with a lifetime ERA of 1.44.

Though soon exhausting her eligibility, her legend’s sure to grow as a foundational figure in UNO’s transition from Division II to D-I.

Her departure’s coming too soon for head coach Jeanne Scarpello. She’s been enamored with Elsasser’s ability and character since first laying eyes on her in 2010.

“From day one you could tell she’s a different kid – just the drive and what she wanted to do and what she wanted to be. She’s never going to back down from a challenge. She gives 100 percent and expects the rest of us to do the same. She pushes us to be better.”

Scarpello’s admiration only grew upon learning the obstacles Elsasser faced en route to becoming a winner.

“She does have quite a story,” the coach says.

Born “a premie” in San Antonio, Texas to a teenage mother, Dana started life in foster care. After raising kids of their own Rick and Barb Elsasser of Hershey, Neb. were looking to adopt and the white couple got matched with Dana, an African-American, when she was a week old. She became the only black resident of Hershey until the Elsassers adopted more children of color.

Dana was an athletic prodigy, proving a natural at seemingly whatever she tried, including softball, basketball, volleyball and track.

“Dana’s balance, hand-eye coordination and kinesthetic sense have always been exceptional,” says her father, a principal and coach who worked with her on her fundamentals. especially her pitching mechanics. “Every time she was shown a new skill she would master it quickly. She has always hated to lose but she used to become discouraged easily when her team was behind and that affected her play. Experience in athletics has given her the tenacity to fight through disappointment. Her UNO coaches deserve a great deal of credit for instilling a fierce competitive spirit.”

 

 

The Reader May 24 - 30, 2014

 

 

Just as she was turning heads athletically as a teen she developed scoliosis, a severe curvature of the spine. She underwent fusion surgery at the Mayo Clinic. Pieces of her hip bone were fused to her spine with “rods, nuts and bolts to keep everything intact,” Dana says.

“The scoliosis thing was scary. Dana faced it all with great courage and determination,” Rick says.

Once cleared to resume athletics she and her dad left the hospital and drove around until they found a ball diamond and began playing catch.

“I was a little scared I wouldn’t be able to pitch again but I recovered relatively quickly from the back thing and it just gave me fuel to get stronger because I had to work two times as hard to get where other people were. I just did as much as I could. I ran a lot, I did sprints. I was in the weight room. I got really strong. I think strengthening my body is what helped me be prepared for college,” says Dana, who’s known to workout on game days and on off days following games.

“I feel I need to do to get in the mood of It’s go time. Otherwise, I feel tired and sluggish and just not ready to go.”

After opting to specialize in softball her pitching took off under her dad’s tutelage. Her high school didn’t field a team, She made a name for herself out west playing summers with the North Platte Sensations.

Typical of the upbeat Elsasser, she takes in stride everything that’s been put in front of her.

“Honestly, when I was growing up I really didn’t see much of the adversity I overcame as a disadvantage. I haven’t thought of it as things that set me back. When I tell people my story they’re like, ‘Wasn’t it weird being the only black person in town?’ I never thought of it like that. My parents did a really good job of just making things normal for me.”

Rick Elsasser says Dana has an innate sbility to adapt and persevere.

“Dana has always had tremendous resolve. I remember when she was about 5 or 6 years old, I spent about 15 minutes showing her how to shoot a basketball and then left her to practice. I went back outside about two hours later and found her still shooting. I had to make her stop and eat.”

Scarpello long ago gave up trying to get Elsasser to ease off. The coach still smiles at nearly missing on this model student-athlete who outworks everyone. After all, Dana was a-best-kept secret in the sticks, where her exploits four-hours away fell on deaf ears here.

Scarpello first heard of her via a letter Dana wrote her while a senior in high school. Dana mentioned she was (then) 5-foot-4 and threw 65. Scarpello didn’t buy it. She’d never heard of someone so short throwing so hard. It took corroboration from two coaches before she decided to see this little dynamo for herself.

Scarpello and pitching coach Cory Petermann drove to Hastings expecting to see Elsasser pitch in a game only to have it forfeited when the opposing club didn’t show. The coaches had Dana warm up with her father for a private audition. Rick had caught his daughter countless times in the yard of their home sitting on a bucket as she threw from a make-do mound. This was different. The stakes were higher, though that didn’t register with Dana until reminded of it.

“I was really nervous but actually I don’t think I even realized how important it was when they were watching me – that if I do good I’m going to have college paid for,” Dana says. “When I started out I wasn’t throwing my hardest. My dad told me, ‘Get it together, this is your time right here to do it.” Then I knew it was a big deal.'”

With a radar gun trained on her she consistently clocked 65 and Scarpello had seen enough to be convinced.

Rising to the occasion is something Scarpello and Co. have come to rely on from Elsasser, who acknowledges she thrives in such situations.

“I like it when I’m in pressure spots and everyone is looking to me. I just like how my team puts their trust in me and it just motivates me to do better. I like being in charge in that moment.”

 

Five years since discovering her, Elsasser will leave UNO as one of the storied program’s best pitchers. She’s proven herself against elite competition despite being lightly recruited and not looking the part of a mound master with her lithe frame and diminutive stature. Her long limbs, strong core and compact delivery allow her to average 68 miles an hour on her “go-to” pitch, the drop-ball. She’s hit 70. Her effortless appearing motion, honed over thousands of hours, makes it appear she’s not throwing as hard as she is.

Armed with her heater, a change-up and a rise-ball, plus pin-point control, she has enough stuff to hold her own with the best.

“She is a go-right-at-you kind of kid. She’s not a strikeout pitcher, though she’s getting a lot more strike outs this year, but she really just lets batters put the ball in play and lets the defense work behind her,” Scarpello says. “And she’s a great defender as a pitcher.”

Last year Elsasser one-hit perennial Big 12 power Oklahoma State iand three weeks ago she beat Big 10 heavyweight and in-state rival Nebraska 3-2 in Lincoln. She calls the victory over NU “the greatest moment I’ve ever had.” The win followed UNO coming up short against the Huskers several times and redeemed a 10-0 drubbing at their hands earlier this year that Elsasser blamed on herself.

“I means everything to me. I got that win for my dad. That was our goal when I made my commitment to UNO – beat the Huskers. I told myself I’m not going to let them make a fool of me on the mound again.”

Per usual, her folks were there to cheer her on and as always she heard her dad’s voice above everyone else.

“I could him during that game yelling at me from the stands. I looked up there and I saw him jumping around. It was really emotional.”

Scarpello says Elsasser has shown she “can play with the big dogs,” adding, “She could be playing at any of those programs.”

Elsasser says she and her teammates are often underestimated and use their underdog status as fuel to prove they belong.

“We always hear, ‘Who’s this Omaha team that keeps winning? Who are these people?’ But we know we’re capable of getting it done.”

Overturning doubters seems hard-wired in Elsasser.

She would have been UNO’s ace as a true freshman if not for two returning All-America pitchers. She made the most of her limited opportunities, going 10-1. Her pitching mates got most of the starts based on experience, not talent. She also struggled with illegal pitches due to a habit of lifting her foot off the mound during her delivery. She corrected the problem over the summer and prior to the following season Scarpello handed her “the torch to carry the program.” Elsasser ran with it to become “our identity” but she first had to make a tough decision. UNO went D-I, initiating a transition period that made it ineligible for the postseason. Scarpello gave her players permission to transfer and she feared Elsasser might move on.

“She knew she would not to get to play for championships and that’s what she came here to do,” Scarpello says, “and I knew that bothered her because she wanted to make a mark. We’ve tried in various ways to give her some great opportunities, to challenge her, so she could make her mark and have no regrets she stayed here. Those games against top teams have become a measuring stick for her and for us.”

Elsasser’s sure of her legacy as a program builder but she can’t imagine life without softball.

“What I’m going to miss the most is the relationships and being in the circle. The field feels like home to me. If I come to practice in a bad mood I always leave in a good mood. These girls are my best friends, we do everything together. We’re just like a big family. It’s kind of unsettling to know I won’t have that type of bond and closeness I’ve been used to every day for four years.”

Everyone says she’d make a great coach. “She’s a real student of the game,” says Scarpello, adding, “I’d hire her in a heartbeat.”

“Coaching could be my career,” says Elsasser. She”ll be coaching a younger sister this summer who’s showing great promise as, you guessed it, a pitcher. Clearly, this legacy has legs.

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