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Nancy Duncan, Her Final Story

May 9, 2010 1 comment

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I got to know the late Nancy Duncan better than I do a lot of my profile subjects.  You might even say we became friends.  I had written about her and her work as a professional storyteller.  We hit it off.  When she developed cancer and began undergoing a regimen of treatments and surgeries, she began doing what came naturally to her — putting her experiences into stories.  When told she was terminal, she and I eventually arrived at the idea of her telling one last story, in effect, by sharing her odyssey with the public.  The piece appeared in The Reader (www.thereader,com).  Not long after the article appeared Nancy died peacefully, having said all her goodbyes and having left the gift of her humor and intelligence and grace with thousands in the form of her stories, which will live on forever.

Nancy Duncan, Her Final Story

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Professional storyteller Nancy Duncan felt the tell-tale lump on her right breast in 2000. She recalled it being “about two digits long, as round as a pencil and as hard as a rock. I knew the minute I touched it what it was.” Doctors soon confirmed her suspicion. Cancer. “Somehow it had just sneaked through the mammograms.”

After a mastectomy and chemotherapy, her illness appeared under control. Then, in April 2002, she found “a little chip of a tumor” under her arm pit. “They told me it had recurred, and when they found it there they figured it was somewhere else. They did a CAT scan and there were these little specks everywhere in my liver — like from a shotgun blast,” she said. Her cancer had spread. “Metastasized. It’s a nasty word. Nobody wants to hear it. You never know where it’s going to go when it gets outside the breast,” she said. “It’ll go to your bones or to your lungs or somewhere else. Mine just happened to go to my liver.”

“Well, Nancy, you’re a terminal,” is what her doctor told her. Terminal. Aren’t we all? — Duncan wondered. The only difference between me and my doc, Duncan thought, “is that she thinks she knows what I’m going to die of.” That, and the fact the malignant tumors carrying Duncan’s death sentence play a cruel game with her. “They grow and then the chemo shrinks them. Enough so you can barely see them or they’re not visible. In about four or five months, they figure out how to get around that drug and then they come back. That routine is what I’ve been doing the past two years,” said Duncan, the Nebraska Arts Council’s Artist of the Year.

Her four-year “dance with cancer” has propelled the former theater maven into a journey of self-discovery that’s informed every aspect of her life and work. Her unfolding death is the subject of her final, most profound story.

“Storytelling is always a process of learning about yourself,” said Duncan. “The story transforms along with you and that’s exciting to realize that and to let that happen. It’s a dialogue you maintain with that story for the rest of your life.”

The most surprising thing to happen in the narrative of her evolving death, she said, is the tranquility she’s found. “It’s totally taken away the fear” she had of dying. Her late husband, Harry Duncan, an acclaimed poet and fine book printer, died at home under her watch. That experience is helping her prepare for her own death.

When she first got news of her terminal illness, she panicked. “Then, I remembered what Harry did. He just stopped eating and drinking and he was unconscious after three days and gone in a week. From the day he decided he didn’t want to live anymore, he went in this kind of graceful state. It wasn’t like he was a beaming idiot or anything. He just seemed totally at peace. Very relaxed. Loving. It was like he was teaching us all that when you’re ready, you don’t have to hang around and be tortured to death. So, I thought, I always have that option. My kids have agreed they’re not going to mess with that choice.”

The comfort Duncan gained in contemplating her own blissful exit carried over to a new freedom she felt on stage. “The interesting thing is I totally lost my fear in performing. I became completely relaxed,” she said. “It was such a gift to be able to perform two years without any fear. Yahoo! Because that is what your audience really wants. They want you embodied in that art form. They want to see you, the most they can possibly see you, broken open. And fear just gets in the way. It’s a barrier between you and the audience. It’s a good thing, because it tells you this is an important occasion and you need to be present for it. It helps you stay on your toes. But it’s also a bad thing because then you’re editing, and you don’t want to edit. What you want to do is listen to your audience and remember things and let them pop into the story. Why did I have to have cancer in order to lose that fear?”

She’s considered her cancer from every conceivable angle. She’s talked frankly about it in stories. In the published Losing and Getting, her cancer-ridden breast converses with her healthy left breast in a stream of bitterness, guilt and humor. She’s talked about losing her hair but gaining a new appreciation for life. She’s performed her cancer story for many audiences, but especially for women who are cancer survivors, patients and potential victims. She knows firsthand their fear.

“There’s also a lot of lessons you learn…” Like the harsh reality of health care in America. “If I didn’t have supplemental insurance I wouldn’t be alive today because I couldn’t afford all these chemo treatments. And a lot of people can’t afford them. They don’t have a choice. They’re not given the opportunity to have their lives extended like mine has been. Given the fact there’s so much money being made treating cancer and that cancer is growing exponentially in the world, there’s no incentive to find a cure…and definitely no incentive to prevent it. I think we don’t really want to prevent it because we don’t want to change our lives. We’re too lazy. We don’t want to give up our fossil fuels and our fatty foods. We’re so complacent. I’m as bad as anyone else. That makes me mad sometimes.”

Since finding she’s terminal, she’s tried maximizing the brief periods she feels well between her taxing treatments, stealing moments here and there to work and to spend time with the many friends and relatives who comprise her extended care team. She’s also managed performing occasionally and nurturing some of the storytelling festivals she’s helped found and grow, particularly the Nebraska Storytelling Festival in Omaha. She’s annually given 600-plus hours of volunteer time to Nebraska Story Arts, the organization that puts on the festival.

Even as her condition’s worsened, she’s continued being the state’s most visible and vocal advocate for storytelling. Omaha sculptor Catherine Ferguson called Duncan “one of Nebraska’s most treasured women. She has dedicated her professional life to connecting people to the arts and humanities. Nancy’s performances have always gone beyond entertainment to become educational.” Story Arts president Jim Marx said, “Her gift is to imagine possibilities, inspire others to join her vision and to will them into existence through tireless effort and encouragement.” Nancy’s daughter and fellow storyteller, Lucy Duncan, said, “She has a great generosity of spirit in her teaching of storytelling and wanting to spread the art form. Her support of my telling is a direct example. Instead of feeling, This is my territory, she says, Let’s share this. She’s done that with a lot of people — not just me. She’s also very beloved in the national storytelling community.”

Lately, Duncan’s good spells have grown fewer. The artist has been homebound since the end of May, when she gave her “last” performance at the Darkroom Gallery in the Old Market.

Her three grown children and several grandchildren are staying with her now in the big mid-town house she and Harry shared. It’s where he died of cancer in 1997. It’s where she intends dying, too. As the debilitating rounds of chemo have taken her longer and longer to recover from, she’s considered not undergoing them again, knowing full well stopping them will mean certain death.

“I have to pay such a huge price to feel good for about two months,” she said.

For now, at least, she tarries on, telling stories to her grandchildren or soaking up
the good vibes of her army of friends who flit in and out of her place all day long. Some come to do chores. Others bring her things. Some just come by to chat.

Reminders of her friends are everywhere, most poignantly in the paper, silk and rubber hands adorning the inside of her front door. Each “helping-healing hand” was sent or delivered to her and is adorned with a message that’s variously funny, outrageous, wise, enigmatic, just like the stories Duncan’s told since 1984, when she turned away from a career in the theater to pursue storytelling professionally.

Some visitors come to say goodbye, although few use that word, because even though Duncan is physically frail now and needs around-the-clock support, her effervescent spirit shines through, making it all the harder to imagine her gone. The light-up-the-room sparkle is still there in her eyes. So, is the ear-to-ear smile. And the cascading laugh. Ah, The Laugh. It’s an irrepressible cackle that starts in her chest, rolls up her giraffe neck and spills out her crescent mouth in a high-pitched sound that recalls the coyote-witch figures she portrays in tellings.

Then again, there’s a chronic fatigue that didn’t used to be there. Every now and then she catches her breath, swallowing hard to stem the pain from the stints in her liver. Her body, once as expressive an instrument as her animated face and voice, is gaunt and still, betraying the fight she wages to keep death at bay.

Her impending death is being recorded by Omaha videographer George Ferguson. The documentary she asked him to make is meant to help other dying individuals in their search for healing. It’s only natural that Duncan, who’s used stories as a way to interpret life, should use storytelling as a means of understanding her own end.

“I thought it might be useful to somebody else who’s dying the same way, but also to see how useful storytelling can be in helping you go through this process,” she said. “where grotesque things happen to you and people are poking your body here and there. And, where, in the middle of having stints put in your liver, people around you are talking while you’re drugged. And the craziness of discovering systems that you are either a victim of or you have to figure out how to defend yourself against. Not to mention a whole new vocabulary you learn.

“I’ve met people who, when diagnosed with cancer, kind of isolate themselves and live at home quietly and some who sadly get really angry and stay angry until they die. And to me dancing with cancer has not been like that. I was angry the first weekend before the biopsy results came back. That was the weekend when I fired God and hired HER back a couple times. But then I got over that because I’ve always believed that in every trauma there’s some kind of a grace at work and you just have to open yourself to it and figure out what it is. It doesn’t make you a better person, but it says, Wait, stop, who do you really want to be? And, so, cancer gives you some time, mostly, to do that and that’s a great privilege. I mean, I think it would be a great privilege to drop dead of a heart attack, but it wouldn’t be for your family because it’s so traumatic.”

Her decision to have her odyssey filmed was one she came to after much thought. “It took a long time to decide what my motives were here. Was I just doing this out of ego? Was it really a good idea? I talked to a lot of friends about it before I talked to my family. Most of my friends said, ‘Oh, yeah, you better do this because it will give you something to keep you busy.’ My kids in the beginning were thinking what it would be like to have somebody around filming during the last week of my life. I wasn’t thinking about that at all. I was thinking about talking about the things that happened to me in terms of my cancer, but also in terms of how the cancer affects my life and the stories. So, finally, I think my kids have all come around to it.”

Storytelling, she said, constitutes the way we make sense of things. The story of her cancer and dying, she said, is “no different. Every time you narratize your story to explain something to yourself, that’s healing, because then you’re no longer so confused or befuddled by it. Then, when you tell it to somebody, they give it their own meaning based on their lives.” This search for identity and meaning is one she thinks America suppresses in its instant gratification apparatus.

“I think all my work with storytelling has been trying to fight that tendency in our culture that does everything to avoid having people talking deeply to each other, especially about death or anything important. As a society, we want to be entertained and we avoid things that might make ask us to think or deal with situations going on in the world. Problems are not going to get solved until we sit down with somebody else and really listen to their stories, so we can get to understand each other rather than blowing each other up. The more we put labels on people, the more we’re destined not to know them. When you really know somebody’s else’s story, you can’t hate them anymore. It’s a wonderful tool for peace,” said Duncan, whose residencies in schools and other settings have used  storytelling to break down barriers, to build self-esteem and to promote diversity.

“But nobody trusts it (storytelling), partially because nobody has ever listened to our stories. We narrow ourselves so much by not knowing each other. Storytelling works against that. That’s why I keep working on storytelling.”

She said too many of us seek the cold isolation of mass media diversions as substitutes for interpersonal communication around the dinner table or fireplace, where gathering with friends to talk and tell stories is a communal event and a celebration of our shared humanity. “That’s what storytelling is all about.”

Her many tales, from the repertoire of “platform” stories she’s crafted for performance to the private stories she’s passed on to loved ones, are sure to live on through her family members, all of whom, she said, are born storytellers. That’s why her dying is more celebration than requiem. “Not only is it a celebration,” she said, “it’s a transition. It’s a very important transition from my versions of the stories to everybody else’s. Now, they’re all going to own these stories. I would love to someday eavesdrop on them, although that’s probably not possible.” Her performance stories are available on CD.

Duncan’s love for stories extends back to childhood. Born in Indiana to “depressed-alcoholic” parents, she did most of her growing up in Illinois and Georgia. A tomboy with a big imagination, Duncan roamed the woods in back of her Georgia house to act out the dramas in her mind. It was her pipe-smoking grandma, with whom she shared a room and found refuge with for eight years, that introduced literature and storytelling to her. “She read books to me until she dropped. She was not a big talker, but she told very well-honed stories all about her life. She was the unconditional loving parent in my life and my rock of stability,” Duncan said. “If I hadn’t of had my grandmother, I think I would have ended up in a booby hatch.”

Expressive by nature, Duncan first heeded her talents as a writer, earning a scholarship to the prestigious University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1958. It was there, as a student, she met and married Harry, then a teacher and fine arts press director. Eventually, she and Harry moved to Omaha, where he ran the Abattoir Press at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She acted on area stages and served as associate director of the Omaha Community Playhouse and as artistic director and, later, executive director of the Emmy Gifford Children’s Theater (now the Omaha Theater Company for Young People).

She applied drama techniques to her early storytelling. She built her signature story performances around Baba Yaga, a witch character adapted from Russian literature, and a chicken. “Baba Yaga was really the one who broke me open because she could say anything,” Duncan said. During the Fundamentalist Right’s rise to power, Baba Yaga got her in hot water with some area school districts that outright banned or picketed her shows. She was even spat at once.

Dissatisfied with her hybrid of theater and storytelling, Duncan began shedding makeup and costume to explore and expose more of herself on stage. Once she made herself more present in her increasingly personal stories, she found her voice as a teller. She never looked back at the theater, which she found limiting. “In the theater, you’re really not in charge of the material. The playwright or director is. In storytelling, there’s no separation of yourself from the story. You have to take total responsibility for it. You can’t blame it on the writer or director. It’s a different kind of bareness-nakedness, but also a different kind of responsibility.”

Speaking of responsibility, she hopes her militant views on cancer increase awareness. It’s why she doesn’t wear a wig or a prosthesis. “We need not hide the fact this is happening. If we hide the fact we have cancer…we’re denying who we are. We’re also making it easier for others to get it because we’re doing nothing to prevent it,” she said. “I hope my actions draw attention to the fact there is breast cancer in the world and that we need to do something to cure it. Moreover, we need to prevent it. Hiding it, to me, says the opposite. That it doesn’t exist. Instead, we need to let women know, You have a job to do.” She said many women don’t self-examine or are afraid to. Why? “They don’t want to know.”

Duncan’s curiosity, passion, concern and whimsy have made her a timeless teller  and, when she’s gone, her life and work will endure as a never-ending story.

Verne Holoubek’s Road Less Traveled: How Harley Davidson, Printed T-Shirts, and the Counter-Culture Movement Helped this Former Nebraska Farm Boy Make Pop Culture History


The open road: the B3224 across the Brendon Hi...

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I likely stumbled upon Verne Holoubek’s story the way I do a lot of figures I end up profiling — by coming across an article or item mentioning them or by someone telling me about them. Sometimes I’m given a fairly full portrait of the person, other times just a sketch.  In the case of Holoubek, it was another profile subject of mine, folklorist and author Roger Welsch, who mentioned his friend Holoubek in the course of an interview as someone I should look up.  Long story short, I heeded Welsch’s advice and arranged to meet Holoubek, and I’m glad I did.  He has a helluva story. My take on his story originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader,com).

Verne Holoubek’s Road Less Traveled: How Harley Davidson, Printed T-Shirts, and the Counter-Culture Movement Helped this Former Nebraska Farm Boy Make Pop Culture History

©by Leo Adam Biga

When Verne Holoubek left his family’s homestead farm near Clarkson, Neb. in 1961 for the state university in Lincoln, he fully intended on getting an ag degree, then coming home to help his dad run the place. It’s what the eldest son of a traditional Czech farming family was expected to do. But by year two a restless Holoubek embarked on an unimagined path as a hip entrepeneur in the printed apparel field.

He was in his 20s when the dreamer in him — he expressed a talent for drawing in high school — merged with the pragmatist in him. It all began with magic markers and army surplus jackets. Holoubek applied basic designs to white parkas he sold at home Husker football games. Then came T-shirts, what became the core of the company he formed, Holoubek Inc. Fraternities snatched them up. His operation evolved from the Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity house basement to the regional festival-fair circuit to a downtown Lincoln print shop to a full-scale production plant in Pewaukee, Wis., a Milwaukee bedroom community. Holoubek Inc., became an industry legend and made him a fortune. Many of his T-shirts are collectibles.

His journey from farmland to boardroom took some unusual routes. He did time as a “Forty Miler,” a reference to his early days as a carny hand-painting T-shirts at carnivals within a 40-mile radius of home. The allure of the road beckoned him to travel ever farther out. He got his ag degree alright, but opted to make a go of this T-shirt thing with his wife, Terri. The company survived many early struggles.

 

 

 

 

By the late ‘60s-early ‘70s, this once summer sideline turned serious business venture. A big break came when a then-fledgling discount store called Target gave him end-cap display space. His T-shirts sold-out. At the height of the T-shirt craze Holoubek designs were in every shop in every mall in every town in America. He expanded, going international. Along the way he acquired a client, Harley Davidson, whose open road nonconformity and anti-authoritarian spirit fit his own.

“I was a rebel from the beginning,” he said. “I’ve never liked the status quo. I’m not real big on authority. I mean, I always kind of go around it if I can.”

On a recent Nebraska visit Holoubek stood in a dirt road that intersects the small family farm he grew up on to consider how he’s come so far from so little. He used to ride a pony to the wood-frame, one-room school house just up the road. As he looked past the undulating corn and soybean fields to the far rolling hills poet Ted Kooser likes to call the “Bohemian Alps,” he grew quiet, only the sound of wind and meadowlark interrupting the stillness. Then he spoke.

“I guess I was always looking at these horizons wondering what’s over there. When you stood atop a haystack over here,” he said, indicating a field, “you saw all the lights in David City across the river. That’s about 46 miles. It’s just that curiosity. Intense curiosity. The word ‘vision’ has been used in a lot of interviews I’ve done. Where I get that, I don’t know.”

Upon further reflection, he gave his father props. “My dad was really forward thinking,” he said, “and maybe that’s where I picked up some of that vision. He always used the latest stuff” on the farm. “He was big into conservation” before it was popular. “We terraced all these fields. He built the first steel shed in the area.” It’s still standing. “He and Mom hired an architect to build their house. It has innovations that still seem modern.”

Holoubek’s sense for this place and for the land is profound. He’s never really left it or it him. “That’s really where it starts. Growing up on a farm, learning how to work, learning how to have fun — freedom, independence. Every day you made you own day,” he said. He proudly showed two visitors from the city the tiny Catholic church, long abandoned, and the adjoining cemetery where his family attended services and where his grandparents are buried, respectively. He pointed out, too, where he ran a tractor over the only rock in a field, the ditch he slid his car into and the gully he and his pals partied in.

 

 

 

 

His parents, now in their late 80s, still live on the land. When they’re gone, he said, “we don’t know what’s going to happen to this farm. There’s nobody left in the family to run it.” He admires how his parents hung on there. How his dad diversified with an automotive service business. Verne’s followed in his footsteps, always keeping hands in different pots. And just as the old man bucked convention agitating for agricultural reforms as a National Farmers Organization activist, Verne’s gone his own way the whole ride.

Known as a pioneer in printed apparel, Holoubek found innovative applications of words and images by pen-and-ink, air-brush and silk-screen, iron-on heat-transfer, which he’s an originator of, and multi-color press. He fed the counter culture movement’s creation of a new casual wear market for shirts emblazoned with ads, artwork, pop icon figures, sport team logos, protests, phrases, lyrics, poems, jokes, names or just about anything else. Few anticipated the demand. Poised to capitalize on it, he helped make the heretofore naked white T-shirt a colorful medium for commercial exploitation and personal self-expression. A walking billboard/canvas equated with cool.

“People wanted to identify with something or identify themselves,” he said. “I think rock ‘n’ roll and the Vietnam War gave it a little help because it was a protest…a statement. You could say things, you could be comical, you could be serious, you could be political, you could be religious, you know, whatever you wanted to put on your shirt.”

Wherever he looked, he saw opportunity. He plugged his company into a then- burgeoning lakefront Milwaukee music festival called Summer Fest, where upwards of a million people come see name acts over ten days. In charge of merchandising, Holoubek-printed T-shirts sold big and fast. He also tapped the rock-pop-country music concert scene, printing T-shirts for KISS and Charlie Daniels, among others. And right from the start he hopped on the Hollywood merchandising bandwagon that began with Star Wars and Superman.

Besides the vision to see these trends, Holoubek was in the very age bracket that gave them life. He was an unreformed hippie. He looked the part, too.

“I was young and looked young. Full beard, long hair, cowboy boots, outrageous clothes. Nobody thought people that young should own businesses,” he said. “The concept of entrepreneur wasn’t discovered yet. Nobody knew how to pronounce it, spell it. I was always the youngest one in meetings with lawyers and bankers and marketing guys. I was kind of an oddity.”

By the time the company took off in the early ‘70s, he was “the old guy” at 31. The average age of his 150 employees was 23. “A lot of college kids,” he said. “That’s when college kids used to work in factories for the summer. We had great parties…great picnics. Charlie Daniels played at one of our company picnics.”

Emboldened by youth, “we came in and just blew away” competitors-vendors, he said. “We were brash and kind of cocky, but we took care of our customers.” At trade shows the team “put on the dog. It was show time. Maybe that came from the carnival,” he said, where setting up your booth is “flashing your joint. A joint was a store then. It’s all different now.”

Holoubek Inc. didn’t have to look hard for new artists-designers. “We were a hot name in town, so people wanted to work there,” he said. “The talent came.”

A big break came when he cultivated the Harley account. He’d printed Harley decals and stickers but not apparel, where the real money lay. With Harley’s rebirth in the mid-’80s, he pushed the Skull and Cross Bones rebel image to new heights as the brand’s exclusive apparel licensee. The gig made him a multi-millionaire. His Harley sales went from $350,000 to $40 million. Along the way, he got hooked on the cycle subculture he still embraces today at 63.

The Harley mystique, he said, “does capture you. First, it starts with love of  motorcycling. If you ride, there’s nothing like it. It is just a thrill and you want to ride all the time. You can’t get enough of it.” Then there’s the image, as much a product of apparel-accessory lines and marketing pitches as the bikes themselves.

“Harley was brilliant enough to offer this clothing line,” Holoubek said. “It’s very expensive stuff. Their leather jackets cost $200 more than any other jacket, but people want the logo. The T-shirts sort of augment that. You wear your Harley stuff when you’re not riding. For sure, you wear it when you are riding. People want that identity. The real phenomenon is when people travel to rallies. They buy a T-shirt wherever they go. Pretty soon they’ve got a closet with a couple hundred shirts. It just kind of caught fire and it became THE thing.”

His own immersion in all things Harley happened almost by osmosis. “It was pretty easy to get into the Harley mystique because I was already around them,” he said. Before his indoctrination into that world he was “into bikes” as far back as college. “I actually rode to my graduation from college on my bike,” he said. “So, I’ve always had a bike,” but he admits, “I didn’t ride Harleys and I was not a biker. I was a college biker. My first bike was a Honda.”

He makes a point to differentiate between “real bikers” and motorcycle enthusiasts. He feels the real bikers comprise “about 1 percent” of the riding population. “I think bikers come in degrees,” he said, “I’m in the 99 percent group. Its hard to peg, but there is some biker in everybody.”

Ever the rebel, he once “took up motocross. Not racing, but riding for fun,” he said. “After work a bunch of guys would sneak into the Evinrude Proving grounds. The company tested snowmobiles there in the winter. We trespassed all summer.”

 

 

 

He’s an active member of a Harley biker club called the Ugly M/C. He wears a belt buckle with the name-insignia stamped on it. The Uglies possess a rich lore. “Uglies were able to go to Hells Angels parties and they came to ours,” he said of the respect they carried in hardcore biker circles. The Uglies also did security details for concerts-festivals, but enforced things less violently than their Angels brethren.

His Uglies II chapter includes celebrity brothers Peter Fonda and Larry Hagman. It’s for riders. No dilettantes allowed in this Wild Angels-Easy Rider crowd, even if members are senior, tax-sheltered rebels-without-a-cause now.

“Yeah, it’s a riding club. We ride hard. They’re just great guys and a lot of fun,” said Holoubek, who prints the club’s various shirts.

Aficionados will tell you Holoubek printed the best of the Harley collection. “They’re classics,” Fonda said. “There’s some great art there,” Hagman said.

As proud as Holoubek is that his work stands the test of time, he’s really jacked by his Uglyhood. “You have to ask” to join, he said. He did, and a Harley dealer sponsored him. Verne paid his dues for a year. “Here the rubber meets the road,” he said of this trial period. “You cook, clean, wash bikes, and do other duties as assigned. No rough initiation. It’s all in good fun. Ugly members are for life and we are careful to pick guys that will fit in for the long term. More do not make it in than do. One ‘no’ vote keeps you out of the club. Sometimes it takes three votes before you make it.” He won’t say how many it took him, but “they made me Ugly.”

 

 

 

 

Fellow Ugly Peter Fonda, now a close friend, met Holoubek when he rode out to Milwaukee for Harley’s 90th anniversary. He said they hit it right off despite their “very different backgrounds.” Then again, he said, they share a connection to Nebraska and its virtues. “He’s worked very hard to get where he is in life and he deserves every penny of it in my mind. The first thing I noticed is he has a very genuine heart. He’s a very generous person,” Fonda said. “When my wife had back surgery and it got botched, all my friends were concerned about me because I was really down. Verne flew out, for no other reason than to see me — to see I was alright and taking care of myself. Now that’s a true friend.”

Holoubek’s Wisconsin home is a kind of base camp for Uglies attending Sturgis rallies and Harley events. His “second home,” a beach front property in Akumal, Mexico, is always open to friends. “It’s beautiful down there,” Fonda said. “He likes to share his good fortune with friends. I think it only means something to him when he’s able to share it.” Fonda returns the favor by having Holoubek and company to his Montana ranch. Verne stays in Brigit’s room.

Nebraska author Roger Welsch tells an anecdote about how he and Holoubek met in a neo-nouvelle rich way. “I get a call one day from Akumal, Mexico on the Yucatan (Peninsula),” Welsch said. “The voice on the other end” is Holoubek’s. He wants to talk to Welsch about a book he has in mind. Welsch tells him, “‘Well, it’s really stupid to be talking about writing a book on the telephone. Shouldn’t we be sitting on a nice wide beach sucking on tequilas?’” To Welsch’s surprise, Verne says, “‘Good idea. There’ll be a ticket waiting for you…’” And there was. “It’s guys like this who know how to spend their money right you want to have as friends,” Welsch said. “He’s just a super guy. Easy going. A sweetheart.”

Fonda confirms Holoubek knows how to relax. It’s easier now that he’s retired and not wired to his business. “We enjoy doing the same things and we enjoy doing those things together,” said Fonda. Similarly, Larry Hagman and his wife enjoy travel with the Holoubeks, including a recent Costa Rica trip the couples made.

 

 

 

 

Terri Holoubek often joins Verne on rides. He describes his wife, an Omaha native, as “an equal partner in my life” and “in the business. She was there from nearly the beginning and we have worked together on every aspect of the venture. She did take the time to raise four great kids while keeping me in food and clothes and lots of advice on major decisions. She’s very intuitive.”

They’ve made some epic rides together. “We did 3,600 miles on the Glacier National Park ride — the Ride to the Sun. On the way back we rendezvoused at Peter’s (Fonda’s) ranch. From there we took off for the ride to Sturgis. On the ride into Sturgis from Devil’s Tower we road two-abreast at 80-miles an hour in formation, not the kind of thing you normally do. That was a great ride.”

He said the Sturgis experience, “which has been a regular stop for me over the last 20 years, is the REAL DEAL for bikers. Originally a race and hill climb, bikers camped in the city park in town. Over the years it has grown into the mainstream much like Harley Davidson has became an acceptable” brand. “The biggest change is that the riding public became more middle class just in time for the boomers to take part. It’s a lot of fun.”

The couple have ridden to the Four Corners and Daytona Beach They do charity events, including the famous Love Ride in Glendale, Calif. They would normally be up in Sturgis this week for the big rally. But a double-vision problem has idled Verne’s riding for now. That doesn’t stop them from having a good time. Between scuba diving at their ocean-front get-away in Akumal, touring old Europe, cruising in their classic ‘56 Packard or making Lake Michigan waves in their speed boat, this couple has fun. Earlier this year the couple celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary in Paris and Amsterdam.

Over the years Holoubek sold off most parts of the business, keeping only the prized Harley licensee segment. In 2004 he sold it too — to clothing manufacturer giant VF. Some hard feelings soured the Holoubek-Harley romance, but he doesn’t talk about them except to say, “It’s a big company now. It ain’t like it used to be when the family ran everything.” One Harley legend he remains close to is chief designer Willie G. Davidson, a grandson of the founder.

Holoubek tried retiring “once before.” He put “a management team in place and it just didn’t work out,” he said. “Either I didn’t run the team right or I didn’t have the right guidelines or I didn’t know how to be a chairman of the board and let somebody else run your company. I take the business very, very personally. I think about it 24 hours a day.” When sales went flat and good people left, he “came back to work.” He dealt with irate customers and vendors who felt his absence. That first day back he and Terri vowed, “‘Next time, we sell.’” That’s what they did.

The sale and retirement leave ample money and time. He could live anywhere, but still resides in Wisconsin and keeps close ties to Nebraska. While he never came back home to live again once he reinvented himself in college, he’s remained close to his family, most of whom still live in state. He keeps busy with vintage automobile and tractor collections, amateur photography and 400 acres of land he and Terri farm at their Wisconsin retreat. They also run a charitable foundation.

Fonda worries that without the action of a business to run, Holoubek might have problems. “I remind him, ‘Don’t retire, because that’s when people die,’” Fonda said. Holoubek says Fonda needn’t worry. First, he stays busy. “Life in retirement is very full,” he said. Second, he’s having too much fun. “I don’t believe you have to work your whole life,” he said. “I’ve watched people work to the grave in their business. There’s so many other things to do in the world I think I can do than just run that business.”

Passion drives Holoubek. It’s what gave him “a passport” and “a way out” of the farm in the first place. Finding “that avenue where you can create your own” destiny, he said, is a gift. “You’ve got to want to do something from the heart, and I feel very fortunate I’ve been able to do that.”

Dream Catcher Lew Hunter is the Screenwriting Guru of the Great Plains


A page of a screenplay I wrote in Latin based ...

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For years I was aware of Lew Hunter but it was only a couple years ago I first met him, and he turned out to be every bit as interesting as I had heard and read about. Lew is the kind of personality who overturns some common misperceptions about Nebraskans.  Similarly, his long career in network television, his standing as a How-to script guru professor and author, and his pricey screenwriting colony in remote Superior, Neb. that draws aspirants from near and far all defy certain expectations about the people who populate this state and what they do.

Regarding that colony, I spent some time there one summer and the following story is the result. The piece originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).

Dream Catcher Lew Hunter is the Screenwriting Guru of the Great Plains

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in a 2008 edition of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Writer Leo Adam Biga spent four days and three nights covering Lew Hunter’s most recent Superior Screenwriting Colony, which wrapped June 27.

Twice a year a fractured fairy tale unfolds in Nebraska’s Republican River Valley. Superior, a prosaic Nuckolls County border town of 2,055 in the state’s most far southern reaches, draws dreamers from near and far. They come, some half way across America, some across the globe, to learn at the feet of a professor whose laidback Socratic method is Aristotle meets Jimmy Buffett.

The wise man these acolytes seek out in this Margaritaville-on-the-Great Plains is screenwriting guru Lew Hunter, a favorite son of Superior, born and raised in nearby Guide Rock. He moved to Superior as a boy.

His warm, folksy manner belies his incisive mind and cosmo experience. In a Will Rogersesque way he’s both an innocent and a sophisticate, his humor part homespun cornpone and part sly wink. Yes, he’s a product of these agricultural backroads but he’s operated in the garish fast lane of L.A. as a network television executive and producer and as a screenwriter.

Gregarious and without an ounce of self-consciousness, Hunter bares all in front of guests — his surgically repaired knees, bulging midriff, failed first marriage, his foibles, successes, philosophies, his name-dropping anecdotes and fondness for quoting famous writers. He openly lavishes affection on his two dogs. He casually tells total strangers he and wife Pamela both suffer from ADHD.

“Oh, by the way, we’re first cousins,” he adds.

Too much information perhaps but the revelation and the relationship make sense upon meeting his earthy, instinctual, effusive wife. They’re soulmates.

“It’s wonderful because we know each other’s shit,” he said. “We figure out ways in which to handle it.”

Since 2001 the couple’s hosted a pair of two-week screenwriting colonies — one in June, another in September — in Superior, some of whose Victorian residences bear National Register of Historic Places merit. The Hunters, whose roots run deep there, own two turreted 19th century showplaces. They live in a two-story mansion, the former Beale House, they generously open to visitors.

Nearby is the former Day House, a three-story, 5,500 square foot grand dame. Two eccentric old maid sisters occupied it for decades. Their spirits may imbue it today. Pamela assures guests an Australian psychic’s reading, via phone, found a stream of energy flowing underneath. Pamela ascribes it to the Ogalalla Aquifer. Whatever the source, she calls it “a happy house” conducive to “creative people.”

The Colony House, as it’s referred to today, serves as home base for the workshop and as main quarters for registrants, who pay upwards of $2,500 to glean script basics from Hunter. His book, Screenwriting 434, now in its 12th printing, is a staple for aspiring scenarists. The title comes from the UCLA class he’s taught 29 years. The book’s a condensed version of the class, just as the colony’s a power form of it.

UCLA, where he’s been voted most popular teacher multiple times, has played a huge role in his life. He earned a second master’s degree there in 1959. His classmates included future cinema god Francis Ford Coppola. His appreciation of film was enhanced watching the latest “creative expressions” by Fellini, Antonioni, Truffaut, Godard, Bergman, Kurosawa, Ray at the famed Laemmle theater chain’s Los Feliz art cinema.

“That was a wonderful experience,” he said.

Lew holds court in T-shirt, shorts and bare feet, a Diet Dr. Pepper at the ready, a sharpened pencil behind one ear. He either motors between the two houses balanced on a scooter, resembling a circus bear atop a unicycle, or behind the wheel of his pea soup green Galaxy 500.

 

 

 

While professing he keeps near him a file folder bulging with years of lecture materials. He fishes out writerly quotes, excerpts or tidbits to share, referencing Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, Joseph Campbell. He relates how as a Northwestern University grad student he asked guest lecturer John Steinbeck what to do to be a great writer. The legend’s response: “Write!”

Some sessions are just Lew talking off the top of his head. Unscripted. He doesn’t need a cheat sheet, he said, “because the structure is exactly the structure I do in a 10-week class.” At table readings he reads, aloud, students’ ideas or two-page outlines and offers verbal notes, inviting group feedback. He proffers precise analysis that constitute Lew’s Rules — nearly always delivered with a smile.

“Too little story.” “Too much story.” “What’s your story really about?” “Your imagination is the only restriction you have.” “Conflict, conflict, conflict.” “Story, story, story.” “Character, character, character.” “All comedy and all drama is based on the three-act structure.” “My paradigm is situation, consequences and conclusion.” “Don’t even think about writing down to the audience.”

His racing thoughts get ahead of his spoken words. An aside leads to a digression, then to a full-fledged anecdote. If Pamela interjects, he’s gone. Just as his original train of thought threatens to derail, he gets back on track, prompting one of his favorite Lewisms, “I interrupted myself.”

Colleagues from UCLA, Ohio University and other colleges help instruct. Pamela does the rest. She’s den mother, house keeper, cook, confessor, referee, cheerleader and friend. Like a sweet-sassy diner waitress she calls everyone “Hon” or “Sweetie.” The couple’s granddaughters and friends pitch in. But Pamela holds it all together on the homefront so Lew can do his thing. She makes a killer stew. There are pizza nights, picnics, to-die-for cinnamon rolls and libations aplenty.

The we’re-just-plain-folks couple set the tone for the kick-your-feet-back and have-a-few-brews colony. It’s as far removed from a stuffy academic setting as you can get. Lew tells his guests, almost as a mantra, “Great to have you here” or “So glad you’re here.” You get the feeling he means it, too. The first night he has all assembled introduce themselves. He welcomes each again, bragging about their work, which they’ve sent him, or about awards they’ve won.

First-time colonist Bill Schreiber from Florida won the CineQuest (San Jose, Calif.) screenwriting competition. The award generated enough buzz that his high concept thriller, Switchback, is being read by major studios. That may not have happened had Hunter not been at the fest and hooked him up with his ex-agent. Contacts. Networking. It’s how Hollywood works. How a screenwriter from nowhere’s-ville gets read.

“It’s a matter of getting read. But you’ve got to learn the craft before the art can come through,” Schreiber said, “because there is a structure to it and there is a pacing to it. It’s all about reaching people’s emotions. You handle them like a yo-yo, and that all has to do with structure.”

He came to Lew and Superior he said, “to learn from him and to just elevate what I do. This is all about helping people like me who aren’t in that mainstream. It’s a way in for a lot of us who may be very talented but just can’t get over the hump or can’t make that relationship. There’s a million ways in and it all starts with a great script. Everybody’s looking for that next great script.”

Unlike most attending the colony Schreiber once broke through the system, with his very first screenplay no less, produced as Captiva Island, starring Oscar-winner Ernest Borgnine. The film found international TV distribution. That instant success soon gave way to the industry’s vagaries, however.

“It was kind of a blessing and a curse because you don’t think you’re going to have to recreate the wheel each time,” he said. “I got my first one produced and I was like, OK, here I go. But it didn’t happen that way.”

His subsequent scripts didn’t sell and he spent the next several years running his own small media company. The itch to write movies burned. Winning a contest and getting his script into the right hands has him focused on his dream again.

“That gave me the confidence I needed to say, Hey, I can write something that’s going to get noticed. I have a window of opportunity here. I better jump through it and jump as hard as I can. So here I am still plugging away at it with Lew, eager to learn from one of the masters.”

Hunter advocates students submit to contests.

“Screenwriting competitions are very fair game and one of the best ways to get paid attention to. Bill (Schreiber) will probably tell you the best part of it is he got an agent,” said Hunter. Agents allow screenwriters to hurdle “the wall” between them and getting their work read. “The validation of an agent means something.”

Jim Christensen has a similar story as Schreiber’s. His This Old Porch won an Omaha Film Festival screenwriting award. His My Triple X Wife caught the eye of North Sea Films, the Omaha company whose president, Dana Altman, co-produced Nik Fackler’s Lovely, Still starring Oscar-winners Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn. North Sea’s optioned Christensen’s script. He’s worked many jobs but now that one of his pieces has earned money he’s pursuing screenwriting full-time.

“I feel like I’m at the stage where I’m confident I’ve got a little game but I really just want to take it to the next level because I want a career. I’m not looking for a big score, although that’d be nice.”

Alan Chang came all the way from Taiwan. A business leadership consultant, he  wants to return to his creative roots as an author-editor.

“I know I’m an artist so it’s time to be an artist before my dream dies,” he said. “My dream is I will be a J.K. Rowlings-plus-Ang Lee.”

Dr. Judy Butler, a family physician in Superior, has stories she’s dying to tell. New college grads Sam McCoy, Elayna Rice and Heather Williams are 20-somethings on the cusp of separate moves to L.A. to follow their screenwriting dreams.

Hunter well knows that hunger. “I identify so much with people who are dreamers,” he said. He was a well-heeled ABC executive when the urge or, more accurately, the obligation to be a writer overtook him.

“I had been for like four or five years telling writers how to write and never having made a living as a writer myself. It bothered me a lot because I really didn’t think I had the cachet. I mean, it’s very, very alarming to give notes to Paddy Chafesky, who I idolized, or Neil Simon.”

It was Ray Bradbury, whom he was working with on a project, who told Hunter he should try it. Hunter left ABC, making a pact with his first wife that if he didn’t make it in a year he’d find a job. Fifty-one weeks later none of the six screenplays he wrote had sold. Tapped out and with a family to support, he took a job as a body sitter at Forest Lawn cemetery. The ghoulish work entails sitting up with corpses and laying them down if they rise up from rigor mortis. He’d done it at an uncle’s funeral home in Guide Rock and again to pay his way through college.

The day before he was to start Aaron Spelling called saying he wanted to buy Hunter’s script, The Glass Hammer, which became If Tomorrow Comes. If it hadn’t sold at least Hunter knew he’d tried.

Giving up the dream is never really an option for someone bitten by the bug. “I’ve been pretty much a guy that ‘no’ is just a word on the way to ‘yes.’ If I really want something bad enough, I keep on it,” he said.

Growing up an only child, hearing ‘no’ was akin to issuing him “a challenge.” As far back as he can recall he was different. Bright beyond his years. His back story reads like something from a movie.

His classically-trained musician stage mother forced him into singing-dancing-music lessons. He could only watch MGM and Paramount musicals. He resisted. A domineering woman, Lew felt he had no one to turn to, especially after his farmer father suffered a debilitating stroke. A self-described “miscreant child,” Hunter acted out enough to land in a military academy, which he’d often slip away from to gamble with “the girls” in nearby brothels. More brothels figured in his life at Nebraska Wesleyan University.

He ached to be under the lights in New York or L.A. He studied drama as an undergrad, also immersing himself in radio-television work in Lincoln. He was a DJ, a floor manager, et cetera. He wished to study broadcasting at Northwestern but was rejected. Not taking no for an answer he garnered letters of support from Nebraska dignitaries and struck a bargain with officials to enroll on a probational basis. If he got all As, he stayed, if he got even one B, he’d leave. He stayed.

“That rebellious aspect of me is still part of me,” he said.

After learning his chops as a television director in Chicago, he packed up his Packard and headed west. He worked his way up the ranks at NBC, from the mail room to music licensing to promotion, then at ABC, where he broke into programming. Producing-writing followed. Hunter’s lived the dream and now he uses what he’s learned to make others feel they can realize theirs too.

“You’re all storytellers,” he says to students. “Stories, they’re all around you, and as writers it’s up to you to see them.”

The June colony was Jim Christensen’s first but he attended two OFF workshops Hunter gave. Count Christensen a disciple.

“His mind is so sharp,” he said of Hunter, “When he reads an idea…he’s like a butcher cutting away the fat. I think the advice is always right on.”

Before the colony he steeped himself in Hunter’s book. Required reading.

“His book lays out a process that I think is just perfect. I mean, I’ve read a lot of screenwriting books…I tried to do it everybody else’s way but Lew’s way is the way that worked best. It’s structured but there’s room to breathe. It’s not like that something has to happen on page 20. He has the benchmarks but otherwise it’s a more liberating way to go. It’s structured but loose, you know what I mean?”

Yes. It’s a lot like Lew — relaxed, intimate, positive. Like his UCLA class or colony.

“My own personality comes through in the book and I think that really connects with people,” Hunter said. “Everybody that reads it who knows me says, ‘God, it’s like being in your class, it is so informal.’”

He simply “put his class on paper.”

He believes it communicates his “love of the professing…love of writers. I love the writing fraternity and I’m very proud to be a writer. Writing for me is the most useful thing in the world on a spiritual and professional level. I really get so much out of it. I look at some of the writing I’ve done and I think, Well, that wasn’t me.”

Hunter likes to think of writers in terms of “divine inspiration” who act as “conduits for God. I really think that’s true. It’s a very spiritual thing.”

 

 

 

Not surprisingly, he doesn’t believe the writing process should be torture.

“I’m not a big fan at all of sitting in front of the keyboard until beads of blood pop out on your forehead. Most writers will tell you how hard it is…For me, hard is being on the end of a shovel helping build an irrigation canal. That’s hard. I mean, how much better does it get? — you get paid to dream. I think that joy of the whole thing really comes across. I want people to accept that and have that for themselves because what a wonderfully fulfilling life it can be. And you’re never out of a job, You may not be getting paid, but you always have stuff to do.”

His enthusiasm and encouragement are contagious.

“One thing I have a lot of is energy,” he said. “In pitch meetings I show my energy an awful lot and I think people pick up on the energy. As I say in my book, ‘I’ll do anything to help you to be better writers.’ That’s all I’m after.”

When Hunter, who never intended to teach, was first asked by UCLA to instruct in 1979, he said he took as his role models not the good teachers he had but “the professors I hated.” The lazy, indifferent, remote ones.

“I’m available 7-and-24. Just give me a call. If we can’t deal with it in a phone call then I’ll be happy to meet with you. Somebody that needs assurance, guidance, to bounce something off of…is really what it is.”

He follows the same pattern at his colony, holding one-on-ones with students as requested. After a group session they rush to schedule appointments with him. Hunter knows its “unusual” how far he puts himself out there.

“If you e-mail him or call him he’ll get right back to you,” Christensen said.

Hunter said he’s unusual, too, for being “one of the very few screenwriting professors that has made a living doing it,” making him an exception to Shaw’s dictum that “those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach.”

What else makes his approach different from fellow gurus out there?

“It tells you how to write a screenplay,” he said. “You can talk about it, you can talk around it but I remain the only writer who tells you how to. I think that’s the most distinguishing factor.”

Ah, Hollywood screenwriter.

The fact that Hunter is a genuine card-carrying Writers Guild of America member who’s made real money from his own scripts is reason enough for wannabes to flock to him like lemmings. This despite the fact you’ve likely never heard of a single picture he’s written. More to the point, though, as a veteran instructor at UCLA, a top feeder school for Hollywood, his ex-students include many successful writers-directors, Nebraska’s Oscar-winning Alexander Payne among them.

“Isn’t Lew Hunter a trip?” Payne said about his old prof.

Anytime anyone like Hunter — who’s done it and who remains well-connected to the industry — makes himself available to the great unwashed he/she is in high demand. He’s got what they want. And Hunter is nothing if not accessible. He travels the world giving workshops. He answers faxes, e-mails, letters and phone calls each day from writers looking for answers. He advises, he cajoles, he steers, often ending his responses with his trademark tag line — “Write on!”

Hunter’s leaving Hollywood for Superior eight years ago invariably meant bringing Hollywood with him. It also marked his life coming full circle. Back to where his own dreams of movie-movie magic were first fired. But “retiring” to Superior took some convincing. It was Pamela’s idea. Lew had other plans, namely Laguna Beach. Finally, the desire to “go back from where I came” won out.

“I knew I was going to wind up here anyway beside my folks in the Guide Rock cemetery. I really like that. It really feels good. It feels right.”

 

 

 

 

Besides, he said from his writer’s shack out back of the Hunter house, “thanks to this (computer) keyboard and fax here I’m in touch with the world. I can continue on. You can do anything you want to do in terms of writing being about anywhere. All we need is a space and paper and pencil.”

Pamela pressed him to replicate his workshops in the middle of nowhere, though Superior’s Chamber of Commerce prefers “the middle of everywhere.” “The colony was my wife’s fault or my wife’s inspiration. Synonymous in this case,” he said.

The more she prodded, the more Lew resisted. Workshops didn’t fit his envisioned idyll. He finally gave in. “Well, there’s a Talmudic saying, ‘Man plans and God laughs.’ Pamela got together with Linda Voorhees, a professor at UCLA and one of my ex-students, and they ganged up on me. That was really an insurmountable force. We started it and we’re still doing it seven years later. We have really wound up enjoying the colonies. The people are all dreamers who’ve wanted it for a long time. The camaraderie is so wonderful.”

An amateur psychologist might say the colonies are an antidote for the insecurity that Hunter, forever an only child, still feels today. It’s his world, done his way. He rarely if ever has to hear ‘no.’

Thus, this Hollywood expatriate and prodigal son has come home to roost. He’s the cock-of-the-walk who got up and out.

There’s not much to hold people there. Like many rural towns Superior struggles. When the cement plant and the creamery closed, jobs vanished. Social ills plague the area. But it stubbornly carries on.

Far from dilettantes, Lew and Pamela are actively engaged in the community and in their extended family. They’ve worked on a coalition to combat the meth scourge. They’ve helped raise grandchildren. They served as parade Grand Marshall during Superior’s annual Victorian Festival last May. Dr. Judy Butler said Lew’s “infamous or famous depending on what side his politics are on at town meetings.”

Lew proudly gives guests tours of the town. This last colony he didn’t get around to it until 10 one night. Hard as it was to see it was easy to sense the affection he feels for this place. He cruised through the couple square-blocks downtown district, pointed out the few eateries, slowed in front of the auditorium whose stage he acted on, and stopped in Evergreen Cemetery, divided by Highway 14. Glowing crosses illuminated one side.

He indicated two graves, one with a ceramic pig and another with a cow. The animal figures are desecrations to some and delights to others. You can guess which camp Lew belongs to. They’re talismans, much like the storyteller totems he collects on his travels and displays at the Colony House. He ritualistically described some the first night. Naturally, there’s a story behind each one.

We’re all storytellers but how many can weave tales that grip an audience? Yet everyone thinks they can write movies. The joke used to be everyone in L.A. — from valets to doctors — wrote scripts on the side. Now, everyone everywhere is in on the joke and the dream. Film schools, festivals and how-to books/workshops and the indie scene all give the rising creative class the notion they can do it, too.

Hunter’s an enabler. “There’s no mystery to screenwriting,” he says. Suggest writing can’t be taught and he’ll tell you, “Bullshit!,” before adding, “What I can’t teach you is talent…perseverance…the burn — the way to get it done.” But he can stroke your ego and stoke your fires.

“We’re all here to support each other,” he tells dreamers. “You have to get your chops…your legs…your foundation, and these two weeks are very much a big part of your foundation if you’re going to believe. I want to encourage you all to reach for the stars.”

The afflicted get their fix from Lew Hunter, the dream catcher.

The Two Wars of Ben Kuroki

May 9, 2010 2 comments

Ben Kuroki

Image via Wikipedia

Somewhere I read something about an old World War II U.S. military veteran receiving an award. The fact that his surname was Japanese caught my attention.  When I looked into his story, it became readily apparent his wartime record was nothing short of extraordinary if for no other reason than the overwhelming barriers he had to navigate just to get into the service and then to see action.  Ben Kuroki has been much honored in his lifetime and he realizes the recognition he receives always presents a new opportunity to educate the public about duty, sacrifice, the greater good, and fairness.

I first wrote about Ben for the New Horizons newspaper in Omaha.  Then I adapted that story for Nebraska Life Magazine, a statewide publication published in Norfolk, Neb.  I also wrote a short version of Ben’s story that was picked up by newspapers around the country. The long version here is what appeared in Nebraska Life.

The Two Wars of Ben Kuroki

After Pearl Harbor, Ben Kuroki wanted to fight for his country. But as a Japanese-American, he first had to fight against the prejudice and fear of his fellow Americans. The young sergeant from Hershey, Neb., proved equal to the task.

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Nebraska Life Magazine.

“I had to fight like hell just for the right to fight for my own country,” said Hershey, Neb., native Ben Kuroki. During World War II, he became one of only a handful of Japanese-Americans to see air combat, and was America’s only Nisei (child of Japanese immigrant parents) to see duty over mainland Japan.

For Kuroki, just being in the U.S. Army Air Corps was an anomaly. At the outset of war, Japanese-American servicemen were kicked out. Young men wanting to enlist encountered roadblocks. Those who enlisted later were mustered out or denied combat assignments. But Kuroki was desperate to prove his loyalty to America, and persisted in the face of racism and red tape. As an aerial gunner, he logged 58 combined missions, 30 on B-24s over Europe (including the legendary Ploesti raid) and 28 more on B-29s over the Pacific.

Between his European and Pacific tours, the war department put Kuroki on a speaking tour. He visited internment camps where many of his fellow Japanese-Americans were being held. He spoke to civic groups, and one of his speeches is said to have turned the tide of West Coast opinion about Japanese-Americans.

Few have faced as much to risk their life for an ungrateful nation. Even now, the 90-year-old retired newspaper editor asks, “Why the hell did I do it? I mean, why did I go to that extent? I was just young. I had no family – no children or wife or anything like that. I was all gung-ho to prove my loyalty.”

A new documentary film about Kuroki, “Most Honorable Son,” premiered in Lincoln in August and will be broadcast on PBS in September. For filmmaker Bill Kubota, who grew up hearing his father tell of Kuroki’s visit to the camp at which he was interned, Kuroki’s story is unique.

“It’s very rare you find one person that can carry a lot of different themes of the war with their own personal experience,” Kubota said. “He saw so many different things… It’s a remarkable story no matter who it is, but throw in the fact he’s basically the first Japanese-American war hero and you have even more of a story. He’s more than a footnote in Japanese-American history. One that needs to be better understood and more heard from. It’s a unique, different story that not only Asian Americans can relate to, but all Americans. That’s why I like this story.”

For years after the war he kept silent about his exploits. The humble Kuroki, like most of his generation, did not want a fuss made about events long past. He married, raised a family and worked as a newspaper publisher-editor, first with the York (Neb.) Republican and then the Williamston (Mich.) Enterprise. He later moved to Calif. where he worked as an editor with the Ventura Star-Free Press.

 

 

His story resurfaced with WWII 50th anniversary observances in the 1990s. At the invitation of the Nebraska State Historical Society he cut the ribbon for a new war exhibit. On the anniversary of Pearl Harbor he was the subject of a glowing New York Times editorial. More recently, he’s been feted with honors by the Nebraska Press Association and his alma mater, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. As a result of all the new-found attention Kuroki and Shige have been invited guests to the White House on several occasions, most recently in May.

One key to what Kuroki calls his “all guts no brains” loyalty is his upbringing. His parents “pounded it into their children to never bring shame to yourself or your family,” he says in the film. “I hated the fact I was born Japanese. I wanted to try and avenge what they (Japan) had done for causing what we considered shame.”

From his home in Camarillo, Calif., where he lives with his wife, Shige, Kuroki added, “But I think in the long run I have to thank my Nebraska upbringing, my Nebraska roots for playing a real credible role in giving me a solid foundation for patriotism. It really was a way of life. Freedom was always something really I had the best of.”

Kuroki came from a poor family of 10 children. His parents emigrated from Japan with scant schooling and speaking no English. His father, Sam, arrived in San Francisco and worked his way west on Union Pacific section crews. The sight of fertile Nebraska land was enough to make the former sash salesman stay and become a farmer.

A small Japanese enclave formed in western Nebraska. Times were hard during the Great Depression and the years of drought, but Ben enjoyed a bucolic American youth, playing sports, hunting with friends and trucking potatoes down south and returning with fresh citrus.

Though accepted by the white majority, the newcomers were always aware they were different. “But at the same time,” Kuroki said, “I never encountered racial prejudice until after Pearl Harbor.”

On December 7, 1941, he was in a North Platte church basement for a meeting of the Japanese American Citizens League, a patriotic group fighting for equality at a time of heightened tensions with Japan. Mike Masaoka from the JACL national office was chairing the meeting when two men entered the hall and, without explanation, said something to Masaoka and led him out.

“Just like that, he was gone. We were just baffled,” Kuroki said, “so we just sort of scattered and by the time we got outside the church someone had a radio and said, ‘My God, Pearl Harbor has been bombed by the Japanese.’ That was a helluva experience for us the way we found out… It really was a traumatic day.”

They soon learned that Masaoka had been arrested by the FBI and jailed in North Platte. “I guess all suspects, so to speak, were taken into custody,” Kuroki said. Masaoka was soon released, but his arrest presaged the restrictive measures soon imposed on all Japanese-Americans. As part of the crackdown, their assets – including bank accounts – were frozen. As hysteria built on the West Coast, Executive Order 9066 forced the evacuation and relocation of individuals and entire families. Homes and jobs were lost, lives disrupted. As the Kurokis lived in the Midwest, they were spared internment.

Soon after Pearl Harbor, Kuroki and his younger brother Fred were surprised when their father urged them to volunteer for the armed services. As Kuroki recalls in the film, their father said, “This is your country, go ahead and fight for it.”

They went to the induction center in North Platte. They passed all the tests but kept waiting for their names to be called. “We knew we were getting the runaround then because all our friends in Hershey were going in right and left,” Kuroki said. The brothers left in frustration. “It was about two weeks later I heard this radio broadcast that the Air Corps was taking enlistments in Grand Island and so I immediately got on the phone and asked the recruiting sergeant if our nationality was any problem, and he said, ‘Hell, no, I get two bucks for everybody I sign up. C’mon down.’ So we drove 150 miles and gave our pledge of allegiance.”

The Omaha World-Herald ran a picture of the two brothers taking their loyalty oaths.

While on the train to Sheppard Field, Texas, for recruit training, the brothers got a taste of things to come. Kuroki recalled how “some smart aleck said, ‘What the hell are those damn Japs doing in the Army?’ That was the first shocker.”

Things were tense in the barracks as well. “I’ll never forget this one loudmouth yelled out, ‘I’m going to kill myself some goddamned Japs.’ I didn’t know whether he was talking about me or the enemy and I just felt like I wanted to crawl in a damn hole and hide.”

But at least the brothers had each other’s back. Then, without warning, Fred was transferred to a ditch-digging engineers outfit.

“My God, I feared for my life then,” Kuroki said.

As Kuroki learned, it was the rare Japanese-American who got in or stuck with the Air Corps – almost all served in the segregated 442nd Infantry Regiment that earned distinction. The brothers corresponded a few times during the war. Fred ended up seeing action in the Battle of the Bulge.

From Sheppard Field, Kuroki went to a clerical school in Fort Logan, Colo., and then to Barksdale Field (La.) where the 93rd Bomber Group, made up of B-24s, was being formed. As a clerk, he got stuck on KP several days and nights.

“I knew damn well they were giving me the shaft,” he said. “But I wasn’t about to complain because I was afraid if I did, the same thing would happen to me that happened to my brother – that I’d get kicked out of the Air Corps in a hurry.”

He took extra precautions. “I wouldn’t dare go near one (a B-24 bomber) because I was afraid somebody would think I’m going to do sabotage. That’s the way it was for me for a whole year. I walked on egg shells worried if I made one wrong move, if I was right or wrong, that would be the end of my career,” he said.

Then his worst fear came to pass. Orders were cut for him to transfer out, which would ground him before he ever got over enemy skies. That’s when he made the first of his pleas for a chance to serve his country in combat. He got a reprieve and went with his unit down to Fort Myers, Fla. – the last stop before England. But after three months training, he once again faced a transfer.

“I figured if I didn’t go with them then I’d be doing KP for the rest of my Army life,” he said. “And so I went in and begged with tears in my eyes to my squadron adjutant, Lt. Charles Brannan, and he said, ‘Kuroki, you’re going with us, and that’s that.’ All these decades later I’m forever grateful… because if it wasn’t for him I probably would never have gotten overseas.”

He made it to England – the great Allied staging area for the war in Europe – but he was still a long ways from getting to fly. He was still a clerk. But after the first bombing missions suffered heavy losses, there were many openings on bomber crews for gunners. Not leaving it to chance, he took his cause directly to his officers.

 

 

 

“I begged them for a chance to become an aerial gunner and they sent me to a two-week English gunnery school. I didn’t even fire a round of ammunition.”

In late ’42, Kuroki got word his outfit was headed to North Africa… and he was going with it. It took beseeching the 93rd’s commander, Ted Timberlake, whose unit came to be called The Flying Circus, before Kuroki got the final go-ahead. He was delighted, even though he had “practically no training.” As he would later tell an audience, “I really learned to shoot the hard way – in combat.”

Training or not, he finally felt the embrace of brother airmen around him.

“Once I got into flying missions with a regular crew and I was with my own guys, the whole world changed,” he said. “On my first mission I was just terrified by the enemy gunfire but I suddenly found peace. I mean, for the first time I felt like I belonged. And by God we flew together as a family after that. It was just unbelievable, the rapport. Of course we all knew we’re risking our lives together and fighting to save each others’ lives.”

One of his crewmates dubbed Kuroki “The Most Honorable Son.” It became the nickname of their B-24.

At the same time, Kuroki was reading accounts of extremists calling for all Japanese-Americans to be confined to concentration camps. Some nativists even suggested Japanese-Americans should be deported to Japan after the war.

But by then, Kuroki’s own battles were more with the enemy than with the military apparatus. His first action came on missions targeting the shipping lines of the “Desert Fox,” Erwin Rommel, whose Panzer tank divisions had caused havoc in North Africa. Kuroki was on missions that hit multiple locations in North Africa and Italy.

Kuroki and his crewmates made it through more than a dozen missions without incident. Then, on a return flight in ’43, their plane ran out of fuel and made an emergency landing in Spanish Morocco. Armed Arab horsemen converged on them. They feared for their lives, but Spanish cavalry rode to their rescue. The Spanish held the crew more as reluctant guests than as prisoners. But Kuroki tried to escape.

“I just had to prove my loyalty,” he says in the film. He was caught.

What ensued next was a limbo of bureaucratic haggling over what to do with the captured airmen. They were taken to Spain, where they were told they might sit out the rest of the war. For a time, it was welcome news for the crew, who stayed in luxurious quarters. But soon they felt they were missing out on the most momentous events of their lifetime.

Finally, the way was cleared for them to rejoin the 93rd, which soon moved to England for missions over Europe. Of all those bombing runs, the August 1, 1943 raid on Ploesti, Rumania, is forever burned in Kuroki’s memory. In a daylight mission, 177 B-24s came in at treetop level against heavily-fortified oil refineries deep in enemy territory. Nearly a third of the bombers failed to return. Hundreds of American lives were lost.

The legend of Kuroki grew when he reached the 25-mission rotation limit and volunteered to fly five more. His closest call came on his 30th trip, over Munster, when flak shattered the top of his plexiglass turret just as he ducked.

On an official leave home in early 1944, Kuroki was put to work winning hearts and minds. At a Santa Monica, Calif., rest/rehab center, he gave interviews and met celebrities. Stories about him appeared in Time magazine and the New York Times.

Then he was invited to speak at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club. In preparation for the talk, Sgt. Bob Evans asked him to outline his experiences on paper, which Evans translated into the moving speech Kuroki gave. “He did a terrific job,” Kuroki said.

 

 

 

But before making the speech, Kuroki tried getting out of it. He was intimidated by the prospect of speaking before white dignitaries, and feared a hostile reception. A newspaper headline announced his appearance as “Jap to Address S.F. Club,” and the story ran next to others condemning Japanese atrocities during the Bataan Death March. Even the officer escorting Kuroki worried how the audience would react. Kuroki was the first Japanese-American to return to the West Coast since the mass evacuation.

“I realized I had a helluva responsibility,” Kuroki said.

Kuroki’s speech was broadcast on radio throughout California, and received wide news coverage.

“I learned more about democracy, for one thing, than you’ll find in all the books, because I saw it in action,” Kuroki told the audience. “When you live with men under combat conditions for 15 months you begin to understand what brotherhood, equality, tolerance and unselfishness really mean. They’re no longer just words…”

He went on to recount how a crewmate caught a piece of flak in his head on a mission. The co-pilot came back to give him a morphine injection, but Kuroki waved him off, remembering training that taught morphine could be fatal to head injuries at high altitude. The wounded airman recovered.

“What difference did it make” what a man’s ancestry was? “We had a job to do and we did it with a kind of comradeship that was the finest thing…”

He described his “nearly continuous struggle” to be assigned a flight crew. How he “wanted to get into combat more than anything in the world, so I kept after it.” How he was “waging two battles – one against the Axis and one against intolerance of my fellow Americans.” The prejudice he felt in basic training was so bad, he said, “I would rather go through my bombing missions again than face” it.

Reports refer to men crying and to a standing ovation that lasted 10 minutes. Kuroki confirmed this. Even his escort was in tears.

The reaction stunned Kuroki. He didn’t realize what it all meant until a letter from Club doyen Monroe Deutsch, University of California at Berkeley vice president, reached him overseas and reported what a difference the address made in tempering anti-Japanese sentiment.

Filmmaker Bill Kubota’s research convinces him that the address brought the matter “back to the forefront around the time it needed to be.” It helped people realize that “this is an issue they should think about and deal with.” Kubota said the speech is little known to most Japanese-American scholars because the JA community was prevented from hearing the talk; vital evidence for its profound effect is in Kuroki’s own files, not in public archives.

Before Kuroki went back overseas he appeared at internment camps in Idaho, where his visits drew mixed responses – enthusiasm from idealistic young Nisei wanting his autograph, but hostility from bitter older factions.

Kuroki’s ardent American patriotism and virulent anti-Japan rhetoric elicited “hissing and booing from some of those dissidents,” he said. “Some started calling me dirty names. This one leader called me a bullshitter. It got pretty bad. I didn’t take it too well. I figured I’d risked my life for the good of Japanese-Americans.”

Among the young Nisei who idolized Kuroki was Kubota’s father, a teenager who was impressed with the dashing, highly-decorated aerial gunner.

“My dad regards him as a hero, which is how pre-draft age Japanese-Americans saw him,” Kubota said. Because of the personal tie, the film “means more to me because it means more to my father than I had earlier realized.”

Liked or not, Kuroki said of his public relations work that he “felt very much used and I wasn’t cut out for that sort of thing. I got my belly full of it. I wanted to quit.”

Once back overseas, his bid for Pacific air duty was soon stalled. When Monroe Deutsch learned that a regulation stood in Kuroki’s way, he and others pressured top military brass to make an exception. Secretary of War Henry Stimson wrote a letter granting permission.

“They certainly were unusual people to go to bat for me at that time when war hysteria was so bad,” Kuroki said.

Even with his clearance, Kuroki still encountered resistance. Twice federal agents tried to keep him from going on flights – once at Kearney (Neb.) Air Base, and then again at Murtha Field (Calif.), where the agents carried sidearms. Each time he had to dig in his barracks bag to produce the Stimson letter.

“My pilot and bombardier were so damn mad because by this time they figured we were just getting harassed for nothing,” he said.

His B-29 crew flew out of Tinian Island, where their bomber was parked next to Enola Gay, the B-29 that would soon drop the first atomic bomb. Meanwhile, the fire bombings of Japanese cities left a horrible imprint.

While on Tinian, Kuroki could move safely about only in daylight, and then only flanked by crewmates, as “trigger-happy” sentries were liable to shoot anyone resembling the enemy. And after completing 58 missions unscathed, Kuroki was nearly murdered by a fellow American. When a drunken G.I. called Kuroki “a dirty Jap,” Kuroki started for him, but was waylaid by a knife to the head. The severe cut landed him in the hospital for the war’s duration.

“Just a fraction of an inch deeper and I wouldn’t be here talking today,” he said. “And it probably would never have happened if he hadn’t called me a Jap.”

As he says in the film, “That’s what my whole war was about – I didn’t want to be called a Jap.” Not “after all I had been through… the insults and all the things that hurt all the way back even in recruiting days.”

The irony that a fellow American, not the enemy, came closest to killing him was a bitter pill. Yet Kuroki has no regrets about serving his country. As Kubota said, “I think he knows what he did is the right thing and he’s proud he did it.”

“My parents were very proud, especially my father,” said Kuroki, who earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses during the war. “I know my dad was always bragging about me.” Kuroki presented his parents with a portrait of himself by Joseph Cummings Chase, whom the Smithsonian commissioned to do a separate portrait. When he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal in 2005, Kuroki accepted it in his father’s honor.

Outside of Audie Murphy, Kuroki may have ended the war as the best known enlisted man to have served. Newspapers-magazine told his story during the war and a 1946 book, Boy From Nebraska, by Ralph Martin, told his story in-depth. When the war ended, Kuroki’s battles were finally over. He shipped home.

“For three or four months I did what I considered my ‘59th mission’ – I spoke to various groups under the auspices of the East and West Association, which was financed by (Nobel Prize-winning author) Pearl Buck. I spoke to high schools and Rotary clubs and that sort of thing and I got my fill of that. So I came home to relax and to forget about things.”

Kuroki didn’t know what he was going to do next, only that “I didn’t want to go back to farming. I was just kind of kicking around. Then I got inspired to go see Cal (former O’Neill, Neb., newspaperman Carroll Stewart) and that was the beginning of a new chapter in my life.”

Stewart, who as an Army PR man met Kuroki during the war, inspired Kuroki to study journalism at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. After a brief stint with a newspaper, Kuroki bought the York Republican, a legal newspaper with a loyal following but hindered by ancient equipment.

He was held in such high esteem that Stewart joined veteran Nebraska newspapermen Emil Reutzel and Jim Cornwell to help Kuroki produce a 48-page first edition called “Operation Democracy.” The man from whom Kuroki purchased the newspaper said he’d never seen competitors band together to aid a rival like that.

“Considering Ben’s triumphs over wartime odds,” Stewart said, the newspapermen put competition aside and “gathered round to aid him.” What also drew people to Kuroki and still does, Stewart said, was “his humility, eagerness and commitment. Kuroki was sincere and modestly consistent to a fault. He placed everyone’s interests above his own.”

Years later, those same men, led by Stewart, spearheaded the push to get Kuroki the Distinguished Service Medal. Stewart also published a booklet, The Most Honorable Son. Kuroki nixed efforts to nominate him for the Medal of Honor, saying, “I didn’t deserve it.”

“That’s the miracle of the thing,” Kuroki said. “Those same people are still going to bat for me and pulling off all these things. It’s really heartwarming. That’s what makes this country so great. Where in the world would that sort of thing happen?”

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