Nebraska doesn’t have mountains or oceanfront beaches. What few iconic things it does have speak to the work ethic of its people. Omaha Steaks is a national brand, like Mutual of Omaha insurance or Berkshire Hathaway and Warren Buffett, that people know and trust. It’s dependable, just like Nebraskans and the Nebraska family that founded the company and still run it today. This story, which originally appeared in the Jewish Press, is an appreciation for the history and growth of this food industry titan.
This Version of Simon Says Positions Omaha Steaks as a Food Service Juggernaut
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Jewish Press
First cousins Bruce and Todd Simon engage in the back and forth banter of media talk-jocks, except theirs isn’t idle chat but the dialogue of two men at the top of a food service industry company giant whose annual sales fast approach a half-billion dollars. In an interview at the headquarters of their family-owned Omaha Steaks empire, 11030 “O” Street, they revealed themselves as wry sophisticates with a knack for brokering deals, managing people and anticipating the next big thing.
After working together 20 years, their close familiarity finds each interrupting the other to complete a sentence or to make a point or to poke fun. They seem to enjoy the give and take. It’s all part of being the next generation, the fifth to be exact, to lead the corporate giant. Each apprenticed under his dad. Each holds fast to cherished lessons passed down from above.
For 89 years the company’s found innovative ways to market fine meat and other foods to residential and commercial customers around the nation and the world. Along the way the Omaha Steaks name has become such an icon synonymous with quality beef that its hometown enjoys crossover brand recognition.
Bruce is president/COO and Todd is senior vice president, but their bond supersedes titles or labels. They’re family. Two in a long line to lead the business.
“You know what we have? What we have here, we have an entire company of people who we trust — that we feel like we’re family with. That’s what we have here,” Bruce said. “That blood bond is really a family bond and it traverses not only the Simon family, it includes our executive committee, all the way down. There are guys I know in the plant that were there the day I started and I feel the same bond with them as I do to my cousin Todd. We all feel a responsibility to each other to make this place successful.”
As is their habit, Bruce turned to Todd, asking, “Don’t you think?” Whereupon Todd opined, “Well, I think it starts with the fact we’re a family business that allows us to really take those kind of family values into the whole business.”
“Not in a Bush sort of way,” Bruce joked. A nonplused Todd continued, “And it shows in the benefits we provide for our team in terms of family leave benefits or vacation benefits or day care. Scholarships.” “All that stuff,” Bruce interjected.
Legacy is never far removed from the Simons’ thoughts, as their fathers still take an active part in the company, always looking over their sons’ shoulders to ensure the family jewel is well-preserved. Bruce’s father, Alan Simon, is chairman of the board/CEO. Todd’s dad, Fred Simon, is executive vice president. The cousins’ late uncle, Steve Simon, died recently after years serving as senior VP and GM.
“My dad was and is pretty much the operational guy. He’s the guy who ran the meatpacking plant and who was the bean counter,” Bruce said. “Bought the meat,” Todd offered. “Yeah, bought the meat,” Bruce confirmed. “And Todd’s dad was the real marketing guy and Steve (Simon) was the sales guy.”
The three brothers — Alan, Fred and Steve — learned the business from their father Lester Simon, who in turn learned it from his father B.A. Simon. It all began when B.A. and his father J.J. Simon, both butchers, left Latvia for America in 1898 to escape religious persecution. With the meat business in their blood, J.J. and B.A. settled in Omaha, a meatpacking center, and worked in several area markets. In 1917 father and son opened their own meat shop, Table Supply Meat Company, downtown. Their niche was to process and sell beef to restaurants and grocers.
As the decades progressed Table Supply responded to the growing food service sector by supplying meat to Union Pacific Railroad in support of its large dining car services as well as to more and more restaurants here and in other parts of the country. Cruise lines, airlines, hotels and resorts became major customers. Lester Simon first took Table Supply to the public via mail order ads that enabled households to receive packaged shipments of cut beef. In 1963 the company published its first mail order catalog, whose product offerings soon extended far beyond beef steaks. Shipping-packaging advances improved efficiency, helping widen the company’s increasingly national and international reach.
By 1966 all this growth warranted an expansion in the form of a new plant and headquarters on South 96th Street. With the new facilities came a new name, Omaha Steaks International.
The 1970s saw Omaha Steaks take new steps in customer convenience by adding inbound and outbound call centers and a mail order industry-first toll-free customer service line. An automated order entry system was installed in 1987. The first of its retail stores opened in 1976. There are now 75 and counting in 19 states. Visioning the online explosion to follow, Omaha Steaks helped pioneer electronic marketing as far back as 1990. Omahasteaks.com became the banner web site for what is the company’s fastest growing business segment. A new web site, alazing.com. promotes the company’s convenience meals brand, A La Zing, which offers a line of complete frozen prepared meals.
Omaha Steaks underwent another expansion phase in the ‘80 and ‘90s, consolidating administration and marketing in two new multi-story glass and steel buildings whose sleek interiors abound with examples from the Simons’ extensive art collections and displays that tell the history of the family business.
If Bruce and Todd feel burdened carrying the legacy of a company that boasts two million-plus customers and employs some 2,000 folks, they don’t show it. Guiding their interaction in family and business dealings are the principles they picked up from their elders. By living those principles they fulfill their obligation.
“Our parents taught us to do the right thing. That’s really the only responsibility we have — just do the right thing. Do it all the time. Try to produce every single box of product perfectly. Try to satisfy every single customer perfectly. Do it right every time,” Bruce said. “It’s all about being honest. Everybody in our family has been impeccably honest. We don’t take advantage of people. We sleep good.”
“Right,” Todd said, “and I think it also extends to the environment we create. We could sit around and stress out about the fact we have 2,000 employees and their livelihoods in a lot of ways depend on the decisions we make. And I think we always have that in mind. I also think one of the things that makes it so we don’t stress out is that so many of those 2,000 people think the same we do and they take responsibility for what they need to take responsibility for. And because they do that the stress we carry is minimized.”
“But the whole thing is doing the right thing,” Bruce said. “I mean, if you’ve got building blocks and you set them up properly you’re going to have a very strong building. And that’s what we have and it’s because of every single block. Look, if spacemen came and took either one of us away there’s no question in my mind…this place would continue on because of the values that J.J., B.A., Lester, Alan, Fred, Steve and now Todd and I hold dear. It’s our whole corporate culture.”
The confidence they exude may be attributed in part to the up-through-the-family-ranks training the pair got and to the well-balanced team they form.
“It’s interesting,” Todd said, “because I think in a lot of ways we’ve both sort of followed in our fathers’ footsteps. You know, Bruce is very strong operationally, purchasing, finance…All the sort of back-office stuff is his forte. And mine is the out-front stuff — the marketing, sales. Managing the customer service aspect of that, motivating the front-line people to be people-people.”
“And somebody has to manage him, too,” kidded Bruce, before turning serious again. “Yeah, I think that when you’re a leader sometimes you’ve got to fake it. My dad used to say to me, ‘When in command, command.’ And that’s what I think we do. I mean, our dads built a helluva business and, you know, you always want to top it. I mean, George W. (Bush) just had to get Saddam and we’ve just got to sale a steak to every Chinaman,” Bruce said, smiling.
Unfazed, Todd said, “I think Bruce and I really complement each other well. I would say I’m an optimist and Bruce isn’t as much an optimist…in the sense that when we both come up with ideas I’ll see one side of the picture and he’ll see the other side of the picture. And since we’re both open too each other’s perspective on it, it really helps us balance it out.”
The way Bruce puts it, “I think our management styles complement each other as well. He is really detail-oriented sometimes and I am really detail-oriented when he’s not. And about different things. There’s some stuff that Todd goes, ‘Well, so, get it shipped.’ And I just look at him and I go, ‘OK…well, just sell it.’ He looks at me and says, ‘OK.’” Whatever the situation, they make it work. “Yeah, we do,” Bruce said, “and we get along, which is great, too.”
With two father-son teams comprising the ownership-executive ranks, the potential exists for family disputes that upset the company’s inner workings. The Simons diffuse those bombs with open dialogue and transparent dealings.
“For as long as I can remember the way we operate as a family is we get our ideas out,” Todd said. “We don’t bulldoze over each other. We’re all forceful about our ideas and our opinions, and we’ll raise our voices and we’ll do whatever we need to do to get our point across. But we basically come to consensus and we don’t leave the room unless everyone’s comfortable with the direction we’re moving in.”
“Right,” Bruce said. “We don’t fight about things. If there’s a reason to do something we discuss it and we figure it out. Because, hell, we’re all on the same page. What’s good for one is good for all. We’re never very formal, either. Usually we’ll discuss things over lunch.”
Talking business within the family doesn’t follow a 9 to 5 schedule. “Business doesn’t stop and start at the office for us,” Todd said. “I mean, Bruce could be on vacation and just decide to call me about something that’s on his mind.” “Well, technically, what will happen,” Bruce said, “is when you’re away from the place and the day-to-day that’s when you really get some good ideas and then we’ll call each other. I remember before cell phone were prolific I was in Italy and Todd was in Japan and we had this fax dialogue going on.”
Vision is important in any organization and each year Omaha Steaks holds an off-site brainstorm session with its top managers. Ideas and initiatives fly. “A lot of times those come not from me or Bruce but from the people out there in the trenches dealing with our customers every day,” Todd said. In the end, “Todd and I decide with our fathers where we’re going” as a company, Bruce said.
Two affiliate companies sprung from this visioning — the A La Zing line of convenience meals and OS SalesCo., an incentive division. Fred Simon entered the publishing world with The Steak Lover’s Companion, a cookbook co-authored with Mark Kiffen. Simon adapted classic dishes from recipes developed by James Beard, an Omaha Steaks consultant for many years. More cookbooks followed. Simon’s developed Omaha Steaks-affiliated restaurants. Many more restaurants exclusively serve the Omaha Steaks brand on their menus. The company’s also approaching 100 of its own retail stores nationwide.
Trust in themselves and in the team they’ve assembled explains why the Simons are open to new marketing avenues and new technologies that enhance the ability of the company to serve customers. A toll-free customer service line. Online ordering. In-store purchases. New product lines. Seasonings, sides, desserts. Whatever passes muster with the Simons or in the Omaha Steaks test kitchens gets rolled out.
“While we have innovated a lot here and we’ve developed a lot of proprietary tools and analysis and internal stuff, I wouldn’t say we’ve been on the bleeding edge of technology,” Todd said. “Because I think what we want to do is to use technology that’s going to help us to help our customers. We were one of the first companies to put in an 800 number because it made sense to help our customers communicate with us. When we implemented a centralized computer system one of the first applications was order taking.”
“We’ve had to do these things. The Internet was just very logical — Sure, we should have that. And the fact the entire world put a PC in their living room helped,” Bruce said. “But it was easy for us because when you think about it we were just bypassing the guy on the phone.”
As “easy” as he makes it sound, Bruce added Omaha Steaks has taken great pains to enhance its order-processing systems via the Web and the phone. “I’ve seen a lot of them and I’m proud of ours — I think it’s the best one I’ve ever seen. Our development team has done such an outstanding job with those products.”
“I still think what it gets back to is that we say to ourselves, How do we solve a problem for our customers? Whether that problem is placing an order quickly and efficiently or being able to log onto the web site and access their gift list or whatever it is. And then asking, Can technology help us with that? As opposed to implementing technology in search of a problem” to solve,” Todd said.
Online sales account for an increasing chunk of the company’s profits and Omaha Steaks will accommodate the dot com craze as the demand dictates.
“Our philosophy is be wherever your customers want you to be,” Todd said. “A lot of people love to shop online. I’m one of those people. But we’ve got a lot of customers today that don’t. People still fax orders in. People still mail orders in. People like to come into our stores. So, whatever works.”
The retail segment has “grown as fast as we’ve been willing to add resources internally to support it,” Todd said. Plans call for 15 more stores this year alone. That may seem an odd way to go with cyber commerce on the rise, but he said even a cursory look around town reveals a boon in retail development. “So the economy is alive and well for a number of different sales channels to prosper.”
Success may make some tycoons complacent but not the Simons.
“I feel like with this business I can be an entrepreneur. There’s always new challenges, new products to be developed or whatever. That gives me a lot of satisfaction,” Todd said. “What gives me a charge is just seeing the business grow, being successful in business, messing around with our dads in the business. And just the sheer volume of product we go through — it’s just staggering sometimes,” said Bruce, who figures Omaha Steaks processes up to 250,000 pounds of just top sirloin each week and close to 50,000 pounds of tenderloin a week. That’s tens of millions of pounds of beef a year.
They’ve been at Omaha Steaks a combined 46 years now — Bruce since 1980 and
Todd since 1986 — and there’s no reason to think they won’t be there 46 more. But it was never a lock they’d be there in the first place. University of Pennsylvania grads, like their fathers, each weighed other paths before falling in line. Bruce came aboard first. Right out of college. But not before he looked at “a couple other opportunities.” Neither his first nor only option, Omaha Steaks was a sure thing. He worked there as a kid. “I wanted to do it. I liked the business. I understood the business. When I was at school I thought about the business.” What finally swayed him, was the offer of $1,000 signing bonus his dad put on the table.
When it was time for Todd to graduate a few years later he faced a similar dilemma. “My dad was encouraging me. I think he wanted to work with me. I was a little bit hesitant,” Todd said. Like Bruce, Todd too worked at Omaha Steaks as a kid. But he and some college friends had started a sound production company (they later sold). He had other career choices. He turned to his cousin for advice, asking, Is this a good thing? Bruce assured him it was. The pull of family won out. “I kind of at the end of the day felt like I owed it to my family,” Todd said. “This family has provided so much for me.”
Neither is sorry he made the leap into the family pond. “Yeah, it’s turned out OK,” Todd said in a classic understatement. Working with their fathers has meant learning from the best. Their dads, along with their late uncle Steve, were recently inducted into the Omaha Business Hall of Fame. Todd’s dad Fred is an inductee in the national Direct Marketing Association Hall of Fame. The company’s won awards and praise for its marketing and technology applications.
As for the cousins’ fathers retiring anytime soon, Bruce said, “We don’t say that word. They will never retire. They will never semi-retire. And the minute anyone would suggest such a ludicrous thing they would start coming into the office every day raising hell about every item on the balance sheet. They’ll never retire. They might go on vacation…” And that vacation may last for some time. But retire? No.
A sixth generation of Simons entering the business may be on the horizon. Todd
doesn’t have children and Bruce’s are still quite young. However, Bruce can see one of his daughters already thinking like a future mogul. On a visit to the zoo they waited in a long line at a concession stand, noting how the supervisor let the workers fall way behind, whereupon Bruce’s little girl said, “You know, Daddy, I don’t think that person is doing a very good job of managing that stand. That’s not a very good operation is it, Daddy?” He had to agree, his chest puffed with pride.
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I was raised Catholic. Long after I became a lapsed Catholic, my mother and an aunt attended a church on the south side of Omaha that offered a Mass said in Latin. I am barely old enough to remember that Masses said in Latin, with the priest’s back to the congregation, were once the standard Mass of the church. Then Vatican II came in and the Latin Mass was quickly abandoned, as the church, to its credit, began opening the service up, through language and music and engagement, to make it a more accessible, welcoming, inclusive experience. The Latin Mass was relegated to fringe or alternative status, but its proponents, though small in number, were fierce in their devotion to it. When a priest friend of mine became pastor at the very church my mom and aunt attended, and he told me about the schism in his own church between the Latin adherents and the mainstream Mass followers, I felt called to do a story. The following story, originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com), is the result.
Devotees Hold Fast to the Latin Rite
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
There is a small band of tradition-minded Roman Catholics whose affection for the largely disbanded Latin Mass is so strong they endure a certain scorn to attend this austere, orthodox ceremony that, as local Latin rite worshiper Steve Mahowald puts it, “more effectively expresses the mysteries of the faith I believe in.”
The fervor that Mahowald and his fellow worshipers — who can be regarded as the fundamentalists of the Catholic church — have for the Latin Mass is what has kept this old sacramental rite alive amid these liberal times and made its followers a thorn in the side of church hierarchy, who view dissent as a threat to unity. While the Latin Mass is not officially disapproved of by the church, which effectively abandoned it in favor of the modern, vernacular rite — the Novus Ordo — in 1969, it has been suppressed in recent decades and its adherents have been made to feel like they stand uneasily on the fringes of mainstream Catholicism.
Starting in 1969, when decrees from the Second Vatican Council held earlier that decade replaced the heavy, somber Tridentine Mass said in Latin with the lighter, more upbeat Novus Ordo said in the vernacular tongue, the traditional Mass not only fell out of disfavor with the church but its celebration became an act of defiance against religious leadership.
Defenders of the Latin Mass and the traditions bound up in it openly questioned church leaders. Splinter groups within the church evolved, notably among followers of renegade French Bishop Marcel Lefebvre and his Society of St. Pius X, who openly rejected the Novus Ordo, along with the modern trappings accompanying it, and instead continued embracing the Latin Mass and all other things traditionally Catholic. Lefebvre, who defied the Pope by consecrating four bishops to aid him in his crusade, was excommunicated.
Later, the Society of St. Pius X reached an accord with the Vatican that allowed the nearly schismatic group to provide the Latin Mass for those faithful still attached to it. For decades, Society priests have crisscrossed the country on an informal circuit to celebrate the Mass for devotees of the old ways. Often, these Masses are held secretly, in settings other than churches, because many bishops have been slow to recognize indults by the church granting permission for the Latin rite.
Local “Latins” or “Trads,” as they have come to be derisively called, petitioned then-Archbishop Daniel Sheehan during the 1970s and early ‘80s for permission to have the Mass at a local church, but their entreaties were denied. Frustrated by what they considered aberrations or abuses in the new Mass, including altar alterations and displacements, the introduction of non-sacred music and the use of laity as liturgists and extraordinary ministers, Trads solicited the Society of St. Pius X for priests to come and offer the Mass they knew and revered.
In Omaha, the Latins organized under the name St. Michael Chapel. The group furtively attended their outlaw Mass, not unlike the huddled few apostles in the Bible, at various locations around town — ranging from the Sapp Brothers chapel to Lil Willy’s restaurant to a series of motels before finally settling on the Ramada Inn Airport.
The group made regular pilgrimages there, where a large 5th floor party room was turned into a makeshift place of worship. An altar was cobbled together from tables draped in linens. The faithful, whose numbers ranged from 50 to 100, variously sat in folding chairs arranged in front of the altar and knelt on the floor. A closet was used as a confessional and a bar in the back for storing vestments. A member outfitted a suitcase to carry nearly everything visiting priests needed for saying Mass — the ciborium, the chalice, the cruets, et cetera.
Members of St. Michael Chapel faced the odd dilemma of worshiping at what once was and what they still believed to be the one true Mass but having to attend that rite outside the confines of a church and without the permission of their own bishop. Timothy Fangman, a coordinator with the group, said at the time, “It’s very embarrassing and it’s very humiliating to attend Mass in a hotel room. Some officials regard us as renegade dissidents, but when in reality we have been more faithful to our religion than many of them.” A worshiper from that group who requested anonymity because she “doesn’t want to get into trouble” said, “I can’t say I felt embarrassed. We did feel persecuted in some ways. But, to me, it was such a relief to find this Mass and to find the faith still lives. Most of us were ready to put up with anything. Going through what we did made us appreciate it more, too.”
All during the time the local Latin community struggled to be taken seriously by the archdiocese, they had an ally in the Rev. Lucian Astuto, the then-pastor of St. Patrick Catholic Church in south Omaha. Sympathetic to the group and their convictions, he made his church a forum for the Latins and worked behind-the-scenes to validate their position and their passion. Finally, in 1984, Sheehan allowed the Latin Mass to be said, one day only, at St. Pat’s following a decision by the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship, which left the rite’s celebration up to the discretion of local bishops. In 1988, the Ecclesia Dei promulgated by Pope John Paul II further legitimatized the Mass and established an order of priests, the Fraternity of St. Peter, with a mission of ministering to the traditional faithful and celebrating sacraments in Latin.
According to Archdiocese of Omaha Chancellor Rev. Michael Gutgsell, the Pope’s action wasn’t done merely to placate “a certain group or devotion of people, it was a public and universal recognition of the legitimacy of the 1962 Roman missal and a matter of the unity of the church. The schism of Lefebvre is, of course, the backdrop for this particular permission of the 1962 missal. Rome devised a means to safeguard the unity of the church by providing this special fraternity with an authorized missal and other sacramental rites to allow priests to exercise their priesthood in union with the Pope.”
An “unauthorized” Latin Mass is offered in Omaha at Mary Immaculate Catholic Church, 7745 Military Ave. Gutgsell said the group sponsoring the rite, the Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen, “is not in union with Rome. They have sort of created their own community. They do not recognize the Pope. They do not recognize Archbishop (Elden) Curtiss.” Officials with Mary Immaculate Church, however, assert they do heed Papal authority, just not its infallibility.
By the late ‘80s the Latin Mass was a fully-condoned fixture at St. Pat’s, where Astuto, now retired, celebrated the rite. In recent years St. Pat’s has hosted a Fraternity of St. Peter priest to serve the traditional faithful there. Although the Latin Mass is secure for now, Trads still feel marginalized in their own church and fear they may not have their beloved celebration much longer. They point to the fact their Mass is confined to only one church, that services are relegated to inconvenient times and that vigorous promotion of the rite is at least implicitly discouraged by the church’s ruling class. “It is though they’re keeping us in check where we can’t do a lot of damage,” said one worshiper who preferred to remain anonymous. Another worshiper who also requested anonymity, said, “You get the feeling, even if you’re not paranoid, that they don’t like you.”
As confirmation of that, Rev. Eric Flood, the Fraternity of St. Peter priest stationed at St. Pat’s, said, “I’d say at best we’re tolerated. I think we’d fit any sociological analysis done on a minority group. We’re often scared, thinking that we can’t speak our own mind or proffer our own opinion because what we say may take away the good things that have been handed us. I, myself, have been ridiculed when I’ve given talks about the Fraternity. I’ve been scolded by people who say, ‘You’re not with the church — get out of here. You’re the one causing the problems.’ In some churches Latin rite priests hide their missals from the pastor. I do know of some places where we’re not even allowed to advertise in the diocesan newspaper or even put out a sign saying, ‘Latin Mass here.’”
He said such reactions stem from a widely held misconception the Mass is forbidden, “I think it’s fair to say maybe half of all Catholics don’t even know there’s such a thing as a Latin Mass or they think it’s not allowed. There are others who think the Latin Mass is just here temporarily. That in another 10 or 15 years it’ll die out. But, in fact, we see the trend is that won’t occur.” He estimates 100,000 Catholics attend the Mass in the U.S., where more than half of all dioceses have it, and the Fraternity’s seminaries, including a new one just outside Lincoln, Neb., are filled to capacity.
St. Patrick’s, 1404 Castelar Street, continues as home to Omaha’s lone sanctioned Latin Mass. The faithful attending the rite there — 7 a.m. Monday through Saturday and 8:30 a.m. on Sunday — are drawn by a common set of beliefs and an overriding desire to keep this core sacrament of Catholicism free of what they regard as not only cosmetic changes but fundamental deviations in the way the mainstream Mass is said today. Here, in this tiny brick church, both the profound presence of silence found in long stretches of the Latin Mass and the strange but sublime sounds of Gregorian chant sung during many intervals of the rite set the other-worldly tone for the sacred proceedings.
The priest, garbed in full vestments, is a figure of reverence in the restrained way he moves, in the fact he keeps his back to the congregation and in the quiet way he recites the long litany of prayers that are the foundation of the Mass. The faithful, ranging from silver-haired seniors to a surprising number of families with young children, display a reserved, pious countenance, with much bowing and genuflecting, and little talking. As was customary before Vatican II, women are veiled in head coverings and wear loose-fitting clothes revealing little more than their submission.
Latin rite followers flock to the traditional service because, for them, it retains a sense of sanctity and wonder they find missing from the new Mass. “I guess it comes down to the reverence — the fact that I feel God is here,” Marcia Hardman said after a recent Sunday service. “You go to the others (English Masses) and you get a lot of music, you get a lot of entertainment, you get a lot of whoopdedo, but you don’t get much else. You’re looking for God all the time and you’re just wondering where He is. I think we’re mainstreaming people right out of the church.”
Maurcicio Abascal, a native of Mexico City who moved with his wife and five young children from Texas to Omaha two years ago, said, “I find with this Mass (the Latin) we can worship with more reverence, with more dignity, with more devotion. It is respectful and it leads people to really understand they are present on Mount Calvary.”
For the faithful few that attend, the Mass is a sanctuary from the unending changes they feel have been made to this most solemn expression of their faith. As Hardman said, “I watched the changes come and I didn’t like the changes. I think it was change for change’s sake. That’s not a good idea.” Sharon Cooney, who regularly attends with her husband Tom, said that before the Novus Ordo, the Latin Mass provided a constant source of identification for her faith. “Wherever you would go, all over the world, there used to be a Catholic Mass you could go to and it would always be the same.”
Then, when the new Mass arrived with much of the old rite’s rituals stripped away, she felt the underpinnings of the sacrament undone. “I felt crushed. Church was not a worship place anymore. It was more of a meeting place. The Mass lost its sacredness. I call it a production now. Our church is built on tradition. The tradition started with Abraham when God spoke to him and he built an altar to worship God. Our Mass has developed from Abraham to Jesus at the Last Supper to all down through the line. Well, every church now has their different service. The priest doesn’t even follow the same words. You’re not sure what you’re supposed to say in responses.”
In the aftermath of the reform movement that swept through the Catholic church in the 1960s, heralded by the Second Vatican Council’s call for full active conscious participation by the faithful, the traditional Latin Mass was revamped all around the world. In America, this meant it was no longer said in Latin but in English or Spanish or whatever language predominated each parish. The priest, who out of reverence mainly faced the altar, began facing the congregation.
The altar itself, traditionally an ornate tabernacle at the head of the church, often got scaled-back and moved from its place of awesome prominence to more pedestrian settings in order to be closer to the people. The Gregorian chant sung by the choir was replaced with more contemporary hymns. Many of the prayers said by the priest in the old rite were eliminated and responses only uttered before by the altar servers became the new province of the faithful. Kneelers in some churches were removed. Instead of receiving the Holy Eucharist by kneeling at the altar railing, the congregation began received it while standing. The consecrated host, historically placed on the tongue, was now presented in open hands.
The decorum of the Mass dramatically changed too with the addition of the sign of peace before communion. Where before, no overt interaction occurred between worshipers, handshakes, hugs, kisses and words of peace are exchanged. In later years, the laity have played an ever bigger role in the liturgy — from reading scriptures to distributing communion.
As traditionalists rejected the new order of things, rifts developed — even in families. “When the new Mass was introduced it brought about a lot of confusion and hard feelings…Families were torn apart by it,” Mahowald said. “I‘m the youngest of nine children and my family now thinks I’m crazy for going to the Latin Mass. Some of my own children go to the Novus Ordo. Free choice. But they’re all going to Mass — I’m happy about that.”
Cooney added, “People sort of look down on you” when they hear “you’re a Latin riter.” As change upon change piled up, traditionalists were left feeling out in the cold — that their church was betrayed by “progressivists” and “modernists” in what amounted to “the Second Reformation.” In describing what it’s like to remain rooted, perhaps stubbornly, in tradition while the whole church around them is swept up in change, one believer said, “How did I get so wrong just by standing still?” Allied by their shared rebel status, believers have formed a close community. Many know each other by name and subscribe to publications like The Remnant that champion traditional Catholic practices.
Flood said many faithful feel uneasy with the laxness in the sacraments today, especially when priests go well beyond the intentions of the Novus Ordo to create something altogether new again. “The Mass has changed so dramatically and for reasons that are unexplained to the faithful that people are lost and question how they should worship God. Worshipers here are tired of changes in the English Mass. So many go from church to church and find so many differences that they wonder when it’s going to stop. So often with the new Mass it becomes what the priest wants to do. You don’t see that so much in the Latin Mass, outside the homily, because the priest is really structured. I am told where I have to keep my hands and where I am supposed to stand, and to not sway from that requires humility on my part. It requires an act of obedience to follow all the rubrics. For the faithful, there is a solidity in the Latin Mass in that it doesn’t change.”
According to Rev. “Roc” O’Conner, an instructor in the theology department at Creighton University, “the original idea” of Vatican II reformers was “that only sections of the liturgy would be done in the vernacular and then, what happened was, that goal was just kind of overrun because there was such an initial delight in having the Mass” in the native tongue.
He said those decrying changes made to the Mass ignore the fact this rite has seen many revisions before, albeit not on so encompassing a level as those imposed by Vatican II. “There was great variety probably through the time of Charlemagne in the 9th century. Charlemagne was the first person to mandate a certain way of doing things for the sake of the unity of the empire. Then, with the Council of Trent in 1570, the missal of Pius X came to predominate.”
He said when it comes to the question of which Mass most truly reflects the faith, one must consider the Mass is a reflection of that “living-breathing organism” — the church — that has been in a process of formation for two millennium. “
There’s a battle of history in this whole thing. Is the Latin Mass used today something that’s been celebrated for thousands of years or does it really mainly go back to 1570? Which tradition do you want? It depends on your definition of tradition. Even things like “the Last Gospel” and the prayers to St. Michael the Archangel are accretions that got put in and became traditional. So, do you want to go back to the 4th century or the 9th century or the 16th century? It depends on where you want to land.” As he sees it, the church’s strength lies in the worshipful rituals that have evolved among ethnic groups over time to become standard. The church, he said, is “not just a museum piece. At the local parish level remarkable things come out of the people. It’ll be interesting to see what effect the growing Hispanic community has on mainstream practices.”
Steve Mahowald, whose personal faith journey has ranged from a traditional Catholic upbringing to spiritual estrangement to a reawakening while serving time in prison, said the new Mass has “lost its focus” amid all the change. He echoes the view of other traditionalists who feel the bright, shiny, noisy new Mass impedes reflection. “It’s forced the people into a position where they can no longer contemplate. They can no longer sit back and meditate on the mystery of their redemption, which is their role in the Mass.”
The role of prayer at Mass, O’Conner said, is not just an individual matter but a communal one, too. “Something the Council (Vatican) looked at is some movement towards a corporate sense of worship. We’re still far from that, I think. It seems to me people are still pretty passive in church.” He said the notion of how the church prays can be looked at from different vantage points. “Is it a lot of individual separated units each contemplating and therefore implicitly in community? Or is it people growing in a sense of themselves more explicitly as a community and then offering worship as part of that body? People go to where they’re being touched.”
O’Conner believes people today “are looking for more of an integration” of old and new. He said the problem in discussing the relative merits of the Latin Mass and the Novus Ordo is that “you get an ideological battle. It’s either one or the other. And, to my mind, it’s more of an integration of the sense of the sacred and the community, instead of one or the other. I know a lot of parishes today are employing chant, either in translation or in Latin, at various celebrations. There’s also been a growing use of incense. I think we’ve learned something in the last 33 years, but not everything. It’s part of a development.”
Meanwhile, the Latins intend to remain true to their traditional beliefs. “I’m going to stay right here where I am,” said Sharon Cooney. “There’ll always be a remnant left.”
- Music and the new missal: a joyful noise? (beliefnet.com)
- Five False Myths About the So-Called Vatican II Mass (First in a Series) (catholicanalysis.blogspot.com)
- Pope Benedict XVI celebrates the Tridentine Mass privately, says head of SSPX (blogs.telegraph.co.uk)
- N.J. Catholic churches to begin using new translation of Roman Missal for Holy Mass (nj.com)
- Roman Catholic Church changes Mass to a more formal version (pennlive.com)
- The Story of My Dissent (opentabernacle.wordpress.com)
- Omaha’s St. Peter Catholic Church Revival Based on Restoring the Sacred (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Vatican Says Latin Mass Shouldn’t Divide Catholics (huffingtonpost.com)
- New guidelines for Tridentine Mass – 10 key facts (catholicnewsagency.com)
The Storz Saga: A Family Dynasty – Their Mansion, the Brewery that Built It, the Man Who Loved It, a Legacy of Giving, the Loss of a Dream
The story that follows is a kind of sequel to the first story I did on Art Storz Jr., the beloved Omaha eccentric who had a magnificent obsession with his family dynasty and the mansion they built and that he tried to preserve as a lasting tribute. That initial story is also posted on this site. This follow up story was published in The Reader (www.thereader.com). Art fought the good fight to retain the mansion but in the end he had to give it up. The historic home was donated to Creighton University, which has since sold it to an Omaha couple who now reside in it and are restoring it. That would have made Art happy.
The Storz Saga: A Family Dynasty – Their Mansion, the Brewery that Built It, the Man Who Loved It, a Legacy of Giving, the Loss of a Dream
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Once the centerpiece of an Omaha German-American family’s brewing empire, the brawny Storz mansion at 3708 Farnam Street is the brewmeister house that beer built. Much like the Storz brewery ranked as a dominant family-run business for 90 years until sold by the clan in 1966 and shutting down five years later, the big gabled house was a high society icon during the 20th century but now, for the first time, it’s fallen out of the family’s hands.
This is a story about a house that defined an era in Omaha affluence and connoted the influence a family wielded in shaping the city. It is the tale of a magnificent obsession by one Art Storz, Jr., a third-generation heir and self-described black sheep of the family, who, with the aid of a gambling tycoon, warded off creditors in trying to make the house a brick-and-mortar tribute to the Storz heritage. It is a story of industry, intrigue, money, love, fear, desire, loss and legacy played out in public and private arenas.
A fitting symbol for a family enriched by their conspicuous manufacturing success and openhanded with their generous community support, the 27-room residence was built from 1904 to 1907 to the scale and opulence of the area’s affluent Gold Coast standards by Storz Brewing Co. founder Gottlieb Storz. The German emigre, an honored citizen in his native Benningenam, worked as a brewmaster before starting the company that bore his name at age 24. Boasting a third-floor ballroom serviced by an elevator, a sun room patterned after the solarium aboard the Bremen oceanliner, a music room, servants quarters, a grand foyer and a richly appointed decor featuring mosaic-tiled fireplaces, quarter sawn oak woodwork and stained glass windows, the mansion was designed by architects George Fisher and Harry Lawrie in the Jacobethan Revival style. The exterior includes relief panels displaying key ingredients in the brewer’s art: barley, hops, grain. A carriage house adjoins the mansion.
Guests were, by definition, members of the social elite and therefore feted in the Victorian era’s rich style. Family lore has it that as children Fred and Adele Astaire, son and daughter of Fritz Austerlitz, Storz Brewing Co. employee, often whirled around the ballroom at parties and recitals. Holidays were marked by extravagant celebrations and decorations. The house, which outside the Joslyn Castle has few local counterparts in its old-style grandiosity, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Preservation Magazine once featured it in a spread. “They’re not going to be building houses like that anymore,” said Art Storz, Jr., 82, the last member of the family to occupy it.
After the family patriarch, Gottlieb, died in 1939, the mansion was home to one of four sons, Arthur C. Storz, Sr., and his family. During his reign as master of the manor, Arthur, Sr., a brewery VP and president, made the home into what Art Storz, Jr., the eldest of Arthur’s two sons, called “a showplace.” A combination bon vivant and man’s man, Arthur C. Storz was a race car driver and World War I aviator, a rugged outdoorsman, an amateur gourmand, an astute business executive and a classic hail fellow-well met chap. He hosted lavish black-tie bashes, trimmed with elegant place-settings and floral arrangements, for an eclectic and gilded circle of friends.
For special occasions, the house was transformed into giant set pieces, once as a replica of a showboat and another time as an airplane. “They were just fantastic parties,” Art recalled. His father imported finely-trained German chefs and butlers to head the domestic staff. Art likes painting his folks as common people, saying, “My mother and dad were not ostentatious. If any of us kids would of showed any inkling of that, I think they would have kicked our butts.” Still, their privileged lifestyle set them apart. Art and his brother Bob actually grew up in a Field Club area home with an indoor boxing ring, rifle range and pool room.
A meticulous person who demanded order in everything he did, the old man ruled with an iron hand at home and at work. One who never suffered fools gladly, he could reduce anyone to putty with his withering stare and sharp tongue. “My dad scared a lot of people. He was a tough guy. He’d rip ya, but once it was all over, it was done. He’d never hold a grudge,” Art said. Expressions of affection were rare. “My dad knew the word love but he didn’t use it.”
With his charisma and connections the senior Storz became a powerful civilian advocate for the U.S. Air Force and the airline industry, using his abode and his storied hunting sanctuary, Ducklore Lodge, near Lisco, Neb., to court military brass, industry titans, politicos, celebrities and assorted movers-and-shakers. Among the who’s-who attending Storz sprees were cinema star Jimmy Stewart, a former flyer himself, broadcasting personality Arthur Godfrey, SAC commander Gen. Curtis LeMay, wartime hero Jimmy Doolittle, WWI ace and race car legend Eddie Rickenbacker, whom Arthur Sr. flew with and raced against, and various big-wigs, including Omaha moguls Peter Kiewit, W. Dale Clark and Leo A. Daly.
In son Art’s opinion, the mansion may be without peer locally as a historic residence: “I doubt if any home in Omaha can even come close to it as far as history and the significant people that have been in and out of there over the years.”
The same was true at the handsomely outfitted Ducklore refuge, where Arthur Sr. hosted everyone from Hollywood legends Wallace Beery and Robert Taylor to Air Force top dogs to the heads of General Motors and Union Pacific. But the place was not just reserved for blue bloods. Enlisted men were welcome there along with Storz employees. An annual Storz-led Armistice Day celebration in nearby Lisco fed and entertained thousands.
Also a strong advocate for the city and state, Arthur Sr. is credited with influencing the placement of the Strategic Air Command at Offutt Air Force Base as a player in the Air Force Association and steering the early growth of Eppley Airfield as Omaha Airport Authority chairman. His staunch support of air power netted him the Exceptional Service Award, the highest civilian citation the Air Force bestows. With Arthur Sr.’s death in 1978, his son Art said Omaha “lost a real champion for this area.”
Two of Arthur Sr.’s brothers and Art’s uncles made names for themselves, too. Adolph, who headed the United States Brewers Foundation, was a noted breeder and exhibitor of show horses. Through his two marriages he merged the Storz’ with two other preeminent American families, the Haydens, owners of the former Hayden Brothers Department Store, and the Anheusers, of the St. Louis brewing company fame.
Robert Herman Storz’s many interests included raising prized cattle, serving on such community boards as the Chamber of Commerce and Ak-Sar-Ben, spearheading the building of Clarkson Hospital and the development of Memorial Park, whose dedication President Harry S. Truman attended, and donating millions to the Joslyn Art Museum and Omaha Community Playhouse. Also a media baron, in 1949 he joined his son Todd in purchasing Omaha radio station KOWH, which anchored Storz Broadcasting Co., a chain of radio stations Robert Herman Storz became president of after the tragic 1964 death of his son, at age 39, of a cerebral hemorrhage.
As a long-standing family brewing dynasty, the Storz’ moved easily in the high society echelons of the brew world, where many German emigres made their fortunes. While the families socialized together, their empires engaged in fierce fights for consumer preference. “My folks were very close with the Coors’, the Metz’s, the Millers, the Strohs and others,” said Art, “but they were awful competitive, too.” At its peak, he said, Storz didn’t take a back seat to anyone. “We were an old-line company. We’d been successful, like the other companies, in selling the family name and been a leader for year after year after year.”
Art Storz, Jr. assumed his role in the brewery in the 1950s, directing its marketing and advertising. After its sale and the death of his parents, he dedicated his life to preserving the mansion. His late brother, Robert Hart Storz, was also a brewery executive. When World War II erupted each brother, like their father before them, became a flyer in the service of their country. But where Bob served with distinction, leading the famed 1943 raid on the Romanian Ploesti oil fields, Art got dressed-down for a stupid stunt. It would always be that way — with Bob, the dashing chip-off-the-old-block, seemingly doing no wrong and Art, the insecure one, never measuring up to their father’s “stringent yardstick.”
Besides making the house his residence, Art rented it out for receptions, gave tours and led an effort to turn the residence into a museum. His life there was a contradiction. Amid all the opulence, he lived austerely after renouncing his inheritance in a dispute with family members over the disposition of the home. He handled much of the house’s and property’s upkeep himself. He had no car. He dressed like a handyman, preferring corduroys, jeans or shorts, a t-shirt and a cap. Despite acute shyness, he often opened the home to guests and visitors.
Despite his near pauper status the Storz name gained him entry into powerbroker circles. While unable to raise sufficient funds for the house’s restoration or rebirth, he did make it a kind of living-working museum by keeping its possessions largely intact and displaying memorabilia relating to his father’s exploits. Eventually, he ran into financial difficulty, owing some $70,000 in back taxes, and came close to losing it all in the late ‘80s, but was bailed out by a family friend, Michael Gaughan, the son of Art’s former Creighton Prep-Creighton University classmate, Jackie Gaughan, who made millions as a Nevada casino-hotel owner. The younger Gaughan, also a well-monied Las Vegas casino-hotel magnate, paid the back taxes, bought the property and subsidized its upkeep. In an oft-quoted assessment of why he intervened Gaughan, who once worked at the brewery, said it wasn’t so much historic preservation as it was “to preserve Art” (Storz).
When, last June, Art took a bad fall at home, breaking a hip, his nieces convinced him it was no longer safe for him to be cooped-up all alone in such a massive place — there had been break-ins and items stolen — and moved him into the Westgate assisted living facility, where he remains today. He resisted the move. He wanted to return home. But since he was a tenant, not a title-holder, he had little say.
Meanwhile, the house he made into a shrine was donated to Creighton by its owner and his benefactor — CU alumnus Michael Gaughan. The university has not announced plans for the house, although it will likely host tony alumni affairs. Family members offered up a variety of objects and furnishings from the house in an estate sale last December at Collectors Choice. Storz, who hates being separated from the place he fought very public battles over, is upset with himself for not securing it as a permanent memorial to his family and their deeds.
“I saw this coming,” he said. “I get pretty down on myself over the home because I feel I didn’t do the job I should have done. I was in over my head with this thing, but I couldn’t walk away. I was in love with the whole damn place. And, well, now I guess Creighton’s paying the bills.” His mind often rehashes his fight to hang-on to the home. “I think it was kind of crazy, you know, trying to do what I was doing because I didn’t have this,” he said, rubbing his fingers together to indicate money. “I let my love get involved with it. It hurt me, too, boy. I feel bad because a lot of people helped financially, none more than the Gaughans, and I failed.”
Hardly a failure. After all, it still stands as a proud symbol. Since moving he’s received an outpouring of notes and cards from people expressing cherished memories of the home and admiration for his fight to save it.
As for the home itself, he hopes something of the Storz legacy is “retained” in whatever new life Creighton decides for it and that, under no circumstances, it be converted into a frat house, the fate of another vintage Storz mansion, at 40th and Dewey, also owned by Creighton. A third old Storz dwelling, at 39th and Harney, has found new life as the Renaissance Mansion. Two other Storz homes were long ago razed by the University of Nebraska at Omaha to accommodate parking and new construction on campus.
During his travails to retain the house Storz was dogged by the irony that he, of all his polished relations, should be carrying the Storz banner given youthful indiscretions that brought unwanted attention to the family.
There was the “buzz job” he pulled during World War II when, as an Air Force pilot he flew his Flying Fortress low over a wide swath of Omaha, just for the thrill of “showing off.” At one point he maneuvered the four-engine B-17 bomber close to the old Blackstone Hotel, right across from the mansion, swooped by the spires of St. Cecilia Cathedral and roared over the homes of an uncle and aunt. A general panic ensued and, once his superiors got wind of it, he was court-martialed, never rising above the rank of captain.
There was also his penchant for speeding in cars. “I was a rebel,” Art said of his heller days. “I took some tremendous chances.” Then, in the early ‘50s, a breech-of-promise suit surfaced weeks after his only marriage, which ended in divorce. His wife, a member of a Nebraska ranching family, got custody of their two kids. He’s had little contact with them over the years, especially after fighting-off his adult children’s attempts to claim the house in the ‘80s.
Being a Storz has often been a burden.
“I felt terribly intimidated by it all,” he said. It didn’t help that his milquetoast personality was no match for his father’s and uncles’ domineering presence and the looming shadows they cast. “I’ve always been very insecure because I’ve known there’s no way I was ever going to walk in any of my family’s footprints,” he said from the one-room apartment he’s turned into a mini-Storz hall of fame at the Westgate care center he resides in. “I just wasn’t cut out to be what they were. My family left some big footprints, you know.” They were, he said sheepishly, “a hard act to follow.”
Still, his devotion to his family never wavered. Perhaps it was his desire to still measure up in his father’s eyes, but he wanted the Storz’ many contributions to the community remembered. In a sense, they are. The Storz Expressway is named after his father and everything from a hospital wing to a museum gallery is named in honor of his uncle, Robert Herman Storz, and his wife Mildred, whose $1 million gift renovated the Joslyn fountain court.
“Our family played such a prominent role,” Storz said. “When you think of the economic contributions Storz Brewing alone meant and then how my family always got involved in so many civic things, I think we’re an awful important part of this area. It makes me proud.” The family keeps giving, too. The Robert Herman Storz Foundation, with assets of more than $7 million, supports a wide range of community organizations.
The thriving business that provided the capital to pay for the Farnam Street Storz mansion along with the other palatial Storz estates, and that made possible the family’s well-known civic philanthropy is largely unknown today except by oldsters. Only the red brick smokestack and a scattering of buildings, now in disrepair, still stand as reminders of this industrial juggernaut. Spread-out over a multi-acre site along North 16th Street, the Storz Brewing Co., which operated from 1876 to 1966 under family ownership, employed anywhere from 300 to 500 workers and produced more than 350,000 barrels of beer a year. A strong regional and select national brand in Nebraska, the Midwest and on Air Force bases (courtesy the family’s Air Force ties) Storz was the most prominent player in what was once a booming local brewing scene and a name that prompted strong loyalty among consumers.
Its state-of-the-art production and packaging operation, occupying more than 15 buildings, featured spotless red tiled floors and walls, burnished stainless steel and copper fixtures, millions of dollars worth of gleaming equipment, ranging from mashers and brew tubs to bottling and labeling machines, along with massive cellars for storing beer and huge garages for sheltering and maintaining the company’s large fleet of delivery trucks.
Railroad tracks ran right up to the back of one building to allow for direct box car access — with imported hops, barley and grain off-loaded and cases of beer on-loaded. A hospitality room, patterned after a brewhause and hunting lodge and adorned with the stuffed heads of big game bagged by Arthur C. Storz, treated employees and customers alike to food and beverages. A Storz-owned tavern, one of many the brewery had, was adjacent to the plant.
The whole works ran with the Prussian-like precision and efficiency demanded by the Storz’, who oversaw every step. To assure quality, early brewmasters were brought over from Germany, where Gottlieb himself learned the brewing arts, and later brewmasters trained under their fathers. It was, as Art likes to put it, “a class deal. Everything was immaculate. All I can say is is that everything was of the finest quality. We had a top-level operation.”
That quality extended to Storz marketing-advertising campaigns, which spared no expense in using the finest materials and devising the most discriminating images for positioning its beer as the purest brew around. Outdoors themes became a Storz trademark. A classic ad pictured snow-capped mountain peaks and green Douglas firs in the background as cowboys on horseback ford an icy-cold river and make their way to a big frothy mug of Storz beer in the foreground with the pitch — “Refreshing as the whole outdoors…take some home for your weekend pleasure” — scripted below the idyllic scene.
A cursory web search finds Storz memorabilia bringing prices comparable to bigger brand names. “It says to me we did things very well,” Art said. “Our material never looked ma-and-pa. It held its own against anybody.” He has the awards to prove it. Storz also got in on the ground floor of tying their product to sports, as the company hired gridiron legend Red Grange and diamond legend Leo Durocher as spokesmen for early network telecasts of NFL football and major league baseball, respectively, that Storz helped sponsor.
Almost from the start, the brewery enjoyed fat times. Then, when Prohibition went into effect in 1920, lean times hit. The company laid off much of its work force but unlike other breweries continued operating, making near beer, ginger ale, soft drinks and ice. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, Storz picked up where it had left off. Over the years the Omaha-brew won medals in Paris and Brussels and gained increased market shares.
By the early 1960s Storz controlled 51 percent of the Nebraska market, outselling all its competitors combined. It finally met its match when national brewers began selectively underpricing their beer in Storz home markets.
“The national brewers never could make any inroads in our markets, but then they started playing dirty,” Art said. “It was pretty obvious they were trying to get us. That always burned me up, too. I will always wonder how they got away with that. That had to be a bitter pill for my dad. My father had great love for the business and he wouldn’t have sold unless” declining profits and rising expenses forced his hand.
In 1966 Arthur Sr. and one of his brothers, who together owned all the stock, sold the brewery to Iowa Business Investment Corp., a consortium of Iowa investors that then leased the operation to Grain Belt Breweries of Minneapolis, under whose management the brewery lasted a few more years before finally closing for good in 1972. The former brewery buildings have found some reuse in the years since.
Art rues that he and his brother Bob “never had the opportunity to carry-on the family business.” Art tried getting his father to meet the nationals “head-on, but he wouldn’t go for that,” opting instead to sell rather than fight. Art used to visit the old brewery site, but it’s too painful for him to see the ruins left behind.
“I could cry when I look at it now. It’s all torn to hell. My family worked very hard to make the Storz name whatever people think of it today. My family was one of Omaha’s very few industrialists. We made our own product and we marketed it successfully against the biggest names in the land.” As for the imposing family mansion that sits empty and that no he longer has a key to, he said, “I would have gone to hell for this house. I know it sounds crazy, but I would have died for this house. It was a love affair.”
- A. Marino Grocery Closes: An Omaha Italian Landmark Calls It Quits (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- The Ties that Bind, One Family’s Celebration of Native Omaha Days (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Clever use of an old mansion to promote “new” thinking by students (thegrantcoaches.com)
- Knowsy Knoxville: Craighead-Jackson House at Blount Mansion (knoxnews.com)
- Consumerism: The Graceland Mansion Tour (popdose.com)
The late Art Storz Jr. was a strange, lovely man whose fierce devotion to his family and to their legacy as successful beer brewers, as civic leaders, as philanthropists, knew no end. He was a mass of contradictions. Generous to a fault. Shy, unassuming, and eccentric to the end. Getting him to give me an interview the first time was like pulling teeth, and then when he did what should have taken an hour or two became a marathon session of three or four hours, followed by another, before he finally got comfortable with me. The following story, which appeared in the New Horizons, was the first I wrote about him. I did a subsequent piece, which I have also posted. The mansion in the headline or title of the story offered here really was Art’s magnificent obsession. He finally did have to leave there for a nursing home, where I visited Art a few years ago. He was as sweet and squirrelly as ever. A little broken-hearted, too. He’s gone now but hardly forgotten. He will always remain one of the most unforgettable characters in my life.
The Magnificent Obsession of Art Storz Jr., the Old Man and the Mansion
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
First-time visitors to the historic Storz mansion are unsure what to make of the shy, self-effacing old man greeting them at the front door. In his ball cap, T-shirt, baggy trousers and sneakers, he might be mistaken for hired help or an overripe guest when actually he’s a reluctant heir to the Storz Brewing Co. fortune.
The 77-year-old eccentric is Art Storz. He lives austerely in the brawny, brick Farnam Street mansion that his beer baron grandfather, Gottlieb, had built in 1907. While the sole occupant of the imposing, gabled, gargoyle-adorned home on Omaha’s fabled Gold Coast, he’s never quite alone there. Not with a well of precious memories to tap. Memories of a golden bygone era that, for him, is never far away or forgotten.
Anyone familiar with his oft-troubled past must find it ironic that this one-time “heller” ended up master of the mansion after committing some highly publicized indiscretions. The most infamous episode came in 1943 when, as a U.S. Army Air Forces pilot, he guided his four-engine Flying Fortress dangerously low over a wide swath of Omaha for the thrill of “buzzing” his hometown.
During the brazen stunt, which he describes today with both sheepish regret and cockeyed pride, he used St. Cecilia Cathedral’s spires as pylons to angle the massive B-17 bomber right past the Blackstone Hotel and over the mansion. Then he repeated the maneuver. The sight and roar of a low flying bomber caused a minor panic, including a stampede of pedestrians and rash of auto pile-ups.
“Thank God nobody got hurt,” he said in a recent interview at the opulent mansion. “If I would of ever hit anything, I’d of wiped out things for blocks. I could have killed a lot of people. I think I was a good enough pilot that I didn’t have to worry about that, but it’s easy to say that now.”
Amazingly, after causing all that commotion mid-town he headed west to “buzz” the homes of an uncle and aunt. “My uncle was shaving with a straight-edge razor when I went through his backyard. He damn near became Robert “Van Gogh” Storz because he nearly clipped off his ear,” the nephew recalls impishly, adding that his aunt, who liked imbibing, was so shaken that she “was fishin’ bottles out of the chandeliers.”
The stunt got him in hot water with civilian and military officials and he was ultimately given a general court-martial. He remained in the service, but never went overseas and never rose beyond the rank of captain during a 29-year Air Force reserve career. His punishment might have been more severe if not for his late father, Arthur C. Storz, a former flier and well-connected aviation supporter.
It was a scandal the family found hard living down. There were to be others, including a divorce. Always, Storz most acutely felt the disapproval of his father, a stern family brewing chief and taskmaster. “My dad used to like to put me down because I was kind of the Peck’s Bad Boy of the family,” he said. “But I deserved to be put down. I was an embarrassment to the family – and he didn’t like it. And he didn’t let me forget it. He really was a good guy, but boy, was he tough. He’d really take it out on you if you got out of line. He had a stringent yardstick.”
Storz also lived in the shadow of his younger brother, Robert Hart Storz, an Abel to his Cain and the apple of their father’s eye. Art suffered by comparison. Where he was a self-described “rebel,” Bob was a model citizen. Where he disgraced his uniform, Bob was a decorated hero. Where he was barely tolerated at the brewery, Bob was made a top executive.
Controversy followed Art in later years too, most notably in the battle he waged in the 1980s to hold onto the mansion in the wake of foreclosure proceedings. Despite his black sheep image, he has a genuine personal stake in the Storz success story. He was, after all, the brewery’s advertising director during some of its fattest years – designing multi-media campaigns that won numerous awards, even if his father discounted them.
Inside the 27-room home today, he’s surrounded by mementos that recall an era when his family’s empire still reigned – before national brewers’ predatory pricing strategies forced the sale of the company in 1966. “It was like cutting my heart out when Storz Brewing Co. was sold,” he said, “because I’d always hoped my brother and I would get a chance to run it. I loved the brewing business.”
For three-quarters of a century Storz beer dominated the Nebraska market, flowing from taps like pure gold. At peak capacity, the firm’s north
Omaha plant employed hundreds of workers, ferrying its own fleet of refrigerated box cars and trucks. The Storz name carried enough clout to open doors and get things done.
Storz likes nothing better than immersing himself in such sweet remembrances of things past. Of rich old times at the mansion – when the family entertained on a grand scale with lavish parties, fancy balls and sumptuous feasts. When prominent industrialists, politicians, military officials and screen idols were feted there and well-trained servants manned each of its three floors. When it wasn’t just a home, but a showplace. If its walls could only talk, oh, the stories they might tell. Of back room business deals and garden romances. Of juicy gossip and heated debate. Of late nights filled with music, laughter and lively conversation.
Fortunately, Storz is around to serve as storyteller and guide, even if it comes hard for someone so shy. He’s never been comfortable being the son of industrial titans and society mavens.
“I was terribly intimidated by it all. My family left some big footprints and I’ve always been very insecure because I’ve known I was never going to walk in any of their footsteps. I just wasn’t cut out to be what they were.”
To avoid meeting people he’d make himself scarce at social functions. “It was so painful for me that I would take a powder. My brother and sister were just the opposite. They were polished and self-assured. I never had that. I just always felt very inadequate. And I still deal with that to this day.”
Yet for all his insecurity, he loves showing off the home. It’s held special meaning for him as long as he can remember. After his grandparents’ deaths, he moved there with his siblings and parents in 1939. He’s lived there continuously since the mid-’50s. His father died at home in 1978, and his mother, Margaret, lived there until shortly before her death in 1981. He helped care for his parents in their final years. Near the end, his father finally uttered the words he’d always craved: “He said, ‘Art, I love you,’ and he kissed me on the side of the face. I always knew he loved me, I’d just never heard him say it,” he emotionally recalls.
A promise he made to himself in 1981– to stay in the home and care for it – still drives him today. His fondness for it runs so deep that he’s risked everything to save it. He nearly lost it several times in the face of legal challenges and financial crises. His fight to retain the home even pitted him against family members. What made him persevere and pay such a steep personal price?
“It’s been a love affair,” he said. “It really is a deep feeling of love for the place and for the history of the Storz family. I doubt if any home in Omaha can even come close to it as far as its history and as far as the significant people that have been in and out of here. There’s too much history here for me to walk away…I’d go to hell for this house today. I would give up anything for it – anything. I’d even give up my life.”
Some say it is his life. When people arrive for tours, his dour demeanor visibly changes. His eyes brighten, voice lightens, posture straightens and step quickens as he swells with pride at the prospect of telling the Storz saga again. And what a saga it is. A dynasty marked by entrepreneurial spirit, philanthropic generosity, civic boosterism, visionary deeds and fabulous bashes.
Gilded memories are among the few luxuries Storz has allowed himself since renouncing his inheritance during a 1981estate dispute with his siblings. Aside from straining his relationship with his brother and sister, he said, “That wasn’t hard, because money’s never been important to me. What hurt really bad was when my kids got control of the money and tried selling me down the river.” He alludes to when his two adult children, from whom he’s now estranged, tried ousting him from the home.
Since the early ‘80s he’s subsisted almost entirely on his monthly Social Security check, a small pension and the largess of friends. He has no car and can often be found pounding the pavement many blocks from home. Except for a part-time helper, he maintains the extensive, well-manicured grounds himself. While recent hernia surgery has slowed him, his passion for the home and its vibrant history remains unabated.
Only with the help of friends has he nourished his dream for the mansion. A dream for this Omaha landmark and National Register of Historic Places designee to be preserved as a museum and lasting monument to the Storz legacy.
He has indeed made the home a kind of shrine to his family’s storied past. Throughout are displayed photos, paintings, letters, awards and assorted other memorabilia that document far-ranging activities and accomplishments.
He’s turned a basement room into “The Eagle’s Nest.” There, framed photos and newspaper clippings salute his father’s prominent role in aviation, which had its beginnings in World War I flying alongside ace Eddie Rickenbacker. Over the years, the elder Storz kept in touch with the flying fraternity and keenly followed aviation advances. As WWII dawned, he counted among his close friends such Air Force luminaries as Gen. James “Jimmy” Doolittle, Gen. Curtis LeMay and Brig. Gen. James Stewart, the late beloved actor. During the Cold War, he played a key role in selling top military brass on the idea of locating the Strategic Air Command here and he spearheaded the development of Eppley Airfield. He was awarded the military’s highest civilian honors.
Another passion of Papa Storz’s was the great outdoors, and his son has converted a basement room into a mini-“Ducklore Lodge” – the family’s beloved hunting resort near Lisco, Neb. – whose walls practically sag from the weight of so many trophy fish and fowl the old man hooked and bagged. Family brewing patriarch Gottlieb Storz built the home and two equally impressive family palaces nearby as conspicuous symbols of Storz success. Edifices to the American Dream made good. While all three homes survive, only the Farnam mansion remains in the family. Nothing was spared in its design or construction, which took three years. Much of it appears as it did in its heyday. A glaring exception is the interior’s painted-over walls and ceilings, which obscure their original quarter-sawn oak finish. Storz one day hopes to have the paint stripped and the wood restored, but that project – like others on hold – awaits needed funding.
The mansion’s Old World craftsmanship survives in leaded-glass doors, stained-glass windows, Tiffany lamps, ornately carved woodwork, mosaic tile fireplaces, exquisite murals and countless other fine details. The pale brick facade includes limestone panel carvings depicting the stuff of the brewmaster’s art – barley, hops, corn.
The third-floor ballroom, where the legendary Fred and Adele Astaire began dancing, is off-limits while awaiting renovation. The main-floor solarium is a sublime replica of the sun room aboard the famed Bremen oceanliner his grandparents sailed on. The study, music room, parlor and dining room are arranged and decorated in period detail.
Storz can offer insights about every room, antique and feature and recall anecdotes of stars (Wallace Beery, Robert Taylor, Arthur Godfrey) and dignitaries (Doolittle, LeMay) who dined there.
Those close to him agree his near obsession with the home is a Prodigal Son’s symbolic attempt to win his father’s approval. Storz himself said hopefully: “I think my father would probably say, ‘Art, you did a helluva job.’ I think he really would be proud of me.”
The demands of maintaining an elaborate old home have strained his own meager finances and those of the Storz Preservation Foundation he created in 1982. Things have gotten so tight at times that the utilities have been shut off. “I was in some terrible messes,” he recalls. “I was totally broke once, and I was petrified.” When he first took on the project, friends and family members considered it Art’s latest folly. “I felt that way, yes,” said his brother. “I felt it was too much. There was too much involved to preserve it.”
Art said he was tempted to sell the home – “to take the money and run” – rather than keep it. “The reason I wanted to run is because I was afraid I would embarrass the family name. I really couldn’t visualize managing this operation. It’s a helluva big job. I knew it was going to cost a lot of money. And I thought, ‘Where the hell is it going to come from?’”
But he stubbornly stayed on. “I never did run because the love’s too great,” he said. He takes satisfaction in the fact he eventually kept the mansion despite the many hurdles, long odds and nagging doubts. “I gave it everything I had – my heart and soul – because I love the place. I think I’ve really been tested. There were times when it felt like I’d been in the ring with Muhammad Ali. I hung in even when I was whipped.”His brother, with whom he’s grown close again, has come to respect his devotion: “I give him credit. I don’t know how he did it. I have admiration for him. He loves that house. It’s a love affair – it really is.”
Others still marvel he pulled it off: “I was afraid he was going to lose the whole shootin’ match and end up on his rear out in the cold,” said Omahan Dick Deaver, a fellow flier and lifelong friend. “I give him credit for seeing it through.”
The constant struggle did take its toll. As Art explains, “The pressure was just tremendous. That kind of stress had a disastrous effect on me. I got really depressed. I was just browbeat so bad that I didn’t even want to be around anybody. I let the place go. And I hate to even admit this, but I got suicidal.” He purchased a gun for the deed. “I was really going to knock myself off, but I never could pull the trigger,” he said. Storz, who still suffers from depression, adds, “I’d rather take a good whippin’ physically then take one that emotionally tears you into little pieces.” In the end, he couldn’t bear disgracing his family that way. Besides, he still had his mission – the home.
Retired Omaha World-Herald reporter Howard Silber, who’s known Storz for years, said, “I don’t think he’d be alive today if it weren’t for that mission and that zeal. He lives for that.”
Storz survived his darkest days with the aid of friends. “When I look back and think about the people who helped me, I just thank God I had friends like that. I’ll never forget what they did for me. And don’t think it wasn’t hard for me to accept. I feel a great debt.”
His lowest point came in 1988 when, due to delinquent property tax payments totaling more than $73,000, the home was auctioned off at a forced sheriff’s sale. It was purchased by a bidder who planned turning it into a restaurant. A judge gave Storz two years to redeem the taxes and allowed him to remain in the home. When an effort to raise the needed money failed, things looked bleak. With the deadline only weeks off, a father-son tandem of Las Vegas gambling magnates came to the rescue. The father, Jackie Gaughan, was a classmate of Storz’s at Creighton University, and when he heard his old chum was in trouble he enlisted his son Michael’s support. Once the taxes were paid and the home reclaimed, Michael Gaughan became its legal owner and Storz its chief trustee. A trust fund helps defray the property’s operating costs and taxes.
“If the Gaughans hadn’t bailed me out, I would have gone down,” said Storz. “They were my biggest benefactors.” He’s also grateful to the local media for its sympathetic coverage of his plight. “The media made me sort of like David and the people trying to knock me out like Goliath,” he said. That depiction suits him fine. “I’m a staunch competitor. I would never quit.”
Even with the home’s immediate future secured, he frets what will happen after he dies. “I’ve got 16 years here of fighting for my life and I don’t want to lose it now. Everything I’ve done has come from my heart. When I’m gone I hope somebody says, ‘Well, he’s carried it far enough – it should be kept intact.’”