As the last College World Series is played at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha these last two weeks of June, the special relationship that that event and venue share, including all the CWS history that’s been made there, is getting plenty of attention via press reports, fan blogs and forums, books, and films. I wrote my own opus about Rosenblatt 11 years ago, and I am posting it now to join all the tributes and memorials pouring in for that most Americana of sports championships and settings.
Much has changed since I wrote the piece and it was published in The Reader (www.thereadercom), like the decision to retire the city owned facility after this season and to replace it next season with a new downtown stadium. Rosenblatt will be razed and the property developed by the adjacent Henry Doorly Zoo. But a mini replica park will be included in the design as a way to memorialize the stadium and its 60 years of hosting the College World Series, an enduring marriage of event and venue unlike any other for a major championship.
If nothing else, my dusted off story, which I call A Rosenblatt Tribute, may give you an added perspective on this slice of baseball culture and history.
UPDATE: The summer of 2011 finds Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Neb. now an empty shell and ghost of a ballpark, its parts being cannibalized and sold off, while the new home of the College World Series, TD Ameritrade Park, is a resounding hit with fans and media.
Eleven years ago or so I wrote this story about Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, the home of the College World Series. As I write this intro, the CWS is a day away from starting play in 2010, the last year the event will be played at the stadium that’s hosted NCCA Division I men’s baseball championship for 60 years. Rosenblatt is being razed in early 2011, when the series will move into a new downtown stadium now under construction. Rosenblatt has become the symbol for the series because of all the history bound up in it and the special relationship residents and fans have with it and with the blue collar neighborhood surrounding it. My story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader,com).
A Rosenblatt Tribute
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
It’s baseball season again, and The Boys of Summer are haunting diamonds across the land to play this quintessentially American game. One rooted in the past, yet forever new. As a fan put it recently, “With baseball, it’s the same thing all over again, but it isn’t. Do you know what I mean?”
Yes. There’s a timelessness about baseball’s unhurried rhythm, classic symmetry and simple charm. The game is steeped in rules and rituals almost unchanged since the turn of the century. It’s an expression of the American character: both immutable and enigmatic.
Within baseball’s rigid standards, idiosyncrasy blooms. A contest is decided when 27 outs are recorded, but getting there can involve limitless innings, hours, plays. Stadiums may appear uniform, but each has its own personality — with distinctive wind patterns, sight lines, nooks and crannies.
Look in any American town and you’ll find a ballpark with deep ties to the sport and its barnstorming, sandlot origins. A shrine, if you will, for serious fans who savor old-time values and traditions. The real thing. Such a place is as near as Omaha’s Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium, the site the past 49 years of the annual College World Series.
The city and the stadium have become synonymous with the NCAA Division I national collegiate baseball championship. No other single location has hosted a major NCAA tournament for so long. More than 4 million fans have attended the event in Omaha since 1950.
The 1998 CWS is scheduled May 29-June 6.
In what has been a troubled era for organized ball, Rosenblatt reaffirms what is good about the game. There, far away from the distraction of major league free-agency squabbles, the threat of player/umpire strikes, and the posturing of superstars, baseball, in its purest form, takes center stage. Hungry players still hustle and display enthusiasm without making a show of it. Sportsmanship still abounds. Booing is almost never heard during the CWS. Fights are practically taboo.
The action unwinds with leisurely grace. The “friendly confines” offer the down-home appeal of a state fair. Where else but Omaha can the PA announcer ask fans to, “scooch-in a hair more,” and be obliged?
Undoubtedly, the series has been the stadium’s anchor and catalyst. In recent years, thanks in part to ESPN-CBS television coverage, the CWS has become a hugely popular event, regularly setting single game and series attendance records. The undeniable appeal, besides the determination of the players, is the chance to glimpse the game’s upcoming stars. Fans at Rosenblatt have seen scores of future big league greats perform in the tourney, including Mike Schmidt, Dave Winfield, Fred Lynn, Paul Molitor, Jimmy Key, Roger Clemens, Will Clark, Rafael Palmeiro, Albert Belle, Barry Bonds and Barry Larkin.
The stadium on the hill turns 50 this year. As large as the CWS looms in its history, it is just one part of an impressive baseball lineage. For example, Rosenblatt co-hosted the Japan-USA Collegiate Baseball Championship Series in the ‘70s and ‘80s, an event that fostered goodwill by matching all-star collegians from each country.
Countless high school and college games have been contested between its lines and still are on occasion.
Pro baseball has played a key role in the stadium’s history as well.
Negro League clubs passed through in the early years. The legendary Satchel Paige pitched there for the Kansas City Monarchs. Major league teams played exhibitions at Rosenblatt in the ‘50s and ‘60s. St. Louis Cardinal Hall of Famer Stan Musial “killed one” during an exhibition contest.
For all but eight of its 50 years Rosenblatt has hosted a minor league franchise. The Cardinals and Dodgers once based farm clubs there. Native son Hall of Famer Bob Gibson got his start with the Omaha Cardinals in ‘57. Since ‘69 Rosenblatt’s been home to the Class AAA Omaha Royals, the top farm team of the parent Kansas City Royals. More than 7 million fans have attended Omaha Royals home games. George Brett, Frank White and Willie Wilson apprenticed at the ballpark.
With its rich baseball heritage, Rosenblatt has the imprint of nostalgia all over it. Anyone who’s seen a game there has a favorite memory. The CWS has provided many. For Steve Rosenblatt, whose late father, Johnny, led the drive to construct the stadium that now bears his name, the early years hold special meaning. “The first two years of the series another boy and I had the privilege of being the bat boys. We did all the games. That was a great thrill because it was the beginning of the series, and to see how it’s grown today is incredible. They draw more people today in one session than they drew for the entire series in its first year or two.”
For Jack Payne, the series’ PA announcer since ‘64, “the dominant event took place just a couple years ago when Warren Morris’ two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth won the championship for LSU in ‘96. He hit a slider over the right field wall into the bleachers. That was dramatic. Paul Carey of Stanford unloaded a grand slam into the same bleacher area back in ‘87 to spark Stanford’s run to the title.”
Payne, a veteran sports broadcaster who began covering the Rosenblatt beat in ‘51, added, “There’s been some great coaching duels out there. Dick Siebert at Minnesota and Rod Dedeaux at USC had a great rivalry. They played chess games out there. As far as players, Dave Winfield was probably the greatest athlete I ever saw in the series. He pitched. He played outfield. He did it all.”
Terry Forsberg, the former Omaha city events manager under whose watch Rosenblatt was revamped, said, “Part of the appeal of the series is to see a young Dave Winfield or Roger Clemens. Players like that just stick out, and you know they’re going to go somewhere.” For Forsberg, the Creighton Bluejays’ Cinderella-run in the ‘91 CWS stands out. “That was a real thrill, particularly when they won a couple games. You couldn’t ask for anything more.”
The Creighton-Wichita State game that series, a breathtaking but ultimately heartbreaking 3-2 loss in 12 innings, is considered an all-time classic. Creighton’s CWS appearance, the first and only by an in-state school, ignited the Omaha crowd. Scott Sorenson, a right-handed pitcher on that Bluejay club, will never forget the electric atmosphere. “It was absolutely amazing to be on a hometown team in an event like that and to have an entire city pulling for you,” he said. “I played in a lot of ballparks across the nation, but I never saw anything like I did at Rosenblatt Stadium. I still get that tingling feeling whenever I’m back there.”
A game that’s always mentioned is the ‘73 USC comeback over Minnesota. The Gophers’ Winfield was overpowering on the mound that night, striking out 15 and hurling a shutout into the ninth with his team ahead 7-0. But a spent Winfield was chased from the mound and the Trojans completed a storybook eight-run last inning rally to win 8-7.
Poignant moments abound as well. Like the ‘64 ceremony renaming the former Municipal Stadium for Johnny Rosenblatt in recognition of his efforts to get the stadium built and bring the CWS to Omaha. A popular ex-mayor, Rosenblatt was forced to resign from office after developing Parkinson’s disease and already suffered from its effects at the rededication. He died in ‘79. Another emotional moment came in ‘94 when cancer-ridden Arizona State coach Jim Brock died only 10 days after making his final CWS appearance. “That got to me,” Payne said.
Like many others, Payne feels the stadium and the tourney are made for each other, “It’s always been a tremendous place to have a tournament like this, and fortunately there was room to grow. I don’t think you could have picked a finer facility at a better location, centrally located like it is, than Rosenblatt. It’s up high. The field’s big. The stadium’s spacious. It’s just gorgeous. And the people have just kept coming.”
Due to its storied link with the CWS, the stadium’s become the unofficial home of collegiate baseball. So much so that CWS boosters like Steve Rosenblatt and legendary ex-USC coach Rod Dedeaux, would like to see a college baseball/CWS Hall of Fame established there.
Baseball is, in fact, why the stadium was built. The lack of a suitable ballpark sparked the formation of a citizens committee in ‘44 that pushed for the stadium’s construction. The committee was a latter-day version of the recently disbanded Sokol Commission that led the drive for a new convention center-arena.
With a goal of putting the issue to a citywide vote, committee members campaigned hard for the stadium at public meetings and in smoke-filled back rooms. Backers got their wish when, in ‘45, voters approved by a 3 to 1 margin a $480,000 bond issue to finance the project.
Unlike the controversy surrounding the site for a convention center-arena today, the 40-acre tract chosen for the stadium was widely endorsed. The weed-strewn hill overlooking Riverview Park (the Henry Doorly Zoo today) was located in a relatively undeveloped area and lay unused itself except as prime rabbit hunting territory. Streetcars ran nearby, just as trolleys may in the near future. The site was also dirt cheap. The property had been purchased by the city a few years earlier for $17 at a tax foreclosure sale. Back taxes on the land were soon retired.
Dogged by high bids, rising costs and material delays, the stadium was finished in ‘48 only after design features were scaled back and a second bond issue passed. The final cost exceeded $1 million.
Baseball launched the stadium at its October 17, 1948 inaugural when a group of all-stars, featuring native Nebraskan big leaguers, beat a local Storz Brewery team 11-3 before a packed house of 10,000 fans.
Baseball has continued to be the main drawing card. The growth of the CWS prompted the stadium’s renovation and expansion, which began in earnest in the early ‘90s and is ongoing today.
Rosenblatt is at once a throwback to a bygone era — with its steel-girdered grandstand and concrete concourse — and a testament to New Age theme park design with its Royal Blue molded facade, interlaced metal truss, fancy press box and luxury View Club. The theme park analogy is accentuated by its close proximity to the popular Henry Doorly Zoo.
Some have suggested the new bigness and brashness have stolen the simple charm from the place.
“Maybe some of that charm’s gone now,” Forsberg said, “but we had to accommodate more people as the CWS got popular. But we still play on real grass under the stars. The setting is still absolutely beautiful. You can still look out over the fences and see green trees and see what mid-America is all about.”
Payne agrees. “I don’t think it’s taken away from any of the atmosphere or ambience,” he said. “If anything, I think it’s perpetuated it. The Grand Old Lady, as I call it, has weathered many a historical moment. She’s withstood the battle of time. And then in the ‘90s she got a facelift, so she’s paid her dues in 50 years. Very much so.”
Perched atop a hill overlooking the Missouri River and the tree-lined zoo, Rosenblatt hearkens back to baseball’s and, by extension, America’s idealized past. It reminds us of our own youthful romps in wide open spaces. Even with the stadium expansion, anywhere you sit gives you the sense you can reach out and touch its field of dreams.
NCAA officials, who’ve practically drawn the blueprint for the new look Rosenblatt, know they have a gem here.
“I think part of the reason why the College World Series will, in 1999, celebrate its 50th year in Omaha is because of the stadium we play in, and the fact that it is a state-of-the-art facility,” said Jim Wright, NCAA director of statistics and media coordinator for the CWS the past 20 years.
Wright believes there is a casual quality that distinguishes the event.
“Almost without exception writers coming to this event really do become taken with the city, with the stadium and with the laidback way this championship unfolds,” he said. “It has a little bit different feel to it, and certainly part of that is because we’re in Omaha, which has a lot of the big city advantages without having too many of the disadvantages.”
For Dedeaux, who led his Trojans to 10 national titles and still travels each year from his home in Southern California to attend the series, the marriage of the stadium-city-event makes for a one-of-a-kind experience.
“I love the feeling of it. The intimacy. Whenever I’m there I think of all the ball games, but also the fans and the people associated with the tournament, and the real hospitable feeling they’ve always had. I think it’s touched the lives of a lot of people,” he said.
Fans have their own take on what makes baseball and Rosenblatt such a good fit. Among the tribes of fans who throw tailgate parties in the stadium’s south lot is Harold Webster, an executive with an Omaha temporary employment firm. While he concedes the renovation is “nice,” he notes, “The city didn’t have to make any improvements for me. I was here when it wasn’t so nice. I just love being at the ballpark. I’m here for the game.” Not the frills, he might have added.
For Webster and fans like him, baseball’s a perennial rite of summer.
“To me, it’s the greatest thing in the world. I don’t buy season tickets to anything else — just baseball.”
Mark Eveloff, an associate judge in Council Bluffs, comes with his family. He said, “We always have fun because we sit in a large group of people we all know. You get to see a lot of your friends at the game and you get to see some good baseball. I’ve been coming to games here since I was a kid in the late ‘50s, when the Omaha Cardinals played. And from then to now, it’s come a long way. Every year, it looks better.”
Ginny Tworek is another fan for life. “I’ve been coming out here since I was eight-years old,” the Baby Boomer said. “My dad used to drop me and my two older brothers off at the ballpark. I just fell in love with the game. It’s a relaxing atmosphere.”
There is a Zen quality to baseball. With its sweet meandering pace you sometimes swear things are moving in slow motion. It provides an antidote to the hectic pace outside.
Baseball isn’t the whole story at Rosenblatt. Through the ‘70s it hosted high school (as Creighton Prep’s home field), collegiate (UNO) and pro football (Omaha Mustang and NFL exhibition) games as well as pro wrestling cards, boxing matches and soccer contests. Concerts filled the bill too, including major shows by the Beach Boys in ‘64 and ‘79. But that’s not all. It accomodated everything from the Ringling Brothers Circus to tractor pulls to political rallies to revival meetings. More recently, Fourth of July fireworks displays have been staged there.
Except for the annual fireworks show, however, the city now reserves the park for none but its one true calling, baseball, as a means of protecting its multimillion dollar investment.
“We made a commitment to the Omaha Royals and to the College World Series and the NCAA that the stadium would be maintained at a major league level. The new field is fairly sensitive. We don’t want to hurt the integrity of the field, so we made the decision to just play baseball there,” Omaha public events manager Larry Lahaie said.
A new $700,000 field was installed in 1991-92, complete with drainage and irrigation systems. Maintaining the field requires a groundskeeping crew whose size rivals that of some major league clubs.
Omaha’s desire to keep the CWS has made the stadium a priority.
As the series began drawing consistently large crowds in the ‘80s, the stadium experienced severe growing pains. Parking was at a premium. Traffic snarls drew loud complaints. To cope with overflow crowds, the city placed fans on the field’s cinder warning track. The growing media corps suffered inside a hot, cramped, outdated press box. With the arrival of national TV coverage in the ‘80s, the NCAA began fielding bids from other cities wanting to host the CWS.
By the late ‘80s Omaha faced a decision — improve Rosenblatt or lose the CWS. There was also the question of whether the city would retain the Royals. In ‘90 the club’s then owner, the late Chicago business magnate Irving “Gus” Cherry, was shopping the franchise around. There was no guarantee a buyer would be found locally, or, if one was, whether the franchise would stay. To the rescue came an unlikely troika of Union Pacific Railroad, billionaire investor Warren Buffett and Peter Kiewit Son’s, Inc. chairman Walter Scott, Jr., who together purchased the Royals in 1991.
Urged on by local CWS organizers, such as Jack Diesing Sr. and Jr., and emboldened by the Royals’ new ownership, the city anteed-up and started pouring money into Rosenblatt to rehab it according to NCAA specifications. The city has financed the improvements through private donations and from revenue derived from a $2 hotel-motel occupancy tax enacted in ‘91.
The makeover has transformed what was a quaint but antiquated facility into a modern baseball palace. By the time the latest work (to the player clubhouses, public restrooms and south pavilion) is completed next year, more than $20 million will have been spent on improvements.
The stadium itself is now an attraction. The retro exterior is highlighted by an Erector Set-style center truss whose interlocking, cantilevered steel beams, girders and columns jig-jag five-stories high. Then there’s the huge mock baseball mounted on one wall, the decorative blue-white skirt around the facade, the slick script lettering welcoming you there and the fancy View Club perched atop the right-field stands. The coup de grace is the spacious thatched-roof press box spanning the truss.
Rosenblatt today is a chic symbol of stability and progress in the blue collar south Omaha neighborhood it occupies. It is also a hub of activity that energizes the area. On game days lawn picnics proceed outside homes along 13th Street and tailgate parties unwind in the RV and minivan-choked lots. The aroma of grilled sausage, bratwurst and roasted peanuts fills the air. A line invariably forms at the nearby Zesto’s, an eatery famous for its quick comfort food.
There’s a carnival atmosphere inside the stadium. The scoreboard above the left-field stands is like a giant arcade game with its flashing lights, blaring horns, dizzying video displays and fireworks. Music cascades over the crowd — from prerecorded cuts of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and the Village People’s “YMCA” to organist Lambert Bartak’s live renditions of “Sioux City Sue” and “Spanish Eyes.” Casey the Mascot dances atop the dugouts. Vendors hawk an assortment of food, drink and souvenirs. Freshly-scrubbed ushers guide you to your seat.
The addition that’s most altered the stadium is the sleek, shiny, glass-enclosed View Club. It boasts a bar, a restaurant, a south deck, a baseball memorabilia collection, cozy chairs and, naturally, a great catbird’s seat for watching the game from any of its three tiered-seating levels. But you won’t catch serious fans there very long. The hermetically-sealed, sound-proof interior sucks the life right out of the game, leaving you a remote voyeur. Removed from the din of the crowd, the ballyhoo of the scoreboard, the enticing scent of fresh air and the sound of a ball connecting with leather, wood or aluminum, you’re cut-off from the visceral current running through the grandstand. You miss its goosebump thrills.
“That’s the bad thing about it,” Tworek said. “You can’t hear the crack of the bat. You don’t pay as close attention to the game there.”
Even with all the bells and whistles, baseball still remains the main attraction. The refurbished Rosenblatt has seen CWS crowds go through the roof, reaching an all-time single series high of 203,000 last year. The Royals, bolstered by more aggressive marketing, have drawn 400,000-plus fans every year but one since ‘92. Fans have come regardless of the won-loss record. The top single-season attendance of 447,079 came in ‘94, when the club finished eight games under .500 and in 6th place.
Why? Fans come for the game’s inherent elegance, grace and drama. To see a well-turned double play, a masterful pitching performance or a majestic home run. For the chance of snaring a foul ball. For the traditional playing of the national anthem and throwing out of the first pitch. For singing along to you-know-what during the seventh inning stretch.
They come too for the kick-back conviviality of the park, where getting a tan, watching the sun set or making new friends is part of the bargain. There is a communal spirit to the game and its parks. Larry Hook, a retired firefighter, counts Tworek among his “baseball family,” a group of fans he and his grandson Nick have gotten acquainted with at the Blatt. “It’s become a regular meeting place for us guys and gals,” he said. “We talk a little baseball and watch a little baseball.
Once the game’s over everybody goes their separate ways and we say, ‘See ya next home stand.’
The season’s end brings withdrawal pains. “About the first couple months, I’m lost,” Hook said. “There’s nothing to look forward to.” Except the start of next season.
As dusk fell at Rosenblatt one recent night, Charles and Stephanie Martinez, a father and daughter from Omaha, shared their baseball credo with a visitor to their sanctuary above the third-base dugout. “I can never remember not loving baseball,” said Charles, a retired cop. “I enjoy the competition, the players and the company of the people I’m surrounded by.”
Serious fans like these stay until the final out. “Because anything can happen,” Stephanie said. “I like it l because it’s just so relaxed sitting out on a summer day. There’s such an ease to it. Part of it’s also the friends you make at the ballpark. It doesn’t matter where you go — if you sit down with another baseball fan, you can be friends in an instant.”
That familiar welcoming feeling may be baseball’s essential appeal. Coming to the ballpark, any ballpark, is like a homecoming. Its sense of reunion and renewal, palpable. Rosenblatt only accentuates that feeling. Like a family inheritance, baseball is passed from one generation to the next. It gets in your blood. So, take me out to the ball game, take me out to the crowd…
I couldn’t resist posting another boxing story. This one is about an interesting venue that is one part hardcore gym for amateurs and professionals and one part community resource center for at-risk youth. The CW fills a lot of missions and many of those missions coalesce around boxing. Like any gym worth its weight in sweat, the CW is full of characters straight out of a Ring Lardner story. It’s those personalities, combined with the harsh discipline and many rituals of the ring, that I try to capture in this story, a shorter version of which appeared in the Omaha Weekly. This won’t be the last boxing story I post either.
Brotherhood of the Ring, Omaha’s CW Boxing Club
©by Leo Adam Biga
A version of this story was originally published in the Omaha Weekly
It owns a rep as perhaps the toughest, most competitive boxing gym in town. Its junior and amateur fighters shine at local tournaments. It is the training ground for many of the area’s top prizefighters. It routinely matches young pugs with grizzled veterans in an effort to raise the level of beginners. Its members are primarily African-American, but include whites, Hispanics and Asians too.
It is a sanctuary for some and a springboard for others. It is a place filled with colorful ringside characters straight out of a Damon Runyon yarn. It is the C.W. Boxing Club at 1510 Cass Street, and its take-no-prisoners approach and chip-on-the-shoulder attitude makes it the envy and the outcast of the fractious Omaha boxing community.
Rivalries are strong on the Omaha boxing scene. Every gym has its own stable of fighters, its own turf and its own image to maintain and sometimes when conflicts erupt stupid things are said. When a fighter leaves one gym for another, he may be called disloyal or the other gym may be accused of stealing him away.
In the case of the C.W., there is a perception that it caters only to blacks, which even a quick survey of its training roster soon dispels. Disparaging things are also said about the character of the fighters who train there, but in reality it is far from the wild-and-woolly den of thugs that some rival boxing coaches portray it as. Instead, the C.W., which gets its name from founder and director Carl Washington, features a no-nonsense, professional environment where serious fighters work intensely under the watchful eyes of experienced trainers Midge Minor, Larry Littlejohn and Chucky Brizendine.
The gym itself is only one part of what Washington, who coached the club’s talented first crop of fighters to national prominence in the late 1970s and early 1980s, calls the C.W. Youth Resource Center. The center offers near north side youth a venue for making music, working out, hanging out and performing community service projects. According to Washington, the gym’s fighters often get booed or jeered at local competitions because of racism and because the C.W.’s history of success breeds jealousy. He said his club has nearly boycotted area Golden Gloves events due to the ill treatment he believes his fighters receive.
Every gym has its own vibe, and the insistent tone of the C.W. is set-off by the throbbing bass rhythms and the grating harsh lyrics of rap music blaring from a boom box that plays incessantly in the background. Unlike the foul language of the music, however, there is little profanity heard in the gym, whose walls are plastered not only with the usual boxing posters but emblazoned with a detailed list of rules (which include no spitting on the well-scuffed hardwood floor and no horse playing) and printed mantras that express the philosophy of the place: Lead with Speed, Follow with Power; Only the Strong Survive; and If You Want to Box, Train — If You Want to Win, Train Harder. It is a place where if you can hold your own, you earn respect, but that respect is always tinged with the tension of proving you belong or, if really brazen, proving you’re the top dog.
The gym is a study in contrasts. Take the way that Minor, a four-time Midwest Golden Gloves champion who got his training start at the noted Olympic Gym in Los Angeles, deals with fighters. He is a taskmaster when one of his guys needs pushing and a buddy when one of them needs a pat on the back.
As 13-year-old junior fighter Rosendo Robles prepares to enter the ring one night for some sparring, Minor fastens the headgear and laces the gloves of this angelic, wide-eyed youth with the attentive tenderness of a father helping his son. “Am I going three rounds?” the boy eagerly asks Minor. “If you’ve got three rounds in you,” his smiling coach replies, rubbing the boy’s shoulders. “I’m going to try and get comfortable with my jab first, and then when I get comfortable, I’m going to work on throwing combinations,” the lad tells Minor, his big eyes looking for approval. “That’s right. Your jab sets everything up. It sets up combinations,” Minor tells him in a way that confers the approval Robles seeks. “But I don’t want to see you in there jumping around wasting energy like a little Easter bunny.” Robles grins at his coach’s funny remonstration.
Meanwhile, as this gentle interlude plays out, a rapper performing on a CD explicitly describes various sex acts. The contradiction does not seem to faze anyone, not even born-again Christian Servando Perales, a professional fighter who found religion during a stint in federal prison. To take the contrast even further Minor has the little boy, Robles, spar with the grown man, Perales, in an attempt “to elevate” the kid’s abilities.
Throwing his youngest fighters in with the wolves is one of many ways in which the C.W. veers from business-as-usual in its training methods. Washington, who began the gym’s tradition of working young fighters with their more experienced counterparts, said, “The reason boxers from Nebraska usually come home after the first round of a national tournament is they don’t have the experience of fighting the skilled fighters you find on the east and west coasts. Guys have to know how to slip punches. You have to work around guys at a certain level or you’ll always be coming home early.” Minor follows the Washington formula with the C.W. crew: “I work all my guys. That’s how they learn,” he said. “Every once in a while I have to elevate them to see where they’re at. I work my fighters a little different than they (other gyms) do. I don’t breed nothing but winners.”
In Robles, Minor sees a kid with “a lot of promise. He wants to learn, That’s what I like about him.” The youth is following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, both of whom boxed in their native Mexico. “My grandpa wants me to carry on with the tradition,” Robles said.
He has dreams of his own, too. “As soon as I can, I want to go to the Olympic Games, and if I do good there I’m thinking of a professional career when I get older.” As for training with adults, he appreciates the tricks of the trade he picks up from such savvy fighters. “I feel comfortable training with them because I learn from them in the ring. I like to learn new techniques. Sparring with these older guys is getting me prepared for bigger guys. Like with Servando (Perales), he puts pressure on me and I work on getting him off me. When I get done sparring I ask, ‘What’d you see wrong in me?’ and they tell me.” He also likes the attention his coach gives him. “I really like Midge. He shows interest in me. He says I’m his little project. That he’s going to build me up.”
Minor’s final words to Robles that night are, “Don’t be intimidated. Every chance you get you try and knock his ass off.” It is all well-supervised, with the adult Perales acting as a kind of moving punching bag — keeping his gloves open at all times to ensure he does not in any way injure the youth, whose father watches the action from ringside, yelling pointers to his son in Spanish.
During the three-round sparring session, Minor, leaning against the corner ropes from atop the ring apron, alternately shouts instructions to Robles with a sharp, disapproving edge in his voice and offers encouragement with a soft, approving tone. “You’ve got to move in closer. That’s the only way you’re gonna reach him,” he tells Robles, who is dwarfed by his sparring partner. “There you go, cut the ring off. Remember what I told you — if you miss with one hand, you lead with the other. Double jab. Stick — don’t wait on him. There you go. Shorten your hook up…too wide. Good hook.”
Robles, a surprisingly skilled little punching dynamo, is spent after the first round, but Minor denies him water. “You tellin’ me you’re tired? Like I care. You don’t need water yet. Show me you need some water.” After a rousing showing in rounds two and three, Minor lets his protege drink all he wants. As a soaked Robles climbs out of the ring, the chiseled Brezendine catches his eye and says, “If you keep fightin’ like that, you’ll be a world champion some day.” The boy’s eyes light up. “Really, Chucky?” “Certainly, Sando.”
Dreams of glory and chances at redemption are all over the gym. Take the story of Servando Perales, for example. The Omaha native showed tremendous promise as a junior competitor. Fighting for Kenny Wingo out of the Downtown Boxing Club, he won a National Silver Gloves title at 10 and captured second-place in the same competition at 14 in addition to winning a slew of city, state and regional championships. Then, just when Perales was on the verge of really making a name for himself in the sport, the bright, handsome young man got sidetracked by drugs, alcohol and gang-related mischief.
For Perales, the reunion with his buddy behind bars was a life-saving one that went well beyond mere chance. “I was like a walking time bomb. I had no peace in my life. No joy, No nothin’. I was really a heartless heart. I wouldn’t open up to anyone other than somebody that I trusted and knew from my barrio. And I’m just so grateful for Francisco being there in my path. God put him there for that reason.” Today, Perales does volunteer work with Granados and his Overcomers in Christ ministry in south Omaha, where they counsel kids to stay away from the drug and gang culture they got caught up in. Perales, who works full-time as a maintenance supervisor at Sapp Brothers, is married with three sons. A fourth son is being raised by his ex and her husband.
In an unusual move, Perales, who had not fought in several years, turned pro only months after his 1997 release from prison. He was 26 and out of shape, but hungry to rededicate himself to a sport he viewed as an expression of his new found faith. “Boxing is the only way for me to say to kids, Hey, this is where I was then, and now look at me today, when I have Christ within me. I believe Christianity and boxing are a lot alike. As a Christian you’re always under attack by the Devil. He knows your weaknesses. It takes a lot of discipline to stay strong. Just like with boxing, you can’t get comfortable. You’ve got to continue training. Besides, boxing is just something I’ve loved all my life. I’ve come up short of some victories, but my real victory has been beating drugs and alcohol.”
When Perales decided to enter the pro ranks he shopped around for a gym to begin his comeback at and decided on the C.W.
“It’s the toughest gym in Omaha. Everybody said, ‘If you can make it at the C.W., you can make it anywhere because here, when you spar, you don’t just spar — you go to war. Basically, it’s a test to see what you’re capable of. I came down here and I got my butt kicked the first three times until I got my timing and my punch back. It took me awhile.”
Regarded as a mediocre pro, Perales is 11-5 and has no real prospects of making a mark, although he is widely admired for his heart. At age 30 he knows his fighting days are numbered, but his sheer determination keeps him going, sometimes to his own detriment. “In a fight I lost in Las Vegas I was a bloody mess, but I wouldn’t quit. I’ve got too much heart. I came out in the 6th and final round and I almost knocked the guy out I was that determined to win, even though my nose was broken, my eyes were closed and my face was bloody.” He has vowed to his wife he will quit rather than endure that type of punishment again.
Once Omaha’s “Great White Hope” — heavyweight Dickie Ryan may soon be facing a crossroads of his own. The battle-scarred 33-year-old, a solid contender a few years ago, is one of the most successful local pros since Ron Stander, but after 56 bouts (his record is 51-5) and countless thousands of rounds sparring his best fighting days are surely well behind him. Like so many men of the ring, he is unwilling to admit he may be past his prime and should, for his own good, hang-up the gloves.
“Everyone says, ‘When you gonna retire?’ I don’t know. I still feel like I’m in good shape. I still like fighting. I’m still trying to develop the best skills I can bring out in me. I don’t think I’ve done that yet, but I’m working on it,” he said. “I’ve been a pro since I was 19. I’m glad I’ve carried on this long because I turned pro the same time as a lot of other guys but I’m the only one still around after all these years, which is special. I wish it could last forever, but unfortunately nothing lasts forever.”
Ask him if he worries about the risk of permanent head injury, and he shrugs off the question with, “If I get brain damage or whatever, than that was my choice. I made it. Just like Dale Earnhardt made his choice and died doing what he loved doing. I have a friend that has Parkinson’s and the doctors think it was caused from boxing. I don’t know. Who knows? Boxing’s been around forever, though. Even if it was banned there’d still be underground boxing, and I’d probably be the first one there, you know, because that’s how I make part of my living.”
Ryan has a passion for what might be called the Brotherhood of the Ring that he and other fighters share and it is this bond forged from sweat and courage and discipline that helps explain why he toils on. “We get these big muscle guys coming in the gym. These tough guys who knock everybody out on the street. They say, ‘I wanna box.’ We say, ‘Okay,’ and they box a couple days and we never see them back. I don’t know what it is, but it takes a special person. I won’t say it takes a tough person, but it takes a certain type of person to sacrifice your body the way we do. It really is hard. In boxing you can’t have a big ego because right when you think you’re all that somebody’s gonna knock you on your ass. And that’s the truth. If you’ve got an ego going into boxing, you’ll be humbled afterwards.”
According to Ryan, there is a camaraderie in the gym, any gym, that transcends race or religion or age. “It’s one of the only places you can go where there’s no racism at all. It’s neat. Everybody gets along. I never try hurtin’ no one in the gym. I can work with anybody. I can work with a guy that’s 150 pounds and I can work with a guy who’s 250 pounds. I can work with kids just coming up. I’ll help ‘em out. And hopefully by working with me they’re going to get better and then eventually they’re going to be good sparring partners. I’m helping them out and they’re helping me out. It works both ways.”
In a long career that’s seen him be a marquee sparring partner (for the likes of Lennox Lewis and Tommy Morrison) if seldom a main event draw, Ryan has trained at gyms across the country. He could train anywhere in Omaha, but the C.W. is where he’s gone to work the past eight years.
“I’ve been to Gleason’s Gym in New York and a lot of other big gyms and this (the C.W.) is as good as any gym around. Me and my manager, Mouse Strauss, seen that Midge (Minor) and Larry (Littlejohn) here were really good coaches and Mouse felt it would be good for me to come here. There’s a chemistry between me and my trainer Midge. He’s just a straight-up guy. He’s not the type of trainer to go, ‘You’ve got to kick his butt’ or ‘You’ve got to do this or do that.’ He’s just got a way of telling me to stay focused. He’s not afraid to cuss me out, though. He’s shows no favoritism.”
After 14 years of grinding out early morning runs and long nights hitting the bags and absorbing poundings as a much sought-after sparring partner Ryan said he stays motivated by the chance for a shot at the title or a big payday — even as remote as that possibility is now.
“I think a lot of it is just knowing in the back of your mind that, Hey, I’ve got to keep going because they might call me for that big fight and I’ve got to be ready.’ Before a fight I don’t have any fear at all because I know I’m in shape and ready to go.”
The closest he came to realizing his dream was when he upset Brian Nielsen in dramatic fashion before a hostile crowd in Denmark in 1999. In what was supposed to have been a tune-up bout for the Dane before an expected match-up with Mike Tyson, Ryan rallied late and knocked out Nielsen in the 10th and final round. Ryan said he was given the match with only two weeks notice but, as usual, was in peak condition. However, the victory did not earn Ryan any title shot but instead a rematch with Nielsen, which he lost.
Ryan, who describes himself as “mellow” even on the eve of bouts, is almost embarrassed to say that, apart from his work in the ring, he is not much of a fight fan. “Not really. I don’t go to the fights around here because I don’t like to see friends of mine get hit. It seems kind of weird, but that’s just how I am. I wish I wasn’t like that, but I am. I’d never encourage anyone else to fight. That’s just my opinion. Boxing’s been great for me. I’ve made a few bucks. It’s a good side job.”
The reality for pros fighting out of Omaha, a burg way off-the-beaten track in the boxing world, is that they must work regular jobs to support their pugilistic dreams. When not engaging in the Sweet Science, for example. Ryan is a meter reader for the Omaha Public Power District.
Featherweight Mike Juarez, another C.W. regular, is a part-time parcel handler at United Parcel Service. “If you’re in Omaha you’ve got to work a job. There’s no sponsorship around here like there is in big fight towns,” said Juarez, 31, who has compiled a 25-9 record during a 12-year pro career that has seen him fight and lose to several contenders and former world champions. The compactly-built Juarez has been something of a boxing vagabond over the years, including stops in Indianapolis and Vegas. After experiencing some hard knocks on the road, he’s returned to his Omaha roots.
“It’s pretty rough out there, you know? It’s a mean game. I didn’t get the fights. I went broke. I really wasn’t ready for the type of (mercenary) atmosphere that I put myself in. There’s nothin’ like being home around guys that I know,” he said while skipping rope one evening at the C.W. He feels the high-caliber training he gets at the Omaha gym sets it apart. “Midge Minor is a professional coach. He knows his stuff. He’s been in boxing forever,” he said. Like Dickie Ryan, Juarez is pushing the upper limits of his boxing career. He said the decision to retire will “depend on how long I can stay winning. There’s no money in it for losers, you know.”
In keeping with the C.W.’s belief that young fighters need pushing to reach the next level, Juarez often spars with amateurs much younger than him and possessing far less experience. Two of his regular partners are 20-year-old RayShawn Abram and 19-year-old Kevin Nauden, a pair of brash, promising fighters who, along with a third young phenom, Bernard Davis, are looking to make their marks as pros in the very near future. “I’m fast, I’m strong and nobody my size is going to touch me. I don’t lack for confidence,” said Abram, a 112-pounder sporting two gold front teeth. “I’m looking to win a national championship this year.”
He was introduced to the sport after being caught fighting in school by an administrator, who brought him down to the C.W. to get his hostility channeled inside the ring. In Midge Minor he has found a confidante and mentor. “I sometimes get in with the wrong crowd and I sometimes talk to him about it and he keeps me out of trouble. He also helped me get through the time my grandma died. I can call him anytime.”
Nauden and Abram feel they benefit from going against older foes when sparring, but there is no any doubt who is boss inside the ropes. “They’ve got that grown man strength that we ain’t got yet,” Nauden said. “When I first came here and I hit some of the pros with a hard shot, they let me know this ain’t gonna be goin’ on for long. They ain’t gonna hurt you or nothin, but they’ll tap you and let you know they could.”
While Abram won his weight class (as did the C.W.’s Bernard Davis at 125 pounds) in the recent Midwest Golden Gloves tourney at Harvey’s Casino and is prepping for the national gloves in Reno. Nev., Nauden lost. As for their future plans, the young men are weighing pro offers and, if the money is right, may end their amateur careers later this year and sign contracts to enter the prizefighting arena. They intend to stay under the training arm of Minor and company.
Whether Nauden and Abram ever make any real money in the fight game, they epitomize what the coaches and trainers at the C.W. strive to do — get the most out of their fighters.
“It’s like a challenge to me to see how I can develop somebody,” Minor said. “I don’t try to change their style. I just try to better the style they’ve got.” He said he can be blunt with fighters, but they seem to respond to his straight shooting. “If I see a bum, I call ‘em a bum. I’m kind of mean to ‘em. but they work for me, though. They perform for me.” Larry Littlejohn is also known as a hard-driving sort. “We do demand quite a bit of you if you’re going to stay in this gym. This is not the place to be down here joking around. We don’t want those guys. We work hard. We want to win,” Littlejohn said.
C.W. amateur fighter Shabia Bahati said that when Littlejohn shows up “there’s no cutting corners on your workout,” adding, “He keeps us honest. He’ll put us to the test.”
Bahati, a Midwest Golden Gloves runner up at heavyweight, has trained at other gyms in town and he said the C.W. is not for the faint of heart or the frivolous. “It’s real competitive down here. You’ve got to be on your toes when you come and spar. There’s no play time. They take the boxing down here serious.” Jacqui (Red) Spikes is another amateur fighter who has found the C.W. more rigorous than other gyms. “I was at a different gym and the training was soft there. Here, it’s all business. There are no wimps down here. It’s got the best pros and amateurs in town. They get the most out of you.”
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If you saw the odd little old couple on the street you would never guess they were serious art connoisseurs. But get them in their element, at a museum or at a gallery opening, and get them talking art, and then there would be no doubt that Bob and Roberta Rogers were much more than some stereotypical representation of narrow minded, buttoned down old fogies. Then you would see them for who they really were — smart, sophisticated art collectors and dealers who operated perhaps the most respected private gallery in Omaha. They made their Gallery 72 a fixture on the local art scene. Roberta is gone now, but Bob carries on. My story about them originally appeared in the New Horizons.
Art Missionaries, Bob and Roberta Rogers and Their Gallery 72
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
For the longest time, Bob and Roberta Rogers of Omaha were models of conventionality. He did the 9 to 5 office routine. She stayed home to raise their two sons. Their lives revolved around work, family, home, church, school. Then, in middle age, a funny thing happened. The 1960s arrived with a bang and they found themselves drawn to the decade’s vital counter-culture movement.
Unlike most of their generation, who resisted the tumult, the Rogers embraced the era’s provocative art, film, music, literature. They were especially taken with the Pop Art scene and the groundbreaking work of artists like Andy Warhol. Their new found passion led to a whole new way of life. She began hanging out at Old Market head shops. He started breaking out of the corporate mold by opening a donut business. And although not artists themselves, they became ardent art admirers and collectors. So much so, they started their own gallery in 1972.
“We learned so much about art by just looking at it. We just got to looking. And we both got interested in doing something creative,” Roberta said in the sweet, meandering accent of her native Mississippi. “In both of our cases we were finally getting around to doing something we should have done when we were younger.”
Better late than never. Twenty-six years later their Gallery 72 at 2709 Leavenworth Street is a respected venue presenting and selling contemporary works by top American and foreign artists. They feel a life in art was somehow meant for them.
“I think this is to a certain extent something you almost get a calling for,” Roberta said. “What we wanted to do was to bring the kind of art people should be looking at and collecting in Omaha — really good contemporary art. That was our mission. I guess we wanted to be art missionaries, and any true missionary doesn’t think too much about the consequences or they wouldn’t become missionaries. It was awful tough getting started, but we survived through various ways and sundry miracles.”
Their mission has taken them far beyond their gallery walls. They have long been fixtures at local art shows. She has been a Joslyn Art Museum docent and a presenter of art educational programs at area schools. He has advised galleries, museums, corporations and private collectors. Their undying devotion to art has won them many admirers.
“A lot of people get into gallery work because they know a little bit about art and may have a good eye, but they still look on it as a business,” said Joslyn Art Museum registrar Penelope Smith. “Bob and Roberta look on it as a vocation. They really believe in the art they’re exhibiting and they really care about it.”
The couple has acquired a reputation as astute art appraisers, collectors and exhibitors as well as enthusiastic art lovers. Their contributions to the visual arts in Nebraska were recognized with the 1990 Governor’s Art Award.
“I don’t know of anybody within the state that has more personal passion for and commitment to art and artists,” said George Neubert, director of the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery in Lincoln. Neubert, a sculptor, has shown at Gallery 72. “It’s a full range of support and nurturing they provide, whether it’s at one of their famous potlucks, where they gather together a wonderful strange mix of people interested in art, or whether it’s selling works to museums for their collections.”
Omaha painter Stephen Roberts notes the “very warm atmosphere” the Rogers extend to artists like himself and the fact “they show things they really love. I think sales are really secondary to them.”
Married 54 years, the Rogers are such stalwart partners in their life and vocation that you can’t think of one without the other. “I think it was fate that I met Bob,” Roberta said. “I’d had several young men that were interested, but they didn’t care for the same things that I liked. We just both liked the same things. We’ve always done nutty things.”
If nothing else, they prove appearances can be deceiving. A casual glance at their storefront gallery, across from St. Peter’s Catholic Church in downtown’s Park East area, suggests a curio shop. But on closer inspection it is a showplace whose spare neutral interior is a perfect backdrop for the paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures displayed there. The unassuming Rogers are Omaha’s mom and pop art missionaries all right, and so much more. These forever youthful codgers are full of surprises. She’s an effusive Southern sprite with a biting wit. He’s a gruff stoic curmudgeon with a stubborn free-spirit. Together, they’re quite a pair.
Their apartment above the gallery is a single-level New York-style loft whose tall windows overlook St. Peter’s. Nearly every available inch of space is covered by art from their extensive, eclectic personal collection. Book shelves bulge with volumes on art. A huge industrial cabinet and table double as a kitchen pantry and dining surface, respectively. Magazines and newspapers are strewn everywhere. Potted plants adorn one corner. It is a home resonating with the energy of lives lived well and fully.
Although slowed by age — he’s 79, she’s 83 — their intense feeling for art remains undiminished. To understand the depth of that feeling, one must return to when their lives were transformed. They credit their sons, John and Robert, with introducing them to the vital art scene emerging in the ‘60s. Robert attended the Kansas City Art Institute at the time.
“He came back and told us about all these exciting things going on,” Roberta said. “Those were the days when the modern old masters were struggling young artists.”
Innovative modern artists like Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg and Frank Stella “changed the history of art forever,” Bob said in the low, flat rumble he speaks in. Adds Roberta, “When I found out about people like Stella and Oldenburg and great foreign movies by Francois Truffaut and Federico Fellini and music by Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, and the Doors, it was like I was finally coming alive. It almost seemed like we were waiting for something to come along, and when we discovered all these wonderful things, we were ready. It seems like I had been just kind of existing up till then. As I tell people, I think I was really born in the ‘60s.”
Bob was equally inspired by the fervor of the times. “There was a tremendous amount of energy in America that we don’t have now,” he said. What many of their generation viewed as a threat, he and Roberta saw as an exciting new experience full of personal growth opportunities. Instead of rejecting youth, they followed their lead.
“In those days all the parents were screaming about ‘my children won’t talk to me,’ but I never felt we had that problem,” he said. “We never had a void in our relations. We let our sons educate us. They brought us into the 20th century.”
The Rogers, though, were hardly art neophytes. Each was brought up to appreciate the finer things. That mutual interest was a point of attraction when they met during World War II. But even after they married, circumstances left little time or money to pursue their shared passion.
She grew up in a series of Midwestern and Southern towns, moving with her family wherever her father’s civil engineering job with the Illinois Central Railroad took them. Her mother was an arts devotee and Roberta often accompanied her on cultural outings.
“My mother had friends who were artists, so I got a feeling for what they were trying to do. My mother recognized these things were necessary. She loved music. She loved the theater. And when we were in a place where we could go, why we went.”
Roberta’s many travels even brought her, as a teen, to Omaha, where she and her family lived during 1928-29. She attended Saunders School (since closed) and lived in the Austin Apartments near the Joslyn Castle. She recalls seeing Al Jolson in the first motion picture talkie, “The Jazz Singer,” at the Riviera Theater (now The Rose) and taking the streetcar to attend Saturday afternoon matinees as well as repertory plays at the now defunct Brandeis Theater.
Bob, an Iowa native, fed his artistic muse dabbling in theater at Northwestern University, where he majored in business administration to please his father, a sales manager at John Morrell meatpacking company.
“My father had a dream that I was supposed to carry on what he was doing,” he explains. “Well, he overlooked the fact that every human that’s born is different. His idea of what I should do in my life was 180 degrees from what I wanted to do, but you couldn’t tell your father that. If I could have kicked over the traces I would of got a job in the front-office of the Chicago Cubs baseball team. I was a baseball fanatic in those days. If that hadn’t of worked out I probably would have gone in the technical end of the theater in Chicago.”
But like a good son he followed his father’s wishes and obediently punched the clock at Morrell even though he felt stifled there. Then the war came and with it his active duty in the Army Quartermasters and eventually action in Europe. His stint in the service also led him to Roberta. It was while stationed at Camp Shelby in Hattiesburg, Miss. that their lives intersected in 1941.
“We were living in Gulfport at the time. My father had a little house up in the piney woods about 18 miles from the Gulf Coast. There was a place where soldiers with a weekend pass could get away from camp and swim and go to movies” Roberta recalls. “Every Saturday night the ladies in Gulfport had a dance at the community center. A band came over from Biloxi to play.
“They recruited all the young unmarried women in Gulfport to come. It was Labor Day weekend and most of the troops from Camp Shelby were over in Louisiana on maneuvers, and so it was one of the few times there were about as many men as there were women. And that’s how Bob and I got to talkin’ and all. I liked him. He was a nice quiet young man. As we got to know each other and visit more and all, why we just found out we had a lot of common interests.”
The only potential obstacle was their families’ diametrically opposed politics. Her people were staunch Democrats. His, dyed-in-the-wool Republicans. Fortunately, her father was a Northerner by birth and a Republican by nature. The match could go on.
After an 18-month engagement the couple married in 1943 in San Bernardino, Calif., near the training center Bob was assigned. After the war he resumed working for Morrell. It was around this time his father died, and as Bob says, “I really didn’t feel like I had to fulfill his dream anymore.”
He then went from job to job, searching for his niche, but always ending up frustrated. His job with a packaging services firm led the couple to Omaha in 1958. Soon he got fed up again and tried a drastic change.
“Bob was seeking. He felt getting into the donut business was really a creative kind of thing and so we started the Mr. Donut shops here in 1964. It took off pretty well but then after several years we began to have problems with getting good help,” she said. “Then Bob just asked one day, ‘What would you think of opening an art gallery?’ And I said, ‘I guess it would be okay.’ We both knew it was going to be an uphill battle with art in Omaha. But the boys were raised and we decided we could sink or swim or starve in an attic and start our own art gallery.”
Unlike today, galleries were rare then in Omaha. Still, there was no looking back. “Once the bug bites you, you’re bitten. That’s the way it is,” she said. They sacrificed everything for the project, opening in a strip mall on 72nd Street, hence the name.
“We pared our living expenses way down,” she said. “But it didn’t work out too well out there… and so we sold the house we were living in and we looked around for a building.”
They found the building they occupy now, formerly offices of the Association for the Blind, and after renovating it, re-opened the gallery in 1974. She said their mission has remained constant: “It was to show the best of contemporary art, because we live in a contemporary world. Another thing we felt was that the work had to be of museum quality. In all these years we’ve only had one show where everything in it was not of museum quality. And we’ve never gone into making a living off of crafts and jewelry. Just art. We felt like that would be lowering our standards.”
With the advent of area artist cooperatives, the gallery shows fewer local artists than in the past. The art market has also changed drastically since Gallery 72 opened. “Then you could get a good fine art print by the best artist for $150. Now that these artists have become so much better known their prints come out at $3000 or $4000 or $5000 each,” she said.
Three woodcuts the Rogers acquired years ago (by Francesco Clemente, William T. Wiley and Pat Steir) have risen in value many times over. “I sold a little bit of stock I had and with that and a few dollars Bob put in we got the three of them wholesale. They were real bargains. Any one of ‘em is way more valuable than the dividend would have been. And I feel like I’m getting a good dividend just because I look at ‘em all the time.”
Bob said the law of supply and demand accounts for such steep price increases. “There’s a limited amount of these things, and a ton of people who want it. People are always asking me, Do you think this will go up in value? Well, I never sell anybody art for an investment because there’s very little way you can tell for sure.”
Roberta said the true reward of art is not the money it brings, but the satisfaction it affords. “Art is something that when it gets in your blood, your mind, your being, it just adds so much to your life and how you feel about yourself. When you look at a piece of art you’ve got a relationship with this artist’s mind. It’s like a conversation. It says something to you, you say something back, and it becomes a visual dialogue.”
Bob, who makes all decisions concerning which artists to show, said too often people fret over the meaning of a work rather than just respond to it instinctually. “Don’t analyze anything,” he suggests. “If you went to the artist and asked him, he probably wouldn’t be able to tell you, or if he did, it’d be something he made up.”
For him, the best art provokes thoughts and feelings that broaden your mind. One’s likes or dislikes, he said, have “a lot to do with what you’re willing to accept” and what “you’ve been exposed” to. As far as his and Roberta’s preferences, they both like geometric abstraction. He prefers minimalist art more than she does. Although their tastes do diverge, they say they never argue over a piece or artist for the gallery.
To stay abreast of art and cultural trends, he reads art and news publications daily. He finds artists for the gallery in several ways. “
One of the best sources we have is the artists we work with,” he said. Seeing exhibitions is another. In May Bob attended the annual Navy Pier show in Chicago, featuring some 200 galleries from around the world. The couple used to make the rounds in New York, but can’t any longer due to physical/ financial constraints. Now, she said, “We bring the world to us. We’ve brought artists from Spain, Cuba, New York, Chicago, the West Coast. It’s made life very interesting.”
The Rogers know their gallery has limited appeal. That’s why they’ve tried developing their own market, largely through word-of-mouth. “And that’s difficult to do,” Bob said, “because the average run of people will buy a picture of a butterfly, but they would never buy a Claes Oldenburg painting or print of a clothespin sitting in the middle of Philadelphia. So we have to develop the kind of people that will relate to that.”
Many of their best customers are art-savvy residents who’ve moved here from either coast. The Rogers are known for hosting fun, informal potluck dinners, occasions they use to develop potential clients and to give guests a forum for “exchanging ideas.”
“People who don’t know each other, know each other when they leave. And so far we’ve never had a food fight,” Roberta said with a smile.
The couple has no plans to retire. “You don’t retire in art, you die in art,” she said. “It keeps us young.”
Besides, their mission continues.
“There’s so much to learn about art,’ said Roberta. ”There’s so many different styles and types. And whether people come in and buy or not, we feel like our role is to educate them.”
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