One of Omaha’s most distinctive buildings is the old Union Station passenger train terminal, which closed in 1971 and has enjoyed a new life as a history museum since 1975. The Art Deco edifice is a real stunner and its beauty has been preserved through major restoration and conservation efforts. Now called the Durham Museum, the institution is home to some major photographic archives, several permanent displays depicting early Omaha history, and traveling exhibitions from the Smithsonian, of which the museum is an affiliate member. It also hosts many educational and cultural events. My article for Encounter magazine gives a brief overview of the building’s history and how it’s been reinvented from a train station to a museum. Life-like bronze scultpures capture the human stories that played out in that building when it was a busy passenger rail station and actual train engines and cars you can climb aboard provide a sense for what rail travel was like back in the day. A timeline followiing the story helps chart the venue’s makeover from one purpose to the other.
It’s an impressive place to be sure, and if you’re visiting Omaha it’s a must-see stop, as is another Art Deco masterpiece here, the Joslyn Art Museum, which opened the same year, 1931, as the Durham.
Eighty Years and Counting, History in the Making at the Durham Museum
©by Leo Adam Biga
A version of the story appears in Encounter magazine
Opened in 1931, the magnificent art deco structure went on to welcome millions of travelers during the heyday of American passenger rail service. At its operational peak in World War II, 10,000 people passed through each day. Open 24/7, this terminal serviced 64 trains and seven railroads daily.
“It was a very busy, active place,” says Bob Fahey, a former red cap (porter) and station master who met his late wife, Jaye, there.
A staff of 60 and a station full of amenities catered to every need. A janitor spent eight hours a day polishing the station’s prodigious brass fixtures.
By the late 1960s, passenger rail travel in the Midwest trailed off to a trickle and the once bustling, gleaming station resembled a dingy ghost town set.
“It was kind of a sad thing to see it dwindling down,” says Fahey.
When Union Station closed in 1971 an era ended. With no further need for it, Union Pacific donated the building to the City of Omaha in 1973. If a future use for the cavernous space was not found, it might have joined other historic landmarks in the demolition heap. Fortunately, preservationists and history buffs repurposed it.
From its 1975 opening as the Western Heritage Museum to its life as the Durham Museum today, the building’s continued to be a magnet, only now the public comes to engage history.
“This building has been serving the community for 80 years, first as a travel-transportation hub and then as a museum,” says director Christi Janssen. “We’re nearing the point where half its life has been a museum.”
After significant restoration, renovation and conservation, a few name changes, and gaining Smithsonian affiliation, the Durham has come into its own as a major arts-cultural institution. It presents exhibitions, lectures, tours and special events.
Union Station veterans like Fahey volunteer to share their stories with visitors.
In this 80th anniversary year, the Durham’s holding joint architectural tours with another Omaha art deco icon turning 80, the Joslyn Art Museum. An August 21 event at both venues promises family-friendly activities for a combined $5.
In 1997 the museum added the Durham name to recognize benefactors Charles and Marge Durham. In 2008 it rebranded simply as the Durham Museum, says Janssen, “to better communicate to the public we’re more than western heritage,” adding, “I think the same can be said about the way we use the building — that it’s more than just a museum where we have artifacts in a case you can look at. In 2009, we changed our mission from preserving and displaying artifacts to being a strong educational-entertainment resource for the community. We want to be a resource for people who enjoy seeing and experiencing history.”
She says the Smithsonian affiliation is something “we’re very proud of because it allows us to bring nationally recognized treasures to Omaha” via traveling exhibits from the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress and the National Archives.
More of Durham’s own permanent collection treasures will be on view in coming months, including those from its Byron Reed Collection of rare coins and books and from its vast photo archive. “Our curatorial staff is spending a lot of time in our collections areas to be able to present more things,” she says.
The museum, on pace to surpass 150,000 visitors in 2011, “has really evolved,” says Janssen: “We’re able to offer a lot more, and we’re doing it with the same size staff as when I arrived in 2004. We’re finding creative ways to partner. We’re very excited about our 80th anniversary celebration and about what the future holds.”
Historic Timeline of Union Station-Durham Museum
May 29 marks the start of construction of Union Station by Peter Kiewit Sons on the site of the old station. Gilbert Stanley Underwood‘s art deco design infuses every aspect of both the exterior and interior.
After 20 months and $3.5 million, the 124,000 square foot Union Station is completed and opened. The dedication ceremony is held January 15.
The station enjoys its peak years of use.
Passenger rail service declines.
The facility closes.
The structure is donated by Union Pacific to the City of Omaha.
The former station is reopened as the Western Heritage Museum.
The Bostwick-Frohardt Collection is accepted on permanent loan from KMTV.
A portion of the John S. Savage Collection is donated by the photographer.
The Rinehart-Marsden Collection is donated by Alan Baer.
The Byron Reed Collection is transferred to the museum, on loan from the City of Omaha.
The remainder of the John S. Savage Collection is bequeathed upon the photographer’s death.
A $22 million project refurbishes the Great Hall, adds interactive sculptures and builds the 22,000 square foot Trish and Dick Davidson Gallery over Track #1.
The institution’s renamed the Durham Western Heritage Museum in honor of major restoration project benefactors Charles and Marge Durham.
The museum welcomes its one millionth visitor. The Durham gains Smithsonian affiliation.
The 12,500 square foot Velde Gallery of American History is constructed and opens.
The Robert Paskach Collection is donated by his widow, Frances Paskach.
The 1899 boiler house, dating back to the original Union Station, is renovated into the 256-seat Stanley and Dorothy Truhlsen Lecture Hall.
The institution’s new focus is reflected in its new name, the Durham Museum.
Digitization of the photo archive proceeds.
- El Museo Latino in Omaha Opened as the First Latino Art and History Museum and Cultural Center in the Midwest (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Fulfilling a $10 Million Promise (indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com)
- Pay your way into Smithsonian’s ‘Art of of Video Games’ exhibit (gamesradar.com)
This is one of many stories I have filed over the years related to the Loves Jazz & Arts Center in Omaha and various programs and exhibitions there. The subject of this story from a few years ago for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is the artist Bernard Stanley Hoyes and an exhibiiton of his work then showing at the LJAC. I am not an art reviewer, and thus the pieces I do from time to time about painters and sculptors and photographers are written more from a profile perspective than anything else. The center has presented many excellent exhibitions over the years that I have had the chance to see and cover, and in some cases I’ve interviewed the featured artists. Hoyes included. On this same blog you’ll find more LJAC art stories, including one on Frederick Brown and another on collector/explorer Kam-Ching Leung. You’ll also find stories about the center’s namesake, the late jazz musician Preston Love.
Sanctified Joy, ©Bernard Stanley Hoyes
Artist Bernard Stanley Hoyes Explores the Lamentations and Celebrations of Jamaican Revival Worship
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Spiritual rapture is captured in artist Bernard Stanley Hoyes’s Revival Series. The exhibition Lamentations & Celebrations on display now through March 10 at the Loves Jazz & Arts Center features oil paintings, lithographs and etchings from the series, in which the Los Angeles-based artist explores the Revival worship services of his native Jamaica. He spent a week in Omaha doing school residencies.
Hoyes uses lustrous colors, seductive swirls and overwrought figures to evoke the “spirit at that moment of crescendo.” A cathartic moment when light, sound, music, rhythm and emotion reach a fever pitch of illumination or exaltation, said Hoyes, standing amid his iridescent work on the walls at the LJAC. When he began the series 25 years ago he chose a clean color palette and lyrical line pattern for his dynamic series. “In order for me to attain spirit and spirituality in my pictures,” he said, “my colors had to be pure. I went about by using colors without really muddling or mixing or tapering them. It’s like a sequence of motion and I’m capturing the motion at different points, but at the peak of each sequence.”
His images of incantation, reverie and ritual take place in outdoor, night time gatherings brightened by the glow of candle light and supernatural incandescence, where worshipers commune with their higher power in scenes at once solemn, joyful and eerie. There’s a power to the writhing figures caught in the spirit’s sway. The congregants worship en mass, buoyed by the communal beat of The Call.
He said, “The intention is to show where we gather our strength in all the trials and tribulations we have to endure. The strength comes from the commonality of our spiritual seeking. That’s one of the reasons I group the figures together and put them kind of like solid. They feel like one. You need all these bodies together to evoke the strength of what it takes to have a spiritual community.”
Flow with the Rhythm, ©Bernard Stanley Hoyes
His own experience of Revivalism, an amalgam of Afro-Caribbean-Christian traditions, goes back to his Jamaican youth. His great aunt was a priestess and elder whose backyard was the site for many services. He witnessed the songs, chants, dances, drums, processions, channeling of spirits, ecstatic revelations. The sacred, the mystical, the strange. It frightened and fascinated him. It was inevitable his art would explore these altered states and this mediation of ethereal and terrestrial.
Long after he left the island for America, he returned to Jamaica to observe with the eyes of a mature artist the Poccomanian and Zion strains of Revivalism. In rediscovering his roots, he found an intuitive grasp of it all. “I started to realize I had an innate sensibility about these ceremonies. I knew them,” he said. “It’s like knowing Mass. You know the consecutive ceremonies and where they go. You know the hymns. You can recognize what that special ritual and special consecration is all about without being told. As I started investigating it I saw there were some things being lost over the years. Certain sentiments in the religion. The way there was pressure to get a formal church building, where before worship was conducted in holy sites throughout the countryside or in certain blessed yards.”
He noted, too, the introduction of technology, by means of electrical amplification, to what were all acoustic rites. The changes, he said, gave him an urgency to document a rapidly disappearing heritage.
Bernard Stanley Hoyes
Hoyes views his art as an expression of the spirit and the spirit of art. As a veteran of inner city life in Kingston and L.A., he knows the soul killing poverty and crime people of color face. He creates work for nontraditional spaces as offerings of peace and unity amid troubled tribes and times, like his murals and his installations of altars and tables in riot-ravaged neighborhoods.
“We have to move beyond those manic rages,” he said through “spiritual cleansing. We can then start anew, afresh. That’s why I think we’ve seen the pervasive Born Again rituals-religions in America. People see the need for that cleansing. We have to look for the rituals where we find them. Until we do that we become captive to the oppressive nature of urban violence and all the other manic depressive things that go on in our community.”
Moonlight Spiritual S/N, ©Bernard Stanley Hoyes
Art, he said, can be part of “the healing process. It has to be about something that’s pervasive, that everybody can link their spirit to.” His Revival Series, informed by Jamaican and African American rites, is a resplendent multi-faith expression of praise and worship, call and response testifying. “It covers the whole gamut of Western Christianity with the African influence in it,” he said. Ever since his series struck a chord” a few years ago, his work has been collected by celebs like Oprah Winfrey, bringing thousands of dollars for originals and hundreds for prints. Why? “I think for the first time people with spiritual longing and spiritual connection see that part in it. They see the passion and the emotion of worship that is in the DNA of anybody that’s been to a Pentecostal or Baptist service.”
It’s about getting caught up in and overcome by the spirit. It’s what moved him when he began the series in a flourish of productivity. The spirit dictated “the style and motif and energy…the drive. One painting would beget the other — suggest the idea for the next,” he said, until he’d done 40 paintings in five weeks. “While I’m painting it becomes unconscious. It’s a classic inspired-work. That’s what it is.” He’s quit the series, but has always returned to it, finding the “inexhaustible” subject lends itself to “variations on a theme ” It numbers 500 to 600 works now. He means to retire the series with this exhibit, but suspects he’ll be drawn back to it again.
- Frederick Brown’s Journey Through Art is a Passage Across Form and a Passing On of Legacy (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Soon Come: Neville Murray’s Passion for the Loves Jazz & Arts Center and its Role in Rebirthing North Omaha
The Loves Jazz & Arts Center in North Omaha is a symbol for the transition point that this largely African-American area is poised at – as decades of neglect are about to be impacted by a spate of major redevelopment. LJAC and some projects directly to the south of it along North 24th Street represented steps in the right direction but since then little else has happened in the way of renewal. Development efforts farther south, east, and west had little or no carryover effect. The subject of this story however is not so much the LJAC as it is its former director, Neville Murray, who was very much the director when I did this piece for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about three years ago. Murray expressed, just as his successor does today, the hope that the center would serve as anchor and catalyst for a boom in new activity in the area. The center never really realized that goal, but it still could. Murray is a passionate man, artist, and arts administrator with an interesting perspective on things since he’s not from Omaha originally. Indeed, he’s a native Jamaican. But as he explains right at the top of my story, he identifies closely with the African-American experience here and he’s committed to making a difference in the Omaha African-American community – one that’s been waiting a long time for change. If it’s up to him, it will soon come.
|Neville Murray with Linda Cunningham, center, coordinator for cultural competence, UNMC Community and Multicultural Affairs, and co-chair of Employee Diversity Network; and Susan Langdon, clinical coordinator, UNMC Medical Technology Education.|
Soon Come: Neville Murray’s Passion for the Loves Jazz & Arts Center and its Role in Rebirthing North Omaha
©by Leo Adam Biga
Oriignally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
“I’m an artist, first and foremost. I think everything else is just kind of a reflection of the art,” said Neville Murray, director of the Loves Jazz & Arts Center (LJAC), 2510 North 24th Street in Omaha. He came to the States in 1975 from his native Jamaica on a track scholarship that saw him compete for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He’s made America and Nebraska his second home, but it is the north Omaha African American community the center serves where his heart lies.
“I consider myself African-American,” he said. “North Omaha is such a tremendous culture. There’s so much talent and there’s so much need. If we can just inspire kids to become artists or to becomeinvolved in the arts or to realize the role the arts can play in their lives…
“We’re really trying to change the dynamic by bringing world class arts programming to north Omaha and to bring in art one would not ordinarily see. Art is a catalyst for change. We’ve seen it downtown. And we think this can be a catalyst for change in our community.”
During a recent interview in the center conference room, which doubles as a storage space with stacks of art works leaning against the walls, he alluded to the year-and-a-half-old LJAC as trying to separate itself from “other organizations in the community” that have failed. The center’s “state of the art facility” is a big start. Another is his long track record as an administrator with the Nebraska Arts Council (NAC), where he worked prior to opening the center in 2005. Well-versed in grant writing and well-connected to the art world, he’s determined to avoid the pitfalls.
“We have to be at a different level in terms of our 501C3 meeting certain criteria with accountability (for programs and grants) and ownership of collections,” he said. “We have to set high standards. For me it’s critical we operate at a high level because of the history of some things.” When asked if he meant the troubled Great Plains Black History Museum a block to the east, he confirmed he did. He said that other venue’s long-standing problems of unarchived materials, unrealized repairs, unpolitic moves and unanswered questions stem from ineffective governance.
“It can’t be a hand-picked board. It needs to be a real board,” he said. “We have a great, pro-active, eight-member board.” The LJAC also has ongoing Peter Kiewit Foundation support. Even with that the center operates on the margin, with revenues coming chiefly from rental fees and grants rather than its light walk-in traffic. Murray was a one-man band for months after his only staffer resigned, leaving him doing everything from curating exhibits to cleaning floors. A Kiewit grant’s made possible the hiring of a new assistant. Still, he acknowledges problems — from the phone not always being manned to the doors not always being open during normal visiting hours to inadequate marketing and membership campaigns.
“I wear many different hats. There’s only so much you can do. It’s frustrating,” he said. “That has been an issue, you bet. I think that’s just part of our growing pains. Hopefully, that will resolve itself at some point in time. I’m not going to be here forever, but I want to make sure I put in place processes that can ensure the success of this institution into the future.”
Another barrier the center faces is one of identity and image. Some assume its solely focused on the legacy of Preston Love or a venture of the late musicians’s family. Neither is true. Others think it’s primarily a performance space when in fact it’s an exhibition/education space. Still others confuse it as a social service site. None of it deters him. “Ultimately, the goal for this institution is to be one of just a handful of accredited African American arts institutions” in America, he said.
The center grew out of many discussions Murray engaged in with members of the African American community. “We’d been meeting for years with a variety of folks about the need for an institution such as this in north Omaha,” he said.
Murray got to know greater Nebraska and north Omaha in particular as the NAC’s first multicultural coordinator in the 1990s. His work today at the LJAC is a natural extension of how his personal journey as an artist and arts administrator evolved to embrace his own Jamaican identity, the wider African American experience and the need to create more recognition and opportunities for fellow artists of color.
“It enriched me so much being able to travel all over Nebraska and work with indigenous folks to promote the arts,” he said. “To be able to work with different cultures, Latino and American Indian cultures, really inspired me, not just as an artist but in terms of my awareness. I began to realize the arts play a critical role in cultural development. A culture without art is dead. Art is what makes us human.”
Besides, he fell in love with the state’s wide open spaces, variable topography, classic seasons and Northern Hemispheric light. “Nebraska’s such a beautiful state. If you drive straight from here to Colorado you don’t see it. But if you go just a few miles north of I-80 you’re in the Sand Hills and the vistas are just magnificent,” said Murray, whose paintings reflect his “love of nature” in iconic earth-tone images of the Great Plains or pastel seascapes of his tropical homeland.
Alligator Pond Fish Market, ©Neville Murray
He came to the NAC at a crucible time. His newly formed post was a response to protests over inequitable funding for artists of color. Inequity extended to museums/galleries, where works about and by black artists were absent, and to academia, where, he said, art textbooks at UNL failed to mention one of its own, grad Aaron Douglas, famed “illustrator of the Harlem Renaissance.”
Murray’s experience working with Nebraska’s Ponca population in their effort to be reinstated within the greater Ponca Tribe reflected his own sense of dislocation from his roots and the severing African Americans feel from their heritage.
“The Ponca had to relearn their traditions, so the NAC helped them get the grant funding to network back with the Southern Ponca down in Oklahoma to rediscover their dances and cultural traditions,” he said. “If as a tribe you’re cut off you lose a sense of your identity. I can relate to that because there was a period in my life when I can say I was kind of embarrassed at some of my rural upbringing. My grandmother used to walk five miles to market. People come from all over up in the mountains and bring their wares. Colors everywhere. Fruits of every ilk. Wonderful old stories. It took me a while to really appreciate all that. Now I look at it as a treasure and something we’re losing rapidly in the islands, I might add.”
“As black folks we’ve lost a sense of our identity. We’re confused. We don’t understand a lot of our traditions, even what tribes we come from. All of that was lost with slavery. Slavery’s had such a critical roles in our lives. It’s almost like we’re brand new,” he said. “Our whole life is a search, a journey for identity.”
Today, there’s more emphasis on black heritage and black art. “I think there’s much greater appreciation for art and artistic expression,” he said. “It’s not unusual to see artists of color in Art News now or other major art publications.”
Despite inroads, the place black artists hold in their own community and in the wider sphere of life is a work in progress. “It seems as black artists we’re always trying to validate ourselves. A few will come through. The flavor of the day, so to speak,” he said. “But as artists of color we we’re so often stigmatized. We have to get beyond that and recognize our art as an expression of our culture. We have a tendency in our community to look at arts as only recreation or extracurricular.”
His own ground breaking path reflects the possibilities for artists of color today. “I’ve kind of been doing a lot of things that hadn’t been done before,” he said. He was one of the first state multicultural coordinators in the nation. He pioneered the use of digital technology for Nebraska-curated shows. He organized the first comprehensive touring exhibit of contemporary Jamaican art with the 2000 Soon Come: The Art of Contemporary Jamaica. The project took him to parts of the island he’d never visited and introduced him to its diverse spectrum of artists.
|Neville Murray discusses his artwork with Angela Knowles, a clinical study assistant in the department of internal medicine-pulmonary.|
He continues to celebrate art and to explore “what does it mean to be an artist of color?” at the LJAC, where he’s brought exhibits by renowned artists Frederick Brown, Faith Ringgold and Ibiyinka. In late November paintings from the Revival Series of noted artist Bernard Stanley Hoyes opens. The LJAC will publish its first catalogue for the show.
On display from time to time is work by local artists like Wanda Ewing, whose images deal with being a woman of color. It hosts regular art classes for adults/kids and occasional lectures/workshops. In keeping with its historic, symbol-laden location, the LJAC presents socially relevant programs, such as a History of Omaha Jazz panel held this year and the current Freedom Journey civil rights exhibit. All around the center, businesses flourished, streets teemed, marches proceeded, riots burned and hot jazz sessions played out. In a nod to political awareness, activist Angela Davis will appear there November 11.
Murray’s penchant for technology is evident in interactive stations/kiosks. An oral history project he’s doing with the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he also studied, documents, in high def video, the lives/stories of older African American residents. The materials will inform a documentary about the history of black Omaha and its music heritage. The archived interviews will be available to scholars. He looks forward to curating a new exhibit around a group of photos from a local collector that record some of the earliest images of local African American life. A selection from the LJAC permanent collection displays photos of early African American scenes and moments from the career of namesake Preston Love.
Murray’s also in discussions for the LJAC to be an outreach center for New York’s Lincoln Center. “I’m really excited about that,” he said. “That gives us an opportunity to bring in some coeducational programming and performances.” It’s all about his trying to engage people with art in news ways. He said, “I would hope I bring a certain creativity to this position as an artist.”
He knows he and the center will be judged by their longevity. “You have to have a period of time when people can see if you’re going to be here for a while,” he said.” “I think folks feel good about we’re doing. I think people realize my heart is in the right place. I have a love of this community and the culture. It’s a huge challenge. It’s a big responsibility. But it’s been a wonderful experience.”
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- Native Omaha Days: A Black is Beautiful Celebration, Now, and All the Days Gone By (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Overarching Plan for North Omaha Development Now in Place, Disinvested Community Hopeful Long Promised Change Follows (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Lifetime Friends, Native Sons, Entrepreneurs Michael Green and Dick Davis Lead Efforts to Revive North Omaha and to Empower its Black Citizenry (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Luigi’s Legacy, The Late Omaha Jazz Artist Luigi Waites Fondly Remembered (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Omowale Akintunde’s In-Your-Face Race Film for the New Millennium, ‘Wigger,’ Introduces America to a New Cinema Voice (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Negro Leagues Baseball Museum Exhibits on Display for the College World Series; In Bringing the Shows to Omaha the Great Plains Black History Museum Announces it’s Back (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Making the Case for a Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- A Brief History of Omaha’s Civil Rights Struggle Distilled in Black and White By Photographer Rudy Smith (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Omaha’s Malcolm X Memorial Foundation Comes into its Own, As the Nonprofit Eyes Grand Plans it Weighs How Much Support Exists to Realize Them (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
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Manifest Beauty, Christian Bro. William Woeger Devotes His Life to Church as Creative-Cultural Center
Omaha’s cultural scene is stronger thanks to Christian Brother William Woeger. He heads the Archdiocese of Omaha‘s Office for Divine Worship but is best known as founder and director of the Cathedral Arts Project based at St. Cecilia Cathedral. The project sponsors many performing and fine arts presentations throughout the year, including a flower festival that draws tens of thousands over a single weekend. He oversaw a major restoration project at the magnificent cathedral a few years ago. Adjacent to the cathedral is an impressive visitors-cultural center that was developed under his leadership. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) apepared while the restoration was still underway. Something I discovered about Woeger in doing the story is that in addition to being a highly respected liturgy expert and arts administrator, he is also a nationally renowned icon artist.
Triptych designed and painted by Bro. William Woeger
Manifest Beauty, Christian Bro. William Woeger Devotes His Life to Church as Creative-Cultural Center
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
If not traveling to confer on a church renovation or to install one of his commissioned art works, national liturgical design consultant and icon painter Brother William Woeger can be found working the phone from his tidy office in the Archdiocese of Omaha chancery. From there, the fastidious Woeger juggles a busy schedule as head of the Office for Divine Worship and as executive director and founder of the popular Cathedral Arts Project. For good measure, the 54-year-old visionary — one of the early driving forces behind Omaha’s compassionate response to the AIDS epidemic — is director of liturgy at St. Cecilia Cathedral, whose $3 million restoration he is shepherding toward completion.
Gaze Upon My Soul
When the demands of his career and vocation get to be too much for the admittedly “driven” Woeger, a 36-year veteran of the Christian Brothers teaching order founded in 1864 by French cleric John Baptist de la Salle, he retreats to the solace of his painting. In keeping with tradition, Woeger’s iconic figures (mostly of Christ) are bathed in an aura of gold light suggestive of the Holy Spirit. His acrylic paint-on-wood works adorn churches in Omaha and around the nation. He recently completed and shipped the last in a set of 15 icons for a new church he helped design in Maryland. Word-of-mouth alone keeps him immersed in new projects. “I don’t advertise. I don’t submit drawings and designs. I don’t do committees,’ he said. Working from a basement studio, he enters a nearly transcendental meditative state amid the solitude and the golden reflected gaze of the icon he is rendering.
“When I am in the act of painting it actually creates a space in my life when I’m not tied into anything else. Aside from the sound of the furnace kicking-on, it’s a very contemplative experience,” he said. “And it’s very interactive in the sense that you begin manipulating the materials and then, at a certain moment — and sometimes it’s quite identifiable — the dynamics flip around and suddenly It’s doing it’s thing to you rather than you doing something to it, and it kind of finishes itself. That most often has to do with the face and the eyes — when the image starts looking back at you — which is at the heart of icons as a focus for prayer.
“The whole notion is very non-Western. The icon becomes a window, if you will, through which you contemplate the divine. Even if the image is not one of Christ but rather one of the saints, the whole metaphor with the gold hue in the background is that the source of the light is not the person — it’s beyond the person — and that is God being mediated through the figure in the painting, which is very incarnation-oriented.”
Bro. William Woeger
Upon This Rock
Born and raised in a south St. Louis German-Catholic family, Woeger felt an affinity for the arts and a calling to religious life as a youth and has combined these passions ever since. He entered the Christian Brothers at 18 and pronounced his perpetual vows at 25. While studying art, theology and philosophy in the ‘60s he developed a social conscience. He began a formal teaching career in 1967 when assigned to Omaha’s Rummel High (now Roncalli), whose art department he established. He later taught at the College of St. Mary. In 1981 he joined the archdiocesan staff, where his focus evolves “depending on what I see around me.”
Through his archdiocesan post he coordinates area liturgical celebrations. As a freelance liturgical designer he integrates music, art, ritual and architecture in churches nationwide. Striving to make each place of worship a “sermon without words,” he goes about “shaping the building around the liturgical action,” adding, “I see what I do as educational. I help clients take liturgical principles and use those as a stepping off point to create a house for the church and the community in which to worship and praise God.” Since each parish has its own distinct personality, he must balance unique cultural characteristics (ethnic, socioeconomic, charismatic, conservative, etc.) with Roman Catholic doctrine and tradition. “There can be a tension there, but it can be a creative thing,” he said.
His services range from all-encompassing design schemes to specific features. “Sometimes I’m involved from the very beginning all the way to the end, including designing the furniture, working with the architect, being a go-between with artists doing windows or sculptures and holding workshops with local liturgical ministers. It’s a helluva package. Other times, I just come in and help with the programming. End of story. Or, other times, I just design furniture or do an icon. It’s much easier to do a brand new building than it is a restoration because it’s no-holds-barred, at least conceptually. Sometimes I work on buildings that have a historic reference where we borrow the architecture vocabulary from another period. St. Vincent DePaul Church in Omaha is like that. It’s a contemporary building but definitely has a Gothic reference.”
Whatever the assignment, he tries making each church a metaphorical emblem of the Catholic faith and its people. “The definition of a symbol is something that points to a reality beyond itself, and church architecture has tremendous potential to do that,” he said. He feels much of modern church design “fails” in this regard by opting for flimsy rather than solid values. “I’m not knocking modern architecture in comparison with classical it-looks-like-a-church architecture. I’m talking about the whole American phenomenon of suburban architecture — the here-today-gone tomorrow strip-mall transitory approach to things as opposed to an approach that establishes a sense of place and an air of permanence. Especially if you buy into the idea church buildings are places where key moments in peoples’ lives are celebrated or sanctified, than the building-as-place becomes a touchstone for their memory and, so, the walls speak.”
Imbuing a church with indelible substance requires rigorous attention to detail. It starts with a philosophy. He said, “It’s about believing in things getting better as they get older. It’s about using quality materials, which isn’t necessarily the most expensive, but ones which the community feels invested in as ‘The best we have to put forward.’ It’s about the materials and design being appropriate. It’s about integrity and all these things bearing the mark of the maker and not appearing to be mass-produced but rather created for sacred purposes. And, in the final analysis, the building should be capable of bearing the weight of mystery. The weight of mystery is what gets you in touch with the presence of God and gives you the sense this is holy space. Using strip mall approaches doesn’t cut it. It can’t carry the profundity. This is God-stuff we’re talking about. It’s pretty heavy, and so there’s no room for the trite, the silly, the mundane, the pedestrian, the pop.”
St. Cecilia Cathedral
Makeovers and New Directions
This same philosophy has underpinned the restoration of Omaha landmark St. Cecilia Cathedral, the Thomas Rogers Kimball-designed Spanish renaissance revival building begun in 1905 and completed in 1958. Except that, after Kimball’s death in 1934, the building was never quite finished and the famed Omaha architect’s plans never fully carried-out. Much of the Spanish flavor Kimball intended was ignored or altered. According to Woeger, Kimball’s design drew on the buoyant monastery palace complex of Spanish ruler Philip II. To recapture that model, Woeger selected Evergreene Painting Studios Inc. of New York, to execute the restoration, and Omaha architectural firm Bahr Vermeer Haecker to oversee the project.
Recent interior work done to the Cathedral, including extensive surface cleaning, the use of bold Iberian stencil patterns in the ceiling and nave, the addition of several large murals and various lighting enhancements, has appreciably brightened the building to provide a warmer, more vibrant, more visceral space in which one’s eyes invariably look up to the heavens. The idea was to create a vital ambience for public worship and celebration in which “the whole assembly is praying with one mind, one heart, one voice.” Woeger adds, “We had an opportunity to bring a much more exuberant Spanish renaissance style feeling to the interior finishes. Now, you have the sense the building is bigger and higher. It definitely evokes wonder and awe, and that architecture’s supposed to do that. Now, you can just watch people look up when they walk in. They didn’t use to do that because you really couldn’t quite take it all in it was so dark.”
Making the Cathedral an inspirational community gathering place is something Woeger had in mind when starting Cathedral Arts Project, an autonomous presenting organization sponsoring concerts, art exhibits and an annual flower show. His other impulse was putting St. Cecilia’s squarely in-line with the historic mission of cathedrals as a center of the humanities. “All of the spiritual reality that building stands for is an appropriate context for that which is spiritual about the arts,” he said. “It broadens the scope of the people who enter the life of the Cathedral. And, historically, cathedrals were the center of learning, the center of the arts, the center of humanity, the center of theology and spirituality.”
Cathedral Flower Festival
Woeger, who began the archdiocese’s AIDS pastoral care program and formed a support group for patients and loved ones, helped fulfill Cathedral’s mission as an inclusive haven by opening its doors to the AIDS community for interfaith healing services. He is proud of the “welcoming environment” created there and of the work the archdiocese did with community and health organizations through the Nebraska AIDS Project and the AIDS Interfaith Network. Today, he continues assisting AIDS awareness efforts and maintains close ties with survivors.
Cathederal Flower Festival
For Woeger, an “off-the-charts control person” who lost his father at age 9, the AIDS crisis presented a special challenge. “I spent a lot of time with people while they were dying and early on it was sort of making me crazy. I had to learn I couldn’t do anything about this. That the best thing I could do was simply be there for them.”
With the death-sentence urgency of the AIDS crisis largely passed and the Cathedral restoration drawing to a close, Woeger is looking for new challenges. “I’m the kind of person who reinvents himself about every six to eight years. I have to have some new stimuli in order to keep my creative juices flowing. It doesn’t have to be a radical change, but some kind of shift so that things sort of come apart and come back together again in a new configuration.”
Not surprisingly, his renewed focus is on upcoming projects at the Cathedral. First, life-sized statues (of saints) carved in Italy will be installed on exterior niches perched above the main entrance and a side entrance. The niches have sat empty the entire life of the Cathedral. Next, an ambitious organ restoration is on tap. And, once funds are secured, work will begin on a visitors/cultural center that will tell the story of the Cathedral and the legacy of Kimball in a museum to be housed in the former Cathedral High School building. Through such efforts he hopes the Cathedral remains a beacon for generations to come.
- Omaha Address by Cuban Archbishop Jaime Ortega Sounds Hopeful Message that Repression in Cuba is Lifting (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- A Change is Gonna Come, the GBT Academy in Omaha Undergoes Revival in the Wake of Fire (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Luigi’s Legacy, The Late Omaha Jazz Artist Luigi Waites Fondly Remembered (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Nancy Kirk: Arts Maven, Author, Communicator, Entrepreneur, Interfaith Champion (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
One of the leaders of Omaha’s much ballyhooed creatives and emerging entrepreneurs community is Jeff Slobotski, who has caught the wave with his Silicon Prairie News site and his annuak Big Omaha event. Jeff not only has lots of great ideas and an abudance of energy and enthusiasm, but he also has the skills to do follow through and to actually make his concepts reality. The following piece I did about Jeff and Silicon Prairie News appeared in Metro Magazine a couple years ago. Since then, Jeff’s endeavors have grown even more. I have a feeling I will be writing about he and his ventures for a long time. I may even be writing for him one day.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in Metro Magazine
Omaha-based Silicon Prairie News (SPN) may not be the next big thing on the Web but that’s OK with founder Jeff Slobotski. The Omaha native envisions his less-than-year-old startup as part social mission and part social networking portal. SPN’s public face is www.siliconprairienews.com, a sleek blog, news and events site devoted to nurturing and linking the area’s entrepreneurial-minded creative class.
Site postings include original published stories, video interviews and listings filed by him and partner Dusty Davidson, owner of the boutique software applications firm, Bright Mix, which hosts SPN. “If you’re looking for news and information around the creative innovative class,” Slobotski said, “that’s what we hope we’ll be able to cover and provide to folks.”
Slobotski, 31, came to admire his hometown as an entrepreneurial hot bed working with political campaigns in Nebraska and as a capital consultant with the Steier Group. He’s further staked-out cutting-edge Omaha in his current day job as sales-marketing guru for New York City-based software design firm Truist.
His travels allows him to compare the climate for startups here with that in centers of innovation like Austin, Texas. What he sees is that, yes, things are hopping as you’d expect in these progressive hubs but there’s also no shortage of enterprising intellectual capital and commerce in Omaha.
“I knew we had a lot of that here — a lot of that same creative class, innovative, entrepreneurial spirit,” said Slobotski, who makes it SPN’s business to track and engage this lively community of Generation X-Y-Z go-getters.
He maintained a personal blog that predated SPN, Midwest to Manhattan, where he commented on New York or San Francisco goings-on. “My office was in Manhattan at that time,” he said. After a while though he decided to turn his attention from what was happening elsewhere to what was happening in his own backyard.
“I thought, Nobody wants to read about me traveling around and writing, ‘Look what I’ve seen’ or ‘Look who I met.’ I like to be behind the scenes anyway — I don’t need to be the highlight of the blog. I wanted to turn that around and say, ‘Hey, look at some of guys or women that are doing it right here.”
That’s when he began formulating the SPN model that features individuals living the dream as entrepreneurs, innovators, mavericks, venture capitalists. “I said, ‘Wait a minute, I’m talking about what I’m seeing in New York and bringing that back here,’ and I was like, ‘No wait, we have that here.” Examples are abundant.
“Rachel Jacobson at Film Streams is an innovator to me. She doesn’t clock in at 8 and clock out at 5, yet she’s really pushing the spirit of what we’re doing as a city,” said Slobotski. “Secret Penguin is another example. It’s a Web design shop that does work for MTV and the NFL, and not a lot of people know that.”
On his SPN site Slobotski’s sung the praises of both Jacobson and Secret Penguin owner Dave Nelson, a pro skateboarder whose youth branding business is built around skateboarding, music and youth cultures. Both Film Streams and Secret Penguin, along with bar/live music venue Slowdown, are part of the Saddle Creek Records complex that anchors the NoDo district’s developing cultural-commercial scene and exemplifies the creative class community Slobotski celebrates.
In his self-described role as “citizen reporter” Slobotski, not a trained journalist but a University of Nebraska at Omaha finance and banking graduate, does a form of advocacy journalism through Silicon Prairie News posts. SPN really is his forum to serve as Omaha’s creative class evangelist and facilitator.
“I see the resources, the talent we have here in town, and again it goes back to those connections or those networks,” he said. “But what good is it that you know people but aren’t helping them develop their skill set or their trade? Our goal is to really build that community and highlight those individuals or those businesses or those ideas to show that you’re not alone. If you’re someone who after you clock out of your 8-to-5 job is moonlighting, working on an idea, it’s like, Hey there’s other guys out there like you and here’s some of their stories.”
Slobotski and Davidson moonlight themselves, doing SPN as a “labor of love” around regular careers. They do more than report on entrepreneurs. They also stage events where innovators across a wide spectrum — from techies to artists — meet and share what they do. The idea’s to foster matches, links, collaborations that result in business needs being met or new ventures being sparked. An incubator for entrepreneurial startups is in the works. Anything arising from this mix of social-business engagement adds to the vibrant creative class scene SPN champions.
Soon after launching the SPN Web site July 25, Slobotski said it became apparent bringing people together in a virtual environment needed a corollary physical gathering. “We said, ‘Let’s get people together face to face rather than just trading emails or text messages or voice mails back and forth. Let’s meet and learn people’s stories.” Thus, SPN organized Omaha’s inaugural BarCamp and Tweetup and a talk by noted Silicon Valley business author/reporter Sarah Lacy.
He said the free events draw on average 100-plus people. SPN’s next event, the May 7-8 BigOmaha conference at Kaneko, will present forward-thinking creatives, innovators and entrepreneurs telling their national and local success stories, including Gary Vaynerchuk of Wine Library, a hot wine news, tastings, review site, and Rachel Jacobson of Film Streams. BIGOmaha is by-registration-only event. Slobotski said registrants are signed up from around the Midwest.
As Slobotski and Davidson are entrepreneurs in their own right, they, along with peers profiled online or in person, offer insider perspectives on the startup experience and creative class milieu. Slobotski hopes these stories inspire others to follow their own passion and do what they love. It’s all part of the synergy he aspires to promote, one where people with varied skill sets meet via event and do a service trade/barter or work on a project or buy into a vision. One connection may lead to another, and so on. It’s all about being plugged-in or linked-in.
Cross-mingling groups that don’t ordinarily connect, he said, can mean win-wins. “I think each one can respect what the other’s doing and then help each other out. It’s fun, I love meeting people. But who cares if you know this many people. What do you do with those relationships to help others affect change or get involved?”
Beyond a fondness for social media, there’s a social consciousness aspect to Slobotski, who’s founded a charitable organization, Packs of Promise, that provides new backpacks filled with supplies to the homeless through Siena/Francis House. He’s looking at SPN hosting a blog covering green initiatives and businesses.
SPN’s a-work-in-progress. Slobotski found it tough at first finding subjects outside his small circle of friends and associates. But as the word’s gotten out and SPN’s network has increased, he said, “we’ve now got a slate of folks to interview probably 15 to 20 long. Guys are coming out of the woodwork. We can’t keep up with that. We’re doing about a story or two a day” as opposed to a couple a week before. “We just met a guy who works at CSG Systems by day but he’s launched two or three small startup businesses on the side. We want more stories like that.”
He said the site’s at 10,000 to 12,000 hits a month and increasing. Content drives it, which means expanding beyond the local marketplace to do more regional/national coverage. He reported from Austin’s recent South by Southwest fest. Published stories remain the core but Slobotski said video pieces get the most feedback.
“I still think print is relevant and helpful but to be able to see the face of that guy that owns the bakery or that guy that owns the Web design shop telling his story for 3 to 5 minutes — I just think people connect with that a little more.”
He’s also aware SPN treads a fine line with its advocacy, citizen-level reporting. “We’re definitely tweaking and making changes, figuring ways to keep it not too stuffy but also not too weak, too casual and without enough boundaries,” he said. A niche jobs board may be added. A name change is also being considered, as he fears Silicon Prairie may suggest a tech emphasis that really isn’t so.
His long-term goal “is to turn this into a sustainable business — with the right balance, where it’s not ad heavy, but tactfully set-up and structured.”
- Big Omaha – a must-attend entrepreneurs conference (thestartupangel.com)
- The Indie-Rock Club Behind Omaha’s $100 Million Creative Boom (npr.org)
- Nomad Lounge, An Oasis for Creative Class Nomads (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Overarching Plan for North Omaha Development Now in Place, Disinvested Community Hopeful Long Promised Change Follows (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Lifetime Friends, Native Sons, Entrepreneurs Michael Green and Dick Davis Lead Efforts to Revive North Omaha and to Empower its Black Citizenry (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Buck O’Neil and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City Offer a Living History Lesson about the National Pastime from a Black Perspective
What follows is one of two cover stories I did on the late Negro Leagues Baseball legend Buck O’Neil. I earlier posted an O’Neil article I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com), and the story I’m posting here appeared in the New Horizons. Both pieces appeared in these Omaha publications mere months before O’Neil passed and were largely based on an interview I did with him in Kansas City at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum he was instrumental in founding. I found the gregarious O’Neil every bit as charming and enthusiastic in person as I saw him on television.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
Monuments of both the human and brick-and-mortar kind abound at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (NLBM) in Kansas City, Mo., where the story of a vital but long neglected chapter in the national pastime’s history is told. The NLBM preserves a rich heritage alongside the American Jazz Museum it shares space with in a sleek modern facility of bold colors and designs. It’s only right the NLBM calls Kansas City home, as that city gave birth to the Negro leagues and for decades hosted one of the great black ball clubs — the Kansas City Monarchs.
KC is also the adopted home of Buck O’Neil, widely considered the elder statesman of the Negro leagues. An all-star player and manager with the Monarchs of the Negro National League, the 94-year-old O’Neil co-founded the museum, which opened in a much smaller facility in 1991. The present structure opened in 1997. The NLBM is located smack dab in the middle of the historic cultural hub of KC’s black community, the 18th and Vine District, a gentrified neighborhood of brick, circa-1900s buildings, that in its day featured a 24/7 promenade of people taking in the area’s many clubs, eateries and stores.
A short jaunt off the Paseo exit finds you on John Buck O’Neil Way, which traverses a mixed commercial-residential area of brownstone walk ups — the Jazz Hill Homes — and places of worship — St. Stephen Baptist Church, Paseo Baptist, Bethel AME Church — whose names signify black culture. You arrive at 18th and Vine, to find an Old Market-style environs surrounded by the Blue Room, the Historic Lincoln Building, the Gem Theatre and the Swing Shop. Like a shrine stands the combined baseball-jazz museum and its homage to the game and the music that served to unite and thrill the black community.
The last Negro leagues team folded more than 40 years ago. The color barrier that precipitated the formation of the Negro leagues fell just after World War II ended. Yet African American pioneers in baseball are very much on people’s minds these days due to the July 30 National Baseball Hall of Fame induction of 17 Negro leagues and pre-Negro leagues figures. It’s the largest group from early black baseball to be elected to the Hall at one time.
A name conspicuous by its absence from this new crop of inductees is Buck O’Neil’s. In addition to his feats as a player-manager, he’s devoted himself to ensure the history of the Negro leagues not be lost. He’s perhaps best known for his narration in Ken Burns’ acclaimed Baseball documentary. His vivid descriptions of Negro leagues lore and the rousing place players-teams enjoyed in black communities, put a face on this story as never before. Long before the film, however, he lobbied for recognition of the Negro leagues as a singular slice of history and led the drive for its stars to be inducted in Cooperstown.
“I always thought the story should have been told and I’ve been telling it for the last 50 years,” O’Neil said. “But nobody listened to me until the Ken Burns documentary. Now everybody wants to talk to Buck about it.”
NLBM Marketing Director Bob Kendrick said O’Neil knows well his place in baseball history. “He’s a very proud man. He understands the fact he’s a trailblazer. He understands what this story represents to the core and he’s doing everything in his power to make sure others will have an opportunity to know about those who made great sacrifices and were trailblazers like himself. Education has been at the forefront of his life, and we’re talking about someone who’s the grandson of a slave, who was denied the opportunity to attend public high school in Sarasota, Fla., even though his parents were tax payers, who rose above that to become this elder statesman and icon for everything that is good in this country. He has been everything to this museum. If you had to point to a single individual for the building of this institution and keeping alive the legacy of the Negro leagues, it would be Buck O’Neil.”
“And that’s why we felt so disheartened by the fact the doors to the Hall of Fame were shut on him,” Kendrick said. “It’s difficult to assess his 70-plus-year baseball career and say he wasn’t worthy of inclusion as a contributor. You know, it leaves you to wonder what their criteria were, but certainly all of us understand the remarkable contributions this man has made to the game of baseball, across the board. Fans across the country were not just disappointed but outraged because he is the face of the Negro leagues now. Just as Satchel (Paige) was during his heyday, Buck has become the face of the Negro leagues. He is the reason people care about the Negro leagues. There’s no question about it.”
Bob Kendrick at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum
Ever the diplomat, O’Neil downplays the Hall’s snub. “I had an idea I had a chance” to be elected, “but having been on the Veterans Hall of Fame Committee for 20 years I knew what could happen.” He prefers to take the high road. “We’re fixing to put 17 more in there at the end of July. Isn’t that wonderful?” Kendrick doesn’t rule out O’Neil might one day still get in, but he only hopes it’s not too late. “We hope Buck will get this coronation at some point in time, but the thing is we hope that it comes in his lifetime.”
Hall or no Hall his name’s soon to grace the planned Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center that will mark the NLBM’s largest expansion project in a decade. The center will be housed in the nearby Paseo YMCA, a National Historic Landmark regarded as the birthplace of the Negro leagues. A $15 million rehab will provide state-of-the-art facilities for the museum’s oral history and archival work.
The museum O’Neil’s dedicated the past 16 years of his life to charts, in words and images, the rise and fall of the Negro leagues. A “Field of Legends,” complete with life-sized bronze statues of Negro league greats arrayed on a mock diamond, puts you right there in the action. If there’s a recurring theme, it’s that these teams and players made it possible for future generations of blacks to enter major league baseball (MLB). Without the Negro leagues, equal rights for blacks in baseball and other aspects of society might well have waited another generation.
“As Buck so eloquently puts it,” Kendrick said, “it’s nice sometimes we celebrate those who built the bridge as opposed to those who crossed over the bridge. That’s what we’re doing here — we’re celebrating the bridge builders.”
Kendrick said major league players who visit the museum come away awe-struck.
What most captivates people are the stories, told in interactive exhibits, that make this living history come alive. That’s especially true if you’re lucky enough to be there when O’Neil happens by to regale anyone within ear shot with tales of those halcyon times. The much-beloved O’Neil is a familiar figure there. An ebullient man, whose bright attire reflects his sunny disposition, he chats up visitors and staff, charming everyone he greets.
For a recent Legends Luncheon held at the Madrid Theatre in KC, a program that raises funds for the NLBM, O’Neil made the rounds at each table to welcome attendees — “Good to see you guys” — to sign autographs and to pose for pics. During an auction of baseball memorabilia, he worked the crowd, imploring and cajoling them to up their bids. “We’re going to start this off at $40. Forty, who’s going to say 40 for Buck? Fifty? Who’s going to give me 55? C’mon, bro. Thank you, brother. Who’s going to give me $60? What do you say, sugar? There you go, love. Going once, going twice…I’ve got to let her have it,” and with that he saunters to the woman, embraces her and plants a kiss on her cheek.
“The man has never met a stranger in his life,” said Kendrick, who often travels with O’Neil to spread the gospel of the museum’s mission. “I’ll tell you what, he’s the most charismatic individual I’ve ever encountered. The energy he exerts at 94, it’s just amazing to me how he does it. Just his sheer love of humanity, his love of life. When you meet Buck O’Neil, you’ve just got to be on his team.”
O’Neil loved being a Negro leaguer. The way of life it afforded him. The people it allowed him to meet. The game he loved it enabled him to play.
“The only experience I would have traded it for would have been to have done it in the major leagues,” said O’Neil, the prime of whose playing career came before the color barrier fell. “Yeah, that’s the only thing.”
Until the color barrier was broken in 1947, the Negro leagues offered black ballplayers, coaches and managers the next best thing. It was their major leagues.
The warm embrace blacks once extended to the game is in sharp contrast to their low participation in it today. Where blacks used to identify with baseball, it’s now largely seen as a white or Latino or even Asian sport. But not so long ago black-is-beautiful and baseball went hand in hand. The Negro leagues constituted a cultural institution that fostered black pride and generated black commerce.
“The painful images of blacks are pretty much out there — the images of slavery, the struggle of the civil rights movement — but very rarely are our success stories celebrated, and this is a success story” Kendrick said. “Blacks succeeded at the highest level you can succeed playing this game and went on to spark social change in this country. I think it’s an inspirational illustration of what blacks were able to accomplish in the face of tremendous adversity.
“It was an economic stimulus for black businesses. It created a sense of pride in the African American community because while this was shared by others, it still was intrinsically ours. It had been born, anchored and become successful” in the black community, He said. “Negro leagues baseball brought tremendous joy to African Americans during a time that was very difficult for blacks in this country.”
“I always share with our visitors that the story of the Negro leagues embodies the American spirit unlike any other,” Kendrick said, “because in it is everything we pride ourselves in being Americans. It’s a story of courage. It’s a story of men who flat out refused to accept the notion they were unfit to play America’s co-called national pastime. They created leagues of their own that actually rose to rival, and in many cities across this country, surpass the major leagues in popularity and attendance. They were determined, they persevered, they did whatever they had to do to prove to the world they could play this game as well as anyone. That is the prevailing American spirit.”
During an era when a “gentlemen’s agreement” among major league owners and commissioners kept blacks off the field, African Americans created their own baseball universe. In 1920, Andrew “Rube” Foster — “the father of black baseball” — held a meeting with other black team owners at KC’s Paseo YMCA and the result was the Negro National League, the first organized black pro league. Other leagues followed. The hope was the big leagues would eventually take-in one team from each main Negro league. It never happened.
Instead, it took another 27 years before the majors let in blacks. In the meantime, the Negro leagues continued to prosper. The first Colored World Series was held in 1924. New leagues followed. The boom was from 1933 to 1947, with teams in KC, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Birmingham, Memphis, Baltimore, New York, et cetera.
The Negro leagues featured comparable talent as the majors and, as the museum highlights, offered innovations, such as night baseball, years ahead of the bigs. A period poster on display called the attraction “the greatest drawing card outside the major leagues.” Also documented, in box scores and anecdotes, is the fact Negro league teams fared well against major league teams in exhibitions. One only imagines how the record books would be rewritten had greats “Cool Papa” Bell, Judy Johnson, Buck Leonard or Josh Gibson played in the majors. Or if pitcher Satchel Paige made it there in his prime rather than at the tail end of his career.
The museum provides a glimpse into what’s called a “parallel” baseball experience, but one relegated to the back pages of white newspapers and to the shadows of mainstream history. Yet this other world of professional baseball enjoyed every bit the cache and support among black fans the major leagues did among white fans.
Black baseball also attracted white fans, particularly when Negro league teams like the Monarchs barnstormed to play exhibitions versus local town teams or major league clubs. Fans flocked to see the Monarchs at Western League Park and Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha and American Legion Baseball Park in Council Bluffs.
The high times of being part of this unique experience is what O’Neil recalls.
“All you needed was a bus and I’ll tell you what, we traveled in some of the best money could buy during that period. And actually we stayed in some of the best hotels in the country — they just happened to be black owned and operated. We ate in some of the best restaurants in the country. Of course, during that time, the best cooks in the world were black,” said O’Neil his sing-song patios swelled with the solemnity of a preacher and the jive of a hipster. “In that bus you’d have 20 of the best athletes that ever lived. To be able to play, to participate, to compete with these type of athletes, oh, it was outstanding. As a young man from Florida, yeah, up north here in Kansas City playing baseball, outstanding really.”
Black athletes and musicians were THE celebrities in black communities and they socialized together. In KC, they stayed at the Streets Hotel, right down from where the museum stands today.
“At the Streets Hotel I might come down for breakfast and Duke Ellington and them might be there and say, ‘Come over and have breakfast with us this morning.” Or Sarah Vaughn. You’re talking about jazz and baseball. That was here, that was Kansas City,” said O’Neil, whose plaintive voice rises and falls like a soft riff.
When the Monarchs were in town, it was news. “Yeah, we were very well respected,” he said. “I’ll tell you how much — I courted a preacher’s daughter.”
Churches heeded their presence. “Sunday, 11 o’clock service, but when the Monarchs were in town, service started at 10 o’clock so that they (churchgoers) could get to the ball park. And then they would come looking good — dressed to kill. It was actually not only a ball game, it was a social event. The Monarchs, this was the thing. You saw everybody that was somebody there at the ball park. People would hobnob with their friends. Yeah, mmmm…hmmm.” Or as Henry “Pistol” Mason, a Monarchs pitcher O’Neil signed and managed, said, “We had a different brand of baseball. People wanted to see our brand of baseball, with its action and enthusiasm, running and bunting. It was more festive when we played. Going to the ballpark was just like going to a picnic. We had something to prove too — that we were good enough to play in the major leagues.”
Amen, said O’Neil, who feels this extra motivation explains why Negro leagues teams often beat major league teams in exhibitions. “We wanted to prove to the world they weren’t superior because they were major leaguers and we weren’t inferiors because we were Negro leaguers,” he said. Besides, he said, major leaguers “couldn’t afford to twist an ankle or break a finger in an exhibition ball game.”
Home or away, O’Neil said he and his fellow Negro leaguers felt the passion of fans.
“Oh, man, listen, the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. at his Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York, preached a baseball sermon for the New York Cubans, the New York Black Yankees, the Kansas City Monarchs and the Memphis Red Sox before a four-team doubleheader at Yankee Stadium,” he said. “He preached that sermon, and man, the church was full. They followed us to the ball park. We had 40,000 at Yankee Stadium. We played over at Branch Rickey’s place” — Ebbets Field, home to general manager Rickey’s Brooklyn Dodgers — “and we had 20,000 there.”
It was Rickey who signed Jackie Robinson away from the Monarchs in 1945 and brought him to the majors in 1947. Robinson was one of five blacks called up to the majors that year. O’Neil said Rickey’s enlightened move to buck the system made sound business sense. “Branch Rickey, the astute businessman that he was, saw this as a brand new clientele” to be mined, O’Neil said.
O’Neil emphasizes the men who broke baseball’s color barrier helped to spark a social revolution. “When Branch Rickey signed Jackie (Robinson) to that contract that was the beginning of the civil rights movement,” he said. “That was before Brown versus Board of Education. That was before sister Rosa Parks said, ‘I won’t go to the back of the bus today.’ Martin Luther King, Jr. was just a sophomore at Morehouse (College). Jackie started the ball rolling right there in baseball.”
In O’Neil’s opinion, “What kept us out of the major leagues was in fact not the fans, but the owners. See, the baseball fans, all they ever asked — Could you play?”
Robinson’s success and the success of players like Larry Doby proved, once and for all, blacks belonged on the same field, paving the way for others to follow. With integration underway, MLB increasingly tapped the Negro leagues’ deep talent pool. Sadly, many greats were deemed too old to invest in and thus never played in the bigs. Even Negro leagues teams began to prefer young prospects, whose contracts they could sell, over old veterans. Devoid of their stars, Negro leagues teams folded and then entire leagues disbanded. The last survived into the early 1960s. By then, blacks were regarded as essential cogs to any successful MLB franchise with the exception of a few hold outs (most notably the Boston Red Sox),
The impact black players had on the majors is undeniable. From the inception of the Rookie of the Year Award in 1949, seven of the first 10 winners were black. From 1949 to 1959, nine of 11 National League MVPs were former Negro leaguers. Future legends and Hall of Famers Robinson, Doby, Monte Irvin, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, among others, all came out of the Negro leagues. Besides their talent, they brought a livelier style of play — the hit-and-run, stretching a single into a double or a double into a triple, stealing home.
As a teen, Omaha’s own baseball icon, Bob Gibson, turned down a Monarchs offer to sign with the St. Louis Cardinals. By then, blacks were established in the majors while the Negro leagues were on their way out.
In a 33-year Chicago Cubs scouting career, O’Neil brought great black talent to the bigs, signing, among others, future Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Lou Brock. He became MLB’s first black coach with the Cubs. He later scouted for the Royals.
Buck O’Neil Legacy seat at Kaufman Stadium
He doesn’t think much about his own place in history. He’s too busy “running all over the country raising money” for the museum. “But, you see, I’m 94 and I ain’t going to live but 20 more years,” he said, smiling. “After I’m gone I want this to be here forever. That’s why we need an endowment.” To garner that support he meets with everyone from MLB superstars to commissioner Bud Selig to billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill Gates to Hollywood celebs to ordinary fans.
What makes him a great ambassador for the Negro leagues and for the game itself is his ability to engage folks from every walk of life. He said he’d like to be remembered as “a spokesman for the Negro leagues — to keep this memory alive.”
To close the Legends Luncheon he did what he usually does at his public appearances — he invited people to join hands and sing along with him a melody from an old song that best expresses the way he feels about baseball and its fans.
“The greatest thing, in all my life, is loving you. Thank you, folks.” Thank you, Buck.
The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sundays from noon to 6 p.m. For details about the museum, its permanent and traveling exhibits and its many educational programs, check out the web site www.nlbm.com or call toll-free at (888) 221-NLBM.
- Forgotten Negro league players finally get recognition (thegrio.com)
- FOX Sports show to feature Buck O’Neil this Sunday after the Royals-Cardinals game (royals.mlblogs.com)
- Video: Paying tribute to the Negro Leagues (msnbc.msn.com)
- Good-guy Hemond worthy of O’Neil Award (mlb.mlb.com)
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From Wars to Olympics, World-class Photojournalist Kenneth Jarecke Shoots It All, and Now His Discerning Eye is Trained on Husker Football
Photojournalist Kenneth Jarecke is as intrepid as they come in his globe-trotting work. He covers everything, from wars to Olympic Games, in all corners of the world, always seeing deeper, beyond the obvious, to capture revelatory gestures or behaviors or attitudes the rest of us miss. With his new book, Farewell Big 12, he examines the University of Nebraska Cornhusker football program’s last go-round in the Big 12 Conference through his unique prism for making images of moments only the most discerning eye can recognize and document. He sets off in relief the truth of individuals and events and actions, drawing us in to bask in their beauty or mystery.
Two photographer mentors of Jarecke’s, Don Doll and Larry Ferguson, are also profiled on this blog.
From Wars to Olympics, World-class Photojournalist Kenneth Jarecke Shoots It All, and Now His Discerning Eye is Trained on Husker Football
©by Leo Adam Biga
In his 26 years as a Contact Press Images photojournalist, award-winning Kenneth Jarecke has documented the world. Assignments for leading magazines and newspapers have taken him to upwards of 80 countries, some of them repeatedly.
His resulting images of iconic events have graced the pages of TIME, LIFE, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, National Geographic, Sports Illustrated and hundreds of other publications. His work has been reproduced in dozens of books.
He has captured the spectrum of life through coverage of multiple wars, Olympic Games and presidential campaigns. He has documented the ruling class and the poorest of the poor. He has photographed the grandest public spectacles and the most intimate, private human moments.
Wherever the assignment takes him, whatever the subject matter he shoots, Jarecke brings his keen sensitivity to bear.
“I know how to capture the human condition,” he said.
His well-attenuated intuition and highly trained eye followed the University of Nebraska football team on its last go-round through the Big 12 during the 2010 season. The result is a new coffee-table book, Farewell Big 12, that reproduces 300 Jarecke photographs, in both black and white and color, made over the course of 10 games.
He is planning a companion book, Welcome to the Big 10, that will document the Huskers throughout their inaugural 2011 season in the fabled Big 10 conference.
The projects represent his first solo books since 1992, when he published a collector’s volume of his searing Persian Gulf War I photos entitled, Just Another War.
His work has shown at the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery in Lincoln, at Nomad Lounge in Omaha, at the Houston Fine Arts Museum and at other galleries around the nation.
Coming Full Circle
The Husker photo books have special meaning for Jarecke, a native Nebraskan and one-time college football nose guard, who wanted to give Husker fans and photo aficionados alike a never-before-seen glimpse inside the game.
“It’s something I always wanted to do. I wanted to do an in-depth season in my own style, capturing the kind of images I like to see and make. I don’t cover football or sports as a news event, I cover it as an experience.
“I don’t care about the winning touchdown, I don’t care about really anything except what I can capture that’s interesting. So, it might be a touchdown or it might be a fumble or it might be concentrating on something completely different (away from the action).
“You don’t really see those type of pictures too much.”
His instinct for what is arresting and indelible guides him.
“It could be the light was right in this area. It could be something I see on somebody’s helmet or hand. It could be something I’ve seen somebody do two or three times and I follow this guy around to see if that happens again. My goal is to not record the game as it happens, my goal is to try to give an idea of what it’s like inside that thing.”
As a University of Nebraska at Omaha nose guard, he lived in the trenches of football’s tangled bodies, where violent collisions, head slaps, eye gouges and other brutal measures test courage. As a world-class photographer with an appreciation for both the nuanced gestures and the blunt force trauma of athletics, he sees what others don’t.
“I understand the game of college football from an inside perspective and I know how to shoot sports.”
“He’s a person who has this gift of seeing. He’s a 360-degree seer,” said noted photography editor and media consultant and former TIME magazine director of photography MaryAnne Golon. “What you’re going to get is Ken’s take, and Ken’s take is always interesting. Plus, he has a very strong journalistic instinct, and not every photographer has that.”
He is well versed in the hold the Huskers exert on fans. Indeed, his first national assignment, for Sports Illustrated, was a Husker football shoot.
“I’m basically circling back with this project,” he said. “In a lot of ways this Husker book is a dream project. As a native, I understand what this program means to the people of the state. and I wanted to capture it. That’s basically the bottom line.”
What appears on the surface to simply be a football photo book hones in on behavior – subtle or overt, gentle or harsh – as the mis en scene for his considered gaze.
“That’s the same approach I take to anything,” he said.
“Ken possesses an uncanny artistic exuberance and a deliberateness that belie his quiet personality,” said Jeffrey D. Smith, Jarecke’s Contact agent.
“Like a hunter methodically stalking his prey, Ken quickly and silently sizes up his surrounds, and determines position, shying away from the obvious. He assesses the light, watching how it changes, then he waits. He waits till the moment’s right, till the crowds thin, till the explosion of action provides an awkward off-moment or someone pauses to catch their breath, and then BAM, Ken catches the subject floating and off-guard.”
Camera as Passport
This sense of capturing privileged, revelatory moments is the same Jarecke had when he first discovered photography at age 15 in his hometown of Omaha.
“I realized that with a camera in your hand you basically had an excuse to invite yourself into anybody’s life. I figured out real quick it’s like a passport.”
A camera, when wielded by a professional like himself, breaks down barriers.
“As a photographer you’re completely at the mercy of kindness from strangers
wherever you go in the world. Whether you speak the language or not, you’re with strangers, and it never ceases to amaze me how kind people are and how open they are. And if not helpful, how they just leave you alone to go about your business, and it’s been that way everywhere.
“Yeah, I’ve had nasty experiences, but even then you see where there’s like a silver lining, and somebody helps you out somehow.”
He remembers well when photography first overtook him and, with it, the purpose-driven liberation it gave him.
“It was the end of my sophomore year at Omaha Bryan High School when I met a couple guys photographing football-wrestling-track. I was in all that. A guy named Jim Guilizia (whom Jarecke is still friends with today) invited me to see the school darkroom and how it works. And the first time I saw that I was like, ‘I’ve found something to do with my life.’ It was just that quick, just that easy. It was a done deal. Like magic.
“My dad had a 35 mm camera, so I started messing with that.”
Reflecting back, Jarecke said, “I didn’t know exactly what a photographer was. I mean, I thought it was this thing where you go and shoot a war and you come back to New York City and do a fashion shoot. I knew that’s what I wanted to do.” He wanted it so badly he quit football over the objections of his coach, arguing it left no time for photography.
“I felt like I was already missing out on things. I had to get to making pictures.”
His actual career has not been so unlike the idyll he imagined it to be, though as an independent contractor it has been a struggle at times. The challenges he may endure are outweighed by the freedom of operating on his own terms.
“I’ve always been a freelance photographer,” he said.
He has worked with every conceivable budget and circumstance – from all expenses paid, full-access, months-long sojourns to zero budget, uncredentialed gambits funded himself. He doesn’t let obstacles get in the way of doing his work.
“It seems strange, I know, but I’ve gone to countries without visas.”
His mantra is: “Somehow, I’m going to find a way.”
His skills at improvising and making-do in difficult situations and in a highly competitive field have steeled him for the lean times. Like today, when the market for editorial photography has shrunk as print media struggle to survive in the digital age.
“Basically I was forced to keep getting better, keep getting smarter, keep working. I’m a better photographer today then I’ve ever been,” he said. “I’ve been hungry with this profession for 30 years. That’s the difference. If you’re making a living with a camera today, you’re already in the 96th-97th percentile. How do you get to that 99th percentile?
“The whole struggling thing has made me stronger, has given me an edge. I think it’s more of a blessing than a curse.”
Magnum photographer Gilles Peress admiringly calls Jarecke “one of the few free men still in existence,” adding, “I think he’s great.”
School of Hard Knocks
Jarecke broke into the ranks of working photographers with a by-any-means-necessary ethic.
At 18 he got his first picture published – of an escaped Omaha Stockyards bull subdued on a highway. He became a pest to Omaha World-Herald editors, ”borrowing” its darkrooms to process his images. Sometimes he even sold one or two.
He became a stringer for the AP and the UPI.
“I was doing whatever I could do,” he said. “I never had a press pass. It was always, Which door can I sneak through? Literally.”
Jarecke often refers to the uneasy balance of chutzpah and humility top photographers possess, qualities he displayed when, still only a teen and with minimal experience, he flew to New York City to be discovered.
Against all odds he talked his way in to see Sports Illustrated editor Barbara Hinkle, who reviewed his meager black and white portfolio and offered advice: Start shooting in color and filling the frame. He heeded her words back home and built up a color portfolio.
His first big break came courtesy SI via an early-1980s Husker football shoot. He itched for more. Local assignments just weren’t cutting it for him financially or creatively.
“I was pretty frustrated. I was already at the point where I could make their pictures, but now I wanted to make my pictures.”
It was time to move on, so he headed back to NYC, where he “pieced together a living.” “I always had a camera in hock,” he said. “I was kind of stumbling along, living out of a suitcase for two or three years. I was broke.”
Among the best decisions he made was attending back to back Main Photographic Workshops: one taught by Giles Peress and another by David Burnett and Robert Pledge of newly formed Contact Press Images.
It was not the first time Jarecke studied photography. He counts among his mentors two Omaha-based image-makers with national reputations, Don Doll and Larry Ferguson, who took him under their wing at various points.
During one of his forays at college, editor MaryAnne Golon was judging a photography show in Lincoln, Neb. when she saw the early potential that eventually led him to working for her at TIME and U.S. News.
“I met Ken when he was an emerging photographer and I remember the work standing out then, and he was like 19, so it was interesting to watch the progression of his career,” she said. “I think he has a very lyrical eye. He’s a classic case of a photographer who comes out with some little magic moment.”
Bobbi Baker Burrows, director of photographer at LIFE Magazine Books, has also seen Jarecke grow from a wunderkind to a mature craftsman. “He just never ceased to amaze me in his growth and his artistry and his strong journalistic integrity,” she said. “As an adoptive mother to Ken I was so proud to see him blossom into a fine person as well as an extraordinary photographer.”
Jarecke said he got noticed as much for his talent as for his attitude. “I was obnoxious, I was arrogant.” Chafing at what he considered “too much naval gazing and thinking” by fellow students, he advocated “going with your gut.”
“It was very clear right off the bat he was quite a special, unusual character on the one hand and photographer on the other. Quite daring also,” said Pledge.
Pledge became a champion. With both Pledge and Burnett in his corner, Jarecke became an early Contact Press Images member. Pledge assigned Jarecke his breakthrough job: getting candid shots of Oliver North at the start of the Iran-Contra affair.
“I actually got his (North) home address through a Sygma photographer. Back then there were a lot of photo agencies. We were all competitors, but we all kind of worked together, too.”
From his car parked along a public street, Jarecke staked out North’s home. “I hung out from sunrise to sunset, waiting for him to mow the lawn or something. I was down to two rolls of film when this LIFE magazine photographer showed up. He had some type of agreement with Ollie that he’d get exclusive pictures. But he wasn’t allowed to go into Ollie’s place. It was like a wink and nod deal.
“This photographer had a small window to get his pictures and my being there was screwing up his whole deal.”
Frantic phone calls ensued between the LIFE photographer and his editor and Jarecke’s agent, Robert Pledge. LIFE insisted Pledge get his bulldog to back off, but Jarecke recalls Pledge giving him emphatic orders: Whatever you do, don’t leave.
“I explained to Bob I didn’t have any film. He said, ‘I don’t care, just pretend like you’re making pictures.’ It was a bluff with very high stakes.”
Jarecke did make pictures though, “shooting a frame here and a frame there,” shadowing the LIFE photographer.
“I just had to cover everything he covered.”
Jarecke’s persistence paid off. His work effectively spoiled LIFE’s exclusive, forcing the magazine to negotiate with Contact. “LIFE had to buy all my pictures that were similar to the ones in the magazine, basically to embargo them.” Jarecke found eager bidders for his remaining North images in Newsweek and People.
“I went from being broke to making a huge sell over like one week. That allowed me to keep working.”
Recognizing a good thing when they saw it, LIFE hired Jarecke to shoot some stories. Offers from other national mags followed. In 1987-1988 he traveled constantly, covering all manner of news events, including the elections in Haiti, an IRA funeral in Belfast that turned violent and the Seoul Summer Olympics. He was the most published photographer of the ‘88 presidential election campaign. His in-depth coverage of Jesse Jackson earned him his first World Press Photo Award.
In 1989, he became a contract photographer for TIME, whose editors nominated him for the International Center of Photography’s Emerging Photographer Award. Jarecke fulfilled his promise by producing cover stories on New York City, Orlando and America’s emergency medical care crisis. The 1990 “The Rotting of the Big Apple” spread attracted worldwide attention. His nine pages of black and white photographs dramatically illustrated the deterioration of America’s greatest metropolis. The piece’s signature picture, “Two Bathers,” won him another World Press Photo Award.
He didn’t know it then, but these were the halcyon times of modern photojournalism.
“Back then we used to spend a month on a story, not three or four days like we do now.”
it was nothing for a major magazine to send a dozen or more photographers and a handful of editors to a mega event like the Olympics.
When not on assignment, the TIME-LIFE building became something of a tutorial for Jarecke. In his 20s he got to know master photographers Carl Mydans, Alfred Eisenstaedt and other originators of the still very young profession.
“If you’re Yo-Yo Ma today, that’s like hanging out with Mozart,” said Jarecke. “You’re standing on the shoulders of these giants that paved the way and you have their careers to build off of.”
Photographing and Surviving a War Zone
Then came his coverage of Desert Storm and a controversy he didn’t bargain on.
The U.S. military instituted tight control of media access.
“I was a TIME magazine photographer at that point. I didn’t want to be in the (U.S.) Department of Defense pool, but I was forced to be in this pool. AP set up all the rules of engagement, down to the type of film you shot.”
Near the conclusion of fighting Jarecke was with a CBS news crew and a writer. Escorting the journalists were an Army public affairs officer and his sergeant. All were geared up with helmets and flak jackets.
It was still early in the day when the group came upon a grotesque frieze frame of the burned out remains of fleeing Iraqi forces attacked by coalition air strikes. Jarecke took pictures, including one of an incinerated Iraqi soldier. Jarecke’s images of the carnage offered unvarnished, on-the-ground glimpses at war’s brutality. The photos’ hard truth stood in stark contrast to the antiseptic view of the war leaders preferred.
At a certain point, Jarecke recalls, “we broke off from our pool” to avoid the Republican Guard. “We had this stupid, stupid plan to drive cross country into Kuwait. We started with two vehicles – a military Bronco and a Range Rover. We headed out across the desert with no compass, no map. We had a general idea of the direction we needed to go, but we immediately got lost.”
At one point Jarecke and Co. ran smack dab into the very forces they tried to avoid, and got shelled for their trouble, but escaped unharmed. Technically there was a cease fire, but in the haze of war not everyone played by the rules.
Skirting the combatants, the journalists and their escorts went off-road, ending up farther afield than before. The journalists waited until twilight to try and circle around the Republican Guard. The normally 45-minute drive was hours in progress with no end in sight.
“We’re seriously lost.”
Unable to make their way back onto the highway, the situation grew ever more precarious.
“The Bronco kept getting flat tires. We finally abandoned it and we all piled into the Range Rover.”
Around midnight, Jarecke’s group found themselves amid a caravan of non-coalition vehicles in the middle of a desert no-man’s land. “We’re playing cat and mouse throughout the night through the minefields, through the burning oil fields, through Iraqi fortified positions. We got our wheels tangled up once in their communication wires.”
Adding to the worries, he said, “we were almost out of fuel.” Nerves were already frayed as he and his fellow reporters had been up five days straight. Relief came when they stumbled upon a fuel truck and a small Desert Rat (British) unit. A new convoy was formed in hopes of regaining the highway. Then an idle American tank came into view.
“At 2 a.m. you don’t drive up to a tank and knock on the door,” said Jarecke. “You’ve got serious concerns with friendly fire and protocol and passwords of the day. It was dicy, but they recognized us.”
It turned out they were atop the highway, only the drifting sand obscured it.
“We’re still like 40 miles outside Kuwait City, but we’re on our way. We’ve got these Desert Rats behind us and we’re tooling along. At that point we’re kind of relaxed. I drifted off and when I awoke we’re in what looks like a parking lot with all these stopped vehicles. The Desert Rats are gone. We’ve lost them.
“I get out of the car and see a Russian machine gun set up on a truck, the silhouette visible in the light from the distant fires. Then I realize I hear a radio and that some of these vehicles are still running. It’s a mystery. Where are we? How’d we get here?”
Leaving the surreal scene, he said, “It was obvious trucks were running and eyeballs were on you. And then at some point we drove out of it and we were back on the highway, and we made it into Kuwait City as the sun was rising.”
Controversy, New Directions, Satisfaction
A couple days later Jarecke said he was trading war stories with a CBS news producer, who commented, “You won’t believe what we just saw – we’re calling it the Highway of Death,’ blah, blah, blah…”’ Looking and sounding eerily familiar to what Jarecke had driven through earlier, he said, “We were there.”
Back home, his incinerated soldier image was the object of a brouhaha. Deeming it too intense, the AP pulled the photo from the U.S. wire. The photo was distributed widely in Europe via Reuters and on a more limited basis in the U.S. through UPI. Jarecke and others were dismayed censorship kept it from most American print media.
“I thought I had done my job. I’d shown what I’d seen, and let the chips fall where they may. I thought being a journalist was supposed to be trying to tell the truth.”
He said so in interviews with BBC, NPR and other major media outlets. Eventually, that picture and others he made of the war were published in America. The iconic photo earned him the Leica Medal of Excellence and a Pulitzer Prize nomination.
Meanwhile, in the flood of Gulf War books, many utilizing his work, he tried to interest publishers in his own book, Just Another War, picturing the carnage. Admittedly an experiment that juxtaposes his visceral black and white images with art and poetry by Exene Cervenka, publishers declined. He self-published.
Jarecke’s imagery from the Gulf, said Contact’s Robert Pledge, is “really outstanding and unexpected and very personal. It’s some of the best documentation of that war.”
In 1996 Jarecke left TIME to be a contract photographer at U.S. News & World Report, where he made his mark in a decade of high-end, globe-trotting work.
“He’s the kind of photographer that when you send him out you know you’re going to be surprised when he comes back and surprised in a joyful way,” said MaryAnne Golon. “I’ve worked with him off and on for over 20 years and I’ve never been disappointed in an assignment he’s done.”
“He’s very determined. He really spends the time looking for things to give a shape and a meaning. He’s someone who’s very thoughtful with his eye. He looks at a situation and tries to dig in deep and look with greater detail,” said Pledge. “He’s able to seize upon things.”
Contact co-founder and photographer David Burnett has worked on assignment with Jarecke at major venues like the Olympics, where he can attest to his colleague’s intensity.
“It’s quite something to be able to see Ken about the fourth or fifth day at the Olympic Games, when we’re just starting to get really into it, really tired, and really frustrated. He’s walking down a hallway with this killer look on his face, holding two monopods, one with a 400 and one with a 600. He looks like he’s got the thousand yard stare, but he knows exactly where he’s going
“And it’s a treat to watch, because when he gets wound up like that, the pictures are amazing.”
Today, Jarecke, his wife, and the couple’s three daughters and one son live far from the madding crowd on a small spread in Joliet, Montana. His hunger to make pictures still burns.
“Working without a net keeps me going for that next mountain, and the truth is you never reach it.”
Elusive, too, is the perfect picture.
“There’s no such thing, because if it is perfect it’s no good. There has to be something messy around the edges. That’s part of the mystery of creating these pictures. They almost get their power from the imperfections.”
Imperfect or not, his indelible observations endure.
With his iconoclastic take on Husker football, he’s sure he’s published a collection of pictures “no one else is making.” He’s pleased, too, this quintessential Nebraska project is designed by Webster Design and printed by Barnhart Press, two venerable Nebraska companies.
“No small feat,” he said.
With traditional media in flux, Jarecke looks to increasingly bring his work to new audiences via e-readers and tablets. His art prints are in high demand.
Golon said the present downturn is like a Darwinian cleansing where only the strongest survive and that Jarecke “is definitely one of the fittest, and so I’m sure he’ll survive” and thrive.