The first film story I ever had published was about an Omaha native filmmaker not named Alexander Payne. That may come as a surprise to those of you familiar with this blog and my work as a film journalist who has long covered the Oscar-winning writer-director. No, the profile subject of that first film piece was Steve Lustgarten, who left here a number of times going back to the 1970s, searching for his creative mojo outlet and finally finding it after several fits and starts as a largely L.A,-based indie producer-writer-director. I wrote this piece more than 20 years ago on the occasion of his coming back to shoot an action feature in his home state that had the working title of Homefires Burning but that eventually got released as Power Slide. Lustgarten had previously generated some buzz with his Student Academy Award-winning feature American Taboo. His returning to make Homefires/Power Slide was a big deal in 1989 because of the paucity of films made here, especially by homegrown filmmakers. This was some years yet before Payne began making movies in Omaha (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt). Interestingly, Lustgarten chose Plattsmouth, Neb., a small town in the far southeast corner of the state, to shoot in and that’s also where Sean Penn decided to film The Indian Runner just a couple years later. Lustgarten had a slate of films he wanted to make after Homefires/Power Slide but while he did direct again he largely transitioned into being a distributor of low budget films, ranging from festival art pics to exploitation genre pics, through his Leo Filns. It’s not surprising given the fact he came out of the Roger Corman school of filmmaking and never really worked in the mainstream Hollywood industry. My 1989 story made much of the fact that this wanderer and prodigal son had returned to film on his home turf and that the storyline of his picture centered on a protagonist who also returns home. In reality, as soon as the film was completed Lustgarten left Nebraska for L.A. again and pretty much stayed away until a few years ago, when he relocated Leo Films here. As soon as he moved here however the state of Iowa suspended the film incentives program that enticed him to relocate in the first place. He does corporate, commercial, and doumentary work while waiting for a feature project to materialize. He appears set to stay here this time and perhaps the Nebraska Legislature‘s recent passage of film incentives makes launching a film more practical than before.
You’ll find many more film stories on this blog.
In an interesting twist, Lustgarten’s running for the U.S. Democratic Senate seat that retiring Ben Nelson will be vacating and the political noivice is going up against contenders he surely has no chance against, including former Senator and Nebraska governor Bob Kerrey. Then again, Lustgarten’s been fighting the odds all along as a filmmaker and distributor and somehow making that work for him for the better part of 30 years.
Filmmaker Steve Lustgarten Proves He Can Come Home Again
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the Omaha Metro Update
It’s an apt description of Steve Lustgarten, an itinerant artist whose wanderlust has uprooted his native Omaha ties the past 20 years. While always returning here, Lustgarten invariably gravitates to the West Coast, where he makes films.
His most recent homecoming is causing quite a stir because this prodigal son has brought back a slice of Hollywood with him. The 38-year-old is the producer-writer-director of Homefires Burning, a feature-length dramatic film shot entirely in Nebraska this fall. Filming began October 13 and is wrapping up this week.
“I think this is one of the first indigenous movies to be made here,” he said. “We have all local actors and primarily a local crew.”
Besides keeping costs down by using local talent, he explained that filming in the state offered the scenic harvest landscapes the story required. “I think it’s a beautiful area in the fall and I always wanted to shoot here. I’m really into beautiful visuals.”
The principal filming location was in and and around Plattsmouth, Neb. “Plattsmouth is a truly old pace and that’s what drew me to it,” he said. “Everything we shot has a sense of time passing. The thematic part of the film is about history and time, and that area just resonates with it.”
Last week’s snow caused a delay in production, pushing the film over its six-week shooting schedule with three outdoor scenes left.
“We’ve been running around Plattsmouth trying to find one tree with leaves left on it because this is a fall picture.”
To avoid cost overruns on his less than $200,000 budget Lustgarten released most of the crew last week. He and a skeleton crew are filming what remains of the picture. Overall, he said he’s captured what he came here for. “We shot some great photography.”
Since any movie made in Nebraska is still a novelty Homefires and its native son creator have received much attention. For all the hoopla though Lustgarten seems unpretentious about the whole business. Perhaps he sees irony in coming home after a long absence to find himself lionized.
“It’s the first time I’ve been home for any length of time since 1978.”
Although he’s bounced up and down the West Coast he’s mostly lived and worked in Los Angeles the last five years. Since coming back last spring to raise money for Homefires he has lived with his parents at their northwest Omaha home.
His appropriately titled film concerns a man who after years away returns to his Nebraska roots only to find things changed – the past irretrievably lost. The protagonist is Kyle, a professonial race car driver who’s a celebrity in how small hometown for past exploits. He returns tired, down-and-out and no longer able to connect with old friends.
“Eighty percent of it’s about Kyle’s relationships with people he left behind, how they changed, and what it’s like to try and go back.”
Lustgarten said his own comings and goings from home have lent the film some autobiographical weight. “The most autobiographical element s the whole idea of my being away from Omaha and my home, coming back and seeing some of my old friends and not being able to fit in anymore. Because our relationships are based in the past, they aren’t the same anymore.”
He felt alienated after winning a 1983 Academy Award in the student film category for American Taboo. He produced, wrote and directed the feature-length film while at Portland State University in Oregon. His success came during a turbulent time in his personal life. Visitng Omaha some time later he noted an uneasy gap between his self-image and people’s inflated perceptions.
“People here might have thought it (the award) was a bigger deal than it really was. I ran into a certain, ‘Oh, yeah, we heard about you on ‘Entertainment Tonight,’ and, ‘Oh, it’s a success.’ That engendered an idea about this race car driver who had been on TV and was a small town hero to people back home but he knew his life was burned out.”
Lustgarten can relate to that. The Omaha Burke High School graduate has traveled a “circuitous” road to satisfy a restless creativity. In the early ’70s he attended Wayne State College (Wayne, Neb.) and the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he studied English and journalism. He was a reporter for the Alliance (Neb.) Times-Herald, covering the Wounded Knee occupation. Then he sought adventure out West.
He learned how to use a motion picture camera doing commercial work for a local advertising agency. When the movie bug bit he said he itched to make his own films “but really wasn’t aware of how to do it myself,” adding, “So I just started making short, super 8 mm movies and pretty much picked it up on my own by reading a lot of books and going to a lot of cheap movies.”
He landed his first professional film job in 1976 with an L.A. production company. “I worked in Hollywood on a lot of little low budget movies,” he said. Eventually he became “burned out” in L.A. He came back to Omaha and then lived in Seattle and Portland. By the time he started at Portland State, which had a film program, he wanted to make a feature but lacked the necessary means. The opportunity arose through an unlikely chain of events worthy of any script.
“My grandfather died and left me about $10,000. I put $5,000 into a house. The $5,000 left over really wasn’t enough to do it, so I invested it in some highly specualtive stocks, which for some reason doubled over the course of a month. I was able to start the film and put it in the can with that money. Then I scrounged up some more to finish it.”
Perhaps it was poetic justice that his grandfather, Harry Lustgarten Sr., indirectly made the film possible. “He was a large booker of films in the Chicago area in the ’50s and early ’60s,” said Steve. “He gave a lot of the early Samuel Arkoff-American International pictures their break in that market. He was probably my first exposure to the movies as a kid.”
Made under Portland State’s auspices, Taboo is described by its creator as a “European-style art film.” He said, “It deals with a lonley photographer who’s hidden behind a camera lens all his life. He gets enamored with the girl next door, who confronts him with his sexual repression and brings him out of his shell. It creates some turbulence in his life that he isn’t prepared for.”
While the film “hasn’t seen much U.S. distribution,” he said, “it’s constantly marketed overseas.” He said Taboo’s limited theatrical release included showings in Minneapolis, Portland and L.A. despite good reviews Lustgarten said he “didn’t make any concerted effort to book it theatrically becauae it was just too difficult. I found a foreign distributor and it’s been shown all over Europe as well as in Asia, South America and Australia.”
He said low budget titles like Taboo and Homefires face steep odds breaking into the U.S. theatrical market. They must compete against studio-backed films that cost $15 million on average and that have robust multi-media marketing campaigns behind them. That’s why most films budgeted under $5 million, he said, are directly sold to the home video and cable television markets domestically and abroad, thus bypassing theatrical distribution altogether.
Before tackling Homefires Lustgarten worked as a production assistant at New Horizons, where the one-time King of Hollywood B movies, Roger Corman, reigns. Corman made his name producing, sometimes directing and releasing low budget exploitation genre movies that became popular fare at drive-ins and that today stock the shelves at video rental stores and fills late night cable TV schedules. Corman also gave many then obscure and now big name actors, writers, and directors their start in features.
A typical Lustgarten job under Corman was serving as production coordinator on Strip to Kill, a project the filmmaker sarcastically refers to as “a memorable experience.” When that schlock picture’s first-time director needed bailing out Lustgarten said he pitched in and “ended up doing the storyboards, shooting second-unit stuff and finding new locations. I was trying to stand-out and move up in the organization. But I never quite learned the just-do-your-job-and-shut-up routine. That is not my nature.”
However, he did learn some valuable lessons along the way, such as bringing productions in on budget and at a fraction of the major studios’ price, and weaving enough action into stories to make them marketable. He’s applied these lessons to Homefires, which is emphatically “not an art house film,” he said, but rather “commercially targeted for the home video and cable TV markets in the U.S. and theatrically overseas. It’s positioned as an action-oriented film. We’re going to market it in that fashion. There are car chases, explosions, gunfights, so it fits into that ilk. Hopefully, it also offers more of a story than the Ramboesque movies provide.”
The film’s action is triggered by a rural drug lord who bails out beleagurerd farmers with loans in exchange for harvesting marijuana on their land. His terror tactics keep the community silent until Kyle returns and discovers his brother has gotten in deep with the kingpin in an attempt to save the family farm. Kyle helps his brother do the right thing and smash the drug ring.
Before going independent Lustgarten tried to interest several producers in Homefires, one of six or seven screenplays he’s written and shopped around in Hollywood. In fact, deals for Homefires were struck, he said, but the financing always fell through.
“It was almost made once iin South Africa, once in Australia, once in Texas and somewhere else. It’s been around the block. At different times it was a $1 million to $6 million budget. It’s just a nightmare trying to raise major sums of money for movies.”
Lutsgarten began raising funds anew for Homefires in April. “I talked to bank presidents. lawyers, accountants, doctors, mechanics, anybody who had a glimmer of interest in film. It’s a lot of telephone calls and meetings. It’s really tough to try and sell a motion picture investment here because people don’t understand the movie business.”
The project remained on hold until “right down to the wire,” he said. “I pushed back shooting a month to raise money.” He ended up finding six Midwest investors, most from Nebraska. He’s put up a “big chunk” of the money himself. The film is a production of his own Lustgarten Entertainment Organization.
What pitch does he use to lure potential investors? “I tell them at this low of a budget you cannot lose money if you competently produce the picture because there is such a demand for the product. It’s very hard to make promises but I show comparative values of what other films have made overseas, which is the primary market for low budget films. About 70 percent of the money comes back from foreign distribution.” For example, he said a $100,000 sale to Japanese home video distributors is “not unusual.” He added, “I tell investors I would be surprised if we don’t break even. The top side becomes pie-in-the-sky. It could be three or 20 times your money.”
Homefires will come in under $200,000 – a budgeting feat considering its scope. “It’s a big, sprawling script with a lot of locations, actors and cars. There’s about 120 scenes,” he said. His decision to shoot in the less expensive 16 mm film stock, he said, was a cost conscious one as film and processing, each outsourced in L.A., are the two largest budget items. He also saved money by getting non-union actors to work on deferment, “meaning they’ll make money if the movie does.” And the only out-of-town crew ne brought in were the cinematographer and sound mixer, both imported from the coast. The entire cast and crew numbered about 50, well below industry standards.
The cast, which features about 30 speaking parts, is headed by Tim Vandeberghe as Kyle. Local community theater fans may be familiar with his stage work and that of such fellow cast members as Karen Kuger, Laura Marr, Earl Bates and John Durbin. For most, it was their first film role.
“I got real lucky,” said Lustgarten. “I found some really excellent actors. I think everybody was so excited about working on this that it overrode the inconveniences and lack of comforts.”
A major annoyance was the daily commute to Plattsmouth for Lustgarten and most of the Omaha-based cast and crew. The travel, on top of shooting schedules that lasted up to 18 hours a day, made for some very long days and nights. Low budget sets don’t have trailers where actors can escape the elements.
“We were out there on some pretty windy, cold days,” he said. Added to Lustgarten’s headaches were his multiple responsibilties. “The producing problems are so overwhelming that directing almost gets swamped by them.” Despite the distractions of wearing many hats he relishes the creative freedom each gives him. “I like to have control of my destiny rather than let someone else take over and not really know how to handle the material.”
He did seek help from Janet Traub of the Nebraska Film Office. She suggested film locations and arranged meetings with Plattsmouth officials to obtain permits and approvals.
What kind of reception did Lustgarten and his made-in-Nebraska film get from city fathers?
“Skepticism at first, but gradually they warmed to the idea that it was realistic and finally they gave us their full support.”
The shoot’s drawn its share of sight-seers. “People cruise up and down the main street,” said Lustgarten. “It all worked out real well. We got 100 percent cooperation.” He said the city definitely felt an economic impact from spending by cast and crew members. “They bought their everyday needs down here. They left a few bucks, which is always welcome.”
He noted the production also attracted the curious from nearby communities, further boosting the local coffers.
According to Traub the cast and crew many have “spent as much as $100,000 in the state.” She said the Department of Economic Development uses a multiplier of 2.7 to project the total trickle-down income generated from such activities as film productions. “Consequently it generated an estimated $270,000 of new money in the state.”
Lustgarten said it’s possible he’ll make future films in Nebraska but the site “depends on where the financing comes from” and what the story requires.
“The next project I’m looking at doing is a murder-mystery called Lady in the Dark, which I hope to start in late winter or early spring.”
Until then he’ll be busy editing Homefires, which he hopes to have ready by April for distributors. To finish his film the wanderer may be leaving home again. “It kind of depends on my personal life. Do I want to spend another two or three months here or go back to L.A., because when I do editing I also start the marketing-sales process that can only be done there.”
It sounds like the wayfarer is about to roam again. He did leave open the possibility of premiering the fim in Omaha and Plattsmouth next spring.
Until then, the home fires will be burning.
- Nebraska Legislature Once Again Wrestles with the Film Tax Incentives Question; Alexander Payne and John Beasley Press the Case Home (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- ‘Out of Omaha’ (‘California Dreaming’) Project Adds to Area’s Evolving Indie Filmmaking Scene (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Tempting Fate: Patrick Coyle Film ‘Into Temptation’ Delivers Gritty Tale of a Working Girl and an Idealistic Priest in Search of Redemption (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Omaha Film Festival Celebrates Seven Years of Growing the Local Film Culture (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Payne Delivers Another Screen Gem with ‘The Descendants’ and Further Enhances His Cinema Standing (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Joan Micklin Silver’s Classic ‘Hester Street’ Included in National Film Registry (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Alexander Payne Delivers Graceful Oscar Tributes – The Winner for Best Adapted Screenplay Recognizes Clooney, Hemmings and His Mom (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- My Forthcoming Book, ‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film,’ Due for a Fall 2012 Release (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
From My Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness – Alexander the Great’s Wrestling Dynasty, Champion Wrestler and Coach Curlee Alexander on Winning
I first met up with Curlee Alexander for the following story, which appeared about eight years ago as part of my series on Omaha Black Sports Legends titled, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness. Alexander was a top-flight collegiate wrestler for his hometown University of Nebraska at Omaha but he really made his mark as a high school coach, leading his teams to state championships at two different schools – his alma mater Technical (Tech) High School and North High School. He is inducted in multiple athletic hall of fames. Then, about three years ago I caught up with him again in working on a profile of his younger cousin Houston Alexander, a mixed martial arts fighter Curlee trains. You can find on this blog most every installment from the Out to Win series as well as that profile I did on Houston Alexander. More recently yet Curlee came to mind when I did a piece on the 1970 NAIA championship UNO wrestling team he helped coach as a graduate assistant and that he helped lay the foundation for as a wrestler under coach Don Benning. You’ll find that story and a profile of Benning, who is one of Alexander’s chief mentors, on this blog. The UNO wrestling program made a great impact on the sport locally, regionally, and nationally but sadly the program was eliminated a year and a half ago and now the legacy built by Alexander, Benning, and later Mike Denney and Co. can only found in record books and memories and news files. My story about the end of the program is also featured on this blog.
From My Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness – Alexander the Great’s Wrestling Dynasty, Champion Wrestler and Coach Curlee Alexander on Winning
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Short in stature and sleek of build, Curlee Alexander still manages casting a huge shadow in Nebraska wrestling circles even though the largely retired educator is now a co-head coach. Seven times as head coach he led his prep teams to state championships, six at Omaha North and one at Omaha Tech. Twice, his North squads were state runners-up. Four more times his Vikings finished third. Dozens of his athletes won individual state titles, including three by his son Curlee Alexander Jr., and many had successful college careers on and off the mat.
In the wrestling room, Alexander’s word is law because his athletes know this former collegiate national champion wrestler once made the same sacrifice he asked of them. Following an undistinguished high school wrestling career at Omaha Tech, his persistence in the sport paid off when he blossomed into a four-time All-American for then-Omaha University. UNO wrestling’s rise to prominence under coach Don Benning was rewarded when the team won the 1970 NAIA team title and Alexander took the 115-pound individual title in the process.
Like most ex-wrestlers, Alexander’s keeps in tip-top shape and, even pushing 60, he still demonstrates some of his coaching points on the mat with his own wrestlers — going body to body with guys less than a third his age and often outweighing him. In the old days, he pushed guys to the limit and, in wrestling vernacular, “beat up on ‘em,” to see how they responded. It was all about testing their toughness and their heart. It’s the way he came up.
Proving himself has been the theme of Alexander’s life. He grew up in a north Omaha neighborhood, near the old Hilltop Projects, filled with fine athletes. Being a pint-sized after-thought who “was always trying to catch up” to the other guys in the hood, he searched for a sport he could shine in. “I was small and weak and slow. I had to start from scratch to develop my athletic skills,” he said. “Wrestling was about the only thing I could do and I was really not very good.” To begin with.
He learned the sport from Tech coach Milt Hearn. In classic apprentice fashion, he started at the bottom and worked his way up. “When he got me started wrestling, I was used as a doormat,” Alexander said. “All I was required to do was save the team points by not getting pinned. If I could do that, than I did my job. As a junior, I got beat out by two freshmen. I was always fighting an uphill battle. I could never let up. I could never be comfortable. I knew I had to work hard. I knew I had to work harder than most of ‘em just to be successful.” Despite this less than promising debut, Alexander said he “kept getting after it. I started buying a lot of weight training-body building books and started weight lifting. By the time I got to be a senior I didn’t wrestle anybody that was any stronger than me. I finished second in every tournament I entered my senior year. I never won a championship in high school. The first championship I won was when I reached college.”
Sparking his evolution from designated mop-up guy to legitimate contender was the motivation others gave him. “I had a lot of good role models, one of which was my father. He always preached athletics to us.” Where his father encouraged him, his brother dis’d him. “My brother was a much better athlete than I was, so I was always trying to do things, more or less, to impress him. I’d come home after losing and my brother would make comments like, ‘I knew you weren’t going to win,’ and so I picked up the I’m-going-to-show-you attitude. I was never the athlete he was, but I accomplished a lot more in the athletic arena than he ever dreamed of.”
Then there were the studs he grew up with in the hood, guys like Ron Boone, Dick Davis, Joe Orduna and Phil Wise, all of whom went onto college and pro sports careers. If that wasn’t motivation enough to hurry up and make his own mark, there were the reminders he got from friend and Omaha U. classmate Marlin Briscoe, who was making a name for himself in small college football. “I tried out for the wrestling team and there was a returning wrestler who beat me out. I saw Marlin at the student center and he asked, ‘How’d you do?’ I told him I got beat by this guy and he said, ‘Man, that guy’s no good…he got beat all the time last year.’” And that guy never beat me again. All I needed to hear were little things like that.”
Fast forward a few years later to Alexander’s national semi-final match in Superior, Wis. His opponent had him in a good lock and was preparing to turn him when Alexander recalled something former Tech High teammate, Ralph Crawford, told him about the winning edge. “He told me, with emphasis, ‘Give him nothing,’ and because of that little inspiration I knew I had a little extra to do, and it made a difference in my winning that match and going on to be a national champion.”
There was also the example set by his UNO teammates, Roy and Mel Washington, a pair of brothers who won five individual national titles (three by Roy and two by Mel) between them. “Probably the one I learned the most from, as far as determination, was the late Roy Washington,” who later changed his name to Dahfir Muhammad. He was just a great leader. Phenomenal. I watched him. Everything he did I tried to do and it made all the difference in the world. He knew how to work. He knew what it took. He just refused to get beat. He was real mentally tough,” Alexander said. “If you’re weak-minded, you can forget it.”
Finally, there’s Don Benning, whom Alexander credits for giving him the opportunity and direction to make something of himself. “He’s the reason I have a college degree and was able to go on and teach and coach for 30-odd years. He gave me a chance where I had no other chance,” he said. “He made you believe you could achieve. I wouldn’t have been able to achieve nearly as much success if I hadn’t been under his tutelage. As far as coaching, I basically followed his philosophy. Hard work. Refuse to lose. Being the best on your feet. I built on that foundation.”
Surrounded by superb tacticians, Alexander drew on this rich vein of knowledge, as well as his own from-the-bottom-to-the-top experience as a wrestler, to inform his coaching. “I took a little bit from everybody and applied it. In dealing with kids I tell them I know what it’s like to be weak and not have any athletic ability, and yet go to the top. I teach kids what they need to do in order to improve, to stay dedicated, to be successful and to be champions. What I strive to do as a coach is lead by example. I work out with them to show I’m not afraid to work.”
Much like Benning, whom he coached under as a graduate assistant, Alexander doesn’t try fitting athletes into a box. He lets them develop their own style. “If I’ve got a kid who’s got some decent ability I don’t tell him he’s got to wrestle this way or that way. We try to get what he’s got and improve on it and try to impress upon him to keep working until he understands what it takes to be a champion.”
A young Curlee Alexander in his UNO wrestling singlet, ©UNO Criss Library
Champions. He’s coached numerous team and individual titlists. As satisfying as the team wins are, he said, they “don’t compare to the individual ones. The kids put so much effort into it.” He said a coach must be a master motivator to figure out what makes each individual tick. “All the time, I’m looking for angles to get into a kid’s head to get him to believe,” he said. “What separates a lot of coaches is getting those kids to believe your philosophy is correct. It boils down to being able to communicate and to have kids want to succeed for you and themselves.”
He makes clear he expects nothing less than champions. “I’ve got a lot of guys that have placed at state, but if they didn’t win a state championship, their picture does not go up on the wall in my office. That might be kind of harsh, but it’s reality. That’s what we’re trying to get our kids to strive for and win. Championships are what it’s all about.” He said his favorite moments come from kids who aren’t talented, yet get it done anyway and claim a championship that lasts a lifetime. North High heavyweight Brandon Johnson is an example. “He wasn’t really a good athlete. Overweight. He had to cut down to 275. But he was a hard worker and he had a big heart,” Alexander said. “And, boy, when he won state in 2001, I had tears in my eyes for the first time. I didn’t even cry when my son won, because it was understood he was going to win. But with this guy, it really wasn’t expected. It was just a culmination of all the hard work he gave.”
The hardest part of coaching is seeing “kids do all that hard work and then, when they get right there to the doorstep” of a championship, “they don’t win it.”
The heralded prep coach began as an assistant at Tech, whose wrestling program he took over in the mid’70s. He remained at Tech until it closed in 1984, when he went to North, where he’s remained until retiring from teaching full-time in 2002. The next year he stepped down as head coach to serve as associate head coach and lately he’s added Dean of Students to his duties. As co-head coach, he’s freed himself from all the red-tape to just work with the wrestlers. When his mentor, Don Benning, recently expressed surprise at how much passion Alexander still has for the sport, the former student replied, “I still enjoy it. I enjoy the strategy. I enjoy the competition. I enjoy working with the kids. They keep you young.” He said matching Xs and Os with coaches during a match never gets old. “I really think I’m very good at it and, boy, when I’m successful at it, it’s exhilarating.”
Alexander’s been a pioneer in much the same way Don Benning was at UNO in the ‘60s and Charles Bryant was at Abraham Lincoln High School (Council Bluffs) in the ‘70s. Each man became the first black head coach at their predominantly white schools, where they established wrestling dynasties. In more than 75 years of competition, Alexander is the only black head coach in Nebraska to lead his team to a state wrestling title (and he’s done it at two different schools). Along the way, he built a dynasty at North, which in all the years previous to his arrival had won but a single state wrestling championship. He had six as head coach. Through it all, he’s defied expectations and overturned stereotypes by doing it his way.
- Closing Installment from My Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, An Exploration of Omaha’s Black Sports Legends (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- From the series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness – Black Women Make Their Mark in Athletics (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Making the Case for a Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- From My Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, An Exploration of Omaha’s Black Sports Legends (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Can Houston Alexander Break Gilbert Yvel? (mmaggregate.wordpress.com)
In the struggle African-Americans have waged to achieve equal footing in education, employment and housing as well as in leadership positions, elected or not, the progress made has not always made banner headlines. In fact many of the gains have happened quietly and largely under the radar. That’s certainly the case with Carole Woods Harris, who achieved one first after another for black women in Omaha, Neb., where she became a leader in business and in local-county government by persistently moving through the ranks, networking, proving herself just as capable as her male counterparts, and along the way gaining a reputation for being a methodical and savvy operator who never lost touch with her roots. This profile I wrote of Harris appeared about a decade ago.
Carole Woods Harris Makes a Habit of Breaking Barriers for Black Women in Business and Politics
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the New Horizons
When former US West executive and current Douglas County Commissioner Carole Woods Harris first applied at the phone company in the late 1950s, the then-Technical High School honors student eagerly sought one of Ma Bell’s long distance operator openings. It was an era when women, regardless of ability, were limited to narrow roles in the workplace. Any job at the fat phone company was prized. A job there meant a steady paycheck and, if one stayed put, the promise of a pension at the end of a long career. There was even the possibility of advancing into a better paying spot. In reality, few women actually did.
Although the precocious Carole, then known by her maiden name Anders, was told by company officials she more than qualified for the job, she was denied it and, instead, got offered an elevator operator slot. The snub was the first bitter taste of racism in this young black woman’s life. A proud Carole rejected the offer on the spot. However, with the Civil Rights Movement beginning to open doors for blacks, she soon found herself called back by the company, which did an abrupt about-face and tendered her the same position she wanted in the first place. She accepted this offer because, one, she deserved it and, two, her family badly needed the money. Carole was the oldest of three children in a single-parent family (her mother and father were separated) and the Anders barely scraped by on what her mother made working as a maid and what the family received in welfare assistance. “Bear in mind,” she said during a recent interview from her northwest Omaha home, “this is the best job that anybody in my family had ever had.”
The same young woman who had enough moxie to say “No thanks” when treated unfairly and enough good sense to say “Thank you” when opportunity knocked, made this bottom-rung job her entry into the business world, where she blazed a trail for other minorities in climbing the corporate ladder over a 30-year career with the communications giant, much of it spent in management.
High achievement is something Harris, a Kellom Grade School and Tech High graduate, was brought up to expect despite growing up in poverty. Her self-confidence and lofty expectations came from the many stalwart women in her life. Chief among them were her mother, Frances, and maternal grandmother, Elizabeth. “I was raised and influenced, you might say, by a number of strong black women. My mother was a very intelligent woman who finished high school with the skills to be a secretary, which was probably the top of the ladder for women at that time. But that was something in Omaha she was not able to do because of her race. Many of the parents of her generation had that experience. My mother could only find work as a house maid all the time I was growing up. She ended up being able to get into a decent job when she got on at the Post Office, which began hiring blacks. But what I got from my mother was the belief that things were going to get better for us. My mother instilled the attitude that I could do whatever I wanted and the importance of being prepared to do it. So, she instilled a lot of hope.”
In her grandmother Elizabeth, Harris found an example of how to persevere and stay true to core beliefs through trying times. “My mother’s mother was a widow who raised nine children. By the time she was in her 40s she lost her sight (due to glaucoma). Yet, she helped to raise her grandchildren. I often consider my grandmother as the most saintly person I’ve known. She had a very strong faith.” The family, led by grandma, regularly attended Morningstar Baptist Church. Today, Harris worships at Clair Memorial United Methodist Church.
While establishing herself as a player in business circles, Harris began making her presence known as a community volunteer and board member. She is the past chair of the Eastern Nebraska Human Services Board of Governors. She still serves on the boards of numerous health and human service agencies, including the United Way of the Midlands. More recently, she has emerged as a savvy politico giving voice to minority concerns. Along the way to becoming a community leader, she raised a family. The twice-divorced Harris has three children from her first husband — sons Vernon and Michael and daughter Kimberly. She is a grandmother of four. Her only regret, she said, is not finishing her college education, something she put on the back-burner to take care of business.
A black woman elevator operator in Virginia in the era Carole Woods Harris worked the same job in Omaha
Upon being the first black promoted into middle management from within then-Northwestern Bell in the 1970s, she became a figure of inspiration for a group of long-time employees who filled the very job the company tried steering her into more than a decade earlier. “There were several black women working as elevator operators then, and these beautiful, special women were so encouraging and supportive of me when I started. They mothered me. They just showed such a sense of pride in me,” she said, her voice breaking at the thought of how much she meant to them and how much they meant to her. Once she made her way into the halls of power, first as a district manager for directory publishing and eventually as director of strategic planning, she knew her double-minority status made her a closely watched symbol inside and outside the corporation. She knew there were those who suspected her rise into the management ranks was due to affirmative action quotas than her own merits. That others scrutinized her every move to see if she really belonged and carried her own weight. And that still others expected her presence to be a gateway for more blacks. All of which made her feel even more pressure then she already put on herself.
“It’s not unusual for people in that situation to always feel they’ve got to make an effort to be twice as good” as their white counterparts,” she said of the awkward position she was in. “So, I guess I pressured myself. I knew it was important that others have the opportunity to follow me, and if I didn’t do well it would adversely impact the opportunities for others and would be used as an excuse” to not hire more minorities. She acknowledges she did sometimes “wonder…if what was happening to me was because I’m black or because I’m a woman. I think my experiences were impacted by a combination of my race and my sex.”
In addition to having to prove herself, she faced the challenge of gaining access into the male-dominated executive suite, essentially a men’s club whose “suits” did a lot of business on the golf course or the local tavern, where women colleagues were unwelcome. “Well, I didn’t golf, so I started inviting myself to lunch with them,” she explained. “It hadn’t occurred to them. I looked for any ways to make myself part of the Old Boys Network.” By all measures, she succeeded, becoming a highly-admired manager who could stand her ground with the boys.
Frank Peterson, a former senior manager with US West, said her ascendancy at the company was “no window dressing,” adding: “She was no showcase. She was a very competent manager and a very well-respected leader that more than held her own in any position she was placed in, and I think that’s a real asset to her. The examples she set were excellent.”
For much of her time in management, Harris oversaw a group “responsible for publishing all of the directories for a five-state region.” She supervised staffs in Omaha, Des Moines and Minneapolis. Near the end of her career (she retired in 1990) her role as a strategic planner found her deeply involved in the merger of the so-called Baby Bells (Northwestern Bell, Pacific Bell and Mountain Bell) that created US West. That meant a lot of streamlining and downsizing to eliminate redundancies and to maximize efficiencies. “When you bring three companies together,” she said, “you have a lot of duplication. My job was basically working through that.” Her dedication to those cost-cutting measures was so complete she even phased-out her own role in the company. “As part of that process, one of the things I did was eliminate my own job. I was in a position to see it coming and as a result I was made less afraid of that change.”
She took early retirement at 50, leaving behind an accomplished legacy. Her old colleague, Peterson, said, “She brought a dignity to her role, whatever it was. She has the ability to say what’s necessary to be said, to say it well and to say it in an unemotional way. It’s a characteristic I witnessed many times. Also, she’s an excellent listener. As a team player she could adapt quickly to any situation. She could always see the big picture, not only her own responsibility, but that of the greater need. The telephone business was filled with a bunch of great people…and when you think about the people you cherished and the people you could count on, she ranks way up in that realm. Her path just leaves people feeling good.”
Once separated from the company she had come of age in, Harris made a frank self-assessment and, when the opportunity presented itself, pursued a life in public service. “If you’ve been with a company for 30 years that publishes directories and provides long distance service, it’s hard to see what value you have outside that context,” she said.”That started me to do a better job of identifying how the skills I gained were transferable to other venues.”
Her attraction to city-county government actually began several years before when, in the early 1980s, she was appointed by then-Mike Boyle to the Omaha Personnel Board. Her tenure on the Board coincided with a tumultuous turn of events when the incumbent Boyle, whom she serves with today on the Douglas County Board, was recalled, Councilman Steve Tomasek filled in as Acting Mayor and Councilman Bernie Simon was elected by the Council to serve out the deposed Mayor’s term. “I chaired one of those major hearings during all the turmoil,” she recalled. It was during that time she mentioned to fellow Democrats she “might be interested in serving in public office” and, sure enough, political operatives approached her a few years later about running against incumbent City Councilman Joe Friend. After some hesitation, she put her hat in the ring and challenged Friend in the 1989 election.
She lost, but valued the chance it gave her to surface issues, the primary one being “the need for the City and its elected officials to pay greater attention to all segments of the community. There were areas that were significantly under-served.” While she admits she “had a lot to learn” about the political process, she considered her failed bid “a very good experience.”
The call to service came again in 1992 when she ran for and was elected to the District 3 Douglas County Commissioner’s seat. Motivating her to seek office, she said, was her “interest in the health and human services areas the county is responsible for and an interest in understanding the budget process and being able to have that process be fair to all areas of the county being served.”
Her victory gave her the distinction of being the first black elected to the Douglas County Board. In a state that falls well behind the rest of the nation in funding services for disadvantaged populations, Harris has used her office as a forum for strengthening existing programs and creating “more community-based services for children-at-risk as well as for mental health and chemical dependency patients.” She sees many needs still going unmet. “In the youth area I see more need in the way of prevention-based services for at-risk youths and their families. We continue to be too heavily dependent on detention.” She also sees “huge gaps” in youth mental health services. “Because the slots aren’t available in Kearney (at the youth rehabilitation center there) and in other county facilities, we are sending too many young people out-of-state at a very high cost for services that we should be able to provide right here locally.” Harris chaired the Nebraska Juvenile Services Grant Committee and helped develop the county’s Community Juvenile Services Plan.
A black woman who shares much in common with Harris, former Omaha City Council member Brenda Council, admires the leadership qualities her friend embodies.
“I think she’s been not only a tremendous representative for her district, but for the county. She’s done a tremendous job on the County Board. Two words that describe her are — integrity and dignity. She makes decisions based on what she believes is right, but she does that after she considers everyone else’s opinion. She brings reason and rationality to her decisions. She’s just a calm-steady presence. That’s her style,” Council said.
Fellow Douglas County Commissioner Clare Duda echoed Council’s observations about Harris. “Carole has a calmness and common sense unlike anybody else I’ve had the pleasure of serving with,” he said. “I can always count on her to not let politics or sensationalism cloud her vision. She’s hard-working, she does her homework and she’s well-connected in the community. She sticks to her guns when she knows what’s in the best interest for her constituents. I have just the utmost respect for her.”
Council, the first black president of the Omaha School Board and the second black to serve on the City Council, also appreciates the example Harris sets: “Carole Woods Harris is certainly someone that young people should look to as a model. She’s paved a path that others can follow.”
As one of two Democrats currently on the seven-member Douglas County Board, Harris carefully selects her battles, preferring to work quietly behind-the-scenes to forge alliances on issues she feels strongly about. “I guess I see myself more as a catalyst or facilitator. The main game that’s played” with a policy-making body like this “is counting votes and sometimes, given the makeup of the Board, it’s more helpful to work out a coalition and have someone else take the lead. If it’s most helpful for me to be out there running in front about something I care about it, I will, but often it’s better just to be a vote and to be less concerned about who gets credit for it.” Harris has been on the other side, too. When she joined the Board she was part of a Democratic majority. “You operate one way if you’re one of five versus if you’re one of two. So, you need to be flexible.”
Her lone Democratic colleague on the Board, Mike Boyle, sees Harris as a steadying influence and as a simpatico voice for the underdog. “She’s able to bring-on discussion of relatively controversial subjects without any acrimony or heated discussion, but she sure gets the point across. She gets right to the core of the problem. She’s a woman of very high standards. Her ethics are uncompromising. There are some fundamental things she believes that she will not yield on. Yet, she’s very easy to get along with. Carole and I do not always vote the same way but we do share some values, including the basic belief in the need for county government to serve its primary purpose — and that is to serve people who really need help. In many cases, we are the government of last resort.”
With 10 years on the Board, Harris, along with Duda, are the County Board’s senior Commissioners. She considers her duties “a fascinating challenge.” The best thing about it, she said, “is the good feeling you can have when you succeed at making a difference.” Among the most “frustrating” things, she said, is how hard it is to reach an accord. “I describe this Board as being like a seven-headed executive. All these executive decisions are dependent upon these seven people agreeing.” Then, there’s the intrusion it brings in her personal life. “I’m an awfully private person to have run for public office, and so the worst thing is how much you give up in privacy.” Last winter found her uncharacteristically sharing her private life when she spoke to the World-Herald about a trip to South Africa she made as part of a women’s service organization she belongs to, Links Inc., which helped build 32 schools there. Harris and fellow Links members attended dedication ceremonies for the schools and ushered in a South African Links chapter.
In South Africa she found a nation struggling to overcome an oppressive legacy of apartheid that resonates with America’s own racist legacy. In her understated way, Harris expresses some passionate views about the issue of race. She feels predominantly black northeast Omaha is still largely alienated from the majority white culture.
“I think the community is much more separated and divided than it should be,” she said. “I’ve had too many experiences where individuals who live in the western part of the community are afraid or unwilling to venture into the eastern part of the community, where I live, as though it’s a war zone. It’s not what people perceive it to be. The power structure would like to think there are no (racial) problems and in that regard I think they have a head-in-the-sand attitude. There’s been slow progress in building good relationships with the police. At times, I’ve seen that go backwards. There are some real educational challenges. There are way too many children in the disadvantaged areas of the community who’ve been allowed to fall through the cracks.”
In a positive vein, she acknowledges progress has been made on the job and housing fronts and that her own success story offers proof of that.
Not one to look back, Harris looks forward to completing her Commissioner’s term and then moving onto some new challenges. Always looking to improve herself, Harris, a graduate of leadership and management programs, an avid reader and a world traveler, may go back to college for that long-deferred degree. Whatever she does, she will doubtlessly bring her quiet strength and grace to the task.
- Black Women – We’re All We Have (theladiesfeed.wordpress.com)
- Honoring the Black Women (afroveg.wordpress.com)
- Black Women Still Battle ‘Mad Men’ (thedailybeast.com)
- Making the Case for a Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- From the series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness – Black Women Make Their Mark in Athletics (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- The Great Migration Comes Home: Deep South Exiles Living in Omaha Participated in the Movement Author Isabel Wilkerson Writes About in Her Book, ‘The Warmth of Other Suns’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- North Omaha Champion Frank Brown Fights the Good Fight (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Darcy Stracke was one of those small town wonders in the world of sports. By the end of her freshman year in high school she was already a legend in her hometown of Stuart, Neb. for her prodigous talent in volleyball, basketball, and track and she only added to the legend her last three years in high school in Chambers. Neb. By the time she graduated she held a batch of state scoring records in basketball. A playmaking and scoring guard in one, she spurned offers from big schools to play hoops at Division II University of Nebraska-Kearney, where she dominated once again. Then, in a move that upset her fan base, she transfered to the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and promptly made her mark in her only year there. In a strange twist she set the UNK single game scoring record of 43 points against her future teammates at UNO and then when playing for UNO she broke that school’s single game scroring mark with a matching 43 points against, you guessed it, her former teammates at UNK. She was a multiple all-state performer in high school and a three-time All-American in college. She’s in the athletic hall of fame of every school she competed for. I wrote this piece during her final college season in 2000.
The Last Hurrah for Hoops Wizard Darcy Stracke
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the Omaha Weekly
Scene One: Penetration is her game.
Wherever she is with the ball, her first instinct is to take it to the house. Using a crossover dribble, she first measures her opponent. Then, feinting with the ball, her head or both, she jump-stops inside, double-pumps and either banks a shot in off the glass, draws a foul or else dishes off to an open teammate for an assist. What sticks with you is her fearlessness inside and her uncanny knack for weaving through a tangle of bodies to make something happen.
Before some recent struggles, it seemed UNO’s fabulous hoops star, Darcy Stracke, could do no wrong. Time after time, she took over games, racking up points at will and disrupting opposing teams’ offenses. A case in point came in the Mavs’ mid-season 68-50 home win over NCC rival South Dakota. She scored 29 points on 12-of-16 shooting from the field and flashed a variety of take-your-breath-away passes, now-you-see-it-now you-don’t dribbles, pickpocket steals and whirling-dervish drives to the bucket. And all this in only 26 minutes of play.
Afterwards, she stopped by the north bleachers to chat with her star struck fans. There is a definite star quality about Stracke, a 5-foot-7 senior guard whose game intensity belies a quiet off-court demeanor and whose grace-under-pressure endures despite sweaty palms. Among her regular admirers (some sporting her jersey No. 34) are a group from her hometown of Stuart, Neb., including her parents, Marilyn and Del, who have made it to every game but one since her freshman year in high school. She is their small-town-girl-makes-good hoops diva.
That night, Stracke, still dressed in her damp uniform, lingered a long while with the crowd. She seems to savor these moments. Not because she enjoys the attention or adulation (In truth, she’d rather not have all this fuss made about her.), but because she knows the wondrous run she’s been on is finally drawing to a close. For this north-central Nebraska native has enjoyed a legendary athletic career matched by few other Nebraska female athletes. But soon her glory days will be over. The scoring feats, the fancy moves, the late-game heroics relegated to hazy memories or grainy video highlights.
For Stracke, steeped in athletics from an early age (she learned to walk with a basketball) and hooked on competition the way others are on drugs, the thought of not playing (notwithstanding a possible pro stint overseas) is daunting. How could it not be for someone who sleeps with a ball to get “in tune with it”?
“When I step on that court it’s like I’m in another world,” she said. “I get a feeling I can’t get anywhere else. I love that feeling. I don’t feel any aches or pains. It’s just like I’m in a zone. Basketball is probably in my head most of every 24 hours. I watch game films all the time. If basketball’s on TV, I’m going to watch it. If I can get a pick-up game, I’m going to play it. Basketball has always been an outlet for me, so if I’m having a bad day, I always look to basketball to get me out of that funk, even if it means going up to the gym at 10 o’clock at night and shooting. Once I start shooting, everything else is erased.”
More than anything, she’ll miss the competition when she walks away from the game. “I just love to compete.” Then there are the fans who have been there for her all this time. “I have my own little fan section. They expect me to come over and talk. I love the interaction with people after games. It’s those little things I’m going to remember.” Wherever she went the past eight years, her legion of fans followed. They were there at the start, when she led Stuart Public High to the Class D-2 state title as a 14-year-old freshman. Then, after transferring to nearby Chambers Public School, where she played for brother-in-law, John Miller, they saw her spark a 77-game winning streak en route to three more state titles and, in the process, she set the state’s all-time scoring record (boys or girls) with 2,752 points. Along the way she displayed a court savvy beyond her years, anticipating picks, screens and passing lanes for steals and assists and driving the lane for layups.
When she chose nearby Division II powerhouse University of Nebraska-Kearney over several Division I schools, fans kept right on trucking to see how she matched-up at the next level. Just fine, thank you. She broke the school’s single season scoring record (679 points), topped its career steals mark (292), twice led the Lopers’ into the post-season (three times if you count her injury-shortened junior year) and capped off 1998-99 by earning 1st Team All-America honors.
Then the soft-spoken Stracke, 21, surprised everyone last off-season by transferring from UNK (she politely declines discussing why) to UNO for her final year. While rehabbing an injured knee in Kearney over the summer Stracke was deluged with calls, letters and visits from boosters pressuring her to reconsider. The “trauma” all got to be too much. “A lot of people were disappointed I left. I kind of avoided people there for a while, but I stayed because that’s where my friends and family are,” she said. “It was just a better fit here (UNO) for me. I think people who care about me understand it’s something I did for my own happiness.”
Once this season began and the buzz around “the Darcy situation,” as it’s known in Kearney, died down, all was forgiven, and the Stracke bandwagon kept rolling down I-80 as before, only a little farther east, to cheer her on in Omaha, where all she’s done is lead the nation in scoring for much of the year (she is second now with an averages just under 23 points per game) and rejuvenate a program (UNO is 15-10) that had scuffled recently (11-16 last year and 10-17 the year before). Stracke paced the Mavs to a fast start (7-2) and the team held its own in the middle part of the year before slumping down the stretch. Last Saturday’s 74-58 road loss to Northern Colorado dropped the Mavs to 1-4 in their last five games and squashed any remaining hopes of an NCAA regional post-season berth. Stracke, who struggled some herself lately, enjoyed a strong outing with 23 points, 5 boards and 4 steals, although she did have 6 turnovers.
It is a shame her career will end without one last hurrah in the playoffs, especially after her banner junior year ended prematurely when she suffered a complete ACL tear in her right knee during the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference tourney. And, yes, it seems unfair Omaha hoops fans have had her such a short time. Seeing her go will be tough. Just ask UNO Head Coach Paula Buscher, who took a chance signing her to play for a single year. It was strictly a one-shot deal. No encore season. No promise things might not fizzle for the scoring phenom (they haven’t). No assurance she would recover from her injury (she has). No guarantee her addition might not upset team chemistry (it hasn’t).
“That was the risk that was out there for herself as well as the people recruiting her when she was transferring with one year left,” Buscher said. “We obviously felt and still feel it was a great decision on our part. There was a risk involved, but we felt like with a player of her caliber and her stature, and with the work ethic she brings, that that was a risk we needed to take. Would I love to have her for another two or three years? Oh, heavens, yes. Unfortunately, that’s not the way it works. We knew that going in. A great player’s career always ends too short. I just feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to coach her for one year. I mean, let’s face it, the kid can play. She brings it every night. I think she’s helped develop a different mind-set (winning) and raise expectations with our program, and that’s something we’re looking to carry on.”
Buscher, like UNK Head Coach Amy Stephens before her, knew what she was getting in Stracke all right. She closely followed Stracke’s brilliant prep career and then, while coaching against her in college, saw her her light-up UNO twice, including a 43-point explosion last year. Still, once Buscher got a chance to watch Stracke at work, up close, every day in practice, she realized UNO had gained even more in the bargain than what first met the eye.
“Everyone was aware of her athletic ability and what she could do in games, but the bonus with Darcy was seeing how she trains. From the first day of preseason, all the way throughout every single practice, she’s the first one out there for every sprint, every drill, pushing all the time. Bottom line, she’s a competitor who wants to win. That, more than anything, is what makes her a great player,” Buscher said.
Scene II: Whatever it takes.
A perpetual motion machine on the floor, she never stops competing — regardless of the score. On defense, she creates havoc by hounding ball handlers into errant passes or by swiping lazy dribbles. On offense, she sets the tone by hustling down court, chasing after loose balls and constantly working to get open.
Not a great perimeter shooter, Stracke gets most of her points in or near the paint. Because defenses focus on her, she must often create shots where there are none. Her she-got-game greatness was never more evident than in three early season tests. First, she shook off jitters in a much-anticipated Dec. 1 contest against UNK, when, in a bit of perfect symmetry, she led UNO to an 86-71 victory and, in the process, burned her old mates for a school-record 43 points, the exact total she posted against UNO last year (UNK is having the last laugh, however, as the Lopers are rolling along with a 21-4 mark and high national ranking.).
“Actually, that’s probably the one game I didn’t want to play this year just because I still have a lot of friends on the team there,” Stracke said. “I did want to have a good game, though, because it was against the school I’d been at for three years. And I was a bit more nervous for that game than for others.”
Then, on consecutive nights in mid January, she did something she’s made a habit of during her playing career: hitting buzzer-beaters to defeat Minnesota State-Mankato and St. Cloud State amid a five-game stretch in which she averaged more than 30 points. Ask her what it’s like to have the ball in her hands when the game’s on the line, and how she’s able to deliver the goods, and she answers:
“When it comes down to making free throws at the end or making that game-winning shot, I think, ‘Darcy, you’ve done this tons of times before in the backyard. You can do it again.’ It’s not like I haven’t taken those last-minute shots before. So, I just shoot it with a lot of confidence and play with a lot of confidence. Plus, when I get in those situations I want to do well because I care about my teammates and I know I’d let them down if didn’t make that shot. The feeling after you make it is indescribable. It’s so exciting.”
She fees her success as a clutch performer and multi-faceted player (she leads UNO in scoring and steals and is second in assists) is largely due to all the hard work she’s put in honing her skills, including keeping the neighbors up while shooting past midnight in her backyard. “I may not have as much athletic talent as some players, but what’s been to my advantage is I do put a lot of hours in at the gym, and I think that’s what makes me a better basketball player and what gives me more confidence. I expect the best out of myself.”
In The World According to Darcy Stracke, effort breeds confidence which, in turn, breeds success. “Everything I’ve competed in (she was also a top volleyball, track and softball competitor) I always believed I could win. And, if I didn’t win, I’d go back and make adjustments or try to work on something that was my weakness, and the next time I was going into that competition I wasn’t going to lose.”
She further developed her game by routinely playing against the opposite sex and by challenging older, more experienced, players to one-on-one contests.
“I think it really helps playing against men and boys. It makes you adjust your game because if you don’t you’re going to get your shot blocked or get your pass stolen. Now, when I go against girls in college, I remember to use that extra fake.”
Since entering college she has experienced more losing than she ever did before, and even though it irks her, she long ago came to terms with that and the fact she can’t dominate every game like she did in high school.
“I just hate to lose. Even if its a card game or playing whiffle ball in the backyard. Then, after my teams went 77-0 my last three years in high school, I lost my very first college game. It was really hard because I wasn’t used to losing. But if I’ve learned anything it’s that you’re going to struggle sometimes at the college level. There are lots of ups and downs. The competition is so much better.”
Like many top athletes, she is somewhat obsessive-compulsive preparing for competition. She has game-day rituals she dares not break for fear of throwing her whole rhythm off.
“I have a routine for everything and, if I get out of synch, it just bothers the heck out of me. It ranges all the way from what I eat to when I step on the court to how long I drill in pregame warmups. I mean, it’s to the point where my routine is the same every single second, every single time.”
It’s that kind of attention to detail that’s made her settle for nothing less than being an all-around player. “If I don’t show up in every statistical area, from steals to assists to rebounding to even shooting percentage, I don’t feel like I had a good game. A lot of people look for me as a scorer, but I want to be a complete player because the only way our team is going to get better is if I can be consistent in every category.”
Despite the fact her new team has fallen far short of what her UNK clubs achieved (Kearney went 80-11 her three years there), she has no regrets about leaving such success behind for the mediocrity she found at Omaha. “I knew what I was coming into. I knew they’d (UNO) struggled. But I wanted to come to a program where I could make a difference. I think it’s worked out really well. My teammates have accepted me with open arms. I’m glad I’m here.”
All too aware the clock is fast running out on her playing career, Stracke acknowledges she has been pressing a bit, going a combined 22-of-79 from the field in a five-game stretch before regaining her touch last week (7-of-14 from the field and 8-of-8 from the line) against UNC. Heading into her final collegiate competition, she is poised to earn All-America honors again and owns combined career totals of 2,211 points, 422 rebounds, nearly 400 steals and 373 assists in 114 games.
Sadly, her last hurrah will come far from home. Local hoops fans who missed her in action are the real losers since the next time she (a K-12 physical education major) takes the court again in front of a crowd, will likely be as a coach.
“I love new challenges, If I don’t go over overseas to play ball I’m going to try and be a grad assistant somewhere to get my foot in the door in college coaching. I’m actually pretty excited to see basketball from a coaching standpoint.”
Still, coaching can never replace the thrill playing has given her.
“Basketball’s always been my first love. I’ve always played with a lot of passion. I’ve been struggling a little bit with the fact that I have less than a handful of games left, and then I’m done. I’ve been counting down the games. I’m just going to go out and play like every game is my last because pretty soon it will be.”
Scene III: In synch.
If there is any lasting image of her, it is her streaking down court in transition — her raised arms extended high overhead, her expectant hands just aching to touch the ball once more. You want to yell, ‘Give her the damn ball.’ Give it to her, indeed. The two were made for each other.
- Omaha Hoops Legend John C. Johnson: Fierce Determination Tested by Repeated Run-Ins with the Law (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- From the series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness – Black Women Make Their Mark in Athletics (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Making the Case for a Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)