Book Explores University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Rich History
My alma mater, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, doesn’t possess the kind of larger-than-life, romantic tradition one associates with elite schools, which it most definitely is not. But in its own humble way the school has accumulated a notable and rich enough history. A modest book about that history was released a few years ago on the eve of UNO turning 100. This article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) more or less reviews the book and its impressionistic look at that school that’s seen much change over its lifetime and long ago left behind the West Dodge High moniker that many once attached to it.
Book Explores University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Rich History
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
With the UNO centennial nearing, a new book by two longtime historians at the university gives readers a primer on the events and persons that have shaped the school over its nearly 100-year existence. The book, simply titled “University of Nebraska at Omaha,” is part of Arcadia Publishing’s “Campus History Series.”
The text for the photo-rich work is mostly by Oliver Pollak, holder of the Martin Chair in History at UNO. He’s taught at the school since 1974. Pollak is the author of two previous books published by Arcadia — “Jewish Life in Omaha and Lincoln” and “Nebraska Courthouses.”
Selecting the 200-some images that illustrate the UNO volume’s 128-pages largely fell to Les Valentine, a UNO graduate (B.A. 1976, M.A. 1980) who has served as the university archivist since 1986. By virtue of his deep knowledge of UNO history and his intimate familiarity with the thousands of images and documents in the Dr. C.C. and Mabel L. Criss Library’s archives, Valentine was able to provide Pollak the context needed to flesh out the narratives and personalities behind the pictures.
Old acquaintances, the authors teamed up for the book in the spring of 2006 when Pollak suggested the idea to Valentine. The project marked the pair’s first collaboration. Pollak queried Arcadia with the proposal, a contract was signed and a December deadline set. The authors say they met the deadline on the dot.
As the subject is so close to them the men found the project a neat fit. “We’ve both been at UNO for years and years and years,” Valentine says, “and we have a good background on the history of the institution.” Pollak notes they have been at UNO for “a third of the lifetime of the school.”
The process of doing the book around normal duties proved relatively painless. “It was fun working with Les,” Pollak says. “We would get together on Saturday mornings and pull tables together on the lower level of the library and spread out these pictures and mess around with the order…what picture should be facing what picture. Les has been working the archives for so long he had stories and newspaper clippings to support the stories.”
Space issues meant only a small fraction of archival materials made the final cut. “It was a selection process,” Pollak says, adding he and Valentine chose from among digital images, prints, slides and negatives. “There was a variety. We managed to get high quality images and I think they got reproduced very well.” Some choices, he says, “are forced by technology and ratios of width to height.” Enough good photos had to be left out that he and Valentine have toyed with the idea of doing a presentation of them. “There’s still some good images out there,” Pollak says. Or, as Valentine put it, “There’s enough to do four or five photo-books, easy.”
Among their favorites to make it in is the cover image of a circa 1971 campus life scene. It pictures a diverse group of students gathered for a concert outside Arts and Sciences Hall — the then-administration building. The columned structure’s familiar cupola towers overhead. Pollak calls the photo “the iconic vision” of UNO. “It’s students spread out on the green, it’s 1971, it’s music, it’s diversity, it’s an urban university, it’s a school on a hill, it’s springtime. It was just a natural.”
Adding to its weight is the fact the 1938 building was the first structure built on the present north campus.
Valentine likes the background cover image, composed of smiling student faces, documenting a significant aspect of the school’s past. The picture is from a 1951 mill levy election victory party. In the institution’s municipal era, from 1938 to 1968, funding hikes were at the whim of city voters. Often as not, elections went against then-Omaha University. Some students actively campaigned in these elections.
The authors agree the milestone events in UNO’s history, each well documented, are the school’s 1938 move from its original north Omaha site to the current main campus and the move from the municipal model into the NU system. Just as the transition from municipal to state funding opened new horizons, including an expansion program that’s never really stopped, the university’s severing of ties to its Presbyterian Church roots ushered in new growth.
The physical move, Pollak said, was key to OU gaining accreditation by the North Central Association, another major event in the school’s life.
“You can’t live without accreditation. It’s important because it’s sort of like a seal of approval,” Pollak says. “You can’t live without a physical plant that’s attractive, just as you couldn’t live on Presbyterians alone.”He said that the school achieved three major defining goals in the 1930s — to municipalize, relocate and be accredited — amidst the constraints and struggles of the Great Depression “is an accomplishment.”
Change runs through UNO’s history, but the authors say its mission of providing a quality higher ed option to urban, working-class students has remained constant. What may surprise readers? One thing the authors point to is how the school welcomed women and racial minorities long before politically correct to do so.
UNO’s latest sea changes, they say, include the addition of dormitories, the development of the south campus and the embrace of information technology. Pollak says the way the university adapts to its times “is like a breeder-reactor” — putting out an ever exponentially greater return than what it takes in. UNO’s growth, while not always smooth, moves forward.
“Some hiccups, some burps, some setbacks, some waiting a little bit longer than you thought you would want to wait for innovation, and then crafting it in a way that fits Omaha,” he says. “Some people oppose it because it’s state funds, some because ‘they’re coming into my neighborhood,’ but it’s positively relentless.”
Leadership drives change and the figures at the top over this 100 years range from loyal soldier W. Gilbert James to tragic William Sealock to strong Milo Bail to embattled Leland Traywick to visionary Del Weber. The authors say the tenures of UNO presidents/chancellors tend to be placid or stormy. But the heartbeat of a university is its students, faculty and staff and the book is replete with examples of programs, activities, classes and rituals that express this human dimension.
From parades, athletic contests and commencements to groundbreaking ceremonies to visiting dignitaries to student protests to class/team photos to walks in Elmwood Park, it’s all charted. Even life in those awful annexes/Quonset huts.
Valentine says beyond alums, the book should appeal to a wide readership.
“Certainly people in Omaha should enjoy the book. It was their institution, for years and years and years, and in fact it’s still their institution,” he says. “We kind of grew up along with the city in many ways.”
The book is available online at www.arcadiapublishing.com or at fine bookstores.
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