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Omaha World-Herald Columnist Mike Kelly: A Storyteller for All Seasons

April 2, 2014 1 comment

I suppose it’s inevitable and only natural that I write about journalists from time to time.  After all, the world of journalism what I know best having plied the trade myself for many years.  The following New Horizons cover profile I wrote about the popular Omaha World-Herald columnist Mike Kelly is like a lot of stories I’ve done about journalists that you can find on this blog in that like those other pieces this one focuses on a veteran in the field whom I admire.  Kelly has become the face of that venerable daily and a leading advocate for Omaha and for good reason: he’s a prolific storyteller well plugged into the ryhthms of life in his adopted hometown of Omaha, Neb.

 

 

Cover Photo

New Horizons Newspaper

 

 

Omaha World-Herald Columnist Mike Kelly: A Storyteller for All Seasons

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons
The face of a newspaper
When it comes to local print media, the Omaha World-Herald is the only game in town owing to its vast coverage and reach. For a long time now the venerable daily’s most public face has been lead Metro columnist Michael Kelly, also a much in-demand master of ceremonies and public speaker. The Cincinnati, Ohio native has made his life, career and home here. He often uses the popular column he’s penned since 1991 as a platform for celebrating Omaha.

He served as sports columnist-sports editor for a decade before his Metro gig. He was a news reporter for 10 years before that. He estimates he’s produced 6,000 columns and another 2,000-plus bylined pieces. The sheer volume and visibility of his work make Kelly the paper’s most branded writer commodity.

Managing editor Melissa Matczak measures his impact this way: “Mike Kelly has endured as a popular columnist because he knows what makes Omahans tick. He understands the people and our culture and he has deep sources within the community. People trust him and want to talk to him. He is invaluable to our news organization. His knowledge base, connections, sources and trust in the community take decades to build. There is no one in Omaha quite like Mike Kelly.”

Working at the same publication for the entirety of one’s professional life is increasingly rare in a field where job turnover’s common. Kelly”s survived upheavals, housecleanings and regime changes.

His allegiance to this place is such he lives here year-round while his wife Barb is in Cincinnati. Their commuting relationship finds him going there regularly, sometimes filing stories from Ohio, and her coming here. Phone and email help keep them connected.

As Kelly explains, “We’re both from Cincinnati. We raised our kids in Omaha. Barb always wanted us to relocate and I didn’t want to leave. Meanwhile, our oldest Laura and her husband moved to Cincinnati. They now have five kids. We just got to the point where I said, ‘We can do this two-city thing.’ I knew she wanted to go back. So we bought a house there near our daughter. Barb helps them. She sees her siblings (she’s the oldest of 11) all the time, and I go back there one week a month. Then Barb comes out here (she’s back in April). She’s still very active in Omaha. She has lots of friends.

“We’re at the age we can pull this off and it works very well.”

Kelly says his bosses tell him they can’t tell the difference when he’s here or away, “and that’s good, but it is harder writing from away. I just wish the whole family was here but they’re not. They’re dispersed.”

Too close to home
His scattered clan includes daughter Bridget, who lives in New York City with her husband. In 2002-2003 Kelly wrote a moving series about Bridget surviving a traumatic attack in Killeen, Texas, where she taught school. She’d moved there to be near her then-Army boyfriend stationed at Fort Hood.

The morning of June 21, 2002 Kelly was at his newsroom desk when he got the call that changed everything. A detective informed him that overnight Bridget had been abducted from her apartment and taken to a field, where a male suspect raped her and shot her three times. She somehow made it 200 yards to the home of Army combat veteran Frank James, who cared for her until paramedics arrived. The call to Kelly came after emergency surgery at the Fort Hood hospital.

“I kind of stuttered, ‘Is she going to live?’ ‘I think so,’ was the reply. I hung up the phone and turned to Anne Henderson, my editor, who was having a confab, and said, ‘Anne!’ She looked at me like, Why are you interrupting me?, and I told her. I was told later it was like everything stopped in the newsroom. Our executive editor Larry King spoke to our publisher John Gottschalk, who made a private jet available. I went into an office and called Barb in Cincinnati. She had the terrible duty of calling our three other kids and telling them.

“I ran home, grabbed a few things. Steve Jordon, my buddy (and Herald colleague), got on the plane with me without so much as grabbing a toothbrush.”

Ironically, only months before Kelly had written about WOWT Omaha anchor John Knicely’s daughter Krista being attacked while a student at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. But this was Kelly’s own flesh and blood. At the hospital he found Bridget conscious in the ICU.

“She couldn’t speak because of all these tubes. I just leaned down, both of us crying, and tried to comfort her. Then she motioned with her hand she wanted to write something and I pulled out my reporter’s notebook. She wrote, ‘I was thinking of you and Mom and the whole family when this was happening. I didn’t want to die.’ I’ve still got that notebook. That afternoon the police took me out to the field. I saw her blood. I met the James family at their house to thank them. That night her survival was the lead story on the 5 o’clock TV news down there. No name, but everyone from the school she taught at figured it out.”

Kelly received a message of support that evening from John Knicely.

“I appreciated that.”

The “tight-knit” Kellys came together as they always do in crisis.

“The waiting room was overflowing with people. Barb and our daughter Laura got there the next day. Eventually the whole family was there.”

Business reporter Jordon, who was there to support his friend, witnessed Kelly rise to the occasion amidst the anguish:

“Mike showed impressive calm during that time, and that’s what Bridget and the other family members needed. Mike was able to talk with the authorities, make decisions about what to do for Bridget, talk with her friends about the incident, keep family members informed and engaged and help Bridget start on the road to recovery during those first few days. He was a true father.”

Bridget’s assailant, who’d driven off in her car, was soon captured.

“The police down there were amazing,” Kelly says. “About four days after Bridget had given her long statement to the police and identified her attacker in a photo lineup, I was talking and she was writing. The whole story had not been told at that time. The paper down there, The Killeen Daily Herald, said a 24 year-old school teacher had been raped and shot, left for dead, survived. The World-Herald said Bridget Kelly, a local girl, was abducted and shot three times and was in critical condition. It didn’t say anything about rape.

“I explained to her the difference in the coverage and she wrote, ‘Did they say rape?’ and I said, ‘No, this is born out of compassion. Also, some people think there’s a stigma on the victim.’ And she wrote, ‘Why is it more shameful to be a rape victim then a gunshot victim?’ And I thought, Oh my gosh, she wants to say something. That would have been against our policy.”

His first column about the incident expressed gratitude that “our daughter was still alive” and singled out those who aided her. The lead read, “June 21, the longest day of the year for daylight, became our family’s longest, darkest day.” He laid out in stark, sparse prose the nightmare of her attack and the miracle of her survival.

But after what Bridget communicated in the hospital, he knew there was more that needed to be said.

“I told my editors Bridget wants to say what happened, that she’s not ashamed, she didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t get the OK right away. Five weeks after it happened the suspect was charged with attempted murder, abduction, robbery and rape. I asked, ‘Are we going to report that?’ The decision was yes and so I wrote a column whose headline was, ‘A plea for more openness on rape.’ I wrote, ‘You don’t have to read between the lines and wonder if my daughter was raped…’

“When that column ran we heard from so many people. A lot of women survivors of rape were just glad someone was talking about it. The outpouring was unbelievable.”

Much more lay ahead for Bridget’s recovery and story. Kelly recounts, “She went to Cincinnati to recuperate. At the end of the summer her blood sugar shot through the roof and she was diagnosed with Juvenile Diabetes (Type I). She still has to deal with that. We believe it’s tied to the trauma. She was bound and determined to get back. She resumed teaching (at the same Texas school).”

National media picked up the story. The Dallas Morning News asked Kelly to write a piece that ran on the front of its Sunday paper.

“So then came a whole other wave of response.”

His handling of her story netted wide praise from peers. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized him with its Award for Commentary/Column Writing. Jordon summed up what many admired about Kelly’s treatment of the intensely personal subject matter:

“His writing about the attack was straightforward, honest and unvarnished, the right approach to a story that deserved to be told without embellishment and tricks. In the end, he was able to tell Bridget’s story fully, from a father’s perspective that resonated with the readers. He put himself in the story, but didn’t dominate the writing. It’s Bridget’s story, and he told it as her father would tell it.”

Bridget did many interviews. The Herald’s Todd Cooper went to Texas to file a story about her. “I appreciated that because then it wasn’t just the dad writing,” says Kelly. Bridget spoke at her alma mater, Duchesne, and at a Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation banquet her father MCd and her Good Samaritan, Frank James, attended. A commendatory telegram from Colin Powell recognized James for his heroic service.

“That was very memorable.”

Tragically, James died a few years later. “The family asked me to speak at his funeral, which I was honored to do.”

Then a movie-movie twist occurred. ABC’s Prime Time flew Bridget to New York City to be interviewed by Charles Gibson. She met an associate producer with the show, Eric Strauss. A couple years later Bridget moved to the Big Apple to get her master’s in literacy. A mutual friend reconnected Bridget and Eric and the two developed a friendship that bloomed into a romance that culminated in marriage.

Kelly wrote a 2012 Herald piece updating Bridget’s journey, including her work as a teacher, her public speaking and her volunteering as a trained advocate for rape-domestic violence survivors.

“She’s on call one weekend a month to go to any (NYC) emergency room,” says her father. “I’m very proud of her for doing that.”

His piece referenced that at the behest of the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault she went to the field where she was attacked and made a video shown statewide for a public awareness campaign.

His story appeared ahead of a scheduled New York Times article about Bridget and Eric’s unusual meeting and storybook romance.

“We were looking forward to the Times piece. Then I get a call from a Times editor who says, ‘We’re killing the story.’ ‘Oh, that’s too bad, why? ‘We want to run your story.’ They wanted it longer, so I had to actually interview Bridget and Eric. It was interesting because I asked questions I never would have asked.”

Her advocacy will bring her to Omaha as featured speaker for the April 11 Torchlight Ball to benefit the SANE/SART (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner/Sexual Assault Response Team) unit at Methodist Hospital.

Omaha love affair
Some hearing about Kelly’s two-city lifestyle assume he resides in Cincinnati, only maintaining the facade of an Omaha presence through his column. Mailing it in so to speak. He sets the record straight.

“No, I live in Omaha, I pay a lot of taxes here. This is my home. But I do have a job where I can get away with going back to Cincinnati.”

As a locals columnist he must stay in touch with Omaha’s heartbeat.

“I love the neighborhoods. We raised our kids in Dundee, Happy Hollow. They went to St. Cecilia, Duchesne and Mount Michael.”

Kelly later moved to the Skinner Macaroni Building downtown. Now he’s in a 7th story condo in the restored Paxton Building.

“I feel like we’re right in the middle of everything here, close to the airport. I’m a block from my office. As my wife said when I bought here at the Paxton, ‘Well, now you’ll be happy, you’re going to spend 24 hours a day at the World-Herald.’ It’s not a 9 to 5 job, so it’s good and bad to be that close. You do have to get away.”

Kelly values many Omaha attributes.

“We’re not quite big enough to have major league professional sports but we’ve got everything else. It’s a great-sized city. Not to use the cliché but people come together, it’s friendly, it’s easy. I love my colleagues, I love my job.”

This big-fish-in-a-small-pond can find anonymity when he wants it, though his gregarious side doesn’t mind the limelight.

“I love my privacy and I love being out and around people.”

He’s a featured performer at Omaha Press Club Shows, where his gift for mimicry and ability to carry a tune have seen him impersonate Elvis and Johnny Cash, among others.

“Then, of course, there’s my new career, singing.” he says, jokingly, referring to recent vocal lessons he’s taken from Omaha crooner Susie Thorne. which he wrote about in a March column.

Kelly’s closely charted Omaha’s coming out party from placid, nondescript burg to confident creative class haven.

“I’ve seen the whole Omaha attitude change. The late ’80s for me was the low point. There was so much stuff going wrong, you wondered what the future was of this town, Then in the ’90s things started turning around.”

 

 

 

Mike Kelly

 

 

Downtown-riverfront redevelopment spurred a cultural-entrepreneurial explosion. Omaha suddenly went from a staid place where 20 and 30-somethings complained there was nothing to do to an attractive market for young professionals and tourists.

“The Chamber of Commerce had some studies done saying, Well, Omaha doesn’t have a bad image, it doesn’t really have an image. People didn’t know who we were. So I think the change is not so much that people have a great image of us but our image of ourselves. I hear this over and over from people. I think we had kind of a negative feel about it, like we weren’t worthy. Now we’re worthy.

Kelly says in national socioeconomic rankings “Omaha’s consistently in the top 10 for livability,” adding, “At the same time we’ve got urban problems any city has. A few years ago Kiplinger’s ranked Omaha as the number one overall place to live and I interviewed the reporter who came here and he said, ‘You’ve really got a lot going on, but if you could just solve the north Omaha problem you’d be a great city.’ That is my lament, having come here in 1970 and seen that the north Omaha problem has not improved. There’s a lot of people working on it. I’d love before I retire to see north Omaha rise up.”

Writer’s life
What’s the best part of what Kelly does?

“Just getting to tell people’s stories. being able to touch people, whether make ‘em laugh, make ‘em think, put a lump in their throat now and again. People do read the World-Herald. We do have one of the highest penetration rates – the percentage of people in your local market that read the paper – in the country. It’s like we have this commonality of interest. It doesn’t mean we agree, it doesn’t mean we’re all interested in the same things, but people are interested in what goes on in this community.”

Story after story, his column paints a rich human mosaic.

“i do believe everybody’s got an interesting story.”

He doesn’t believe a writer should draw undue attention to himself or to his style. “The better material you have the more important it is for you as the writer not to get in the way but to let it tell itself,” he says. “Your job is just to organize it for maximum impact.”

He’s outraged some journalists resort to fabricating things, saying, “The true stuff has great natural utter born drama. You don’t need to make stuff up, just keep listening, keep asking questions.”

If there’s a Kelly axiom he abides by it’s – get it right.

“I always feel I have a responsibility to the readers and to my editors and to the source to tell the person’s story accurately. There’s nothing more important than accuracy.”

He says he’s methodical, “plodding” even as he hones copy to the bone and compulsively fact checks. “I keep the reader in mind all the time.” Next to accuracy, clarity and brevity, structure is everything.

“I do have a philosophy about writing, and that is the importance of getting your key words and phrases at the ends of sentences. It’s just like telling a joke – where does the punchline go. And then you always want to have a thump. You don’t want it to just end, you want to have an ENDING.”

Like father, like son
When he joined the Herald in 1970 at age 21, fresh out of the University of Cincinnati, he couldn’t have imagined still being at the paper in 2014. Next to Jordon he’s the newsroom’s most senior staffer.

“I was happy to get a job here. I thought Omaha would be a nice place to go for two or three years. No regrets for having stayed. I feel very lucky I’ve latched on here.”

Kelly wasn’t the first journalist in his family. His late parents Frank and Dorothy Kelly put out a small weekly, the St, Bernard (Ohio) Journal, during the Great Depression. Though his father, who was also a stringer for various publications and news services, gave up the business to work for the IRS, it remained his life’s true passion.

“That was his love – journalism,” says Kelly, whose prized possessions include a framed front page of the St. Bernard Journal and the old portable Underwood typewriter his father employed. “I used to type my term papers on that,” Kelly says with pride.

“We always had newspapers around the house. Cincinnati had three daily papers in the ’50s when I was growing up and my dad subscribed to all of them. I was the only one of his eight kids that went into what was his love, so it was a nice connection. This is my heritage.”

The devoted son spent much of his first decade in Omaha covering the police and city hall beats, where former head cop Richard Andersen and mayor Ed Zorinsky were among the public servants he covered. Next he became a general assignment reporter. Then he unexpectedly got offered the position of sports editor.

 

 

 

Back in the day before computers

 

 

From news to sports to news again
“I’m a sports fan like a lot of people but I had no intention of going into this. The managing editor, Bob Pearman, liked a couple things I wrote, one of them a piece on Ron Stander (the ex-club fighter who fought heavyweight champion Joe Frazier at the Civic Auditorium). I wrote this long piece with flashbacks to the championship fight, which I was at, and it got Associated Press story of the year.

“Pearman wanted me to be writer and editor. I hemmed and hawed for days. One day he calls me into his office. ‘Mr. Kelly, have you decided yet?’ ‘Well, I was thinking I wanted to…’ ‘Mr. Kelly, shut the god______ door. Do you want to be my sports editor or don’t you?’”

Kelly timidly accepted.

“I’d just turned 33, so I call this the highlight day of my career. Oh my gosh, it was like jumping into the deep end and not knowing how to swim. I’m glad I did it, but the problem was trying to do two jobs. You’re a middle manager with no middle management training in charge of 25 people, plus all of a sudden you’re a columnist with your picture in the paper. I’m dealing with Tom Osborne and I had been a fan. I knew enough that now I had to have an arm’s length relationship.

“Newspapers were starting to cover recruiting. It’s an industry now. I’m there at 9 o’clock one night after putting in 12 hours. I get a call from an assistant Nebraska football coach. He cussed me out, every filthy word I’ve ever heard and about six others I hadn’t, because we were doing recruiting stories and letting Oklahoma know who they were going after. Well, Oklahoma knew who they were going after. He tried to intimidate me and I was a little shaken. I remember hanging up the phone and thinking, Oh my God, this is not fun and games is it?”

Besides being young, Kelly was an interloper coming from news into a sports role that older, more qualified colleagues had been in line to get.

“Acting sports editor Bob Tucker was a veteran and all of a sudden some guy from news side was put into the job he deserved to get. He was my assistant, I relied on him. It worked out. He was the kind of guy who could make the trains run on time. That’s what I needed.

“I think I injected some creativity. I was more controversial in my sports days than I am now. I used to get criticized regularly by Cornhusker fans. I wasn’t constantly critical but sometimes that’s what you’re supposed to be. I enjoyed the 10 years in sports for the most part but I could never get my arms around both those jobs.”

A highlight was covering the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, where the U.S. gymnastics team, which included Nebraskans Jim Hartung and Scott Johnson, won the gold medal. He considers Creighton’s 1991 College World Series run “the most fun event of my time in sports.” His father covered the 1940 Major League World Series in Cincinnati.

But Kelly was already torn by the enormous time sacrifice covering sports events demands. He was missing, among other things, his daughter Laura’s volleyball matches.

“I asked if I could go back to news side.”

He got his wish when named a Metro columnist. But where sports provided a constant, steady stream of in-season subjects related to area teams, news side subjects were less defined.

“I remember thinking, How am I going to come up with 200 column ideas a year? What am I going to write about?”

He gives the same answer to the question readers most often ask him: Where do you get your story ideas?

“I read a lot, I get out and talk to people, but luckily the best source for me is people calling and telling me stuff. That’s usually a function of I’ve been around for a long time and they’ve seen what I write, so that’s a benefit. But when I left sports and started column writing in the news section I didn’t quite have that. It was harder in the beginning.”

Full circle
One of his most “memorable” columns dealt with the Vietnam War. The subject’s always been sensitive for him because his enrollment in college deferred him from serving and then when the draft lottery went into effect his birth date exempted him. He found these privileged exclusions “patently unfair.” Then he got the idea of following what happened to one of the unlucky ones with a birthdate near his own.

Reggie Abernethy of Maiden N.C. was born one day removed from Kelly and that was all the difference it took for him to get drafted and ultimately killed in Quang Tri, South Vietnam while the luck of the draw allowed Kelly to stay home, launch his career and start a family.

“I made a couple calls and found out a little bit about Reggie. I went to his hometown and met with his family, friends, his old girlfriend. I went to his school.. It was really moving. It’s one of these moments where you think, What a privilege to get to ask people these personal questions. It was like he had only died a week or two before.

“Before I left his brother took me out to his gravesite. I had a letter from his friend who was with him when he was killed. I wrote the piece for Memorial Day and that got the biggest reaction of anything I’ve written up until the columns about my daughter a decade later. It was kind of a story that hadn’t been written. It was just a different angle. It was definitely (motivated by) survivor guilt.

“That damn war, it had so many tentacles, even today. It was just dumb luck I didn’t have to go.”

It’s one thing being haunted by the specter of vets who served in his place. It’s quite another coming so close to losing his daughter. It’s inevitable he wrote about her odyssey. He still gets emotional about it.

“You’d think at some point I’d be able to talk about this without getting choked up.”

Bridget Kelly went from being an interested observer of her father’s work to being the focus of it.

“Growing up, my dad helped me understand the power of storytelling. We can learn more about what it means to be human through reading about other people’s struggles and experiences. After my attack, there was an outpouring of supportive messages from family, friends, and my dad’s readership.

“It seemed a natural response my dad would share in his column some of what my family and I were going through.”

How did the experience of writing about it impact him?

“Something like that’s got to affect you. I think I was compassionate before. I don’t think it’s made me more compassionate but maybe it has.”

Bridget says, “I always knew my dad was a compassionate person He handles sensitive and difficult subject matter with compassion. Now I better understand what a special voice he has at the newspaper. He gets people talking about all kinds of topics.

“I gained a real respect for his connection to the readers of the World-Herald. He tells me he meets people in the Omaha community even today who still ask him how I’m doing. All kinds of people feel comfortable asking him about such a personal story because he made it okay in the way he wrote about it.”

He says seeing others not always get Bridget’s story right “caused me to redouble my efforts when I’m writing about someone to think of it as a little documentation of their life.”

His daughter got a deeper appreciation for what he does..

“He talked with me during his writing process, and I could tell he wanted to be sure my perspective was accurately reflected in what he wrote. I can see he takes that kind of care in telling other people’s stories, too. I think that’s one reason people trust him to give voice to their personal experiences.”

As for how much longer he’ll keep working, Kelly has no plans to retire.

“I love my job. I hope I can keep doing it reasonably well. I would miss it.”

His devoted readers would surely miss him, too.

Follow Kelly online at http://www.omaha.com/section/news60.

 

 

 

Drive-By Delight: House forever tied to Alexander Payne’s ‘About Schmidt’ is just home to its residents


Alexander Payne’s cinematic imprint on his hometown and homestate is by now well documented.  With four of his six features made here he’s covered a wide swath of the city and the state.  When a few months ago I got the assignment to do a piece about the family that resides in a house that posed as the home to Jack Nicholson’s character of Warren Schmidt in the Payne film About Schmidt I have to admit I didn’t entirely understand the point, especially in a year dominated by the buzz around the writer-director’s latest film, Nebraska.  But then I got to thinking how Payne’s films have created these artifacts of where he’s filmed, many of which are actual locations that people do business in and live in and interact with every day.  Thus, the following story for Omaha Magazine about the family that lives in the Schmidt house.

 

 

 

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The About Schmidt house

 

Drive-By Delight
House forever tied to Alexander Payne’s ‘About Schmidt’ is just home to its residents

©by Leo Adam Biga
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

 

Alexander Payne’s new Oscar-nominated film Nebraska is stirring the pot in his home state the way his last film made here, About Schmidt, did in 2002.

That earlier project’s superstar lead, Jack Nicholson, naturally dominated media coverage. Nicholson’s character, the dour Warren Schmidt, lived in the Dundee home at 5402 Izard St. Bess Ogborn owned the house during filming, but the Jill and Mike Bydalek family moved into the home in mid-2003.

“Even years after the movie people would drive by really slow,” says Jill. “Tour buses would pull up. There were people getting out and taking pictures.”

“Every time Payne has a successful movie there’ll be people that show an interest in the house,” says Mike, who practices technology law for Kutak Rock. “The guy has a following. Random people visiting Omaha will, on their way to the airport, detour and drive by.”

The couple, whose children Grace and Jack grew up there, fully expects the same to happen should Nebraska fare well come Oscar time.

“And it’s not just here, it’s a half dozen other places around town,” Mike says, referring to the favorite Midtown spots the filmmaker made part of his Omaha trilogy (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt).

In a city with few degrees of separation, the Bydaleks claim a connection to another Omaha Payne house. Grace attended a nearby home daycare that served as the residence of the family friend Matthew Broderick’s character hits on in Election.

But because it’s so closely associated with Nicholson’s potent cinema legacy, few other Omaha movie locations have the iconic pull as does the Izard Street house. To capitalize on this intrigue the Omaha YWCA (now the Women’s Center for Advancement) held a Home for the Holidays fundraiser at the three-story, red brick Colonial constructed in 1923.

A largely untouched interior made it the right fit when the filmmaker, location manager John Latenser V, and production designer Jane Stewart scouted it.”We’d searched for the ‘Schmidt House’ for quite some time,” says Latenser, who comes from a long line of architects that designed enduring Omaha public structures. “We knew we wanted Warren Schmidt to live in the Dundee neighborhood. We had scouted nearly 50 houses there, but nearly every one had updated-upgraded interiors. We were looking for a house that had not been updated.”

He says as soon as the team entered the home and saw its vintage wallpaper and original kitchen they knew they’d found the one.

“It was that perfect.”

 

 

 

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Jill and Mike Bydalek

 

 

Bess Ogborn’s daughter, Susan Ogborn, president and CEO of the Food Bank of the Heartland, was there for much of the shoot. She says her family “thoroughly enjoyed the experience” of their house becoming a movie artifact. Her folks moved there in 1964. After the death of her father in 1967, her widowed mother hung onto the place.

“Mother redecorated it in 1971, and other than basic maintenance, that was the way the filmmakers found it. But she would want you to know they moved her furniture out and used set furniture, and that her house was never that dirty or gloomy as it was in the movie. I don’t think she regretted letting them use her home at all. Seeing the house in the film didn’t seem strange, but walking through that set was very odd.”

The Bydaleks removed the wallpaper, redid the kitchen, and made many more renovations while retaining the five-bedroom home’s original integrity.

“It’s a great house,” says Mike. “It’s just as simple as can be, and that’s kind of nice.”

“They don’t make these houses anymore,” says Julie.

The Bydaleks know it will always link them to a slice of pop culture.

“It’s kind of fun to say we live in the About Schmidt house,” says Mike.

As things worked out, the Bydaleks’ daughter, Grace, 18, became the family’s own resident movie star. Acting on stage since childhood, she’s done voice-over work for animated television series, and she portrayed the title role in the Omaha-made film For Love of Amy (2009). During a Carnegie Mellon (Pittsburgh) theater camp, she says she used the Schmidt tie “as my fun fact during my dorm floor ice-breaker,” adding, “People were impressed a girl from Omaha would have a connection with the movies.”

As for Jack, 15, he says “it’s cool as a movie buff to live in a house made famous” by a popular film and its legendary star.

 

 

Happiness is as Happiness Does – ICAN Women’s Leadership Conference gets Busy framing Happiness and how to apply it to Business


If getting your happiness on is a priority, there’s no shortage of strategies and disciplines for finding it in self-help books, videos, CDs and the like.  My story here for Omaha’s Metro Magazine focuses on a women’s conference devoted to the theme of happiness – what is it, how to achieve it and sustain it and the difference it can make in people’s work lives and in the bottomlines of organizations and businesses.

 

 

 

 

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Happiness is as Happiness Does – ICAN Women’s Leadership Conference gets Busy framing Happiness and how to apply it to Business

©BY LEO ADAM BIGA

Now appearing in Omaha’s Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)

 

Happy is as happy does.

As organizations get ever leaner-meaner trying to maximize profits, happiness may seem a strange value to cultivate. But experts like Shawn Achor, whose consulting firm Good Think Inc. applies positive psychology findings to help clients achieve happier, more effective work experiences, say their research shows the happy quotient is a lead indicator of business performance and employee satisfaction.

Happiness may just be the antidote for the lagging productivity and job dissatisfaction plaguing America. Lack of happiness may explain why so many workers rely on controlled substances to relieve stress, enhance mood and boost energy. Philosophers and artists have waxed about happiness as a desired state of being for centuries in treatises, songs, poems. It’s even written into the U.S. Declaration of Independence as an unalienable right to be pursued.

Achor’s study of belief systems and attitudes has led him to develop a kind of happiness index that equates its attainment with realizing human potential. His easily digestible analysis has made him a best selling author and popular TED presenter. His “The Happiness Advantage” lecture, which airs on PBS, is much in demand.

He’s hardly alone today in framing happiness. Books, films, seminars and classes try unlocking its metrics. This hunger for bliss is part of a growing self-reflective movement that finds many folks, including business professionals, taking stock of what really matters and putting into practice habits that promote happiness as a pathway to success.

All this interests Mary Prefontaine, whose journey for enlightenment and fulfillment aligns with her work as president and CEO of the Institute for Career Advancement Needs (ICAN). Her Omaha-based nonprofit is all about “inspiring leaders and transforming organizations,” so she pays attention to what’s affecting businesses. Noting that studies of happiness were trending up, she and her team made Happiness, Bending the Bottom Line, the theme of this year’s ICAN Women’s Leadership Conference.

“We plan the conference around what seems to be relevant in our work, in business, in people’s hearts and there’s a social conversation going on about happiness and what it means,” she says. “The work of ICAN is built around that holistic model of self-examination of body, mind, spirit, emotions. So what if we are accountable to all of that and the choices we make?. Does that make us more happy? And how do we define that? How do we distill our lives to get clear enough to understand what it means to me to be happy at the most fundamental level?. How do I shed my attachments to things in order to get there?

“Some research shows that people who are givers are happier.”

The April 9 all-day event at the CenturyLink Center is presenting panels and speakers to synthesize the latest thinking on happiness and to perhaps answer questions about this ephemeral, elusive thing.

Getting happy
In setting the conference agenda Prefontaine says she and her team asked, “Is happiness a glib thing or a real thing? Is this just a made-up human condition that isn’t even actually plausible? What does it really mean and how do we actually know we have it?”

The consensus holds happiness is not something that happens to us, rather it’s something we manifest as an intention or choice or attitude that informs how we apprehend the world and act in it.

“Looking at happiness as a choice rather than just happenstance intrigued us. We really began to look at it from the perspective of self first and then the impact it might have in everything around you. We’re interested in this idea of raising human consciousness. That’s what the work of ICAN is all about. At the conference we’re examining this idea that happiness is a choice.

“One of the great points of intersection to decide on this theme was looking at Shawn Achor’s meta analysis of happiness as it relates to the workplace, and the life of a business and the human talent associated with that business., That took us into how does having happy employees with a sense of well-being affect productivity, innovation, teamwork and the bottom-line. Well, the research shows it has a huge impact in a positive way.”

It seems happiness has little to do with the things in our lives.

“What’s interesting and what I’m most excited about is that in most instances research says those who have encountered the most adversity in their lives are also some of the happiest individuals.”

She’s seen this phenomenon on trips to Kenya, Tanzania, Singapore, Thailand and China.

“I see a lot of happy people with nothing. We have much to learn from them. In Buddhism you’re actually invited to stand in a place of suffering, without attachments, and come to peace with what really is. But we’re not living in a society that thinks that’s a good idea,. We place no value on that. Some research states if you have certain things in place you’re more likely to be happy. Here in the West many of us have stable shelter, food, employment. In other parts of the world that would make many people happy. Yet in this nation of plenty we’re increasingly dependent on pharmaceuticals to treat depression.”

Spreading happiness
Prefontaine says the conference is a vehicle for holding a forum about happiness and its ability to bend the bottom line. She’s excited by the prospect of 2,100 expected attendees who can potentially make their work environments more attuned to individual and collective well-being.

“The research is saying happy employees are more engaged and productive and therefore more effective and innovative and that happiness really can bend the bottom-line in an upward trajectory. In that case, how do you as an employee affect it and as an employer what’s your accountability? How accountable and aware are companies to this idea? I think it’s about a company being aware that health – good diet, exercise and sleep – makes for a much healthier, happier life and a more satisfied, productive employee.”

She says some mavericks are taking the lead.

“Certain business leaders today are paying attention to the well-being, happiness and engagement level of their employees, so much so they are encouraging nurturing practices that allow for rest, mindful meditation, sleep and wellness at the core of every part of being, knowing that will help employees deliver more to the company.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Breakout sessions will feature speakers exploring specific themes:

Achor – “The Happiness Advantage at Home and Work”
Stacey Flower – “Maximizing Opportunities: One Person, One Moment”
Amy Dorn Kopelan – “Your Life is Always an Interview”
Jo Miller – “Take Charge of Your Career Trajectory”
Ishita Gupta – “Get the Confidence to Be Yourself”

ICAN faculty will conduct a “Live Your Voice: Values-Based Leadership” session and Omaha Yoga Path founder Mark Watson will lead a session on “Mindfulness and Meditation, Simple Ways to Manage Your Stress.”

In addition to Achor, two other keynoters will share their spin on becoming empowered in uncertain times: CBS news personality Norah O’Donnell and global economist Sherry Cooper.

A panel will discuss the STEM gap that finds more women in the workplace than ever before but females lagging far behind males in science, technology, engineering and math studies and careers.

Whatever your path to bliss and success, Prefontaine says the conference has it covered. Setting the tone the day before is a special public screening of the documentary Happy, which explores notions of happiness around the world. It shows at 6:30 p.m. on April 8 in the CenturyLink Grand Ballroom. Admission to the film is $9 and all screening proceeds benefit the ICAN Education Scholarship Fund.

Prefontaine says the conference offers a full immersion in the power of leadership and positive thinking. “I think I’m most excited about bringing a conversation to our community about happiness being a choice.”

For the conference schedule and registration details, visit http://www.icanglobal.net.

Shawn Achor Resets the Happiness Formula
Popular Psychiatrist to keynote ICAN conference

ICAN conference keynote speaker Shawn Achor, a leading positive psychologist, has become a happiness guru after years immersing himself in what makes people tick.

“I studied Christian and Buddhist ethics at Harvard Divinity School to explore how our beliefs change our actions,” he says. “This is exactly what I do in positive psychology now. Since then I’ve traveled to over 50 countries researching and speaking at over a third of the Fortune 100 companies and with schools worldwide. I became fascinated by the idea we are not just our genes and our environment, but that we can choose happiness.”

As a teacher he repeatedly saw students fall short of happiness when they expected it as a birthright or reward.

“In my 12 years at Harvard I saw students who thought the success of getting into a good college would make them happy, but 80 percent report work debilitating depression at some point over the next four years. I saw the same things out at companies. Even as success rose, happiness flatlined. It turns out we had the formula wrong. Success is a moving target. As soon as we hit a goal our brain changes the goalpost of what success looks like. If you hit your sales target, we raise your sales target. If you make more money, you’re surrounded by others who make even more money.

“But flip around the formula and it actually works. Raising optimism and deepening social connection raises every business and educational outcome. My TED talk has over 6 million views, which feels surreal, but is yet another indication that we are living through the beginning of a revolution where people recognize that the greatest competitive advantage in the modern economy is a positive and engaged brain.”

He found happiness to be an internal construct we build as we grow.

“In my work we define happiness as the joy you feel striving toward your potential. This changed the way I pursued happiness. Many researchers try to separate which is better a happy life or a meaningful one. That is impossible. Happiness cannot be sustained without meaning. Pleasure is short-lived, but joy is something you can experience in the ups and downs of life. And we only feel it on the way to our potential, so growth as a human being is crucial.”

He says most of us have been programmed by societal tenets to follow the wrong formula for happiness and success.

“We think if we work harder we’ll be more successful and happier. It’s a broken formula. The human brain is actually designed to work better when it is positive, rather than negative, neutral or stressed.”

Nurturing ourselves and our passions, combined with serving the needs of others, are surer ways to bliss than slavishly working to get ahead.

When all is said and done, he says some simple but profound differences separate happy people from unhappy people.

“The happiest people can delay pleasure but they do not delay happiness. And they realize happiness requires a work ethic. Only by creating positive habits like writing down gratitudes, journaling about positive experiences, meditation and writing positive emails to people in our social support group can we create sustained and quantifiable positive change.”

Achor’s keynote talk is at 9:15 a.m. He will lead a breakout session at 10 a.m.

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“In my work we define happiness as the joy you feel striving toward your potential.”
~ SHAWN ACHOR

Gravitas – Gravity Center for Contemplative Activism Founders Christopher and Phileena Heuertz Create Place of Healing for Healers


The more I look around the more I appreciate just how many interesting stories are available to me right in my hometown of Omaha, Neb. if I just open my eyes and my heart to what’s here.  As I expand my vision, I see more than I did before.  There’s also a law of attraction thing going on whereby as my personal spiritual journey ramps up more and more stories of people’s own spiritual journeys and personal transformations present themselves to me.  One such story is that of  Gravity, A Center for Contemplative Activism, which I’ve posted here.  This feature for Omaha’s Metro Magazine is really a profile of the married couple behind the center, Christopher and Phileena Heuertz, and a chronicle of the serious traveling they’ve done – physically, emotionally and spiritually – to arrive at the place of healing they operate for fellow healers like themselves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gravitas
Gravity Center for Contemplative Activism Founders Christopher and Phileena Heuertz Create Place of Healing for Healers

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)

 

After serving the poorest of the poor, an Omaha couple now helps heal fellow healers

Omaha is a world away from the slums of Calcutta, the killing fields of Sierra Leone or the red light districts of South America. But the human pain found there is never far from the hearts and minds of a spiritually enlightened local couple who worked among the suffering in these and similarly challenged places for nearly two decades.

Christopher and Phileena Heuertz are 40-something-year-olds who’ve devoted much of their adult lives to social justice activism with the poorest of the poor, all the while led by the scripture admonition “faith without works is dead.” Growing up – he’s from Omaha and she’s from Indiana – each had powerful do-the-right-thing examples of radical hospitality in their own lives. His parents took in foster care kids in crisis and adopted two at-risk children. Later, his folks founded and ran a local agency to help resettle Sudanese refugees. Her father is a Protestant pastor and the senior chaplain for the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department.

By the time the couple met at a small liberal arts Christian college in Kentucky Chis had already done service work on a Navajo reservation, in Cabrini Green Chicago and in South India and Southeast Asia. In love with him and their shared commitment to serve others, Phileena joined him overseas.

The many hard things they witnessed brought them to a crucible of faith that now has them dedicated to nurturing the spirits of people whose human service vocations align with their own.

A new path
In 2012 they founded the Omaha-based Gravity, a Center for Contemplative Activism. Officed in the Mastercraft Building in North Downtown, where kindred spirit creatives, entrepreneurs and social justice warriors (at Siena/Francis House) are their neighbors, the center is the arm for their new outreach focus. The couple’s new mission finds them leading prayer sits and pilgrimages and giving retreats and spiritual direction in support of people like themselves committed to humanitarian work. The Heuertzes know first-hand how draining that work can be and therefore how vital it is to have a discipline or method or sanctuary in order to get refreshed.

Chris says, “We’re trying to create this sort of pit stop for the activist soul to catch their breath, to be refueled, to find practices that will help sustain their vocations and journeys.”

Many of the practices are contemplative in nature, meaning they emphasize silent prayer, meditation and reflection which nurtures self-awareness or consciousness. Centering prayer is one such practice.

Gravity does some of this work right at its spacious office, such as the weekly prayer sits and spiritual direction. and holds retreats at the St. Benedict Center in Schuyler, Neb. and around the country. The husband and wife team leads pilgrimages to historic sacred spots around the world (Assisi, Italy) and to historic social justice locales around the world (Rwanda). In the U.S. pilgrmmage has focused on “21st Century Freedom Rides” revisiting civil rights sites in the South. The couple also does workshops and makes presentations for communities, churches and universities across the nation.

“Gravity is for people who care about their spirituality and want to make the world a better place,” says Phileena, who completed her certification as a spiritual director. “Since Gravity opened its doors we’re finding that people from all different walks of life are coming. Even if they’re not in formal social justice work many of these people want to make the world a better place and they’re doing that in their way through their unique vocation.”

The couple came to start Gravity after reaching a point where they needed their own reset. They intentionally took time off to minister to themselves, along the way finding some spiritual practices they found beneficial for their own peace of mind and spiritual growth and that they now share with others.

After years working in the trenches with the destitute, the desperate and the dying they took a sabbatical in 2007. For part of their time away from the fray they made a famed pilgrimage in Spain, the Camino de Santiago, that saw them walk almost 800 kilometers (500 miles) across southern France and northern Spain on a 33-day trek. There, under the stars, unplugged from modem life, they discovered some essential truths.

“Every night on the Camino we’d stop at a convent or monastery or pilgrim house,” says Chris. “For 1,100 years these folks have practiced hospitality. You’re so exhausted after walking 25 or 30 kilometers, carrying everything in your pack, and then these folks welcome you in, saying, ‘Here’s a hot meal, here’s the shower, you can wash your clothes, we’ll make you breakfast in the morning and send you on your way.’ And it just always refreshed our spirits, our souls, our bodies, and that’s what we want to do through the center. We want to offer these little glimpses of hope and tools of nourishment for the activist soul to keep going, to keep fighting for a better world and not give up.”

During that same sabbatical period the Heuertzes received a fellowship from the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina.

“They hosted us,” says Chris,”and we found it such a great place for reflecting deeply on very difficult things in the world with a very diverse group of people.”

These experiences of taking time out for solitude, reflection, community and rejuvenation set this always searching couple on a new path, this time not directly tending to the suffering but to those who serve the suffering. Thus, their new mission is healing the healers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taking stock

In all the time Phileena and Chris served the oppressed, the exploited, the hungry, the sick and the dying, surrounded by a sea of want and hopelessness, they saw many of their colleagues lose their bearings.

“We worked all over the world and saw pretty messed up stuff and we saw a lot of great people burn out and walk away from their beliefs or faith or communities or vocations,” says Chris.

The couple came close to their own personal breaking points.

He says, “What we experienced in 19 years of really grassroots, gritty, on-the-streets, in-the-neighborhoods difficult work was that we gave a lot of ourselves. We saw lots and lots of terrible things that started to weigh on us. The work that we did impacted us and we absorbed a lot of that. What we saw in our own lives, in our own health and bodies, in our marriage were things that were hurt, that were wounded.

“It did take some emotional, spiritual, physical toll on us.”

While they were still wrapped up in that work though it was hard for them to see that damage. Only after being back home – Chris headed the North American office of Word Made Flesh from here – could they grasp just how much trauma they’d stuffed. There were the tragic figures at the Mother Teresa-founded House for the Dying, the maimed victims of the Blood Diamonds War, the Latina and Asian women recovering from being trafficked in the sex trade.

Phileena says the burden of it all came to a head for her one day.

“Back home a friend asked me after listening to what we had experienced, ‘Do you ever doubt the goodness of God?’ Immediately it was like a dam broke loose and the emotions took over and I just wept and wept and said, ‘Yes, I doubt the goodness of God.’ What I realize now is that in all my work social justice work up until that point I was operating in terms of finding someone to blame, someone who’s responsible for the state of the world and the suffering and injustice that is there.

“And certainly some of us are responsible and we need to take responsibility for our actions. But in Freetown, Sierra Leone everywhere I looked I found the person to blame was also victimized and so then I had nowhere to turn except to blame God for the state of the world and for the condition of my friends.

“I was in a crisis of faith.”

Just when things seemed bleakest a ray of hope shone through in the person of Father Thomas Keating, a Cistercian monk and priest who is a leading proponent of the Christian contemplative prayer movement.

“Keating came to Omaha to speak at Creighton University and he introduced us to the contemplative tradition and centering prayer,” says Phileena. “That was really a lifesaver for me. It was immediate grace. There was a way for me to just be with the terrible suffering and trauma of the world, the human brutality, the questions, the doubts. There’s a way for me to be with my anger towards God and my questions and doubts about my faith. There’s a way to live faith without having all the answers.

“The answers I grew up with in church in mid-America were not connecting with the real problems of the world. Keating was just so helpful in providing a way for me to stay connected to faith, to God in a way that would allow me to deepen and grow.”

It should be no surprise then that Keating, the author of several books and the founder of the St. Benedict’s monastery in Snowmass, Colo., where he resides and teaches, is a founding board member of Gravity.

Keating’s oft-professed lesson that a test of faith is an opportunity for growth resonated with the couple.

“Keating teaches that if we stay on the spiritual journey long enough we’ll come to the point where the practices that have sustained us in our faith journey fall short, they no longer nourish us, and when that happens it can be completely disorienting,” says Phileena, who went through this dark night of the soul herself. “A lot of people walk away from their faith at that point but Keating says it’s actually an invitation to go deeper.”

She and Chris chose to plunge the depths.

The contemplative way and paying it forward
“What we found is there’s a real difference between faith and certainty,” she says..”Faith is being able find yourself being held by something bigger and greater than you and not having all these answers. Doubt can be contained within our faith. Certainty is the opposite of faith. I think a lot of spiritual or religious people put a lot of bank in our certainty, but that’s actually a barrier to faith. Certainity can be a disguise for pride and superiority and thinking we have all the answers and have figured it all out and can figure God out. But faith is something that carries us. It’s a grace that helps us to be a part of the mystery of life and God and any goodness that is in us and that can flow through us to heal and transform the world.

“It really gave us an understanding for what we had witnessed in Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity in South India. Mother never talked about this but we saw in her this pure model of contemplative activism, where people were dying at her doorstep and she was disciplined to see that they were taken care of but also to see that she and the Missionaries of Charity would take regular time out to meditate and pray. They had these regular rhythms of withdrawal and engagement and getting connected to a source that is greater than them.”

Reflecting on their own and others’ service experiences, Chris says he and Phillena concluded that many “folks in social justice actually take better care of someone else than they do themselves,” adding, “Where’s the integrity in that? If we don’t really know how to love ourselves how well can we really love someone else? We also saw folks who had really beautiful compelling vocations were sometimes being very unpleasant, grumpy people. We did see a lot of people burn out and a lot of people perpetually teetering on the edge of burn out.”

He says he and his wife resolved they and their fellow social justice workers “don’t have to do this at our expense, we don’t have to do this in a way that ends poorly for us or that ends with people walking away from their work, their faith, their beliefs, their community.” That’s where Gravity comes in. “The idea is we want to accompany or journey with folks in this formation of helping ground our social engagement in a deep contemplative spirituality.”

They’re guided in their new mission by the wisdom and example of figures as diverse as Keating, Father Richard Rohr and Thomas Merton, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Phileena says the monastic teachings of Keating, Rohr and Merton “have done a lot to bring contemplative spirituality out from the monastery and into the secular world. We’re a part of the next generation who are making it even more accessible and demystifying it. I think a big part of what we’re offering is accessibility to mysticism or contemplative spirituality. At the retreats the demystifying comes by practicing together and talking about our experiences.”

Gravity is a resource center whose programs, activities, books and videos help fulfill the mission statement tagline: “…do good better.” Both Chris and Phileena are published authors on matters of faith and spirituality.

The spiritual experiences that led them to Gravity, including all the insights gleaned from their teachers, colleagues, friends and role models, is their way of carrying the message.

Visit http://gravitycenter.com for a schedule of upcoming retreats and programs and links to materials.

Nebraska’s Changing Face; UNO’s Changing Face

March 18, 2014 Leave a comment

I wrote the following  feature and sidebar exploring some trends about the changing face of Neb. and the University of Nebraska at Omaha, my alma mater.  Slowly but surely the state and some of its institutions are becoming more diverse.  Some of the changes can be readily seen already, others not so much, but in a few decades they will be more obvious.   It’s a healthy thing that’s happening, though diversity is still taking far too long to be fully felt and lived and embraced in all quarters, but that’s for another story.

 

 

 

 

Nebraska’s Changing Face

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

Nebraska’s “Plain Jane” sameness has long extended to its racial makeup. Diversity hasn’t held much truck here. Even when the foreign-born population was at its peak in the state’s first half century, the newcomers were predominantly of European ancestry.

An African-American migration from the Deep South to Omaha in the early 1900s established the city’s black base. Until a new immigration wave in the 1990s brought an influx of Africans and Latinos-Hispanics to greater Neb., the composite face of this Great Plains state was decidedly monotone.

The perception of Flyover Country as a bastion of white farmers has never been completely accurate. The state’s two largest metropolitan areas, for example, have always boasted some heterogeneity. Urban areas like Omaha and urban institutions such as the University of Nebraska at Omaha express more racial-ethnic diversity because of longstanding minority settlement patterns and the university drawing heavily from the metro.

But it is true Neb.’s minority population has always been among the nation’s smallest, which only supported the stereotype.

Finally, though, its minority numbers are going up and its diversity broadening.

Still, if Nebraskans posed for a group portrait as recently as 1980 more than 9 of every 10 would have beeb white. Only 6 percent identified as African-Americans, Latino-Hispanics, Native Americans or Asians.

The lack of diversity extended virtually everywhere. The largest minority group then, blacks, was highly concentrated in Omaha. Despite slow, steady gains blacks still account for only 13 percent of the city’s population and 4 percent of the state’s population.

But as recently announced by UNO researchers, Neb. is changing and with it the face of the state. A group picture taken today would reveal a noticeable difference compared to a quarter century ago, with whites now accounting for 8 of every 10 residents. Indeed, the state’s minority population has more than doubled the past four decades, with by far the largest increase among Latinos-Hispanics, who now comprise the largest minority segment. Latinos-Hispanics are on a linear growth trajectory. They tend to be young and their women of childbearing age.

Minority growth has been even greater in select communities, such as Lexington, where meat processing attracted newcomers.

Celebrated native son filmmaker Alexander Payne’s new movie “Nebraska” – set and shot primarily in the northeast part of the state – accurately portrays a slice of Neb.’s past and present through a large ensemble of characters, all of whom but two are white. The exceptions are both Hispanic. The Oscar-winning writer-director may next make a partly Spanish-language feature about the impact of the immigrant population on Neb.’s towns and cities.

New UNO Center for Public Affairs Research projections posit that by 2050 the state’s portrait will dramatically change as a result of major demographic trends well under way. Within four decades minorities will account for about 40 percent of the entire population. Nearly a quarter of the projected 2050 population of 2.2 million, or some 500,000, will be Latino-Hispanic.

It’s a sea change for a state whose diversity was traditionally confined to a few enclaves of color. Immigration, migration and natural causes are driving this new minority surge.

Everything is relative though. So while CPAR Research Coordinator David Drzod says, “Our diversity will increase,” he adds, “Neb. is one of the less diverse places countrywide and other states are going to become more diverse as well.”

Still, the snapshot of Neb. is changing due to real demographic shifts with significant longterm consequences. Just as the majority white base is holding static or declining, non-whites are proliferating. The results can be seen in the ever more diverse profiles of some communities, neighborhoods, schools and other settings.

Thus, for the first time in Neb. diversity is becoming more lived reality than aspirational goal.

Economic conditions were the main driver for the sharp rise in Latinos-Hispanics migrating here. Plentiful jobs, a low cost of living, coupled with aggressive industry recruitment, lured people to move here from places with comparatively weak economies, high cost of living and job shortages. Neb. grew its Latino-Hispanic base from points of origin in California, Texas. Mexico, Central America and South America, The state also saw its African and Asian populations increase as refugees from Sudan and Bhutan, for example, resettled here.

Drozd says, “People are not coming as directly for new jobs like in the ’90s when the meat processors were expanding and recruiting. We expect to see some regional migration that Neb. has typically seen from smaller locations to more urban locations that tend to have a diverse pool of job opportunities within various industries.”

While migration has slowed from its peak waves it’s expected to continue in fits and starts. Migration, researchers agree is “a wildcard” that can’t be accurately forecast, but Office of Latino and Latin American Studies Research Associate Lissette Aliaga Linares notes an uptick in Latinos-Hispanics from Arizona, which OLLAS Director Lourdes Gouvia attributes to that state’s anti-immigrant policies.

Drozd says Neb.’s minority experience is consistent with some surrounding states and inconsistent with others.

“We are typical of the Great Plains in that we tend to suffer from outmigration especially of young college-aged whites, which is counteracted by in-migration and increase in the minority population groups. On the other hand Neb. is unique in that we are growing faster in some of our metropolitan areas and not holding our population as well as some of the more rural areas.”

 

 

 

 

 

The emergence of more minorities is perhaps most visible in urban inner city public schools, where student enrollment naturally reflects the heavily minority communities these schools serve. Minority enrollment in the Omaha Public Schools stands at 68 percent.

“The diversity of UNO will continue to grow and one only has to look at the demographics in the metro area to understand that traditional middle school and high school students will increasingly be students of color,” says UNO Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs B.J. Reed.

Some outstate school districts are now majority Latino-Hispanic.

The impact of diversity in this small population state that suffers from brain drain cannot be overstated.

“There’s a large part of Neb. that would be having population decline if it were not for minority growth,” says Drozd. “There’s all sorts of implications with respect to aging, the workforce, health care, education. From a gerontology standpoint you have the possibility of seeing a younger, more diverse working-age population caring for a predominantly white non-Hispanic aging population and will there be any issues associated there. With programs like Social Security you’re going to be relying more and more on an immigrant population to support payments for predominantly white people collecting from the program. So there are potentials for tension there and of course political ramifications and all sorts of factors.”

Gouveia, a sociology professor, reminds that “Latinos are going to imitate some trends of the larger population the more urban and educated they become,” adding. “The more women are able to work outside the home fertility rates will drop and the population will begin to age. It’s the life cycle.”

As minorities grow they become a larger sector of the tax and voting base that elected officials and prospective candidates must recognize.

Drozd says communities must adapt, whether offering English-as-a-Second Language programs or multicultural competency classes, in order to best serve minorities and their particular needs.

As more minorities graduate high school educators and employers hope that many of these college-bound grads and working-age young adults will attend school and find jobs in-state.

“As people have become upwardly mobile in Neb.’s past that has led to outmigration out of the state,” says Drozd. “It’s going to be a very policy relevant factor because people born in the early ’90s are now hitting age 18. Even if they choose a Neb. college where are they going to go to work? Will there be jobs and associated positions for them here in the state or will they go out of state?”

Just as preparing students to succeed in school is critical, so is preparing a workforce for today’s service and skilled jobs.

“Let’s make no mistake about this, without immigration Nebraskans may have to rethink how they are going to have a viable economy that produces not only jobs but payrolls that produce taxes from which an aging population will benefit greatly,” says Gouveia. “Without this population there won’t be services this Boomer population and this aspiring mini-global city of Omaha depends on. These are increasingly service economies and that means it’s very important for the economy to increasingly be based on higher pay jobs likely to grow, such as information technology or biotechnology.

“That also means educational institutions need to be able to truly know how to train this generation of children of immigrants. The children may not be immigrants themselves but a large number have immigrant parents who endured very poor, disadvantageous conditions that tend to disadvantage the educational achievement of their children. We have to have multidimensional. multidisciplinary perspectives to understand who this population is. And that goes to our research also.”

She believes minorities will succeed to the extent opportunities allow.

“We haven’t addressed the serious barriers to education that would guarantee that new face of America and of Neb. becomes a face with equal opportunities to participate in the prosperity all of us will want to share.” She says if barriers to upward mobility aren’t removed “it may prevent Neb. from truly harnessing what we call this demographic bonus that’s been gifted to this state. A state that was losing population were it not for minority growth and international migration would be in serious trouble today to have a viable economy and future.”

 

 

 

 

Daniel J. Shipp, UNO associate vice chancellor for student affairs, says schools must find ways to support minority students.

“When combined with the typical struggles of new college students the demographics of race-ethnicity will create even more difficult challenges in both access to and success in college. Not only must we continue to open our doors wider to traditionally under-served student populations but once on campus it is critical for all of us to see their success as a top institutional and community priority.”

UNO Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs Pelema Morrice urges educators and employers to appreciate diversity’s many forms.

“We always focus on racial-ethnic diversity but I think intellectual diversity, geographic diversity, cultural diversity, all those different forms of diversity, really add a lot of value to everyone’s experience. There’s plenty of evidence that the more diverse environment we’re in the more we all have opportunities to learn from each other.

“So I think it’s incredibly important for an institution to be a welcoming and diverse environment where folks can learn from each other at a higher level. I think that adds to the educational experience and it provides students with really good training to go out and be productive citizens and to be successful in the workplace.”

Diversity is also the way of this flatter, interconnected world.

Reed from UNO’s Academic and Student Affairs office, says “Our students will grow up in a much more global environment requiring exposure to difference cultures and different experiences.”

Where diversity often must be programmed, Gouveia is heartened by students’ inherent embrace of it. “About this new Neb. mosaic, one thing I’m particularly hopeful about is the younger generation. I love our new students. From any background they are so much more prepared and so much more ahead of where we are as professors or department chairs or deans in terms of knowing how to do diversity. We are the ones who are often behind them.”

As Neb. becomes more multi-hued, UNO’s Morrice says representative stakeholders should discuss what diversity holds for the state.

“With these new demographics coming forward it means our student base will obviously be more diverse than it is now and that means the outcomes will be more diverse and so we’ll see more diverse workplaces and communities within the state. We’re just a piece of that puzzle but I think it’s a good collective conversation for everyone to have as the state continues to grow and it becomes clear that there will be different faces at the table.”

 

 

 

 

UNO’s Changing Face

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

The same demographic trends on pace to make the United States a minority majority population by 2050 and making Neb. a more racially-ethnically diverse place in the second decade of the new millennium, are increasingly being expressed at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Roughly a quarter of UNO’s 2013-2014 freshman class is minority and just under 20 percent of the school’s entire undergraduate enrollment is minority. Both are record marks for the school. In 2000, for example, UNO’s minority enrollment stood at 9 percent. The minority numbers are even greater among graduate students.

The 11 percent rise in UNO minority enrollment from 2000 until now reflects in large measure the Latino-Hispanic boom that happened in-state from 1980 to 2010, when that segment increased from about 37,000 to 167,000. The Latino-Hispanic population is expected to add another 370,000 residents by 2050, according to UNO’s Center for Public Affairs Research.

As a public institution with a state-wide reach, UNO’s a model for the changing face of Neb. Drawing principally from the Omaha metropolitan area, which as the state’s largest urban center has always been Neb.’s most racially-ethnically diverse spot, UNO is, as expected, one of the most diverse campuses in the University of Nebraska system.

At the University of Nebraska-Kearney minority undergraduate enrollment has nearly doubled since 1995. Today, nearly a quarter of its students are non-white or non-resident alien. Meanwhile, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln reports the most diverse student body in its history. UNL’s  2,328 minority undergrads are about 12 percent of the undergraduate total, a 9 percent increase just from last year. Just as at UNO, the largest minority gains at each school are in the Latino-Hispanic and international students categories,

 

 

 

 

As minorities comprise a growing segment of the state’s mainstream and of its public schools’ enrollment, institutions are tasked with incorporating these populations and responding to their needs.

“The good news for Omaha is that UNO has a proud tradition of supporting minority students through various educational equity and learning community investments such as Goodrich, Project Achieve and the newer Thompson Learning Community,” says UNO Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Daniel J. Shipp. “These programs provide student participants with a network of caring and concerned faculty, staff and peer mentors that help students to succeed and thrive in college. Moving forward, I expect we will continue to build on our national reputation for attracting and supporting the growing numbers of minority students and their families in the Omaha area and beyond.”

“Minority students are an important population but they are only one of an increasing mosaic of diversity at UNO, whether they are military, first generation, students of color or adult learners or transfer students,” says UNO Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs B.J. Reed. “We are working every day to ensure that these students feel welcome at UNO and have the type of support services and environment that will make them want to be want to be here and to be successful. We do this for all our special populations of students. We have programs and learning communities as well as staff specifically directed at helping ease their transition to UNO and success in their academic goals.”

Reed says hiring faculty and staff who reflect the changing face of UNO “is a top priority,” adding, “We have made important strides in diversifying our staff but we lag behind where we want to be here and also with recruiting and retaining a more diverse faculty. We are working on reviewing existing policies and procedures and looking at incentives and support efforts to increase the diversity of faculty and staff to reflect the changing demographics of our student body.”

There’s wide agreement that diversity is a net sum experience for all involved.

“The benefits are substantial,” Reed says. “The workplace is becoming increasingly diverse and employers need and want an increasingly diverse group of employees. We cannot underestimate the shift occurring here. We need to provide a strong educational workforce for employers and UNO must be positioned to do that effectively.”

 

 

 

 

Office of Latino and Latin American Studies Director and Sociology Professor Lourdes Gouveia agrees that educators at UNO and elsewhere must increasingly consider diversity and its impact.

“We have to educate our professionals and student populations in ways that allow them to be skilled about global issues and diversity and to have multicultural competencies as the world is very connected,” she says. “But also we need to address structural barriers that may prevent Neb. from truly harnessing what we call this demographic bonus that has been gifted to this state. A state that was losing population if not for minority growth and international migration would be in serious trouble today to have a viable economy and a future.”

Omahans put their spin on Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’ – Jason Levering leads stage adaptation of horror classic to benefit Benson Theatre Project

March 17, 2014 Leave a comment

Jason Levering and a group of fellow Omahans has proven just cheeky enough to adapt Stephen King’s The Shining to the stage.  The world premiere of their efforts is March 21 and 22 at the Sokol Auditorium in three performances to benefit the Benson Theatre Project, a nonprofit is primed to purchase and restore a vintage vaudeville and movie house in Omaha’s Benson business district.  Business Theatre Project executive director Amy Ryan says, “My confidence in Jason Levering and his ability to put on a quality production influenced my decision to sign off, along with the other project leaders.” I asked her if she has any trepidation in hanging a fundraiser on a premiere, never-before-staged work, even if it is adapted from a mega popular novel whose title everyone knows and whose author is a brand unto himself. “It’s a tall order, no doubt.  Certainly there were many factors and risks to be considered, but in the end we decided that it was a unique and viable way to raise funds and showcase Omaha’s local talent.”  Levering is also artistic director of the Benson Theatre Project.  What follows is my upcoming story in The Reader (www.thereader.com) about the adaptation, which st least based on the legendary status of the source material and its author has given this production a very high curiosity factor.  For my article I interviewed Levering about various aspects of the project.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Omahans put their spin on Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’

Jason Levering leads stage adaptation of horror classic to benefit Benson Theatre Project

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Credit Omaha writer-director Jason Levering for possessing the temerity to not only consider adapting Stephen King’s meta horror novel The Shining to the stage but to follow through and actually get the master’s approval. Now he’s only hours away from seeing the adaptation he and Aaron Sailors wrote make its world premiere.

The Shining, A Play, has a three-show run March 21 and 22 at Sokol Auditorium, 2234 South 13th St., the old-line South Omaha space known for live music concerts, not full-blown dramatic theatricals. Make no mistake, this will be a big, effects-laden production commensurate with the sprawling, supernatural-laced source material.

The show’s a fundraiser for the Benson Theatre Project. Levering is artistic director of the nonprofit, which needs $250,000 to purchase the former Benson vaudeville and movie house at 6054 Maple St. before renovation work can begin. It’s adjacent to the Pizza Shoppe and PS Collective, whose owner, Amy Ryan, is the project’s executive director. Ryan, a community advocate and arts supporter, goes way back with Levering, who’s also co-founder of the Omaha Film Festival.

An Aurora, Neb., native, Levering’s worked on short films. He and Sailors are collaborating on a feature film adaptation of short stories from author Dan Chaon’s Stay Awake collection. That project’s on hold while Chaon works on the Starz series Most Wanted. Levering’s s stage credits include acting in the Blue Barn Theatre’s Round Midnight series and adapting Oscar Wilde fairy tales at The Rose theater.

What made him think of reworking what many consider a horror masterpiece? It starts with him being “a huge Stephen King fan.” Then there’s the fact the claustrophobic story largely unfolds in one location, the Overlook Hotel, which lends itself well to stage presentation. Finally, there’s The Shining franchise of the popular novel as well as successful film and television treatments, not to mention the built-in brand that the title and King’s own name bring to any adaptation.

“The genesis started during the 2013 Omaha Gives campaign that raised some money for the theater,” Levering says. “Afterwards we talked about doing our own production as a fundraiser and how while we don’t have our own theater troupe we know enough people that we could try and put something together.

“We didn’t want it to be something that had already been done here. We wanted it to be something special, that is our own. But we also wanted it to be something recognizable. I suggested doing a stage adaptation of a popular book that hasn’t been adapted yet. I naturally fixed on The Shining. We all thought it was a great idea.”

That left the not so small matter of getting the famous author to bestow his blessing on the endeavor.

“You have to get permission from Mr. King for something like that,” says Levering, who made the overture to the agency, Paradigm, that represents the legend.

The go-ahead came easier and quicker than Levering imagined.

“Mr. King read our proposal and he was very interested in what we were doing with the Benson Theatre project and he gave us a limited option to adapt The Shining to stage.”

King also retained the right of approval over the script, the director (Levering) and the cast.

 

 

Jason Levering
Levering next dived deep into the book and into the lore surrounding its inception and he discovered a reason why his instinct to adapt it as a play may have resonated with King.

“In my research I found out Mr. King originally conceived it as a five-act play and then he eventually turned it into a novel.”

Levering’s careful study of the book reintroduced him to the story’s great set-up. Jack and Wendy Torrance and their boy Danny become stranded in a haunted mountain hotel in a winter storm. Danny’s extrasensory gift makes him the target of evil spirits who prey on him through his weak father, intent on forever imprisoning the family there.

“It kind of has everything. The other thing it has going for it is these fantastic characters, Jack especially. He’s written as a good man, a recovered alcoholic with some anger issues but doing his damnedest to pull his family back together. To go from that point where there’s all this hope when they first move into the Overlook to the end where he’s literally trying to kill his family it’s such an incredible journey.”

Distilling the heart of the story took Levering and Sailors some time.

“We went through the book together. Aaron broke it down into an outline so we could figure out the main beats of each scene – what we really needed to capture that was essential. We worked from that outline as we were writing the script. He took Act III, I took Act I, and we started working forward.”

They finished the remaining acts together.

“As we wrote we sent pages back and forth, editing and polishing  each other’s work. We sent pages to another writer friend, Krissy Hamm, an associate producer on the show, and she gave us notes. It really helped to have that third person looking at it.”

Levering says he and Sailors abided by one operating principle.

“We both wanted to be very faithful to the book. A lot of the dialogue is pulled straight from the book. There’s only a few points where the dialogue was changed or something was added so that the scene would play well on stage. For the most part though the dialogue is pretty much Mr. King’s words.”

Other things are being done to make certain story elements live on stage. For example, newspaper accounts Jack reads silently to himself in the novel are projected on a screen. Flashbacks play out on the side while the main action occurs stage center. Creative ways were found to bring the Overlook’s topiary animals to life. Levering is intent on making the physical experience as visceral as possible for the audience and thus, William Castle-style, action and sound will happen throughout the auditorium, including the balcony.

Lighting and sound effects will cast a dark, malevolent mood.

 

 

 

 

Levering consulted Omaha theater veteran Kevin Lawler and brought in veteran scenic designer Kit Gough to help realize the horror.

“I want it to be immersive. I want to give the audience the feeling they really may not go home. I want them to feel they’re sitting in the middle of the Overlook Hotel as it comes to life. From the time you walk in the door it’ll be like you’ve entered the Overlook.”

Levering had his own scary encounter with the work.

“My hardest challenge was the moment the hotel takes over Jack. I was excited to write it but I was also terrified of it because that scene is where his character shifts and becomes the monster. He’s in the Colorado Room and basically the hotel has come to life. Lloyd the bartender manifests and pours him a martini. That scene was difficult for me to write because it’s at that point he turns on his family and I honest to God had nightmares of wanting to hurt my wife and kids, even though I never would.

“The idea someone could turn like that is frightening. It was actually the last scene I wrote. It was the worst for me. I’m also an actor and so method-style I poured myself a martini and drank it while writing. I wanted to feel what he was going through.”

Levering feels “honored” and “thankful” King approved “the direction we’re taking.” The cast is headed by Marc Erickson as Jack, Levering’s son Christopher as Danny and Christina Rohling as Wendy.

An invitation’s been extended King, so don’t be surprised if you spot the king of horror among the throng.

Performances are 7 p.m. Friday and 2 and 7 p.m. on Saturday.

For tickets, visit theshiningomaha.com. For more about the restoration project, visit bensontheatre.org.

 

Sisters of song: Kathy Tyree connects with Ella Fitzgerald; Omaha singer feels kinship to her stage alter ego

March 12, 2014 Leave a comment

 

 

Sisters of song: Kathy Tyree connects with Ella Fitzgerald

Omaha singer feels kinship to her stage alter ego

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Ella, the dramatic musical revue of the life of American songbook diva Ella Fitzgerald at the Omaha Community Playhouse, reveals the anguish behind the legendary performer’s sweet voice and carefree persona.

Call it kismet or karma, but the woman portraying her is veteran Omaha chanteuse Kathy Tyree, whose ebullient, easy-going public face has similarly disguised her own torment.

The high points surely outweigh the low points in their respective lives but Tyree’s experienced, much as Ella did, her share of failed relationships, including two divorces, and myriad financial struggles.

“I’m in a much better place now,” Tyree says.

Known for her bright spirit and giving heart, Tyree’s usually worked a regular job to support her and her son. Currently, she’s program manager at Omaha Healthy Start. A few years ago she used all her savings and 401K to launch her own production company and after a rousing start one bad show broke the business.

The enigmatic Fitzgerald died in 1996 at age 79 with few outside her inner circle knowing her private travails because her handlers sanitized her regal image as the First Lady of Song.

As Tyree researched Fitzgerald’s life for the role, which director Susie Baer Collins offered without an audition, she identified with what Ella did to separate, if not always reconcile, her private and public sides.

“She was very weak and very strong at the same time,” Tyree says of Ella. “She had all these secrets and these hurts, all this internal pain, but she always held it together. She was at the top, she was international, she was the goddess of scat.”

Fitzgerald was respected for her dignified demeanor, the purity of her well-modulated voice and her perfect elocution, though some criticized her for being too precise, too pristine, too white. All of it helped to popularize jazz.

Tyree says the adoration that flowed Ella’s way was due to her talent but also to “how she carried herself as a black woman,” adding, “She wasn’t Lady Day (Billie Holiday), she wasn’t drinking and popping pills and going through all these changes publicly. That takes a lot.”

Before getting the role Tyree was lukewarm about the singer. Her favorite female artists were Diana Ross, Patti Labelle and Cher. After months listening to the Ella canon, Tyree says ,”I have a completely different appreciation for her. Now I am a fan. This woman was a walking instrument. She could do just amazing things with her voice.”

 

 

 

 

Because the script peels back the layers of myth around Fitzgerald’s antiseptic image, Tyree now feels connected to the real woman behind the silky voice and prim and proper mask

“There’s so much more to her than was allowed to be shared with the world. She definitely has a story, she definitely was singing from a place of pain. In rehearsals I began seeing a lot of the parallels between us.”

Both grew up fatherless and both lost a sister. By their mid-teens both were mixed up in the wrong crowd. Just as performing saved Fitzgerald, it gave the “rebellious” Tyree a purpose and discipline she’d lacked. She began singing in church, at Morningstar Baptist, where she still attends today, and at Omaha Technical High School. Outside of her faith, performing is Tyree’s spiritual sanctuary.

“For me theater and music are my therapy but from everything I’ve learned about Ella it was more like her drug. For me it takes me to another place and it gives me a peace and a calm. I leave everything outside. It’s like this is a whole other world.”

Just as performing helped Tyree cope with insecurities, she guesses it did so for Ella, whose character in the show says, “I’m always OK when I’m on the stage. When I’m not working, I turn off, I get lost.”

Tyree’s usual reticence about her own turmoil isn’t to protect a well-manufactured facade, but a personal credo she inherited.

“I shared with Susie (Baer Collins) in a read-through that in my family we have a rule – you never look like what you’re going through. Though I’ve been through a lot, I’ve had a lot of heartbreak and heartache, I never look like what I’m going through, and that was Ella.

“It’s a pride thing. I was raised by strong black women. These women had to work hard. Nobody had time for that crying and whining stuff.

It was, ‘Straighten your face up, get yourself together, keep it moving.’”

She says what she doesn’t like about Ella is “the very same thing I don’t like in myself,” adding, “Ella didn’t have enough respect for herself to know what she deserved. She didn’t have those examples, she didn’t have a father. People always say little boys need their fathers, well little girls need their fathers. too. They need somebody to tell them they’re beautiful. They deserve somebody in their life that isn’t going to abuse them. When you don’t have that you find yourself hittin’ and missin’, trying to figure it out, searching for that acceptance and that love. That’s very much our shared story.”

That potent back story infuses Tyree’s deeply felt interpretations of  Fitzgerald standards. Tyree’s singing doesn’t really sound anything like her stage alter ego but she does capture her heart and soul.

 

 

 

 

Tyree, a natural wailer, has found crooning ballad and scat-styles to conjure the spirit of Ella. Tyree makes up for no formal training and the inability to read music with perfect pitch and a highly adaptable voice.

“My voice is very versatile and my range is off the charts,” Tyree says matter-of-factly. “I can sing pretty much anything you put in front of me because it’s all in my ear. I’ve been blessed because they (music directors) can play it one time and I get it.”

She considers herself a singer first and an actress second, but in Ella she does both. She overcame initial doubts about the thick book she had to learn for the part.

“It’s a lot of lines and a lot of acting and a lot of transitions because I’m narrating her life from 15 years-old to 50.

But after months of rehearsal Tyree’s doing what she feels anointed to do in a space where she’s most at home.

“This is where I get to be lost and do what I do best, this is where I don’t miss. I think it’s because it’s coming from a sincere place. My number one goal is that everybody in the audience leaves blessed. I want to pour something out of me into them. I want ‘em to leave on a high. It’s not about me when I’m on stage. This is God-given and there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with it to deliver.”

This popular performer with a deep list of musical theater credits (Ain’t Misbehavin’, Beehive) feels she’s inhabiting the role of a lifetime and one that may finally motivate her to stretch herself outside Omaha.

“I’m still like blown away they asked me to come do this show. I still have goals and dreams and things I want to do. As you go through your journey in life there’s things that hinder those goals and dreams and they cause you to second guess and doubt yourself – that maybe I don’t have what it takes. I’m hoping this will instill in me the courage to just go for it and start knocking on some of those doors.”

Ella continues through March 30. For times and tickets, visit http://www.omahacommunity playhouse.com.

Omaha author Timothy Schaffert delivers again with his new novel, ‘The Swan Gondola’


Looking for a good read?  Omaha-based novelist Timothy Schaffert’s new book, The Swan Gondola is a sweeping work of romantic intrigue and against-all-odds perseverance set against the backdrop of the 1898 Trans-Mississippi & International Exposition.  My profile of Schaffert for Edge Magazine (www.edgemagazine.com) follows.  I’ve been writing about Schaffert and his work for many years and you can find those previous stories on this blog.  Additionally, you can find my stories about the Omaha Lit Fest he is the founder and director of.

 Timothy Schaffert

 

 

Omaha author Timothy Schaffert delivers again with his new novel, ‘The Swan Gondola’

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in Edge Magazine (www.edgemagazine.com)

 

Nebraska has produced many literary heavyweights: Willa Cather, Mari Sandoz, Wright Morris, John Neihardt, Tillie Olsen, Loren Eiseley, Ron Hansen, Richard Dooling, Terese Svoboda, Kurt Andersen, Ted Kooser.

Add the name Timothy Schaffert to this roster of gifted homegrown wordsmiths.

Unlike most of that company, Schaffert has remained in state to write his acclaimed novels and short stories. The Aurora, Neb. native grew up on the Hamilton County farm that’s been in his German-American family for generations. He writes these days in the southwest Omaha home he shares with his life partner. It’s where Schaffert penned his latest novel, The Swan Gondola, (Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin). The historical work of fiction has received strong notices and celebrated a Feb. 6 release.

This is Schaffert’s fifth novel following his previous The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow SistersThe Singing and Dancing Daughters of GodDevils in the Sugar Shop and The Coffins of Little Hope. Like the others, Gondola displays his wicked, yet sweet wit and penchant for depicting surreal events amid ordinary surroundings.

The tragic romance at the heart of Gondola unfolds around the 1898 Trans-Mississippi & International Exposition, a grand event that marked Omaha’s most ambitious attempt to garner world attention.

The protagonist-narrator is ventriloquist Ferret Skerritt, a character inspired by L. Frank Baum’s iconic The Wizard of Oz. Schaffert concocted a kind of prequel to the Oz myth that imagines what propelled this humbug artist to leave Omaha in a hot air balloon – Baum’s wizard commandeers a balloon emblazoned with Omaha State Fair – for the hinterland he comes to rule. Schaffert has Skerritt find true love in the ethereal Cecily, a fetching actress and single mother, until circumstances conspire to separate the lovers.

In a story replete with class distinctions, Skerritt comes up against the city’s most powerful man, William Wakefield, and his witch of a sister, who live in a forbidding castle, and the formidable Mrs. Margaret.

Skerritt cobbles together a supportive family that includes: August, a Native American dandy; Rosie, a good-natured anarchist; and mercurial Pearl, whose eerie intuition turns possession.

Then there’s Emmaline and Hester, the sisters who nurse him back to health after the balloon that carried him crashes into their farmhouse.

In addition to Skerritt being based on the wizard, several other characters have their parallels in Baum’s Oz, including stand-ins for the good and bad witches, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

As the man who fell from the sky and lived to tell about it, Skerritt is held up as a supernatural diviner. Schaffert says the fact crops and livestock can be lost to capricious nature makes some farmers susceptible to rainmakers and fortune tellers.

“It’s a part of the world where prophets are needed.”

Skerritt and Emmaline construct the Emerald Cathedral, a pillar of totems from neighbors and townsfolk desperate for deliverance.

The Omaha World’s Fair setting is the impetus for a new exhibition of photographs and artifacts from the expo. The novel’s launch and exhibit’s opening both happened Feb. 7 at the W. Dale Clark Library. Schaffert signed copies of his book.

The author is no stranger to the library, which hosts his annual (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest. The ninth edition last fall featured the usual eclectic lineup of guest authors. He’s now organizing the event’s 10th anniversary whose focus on historical fiction is apt given Gondola’s immersion in late 19th century Americana.

The choice of the fair as the milieu for his new novel is a function of his long-held fascination with both The Wizard of Oz and the Trans-Mississippi Expo. As a child reading the Baum story and watching the MGM movie, he was “taken” by the Kansas farm setting and the wizard’s Omaha origins. Later, while researching the expo, he found it a rich metaphorical landscape whose by-turns enchanted and crass goings-on made a perfect backdrop for a doomed love story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Wizard of Oz was published in 1900. The Exposition was held in 1898. There was an interesting link there that had not yet been exploited but I was sort of daunted by the research I would have to do about 1898,” says Schaffert, who teaches English at his alma mater, the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. “When you’re writing about the past you have the added responsibility of learning about the past, and not just learning about it but communicating it to readers. You don’t want it to seem like an antique.”

To understand the “cultural consciousness” of the Victorian-era he steeped himself in the Omaha Bee and Omaha World-Herald archives. He discovered a society of haves and have-nots “leaning forward into the 20th century.” He adds, “Everything changed in the 20th century. The role of women. New kinds of entertainment. Sources for wealth. Opportunities for the middle class. Medical invention. Psychological development. Fashion. I mean, everything became modern. It’s like in the 1890s people almost made that happen by nature of anticipating that with the 20th century would come the future.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Being a woman, racial minority or working stiff meant living on the margins, never far from the poor house. The gleaming fair rose up to offer hope but its temporary construction ended in ruins, symbolizing the tenuous nature of life and love.

Delving into the past for his fiction is nothing new for Schaffert, though untilGondola it’d been some time since he’d gone there.

“When I was much younger everything I wrote was set in the past, so strangely for me the books I’d written previously have not been set in the past. So I feel I’m finally writing what I intended to write all along.”

He’s swimming in the past again with an in-progress novel set in the 1920s.

Besides its historical roots, Gondola represents another departure for Schaffert.

“It’s definitely more sweeping than the other books I’ve written that focus on kind of small moments in characters’ lives and perhaps quiet, emotional developments and transitions. Whereas the characters of this book are entertainers and their lives are motivated by melodrama and they’re pushed to the point where there are extremely difficult, even life and death situations. So it’s a larger canvas than I’ve worked on before and I’d like to do more of that.”

As with some of his earlier novels, Schaffert draws on his rural background. Enamored by the allure of New York sophistication in movies, he didn’t always appreciate growing up on a farm.

“I remember regretting we didn’t live in a city and not only did I regret we didn’t live in a city, I regretted we didn’t live in New York City. I wanted to live in the Manhattan of Fred Astaire and Woody Allen. So I didn’t feel like I was necessarily in the right place when I was growing up. Since then I recognize what a rich experience it was and I love to return to the farm. I’m struck by its beauty and I feel fortunate to have had the experience I have.”

“And it is surprising how much I can keep drawing from it. You kind of feel perhaps the well has run dry but then you embark on some new book and some new characters and you find yourself discovering new things about your own past.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

For Gondola he says he tried to find new ways to describe the countryside. “The farm Ferret Skerritt ends up on, as is with every farm I’ve written about, is taken from the community I grew up in. Some of it’s the physical landscape and some of it’s the culture and how in this book this extraordinary thing happens – this man falls from the balloon in the sky and he’s purported to have kind of soothsaying qualities. My understanding of how the community would react to that is based on my own sense of the rural Midwest.”

Schaffert, who once edited and wrote for Omaha alternative newspapers, says early on his parents expressed concern about his making-a-go-of-it as a writer but have remained in his corner. “I don’t think they always understood what I was doing but I never really felt they were discouraging at all. I always felt they were very respectful of this mysterious thing I was pursuing. I don’t know that they thought anything would come of it necessarily but they were supportive and they remain supportive.”

Identified as he is with Omaha’s urban creative center, Schaffert might be expected to reside downtown rather than in suburbia. But he feels at home in wide open spaces.

“I grew up in the country and the house I live in today has a huge        backyard. We’re literally half a block from the Chalco Hills Recreation Area. We can walk right there to Wehrspann Lake and be among deer and the woods. We walk there all the time. It’s quiet. I definitely like it.”

“I think you get more space, more bang for your buck basically the further west you go. We entertain, we have people stay over, we have family events. We do value being able to stretch out.”

He wrote his first three novels at his previous home in Millard. Coffins and Gondolawere written in his present space.

“I have a little library with a writing desk but most of the time I write in the kitchen, with my laptop on the kitchen counter, and I pace around, fix tea, attend to the dog.”

With his new book adding to his already stellar reputation, Schaffert feels his life and career are in a good place.

“I feel very fortunate I’ve had the opportunity to write what I want to write and to have the support I’ve got for it. My publisher (Riverhead) is bringing my new novel out in a big way. That’s completely unexpected.”

He’s especially glad Riverhead, an imprint of publishing giant Penguin, is behind him.

“Riverhead is very much committed to recognizing those they think of as underappreciated writers and getting behind their careers and committing long-term to the writer’s success.”

The editor who signed him to the Penguin family was taken by Janet Maslin’s enthusiastic New York Times review of his Coffins of Little Hope. Schaffert is humble and grateful about the kudos.

“A writer doesn’t always feel like there’s a ladder of success. You’re just kind of moving from one project to the next, uncertain what’s going to happen with it or what kind of support there’ll be for it. You feel you’re scrambling or scrapping or patching together this living. So, yeah, to have the opportunities I’ve had has been extremely rewarding.”

Follow Schaffert at http://www.timothyschaffert.com.

Omaha Film Festival turns nine


Omaha’s film culture is radically improved over even a decade ago.  One of the reasons for that is the Omaha Film Festival, an annual film orgy now in its ninth year.  It’s the city’s single largest and most intense concentration of film and even though the actual festival only happens once a year the organization sponsors special screenings and events throughout the year to keep the cinema embers burning.  Taken together with the metro’s lone full-fledged art cinema, Film Streams, which operates year-round, locals and visitors alike have a huge selection of films and film events to choose from.  Less than an hour away another great art cinema, the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center, operates in Lincoln, Neb.   The state also boasts a robust film community made up industry professionals who reside here, including three Oscar winners (writer-director Alexander Payne, editor Mike  Hill, and cinematographer Mauro Fiore) and several others who’ve distinguished themselves in film (Sandy Venziano, John Beasley, Nik Fackler, Lew Hunter, Mark Hoeger, Dana Altman, Richard Dooling).  A recent addition to that community is Timothy Christian, whose Night Fox Entertainment is a film financing and producing company.  Payne brings a steady diet of Hollywood with him courtesy of the features he makes here, most recently Nebraska, and the film figures he invites here (Laura Dern, Debra Winger, Steven Soderberg, Jane Fonda, Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb).

The 2014 Omaha Film Festival is underway as I write this.  It runs March 5-9 at the Marcus Village Pointe Cinema.  On this same blog see my companion feature story on Omaha native James Marshall Crotty, who has two documentaries in the fest, Master Debaters and Crotty’s Kids.

 

 

 

 

Omaha Film Festival turns nine

by Leo Adam Biga

The March 5-9 Omaha Film Festival has gone all digital with its move from Regal Omaha Stadium 16 to Marcus Village Pointe Cinema at 304 No. 174th Street.

Besides the sharper projection offered, OFF Program director Marc Longbrake says the new site is near a higher density population area and the cineplex gets more traffic than the Regal. This marks the fourth venue change in the nine-year history of the little little festival that could, whose growth has been steady if not spectacular.

Ninety-two films from around the nation and the world (20 countries), including several from Neb. and surrounding states, will be screened.

Among the narrative features with a trail of buzz behind them are the opening night selection Obvious Child with its cast of bright newcomers and veteran character actors, the Friday night special Enemy starring Jake Gyllenhaal and the closing night entry Fading Gigolo with Sofia Vergara, Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Live Schreiber and John Turturro, who wrote-directed it.

Documentary filmmakers from here who have work represented in the fest include James Marshall Crotty (Master Debaters and Crotty’s Kids), Dan Susman and Andrew Monbouquette (Growing Cities) and Elizabeth Bohart (Watchers of the Sky). Theo Love, whose family is from Neb., directed Little Hope was Arson.

 

 

 

 

The live-action shorts include one, Afronauts, co-starring Omaha native Yolonda Ross, who’s drawing raves for her work in the new John Sayles film Go for Sisters (March 25 at Film Streams).

Longbrake says the five-day event is not only an opportunity for filmgoers to see loads of new work but for filmmakers to get their blood, sweat and tears seen by a live audience.

“As a filmmaker you work so hard to get your film made, then you sit in an editing room for a year to finish it, and it’s one thing to send it out to have people review it but it’s another thing to sit in a room with 200 people and have them react to the film and then do a Q&A afterwards.”

For the second year Writer’s Theatre, under the direction of Aaron Zavitz, will showcase live readings of the 16 finalist scripts in the OFF screenplay competition. Several of the scripts are by locals.

The fest’s annual conference will as usual feature guests with serious industry chops. This year’s lineup includes screenwriters Leslie Dixon (Mrs. Doubtfire) and Steve Faber (Wedding Crashers).

For schedule and ticket info, visit http://www.omahafilmfestival.org.

Ex-gonzo journalist-turned-filmmaker James Marshall Crotty resolved to celebrate debate in new films ‘Crotty’s Kids’ and ‘Master Debaters’


The longer I do this the more I happen upon folks from Neb. doing really interesting things.  The subject of the following story, James Marshall Crotty, is a good example. He created a career and brand for himself out of whole cloth when he co-conceived and executed a magazine and lifestyle, Monk, and authored city guides predicated on the freedom of the open road and the exploration of all things alternative, fringe, off-the-beaten path, iconoclastic, and, idiosyncratic.  After this gonzo period in his life he’s “gone straight” to report on education for Forbes and to weigh in on the cultural stream for the Huffington Post.  More recently he’s turned filmmaker by producing-directing two documentaries, Master Debaters and Crotty’s Kids, that marry his subculture leanings with his love for speech and debate, which he excelled in at Omaha Creighton Prep and coached at New York City high schools.  His experiences observing and coaching debate in inner city environments are captured in his films, both of which are playing the Omaha Film Festival.    See my companion story about the festival on this blog.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ex-gonzo journalist-turned-filmmaker James Marshall Crotty resolved to celebrate debate in new films ‘Crotty’s Kids’ and ‘Master Debaters’

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Omaha ex-pat James Marshall Crotty, co-creator of the underground Monk magazine and author of alternative city guides, gained a cult following for his irreverent dashboard reporting about America’s fringes. His arch leanings are on display in two documentaries he’s produced-directed showing at the March 5-9 Omaha Film Festival.

Both films focus on a subculture subject close to his heart, competitive debate. This once itinerant gonzo journalist now based in Los Angeles was a champion debater at Omaha Creighton Prep in the mid 1970s. This self-described “evangelist for debate” passionately portrays the hyper intense activity’s transformational power in his own life and in the lives of South Bronx kids of color.

Master Debaters shows March 6 in the 8:30-10:15 p.m. block of Neb. short docs. Crotty’s Kids shows March 8 at 12:30 p.m. in the feature-length doc block. He’ll do a Q&A after each.

He’s hoping his films inspire funding for an urban debate league he wants to start here as a way to motivate kids to excel in school.

Those familiar with Crotty may find his new gigs as Forbes.com education reporter and crusading debate advocate a departure. It’s actually a catharsis after tiring of the vagabond Kerouac thing, dealing with a protracted lawsuit and losing his intellectual guru and most influential debate mentor – his mother.

He says, Monk, “the National Geographic for freaks,” was as much a rebellion against his Catholic Republican upbringing as anything.

“I was Mr. Alternative hipster subculture guy with Monk and I had this nagging sense the whole time I was interviewing people like the founder of the school for boys who want to be girls to Kurt Cobain to just any kind of an eccentric person or place across the fruited plain that I did not grasp the dominant culture conversation.

“I just felt deep inside I was an uneducated man even though I’d gone to Northwestern. I felt like i was a fraud even though I was really good at spinning this alternative universe.”

He could no longer square his “out there” image with the Jesuit call to be a man for others instilled in him at Prep. He resolved to improve himself and to use debate – “the most profound education experience of my life” – as a means to serve kids from disadvantaged straits.

He felt the discipline of debate helped him and his Prep teammates, among them Alexander Payne (who appears in Crotty’s Kids), find success and he saw no reason it couldn’t do the same for others.

“We were this tribe of academic athletes that learned through debate the ability to speak on our feet, to persuade others about the rightness of our cause. It gives you incredible confidence to tackle any subject. When you’re at the top of your game you’re spending four to five hours a day on it in addition to your schoolwork. And you’re not just reading secondary sources you’re looking up primary sources, you’re going to law libraries, you’re reading studies, you’re really digging deep and you’re able to sort fact from fiction.

“When you have a finely-tuned debate brain the most innocuous statement can be broken apart and you’re able to see through poppycock almost instantly and it’s something really missing in the culture. People are easily bamboozled by false prophets who just because they have such a strong opinion people think they’re telling the truth. That is dangerous for Democracy.”

He says the research skills he learned have served him well.

“I’m able to look beneath the surface to find the truth. Doing Monk I was able to find these people and places that even locals didn’t know existed. That’s because debate trains you to be a geek researcher.”

 

 

 

 

 

The sudden death of his mother in 2002 set him on a “sea change” that led him to become a high school debate coach.

“I really felt the calling to help inner city kids.”

But first he needed to immerse himself in education.

“For years I really wanted to study the classics, the great books of civilization. I finally got the chance after we sued Tony Shalhoub and the producers of the Monk TV show in the late ’90s for stealing our brand. It took two years. In 2000 I decided to give up the Monk (mag) hat and go back to school and study the great books at a great little school called St. Johns College Santa Fe (N.M.).

“You sit around a table seminar-style and the tutors ask really good questions to help you dig deeper into the text. I really became a disciple of their method.”

He emerged from his mid-life crisis with a teaching certificate that allowed him to teach the classics and to coach debate. He began at two elite New York City schools to freshen his chops.

“I had been so long out of the game and I knew it had changed a lot. It’s like coming back to play any sport 25-30 years later. It had gotten so much faster.”

He says coaching proved emotional for him because “it gave me a way to give back during a difficult time in my life – I was mourning my mother through coaching these kids.”

After joining the newly formed Eagle Academy in the mid-2000s he made his experience there the basis for Crotty’s Kids.

 

 

 

 

 

 

He says the difference between a product of white privilege like himself and “a kid who grows up in the South Bronx is not as great as people might think,” adding, “The one thing that was really obvious to me is that a young man in the South Bronx does not just walk into a whole bunch of cultural capital just by osmosis.”

He says his growing up in a home filled with books and dinner-time conversations about current events is a far cry from what the kids he worked with experienced.

“These kids don’t have that by and large. As a result their vocabulary and basic reasoning powers are not being developed. So my job as a coach was to fill in that gap – the cultural capital piece – and the way I did that was to have adult, intellectual, fact-based conversations with them about whatever interested them. I also had my kids read the classics.”

He says the process of competitive speech and debate develops critical thinking skills in youths that have “an incredible trickle down effect that enables them to excel in school at a much higher level than their peers.” He adds, “It sort of feeds on itself. Young men and women at-risk are looking to compete and win. You get them to see it as a sport and they do whatever it takes. It becomes infectious.”

Sure enough, his kids became champions. One earned a full-ride.

Yet the central focus of Crotty’s Kids is Crotty, not the kids. He comes off as charismatic, quirky, caring, driven. He didn’t intend being the “star” but the footage or lack thereof dictated it.

“It’s not the Hoop Dreams of debate I wanted to make, it’s some other film,” he says.

He’s still in touch with some of his old students, several of whom are doing well in college.

“I’m a kind of surrogate father figure but I don’t push it. I had my chance to really impart as much as I could while I was with them but they need to figure things out on their own. They always know I’m there for them if they ever get in a jam.”

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