Age is Just a Number and Retirement a Foreign Concept to Six Working Seniors in Omaha
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the New Horizons
During their lifetimes Americans devote far more hours to their work then to any other of their pursuits, including family life. More than the livelihood it provides, work helps shape individual identity, sets an agenda for daily commerce and affords personal growth opportunities. Given the vital role gainful employment plays, it’s not surprising then that as more Americans live longer, healthier lives, the prospect of outright retirement holds less interest for seniors who feel lost without the sense of engagement, structure and accomplishment a job provides.
Working seniors may account for a minority of the labor force but can be found toiling away at a wide range of careers and vocations — from the professional ranks to the blue collar rolls to everything in between. Omaha’s senior work force is a diverse one. It includes such well-known figures as investor Warren Buffett, world-renowned medical researcher Denham Harman, satellite communications guru Lee Lubbers, respected photojournalist Don Doll, noted jazz musician Preston Love, PR man Bill Ramsey, Henry Doorly Zoo Director Lee Simmons and Girls and Boys Town Director Rev. Val Peter. Of course, most local seniors still working are, like the individuals profiled in this story, average folks doing what they love, including band leader Ed Svoboda, school registrar Theresa Derr, maintenance man Otto Link, senior center manager Sophiae Foster, attorney Monte Taylor and receptionist Fornetta Elmore. Whatever their age or position, they agree working is a major factor in maintaining their vitality and staying full, contributing members of society.
A Working Life in Music
Anecdotically, at least, it seems many musicians, especially those outside the drug-hazed rock and jazz worlds, live to ripe old ages. Maybe it’s something to do with that old saying about music feeding the soul. If true, then 90-year-old professional polka musician Ed Svoboda Sr., is living proof of music’s health benefits. He’s been making music — first on the mouth harp, then the accordion and finally the drums — virtually his entire life and has been leading his own band for most of the past 65 years. Even today, the crusty old Czech, featured on drums, headlines with his Red Raven Orchestra, in which his son Ed Jr. performs, in regular, rousing gigs at Bluffs Run Casino, Sokol Hall and the Corrigan Senior Center as well as playing the annual Czech festival in Wilber, Neb. Remarkably, Svoboda’s exploits with his band amount to only a sideline for him, as he puts in 40-plus hours a week as a full-time furniture repairman and refurnisher with Honey Man Rental and, in his spare time, sharpens lawn mower and snowblower blades. For Svoboda, a father and grandfather whose wife of 48 years died of cancer, there’s no doubt getting up and going to work every day is a far better tonic than simply rattling around an empty house all day long. No being put out to pasture for him, thank you. If he retired to some senior complex, he said, it would surely be his end.
“I’ve been amongst people all my life and if you put me in a corner someplace you just might as well bury me because I ain’t gonna last. I wouldn’t last a month just sitting around here all alone. That’s the God’s truth. I’ve gotta move. I’ve gotta have something else going besides that thing there,” he said, gesturing derisively at the living room TV set in his home in south Omaha’s Brown Park neighborhood, where he grew up the son of an emigrant accordion-player-turned architect.
Svoboda, whose previous careers included working as a scale operator at the Swift & Co. meat packing plant for 35 years and as a press mechanic for Malnove Inc, never lost sight of his dream of being a professional musician. “That’s what I wanted all my life.” Holding onto that dream despite many struggles made attaining it all the more precious. During the Great Depression he scrounged up work wherever he could find it before finally scraping together enough dough to buy a top-of-the-line button accordion, his instrument of choice for many years until a bandsaw accident injured his fingers so badly that it forever-after obliged him to play drums. Then, in what could have been a crushing blow, Svoboda’s first band weathered a dismal public debut when nobody showed up for a dance they were booked to play in Milligan, Neb. He found out later a member of a rival band playing to a packed house across the street hid their playbills, leaving the boys from Omaha staring at an empty hall and, because they were contracted on a commission basis, high and dry. To get money to buy gas for the trip home, Svoboda wrangled the band a paying gig in a local beer joint. From that rough start, Svoboda never looked back, with his popular band plying the Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, South Dakota polka circuit and appearing as a regular featured act on polka radio shows. In 1974, he was enshrined in the Sokol Omaha Polka Hall of Fame.
Besides entertaining people the thing that Svoboda, who watches what he eats in addition to doing what he loves, enjoys most about a life in polka is its celebration of his proud Bohemian heritage. “I love the heritage. It’ll go to the grave with me. That and the music. That’s been my life since I was a little kid.” It goes without saying the, that he has no designs on stopping now.
A Woman’s Work is Never Done
Other than the 15-year hiatus she took while raising her three boys, Theresa “Rose” Derr has been doing the 9-to-5 routine as an administrative staff member in area schools since graduating high school in 1936. Now 84, Derr is in her 26th year as registrar at Westside High School, where her three accomplished sons attended, and she has no intention of leaving anytime soon. “Not even an option” she said one morning in her Westside office. “Personally, I still feel capable and I still have a desire to do it. I like what I’m doing. I really do. I think it’s something worthwhile. Working in the schools is the only type of work I’ve done, and it’s very rewarding.”
When her retired friends press her to step down, take it easy and do what she wants, a perplexed Derr tries explaining to them, “’I am doing what I want to do. Why can’t you understand that?’ I talk to a lot of gals who are retired and they seem perfectly happy and well-adjusted, but I don’t want to do the things they’re doing. They just don’t appeal to me. I’m not a golfer. I don’t play bridge. I don’t join ladies’ aids. So…I work. I have known people that counted the days until they were 65 and could quit, not that they did anything so great after they retired. So, what’s so great about it? It’s just never appealed to me to not be doing something. This way I have an agenda and I have a purpose in the morning. It never occurs to me, What am I going to do today? It sounds kind of trite, but if you can still contribute something, do it. As long as I am and my boss feels I am, I will.”
Recently, Derr, who’s long enjoyed good health, missed an extended period of work for the first time due to a medical condition. She said no one from the administrative offices at District 66 or Westside even hinted this might be the time for her to move on. “They were very cooperative. While I was gone, they just pitched in and they just assumed I would be coming back and so I just never did anything about it otherwise. I’m sure there’ll be a time when it’ll be prudent to step aside. I’ve always made it very clear that I’ll go when they feel it’s time for me to retire. I’m not sensitive about it. But at this point it seems to be mutual — they’re perfectly willing to keep me and I’m perfectly willing to be here.”
If anything, her time off only emboldened her desire to keep working. “When I was home those few weeks daytime television was the biggest deterrent to retirement I ever saw.” She said in addition to the support her colleagues show in her continuing her career, her three sons do as well. “The boys are really great about it. They want me to quit when I feel like I want to quit. I think they realize there would be a problem if I ever did. I think it’s good for them to know I’m independent and I don’t just sit around worrying or moping. I don’t want to be one of those. There probably will be a time when I will be a concern to them, but I’m not going to bargain for it any sooner than I have to.”
Like her late husband, Derr is a Lincoln native. Her German emigrant parents settled there by way of Winnipeg, Canada. Derr recalls her “very traditional” mother always engaged in some work. “Maybe that’s where I got my work ethic — from my mom. She never did just sit. She had to be doing something. You know, they did that then. They didn’t waste a minute.” She and her husband, who also worked well past normal retirement age, waited 10 years before starting a family and then made their kids their priority. Their rearing efforts paid off, too, as one son is a microbiologist and two others are attorneys, including one with the FBI and another, Jay Derr, recently appointed as a judge to the Omaha district court.
Devotion to work, she said, is a Derr trait. “It’s just my life, that’s what it is.” A positive attitude helps. “You’ve just got to think young. I don’t think age makes any difference. I can work right next to a 23-year-old and out-produce them. Whatever you can do, do.” And with that, her office rings and she answers, “This is Mrs. Derr, can I help?” and another workday begins.
All in a Life’s Work
At 86, Otto Link may be in the running for the title of oldest maintenance man in the Western Hemisphere. He works five days a week on what he calls “the housekeeping gang” at Methodist Hospital, where his regularly assigned projects include washing windows and cleaning elevator tracks, which sounds simple enough until you realize he means the full 10-stories worth of windows and elevators in the crosswalk wing connecting Methodist and Children’s Hospitals. He’s proud of the hard, physical labor he performs at such an advanced age but takes the attention he gets in stride because he’s from the old-school. “I know I’m the oldest person on our crew by far,” he said. “I get comments from guys that are 30 and 40 years old like. ‘Slow down, you make us look bad.’ They do ask me, ‘Are you ever going to retire?’ ‘Well,’ I tell them, ‘I already did twice’” and it didn’t take either time.
For 29 years the South Dakota born and raised Link was a parochial school teacher at a string of Lutheran schools in North Dakota, Ohio, Texas and Nebraska. After he retired from teaching, he became a Douglas County juvenile probation officer for a time before switching careers and working as a state rehabilitation services counselor for disabled individuals. When he left the latter post, he was already 70 — well-past traditional retirement age — but he soon got anxious puttering around the house, and that’s when, in 1986, after years of office work he opted to join the Methodist cleaning crew. “I wanted a job that was physical because I’d had enough of these sedentary jobs,” he explained. That he’s still at it 17 years later is amazing but understandable when you realize he lost his wife of 55 years in 1995, leaving him alone in the south-central Omaha home they shared. “Me and an empty house don’t get along so well,” he said. “I need something to do. You can only read so much and only watch so much TV before you get a little silly in the head.”
Besides, he said, he’s heard enough stories of folks who didn’t fare well after retiring that he prefers staying active as long as he can. It’s a I’d-rather-go-out-on-my-feet-than-lying-down attitude. “My wife was manager of a Walgreens liquor store for umpteen years and she got to know a lot of businessmen who’d stop in and get their booze before going home, and she used to tell me, Mr. So-and-So retired to take it easy, and over-and-over she’d tell me the guy who just retired had passed away. So, I kind of got the philosophy I really didn’t care what I did as long as it was physical. My wife encouraged me about that.”
Link, who has five grown children, 11 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, said his kids often suggest he resign and move into a retirement home. “But I’m not ready for that yet. I’m going to stick it out as long as I can. As long as I’m able to and my employer is satisfied with my performance, I probably will keep working.” And why not? On his most recent work evaluation, he said, his supervisor gave him high marks “right down the line” and told him — “You’re doing a wonderful job.” Link doesn’t take his exceptional staying power for granted, either. “I appreciate it. I know it’s a blessing,” said Link, a devout Lutheran. His advice for staying young? “Stay active as long as you can, try to be happy and read some good jokes.”
Doing Good Works
Sophiae Foster is cleaning up the debris from the breakfast she’s just served her regular crowd at the St. Magdalene Senior Center in the basement of Omaha’s old downtown Catholic church. It’s about 9:30 now and a few of “her flock,” as she calls them, linger at tables, one reading the paper, another poring over a book, one doing a crossword puzzle and some chatting over coffee. Foster, 77, has been managing the ENOA-sponsored center for 28 years now and she plans on working there three more years, although she suspects if and when she does retire at age 80 “to stay home and rest” after a lifetime of serving people she probably won’t stay retired very long. “I don’t think I’d last very long” sitting idle, she said. “I might go back to work, but it won’t be nothin’ I have to go to every day. But I can’t see myself sitting at home feeling sorry for myself either.”
She’s kept working this long, despite double-bypass and knee replacement surgery, because “I just like it,” she said. “I really enjoy it. That’s the truth. My friends — they all don’t work and they tell me I don’t need to work. Yeah, I could live on what income I have, but I feel if I can still work, why not?” She’s also grown attached to the people who make the center and the two hot meals and convivial conversations served there at breakfast and lunchtime part of their daily ritual. Most are single widows or widowers. “Some are homeless” she said. “They need some help. Sometimes we get clothes in here for them. We could use more men’s clothes.” Regardless of their circumstances, the people who come find a place where they feel safe and cared for. “Yeah, we get along fine. We enjoy each other. The same ones who come every day — I know them by name. I miss ‘em when they don’t come. I’ve got one little old man, John, who hasn’t been here for about five days and I need to check on him. I’m kind of concerned about him,” she said one cold winter morning. “They grow on you.”
Her concern for others is an extension of her deep Pentecostal faith in action. For example, she helped her late evangelical husband start and run the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ in north Omaha, she worked as a nurse aide in the nursery at Children’s Hospital — “I loved it” — and she helped raise two of her great-grandchildren, both of whom are now back living with their biological mothers.
Her relationship with the senior center, which she launched in 1974, has come a long way since it’s rough start. “When I started, it was just a job I needed. I thought I couldn’t make it. We had drunks walk in off the street. It was scary. But I thank God for my husband. He said, ‘If you want the job you’ve got to stop being a crybaby and you’ve just got to do it.’ I did. I worked it out so the men set their bottles on my desk when they came in and picked them up when they left. I got along with them real good. We don’t have the problem of alcoholics anymore. Now, it’s kind of like a family. It’s a part of me. It gets me up and keeps me moving.”
She Works Hard for Her Money
She won’t reveal her real age other than to say she’s over 65, but Fornetta Elmore is entitled to some fudging after the fortitude she’s shown overcoming tragedy and the adaptability she’s displayed learning yet another career deep into her Golden Years. First, Elmore’s only child, a daughter, died at 20 after supposedly routine surgery. “It’s something, frankly speaking, I don’t really believe I’ve ever recovered from,” she said. “But you accept it and you go on.” Then, when her husband of 49 years was stricken with leukemia in 1978, she cared for him up until his death in 1995. After losing the two people most dear to her, the usually up-and-at-em Elmore felt herself slipping into a malaise. “I was trying to move on from my husband’s death and I felt being home alone wasn’t the place to be.” That’s when she heeded the advice of a friend, who knew Elmore had thrived in the world of work, to explore the ENOA senior employment program. In no time at all, Elmore was hired by Nebraska Workforce Development, where she is a receptionist today.
Having a job to come to every day is important to Elmore, but even more important to her is how she is valued by her employers, who don’t view her cavalierly as some token, window-dressing senior symbol, an attitude she detests. “I think some people have the wrong conception about us seniors — that we’re too old and stumbling to be able to do a job. I don’t think they give seniors the benefit of the doubt,” she said. “I’m lucky to have marvelous supervisors whose attitude is about me is, ‘Let’s do something with her.’ I don’t feel like, Oh, they’re doing me a favor. I feel like I’m earning my keep. I have something to do every day I come to work.”
She’s also overturned some senior stereotypes by learning, among other things, computer, typing, filing and receptionist skills. “Being the kind of person I am, I’m always ready to advance, especially if someone is willing to teach me.”
On the job Elmore is easy interacting with diverse colleagues and clients because that’s her nature and that’s what she’s used to from her days as a Kilpatricks and Younkers department store clerk and as proptietor, with her husband, of Elmore’s Flowers, a florist shop the couple ran out of their home. “I can mix with anybody. I enjoy being around people of all different ages and education levels.”
She rejects any thought of retiring. “Oh, heavens no. When you retire, that’s it, you’re dead. And when you’re dead, you’re a long time dead. You have to stay active and alive. You have to keep your mind open and enjoy life. Besides, I feel there’s a lot I can still contribute. I’ve put forth my best effort and I hope to continue to. And now I better get back to work,” she said, excusing herself.
A Work in Progress
The law has long intrigued Monte Taylor, 71, who for all but the two heady years he worked as Sen. Roman Hruska’s legal counsel on a Senate subcommittee in Camelot-era Washington, D.C., has spent his entire 49-year career practicing law in Omaha. That experience in the nation’s capital sparked a second career in politics for Taylor, who went on to serve as Douglas Country Election Commissioner and as an Omaha City Councilman before losing a bid for the 2nd District Congressional seat. Today, he continues his general law practice — as head of the firm Taylor, Peters & Drew — at an age when many peers are retired. Why? Because it still excites him. “I think the biggest fascination is that one is always learning,” he said. “It’s such a broad field. There are never any clear-cut issues. Most of the things we deal with are gray. They’re never black or white. So, it requires you to be constantly going to the books and learning something new. I do really enjoy the new challenges it presents every day. I plan to just keep plugging away as long as I enjoy it.” In that sense, Taylor is following the example of the dapper senior lawyers he was mentored by when first starting out. “I was very impressed by them. They were good lawyers of high character.”
Without his work, Taylor fears he’d be lost. “In my case, it fills a real need. I have no particular hobbies. If I’m stuck at home, I get very restless. So, for my own emotional and physical well-being, it (working) is very satisfying.” In his view, work is also a great escape. “In this business I’m working with people trying to help them solve problems. It takes my mind off any perceived problems I may have. My own theory is that part of the problem with retirement and old age is that if one gets too absorbed with their own problems and has too much idle time on their hands, then the more little problems become bigger problems. I just know I have a healthier attitude when I am working.”
He regrets that as a younger man he often put work ahead of family. Taylor, who has three grown children from his first marriage, which ended in divorce, is married to a woman with three grown children of her own. “Through the years, I got too absorbed in the law and I wasn’t the family man I should have been.” Balance in life, the devout Catholic said, is a virtue he’s learned as he’s grown older and wiser. “You have spiritual needs as well as emotional, physical and professional needs. Getting that all rounded out to make the pieces go together is key.”
In that way life has of coming full circle, Taylor has turned into the kind of distinguished older lawyer he was schooled-by many years ago. Like they were, he is a man of character whose abiding love for the law keeps him involved. “The brain is like a muscle. You either use it or lose it, and this (work) forces you to use it.”
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Customer-First Philosophy Makes the Family-Owned Kohll’s Pharmacy and Homecare Stand Out from the Crowd
Not just another family business. That’s the case with a venerable Omaha pharmacy business that’s been in the Kohll family for generations and maintained its relevancy in an age of mega corporate pharmacy chains by having laser focus on customer needs and anticipating what the next big things are in the field. In the case of Kohll’s, the business has become a leader in delivering homecare services and products for a population of aging parents and adult caregivers. My story from a half dozen years ago or so originally appeared in the Jewish Press.
Customer-First Philosophy Makes the Family-Owned Kohll’s Pharmacy and Homecare Stand Out from the Crowd
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the Jewish Press
A peek inside a family-owned Kohll’s Pharmacy and Homecare in Omaha soon reveals this is not the drug store of your mother’s or father’s nostalgia. Sure, pharmacists in white coats still dispense prescription medicines from behind a counter, but mostly gone are the sundry retail items associated with a traditional drug store — greeting cards, stationary, magazines, household goods, candy, alcohol and soft drinks. In their place is an array of home medical equipment and service stations dedicated to meeting the health care needs of clients, particularly seniors or anyone coping with chronic illnesses.
The biggest changes, however, can’t be seen on site, as they encompass a wide range of services that help Kohll’s respond more quickly and comprehensively to individual client needs. For example, health care professionals on staff, such as occupational and respiratory therapists and a dietitian, make home visits to do assessments and devise strategies that foster greater independence. A call/future-orders center tracks what medical supplies clients are low on and gets new shipments out to their homes before they run out. A pharmacy benefits division supplies discounted meds to employees of subscriber-employers. Homecare products may be ordered online or via mail-order. A compounding division prepares custom meds for human and animal patients. An age-management section provides hormone replacement therapy to participating seniors. A contracting unit installs stair glides in people’s homes and renovates residential bathrooms to enhance accessibility and safety.
The company’s come a long way since Louis and Leona Kohll opened the original store in 1948 at 29th and Leavenworth. Back then the store was open 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. every single day of the year. The couple’s sons, Marvin and Jerry, followed them in the business. Founder Louis Kohll died at age 49 following a heart attack he suffered in the store. Marvin was his only partner at the time and Jerry later joined him. Marvin and Jerry later split the business, with Jerry building up a nursing home supply division. Jerry eventually sold his interests to a national company. What made the then-small company a success all those years ago is the same thing that keeps Kohll’s successful now as a much larger organization — customer service. Today, a pair of third generation pharmacist brothers, David and Justin Kohll, Marvin’s two surviving sons, maintain the customer-first policy.
“For me, the satisfaction is taking care of the patients. It’s working with our health care team to come up with a solution and to know that we made a difference. It also helps you to feel good. It’s the thing that gets you to work the next day,” said David, whose oldest brother, Louis, died recently, but not before making his own mark in the business as a pharmacist and manager.
Lessons learned have been passed down from one generation to the next. It all comes down to hard work, fair play and treating people right.
“Our father taught by example,” David said. “His example was the basics like beingpolite, honest, follow through, et cetera. He’s worked hard his whole life.”
Just as Louis Kohll taught his sons Marvin and Jerry the trade, Marvin taught his boys the ins-and-outs. Pharmacists all, they built the foundation for an enterprise that’s gone from a single mom-and-pop store to a multi-faceted, seven-location corporation. Kohll’s stays competitive in an era when national franchises dominate the market and drive most other family-owned independents out of business.
To survive, the family found what Justin calls “a niche” that separates what they do from the pack. With a nursing homes supplies division already in place and the senior health care market ever growing, they gradually hit upon senior homecare as their specialization. As David’s fond of saying, “There’s a lot of opportunities. There’s just so many things out there.”
It’s the one-stop-shopping model applied to health care. But saying you’re one-stop and doing it are two different things.
“Everybody tried to promote they were doing one-stop-shopping, but they really weren’t,” Justin said. “Some companies tried doing it and they quit…now they just do respiratory or they just do power chairs, where we can do it all. We really are truly one-stop. You can come here for everything.”
The store that best epitomizes the company’s one-stop health-orientation is at 127th and Q, where clients can: get prescriptions filled inside or via a drive-thru window; receive vaccinations and blood pressure/cholesterol screenings along with hormone replacement injections; get fitted for wheelchairs, mastectomy bras, compression socks or ostomy bags; select from many other personal care items, such as chairs, scooters, walking aids, raised toilets and bath/shower bars; and even have a lift installed on their van. The store has bays dedicated to not only installations but also repairs of lifts, power chairs, scooters and glides and has even opened a showroom selling vans that come equipped with lifts.
“You can go anywhere in the country and you will not see a facility that looks like this. I guarantee it,” David said. “You might see some who have some wheelchairs or this and that — kind of shoved in the corner, but without real experts doing it. None has anything to this (level of) commitment. Pharmacists generally own their pharmacy and if you’re trying to get everything done right there you’ve got to be really committed to this and you’ve got to like it. You can’t just do it for the business or it’s going to go away.”
It’s about the Kohll family being smart and passionate about what they do.
“We try to pick and choose what we do,” Justin said. “I mean, we could do a lot of things, but we usually pick something we like to do also. You’re going to do a better job if you like it.”
Each Kohll’s pharmacy offers the basics when it comes to prescriptions, vaccinations and screenings, along with a general selection of health care items, but each store also specializes in something. For example, the 127th and Q store specializes in mobility products. It’s also the company’s headquarters, housing the administrative offices, marketing department, call center and future orders center. The Leavenworth store features respiratory/oxygen supplies. The 50th and Dodge site specializes in mastectomy fittings and compression stockings. The 114th and Dodge location handles the compounding side and veterinary needs. And so on.
Instead of extra inventory taking up space at each location, one central supply site contains medical supplies, which makes it easier to track what’s in stock and to send supplies out as needed. Being able to respond to many different needs is what Kohll’s does best, Justin and David say. “Knowing you have something for the patient, knowing that you’ll do a good job, knowing that you’ll get it there in a timely fashion,” said Justin, adding that in most cases patients only think about health care aids when a crisis occurs. “You don’t know unless you need it,” he said. “If you need something, hopefully the physician will send it through here because normally we’ll have it. And, right up front as customers come in they see all the products and maybe that gets them to thinking, ‘Hey, I saw walkers at Kohll’s. My mom needs a walker.’ That’s what we try to do.”
“We try to educate people,” David said. Part of that education, he explained, is providing timely, state-of-the-art answers for people as their health care needs progress. A wheelchair patient may be upgraded to a power chair. If a patient can’t move his or her arms any longer, a lift may be in order. Kohll’s visiting homecare professionals are trained to recognize when a client’s declining health dictates action in the absence of a regular caregiver or adult children. Its future orders callers and delivery drivers are trained to ask questions that reveal the kinds of changes that indicate problems. This way, unhappy outcomes can be avoided.
“A person may be doing pretty good but they may get to the point where they can’t walk very well and instead of somebody recognizing that they just stay in their apartment more and then they can’t walk at all and instead of being in a wheelchair they’re just in bed all the time. And the next thing you know the senior develops a bed sore. It causes the progressive deterioration to go faster,” David said. “What we try to do is ask questions every month, like — Do you have trouble getting up from a chair? If they answer yes to that we ask more questions and begin coming up with solutions. It might be a raised toilet seat or bath bars or a lift.”
It’s also about anticipating future needs.
“Somebody getting their prescriptions and adult diapers from us now are more than likely within a year going to need a walker. We try to be aware of that,” David said.
The goal is helping patients maintain independence in their own homes.
“It could be something as simple as a reacher. Maybe it’s become hard for somebody to bend over and stand up. It can be just basic things to keep people doing what they were doing for as long as possible. To make it so they don’t go into that nursing home or that assisted living facility. To keep them in their own home with their regular neighbors. That’s what we want to do,” David said.
The ongoing education Kohll’s does with clients includes getting folks to see that a homecare product like a stair glide is not a step back but a step forward.
“A lot of times seniors have the mind set — ‘I don’t want a glider to help me get up the stairs because I want my independence.’ They don’t understand that by risking a fall where they fracture a pelvis or an ankle, they’re actually saying, Make me dependent,” David said. “We’re trying to do all we can to show that you can have a much better life if you get one of these things. But don’t get the hospital-looking one, get the red one so people don’t feel sorry for you.”
He said the public should shop around when buying home medical equipment, such as power chairs. It pays to go where there’s good selection and price as well as proven expertise. A Kohll’s advantage is that it knows and stands behind the items, even doing repairs. He said too many people just go where it’s convenient.
“If you all of a sudden end up in the hospital after a fall, you’ve got to get a chair now. You’re more reliant on professionals to get you through it. You don’t have time to do any preparation. The sad part about that is that you might make a mistake and go to a place that doesn’t really know anything about it and get something wrong for you,” David said.
All the emphasis on home health supports doesn’t mean Kohll’s has left behind the core or traditional pharmacy service of filling prescriptions.
“We’d like o be filling prescriptions for everybody in Omaha or anywhere around,” David said. “We don’t want them to go elsewhere because if they get their prescriptions from us then they’ll have more of an awareness of the other things that might benefit them. I don’t want to get away from our base of prescriptions. All three of us (himself, Justin and their father Marvin) were trained as pharmacists. We think it all starts with prescriptions because we’re trusted more than any other profession. The patients know us or they see us or they talk to us the most often. It all starts there and then we can bring them into all these other things.”
The family’s arrived at a democratic way of setting policy and managing operations.
“My father has a say in things if he chooses, but there isn’t and hasn’t been a dictatorship or hierarchy or veto power by any of us,” David said. “Each of us would explore an idea and if it looked successful, it would be presented to each other. We then give suggestions and implement it. We’ve had our disagreements, but we’re so concerned and busy with providing our customers/patients with the best care possible that the disagreements are taken care of within 24 hours,” David said. “We really don’t have time for disagreements. I don’t believe the staff’s felt pulled in different directions by each of us, so it’s not an issue.”
Marvin Kohll said the family avoids internal strife as each member involved in the business establishes “responsibilities” distinct and apart from the others’. Besides, he said, “I was never a real taskmaster to them. I let them pretty well do as they pleased and they responded.” David said that’s still the case.
While David monitors the retail end, Justin runs the compounding side. Marvin’s watched over the money in recent years, taking a less and less active role. Still, David said, his presence is felt. “We always feel he’s working with us.” And if dad sees something amiss, David said, “He’ll rip us about something we can do better.”
“Towards Louis’s last years he mainly oversaw the employer pharmacy benefits
area and pharmacy mail order division,” David said. “Since his passing we have continued where he left off. He did a phenomenal job educating the staff…making it easier for us to carry on. It is difficult because we worked so closely together.”
Marvin’s boys weren’t pushed to go into the family business, but each came to it on his own. From the time they were young they hung around their dad at work after school or on vacation.
“We probably first came down to the pharmacies when we were about 4-5 years old. My brothers and I were only 3 years apart, so we played pretty rough and I think my mother would ship us to the pharmacy when she had enough of us,” David recalled. “At first my father would just try to get us out of his way and assign us to one of the staff. They would usually have us break up empty boxes. Over time we became more useful as clerks, stockers, drivers and then pharmacy helpers. We begin working full-time summers when we were 16 or 17.”
Besides David, Justin and Louis, some other Kohlls have contributed to running and growing the family company. “Two of Jerry Kohll’s kids, Cindy and Alan, joined the company in the early ‘90s. They contributed significantly, but not as pharmacists,” David said.
What the next generation holds as far as new Kohll blood entering the business, no one knows. Since David and his wife Janet are the parents of five young children the odds are at least one will follow David’s path. Marvin Kohll said one grandchild has expressed interest to him in studying pharmacy, which if it comes to pass would mean a fourth generation of pharmacists in the family. But more than family legacy keeps the company strong 58 years after its start — its single-minded focus.
“We don’t feel a responsibility to the next generation to carry on the family business. The responsibility we have is to our customers/patients to provide excellent care to them,” David said.
Seventy-five years ago a fetching Florence Emelia Young (then Taminosian), took the stage in the Omaha Community Playhouse’s first production, “The Enchanted Cottage.” For the romantic fantasy the trained dancer landed the minor, non-speaking role of a sprite-like figure, but with her shapely legs, graceful movements, dark bangs and cute dimples she no doubt caught the eye of male admirers in the audience that night in 1924.
The glowing high school student, all of 17, had been urged to try out for the fledgling theater’s inaugural play by her neighbor, Henry Fonda, a quiet young man two years her senior. Fonda, who practically “lived at the Playhouse,” would later leave Omaha to find stardom. The star-struck girl appeared in a few more plays there. She made her mark though not as a performer, but as a devoted theater volunteer and supporter these past 75 years. Today, she is the benevolent grand dame of the Playhouse.
“I always thought she was a treasure,” said the theater’s former executive director Charles Jones, “because she was really willing to put herself out for the Playhouse. She was proud of selling season memberships and helping us move forward. She has this bulldog tenacity, but the most wonderful heart. She’s a glorious, caring person.”
Another bedrock Omaha institution in Florence’s life has been Dundee Presbyterian Church. Founded in 1901, she attended Sunday School there beginning in 1910 and was confirmed in 1918. She has been an integral part of the church’s life and it of hers. Dundee is where she wed, where her children were baptized, confirmed and married, where her mate of 61 years, Kenny, was eulogized, where she served as choir member, deacon, elder and Sunday School teacher. In 1991 she was ordained a Stephen Minister. Young-endowed scholarships are granted each year.
Florence has seen a century of change unfold. She’s outlived many who have been dear to her. In 1979 she buried her only son, Bob, after he died of cancer. Yet, her bright, buoyant spirit remains undimmed. Whatever has come next, she “took it in stride,” forging a life of infinite variety and enviable richness, one based in family, church and community. Her passions range from travel to cooking to the arts. Then, there’s her entrepreneurial side. She had her own public stenographic business and real estate broker’s license at a time when career women were scarce. Also a noted restorer of Oriental rugs, she continues plying the craft today.
Even now, this vivacious lady of 92 still works, volunteers and travels. Additionally, she spends time with her six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. She is clearly centered on the here and now, not the past.
“I have such a fascinating life,” she says.
She’s still very much the same charming girl who moved with the greatest of ease that night so long ago. She was recently back at the Playhouse visiting the set of “The Little Foxes,” the current offering in the Fonda-McGuire Series. Looking radiant in a flowing black gown topped by an aqua blue sequined blouse, her white hair set-off like a pearl, she was every bit a teenager again, primping and preening for a captive audience – in this case a photographer. A graduate of the Misner School of the Spoken Word and Fine Arts, she glided effortlessly through the set, posing on a staircase and reclining on a chaise lounge. Ever the trouper, she responded to the photographer’s every request, obviously enjoying the attention, her energy and enthusiasm belying her years. A picture of health — she takes no medicine and drives a 1986 Cadillac kept “in perfect running shape” — she believes age is just a number anyway.
“It is. It really is. I think attitude makes a lot of difference, no matter what your age is,” she says in a ripened voice full of eager anticipation.
Ask her what’s the best thing about being 92, she unhesitatingly quips, “Everybody is so nice to you.” The worst part, she adds, is “knowing you maybe only have about ten more years left, if that many, and so much to do. Every year goes so fast.”
Her long life is filled by so many telling incidents that in recounting it the tendency is to telescope events, but that would not do her justice. Her story, like the intricate rugs she restores, is a tapestry of interwoven threads that form the pattern of a life lived well and fully. The only way to get a true picture of her is to go back to the beginning.
Born at home in Omaha in 1907, Florence was the first child of John Isaiah Taminosian and the former Ellen Maria Andersson. A sister and brother completed the family the next few years. Florence and her siblings grew up in a house (still standing) on Chicago Street in Dundee.
Florence’s parents each emigrated to America. He from the former Asia Minor Republic of Armenia. She from Sweden. By all accounts, her father was a charismatic fellow with a history straight out of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. “He has such a fantastic story,” Florence says.
Buoyed by a published interview he granted to a Mankato, Minn. newspaper in 1910, the dramatic circumstances of his coming over are known. As he told it then, he was ostracized by his family when he rejected Christianity (his father was a Congregational Church deacon) for Islam and became a dervish or kind of Muslim evangelist.
He escaped to Cairo, Egypt with the aid of a local prince. While living under the prince’s protection he was ordained an Islamic priest, but after time grew disillusioned with his new calling and yearned for his old life and faith. But, rebuking Islam invited certain death. Returning home was out since Armenians were a persecuted minority. So, he enlisted the aid of Western missionaries, who secreted him out of the region.
He arrived on U.S. shores in 1893, not knowing English or a single soul. After a year of struggle he landed the part of “the howling and whirling dervish” in the Barnum & Bailey Circus, traveling to 29 states in two years. His talent for proselytizing and performing, as well as his knowledge of Oriental rugs, would later be passed on to his daughter Florence. His circus days ended when, struck by a second religious conversion, he became a street corner preacher with the Volunteers of America, a Christian evangelical organization ala the Salvation Army. With his dark exotic good looks, wild gestures, musky voice and turban-topped uniform he cut quite a figure. So much so he was invited to appear at the 1898 Trans-Mississippi International Exposition in Omaha. Here he stayed, finding more mainstream work with Woodmen of the World Life Insurance Co. and meeting his future wife Ellen. Later, he began selling Oriental rugs.
The arrival of Florence’s mother is devoid of storybook intrigue but no less compelling. Purportedly descended from Swedish royalty, Ellen Maria grew up in privileged surroundings on a country estate, Borstad, near Vadsteima, Sweden. One of ten children, she attended finishing school and became expert in household maintenance, particularly sewing, a skill Florence would learn under her watch years later.
In 1903 Ellen Maria ventured alone to America, by ocean liner, and made her way to Mead, Neb., where an uncle lived. She learned English and moved to Deadwood, S.D., where she worked as a seamstress. Restless in the small town, Ellen Maria moved to Omaha and soon secured a position in the home of Herman Kountze, one of the city’s leading citizens.
“She was in charge of their upstairs maids and when the family entertained she helped with the serving,” Florence writes in a family history she’s compiling. “She was treated just like one of the family.”
It was at a Kountze soiree, Florence believes, her mother and father met. Although from vastly differing backgrounds, she guesses the attraction was mutual. “My father was a very handsome man. He spoke seven different languages. He was selling Oriental rugs and I imagine, even at that time, they were highly esteemed. And he was probably doing well by then. My mother was a very beautiful, talented lady. She was always very beautifully dressed. Everybody loved her.”
Even after becoming a family man and attending to business (he eventually acquired the Dundee Cleaning Co.), Florence’s father still preached on the side. She saw him speak once to some long forgotten congregation. By then he was no longer the flamboyant Great Dervish, but rather a sober, chastened man of God.
“He gave a very good sermon. I think he was a very good speaker. I was so proud of him as a preacher.”
In her mind, she can still see the occasion when her normally stoic father broke down after bitter news arrived from the Old Country. “The only time I saw my father cry is when he received notice his mother and father had been dragged to death by the Turks” in another round of atrocities.
The Taminosian home, a two-story wood-frame house, was always open to visitors and a melting of Armenian, Swedish and American culture.
“My mother had a regal quality, and yet our friends were always welcome in our house. There was always something to eat for them. On Sundays my mother would cook a big beautiful dinner and she and my father would invite their friends. I grew up with many different languages being spoken around me. The men would be in the living room after dinner and my mother and her friends would be in the kitchen.”
Leisure time then was less hurried, more social. Cheap too.
“It didn’t cost a lot of money to have fun in those days. As little girls we played jacks, hopscotch, hide and seek, things like that. When I was older a whole group of us might go dancing to Peony Park. I’ve always enjoyed dancing. It was just a lot of good wholesome fun. It was a lovely time.”
She loved silent pictures, especially romances. She enjoyed riding with her family in their horse-and-buggy en route to picnics at Carter Lake. Autos then were still few in number. The first car she rode in was a Model-T Ford. Of all the inventions and advances she saw, the most impressive were electrical power coming into her home and the advent of radio.
Summer nights meant sleeping on the second-story porch just outside her bedroom. Doors were never locked. She always felt safe.
She received her elementary education at Dundee School, which was not yet built when she started. Therefore, she attended kindergarten in Dundee Hall and first grade in the Dundee Fire Barn, where, in the middle of class, “the bell would go off and the firemen would slide down the pole.” She attended Central High School before heeding her mother’s advice (‘every girl ought to be able to earn her own living if she needed to’) and transferring to Technical High School, where she learned typing and shorthand, two skills she would put to good use.
But the familiar red brick Tech edifice on Cuming Street was still under construction, so Florence and her mates attended classes in converted storefronts along Leavenworth Street for one year before moving to the big new Tech High building. “It was wonderful. It was the only school in the city with a swimming pool.” She swam well too. Her other extracurricular activities included editing the school paper, dramatics, debate, chorus. A play she wrote, “The Stovepipe Hole,” was performed on the Tech stage.
Although long closed, Florence keeps her ties to the school alive as coordinator of the annual Tech High Reunion. She’s helped preserve and display school memorabilia and raise funds for a planned renovation of the building’s massive auditorium. Her 75th class reunion is next year.
As a young woman she helped out in her family’s cleaning business. Besides cleaning rugs, her family repaired them. Her father taught her mother all about Oriental rugs and it was under the tutelage of her mother, a master needleworker who did restoration work for individuals and museums, that Florence and her sister Eleanor became skilled.
“I apprenticed for over 30 years under my mother and I learned to be an Oriental rug expert,” Florence says. “She wouldn’t even let us touch a rug belonging to a customer. We had to practice on old ones.”
Along with her expertise, Florence gained a deep appreciation for the rugs, which are traditionally handwoven using the choicest materials.
“They’re the finest you can get. I have one rug that is 168 knots to a quare inch. All put in by hand. It has silk outlining in it. To me, rugs are like pictures on a wall, only they’re on the floor.”
She continues Oriental rug restoration today, refringing ends, reweaving holes and edging sides frayed from wear, pets or accidents.
“Even now, the Nebraska Furniture Mart sends customers to me who need a rug repair done. My sister has a big business doing it in Kansas City too. Neither of us ever advertise. Work just comes to us.”
Over the years Florence has had clients seek her services out from as far away as New York and California. She does most of the work at home, which these days is an apartment at Skyline Manor. For a large piece, she works at the owner’s home. One local couple had such an enormous rug, she says, “they built a room just for it and set-up a table for me to work on. Their cat had really injured this rug. I was there for weeks.”
According to Florence, the best Oriental rugs are made in Iran and before trading with that nation was restricted some years ago she laid in a supply of native yarn that she isn’t sure “anybody else has” in the U.S.
She says the quality of a fine Oriental rug is partly dependent on the area of the country it’s made. “The quality of the yarn produced is determined by the water the goats drink and the vegetation they eat.”
Her travels over the years took her to the Mideast, where she and Kenny bought many rugs. Native weavers working at their looms often remarked on how knowledgeable she was about their craft.
“When I was in Iran I put some stitches in a rug they were making and one of the men came way across the room and kissed me on the cheek, saying, ‘You’re an American, and you know how.’ He couldn’t believe it.”
Travel was one of her and Kenny’s greatest shared pleasures. Everyone who knew them say they were a perfect match.
“He was behind me in everything I did and I was behind him in everything he did. We admired each other so very much. He was a caring, intelligent man and it was just a privilege for us to live together.”
The two met in the late 1920s and married in a formal ceremony at her church. A civil engineer by trade, he had his own firm and worked for Metropolitan Utilities District. He was later properties manager for the Great Plains Girl Scouts. Knowing her abilities, he encouraged her to find work and, when the opportunity arose, they bought a public stenographic business for her to run. Under her leadership, it flourished during the Great Depression.
“I built that business up to where I had three offices with a manager in each one. I also did printing and mimeographing.”
She closed the company to raise her family. Once the children were grown she re-entered the business world as a real estate broker. She was a top seller. She and Kenny also built, sold and rented several homes. “We never lost a cent either.” She’s justifiably proud of her professional career.
“I liked business so much. I felt I had to be absolutely correct in everything I did because I was paving the way for other women.”
It pleases her her granddaughters have followed her path and become business professionals in their own right. Her daughter, Helen Margaret Bucher, is a school teacher in Iowa.
Motivated by a mutual curiosity about the world, the Youngs began their travels by seeing the U.S. They eventually made it to all 50 states. From the time they started going abroad in 1954 until his death 37 years later, they visited every continent but Antarctica and a total of 125 countries. She’s since added three Caribbean countries. About their travels, she says:
“Each one was so different, so precious. It’s been very interesting. We both enjoyed people so much. Other people’s customs, ways of living and treasures. You learn so many things. When we went to different countries we tried to learn a few of their words, and it made so much difference. The people knew we wanted to know them better. What was nice is Kenny and I traveled before everything became so Americanized.”
When their children were small the Youngs took them along. “It would be so exciting to see them excited about something and learning about something,” she says.
The highlights of her overseas journeys range from “the wonderful museums in Russia” to India’s Taj Mahal, which “was as perfect as advertised. We were allowed to go down in the tomb and see its exquisite workmanship.” Then there were the geysers Down Under, “the wonderful art and food” of Italy. In Sweden they stayed at the estate her mother grew up in. In the Mideast they visited a mosque her father sought refuge in.
“You kind of pinched yourself you were actually there sometimes. “
As an engineer, Kenny liked “climbing to the top of most everything — from the Leaning Tower of Pisa to the Great Wall of China.”
They cruised on the QE2. Soared on the Concorde. During a memorable tour around the world they had a driver and guide all their own. Florence will never forget their first European jaunt in 1954. They flew from New York to London, when flying across the Atlantic was still a leap of faith.
“It was a propeller plane and I think I stayed up all night long just to see that propeller kept going.”
Wanting mementos of her adventures, she began collecting rings and dolls from every country she visited. Her large collection of dolls, each outfitted with authentic native dress and made of indigenous materials, is proudly displayed in her apartment. The Youngs documented their tours via slides and presented public travelogues. She’s also lectured extensively on dolls and Oriental rugs, many of which she’s given to family members.
Sharing with others is something she’s always done. It’s why, even now, she counsels those in need as a Stephen Minister. “I really truly like people, and if I can help in any way to relieve their problems, I like to.”
Her ministerial work extends to her retirement community. She calls on a woman at Skyline every Sunday and often finds other residents opening up to her. “People often tell me their thoughts and problems.” Ask if she finds the work satisfying, she replies, “Well, you would get a great deal of satisfaction if you helped somebody, wouldn’t you?”
“Florence Young is a devoted, joyful servant of Jesus Christ. She’s an example to members of all ages of this congregation that one never retires from service to the Lord,” says Rev. William L. Blowers, pastor of Dundee Presbyterian Church. “She is a remarkable woman. An inspiration.”
Just as the church is the fabric of her faith, the Playhouse is the link to her love of make-believe. The continuity of her life will find her celebrating the church’s centennial in 2001 and the theater’s 75th anniversary in the 1999-2000 season. She’s been there for every step in the theater’s history.
“It’s a real part of my life. It’s wonderful to know I have been a part of something like this and to have done a few things to help it grow. It’s really almost a miracle the way it has grown.”
The Medallion Award for outstanding promotional service is named after her and Kenny. A top seller too for the symphony and opera, she still sells hundreds of Playhouse memberships yearly. She attends every play.
“I always feel I’m not so much selling, but offering a chance for a wonderful evening. Some plays produce messages. Others are just for amusement. Others bring back memories. It is a world of imagination, isn’t it? It’s such fun.”
- Nancy Kirk: Arts Maven, Author, Communicator, Entrepreneur, Interfaith Champion (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Being Jack Moskovitz, Grizzled Former Civil Servant and DJ, Now Actor and Fiction Author, Still Waiting to be Discovered (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Jane Fonda on father Henry: “I feel him so present in my life all the time” (piersmorgan.blogs.cnn.com)
- Nancy Oberst, the Pied Piper of Liberty Elementary School (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
©photo by Jonathan Fredin
I don’t dance. I mean, I’ve tried, and let’s just say it hasn’t taken with me. At least not in public. I sometimes do my own version of dancing, either alone or with my partner, in the privacy of our home. More for the exercise, I must admit, than anything else, though I do enjoy the intimacy of slow dancing when we’re by ourselves. I appreciate those who can move gracefully and unselfconsciously on the dance floor. And so it was that I observed with admiration and some envy a group of seniors doing their ballroom dancing thing for the following story I did eight or nine years ago. Who knows, maybe my dancing years are still ahead of me?
Gotta Dance, Seniors Make Ballroom Dancing an Integral Part of Staying Young
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the New Horizons
By 9:30 on a fine October night, a downtown dance hall is abuzz with the revelry of senior couples bobbing to the sweet notes of a swinging big band. It is dim inside save for lights strung overhead to cast a warm golden glow over the scene.
Everything — from the bouncy tunes to the jitterbug moves to the elegant couples dressed-to-the-nines — hearkens back to the 1940s, when juke joints like these ruled. The only difference now is these dancers move a tad slower than they did then. No matter, this is one hideaway where numerical age means little as long as you are still young at heart. Here, where time stands still, romantic asides and whispered sweet nothings continue to be shared by gray-haired partners for whom holding hands and sneaking smooches never grows old. In the rich ambience of this jumping night spot, nostalgia reigns supreme.
Elaine McMullin, 84, and Bernie McKernan, 76, are two regulars here. As usual, their dance card is filled. These smartly turned-out partners will sweep the rest of the night away to the melodious strains of the Ron Nadherny Band at the North Omaha Eagles Club, 24th & Douglas, where every Thursday evening ballroom dancing takes center stage courtesy of Joe Mimmick’s 40s Dance Club. A different band plays every week. More than a mere dance venue, this ballroom — along with others like it in the area catering to the senior population — offers a veritable fountain of youth for participants, many of whom arrive lame yet somehow turn spry once the music starts. Yes, some magic is at work in these In-the-Mood places where age is merely a state of mind.
“No matter how you feel, music will bolster your spirit and will really make you feel young again,” said 40s Dance Clubber Gloria Gordon of Omaha. “Sometimes you can hardly walk, but when you get on the dance floor it seems like for some reason you have no problem at all dancing. It is a real tonic. It’s give you kind of a high.”
Retired local school teacher Elaine McMullin, who dances with Bernie McKernan three nights a week, could not agree more. “You forget how old you are,” she said. “You forget how many aches and pains you might have. A lot of nights I’m kind of tired and I think, ‘Oh, I should stay home,’ and then I realize I’d just be alone feeling sorry for myself and I figure I’m a whole lot better off going out, and so I go. It’s certainly an enjoyable way to spend the evening. Plus, it’s good exercise.”
Bill Yambor, 76, can attest to the health benefits of dance. The Omaha resident said he has lost weight, stabilized his blood pressure and increased his energy level through a steady diet of hoofing. “It’s good aerobics and it’s good for the legs too. I’m in good shape,” said the slim Yambor. He goes ballrooming every Wednesday and Thursday afternoon at Bluffs Run Casino and every Thursday night at the Eagles Club. He works in an occasional Tuesday night at the Millard Legion Post 374. He puts in as many as nine hours of dancing a day — rarely sitting out a turn. “If there are 15 dances, I dance every one of them. I don’t miss one. I like them all.” The only concession to age he makes is not dipping his partners anymore.
A typical ballroom program offers a wide variety of musical numbers and dance styles — from swing to the foxtrot to the polka to the rumba to the waltz. “I like to do them all, but personally the waltz is my favorite dance, especially the Viennese Waltz,” said Elaine. “It’s the smooth, even, gliding, free flowing movement I like. And when I dance I like to close my eyes and block out everything except to listen to the beat and to the shuffle of the feet on the floor. You hear the music, you feel the movement and you glide around. It’s like your floating. It’s a wonderful feeling.”
Swept away by the thrill of it all, ballroom dancing enthusiast Jerrie Kraniewski of Omaha said she sometimes feels transported on the dance floor — as if she is “almost in another world.” Bob McEniry, who has been Gloria Gordon’s steady dance mate the past 10 years, said getting caught up in the moment — with the soothing music and the seductive movement — induces a kind of meditative state that triggers memories of old times. “You’ll hear a song and it brings it all back. That’s part of the reverie. It is a form of trance — you’re way off there by yourself. It’s trance dancing.”
For Shirley Sailors, dancing is “the nearest thing to heaven there is.” Shirley and her husband Ken come all the way from their Dunlap, Iowa home to kick up their heels in Omaha. Appropriately, the pair met at a dance. The circumstances of their meeting echo that of many senior ballroom dancing couples. Both had lost a longtime spouse and in the process of getting back into the social swing of things, they found each other. Dancing had been a shared love of Shirley’s and her first husband’s but she was unsure if it “could ever be the same again with someone else.” To her joy, she discovered she “enjoyed it tremendously” with Ken too.
When Omahan Bob McEniry retired a decade ago, the widower didn’t know what to do with himself — until he rediscovered a passion for dancing grown dormant during years spent working and raising a family. “I saw an ad in the paper that said, ‘Dancing,’ with a phone number. I dialed it right away. The fella answering said, ‘We’ve got free dancing every Wednesday afternoon. Why don’t you come over?’ I went over and I’ve been at it ever since. It’s been a fabulous find. It’s just been delightful. It’s brought it all back for me. It’s a great way of staying young.”
That desire to recapture a glint of youthful vitality crops up time and again in conversations with the senior dance crowd. Gloria Gordon loved to dance as a young woman but fell out of practice while married to a man without an ounce of Fred Astaire in him. After being widowed, she struck up a friendship with McEniry and was delighted to find that, like him, “it just came right back to me.”
In the case of Elaine McMullin, she and her husband Jim shared a passion for dance they often entertained until he suffered such severe heart problems that it curtailed his physical activities and effectively ended their arabesques together at night spots like Peony Park, the Music Box and the Charemont. “We both missed it a lot.” After Jim died, she waited a year before she went back dancing. Now, she might as well be a blushing bride of 18 again when circling the ballroom in the arms of Bernie McKernan, her friend and partner these last several years.
Vivacious Elaine is lovely to look at on the dance floor. She sashays with the gentle, effortless ease of a twirling leaf in the wind. Her body is relaxed. Her feet step lively yet gracefully to the beat. There is nothing out of place — from her high wavy set hair to her fabulous dress (she makes her own fancy dance dresses) slit just so to show off her still shapely legs. Where she grabs attention, Bernie, a retired building inspector, complements her with efficient if not flashy leading. Together, they make a pretty picture on the hard wood, their limbs entwined in close embrace one moment and swaying apart the next. They are made for each other.
Like many older people who suffer the loss of a spouse, Elaine and Bernie sought solace when tragedy struck and they found it in a support group for widows and widowers. Soon after meeting they learned of their mutual fondness for tripping the light fantastic and began making the local ballroom circuit together (Omaha, Millard, Lincoln, Blair and across the border in Minden, Iowa). They have been an exclusive dance floor couple ever since. Besides cutting a rug, they enjoy going out to dinner. Bernie also helps Elaine maintain her large house and yard. For them, though, dancing is the cat’s meow. They plan their weeks around it.
Elaine, who studied dance from age 8 through her teens, said, “I’ve always loved to dance. Now, more than ever, I look forward to it. It is an occasion. It is a dress-up occasion. I plan the next night out what I’m going to wear and the fun I’m going to have and the music I’ll enjoy dancing to. And there’s a lot of camaraderie in places like this. I’ve met so many friends over the years just because of dancing.”
To a man and woman, ballroom fanciers cite companionship and interaction as among the main attractions offered. The 40s Dance Club is rare in actively seeking senior singles. More than a few romances have blossomed in its ballroom. Take Ed and Gratia Setlak, for example, comparative youngsters at ages 55 and 65, respectively. He was divorced and she widowed when they met at a club function a few years ago. Sparks flew on the dance floor. “Right off the bat I sensed an honest openness in Gratia, and that said a lot to me,” Ed recalls. “We danced twice that night. It was about three weeks before we got back together. We started dating and eventually we married.” Dancing defies age in inspiring such interludes. After all, it is an intimate, seductive and sensuous mating ritual. “I love the rhythm. I love being held held by somebody,’ Gratia Setlak said. Beyond the physical closeness it provides, her husband added, “It brings you together emotionally.”
Ballroom dancer Ken Sailors said displays of endearment are only natural on the dance floor. “You’ll see dance partners kiss each other on the cheek. It’s a loving you don’t see other places. There’s nothing wrong with showing affection for the lady I love out on the dance floor.” Romance aside, social dancing offers a relaxed and festive setting whose banter and gaiety are infectious. “One of the biggest joys I get at this dance club is seeing the pleasure these people are getting,” Shirley Sailors said during an intermission at a recent 40s Dance Club program.
Bill Yambor and his late wife were crazy about dancing. After her death, he found a steady ballroom partner but she died too. Today, he is an unattached bachelor and equal opportunity dancer. “I don’t want to get hooked up with one partner all the time, so I try to dance with all the ladies. Once in a while I’ll take one out on a date.” He said as long as his “body holds out,” he expects to keep right on punching his dance card. “I’d probably be bored with my life if I didn’t have dancing to do. It’s one thing I really enjoy. It’s a really good pastime. I meet a lot of nice people and make a lot of friends. I’d recommend it to anyone.” Jerrie Kraniewski and her partner Irl C. Andis say they would miss dancing more than life itself. “I’d hate to have to ever give it up,” Jerrie said. “No, we’re not going to give it up as long as we can move,” Irl added.
More than a few ballroom devotees carry on despite artificial knees and hips. Then there is Bernie McKernan who, after an unexplained cardiac event last June in which he collapsed unconscious on a Millard dance floor, now cha chas with a pacemaker in his chest. Bernie recalls little about the incident, but Elaine does. “It sure was scary. I didn’t know what to do. Luckily, a nurse was there and she administered CPR. He was rushed to Methodist Hospital and I spent the evening with him in the emergency room,” she said. All Bernie knows is that he “keeled over on the dance floor and woke up four days later with a pacemaker.” Then, as if to prove his ballroom devotion, he added, “When I came to, I asked the doctor, ‘How soon can we go dancing?’ and he said, ‘In a few days,’ and so we did.”
Asked what could possibly inspire such fierce ardor for this recreation activity, Elaine searched for words and said, “There’s just something about dancing. It really makes you feel good. We both love it.” Or, as Bernie simply puts it, “Well, it’s fun.”
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Louise Abrahamson’s Legacy of Giving Finds A Perfect Fit at The Clothesline, the Thrift Store the Octogenarian Founded and Still Runs at Boys Town
Even though I know better, I sometimes find myself making assumptions about people based solely on their appearance. Pint-sized octogenarian Louise Abrahamson didn’t look like my idea of a dynamo not to be trifled with when I first laid eyes on her but as I soon discovered that’s exactly what she is. This sweet little old Jewish lady has been running, variously with an iron fist and a velvet glove, a thrift shop at the Catholic run Boys Town for decades now and she shows no signs of slowing down. This story of a Jew deeply embedded at Boys Town reminded me of the deep relationship that Boys Town founder Father Edward Flanagan enjoyed with Jewish attorney Henry Monsky – a story I wrote about and that you can find on this blog. While Monsky’s contributions were more advisory, legal, and monetary, Louise’s are more cultural, charitable, and practical. My story about Louise that follows originally appeared in the Jewish Press.
Louise Abrahamson’s Legacy of Giving Finds A Perfect Fit at The Clothesline, the Thrift Store the Ocotgenarian Founded and Still Runs at Boys Town
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the Jewish Press
Eighty-nine years ago, Omaha Jewish leader Henry Monsky befriended an Irish Catholic priest with whom he shared a dream of creating a safe haven for troubled youths. The priest found a site, but lacked funds. Monsky, a successful attorney and inveterate do-gooder, lent Rev. Edward Flanagan $90 for the first month’s rent on the original Boys Town building in downtown Omaha. Besides serving, pro bono, as attorney for both the home and the late Fr. Flanagan, Monsky was a member of the Boys Town board of directors from its 1917 inception until his death in 1947. His support of Fr. Flanagan and the youth care program got other civic-business leaders to follow suit. The rest is history. As Boys Town’s approach to serving at-risk children caught on, donations poured in and the organization expanded. Now, it’s become a much replicated national model and the names Fr. Flanagan and Boys Town are synonymous with youth care worldwide.
The role Monsky played in the then-fledging institution’s founding is even portrayed in the 1938 Oscar-winning film Boys Town.
Twenty-six years ago, an Omaha Jewish woman named Louise Abrahamson, a former legal stenographer, small business owner, retailer, grant writer, fundraiser and political advisor, got the idea of starting a thrift shop to outfit children at the home with new clothes and things. At the time, she was a secretary and much more at Boys Town. Struck by how little new arrivals had in the way of clothes or other possessions, she took it upon herself to solicit donations from clothing and sundry manufacturers. Donated goods began arriving at her home and were stored in her garage. She distributed the gifts to Boys Town residents and to other organizations helping families and children. Before long, the operation outgrew her garage and moved to new quarters on campus.
Today, she operates out of a retail store-like setting called The Clothesline. The volume of goods that comes in year-round is enough to keep the store’s neatly dressed shelves, bins and racks filled and to take up floor-to-ceiling sections of a warehouse storage area. At any given time the inventory — a typical shipment contains hundreds or thousands of items — includes everything from apparel to accessories to toiletries to toys. Each box must be unpacked, sorted and labeled. In 2005 alone she collected merchandise worth a combined commercial value of $1.3 million, a record year. And that’s only counting donations of $1,000 or more.
There, she applies her well-practiced people skills and business acumen — “I’ve done a lot of things in my life” — to sweet talk corporations out of in-kind gifts and to ease the transition displaced kids face miles away from home. All her considerable time on the project is given as a volunteer.
More than just a place where children get a new set of duds, The Clothesline is where kids find a friend in Abrahamson they can always confide in.
“She is so wonderful to all these kids. When they come in they get a hug and kiss,” said Betty Rubin, a friend and fellow volunteer at the store. “This is what makes it tick — the warmth of it. I mean, it’s very personal to her.”
“Louise is one of those rare people who flourishes by helping others,” said Fr. Val Peter, recently stepped down as executive director of Girls and Boys Town. “Her joy is in giving to others. She is an expert at human relations. She can talk major manufacturing reps into helping us and she has a way with the kids, too. She is an enormously happy person, and to be that happy you have to work at it.”
“This is my life,” Louise said by way of explaining why, at age 86, she still works at the store four days a week. “I get a lot of pleasure out of this. It’s just kind of a challenge to see if people remember me and send me stuff I ask for for the kids.”
Besides, the need that inspired her to start the store in the first place, is still there. Then, like now, newcomers arrive with few possessions and little trust. If anything, she said, kids today present “a lot more problems than when I first came here. I have just taken it into my heart to care about the kids. Generally, when they come in, I don’t settle for a handshake. I have a hug. I want them to know I truly care what happens to them. That, to me, is what sets the pace for a youngster. Rather than have them feel like a stranger or a truant, I want them to feel welcome,” said the former Louise Miller, an Omaha native and Central High graduate. “That’s why I tell them, ‘We want you here. It’s a great place to be. Make the most of it. If you take advantage of what we offer, we’ll never let you down.’ I love that about Boys Town. I like what we do for children.”
“Louise is a great ambassador for those kids,” Girls and Boys Town Public Relations Director John Melingagio said. “She manages to take some of the fear and anxiety away for them.”
On a typical day at the store, the pint-sized Abrahamson, crisply-attired in a pants and sweater suit and her hair nicely coiffured, is seated at her command center at the front of the shop, her phone, computer and files within easy reach. An adult man saunters in with a teenage boy trying hard to suppress his unease. The man’s a campus family teacher and the youth a newbie in need of threads to replace the banned gang clothes he’s come with.
She greets the teen. “Good morning. How are you?” He says, “What’s up?” “And you are?” “Tavonne,” he tells her. “Where you from?” “Baltimore.” “Baltimore, well you know cold weather then. You just pick out what you want, bring it up here and we’ll check it out. That’s all there is to it,” she explains.
A few minutes later, after trying on some pants, shirts and shoes, Tavonne’s back. Louise asks him, “Did you find what you’re looking for?” “Yeah.” “So now you’re all fixed up with dress clothes, right?” “Yeah.” “That’s good. How long have you been here?” “This is my second day.” “Second day, you’re an old-timer.” He smiles shyly. “Probably by the end of next week you’ll be sworn in as a Boys Towner. We’re glad to have you here.” The boy, warming to her, replies, “Thank you.” She tells him, “We hope you do well. It’s a great place to be. Now, I have these…if you want a watch,” she says, pushing a basket filled with nice men’s watches near him. He fishes through the bunch and finds one he wants. “I like this one.” “It’s yours.” “Thank you, I appreciate it.” “You’re very welcome. I want to wish you a merry Christmas.” “Same to you.” “And I hope things work out for you, dear.” “Thanks.”
It’s this kind of human exchange that keeps Abrahamson coming back day after day. “Yeah, that tells a story,” she said. “We get a lot of new kids in this time of year. Family teachers will come in with new children, most of them with little or no clothes other than what they have on their back. All our clothes are new and appropriate to wear at church and school. The kids pick out what they want.”
She said her empathy for them extends back to her own childhood. “I knew my folks loved me, but they were busy making a living and really didn’t have much time for me. I was lonesome. I needed somebody I thought cared. And I think that’s why I feel a special need to help children,” she said.
It was while working as a secretary in Boys Town’s Youth Care program she saw first hand the want and conceived the idea of a free clothing center. She got it up and running out of her home in no time.
“I’d see these unhappy youngsters come in carrying a grocery sack and I’d say, ‘Where’s your luggage?’ They’d say, ‘This is it.’ My husband and I used to be in retail — we had a shoes and clothing store — and I wondered if I called on our old dealers, would they help and send me what they have. So, those were the first people I wrote to. They were very giving and began sending merchandise to me.”
With the chutzpah all doers possess, she just thought it up and went ahead. “I did this strictly on my own. I didn’t ask anybody’s permission. I just started doing it,” she said. “Once I’d get the merchandise in, I’d open up the boxes and I’d send out a memo and invite the family teachers and the kids to come over my house.”
By then, Louise and her late husband of 58 years, Norman Abrahamson, lived alone. Their two sons, Hugh and Steve, were grown. She credits Norman for her success. “He taught me everything I know. He taught me how to greet people. He taught me how to go for the product. He taught me that being kind is unusual. He was very supportive. He encouraged me. He said, ‘Go for it, honey. You can do it.’ He was there when I asked for advice and when I faltered.” A former Edison Brothers shoe salesman, he opened his own retail men’s apparel and shoe stores, Hugh’s. He later became a real estate builder-developer.
Soon, the amount of donations was too much for the couple’s garage. “My husband said, ‘Don’t you think Boys Town would give you a spot?’ So, I went to Fr. Hupp (the late former executive director of Boys Town), who knew I was inviting the teachers and kids over to my house to get clothes, and he said, ‘We’ve got space down in the boiler room (of the Youth Care building). Can you hack that?’ ’Any place would be good,’’ I said. So, we had our stuff delivered there, and this is pretty much the way it started.”
She wore a mask to protect against fumes in the cramped boiler room. It was under Fr. Peter’s watch the operation moved from that dank place to its pleasant environs today — in the building that houses the U.S. postal station on campus.
“When Fr. Peter came aboard, we just went on from there. He and I worked very closely, especially at Christmas-time. The store grew and grew, as did the demand.”
She’s done it almost entirely on her own, too, running things the way she sees fit. “There’s nobody that’s been put here to watch me.”
Generations removed from Henry Monsky helping make the dream of Boys Town a reality, fellow Jew Louise Abrahamson is helping Boys Town fulfill its nonsectarian mission of providing a caring environment to homeless and abused children of all faiths and creeds. She’s familiar with Monsky’s legacy, too, as she helped organize a touring Nebraska Jewish Historical Society exhibit on him in collaboration with Boys Town. Fr. Peter said that if Monsky is the grandfather of Boys Town, then Abrahamson is “the grandmother. She is loved and appreciated here.”
Playing the role of matriarch to kids with severed family relationships appeals to her. “While they’re here, I am like their grandmother,” she said. “A lot of the young people come in and tell me their problems, and I’ll listen very carefully. They’re welcome to come in anytime. They don’t have to make an appointment.”
Her contact with the children often extends well past their graduation and departure from the home. “Even two or three years later,” she said, “kids can have hard luck. I’ll get a call that says, ‘Louise, so and so is going out on a job interview and doesn’t have a thing to wear.’ And I’ll say, ‘Send ‘em over.’ Now, where else can you go and get that kind of a feeling that you’re needed and wanted?”
The ties go well beyond that. Her desk at the front of the store displays photos sent by former Boys Town students, many pictured with families they’ve begun. She exchanges cards and letters, just like any good grandma does. “I keep in touch with a lot of the children after they leave,” she said.
Just don’t assume her kindly ways and diminutive stature mark her as a pushover.
“Louise is a very pleasantly, disarmingly assertive little old lady,” said Dan Daly, Girls and Boys Town’s Vice President and Director of Youth Care. “You see this pleasant looking, smiling, tiny person and pretty soon she’s got her hand in your right back pocket. That’s how Boys Town was founded. Her and Fr. Peter, made a very, very potent tandem. He knew what kind of talent she has at doing this sort of thing and he was very supportive of her. It’s grown and proliferated because of her personality and her keen business sense.”
So savvy is this nice little old Jewish lady in sizing up people, Daly said, that he and other Boys Town officials would steer family teacher candidates by her desk, so she could observe them. Her assessment factored into new hires. Her counsel was also sought ought off-campus by candidates for mayor, governor and senator. She even wrote a booklet to help prospective candidates weigh bids for public office.
Using her political skills, she routinely contacts corporate giants like Target, Wal-Mart, Dillards, Lands-End, Johnson & Johnson and Colgate, and gets them to donate surplus items. Her personal appeals, scripted herself, are laced with tug-on-your-heart pathos and practical let’s-do-business talk. She tells them, “We have so many young boys and girls who…desperately need clothing…I am asking for your help. If you have any donation department of your discontinued styles, over-stocks, irregulars or out-of-season merchandise, could I ask that you place us on your recipient list? Any merchandise sent can be a tax write-off…Thank you. I hope you will share in Boys Town’s grand mission.”
She doesn’t stop there, either. She follows up with phone calls and letters, always gently reminding potential donors of the need. Her persistence often pays off. “I’m after them all the time. I don’t take no for an answer. I keep pitching, and pitching kindly.” Every donor receives a personal thank you note from her.
Melingagio said the donations she brings in help Boys Town “leverage our dollars. Those in-kind gifts she gets from corporations allow the monies we get to go to things that help the kids get better.”
When she approached Fr. Peter with her concept for the store, he embraced it. “I knew that if we let Louise loose at The Clothesline, that it would become very big,” he said. “The best thing to do is to let Louise do her work. She does it better than anyone else.” He said the store’s proved a winning venture. “Oh, yes, it’s a great idea. We needed it badly. It helps everybody. The best ideas come from people like Louise who have talent and a willingness to make their ideas successful.”
He added there’s never been any thought of taking it out of her hands. “It has been Louise’s baby from the get-go. What we do here is we give people a job and say, You’re in charge of making it a success, and she’s made it a success. We’re all proud of her.” He confirmed there’s also been no talk of what will happen once she’s gone. “We don’t want to think about that. We tell her, Take your vitamins. Stay healthy. We need you for years to come. She’s it.”
Before she came on the scene with her business-like practices, Daly said, the home didn’t have a formal apparatus for processing donated goods: “There was a day when, without Louise, you would have walked in and seen just big piles of stuff, and Louise moved the organization away from that way of handling donations to a very effective, modern way where things are very attractively displayed to the kids and to the adults.”
Daly said Abrahamson is quite adept at “networking with family teachers. She alerts people when new stuff comes in. She’s always pushing the product, so to speak. Louise has her favorites. If she gets something in that she knows one little girl would like, she makes sure that little girl gets the first crack at it.” He said it’s not only the 500-some kids on campus who benefit from the fruits of her labor. Another 200 or so in foster care settings also have dibs on what she collects. When supplies or shipments exceed the Boys Town demand, she places the extra goods with places like The St. Francis House and the Salvation Army.
Her office is also the base for a whole other category of gifts she acquires for children. Daly said she manages to get kids passes to movies, concerts, athletic events, skating rinks and many other activities. She gets donated food for parties. She ensures every Boys Town resident has gifts at Christmas and graduation. “It’s a lot bigger than just The Clothesline,” he said.
Service to others is a lifelong habit. Whether advising politicos such as Kay Orr and Hal Daub, or helping run their campaigns for public office or volunteering with the American Red Cross, the Arthritis Foundation, the March of Dimes, Hadassah, the Special Olympics and the United Way or serving as a member of the credit committee of the Boys Town Federal Credit Union or as president of the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society, she gives her time in many ways.
Then there are the two years she devoted to caring for her son Steve after he was left a paraplegic as the result of an auto accident. He now lives independently. She became a vocal advocate for the rights and abilities of the handicapped. She was also careprovider for her husband after he contracted cancer.
Her good works have been recognized. Under her watch the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society won the Federation’s Achievement Award. She was nominated for the National Council of Jewish Women’s Humanitarian Award for “her great compassion for the needs of others.”
Nothing slows her down, either. A bad back that laid her up last year only kept her away from the store a few months, during which time she did all her business from home. The flow of merchandise never stopped. But she knows she can’t do it forever. That’s why she’d like to work out a plan for a successor — ideally someone like herself who, as Melingagio put it, “goes the extra mile.”
“I worry what’s going to happen to this place when I no longer can do it,” she said. “My hope is that there is somebody who has pretty much the idea that I have. That they’re caring and want so much for the kids that they know how to express that caring. Because that’s the bottomline. That’s what it’s all about.”
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A Hospice House Story: How Phil Hummel’s End of Life Journey in Hospice Gave His Family Peace of Mind and Granted Him a Gentle, Dignified Death
When Omaha Magazine inquired if I would be interested in tackling a story that followed a family’s experience with hospice I immediately jumped on it because both my parents received hospice care in their final days. The Hospice House in Omaha offered their cooperation and identified the family who I profile in the story that follows, the Hummels. The plan was for me to spend an extensive amount of time with the patient, Phil Hummel, and his family and I did at first and then, as things often unfold in such situations, circumstances changed and I was unable to get the same access I had before. But I did get to know Phil, his wife Jo Ann, and their son Al fairly well before Phil passed and then I got to visit with Jo Ann and Al the day of their loss. My piece is the cover story in the November/December issue of the magazine, which is distributed at select sites all over the metro. You can subscribe to the publication. To see the story as it appears in its 12-page spread visit omahapublications.com or http://www.readonlinenow.com.
Phil Hummel near the close of his coaching-teaching career
A Hospice House Story: How Phil Hummel’s End of Life Journey in Hospice Gave His Family Peace of Mind and Granted Him a Gentle, Dignified Death
©by Leo Adam Biga
Published in Omaha Magazine
Even though the end of life comfort care known as hospice is better understood today than decades ago, misconceptions linger. Some mistake it as denying care. Others assume it’s only for special cases. The myths and misapprehensions make sense given how death and dying tend to be topics avoided rather then engaged in America. No two end of life scenarios unfold alike. But charting a real life journey through hospice can remove some of the fear and unknown that follow a terminal prognosis, which is why the Hummel family agreed to share their experience at Hospice House, the Josie Harper Residence. Executive director Gary George welcomed this reporter in to give readers a glimpse at a patient-family-caregiver story. The center, at 7415 Cedar Street. just east of the Bergan Mercy Medical Center, is a collaborative between Alegent Health, Methodist Hospital, the Visiting Nurse Association and the Nebraska Medical Center.
A Rich Life
Family patriarch Phil Hummel of Woodbine, Iowawas a resident there 10 weeks last summer. Hospice provided a dignified end of life path and offered loved ones peace of mind his every need was met. Hummel, 78, died gently in Room 2 on September. 1. That last day, like each of the 69 preceding it, Phil’s wife JoAnn and son Alan were present. They were with him when he drew his last breath. In the weeks leading up to his death, his daughter Gail was on hand along with other family members and figures from his career as a high school educator and coach.
Married 56 years, JoAnn and Phil met at Tarkio (Mo.) College. She attended on an academic scholarship. He, on an athletic scholarship. Phil, a Riverton, Iowa native, excelled in sports at Sidney High School, where’s he’s a Hall of Fame member. His football-track exploits also earned him a spot in the Tarkio College Athletic Hall of Fame. After the couple married Phil was drafted in the U.S. Army and JoAnn followed him, first to New Jersey, then to Japan.
JoAnn and Phil in Japan
Back home, his military hitch over, the couple started their family and taught together at Woodbine High School. Her speciality was business ed. He taught U.S. government and American history. Summers he ran a house painting crew that did work all over western Iowa and the Omaha metro area. He was by all accounts as demanding a boss as he was a coach. During a highly decorated coaching career he led teams in many different sports but mostly made his mark as a cross country and track coach. He won several coach of the years honors and was a longtime Drake Relays official. The Iowa Association of Track Coaches Hall of Fame inductee twice led USA Track and Field youth teams to China. “Sports were a big part of our life, that’s for sure,” said JoAnn. “He was really busy coaching, and then on the side he was an official, and he refereed. He was gone a lot. And then when he wasn’t doing that he was hunting and fishing. It was a good thing I loved sports because that was Phil’s life. I was at all the games.”
Her husband, who made his runners take the steep cemetery hills on the west edge of town, was a living legend. “Phil was known all over the state of Iowa,” she said. A measure of the impact he had on young people is the seven pages worth of condolence memories on the Fouts Funeral Home web page after his death. Like any good coach, Hummel was a surrogate father to his athletes. One young man he drew especially close to was Guy Mefferd, who with Phil’s guidance turned his life around and went on to serve as a U.S. Navy SEAL. Jan Sauvain, a family friend Phil coached in basketball, said he could be a strict disciplinarian “but never vindictive or to humiliate you or to demean you, just to give you a little insight into what you did wrong, and he cared about the kids after they graduated.” She said Hummel, unsolicited, recommended her to an AAU basketball coach in Omaha and wrote a glowing reference letter for her brother. “He did care, absolutely,” said JoAnn, who typed her hubby’s correspondence in her unofficial role as “Phil Hummel’s administrative assistant.” She said, “He was always interested to see what happened to students down the line. That’s why so many people came to see him in the Hospice House. Sometimes we had five to ten a day. They came from all over.”
Comfort and Care
When word got out Phil was dying, scores of athletes he coached, along with fellow coaches, even old teammates, came to see him. Each shared a piece of Phil’s end of life journey with him. As did Hospice House staff and volunteers. With its many windows looking out on nature and the great room’s soaring cedar ceiling, there’s a bright, uplifting feel to Hospice House. Also an intimacy and communal aspect quite unlike a hospital. Community meals are convened. Families and volunteers share treats. Musicians come to perform music. Children and therapy pets visit. The emphasis, said Ann Cole, a staff registered nurse, is comfort. “
Death is really the final stage of growth and dying is a natural part of life and if we have enough time to work with people we can help them and make this really a positive time,” she said. “We can help them to accept what’s going on. First of all, we’re able to control the adverse symptoms that go along with the dying process — things like pain, nausea, vomiting, anxiety, constipation, agitation. Those are all things we often see in varying stages as the dying process progresses. “If we can control those symptoms and the patient knows you’re going to be with them, you’re going to support them, and you have enough time to develop this relationship, then there’s always something we can offer to comfort them. We can control these symptoms, make them the least they can be, so they can live a really comfortable life until death comes naturally. This is our area of expertise.”
Because Phil was alert and active almost his entire stay, he savored many moments with those dear to him and developed rapport with caregivers. He felt well enough most days to relax in the courtyard. He even went on regular outings to favorite haunts, such as the Horseshoe Casino and Olive Garden restaurant. He told stories and shared memories but mostly he listened, laughed and cajoled, holding court on the deck or in his room.
My intro to the Hummels came via a phone call to JoAnn’s cell. She answered from Phil’s room with, “We just got back from the casino with some of Phil’s friends. Phil just ordered Jimmy Johns.’” It’s not what I expected — a dying man living it up, so to speak. I came to see it as his serene surrender to fate — making the most of what time he had and appreciating everybody and everything around him. ”He wasn’t scared,” said JoAnn.
Phil loved singing the praises of Hospice House. “Oh, I mean, they are so good it’s unbelievable,” he told me, his voice a heavy rasp from the radiation that seared his mouth and throat tissues. “That doesn’t mean we get everything we want. It’s just — they have a care and a love, and people come in and it doesn’t take long for people to understand that. I don’t know where you can move to a better place. There might be one, but I don’t know of any.”
For those, like Phil, given the opportunity to appreciate the life left to them, hospice is not the dour, bitter end but the last bright stage of things.
“People think of hospice as a death sentence so often and it’s really about quality of life,” said Cole. “Hospice is working with the patient and family — supporting, teaching, making that quality of life a real possibility, and I think that’s what we did for Phil. If you can help families know what to expect, what will be done, and follow through on those things, they really learn to trust and the trusting relationship is very important.”
JoAnn and Alan praise the staff for easing the path. “They were wonderful there. It’s just a fantastic place,” she said. When she and her son left to go home at night, she said, they could be assured Phil was in good hands. Said JoAnn, “We knew if he needed any little thing they’d be running right over here because the nurse’s station is just around the corner.”
Alan admits he wasn’t sold on Hospice House before placing his father there. After moving him in though he became a convert. “Looking back now it could have been a cave as long as those people were there. The people that work there make that place what it is. Ninety-nine point nine percent go far beyond the call of duty.” JoAnn, a native Missourian with a show-me attitude, noted the sincere empathy. “When they had kind words to say I never felt they were just making it up to make me feel good. I think they really felt that way. That’s why they’re there.” A little warmth goes a long way. Besides, said Ann Carol, “Who wants a cold nurse?”
It wasn’t just healthcare providers who impressed JoAnn either. “The volunteers are fantastic. Like the Cookie Lady. Her husband was a resident there and she wanted to do something for the Hospice House, so she decided she’d bake cookies. Every Thursday she brings them in. It smells so good. Even the cleaning ladies are fantastic. Nice, pleasant, do a beautiful job.”
Gary George, who’s headed the center since its 1998 opening, said everyone who works there embodies “a sense of passion,” adding, “We want to be doing this kind of work.” He describes it as “a calling to be working with people at end of life that then links to an honoring of life and a recognition that end of life is part of life, not something to be feared, not something to be run from. It’s recognizing all the rich…things that can come out of end of life when people are being walked through that journey.”
“Compassion,” is the common denominator said certified nursing assistant Joanne Waltsky, who, like Ann Cole, got close to Phil. “These people are like our family. We get some of the crabbiest people in the world and they always end up loving us — I mean, always. It’s awesome, it just makes us feel good.” The Hummels shared how Waltsky’s habit of singing while making her rounds rubbed Phil the wrong way, at first, before he melted under her buoyant charms.
“The first night I came in here it was a helluva night,” Phil said. “Six o’clock the next morning, somebody came in here singing. Who the hell can be that happy in the morning? I told my wife,’ I don’t think I can put up with that.’ By noon she had me won over. You want to know why? This gal had everything we needed whenever we needed it, before we knew we needed it. That’s not a joke. “And she’s still going, and the others are just like her, just happy as clams, which made us happy of course. I can’t say any more about this place than if I tried, and I’m trying, because they’re good.”
Phil and JoAnn in later years
Because Phil was there so long and his wife and son there so much, the bonds between caregivers, patient and family had time to to ripen. “Everybody was really attached to him and they were really fond of him,” Alan said. “They want to keep from getting attached but your dad won them over,” JoAnn told Alan. “They won him over,” Alan replied.
Attitude is Everything
Waltsky said in contrast to some patients who sink into despair and wallow there despite her and her workmates’ best efforts, Phil embraced his remaining life. “We try to bring people up but they don’t always want to,” she said, “but Phil every morning got the day planned and told us what he was doing. He touched everybody there. He was so independent. He was everybody’s friend. He had so many visitors. When his coaching friends and past students would come in he’d always introduce me like I was family. I just loved him.”
She said the entire Hummel family made an impression. She was struck by how JoAnn and Alan befriended a woman without any family in the room next to Phil’s, checking in on her, bringing her goodies. “They’re just loving people, you know, and everybody loved that. They were just joy.” JoAnn Hummel returns the compliment by saying she never conceived hospice would be such “a positive thing. I’m so glad we went there. That was the only place for that kind of care. It was either that or go back to Woodbine to a nursing home, and Phil didn’t want to do that. This was just perfect.” She’s certain Hospice House helped extend his life. When he arrived in June, he was given less than a week to live. Ten weeks later, he was still there.
A Life Interrupted
His cancer jolted the couple. They were busy enjoying their hard-earned retirement, traveling to Las Vegas, wintering at a Florida condo, spending time with family and friends. The Council Bluffs casinos were favorite getaways. Phil loved the outdoors. Then, in April, he discovered a large lump on his throat while shaving. After going in for tests at Methodist Hospital, the bleak diagnosis of cancer unsettled his and JoAnn’s world. “The worst you can have,” is how a physician put it. Inoperable. An aggressive regimen of chemo and radiation in Omaha followed. “I truly think the doctors knew it was an impossible slide but worth a shot and I thought it was worth a shot, because the alternative would not be any good if you just left it alone,” said Phil. “I had all the faith in the world the treatments were going to fix it,” said JoAnn.
Only Phil didn’t get better. The tumor didn’t respond as hoped. “I just saw him get sicker and sicker and more miserable,” said JoAnn. Making one-hour drives each way for debilitating treatments took their toll. “We would drive back and forth every day,” she said. “On the weekends he would just go in the bedroom and stay in there in the dark. He couldn’t eat. It was terrible. His neck was getting worse and worse, just burned.” “I couldn’t get anything down,” Phil said. On Mondays it began all over again. “It was a hard time,” said JoAnn. Spring turned into summer when the oncologist reported what the couple already suspected — the tumor wasn’t shrinking. “That was a bad day for me when he said we are going to stop all treatment,” said JoAnn. “I know when it was exactly — the 22nd of June. We came in here (Hospice House) the 24th.”
Phil was precariously near death. “When we came in here the doctor said maybe five days,” JoAnn recalled, “Phil hadn’t had anything to eat or drink for two weeks, only kept alive with hydration. He couldn’t raise his head off his chest.” “I couldn’t move. I was bad,” Phil said to me.
Phil Accepts Impending Death but Continues Embracing Life in Hospice
But then a remarkable thing happened. “When the swelling began to go down from the radiation treatments he began to be able to sip a couple sips of water and eat a little apple sauce,” said JoAnn. “It wasn’t long before he was eating more things.” Alan plied his father with food but Phil could never hold it down. Yet the better Phil felt, the hungrier he got for his favorites, including hamburgers. It’s all he talked about. Alan was reluctant to give him one, until he finally threw caution to the wind. “It took us awhile to figure out it doesn’t matter — give him whatever he wants. I went to Five Guys Burgers and Fries and brought it back. He didn’t eat very much of it but it was the first time in at least a week he was able to hold down food,” recounted Alan. “You would have thought it was the first hamburger, the best hamburger, some kind of divine hamburger. Seriously, the look on his face…That hamburger is when he turned the corner from being where we thought there was no way to maybe there’s some hope he’ll hang in there a little while, and it was.”
Phil gradually regained strength. Not long after his rebound began, tells JoAnn, the doctor that gave Phil precious little time to live stopped by Phil’s room. “He sat down and pulled his chair right up to Phil’s face.” “Nose to nose,” is how Phil put it. “And,” JoAnne continued, “that doctor said, ‘I can’t believe what I’m seeing.’ That he’d come around. And you have to give a lot of credit to this place because it’s a wonderful place.” Phil agreed, saying, “You know, I feel so far from where I was when I came in, but I accepted it (his fate). Maybe it’ll give me some more days down the road, I don’t know.” “It’s a miracle you’re even here,” Alan told him then. Five days turned into 10, 10 into 20…
Certainly no one expected Phil to venture out, albeit confined to a wheelchair, to eateries and attractions, but that’s what he did and if residents get there early enough it’s how hospice ideally transpires.
“The fact he was so positive about going out on his little excursions, and I’m sure he probably didn’t always feel the best, is what hospice is about. It’s to go out and do the things you love to do. You’re not confined to bed in this place. We encourage people to do what they can do. We’ve had people go home and stay overnight a couple days and come back,” said Cole.
The turnaround Phil experienced, said George, “is neither usual nor unusual, it happens sometimes, and for who knows how many reasons.” He added, “Sometimes people do seem to have some spark, some different amount of energy when they get here, and for some people it may be due to more stimulation and activity, for other people it might be a sense of relief — some sort of freeing up and letting go of responsibilities, letting loose of some things.
“Lots of people bring treasures here that mean things to them. For many people that’s photos. For one guy it was a full life-size cutout of John Wayne. For one of our earliest residents, John, it was a little bookshelf filled with these thick novels and I said, ‘Oh, John, you must have brought along your favorite books,’ and he said, ‘Oh, those aren’t my favorites, those are just ones I have left to read.’ I don’t know how many he got to read while he was here but that’s what he planned to do. I thought that was amazing. “People come with a bit of a sense of adventure sometimes. I always admire that attitude of here’s something new and different — kind of leaning into it.”
That same leaning into one’s dying days is what Phil Hummel exemplified. A small bulletin board in his room displayed photos of things and people he cherished: family, friends, track. An American flag emblem. And a hand printed Bible verse from his granddaughter Jessica about the virtues of love. He literally lived for visits by friends and loved ones, former schoolboy tracksters, hunting-fishing cronies, and for those casino-restaurant forays. Not everyone can be so active. For most, their illness is too advanced to allow for much mobility or independence, whereas Phil prided himself on going to the bathroom alone.
“Our residents tend to come to us later in their disease process then they used to, so on the continuum Phil was a little bit more on the active end of things when he came,” said George. “Most of our residents are no longer at a point where they’re any longer coming and going so freely and wanting to do that even. But he also was a person who came, it seems to me, with that drive — this is what I want to do, this is how I want to do this. He kind of made that happen along with his family.”
An Unforgettable Character
Phil himself theorized his “cantankerous” spirit may have spurred his comeback. Action follows attitude, even when dying. Phil Hummel’s gregarious, generous attitude set the tone for his end of life experience and everyone around him. “You know, he was one of those patients none of us will ever forget,” said Cole. “He was just a delight, really a people lover. I picked that up. He really, really cared about people. He talked about his coaching days. It was so obvious he cared about everybody. And even the last couple of days, he was not a complainer. “You had to really take a lot of nonverbal cues as to what’s going on, which is something we do all the time. He always thought about other people, never about himself. ‘How was your weekend?’ he’d say.”
Alan Hummel remarked, “I don’t know how he did it. I thought he was in a bad mood for maybe only one day — and that was the first day.”
The Beginning of the End
After thriving for so long, the end came rather abruptly. On Friday, August 26 Phil was, if not a picture of health, a still vital man. He was keen for the college football season to start so he could root on his beloved Iowa Hawkeyes. Still stinging from a “disasterous” day at the casino, he anticipated better-luck-next-time. He played amiable host to two journalists in his room. Small talk came easy to him as he relaxed in the tranquil courtyard. The last image of him was a tired but content man ready to meet whatever life next presented him, even death.
When I called JoAnn Wednesday, August 31about stopping by she informed me in a taught, severe voice, “Phil’s taken a turn for the worse.” The morning after I saw him he’d suffered a bathroom fall, not breaking any bones, but hitting his head and scuffing his arms and legs. He didn’t lose consciousness. JoAnn and Alan were there. Alan was the first one in to help his father. The nurses were soon on the scene to attend to his scrapes and bruises and make him as comfortable as possible in his recliner. The fall precipitated a rather rapid decline.
“Thats what started it. From then on it was down hill all the way,” said JoAnn. “He whacked his head pretty good. I think he might have been a little concussed,” said Alan. “I don’t know he was in a lot of pain, he didn’t talk about pain,” said JoAnn. “He would have never told anybody if he was,” said Alan. “Had to be strong,” added JoAnn.
Acting on cues, the nurses gave him morphine. “We left him in his chair and he slept the whole day, and then that made him sore,” said JoAnn. “He didn’t eat anything. That was Saturday.” “He slept all day Sunday,” said Alan.”He was conscious but he just didn’t want anything to eat, and he really didn’t want to talk,” said JoAnn. Another sign Phil’s body was shutting down and he was slipping away was when he stopped showing interest in the therapy dogs he used to enjoy. Through the weekend and into Monday and Tuesday he was more and more in a somnambulant state. “He’d wake up, talk a little bit, say a few words, and go right back to sleep,” said JoAnn. “He started babbling, too, like talking to someone who wasn’t there, reaching for stuff,” said Alan. “It was the beginning of the end I’m afraid,” said JoAnn.
Into Wednesday though Phil clung on to what he could. “When they tried to put him into bed he absolutely refused,” said Alan. “They had to sedate him to get him out of his recliner into the bed. Mom said he didn’t want to go to the bed because he knew once he did that was it — he wouldn’t come out…” The robust Phil they knew soon disappeared. “That’s the last we heard from him. When his eyes would open it looked like no one was home…they were all glassy,” said Alan. “Usually when I said something he would look toward me,” said JoAnn. No more. “That was extremely hard to watch, extremely,” said Alan.
The Gift of Time
For the family, there was the consolation of two extra months. A true gift. “How many times did I say that today?” Alan said to his mother the day Phil died. Even though they knew it was coming, losing a loved one still hurts. “At the risk of being cliche, and Mom said it this morning, too — you say you’re prepared, you think you’re prepared, and there is no preparing. You just can’t be prepared,” Alan said. “I figured we would have been at this point a long time ago. We knew the outcome was going to be bad, but he had a good couple of months, seriously.”
Sitting at the dining room table in Alan’s home only hours after Phil passed, son and mother recounted the blessing the Hospice House turned out to be. “All those people who came to see him. Dozens and dozens and dozens of people,” JoAnn said. “I should have kept track of the names.” “It’s been really good,” said Alan. “I think he actually had fun.” “He did,” JoAnn confirmed. “It sounds horrible, but it’s true, I think he had a good time,” added Alan. “When all the track people came from eastern Iowa, they stayed five hours. They sat out on the patio and Phil ordered Jimmy Johns. They all had lunch out there. He had a great time. It made him forget what the situation was,” said JoAnn.
If we have the choice, maybe we should all go the way Phil did. “Absolutely,” said Alan. “Millions of people never get that opportunity.” JoAnn said while “it hasn’t been easy” what helped make it more tolerable was the gradual transition Phil made “from one stage to the next stage,” the “wonderful” care he received and his own serene attitude. “Phil was just resigned, too. He didn’t fight it. If this is the way it’s going to be, it’s the way it’s going to be.”
Hospice House became such a routine in the family’s life that being separated from it feels like a loss, too. “I’m going to miss it, I hate to say that. It’s going to be funny not to go there,” said Alan. “We were there a lot of days,” JoAnn said. “It was weird to leave there after cleaning out the room and it was empty. No one there. None of my favorite girls around,” said Alan.
Lasting Impressions and a Request Fulfilled
What workers were present the day Phil died were moved by Phil’s passing. “A lot of tears were shed that day by the staff,” JoAnn said. He seemingly touched everyone there.
“Phil was a leader and teacher all the way to the end of his life,” said Gary George. “I will remember Phil and his family taking every opportunity to continue to come and go from Hospice House to enjoy life to its fullest. On many occasions I saw them heading out the front door for some adventure together.” The same front doors Phil and family came in and out of are the doors Phil exited for the final time after his death. “We do not want to ‘usher death out a side door,’ or make it seem that death is too awful to look at ” George said. “This I believe is an important feature of Hospice House.”
For Ann Cole and Joanne Waltsky, Room 2 will always be Phil’s. Said Cole, “You couldn’t help but love the guy. He was totally about seeking the positive things in people and affirming that and making them better. You would walk away from his room and just feel so good and hope that you had given him half of what he gave you. He was, oh, so gracious.”
George said when a resident dies “families and friends are given the time, space support they need and my co-workers stand by ready to offer whatever they can,” adding, “This may involve tears, hugs, tissues, offers of a beverage, another chair, a shoulder to cry on…silence, storytelling, or tears mixed with laughter.”
The giving goes both ways. JoAnn and Alan brought flowers from Phil’s funeral to Hospice House, where, per tradition, a candle burned in his memory. JoAnn will be back — she has walnuts and gooseberries for the Cookie Lady. The family asked that memorial donations be made to Hospice House and many were made. Typical of the man, Phil Hummel wasn’t interested in how he would be portrayed. But he did request we emphasize the quality caregiving and warm sense of community at Hospice House. “I want you to give as much attention as you can to this facility,” he said.
- A Journey’s End Becomes Mainstream Medicine (kitsapsun.com)
- What Is Hospice? (mademan.com)
- A Special Space (psychologytoday.com)
- Book Spotlight: Death with Dignity by Robert Orfali (bookmarketingbuzz.com)
‘Lovely, Still,’ that Rare Film Depicting Seniors in All Their Humanity, Earns Writer-Director Nik Fackler an Independent Spirit Award Nomination for Best First Screenplay
I am reposting this article I wrote about Lovely, Still, the sweet and searing debut feature film by Nik Fackler, because he has been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay. The film stars Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn in roles that allow them to showcase their full range humanity, a rare thing for senior actors in movies these days. If the movie is playing near you, take a chance on this low budget indie that actually has the look of a big budget pic. If you didn’t have a chance to see it in a theater, you can look for it on DVD. As deserving as the film is for Oscar consideration, particularly the performances by Landau and Burstyn, it’s unlikely to break through due to its limited release. The following article I wrote for the New Horizons comes close to giving away the film’s hook, but even if you should hazard to guess it the film will still work for you and may in fact work on a deeper level. That was my experience after knowing the hook and still being swept away by the story. It happened both times I’ve seen it. My other Lovely, Still and Nik Fackler stories can be found on this blog.
NOTE: The Independent Spirit Awards show is broadcast February 26 on cable’s Independent Film Channel (IFC). That is the night before the Oscars, which is fitting because the Spirit Awards and IFC are a definite alternative to the high gloss, big budget Hollywood apparatus. I will be watching and rooting for Nik.
‘Lovely, Still,’ that Rare Film Depicting Seniors in All Their Humanity, Earns Writer-Director Nik Fackler an Independent Spirit Award Nomination for Best First Screenplay
©by Leo Adam Biga
Published in the New Horizons
Hollywood legends seldom come to Omaha. It’s even rarer when they arrive to work on a film. Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney did for the 1938 MGM classic Boys Town. Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates crashed for Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt in 2001.
More recently, Oscar-winning actors Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn spent two months here, during late 2007, as the leads in the indie movie Lovely, Still, the debut feature of hometown boy Nik Fackler.
True, George Clooney shot some scenes for Up in the Air in town, but his stay here was so brief and the Omaha footage so minimal that it doesn’t really count.
Lovely, Still on the other hand was, like Boys and Schmidt before it, a prolonged and deep immersion experience for the actors and the crew in this community. Landau and Burstyn grew close to Fackler, who’s young enough to be their grandson, and they remain close to him three years later.
Since the production practically unfolded in Fackler’s backyard, the actors got to meet his family and friends, some of whom were on the set, and to visit his haunts, including the Millard eatery his family owns and operates, Shirley’s Diner. It’s where, until recently, Nick worked. It’s also where he carefully studied patrons, including an older man who became the model for Lovely protagonist Robert Malone (Landau).
Then there’s the fact the film drips Omaha with scenes in the Old Market, Gene Leahy Mall, Memorial Park and Country Club neighborhood. Omaha’s never looked this good on the big screen before.
After select showings in 2008 and 2009, including a one-week run in Omaha last year, Lovely is finally getting a general release this fall in dozens of theaters from coast to coast. It opened September 24 at the Midtown Cinema and Village Pointe Cinema in Omaha and other cities across the U.S..
For Fackler, 26, it’s the culmination of a long road that goes back to when he first wrote the script, at 17. Over time, the script evolved and once Landau and Burstyn came on board and provided their input, it changed some more. Finally seeing his “baby” reach this point means much to Fackler.
“I’ve been very emotional,” he said. “I didn’t think I was going to be emotional but I have been. It’s been nine years of persistence and positivity and not giving up. It’s always been this thing in my life, Lovely, Still, that’s never gone away, and now I’m going to let it go away, and it feels good because I’m ready to let it go…
“I wanted it to come out a couple years ago, and it was delayed. Now it’s finally coming out and I feel sort of a distance from it, but at the same time it’s good I feel that because there’s nothing a bad review can say that won’t make me proud of the accomplishment. It just feels good to know that it’s out there.”
Martin Landau and Nik Fackler
The film, which has received mixed critical notices, does well with audiences.
“People that pick up on the emotions and the feelings in the film seem to really be attached to it and love it,” Fackler said. “It’s either people really get it and get something emotional from it or people don’t get it.”
The PG movie’s slated to continue opening at different theaters throughout October before going to DVD November 9.
Lovely had its requisite one-week screenings in Los Angeles and New York to qualify for Academy Awards consideration. While many feel Landau and Burstyn deliver Oscar-caliber performances, the odds are stacked against them because of the film’s limited release and non-existent budget for waging an awards campaign.
Rare for features these days, the film focuses on two characters in their late 70s-early 80s. Rare for films of any era it stars two actors who are actually the advanced ages of the roles they essay. The film also approaches a sensitive topic in a way that perhaps has never been seen before.
Now for a spoiler alert. The film hinges on a plot twist that, once revealed, casts a different meaning on events. If you don’t want to know the back story, then stop reading here. If you don’t care, then continue.
Without getting specific, this story of two older people falling in love is about a family coping with Alzheimer’s Disease. Unlike perhaps a Lifetime or Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, Lovely never mentions the disease by name. Instead, its effects are presented through the prism of a fairy tale, complete with exhilarating and terrifying moments, before a dose of stark reality, and an ending that’s pure wistful nostalgia.
What makes the film stand out from most others with a senior storyline is that
Landau and Burstyn create multidimensional rather than one-note characters. The script requires they play a wide range of emotional and psychological colors and these two consummate actors are up to fully realizing these complex behaviors.
A Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner for Ed Wood, Landau returned to Omaha last year to promote Lovely. He said he was drawn to the material by its depth and nuance and by the opportunity to play an authentic character his own age.
“I get a lot of scripts where the old guy is the crusty curmudgeon who sits at the table and grunts a lot, and that’s that, because we kind of dismiss (old) age. So, the chance of exploring this many sides of a man, and the love story aspect of the older couple, presented an interesting arc.”
The actor marvels at how someone as young as Fackler could tap so truthfully the fears and desires of characters much older than himself. During an interview at North Sea Films, the Omaha production company of co-producer Dana Altman, Landau spoke about the pic, playing opposite his friend Ellen Burstyn, and working with wunderkind writer-director Fackler, whom he affectionately calls “the kid.”
Ellen Burstyn and Martin Landau from Lovely, Still
Before there was even a chance of landing an actor of Landau’s stature producers had to get the script in his hands through the golden pipeline of movers and shakers who make feature film projects possible. Fackler’s script long ago earned him a William Morris agent — the gold standard for artists/entertainers.
Landau explained, “Nick sent it to William Morris, who has an independent feature division, who sent to my agent, who sent it to me. I liked it a lot, but I felt there were bumps in it at the time. Some scenes that shouldn’t be in the first act, some scenes that needed to be in the first act. What the second act was I had no idea.” Enough substance was there that Landau expressed interest. It was only then he learned the unlikely author was a not-long-out-of-high school 20-something whose directing experience consisted of low budget shorts and music videos.
“I said, “I want to meet with the writer, figuring somebody maybe close to my age. I said, ‘How old is he?, and they said 22 (at the time). A few minutes later my eyes were still crossed and I said, ‘Wow. I mean, how does a 22 year-old write an older couple love story with this texture?’”
The venerable, much honored actor took a lunch meeting with the Generation Y upstart at an L.A. cafe. Each was a bit wary whether he could work with the other. Landau recalled that initial meeting, which he used to gauge how open Fackler was to accepting notes to inform rewrites:
“I basically said, ‘This is a terrific script, but it’s bumpy. If you’re willing to do this with me, I’ll do the movie,’ and Nick said, ‘OK.’Well, he did a rewrite on the basis of what we talked about, For two months we talked on the phone, several times a week, five or six pages at a time” to smooth out those bumps.
Landau and Fackler devised a wish list of actresses to play Mary. Burstyn, the Best Actress Oscar-winner for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, was their first choice. On Landau’s advice Fackler waited until the rewrite was complete before sending the script to her. When she received it, she fell in love with the property, too.
Even as much as he and Burstyn loved the storyl, signing on with such an inexperienced director was a risk “It was a leap of faith working with a kid,” said Landau, “but he’s talented and adventurous and imaginative and willing to listen. He reminds me of Tim Burton. Less dark, maybe a little more buoyant.”
In the end, the material won over the veterans.
“Actors like me and Ellen are looking for scripts that have some literary value. Good dialogue today is rare. Dialogue is what a character is willing to reveal to another character. The 90 percent he isn’t is what I do for a living. It’s harder and harder to get a character-driven movie made by a studio or independents and it’s harder to get theaters to take them, so many go directly to DVD, if they’re lucky. Others fall through the cracks and are never seen, and that’s going to happen more.”
The suits calling the shots in Hollywood don’t impress Landau.
“Half the guys running the studios, some of them my ex-agents, haven’t read anything longer than a deal memorandum. And they’re deciding what literary piece should be made as a film?”
He likes that this movie is aimed for his own underserved demographic.
“A lot of older people are starved for movies,” he said. “They’re not interested in fireballs or car chases or guys climbing up the sides of buildings.”
He attended a Las Vegas screening of the pic before a huge AARP member crowd and, he said, spectators “were enwrapped with this movie. It talked to them. I mean, they not just liked it, it’s made for them. There’s a huge audience out there for it.”
Instead of an age gap they couldn’t overcome, Landau and Fackler discovered they were kindred spirits. Before he got into acting, Landau studied music and art, and worked as an editorial cartoonist. He draws and paints, as well as writes, to this day. Besides writing and directing films, Fackler is a musician and a visual artist.
“I feel that Martin and I are very similar and we get along really well,” said Fackler, who added the two of them still talk frequently. He described their relationship as a mutually “inspired” one in which each feeds the other creatively and spiritually. Fackler also feels a kinship with Burstyn. He said he gets away to a cabin she has in order to write.
“One of the main things Martin repeated to me over and over again was, ‘This is your movie.’ He made sure that rang in my ears,” said Fackler, “just to make sure I stayed strong when I came up against fights and arguments with people that wanted the film to be something I didn’t want it to be, and much love to him for doing that. Those words continue to ring in my ear in his voice to this day, and I’m sure for the rest of my career.”
Landau and Burstyn brought their considerable experience to bear helping the first-time feature director figure out the ropes, but ultimately deferred to him.
“All good films are collaborations,” said Landau. “A good director, and I’ve worked with a lot of them (Hitchcock, Mankiewicz, Coppola, Allen), doesn’t direct, he creates a playground in which you play. Ninety percent of directing is casting the right people. If you cast the right people what happens in that playground is stuff you couldn’t conceive of beforehand.”
“It was collaborative,” said Fackler. “We were a team, it was artists working together the same way a group of musicians make a band. We became friends and then after we became friends we respected each other’s opinions.”
As for working with Burstyn, Landau said, “it’s a joy. She’s a terrific actress.” He compared doing a scene with her to having a good tennis partner. “If you’re playing pretty well and you’ve got a good partner you play better. You don’t know exactly where they’re going to place the ball, and it’s that element when Ellen and I work together we have. It’s never exactly the same. She’ll throw the ball and I’ll get to the ball, toss it back to her, so that it’s alive. I won’t call them accidents but they are sin a way, which is what living is, and that element of unpredictability and ultimately inevitability, is what good acting is about. That stuff is what I care about.”
Not every review of the film has been positive. Some critics seem uneasy with or dismissive of its emotionalism, complaining it’s too cloying or precious. That emotional journey of a man who believes he’s falling in love for the first time, only to find out the bitter truth of what he’s lost, is what appealed to Landau.
“The interesting thing about this movie is that if you took away the last act you could cast 15 year-olds in it and not change a lot,” said Landau. “Nick (first) wrote it when he was 17. It’s basically a teenage romance. There’s something simplistic and sweet about these two people who want to be together. Robert’s naive, he’s a kid on his first date. That’s why Nik was able to write it — because he was going through stuff, his first love. The primal feelings people have at 15 or 50 or 80 are pretty much the same.”
Landau is proud to be associated with the film for many reasons, among them its effective portrayal of memory loss.
“I absolutely believe in this film. When I did Ed Wood I felt that way. But this one because I know so many people who’ve had memory problems or are having memory problems. My brother-in-law had Alzheimer’s. A lot of close peers of mine. The Alzheimer’s Association is very behind this movie because it rings true…”
- Movie Review | ‘Lovely, Still’: A Late-Life Relationship (movies.nytimes.com)
- Filmmakers to Watch (gointothestory.com)
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- Yolonda Ross is a Talent to Watch (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Lucile’s Old Market, Mother Hubbard Magnificent Obsession: From One Eccentric to Another – Mary Thompson on her Late Mother Lucile Schaaf
For better or worse, the following story for the New Horizons is a reflection of what I do as a writer when allowed the opportunity to tell a story at length. I don’t claim that there’s anything special about my work, but if it is distinguished by anything, it is my interest in tapping into stories of passion and magnificent obsession, which is very much how I think of the subject of this piece – the late Lucile Schaaf. I then take that interest and try to express it to the best of my ability. I always wanted to tell this particular story, that is Lucile’s story. I never met the woman, but I heard tales about her and then I got to know one of her daughters, Mary Thompson, who is quoted extensively in the piece. I earlier profiled Mary in a story you can find on this blog entitled, Extremities. Mary’s mother, Lucile, the profile subject of the story below, was a kind of patron saint of the Old Market, the historic district in Omaha, Neb. that has been transformed from the former wholesale produce center to the cultural hub of the city. To get to the heart of a story like hers requires some space, and New Horizons editor Jeff Reinhardt is about the only one left around here that accords me the space I need to tell a story like this at the length I believe I need to communicate its layers and nuances. The Old Market was made by people like Lucile, eccentric visionaries who did their own thing and followed their own muse. There are many more Old Market stories I would like to tell. Writing this piece also only confirmed my very intentional niche as a journalist who tells the stories of people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. Like I said at the top, for better or worse it is my brand as a writer and it is what keeps me doing what I do.
My story about Lucile’s daughter, Mary Thompson, who is much quoted here, can be found on this blog. It’s entitled, “Extremities.”
Lucile looking out a window of her Old Market residence
Lucile’s Old Market, Mother Hubbard Magnificent Obsession: From One Eccentric to Another – Mary Thompson on her Late Mother, Lucile Schaaf
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
As once upon a time stories go, the late Lucile Ann Schaaf’s saga is a fractured fairy tale that like the pint-sized woman embodied herself, is made up of quirky twists and turns that leave you scratching your head or smiling.
When she passed away in 2009 at age 91, Schaaf was variously remembered as a mother, grandmother, entrepreneur, collector, preservationist, Christmas fanatic, and someone for whom the color orange was a personal brand.
After her marriage ended in divorce, Lucile, her children grown and flown the coop by then, asserted her independence and curiosity in a series of enterprising and creative adventures. Earlier in life, the former Lucile Duda exhibited an adventurous streak when, fresh out of Central High School, she left home to attend Scripps College, a women’s school in Claremont, Calif, where she studied art and architecture at a time when women pursuing higher education was a rarity.
Given the moxie it took to leave home for the west coast, it’s not surprising that years later she thought nothing of journeying all around the Midwest in search of architectural remnants from buildings and homes under the wrecking ball. Lucile developed a network of contacts in the demolition and salvage field that tipped her off to projects that might contain objects of interest. Whenever she got a lead on something, whether furniture or ornamental design elements, she set out to acquire it. Daughter Mary Thompson often accompanied Lucile on these treasure hunting jaunts.
“Mother became acquainted with a gentleman called Rock the Wrecker. I worked for him for many years driving a pickup and hauling all kinds of stuff. I would go to sites and I would help salvage and bring stuff back for Mother, and Mother and I would go on trips to demolition sites to gather materials. I carried wrecking tools behind the seat in my truck. Mom and I would take off and drive down to Kansas or over in Iowa or up to South Dakota if Rock would call to say, ‘We’ve got something, come get it,” said Thompson.
“We went to Des Moines (Iowa) one time time to get some marble clocks. It was rush hour and there were fire engines all over the place and when we finally got to the building it was on fire, but we got our stuff. Another time we drove to Coffeyville Kansas and we picked up an 18-foot chandelier, put it in the back of my El Camino and drove it back home.”
Then there was the time Lucile got it in her head that she had to have a double decker bus for sale two thousand miles away. This was in January. So, Thompson and her mother flew to High Point, N.C. and the intrepid duo drove the bus back to Omaha in the dead of winter.
“The whole trip was hilarious because we had all kinds of problems and everything else,” Thompson said of the experience as if were a big lark. “It was 20 below zero when we pulled into Omaha, wearing our snow mobile suits.”
But why a double decker bus?
“We used it for tours around the city,” said Thompson. “We’d take ladies groups, school groups. My kids were going to Jackson Elementary School at the time and anytime there was something the school needed to go to everybody from Jackson went in the double decker bus. They thought that was pretty nifty, and it was.”
Lucile’s daughter, Mary Thompson
The bus and tours were examples of Lucile and Mary, who closely resembles her mother, doing something just for the fun of it, no matter how impractical.
“That’s exactly right,” said Thompson,
Whatever Lucile thought up, her family fell right in line.
“We never questioned her or anything she did,” said Thompson. “It seemed, ‘Well, Mom did it, it must be right.’”
Thompson inherited Lucile’s sense of adventure and compulsion for collecting things. But where Mary’s collected most everything at one time or another, Lucile’s stockpiling was more focused on assembling stores of antique architectural details and Christmas decorations.
Said Thompson, “Her collecting was like anything, once you start, you can’t stop. You find a coin you’re really intrigued with and so you think, I’ll start collecting more coins like this, and pretty soon you’ve got an entire collection. If it’s a gorgeous stained glass window, well there’s another one, and so you get yourself to the point where pretty soon you’ve got a fabulous collection.”
For Lucile it meant acquiring everything from stained glass windows to bannisters to fancy doors to fireplace surrounds to built in wall units, and just about anything in between that caught her eye or captured her fancy.
“It just became more and more and more and more,” said Thompson. “People brought it to her too.”
The operating principle Lucile came to live by, said Thompson, is that “if it’s something that still has some life in it, it’s good, let’s not destroy it, let’s not put in the landfill. So she started acquiring all this stuff and saving it. It just goes back to the old adage that one person’s trash is somebody else’s treasure. That’s the fun of it “
“Work with what you have” was one of Lucile’s favorite sayings.
In this sense, said Thompson, Lucile’s emphasis on recycling things and preservation was well ahead of the curve.
Lucile’s obsessive collecting accumulated so many objects that she turned her passionate hobby into a business. Needing a place to store everything, she bought an abandoned Danish Lutheran church near downtown Omaha and converted it into an antique shop that she called Steeple Studios.
According to Thompson, “At one time Mother had the largest collection of antique architectural details between Chicago and San Francisco and people came from all over the country because they knew she had all this stuff.”
Lucile brought her business acumen and appreciation for history to the Old Market, where she became one of the pioneering merchants and denizens of that then fledgling enclave. In the late 1960s she was one of the early shop owners and one of the few residents in the former wholesale produce district that most city leaders and developers viewed as a wasteland.
Jeff Jorgensen and Joe Montello, whose Tannenbaum Christmas Shop in the Old Market occupies the same bay Lucile did business in at the southwest corner of 10th and Howard, got to know her as a benevolent landlord and neighbor. Montello had worked for her at The Place. They respected her as an Old Market original.
“She was definitely one of the first people who saw the potential of the Old Market,” said Jorgensen, adding that she recognized the area as not only a burgeoning commercial center and cultural-arts oasis but as a historic district in need of preservation. “I think what motivated her was finding new value in old things. It’s what made her such a natural to be an Old Market pioneer.”
Lucile put her money where her mouth was as owner-operator of The Place, a gift shop that expressed her eclectic tastes. She later had the Christmas Shop, a one-stop decorations and collectibles store, and The T Room sandwich shop. Lucile laid the brick walkway in front of her Howard Street bays. She was also active in the Old Market Business Association.
“I always thought she was pleased to see a Christmas shop continue here within her domain,” said Jorgensen. I think the fact that Joe worked for her and was involved here meant a lot to her too.”
She purchased adjoining buildings between the southwest corners of 10th and Howard and 10th and Jackson and converted them into her personal residence. What once housed Frank’e Cafe, the Pickwick Bar, Pioneer Uniform, a flophouse and a whorehouse, among other enterprises, became this lovable eccentric’s home. A walled-in courtyard or secret garden was created in back to offer a tranquil, private sanctuary amidst the Market’s hustle and bustle.
Schaaf was a recognizable figure in the Market or wherever she went because of her penchant for dressing entirely in orange, no matter the occasion. It’s hard to find a color photo of Lucile that doesn’t picture here in her flaming shade of choice.
There is an orange room in the Old Market residence. At one time Lucile had it entirely done over in her favorite color, complete with decorations and clothes, beautiful things, plain things, but in all instances orange things.
Antique dealer Vic Chickinelli hired her once and when he went out one day he came back to find she had painted the walls and shelving a bright orange. If Chickinelli asked her, as many did, Why orange?, her comeback would have probably been what she always said when people questioned her about it:
“Is there any other color?”
“She decided that that was the color of her life,” is how Thompson explains it.
So identified was Lucile with the color that she came to be known affectionally as the Orange Lady. At her Old Market shops she not only greeted you in full orange regalia, from head to foot, but took to wearing a clock around her waist set to ten minutes to four, or tea time, a reference to the tea party in Alice in Wonderland, a story she loved. She also loved throwing tea parties.
All in all, she fit right in with the other free spirits, artists and bohemians populating the Old Market.
“It was a good place for her,” said fellow Old Market pioneer Roger Durand, a designer and architect who opened a head shop there. “She was a real character, she was a real original, and she was a very colorful personality. Back in the early days it really took an adventuresome spirit to try and establish anything down there. It was an uphill struggle.”
For 30-some years Lucile’s 10th and Howard building was as much a warehouse for her collection of salvaged architectural remnants as it was a residence. Her dream was to incorporate these myriad details into the decor.
Working with an old-school master craftsman, Walt the Carpenter, the project made progress but then Walt took a bad fall, breaking his leg, and then her arthritis began slowing her down. However, she remained active enough to teach a water aerobics class at the YMCA.
Another daughter, the late Stephanie Schaaf, took it upon herself to fulfill Lucile’s dream. She hired a team of craftsmen to install, in some cases repurposing, hundreds of items — ranging from chandeliers to doors to stained glass windows to wrought iron gates — throughout the 7,300 square foot structure.
A kindred spirit of Lucile’s, Omaha architectural recycler Frank Horejsi, also described as an “urban miner,” said he liked what Lucile was doing with the place and he assisted Stefanie with getting the project done.
“If they had problems, I was kind of a go-to guy. It’s neat to see that old historic stuff incorporated. It’s a neat place.”
The result is a mosaic of a home of mixed and matched elements:
• Griffons from the original First National Bank Building adorn the exterior sides of Lucile’s place facing 10th Street and Jackson Street
• Crown molding from the old Cornhusker Hotel gilds the foyer
• Skylights from the Packers National Bank bathe the foyer in natural light
• Mahogany walls and stained glass cabinets from the City National Bank appoint the dining room
• Murphy bed doors from the Morris Hotel serve as ceiling panels above the dining room
• The great room, where receptions or dinner parties are held today, utilizes office doors from the City National Bank as wall panels, some with the names of the executives who toiled away behind them
• Telephone booth walls from the City National cover the ceiling
• The solid oak fireplace and leaded glass window in the sunroom hail from the Wilcox house in Council Bluffs
• Massive cabinets come from a physician’s home in Norfolk, Neb.
• French doors come from an opera house in Carroll, Iowa
And so it goes, on and on.
Roger Durand said the home is an expression of “the architectural odds and ends she found unusual uses for, and in aggregate they create sort of a world of Lucile.”
“What people sometimes don’t comprehend is that there was nothing here, it was a blank canvas, and it was my mom’s vision in putting things together and making it a whole unit that brought it to life,” Thompson said with admiration.
Almost everything in Lucile’s Old Market retreat originated elsewhere, salvaged off-site and brought there, like pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle. Only Lucile knew how they were supposed to fit together.
“She could find things and just know exactly where she was going to put the pieces in,” said granddaughter Amy Waskel, whose mother, Stefanie, became Lucile’s caregiver and legacy keeper.
Not everything Lucile collected at the Old Market place was used. There was so much inventory left over that an estate sale was held over two weekends.
The Old Market residence was not Lucile’s first salvage project. Thompson said her mother built a cabin near Merritt’s Beach using almost entirely recycled materials. There was apparently a recycle streak in the family’s DNA because Thompson said her grandparents built a farmhouse out of reclaimed materials long before that.
“The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree,” is how Thompson puts it. “Mom had the ability to visualize something not for what it was but for what it could be, and I feel I’m blessed with that also because if you look at my house you see how I intertwined everything into it.”
Mary’s Little Italy area home and another she owns next door overbrim with the surplus of her own collecting habit. Her affliction for acquiring and holding onto things was portrayed earlier this year on TLC’s “Hoarding: Buried Alive” reality television series.
There is a like-mother-like daughter pattern at play in the family. Other ways Mary takes after her mother is with a flair for entertaining and a wardrobe fixation, not with a certain color per se, but with hats. Mary’s fondness for hats grew to a collection of hundreds. So identified is Mary with her crowns of glory that she’s known as the Hat Lady. Until “Hoarding” she was perhaps best known as the Tax Lady for all the returns she filed for people as an IRS agent and AARP volunteer.
Mary doesn’t mind being known as a hoarder now that she’s taken steps to declutter her life with the help of professionals, friends and family, including a “Stuff” sale at the Bancroft Street Market in September.
For a long time, said Mary, her mother’s Old Market residence was overrun with artifacts that sat unboxed and uncovered, subject to the effects of not just dust but of the many critters, mostly cats and dogs, she kept. Mary’s also a cat lover.
“Stuff had been heaped in piles for so long,” Thompson said of her mother’s place.
Lucile was renowned for how elaborately she decorated her previous home in the Gold Coast neighborhood, but for the longest time the Old Market residence was more a storage and work space then a living space — more potential than realization, awaiting the day when Lucile’s vision for it would be complete.
“It wasn’t a pretty house like she was used to,” said Waskel. “Moving in here she just got down and dirty. That’s why finishing it was so important and that’s why it’s fun showing it off now and why it’s going to be fun decorating it for the holidays.”
Even though Lucile’s gone now, Waskel said she and other family members feel her presence watching over them, noting their every move. “She knows we’re not going to do it as well as she did. The joke within the family is that she’s going to be sitting there going, ‘You should do this.’ She was a perfectionist.”
Despite never decorating the place for Christmas, Lucile’s main floor bedroom was trussed up for the holidays once she became bed-ridden in 2004, and even then she liked calling the shots.
“We would decorate her room for her,” said Waskel. “We would put up a little Christmas tree for her and she enjoyed that because she enjoyed telling people how to do it and it never being right — well, not to her standards.”
An incongruity about Lucile was that she could be a stickler about everything being just so, yet she could live like an Old Mother Hubbard surrounded by artifacts strewn loosely everywhere. Her Gold Coast home was impressive, said Mary, yet Lucile shared the place with her cats and even a pet rooster. Things only got more unkempt in the Old Market.
Waskel said Nebraska Educational Television did a story on her grandmother as an example of “how not to save your antiques — like this is what you don’t do. We have a lot of damage to wood. Some of the stuff is just so far gone. The whole back area was just full of wood and dust and dirt. A lot of it was junk.”
She said it took countless man hours to clean up the mess.
“We had to finish everything,” said Waskel, who helped Stefanie in completing Lucile’s dream. “And we’re still working on it.”
Waskel, who as event coordinator at what is now called Lucile’s Old Market is tasked with booking events there and maintaining the cavernous space, has a new appreciation for all that her grandmother and mother did.
“I’m here everyday and there’s not nearly the work to do that my mom did or that my grandmother did and I still feel overwhelmed and go, How the hell did they do it?”
Lucile’s is still in the family, only now as a singular rental showplace that hosts weddings, dinners and all manner of private parties and receptions. Tours are available by appointment. Old Market Gallery Walks generally include a stop there. And it’s a featured spot on the December 11 Holiday Lights Tour
The woman for whom the building is named never saw the project completed as her eyesight declined severely in old age. Due to her diminished vision she became somewhat reclusive near the end of her life. For a long time though she was a public figure whose passions grew into magnificent obsessions enjoyed by thousands.
First, there was her fixation with Christmas displays. For the first half of her life she contented herself with the usual yuletide garnishes. But when she moved into the big home at 38th and Dewey Avenue it’s like a switch went on and she felt inspired to trim the multi-story edifice from top to bottom, complete with fully dressed trees, wreaths, garland, candy canes, stockings, Santas and lights.
It all started with a Christmas tea organized by Lucile.
Mary Thompson remembers how what began as a small, semi-private affair for mothers and daughters grew into a public extravaganza:
“My older sister’s class was invited and we made little cut-out white bread finger sandwiches with butter and powdered sugar over them, and Mom had us stand in a receiving line to meet everybody. It became a Christmas tradition. Every year a little more was added. Pretty soon it got so that during the month of December Mom had the house decorated from top to bottom, and every year it got bigger and better.
“We invited people from church and school. Others heard about it and came. We would all dress up. The last Christmas tea we had became an open house and we probably had about a thousand people. People came from all around.”
The Christmas House became a destination stop, complete with tours.
By the time Lucile stopped putting on the Christmas tea in the 1970s, she and her soiree and decorations had become so well known, said Thompson, that “people that wanted to get a hold of Mother would address mail to the ‘Christmas House, Omaha, Neb.‘ and it actually came to the house.”
Lucile didn’t stop at decorating her home. She also took charge of decorating the sanctuary at First Presbyterian Church and the big Xmas tree at the old Union Station (Durham Museum). Then there was the Christmas Shop. It’s why Lucile was known as the Christmas Lady.
“The whole situation became such a passion for Mom,” said Thompson. “This was her outlet.”
Whether people knew her as the Orange Lady or the Christmas Lady, Jeff Jorgensen said “she enjoyed both of those roles very much. She made an impression on lots of people she came into contact with. She really wasn’t eccentric at all but if you thought she was I think that probably made her very happy.” On reflection, Jorgensen added, “Maybe she was a little.” Or as Joe Montello once described her: “She wasn’t afraid to be unique in her own way.”
The phrase “let your freak flag fly” refers to the uninhibited Luciles of the world.
The decorum at the fancy tea parties was sometimes shattered by a silly or peculiar happening, like the time Lucile’s pet rooster, Lucky, turned party crasher.
“One time this woman was sitting on the couch with her coffee and cake and there comes Lucky out of the kitchen. It looks around and comes over and takes that cake right off the lady’s plate,” said Thompson.
Another time, a visitor got more than she bargained for on a tour.
“When my two kids and I were living at Mother’s home our rooms were up on the third floor, and since the bedrooms were all decorated we slept in the 7-by-12 walk-in closets,” said Thompson. “This one time I put the kids to bed and Mother phoned from downstairs that these people were on their way up. So I stepped into my closet, closed the door and sat on a chair waiting for the tour to come through. I’m sitting in there when this woman opens the door — and the look on her face was priceless. I just said, ‘Hello,’ and she stepped backward, closing the door behind her. I could hardly wait for them to leave so I could run downstairs and tell Mother.”
They had a good laugh over that one.
Faux pause aside, Thompson said Lucile had a lot of Martha Stewart in her.
“She was a gracious, grand hostess, and she set a beautiful table. She was a fabulous cook. My sister and I learned all these culinary skills from our mother. These are things we did automatically and we didn’t even think about it.”
Lucile never got to play grand hostess at her Old Market residence, but she approved of opening it up to parties and took vicarious pleasure in the first events held there a few years ago. And even though by the end she couldn’t see much besides light, she helped guide her daughter Stefanie and her granddaughter Amy in finishing out the place. All concerned are satisfied the interior is a close approximation of what Lucile intended.
Until opened as a rental space, the building’s street-level windows were boarded up, peaking the curiosity of passersby, who could only make out tantalizing tidbits. Some peepers climbed the gates for a glimpse inside a second floor window.
Thompson said some naturally mistook the residence for an antique shop. Only family, friends and area merchants and residents knew the truth. Now that it’s a much-in-demand rental space, the reputation and history behind it, and the story of the woman who made it possible, Lucile Schaaf, are becoming more widely known. Yet Amy Waskel said most first-time visitors remark “we had no idea this was here.”
“The whole thing just started with, ‘I’ve got these things, I’ve got this place, I’ve got this box, I’ve got all these things inside it, let’s put it together. It was thinking outside the box,” said Thompson, “and look at what she’s got, she’s got a box of fabulous things and wonderful memories. I’m hoping one day it’s a museum. I think more people could enjoy it if we could do more with it. But it’s an old building and it needs a lot of things done to it.”
Old and imperfect as it is, Jorgensen said, “it’s perfect for the Old Market. I mean, it’s adaptive reuse, it’s work-with-what-you-have, it’s an example of finding new faces for old places. That’s what she did. She found new life for a building and an area that needed a new reason to exist. Lucile had that vision for what it could be.”
The Mercer family of Omaha, headed by Samuel Mercer, led early efforts in transforming the former City Market into the Old Market. Mercer Management, which Sam’s son, Mark, heads, is still the primary property owner and developer there. Mark said his father felt that he and Lucile “shared a desire to see the Old Market buildings restored and reanimated by local individual businesses. He always had a cordial and friendly relation with her.”
Artist and arts administrator Ree Kaneko, who first got to know Lucile during the Old Market’s emergence in the late ’60s-early ’70s, said, “the Lady in Orange was a wonderful soul.”
Jorgensen said not having Lucile around is “a major loss.” But her world lives on at Lucile’s Old Market, 510 South 10th Street. To book an event or arrange a tour, call 341-3100 or visit http://www.lucilesoldmarket.com.
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