Any urban place worth its salt as a destination to visit bears the imprint of the people who shaped it. Omaha isn’t known for much outside Nebraska but one area just south of downtown has become its primary tourist destination, the Old Market, which at its core is a historic district whose collection of late 19th and early 20th century warehouses offers the city’s most eclectic concentration of restaurants, shops, and arts-cultural venues. Many people have had a hand in molding the Old Market but the most critical guiding hand belonged to the late Sam Mercer, who had the vision to see what only a few others saw in terms of the potential of transforming this old produce warehouse market into a arts-culture-entertainment haven. My story about Mercer and the small coterie of fellow visionaries he developed a consipiracy of hearts with in creating the Old Market appears in Encouner Magazine. You’ll find some other Old Market-related stories on this blog and coming this spring I will be postiing a retrospective piece on how this creative hub became the Old Market and how it survived and thrived against all odds. I will introduce you to the people who turned the spark of an idea into reality.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in Encounter Magazine
The Old Market’s undisputed godfather, Samuel Mercer, passed away Feb. 5 at his home in Honfleur, France. He was 92. Services were held at Trinity Episcopal Church in Omaha.
This continental bon vivant was not a typical Nebraskan. The son of prominent Omaha physician and landowner Nelson Mercer, he was born and raised in privileged circumstances in London, England and educated at Oxford and Yale. After living in Washington D.C. he based his law practice in Paris, where he mostly lived the rest of his life. He held dual citizenship.
In Paris he cultivated relationships with avant garde artists, A watercolorist himself, he made artist Eva Aeppli his second wife.
On his handful of trips to Omaha each year he cut an indelible figure between his shock of shoulder-length gray hair, his Trans-Atlantic accent and his waxing on far-ranging subjects. He spoke perfect French.
“He projected an aura of unpretentious aristocracy…I liked him immediately and enormously,” says designer Roger duRand, who with Percy Roche opened the Old Market’s first business, The Farthest Outpost.
When the death of his father in 1963 Mercer inherited his family’s property holdings and he took charge of their Mercer Management company here. He appreciated the century-old brick warehouses, some Mercer-owned, comprising the wholesale produce market just southeast of downtown. But it was someone his junior, designer Cedric Hartman, who first advocated doing something with those buildings, which by the mid-1960s were largely abandoned and in disrepair.
Hartman, an acclaimed designer of lighting and furniture pieces made at his 1414 Marcy St. factory, recalls the genesis of the Old Market. He and Judy Wigton were partners in a high end gift shop. Like Mercer they admired the dying produce district’s buildings and in 1964 began meeting with him about these structures as potential sites for exciting new ventures, such as fine shops, galleries and restaurants. Those conservations in turn sparked Sam’s efforts to preserve and repurpose the Market as an arts-culture haven.
“We were quite surprised to find such a person,” says Hartman. “He was a very smart, very worldly and sophisticated character with great personal charm. We were both wowed by him and in his way he was with us.”
Wigton says, “He certainly had a great appreciation for old buildings and also a need to fill the empty places with new tenants.”
“He did respond to us in a great way,” Hartman notes. “We were a couple of really arty kids and he was really arty, so it couldn’t have been a better association. He was a kindred spirit in so many ways.”
Those early encounters formulated the vision for what became the Old Market.
“I remember we walked around the streets trying to imagine what could be done. I’d say, ‘Now look at this building, here’s we could do this with it,’ and he’d just respond right in kind,” says Hartman. “I couldn’t have done that with anybody else. He hooked into all this stuff really fast.”
A sense of urgency set in when city officials and property owners began eying some Market buildings for demolition.
Hartman tipped off Mercer to the condemnation of the Gilinsky building that sat in the middle of Mercer-owned properties on Howard Street. It was Hartman too who brokered a meeting between Mercer and Peaches Gilinsky. A deal was struck that led Mercer to acquire the site.
By 1968 Mercer moved strategically to gain control of a collection of buildings there.
“Sam did not want anything said about the project until he could acquire options on enough other properties in the area to insure the success of the redevelopment,” says Wigton.
It was Mercer’s idea to make the groundfloor space of the former Gilinsky fruit company into a French restaurant. There, Hartman designed the Old Market’s signature spot, the French Cafe, as well as apartments above it. Ree Kaneko, a fellow Old Market pioneer, says the restaurant, opened in 1969, was “very important” in helping solidify and legitimize the Market.
“It was a risky thing for him to do,” Hartman says “Who knew if that would work? However, it was a great success.”
More anchor attractions followed – Homer’s, M’s Pub, Mr. Toad, the Spaghetti Works, Nouvelle Eve, eh Firehouse Dinner Theater, the Bemis.
Designers duRand and Hartman advised Mercer and his son Mark, daughter-in-law Vera, nephew Nicholas Bonham-Carter on this never planned but organically developed area. The Mercers created one of the Market’s most distinct features, The Passageway, and later opened their own distinguished enterprises – V Mertz, La Buvette and The Boiler Room.
“We worked to shape the Old Market neighborhood in the most authentic and benign ways possible, gently guiding new tenants away from the cliched and vulgar, and to more thoughtful and honest approaches to development of the beautiful old structures,” says duRand. “Even though Sam lived and worked in Paris, his presence was in every decision of significance in nurturing the Market. He made frequent visits to Omaha in the early days, and was instrumental in bringing the city fathers around to acceptance, then eventual approval, and finally enthusiasm for the preservation and rebirth of our neighborhood.
“His passing leaves a permanent and poignant void.”
Sam Mercer viewed the Market as an evolving social experiment and art project aligned with his own desires. Mark Mercer says the family’s continued that philosophy by encouraging unique ventures that “fit our tastes and interests.” He and his wife, artist Vera Mercer, say “creating” new things is their passion.
Ree Kaneko has high praise for the Mercers’ stewardship and their “allowing things to take shape” by nurturing select endeavors. She adds, “They know it’s a slow process,. They have a great sense of the mix of things that need to happen to make the Market exciting.”
“It hasn’t been easy and I don’t think any other family could have done it,” Wigton says.
Mark and Vera Mercer say Sam remained “very interested” in the Market. They vow retaining the vibrant charm of this historic neighborhood he lovingly made happen.
I can’t speak for my colleagues but for this journalist anyway it’s fun to write about other journalists, particularly if the person has enjoyed a rich career in the field we share. The subject of this New Horizons profile, Bob Hoig, has definitely seen a thing or two in a 56 year career that progressed from copy boy to reporter to editor to publisher. He’s best known today as publisher of the Midlands Business Journal but he had some intriguing newspapering adventures before he launched that publication in 1975. I’ve had the pleasure of profiling many fascinating folks in the field, including Don Chapman, Warren Francke, Bill Ramsey, Howard Rosenberg, John Hlavacek, Rudy Smith, Don Doll, and Howard Silber. You can fnd my stories about them on this blog. I now add Bob Hoig to the list.
Bob Hoig’s Unintended Entree into Journalism is Six Decades Strong Now
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in the New Horizons
Midlands Business Journal publisher Bob Hoig has often wondered how his life might have turned out had his curiosity not gotten the better of him one fateful day in 1957.
He was a young man recently arrived in New York City after years pining to go there, He was born in rural Kansas and grew up in Pueblo and Colorado Springs, Colorado but he sensed he was meant for bigger things.
“I just had wanted to be there. It was a city that always intrigued me. It had a mystique. I fancied myself a poet at the time. My reading preferences in literature have always tended toward writers who had a lot to say about New York City. That would include F. Scott Fitzgerald. John O’Hara, who was a real favorite of mine, and Ernest Hemingway.”
Hoig actually met the iconic Hemingway in an old German bar in New York.
Rich in words but poor in dollars, Hoig’s Big Apple sojourn was beginning to seem more folly than destiny. Then something happened that changed the course of his life.
“I was out of work, I didn’t have a lot of money, and I was walking down 42nd Street, just past 3rd Avenue, towards 2nd and the East River and the United Nations Building, when my peripheral vision caught the lobby of a building. Inside the lobby was a giant globe of the Earth, roughly 8 or 10 feet high, revolving around. I was just interested, so I walked in. I didn’t know what was going on there.
“There were a lot of brass gauges like you might think of as nautical or aeronautical. There was a guard by the elevator and I said, ‘What building is this? and he said, ‘Why, it’s the New York Daily News.’ Well, I needed a job and so I just asked, ‘Are they hiring?’ He said, ‘It beats me, why don’t you go up and talk to personnel?’ So I did that and the next thing I knew I’d been hired, with no particular qualifications, as a copy boy.”
That mere chance encounter turned into a career 56 years old and counting. He was a reporter for the Miami News, the UPI and the Omaha World-Herald and the managing editor of the Omaha Sun Newspapers and the Douglas County Gazette before founding the MBJ. He still can’t get over how his life in the Fourth Estate began in such an off-handed way.
“I had very little college, one year at the University of Colorado before I dropped out and I had no particular reference to journalism at all.”
He briefly worked in accounting. He’d sold shoes in the basement of Ben Simon department store. But he was restless for something more adventurous. Then he struck out for New York. He was nearly flat broke when he got on with the big city newspaper despite a lick of experience. He was 24, clueless about the world he was about to enter, but soon found himself in a “rich stew” of people and places that spurred him on.
All these years later he recalls the job of Daily News copy boy “a supreme experience,” adding, “The main thing that made it a great experience is that it offered many avenues toward advancing in he trade of journalism.” Being in the newspaper game in New York put one right in the mix of things in the most exciting metropolis in the world. And if one showed a spark of initiative and promise, as he did, opportunities availed themselves.
“That set me up for everything that came after. I was ambitious and ambitious people in New York are always rewarded. I was just ready to do anything. I guess I displayed a little bit of panache in the way I approached things and I was soon made assistant head copy boy. I know that’s not much of a title but it opened doors. It meant I handed out the other copy boys’ assignments, which gave me the pick of the best for myself. That included going to to Yankee Stadium and sitting in the press box just above the dugout when legends like Yogi Berra, Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle were trouping out to the plate and back.
“It was not totally glorious because after two innings I had to take the photographer’s film and get out of the stadium, race to the subway and rush the photos back to the Daily News office in time to make the Bulldog edition.”
His entree to the Who’s-Who of New York sports figures didn’t end there.
“That experience had parallels in every sport,” he says. “I was on the sidelines for the New York Giant games on Sunday when Kyle Rote, Roosevelt Grier, Frank Gifford and other legends of Giant football were playing. I got to charge up and down the sidelines with the photographer (until the end of the first quarter when Hoig had to high-tail it back to the office with the film). I got to go to the races at Belmont. Once again, that same drill – after the Daily Double I had to rush the film back to the office.”
It was a fertile training ground, especially for anyone with aspirations.
Hoig says, “That was a great way to get into it and build up a little bit of knowledge and sophistication to life in Manhattan. The main way it helped breaking into the newspaper business as a writer was that I got to work on Sunday features. What it amounted to was working with some of the legends of New York city journalism and having the benefit of them critiquing my work and being a little bit patient with me. They weren’t totally patient with the copy boys if they showed no spunk but if you did they would work with you. And I got to have bylines in the paper as a result.”
For a journalist, getting a byline is like your name appearing on a theater marquee. It’s your chance to puff out your chest and bask in the spotlight. Hoig took full advantage.
“There was a lot of glory in that kind of byline, for this reason: the stories appeared in the zoned editions of the Sunday edition and for instance my work would appear in the Manhattan Bronx section but there was also a Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, so forth. And the good thing about that was those sections wrapped around the whole newspaper, so on Sunday if you were lucky enough to get a front page byline in the Manhattan Bronx section there your name was staring up from every New York newsstand. So you can bet that any girlfriend I was wining and dining at the time I made sure we walked past that Sunday stand and I’d say, ‘Oh look…’”
The ethos of the times found Hoig following the newspaper pack to the bars, where drinking and swapping stories through the night was routine.
He positively subscribes to the sentiment that if you can make it in New York you can make it anywhere. “Yeah, it’s true because it tees you up. For one thing you’re used to some of the more dire circumstances. A lot of them required you to have your wits about you and to sort of be as much as actor as a reporter.”
Working at the News offered other advantages, too.
“The News was a totally Irish dominated newspaper. it was quite a place to be in my day by the way because some of the absolute legends of the New York scene were actually there then. For instance, Ed Sullivan still had a desk. He was just breaking into television. He’d been a columnist for years. If I had a tip I would try to feed it to his column. Paul Gallico was not only a top sports editor he was famous around the desk for getting knocked out by Jack Dempsey. He was also a great short story writer who won the O’Henry Award. Harry Nichols was a big-time city editor. A tough, no-nonsense kind of guy. He was a legend.”
Hoig also got his feet wet in live TV.
“The News not long before had started a television station, WPIX, which was also in the building, and I got the chance to write the most basic kind of copy for the news scripts – death, weather, anything very routine. That opened the door to some other sophistications that the average kid working in Grand Island or Kearney wouldn’t find at the introductory level.”
He was only in New York about two years when he left for Neb., where he had family. He’d spent time visiting relatives in the state as a youth. “The Hoigs got out here about 1895 around Beatrice and Wymore. My dad had deep roots with the old Cooper Foundation theaters. I returned to Lincoln, Neb. on the advice of one of the ‘lobster’ city editors of the New York Daily News. That’s the editor who comes on at midnight and works until 8 in the morning. He became a friend of mine.”
Hoig was itching to do crime reporting but as a copy boy it would have taken him longer than he cared to wait before he got his opportunity to cover that beat.
“My friend felt I had enough talent that I needed to get out and get right into the mainstream of what i was interested in, which was crime writing. Now you could go that route with the Daily News but they rarely if ever hired from the outside and you had to work up from a copy boy through junior assistant and that kind of thing, and the waiting period could be fantastic. For instance, Jimmy Cannon, who’s a legend in sportswriting, was a copy boy for seven years on the Daily News. The man who at the time was the travel editor had been a copy boy for 13 years.
“There were all kinds of names in New York City who had followed that route. This editor thought I would benefit by getting out and getting a job. It worked out that I did get a chance to work in Lincoln covering police and fire in the period when Charles Starkweather had been brought to trial and was being executed. At the time it was the Lincoln Journal-Star, but I worked for the Journal, which was the afternoon paper.”
Hoig wound up in Omaha, first on the United Press International desk and then as an Omaha World-Herald newsroom staffer, but not by way of Lincoln as you might expect, rather by way of Miami and Chicago of all places. His wanderlust called again.
“That was kind of a circuitous route,” he notes. “After I cut my teeth on police reporting, doing a lot of it in Lincoln, I felt the same lure to Miami that I did to New York. I went to Miami and after being rejected at the Miami Herald by the then-assistant managing editor, Harold “Al” Neuharth, who went on found USA Today, I wound up working for in my opinion the greatest newspaper in all of Florida and the South at the time as a young crime reporter, the old Miami News. It was a real blood and guts paper. It was edited again by a legend in newspapering down there.
“It was a great place to be and right off the bat they assigned me to the sheriff’s office and so many good stories would come out of there.”
Organized crime was well entrenched in the city, as was rampant police corruption, and one assignment required him to “go up to a known Mafia family head and ask, ‘How do you feel about your son being shot-gunned to death?’ When you’re in a crazy situation like that you gotta just quick think and get out. “
He enjoyed being in the thick of the action of a cosmopolitan city built on tourism and graft. It was a vital place and time where the news never quit.
“I had a chance to really move along there,” says Hoig. “I cultivated a friend who was probably my closest colleague on the Miami News. He was an old-timer who had worked on the war desk during World War II in New York for United Press. I loved the job at the Miami News but I didn’t like Florida and neither did my then-wife, and at that time she was my new wife. We didn’t like the heat, so we decided to go north.
“When Bill Tucker, this friend of mine, heard we were going north he said, ‘Well, I hate to see you leave but as long as you’re going I’ll give you a reference to the man who’s the division news manager for United Press International in Chicago. I interviewed with him, I was hired and I had (incidentally) some Neb. roots but they just happened to send me to Omaha. That’s how I wound up in Omaha.”
UPI was still a player among wire services in the 1960s.
“We were totally rivals with the Associated Press. We had more radio and TV clients in Neb. than AP did. AP was ahead of us in newspapers. But we shared all the biggies, like we were both in the World-Herald, the Lincoln Journal-Star, and their editors played that very cleverly because they would pit us against each other in a competitive way.”
His highlight with UPI came with a bit of newspaper bravado.
“I was sitting in the United Press Bureau one night in the mid-‘60s when a report came in about a shooting in Big Springs. An armed robber had come in the bank, lined up four people on the floor and shot them. Three of them died and one of them survived. So this gunman was on the loose and nobody knows who it was.
‘We got a tip authorities were searching for a Kansas farm boy, Duane Earl Pope. We found out his father had been cruel to him. Duane had recently graduated from McPherson College, where he was a football star. I thought, Who could issue an appeal I could write that would lead Duane to surrender. His father? No. His coach? Maybe. His college president? Yeah. When Pope finally was captured they learned he’d heard that appeal in a hotel room in Las Vegas. He made arrangements to fly back and surrender to the FBI in Kansas City, That was the biggest coup I ever staged and I think there is a classic role in journalism for that sort of thing.”
He left the Omaha Bureau of UPI after roughly seven years to join the World-Herald. He explains, “I had what seemed like a much better offer at that time from the World-Herald to become a crime and corruption reporter. That was 1969.
“The biggest story I covered up to that point was a banking scandal in Sheldon, Iowa. A spinster named Bernice Geiger was the trusted bookkeeper for the local bank owned by her aging parents and she had embezzled $2 million. So I went up there and every day just as I was getting ready to leave something major developed in the story. All of a sudden reporters from Time, Newsweek, the New York papers and all over the country came flooding in to cover this story.
“It had so many angles that you could write a book about it. It had such human interest, including a possible love angle. A young con man came in and there was suspicion that he helped her spend the money. It turned out she blew the money on the Chicago Commodities Exchange, which is a weird place for a spinster to blow money.”
In 1971 he was the Herald’s nominee for a Pulitzer Prize for a series he did about serial sexualpaths that led to a state law being changed to tighten lax security procedures at the then-Nebraska State Hospital. To get the story Hoig says he “went down to Lincoln and asked a lot of questions.” He explains, “That story was precipitated by a particularly bad actor who was an inmate down there. Staff just let inmates like him wander the grounds. There was no particular supervision and this guy every now and then would just wander off and do his thing. What got him caught is he wandered off to Omaha, where he raped a couple women, and so that set in motion the Herald’s interest in it.”
He remained with the Herald until 1972.
His path to launching the Midlands Business Journal actually began at the end of a brief turn he took as editor of the Douglas County Gazette. “By that time I’d had my fill of crime and corruption and looking under every rock to expose something sinister or wrong or some crime,” he says. “I didn’t want to do that anymore.”
When a Herald column mentioned he was leaving the Gazette, he recalls, “that morning my phone was ringing at a quarter to eight and it was the owner of Rapid Printing, the late Zane Randall, saying, ‘If you’re out of work, come and talk to me.’ So I did and he hired me as general manager of a bunch of suburban shoppers he either owned or printed. I talked Zane into letting me take a shot at founding a business newspaper with somewhat of a unique concept.”
Few people thought the business journal could work.
“This came in the face of many prophecies of doom from people like Jim Ivey at the Herald, so it wasn’t an assured thing. But what I wanted to do was produce a product that would localize and bring close to the community stories of businesses and with a particular angle of success stories. I’ve always been a good salesman and I think I’m a good enough writer and editor that I had the two components you need to start a successful paper, and that’s why I thought it would be successful.
“It was something nobody was doing at the time and that’s what I staked my guess it could be successful on. Zane was backing me in a sense. He didn’t put any money into it but he printed the paper for us and he let us use his composing room and typesetting and so forth. So it was a relatively painless way to try something that worked.”
Hoig and Randall drew up a contract to be half-and-half partners of MBJ at the start but as time went on the enigmatic Randall wanted out.
“Zane was the kind of guy who would just take a chance on anything and he backed newspapers and mailing operations that failed. He had a lot of failures out there with little probes into different aspects of journalism. Of course, he sold (Rapid) out to the Herald for a reputed seven or eight million bucks, so when he scored he scored big. His inclination to back anything is what helped me out in the long run.
“But we were about a year into the MBJ when several relatives he had working for him told him to get out of it.’ I tried to point out to him that we were in the process of being successful and for our humble niche in the community we were being very successful. The ad sales were almost good enough to meet the goals and the subscription sales were renewing at a fantastic 90 percent rate. That usually doesn’t happen.
“Based on all that I said to him, ‘Look ahead one more year and this thing is going to be doing really well.’ I couldn’t talk him out of it, and he said, ‘No, we’re closing it down. I said, ‘Well, how about you name a figure and if I can possibly meet it I’ll sign a note and pay it off? and that’s the way that one went.”
Thirty-eight years later MBJ is still going strong. He attributes its enduring success to his ‘nose for news,” his business sense and his numbers crunching ability.
“I can spot stories or I can cook them up.”
“I know accounting and I keep the books and so every day I know what my cash position is to the penny. Every month I reconcile the bank statements and I do my general ledger entries. I’ve never graduated from that routine and that’s one way to keep your hands on your business and know what’s going on.”
Meeting unforgettable characters and public figures has also come with the territory. A bigger-than-life politico he had occasion to know was the late South Omaha kingpin Gene Mahoney. Hoig recalls a memorable encounter.
“I was walking on South 13th Street when Mahoney in this old beater of a car pulls up and says, ‘Where you going?’ ‘Back to work,’ and he said, ‘Hop in.’ So I got in and asked, ‘Where we going?’ and he said, ‘We’re going on the Polish sausage run.’ He had his car loaded with Polish sausage and other things and good old politician Mahoney was swinging by everybody in South Omaha that he’d found out was either sick or laid off or injured. He was just a master politician that way.
“He was such a powerbroker. I think I’m the last guy to know how great he was. As a powerbroker, maybe not as an individual. He had some sides to him that I don’t think I’d recommend. But as a guy who just controlled everything…”
Once, when Omaha Federation of Labor AFL-CIO president Terry Moore launched into a favorite theme about Mahoney being “all washed up” Hoig set the record straight. “I said, Terry, think about it, where is Mahoney right now? His best friend has just been elected to the U.S. Senate, Ed Zorinsky. His handpicked apparatchik is in the legislature, Bernice Labedz. She’s keeping him totally informed about everything. He’s got a job that has more perks and power than any job in the state as Games and Parks commissioner. He can airplane people out to any lodge, so as a position to collect IOUs you can’t beat that. Plus, he’s got a say in a certain amount of projects that get built.”
Hoig, who closely follows politics and doesn’t exactly pull punches when critiquing politicians, admired Mahoney’s savvy when it came to patronage and influence.
“As a former legislator and someone who’d been across political parties – he switched back and forth from Democrat to Republican to Democrat again – he could talk to anyone. He was a master at doling out favors. He’d get together with Peter Kiewit and Walter Scott on what were their desires and what needed to be done and all of a sudden things got built.”
Hoig has anecdotes about all the big names he’s met, including corporate tycoons Peter Kiewit and V.J. Skutt, then presidential candidate Richard Nixon, then-vice president Lyndon Johnson, not to mention Neb. politicians whose wrath he’s earned. His life is as full as any of theirs though. He toiled for others the first third of his career before striking out on his own and becoming a successful entrepreneur. Besides MBJ he publishes the Lincoln Business Journal and the Omaha Book of Lists. MBJ was the Chamber’s 2002 Golden Spike Award honoree. He’s been recognized by the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce (2004) and the Omaha Kiwanis Club (2006) as Entrepreneur of the Year.
“As a unit success our biggest success is our 40 Under 40 program with the Chamber. That, of course, isn’t a paper but it’s a yearly program we started in 2002 during the depths of another bubble recession and it made it’s way through. It’s forged on identifying and honoring 40 professional businessmen and women under the age of 40.”
He’s also the father of three adult children. Long divorced, he’s well into his second marriage with an old friend, Martha, who’s every bit as bit as active as he is. He’s a veteran tennis player and swimmer. He used to ski. Since taking up skiing late in life Martha’s become quite the devotee and continues to enjoy the sport despite some mishaps on the slopes. She’s also an artist with her own downtown studio. Bob says her streaks of “daring-do” and whimsy have led her to stand on her head atop the Olympic Tower in New York and to ride a motorcycle with him. She’s also his faithful flying companion. He only took up flying a decade ago but it’s his main hobby today.
He’s not conceding anything to age as he continues coming to the office every day and living it up away from the office. He says he enjoys “keeping everything in balance now,’”adding, “I like the idea of having the balance. The work, the great relationship with my wife, the flying and the writing – I’m really starting to ramp up my own fiction writing.”
At 80, he still plays tennis and swims. He only gave up skiing three years ago. He works out a few days a week at the gym.
His boundless curiosity invariably leads him to some new passion he takes up with vigor and once he hit upon flying it’s become his main fascination and outlet.
“Almost every decade of my life I’ve turned a corner into something that fascinates me,” he says. “When I was 68 my son and I were in my den playing flight simulator and I was like, ‘This is really interesting and fun, I think I’ll take a (flying) lesson.’ So I went out to get a lesson and just from the first landing of feeling like a big bird, sailing slowly, slowly, now a little faster, and then, whoosh. It just captivated me and that’s all I could think about for a year other than my work.”
He got his private pilot’s license in 2000 and purchased his own Cessna SkyLane in 2003. He earned his instrument rating in 2005. He’s logged 1,700 hours in the air.
He’s proud of his blue and white Cessna he personally selected from the plant. “It’s a beauty. It’s a good one for traveling and my wife and I travel a lot. Any vacation, we fly. That has really kept my spirits and kept me thinking.”
He and Martha love seeing the sights.
“We do travel an awful lot. The most routine trip we make is every year we fly the plane to New York and go to the U.S. Open tennis tournament. That’s in late August-early September. Of late we’ve taken to flying into New England or to upstate New York. In 2011 I flew it up to a place called Plattsburgh, New York just across the lake from Burlington, Vermont. It’s way up there. That was good.
“A couple times a year we fly it up to a place called Rosemary Beach in the Florida Panhandle. Three years ago I flew it all the way down into the Florida Keys, beyond Key Largo. I’ve flown it a lot to my hometown of Colorado Springs.”
He has the chops to fly into airports large and small.
“I really made it my business to learn GPS and that has helped us fly into big airports and feel comfortable doing it in rain, in clouds, and so on.”
Between changeable weather systems and heavy air traffic, he says, “You have to keep your wits about you.”
Sometimes he and Martha just light out on a whim.
“We’ve gotten up on a Saturday morning with no idea of what we’re going to do that day and one of us will say, ‘Hey, it’s a nice day, why don’t we go to Kansas City?, so you jump in the plane and you’re in Kansas City for lunch.”
The couple also travel to Europe with great regularity. They never do tours. Instead they simply “follow the wind,” he says.
Martha, who is a breast cancer survivor, has also been a key cog in his publishing empire as vice-president in charge of marketing. His sister Cindy is vice-president of advertising. And his daughter Andrea once worked for him as well before branching off on her own. Much to his surprise and delight Andrea’s followed his footsteps. She began working for him as a photographer and in 1996 she purchased a fledgling publication he started, Metro Monthly, and she’s since transformed it into Metro Magazine, whose niche is covering the area’s philanthropic scene.
Seeing her blossom into a peer entrepreneur and publisher, he says, gives him “great satisfaction,” adding, “She’s done a terrific job with the magazine that I told her in the beginning, ‘Just forget it, it won’t go,’ so she proved me wrong on that.”
It’s sometimes hard for him to reconcile the rebellious girl who worked for him with the mature woman who is a colleague today.
“When she was a teenager we just didn’t mix at all. We didn’t get along. In the course of maybe working around me a little bit and getting into journalism it turns out of my three children she’s more like the apple that fell closest to the tree. She seems to have an instinctive ability in journalism for some of the things I think are very important. She’s unusually good at detail. She gets along very well with people and unlike me she has a very kind heart. She just empathizes with everybody and for the niche that she’s in that’s really the way to be anyway, but she is like that.”
They’re very different people though. “She is liberal where I’m conservative,” he says. “She doesn’t even read my editorials.” But his admiration for her is complete. “I’m very proud of what she’s accomplished, She’s come so far from where I thought.”
Last fall father and daughter were honored as Faces on the Barroom Floor at the Omaha Press Club.
Over time he’s learned some lessons from her, too, such as giving up control.
“I was the typical entrepreneur in feeling that if I didn’t do it it couldn’t be done right. Everything really important I felt I had to do myself. It’s hard enough to grow a really small business like ours without giving it total attention and I probably lost a lot of good people over the years by not turning enough over to them. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten better at delegating responsibility. I’ve started to turn more over to our editor and to our advertising director and that’s been good.”
As he’s taken more time out for himself, his wife, his family and his passions, he’s found his later years to be the best of his life. He’s far from retired though.
“There’s a saying I heard long ago that work ennobles a person and I find this work very ennobling because it keeps me alive, it keeps me involved and it keeps me thinking. It also keeps people employed.”
- How the 1962 – 63 Newspaper Strike Crippled a Newspaper Town (vanityfair.com)
Jeffrey Owen Hanson is one of those unexpected and inspirational success stories I run into from time to time. This young artist and social entrepreneur has found his niche as a pop art painter in spite of or perhaps because of his low vision and he’s using the sell of his much coveted work to support charitable causes. The following profile I did on hin for an upcoming issue of Omaha Fashion Week explores how he came to discover his artistic gift and to make it the vehicle for philanthropy and details how he’s come to hand-paint dresses showcased at Omaha Fashion Week.
The Wonderful World of Artist and Social Entrepreneur Jeffrey Owen Hanson
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in Omaha Fashion Magazine
The unexpected artist
Self-taught artist Jeffrey Owen Hanson likes saying “I see through Swiss cheese” to explain the visual impairment an optic nerve tumor left him and the unique way it gives him of apprehending the world. Chemotherapy and radiation treatments destroyed the tumor and curbed any further vision loss. The tumor, along with some learning disabilities, are the result of a genetic disorder he’s lived with since birth called Neurofibromatosis.
None of it’s impeded his remarkable ascent as an artist and social entrepreneur. His highly collectible abstract renderings, including hand-painted dresses, are sought after by celebrities and raise major monies for charitable causes close to his heart. At 19 he’s on pace to reach his goal of raising $1 million in charitable proceeds by age 20.
He’s even grateful for his limited visual perception because it’s led him to use color and texture in original ways that make his vibrant, tactile art singularly his own. Indeed, before his vision got really bad he’d never shown the slightest inclination for art.
“I painted on rocks and I did dot art and that type of thing” as a child, he says. “He did the kinds of crafts and arts things that kids always do but really his art wasn’t anything special,” his mother Julie Hanson confirmed. At her suggestion he began painting notecards for something he and his friends could do when he had visitors over while recovering from treatments, What began as a routine diversion soon evolved into a serious artistic and philanthropic outlet. His early watercolors on notecards were sold from a lemonade stand next to his mom’s homebred goodies in the driveway of the family’s suburban home. Within a few years he’d gravitated to acrylics on canvas sold in galleries and auctions, the works commanding five figure prices apiece. Commissions for his work now flood in every week from around the nation, even around the world.
It’s why his parents have come to call their only child “the accidental artist.”
The fact he’s turned an impairment into a gift and made his art a platform for helping others is why his work and story have touched people from all walks of life and well beyond his Overland Park, Kansas home. The Hanson magic has even reached Omaha, where his first line of hand-painted dresses debuted during the grand finale of last August’s Omaha Fashion Week. He’ll have a new line for the OFW Spring show and another in the August showcase.
The standing ovation he received in Omaha for artwork adorning dresses designed by Caine Westergard added to his growing recognition. He’s been named Young Entrepreneur of the Year, he’s been profiled in the Huffington Post, he’s met everyone from Warren Buffett to Elton John. He’s the subject of a YouTube video and a new book authored by his father, Dr. Hal Hanson, entitled “Lessons from Clod.” Clod is the name Jeffrey gave his tumor. Among the lessons he learned from that old nemesis he eventually embraced as a friend is that it’s better to focus on what you can do than on what you can’t do.
Seven years since clod’s disappearance he’s sold hundreds of paintings, enjoyed solo exhibitions, and seen his work purchased by the rich and famous at live charity auctions.
None of this was supposed to have happened.
Seeing past blindness
His father, an emergency room physician at Ransom Memorial Hospital in Ottawa, Kansas, simply calls what’s transpired “amazing,” adding, “We call Jeff the accident artist because no one was intending art being anything more than a childhood hobby. What started out as kid art just sort of evolved. He’s a person that’s totally naive to art, totally untrained, didn’t go to art school, and yet he’s become an in-demand artist with a whole career in front of him.”
Julie Hanson says right from the start of Jeff painting the notecards he showed an aptitude the other kids didn’t. “Jeff’s notecards were fabulous and this consistently kept happening.”
The mystery of how he could go from no apparent artistic ability and without any formal training to exceptional ability and the admiration of professionals may never be fully answered though the family has some theories. Much of his approach to art seems intuitive rather than drawn from any obvious influence, though his impressionistic landscapes are often inspired by places he’s visited.
“There’s no talent in our family for art to start with,” Jeff says by way of eliminating the possibility of some inherited art gene from his immediate lineage.
Where does he think his talent comes from then? “I don’t know,” he says. “I just think I have a good eye for color.” And texture. “Almost all of my paintings have really thick modeling paste spread all over it to give it texture.” He often incorporates wire, rope and other materials into his work, even making woven canvases, to add layers of depth and form. Always though his work exudes the most iridescent tones. “The colors I like to use are bright colors, like lime green, pink, purple. Bright happy colors.” The buoyant colors are a direct reflection of his joyful personality.
Could his visual impairment somehow give him a heightened appreciation for color as a way of compensating for other deficits? “Maybe, I don’t know, possibly,” he says. “Well. I mean I don’t know what I cant see. I see through Swiss cheese. My vision has holes.”
In preparing the book about their son and his unexpected journey in art his parents pressed Jeff about his methodology and discovered things that shed light on how and why he creates what he does.
“We started talking to Jeff about, ‘Well, how did you decide to paint that? Why did you put those two colors together?’ We asked him, ‘What are your rules here?” And we came up with a dozen things that he does that aren’t even at a conscious level for him,” says Hal Hanson. “He doesn’t sit and think about it, but when we tried to pin him down he would say things like, ‘Well, I have low vision so I don’t like to put two light colors next to each other. I have to put a dark color next to a light color because it’s high contrast and I can see the border. And I don’t like things that are flat. I like things that are chunky because I can see the texture when the light catches it.’ So he likes things that are really high contrast, high texture and with big, bold loud colors.
“He doesn’t like any piece of art that has a million little things going on all over it.
It’s gotta have big expanses of calm with nothing going on because it’s hard for him to see a million little things. His eye doesn’t know where to go. So it turns out a lot of what he does is guided by his low vision. Where we once thought his art is popular despite of his low vision, it’s popular because of his low vision. His vision is peculiar enough or impaired enough that it kind of forces him into a certain style. It has sort of guided him in a direction of, ‘Well, here’s what works for me,’”
Then there’s the possibility other guidance is at work, too,
“Don’t you think this is a gift from God?” Julie asks Jeff at one point during the interview. “Yeah,” he answers matter-of-factly.
How else to explain Jeff creating paintings that captivate so many?
Art as career and mission
It took a long time for his mother and father to realize his paintings appealed to far more than just their parental pride. When others began responding to his art they at first thought people were simply being kind or sympathetic to his overcoming challenges to raise funds for NF research. But as his art kept getting more and more attention and interest, they realized something bigger was at work.
“We saw this going on but none of the three of us ever intended this to go anywhere,” says Hal. “For the longest time I thought what they really wanted was a piece of the story. That they’d heard about this kid who had low vision who was painting and giving the paintings to charity auctions. That they weren’t really interested in the art, they just wanted a piece of the story.
“I didn’t consider the possibility that people liked his art for its own sake until we found out people were buying it and they didn’t even know the story, they didn’t know he had low vision and gave the money to charity. That was sort of a revelation to us that, ‘Oh my God, people actually like the art.’ His fans, his clients kept telling us, ‘This isn’t just kid art.’ What we thought was something you would put on your refrigerator with a magnet turned into things selling at an auction for $10,000 and $15,000.”
Artist Rachel Mindrup of Omaha responds to both Jeff’s story and his art. She’s made him a subject in a series of portraits she’s painting of people with Neurofibromatosis who, she says, “are changing the world.” She says he’s a deserving subject for the series she calls The Many Faces of NF “because he’s done so much for NF and for the Children’s Tumor Foundation.”
Like many others, she finds Hanson to be an inspiration.
“Not only has he overcome many limitations he’s going way beyond expectations,” Mindrup says. “It’s cool when an idea like his art philanthropy takes on a life of its own and goodness begets goodness. If you have a good heart and you’re doing things to help other people that seems to grow exponentially.”
As she’s gotten to know Jeff she’s come to admire his “strong work ethic,” adding,
“He’s a working, living artist. He gets up and works every day. He does what any artist should be doing. I find him to be really inspiring, I really do. Here’s a kid who had this disability and instead of woe-is-me he’s doing something positive.”
Even if he didn’t have a heart-tugging story, she says, his art’s good enough to stand on its own.
“His artwork is a treasure in and of itself regardless of his genetic code. Who cares if he has NF or not? It’s like the paintings speak for themselves. They’ve got vivid colors and juicy brush strokes, they’re tactile, they’ve visually pleasing. Anybody who looks at the paintings, regardless if they know Jeff’s story or not, will find them engaging and interesting and will react to them, enjoy them. Without even knowing his biography, they work, they’re wonderful.”
Interior designer Emily Dugger of Omaha treasures the two Hanson paintings hanging in her home, including a custom piece she and her husband commissioned him to make using colors they selected. “We love them both,” she says of his works. “He’s very talented and he’s just extremely sweet. I’m very drawn to his story and his life and his passion.”
Before the Hansons knew it, the accidental artist selling his wares from a lemonade stand morphed into a full-fledged art enterprise. Jeff’s parents recently worked with a professional to devise a strategic plan for finding ever new revenue streams for Jeff’s art in order to sustain his career and his philanthropy.
“It was never intended to be a career at all, it kept snowballing to the point that we realized one day, ‘I guess we have an art business,’ and here we are,” says Hal Hanson.
“The whole world is moving so fast that if you want to continue to have a career in art and be successful you’d better be entrepreneurial and philanthropic,” Julie Hanson explains. “Theres all kinds of things we keep simmering in the business. We’re trying to let this be his career and be very successful at it while also giving to the world.”
Hanson’s new frontier: Hand-painted dresses
Fashion art wasn’t something the Hansons conceived Jeff doing until a consultant identified it as a viable option.
“Fashion certainly was in that plan,” says Julie. “There was no intent of doing it quite so soon, however Omaha Fashion Week caught wind of Jeff and producer Brook Hudson said, ‘What if he would try hand painting dresses?’ And we talked with them about it. because that was exactly what we wanted to do. Jeff was invited to be in the grand finale. The door of opportunity opened and when it opens, Jeff…” “Run and go do it,” he says to finish his mother’s thought.
The next order of business was finding a designer whose dresses he could hand paint. It just so happened that Jeff’s cousin Heather has a friend at Iowa State University studying apparel design, Caine Westergard. Working on a tight schedule mere weeks from the OFW show’s start, Westergard and the Hansons collaborated on three dresses.
“I went ahead and started sketching and used some patterns I had,” says Westergard. “They sent me some paintings they thought would be interesting on some garments and let me have free reign of all the designing aspects of taking which paintings I liked and completely designing the dresses as to what I would think would complement their design. Then I mailed my dresses to the Hansons and they went ahead and painted them.”
“She came up w three blank slates, three blank canvasses if you will for Jeff to apply three different hand-painted styles on these dresses,” says Julie Hanson. “And there’s no secret, we have to help Jeff with that kind of thing a lot. Imagine being given one hand-made original dress and fresh paint is going to go onto it, and guess what, you can’t mess it up, and Jeff’s visually impaired, so we help Jeff with that a lot.”
Westergard appreciates how “extremely textured” Jeff’s work is. “Until you actually see it in person you don’t realize how many different levels and pieces there are
and what is actually beneath the paint and built up. They truly are works of art.”
Inspired by some his impressionistic landscapes, she created three dresses. For “The Grasse”s she imagined “standing out in an open field or prairie” and being caressed by the wind and the colors of the grass. “I really wanted that dress to be long and flowy. I wanted it to have a kind of wave as it walked down the runway with high-low skirt.”
“For “The Poppy” dress I cued off its vibrant color to create a more elegant feel. I wanted to make more of a ball gown of that dress. For “The Water Reservation” or “On the Water Rez” there’s so many different blocks and colors. It’s very bright and flowy. I just chose a very simple black satin with a peek-a-boo skirt. When you look at the garment you can see a little bit of the painting but not until the model walks and the peek-a-boo skirt opens can you actually see the painting on the skirt.”
She couldn’t be sure how Jeff’s art would work with her dresses until the hand-painting was complete.
“The first time I saw the dresses totally finished with my work and their work was the day of the fashion show. It was a little nerve wracking. I had complete faith in them but hand-painting a dress you only have one shot at it. It wasn’t like we had time for me to design another dress or for them to re-hand paint it. But they really turned out to be three really unique pieces that I’m definitely proud of and I know they’re really excited about.”
The audience roared its approval, too. “Seeing that our work was really impacting people was really neat.”
Refilling the bank of dreams
Hal Hanson never anticipated it would come to this. His son walking down the runway hand-in-hand with a promising young designer, surrounded by gorgeous models wearing hand-painted Hanson originals, lapping up the adoring cheers and applause of onlookers.
“I’m speechless,” Hanson says. “As a father, your kid is born and you have this dream bank. You look at your baby for the first time and you think, ‘OK, you’re going to be the quarterback of the football team’ or whatever and then events start occurring that start chipping away at your dreams. And you realize, ‘I guess we’re not going to do that,’ and before you know it he can’t drive a bicycle or roller-skate or see stars in the sky and you keep making withdrawals from your dream bank to the point you don’t’ have any more dreams.
“And that’s where I got pretty rock bottom. I was like, ‘I don’t see anything he can do between his learning problems and his vision problems.’ And then for him to start making and selling art, are you kidding me? Till the day you’re on this runway and people are liking these dresses. It’s just miraculous. My dream bank is bulging with deposits now. It was depleted five years ago, so it’s a huge turnaround.
“It’s turned into something amazing.”
Keep up with Jeff’s burgeoning career at http://jeffreyowenhanson.com.
- Low Vision Resource Center helps blind and visually impaired residents (mysanantonio.com)
- Artist Adriana Groza Launches Debut Paintings Collection 2013 (fineartamerica.com)
- A Colorful Life: Claire Desjardins (artsyforager.com)
- How One Social Entrepreneur Is Tackling Poverty in Cambodia (fuzeus.wordpress.com)
Hair designer Troy Davis of Omaha was amazingly forthcoming and transparent in a recent interview he did with me for this Encounter Magazine profle I wrote about him. As a fellow 12-stepper I know something of what he speaks. I know the courage and conviction it requires to be this honest about the hurt and the healing. His words and his story are bound to help someone else.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Encounter Magazine
Leading Omaha hair dresser Troy Davis long ago showed an educational and entrepreneurial knack for his craft and for building the Edgeworthy brand at Fringes Salon & Spa in the Old Market. Now that his mentor and longtime business partner, Fringes founder Carol Cole, has sold her interest in the location, he has a new partner and a new focus on managing costs. The result is record profitability.
“Fringes of the Old Market is the busiest and healthiest it’s ever been,” says Davis, who’s made Fringes an Omaha Fashion Week fixture.
“Troy and Fringes have been a very important part of Omaha Fashion Week, as they style many of our veteran designers and constantly impress with their ability to interpret the latest hair and makeup trends on our runway,” says OFW producer Brook Hudson.
Davis is glad to share in the success. He’s lately seen members of the Fringes team represent well in a recent competition and awards show. Never content to stay put, his Clear Salon Services business is a new generation, grassroots distributorship for independent hair care brands.
These professional triumphs have been happening as Davis addresses personal problems that “came to a head” last August but that have their roots in the past. Growing up in Blair, Neb., he began drinking and using drugs to mask the sexual identity issues he confronted as a gay teen in an environment devoid of alternative lifestyles.
“I felt so completely isolated. I lived in fear so badly that I hid it with drinking and weed,” he says.
A healthier form of self-expression he excelled in, speech and drama, seemed a likely direction to pursue out of high school. But first he moved to Omaha to experience the diversity he craved back home. He briefly attended Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, even landing the lead in the school’s fall production, before dropping out to attend beauty school in Omaha.
From their first meeting Davis and Cole knew they’d found a new best friend they could grow in their chosen field alongside. She says she immediately responded to his “passion and energy and drive,” adding, “Troy Davis has definitely made me a better person and stylist and leader.”
Within four years he’d proven to be such a trusted asset that Cole partnered with him in opening the Old Market shop.
“He earned that,” she says. “He just really wanted to be downtown. His heart was there. I finally said, ‘Look, if you want to be a partner, I’ll do it, but you’re going to have to step it up and find a location.’ And he did. I have to give him a lot of credit because he put a lot of grunt work into it to get it started.”
The rest is history, as Fringes became a presence in the Old Market for its ultra-contemporary, urban styles and high-end hair care and beauty services. Cole let him run things there so she could concentrate on the West Dodge site.
For Davis, Cole’s been more than just a business partner.
“Carol and I are so close. We just absolutely click,” he says. “She’s a very intelligent, very professional business woman. There’s not a lot of partnerships that make it. In a lot of ways our relationship is like a marriage, only platonic. I think it’s healthier or better than most marriages I know of. We are able to communicate in a way that most people are not. We can say anything to each other and even if it’s something that ends up hurting each other, we know that’s not our intention. Usually it’s one of us misunderstanding something and we’re always able to go back and clean it up.”
Davis has moved fast in the industry. While still in his 20s he became one of 10 international creative team members for Rusk, a role that saw him flown all over the world to teach other hair dressers the use of the international distributor’s products. He worked in the Omaha salon during the week and jetted around on weekends.
It gave him the stage, the lights, the theatrics he felt called to. It also meant lots of money and partying.
All the while, his addictions progressed.
He was prepping for the always stressful Omaha Fashion Week last summer when he and his life partner split for good. Amidst the breakup, the all-nighters, running his businesses, and leading an online advocacy campaign for a Fringes team that showed well in the national Battle of the Strands competition, Davis crashed.
“By the time I hit bottom I was drinking every day and drinking to black out three days a week and, you know, it just had to end. I finally realized I am an alcoholic. It was a real wake up call.”
He’s now actively working a 12-step program.
“It’s definitely helped me get sober. I definitely thank my Higher Power for the strength I’ve had to get where I am today.”
He’s not shy sharing his ups and downs.
“I’ve always been a very honest and open person. I’ve actually shared publicly via Facebook some of my bottoms and what I’ve learned in my treatment. In order to achieve something you need support in your life and there is a connection through Facebook with family and friends that I think is very useful. I see it as an opportunity to share with them what I’m going through and the choices I’m making for myself.”
He calls his 12-step group “a new addition to my family,” adding, “They’re great people.” Like many addicts he’s replaced his former addictions for a couple new, blessedly benign ones – Twitter and tattoos.
As his recovery’s progressed he’s grown in other ways, too, including taking charge of his Fringes store’s finances.
“It’s absolutely the best thing that could have happened for this business. It’s given me a whole new level of accountability. I see things more clearly and because of that we’ve broken through a plateau we were never able to get past.”
He credits new business partner Sarah Pithan, a former assistant, for helping increase business by more than $4,000 a week. He also credits the “amazing team” he and Pithan have cultivated, including Omar Rodriguez, Kristina Lee and Teresa Chaffin, for taking Fringes and Clear Salon Services to new levels.
- Old Market Pioneer Roger duRand (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Entrepreneur and Craftsman John Hargiss Invests in North Omaha: Stringed Instrument Maker Envisons Ambitious Plans for his New Hargissville Digs (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Entrepreneur and Craftsman John Hargiss Invests in North Omaha: Stringed Instrument Maker Envisons Ambitious Plans for his New Hargissville Digs
John Hargiss is doing something that a lot more people need to do – he’s investing in North Omaha. He’s actually moved his successful stringed instrument business from booming Benson to a rough trade section of northeast Omaha in need of some love and reinvestment. His faith in the area is strong and it’s just what that community needs, that and people like Hargiss who put their money where their mouth or senitment are. Hargiss is a cool cat who straddles the edgy and contemporary with Old World craftsman values. His new digs include an old theater he plans to restore into a live performance center. It would be a great boon to the area.
by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The subtle twang in the voice of stringed instrument-maker and roots musician John Hargiss betrays his southern Missouri Ozarks origins. As a boy he learned acoustic guitar under his musician-craftsman-woodsman father’s instruction. As a young man he mastered constructing guitars under “that old man,” the wood harvested from walnut trees the father felled and the son hand-shaped. He feels part of a “lineage.”
Hargiss is the only one in his family who left those backwoods foothills for new horizons. After years scuttling about, working river boats and toiling in factories down South, he settled in Omaha. He worked 9 to 5 jobs, married and raised kids but he always moonlighted making things with his hands and playing in bands. Then he stepped off the establishment wheel to start his own business.
What began in his Country Club home’s garage he built into Hargiss Stringed Instruments in Benson. In a building he owned free and clear on the Maple Street strip he offered a full service luthier shop featuring his hand-made guitars, mandolins and banjos. Customers for his patented traveler’s guitar, The Minstrel, include Grammy-winners Norah Jones, Carly Simon and Judy Collins, the late rocker Dan Fogelberg and Omaha’s own Conor Oberst. His shop survived Benson’s lean years to become an anchor retail presence in that revived business district. He’s led Benson preservation and improvement efforts.
But just as that resurgence has peaked he’s picked up and moved to a ragtag northeast Omaha neighborhood that’s seen violent crime and struggled to attract businesses. His new digs at 4002 Hamilton Street include five connected buildings he’s purchased for a song. He’s spent most of 2012 restoring them, including the former vaudeville and movie theater, The Winn, at 4006 Hamilton, whose interior shell he’s made his temporary living quarters. He plans converting one of many potential spaces in his new dwellings into a finished apartment for himself.
His vision for the 35,000 square feet he possesses goes beyond his corner store and workshop to encompass a school for chartered apprentices, a live performance venue and a courtyard. He pictures a hub for artisans of all types. He calls his mecca, Hargissville, which fits his ultra laid-back Jimmy Buffett-like persona.
“A place like this has got the potential to do anything you want to do,” says Hargiss. “If it doesn’t pan out I’ll turn it into a haunted house.”
Why leave a sure thing in Benson for a transitional neighborhood?
“When I see all this area, I was meant to be and do this for this area,” says Hargiss. “I love this area. I belong here now, I know that.”
He describes how when prospecting the run-down, long-vacant properties he had an epiphany this was the right spot. But that inspiration was tinged by the hard reality of what it would take to get it all in shape.
“I knew it when I first came in. I just didn’t want to do the work.”
Months into a project that’s seen him do most of the restoration himself and that’s taken a toll on him physically – “It’s wiped me out, it’s been stressful” – he says, “I still think to myself, ‘You belong here more than you’ve ever belonged anyplace. This is why you’re here.’ I think it’s what I’d been slowly waiting for. A sign.”
There were times he second-guessed it, especially after undergoing bypass surgery and then weathering another health scare, all the while taking little time off.
“I became my worst enemy because I was trying to keep that (Benson) business running, trying to make this move over here, trying to get this place cleaned out. I mean, the cleaning part was just outrageous.”
He embraces the idea of being more than a custom instrument maker, repairer and restorer “to being able to provide other types of services. That’s exciting.” Offering a community short on amenities a welcoming cultural oasis like a fully functional live entertainment space and a place for craftsmen to play their trades has him stoked.
“My goal is to put this back to a performance center for live theater, music, arts, crafts,” he says picking his way through the in-progress theater, which features a 20-foot high ceiling and many intact architectural elements.
Doing the work largely himself and funding it entirely on his own has proven a beast but he figures the tradeoff is worth it. He’s saving on the restoration cost and preserving his independence. He estimates between the purchase price and the rehab he’s into it for “a couple hundred thousand dollars.”
“I really haven’t put a lot in because I’ve done the labor and everything has been here to work with,” he says. “Anything you see has been all reclaimed. I’m using 100 percent recycled goods out of this building.”
The original tin-stamped ceiling tiles from the theater now adorn the ceiling of his new music store and workshop, which for many years housed Martin’s Bakery and most recently was home to a carpet and an appliance repair store.
He’s accepted some assistance but he resists being beholden to anyone.
“Habitat for Humanity has been an asset to me with discounted supplies,” he says. “There are grants available to restore. I wish I had some foundation donations to do this. But you lose something when you do that. I think you’re obligated to someone else when you do that. Eventually that catches up with you.”
He’s all in with this venture and for the long haul, too. And make no mistake about it, he’s doing it his way, just the way he approaches his luthier work.
“I’m not stuck, I’m not governed by, ‘Well, you can’t do it this way.’ Of course I can. Because the sound that this is going to produce is mine,” he says, fingering a guitar in his Old World workshop filled with vintage tools. “When you get to control it and you wear all of these hats, you’re the CEO, you’re the boss, you’re the luthier, you’re the repairman, you’re the refinisher, you’re the engineer, the architect, you’re all of these things at one time. So it lets me express my creativity 100 percent, and I think you have to. You reconnect with it. God, I hate to say it, but you do become a part of it.”
Since moving his business he’s discovered North O’s bad reputation is overblown.
“I think I had convinced myself I need a bulletproof vest, some guns and dogs because this is going to be bad. Well, I’ve lived here over two months and it’s the most peaceful place I’ve ever lived in in my life. Some of the nicest neighbors you’ll ever met. They’re working class people. You have your share, same as Benson, of panhandlers but for the most part they’re nice people. They stop in regularly.”
He hopes other creatives make their way to North O to invest there the way he’s done. “What would excite me most is to get them to follow me on up here.” He thinks the area’s poised to blossom the way Benson has. “When I got there it was really going down the tube. You had like 10 thrift stores and some bad bars. Nobody would come to Benson because it just wasn’t a nice place to come to. In the last six years it’s exploded. Once a small group of business owners got on the bandwagon the others were like, ‘We’ve gotta get this building cleaned up.’ Now it’s party central.”
He’s not missing out on all of the Benson boom. He still owns a building there and leases it at a premium. But he simply ran out of room for his dreams there. “Then this opportunity came up on 40th Street and that took care of that problem. It’s the ideal place.”
For updates on his plans visit http://www.hargissstrings.com.
- Carver Building Rebirthed as Arts-culture Haven; Theaster Gates, Rebuild and Bemis Reimagine North Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
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- Free Radical Ernie Chambers the Subject of New Biography by Author Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
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Heartland Latino Leadership Conference Features Dynamic Speakers for Networking, Motivational, Recognition Events
Each year the Who’s-Who of Latino Omaha gather for the Heartland Latino Leadership Conference and as I’ve done the last few years I wrote an advance piece about the event and some of its keynote speakers, and my story previewing the 2012 conference and select presenters follows.
Heartland Latino Leadership Conference Features Dynamic Speakers for Networking, Motivational, Recognition Events
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in El Perico
Motivational speakers will draw on personal stories of achieving high educational and professional goals in the face of hardships at the annual Heartland Latino Leadership Conference & Expo. Now in its 13th year, the November 8-9 event will focus on the themes of authentic leadership and community success in talks by local and national presenters.
Thursday Career Expo, 1-4 p.m.
CoolThink Youth Rally, 4-5:30
Welcome Reception, 5:30-8:30
Friday Registration and exhibitor booths open, 7:30 a.m.
Scholarship Luncheon, 11:45 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. (Sixteen local students will receive college scholarships)
Latino Leadership Gala Awards Reception, 5:30-6:30
Latino Leadership Gala Awards Dinner, 6:30 to 8:30 (Community service awards will be presented)
Keynote speakers and personal, community and corporate development workshops are scheduled throughout the day on Friday.
All of it takes place at the Omaha Hilton, 1001 Cass Street.
Conference chair Julissa Lara, a Mutual of Omaha distribution compensation specialist, says she’s eager to hear speakers address topics close to her heart.
“An authentic leader to me is talking the talk and walking the walk. It’s doing (things) to benefit not only yourself but others and that will grow your community.”
About the “great” lineup of presenters, she says, “You may not remember their names but you’ll remember the content of what they say, I can guarantee you.”
Life change artist Shayla Rivera is the featured speaker at Thursday’s 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Welcome Reception. The Puerto Rico native went from knowing zero English to earning an aerospace engineering degree to working as a NASA astronaut to becoming a motivational speaker and corporate trainer to remaking herself into a successful standup comic.
Leaving everything behind she knew in Puerto Rico for America sent her into a depression. She determined to learn English. She says experiences like these taught her the power of “making a true decision,” adding, “I’ve made a lot of pretty radical changes in other people’s eyes but they seemed logical to me. You have to listen to yourself. It’s easier not to do that. It’s easier to listen to the voice of your parents or of obligation or of what’s ‘realistic.’ That’s ca-ca. You gotta listen to yourself and not just listen but take a step and be kind of bold about it.”
“The people who are really following themselves are the trendsetters,” she says. “We’re not taught how to do that and we’re not given permission. You kind of go through life not thinking about what you believe. You kind of march in step. Latinos especially, We’re expected to be all of a certain political inclination and religion and all that stuff. We have to foster individuality and let people be whatever they are.”
As “an awareness expert” Rivera challenges us to uncover our beliefs “because our beliefs determine our lives. The process is painful but learning how to laugh at yourself will keep you sane.”
She says despite all she’s done “I still feel like I have a whole lot more to do.” She’s sure she’ll” reinvent herself again. Each new path, she says, “found me because I was open to it.” In today’s fluid world she says “it’s imperative we embrace change – life and technology demand it. We’re used to asking our children, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ and what we need to ask anymore is, ‘What do you want to be first?’”
Friday’s 8:15-10 a.m. session keynoter Joaquin Zihuatanejo went from award-winning classroom teacher to world champion poet. In finding his bliss he’s living proof education can be transformational. He made it out of the east Dallas barrio with the encouragement of his grandfather, who forced him to read aloud to him nightly. At first resisting the ritual, Zihuatanejo says, “I came to find the beauty in what I was reading. I just became enamored with words. It was my salvation “
He says it can be for others, too.
“Reading and writing and education are the great equalizers. If you become good with reading and writing you in turn become a strong student and thus you become good at education and when that happens I don’t care where you come from, it makes you equal to any other student on the planet because you can excel.”
It’s a message he drives home with youth.
“If I can talk young Latinos into empowering themselves through the act of reading and writing, they may not grow up to be a world champion poet but then again they may grow up to be a dentist or a doctor or an accountant or a lawyer. Anything you do you have to be an effective communicator.”
He acknowledges many Latino youths face obstacles that make learning difficult but he adds, if they can just find that book that makes them think, ‘This is me, they’re telling my story…’ For me that book was Bless Me Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya.”
He says he’s always encouraged young people to chase their dreams but it wasn’t until one of his students challenged him to follow his own advice that Zihuatanejo quit teaching to become a full-time poet. That makes two callings, teaching and poetry, he’s cultivated and he’s committed to inspiring others to find theirs.
HLLC Chair Julissa Lara says as the annual conference has grown over its 13 years so has the number of high caliber keynote speakers. Friday’s Scholarship Luncheon keynoter, Graciela Tiscareno-Sato, is the author of the best-selling book Latinnovating: Green American Jobs and the Latinos Creating Them. Tiscareno-Sato will discuss “Grabbing Opportunity in the Green Innovation Economy” through real stories of “creative Latino entrepreneurs” and innovators rarely featured in mainstream media.
“We need to show who we really are and how we’re really contributing economically,” she says. “Something that isn’t known is we start businesses at twice the national average.”
In Omaha she’ll offer case studies of Latinos on the cutting edge of America’s transition to a green economy and share ideas for education-career paths that best prepare Latinos to tap into this new paradigm,
“There’s a lot of different ways to participate and some of them are technical and some of them are not,” she says.
She enjoys inspiring audiences with her tales of Latinnovators. She says two typical reactions her stories elicit are: “Wow, I didn’t know that,” and “Hey, that person’s just like me.” She says the only way these stories get the attention they deserve is if Latinos communicate them.
“Latinos, due to culture and tradition, are told we don’t talk about ourselves. We’re not used to telling our stories and proclaiming from the rooftop and being loud and proud. That’s not what we do. But it’s up to us, we own this responsibility, we own telling our stories and getting them out there.”
Marie Quintana, president-CEO of her own management consultant business, Quintana Group, is a success story in her own right. For her Friday Gala Awards Dinner keynote she’ll discuss strategies for tapping the inner leader in us all. Her talk “Embracing Authentic Leadership: Unleashing Your Strongest Life” draws on her personal and professional empowerment experiences.
“I will share some stories from my life that reflect times when I had to really reach deep down to ensure I was being authentic,” she says. “I think it’s important to be an authentic leader but it’s also important to be first of all an authentic person and to do that you have to start with a strong awareness of who you are, your roots, your values, your integrity.
“I was born in Cuba. I came to this country in the ’60s. In trying to navigate through these two worlds I had a difficult assimilation. So I had to be sort of the trailblazer. I think every Latino is always going to have that – where you’re very connected to your roots but then you go to work and maybe it’s not as familiar. I think the balance of that is very important.”
She advises doing self-appraisals.
“I think the first thing a person needs to do is to look at their life as a story. I call these defining moments. There’s been defining moments in every single stage of my life. Something happened at each stage that reminded how important it is to connect to who I am, to where I came from. That has built a foundation for me to take on whatever challenges and opportunities have come in my life. I think our strength comes from these moments.
“That (process) helps you become authentic and more aware of who you are and why you’re doing what you’re doing, so your life takes on a much more deeper meaning. Through my journey I’ve become a better person and a more authentic leader because I really call out my Latina heritage. I use the best I’ve been given through my roots and family and who I am and I bring that to my work.”
She says whether you think so or not leadership has something to do with you.
“I think we’re all called to be leaders in one way or another. People who don’t believe they’re leaders don’t believe in themselves. It really starts with you. You have to believe in yourself for other people to see you as a leader. Once you develop your gifts, then you’re ready to operate from your strengths and not your weaknesses. You get courage, you can take risks, you’re much more capable moving your life forward.”
She advocates Latino youth find mentors and sponsors to guide them and she reminds adults they need guidance too.
The public may register for the entire conference or purchase event-only tickets. Visit http://www.heartlandlatino.org for details.
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When proclamations start getting made about some new area of my city, Omaha, being a hot new spot my natural cynicism tells me I need to see for myself if there’s anything to the claims or if it’s just manufactured puffery. That was my cautious, cynical first response (in my head) when an editor asked me to write a piece about the purported revival going on in a neighborhood, Benson, I know fairly well from having grown up a mile east of it. Specifically, it is the Benson business district that many proprietors and observers say is undergoing a revival or rejuvenation or transformation that is making this strip a destination place. I must admit that though I had my doubts about it I have now seen it for myself and while I may be giving what’s happening there more credence than it deserves it is clear that something vital is unfolding in Benson that cannot be ignored. The dynamism there is well under way. It’s one part of a redeveloping North Omaha whose next big awakening and remaking will be playing out in the northeast boundaries once known as the Near Northside. It all bodes well for parts of the inner city here that have too long gone to seed. It only shows that with the right care and cultivation these older neighborhoods can be born again to blossom anew.
Revival of Benson Business District Gives Omaha a New Destination Place
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the Sept/Oct 2012 issue Omaha Magazine
The quaint, sleepy Benson you once breezed through to get somewhere else is suddenly the hip new place to be.
This working class neighborhood’s old-line business district has been made new again as a full-fledged entertainment strip. Music, drinking, dining establishments, along with art galleries, line both sides of Maple Street from 58th to 70th, many attractions housed in historic century-old buildings. The nightlife joints mix with anchors Haney Shoe Store, the Benson Community Center, a U.S. Postal Service station, bank branches, Kremer Funeral Home, thrift stores and Jane’s Health Market.
The activity really picks up at night, when parking’s tight.
Enhanced street lights and historical signs add ambience. Plans call for more amenities and streetscape improvements, including a revamped East entrance, better traffic flow, more pedestrian-friendly walkways and communal green space.
Benson’s revival is reminiscent of when the Old Market went from tired warehouse district to vital arts-culture hub. Some feel it’s already a destination.
“The Old Market has nothing on us,” says Hargiss Stringed Instruments owner and Benson historian John Hargiss.
Few but Hargiss saw this in store for Benson, where six years ago vacant storefronts and empty streets made it a ghost town at night.
“I knew it was coming, I knew it was on its way. It’s hard to keep this little town down,” he says. “I mean it’s seen the worst. It’s seen the Easter Sunday tornado it’s seen annexation, but it’s pretty damn resilient. It comes right back. When I got here in 1987 it was really going down the tubes. And then you saw this weird period when nobody would come to Benson because it wasn’t a nice place to come to.”
“In the last six years it’s exploded. Benson is definitely party town now,” says Hargiss. “There’s a young generation that owns this town in the evening.”
“We’re inspired is what it is,” says Ryan. whose enthusiasm led her to acquire the old Benson Theatre, which she hopes to restore as a multi-use arts-community space. “The news on the street is that Benson’s so much fun. People are really enjoying it.”
Espana restaurant-tapas bar helped make Benson a destination but the real catalyst came when The Waiting Room Lounge and live music venue opened in 2008.
“The Waiting Room was huge. It was the big solidifier for the neighborhood,” says John Larkin, co-owner of Jake’s Cigars & Spirits and The Beercade.
Benson Business Improvement District co-chair D’Ann Lonowski, whose Mint Design Group is in downtown Benson, says “gone are the days when Espana and The Waiting Room were the only two reasons people came down here.”
Indeed, a half-dozen eateries have opened on the strip or nearby, the cuisines ranging from New American (Lot 2, Mantra) to cajun (Ethel Mae’s) to Peruvian (Taita). Some hold-over diners (Leo’s, Joe’s) remain. A gourmet sandwich shop (Star Deli) is coming.
Craft beer bars have entered the scene, including The Sydney and Krug Park, whose owners, Marc Leibowitz and Jim Johnson, are the men behind One Percent Productions and The Waiting Room. New bars, including a brewery, are on tap.
“The bars are the driving force behind what’s happening down here,” says Larkin, but increasingly restaurants are too. Lot 2′s proved a sensation.
Paper Doll vintage clothing store, the Pet Shop Gallery and the 402 Arts Collective. are new entries.
The buzz, affordable property rates, tight-knit community and brisk Maple Street Corridor make Benson a prime site biz location.
Larkin says opening in Benson was a no-brainer because “the price was right.”
Lot 2 owners Brad and Johanna Marr already lived in Benson but now they’ve put business stakes there. “Benson is a great neighborhood and the perfect fit for our concept,” says Brad. “We saw the activity and energy going on and we wanted to contribute to the neighborhood’s progression.”
Community events bring added exposure. The July Benson Days celebrated Benson’s 125th anniversary with fireworks and concerts. Block parties and a weekly farmer’s market bring people out. First Friday art walks initiated by artists Alex Jochim and Jamie Hardy (Pet Shop Gallery) are proving popular.
“I feel like that’s a good example of what Benson is all about,” says Johnson. “That was started by these two artists who wanted to do it and it’s been a huge success. I think a lot of Benson is like that. It’s filled with people who have good ideas and are very community-based. Most of the buildings and businesses are owned by private individuals. There’s no big development group.”
“It’s all done independently, it’s all locally owned businesses,” notes Larkin. “It really creates that sense of pride.”
“For me it’s very much full-circle,” says Ryan. “Benson’s history is based on entrepreneurship. Mom and Pop shops. That’s what it’s always been.”
Today, Benson’s an eclectic community of self-made men and women growing their ventures organically on dreams and sweat equity. Owners like Ryan, Larkin and Johnson have invested so much there they intend staying.
“It’s been exponential growth. We’ve certainly crossed the threshold of making it and I only see this getting bigger and better,” says Larkin.
The various interests representing Benson are collaborative. Benson Neighborhood Association president Liz Muldenhauer says, “Even though we have some distinct personalties these individuals and groups are working together to make positive changes to make our community better.”
Owners say they throw everything they make back into their businesses for restoration and expansion. Several storefronts sport new facades.
Hargiss, who’s reluctantly leaving Benson for a bigger space, feels good about the new blood doing business there: “They put back here as much as they can.”
“It’s really wonderful to see these entrepreneurs coming in and getting behind this community,” Ryan says. “What Benson has going for it is an incredible grassroots spirit. People are so eager to assist each other.”
Marr agrees, saying, “Everybody is very supportive of one another.”
Ryan, who comes from a community development background, opens the PS Collective to meetings, art exhibits and live music concerts.
Being in a self-sustainable neighborhood appeals to Lonowski.
“The first thing I do when I need a service in my building is look for somebody in Benson. I want to support the people around me that support me,” she says.
She’s eager for others to discover all it has to offer. “We want people who maybe haven’t taken a second look at Benson in awhile to come down to see what a diamond-in-the-rough it is,” says Lonowski, who touts its “creative vibe.”
Muldenhauer embraces the creatives community but the “small town atmosphere, character and great value” are what sold her on moving there. “I love it,” she says. “There’s so many good things going on.”
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What follows is a historical narrative I was commissioned to write for the Creighton University College of Businesss. The gist of the assignment was to articulate how the enterpreneurial focus and service to society mission of the college is in alignment with the enterprising and giving natures of the university’s pioneering founders, including businessmen and staunch Catholics Edward and John Creighton and the Jesuits.
Creighton College of Business Anchored in Pioneering Entrepreneurial Spirit and Jesuit Philosophy
©by Leo Adam Biga
Enterprising Spirit Animates the Creighton Story
Creighton University was founded in 1878 thanks to a confluence of figures whose pioneering, entrepreneurial, for-the-greater-good spirit established a caring, comprehensive academic institution on the Great Plains.
As Creighton has grown, so has the city it is situated in, Omaha, Nebraska. The Jesuit school and campus provide an anchor in the north downtown district. Graduates of Creighton’s professional schools and colleges of law, medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, nursing, and business, for example, are recognized leaders in their fields. Creighton is lauded for being a good neighbor and a vital asset to the community.
The university makes contributions to many quality of life areas and some of the most visible are made by the Creighton University Medical Center, which combines teaching, diagnosis, and treatment in a real-life, critical care setting.
Community service is a vital facet of the Creighton experience. Students, faculty, and staff donate time and talent through health care and legal aid clinics. Service-learning efforts address myriad needs at home, around the nation, on Native American reservations, and in the Dominican Republic, where Creighton maintains an Institute for Latin American Concern mission.
Community collaboration and partnerships are other dimensions of Creighton’s outreach. The Werner Institute is a model initiative for negotiation and conflict resolution in the conduct of business, in relationships within and among organizations and communities, in the workplace, and in health care settings.
The Halo Institute is a collaborative that provides incubator space and professional consultation for emerging start-up businesses with a social or bioscience entrepreneurial bent. Halo is located in a complex of buildings in Omaha’s Old Market, a historic district whose warehouses were home to the city’s wholesale produce and outfitting businesses. Creighton University’s founders, brothers Edward and John Creighton, did business out of the very 19th century structure that Halo occupies today.
Creightons Set a Precedent for Being Entrepreneurial and Community-Minded
It is only fitting that the university retain a tangible connection to the Creightons, as the family’s lives and careers embodied the same principles that underscore the institution’s core mission and the way in which it’s carried out.
Edward and John Creighton were business magnates and devout Catholics from the East who settled in Omaha in the years immediately prior to the Civil War. The Creightons amassed a fortune through various business interests and invested significant portions of that wealth into bettering the community through charitable support.
Builder, developer, and visionary Edward Creighton, the older of the two, got in on the ground floor of the burgeoning telegraph and railroad industries. He and his companies played a major role in supplying and constructing the transcontinental lines and rails that grew America’s communication and transportation networks.
Edward’s vast commercial empire was also built on bank, mine, cattle, and land holdings. His many business partners included fellow movers-and-shakers in the development of Omaha and in the settling of the West. Concurrent with Edward’s capitalist impulses was a desire to give back. It had long been his wish to form a Catholic school that prepared young people through a quality, values-based education program. After Edward’s death, his widow Mary Lucretia Creighton, and his younger brother John, a successful entrepreneur in his own right, carried out his wishes by founding Creighton University, which was originally called Creighton College.
Respected for their expertise as educators and for the rigorous morals and ethics-based course of study they administer, the Society of Jesus was given rein over the university. The Jesuits have continued guiding Creighton throughout its existence.
That same early spirit of aspiration, invention, and service is still imbued in Creighton more than a century later. Consistently rated one of the top institutions of higher learning in the Midwest, Creighton is rooted in its Catholic and Jesuit identity and mission of educating the whole person and leaving the world a better place. Creighton graduates are prepared to lead purpose-driven lives and careers.
College of Business Reflects the Creighton Legacy and the Jesuit Tradition
This mission extends to the university’s College of Business, founded in 1920 as the College of Commerce. Guided by the school’s Jesuit heritage, Through its highly respected undergraduate and graduate level programs he College of Business forms leaders who promote justice and use their business knowledge to improve the world.
Michael Jung, Chief Operating Officer and Vice President of Cantera Partners, has used his MBA from Creighton to assist nonprofits develop public-private partnerships aimed at building economic development and sustainability in emerging and Third World nations.
“It is rewarding work, not only financially but from seeing the difference these programs can make in the world,” says Jung. “Some of the work that I have been involved in is feeding children in Afghanistan. We were feeding 75,000 school kids on a daily basis for five years. Just seeing the impact that can have on those children, mothers, families is very rewarding. I like being part of work that is actually making a difference with those not as fortunate as us here in the United States.”
The Creighton College of Business advances values-centered conduct through its courses as well as through its Academic Integrity Policy, Dean’s Honor Roll for Social Responsibility, Executive Partners Program, Anna Tyler Waite Center for Leadership, Leadership Conversations series, and other programs.
The business college is a founding member and active participant in the Greater Omaha Business Ethics Alliance. This partnership with the Omaha Chamber of Commerce and the Better Business Bureau advocates ethics in business.
Creighton MBA graduate Laura Larson is associate director of the Business Ethics Alliance.
“I think Creighton’s Jesuit focus prepared me so well for my job now in the business ethics industry,” says Larson. “I saw a focus in my classes on looking out for each person individually, the good of every person, taking the time to think about how a decision affects all stakeholders involved.
“Values have always been very important to me and acting morally and ethically has always been very important to me. When I came to Creighton and got the opportunity to work with the Business Alliance it really was a dream job to me because I’m making a difference in Omaha organizations every day. I’m bringing knowledge, skills, and resources involving ethics that organizations may not already have. I feel like I have a dream job just because I get to help others. “
Pat Lazure is president of World Interactive Group, an Omaha World-Herald company. He founded a hyper-local Web platform, WikiCity, whose breakout success led the Omaha World-Herald Co. to buy it and bring him into the fold.
Holder of a Creighton MBA, Lazure appreciates the solid foundation he received in ethical business practices during his Creighton graduate studies.
“Business ethics is doing the right thing, sometimes even when it is uncomfortable to do,” Lazure says, “and in my education at Creighton business ethics was just a common ingredient, categorically, in every class I attended. It was just engrained in you. I think a Creighton graduate is conditioned to take that moral compass into their career.
“The Jesuits have always engrained being men and women for others. In a business career especially I think you can fall into a trap of being self serving, of only looking at what can I do to climb that corporate ladder. Or what can I do to promote my own stock. Or how can I cut corners. I think the Jesuit way instills in people a focus of being that man or woman for others, and seeing the broader landscape of things. Perhaps that’s through philanthropy or community service. Whatever it may be, it’s commingling the philanthropic aspects of life with the drive to turn a profit.”
Imagination, Innovation, Integrity Find a Home at Creighton
The College’s Social Entrepreneurship and Bioscience Entrepreneurship programs emphasize business models that feature sustainable new practices and technologies that can positively impact society and community.
Omaha native Sameer Bhatia graduated from medical school in India and then earned his MBA from Creighton’s Bioscience Entrepreneurship Program. That experience led him to the Halo Institute, where his start-up business, Guru Instruments, found a nurturing space. Guru is focused on designing and marketing tools for medical professionals that improve surgical and other procedures, thereby increasing efficiency and reducing costs. Bhatia dreams of automated devices that can serve as “virtual physicians” in patients’ own homes or in nursing homes by feeding data to doctors’ offices to help inform diagnostic or treatment options.
Creighton Entrepreneurship Program director Ann York says Bhatia fits the model of a socially conscious entrepreneur who is not only motivated to succeed with products that have a humanitarian utility but who will likely “give back.”
For York there is a clear throughline from what the Creighton brothers did as early social entrepreneurs and the way Creighton University graduates learn to apply social entrepreneurship today. She says the principles and lessons of social entrepreneurship taught at Creighton dovetail with those of the Jesuit tradition and its challenge to students to be stewards of society.
“Given the mission and the values of our university as a Jesuit institution it makes perfect sense that social entrepreneurship would capture the hearts and minds of our students,” says York.
She cannot help but see the connection between the way Edward Creighton conducted business and the way Creighton students and graduates learn to engage with each other and with community.
“The older brother, Edward, was sort of a maverick,” says York, “but he was very into social causes. He was very concerned about Native American rights and education and respecting the integrity of the Native American people. In working on the railroad routes and telegraph lines, negotiations with Native Americans occurred all along the way and he was very concerned about some of the things he saw going on and actually was pretty outspoken about it. He was also an abolitionist, and pretty vocal about that, too. That’s very socially conscious.
“Entrepreneurs are the most socially conscious of all business people. Entrepreneurs who make money often want to give something back to the community that helped them grow and flourish, and the Creightons were very much that type of family.”
York also sees a parallel between the technological pursuits of the Creightons and the university’s bioscience entrepreneurship efforts. Just as that pioneering family helped to advance rapid communication through the telegraph and to further mass
transportation through the railroad, the school’s entrepreneurial success stories are forging new frontiers of their own.
“I think the Creightons would embrace very much what we’re doing in the biosciences,” York says, “because I think they would recognize it as an emerging industry like the ones they were involved and they would see the potential for future entrepreneurs like themselves.”
Nurturing Creatives and Leaders
After experiencing success with its undergraduate Bioscience Entrepreneurship program, Creighton has developed a professional science master’s program in Bioscience Management. College of Business Dean Anthony Hendrickson says the emphasis in this graduate-level program “is really the management of that bioscience innovation process — the research and development.”
The Halo Institute is a supportive proving ground for social and bioscience entrepreneurial business models generated by Creighton students and faculty, although the incubator is open to applicants outside the Creighton community as well.
“The distinguishing thing about our Halo business incubator is that it is tied to our Jesuit mission,” says Hendrickson. “When as a board we look at different businesses the first question we ask ourselves is, ‘Relative to this service or product, what is its impact on society?’ Not its money making potential, but its impact on society. We consider that first and then after addressing whether it’s a good thing for society, we look at its business viability aspects, which is a different orientation. Most business institutions don’t do that because of their secular focus on business viability and profit potential. Most organizations ranking those things wouldn’t necessarily look at that social impact issue first.”
Halo Institute chair Roger Fransecky says participants in the incubator benefit from “the sponsorship, direction, and guidance of a values-based staff, and it’s all a reflection of what Creighton is about as an institution.”
Fransecky has an interesting perspective on the principled way Creighton approaches business precepts. Founder/CEO of the global leadership firm, Apogee Group, he serves on the College of Business advisory board and teaches a special course in personal leadership in the Creighton MBA program.
“I share deeply the values that Creighton espouses,” says Fransecky. “My students are doctors, lawyers, dentists, bankers, accountants, business people, and the common denominator is — they’re in this program not simply to get an MBA, they’re in this program to find work with meaning and to then link that work to the larger values of their lives. I’ve been very touched and moved by these grownups — they’re really smart and they care a lot. The thing that links them together is their aspirations and their values.
“I’ve taught at New York University and UCLA and Princeton and a lot of other places, and these (Creighton) students are very unique in my experience.”
ESPN reporter Paula Lavigne, who does enterprise piece’s for the cable sports network’s investigative “Outside the Lines” series, was a college graduate and working journalist when she decided to enhance her marketable skills. She decided to pursue a master of business administration degree and after considering several graduate schools she opted for Creighton’s MBA program.
“I chose Creighton because it has a wonderful reputation,” says Lavigne. “I appreciated the values it disposes. It was the Creighton faculty that really won me over. It was a wonderful blend of experienced faculty leading a discussion of people from all different backgrounds and engaged in really thought-provoking material.
“I feel like since I’ve gotten my MBA from Creighton I am more confident in my job and in the ideas I come up with. I feel that my MBA has really given me skills as a leader as well as a sense of credibility and business savvy I didn’t have before.”
Lavigne says she struggled with leadership until a breakthrough at Creighton.
“I think one of the most powerful moments from my Creighton experience was a personal leadership class I took. The professor really encouraged us to bring forth a lot of things from our past that were uncomfortable. By doing that it allowed me to see what I had been doing wrong as a leader and what strengths I could pull from to be a better leader going forward. It felt like a very cleansing moment for me.”
She says she learned leadership “is not just about numbers and board meetings, it’s really about people and it’s about your individual skills. This class really helped me come to terms with a lot of that. ” She says she now practices leadership on the job and as a presenter of workshops and training seminars for other reporters.
A Moral Compass
In addition to honing her leadership skills, Paula Lavigne says Creighton’s MBA program gave her a new, healthier perspective of business.
“Before I started the MBA program at Creighton I had a pretty cynical view of business, especially big business not really having much respect for business ethics or morality or social justice. In my view those values really didn’t have a role in the business community. My MBA classes at Creighton taught me that’s not really true. Professors were very good about incorporating that sense of justice, ethics, and morality into business, and really teaching us as students that there is a role for that. It is not just a dog eat dog world.
“I mean there is definitely a role in business to follow a moral compass of sorts and still be successful. I think that really plays into those Jesuit values, and I know that that sense of the Golden Rule is not just for Sunday school, but it’s for the boardroom as well. Our professors instilled in us that you don’t just have to run over everyone, you can respect your competition, you can respect your customers, and at the end of the day you can still profit from the bottom line.”
Creighton business professor and Robert Daugherty Chair in Management Robert Moorman says the College of Business encourages students not to be satisfied with the status quo. He says students are challenged to look beyond merely making a profit or returning a dividend to shareholders by asking questions that go deeper than bottom line numbers. He says students are trained to look at larger considerations; What’s next? What else is there to do? How are you going to use shareholder value to drive changes in the world toward justice, toward the improvement of society for the many?
“It’s that sense of responsibility to take one more step,” says Moorman. “Gathering the knowledge is a necessary important first step. Using the knowledge completes the circle. So I think this is a place where we try to ask the question, How are you going to use the knowledge, what are you going to do with it? Leadership is the method, the lever or the device that links knowledge to the outcomes we wish to see.
“I often say to students, ‘We want you to take ethics classes and really think about the ethics side of it, because we want you to be leaders who influence the world.’”
Moorman says that if students are going to be successful entrepreneurs they must know finance, marketing, strategy, and underlining business principles. Just as they must have a complete grasp of such business models, he says if f they are to be socially responsible entrepreneurs they must know and apply sound ethics. It’s this holistic approach to doing business, he says, that differentiates Creighton’s focus.
“Everything is kind of tied together that way,” he says. “I think the entrepreneurship major is really about fostering a drive towards innovation that makes a difference for society.”
Hendrickson sees plenty of evidence that Creighton business graduates implement the social consciousness taught in school in their own careers.
“It seems like there’s a number of Creighton grads that embrace this idea of social entrepreneurship, mostly because that’s the ethos from which they spring,” he says.
That ethos is one embodied by the Jesuit philosophy, past and present, and it’s certainly an ethos the Creighton family manifested.
Building on a Foundation of Serving the Greater Good
According to Creighton archivist David Crawford the Creightons were visionaries who saw the need for quality higher education that was broad in scope, yet specialized. The family’s philanthropy made possible the addition of the schools of medicine, law, pharmacy, and significantly, business. He says Creighton University added the then-School of Commerce at a time when there was growing recognition of the need for “scientific training” in business administration.
Whether donating the money to establish Creighton University or providing funds to build out the campus, including St. John’s Church, or financing the creation of professional schools, or supporting St. Joseph Hospital, Crawford says “the Creightons acted out of “a sense of responsibility” to serve their community and faith.
“Through a lot of their charitable works the Creightons took care of a number of voids in Omaha and Nebraska. I think they just saw this as part of giving back to the community.”
Crawford says this outward focus still resonates today with the social justice and community service work that Creighton students, faculty, and staff do in accordance with the school’s Jesuit mission.
“You see a strong sense that that’s what you do here — that’s the norm, and I think that really ties directly back to the Creightons. The commitment to putting a school here was part of a larger commitment. The leadership role of the Creighton family was very much in that mode of noblesse oblige (nobility obliges) — of feeling a responsibility to people in the area,” says Crawford. “There was a sense of, We’ve been blessed, there’s a lot of people in our community who are less fortunate, and we need to take care of them.”
Omaha is well known for its generous business and entrepreneurial sector and Creighton College of Business graduates are among the major players who make community service a priority here and wherever they live.
Laura Larson of the Greater Omaha Business Ethics Alliance credits Creighton University with nurturing a focus on others.
“Something that was really emphasized at Creighton was giving back to the community,” she says. “One way Creighton helped me to grow was that it really gave me the opportunity to make a difference in the MBA program. When I had an idea for a project I’d go to a faculty member to talk about it, and they were completely open to hear what I had to say and they gave me the tools necessary to implement the project. I was able to start a graduate student association and plan the first hooding ceremony for graduate business students.”
“After I was done with my MBA I got involved with a mentoring program in the Omaha area, so I now mentor a group of four to six kids twice a month. Serving others is something I was always very passionate about. It is something that has been instilled in me from a young age and Creighton emphasized it as well as I went through the program. “
Robert Moorman says the example of the Creightons and university graduates giving back demonstrates how trailblazers can assert leadership that goes beyond selfish business interests to serve much wider community and societal interests.
“It’s really about the drive that prompted the Creightons to explore new territories, new business ideas, new endeavors and not stop at perhaps a simple way station and say, I am successful now, that’s good enough, and I’m resting on my laurels. It’s about a very forward leaning entrepreneurial notion,” says Moorman, “and at least being comfortable with accepting the mantle of responsibility that comes with opportunity.
“Responsibility comes with those benefits. Leadership is the way in which influence is exercised. At the end of the day it’s all about exercising influence over the actions and views of other folks, and the Creighton brothers did that, the Creighton wives did that, and that I think is the connection we want to have to that legacy. It’s the what’s next — what else are you going to do now? outlook.”
An Unbroken Chain of Ingenuity and Inspiration
The holistic approach the Creightons modeled has remained a constant at the university and in its business college, whose graduates cultivate a sense of responsibility and concern they carry with them, paying it forward in their personal and professional lives.
“Getting my MBA at Creighton has made me more of a whole person,” says ESPN’s Paula Lavigne. “It has made me a better contributor in the workplace. It has made me a better leader. It has given me opportunities at ESPN and I believe it has opened up my opportunities for the long term as well regardless of what I do.
“One of the things we learned in our leadership classes was the importance of being authentic. You can’t be authentic if you have one face at work and a different one at home and a different face in your spiritual life. You have to make sure the person you are at work is true to the person you are at home because that makes you a better leader. As long as you’re being authentic to yourself, you can be a better person, you can be a better leader with your coworkers, with your supervisors, and the customers that you deal with.”
Balance, congruence, integrity, innovation, integration, service. These qualities have been a hallmark of the Creighton experience since its start. They remain a cornerstone of the values taught there today.
The enterprising and philanthropic spirit of the school’s founders has been taken up year after year, generation after generation by new mavericks animated with the same desire to achieve and lead.
Like the Creightons who began it all, the university continues producing men and women of substance, vision, and conscience who succeed in business and in life not in spite of their compassion and generosity but because of it.
- Creighton University Leads Statewide Initiative to Improve End-of-Life Care (prweb.com)
- Creighton University Launches Online Doctor of Education in Leadership (prweb.com)
- Institute for Latin American Concern at Creighton has Dominican Focus (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Home is Where the Heart Is for Activist Attorney Rita Melgares (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Community Trumps Gang in Fr. Greg Boyle’s Homeboy Model (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
If you’re a practicing journalist for very long in Omaha there are some local stories that will inevitably cross your professional path at one juncture or another. For years I had known about and experienced some of the fallout from the annual Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting that literally brings thousands of folks from around the world to town for face or proximity time with the Oracle of Omaha, billionaire investor and Berkshire chairman Warren Buffett. Until an Omaha Magazine assignment a few years ago I had never written about the event and while the gig didn’t call for me to actually cover the proceedings but instead to preview them I can at least say I’ve crossed off yet another Omaha tradition from my story bucket list.
Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholders Tuns Omaha into Buffettville Destination
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine
Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s once modest annual shareholders meeting has morphed into what one pundit called “Woodstock for Capitalists.”
Thanks to chairman Warren Buffett’s “Oracle” status, the weekend event’s now a branded experience. Sure, Buffett and partner Charlie Munger’s witty Q & A is popular, but there’s also exhibits by subsidiaries, entertainment, parties, concerts, tours and immersion in-all-things-Omaha. People drop big bucks on buying-junkets at Berkshire-held Borsheims and Nebraska Furniture Mart, which reportedly did $30 million in sales for last year’s spree. Gorat’s and Dairy Queen do well.
Economic crisis or not, thousands will once again venture here from across the nation and globe for the May 1-3 bash. The Saturday May 2 meeting is when Qwest Center Omaha overbrims with activity. Annual meeting director Kelly Muchemore-Broz said she’s seen the event take on “a life of its own.” “The first meeting I attended there were 200 shareholders. When I started helping with the meeting, there were a couple thousand. Back then we were able to pass microphones to the shareholders to ask their questions. Last year we had 32,000.”
The scale, said Qwest Center director of event operations Stan Benis, “is probably the largest we handle from start to finish. People come early and stay late. The event is certainly in a class of its own. The closest would probably be the American Idol tryouts, but even that didn’t take the entire convention center floor space.”
So, what goes into making it all happen?
Months in advance Muchemore-Broz begins working with a core team to plan every element of the all-day event. The devil’s in the details. That includes a theme. This year’s is cowboys. “I try to select themes that are whimsical, colorful and offer a large canvas of creative possibilities,” she said. Designers lead crews that dress the facility — this time in a Western motif. Only the arena’s left untouched. “It’s all business in there,” she said, referring to the venue where the company movie, Q & A and business meeting unfold. Everything else is fair game.
A live reenactment of a stagecoach hold-up will break out right in front of the Qwest on 10th Street. A Wild West show, minus shootouts, is on display inside.
“Every year it’s amazing to see an empty exhibit hall become completely transformed,” said team leader D’Ann Lonowski of Mint Design. “It is an elaborate setup that usually contains a large, central focal point in the exhibit hall. From there we branch out with scenery and signage.”
Muchemore-Broz said the most time-intensive work is “finalizing meeting details — designing, writing, printing, organizing, communicating and delivering meeting materials to both shareholders and attending exhibitors.” The most labor-intensive? “Stuffing envelopes,” she said.
All of it, the landscaping, centerpieces, booth displays and graphics, right down to passes and visitor guides, Lonowski said, must work together to “create a cohesive environment” and to “bring the theme to life.”
Then there’s the buzz. Think of Buffett as the iconic front man for a hot band whose star power gets shareholders to queue up hours before the meeting starts. “I believe the record was one o’clock the morning of the meeting. However, last year there was a gentlemen who arrived at 11 the night before,” said Muchemore-Broz. In terms of preparations, Benis said, “we treat it just like a rock show. The crowds are lined up outside and pass through a security checkpoint.” Once inside, he said, it’s a race of people “in suits-and-ties trying to get a front row seat.”
With attendance now at sold-out, stadium-concert proportions, demand on area service sectors, such as lodging, is great.
“The downtown hotels do sell out the summer before,” said Muchemore-Broz, “but room availability changes constantly –- right up to the weekend of the meeting. So it doesn’t mean you can’t get a room in Omaha.” However, she added, “If you wait until spring to get a room, it’s possible you could be as far away as Lincoln.”
Omaha Convention & Visitors Bureau executive director Dana Markel said its Visitor Center at 1001 Farnam Center sees double its highest traffic that weekend. “It’s just a spectacular event for Omaha and really nothing compares,” she said. “People come in from all over the world.”
The day of the meeting, Benis said, “parking is always a challenge but people seem to find spaces. A lot of attendees take the hotel shuttles or walk over.” As the arena can’t hold everyone, teleconferencing beams the meeting into the exhibit hall, the ballrooms and the concourses, where the overflow crowd mingles.
Accommodating all those visitors requires much coordination. Muchemore-Broz said countless people support the meeting and satellite events/activities. “My team members have their own staffs. Everyone at Berkshire works the meeting — including employees at a couple of our local insurance companies. There’s Qwest personnel, Omaha Police Department, Nebraska and Iowa State Patrol, Douglas and Sarpy County deputies. Many local residents volunteer to help. And, of course, the local restaurants, hotels, taxi companies, the airport –- the list goes on and on.”
At the Qwest, Benis said, “our event staff, including cleaners, is around 300 on the day of the meeting. Levy, our concessionaire, will have around 250 on site. Keeping the arena and convention center clean is always a challenge, but this event again is so different because of the length of time visitors are in the building.”
Muchemore-Broz said putting on the event is “a very exhilarating and fun grind. I’m thrilled when it’s over and everyone has had a terrific weekend but it’s sad too. It’s a big emotional let down when the lights go out. Every year is a lesson in growth and fine tuning.”
- Berkshire Hathaway’s Operating Profit Grows 37%, Net Income Beats Street Expectations (seekingalpha.com)
- Warren Buffett says Berkshire Hathaway may buy more newspapers (nextlevelofnews.com)
A decade ago I fairly called out the Nebraska independent filmmaking scene with this story that bemoaned the lack of home-grown feature filmmaking here. I used the example of locally based Oberon Entertainment completing a feature of some size, Full Ride, and with a distribution channel in place as being a great depature from what had been happening and what was happening at the time. Sadly though, with the exception of Nik Fackler taking things one step further with his Lovely, Still, in 2008, nothing much has changed. Oberon hasn’t made another feature. And whatever features Nebraskans have made here have apparently not gained much traction. No Omaha native filmmaker has yet broken out the way Alexander Payne has. Fackler’s come closest and I would still bet he’s the best candidate of the filmmakers who’ve emerged here the last decade to do so. Charles Fairbanks may be another. That’s not to say there aren’t some terrifically talented folks making shorts and even features here or that one or more them couldn’t break out. I just don’t know about them. I hope someone does if for no other reason then I’d like to write about them and their work being discovered and embraced by the masses. I must add though that the prospects for this happening have brightened because the film culture here has much become richer since this story was first published in 2012. The Omaha Film Festival and Film Streams are longer overdue and welcome additions to growing the film culture.
When Omaha Independent Filmmaking Took a New Turn of Did It?
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Filmmaking is a lot like sex. There are the wannabes who mainly talk about doing it and those who really get it on. With the exception of Alexander Payne, whose Hollywood-financed films place him in a special category, Omaha has had its share of cinema wet-dreamers. A few, like Steve Lustgarten, Dan Mirvish, Dana Altman and Shawn Prouse, managed scraping together tens of thousands of dollars from local investors and, by hook or crook, realized their grassroots indie aspirations using almost entirely local casts and crews. Until recently, though, no one succeeded in raising really serious money for a native-born production. That is until Oberon Entertainment Properties hit the scene.
An Omaha film production company formed in 2000 by Mark Hoeger, Andy Anderson and Thompson Rogers, Oberon’s partners quickly separated themselves from the local cinema pack by not only setting ambitious production and distribution goals but by doing enough homework and opening enough doors to actually reach some of those lofty goals. In researching the biz, including such centers of indie filmmaking as Austin, Texas and Charlotte, N.C., Oberon’s principal players say they found plenty of data to support their contention that homegrown movie-making could be a going concern.
Displaying a business acumen unseen before among area filmmakers, the three men went about doing exactly what they set out to do, including acquiring a marketable script and hot lead actors, lining-up investors to bankroll the $1.84 million project, securing a major distributor for the property before filming even commenced, completing their teen romance film, The Full Ride, without incident and attracting major players to represent their product around the world. Now, they are in the midst of raising a film financing pool, which they hope will total between $10 and $40 million, to help fund future Oberon projects.
While the company is still “pushing” to net a theatrical release for Full Ride, that prospect dims as time goes by, meaning the film will likely find exclusive distribution via home market venues (cable, video, network TV). With one major foreign TV sale already inked and other overseas-domestic sales in the works, Oberon has leverage on its side. The only thing left unproved is whether it returns a profit to investors and has any legs or staying power as a boutique film business. While Oberon seeks to avoid being a flash-in-the-pan, it should be noted no Omaha filmmaking venture (other than Payne’s) has followed-up a first pic with anything more than unfulfilled promise.
“When we started putting this company together it wasn’t to make a film, it was to create a film business. We don’t want to play at this — we’re too old,” said Anderson who, along with Hoeger, headed Full Ride’s 40-something creative team, with Anderson serving as cinematographer and Hoeger as director. It may be Oberon that is part of a Nebraska New Wave given that indie hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding was financed by Gold Circle Films, a division of Omaha-based Waitt Media.
The story of Oberon offers an insider’s-look at how things work in an industry predicated on gumption, guile and glad-handing, but also bottom lines. In an unprecedented move for local filmmakers, Oberon sold itself and its dream, in the form of a well-articulated business plan, to deep-pocket money-men. The journey began when Hoeger, former executive director of the Omaha Theater Company for Young People, was approached by Omaha author and ex-UNL football player George Mills with an original film story. The story concerned a troubled star high school football player, Matt, who is pressured by an ambitious coach and smitten by a small town girl, Amy, whose perfect facade hides an ugly truth.
With Mills bringing the project’s first investor aboard along with him, Hoeger agreed to film an 18-minute “pilot” or teaser to test the investment waters. Needing someone to shoot the pilot, Hoeger collaborated with Anderson, the maker of scores of TV commercials via his Anderson Productions. Each man had flirted with the movies before, Hoeger as a sometime filmmaker and film instructor and Anderson as a second-unit cinematographer on Hollywood export pics (including Payne’s Citizen Ruth andElection) and as cinematographer for omaha: the Movie.
The pair next approached Thompson Rogers, an Omaha entrepreneur and investor. It turned out their timing was right, as Rogers had already begun looking at film as a business opportunity. Rogers joined the team, but demanded his partners gather more facts and figures. “The great thing about having Tom on board is he put us through our paces in getting us to prove that we had a good idea and that we had the capacity for doing it,” Hoeger said. Anderson said the process “helped build our credibility in the business world because we approached it from a business standpoint rather than as, ‘Oh, we’ve got a great idea for a movie.’ We looked at the independent filmmaking business…at what independent films are doing domestically and internationally through all the different distribution venues.”
Hoeger said, “One of the pieces of data we found showed that films that get released are profitable overall, especially over their lifetime, but that the number of films released compared to the number of films that get made is very small. Because what we figured out was it’s easy to make a movie — it’s harder to get it out there. Now, one strategy is you make a film and then you try to get it into the Sundance Film Festival, where you hope to get a distribution deal. But out of the literally thousands of entries to Sundance, maybe only 50 films get shown and of those 50 maybe five end up in distribution. So, that’s a very high risk operation…it’s sort of the lottery theory of a business plan. We realized it was going to be hard to pitch that. We wanted something with better odds, which meant not starting production until we had some distribution channel in place.”
He said it turned out many of the 14 investors who signed on with Oberon have invested in films before or been approached to. He feels what aided Oberon in getting their support is the sober way it wooed potential backers. “I think the main thing is we didn’t oversell what the potential was. Most of the investors have been around the block enough times to know that if it sounds impossible, it probably is. It seemed the more honest we were…the more interested people got because then they began to take us seriously. Plus, it helped that Andy and I had a track record in the community. That opened the door for us.”
It didn’t hurt, either, that Oberon knew how the game was played and brought in some bona fide players on its side. In a classic case of it’s-who-you-know-in-Hollywood, Hoeger got an old college roommate, novelist-screenwriter-producer Don Winslow to rewrite Mills’s treatment for Full Ride. Winslow then pitched the script to Porchlight Entertainment’s Bruce Johnson, who bit on it. Winslow also led Oberon to former Universal executive Peter Heller to produce Full Ride and to prestigious Creative Artists Agency (CAA) to represent Oberon. “Don’s very well connected,” is how Hoeger describes Winslow’s influence. Rounding out the creative team were production designer Sandy Veneziano (Father of the Bride) and Oscar-winning editor Mike Hill (Apollo 13).
Even with this power package in place, Hoeger found the labyrinthian Hollywood system made it difficult to know whether their film was ever green-lighted “until we started shooting.” “You get yessed to death. The suits never want to say ‘No’ because nobody wants to be the jerk that passes up the next Blair Witch Project. So, you always get, ‘Yes, but…’ or ‘Yes, come back to me…’ It’s an odd thing to deal with.” If anything finally sold the film, Oberon’s partners say, it was the script. “What George (Mills) was really great at was an authentic rendering of the football experience. What Don did is he filled out the characters of Matt and Amy and their romance,” Hoeger said. In his hands, Anderson said, “the story became one of overcoming adversity or misfortune, which is sort of a universal theme, and the football aspect became the backdrop.” In turn, the meatier story of redemption and the solid parts attracted a top casting director and rising young stars in Riley Smith (Matt) and Meredith Monroe (Amy).
The May 2001 shoot, which unfolded largely in and around the Dana College campus in Blair, Neb., weathered the usual production burps, including rainy weather not called for in the script. “I thing the biggest challenge was staying on schedule and on budget,” Anderson said. “We were very diligent those two things happened and despite some hiccups we came in under budget and on time.” He equated filmmaking’s high stakes pressure to “being an artist with a gun to your head,” always ready to improvise when problems arise. Hoeger feels the process promotes more creativity, saying, “In some ways, the best stuff comes out of that problem solving.” Hoeger added it was not until post-production at the Gower Studios in Hollywood when he had an epiphany signifying his and Oberon’s arrival. “After working there awhile I’d drive on the lot and the guard would give me a little wave and the valet would get my car. One day, walking back from the commissary, there were wardrobe racks rolling by, film crew members sitting on cranes and stars walking around when I looked up at the big Hollywood sign on the hill and I thought, ‘Oh, wow, cool…It’s like we’re making a movie.’”
Hoeger said Oberon’s success in steering a film through financing, production and distribution has established the company in Hollywood circles. “That’s considered quite an accomplishment in L.A. because there are so many people who want to get that done but never do. To actually pull that off puts you in an amazingly elite club…” Interestingly enough, he said, in the entire three-year process Oberon has met no L.A. snobbery about its Omaha roots. “The industry is now so much decentralized — it’s moved all across the country and into Canada — that as far as they’re concerned Omaha might as well be Austin or Charlotte or Minneapolis or Vancouver. It’s all the same to them — it’s not L.A.”
The company is now weighing its second feature project. “We have boxes and boxes of new scripts that people have sent us, but we haven’t optioned any at this point. The next project will probably be a property owned by one of the production companies that have proposed doing a co-production with us,” he said, adding Oberon may one day be in a position to directly acquire scripts.” He said Oberon doesn’t so much pick scripts as pitch them. “When we go out to L.A. it’s with an armful of scripts and it’s up to the distributor to decide ‘This is the one.’”
Would-be filmmakers now come to Oberon in droves asking, How do you do it? The dreamers are told it takes preparation, knowledge, talent, guts and patience, lots and lots of patience. Hoeger said, “Anybody who dreams of becoming a filmmaker has to be prepared for the fact that it’s a pretty slow go.” Or, as Anderson likes to say, “sometimes you have to wait for the stars to align.”
- Alexander Payne to Talk Cinema with Kindred Spirit Jane Fonda at Film Streams Feature Event in Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Film Streams at Five: Art Cinema Contributes to a Transformed Omaha Through Community Focus on Film and Discussion (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Jane Fonda Comes Home (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)