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Patique Collins Finds the Right Fit

January 3, 2014 Leave a comment

Patique Collins has got it going on.  She is a high achieving African American woman with an alluring combination of physical besuty, spiritual enlightenment, business savvy, and passion for her life’s calling.  The Omaha, Neb. fitness trainer loves empowering people to positively chnage their lives.  In the short time between leaving a successful corporate career to starting her own buisness, she’s expertly branded her Right Fit company to grow its client base and to garner media attention.  I discovered her through her heady, consistent use of Facebook as a social media marketing platform that gets her name and face and brand out there, not just through the usual promotional methods but through inspiring before and after pictorials and testimonials that demonstrate the difference that Right Fit workouts make and through affirmations she writes and shares to offer encouraging  life lessons.  My profile of Patique is for Omaha Magazine.

 

 

Photo: Excited and Humbled! Right Fit is featured in "Omaha Magazine" ... "Best of Omaha 2014" edition story by Leo Adam Biga! 2014 will bring some new changes, new strategies and new options for you ...Change is Good, GOD is Good and I am thankful!! #Thank YOU

Patique Collins Finds the Right Fit

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Omaha Magazine

 

In 2011 Patique Collins left a two-decade corporate career to open a fitness gym. Two-and-a-half years later her Right Fit at 11067 West Maple Rd. jumps with clients.

Under her watchful eye and upbeat instruction, members do various aerobic and anaerobic exercises, kickboxing and Zumba included, all to pulsating music, sometimes supplied by DJ Mista Soul. She helps clients tone their bodies and build cardio, strength and flexibility.

The sculpted Omaha native is a longtime fitness convert. Nine years ago she added weight training to her running regimen and got serious about nutrition. She’d seen too many loved ones suffer health problems from poor diet and little exercise. The raw vegan describes her own workouts as “intense” and “extreme.”

She pushes clients hard.

“I really want to help every single person that comes in reach their maximum potential, and that is a big responsibility,” she says. “if you don’t give up on you, I won’t. I will do whatever I can to help you earn your goals if you’re ready to.”

 

 

 

 

She’s known to show up at your job if you skip class.

“There’s accountability here at Right Fit. I’m very passionate about my clients.”

She believes the relationships she builds with clients keeps them coming back.

“People will tend to stay if you develop a relationship and work towards results.”

Her gym. like her Facebook page, is filled with affirmations about following dreams. being persistent and never quitting.

“I think positivity is a part of my DNA.”

She keeps things fun with theme workouts, sometimes dressing as a superhero.

A huge influence in her life was her late maternal grandmother, Faye Jackson, who raised her after Collins and her siblings were thrown into the foster care system. “My grandmother told me I could be whatever I wanted to be and made me believe it.” Collins went on to attain multiple college degrees.

Motivated to help others, she made human resources her career. She and her then-husband Anthony Collins formed the Nothing But Foundation to assist at-risk youth. While working as a SilverStone Group senior consultant and as Human Resources Recruitment Administrator for the Omaha Public Schools she began “testing the waters” as a trainer conducting weekend fitness boot camps..

 

 

 

 

Stepping out from the corporate arena to open her own gym took a leap of faith for this now divorced mother of two small children..

“This is a lot of work. I am truly a one-woman show. Sometimes that can be challenging.

She’s proud to be a successful female African-American small business owner and humbled by awards she’s received for her business and community achievements.

Right Fit is her living but she works hard maintaining the right balance. Family and faith are er top priorities.

This former model, who’s emceed events and trained celebrities (Usher and LL Cool J), wants to franchise her business, produce workout videos and be a mind-body fitness national presenter.

She believes opportunities continue coming her way because of her genuine spirit.

“There’s some things you can’t fake and being authentic is one of them. I’m doing what I want to do, I think it’s my ministry. Everybody has their gifts, and this is mine.

I’m able to influence people not just physically but mentally.”

MindMixer: Rethinking the Town Hall Meeting

August 28, 2013 Leave a comment

MindMixer is more than a great name, it has a great concept and utility behind it too.  Entreprereurial partners Nick Bowden and Nathan Preheim have combined their urban planning and tech savvy skill sets to an online platform that is rethinking the town hall meeting.  My B2B Omaha Magazine story about the duo and their innovative Omaha-based business follows.

 

 

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MindMixer founders Nathan Preheim (left) and Nick Bowden

Rethinking the Town Hall Meeting

© Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Urban planners turned entrepreneurs Nick Bowden and Nathan Preheim never got used to the slim turnouts that town hall meetings drew for civic projects under review. It bothered them that so few people weighed in on decisions affecting so many.

Preheim, 39, and Bowden, 29, also didn’t feel comfortable cast in the roles of experts who knew what was in the best interests of citizens. They felt too many good ideas went unheard in the process.

The way the Omaha natives saw it, a new approach was needed to better engage people in civic discourse and therefore help build stronger communities. “Lucky for us, urban planning is really stodgy,” says Preheim. “Technology has not really infiltrated the inherent processes within the field, so there was a great opportunity for us to integrate technology into public participation. That’s where we kind of came up with the solution to a very common problem—how do you get more people engaged and interested in talking about community betterment?

Town halls had been and still are the primary vehicle by which cities solicit feedback. They’re hundreds of years old, and they really haven’t changed much at all. We saw an opportunity to enliven the conversation by inverting that model and empowering people to be a part of that change.”

The business partners developed a startup technology company called MindMixer (see related story on page 33) whose online platform offers a virtual front porch for ideas and opinions to be shared, noticed, and acted upon.

 

 

Nathan Preheim

Nathan Preheim

 

 

“We’ve always felt that people generally care for their community, but maybe it was an issue of convenience, not an issue of apathy, that prevented them from participating,” says co-founder and CEO Bowden. “Our founding premise is that technology can break that barrier of convenience and open up a bigger world of potential inputs.”

Co-founder and COO Preheim says, “There’s probably something I could learn from you; there’s probably something you could learn from me. We’re way smarter together than we are individually. I think some of that same mantra and guiding force influences what we’re trying to do here.”

“Our purpose is to build a stronger community by involving people in things that matter,” says Bowden. If the response from investors, clients, and everyday citizens is any indication, these visionaries have found a powerful engine to connect everyday people with local government bodies, schools, hospitals, and organizations of all kinds.

“We’ve always felt that people generally care for their community, but maybe it was an issue of convenience, not an issue of apathy, that prevented them from participating.” – Nick Bowden

Launched in 2011, MindMixer, which offices at the Mastercraft Building in North Downtown, has more than 400 clients and expects to reach 1,000 by year’s end. As of July, MindMixer had raised $6.2 million in venture capital, much of it from local investors, to develop its tool. The company’s roster of 30 employees is also expected to grow.

By digitizing the town hall, MindMixer facilitates discussions and debates for projects large and small, from rebranding the entire San Francisco public transit system to a crosswalk put in outside Omaha’s TD Ameritrade Park.

Whatever the idea, whether it relates to recreation or education or health care or some other quality of life issue, people now have a 24/7 avenue to have a say in it.

Preheim notes, “We think we’re the first company that’s trying to pull this off—to unify all those different communities and allow you to sort of contribute to each of them from a single place. It’s providing opportunities for people to give back or reinvest or make a contribution. We’re a funnel, we’re a vehicle, we’re kind of giving voice to people who may not have had that before. It’s empowering, it’s uplifting.

“We are part of something, call it a new movement if you will, that’s enabling better transparency and decision-making by stakeholders who are sort of tapping into the collective wisdom of their constituents. We’re kind of in the meaningful change business. That’s exciting stuff.”

 

 

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Nick Bowden

 

 

Validation that they’re onto something big, Preheim says, also comes in the large “number of citizen-submitted ideas that have actually been carried forward and implemented” nationwide and the sheer participation happening on sponsored MindMixer sites.

“Last year, we engaged over 800,000 participants, and those 800,000 participants submitted over 38,000 ideas,” says Preheim. “Those are empowering statistics, these are encouraging numbers.” He projects two million-plus participants to submit upwards of 100,000 ideas in 2013.

Sometimes, projects respond to urgent human needs. For example, MindMixer-supported sites which assisted citizens organizing to fight back flood waters in Fargo, N.D., as well as those rebuilding neighborhoods in tornado-ravaged Tuscaloosa, Ala.

The startup’s success earned it 2013 Innovator of the Year honors from the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce and Technology Company of the Year recognition from the AIM Institute. Forbes magazine named Bowden an “up and comer.”

With the growth and attention come pressures to relocate, but Bowden and Preheim are determined to prove a tech company can make it big in Omaha. They believe there’s enough talented, smart people locally to lead the paradigm shift the company’s helping lead. MindMixer’s big aspiration is restoring the fabric of community by being the front porch of the internet, where people discuss things that matter and get involved in making positive change happen.

To see this story and other stories in this issue of Omaha B2B Magazine visit its website at: http://omahamagazine.com/category/publications/b2b-magazine/

David Brown’s Omaha: Chamber Leader Focused on Making the City Shine

July 2, 2013 1 comment

Chamber of Commerce professionals are paid to say positive things about the communities they promote and that’s not to say they don’t believe the gilded words they profess but in the case of Omaha Chamber of Commerce president David Brown you really do get the sense he means what he says, lock, stock, and barrell.  My story about him for B2B Omaha Magazine is repurposed here.

 

 

Cover Photo

B2B Omaha Magazine - Omaha, NE

 

 

David Brown’s Omaha: Chamber Leader Focused on Making the City Shine

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in B2B Omaha Magazine

 

David Brown did his fair share of moving around before settling here in 2003 to become president of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce. Before assuming that post the Detroit native worked in his home state of Michigan, then in Indiana, before spending a solid decade in South Carolina.

Brown’s always stayed longer than the norm for chamber professionals because he also does economic development and that means putting down serious roots.

“Economic development is really my first love. The part I’ve grown to love the most is what do you do to improve the community so that it’s more attractive to companies and individuals to stay here or to come here. When you do chamber work, which traditionally does not include economic development, you don’t put down as many roots as you do if you’re doing economic development, where you’re selling dirt and really learning about the community. Clients have to see you’re knowledgeable and committed.”

After 10 years down South he and wife Maggie looked to get the youngest of their two sons settled in school. Moving to the middle of the country held great appeal.

“We wanted to get into a more positive public education environment for Elijah, who was getting ready to go into middle school. We wanted to get back to the Midwest where our roots were,” says Brown. “Fortunately the Omaha position was open and I threw my hat in the ring and I was fortunate to get the job.

“This is my 10th year. We’ve been here about as long as we’ve been anywhere.

This is home.”

His devotion to Omaha is such that he’s influenced extended family members to make this their home. He enjoys working with people who share his passion for enhancing Omaha..

“There has been a collection of leadership here that seems to have in the back of their mind, How do we improve this place?You’ve got this intentional effort to try and improve the place married with the unbelievable generosity of the philanthropists here and the corporate support for making this a better place. You see remarkable amenities created not to bring tourists to Omaha but to enhance the quality of life for the people who already live here. The fact they’ve had a tourist appeal as well is just chocolate on the Sunday.”

Add it all up, he says, “and that gives us a competitive advantage over other places where that kind of development and quality discussion doesn’t happen as consistently. We’ve got people who have been able to sit down and say what is it we need to be a better place and then they’ve gone about the process of getting it done. It’s fascinating to see how quickly some of this stuff has occurred, like the riverfront redevelopment. There was a frenetic pace almost that took place in the ’90s that continued into the 2000s.”

For Brown, there’s nothing better than seeing projects like the CenturyLink Center or Midtown Crossing take shape.

“I guess what really trips my trigger is that I can point to things I’ve been involved in that have made it a better place and given people jobs. I like making a difference, that’s really what it comes down to. It’s very rewarding at the end of the year to sit back and say, ‘What did we do this year?’ and know we made a measurable, demonstrable difference in the community we live in. Not just me, but the team we function with from our volunteers to our members to our staff.”

Omaha business and civic leaders value Brown’s efforts.

Mutual of Omaha CEO Dan Neary says, “Dave has worked diligently to shape the business environment from tax policy, incentives and employment training to create an attractive place for businesses to locate. He has promoted the Grow Omaha (GO!) campaign to promote the values of Omaha on a national level.”

“He’s always focused on the end result. He’s a good mediator when he needs to be but he’s also a good salesman for what we need to do. He interacts easily with all kinds of people and groups,” says HDR senior vice president of corporate relations Rex Fisher. “He’s very passionate about what he does and he’s a very consistent person.”

MECA president/CEO Roger Dixon says, “He’s got s professional approach to things, he’s very level-headed, he’s a consensus-builder. I’ve never been in a community where the Chamber is as influential as ours is here and it takes a dynamic individual to lead that. He understands the moving parts in our community and works around them.”

Brown will be guiding the new Prosper Omaha campaign that seeks to brand the city as never before. Omaha’s aspirational spirit resonates with him and the work of the Chamber.

“Omaha’s always been a business town and the business community here plays a big role in making things happen. We’ve been fortunate as an organization that the business community has looked to the Chamber to accomplish some pretty significant things and so over time we pick up some additional responsibilities. So we find ourselves in things a lot of chambers don’t find themselves involved in.”

The Young Professionals Association is an example.

“We have this dynamic young professionals organization that’s involved in virtually every major community activity you can think of. The management and leadership of that process has been a whole new learning experience for us. There’s 5,000 young professionals who at some point or another have plugged into this process of making Omaha a better place.

“We’re mentoring and engaging young professionals so they can be leaders in the future. It’s become part of our leadership agenda.”

In terms of projects, he says, the Chamber is “getting deeper and deeper into things the community needs. When (then-Chamber board chair) Dick Bell said in 2004 the Chamber’s going to be involved making sure every Omahan has an opportunity to succeed and every area in Omaha has an opportunity to grow that got us in the community development business. We’re going to help Midtown grow, were going to help NoDo grow, we’re going to help North Omaha grow, we’re going to help South Omaha grow. That changed the way we think about economic development and the activities we’re engaged in in doing community development.”

He says he likes that the Chamber not only “provides services to our members to grow their businesses but we’re also a catalytic organization.” He adds, “That means we’re sometimes change agents. Sometimes we lead. Virtually always we’re conveners. We convene a wide diversity of people that can help solve problems.  Advocacy is always a part of the agenda.”

A graduate of Dartmouth, where he played football and baseball, Brown is a natural people person and team player.

“I really like people,” he says.

He says lessons he learned playing team sports “are all things I use every day with our team here at the Chamber and with the teams we build within the community,” adding, “The Chamber rarely does things ourselves, we always partner with people and collaborate with others to get things accomplished, and that’s a different kind of team but a team nonetheless.”

He also likes getting things done.

“I like change, it’s something I really embrace. If i don’t see change happening I’m wondering if I’m doing my job. I like to come up with new ideas and trust my team to tell me which ones are good and which ones are bad and then see ideas come to fruition. In the end it doesn’t matter to me who gets the credit for stuff as long as we get stuff done. That’s the way the Chamber operates and in large measure it’s the way Omaha operates and I think that’s one of the things that makes us unique.”

Away from the office he enjoys golf, hunting, landscaping and reading. His wife is often by his side.

“She’s my best friend and we do everything together. She’s been my partner in this whole career process. She’s a great saleswoman. She’s done the trade show and conference thing with me. She knows the spiel. She can pitch just like I can. She’s great with volunteers and board members.”

Keep up to date with Brown and the Chamber at http://www.omahachamber.org.

The Old Market’s Late Godfather Samuel Mercer Casts Long Shadow in Omaha

April 28, 2013 1 comment

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.

 

 

Encounter Magazine - Omaha, NE

The Old Market’s Late Godfather Samuel Mercer Casts Long Shadow in Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in Encounter Magazine

 

 

Sam Mercer

 

 

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.

Bob Hoig’s Unintended Entree into Journalism is Six Decades Strong Now

January 25, 2013 2 comments

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

 

 

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.”

 

 

Duane Earl Pope in custody after turning himself into authorities

 

 

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.

 

 

Hoig pilots a Cessna very much like this one

 

 

“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.”

 

 

Hoig with his daughter Andrea holding their Faces on the Barroom Floor caricatures

 

 

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.”

The Wonderful World of Artist and Social Entrepreneur Jeffrey Owen Hanson

January 1, 2013 1 comment

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.

Old Windsor Garden by Jeffrey Owen Hanson

 

 

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.”

 

 

Jeffrey Owen Hanson

 

 

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 with designer Caine Westergard at Omaha Fashion Week

 

 

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.”

 

 

Hanson with models who strutted the Omaha Fashion Week runway in the Westergard dresses he hand-painted

 

 

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.

The Troy Davis Story: From Beyond the Fringe to Fringes Salon

December 27, 2012 7 comments

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Cover Photo

 

The Troy Davis Story: From Beyond the Fringe to Fringes Salon

©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.

 

 

 

Encounter Magazine - Omaha, NE

 

 

 

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.

Visit http://www.fringessalon.com.

 

Entrepreneur and Craftsman John Hargiss Invests in North Omaha: Stringed Instrument Maker Envisons Ambitious Plans for his New Hargissville Digs

December 26, 2012 2 comments

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Entrepreneur and Craftsman John Hargiss Invests in North OmahaStringed Instrument Maker Envisons Ambitious Plans for his New Hargissville Digs

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.

 

 

John Hargiss, ©hearnebraska.org

 

 

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.

Heartland Latino Leadership Conference Features Dynamic Speakers for Networking, Motivational, Recognition Events

November 24, 2012 Leave a comment

 

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.

Conference highlights:

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.”

 

Shayla Rivera

 

 

 

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?’”

 

 

 

Joaquin Zihuatanejo, ©photo, artandseek.net

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Graciela Tiscareno-Sato, ©latinastyle.com

 

 

 

“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.

 

Marie Quintana

 

 

 

“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.

Revival of Benson Business District Gives Omaha a New Destination Place

August 28, 2012 Leave a comment

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.

 

 

Benson Days, ©bensonnebraska.com

 

 

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.

 

 

Rendering of revamped east gateway entrance in Benson, ©photo RDG

 

 

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.”

Pizza Shoppe (PS) Collective owner Amy Ryan says rough trade bars and petty crimes have given way to a new dynamic.

“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.”

 

 

PS Collective owner Amy Ryan

 

 

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.

First Friday art walks in Benson bring people out in droves, ©bensonnebraska.com

 

 

“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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