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Coming Home: Watie White’s Public Art Installation Tells Stories of North Omaha Home and Family

February 7, 2013 Leave a comment

 

Art assumes the roles of anthropology, archaeology, and novelization in Omaha artist Watie White’s new public installation that features 30 magic realism narrative paintings adorning the windows of an abandoned North Omaha house.  Each image is based on artifacts left behind by the family that lived there to tell the stories of the home and its former residents.  The site of the project is a house at 2424 Emmett Street, smack dab in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city.  As soon as the installation is taken down plans call the house to be razed and a new one built in its place.

 

 

 

 

 

Coming Home: Watie White‘s Public Art Installation Tells Stories of North Omaha Home and Family

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

On its face Watie White’s new public art project at an abandoned North Omaha house could be construed as a privileged white guy coming into the black community to impose his perceptions on that place and its people.

But that’s not the case with his All That Ever Was Always Is outdoor installation at 2424 Emmet Street. Enlarged digital prints of 30 narrative paintings he’s made cover the home’s windows. The house serves as a two-story, three-dimensional, wrap-around canvas for his true fiction portraits of the home’s former occupants. He invites viewers to bring their own interpretations to bear.

“I’m really interested in what the people who live next door or live down the block will think when they happen upon this big emotional and intellectual investment in an object that probably most people in this neighborhood don’t feel has much value,” he says. “Each perspective on this house tells its own story of what this house is.”

Don’t wait too long to see it though. Habitat for Humanity will raze the house in March and a Habitat-built new home will go up in its place. Before the century-old house is demolished he’ll disassemble the installation – windows, siding and all – for a future gallery show that he says “will be far more a rarified art experience.”

 

 

 

 

 

White’s paintings draw on interviews he did with neighbors, public record searches he and assistant Peter Cales made and a trove of personal artifacts harvested from the home, whose last residents were a black family named Smith. He and Cales also fashioned planters and benches from found objects there. The artists discovered a vast assemblage of strewn items inside that represent a tableaux of lives interrupted. In that suspended animation space White became the anthropologist his parents were.

“It’s like walking into somebody’s life,” says White. “This clearly was not cleaned up, not presented, not edited in any way, and so you walk in and you see all this stuff that feels unvarnished and truthful. They’re things that seem profound because we are reading something genuine about this person’s lived experience here, not things we were intended to see or a character they were playing, which for me makes it all the more intriguing. It becomes something you can trust a little bit because it’s not being catered to or tying to come across in a certain way.”

“All this trash and left belongings became really an incredible generator of content for the paintings themselves.”

He says the ephemera made the house an “active participant” to inform the narrative. Birth certificates, family photos, letters, journal entries and divorce papers helped him piece together four generations of history. He discovered the grandfather, Nathaniel Ware, was a Pullman Porter who moved the family up north from Mississippi. His daughter Janet Ware married Leonard Smith, an Omaha policeman. Janet was active at Salem Baptist Church. A daughter, Candice, followed her heart to Memphis. A son, Michael, may have been the last family member to reside at the Emmet address.

“He appears to have just left and walked away from everything before selling the house to Habitat,” White says of Smith.

What the materials didn’t reveal to White he extrapolated with the help of live models acting out back stories in his studio.

“I got a feeling for who I believe these people were, what they were like, but they’re more fictional characters. It’s more like writing a novel than doing a documentary.”

 

 

 

 

White purposely didn’t contact the Smith family to avoid being overly influenced. He has many questions for them, however. He’s inviting them to the opening, when he plans presenting them a chest made from recycled materials in the home that will contain the personal artifacts he salvaged.

His work also addresses urban legends attached to the house. For example, he says some neighbors “view it as a shameful place where bad things happened.” Allegedly it was crack house, though he found no supporting evidence. He hopes his project overturns neighbors’ own “narrative that they live in a shitty place to they live next to a place that has the potential to be an amazing thing.”

Viewers have no choice but to see White’s whimsical, soulful images in the context of the structure and its environment. Cales expects viewers to have triggered “that voyeuristic instinct in themselves to wonder what’s on the inside and to wonder about this community.”

“That curiosity breeds curiosity,” says White. “You interrupt the regular flow of life in an area by addressing creatively something that seems like a flaw or a blight and you shift it to make it not that. You change the perception of what that thing is or can be.”

“I think it’s important to bring people to the neighborhood to see the work in this context,” says Cales. “This is an area of the city that’s relegated to, ‘It’s a dangerous part you should never come to’”

“When you stop treating it as a place you have to shun or fear or stay away from then it’s a little less fearful and a little more welcoming,” White says.

Engaging at-risk populations with public art is something White learned under Chicago conceptual artist and radical educator Jim Duignan, whose Stockyard Institute White has a long association with. In preserving everyday people’s stories White does in images what the late iconic Chicago writer Studs Terkel White did in words/ White. who moved to Omaha in 2006, often shows his work in Chicago.

For more about the artist visit watiewhite.com.

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Parenting the Second Time Around Holds Challenges and Delights for Senior Kinship Caregiver Theresa Glass Union, Who Always Puts Family First

November 25, 2012 4 comments

Parenting the Second Time Around Holds Challenges and Delights for Senior Kinship Caregiver Theresa Glass Union, Who Always Puts Family First

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear as the cover story in the December issue of the New Horizons

 

After raising three daughters in the 1970s-1980s and nearing retirement in the early 2000s, Theresa Glass Union thought she knew what her later years would look like. Even though still working, she envisioned socializing and traveling with friends and family. When she could finally retire it’d mean free time like she hadn’t known in ages.

The Omaha native had just moved back here after more than 20 years in Calif. She was divorced, eager to start a new life and catch up with old mates and haunts. Then a family crisis erupted and her selfless response led her to join the growing ranks of kinship caregivers raising young children.

Reports indicate that upwards of 6 million children in America live with grandparents identified as the head of household. Nearly half of these children are being raised by someone other than the parents or grandparents. The number of children being parented by non-birth parents has increased 18 percent since 2000, according to a report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Some kinship caregivers do it informally, others through the state child welfare-foster care system. Being informed of rights, regulations and benefits takes work.

 

 

photo
Theresa Glass Union, ©New Horizons

 

 

Theresa is a kinship caregiver to children of a niece who’s long battled drug addiction. The niece is the mother of six children by different fathers, The three oldest variously live with their fathers or their fathers’ people. When the niece got pregnant with each of her three youngest children, now ages 5, 4 and 2, they came to live with Theresa shortly after their births.

It’s not the first time Theresa’s dealt with tough circumstances inside and outside her family. She has a younger sister with a criminal past who happens to be the mother of the niece whose children Theresa is raising. Years spent in social service jobs dealing with clients living on the edge have given Theresa a window into the bad decisions that desperate, addicted persons make and the hard consequences those wrong choices bring.

At age 65 and two-and-a-half decades removed from raising three grown daughters, one of whom is film-television star Gabrielle Union, Theresa’s doing a parenting redux. She never thought she’d be in charge of three pre-school-aged kids again, but she is. She’s since legally adopted the two older siblings, both girls, and is awaiting an adoption ruling on their “baby” brother.

As the babies came to her one by one she found herself knee deep again in diapers and baby bottles, awakened in the middle of the night by crying infants, figuring out formulas and worrying about fevers, sniffles, coughs and tummy aches. Now that the kids are a little older, there’s daycare, pre-school and managing a household of activity.

It’s not what she imagined retirement to be, but how could she not be there for the kids? They were going to be removed from their birth mother and placed in a system not always conducive to happy outcomes. Child welfare officials generally agree that childcare fare better in kinship care settings than in regular foster care.

Kinship caregivers may get involved when the parents are incarcerated, on drugs or deceased. In the case of Theresa, drugs were found in the systems of the two oldest children she’s adopted, Keira and Miyonna. Theresa felt they needed unconditional family love. The girls are doing fine today under the care of Theresa and her brother James Glass. The girls’ brother, Amari, was born drug-free.

With so much stacked against the children to start life, Theresa wasn’t about to turn her back on them. Family is everything to her. She’s the oldest of seven siblings, all raised Catholic – churched and schooled at St. Benedict the Moor, the historic African-American parish in northeast Omaha. It’s where she received all her sacraments, including marrying her ex-husband Sylvester Union.

“The church is central to my family here.”

She graduated from Sacred Heart High School.

She and Union moved to San Francisco during the Summer of Love in 1967 and they returned to Omaha a year later. They both ended up working at Western Electric. Like other black couples then they ran into discriminatory real estate practices that flat out denied them access to many neighborhoods or steered them away from white areas into black sections of North Omaha. Their first home was in northeast Omaha but they eventually moved into a house in the northwest part of the city, where their three daughters went to school.

In the 1970s Theresa, who studied social work at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, worked for Omaha nonprofit social service agencies, including CETA (Comprehensive Employment & Training Agency) and GOCA (Greater Omaha Community Action). After a long stint in corporate America she returned to the non-profit field.

The family left here in 1981 for Pleasanton, Calif., where they lived the sun-dappled Southern Calif. suburban life. She worked for Pacific Bell and completed her bachelor’s degree in human relations and organizational behavior at the University of San Francisco. After her divorce she and her brother James Glass returned to Omaha in 2003. A few years passed before Theresa’s troubled niece came for help. At various times the family tried interventions, once even getting the niece into rehab, but each time she fled and resumed her drug habit.

 

 

photo
Theresa and her brother James Glass with the children
©New Horizons

 

 

As a former field worker with Douglas County Health and Human Services and as a one-time Child Protection Service Worker with Nebraska Health and Human Services, Theresa’s seen the despair and chaos that result when siblings are separated from each other and extended family. It’s why when her niece kept getting pregnant while hooked on drugs and unable to take care of herself, much less children, Theresa intervened to ensure the kids would go to her.

“Some of the things children said to me when I was a social worker have just stayed with me,” she says.

On one call she visited three young siblings in a foster home.

“I was like the fifth social worker since they’d been brought into the system. The     8-year old boy said, ‘Please don’t take us away, we get fed three times a day here. ‘Well. that told me they’d been staying with some people (before) who weren’t feeding them regularly. Who does that? The foster parent let him walk me around the home and this little boy was just adamant he be with his brothers.”

In another case several siblings were divided up among different foster families.

“One of the siblings got to see her sisters at school but she no longer got to see her brothers, and she asked me, ‘Can I see my brothers?’Her foster parent had made the request but nothing had happened, so I looked into it and found that each sibling had a different social worker and had been placed at a separate time. I got it worked out that the siblings got to visit each other.”

System shortfalls and breakdowns like these were enough to make Theresa bound and determined to arrange in advance with hospital social workers for her to be the foster placement parent for her niece’s three youngest kids. When Keira and Miyonna tested positive for drugs the state, by law, detained them and they were put in Theresa’s care two days after their births. She did the same with their brother. She simply wouldn’t let them fall outside the family or be separated.

“After Keira was born I was already a resident foster placement and I’d already contacted everybody involved to let them know if there was another baby that ends up in the detention system I want to be the foster parent of choice because I didn’t want these kids to go into the system. My idea is that the kids all need to be raised together. They deserve to have their siblings .

“I was working for Child Protective Service, so I knew all the ins and outs of what was going to happen. I knew how many times we were going to have to go to the doctor before the baby’s cleared. I knew that babies wake up in the middle of the night and children with drugs in them can find it more difficult sleeping, eating. I was prepared for all that. It didn’t happen, I was thanking God that Keira’s and Miyonna’s little withdrawal things were just a few days. The biggest problem we had was figuring out formula.”

Daughter Kelly Union, a senior analyst with US Airways, admires her mother’s by-any-means-necessary fortitude.

“My mom always looks for more solutions, other options, different ways to climb a mountain. That determination helps me when I hit a brick wall at work, in my marriage, with my kids. My mom also sees all glasses as half full. There is a positive in everything and we just need to find it. My mom’s best attribute, however, is being strong against all odds—she finds the strength to hold up everything and everyone, including herself despite what she is up against.  I get my strength from her.”

The way Theresa sees it she did what she did in order to “preserve the continuity of the children’s lives, so that they know their family members, the cousins, the aunts and uncles, the lineage back, like my grandma Ora Glass and my grandma Myrtle Fisher Davis, and the head of our family today, Aunt Patricia Moss.”

Theresa hails from one of the largest and oldest African-American families in the region, the Bryant-Fishers, whose annual picnic is 95 years strong.

Her bigger-than-life late grandmother, Ora, the longtime matriarch, lived to 110. Ora gained celebrity as a shining example of successful aging, even appearing on Phil Donahue’s show and running her fingers through the host’s hair. In her younger years Ora was a housekeeper and nanny for some of Omaha’s elite families. One packinghouse owner family even brought her out to Calif. to continue her duties when they moved there. She survived the Red Summer of 1919, when blacks were targeted by racists in riots that wreaked havoc from coast to coast, including Omaha and Orange County, Calif..

“My grandmother had a whole lot of stories,” says Theresa.

In her 70s and 80s Ora “reinvented” herself from a very strict, prim and proper lady with politics tending toward the conservative” to loosening up on things like relationships and social issues, notes Theresa. “She told me, ‘I’m losing so many old friends that I have to make new friends and I have to use new opinions and I have to make new decisions.’ She began reaching out and making new friends and gathering new family to her. She started trying different things. She went to political science classes at UNO. She learned ceramics.”

Even when she had to use a walker, Theresa says. Ora maintained her independence, riding the bus downtown for Mass at St Mary Magdalene’s Church, a repast at Bishop’s Cafeteria and taking in all the sights.

Ora was then and is now an inspiration to Theresa. She carries her grandmother’s boundless curiosity, determination and affirmation inside her.

“She always persevered. She said, ‘Whatever you do you always do it to the best of your ability.’ She said, ‘You can always make more family’ and she always did generate more and more family for herself.”

Ora was godmother to Omaha native Cathy Hughes, founder of the Radio One and TV One media empires, and played a big role in the mogul’s early life.

Ageless Ora ended up a resident at the Thomas Fitzgerald Veterans Home (the military service of her late husband Aaron Glass entitled her to stay there) and Theresa says her grandmother “recruited families from St. Vincent dePaul parish to visit residents there. There were a couple of families she adopted. The kids came and they called her grandma and they brought her gifts.”

It’s figures and stories like these that Theresa didn’t want her three new children to miss out on. The family takes great pains to maintain its ties, celebrate its history and record the additions and losses as well as the triumphs and tragedies among their family trees. Help abounds from loved ones she says because “there’s so many of us. There’s like 1,500 of us (dispersed around the country).”

She values the traditions and events that bind them and their rich legacy and she wouldn’t want the children now in her care to be deprived of any of it.

“We’re called the Dozens of Cousins. Yeah, I do take a lot of pride in that. I get that a lot from my aunt Patricia Moss because she wants there to be the continuity. We do have continuity.”

Regarding the big August reunion, when hundreds gather at Levi Carter Park, she says, “I try to always make it. Since coming back home in 2003 I haven’t missed any, and when I was younger it wasn’t an option, you were there. We have the family picnic, we have family birthdays, we have that kind of continuity and I think children need that to grow in their own maturity and emotional strength,” she says. “It can give them that stability. You’re not going to get that from strangers. And knowing at some point there’s going to be questions about who mom is, I have all those baby pictures and all that stuff. I can give them a sense of who she is if she doesn’t care to come around.”

Having a large family around gives Theresa a ready-made support network.

“I have a supportive family around me. I have everybody lined up that’s going to keep this continuity. My brother James wouldn’t say it before that he’s helping raise the kids, but he’s saying it now. My sister and cousins call and make sure I have break times. My granddaughter Chelsea came from Arizona recently to watch the kids so I could have a break time. When my daughter Tracy has breaks from work she comes in and helps out.

“So I have a support system around me and they’re all kin to these children, so they’re never outside of family.”

 

 

photo
Theresa with Amari, Miyonna and Keira
©New Horizons

 

 

Kelly Union says even if there wasn’t all that family support her mother would have done the same thing.

“Without a doubt, she would have been that beacon without all of us supporting her. That is her character, that is the legacy she inherited and the legacy she is passing on to all of us. We have all been known to help someone else, even when it isn’t easy or comfortable and that is a direct reflection of her.”

The respite family provides Theresa has proven vital as she’s realized she’s not capable of doing everything like she was the first time she raised kids. She’s much more prone now to ask for help. Another difference between then and now is that her older daughters were spaced out three or four years, whereas the kids she’s raising today are all just a year or two apart.

“My oldest was 4 before I had my second and then my second was 7 before I had my third. It’s a different experience when you can devote your time to the one child at a time. And then by the time I had the second child the oldest child had more of her own things she was doing that she didn’t need me while I was taking care of this other one. And then the two of them did not need me as much when I was taking care of the third one, so every kid got to be like an only child.”

Things stated out different the second time around.

“‘I found I was now taking care of two kids at the same time, so if I’m changing a diaper the other one’s right there fussing and attention grabbing. and boy that’s more wearing on me. The energy for two young ones is just wearing.

“When I first got Keira and Miyonna I was working, so I got to take them to day care. But I could not keep my mind going well enough during the day to do a social work job. I could not keep up and my caseload was falling farther and farther behind. I even asked for more training, but I just couldn’t manage it. I thought I was super lady but my energy level is not the same as it was, trust me.”

The two girls don’t need quite the attention they did before, which is good because their little brother needs it now.

“We got through that and Keira and Miyonna started doing real good together. I even have them sleeping together in a big double bed. They sleep all night.”

In terms of parenting, she says she’s learned to “let some things go” that she would have stressed over before. For example she doesn’t worry whether the kids’ clothes or hair or bedrooms are perfect. “You do the best with what you have and you gotta innovate,” she says.

Her adult daughters may be the best gauge for what kind of mother Theresa is. The oldest, Kelly, wrote in an email:

“My mother was always the “you can do it”, “give it a try” type of parent. She supported all our whims—Girl Scouts, musical instruments, sports, school plays, dance class. Whatever struck our fancy at the moment, she backed our efforts. No is not a big word in her vocabulary. Not that she was a permissive parent who let us get away with things. But more in the way that she was willing to let us try and learn our own likes, dislikes, pleasure and pain first hand.

“My mom was never really a yelling, scolding type of mom and that worked well for us. Life lessons taught with logic, love and support goes a long way to shaping a child the right way.”

Kelly doesn’t see any marked difference in her how mom parents now than before.

“No, the core is very much the same. My mom is home more with them but the attention, the opportunities, the lessons are all still the same.”

Theresa would like for the children’s birth mother to be involved in their lives but thus far she says her niece has shown little interest. In fact, Theresa’s lost most contact with her niece, whose exact whereabouts she’s unsure of.

“She actually did visitation with Miyonna for the first three weeks of her life and then she back slid all the way and did a disappearance act. We didn’t know where she was.”

The instability and unreliability of the mother were huge factors in Theresa taking charge and getting the kids in a safe home surrounded by family. She says she never wanted to have happen to these children what she’s seen happen to others, such as when kids age out of the system never having been reunited with family, much less visited by them. With their biological mother out of the picture, Theresa saw no option but to step up.

“It’s hard to forge your own identity when your identity has been connected with state administrators,” she says of foster children.

It’s not the first time she’s taken in loved ones in need. When her uncle Joe Glass lived in a Milwaukee nursing home and was going to be transferred to a veterans home near the Canadian border, far from any family, Theresa and her brother James brought him to Omaha.

Growing up, she saw the example of her family take in childhood friend Cathy Hughes when Cathy’s musician mother Helen Jones Woods was on the road. Hughes said growing up she and Theresa thought they were “blood sisters.”

Theresa’s three birth daughters have embraced her returning to parenting young kids again all these years later. She says they’ve all accepted and bonded with their new siblings and go out of their way in spoiling them. “They don’t want for anything,” she says of her little ones.

Kelly speaks for her sisters when she says they all admire and support their mother in assuming this new responsibility at her age but that it doesn’t surprise them.

“That is just my mom. I don’t think she thought of it as parenting at her age, she just saw a need and filled it. Age really didn’t play into it, although she did discuss it with us because doing the right thing would impact all of us. My mom always does the ‘right thing,’ and right doesn’t mean easy and she accepts that whenever she takes on a task, a role, a responsibility.

“My grandmother raised her and this is what my grandmother did and would have done if she was alive. Her opting to raise the kids did not surprise any of us in the least. It is the one characteristic both my parents had and handed down to us: Do what you can, when you can and share of yourself, your home, your belongings and your wealth (regardless of how much money you have or don’t have). It’s the right thing to do to help someone else, especially family.”

Kelly and her sister Gabrielle have each assumed similar super-nurturing roles as their mother. Kelly, who has three children of her own, has acted as a surrogate mom to athletes coached by her husband. Gabrielle is now the adult female figure in the home of her equally famous boyfriend, NBA superstar Dwyane Wade, whose two sons and a nephew live with him in Miami.

 

 

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Theresa, with portrait of her three adult children in background
©New Horizons

 

 

Theresa’s justifiably proud of her three grown children, each a successful, independent woman in her own right. Kelly’s a corporate executive. Tracy’s a facilities coordinator at Arizona State University and Gabrielle’s the movie star. Just as she feels she well prepared her older girls for life she hopes to do the same for their young siblings.

“I got my three grown daughters there healthy and educated and then they had to travel it on themselves. Hopefully I can do this another time and the three young ones will be healthy and educated and they’ll be able to move on and enjoy their lives. Nobody has to be famous but you have to be able enjoy and sustain your life. I think my girls have done really well and I hope the next ones do, too.

“This time it’s a different experience and we’re working it out.”

She says most of her parenting the first time happened in the suburbs compared to the inner city, where she, her brother and the kids live today. She’s struck by the stark difference between the two environments and their impact on children.

Gun violence and street gangs were foreign to west Omaha and Pleasanton but the northeast Omaha she’s come back to is rife with criminal activity. Where Pleasanton lacked for no amenities North Omaha has major gaps.

“It’s interesting that this neighborhood doesn’t have the things that we had when we were young. The (black) population has been dispersed throughout the city. Things you take for granted, conveniences you have right there in the suburbs, are not so readily available in the inner city. It’s a lack of resources, lack of everything right in this neighborhood for raising children. So I had to start looking for the village (the proverbial village that helps raise a child). My village is right here. I have Kellom School and I have Educare.”

Gabrielle says the way her mother intentionally seeks out educational and cultural opportunities for the young kids she’s raising now reminds her of how she did the same thing when she and her sisters were coming up. She says her mom’s always been about expanding children’s minds through enriching experiences.

Theresa says the dearth of programs for young kids in northeast Omaha “is what prompted me to join the board of the Bryant Center Association – so we could add things (like recreation activities and counseling services).”

The nonprofit association operates the Bryant Center, a community oasis at 24th and Grant Streets that aims to improve the lives of youth, young adults and seniors. Administrators are looking to expand programming. Theresa recently prevailed upon Cathy Hughes to co-chair the association’s capital fundraising campaign.

In the final analysis Theresa doesn’t consider rearing young children at her age as anything heroic or out of the ordinary. It all comes back to family and doing the right thing. “I don’t call it being a saint,” she says. “You always take care of your own.”

She wants others to know they can do what she’s doing. An aunt or a grandmother or another relation can be the parent when Mom and Dad cannot.

“It is a doable process, especially in Omaha, because there is other help available. There are families out there that could do this with their own because there is support for you in the community. Sometimes you have to really search for it depending on what your needs are. But even if there’s a problem where the natural parents aren’t available to participate, you can raise the children so they are still a part of a family.”

Helping navigate the experience is ENOA’s Grandparent Resource Center. It offers free monthly support group meetings, crisis phone intervention, transportation assistance, access to legal advice and referrals to other services and programs. Participants need only be age 55 or above.

Center coordinator Debra Scott, who is raising her granddaughter, says caregivers need to know they don’t have to do it alone. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” she says. “I’m learning I can’t be everything to everybody, I need to ask for help and that’s where this program comes in.”

Call 402-444-6536, ext. 297 to inquire how the center may be able to help you or a senior caregiver you know.

 

 

Theresa and Gabrielle at Think Like a Man premiere in Atlanta
©wireimage.co.in

The Garcia Girls

August 6, 2012 1 comment

 

Success runs in certain families and most of America loves nothing better than classic immigrant success stories.  That’s what the Jesus and Beatriz Garcia family of Omaha represents.  Their success starts with the now elderly but still active parents who came from Mexico to make a better life for themselves and their six girls, who were all born in Mexico but primarily raised in America.  My story for El Perico focuses on how the sisters have achieved much educationally and professionally, always guided by the hard-working, aspiring example of their parents.  Just as the parents are inspirations to the Garcia girls so are the sisters inspirations to each other.

 

 

 

 

arteabla.ning.com

 

 

 

The Garcia Girls

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

When Jesus and Beatriz Garcia left Mexico for America decades ago their fervent wish was to give their family a better life. In that, there’s no doubt they succeeded. The couple captured the American Dream by working hard, owning their own home, becoming fixtures at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church and raising six girls.

The Garcias have seen their daughters, all born in Mexico, grow into accomplished women with families and careers of their own. The Garcia Girls carry on their parents’ tradition of serving others. At the 2011 Latino Heritage Awards the eldest, Magdalena “Maggie” Garcia, was honored for her work as El Museo Latino founder and executive director. Baby sister Maria Vazquez, associate vice president of student affairs at Metropolitan Community College, was named Latina of the Year.

“I’m amazed at Maggie’s and Maria’s accomplishments, and at all my other sisters.

They’re all working hard and continuing their education, and I’m doing the same thing,” says Silvia Wells, El Museo Latino managing director.

The sisters have all attended college as nontraditional students. The only one without a degree, Lori Ramirez, is working on it. Some have multiple degrees. Each has a chosen profession. It all stems from strong parental guidance. Maggie recalls, “My father sat me down and said, ‘My responsibility is to provide for you what you need. Your responsibility is to do the best you can.’ He never said you have to do this or that, he just said, you have to do the best you can. The demands were what each one of us placed on ourselves.”

 

 

 

Jesus and Beatriz Garcia

 

 

Education was always stressed. “They put all six of us through Catholic school. They both worked. My dad sometimes had two and three jobs,” says Maggie.

Jesus trained in fine woodworking and construction in Mexico and his expert craftsman’s skills made him employable here. He repaired furniture for Nebraska Furniture Mart. Later, he opened his own shop, Jesse Garcia‘s Repair, at 13th and Vinton Streets in South Omaha, where the Garcias are an old-line Latino family.

He also built custom display cabinets for daughter Maggie’s museum. He closed his shop last year but still keeps his hands busy for select customers.

Beatriz, who learned seamstress skills in Mexico, labored 30 years at Pendleton Woolen Mills. She started as a sewer and retired as a supervisor. A talented cook, she makes her famous enchiladas and burritos for museum and church fundraisers. She marvels at what her daughters have made of themselves.

“I’m so proud of all my girls.”

In turn, the Garcia Girls admire their parents. Beatriz “Betty” Garcia Gonzalez, a licensed clinical social worker and mental health professional with two degrees, is struck by their “humility and determination.” She and her sisters appreciate the effort their folks made taking them to Mexico every summer for two-week immersions in family, heritage and culture. They value their devotion to church and their legendary work ethic. Wells says these values are “deeply rooted” in them all.

 

Maria Vazquez

 

“Those pillars of lessons” says Vazquez, shaped the Garcia Girls. That example now shapes four generations of Garcias, “Mom and Dad are still healthy and they’re still very much a part of our lives. They still encourage us,” says Patty Tello, an Educare Center of Omaha family enrichment specialist..  “They worked so hard so that we could have an education. Always in the back of my head was that I had to make them proud of me because of their sacrifice.”

“I’m very happy my parents had the desire for us to complete our education and go further than just high school,” says Wells.

Maria says, “They’re the smartest people I know. They valued education. They always certainly encouraged us to do our best and to work hard and give back, and with that foundation we were able to do anything.”

Indeed, Silvia says her folks made her feel “I’m capable of reaching any goal I wish to attain.” She can count on “always having their support.” And the support of her sisters. “It is nice to always have someone encouraging you and I think we all encourage each other.” “We’re there for sounding boards,” says Maggie.

Tello says the family always pitches in to babysit as needed.

There’s some sisterly prodding, too. “If I’m thinking, This is difficult, there’s always someone there to say, ‘I know you can do it,’ or, ‘I did it, you can do it, too,” says Silvia. Patty was inspired to go back to school after seeing Silvia do it.

“I think we’ve challenged each other,” says Betty.

The striving continues. Silvia is midday through graduate studies at Bellevue University. Patty is studying for her master’s in childhood education at Concordia (Seward, Neb.) University. Vazquez is going after her Ph.D. in educational administration at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Betty says the family’s left “a legacy.” “And there’s still more to come,” says Patty, adding, “We’re still pushing the envelope and seeing what more can we do.”

“We all try to be a part of the community we live in and make it a better place to live,” says Silvia.

As the oldest, Maggie led the way by embarking on a corporate career, then becoming the first in her family to attend college.

“Maggie was working full time and married when she started at UNO. I remember her taking me when she registered for classes. She wanted to expose me to that environment, to that other world,” says Maria, who went on to earn degrees from Metro and the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

 

 

 

Magdalena “Maggie” Garcia, right, with her Latino Heritage Award

 

 

Maria Vazquez making her Latina of the Year acceptance speech at Latino Heritage Awards

photos ©2007 – 2010 Barrientos Scholarship Foundation, http://www.barrientosscholarship.org

 

 

 

After Maggie completed her master’s at Syracuse University she was unsure what to do next. “My father told me, ‘Whatever you decide to do you have our support in whatever way we can, but find something that makes you happy and you’re passionate about.’” She fulfilled her dream opening the museum. The whole family’s volunteered there.

As each Garcia Girl’s found success, the whole family’s shared in it. The legacy lives on.

 

 

 

Bedrock Values at the Core of Four-Generation All Makes Office Furniture Company


 

 

Working in a family business can be a blessing or a curse.  Families that make it work are to be commended.  Ones that make it work over four generations are rare indeed.  This is a story about such a family and their office furniture business based in Omaha, Neb.  Harry Ferer taught the business to his son-in-law, the late Lazier Kavich, who taught the business to his son, Larry Kavich, who in turn showed the ropes to his children, Jeff and Amee, who run it today.  The piece originally appeared in the Jewish Press about six years ago.

 

 

Bedrock Values at the Core of Four-Generation All Makes Office Furniture Company

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Jewish Press

 

As Omaha family businesses go, All Makes Office Furniture Company is one of the oldest and largest still operating. The fourth generation family members running things today stick to the same core principals, values and philosophies that have guided the business since dapper Russian immigrant Harry Ferer founded it in 1918.

A go-getter, Ferer became a star agent for the Royal Typewriter Co. and the Ediphone, an early dictation machine patented by inventor Thomas Alva Edison, whom Ferer knew. Ferer built his own company through hustle and guile, traits his successors have shown in growing the family business. Son-in-law Lazier Kavich entered the fold in 1938 and helped move All Makes forward by adding new lines, earning a reputation for fairness along the way. Lazier taught the business to his son, Larry Kavich, whose energy, people skills and “do the right thing” motto drew in new business. Larry, in turn, taught his children the ropes and now they run things. Larry’s son, Jeff Kavich, is president/CEO of All Makes Omaha and Jeff’s sister, Amee Zetzman, is president/CEO of Lincoln, Neb. and Urbandale, Iowa. The legacy continues. Only time will tell if Jeff’s or Amy’s kids one day carry the torch.

All Makes evolved over these 88 years into a full-service center that outfits offices of every size, located virtually anywhere, with products that range from the latest in work station systems to used desks, chairs and files. The company does more than just sell stuff. It also designs and installs office spaces for all kinds of settings, offering expertise that makes today’s technology-rich environments user-friendly.

Any firm as long-lasting as this one adapts to meet the needs of customers in changing business climates. Through world wars, economic downturns and industry trends, All Makes stays the course, each generation adding fresh ideas to the mix.

Much has changed since Harry Ferer opened his downtown typewriter sales, rental and repair shop. When Lazier Kavich came aboard, the business added office furniture to complement the automated machines it carried. In 1950 All Makes moved to its present location at 2558 Farnam Street. By the 1960s the company added the first of its branch showrooms and stores. Once Larry Kavich joined in the mid-’60s, high end contract furniture became the staple. He expanded the business physically and enhanced its position as a multi-product, multi-service center. He continues as chairman today, wintering in Arizona.

Under Jeff’s and Amee’s watch from the late 1990s on, All Makes has added to its facilities, including new showrooms and warehouses, made a series of renovations, grown the company’s design division and expanded into international markets.

Yes, much has changed. Then again, people are still people and business is still business. Office furniture may be wired today, but getting repeat customers still comes down to treating folks right, qualities sorely missing from so many service providers today. Jeff and Amee keep alive All Makes’ service-first credo, drawing on lessons from two masters in the art of the deal — their grandfather and father.

“Certainly the products have changed and the industry has changed,” Jeff said, “but as far as learning the passion — and taking that home every night with you and always thinking about how to make things better and how to do the right thing — I got that every day from both my grandpa and my dad. It came so naturally, it would have been impossible, I think, for me to feel or act or do any differently.”

As kids, Jeff and Amee were always around the business, working there summers. He learned all facets — from stock and sales to delivery and installation. She applied her gift for number-crunching to the company books.

“Summers, when my friends were spending every day at the pool, I was here in the back room sweeping floors, fixing typewriters, working in the warehouse. I installed furniture, I delivered furniture, I drove the truck. I’ve done everything except billing,” he said. “I look back now and say it was fun and wouldn’t change a thing, Back then, when my buddies were going to the pool, I probably wished I was, too.”

But he knew where his destiny lay.

“I knew from an early age I was carving a path for me into the business and everything I was learning then would only come to benefit me later,” he said. “I knew that this is what I wanted to do. I went to the University of Kansas for a couple years and decided it was time to come home and go to work. You know, my career started in 1990 — 16 years ago, but I can say I’ve been here 30 years because I worked here summers from grade school through college. When I’d come home from college my father and I would talk about the business. Even in high school, if something big was happening here, we discussed things over the weekend. Growing up, dinner table conversations happened all the time. So, as long as I can remember I’ve kind of known and talked the language of All Makes.”

For the young Amee, the business wasn’t so much a career path to follow as a place she felt obligated to pitch in. Her math and computer skills were put to use.

“When I was in the 7th grade they’d bring me in a little desk to sit in the middle of my grandfather and Nancy Mudra, who’s been here over 30 years, and I learned how to compute commissions. When I was more high school age they gave me one of the first portable computers — a huge thing with a screen that popped down…They said, ‘There’s a new program called Lotus and we need you to figure out how we can get the commissions from this giant ledger book into the computer,’ and that was my project. Every time, they saved projects for me. Like one summer all I did was purge the bookkeeping files and make new folders.”

As a boy Jeff accompanied his dad on business trips. Trussed-up in a coat-and-tie, the little boy said little but absorbed much as Daddy made deals.

“I was there watching him do what he does best and that’s an education you won’t learn at Wharton School of Finance,” he said.

When Lazier, who passed in 1996, wasn’t playing cards or handicapping the ponies, he was striking bargains that brought in new business or that added to his overstuffed back office, which has been preserved intact as a kind of memorial. The walls and shelves are still filled with kitsch collectibles. He loved acquiring things in bulk in order to give them away, like the drawer of surplus watches he kept. True to his salvage roots, he built All Makes’ used office furniture segment, now called All Makes on Two, which still accounts for a robust volume of sales today. Sections of two floors, plus the basement, practically sag from all the used items on display.

At one time, three generations of Kaviches drew wages together. “It was something special that I’ll never forget and I know it’s so rare and something few people get to experience,” Jeff said. Lazier, the old-school wheeler-dealer who started in the junk business, was the elder statesman. He read the mail, saw a few old customers and played cards with his cronies in his office. “This is what he loved,” Jeff said. Larry was the dynamic leader closing deals in the showroom, on the phone or on the road. Jeff and Amee were the fresh-from-college upstarts soaking it all in.

The lessons learned from these old-school salesmen made a deep impression on the next generation. Much of what Lazier and Larry did still shapes the business.

“He loved a good deal,” Amy said of Lazier. “He did not like to leave money on the table. That was his mentality and that’s why we have all the used furniture. He taught my brother that end of the business. There are still people we do business with that will fly in here from somewhere in the South to come pick out all their used furniture. Then they’ll send trailers back for it. Because that’s how they and my grandpa did business. So, it still goes on.”

She utilizes some of the managerial tricks and rituals he taught her years ago.

“The entire pile of mail in the morning went to him. He used to say, ‘You can learn what’s going on in every part of the organization by reading the invoices.’ That’s how he kept in touch with what was going on — through the mail. And so now I read the mail every day and it does help me know what’s going on.”

More a benevolent figurehead by the time Amy and Jeff assumed titles and positions at All Makes, Lazier still came to the office every weekday, modeling the Golden Rule in his good works and in his high ethics. Years ago he befriended a blind black evangelist known for traversing the city on foot selling brooms. A tradition began that saw Lazier invite the Rev. into the store for a repast before driving him home at night. The preacher man still stops by on his circuit and Jeff and Amee, like Larry and Lazier before them, make sure he’s well taken care of.

“He was the most giving, caring person you could ever imagine,” Jeff said of Lazier. “Everything was as it is. He said it like it was. Just total honesty and integrity.”

 

 

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Jeff, Amee and Larry Kavich

 

 

Amee said her father, Larry, “took a lot of qualities from my grandfather. He’s very wanting to always do the right thing. Very honest, very charitable. But he also doesn’t like to be taken advantage of. He’s very passionate about everything he does. He’s proud of what we do. It’s been nice for him to be able to take a step back, but he is still absolutely involved in big deals going on. He misses being here full-time. As he explains to us, ‘This is all I’ve done. It’s hard to leave.’”

The siblings feel an obligation to maintain the family tradition in All Makes.

“It’s so important for me to make sure we do provide the best product at the best possible price, along with the best service, because our reputation means so much to us. We just always want to play cards up on the table and do the right thing for all of our great customers,” Jeff said.

“It is an awesome responsibility because our name is associated with this,” Amee said. “We had a situation where we needed the money up front on something and the customer asked, ‘Well, what if you don’t do what you say you’re going to do?’ And I said, ‘You know, we’ve been here 88 years doing what we say we’re going to do.’ And, so, we take it very personally…”

Satisfaction for her comes from knowing a customer’s been satisfied, no matter the size of the transaction. “It’s getting positive feedback from clients, not even on the big deals,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll get a phone call to say, ‘I bought a desk and your guys took great care of me.’ It’s just a feeling of pride that someone in the organization has represented us well.”

For Jeff, it’s” a sense of accomplishment when you meet somebody for the first time, you get to know them and get to know what their business needs are, and then our team puts together the right solution. I guess at the end it’s having a happy customer. There’s a beginning, a middle and an end to a transaction that’s definitive. When we walk away and they say, ‘We have our office furniture — you guys did a fantastic job’ — that’s the carrot. That’s what’s rewarding.”

Groomed as he was to take over as president from his father, Jeff said, “I always knew it was coming,” but added “it never really sunk in until it was on my business card. You always had Larry to fall back on before on making some decisions. But when now it’s my deal, I’m very cautious about what I’m going to do before I do it.” Easing the transition, he said, was the way he worked side by side with his father.

“I learned everything I know from him and I’m grateful to him for that. Even before I became president he would say, ‘You make the decision and if it’s wrong, you’ll learn from it, and if it’s right, way to go.’ In the 16 years I’ve never been sat down and screamed at. He’s let me learn by the mistakes and kind of relish in the good.”

Unlike her brother, Amee didn’t always see herself in the All Makes mold.

“When I left for college (University of Colorado) I was not coming back to Omaha and the store, whereas Jeff knew he was going to come back and be part of the business. So, it was definitely a different scenario.”

Straight from college she moved to Los Angeles in 1989 to work in public accounting. Her niche was small family businesses just like All Makes. “It was really good preparation,” she said. By 1994 she was married with kids. “My husband and I made a quality of life decision that Southern California was not where we wanted to be. And I sort of came to the realization this (All Makes and Omaha) isn’t such a bad thing to come back to.” Factoring into the decision was the chance for their kids to “have grandparents to hang out with. It’s part of Jeff’s and my own life stories. We got to have a life with our grandpa.”

The first order of business was making sure she and Jeff could share power. “I called my brother and we started talking about it. I asked him, ‘What do you think? Do you think we could make this work?’” He told her yes and in 1994 she joined the  team. They’ve found a way to make it work for 12 years now.

“We both have our strengths and we know our strengths,” she said. “We try to stay out of each other’s various departments, but still have input. I think because we have separate responsibilities it makes it easier to get along. In certain situations I know he’s going to make the final decision and in certain situations he knows I’m going to make the final decision. And there’s some situations when we make decisions together. It just works out.”

 

 

 

 

Jeff said, “Well, I think there’s some good balance there. Amy’s got an accounting background and understands a lot better than I do the books and all that sort of thing. So, with her kind of keeping an eye on the pot and making sure everything is in line and in check, that allows me to be in front of the people from more of a sales standpoint. I’m involved with a lot of new business development.”

Just like his grandfather and father before him, Jeff kibitzes with customers to earn their trust and their business. When he isn’t pressing the flesh on the showroom floor, he’s trading jokes on the golf course. Amy trains her eye on the big picture, ever mindful of what her grandpa and dad would do. “There are definitely moments when we say, ‘Oh, Lazier’s rolling over in his grave on this one. What would Lazier have done?’ It’s part of the lore,” she said. Or she repeats one of her father’s credos — “Fast pay makes fast friends.” She added, “He doesn’t like owing anyone.”

The family “works hard to make it work right,” Amy said. “We had a consultant come in and help us separate everything so we had some type of framework to try to work within. Before, we didn’t have titles…everyone just did what needed to be done, which is still the case, but now we have a more clear definition of what our responsibilities are. I think so many times family businesses don’t have a plan and everyone thinks they’re in charge of everything” and it becomes a real mess.

The way Jeff sees it, “you can’t avoid the pitfalls” of a family business, “it’s how you handle the pitfalls. It’s maintaining respect for each other. It comes down to respect. We’re very, very lucky on that regard. I mean, I’m not going to say we don’t have our moments, but at the end of the day we really do have a good working relationship and we’re good friends through it. We’re very blessed.”

All Makes has won area recognition as a model family business and small business and industry-wide awards as a top dealer.

Among other things this next generation in business has taken from their elders is a commitment to downtown. “Yes, we are downtown to stay,” said Amee, who added all the development activity there, including a run-down apartment building converted to condos in back of All Makes, has only strengthened the family’s stake. She said All Makes acquisition of properties around its store realized a “Lazierism” that went — “always buy property near your business when it becomes available.” Lazier also taught her to “never be embarrassed by what you’re going to offer. And that’s how all these properties were acquired,” she said.

She and her brother have also remained committed to the loyal work force, whose average length of tenure is 12 years, Lazier and Larry built. “We have great people here. We like to think it’s a great place to work,” she said.

As a salesman at heart, Jeff’s keenly attuned to two Kavichisms passed on from his grandfather to his father to him that speak of never being too satisfied. When a big deal’s inked, he’s reminded of Lazier and Larry saying: “That’s great, now what are you going to sell ?” In other words, Jeff said, “get onto the next thing.” The other has to do with not repeating mistakes. As Lazier said, “Man who stumbles on rock wants to be forgiven. Man who stumbles on rock twice should break his neck.’”

Bill Cosby, On His Own Terms: Backstage with the Comedy Legend and Old Friend Bob Boozer

May 11, 2012 6 comments

photo
Bill Cosby with Bob Boozer, ©photo by Marlon Wright, mawphotography.net

 

 

UPDATE: It is with a heavy heart I report that hoops legend Bob Boozer, whose friendship with Bill Cosby is glimpsed in this story, passed away May 19.  Photographer Marlon Wright and I were in Cosby’s dressing room when Boozer appeared with a pie in hand for the comedian.  As my story explains, the two went way back, as did the tradition of Boozer bringing his friend the pie.  This blog also contains a profile I did of Boozer some years ago as part of my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness.  For younger readers who may not know the Boozer name, he was one of the best college players ever and a very good pro.  He had the distinction of playing in the NCAA Tournament, being a gold medal Olympian, and winning an NBA title.

My Bill Cosby odyssey continued in unexpected ways the first weekend in May.

After interviewing him by phone for two-plus hours in advance of his Sunday, May 6 show, I secured a face to face interview with him in his dressing room.  Photographer Marlon Wright accompanied me.  Only moments before our meeting, however, it appeared there would be no face time with the legend.  Word of our backstage interview somehow hadn’t reached Cosby and as we walked into his Orpheum Theater dressing room he was unsuccessfuly trying to confirm things with his PR handler.  That’s when I assured him I was the same reporter who had talked to him by phone at length.  When he gave me a look that said, “Do you know how many reporters I talk to?” I blurted out, “I’m the remedial man,” referring to our shared past of testing into remedial English in college, something that became a recurring joke between us during that marathan phone interview.  “Why didn’t you say so?” he said, and just like that we were in.

After 15 minutes or so I was prepared to thank him for his time when an assistant came back to announce that Cosby’s old Omaha friend, Bob Boozer, who was a college All-American. Olympic gold medalist and NBA titlist, was outside.  Cosby’s face lit up. Marlon and I exchanged a quick look that said, ‘Let’s stick around,” and so we did.  What played out next was an intimate look at how a King of Comedy holds court before going on. Boozer brought a sweet potato pie his wife Ella baked.

Cosby was obviously touched and kidded his friend with, “I appreciate you not getting into it.” These two former athletes traded good-natured jibes about each others’ ailments and at one point Cosby placed his hands on Boozer’s knees and intoned, like a faith healer, “Heal.”

Then the assistant popped in again with memorabilia fans had brought for Cosby to sign, which he did, and not long after that a contingent from Boys Town was ushered in to meet The Cos.  Family teachers Tony and Simone Jones, along with their son and nine young men who live with them, plus some BT staffers, all filed in and Cosby greeted each individually.  What played out right up until his curtain call was a scene in which Cosby peppered the adults and kids with probing questions, sometimes kidding with them, sometimes dead serious with them.  It turned into a mini lecture or seminar of sorts and a very cool opportunity for these young people, who might as well have been The Cosby Kids from Fat Albert or from his family sit-coms.

By the time we all said goodbye our expected 15 minutes with Cosby had turned into 45 minutes and we’d gotten a neat glimpse into how relaxed and down to earth the entertainer is and just how well and warmly he interacts with people.  I stayed for the show of course and it was more of the same, only a more animated Cosby was revealed.

 

 

photo©photo by Marlon Wright, mawphotography.net

 

 

Bill Cosby, On His Own Terms: Backstage with the Comedy Legend and Old Friend Bob Boozer

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in the New Horizons

 

Holding court in his Orpheum Theater dressing room before his May 6 Omaha show, comedy legend Bill Cosby was thoroughly, authentically, well, Bill Cosby.

The living legend exuded the easy banter, sharp observations and occasional bluster that defines his comedic brand. He was variously lovable curmudgeon, cantankerous sage and mischievous child.

He appeared tired, having played Peoria just the night before, but his energy soared the more the room filled up.

With his concert start nearing and him blissfully unaware of the time, he played host to this reporter, photographer Marlon Writght, old chum Bob Boozer and the family teachers and youth residents of a Boys Town family home.

By turns Cosby was entertainer, lecturer, father-figure and cut-up as he shook hands, autographed items and told stories.

He’s made the world laugh for 50 years now as a standup comedian, though these days he performs sitting down. He said colleagues of his, including jazz musician Eubie Blake, have accused him of not having an act. Cosby simply tells stories, with occasional clips from his TV shows projected on an overhead screen.

“Eubie wasn’t angry when he said it, he was just jealous. He’s from the days of vaudeville where guys had set ups and then the punchline,” said Cosby. “I think he was looking for the set up and the punchline and all I was doing was the same thing when he’s at my house.”

By that Cosby means talking. He talks about everything and nothing at all. His genius is that he makes none of it seem designed, though his stories are based on written material he writes himself. What makes his riffs seem extemporaneous is his impromptu, conversational delivery, complete with pauses, asides and digressions, just like in real life. Then there are the hilarious faces, voices and sounds he makes to animate his stories. What sets him apart from just anyone talking, he said, “is the performance in the storytelling.”

His enduring appeal is his persona as friend or neighbor, and these days uncle or grandfather, regaling us with tales of familiar foibles. He invites us to laugh at ourselves through the prism of true-to-life missteps and adventures in growing up, courting, parenting and endless other touchstone experiences. Making light of the universal human condition makes his humor accessible to audiences of any age or background.

“That’s the whole idea of the writing – everybody identifying with it,” he said.

That’s been his approach ever since he began taking writing seriously as a student at Temple University in his native Philadelphia. He found his voice as a humanist observer while penning creative writing compositions for class.

“I was writing about the human experience. Who told me to do it? Nobody. I just wrote it. Was I trying to be funny? No. Was I reading any authors who inspired me? No.”

It’s not exactly true he didn’t have influences. His mother read Mark Twain to him and his younger brothers when he was young. Just as she could spin a yarn or two, he was himself a born storyteller amusing friends and teachers. He also admired such television comics as Sid Caesar and Jack Benny, among many others, he drew on to shape his comic alter ego.

He may never have done anything with his gifts if not for a series of events that  turned his life around. The high school drop out earned his GED, went to college, then left early to embark on his career, but famously returned to not only finish his bachelor’s degree but to go on and earn a master’s and a Ed.D in education.

 

 

photo
©photo by Marlon Wright, mawphotography.net

 

 

 

 

 

He’s sreceived numerous honorary degrees and awards, including the Kennedy Center Honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. There have been dark days too. His only son Ennis was murdered in 1997. The comic’s alleged infidelity made headlines.

Through it all, he’s made education his cause, both as advocate and critic. His unsparing views on education and parenting have drawn strong criticism from some but he hasn’t let the push back silence him.

He said growing up in a Philadelphia public housing project he was a bright but indifferent student, devoting more time to sports and hanging out than studying. He recalls only two teachers showing real interest in him.

“I wasn’t truant, I just didn’t care about doing anything. I was just there, man. I was still in the 11th grade at age 19.”

He describes what happened next as “divine intervention.” The high school drop-out joined the U.S. Navy., Cosby hated it at first. “That was a very rude epiphany.” He stuck it out though, working as a medical aide aboard several ships, and obtained his high school equivalency. “I spent four years revamping myself.”

He marveled a GED could get him into college. Despite awful test scores Temple University accepted him on an athletic scholarship in 1960.

“I was the happiest 23-year-old in the world. They put me in remedial everything and I knew I deserved it and I knew I was ready to work for it. I knew what I wanted to be and do. I wanted to become a school teacher. I wanted to jump those 7th and 8th grade boys who had this same idea I had of just sitting there in class.

“Being in remedial English, with the goal set, that’s the thing that began to make who I am now.”

Fully engaged in schoolwork for the first time, he threw himself into creative writing assignments. He wrote about pulling his own tooth as a kid and the elusive perfect point in sharpening a pencil.

The day dreaming that once hampered his studies became his ticket to fame. He said the idea for one of his popular early bits, “The Toss of the Coin,” came during Dr. Barnett’s American History class at Temple.

“I began to drift as he was talking about the Revolutionary War.”

Cosby imagined war as a sporting contest with referees, complete with captains from each team – the ragtag settlers and the professional British army. A coin toss decided sides. In the bit the referee instructs the settlers, “You will wear fur hats and blend into the forest and hide behind rocks and trees.” To the Red Coats, the referee says, “You will wear red and march in a straight line and play drums.”

The day dreams that used to land him in trouble were getting him noticed in the rights way. He recalls the impact it made when the professor held up his papers as shining examples and read them aloud in class to appreciative laughter.

“That was the kickoff. That’s when my mind started to go into another area of, Yes you can do, and I began to think, Gee whiz, I could write for comedians. And all my life from age 23 on, I was born again…in terms of what education and the value is. To study, to do something and be proud of it – an assignment.”

He’s well aware his life could have been quite different.

“Had it not been for the positive influence of this professor, without him reading that out loud and my hearing the class laugh, who knows, I may be at this age a retired gym teacher, well loved by some of his students.”

While a Temple student he worked at a coffee house and he first performed his humorous stories there. Then he began filling in for the house comic at a Philly club and warming-up the audience of a local live radio show.

 

 

photo
©photo by Marlon Wright, mawphotography.net

 

 

Those early gigs helped him arrive at his signature style.

“When I was looking for that style I saw it a Chinese restaurant. It was a party of eight white people and there was a fellow talking and everybody was just laughing. Women were folding napkins up to cover their faces. This was not a professional performer. Upon analyzing it I noted three things. First of all, he’s a friend of the other seven. Secondly, he’s talking about something they all know that happened. Thirdly, it happened to him and they are enjoying listening to his experience from his viewpoint

“And so I decided that’s who I want to be, that’s the style, because my storytelling is the same thing, whether I’m talking about pulling my own tooth or sharpening a pencil until it’s nothing but metal and rubber.”

Or the vicissitudes of being a father or son.

Not everyone recognized Cosby’s talents.

“I showed this comedian working in a nightclub a thing I wrote about Clark Kent changing clothes in a phone booth. In the bit a cop shows up and says, ‘What are you doings?’ and Kent says, ‘I”m changing clothes into Superman,’ and the cop says, Look, come out of there.’ ‘No, I’m Superman, can’t you see this red S on my chest?’ And the cop says, ‘You’re going to have a red S and a black eye.’ The comic read it and said, ‘This is not funny’ Within a couple years it was on my first album.”

Cosby ventured to New York City and followed the stand-up circuit. Then came his big break on The Tonight Show. Sold out gigs and Grammy-winning recordings followed.

Along with Dick Gregory, Nipsey Russell and Godfrey Cambridge, Cosby was among a select group of black comics who crossed over to give white audiences permission to laugh at themselves. None enjoyed the breakout success of Cosby. Without his opening the doors, Flip Wilson, Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy would have found it more difficult to enjoy their mainstream acceptance.

“I would imagine it was something brand new for an awful lot of people – to see this black person talking and making a connection and laughing because, Yeah, that happened to me.”

The iconic comic’s raconteur style has translated to best selling albums and books, where he mines his favorite themes of family, fatherhood and children. His warm, witty approach has made him a television and film star.

In his dressing room he appeared fit and comfortable in the same simple, informal attire he wore on stage: gray sweatshirt with the words Thank You printed on it and gray sweatpants with a draw string. The only thing missing from his stage outfit was his flip-flops. He spoke to us in his socks.

Totally in his element, with light bulb-studded mirrors, a soft leather sofa and bottles of Perrier water within easy reach, he captivated the audience of two dozen inside the dressing room just as expertly as he did the 1,500 souls in the auditorium.

For a few minutes photographer Marlon Wright and I had The Cos all to ourselves.

Two weeks earlier I conducted a long phone interview with the comic in which he discussed the “born again” experience that led to his path as a writer-performer. We hit it off and I struck a real chord when I shared that, like him, I tested into remedial English as a college freshman.

“Hey, man, we’re remedial,” became our running private joke.

He agreed to a photo shoot. Only when Marlon and I arrived at the Orpheum his  aide informed us the appointment wasn’t booked on “Mr. Cosby’s” schedule. Escorted to his dressing room, I found Cosby trying to reach his publicist to confirm things. I reminded him of our phone interview from a couple weeks back and he shot me an exasperated look that said, Do you know how many reporters I talk to?

Determined not to blow this opportunity, I blurted out, “I’m the remedial man.” “Oh, why didn’t you say so?” he said, smiling broadly and inviting me to sit down. Just then, the phone rang. It was the PR person he’d tried earlier. “Yes, yes, I got him here.” he told her. “He finally said the key word, remedial, so I let him in.”

In the weeks preceding his concert Cosby did a local media blitz to try and boost lagging ticket sales. Sitting across from him in his dressing room, less than an hour before his performance, he expressed disappointment at the low number of tickets sold but pragmatically attributed it to the show’s 2 p.m. Sunday slot.

Asked what it is that still drives him to continue performing at age 74 and he answered, “I am still in the business. I’m still thinking, I’m still writing, I’m still performing extraordinarily well, and in a master sense.” It echoed something he said by phone about going on stage with a plan but being crafty enough to go where his instincts take him.

“Once I pass that threshold from those curtains to come out and sit down I know what I would like to do but I keep it wide open. I don’t know which way it’s going to shift, and a part of it has to do with the audience and the other part has to do with me  – where am I at that time and what’s the brain connecting with in terms of being excited about something.

“I did a show in Tyler, Texas and I started out with enthusiasm talking about something and then I didn’t like what I was doing and I shifted the material to nontrends to trends until finally they began to click in. In other words, some audiences are and are not, and you have to go out there and find that, find what keeps and what works. It’s 50 years now. I know exactly where to mine and what to do.”

 

 

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Bob Boozer holds the sweet potato pie as Cosby prays over his knees©photos by Marlon Wright, mawphotography.net

 

 

He knows he’ll eventually hit the sweet spots. As an American Instiution he has the luxury too of having audiences in the palm of his hand.

“Now, we already have a relationship that’s wonderful because people already know I’m funny, so there’s no guessing there, but on a given day, they are or they aren’t. Are they trusting you? Do I feel that way? It’s very complex but because I’m a master at it I think you want me in that driver’s seat to turn you on.”

It takes confidence, even courage to go out on that stage.

“Yes sir, and you need that, no matter what, I don’t care if you’re a driving instructor or what. If your confidence goes bad in comedy…” he said, his voice trailing off at the thought. “Whether you’re writing or getting ready to perform or sitting with friends and talking you have to have that confidence.”

He can’t conceive of slowing down when he still has the physical energy and mental edge to perform in peak fashion. Besides, he pointed out he’s not alone pursuing the comic craft at his age. Don Rickles, Bob Newhart, Mort Sahl. Bill Dana, Dick Gregory, Dick Cavett and Joan Rivers are older yet and still performing at the top of their game.

He said he fully intends returning to Omaha and selling out next time.

“So there I am talking about coming back – see?”

Besides, comics never retire unless their mind goes or body fails. The way he looks, Cosby might be at this for decades more.

Asked if he has any favorite routines or rituals backstage, he said aside from resting and signing memorabilia, he generally does what’s made him famous – talk. He bends the ears and tickles the funny bones of theater staffers, promoters, personal assistants, friends, acquaintances, fans.

Then, as if on cue, his aide Daniel popped in to say Bob Boozer was outside. Cosby immediately lit up, saying, “Ahhhh, all right, bring Bobby in and tell him he cannot come in without my you know what.” Boozer, the hoops legend, lumbered in bearing a sweet potato pie his wife Ella baked.

“Here’s Ella’s contribution to 2012 Cosby,” Boozer said handing the prized dessert to Cosby, who accepted it with a covetous grin that would do Fat Albert proud.

“I appreciate that you didn’t get in it,” Cosby teased Boozer, who for decades has made a tradition of bringing the entertainer Ella’s home-made sweet potato pie whenever he performs here.

Boozer confided later, “He loves it. I never will forget one time at Ak-Sar-Ben he had the pie on-stage with him and somebody in the crowd asked if they could get a slice, and he he draped his arms over it and said, ‘Heavens no, this pie is going back on the plane with me…'”

The two men go way back, to when Boozer played for the Los Angeles Lakers and Cosby was shooting I Spy. A teammate of Boozer’s, Walt Hazzard, was a Philly native like Cosby and Hazzard introduced Cos to Boozer and they hit it off.

A coterie of black athletes and entertainers would gather at Cosby’s west coast pad for marathon rounds of the card game Bid Whist and free-flowing discussions.

“We usually would have a hilarious time,” Boozer recalled.

When the Lakers were on the road and Cosby was performing in the same town Boozer said he, Hazzard and Co. “would always show up at his performances and visit with him about old times and that kind of thing.”

Together again at the Orpheum the pair reminisced. They share much in common as black men of the same age who helped integrate different spheres of American culture. They were both athletes, though at vastly different levels. Cosby was a fair track and field competitor in high school, the U.S. Navy and at Temple University. Boozer was an all-state basketball player at Omaha Tech High, an All-American at Kansas State, a member of the 1960 gold medal-winning U.S, Olympic team and the 6th man for the 1971 NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks.

When Boozer entered the then-fledgling National Basketball Association in 1960 blacks were still a rarity in the league. When he retired in ’71 he became one of the first black corporate executives in his hometown of Omaha at Northwestern Bell.

Cosby’s such a staple today that it’s easy to forget he helped usher in a soft revolution. At the same time his good friend Sidney Poitier was opening doors for African-Americans on the big screen, Cosby did the same on the small screen. He became the first black leading man on network TV when he teamed with Robert Culp in the groundbreaking episodic series, I Spy (1965-1968).

Cosby broke more ground with his TV specials, talk-variety show appearances  and his innovative educational children’s program, The Electric Company (1971-1973). He was the first black man to headline his own series, The Cosby Show (1969-1971). But it was his second sit-com, also called The Cosby Show (1984-1992), that became a national sensation for its popular, positive portrayals of black family life. The series made Cosby a fortune and a beloved national figure.

The two men have know each other through ups and downs. So when these two old war horses reunite there’s an unspoken rapport that transcends time.

Like any ex-athletes of a certain age they live with aches and pains. At one point Cosby placed his hands on Boozer’s knees and intoned, “Heal, heal.” Later, I asked Boozer if it did any good, and he said, “No, I wish it would though.”

Pie wasn’t the only thing Boozer brought that day. The Nebraska Board of Parole member volunteers with youth at Boys Town. A family home there he’s become particularly “attached to” is headed by family teachers Tony and Simone Jones, who at Boozer’s invitation arrived with the nine boys that live with them. Cosby went down the half-circle line of boys one by one to meet them – clasping hands, getting their names, asking questions, horsing around.

 

 

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Cosby with Boys Town family teachers Tony and Simone Jones

Cosby with words of wisdom for Carvel Jones

photoBoozer and Cosby listening to Boys Town guests, ©photos by Marlon Wright, mawphotography.net

 

 

When told that Tony and Simone are in charge of them all Cosby saw a teachable moment and asked, “You live with them? Why? You were not drafted to look after these boys. OK, then tell me, why are you living there with them?”

“Because we feel it’s our responsibility to take care of the kids, not only our own youth but youth in society,” said Simone.

“But what made that a responsibility for you? They’re not your children,” probed Cosby.

Tony next gave it a try, saying, “Mr. Cosby I’ll answer just very simply: My mom passed when I was 12 years old, and I went to Boys Town to live…” Cosby erupted with, “Oh, really! Now you’re starting to tell me stories, you see what I’m talking about (to the boys), you guys understand me? Huh?” Several of the boys nodded yes. “The story is coming, huh? What did Boys Town do for him?” Cosby asked them. One boy said, “Helped him out, gave him a place to stay.” Another said, “Gave him a second chance.”

“Well, more than a second chance,” Cosby replied. “it took care of him,” a boy offered. “And made him take care of himself, because you can see he’s eating well,” Cosby teased the stout Jones. “And that’s why he’s living with you now – he’s trying to build you,” Cosby told the kids.

 

 

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©photo by Marlon Wright, mawphotography.net

 

 

The conversation then turned to what Cosby called “the hard knock life” these kids come from. He noted that youth today confront different challenges than what he or Boozer faced growing up and that Boys Town provides healthy mediation.

“We lived with our biological parents. Now my father drank too much and said he didn’t want any responsibility, which left the whole job on my mother, so we lived in a housing project.  Yet we didn’t have the pressures these guys have, the insanity that exists today, and by insanity I mean not normal. Yes, there is a normal. What is normal? Normal is, ‘Don’t do that’ – ‘OK.’ Abnormal is, ‘Don’t do that.’ ‘No, I’m going to do it because you said don’t do it.’

“When I was coming up we didn’t have Omaha, Neb. ranked high in teenage boys murdering each other. Am I making sense? We didn’t have the guns being placed in our neighborhoods. We had guys who made guns but you had better than a 70-30 chance that gun would blow up in his hands. But now we have real guns and good ones too. It’s in the home.”

Cosby said it comes down to caring and making good choices.

“The first black to score a point in the NBA, Earl Lloyd, wrote a book and he tells the story of being 14-15 years old and he comes home and his mother says, ‘Where’ve you been?’ He’s stammering, he knows he’s caught with something, avoiding telling her he’s been in a place she doesn’t want him. She says, ‘You were with those boys on that corner.’ and he says, ‘But Mama, I wasn’t doing anything.’  And his mother says, ‘If you’re not in the picture, you cant be framed,’ and if you don’t understand what I just said someone will explain it to you.

“But the idea is where are these boys coming from and what places they may have to get to. There’s a place called Girard College in my hometown. You need to look it up. Forty-three acres. I call it the 10th Wonder of the World.”

The college, where Cosby gave the commencement speech last year, has a largely African-American student enrollment and graduates a high percentage of its students, most of whom come from at-risk circumstances. He said it’s a shining example of what can be.

“What’s missing in this society for black people and people of color is to own something, a small business to build upon. Many of you because of your color you will get the feeling, Yeah I can study and I can be but once I step away from college and go outside of that there are too many people that look at my color and listen to my language and they wont really welcome me. And all of you here know exactly what that feels like.”

Then, turning to Tony and Simone and referring to the boys, he said, “We’ve got to do more with fellows like these for them to do shadowing, to find business people willing to allow the boys to not go get coffee or to tie their shoes but to shadow, and it can happen in hospitals, it can happen in factories, businesses, so that these young males begin to understand what they can do.”

Cosby clearly admires the difference that adults like Tony and Simone make, saying he can see “the joy of these boys knowing that you guys care.”

“It’s about showing them the possibilities,” said Simone.

And with that, the legend bid his guests goodbye. As the entourage filed out with smiles, handshakes and break-a-leg well wishes this reporter was reminded of what Cosby said about the possibilities he began to see for himself once his college English professor took notice.

“I knew I was on track with what I wanted to do.”

Things have come full circle now and Cosby embraces the each-one-to-teach-one position of inspiring young people to live their dreams, to realize their potential.

“Hey, hey, hey…”

Bill Cosby Talks About His Life’s Turning Point

April 21, 2012 5 comments

 

 

I have interviewed a lot of celebrities in my time.  Alexander Payne.  Laura Dern.  Jaime King. Patricia Neal.  Robert Duvall.  James Caan.  Danny Glover.  Matthew Broderick.  Debbie Reynolds. Swoosie Kurtz.  Carol Kane.  Mickey Rooney.  Pat Boone.  Dick Cavett.  Martin Landau.  Gabrielle Union.  Cathy Hughes.  Isabel Wilkerson.  Johnny Otis.  Bill Dana.  Richard Brenner.  Edward Albee. John Guare.  Warren Buffett.  Bob Gibson.  Gale Sayers.  Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Johnny Rodgers. Marlin Briscoe.  And many more.  In my experience with public figures I have found it generally takes several days, sometimes weeks to arrange an interview and to have it come off.  One notable exception to that rule was Warren Buffett, whom I needed a quote from for a story related to the now defunct Sun Newspapers he owned.  I had procrastinated during the week and not called his office asking for an interview, which I suspected I wouldn’t get anyway, I found myselg facing the deadline on a Saturday morning and feeling a bit desperate.  What the hell? I thought, so I rang up his office and who should pick up the phone but Buffett himself.  He handled my few questions with aplomb and that was that.  I was later told by someone who knows him well that it was a one-in-a-million circumstance that Buffett just happened to be in his office then and that he got the phone himself.  All of which brings me to Bill Cosby.  Between the time I got the assignment to do an advance story on his upcoming Omaha gig, my making the request through his handlers for a phone audience with him, then getting the interview confirmed, and then actually conducting the interview with the legend, less than 48 hours elapsed, which aside from the freak Buffett occurrence, is record time for an interview with someone of his stature.  That’s not all that made my Cosby encounter memorable.  I was surprised when I was accorded an hour by his publicist because I only requested 30 to 40 minutes.  Near the end of that hour, a thoroughly enjoyable give and take with the comic whose answers to my questions sounded a lot like his storytelling bits, I asked a final question about his views on what public education in America needs to be doing better to capture more of the students being lost in the system.  He told me has a lot to say on the subject and would I mind calling him back later in the day for him to comment for a separate story. I agreed to do just that, of course, and that’s how it happened  I ended up interviewing him a second time, this time for more than hour, on the subject of education.  The question about education was a natural one since he’s a well known vocal advocate for the value of quality education and good parenting and an outspoken critic of what’s wrong with much of education and parenting today in certain quarters.  Also, throughout much of that first interview he spoke about the transformative power of education in his own life that set him on the path to becoming the writer-storyteller-performer we know today. So, below you will find my forthcoming article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) that previews his May 6 concert in Omaha.  Look for a follow up story sometime soon with his views on education.  And also look for a more extended profile of the artist.

 

 

Bill Cosby Coming Talks Abou His Life’s Turning Point 

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Slow ticket sales are prompting legendary comedian Bill Cosby to do a media blitz promoting his 2 p.m. May 6 Orpheum Theater concert. It just wouldn’t do for the 74-year-old icon to play to empty seats.

Cosby’s handler has me call the artist’s home directly. The unmistakable voice answering on the other end hastily greets me before excusing himself with, “Hang on a minute.” It seems his wife Camille is heading out with the grandkids and he wants to confirm dinner plans before she goes.

“Hey, listen! Is anybody paying attention to what I’m saying? Camille, are you paying attention to what I’m saying?”

He’s channeling the exasperated Cliff Huxtable from The Cosby Show.

He holds the floor a moment before fumbling for a name that eludes him. His family assures him they’ve got it covered. As they exit, he says, “OK,” and returns to the phone.

“Hello, alright, what you got?”

I suggest the overheard exchange is like a scene from his show.

“Well, um, yeah, with grandchildren now who come by and visit and then things show up in their hands and you say, ‘Well, where’d you get that?” ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Go put that back.’ And you have to define to grandchildren what is not a toy.

“Before they’re broken we would rather you not pick them up and then put them on the floor and pretend they’re something, and then forget you put them down there, which is what I call dementia. While people are picking on old people, kids have dementia too , They put stuff down and then they walk away and leave it. You say, ‘You know you forgot to pick up…’ ‘Oh, yeah.”

The riff over, Cosby refocuses to ask. “So where am I going?” I reply, “You’re coming to Omaha.” “Oh, yeah, listen man, we need help there. Played Lincoln (October 7), did well, did very well. We’re sitting there (Omaha) anemically at 30 percent. I think we need to tell the people I’m coming and they will probably have close to an hour and 45 minutes of good old, gee whiz I-forgot-I-could-laugh-that hard-and-that-good fun.”

Later, when he repeats his plea for help, citing the 30 percent number, I express surprise he even knows a detail like that.

“Really?” he asks incredulously. “Well, you better erase that. I do know. Look, this is a business. And I do think there may be an awful lot of entertainers and performers who would not even care, I mean, at least not to do anything about it. But I just want the people to know I am here and they need to go on and get these tickets and quit fooling around.”

A personal appeal to his fan base is potentially huge. His audience is sure to include folks “when I used to play Ak-Sar-Ben, when that was a big to-do then,” he says, referring to sold-out Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben concerts he performed at the old coliseum, once memorably with Sammy Davis Jr..

I ask if he considers himself a storyteller or monologist and he interrupts with, “Don’t bother with all that stuff. I walk out, there’s a chair, a table, a box of Kleenex, a bottle of water and a waste paper basket. Draped over the chair is ‘Hello, friend,’ which is our late son’s favorite saying in greeting people.”

Then, in the warm, reflective intonations familiar from his stand-up act and film-TV roles, he launches into, what else?, a story about how it all started for him at school. It’s the reason he’s taken education as his cause, both as advocate and critic.

 

 

 

 

He says growing up in a Philadelphia public housing project he was a bright but indifferent student, devoting more time to sports and hanging out than studying. He recalls only two teachers showing real interest in him.

“I wasn’t truant, I just didn’t care about doing anything. I was just there, man. I was still in the 11th grade at age 19.”

He calls what happens next “divine intervention.” The high school drop-out joined the U.S. Navy. He hated it. “That was a very rude epiphany.” He stuck it out though and obtained his GED. “I spent four years revamping myself.”

He marveled a GED could get him into college. Despite awful test scores Temple University accepted him on an athletic scholarship in 1960.

“I was the happiest 23-year-old in the world. They put me in remedial everything and I knew I deserved it and I knew I was ready to work for it. I knew what I wanted to be and do. I wanted to become a school teacher. I wanted to jump those 7th and 8th grade boys who had this same idea I had of just sitting there in class.

“Being in remedial English, with the goal set, that’s the thing that began to make who I am now.”

I score points with him when I share I tested into remedial English myself, prompting this, “Hey, we’re remedial, man.”

Fully engaged in his work, he threw himself into creative writing assignments. He wrote about pulling his own tooth as a kid and the elusive perfect point in sharpening a pencil. He recalls the impact it made when the professor held up his papers as shining examples and read them aloud in class to appreciate laughter.

“That was the kickoff. That’s when my mind started to go into another area of, Yes you can do, and I began to think, Gee whiz, I could write for comedians. And all my life from age 23 on, I was born again…in terms of what education and the value is. To study, to do something and be proud of it – an assignment.”

Cosby found his voice and passion: humanist storyteller of universal themes.

“That’s the whole idea of the writing – everybody identifying with it. I write about the human experience.”

 

 

 

 

From the start he wrote what he knew. “Who told me to do it? Nobody, I just wrote it. Was I trying to be funny? No. Was I reading any authors who inspired me? No.”

It wasn’t long after enteringTemple he penned famous bits like “Superman” and “Toss of the Coin.” Hundreds more followed, mostly about family.

“I write all and have written everything I have ever performed on stage. So, when you look at a movie, when you look at a TV show, when you hear an LP, I am that writer-performer. Everything comes from that. But when you look at the body of the work you will see that school teacher still working it, still talking about the value of education.”

Even as his stand-up career exploded, setting the stage for many firsts, he focused on entertainment with a message.

“I would imagine it was something brand new for an awful lot of people – to see this black person talking and making a connection and laughing because, ‘Yeah, that happened to me.'”

He’s the author of several best-selling books.

He’s well aware his life could have been quite different.

“Had it not been for the positive influence of this professor, without him reading that out loud and my hearing the class laugh, who knows, I may be at this age a retired gym teacher, well loved by some of his students.”

Years later he did finish college and added advanced degrees.

Going on 50 years as a comic, he’s a familiar “friend” to audiences. “We already have a relationship that’s wonderful because they know I’m funny, so there’s no guessing there.” He walks out with an idea of what he wants to do but, he says, “I keep it wide open.” Once he feels out the crowd, he goes where “they are.”

“It’s very complex,” he says, “but because I’m a master at it I think you want me in that driver’s seat to turn you on.”

Tickets start at $49.50. To order, call 402-345-0606 or visit http://www.ticketomaha.com.


From the Archives: Peony Park Not Just an Amusement Playground, But a Multi-Use Events Facility

April 8, 2012 7 comments

Here is a story from the dusty past about a fondly remembered, now long gone amusement park in my hometown of Omaha, Neb. called Peony Park.  This story was originally published more than 20 years ago and painted a bright picture of a still thriving place, but within a very short time (1994) the park closed, unable to fend off mounting competition for leisure-recreation dollars.  Growing up, my family didn’t much go in for amusement parks and thus I have only a couple dim memories of being there as a kid.  I was there maybe a few more times as a young adult.  So it’s not like the loss of Peony Park meant much to me, although I did like the idea of this charming relic of Americana.  It’s laudable that it hung on as long as it did and I suppose it’s a shame it finally went under, particularly since a generic strip mall anchored by a supermarket went in its place.  My piece doesn’t go into the history of Peony Park, which no doubt saw millions of visitors during its three quarters of a century life.  To be sure, most of that history would be  nostalgic good fun, but an ugly part of it would be the fact that African-Americans were denied access to its large pool and man-made beaches well into the 1960s until a series of civil rights protests compelled the owners to change a policy that was in clear violation of a Nebraska statute guaranteeing equal access to places of amusement.  The protests, which followed a court decision against the park that the owners and law enforcement ignored, finally forced enough financial and political pressure on the Malecs that they had no choice but to open the pool to all.  For more on that regrettable chapter, check out David Bristow’s story about it at www.davidbristow.com/peony.html.

 

 

From the Archives: Peony Park Not Just an Amusement Playground, But Multi-Use Events Facility 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Midlands Business Journal

 

What is 40 candy-coated acres of rides, games and variety-filled nights that are bright and shiny all over? Why, it’s one of Omaha’s landmark entertainment attractions – Peony Park, whose amusement center opened last week. Despite two rainouts, the May 10-13 opening drew 3,000 patrons.

Since the late Joseph Malec Sr. opened a dance spot and filling station in 1919 across the road from a huge peony garden (hence the name) the complex has grown into a multi-use events center serving hundreds of thousands of folk a year.

Long before Ak-Sar-Ben initiated a liberal open-door policy in the late 1980s, Peony welcomed the community to hold meetings, seminars, fund-raisers, picnics and all manner of special events at its friendly confines. For generations the Peony Ballroom was a mecca for couples dancing to big band sounds. Who knows how many romances got started or rekindled under the Ballroom’s gleaming stardust ceiling? Although Peony no longer sponsors a big band program of its own, music and dance events are still booked there by outside groups.

A $3 million facelift begun four years ago expanded the ballroom added the Plaza Theater, beautified the grounds and improved access to the park. Improvements continue today, as Peony updates its campus and expands its services to corporate and nonprofit clients alike. Much of the operation revolves around booming banquet and catering services.

Despite civic outreach efforts Peony is usually thought of this time of year as simply that charming little amusement park tucked north of tree-lined Cass Street. And that’s just fine with park officials, who expect more than 300,000 visitors through the amusement park turnstiles this year. For comparison’s sake, that’s about the same number of fans the Omaha Royals Triple AAA farm club drew to Rosenblatt Stadium in 1989.

 

 

The old amusement park opened last Thursday, the start of 110 whirling dervish days and nights when the roller coaster, Wave Swinger, Black Hole and other gravity-defying rides propel people through space for the thrill of it all.

There’s also the many arcade games that carry with them the chance to win stuffed aninals or trinkets, the swimming pool and its half-mile of sand beaches, water slides, a minature train that tours the park and a new addition, go-carts.

A different live family show is held each week at the Plaza Theater – from country singers to mimes and monkey acts.

Seventy-one years after old man Malec staked a claim for his dance and gas emporium in what was then countryside, Peony president and namesake Joseph Malec Jr., the founder’s son, invites youths to kick up their heels at Thursday night shindigs.

While Peony has felt the effect of local funplexes that have sprung up, it has weathered the competition by combining its nostalgic charm with state-of-the-art facilities.

“Several years ago that type of competition really didn’t exist and it has had an impact on our business over the years, ” said Peony general manager John Gilroy. “But we offer a variety of choices that those places aren’t able to provide. We have amusement park rides as well as the pool and the water slides. The renovation that took place a few yeara ago outside has given Peony a new look that people who visit the park find very attractive.

 

 

Peony has also withstood the pull of such regional attraction as AdventuredLand in Des Moines, Iowa and Worlds of Fun in Kansas City, Mo., which draw many area residents, by offering a less-stressful recreational outing. Often, Peony’s parking lots are less crowded, lines shorter and prices lower than the mega-theme parks.

“We recognize a lot of people in Omaha go to Worlds of Fun and AdventureLand and, in a sense, we think that’s good for us because with the exception of their major theme rides we have a lot of the attractions that both of those parks have,” said Gilroy. “If people have a good time at those places maybe they’ll want to come to Peony Park for an afternoon or evening.”

That’s why Gilroy said “the destination theme parks are not our competition in the real sense of the word. We offer people who live in Omaha and within an hour’s drive of here someplace to go when they don’t want to load up the kids and be gone overnight or make a two or three day event out of their entertainment.”

Jim Hronek, Peony sales and marketing manager, said, “Only about three or four percent of our audience comes from more than 60 miles away. We basically draw from Omaha, Council Bluffs and Lincoln and the small towns in the area.”

Contrary to the perception that Peony attracts a mostly teen crowd, Hronek said more than 90 percent of its customers are families. “Everybody thinks of Peony as being a teenage facility but the number of teens who come without their parents is only about three or four percent.” Youth attendance peaks Thursdays when radio station Sweet 98 and Mountain Dew co-sponsor a non-alcoholic live rock music and dance night. Otherwise, Peony promotes itself as a family place. That’s one reason why it junked the slogan “The place to party.” It sounded more like an invitation to young singles and adults than parents with children. This year’s new slogan is “Omaha’s premiere family entertainment center.” Peony has kept the catchy jingle sung at the end of its radio and television commercials that goes, “You’re gonna really love the way you feel.”

Because surveys show moms and kids are the real powerbrokers when it comes to making family recreational decisions, Peony targets its radio and TV spots at them.

“That’s why we aim some of our marketing at children’s television,” Hronek noted. “The particular radio stations we try to buy and the particular TV shows that we purchase commercials on are very family-oriented. Ninety-five percent of our TV commercials are bought on Channel 42 (KPTM). They run a lot of cartoons for children and family entertainment shows that we purchase advertising on. KPTM’s base is Omaha and Lincoln and that’s another reason we buy so heavily with them because we’re getting into both markets at the same time.”

 

 

With more leisure choices than ever before people are highly discriminating in spending their recreational dollars these days. To give families more bang for their bucks Peony has slashed prices. In particular, it’s hoped more patrons will attend during the week, the traditional dog days at amusement parks when the gate slows to a trickle of it’s normal weekend flood of visitors. On its busiest days Peony has upwards of 10,000 fun seekers on a Saturday or Sunday while most weekdays average about 4,000 to 5,000.

“We have to do more discounts, especially during the week,” said Hronek. “Our prices this summer are for a lot of things actually lower than they were five or six years ago. And people don’t always have a full day to come, so they want a special where they can spend three or four hours here without paying full price.

“On Mondays and Wednesdays it’s two-for-the-price-of-one both days. Pepsi Cola is helping us sponsor that promotion. They’re putting a coupon on the side of 15 million Pepsi cans.

Baker’s Supermarkets is backing a two-for-one bargain on Tuesdays. Hronek said the promotion with Baker’s is a deal made in marketing heaven. “Baker’s is probably the most family-oriented grocery store in Omaha and for us to tie-in with them is hopefully good for both of us. They will bag stuffers in grocery sacks and also buy some advertising. In turn, we also buy advertising to promote, ‘Go to Baker’s and get your discount coupons.'”

Peony’s gste admission has been reduced to $1 per person. For those who enjoy being all wet the pool-water slides combo has been lowered from $6.95 to $4.95. An all-day rides pass is $9.95. The whole kit and caboodle is $11.95.

“And for the first time we’re running a twilight special,” Hronek said, “which encourages families to come after mom and dad get home from work. It’s only $5 for the entire family and that includes all the rides.”

Accounting for an increasingly large share of Peony’s summer trade are company picnics. Peony provides full catering services for the events held on the park’s designated picnic grounds.

“We have expanded our banquet-catering business significantly.” said Gilroy. “A big part of our business is related to company picnics, and I use the term company picnics generically. It’s not just corporations, it’s civic organizations, schools, churches, hospitals and many others. We have over 100,000 people visit Peony Park every year to attend a company picnic. Most of these people also take advantage of the amusement park, the rides or the pool or the water slides, or a combination of all of those opportunities.

“We’ve worked to maintain and increase our picnic business during the summer. A couple years ago we hired Denise Fackler, whose job is to call on companies and organizations, large and small, both for the company picnic business as well as our year-round banquet business. We felt there was a need to call on people in the community and remind them of what Peony Park can do because not everybody really understands what is offered here.”

Hronek said Peony can cater picnics for 50 to 5,000. About 10 companies and organizations have already booked picnics this year, including such familiar names as the Peter Kiewit Company, First Data Resources, FirsTier Bank, the Omaha World-Herald and the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

“I figure we’ll do approximately 150 picnics this summer,” said Hronek, who feels the events have become as popular as office Christmas parties. Nebraska’s volatile weather poses real challenges, he said, when “trying to move a picnic to a covered area at the last minute before a storm hits.”

Peony uses the same kitchen facilities and crew to prepare picnic suppers as it does for formal banquets. Up to 1,700 people can be served in the ballroom.

“The banquet business has been growing and we certainly hope it is going to contine to grow,” Gilroy said. “We have an excellent reputation for our service and the quality of our food.”

Hronek estimates 65 percent of Peony’s business is generated from group sales for banquets, picnics and the like. Indeed, many annual events call Peony home, such as the Omaha Press Club show and the Debutante’s Ball. “During the winter some 30 percent of our business is with charities. The Heart Association and others do major fund raisers here and have for years,” Hronek said. “Peony’s always been a part of the community.”

It also plays host to the annual La Festa Italiana, a Labor Day weekend celebration of Italian food and heritage.

The Plaza Theater addition has allowed Peony to handle more events than in the past. “It was built as a multi-purpose building,” said Hronek. “Because of the sound system, the lighting and the stage we host a lot of corporate meetings and business seminars for 75 up to 400 people.” It’s also home to variety shows, wedding receptions and other activites.

To appeal to an increasingly upscale, professional clientele Peony is trying to change its image. “Instead of the bright orange-yellow-green logo we had in the past our new logo is a little more of a corporate design, and that probably has to do with the corporations we serve because while we do advertise ourselves as an amusement park we also do many social and business functions,” Gilroy said.

Running the diverse operation’s daily affairs are about 20 full-time staffers. The payroll swells to 450 in the summer when the wear-and-tear of visitors keeps an army of workers busy.

“During the summer we add 50 to 60 kids whose job is to do nothing but polish rides, sweep the grounds and now the grass,” Hronek said.

A permanent maintenance crew of six inspects every ride before the park opens each day. “A lot of the rides have routine maintenance, like oil changes,” Hronek said. “The bearings are automatically replaced after so many hours the ride is run. It’s all part of our ongoing safety program.”

Getting the park in shape for this summer’s onslaught was a month-long process. Among the first priorities were the 21 rides, many of which had to be put back together after being disassembled for winter storage, and undego normal maintenance work. Prior to the amusement park’s opening May 10 Hronek discussed some preparations under way: “We’ve been putting together the rides for weeks. Now it’s a matter of checking them, testing them and making sure everything is put together properly. Then they have to be safety-inspected by the state of Nebraska. Next, all the rides are washed, waxed and polished.”

The rides are a major investment valued, Hronek said, ata nywhere from $75,000 to $400,000 per machine. The biggest ride, the roller coaster, is also the most expensive with an estimated price tag of $1 million.

Aside from fine-tuning the rides, the park’s grass was cut, weeds pulled, flowers planted, buidlings freshly painted, food ordered and kitchens and concession stands stocked. “It’s quite a project,” he said.

 

 

 

Peony has its own greenhouse on-site to grow flowers for landscaping and table displays. Yes, rows of manicured peony bushes adorn the premises.

“We give a lot of attention to the aesthetics,” Hronek said. “When we expanded the park a few years ago we hired a company called Leisure and Recreation Concepts, who designs amusement parks, and one of their jobs here is planting and working on some landscaping ideas so that the look of the whole park ties together.”

As far as Peony’s featured attractions, the rides. Hronek said, “We get some of our ideas from other parks around the country. Many of the ideas we use come from our employees and visitors who will tell us they stopped at an amusement park on their vacation and saw something they really liked. Often, we’ll look into it to see whether it’s something feasible for Peony Park and a city the size of Omaha.”

What are the most popular rides? “Our roller coaster and bumper cars are the ones that traditionally do well,” he said. “You haven’t been to an amusement park unless you’ve ridden the roller coaster.”

For Hronek, who’s worked at Peony 15 years, satisfaction is “seeing everyone have a good time. It makes the job enjoyable.”

Peony’s provided seven decades of uniterrupted fun for the area, all under the Malecs’ ownership. “There’s a consistency to our business,” said Gilroy. “People come to depend on the product. Knowing the Omaha community is a real advantage and a big part of our success. We intend to contine providing quality family entertainment.”

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